Once upon a time
there was a boy who ran away from home
. He left with very little: just his shoes, the clothes he wore, and a book
that belonged to his father. The book was old, held together by strips of tape that crissed and crossed over its binding, fixing many a page to its tattered spine.
The book had a strong odor bound to it as well, the smell of garlic and tobacco smoke and stale, sour dust. It was very dear to his father’s heart, and although the boy could hardly comprehend it, he tucked the book beneath his arm as he stole away one warm and windy summer night.
The boy intended never to return to his father’s house. At least not for a long, long time. Not until he had made his fortune, by means criminal or noble, it mattered little to him. What was essential was that he won his success wholly without his father’s influence, wholly by what caprice he could secure through his own exertions.
The boy walked a very long way, until he came to a town where he was certain no one knew him. There, he found a sculptor who was willing to take him in, as an apprentice. And that is how he found himself learning the trade of an artisan, and an artisan of physical beauty, at that.
Years passed, and gradually the boy mastered the disciplines of a sculptor. He displayed to his teacher the unlearnable talent that makes a man good, and the diligence and focus of effort that makes a man great. Little by little, the Master Sculptor allowed his student to work on his own, easing the boy into independence, until the runaway shouldered most of the work of his Master’s enterprise, from the designing to the execution of all but a few of the commissions.
Before he knew it, the boy who had run away had become a full-fledged sculptor himself. He felt in his heart the knowledge of beauty and perfection, in his mind he knew mastery of the laws of balance, the mathematics of motion, and the feints and secrets of manipulated space. In his hands he saw an unwavering obedience to his will, a deceptive ease during execution and, from time to time, unforeseeable flushes of inspiration. He felt proud of his accomplishments, and yearned for any project that offered him a grain or a mountain of challenge.
One day, the Master took the apprentice aside, planted a kiss on his forehead and said “My friend, my friend. I, your teacher, am old. My eyes are weak; my hands are no longer firm and decisive. They shake a little too much, as you may have noticed. I have passed my peak, have descended my plateau, and have entered the stage of life whose energy is better spent reflecting, rather than acting. It is time that I retire.”
The young man had not expected this. “You are leaving me?” he asked, his voice warbling with emotion.
“All that you see--” the Sculptor continued, “this shop, my tools, my clients – all this is yours. I give it to you gladly, for you are a worthy heir to what I have established. I have no debt, no debtors. You will own everything free and clear. I ask of you only one fee, and I do not pretend it is small. Listen: I have noticed, during these years you have lived with me, that you have kept only one possession – a book, a time worn tome that I have never seen you open, not once.”
“That is my father’s book,” muttered the young man.
“Your father’s,” the old sculptor nodded. “Yes, yes. Would you allow me one look at it – a few hours or an evening to glance through its pages? Ever since I first laid eyes on it, something in me – perhaps my heart, perhaps something else – has been tugged its way. It is as if that book has some gift for me. A gift, or a clue.”
“Yes, a clue. I have learned to see life as a puzzle. Things drift in and out of our reach constantly, some by chance, some, even the plainest, as if they had sought us out. Sought us in with the hope that we might join them with a compliment, and restore them to a state of belonging, of harmony. Just as you and I seek to wed our ideas to blocks of stone, that we might give solid form to idea and give meaning to stone – so it is with all manner of things that we encounter. They come to us because they know that as humans we have the ability to elevate and to perfect them.
“That book – I have always felt as if it held something for me, or in truth, wanted something from me. But only now, as I declare my intention to end my life as a sculptor, and embrace the life of an old man, do I find the courage to look inside its frayed bindings… If, of course, you will permit me.”
The young sculptor considered all that his teacher had said and it was not easy for him to assent to the Master's request, even though he felt he owed him much, if not everything. But the book… he had opened it, opened it many times, late at night, in the privacy of darkness. By the light of a single candle, he had read it from beginning to end over and again until it lived in his memory more that in the pulp of its pages.
The young man’s thoughts strayed to his father, picturing him hunched over the book night after night, muttering its words as his son pretended to sleep. The book was saturated with his father’s presence, with the moisture of his eyes and the oil of his fingers. The young sculptor felt as though the book was the only surviving connection to his beginning, to his origin, and so he couldn't help but consider it as the key to his very self.
He felt uncomfortable with the idea of anyone soever being able to know him that well -- even the man he admired most, and trusted (almost) completely.
The old sculptor saw these thoughts run over his pupil’s countenance, and he sighed.
“After all these years, and still you do not trust me.”
“It’s not that –“ protested the young man. The elder raised a hand and said
“I understand. Come; let me show you something, something I have been working on in private for many years now. It is the plans for my final sculpture, my opera finis, my magnum opus. It was to be my last work, but I fear I will not be able to begin – let alone complete – what I have dreamed up.”
