The following is an introductory short story about Elysia, one of the main characters of my Arts Reborn series, that takes place well before the first book, Brush With Darkness.
She Had Eyes Only For What Could Be
A Short Story of Elysia
©2013 by Jamie Maltman
Elysia always struggled to see what was there.
She never noticed dishes that needed washing, the hole in her tunic that needed mending, or food she should bring to the table. Why worry about how her hair tended to stick up like the dark bristling spears of a phalanx?
She had eyes only for what could be.
The life of a baker’s daughter in Attarsus was dull. She was freer than the upper class women, cloistered in their women’s quarters. At least she could accompany Mother to draw water from the fountain in the agora.
The bakery afforded the family a steady income, but not enough to own slaves. While her brother Alexander was out learning the epic verse of heroes and battles, Mother nagged Elysia about neglected household tasks.
She did enjoy helping Father each morning. The smell of baking filled her with wonder at the birth of golden loaves rising up from pasty white dough. Alexander might sneer at Father’s simple vocation, but this was his personal act of creation. She appreciated his reverence for the grain, water, salt and seasonings. He could see the final product in the elements after years of deliberate practice.
But this was not her passion.
It emerged when she was four, walking with Father in the park.
“Why is that mouse trapped in there?” she said. Seeing his confusion, she gingerly picked up a thick fallen branch, and showed it to him. “Can we help him get out? He’s so sad.”
Always encouraging the imagination of his little girl, he suggested trying his knife at the bakery. She skipped home beside him, cradling her branch like a doll.
He cringed as she cut, but anxiety was gradually replaced with wonder, as she deftly removed bark and whittled wood inside. So clumsy and unfocused in her chores, yet here this knife seemed an extension of her hand.
She reverently revealed the little mouse figurine to her parents one night at dinner. Father glowed with pride, while Mother scoffed and made her wash the table.
She found true love the night she became a woman.
At dusk, torches lined the steep marble stairs to the acropolis. She had never put much faith in the gods, yet ascending the steps hand in hand with Father stirred a mystic feeling. It was her first visit to the acropolis, since girls were only permitted if they were training priestesses, or once they came of age on a night like tonight
Mother had fastidiously prepared her, with not a single dark hair out of place. At thirteen, Elysia was growing into her body, no longer the gangly disheveled girl. Mother was uncommonly satisfied at how the long tunic flattered her.
Father would lead her through the temple of Attarso, patron god of the city, to the shrine to his daughter Aliata. After the sacrifice to the goddess the shrine keeper would anoint her with blood, marking her as a woman.
At the crest she gasped at the magnificence before her. The temples were impressive from the city below, but here in flickering shadows she was struck by their immense beauty. Any irritation was banished by the wonder of reflected splendour.
Columns soared like golden trees to an impossibly heavy peak. The symmetry and balance evoked peace and order.
She gawked like a farm girl.
Nearing the entrance, her eyes narrowed, separating carved forms in scenes above the colonnade: of gallant heroes embracing stunning maidens or slaying savage mythical beasts. Her free hand traced the lines of the distant images. She yearned to run her fingers over every limb and curl and fold. To drink into memory every crevice and polished surface. That human hands could form such beauty was an inspiring revelation.
Inside the shrine, her heart soared as she fixed upon the central statue depicting Aliata as a gorgeous young woman in a robe so real that the softness beckoned to surround her. Entranced, she couldn’t recall details of the ceremony, though her mouth must have played its part. She only remembered the fire of creation igniting within her. She too would release incredible figures from formless raw stone. The goddess smiled her silent blessing.
In love with the work to come, she stepped forth into her destiny.
“Father, I want to work in marble.”
She led a double life in her first year as a woman.
By day, Mother agonized over her complete lack of interest in men or her future duties as a wife and mother. Elysia’s increasing attractiveness only amplified the angst, with Mother considering her a prize thoroughbred that refused to be tamed or bent to the plough. Working automatically through assigned chores, she imagined what her hands could be creating, leading to frequent tongue-lashings as she broke a dish, snagged the yarn, or missed a spot.
By night, she would sneak to the workshop Father had secretly set up in a neighbour’s unused cellar. His barter filled it with old tools and scraps of limestone and marble too small for aristocratic or temple use. She was thankful the mason friends loved his bread.
