Here is the original version of “Cast in Stone,” a trunk story I wrote about 20 years ago (Good lord, has it been that long?) If you missed the history of this piece, go read the Preamble to this edit-fest.
And to remind you of the color codes for each error type:
- Telling, not showing
- Clunky phrasing/naming names
- Bad metaphors/similes/adjectives
- Wiggle words
Cast in Stone
Ray fumed, thrashing his head from side to side and rocking his wheelchair. “Dammit, Chuck! This’ll never work!” With his good hand he slapped the toggle to disengage his deader’s override.
The deader carefully placed the pneumatic chisel on the floor near the rough-cut block of bluish marble in the center of the workroom. Straightening from his crouch, he assumed the basic stand-by posture.
“How may I be of service, Mr Near?” came the standard inquiry from the MS-DOMestic software. The strong California sunshine filled the room with a strong, nearly-tangible light.
Ray picked up his withered left hand and arm and placed them over the console in his lap, securing it. He struggled with his wheelchair controls until he got himself underway and crossed the room to the deader and the block of stone, both equally motionless. He could smell the sweat of the deader’s exertion mingling with the dry sweetness of marble dust.
“Look,” Ray said, pointing feebly at the top of the block. “This is the head of the Mother, and this. . .” Grabbing a stick of charcoal he traced a long descending curve down the flank of the stone. “This is her arm. We seem to agree on these two points.
“But this,” he growled and indicated the recently truncated bulge at the lower end of the curve. “This was supposed to be the Child.”
“I understand these concepts, Mr Near,” the deader replied. “I remember exactly the photographs you displayed and your comments regarding them.”
“Then why did you just lop off half of the bulk we needed for the child? It looks more like a head than a baby!” Ray was suddenly seized by a fit of coughing and unable to continue. The deader knelt gently by his side and patted him on the back.
“Would you like a drink of water, Mr Near?” he asked softly. Ray slowed in his gasping for breath, tears brimming in his eyes. He nodded, breathing heavily. “I am required at this point,” the deader continued, “to remind you of Dr. Simon’s warning about losing your temper and getting too excited.” The deader moved behind the wheelchair and began pushing Ray towards the kitchen.
“I wouldn’t get so upset if you’d just do what I tell you,” Ray labored as they left the sunlit workroom and went down the shadowed hallway. “You’ve ruined that piece, Chuck. I don’t know what we’re going to do with it now.”
In the kitchen, Chuck pushed Ray up to the oak table, and opened the fridge to get the pitcher of ice water. “May I please state, Mr Near, that when you engage the motor function override on your console, my computing facilities are cut-off from all movement ability, save lower cerebral routines.” He poured a glassful, added a straw, and placed it on the table in front of Ray’s right hand.
Ray pulled the glass toward him, leaned forward, and took a long sip from the straw. Sitting back, he studied his deader. Chuck had assumed the “inactive but operative” stance, feet slightly apart, shoulders back, and hands clasped before him at about belt-level. Below the sweat-dewed forehead with its brain- killing scar, Chuck’s eyes remained calmly unfocused, blinking every two-point-seven seconds.
“It’s not you,” Ray forced himself to admit. “It’s got to be that damned console. Anna spends almost 600k on you and this software and they still can’t figure out what’s causing the system override to cut out like that. Meanwhile the glitches are getting worse and we’re left with a ruined piece of Apennine marble on the workroom floor.” He took another slurp through his straw and remained silent for a time.
“We’ll have to go back to square one,” Ray said finally. “I’m going to have to teach you how to sculpt for me, by yourself. Jesus,” he said. “This’ll take forever!” He shoved fitfully at the glass. It slid across the polished wood, caught at the center seam, toppled and spilled.
Chuck immediately snatched a nearby dishtowel and began sopping up the spilled water, carefully righting the glass.
“You know, Mr Near, while I regret my unintentional mis- strike, I am not sure that the stone should be considered a total ruin.” He moved to the sink and wrung the cloth.
“Oh yeah?” Ray chuckled. “And just what do you think we might make of it?”
