The rain keeps the stones from drying. From my window, I watched apprentice stonemasons finish the road that led to my cottage; in just another moment, or so it seemed, they had left, and it was midnight, and the skies were hungry, and the lightning was violent. The road was paved, empty, and soaked.
Rain pattered against the window, beating watery fists to try and get to me. I was too exhausted to cry. As much as I knew I wanted to, that I needed to, each time I felt a tear begin to fall, it was as if my body did not have the strength to release what was withering away within me. Rather let it die, and poison the rest for awhile, before it fades away.
Amidst the darkness of this storm, I could imagine her eyes flickering in the calm candlelight, her gaze focused upon me, and mine on her, as if we were both in disbelief that we had ever existed—in a perfect moment—together. She puts a hand on my chest, she feels something alive and thriving within, and gets closer to kiss me there, before traveling up to my neck, my chin. And we hold each other there, for half an eternity, while the candle dies away. She pulls me closer …
She fades away.
I stepped through the door, let the rain batter me until I became numb.
As I woke up the next morning, or rather, stirred from a fitful series of naps, I reflected on how cold the bed felt without her. A strand of her hair was still on the pillow. With a delicate hand, I picked it up, and tied it around my finger.
Our home was spacious, much more comfortable than the others in Grey Top. The other villagers were prosperous in their own, small ways. There was an arcane scholar who taught magick to apprentices from rich cities, a doctor who specialized in necromancy, (in all honesty, I think he just enjoyed playing with dead things, rather than healing living ones), and a farmer who brought in a suspiciously large amount of crops during harvest time. We all assumed she stole them, and was an expert thief, but we didn’t complain. So long as Grey Top prospered with its strange inhabitants, we were a peaceful bunch.
In the kitchen, there was a fire rune on the stove. I touched it lightly, and one of the burners sparked to life. In the cupboard, I collected an onion, an eggplant and a tomato. With a second thought, I grabbed a handful of mushrooms as well.
I ate breakfast on a tree stump cut for chopping wood, by the side of the house, on a bed of leaves as a makeshift seat. I felt empty. After crying so much, and sleeping so little; I felt oddly alert, and oddly dead, all at once.
Autumn leaves fell all around me.
Someone was coming up the road, dragging a coffin behind him by a rope. Despite the stench of death enveloping him, he had a grin on his face and a curious look in his eyes. It was not the first time I had seen someone like this, especially at my doorstep.
“Are you the one called the Gargoyle?” he asked me.
“That is me."
“You’re much younger than I thought you’d be.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you. Unfortunately I cannot share the secret recipe for the elixir of eternal youth.”
The traveler laughed at my dryness. I munched on a mushroom.
“I was told if I needed a headstone for a grave, you were the one to go to. They also convinced me to drag the body here. Although I did it, I feel utterly mad.”
The traveler was no older than a boy who’d just stepped into adulthood. He had a poor excuse for a stubble of hair on his chin, a look of youthful hope and a sword strapped around him, which I assumed he had never used. All in all, not too bad. Pretty typical, however.
“You were told correctly. And no, you are not a madman. Why don’t you come inside the shop?”
I looked back at my home, which certainly did not look like a workshop for stonemasons, or any craftsman, for that matter. “Follow me. And take that with you, you will see why, later,” I added, pointing to the coffin.
Leading with my emptied plate, we made through the entrance and the living room. Sounds of a late morning followed us inside, with a few of the villagers down the road turning to see what the traveler’s business was.
“This doesn’t look like a shop …” he said after I shut the door behind him.
“I don’t blame you for thinking so. The architecture is rather particular; I built it so it would not disturb my wife with all the smells of my work. You will see soon enough. And … try not to get the body’s fluids everywhere. Most people don’t know this: they leak like fountains.”
With a look of concern, he lifted the coffin upright and carried it, with a few stifled grunts, as I led him past a lounging area with unopened bottles of wine, a neat rug, and a fireplace with ashes spread all about the hearth.