These intense bouts of creation ranged from joy to frustration and back again. Her experiments with technique ruined a good deal of stone, but in each moment of learning she felt vividly alive.
The dual life took its toll, and while boundless passion energized her at night, days were progressively more ill-tempered with Mother and her constant criticism.
One morning she slept through breakfast, and awoke to a shrill outburst Mother poured into her ear while shaking her.
“Up, you useless, lazy turtle!”
Elysia turned away.
Hands grabbed hair and yanked her to face the purpling matron. “With this attitude you’ll never find a husband! You’ll be eating at our table until we die!”
Elysia rose, challenging. “I will help support the family with my craft.”
Mother grabbed the darling wooden mouse from the bedside table. “With this? Make one of bread so at least we can eat!”
Before Elysia could grab it, Mother had smashed her favourite to splinters against the wall. Glaring at Elysia’s shock, she turned and walked out.
“I hate you! I have no mother!” Elysia screamed after her, scooping the remains of memory and inspiration.
The first significant marble Father brought was pure white, and the size of a fist. He apologized for its smallness, but it enchanted Elysia. No castoff lump. Inside a beautiful dove insisted to be free. Only she could release him.
Still she worked in wood to explore new forms and ideas without spoiling more precious material. Father suggested he attempt to sell them in the agora, and use the proceeds for marble. The first she offered for sale was a votive figurine of Aliata.
Waiting anxiously for his return that market day, she was even shorter than usual with Mother, who didn’t retaliate and seemed tired and withdrawn.
When Father arrived, he greeted her with eyes sparkling, which sustained her through the courtesies of the family dinner. Mother retired early, looking haggard, giving her the chance to ask.
“You found a buyer?”
His excited smile infected his daughter as he produced a gold coin. Her eyes matched its size as she leaped into his arms.
“Who was he?”
“A wealthy patron of the arts. I mentioned your marble. He wants to meet you, and see more!”
Her exhilaration was tempered with worry. “This was my best and I fear I’ll disappoint him. When?”
She bit her lip in thought then nodded slowly. “What’s he like?”
“A kind old man. Not some suitor. Your mother will be disappointed,” he said with a wry smile. Elysia rolled her eyes.
“He may buy more, or even commission you!”
Embracing him again, she beamed. “Thank you for supporting me. I love you so much!” She caught a tear in his eye as he hugged her back.
Mother’s worsening illness left her increasingly confined to bed. While that meant more chores, Elysia was far more efficient away from Mother’s hectoring. Every minute saved in the drudgework she devoted to carving. She stole hours every afternoon, and resumed her work immediately after each evening meal.
The daylight hours allowed her to complete an entire pantheon of votive gods and goddesses in local wood. Her marble better reflected the flickering illumination of the oil lamps that took her late into the night. Unearthing the fragile little bird was a joyful challenge. Careful as a gem cutter, she removed the hard stone one sliver at a time with her point chisel. She savored each self-taught lesson as she roughed out then painstakingly finished the wings, legs and head.
Late in the third week, Mother fainted at dinner. As Father helped her up, Elysia suddenly saw her clearly. How gaunt and pale she looked. Elysia gasped, and Alexander glared as the parents left for the bedchamber.
“She’s so… weak,” Elysia started.
He snarled his response. “Now you care?”
“She is sick with worry for you. You spurn her love, and everything she does for you.” Angry tears wet his eyes. “Giving up on you has broken her spirit. Yet you sneak off every night?”
“She’d be happy for any man. Why hide it, when it’s all she ever wanted?” His gaze overpowered her with its venom.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, eyes downcast.
“Tell her that!” He banged his fist, sending dishes shattering on the floor. He stormed out, leaving Elysia’s world in pieces and her mind reeling as she cleaned up the wreckage.
Had she been so blind, so selfish? She steeled herself, forcing unsteady steps toward the bedroom to confront her guilt.
The door opened on Father stroking Mother’s forehead with a damp cloth. She put her hand on Father’s shoulder and he nodded in silent understanding, leaving them alone. She clasped a frail hand.
Heavy lids opened, emotionless. Elysia’s throat went dry.
“I should be… more attentive to my chores… Appreciative of everything you do for me… A better daughter.”