Chuck returned to dry off the table with another towel. “This morning I downloaded the texts of Janson, Levey, and Pope- Hennesey from the Cal-Poly library, as you suggested. I catalogued the works they referenced and it seems that the ‘Mother and Child’ theme is quite well-represented. I thought we might be able to turn this piece into something a slightly different.”
Ray got a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Like what?” he asked.
Chuck stopped in mid-sweep of the drying table and swiveled his head up to look at Ray. Ray could see the Bausch & Lomb trademark recede as Chuck’s pupils dilated.
Chuck’s lips pulled back in a grin as he placed the chisel and raised the mallet. The marble shone dully in the crisp, overhead light of the blue-white lamps. The mallet came down swiftly, precisely on target, and sent chips of white marble skittering across the hardwood floor.
The grin became feral as Chuck raised the mallet again. He changed the angle of the chisel and the mallet swooped down to meet it, centered exactly. The strokes increased in ferocity and speed. Chunks of marble clattered and flew, landing further and further from the deader and his work. At his feet, charcoal sketches lay, ignored.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a figure emerged from the stone, then the suggestion of another. A stray piece soared across the room and struck Ray, rousing him from his slumber.
“No, no, no,” Ray said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Too hard, much too hard. Chuck, this is basic; you should have this down by now.” He leaned over the arm of the chair and picked up the override console, settling it in his lap. He flipped the toggle and the red ‘engaged’ light came on. Chuck immediately came to a rigid attention.
“We’ve been through this before,” Ray said. Gently manipulating the console’s controls, he made Chuck raise the mallet to about shoulder height. “This is all the force you need,” he instructed as he moved the gimbals, bringing Chuck’s arm smoothly down onto an imaginary chisel. Satisfied with the exercise, he disengaged the console. “Do you remember that move, that stroke?”
“Yes, Mr Near,” Chuck replied, assuming his standard waiting stance.
“Good. You’ve got to coax the stone, not force it,” he said and put the console back down on the floor. He motored his chair over to one of his early works, Visage of Troy, and gently caressed the sculpted features of his Helen. “If you force the stone, it can snap or twist your stroke.”
“Yes. I see, Mr Near,” Chuck asserted.
Ray wheeled over to the deader and saw the two figures Chuck had carved, struggling within the stone. “What the hell is this?” he demanded. “This isn’t what I told you to make. This isn’t anything like what I drew for you!”
“I am unable to adequately explain,” the deader said, unperturbed by Ray’s anger.
“Unable to explain,” Ray repeated with feigned concern. “Well, you just remember to tell Anna that when she shows up next week and asks to see what we’ve done. Maybe she’ll be able to ‘adequately explain’ why she’s carting your ass back to the State.” Ray wheeled back to the window where he had been napping.
“You’re going to have to follow my sketches or we’ll never get anywhere. Christ, this is almost as bad as with the console!” Ray brought his hand to his face and rubbed his brow vigorously. He looked at the stone again and sighed. “Well, there’s another idea shot to hell. I swear to God, you do this to me on purpose. I’m going to have to watch you like a hawk until you’ve learned some restraint.
“Well, Chuck. Tell me what you were thinking when you ruined this one. Maybe we can save it, too.”
Anna tucked the manila folder under her arm and knocked on the screen to Ray’s beach-house studio just north of Morro Bay. A cool breeze blew in off the Pacific, taking the bite out of the afternoon heat. A herring gull mewed overhead on its way toward the point.
Her knock went unanswered, but that wasn’t unusual. Ray often ignored the door as well as the phone, especially if he–no, “they” she corrected herself–were working in the back. She fished in her shoulder bag, pulled out her ring of clients’ keys, and began thumbing through them. She had just found the right one when the door opened part way, revealing Ray’s deader. He wore one of Ray’s old Greenpeace t-shirts, the logo almost completely obscured by the white dust and stone chips that covered him head to toe.
“Hello, Ms Cross. How may I be of service?” Anna disliked deaders. She found the whole principle behind them repugnant and vaguely nauseating. Still, if it would help Ray keep his place as the leader of Neo-Hellenist sculpture, she was determined to learn to live with it.
