A Goddess swam and you were born
On an afternoon late in the last decades of the Third Age, a famous sculptor named Helm invited a young student, Nonnia, to pose for him. Helm was known chiefly for a single work, the Sea Goddess, tons of elegant stone which sat half immersed in a remote place on the country's eastern shore. Decades had passed since he carved the Goddess out of a huge glacial rock already in place; and in the largely verbal culture of the time, most people had forgotten that she was the work of a living artist, and thought she was a vibrant remnant, a sea mother from the forgotten times of the Second Age.
The Goddess, for all her bulk, was quite slender, with long thin arms and legs and a beautiful neck. She sat, arms around knees, looking out to sea over her left shoulder, so that from shore all one saw was her beautiful long hair. To see her face, it was necessary to swim in the dangerous surf, or sail a small boat, out beyond her. People who had done it said it was well worth it: she had a beautiful, delicate look, and her large eyes were turned down, regarding the surface of her element, the ocean, as if she were considering returning to it.
After he made the Goddess, people waited for Helm to do something even larger, but he never did, nor did he ever accept another commission from the King-Emperor. He retired to private life and if he made any statues, they were for his own enjoyment only, as he never exhibited anything. He had largely been forgotten, except by a few elite and literate people.
Nonnia was a student at the university in the capital; as we know, in the eve of the Third Age there was a brief flowering of equality, which vanished again under the brutal onslaught of the barbarian invasions which gave birth to the Fourth Age. She was a very bright girl, but quite confused, because in her world women who educated themselves had no official application for that education. She came from a long line of intelligent women who married and bore children only, and she had grown up thinking that she would do the same as all of her ancestors had. At University, there was the beginnings of a sense that one might do something else--women had been starting to do something else for about ten years--but the women who went on to enter the intellectual trades seemed to Nonnia as if they were members of another species entirely. Somehow, women had been born at the same time as she had with more certainty than Nonnia possessed.
Not knowing what could make her happy, Nonnia had taken two lovers and tried some other experiments, none of which had led anywhere in particular. Someone had advised her to make a pilgrimage to the Sea Goddess, which she had never seen: young women said that sometimes if you prayed there you might be vouchsafed a vision of the future. There was a strange complicity in these pilgrimages, because the well-educated young women who went knew that the Goddess was the work of a living man, but they were following the lead of uneducated female multitudes who believed they were paying homage to a relic of the Second Age.
It took weeks to travel by carriage, across rough tracks, to the coastal place where the Goddess resided. When Nonnia arrived, she was exhausted and unhappy; the hazards of the journey made her feel particularly fragile and small, and she questioned her sense in traveling without a male protector. But the first sight of the magnificent statue made her feel that the risks had been worthwhile. And she felt very safe on the beach opposite the statue, because she was surrounded by women of every age and social origin. It was known that on several occasions marauding men, attempting to molest a woman pilgrim, had been torn to shreds as if by Furies.
Her first night on the beach Nonnia dreamed of a berserker with a sword who entered her classroom at the university; raising the weapon above his head, he thrust it down into the midsection of one screaming woman after another until he had killed them all. She woke badly frightened and fell asleep again just before dawn, reassured by the sleeping and watching women all around her.
On the second night she had a liquid dream: she saw a field of kelp, from which tiny air bubbles rose until they merged with the twisting mirror of the surface. Ever after, in moments of unhappiness or stress, she would remember the silence and beauty of the bubbles, and she would feel better.
On the second day, she and several other women paid a fisherwoman to row them out to see the Goddess' face; but Nonnia was so seasick she could hardly appreciate the experience.
The pilgrimage was not a success: the dream of terror and the one of calm seemed to cancel each other, and she had received no insight into the future. She approached an old woman who lived in the shadow of the statue, and made her living interpreting ambiguous dreams, but the old woman was a fraud and dispensed only generalities about meeting strangers and taking long trips.
Nonnia returned to the capital and went back to her classes. Inspired by the Goddess, she began working with clay, late at night in the privacy of her own room, where no-one else could see. If she worked long enough, she achieved the same sense of calm vouchsafed by her vision of the bubbles. She did not think her work was very good, but she loved the way she felt while doing it and when looking at it after.
