Interlocking Grains of Light

LM Zaerr

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A claw chisel grated close, then a small flat chisel removed striations. He tipped me on my back and freed my eyes. In a single moment, I saw the blue sky and the sculptor. He was a huge man, with tight-curled hair and massive chest and arms, and I loved him.

The following days were pure joy. He rubbed black sand over me with a cloth, over the wavy hair pulled back from my face and falling to my shoulders, over my arms reaching out, one higher than the other, over my legs, one stepping forward. He lifted me easily, though I was three times his weight, moving me from standing to lying to resting on my side so he could better reach each part of me. He worked with finer and finer sand, then pumice paste, and then soft leather until I stood clean and polished, alive in interlocking grains of light.

He set me on a pedestal there in the courtyard. A crowd murmured around me. They gazed at me, but they didn’t see me, and I hated being invisible in plain view.

“This is surely your best work, Lysander,” said a breathless voice.

“I didn’t make her,” the sculptor answered, but the visitors ignored him.

“The hands are exquisite,” a young man marveled.

“Look at its belly,” someone said. “You forgot the navel.”

Lysander snorted. “Of course she has no navel. Her mother is stone.”

He knew me so well.

That night, he lifted me from my pedestal and lugged me into his bedchamber. He covered his bed with purple silk and laid me down, then clasped me close. He kissed my lips, my open eyes, the hollow at the base of my neck. He traced his fingers over my arms, my face, an intimate polishing that resounded through my essence.

He fell asleep at last, his face smashed against my neck. I wondered what it would be like to rest my hand on his back, to feel the pores of his skin and the sheen of sweat.

In the morning, he delighted me with gifts of honey cakes and wine. “Why won’t you eat?” he asked. He hung strings of amber around my neck and offered me pebbles and exquisite shells. He called me Aglama, statue and also delight.

When daylight faded, he lay with me again. Again, he caressed me. This time he wept, and his tears rolled over my breast. “Aglama, I love you,” he whispered. “Did you just kiss the top of my head? I felt your lips through my hair. No, I’m a fool. You are stone. You cannot love.”

My dear Lysander, I do love you, I answered.

He didn’t hear me.

He spent his days and nights devoted to me, but his grief grew. During the day, he knelt before my pedestal and pleaded with me to love him. He was deaf to all my assurances. At night, in his bed, I spoke to him in the language of souls to soothe him to stillness, but he lay restless beside me until the gray dawn.

On a spring morning, he laid me in a cart cushioned with straw and trundled me to the marble temple of Aphrodite on the tip of the peninsula. Tiny flowers grew in the scrabbly dirt, red and yellow and pink. He wove a wreath of these for my head and tried to tangle his fingers into my hair. When he failed, he sighed and hugged me close to lift me. He lugged me up the three steps and set me on the porch among the columns. Through the open door, Aphrodite glowed in the dark. She too was marble. She held a marble torch in one hand and the other reached out to me. Welcome, daughter, she said in the language of souls.

Lysander lit a flame and poured out pale wine. He knelt in the threshold. “Great goddess,” he prayed, “please turn Aglama to flesh. Then my love for her will be fulfilled.”

Our love is fulfilled, I tried to tell him. He prayed to Aphrodite all the long afternoon, weeping tears until one knee slipped on the wet marble. He landed on his elbow and collapsed face down, exhausted.

Daughter, are you willing to become flesh? the goddess asked me.

I wish I had known then what to ask instead. I want him to be happy, I said. I love him.

Very well, she replied. The flame leapt high three times.

Emptiness flooded into me. I exhaled and gasped for more emptiness. Strands of muscle fought for a precarious balance as my once clean form became infinite shapes and changes. There seemed no limit to how I could move through space. I sagged and wavered.

Lysander rose to his feet. “My love,” he breathed. He lifted me up, and my body draped over his arms. He hurried down the steps and bundled me under the straw. “No one can see you naked.”

“They’ve all seen me naked,” I said. Those were my first words – not words of love but an argument.

“We’ll be home soon,” was all he said, and carted me away.

The straw poked my flesh. Dust joined the emptiness in my lungs.