“Hello, Charles. Looks like you two have been working. Good.” She put the key-ring back in her bag and pulled out a cigarette case. “I came to see how Ray was getting on,” she said, lighting one and returning the case to her bag. She tugged on the corner of the envelope and gave the deader a studious glance. “As well as to give him this,” she said moving forward and putting a hand on the door. The door did not give way.
“I’m sorry, Ms Cross, but Mr Near is napping just now. I don’t think it is wise to disturb him at this point.” The deader did not move, nor did the door open any further. A large hand, pallid with marble dust, came forth from the opening. “I can deliver your envelope to Mr Near, if you wish.”
Anna’s eyes narrowed at the deader as she French-inhaled a drag from her cigarette. “Charles, this is business, not a social visit. I didn’t drive up from Santa Monica to be turned away by an overprotective robot. Open the door and let me in.”
The deader didn’t move.
“Now,” she added.
“Very well, Ms Cross, but please try not to excite Mr Near. He hasn’t been feeling too well lately.” Slowly, Chuck stepped back and widened the door. Anna walked in, heels clicking swiftly on the slate flooring of the foyer. Chuck closed the door after her.
“May I mix you a drink, Ms Cross?” he inquired.
“No, thank you. Maybe later.” She walked down the hall to knock on Ray’s door, but the bedroom was open, the bed empty, unslept in. She turned on the deader.
“He’s in the workroom, Ms Cross.”
“Napping? In the workroom?” she demanded, advancing on the deader. “How can you allow him to sleep in that damned wheelchair? What about that medical sub-routine Dr. Simon had me install? No wonder Ray sounded so bad on the phone.” She pivoted and stormed down the hallway.
The studio at the back of the bungalow was well-lit by a Polar-Gray thermal skyroof and daylight fluorescents. Anna opened the door and was immediately surrounded by the smells of marble dust, sweat, and salt air. Over to one side near an open window and bathed in sunlight was one of the overstuffed recliners from the front room. In it, partly covered by a blanket with his feet up on a red leather ottoman, was Ray, sleeping quietly, surrounded by a blizzard of crumpled sketches and marble chippings. From behind her she heard a foot scuff in the stony bits that littered the floor.
“I’m sorry, Charles,” she said without turning. “I spoke out of turn.”
“No harm done, Ms Cross,” the deader replied.
“And his name is Chuck,” Ray yawned, pulling himself up into a sitting position. “As in Chuck Steak. He’s my own personal pound of flesh. Isn’t that right, Chuck?” he asked bitterly.
“As you say, Mr Near,” the deader replied.
“See?” he laughed, and began to cough.
She studied him until the fit passed. He was pale and thin, almost skeletal. The scars from the accident stood out startlingly on his face, neck and upper body, making her cringe with pity. His legs looked like sticks under the blanket and his left arm was atrophied and ghastly. Anna fought back a sweep of emotion.
“Christ, Ray, you look like shit. Have you been eating enough? Should I have, uh, Chuck bring you in to Dr. Simon?” She took the glass of water that Chuck had silently produced and helped Ray to a drink. Beads of sweat perched on his brow.
“What? And keep me from Chuck’s work?” Ray quipped. “Without me he’s nothing but a walking side of beef with manners, but with me. . . ah! With me he’s a fucking genius. I tell him what to do, I draw pictures of what I want, I show him the why and how of it, and then he ignores it all and just does what he wants–what he feels! It’s like working with a god-damned artist.”
“Well, you’re right about that, anyway,” Anna said showing Ray the manila envelope. “He is, was, an artist. An artist of sorts, anyway. He was a potter up in Mendocino who dabbled in clay sculpture. He was 23 when he died six months ago.”
“I knew it.” Ray began to pound the arm of his recliner. “I knew it! Only an artist would. . .” He winced suddenly, teeth gritted and hand clenching the arm of the chair. A cloud passed over the sun and the skylight overhead paled, letting in more light.
“Ray,” Anna said. “Please, calm down.” She turned for Chuck but he had disappeared, hopefully to get Ray’s medication.