She joined a small circle of women who met weekly to discuss art and their desire to be artists. As late as the prior century, such women had frequently worked under the names of men. Now, female artists were still regarded as something lesser, but more charming, than their male counterparts, like a dog performing adorable tricks. A main preoccupation of the group was the means by which women could produce work regarded by men as robust. Should they want to create work indistinguishable from that of men or would it be powerful in a different way?
One day the woman who had organized the circle proudly announced that she had invited Helm to speak to them about his art. Every one in the group had made the pilgrimage--it was considered almost a prerequisite for a woman who wanted to be an artist--and they all looked forward with excitement to their meeting with the legendary sculptor.
Never having seen him, each of the young women imagined that Helm must be a kindred spirit; it was impossible to imagine that the creator of the Sea Goddess could be a libertine or look upon them with desire.
What they saw before them on the fateful afternoon was a thin, patrician man of almost feminine good looks, with a narrow face, the pale blue eyes of his ancestors the Northern invaders, and long light brown hair to his shoulders. He seemed quite unaware that his eyes relentlessly roved across their bodies and to their decolletage. He spoke to them for an hour about the crushing responsibilities of art; he made it sound as if he had toiled across the land for years, carrying the Sea Goddess in his arms. Once he had deposited her in the ocean, he had nothing more: no strength or desire left to make another, only the quiet mutterings and ramblings of a destroyed man.
Some of these mutterings took the form of little statues, done in clay, which Helm destroyed a few minutes or weeks after he had finished them. He had never worked in stone again. Again unaware of any irony, Helm preached to the young women a depressing philosophy of self-humiliation. He counseled them in particular to destroy anything they made. He cannot make art any more, Nonnia thought, so he does not want anyone else to.
Her mind wandered during his fifth repetition of the advice that each of them should throw away their work, and she thought of the bubbles. Perhaps I could tell Helm my vision of the kelp and it would help him, Nonnia thought. She was not the only girl in the classroom that day who had a sudden desire to sculpt the sculptor, bring from the raw material the rebirth of his art the way he had birthed the Goddess from a shapeless stone.
Nonnia approached the famous man after his talk was concluded and he invited her to have coffee in the taverna on the university grounds. They spoke for several hours about art and aspiration and he showed Nonnia his sketchpad: with marvelous shading he had elicited the faces and naked bodies of men and women, young and old. "I would like to draw you," Helm said.
With trepidation, she agreed to meet him at his studio the following day. She had seen his eyes rove across her breasts, and was herself attracted to him. But she still wanted to believe that Helm was a man of integrity, not a satyr: his seductive style, given the twenty year difference in their ages, was not reassuring.
That night, as Nonnia lay alone thinking of him, she decided that she had much to learn from the older man and that if he reached out to her she would not decline. She was vaguely aware as she fell asleep that she had made the decision in the same atmosphere of experimentation which had led her to take her two other lovers, or to make the pilgrimage to the sea: she had decided with her head but not her heart. Nonnia could not say where her heart was; it lay locked away somewhere where she could not find it. She hoped that by becoming the sculptor of Helm she might discover her heart.
The first time Helm drew her, she stayed clothed, sitting at his stone table, her chin in her hand. She was disappointed when Helm gave her the drawing: it seemed it was not valuable enough to him to retain. Having decided to become his lover, she was also annoyed he did not act on his evident interest in her: the incessant explorations of his eyes continued, but, brightly unaware as ever, he never translated his desire for her into action.
On their second encounter, she opened the top of her robe and Helm drew her breasts. When he showed her the picture he sat very close to her. Finally he said, "If I kissed you...." and unable to wait any longer, Nonnia drew him in.
That night, as he slept uncovered in the hot night after their lovemaking, she looked at his hairless body, and was moved to place her hand on his smooth chest. He did not wake but she felt his heart beating with a high, thready sound. His face in repose looked completely feminine, and she understood the truth about him: he was really a woman in the body of a man. He did not know it and she would never tell him. But it made perfect sense, because no-one else could have conceived of the Sea Goddess.
After that she posed nude for him daily, and he began working in clay. After Helm had made ten or so images of her, Nonnia had a disturbing insight: he only portrayed her at an angle, leaning back or forward, but never erect. Sometimes she posed stretched alluring on the couch, raised slightly on her elbows; sometimes on all fours; sometimes leaning forward submissively; never proud and straight. When she asked about it, Helm shrugged and said, "This is the way I see you."
Another time he said, "This brings out the curves which are the allure of a woman's body."
