Once more within the Potter's house alone
I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.
-- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, no. 82
I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.
-- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, no. 82 The noonday sun blazed over the marketplace.
On the balcony of a small cafe, Rhonda shielded her eyes and sipped chilled mint tea. Her new clothes were elegant, unfamiliar, and smothering. Her hair was covered. Her glasses were in her purse back at the hotel. She wore no makeup. She couldn't afford to be recognized now.
The market was in bustling chaos as tourists haggled over the price of baskets and trinkets. She hid behind a newspaper, waiting for that man.
The one that the merchants called "the possessed." Even though everyone knew of him, no one knew him. They spoke of him in the superstitious whispers of children, the man whose hair was white as snow, whose eyes were full of ghosts.
Her fingers toyed with the sterling silver spoon as she thought about the road that had brought her to this point. The trip to Egypt was uneventful. The boat sailed smoothly, her experienced crew simply making another voyage. There wasn't even a case of sea-sickness. She took her meals on deck, occasionally surfacing to watch the sun rise and set. Otherwise, she kept to her cabin, reading. Thinking. Sleeping. She dreamed of Titus. ... and David. The boat docked in good time. She left it behind and trekked to the Jewel of the Dunes, a luxurious high-rise palace that gazed imperiously upon the desert. She mingled with sheiks, millionaires, the pampered arm-candy of the elite, athletes, rock stars. She had never felt so insignificant in her life. For two months she went out daily, searching for ... she knew not what. At first she merely watched and listened. As she gathered courage and proficiency with the language, she began to converse with the merchants in their own tongue, which surprised and pleased them. But she soon found that upon her desired topic of conversation they were mutually silent. They did not deny knowledge of the man in that photograph, but they refused to speak of him.
She went next to the art merchants, who patronized her as they would a secretary, or a museum's envoy. They put her bribes in their pockets and gave her nothing in return. She was eating in the hotel's lounge one evening when a man seated himself next from her. She recognized Officer Sarandon immediately. The expression on his face warned her that he wasn't there by coincidence, and she remained seated, continuing to carve thin slices of the roast pork and parsnip dinner.
"Good evening, Mrs. Bradshaw."
"Good evening, Mr. Sarandon. This is a pleasant surprise."
He motioned to the bartender. "Bourbon and branch water, please." "I'm going to just tell you what's going on, Mrs. Bradshaw," he said while waiting for his drink. The gravelly undertow in his voice tugged at her strangely, a hook in the mouth of a fish. "The longer I worked this investigation, the more I saw that made me think that Mr. Wallace's condition is not an isolated event. In the Blakely firm alone we have documented sixteen cases of employees being shocked, in some cases electrocuted by company computers, and yet in every case, the firm refused to pursue legal action against the computer manufacturer. They simply deny any wrongdoing and pay off the employee or his beneficiaries."
He took a long pull of liquor before continuing. "Titus seems to be unique in that he actually lost his ability to do work. I've been here for some time and tried to interview him on several occasions, but I haven't been successful yet. Of the people I've spoken with whose testimony I trust, they all essentially say the same thing—"
"—that his mind is broken." She chewed slowly. She picked up the martini glass in front of her and finished its contents.
"The collectors who've dealt with him in the past say that he's unstable. He claims to be under the influence of 'the stones.' Do you have any idea what he might mean?" She thought about a frightened, babbling phone call from long ago, received late at night: Titus's voice, incoherently stammering about 'them, they were calling him, please save—' and the sudden click of the connection dropping.
She found him outside of her house an hour later. When she'd asked what he wanted, he stared at her with such a vacant, empty gaze that she'd turned away, shuddering. She had returned his ring the next day.
"Mrs. Bradshaw?" "... I'm sorry, the music distracted me. It's been so long since I heard such a good pianist." A lie, told to buy time and quiet her racing heart. "Could you say that again, please?"
"What do you hope to gain in seeing him?"
"That is absolutely none of your business."
He raised an eyebrow. "A man whose behavior suggests mental illness, and who spends the majority of his time in solitude, is likely not improving."
She swallowed audibly before excusing herself and returning to her room. But Officer Sarandon continued to find her, each time leaving crumbs behind for her troubled mind to feast on. Titus Wallace was well known in town. His art was infamous.