Ray’s eyebrows lifted and his grimace turned to a look of derision. “Calm down?” he rasped. “Why? Look around you, Anna. He’s killing me!”
For the first time Anna turned and noticed the rest of the room. Three sculptures lay under wraps near the far wall; a fourth, still in progress, stood on wide pedestal in the center. She turned back to Ray, a fire in her eyes.
“Ready?” he blurted and laughed. “Anna, what we have here is the twisting of every artistic intention I’ve had in the past five months. Go look at that first one, the one on the left. It began life as a simple Mother and Child.”
Anna stood and walked across the studio, her brows knit in puzzlement. She grabbed the dusty linen covering the sculpture and pulled it off. Her free hand flew to her mouth. Slowly, she went down on one knee, pulled by the beautiful and grotesque figure before her.
Salome, her upper body carved and polished in blue-hued marble, looked down with an expression of–what was it? Love? Grief? Hate? Anna could not tell–upon the freshly torn head of her dream lover. Her face, aquiline and lovely, carried the geometric tattoos of the ancient Middle East, her intricately braided hair covered by a soft cloth. The head she cradled dripped blood down her hands and arms, its face with a cry of defiance still on its lips.
Anna was stunned. This was unlike anything else Ray had ever created, carved with a passionate insight he had never before revealed. Ray’s technique had always been remarkable, but this. . . . The accident must have changed something inside him dramatically.
“You did this?” she asked, still unable to tear her eyes away.
“Gruesome, isn’t it?” Ray commented. Chuck had come back with Ray’s medication and wheelchair. He placed Ray in the chair and gave him the pill to swallow. “It’s the best we could come up with after Michelangelo here practically destroyed the stone,” he said as he directed Chuck to wheel him over to the small sculpture on the right.
“This one was supposed to be a simple bust of a woman. Nothing fancy, nothing dramatic. A learning piece.” He motioned Chuck to remove the cloth from over the statue. Hesitantly, almost shyly, Chuck did so, lifting the cloth straight up and with great care, as if the stone might shatter. “But once again I was saved by my budding protegé’s ‘misinterpretation’ of my–What did you call them, Chuck?–my crude diagrams,” Ray sneered.
It was indeed a bust, but not a simple one. Anna marvelled at it. From a block of white Carrara marble rose the head of a bearded man, gagged and blindfolded. All had been roughly cut with the three-pronged Swedish chisel except for one section. The blindfold on the captive man had slipped low, revealing piercing eyes in high polish; eyes that could see all, Anna thought, even were the blindfold still covering them.
“Chuck wants to call it Knowledge,” he explained. Anna looked up at Ray, mouth agape, brow still furrowed in consternation. She stood up and moved to the draped statue in between. It was much larger than the others. She grasped the cloth and questioned Ray with a raised eyebrow.
“Go ahead,” Ray told her. “I’m not even going to tell you what I originally wanted that one to be.”
Removing the cloth, she found a group of three life-sized figures: a woman lay struggling underneath a man, while a second man sat by with his back turned. The woman’s face was filled with a fierce terror, her body carved with a tremendous attention to drapery and musculature. Her assailant was rough hewn and seemed almost out of focus, while the third figure, that of the seated man, was carved as finely as the woman, except for his face, which was a flat plane of polished marble. The seated man, Anna noticed, held an old-fashioned deader control console. A memory flashed in her mind and she looked back at the woman’s face, recognizing her.
“Maria Brandt,” she said.
“Very good, Anna,” Ray warbled. “You have correctly identified the subject in Ray Near’s latest collaboration: The Rape of Maria Brandt.”
“That woman five years ago, raped by a deader.” She shivered at the memory of that story. “But Ray, these pieces are. . .”
“Look,” he interrupted. “I know they’re nothing like what I used to produce, but what can I do? I can’t use that damned console, it’s still too crude. And when I leave Chuck to do what I’ve told him, he goes off the deep end and completely turns around whatever I’ve had him start. I fell asleep with him working on a reclining Niobe and woke up to Maria Brandt.”