Finally, I came to a wardrobe against the wall; it looked rather innocent. I stopped before it as if it was a doorway, I suppose the traveler was wondering if I had forgotten where I was trying to get to. Simply put, it was a doorway.
“You look exhausted,” he told me.
“Do you have coin, to pay for that?” was all I responded. “My services are not like your common stonemason’s, it will be quite a bit more. The quality of stone is remarkable. 'Tisn't boasting, merely fact.”
“Yes. That will all be payed for. The money is mine, though it was just his a few days ago,” he nodded toward the body, with just a twitch of guilt in his eyes. For a wealthy individual, his splintered, makeshift coffin of driftwood was incredibly modest.
“Inheritance: the rewards of the fortunate, undeserving, and maybe even impatient, if you killed him. But that’s no matter to me. They’re all cold and dead and that's all that matters, I suppose.” I opened the wardrobe, revealing an emptiness that went far beyond the length of one’s arm. The darkness that rose up from the cupboard led hundreds of feet into the ground below. There was just a single coat hanging there, spotted with grey dust, which I slipped into.
“Surprised?” I asked him as I stepped in, not bothering to lend a hand. My voice was already echoing in the chilly chambers.
There was another fire rune beside a sconce in the wall, which I touched, lighting a torch to guide us downward.
“Watch your step, there’s only a wall on the left side. On the right … well, let’s just say you’ll be coming here for two gravestones, if you fall off this high up.”
Even from here, I heard the traveler swallow his nerves. We descended the stairs slowly, carefully—always much slower than I wanted to go—with his coffin thumping behind him every step of the way.
By the time we had reached the bottom, he was clutching the wall, shaking, trying to hide his anxiety at this sudden turn of location. The bottom of the coffin was severely damaged, and leaking something foul. I sighed.
“Excuse me, but why is it so deep beneath the ground? And why no walls?”
It was a perfectly reasonable question. After all, he did not expect to be dragged into hell on his visit to the local stonemason. “When your wife is kind enough to cook up a lovely dinner of venison and sautéed vegetables, you do not carve dead bodies in the den beside a cozy fire and your favorite ale, hoping she doesn't mind the putrid smell. You dig a hole in the ground, instead. A deep hole.”
I lit the other torches in the room, one by one, until the whole chamber was illuminated with an orange glow that couldn’t reach up to the entrance. In the center, a long, flat, stone table with tools for etching stone were neatly organized.
The traveler looked tired, maybe even shaken, from the descent.
“Do you know why they are called headstones?” I asked him.
He shook his head.
“Because, long, long ago my dear friend, before your time, and my time—surely—when stone was not a common material, they used to simply decapitate the deceased and place their skulls above their graves. For a few days, or weeks, (depending on when the crows got to them), you could still recognize who the grave belonged to.” I gave him a toothy smile, though from the light of the torches, his skin looked green from nausea.
“No.” I laughed, and the echo carried it a dozen times.
“Now it’s not so horrifying, is it—graves, burials, dead fathers? The history of burial practices is dismal enough without gruesome details, that is what my ancestors knew better than anything. We learned to comfort you when you came to us seeking help. No one’s skull is going to mark a grave. It was just a jest, mind you. This is a simple process.”
“I take it you were not particularly close to your father? I do not see you sniffling tears like a maiden who just lost her flower to an abusive prince.” I muscled the coffin onto the platform, and leaned on the cold stone—stone that I shaped with my own hands, stone that came from the dead and the decayed.
“No. Not … particularly.”
“Yet?” I pried.
He looked at me, as if I was another creature ascended from the depths of the earth, and he could share his secrets with me, simply because, to him, I did not seem of this world.
“Yet I feel emotions for him that I have not felt before: grief, and anger, and misunderstanding with the regret of not trying to understand him better when he was alive. How is it that I could feel so connected to someone who, while he was alive, I felt nothing for? And now, as he is laying there, dead, I feel as if we are more alike than ever. Like I understand him, maybe.”
