STONE SOUL

Jessica Tunis
 
 
 
 

Something lives, trapped, inside this slab of marble. I can hear it scratching from the inside as my chisel carves a pathway to and around it. I am shaving away the cold excess of stone to reveal some warm form that lies beneath. Clink, clack, clack. Each stroke of my tool takes a small chunk out of the slab. Slowly it loses its austere rectangular shape. A form begins to emerge. Piece by piece I dismantle the stubborn façade of stone to reveal the figure trapped inside. With every short stroke of the chisel another piece falls to the ground. With each short stroke I get closer to the truth inside.

I too am being whittled away. Something lives, trapped, inside my body. I can feel it clawing from the inside. Incessantly hungry, it gnaws ceaselessly on me, and it will never get enough. It is carving a pathway through me. When its path is complete I will be nothing but skin and bones and spirit, and all of that soon to be released.

By the time they’d found the cancer it had spread through me too far to be checked. A series of radiation treatments left me with a stranger’s face; gaunt, hollow eyed, hairless. Stop, I said. This is no way to die.

From the moment I was born I began carving out a destiny for myself, and for years I denied who and what I was. The cancer took root in the hard parched stone that was my soul, cracked the foundation, set me to living. The face that now stares back at me from the bathroom mirror is still not my own, though she mimics my movements, though she stares me in the eye. But she can see what lies in the cold slabs of stone and that lends more comfort. Solid and dense, they do not give themselves easily. I appreciate this, like the feeling of the fight, the discovery, the dance. What to keep, and what to cut away. What is worth having, and what must go. Slowly, from the cool hard stone, forms emerge. I never know what I am carving as I begin the slow dance. The stone knows, and though it tries to resist my clumsy pryings, it cannot deny what it is meant to be.

I had never thought of my hands as artist’s hands–they were long in the palm, my fingers short, and stubby too. But they suit this work. They do it deftly and with ease. They were not meant to be the hands of an accountant. They were not meant to clench in anger, my mouth shut silent while my body fumed. They were not meant to wear the ring of anyone who thought themselves superior to the world. Now they are free to do what they will for their remaining days, and this is what they will.

This is God’s will: pain like a knife, chiseling so fine the structure of my life; Death wielding the chisel made of time. His hand now is stronger and more precise than ever before. Every day another piece falls away. Every day I become both less and more. There is beauty in this. We cut away the unwanted excess, Death and I. We dance around each other, revolving in an ordered rhythm of calendar days. The end inevitable, the end as yet unseen. What comes, comes of its own accord, emerging from the silent stone. Clink and clack, link and lack, and another day done, more cut away, beauty emerging from the lack thereof.

I leave my sculptures more substance than the cancer leaves me. I leave them full-bodied, round, the way I once was. They are sturdy. They do not bend or break. They can stand on their own. Death leaves me no such mercy. At the end of every dance he kisses me on the cheek and whispers "Soon."

What emerges from the stone this time is an angel, wings neither fully furled nor unfurled, but poised, on the brink of some new truth. She is five feet eight inches high at this moment, although that will probably change, because as of now she is still buried chest deep in solid marble.

I stop my carving to rest a moment. I cannot work for as long as I used to. More and more frequently, my feet drag in the dance, and I am forced to retreat into slumber, or at least rest. I rarely use the drugs the doctors provide. I do not want to run away. I want to stand strong. I am as strong as stone.

This is what I say when the pain is bearable, as it is now. I don’t want to think about the other times. Pot, too, is a good escape, and a more acceptable one by my way of thinking. Pot makes me hungry again, makes me desire something more than the discordant rhythm of chisel meeting stone. Now, though, I don’t need the mental clatter, the random and often silly revelations that come through the marijuana haze. Now I need the sharp raw edge that emptiness brings. I need the clean, almost hallucinogenic clarity that comes with these defining moments in sculpture.

The eyes-- closed or open? Lips parted, definitely, head straight on top of neck, looking dead ahead-- eyes open, then, and looking right into me, about to speak, about to reach out. No coy and modest sidelong glances for this angel. Her face is round and her features rise easily from the polished marble. Her look is not one of wide-eyed innocence so often depicted as angelic. She looks as though she’s seen a lot and somehow come to terms with it. She looks wise. Her face is finished, neck too, sloping into delicate collarbones as yet only partway defined, and tapering into one arm, palm open, fingers slightly curled. The other is still trapped inside the stone; I long to free it, but I am too exhausted to continue. Although it’s only four o’ clock, I go to bed.

The sheets and pillows soothe my aching body, but they cannot soothe my restless mind. My brain jumps about, a grasshopper before a storm, jittery and inconsolable. There is no escaping myself, but I do what I can–I draw the curtains, I close my eyes, I breathe deeply and try to concentrate as my thoughts careen wildly, ricocheting off the smooth walls of my cranium.