Wealthy collectors from overseas paid large sums of money for his sculptures, but no one in the area dared to have it in their homes, not after a local crime boss proudly displayed one of his elegant stone statues in his garden ... and was found dead of hypothermia the next day. The criminal's underlings were so unnerved that they did not take retribution themselves, instead putting the situation before the police, who likewise did nothing. When Officer Sarandon presented himself as an investigator looking for information on a cold lead, they happily foisted the case onto him. But like herself, he had gathered all that he could on his own. He had to find a way to speak to Titus, or there was no point in remaining in Egypt. "We can help each other," he insisted.
"I see where I help you. I don't see where you help me."
"Remember, Mrs. Bradshaw, he may not be the same man you knew twenty years ago. He's lived alone, and from all accounts grown more and more isolated and eccentric as time has passed. And with all due respect, he may only remember you as the woman who left him to marry his best friend." She gasped, completely mortified. "You bastard."
"I don't want you to be disillusioned when you finally meet him. It's a distinct possibility he may not be very happy to see you."
She fled. She did not see Officer Sarandon for several days after this last confrontation. She went on excursions, visited vineyards and monuments, took guided tours to the grand oases. She tried to distract herself from the doubt that nagged her, and it was in this unhappy state that she stumbled into the bustling market center just a few steps ahead a man whose very presence set the shop owners on edge. So deeply was she entrenched in her own thoughts that she only caught the faintest glimpse of shabby clothes and a wide-brimmed hat as he passed.
She felt an inexplicable twinge, but it came too late for her to do anything but call after the man who was no longer there. Cursing her inattention, she turned back to the dry goods vendor. "Many pardons to bother you, sir. Do you know that man?"
"Yes, yes, the possessed."
"I need to speak to him. Do you happen to know where he lives?"
The man looked at her as if she had offered to escort him to the moon. "That cursed man lives on an island in the river. If you walk across the bridge and continue on you cannot help but see his home. You should not go there." She went that evening, just as the gaslamps began to flare into life. The way across the antiquated bridge was well lit, and then there was darkness, and a damp chill in the air, and inexplicable mist. Her skin crawled at the raspy touch of the wild shrubs. The isolated island was overrun with foul swamp grass and brambles; its single stone structure appeared abandoned long before. Could someone actually live in a place like this?
There was a movement by her feet. She suddenly realized that she was standing in a nest of dark, scurrying beetles. Horrified, she stumbled away, frantically shaking her feet as she went. She crashed through the reeds without taking heed to where she was going.
... and she fell.
The shock of hitting the hard sand knocked the breath and sense from her. She could not move, or resist the strong arms lifting her from the ground. The stars above went dim, then faded. She awoke in a stone chamber, lying on a bed that seemed too elegant for this primitive room. The rough chisel gouges in the walls told her that it had probably been hand-carved from the solid rock over a period of years. She stood, only mildly surprised to find that she was nearly nude. There were bandages on her skin. They covered livid scrapes. As she slowly sat upright, a shadow fell across the arch of the door, and Titus Wallace himself entered the room.
She saw immediately why he was so feared. Most men in this desert land were brown, or tanned from long exposure to the sun. Titus, who clearly spent a great deal of time underground, was ghostly in his paleness. His very veins were brilliant blue streaks in his arms. His hair also had become white from lack of sun, and hung in unkempt strands around his face. He had grown a thick, wild beard. He threw the pickaxe in his hand into a corner with a careless motion. His eyes never left her.
She tried to keep her eyes on his face, to resist looking any lower, but she could not help seeing exactly what sixteen years of stonecarving had done to his body, which was now as hard as the material he worked. She knew that her own face was on fire, but he didn't seem bothered in the least by their various states of undress.
"Where am I?"
"In my house," he said, and kept on looking at her until she hid her flushed cheeks behind her loose hair. She had never even kissed this man. The closest they had ever been together was in the back of a taxi. And now here he was, looking at her in a way that made her feel utterly wanton.
If not for those rumors of his instability, she would be in those arms, against that chest, her mouth hungrily meeting his.
But his eyes ... "Would you like some wine to settle your nerves? You took a bad fall." He was already pressing a glass into her hand and pouring out a dram from the flask he held. "Made from pomegranate and honey, the finest the country has to offer. To your health, Rhonda."