“Death does strange things to relationships."
“Gargoyle, has anyone you loved died before?"
I shivered, not from the cold. “Please, call me Estlin. And, as a matter of fact, yes.”
“Tell me what it feels like, because I do not think I ever loved my father, until after he finally died.” There was pure desperation in his eyes, as if grieving was observable and systematic as two different ingredients being mixed for a potion.
Deep in the chambers of my workshop, my emotions were silent; my mind was at ease, and my blood ran through me slowly, calmly, like a river with no destination. But his question filled me, made it so I thought my heartbeat was echoing in the cold caverns like a drum. “It feels like a piece of you is ripped away. Then you realize, it was not a piece of you at all, it was her piece of you, and it was hers to have, when you gave it to her, when you told her you loved her a thousand times, when you looked at her in the morning as if she was the sunrise, and you needn't pull away the curtains. Those memories fade away from you, like weeds made to wither, because they were never yours to begin with. They were hers, or ours, and after that person leaves, one cannot cultivate the memories himself. That piece of yours will never be alive again, so long as they are not there to breathe life into it.
“Nothing exists between one, single person except solitude itself. And that existence is … misunderstood in the eyes of a hopeful, philosophical youth. Being alone with your thoughts will not always give rise to self-fulfillment, a gratifying outlook. Sometimes it does, certainly. But there comes a time when, quite simply, you'd like someone to share your morning coffee with.”
The traveler stared at me, with nothing but understanding in his eyes that felt so genuine, and yet so distant from empathy, because I knew he might never feel what I felt. I turned away from him, to look at the coffin, as to not cry. I found myself running a shaky hand through my hair, unkempt and thick in its tangle of dark, auburn waves.
“I won’t ask anymore, if it’s too much.”
“No, no. This is what happens when you leave your journal dusty and your confidant passes on. You vomit your thoughts onto a poor stranger.”
“You can call me Timothy.”
“Did I not ask your name before?”
“You did not.”
I apologized while I grasped my hand around a cold, iron tool, to tear the nails from the lid of the coffin.
“Thomas Isles, the second.”
I nodded, but said nothing. At the last nail that sprang from the splintered wood, the sickly scent of rotted flesh sprang from the inside of the coffin as if it had been waiting to pounce at us. I was quite used to the smell of it. Thomas, on the other hand, began to retch and heave violently.
“I suppose, then, Thomas, if you are here, you know of my business and how I conduct it.” There was a levitation rune on the platform, to separate the body from the coffin, that had costed me half of my life’s fortune; I had to hire an infamous arcane mage from the Frosted Lands, and pay for his voyage overseas. Per his request, I was to never see him, but trust him entirely to do the job of inscribing and enchanting the rune on the platform; that I was to leave the money on the doorstep at precisely 3 am, and that I was to drink myself to sleep. He said in the letters that he’d be watching me sleep for some time before he deemed it safe to enter the household, as to keep his identity purely unknown.
When I asked him about the locks on my door, and when to leave them open, he sent a letter that said only: ‘Ha-ha very funny. It won’t be a problem.’ I didn’t sleep well that night, despite all the drinking.
Yet here I was now, pressing my forefinger against it. The damn thing worked perfectly. The body, in all its pale and rotting splendor, separated from the coffin and suspended in the air. I nudged the coffin aside until it floated away from the platform and clattered to the floor.
“Remarkable,” Thomas breathed.
Together, we appreciated his father’s body; his arms were crossed, and he lifted up and down in a rhythmic, slow movement as if he was on a bed of water.
“You understand where the stone will come from for your father, Thomas?”
“I was told …” but he stopped, because to him, it must’ve felt silly to repeat it aloud.