She comes after hours of sleeplessness to lay a cool marble hand on my dampened forehead. I open my eyes slowly, disbelievingly, and I see her eyes, looking right. into. mine, her carriage straight and proud. My angel. She sits beside me, the feathers on her wings still only halfway carved. She shines with a light that is easily more than just the blue of moonlight reflected from the white marble, and warmer, too. I do not see the rest of her, as I lie in bed, the rest of her that is not yet carved–it is surrounded with a golden white glow that is impossible to look at directly. She says nothing, only waits with her hand on my brow, cool and silent. My skin feels warm against the cold marble of her touch. The warmth fills me, golden, and finally I drift away into sleep.

When I awaken in the morning it is eleven o’ clock. I shower, brush my teeth, and sip at a cup of tea too hot to drink. I burn my tongue. I carry the guilty beverage into the studio and place it on my worktable, covered in the dust of a thousand sculptures past. I stare my angel in the face, reach out my fingers with their hammer-blackened nails to touch her. I cup the contour of her cheek in my palm, trace with a finger the delicate lines of my work. I remember last nights visit, and it is still fresh in my mind as I set to work.

Again I dance with the stone. The pain is more intense today, and it leaves my hands trembling, but I work on as much as I can. As a child I believed when my parents spoke of heaven above. I would lie on my back and look up into the azure dome stretched above me, scattered with cotton candy clouds, and imagine that the angels lived right there, looking down on us always. I watched for hours some days, trying to catch a glimpse of one. When my cousin died at age eighteen in an unexplained car crash, I was sixteen years old. I looked into the sky then, too, but I found no justice there, nor even a glimpse of halo or wing. It is raining today, and the angels, if ever they lived there, remain hidden from view in the dark and restless skies.

The irregular stucco rhythm of hammer and chisel continues, mingling with today’s rain. The sound fills the air with life and a chalky white dust that hangs heavy in the air like smoke. The neighbors used to complain about the noise, until they learned I was sick. Then they reverted to weak smiles whenever I passed them in the hallways. Sometimes they give a whispered hello, as though they could all but see the shadow of my dancing partner reaching out for them from behind me. Their fear taints them more than it does me. But are any of us truly clean?

Her arms now are both of them finished, also appearing poised in their stance. They are extended out from her sides, raised partially out and away from her torso, yet not completely outstretched. Is she reaching out or holding back? Am I half-alive or half dead? Poised on the edge, I am the balance between. The balance shifting, the balance not in me but wholly me, as the clock ticks off seconds on the wall, as the rain pours down outside, as I pry my angels torso free from stony encumberment, as the disease courses through me, borne on the wings of my own blood. The worst thing about this frenzied dance, I used to think, was that it was my own body turned against me. I was powerless against myself. Mutiny! I cried. But what else was there to do? I came to accept the verdict, even if I do not agree, if it is not what I would have chosen, if I cannot see the reason for it all in the grand design. I am not at peace with this yet. When I find peace, I will be gone from this place.

What fills these days now is a striving towards that peace. I want to get as close to it as I can. I want to get so close that I can almost taste it, so close I can feel it in my bones, coming closer, until the peace engulfs my sickness.

The angel feels this too. I swear her legs must be squirming to be freed from there, as I slowly clink and clack with my chisel towards the ultimate end. Her hips taper from a narrow waist into round fullness, and from them are beginning to form a pair of thighs. One leg is partially raised already, straining softly from what remains of the marble prison. The stone does not want to let go. It clings around legs which struggle to break free; it grips the form tightly and swears it will not let go. Valiantly it resists, but more the chisel persists, angling in the cracks, widening them, deepening them, desisting for a moment, only to return again. Strange poetic justice; that which hurts so much, cuts away a foundation we thought to be solid stone, creates a thing of such beauty: an angel, rising from the wreckage, poised to take flight. My hands are trembling too badly to continue.

I pick up my tea cup to carry it out to the kitchen, but my hands are shaking and my knees are quaking and I sink down against the wall onto the floor, the mug still resting in my hands. There is marble dust floating on the top of the liquid, borne the by the clouds that rise up in the wake of my furious chipping. I imagine the tea an elixir; the stone powder a magic potion. Drink of this and you will turn to stone. Blessed solid silence, free from pain, from striving, from wanting, at last, at last. I close my eyes and take a sip. My eyelids jerk open in surprise–the liquid is unnaturally hot, defying the laws of time and heat capacity. Strange. . .

My hands cease their jittery convulsions. Stranger. . . I get up and walk to the bedroom, fall on the unmade spread. Fatigue comes surging, but sleep will not. Quiet unrest battles my body’s overwhelming urge to rest.

