Marble

I passed the early afternoon lunching with Massimo at his restaurant, Il Pescatore, which he was readying for the season. To fend off the day’s chill, he’d concocted a savory stew of clams, mussels, and chunks of monkfish in a rich tomato broth seasoned with garlic and basil, baked a fresh loaf, and uncorked a Cannoneau from his personal cellar. As dust devils scudded sand along the street and rattled the Chiuso sign on the front door, we ate by the window, lamenting the impending crush of the alta stagione, while admitting our eagerness to replenish our wallets with the tourists’ cash.

Massimo glanced up from his stew, filled my wine glass, and smoothed his unruly grey beard. “Customers remark often on your seagull and cod,” he said, pointing to a shelf above the bar. “But things are better in threes. The Holy Trinity, The Magi, The Three Tenors. Omne trium perfectum. Even the three Perini sisters are more beautiful together than any of them is alone. Please, carve me a woman to sit between your bird and fish.”

“I have no model,” I said.

Massimo raised his hands as if to surrender. “Hire Orianna, the blonde painter from Pisa. She always needs work this time of year,” he said. “I’ll pay her fee, purchase the marble, and provide you an honorarium. It will bring you a fortune in commissions.”

“I haven’t carved people in so long that I couldn’t now if I tried.”

“I won’t badger you,” Massimo said, “but the fish and the bird need a Santa Francesca. You carved them, so you should carve their protector.”

I said nothing, and Massimo did not press me further.

A tad tipsy from the wine and a post meal grappa, I bade my friend goodbye at two, eager to commence my own preparations for the high season.

An icy, damp mistral noir moaned along the streets as my scooter toiled up the hill from the harbor, the March sun obscured behind a fog bank, mist beading on my jacket.

I thrust my keys into the gallery’s locks and swung the front door open, allowing the building to exhale weeks of winter’s must. I swept, dusted, inventoried the shelves and storeroom, and scribbled notes for my annual trip to Marseille for supplies.

An hour into my chores, I was startled by a delivery van squeaking to a stop. Two men in anoraks jumped out and fanned open the rear doors, then the smaller of the two crawled into the back as the other shouted directions in Corsican. Seconds later, they eased a wooden crate strapped to a handcart to the street, hefted it over the curb, and wheeled it up to my door.

Signore Merritt?” the larger man said, as I stepped onto the stoop.

I answered, “Si, prego,” and he handed me an envelope addressed to Mr. William Merritt, Artist and bearing the return address of a Boston law firm. I moved aside as the men guided the crate into the gallery, and opened the letter that read:

Dear Will
After three decades of enjoying Monique in Marble in our home on Nantucket,
Elizabeth and I return this beautiful sculpture to you. We’re both eighty now and
most of our collection is going to our children as we downsize. Monique was one of
the earliest pieces we bought, and, if memory serves, was the first carving you sold.
We felt you should have her back.
Locating you was a chore, but Leslie Avery at The Cleaver Gallery said she was in
touch with you and provided this address. Liz wanted Monique’s return to be a surprise.
We hope you are well and are eager to know how you came to settle in Sardinia.
Sincerely,
Bob Franklin

The Corsicans unstrapped the crate while I perused the shipping and customs documents and discovered that the statue had journeyed by air from Boston to Nice to Ajaccio, then across the strait by ferry. I folded the letter back into the envelope, signed the delivery receipt, and the Corsicans departed, a cool draught piercing the room as I shut the door behind them.

The crate was secured with dozens of screws, and as my screw gun was at home, I locked the shop and started the scooter.

The Vespa’s tires sang on the damp pavement as I raced back to the house—wisps of mist floating in the fields, and the raw wind spilling down from the Alps boring through my leather. I had hoped to return in the Fiat, but as neither Monique nor the car was at home, I stuffed the screw gun into the Vespa’s saddlebags and sped back to the gallery.

I’d not seen Monique in Marble in thirty-one years, and though I ached to open the crate, I feared that my memory had enshrined her as a more perfect carving than my talents could have produced. Blowing on my hands to warm them, I recalled the second-floor studio where the statue was carved—a wood-framed warehouse—where we could see and hear the Atlantic pound the Maine coast, and where it was our custom that summer to work in the heat of the day, Monique’s skin glistening beneath the skylights.

I’d begun with sketches then progressed to plaster models; resisting carving the snow pure marble until I was certain I could capture Monique’s fierce energy in a still pose. The Carrara marble that I’d bought from another sculptor, Dan Reems, had cost every dollar I’d saved the previous year, so in order not to starve, we dug clams, collected mussels, fished the surf at night for stripers and blues, and raised vegetables in the community garden. To cover the rent on the studio and our apartment, I tended bar at The Harbourside on weekends, while Monique waited tables. But the majority of our waking hours, she posed and I sketched, molded, and carved, until October when the gleaming stone revealed Monique’s sinewy beauty.