She felt the lightest squeeze of her hand, and deep creases around Mother’s eyes crinkled.
“I have some news,” she continued, faster now. “I’m meeting a wealthy man next week, and have high hopes.”
A spark of life ignited in Mother’s eyes. Of longing. It shot an arrow through Elysia’s excitement, stopping her dead.
“No, not like that. For my art.”
With the last hated word, Mother spurned her hand and turned coldly away.
“I will make you proud, Mother,” Elysia whispered, her eyes stinging. She ran to her work, the divide between them as wide as the sea.
She channeled raw emotion into the agonizingly slow details. A feather or claw could dominate an evening. She worked until her hands could no longer hold the chisel steady, stumbling to bed for restless nights haunted by dreams of Mother, shattering marble, and death.
On the final night she polished with her emery stone until she collapsed in exhaustion, her arms cradling the perfect little bird.
Father woke her with fresh-baked bread and a reminder to make herself presentable. She wrapped the pieces with clean wool for the wood and fine linen for the delicate dove. It felt surprisingly warm and soft in her hands as she swaddled it like a newborn baby. Packing them all in a large bag over her shoulder, she left with Father to meet her fate.
The patron’s house was on the smaller hill that overlooked the agora, and the sculptures adorning the portico rivalled anything on the acropolis. How could she measure up to such beauty?
“Miss Elysia for Master Xelos,” Father announced.
They were ushered into an extravagant new world. A fountain of leaping stone dolphins dominated the atrium, while mosaics of mythical beasts covered the floors and murals of gods and heroes adorned the walls and ceiling. Mesmerized, she lost track of the conversation between the doorman and her Father.
“I’ll be waiting here,” he said, hugging her. His face looked hopeful, but his voice echoed her own anxiety. “He requested a private viewing.”
A young slave girl led her down a hall.
A kind voice greeted her. “Welcome Elysia,” the old man said. His neat hair and beard shone like silver, and he looked to be in perfect health and mood. He offered the chair next to him at his table. “Let me see what you’ve brought me.”
She produced each piece and admiring eyes inspected every detail. Occasionally he nodded or smiled, but made no comment until the wooden pieces lined the table.
“I’ll pay you well for the lot. Now, your masterpiece.”
Though relieved, still she trembled as she unveiled the linen-wrapped bird. His eyes shone with a curious new intensity.
“Is he finished?”
She stopped short and her soul illuminated one missing detail.
He indicated his own tools to complete her work. Selecting a fine chisel, she smoothly pricked the final mark before replacing the tool.
For you, mother.
Something released inside her, radiating warmth into the beautiful creature she held.
Suddenly soft feathers brushed her palm as the tiny bird pushed off her outstretched hands and flew to Master Xelos, landing in his lap. Looking through empty fingers at the pair, her mouth was open wide in astonishment. The bird purred like a satisfied kitten as Xelos stroked its back. The master’s knowing smile made it seem commonplace.
“There is magic in creation. You brought him to life. Exactly as you saw, hmm? ”
He had seen into her thoughts and his words were calming comfort.
“How much for this one, hmm?” He chuckled at her bewilderment. “All my gold would not pay your due. But this is only the beginning. For you, and for us. Come here every day and we will explore new heights of your gift.”
The bird, evidently listening, took flight in celebration, soaring around their heads. Her heart flew with him until cold worry brought it crashing back down.
” But… I fear Mother will stand in the way. Can I answer tomorrow?”
“Naturally. See my steward for your fee, and I await your confirmation.” He rang a little bell. “Thank you for sharing your talent with the world, Elysia.”
The slave returned, took the instructions and returned her to Father. She nodded in jubilation.
“Father, he will teach me!”
“That was his hope. I’m so proud of you, and your mother will be too.”
“Will she allow it?”
“We’ll work on her together,” he said without conviction, but she didn’t notice as the steward filled her pack with gold. The weight kept her from skipping as they returned home.
Alexander met them at the front door, his face ashen. Bliss drained away as they rushed after him to Mother.
In the room, Elysia saw too clearly. Mother’s skin was pallid, eyes closed, and chest impossibly still. Father fell to the floor at her side, weeping.
Leaning in to kiss the cold forehead, Elysia’s voice was a whisper.
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