Helm was frequently impotent, and sometimes when he had given up she would look at his sad, purple-veined thing with pity and contempt. "There is nothing so pathetic as a man who can't connect." But she herself could not: even when it was pleasing for him, their love-making never inspired joy in her hidden heart.
Nonnia quickly understood that she was not to be his sculptor after all, not in the way she had intended. Helm was uninterested in her life and obviously thought that she was shallow and her ideas of no import to him. "You are a young woman of little experience," he said over and over. "I am much older, and I have lived." Again she thought of him struggling to the sea under the massive and crushing weight of the Goddess; but bitterly she said to herself: Helm has dined out on that story for twenty years. Now he is dining on me.
One startling fall afternoon, when the cool liquid light poured down on them from the hills surrounding the town, Helm turned to her as they walked under the trees in the central park and told her, his voice lugubriously slipping, that he was terribly, irredeemably in love with her.
At that moment, Nonnia remembered both her visions: the terror of the plunging sword and the calm of the kelp.
She said to herself: this is what I wanted, wasn't it? If he loves me I might begin to mold him. To Helm she said, "You can't possibly love me, because you have no idea who I am."
And she reminded him of several instances when she had tried to talk of her life and he would not listen.
Helm said, "I love the curls of your hair, the beautiful curve of your neck, the way your long curly hair hangs down into the small of your back."
"There is a mind under my hair," Nonnia replied.
Helm was indignant. "Do you think I don't know that?"
Nonnia wondered if she loved him. If I did, I should probably know. But I have no way to gauge it because I am not certain if I have ever loved. She had not found her buried heart.
Helm began to speak of Nonnia as the instrument of his return to public art: he would make a grand statue of her, not so big as the Goddess but, he declared, a hundred times more delicate.
"I would like to be upright," Nonnia said, but Helm did not reply.
She said it again a week later and he said, "My dear, you cannot tell the artist how to do his work."
One of his commonplace sayings--he had said it at the initial lecture and she had heard it many times since--is that art is communicated from the heart to the hand without passing through the brain.
Then it is possible, Nonnia thought, that I will never be an artist because I do not know where my heart is.
Several times Nonnia had asked Helm if she might show him her own work. He seemed strangely reluctant, responding, "Maybe in a few weeks time." When she pressed him, he said, "I cannot look at the work of others when I am working."
One day as she was preparing to see him, Nonnia impulsively wrapped up a small clay statue she had made and brought it along.
It was of a small girl, about eight years old, with very large eyes, looking as if she were a little frightened and trying not to show it. Nonnia called her "The Innocent."
Her own heart pounding, Nonnia unwrapped it that night for Helm. His lips assumed an annoyed smile--the hateful smile Nonnia had seen him grant well-meaning people who harrassed him in the marketplace. In a tone of supercilious cruelty, Helm said: "It is not terrible--it has a kind of primitive naive imitativeness to it. But its terribly trite, with those large plaintive eyes, like those troubador paintings the gypsies sell on street corners."
Nonnia never showed him anything again. He can have no other artist around him, she thought.
She still saw him daily--she had all but moved in with him and was never in her own room--but now fell into an irritated depression which was compounded by the fact that Helm didn't seem to notice her silence. The lover of a beautiful neck and curly hair requires no speech to complete his ideal, she thought. In the meantime, Helm's own speech became febrile and gay; he talked nonstop of their future together, though she had never said she would marry him.
Nonnia saw, with horror, that she was completely trapped: to Helm she was an object from which he drew power. As he became greater she was reduced. When they first met, she had been independent, but now, after several months together she felt curiously passive and afraid to leave him. "I'm frightened of being alone again, though I never was before."
Helm drank, and soon Nonnia had joined him in his habits, downing a bottle of wine every night while he finished another, and sometimes harder stuff. Helm was a very nice drunk--she liked him better then-- but Nonnia's ferocious headaches began interfering with her classes. She never worked on her own art any more; she hadn't the time or the privacy, and besides, her hands shook.
She posed for him day after day, and his model of his great statue took shape: Nonnia reclining, her head thrown back, a beautiful, mysterious half smile on her lips.
"I look like a meal for the senses." But she recognized once again Helm's talent: he had made a mountain nymph. Set amidst young trees and vines in a high clearing in the old forest, the statue of Nonnia could start another tradition among the illiterate masses: perhaps pilgrimages of young women who wished to become pregnant and would regard the reclining Nonnia as a fertility charm.