At home, he wrapped me in blue silk and carried me to his bedchamber as if I were still a statue unable to move. He laid me on the same bed where we’d lain together so many nights. At first it seemed familiar. I lay as still as I could with the emptiness rushing in and out. He stroked my arm with one finger, not hard enough to indent my skin. His touch tingled in my body as well as my soul.

I marveled at this new dimension of love. I stroked his arm and he stilled. Now he was the statue. I caressed his springy hair, all the structure of his body, the valleys between his muscles, marveling at how such a strong man could be so soft and porous. I felt him changing, growing firmer in my hand until I wondered if he would turn to stone. I half hoped he would.

All at once, he burst inside me, into a place he had not carved. I arced in tingling pain and joy. I truly was Aglama, filled with delight.

Orbit-sml ><

“You need food,” he said in the morning, and he was right. He put a grape in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed, then spat up milky liquid with bits of grape. It took me a while to learn the trick of eating. Spring water sloshed in new cavities, but it stayed inside me. I nibbled a honey cake, and it rasped down my soft throat. I bit into pomegranate fruit. The seeds between my teeth grounded me in my humanity. When Lysander brought me skewered lamb, I turned away. The meat was too much like my own substance.

My womb grew large. Lysander lay with his hand on my belly, feeling a tiny hand or foot kick against him. “I wish I could see the baby right now,” he said, laughing in his booming, joyous laugh.

“You’d have to chisel me away,” I said.

He stopped laughing.

A son squirmed out of my body, pressing me out of shape, shooting pain through me. He came into the world covered in gore and screaming. His voice hurt my ears. The midwife laid him to my breast, and he sucked away my substance like flowing marble.

“We’ll call him Paphos,” said Lysander.

The boy grew fast, always moving. He learned to run before he walked.

Paphos hugged me, one foot on the ground, one trying to climb up, his head tilted back, his chin against me. I swayed, afraid I would fall and shatter. “Don’t climb me,” I snapped.

His face puckered into grief. His arms fell away. I swooped him up and held him against me. “I’m sorry, Paphos,” I murmured into his neck.

He wriggled and clutched a lock of my hair. “Ow,” I said and jerked back. He burst into tears.

There were many moments like that, when sudden motion startled away my affection. How can love survive so many ambushes?

Once Paphos flung a chisel he’d found on the floor. He was always flinging things. This time he hit Lysander on the knee. Lysander winced but didn’t shout. He picked up his son and put the chisel in the boy’s hand. “The chisel is for carving,” he said, “not throwing. I’ll find you a spear and a target.” I envied Lysander’s easy intimacy with our son. He had more experience living among jittering humans.

Again my womb grew heavy. Lysander was too busy with the boy to rest his hand on my belly and feel its stillness. In time, my daughter slipped free, silent and clean, a perfect marble infant without a navel.

Lysander sighed when he saw her. “Never mind, Aglama,” he said. “I have you and Paphos.” He put a tiny shell by his daughter’s hand.

Paphos rampaged into the chamber dragging a huge stick, and Lysander hoisted boy and stick into his arms. “This is your sister,” he said.

“Rock,” said the boy.

I called her Marmara, marble and also shining. She glowed in the little cradle where I laid her. I held her tiny hand in mine. Blue veins showed through my tanned skin now, and my tendons were more pronounced, a strong hand, able to pound grain into flour and work the earth in our little garden.

I laid the statue on her back. In the morning, she lay on her side, the tip of one finger in her mouth. I held her to my breast and imagined she shared my essence, drawing life into herself.

Marmara grew as steadily as Paphos had. Her growing hair curled at the edges of her face, tighter curls than mine, more like Lysander’s. She occupied infinite positions and expressions, but I never saw her move.

One morning, I found her lying with knees bent and head thrown back. A slight scrunch around her eyes showed curiosity. I hefted her onto my hip, and she sat on my arm, her body twisted toward me, looking up into my face, as if she’d arranged herself on purpose to snuggle against me. Her blank marble eyes looked at me as I must have gazed at Lysander, and I longed to be marble again so I could hear her voice. I sang a lullaby in the mixolydian mode, as close as I could get to the language of souls.