“Of course, stone is very scarce in these parts. Especially the type of stone that will not wither and decay with the body, as to leave your dear father’s grave unmarked and, of course, trampled upon by careless travelers. Or, worse yet, unprotected by proper burial rites. Headstones, to many Netherwayans, are an important part of keeping the body protected from anything that might fancy a haunting stroll in a graveyard. We wouldn’t want that, now would we?”
“N—no, that is awful.”
“So, which leg do you prefer?”
“Well, an arm is certainly not enough to cut down for a whole headstone, but a leg is quite thick. If you want, I can take both of them off and you will have something magnificent, then.”
I picked up a sharpened cleaver from the platform, and touched the rune again. The body drifted down silently.
Thomas watched in a mixture of disbelief, horror, and eager fascination.
Masterfully, I removed both of the corpse’s legs from the upper thigh, and slid them away from the rest of the body.
“This is not a dishonorable thing, Thomas. If your father was a good man, which I can see for myself that he raised a respectable one, then his stone will be quite pure. It will last for centuries. And it came from his own body.”
I put each of my hands on the legs, cold to the touch, but soft. Closing my eyes, I pushed out the energy from within—an energy that had been in my family’s blood since before books were written to record such things. Every human must return to the earth at some point—a juxtaposing reality of sorrow and beauty. But not every human must be flesh before they return. Some become stone, first. I summoned a smooth sensation like liquid ice that started at my chest and ran through my arms, before pushing out of my palms and into his legs.
When I opened my eyes, the pale legs had turned to flawless pieces of stone. It was sturdy, durable, and strong. His father had been a good man. With scissors, I cut through his pants and laid the legs before Thomas to see.
With a sigh, I watched his reaction. “It’s … beautiful. Why not make a statue of him?”
“The last time I made someone’s loved one a statue, I was slandered for being a warlock that cursed dead bodies. This way, your father decays peacefully, and I still make coin. Don't forget, having a body left to decompose in the ground is considered an honor to most. A natural way of returning.”
He shrugged, as if that custom was not as old as the Netherway itself. “They call you the Gargoyle.”
“Yes?” I looked at him, confused, because he said it as if it were a question.
“Why? You aren’t made of stone, you make it.”
Gently, with an arm around his shoulder, I told Thomas the true reason for this title. He looked at me with sympathetic eyes, before looking again at his father.
Afterwards, he left my home with a strange, small grin of satisfaction. It seemed he was happy with the decision his family had made for the headstone. To have something marking the grave of a loved one is a great dignity, and if they know that stone will be quality and last through the ages, it is an honor.
Hours passed, with me working tirelessly on the stone. Grinding it down to pebble, then building it up again, manipulating it, turning it to sludge, and then hardening it again, shaping a headstone, and marking it with an etching blade.
When I ascended the staircases back to my home, I could see dawn peeking through the wardrobe’s doors.
That morning I dreamt of a graveyard littered with statues. I was alone. In my dreams, I am never alone. My wife—my closest confidant—since I had married her, always joined me in the realm of dreams. I suppose, after a certain amount of time, I simply trusted her to be there.
But tonight, she was not there. The graveyard was filled with tombstones, statues, and iron rails that twisted into sharp points and strange shapes that resembled demonic faces. I had never been more alone, than in that moment, wandering in some dark corner of my mind.
Hundreds of statues floated, upright on the graveyard’s sea of stone and fog, but only one caught my eye in particular. I approached it.
At the foot of the statue, there was a drawer cut into it. I crouched down and pulled it open. There was a set of clothes, all black, crisp and folded. It was only then that I realized I was naked, that these were my clothes, and that the grave was empty. The statue was of me.
It was my own burial I was standing next to.
It felt like my life had finally begun once I had met her. Now, each day, when I wake up and see that she is not there, I think to myself, It must have already ended.
These thoughts don’t come to me from any rational, or analytical state. They float into my mind, and root themselves there like a seed set adrift by wind. And although they sprout this way, I know, after days, weeks, and months slip through me, that they are somehow justified. Her demise was the crux of my life.