At the mention of her name, she looked at him again. His eyes were no longer vacant and searching. If anything, they were too sharp, too focused.
"Why are you here?"
"I ..." She drank, steeling herself. "I came looking for you." He touched her face. Then her arms. The glass nearly fell from her hand.
"That ... is a shame," he said, and turned away.
She was too shocked to do anything besides watch him leave. Gradually the silence told her that she was alone again, and she slowly dressed herself, wincing as the fabric scraped her bruises.
She decided not to put her shoes on just yet, and carrying them, she passed through the arch. The room ahead was very cold. There were was an army of half-finished sculptures on display, many of which were of ice. They, and the stone statues that lay just ahead, watched her with hollow stares. Without meaning to, she stopped in front of one and began to trace a resemblance in the face. That emotionless, blank look.
It was Titus's face. The lack of expression. The soulless eyes. The screaming silence.
NO. By the time she found the stairs that led from the basement, her strength was depleted. He was at the edge of the isle, looking over the dark river, listening to the quiet sounds of the night and the splashing far below. "I wish," he began quietly, "that you had come to me sooner. I am almost finished with my masterpiece, and I couldn't possibly leave it now. Otherwise, nothing—not even those damnable stones—would keep me from throwing myself at your feet."
Officer Sarandon's warnings forced themselves into her mind. He turned to look at her once again, and she met his eyes with difficulty.
"Tell me, Rhonda, does he make you happy?"
The question was presumptuous, but she felt no offense. "He didn't, no."
"Didn't," Titus repeated. The past tense. She explained herself. He listened until she ran out of words.
"And you are here ... why? Even if you aren't entirely happy with him, you are clearly not unhappy anymore. I can't offer you anything that you don't already have, or have within reach."
"And besides, I must complete it," he murmured in a low voice. "I must. I'm sorry, Rhonda, but you need to leave now. I must complete it." "Leave?" she choked. "How?"
She went as near the edge of the island as she dared. In an instant, Titus had her by the hand, pulling her backwards out of danger. Without the familiar balance of her shoes, she stumbled against him. For an electric moment, their bodies were together, their entire bodies touching the way it might have been—
"I will take you to the mainland," he said. "But listen to me, Rhonda. I must have time to complete my work. Do not come to me again."
She tried to protest, but the wine he had given her finally did its silent work, and she slid easily to the ground once more. When she recovered, the hotel staff informed her that Officer Sarandon had been by several times to ask about her. Too drained by the experience to continue feuding with him, she invited him over for tea and briefly told him what had transpired.
He shook his head. "'The possessed, indeed.' Can you remember how you actually reached the island?"
He hissed in frustration. "I suppose it can't be terribly difficult if he regularly transports half-ton statues to collectors on an ongoing basis. I'm afraid I need your help with this, Mrs. Bradshaw ... no, I can't 'just leave him alone.' You've seen firsthand that everyone here is terrified of him, I suspect that's why he's on an island to begin with. He needs professional help, before they organize a mob to take care of him themselves." And so she sat in the marketplace, drinking tea, waiting for Titus to wander through again. She would not miss him this time, she thought to herself. But she waited morning and evening, day after day, in vain.
Thomas Sarandon continued to ask questions of the locals and the passing tourist population, but the answers were far from satisfactory. No one had seen him for days, weeks. He had not sold any of his pieces recently.
It was, as one man put it, as if he had simply vanished. "You have to take me to the island," Officer Sarandon pleaded.
Rhonda refused. She didn't know how to reach it, and Titus had already told her to stay away. Finally, the officer resolved to go on his own.
Although Rhonda would not come when asked, she would not stay behind upon learning that Mr. Sarandon intended to go, and they went to the edge of the peninsula together. "Right here," she said, indicating the spot where her shoes had broken through the top of the insects' nest. "This is where I was when I fell."
Thomas looked around for a few moments before pointing to the side of the cliff wall. There, nearly invisible in the gloom, was a path gradually sloping down.
"Come on. If you're afraid, I'll hold your arm."
They moved so slowly, for her sake, that it was quite dark by the time they found the end of the incline. The sand ended abruptly at a thicket of reeds and rushes surrounded by marsh. Rhonda stayed on the solid ground while Thomas continued to search. His form was quickly smothered by the river grass. Her heart began to knock painfully.
"Mrs. Bradshaw," he called. "Come here."