I removed the thirty-six two-inch screws securing the front boards of the crate, tore away the packing, and gazed on the first piece of art I had ever sold, struck to my core that I could have ever been so poor as to have parted with it.

The Franklins paid two thousand dollars for Monique at a gallery in Portland, with the stipulation that I deliver the sculpture to their summer home on Nantucket at their expense. Recalling the three-hour, fog-cloaked ferry ride, Monique huddled against me between bouts of seasickness, I was moved that the statue had traveled again by ferry to find us in Santa Teresa Di Gallura.

Kicking aside the packing, I slow-danced the marble from the crate, running my hands over it as I had along Monique’s sweaty limbs a hundred times that summer to adjust her pose. I knelt and traced the contours of the calves and toes with my fingertips, the stone as cool and smooth as when I first buffed it. Fixing my eyes on her gleaming groin, tendons and muscles flexed, pubic hair carved as fine as moss, I recalled making love to Monique on the studio’s worn, wide-oak floors, marble dust shaking from my hair. Rising to embrace Monique frozen in stone, I bemoaned the fact that my chisels had never again captured her enduring erotic energy.

Through the Franklins’ recommendations, my career prospered. Within three years of selling Monique in Marble, my gallery sales and commissions had afforded us a house and studio in midcoast Maine and funded a prolonged sojourn in Italy, where not a day of the four months we lived in Florence passed without my spending a few hours drawing in the museums, cathedrals, and piazzas. I came so often to Il Bargello, Galleria degli Uffizi, and Santa Croce that the docents greeted me by name.

Mesmerized by my own work, I did not hear the car drive up, or the gallery door open, turning only at the sound of Monique’s cane striking the floor. As she limped toward me, I spun to face her, blocking her view of the statue.

“It is so raw,” she said, easing down into the pillowed chaise I keep for her visits, “that I thought you might like to leave the Vespa in the gallery and ride home with me.”

“That would be nice,” I said. “I went home a while ago to get my screw gun and the wind knifed right through me.”

“You should have called my mobile,” Monique said, unbuttoning her raincoat. “I was running errands.”

I stepped to the side and she gasped.

“The Franklins returned this to us as a gift,” I said. “Elizabeth wished it to be a surprise.”

“How ever did they find us?” Monique said, rising and hobbling toward the marble image of herself.

“Leslie Avery gave them the gallery address. It’s lucky I was here.”

As Monique appraised the statue, I stared at her smooth brown hand cupping the knob of her cane. “It had to cost a fortune to ship it.”

“I’m sure it did,” I said, helping Monique out of her coat.

Monique pursed her lips and shook her head, “Was this really me?” she said, patting the statue’s head as she might that of a child.

“Study her awhile longer,” I said, draping Monique’s coat over the counter, unsure of how to respond.

Monique backed away and slumped into her chair, her gaze riveted on me. “You will need to answer me sometime,” she said, a smile wrinkling her mouth and lighting her eyes.

I was supervising a crane operator as he lowered a Vietnam War Memorial I’d carved onto its base on a village green in Vermont. Monique was holding my left hand, as I directed the operator with my right, when the cable snapped. A chunk of shattered granite struck my thigh snapping the femur. The severed cable snaked around Monique’s calf like a bolo, and when it recoiled flung her against the crane’s treads. I crawled to her and held her, pleading with her to stay awake, until the paramedics wrested her from me and we were helicoptered to Mass General.

I have attempted to avoid reliving the moment of the accident or those days I laid in traction while Monique clung to life one floor below me, though every two or three years a vivid nightmare of the cable snarled around her leg seizes me, causing my limbs to flail, as if I were shedding a burning cloak, and muffled screams to erupt from my throat that are silenced only when Monique smothers me with her body and I awaken.

Two years later when the case came up for trial, I was physically healed, but Monique was sentenced first to a walker and then to her cane. As we’d seen no need to insure ourselves, we’d lost the house and studio to the bank. Two hours after the jury was shown before and after photos of Monique’s body, the crane company’s lawyers offered us a settlement that our attorney advised us to accept.

A month later, we moved here, Sardinia having captured our hearts during our first trip to Italy, and within the year bought the gallery. Neither of us has been back to the States, even for funerals.

I spied tears brimming in Monique’s eyes, and the terror of that diamond hard Vermont day surged back. “I used to believe the accident had a purpose,” she said.

“I could never accept that.”

Monique wiped her eyes with her hem, baring the serpentine scar on her right shin that mars an otherwise smooth limb. “My father declared it was my Divine punishment for marrying a white atheist.”

“As much as anything,” I said, “I believe he despised me for carving you for the world to see, especially in white marble.”

“But the world didn’t see me. Only the Franklins and their friends,” Monique said. She dabbed at her eyes again then pointed her cane at the statue and said, “But if I looked like this, you’d have painted and sculpted that woman again and again.”