A week or two went by since I finished Thomas Isle’s gravestone, to be handed to Thomas Isles II, who, when I presented the sculpture to him, began to weep uncontrollably for all the emotions he had not let himself feel over the years. He crumpled in my arms like a cripple incapable of holding himself up, and I held him as if he was my son.
As I explained to him the day he requested my services: grieving is a complicated process. There are too many preparations that conflict with the grieving itself. What type of burial should the person be given? What rites will be performed? From what priest? Which gods to pray to? What shade of black do you wear in the weeks that follow: midnight black, or an evening shade of violet?
To give yourself space to grieve without these tedious worries is both a luxury and a gift. I told him I would order the casket for his father myself, because I knew a woodworker who, I swear to gods, was a woodpecker in a past life. His nose confirms this suspicion.
“Do you ever feel lonely, Estlin?” Thomas once asked me, on a day that I told him would be fine for a visit. “You look like you could live for another hundred years, yet you seem dead inside, sometimes, when I speak with you. Sometimes I wonder if you remember our conversations. With the way you stare into the fire, I wonder if you burn your memories in them.”
I do remember. I remember every word of them. “Everyone gets lonely. Some people just make more use of it than others. If I can make use of it, does that mean I want to get rid of something that is useful? If I can expand my thinking to broader regions of thought, why should I be ashamed or scared of something that allows me to do so?”
“So, you don’t mind then, because you are forced into solitude either way?”
I nodded, and swept a lock of hair from my eyes. “So no, Thomas, I don’t get lonely. I watch the sun come up in the mornings, only to fall again, then the moon rises, followed by her darkest hour, before she, too, falls once more. Evening pales to morning, and morning darkens to evening. You pluck the leaves from the trees, and when you are buried, the trees pluck the life from you. You were once stone and earth, and now you are flesh, and I suppose, whether or not you wish it, you will be stone and earth again.” My chest felt cold, as if a phantom had reached from behind and gripped my heart with a fist of ice.
“Is that what this is, then?” he sat forward in his chair.
“What what is?” We were seated in my living room, with a fire burning away the earliest hours of evening. We’d been sipping on wine, not feeling the effects, for hours.
“This. Your philosophies. They keep you company, don’t they? They keep you from feeling like this is a meaningless—completely empty—existence … without her?”
When he said that, I wanted to pick up a burning log and smack it across his head, to tell him to never speak of her, or my life, ever again. But he was right. That was what hurt.
“Yes, Thomas,” I whispered. And I was a liar. I was lonely. You could solve all of life’s mysteries and riddles with your mind and still roll over in bed and hope for a warm body to be there. We’re not made of stone, after all. “You should leave, now. It is getting late and your pare—mother—will be worried.” I stood up to usher him out, but he seemed reluctant, and stayed seated.
“I’m sorry for what I said, I didn’t—”
“Please, you’ve not hurt me in the slightest. Just go.” But the words were bitter, and the lie came out with a quiver of rage.
I pulled open the door, bringing in a draft of cold, dark air that smelled like the last ghosts of autumn. “Please leave.”
“I won’t ever bring her up again, I promise.”
“Dammnit Thomas! I just need to be alone, to think. Now, please.”
Thomas rose and came to the door, wide-eyed that he’d damaged something already cracking around the edges. I was not so delicate, but I could not endure someone else’s presence once she crept into my mind, and remained there, so persistently as she often did.
“I’m sorry,” I said, softer. “It’s not as it seems. Go home, Thomas, get some rest.” I started to shut the door, but he stopped me, and reached into the pocket of his trousers.
He withdrew a letter sealed in blood-red wax. “This is for you.” This time he was the one who sounded bitter.
I took the letter, suspecting it was one of the kindest things any customer of mine had ever done, and I had just told him to leave my home to walk in the freezing wind of an early winter, unaccompanied.
I opened my mouth to say something, but the door slammed shut, and nearly broke my nose.