The pot is on the nightstand, and I turn to the sweet smoke for solace. I draw it through the glass chamber of the hand-held chalice, into my lungs as weakened as the rest of me. One hit sends me coughing, two rocks me again. The third is more gentle and it is good shit, maaaaan, as we used to say, a thousand years away. I am stoned. I am made of stone. My leaden eyelids flutter like iron-weighted butterflies before closing their wings into sleep.

She is so beautiful. How could such beauty ever be kept inside the lonely chamber of marble? Such beauty should have broken the mold long ago–but no. "It has taken you to do this," I think and she whispers, simultaneously. I can see more of her tonight, even through the veil of tears that has welled unasked, wetting the pillow, bathing us both as the angel runs her hands over and over my face, my heart, my belly where the cancer began, swollen still, as though from malnutrition. The whole room is full of her radiant light, brighter, warmer, and more brilliant than the last time. "Thank you," I whisper to her, "thank you, thank you. . ." I look up to see her lips forming the same litany. She gathers me in her arms, cradles me as though I were an infant. I fold easily into her embrace, marveling and somewhat wistful at the way I have shrunk in size. She strokes the entire length of my body, as though I were a cat. I feel her love coursing through me. Her hands tonight are warmer than the last, although still composed of the hard and slippery texture of marble. They glide over me, and her movement is echoed by wavering trails of light that follow her, a shadow in reverse. I breathe in deeply, smelling my own scent, luxuriating the cradle of her lap and arms, watching as I inhale, a stream of her warm soft light trace its way into my body. It flows into and through me, gently, sweetly, in and around me, softly, deeply. Another intake of breath and it comes again, pouring into me, a container nearly eaten away and empty inside, made whole and full again. I am brimming with this lovely light. I am brimming with this love. One more inhale and I overflow. I close my eyes, swept away on a current that carries me over and over to exactly where I began. I slip into sleep like a warm bath.

It is just past dawn when I open my eyes the next morning. I lie in bed, hands resting on my rounded abdomen. For some reason it seems softer today. It feels good to touch myself there; good to feel the long forgotten sensation of skin against skin, moving in slow aimless circles. My belly tingles with the sweetness of this, yearns for more. Much of the pain of yesterday is gone. It feels good to breathe. It feels good to lie here, and I do so for almost an hour before a sensation I’d almost forgotten begins to poke and prod at me. I am hungry! Yes! It has been a long time since I’ve felt this craving for sustenance, for nourishment, except when induced by drugs. I seize the opportunity and walk steadily to the kitchen. The fridge is full of food from well-meaning family and friends, and I feel glad to eat and enjoy some of it and not have to lie to tell them so. It takes little to fill me. I eat a little bit more than I wanted, for the simple pleasures of taste and texture, and then I walk-trot to my work, to my angel.

She looks more beautiful in this morning light than ever before. She radiates serenity and peace. I do not know how out of me–churning with disease and unanswered questions–came such a figure, looking as though she knows the answers to these years spent searching. My other half. The yin, the yang, the balance. . . so I do know. She is as much a reflection of myself as my own stranger’s face in the mirror is. Does she look like me? As I used to look?

I have forgotten, and I do not care for such useless outward comparisons anymore. She is me. I am almost finished.

I carve the hollows of her knees, the soft swell of her calf muscles. She is strong, this angel. She could carry me on her sturdy back. I work slowly and carefully, relishing the way the marble yields to the forces of creation. I savor the shape of her, the swells and rises, the curves and depressions that make up her body. I take an almost reluctant pleasure in these, the last phases of the sculpture. I want savor this. I don’t want it to end. Even as I think this I continue to work, knowing I can no longer stop this slow progression than could she. We are bound to what we know we must do, compelled to complete what we have started. But for that compulsion, I would have ended myself long ago. Still I work on, and I see my hands and tools create calves tapering into ankles, delicate and sturdy, as solid a foundation for grace as ever there was, and beautiful too. Ten toes, each painstakingly carved, toenails, the muscles along the sides of her feet, wishing that there was more to keep me here, to keep me working, to keep me feeling as alive and full of purpose as I have in these days with her. After the base is finished I run hands and eyes over the completed stone, touching up a multitude of invisible mistakes, searching hungrily for flaws so that I can continue working. Eventually I have to face the facts. There is nothing left for me to do here. My chisel ready, eager to spring into action, is laid finally and reluctantly down beside the marble chippings. The clock to my surprise reads five o’clock; a day passed in the blink of an angel.