I shrugged. “Neither of us looks as we did then.”

“But admit that had I not been maimed you would have kept sculpting me.”

“After the accident, I didn’t want to sculpt anyone.”

Monique leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “Rare is the artist with but one muse,” she said, arching her eyebrows, “which is not to say you needed Rodin’s appetite for new flesh, but you could have found another model.” Monique paused, then said, “Now that your old muse has returned to you, albeit in stone, can you work again?”

“I’ve never stopped working,” I said, pointing to a seascape I’d finished the previous week.

Monique sighed and waggled a finger at me. “But there are no people in your paintings. Just the sea and the hills and the fields. And you carve only birds and fish. Why is that?” She rose and pointed at the statue. “When you created this?”

“I don’t know.” I stared at the statue so as to not see her dark eyes.

When Monique had studied the marble from several angles, she drew the curtains over the gallery windows and stood with her back to the front door. I grabbed my screw gun, fished the Vespa key from my pocket and gathered up her coat, but when I reached for the light switch, Monique placed her palm against my chest and said, “Get your sketchbook.”

“I was only planning on cleaning up today. I left it at home.”

“Get a new one,” Monique said, her eyes reflecting the overhead light.

“Why?”

“For me.”

I handed Monique her coat, shoved my key back into my pocket, and set down the screw gun. I passed through my studio to the storeroom, selected a large drawing pad, a hand full of pencils, and a gum eraser. When I returned to the gallery, Monique was seated beside the marble on one of the straight-backed chairs I position before the easels displaying paintings offered for sale. She’d lowered her dress to her waist and dropped her bra on the floor beside her shoes and cane. “Draw me,” she said, and turned her head to her left.

“The light is too harsh here. It’s better in the studio.”

“Here,” Monique said.

I boosted the thermostat, and, as the furnace coughed to life, settled onto the stool behind the counter and flipped opened the sketchpad.

My eyes slid down Monique’s grey-streaked braid slung over her right shoulder through the twin bumps of her collarbones, between her breasts, whose perfect symmetry I had agonized to carve into the stone, and down into the dent of her navel. Raking my eyes upward, I noticed her nipples were erect and asked, “Are you cold?”

“No,” she said, tipping her left shoulder by lowering her hand into her lap.

Monique posed chin tilted down as when I’d first sketched her for the marble more than half her lifetime ago, and as I outlined her face my pulse surged against my skin, but having so long neglected drawing faces I failed to detail her features.

When Monique stifled a cough, I asked if she would prefer to continue at home, but she answered, “Draw me now so you may paint and carve me later.”

Deciding I would rather stand, I rose and snatched the seascape from its easel, replacing it with the sketchbook. “Raise the hem of your dress with your right hand,” I said, my pencil flying ahead of my thoughts.

“That will show my bad leg.”

“That is what I want to draw.” Monique drew the dress above her knee, revealing the grey scar that curls across her dark-copper skin like a small snake. “No,” I said, “gather it in your lap.”

She yanked the skirt into a ball at the top of her thighs, and bent her left leg so that the sole of her foot rested against her right ankle. I set my pencil on the edge of the easel, strode across the room, knelt before her, closed my eyes and ran my hands along her scar, my fingertips remembering each ridge in a familiar Braille. Monique grabbed my chin in her hands. “Keep sketching,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.

As I returned to my post, Monique rose, leaned a hand on the back of the chair, stepped out of her dress, and underwear, sat down, and resumed her pose.

I drew for an hour and a half. Each time I flipped to a fresh sheet, Monique adjusted her posture as if her body was recalling the nuances of every pose I’d ever twisted her into that long ago summer. When I had completed eight sketches, at last delineating her eyes, nose, and lips to my satisfaction, I shook the bees from my arm and said, “I’m done.”

“Please bring the book to me,” Monique said, rising from the chair.

She leaned on her cane gazing in turn at each sketch as I held the pages open to her, then asked, “Which pose will you paint?”

“You choose.”

“This one,” Monique said, tearing a sheet from the pad.

“Why?” I said, studying the sketch.

“Because no one paints naked, fifty-four-year-old, crippled women.”

“But your legs are open. What will people think?”

Monique stared a moment at me, her eyes slitted the size of small almonds. “People will think you are a poor artist to have such a scarred and ancient muse,” she said. “Yes, paint this one.”

I stared a second or two longer at the sketch, then thrust it back in the book and set the pad on the counter. “When you’ve dressed, I’ll lug the bike inside and we can go home.”

Monique tossed her clothes onto the chaise, and limped toward the rear of the gallery, her cane beating a soft tattoo on the floor.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

Monique did not answer until she’d breached the entrance to the studio and turned to face me. Leaning her right shoulder against the doorjamb, she canted her scarred leg behind the other, simulating her original pose. “You haven’t made love to me on a studio floor in more than thirty years. Come, it will help you to carve again.”

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