She imagined ignorant hordes rubbing themselves on her statue.
Sometimes her helplessness and rage emerged in bitter criticism of Helm. At such moments, she was not proud of herself but recognized that she had a talent for inflicting verbal hurt: she took it as a sign of something Helm denied, that she was intelligent after all.
One day, she and Helm sat in a field of sunflowers outside the town. The beautiful large flowers were his favorites. No-one else was around and he was drawing Nonnia who lay naked among them. "All your knowledge of detail, of light, of style," she said, "hasn't furnished you with any wisdom for living, has it? You drink, you have no friends and without me, you'd be utterly alone."
It was as if she had just struck him in the face with a stone: his mouth opened but he had no response except to look at her with hatred amidst the beautiful bold flowers. The venom in the garden. "Life could be so grand," Nonnia thought, "if people just weren't so damn vile." She thought of herself and Helm: two reptiles.
Merchants from the south brought with them a new discovery: a mud with narcotic qualities. You smeared yourself with it and lay in the sun; as it dried, it infused your skin with a drug which made you feel larger than the world and bore you away in visions of immense detail and complexity. Some people, including many artists, spent their lives in exploring the mud world. Everyone agreed that despite the name, the mud world was bright and clean. A significant draw-back was that when you returned you could never fully remember or describe what you had seen there: perhaps just a fraction of it, a hint, like a brief passage remembered from a long dream.
Nonnia was frightened by the experience and soon resorted to drinking wine or the more fiery mead when Helm applied the mud to himself, so that she should not seem to be holding herself out entirely.
Near the midwinter solstice, Helm, febrile and bright after long days of exhausting work on the Mountain Nymph and nightly visits to the mud world, pleaded with Nonnia to pack herself with the mud one more time. After eleven hours of posing for him, she was cold and exhausted, but she could not resist Helm's stronger will. She applied a thin coating of the mud to her naked body, while Helm packed himself in the thickest layer she had ever seen.
Lying beside Helm in the enclosed privacy of the stone balcony outside his studio, Nonnia had a vision which she remembered in excruciating detail. She was naked, kneeling, bent backwards to the floor under the crushing weight of the Mountain Nymph, now executed in stone. She could feel her kneecaps splintering against the hard floor, the bones in her legs cracking under the appalling weight, her lungs compressing even as she tried to scream for help. She heard a scraping sound, felt the huge stone vibrating atop her and she realized that Helm was poised atop the Mountain Nymph, tapping at it with his chisel, oblivious that she was crushed underneath.
She woke and immediately saw that Helm, lying beside her with her hand in his, was near death. The unprecedented thick application he had made of the mud had caused him to solidify into a barely living statue: he was too tightly held to breathe deeply; she could hear the narrow, slight whistling of his breath. Her hand was stuck to his and she struggled for minutes to free it; having succeeded, she failed to claw the thick mud from his body. She ran into his workshop, seized the chisel, and returned to the balcony, where she cleared the mud from his body with a series of adroit blows, trying to keep the tool parallel to his skin so she would not harm him. His breath seemed to fade and stop just as she cleared the mud from his chest; for a terrified instant she waited, chisel in air; she heard his breathing resume, at a more normal pitch. When she had finished removing the mud, she splashed him with the water from a jug that stood nearby, and saw that she had hurt him: blood was oozing alarmingly from a deep cut above his heart. She pulled her gown on, and ran downstairs screaming for the ostler who had the ground floor of the stone residence; he and his burly son seized Helm, wrapped in a bedsheet, and drove him in a horse-cart to the university hospital. Nonnia sat hidden in the corner between Helm's bed and the wall; the ostler and his son, in their urgency, had lost track of her. She had not wanted to accompany Helm to the hospital, though she knew she should. Nonnia realized she held the bloody scalpel in her hand. She thought of the Mountain Nymph and heard a voice in her head saying: "As long as she reclines, you will never stand upright"-- the last effect of the narcotic mud. She went into the workroom and attacked the Mountain Nymph with her chisel, reducing it to an indistinguishable mass of shards. Then she walked back to her own apartment, where she packed her suitcase for the voyage home to her province. She left the gowns she had worn to attract Helm, but took her clay.
The Statue, by Kate Bloom, annotated by Helen Langley
The Meteorite, by Helen Langley