When Paphos was six, he sneaked the cinnabar out of his father’s workshop and painted a huge red eye on Marmara’s forehead. When I returned from the storeroom, Marmara was frozen in grief, her mouth open, her eyes squeezed shut. In that moment, I resented the softening of my body that made me deaf to my daughter’s wail. My chest tightened, and the corners of my mouth hardened, but I didn’t turn back to stone.

Lysander sent the boy for pumice paste and spent the afternoon scrubbing off the paint while I stroked Marmara’s back to comfort her. “We have to protect her,” I said.

“We could pray to Aphrodite.” He paused and leaned his forehead against mine.

“How would the goddess protect Marmara?” I asked. I should have known what Lysander wanted.

“Think, Aglama. If our statue were a little girl, she could run and play with Paphos. She could bring flowers to you and sing to me while I work.”

“You’re a sculptor,” I said. “Why can’t you understand our daughter? She would be someone else if she were flesh.” It was hard to say what I meant in this trembling language. I was still myself after the softening, but only because I had chosen this mutable life.

Lysander went back to polishing away the cinnabar. “Aphrodite won’t listen anyway. She’s the goddess of lovers, not parents. Maybe when this statue is grown, a man’s love will transform her.”

Dread paralyzed me more than grief, but I knew there was no point arguing. On some subjects, Lysander was as deaf to me now as when I spoke the language of souls. “She’s four years old,” I said. “Let’s find a way to keep her safe.”

“What can we do?” he asked. “Lock her in her chamber?”

Of course I didn’t want to imprison her.

At the midday meal, I found flowers at my place, red and yellow and pink. “Thank you, Marmara,” I said to the beaming statue on the threshold. I’d hurt her feelings if I wept, but I said, “I love you just as you are. I don’t want you to be any different.”

At dawn the next morning, we woke to Paphos screaming. Lysander jumped out of bed. “What has she done to him?”

I hurried after him to the boy’s chamber. Paphos huddled against the wall shrieking and pointing at a three-horned monster standing on his bed.

I laughed, though I shouldn’t have. The monster was Marmara covered with a sheet. A tripod cooking pot rested upside-down on her head. From then on, Paphos left her alone, but he never loved her.

Orbit-sml ><

On the day Marmara turned thirteen, the apprentice Kouros arrived, also thirteen. He was slender and whimsical. He tried to show Paphos a shadow game, but our son was now fifteen. He snubbed the younger boy and went off to wrestle with his friends. Paphos was training for war.

Kouros learned quickly. His first sculpture was a marble lark. He laid the bird at Marmara’s feet as she stood smiling in the kitchen, full-cheeked and chubby-armed. Later that day, I found her holding the bird in both hands, loosely enough that it could fly away. The lark stayed with her, now perched on a table, now on a curtain railing, now on her outstretched hand.

At sixteen, Kouros carved a cluster of marble grapes for Marmara. He placed them in her hand, and that evening they were gone. From then on, he spent all his effort carving marble objects to delight her, exquisite foods, a marble ship with thread-thin ropes, a lacy box to hold marble earrings.

Lysander tried to teach Kouros to chisel and smooth the human form, but the boy wouldn’t stay with it long enough to learn. Instead, he spent long hours sitting with Marmara. He never touched her, but once I came upon them and found her hand cupped around his cheek. He sat on a stool at an angle to her, as still as she, his eyes half closed, his breathing deep.

He was so different from my son, who was never still. One afternoon, Paphos stormed into the kitchen. “I’m going off to war,” he announced.

A new cavity opened inside me.

He reached for me, one arm higher than the other, one foot stepping forward. For an instant, he was solid stone in my arms, heir to my essence. I would miss his sudden assaults, when he snatched food from the table or swung me into a spinning dance. In his leaving, I found peace with my son.

Lysander was more irritable with Paphos gone. Kouros tried his patience more than anyone. “What use are you as an apprentice?” Lysander railed. “You carve trinkets and toys, but no one wants those things.”

“Marmara does,” he answered.