Three days followed, with no visits from Thomas, before I attended his father’s funeral. It was the first funeral I had ever been invited to. Usually, I was dealt with secretly, as if my services were sinister in some way. ‘The Gargoyle’ was not only the name of talent, my bane, but the description of my being: outcast.
During the eulogy, he told his relatives what I had told him the first day he visited me. He said, “They do not call him the Gargoyle because he himself is made of stone. They call him that because after he dies, whether he chooses to or not, his entire body will turn to a statue, the same way his father’s did, and his father before him. He is not granted the same, natural passage of decomposing into the earth. Most priests and priestesses refuse to bless their bodies because they are seen as unnatural, strange, or simply horrifying to them. They are forced to journey to the afterlife alone, without help.”
Later he told me that he said this during the eulogy because most people do not appreciate the idea that we will all return to stone and dust. They think themselves immortal, or they avoid thinking through and coping with the inevitable.
“But why me? Could you not have simply stated this outright?” I asked him after the relatives had left. We were alone, next to the freshly piled mound of soil over the casket. His mother had kissed my hand and left already. And at the head of it, my creation: a block of granite etched like the wall of a castle, with two watchtowers, and fully armored guards with flagstaffs—spear-tipped—keeping watch over his grave.
“Because you were forced to contemplate death much earlier than everyone else. When your father sat you down to tell you what you were like, how the end would be, were you not immediately thrust into a different perspective?”
“I … suppose.”
We began walking. The funeral was held at the top of hill, with the clouds nearly fogging our vision, and the trees swaying in the chilled breeze. After that, he didn’t push further. He didn’t want to dig into my past anymore.
“What will you do, now?” he asked me.
“Probably work for a few more years. Gather up my wealth and take leave to some other land.”
“To where? Will you go alone?”
Suddenly we were stopped in our tracks. My overcoat flapped around me as the winds blew stronger. He pulled on his coat tighter. “I had not really thought about it. Or, at least I hadn’t decided. Well, I could perhaps train a dog, or kitten, so I am not alone.” The last was meant as a joke, yet when the words came out, they felt like my only option. He didn’t laugh, either.
“Feeling lost? Hmm?” Thomas smiled at me, despite his eyes being red from crying during the eulogy.
I chuckled at him. “You’re still approaching manhood. Isn’t it your job to feel lost?”
This time it was his turn to laugh. “I think we both know we’re not done growing until we’re dead.”
“So, in other words, if you don't mind me saying, your life has come to a standstill.”
I held out my hands in front of me, cracked from the years of stonework. “What else is there to say?”
He sighed. “I know what there is to say. Come down to my family’s home for the wake, and then stay after all the quiet, depressing mourners have left. We’ll drink and play a game of darts or daggers, depending on how drunk we are. My mother will need the company, anyways. After my brother left home years ago, it’s too quiet. Sooner or later ghosts will think it’s uninhabited and take it over. We could use some laughter to warm up the air.”
“You’re inviting me to your father’s wake? I don't think he would approve of a stranger being there.”
“Well, he’s already in the ground isn’t he? I’m sure another guest won’t wake him up. Not to mention, he owes you one.”
Thomas knew how to make someone laugh. I wondered if he was like this with everybody, or just softened up for a widower.
“I might as well come,” I admitted.
“Might as well? You should,” he corrected. “Don’t be so timid and afraid to move. Look at yourself, you’re alive; you’re not a statue yet.”
We continued walking, with the breeze swirling all around us. For the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel so damned depressed thinking about Anora, my wife. It seemed, instead of trying to bottle up those memories until they rotted away inside me, I wanted to share them. I wanted to tell people about her, to share the happiness she’d given me.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my wife and I swam on the lake beside the haunted forest outside your village?”
Thomas’ face perked with curiosity. “You didn’t.”
A grin flashed over my face, and I took a deep breath, wondering where to begin with that one.
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