She stared at the ground by his feet. "A hole ... ?" He went down first before calling to her again. She hesitated.
"Mrs. Bradshaw, I'm afraid I can't carry you down here. But please just come down the side, it's as easy as climbing down a ladder."
She eventually appeared in front of him, shaking like a leaf. The dim light filtered in only highlighted the terror on her face. When he offered her his arm, she took it. "If my hunch is correct, he dug this tunnel right under the river bed. It lets him come and go unobserved." His flashlight illuminated the corridor of mud. He guided her away from the center of the walkway. "I don't know if you noticed, but there are puddles in certain spots. Makes me think the tunnel's getting saturated. It'll flood soon."
"And then he'll dig another," Rhonda muttered.
"Yes. After all, he carves stone, what's digging a hole to him?"
They went on. At one point Thomas turned off the flashlight and stopped. He advanced a few more steps with it on, and turned it off again. "Do you see that?"
She squinted. "What is that, dust?"
"I don't think so. We'll walk slowly, but I think I'd better keep the light turned off going forward."
They eased towards the exit. The mysterious flecks continued to shower down as they approached. Rhonda shivered. "I don't believe this," Thomas said. He dropped her arm and dashed forward. He held out his hand. "Snow? Here?"
"Shh." He crept up first before coming back down quickly. "There's snow falling all over this island. But ... it seems to be limited only to this island!" He thought in silence, then shook his head. "Mr. Wallace must be carving ice. That must be it. Come on."
They could both clearly see that those were snowflakes, not ice crystals. But Rhonda said nothing as she scrambled out of the hole and they carefully ascended another winding concourse. All the while she thought that Titus was surely watching them approach. But there was no noise except their own footsteps and their ragged breathing, and the gentle sound of the snow falling. "Is this it?" Thomas asked as they walked up to the front door. He peeked into the windows; he examined the area for other secret entrances. At last, he touched the front door. It opened.
He stepped inside, then leaned out again to gesture to Rhonda.
"Something's not quite right," he whispered. "Do you hear any noise of tools?"
She shook her head no.
"And ... call me crazy, but it doesn't feel as though someone's here and hiding. It feels more like no one's home."
But she couldn't quite agree with that. "I haven't even seen any carving debris, no clay residue, no wood chips, no stone flakes, nothing." He raised his voice a bit, even as his eyes continued to dart around. "And look at this house, it's miniscule. He doesn't sculpt anything in here."
"There's a basement," she said through a dry mouth.
"It's near the wine casks."
They went to the side of the house, where the barrels sat scattered. Thomas began to move them one by one until the dank staircase was revealed. There was still no sound. As they descended, the air grew colder, and a phosphorescent light illuminated the frigid room.
Throwing caution aside, Rhonda called, "Titus?"
Only a thin echo answered. When Thomas took her arm again she could feel how tense he had become.
"Titus? If you're here—"
They entered into the room of the sculptures. Thomas's mouth fell open from shock, but he immediately shut it from the sheer cold. "How ... how can he possibly—"
"Titus?" Rhonda called with greater urgency. They found the small bedroom where she had lay injured.
They found a room of great splendor, a room full of ancient treasure, a room of candles and sarcophagi.
And in the midst of that room, they found Titus himself, what remained of him. For he had finished his sculptures in a flurry of activity, not stopping to eat, or sleep, and hounded on endlessly by his stones, of which he had created a final resting place, he had finally completed his last and greatest work—himself. He was taking one last look at the masterpiece, his own body idealized in impermanence. The chainsaw slid from his shaking, ruined hands as he fell against his own coffin, his long quest for perfection achieved at terrible cost. They ran from that house together. Thomas caught Rhonda every time she stumbled against him. She cried silently, her teeth clamped shut.
The silent storm continued.
When they entered the tunnel for the second time, Thomas felt the mud sucking at his shoes. The puddles had grown. Water was trickling through the earth walls. The river. The river was surely coming in.
They ran. Officer Sarandon paid a visit to Rhonda a week later, after she had recovered from her fever and chills. He informed her that the tunnel had swamped the very night that they had run through it. He had returned to look for it in the next morning, and had found nothing besides the reeds and muddy water.
No one else had seen the snow fall.
The Stones: Chapter Four
Nov 3, 2010 by spladoum
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