“I want five more by September,” Anna said, moving around the larger piece. “Five more and we’ve got the one-man comeback show of the decade!”
“Five,” Ray exploded. “Anna, it took every bit of my strength to salvage these three. It’ll take just till September for me to train him to create what I want him to create, much less in the style I used to create.”
“Who cares if it’s not your ‘old’ style,” she broke in, beaming. “Let the Neo-Hellenists go to Hades or whatever they’re calling it. These are terrific!” Usurping the chair from Chuck, she wheeled him over to the Salome.
“Drop your ego for a minute and look at them. See the power, that ‘frozen moment’ you’re always spouting about? They’re fantastic. I’ve seen some great work in my time but these are absolutely fantastic! We’ll have commissions coming out our ears when we show these!”
“But, Anna,” he protested weakly. “This isn’t what I want. This isn’t my work.”
Anna turned toward Ray slowly, evenly. A smile played about her lips and eyes, her nostrils flared with excitement. “Listen to me. I look around me and what do I see? I see a talented, well-known sculptor, I see a mobilized, brain-dead human, and I see three magnificent statues.
“If they’re not yours, whose are they?”
Anna was getting upset now. She swiveled her chair back to the desk and smashed out her cigarette.
“Listen to me, Chuck. We’ve got an exhibition in less than a month. You’ve been putting me off for nearly two weeks with this routine and I’m tired of it. I need to talk to Ray. Now!”
“I’m sorry, Ms Cross,” came the small voice, “but Mr Near is unable to come to the phone.” Chuck’s equanimous tone did nothing but infuriate her further. “May I try to answer your questions?” he asked.
“Dammit, Chuck! You tell Ray that I’m . . .” She stopped, thinking better of it. Chuck’s quiet, calm voice inquired as to her presence. Gently, she broke the connection and put the handset back in its cradle. The phone rang immediately as she grabbed her bag and headed for the door.
Outside, her secretary looked up from his phone, hand on the receiver. “Anna, it’s Mr Near’s deader,” he whispered.
“Tell him I’ve passed on,” she said, and headed for her car.
At Ray’s place, Anna didn’t bother to knock, but used her key at once. Stepping inside she immediately noticed the dust and clutter all about. The place smelled bad; not just musty, but worse. An overflowing garbage can in the kitchen gave her a good clue as to what stank.
Down the hall, she heard the sound of the pneumatic chisel. The smell from the kitchen seemed to have permeated her clothing and travelled with her. She reached the door to the workroom and opened it.
The stench hit her, taking her breath with it. She grabbed the doorframe for support and bit her lip for control. Chuck was chiseling away at a sizable chunk of dark, highly streaked stone, revealing the form of a runner. On the recliner in the sun was Ray, bloated and discolored. He was quite dead. On the floor at Ray’s feet was the override control console. About the room were almost a dozen statues of various sizes and stages of completion, each of them burgeoning with the same power Anna had first seen in Salome.
She took in the whole scene again – Chuck, Ray, the console, and the statues – and began to move slowly over to Ray’s corpse. Trying not to look at the body itself, she reached down to the override console, her finger hovering over the ‘engage’ toggle. The chisel stopped. She looked up to see Chuck standing before her.
“I can’t work if you turn that on.”
“But Ray is . . . Chuck, Ray is dead.”
“Yes, Ms Cross, but you need these pieces for your exhibition.” Anna nodded dumbly and took a step away from the deader.
“People aren’t going to buy them,” Chuck continued, “if they think someone other than Mr Near made them. Correct?” Again, she nodded, looking toward the door. The deader took a step toward her.
“And if they don’t buy them then you won’t get back the money you paid for me, and I go back to the State and can’t sculpt anymore. Also correct, Ms Cross?”
Anna’s gaze snapped back to Chuck. His brow was creased with worry and concern. Anna let the hint of a smile creep across her face as the full weight of Chuck’s words became clear to her.
“I want to sculpt, Ms Cross. I need to.”
“You look thirsty,” she said. Let me get you some water, and then we can talk about getting rid of Ray’s body.”
“Thank you, Anna. That would be nice.”