I lay myself down outside on the balcony. The sky is still gray today but no rain falls. I see no angels. Only telephone wires, clouds, a solitary seagull on scissor wings. I am not sure what to do with myself, so I sit, bundled in layers of jackets and sweaters, on the balcony, face turned up to the sky. Not looking for anything, just looking at, watching the white ball of the cloud-encumbered sun sink into the grace of the horizon. Then night. A breeze blows in, salty and fresh, from the invisible ocean, and begins to sweep the clouds away. I’m not sure what to think; not sure what I should be feeling, or what it is I actually feel. It’s somewhere between a sense of completion and anticipation, yet neither of those fully, and more than them too. I have given up pretending to understand, although I feel, too, understanding mingled in tonight’s mix of conflicting emotions, waiting, watching, below the surface of my skin. When the cold has crept under my layers of clothing, I retreat to bed. I undress and lie awake, not sleepy yet, not wanting to sleep, wanting only to lie there. I do not close my eyes. For once my brain’s continuously running monologue has ceased. Silence steeps in me, grows stronger and still more quiet. It is a peace that reaches almost down into my bones, but it does not extend into the marrow, the heart, the root. Something is unfinished here still in this body, and so I lie as the hours pass, feeling my heartbeat echo in my chest, feeling as silent as a stone warmed by the sun. Sometime before midnight, she comes through the door.

It is the first time I have seen all of her in her nocturnal state. She is complete and whole, not a spot of her lacking attention in the details. She walks on air, feet near the floor but she’s not touching it. Watching her move is an exercise in grace. And it’s me she’s coming for, me she’s reaching for, me who has created her. She holds my hands in both of hers, both of us warm, both of us golden. We sit silently, looking each other in the face, our hands clasped together round each other’s. Who is of stone, and who the flesh? We are both of us soft and warm, both of us silent, silent, silent.

There’s no knowing how long this lasts. After an eternity, she speaks. "Come," she says, and we float-walk to the studio. "See," she says. The room is lit with her now familiar light, and filled with every sculpture I have ever created. It’s a homecoming; a room full of old friends. Each is as alive as she and I, and each shines with the light of their own essence. I touch each piece, looking deeply at the treasures that came through me. A dragon here, curled in a corner, unfurls his serpent body and glides towards me. Pegasus arches his wings. Eve rests beneath her tree, tossing an apple up in the air and catching it. Fairies flit through the air. A mermaid swims in late through an open window, from the salty sea of night air. The abstract forms undulate in a soft breeze, in keeping with their expression. The room is silent but it rings with joy, as loud and as clear as a bell. Sadness chimes in, and love. Gratitude, surging upwards through the song. Regret, contentment, confusion, purpose, anger, acceptance, all swelling to form a chorus, a symphony of emotion that sings through every fiber of my tired body. It sings, too, from every piece of art in the room. We dance, all of us, turning in circles as endless as eternity. Death is here, drifting through the slow dancing crowd, alone and for once not my shadow. As we dance, I feel weightless. I am a snake, shedding my old skin. I am a tree, my roots running deep into the ground, budding flowers and green leaves swelling from my person. I am a bird, and my wings are furling out behind me. I am an angel. I turn and whirl, soaking it all in. I am so full of the moment, completely full of everything in this room, this life, this world, this universe, and then beyond. I slow my dance, I stop, I cannot move. I am still as stone in my body, but my heart races fast and strong.

She comes to stand before me. Her arms now are straight out from her shoulders, open and ready to embrace. Her wings are still folded but they pulse like a butterflies, ready at any moment to enter into flight.

"Because you exist," she says, "all this is possible." She rises off of the ground, and all of my creations begin to rise with her. She floats above the floor. The roof of my building is gone and above us shines a starry night sky. Clouds lit up from the inside by a brilliant moon sail by. Everything around me is floating slowly upwards. My feet seem anchored on the ground.

"How do you feel?" she asks, drifting still slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y up and away from me. "Are you healed?’

and I place my hand on my abdomen, disbelieving, feeling my belly as softly rounded and full as it was four years ago. My hands run across my face, my breasts, hips, God, all of me, back, and I wait for the hungry teeth of the cancer to sink again ferociously into me, and it does not come. I am radiant, I am shining, I am alive!

She is rising still.

I stand still rooted, feeling the soft fresh light coursing through me. She knows the answer to her own question. She is the cause, she is the effect. She is me she is in me and she is a part of me, rising steadily up into the night sky.

"You have a choice," she says, and I know what it is. She looks deep into me. "Stay or come along. . ." Death stands by the window, awaiting my answer. Each second washes over me forever. I look upward; seeking answers there, inward, seeking still, my creations flying free out into an ocean of stars. Spirit surges in me, rising steadily like a tide. I am growing and changing and leaving behind. I am grown too big for this small stone body that has been my home. I am as huge as the starlit expanse of night sky. I can’t stay here any longer. My creations reach out for me as I leave this place and it’s troubles behind. I close my eyes one last time and see us all as we once were-- gray unshaped slabs of stone, hiding such a multitude of life and living and love and agony and fulfillment and creation and I remember how we cried from the stone, how we struggled to be free from the prison that bound us there, filling the world with our wanting, dying to be let out.