He remembers. He has had a dream and he remembers the dream. It works his thoughts like he works wood, clay or stone. How many bowls has Kreios carved this morning? His hands may still be growing, but an hour in they’re already stiff, whilst the wood is only ever pliant.
His tutor sees it all. But still, when Mihaela watches him knead clay over and over, she barks that that’s enough.
And today Krieos barks back. “There’s still air in it!”
Mihaela stiffens, like the boy’s hands, like the silence. But, sure enough, there comes a final pop and, with the bubble crushed, he shakes out his wrists.
“Now,” Kreios mumbles, “it’s ready to work.”
Mihaela turns on her heel, but the anger remains. This may be the first time Kreios has spoken back, but that isn’t the true reason. Mihaela is furious about her Virgin Goddess.
She has, for months, been working on a statue, crude, hollow, larger than herself. It was her pride. Then Kreios snuck into the studio, worked on it all night and turned the masterpiece into his own. He’s made it into something divine, with a woman’s body underneath all that muscle.
He was beaten for it, but he’s tough. A day later he may not have remembered what she’d said, but he hasn’t lifted his eyes since. Kreios is tough, but he’s the most fragile creature born.
She said the statue was tainted and discarded it, but he has brought it back. He works on it, in his spare minutes, all the time, polishing, chipping, worrying his wound.
Mihaela reappears in the workroom, announcing mid-day, and takes him outside to eat. But the boy doesn’t eat, he climbs a tree.
She shouts after him, “I’m sick of your petulance!”
He lifts his chin like someone who has a secret but, when she sighs and walks to the tree, he displays a child’s infinite ability to forgive. He looks at the bark, distracted, and says, “I don’t think this tree grew normally. I mean, I think so, but I’m not sure.”
“What are you talking about?”
But the question was gruff, so now he’s shy and won’t say.
What are you talking about? He can’t tell if he’s hearing it with his mind’s ear or his real one. The two of them are intensely silent, carving miniatures.
“I mean it was made to grow out of … it didn’t grow from a seed, I think.”
His words ring and she looks up. “Eh?”
“How old is that tree?”
“I don’t know! It doesn’t matter.” She’s frightened, superstitious, and the mood grows heavy.
He knows the tree is older than, say, this house, which has been in her family always. Trees that don’t grow from seeds are made, and no-one’s made trees in a long time, so long that the stories are lost. He muses, stabbing at the little stones. He chips them into tiny nymphs to accompany the goddess, but their shapes are distracted, just like his thoughts.
He puts them aside and goes to the counter, where he takes up some clay and kneads. He doesn’t have to guess if there’s air in it or not – he knows how the clay feels.
Kreios has had a dream, a dream that he remembers. His dream was of the earth and of hands on the earth. In it, of it, shaping it. These hands madeearth. Or … no … they made earth intothings. He remembers the dream gave him that feeling of vertigo that makes him wet the bed. Kreios dreamt and it made him wet the bed.
He looks up, guilty, but he’s alone now. He takes the clay to the potter’s wheel, throws it, wets it and begins. The wheel is swift, but the rhythm of clay is slow. Down and up, his fingers slide, his foot like a wave on the pedal. He coaxes it, plays with it, ripples, spirals, spins. The repetition is hypnotic and they hypnotise each other. It’s good. It’s not a bowl, it’s a vase. It’s not a vase, it’s a flask. He lifts the sides and thinks of the kiln that will kill it, the glaze that will drown it, then rips the clay open.
The kiln baked his offerings till they shriveled. He remembers his first piece, returned to him as a midget, how he baulked and it smashed on the floor. Now, it’s his habit to collapse what he’s made, even though he can’t re-work it. He’d rather go through clay than kill it.
Chunks lie splayed on the wheel, like demented petals. He picks one up and pokes it into a figurine. Then he leaves it with the wreck of the flask in the abandoned workroom.
Kreios asks for a book, of philosophy, of the world, and she refuses on principle, for the boy can’t read. But he’s as greedy for this as he is for clay, and eventually she declares it’s high time Kreios had a book of his own.
The only question is which. “A book explaining the world” can only mean explaining hisworld, of materials and form. She chooses one about earth, the varying gradations of element and the names thus accorded. But when he sees it, he only looks confused, and she throws it aside in disgust.
Later, alone, Kreios retrieves it and leafs through the pages till he reaches the start. There, amongst the sea of black glyphs, he finds five images, five elements, a set of five. He sees their manifestation in the world: æther, sun, winds, seas and the lush earth. And at their centre, its roots in darkness, is a picture of a tree. And there, with a dirty fingertip, he puts a smudge of clay.
He looks up from the book and leaves it behind, but he doesn’t return to the workroom. He goes, instead, to the studio, where he smears the goddess with clay. It’s like liquid flesh that fills the crevices.
This is idiocy! What do you expect to do, put that in the kiln? Haven’t you botched my work enough?
But he continues regardless, pressing, smoothing, wiping, as if no one had spoken. And the goddess, once bathed in glory, slowly drowns in mud.
It’s not enough to work on her by day, he sleeps with her, too. Wedged in the hollow, he’s forced to remain upright, like an ill-fitting piece of wood. He sleeps, chasing a dream, until his muscles cramp and he wakes, breathless, sweating, stained.
In the morning, when she comes to check on him, he’s neither carving bowls nor working stone. Enraged, Mihaela checks the studio, but he isn’t with the statue, either. Her work of art, already mocked, has now been peppered with laurel leaves, their stems stuck in the clay skin. She storms outside, turning through the gardens, until she finds the boy wedged in the arms of a tree.
He looks down, freezes, and his face contorts. He drops his fistful of leaves and begins to sob … for trees, for goddesses and the anger that never ends.