At last, Lysander came to see the obvious. “I believe Kouros loves the statue,” he said.

“And she loves him,” I answered, ignoring the slight to our daughter.

He hummed for a moment, a nebulous tune, then summoned Kouros. “Your love can be realized,” he said and harrumphed. It was hard for him to talk about something so private between us. “Take your beloved to the temple of Aphrodite. If you plead hard enough, the goddess may listen and turn your statue to flesh.”

Kouros ducked his head, his face as red as cinnabar, and didn’t answer.

“Kouros is a fool,” Lysander fumed that night. “He’s as lazy in love as he is in art.”

“He honors Marmara,” I said. “Why would he want her to be different?”

Lysander held me tight against him. “You know very well what they are missing,” he said and reminded me. Yet even amid the joy, I knew that Marmara was not me. If she became flesh, she might not find the satisfaction I had found. She had a right to choose.

On a rainy day that winter, Kouros rubbed soot from the bread oven on his face, four smears down each cheek. He fell asleep on the floor at Marmara’s feet. In the morning, Marmara’s face, too, was smudged with soot.

Lysander was right. A statue and a human could never find satisfying love. A mother’s desperation made me forget my own wisdom.

“You are both unhappy,” I said. “Go to Aphrodite and ask for her help.” Even as I said it, I thought of all the ignominies of being human, the pockets of emptiness inside me. If Kouros and Marmara were content, I’d understand their reluctance, but they were miserable. Still, they did not go.

In the spring, Kouros stopped eating. He lay unmoving at Marmara’s feet, and she reached toward him as if he were slipping away.

I went alone to the Temple of Aphrodite on the high point of land that reaches out into the sea. Around me, marble columns alternated with sky. The fluted stone held vertical shadows, deepening away from the sun. And between the columns, the blue sky turned milky, as if marble were blended into the air.

I stood before the goddess, aware of the subtle movements my body required to stand. “Mother Aphrodite,” I said. “This language of vibrating emptiness is the only way I can talk to you now. Inhabiting flesh is not easy, so I tremble to ask the same gift for my daughter. I would stay silent if Marmara were happy. She loves Kouros, and he is dying. O goddess, you must know they honor you, though they will never come to you themselves. Years ago, you listened to a lover’s prayer; now heed a mother, as you are a mother. Let their love be fulfilled.”

I didn’t light a flame or pour out wine. Instead, I wove a wreath of flowers, red and yellow and pink. I stomped down through the gorse and waded into the sea where it ebbs and flows among boulders. I set the wreath on the surface. Lines of brightness shot through the aquamarine water, brighter than any flame, and the wreath floated. A current carried it out to sea, and by this, I knew my prayer had been granted.

I climbed up through the gorse, terrified by what I had done. I had denied Marmara the choice I’d been given. I had betrayed her. She was tender and might not survive the emptiness of flesh. I rushed home, desperate to bring her with me to Aphrodite so she could plead to be restored. It might not be too late.

I entered her chamber and stopped, stilled by wonder. Marmara and Kouros sat clasped in each other’s arms, their cheeks pressed close, their faces rapt with joy. Kouros had turned to marble. My daughter and her beloved now shared the language of souls.

Lysander sagged in the threshold. He tangled his fingers into my hair, then drew back his hand. “I see now what you gave up. Do you want to return to stone, Aglama?”

“No, dear Lysander.” I cupped my palm around his cheek and polished him, smooth circles so he would know I understood the shape of him, a little stubble, large pores, a sheen of sweat, a life of interlocking grains of light.


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LM Zaerr

Author image of LM Zaerr LM Zaerr is a writer and medievalist. She wrote a book on medieval storytelling and sang forgotten tales to the raucous tones of the vielle. She lured students into medieval legends and abandoned them there to challenge dragons, rescue Lancelot, and figure out how to play gwyddbwyll. Now she finds new stories and transforms old ones. Her work has appeared in Uncharted, Wyngraf, and New Myths, among other venues. Visit her at

© LM Zaerr 2024 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using a Creative Commons image by Kuan-yu Huang - many thanks!

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