The old sculptor led his pupil to his bedroom, and took from under the mattress a portfolio filled with large sheets of paper. They were as stained with use and care as the book, if not more so.
“Fear is not the word,” spoke the sculptor as he arranged the drawings over the bed and the floor. “There is no fear in certainty. And I am certain this is not for me to build.”
The young man, on taking in the entire prospectus, began to shiver. A small, curled ache that had pulsed lazily, deep within him, rose to his surface. He knew at once that he had been seeking what in this moment he had found.
“It is missing something, no?” asked the Master Sculptor.
“My father’s book –“
“I had thought that they might—“
“If they were – forged together, they would—“
The men glanced at one another. The elder smiled and nodded his head. The younger exerted control over his shaking limbs, trying his best to still them. He had never felt the presence of perfection so near, so evident. He ran to retrieve the book. When he returned, he found his teacher leaning heavily against the wall, a hand clutching at his chest.
“I am weak…” the old man whispered, his voice dry, his face pale. “I must lie down…”
The young man cleared off the bed and helped his teacher under the covers.
“Do you need some tea, or, or—“
“Read to me.”
“But don’t you want – If I begin now, this very moment, on the fusing of these two – I have this book memorized, I could do it, I could be finished before—“
“It will take your lifetime to complete.” said the elder. “In all likelihood, it will take more than your lifetime. There is no rush. Truthfully, one cannot hurry such a thing as this. That much I have learned, from hammering out its fragments every night, since I first felt its possibility inside me.
“Please, my apprentice, still your heart. Share your treasure with me. Read the book to me, and let your reading be fair exchange for my work and my work and my work.”
The young man, the runaway, overcome with impatience, with the thrill of this find, with the prospect of fulfilling his newest and oldest ambition, he looked on his teacher, and didn’t know what to do. He felt he could not waste a single moment; he felt that every second of his life from this point forward must be devoted to the binding of these two things. To the solving of the one by the riddles of the other, and creating from them something new, a new question perhaps, or an ancient, unspeakable answer.
This would be his own now, his child, his work, derived from his father and his teacher, but entirely his, if he would but make it. And he would not be acting as midwife, nor mother, but as a creator, and something more than that. Someone so much more than that because to birth perfection could not but change him.
Its making would make of him a god.
These thoughts were strange to the young man. He could barely understand them, hardly see them for what they were, but the elder, he knew hubris like a bastard child, raised in the shadow of the legitimate one, the one he loved and tended and wished with all his person to see realized. The one that even now was leaving him for the custody of another.
It was in this moment that the Master Sculptor made his first and most crucial acceptance of his old age. It was in this moment that he made peace with his loss, and did not seek to turn the passing of his most prized possession into an act of theft on the part of the accessor. He did not seek to defile the inheritance by struggling to reclaim it and take it to his grave, to cling to it for all eternity, for he knew, in that moment, that if he was to travel onward, if he was to be free through death of life, he must shoulder the weight of releasing this weight. He must suffer the pain of no longer giving birth.
But he knew also this: he knew that his student still needed his counsel. And so he spoke to his heir:
“I have given you instruction. I have given you guidance. I have given you my trust and everything that I have spent my life building. But I have not given you one small thing that makes all the difference in the world. I have not given you my ear. Certainly, you must learn to give as you have received. Certainly, you must submit yourself to counseling me in your turn. It is the only way we can settle our mutual debt, you as a student and myself as a teacher.
“And the reason for this is simple,” he concluded. “Only a completed circle can be passed through. There is no departure without a return.”
The young man barely heard what his teacher was saying. His mind was caught up in the surge of this newfound possibility, his imagination bounding through the webwork connections sprouting like wild fire between the book and the blueprints. He began to laugh inside himself, to feel the maddening glee of the victor overcome him.
But somewhere in this eruption, the voice of caution found him. He heard a small and steady voice urge him to silence, and he listened to it. He closed his eyes and stilled himself, and when he opened them, he saw his teacher lying in bed, exhausted and frail. This sight stirred the student not to pity, but to gratitude.
Surely, he thought, I am indebted to this man. Surely it would be foolish of me to deny him the small recompense he asks for. I have taken my father’s gift if not wrongly, then in the least unfairly. I cannot afford to base my whole future on two such ignoble acts. No, I want a clear conscience. I want to be proud of the foundation of my work, not only its height and sublimity.
The young man smiled. He gathered up the sheets of paper that held the Master’s opus, and set them neatly in the corner of the room. Then, sitting at the foot of his teacher’s bed, he opened up his father’s book and began to read.
To Chapter One