Her outrage fades. “Come,” she says, reaching for the boy, “you have bowls to carve.”
The sniffing’s exchanged for a block and, under the chisel, the wood turns into shavings.
“Where does wood come from?” Kreios asks.
“From trees, from the ground,” Mihaela says.
The shavings become finer, wider, almost translucent. He watches them fall to the floor, and now his block is hopelessly deformed. He puts it aside and takes up a shaving, holding it to the light. Covered in glyphs, could this not, too, explain the secret workings of the elements?
It’s all he can dream of, this riddle, the meaning of the workings of the world. All he can think of, day after night, wood after clay after stone. If anyone has the answer, it must be Mihaela, with her trinkets and boxes and books.
Rigid with tension, he opens the door of her room and enters on silent feet. On the floor is the paper he wanted but, even as he takes it, he feels another pull. He turns to see what else the room has to offer and everywhere are pages, pouches, charms. Why one box in particular should stand out is not apparent to him, but his hand reaches, fingers grip and now he’s bearing twin treasures from the room.
So now it’s in his possession, in his own private corner, and he feels like an urgent need has been put to rest. He’s neither curious nor preoccupied by it, because the box is his now, and that’s enough.
Instead, he’s turned his attention back to the book. With a pile of leaves on one side and the sheerest wood shavings on the other, he turns the pages in his lap. He places leaves and shavings against the binding, like bookmarks, so the pages bulge. And, when he’s finished, he squeezes the leather covers till he’s satisfied that wood, leaf and paper are as close as they were on that first, sacrificed tree.
It’s that secret, stealthy moment when the stars fade. When the sky is free from the supervision of sun or moon. His little silhouette hunches under the great tree. He digs like a rabbit and it feels as natural as sculpting. He scrabbles in the earth, the book beside him and, with a shock, realises this is what he’d dreamt. These are hishands. It’s not until the dirt sparkles with dawn that he wakes from the reverie, and keeps digging. He shoves the book in the hole, covers it over and dashes back to the house.
He hasn’t been missed, and he sets to his morning carving, taking pains. With everything he does, now, he takes pains. Lacking anything to criticise, Mihaela falls into silence. No rages, no questions and no talk of “that damned statue.” Nor has she noticed the absence of the book, apparently.
In the evening, Kreios returns to the studio to draw lines onto the goddess’ skin, the lines of the bark he’s spent hours studying. A fork becomes a curve and then a whorl. When he thinks of the book lying against the roots of the tree, he feels at peace, and that gives him the leisure to remember the box. He eats, distracted, and goes to his room, where he sits on the bed with the box in his lap. It only now occurs to him there’s likely something in it, but there are footsteps, and he shoves it under his bed. Mihaela enters, recites a good night wish and leaves, taking the candle with her.
Kreios has dreamt again. He savours the memory with his eyes still closed, seeing the darkness of being buried. Then he remembers the box but, as he moves, he feels the clamminess of a stained bed. He leaps out, horrified, and fights back tears. He rips off his sheets, his night clothes, and scrubs at the mattress, but the box is always in the back of his mind, like a consolation.
Only when his bed is freshly made does he creep beneath it for his treasure. He checks the work room’s empty before entering, and sits at his wheel with the box in his lap. The texture of his dream floods back, of earth, of cold skin, of damp roots. He swoons at the memory, and doesn’t feel his hands lift the lid, nor see what’s inside. But it slips into his mouth like a pebble and there’s a sweet, warm glow. He feels the white fire again, but doesn’t wet himself.
With his tongue, he finds something etched on the surface. When he takes it out to see, there’s a symbol, like a spark in a hand in a tree. It looks like wood, but it has the texture of clay. He kneads it with thumb and finger, feeling it soften and melt, and his palm tingles with a novel strength. How did she come to own this?
As if summoned, the footsteps approach. He shoves the stone in his mouth, kicks the box away and grabs a chisel and bowl. He looks up to see her sneer from the doorway.
“Waste yourtime if you want to, but I’ll not waste mine on you.” And she’s gone.
Kreios is shaking, but he’s alone now, and that’s all he wanted. He sucks the stone like a thumb and rocks on his stool. His knuckles are white on the wooden bowl, pushing it onto the wheel. He closes his eyes and the warmth of the stone snakes down his throat.
Slowly, he feels the wood give way under his grip, grain warping. He opens his eyes and, yes, sees that it’s true, there are marks where his fingers lay. He fetches clay, kneads it and throws it on the wheel. With wet hands, he pushes the bowl into the clay base and begins.
It’s not a bowl, it’s a vase. It’s not a vase, it’s a flask. He lifts the sides and thinks of the kiln that need not kill it, the glaze that need not drown it, and there’s a wash of relief. The wheel slows and his fingertips slide to the base, unable to tell the wood from the clay in this seamless merging of elements.
He looks up and flinches, but she only crouches, taps the flask to hear its hollow voice. “What is this?”
They look at each other. Silence. Perhaps they are equally ignorant.
Mihaela has left him alone for days, now, and Kreios has placed the goddess amongst the plants. She has lost her clay skin in the rain, and the leaves that adorned her lie at her feet. But it’s all right, for she is slick with rain, instead.
The boy and the book are both curled up beside the great tree, one above ground, the other below. He sees all around him the merging of the elements in the world, in his own body and the tree’s. Eyes closed, the dream comes back to him. His hands are strong as hers, now, and his fingers push into the earth. Like roots, they delve, wet and cold, and he begins.
It’s not a sprout, it’s a shoot. It’s not a shoot, it’s a stem. He lifts it up to a sapling.
His eyes open and the young tree is peppered with leaves. He traces lines of bark into its skin, and sets to work on his own masterpiece.