Matteo looked at the piece from the corner of his eye. Marble, finely veined, pink flushed, a small block perched at the front of a rack. He had come to buy plain stone for those few commissions he had. Commissions that would keep his studio open and his family fed. Stone such as the piece he admired was beyond his means. Still, he felt himself drawn towards it, entranced by its beauty.
He stretched his hand out, touched the cold roughness of the raw slab and felt a pulse as if something already lived in its mass. Startled, he pulled back.
Domenico, the shop owner, appeared at his shoulder, his mouth tight, uttering a tut of disapproval.
“Not for you, Matteo,” he shook his finger as though in dismissal.
Domenico’s words stung. A reminder that his station as a second-rate sculptor was a matter of finance and not a matter of skill. He was as good, if not better, than those who took commissions from the wealthy.
He turned towards Domenico and, in a moment of madness, told a lie.
“I have just the commission for this piece,” the words took flight before he could restrain them, then floated between the two men. Domenico’s eyes narrow, sensing there was a the possibility of a sale, and Matteo knew that Domenico would not make it easy for him.
Matteo was already at a disadvantage. Having lied about a commission, he would lose face now if he did not purchase the stone.
The price Domenico quoted for the piece was an outrage. Matteo calculated the amount of money in his belt. He had deposits for seven jobs. If he bought the stone for the first four, then he could use the rest to pay for the piece. It was a risk. He would have to complete the first four commissions and collect the fee on them. Then, with the profit, purchase the raw stone for the outstanding three jobs before his patrons realised he had misspent their money.
What followed was a dance familiar to both men. Domenico lowered his price, but only a little, Matteo haggled, spat on his hands, walked away, returned, walked away again. Domenico softened a little more. And in this way, the dance continued until they struck a deal.
As Matteo counted out the money, guilt at his subterfuge ate at him. Never had he been dishonest. He watched as two men manoeuvred the block onto a trolly. Then left Domenico, waving away the offer of coffee, moving instead to supervise the loading of the stone onto his flatbed truck.
The journey home started in annoyance. He had time to contemplate his own foolishness. Matteo knew what he had done was wrong, it was theft, but he convinced himself that there was no vice intended and that the block of stone was a temptation that no real sculptor could resist.
The piece of rough marble sat strapped on the bed of the truck, covered with wet sacking, and Matteo felt every bump in the road, mindful of its fragility. He imagined it speaking to him, its voice weaving a future of beautiful things, of nobility in his Studio, of buyers flocking to his doors. By the time the village came into sight, he had convinced himself that he had made a sound business decision, not taken a reckless risk.
But what of Maria? He would need to hide the piece from her just for now. She would not understand the compulsion, nor would she listen to his plans for a better future, she would worry, she would fret. And so, on his arrival home, Matteo lied to his wife for the first time in thirty years.
Matteo moved under the light of a waxing moon. Pools of silver splashed like rose water across the piazza. The door to his Studio stood unlocked, for who in the village would steal from a neighbour? Such a thing was unheard of.
He pulled the door wide. The moonlight flitted across a floor flecked with rock dust, illuminating his workbench. He saw the sacks which had covered the block of marble. But where was it? He had placed it on the bench, had carried it there himself. It was gone. Stolen. He felt the loss like a punch, the weight of it bending him in two.
Matteo woke, panic clawing at his chest. His brow was damp with sweat. Then, as he realised where he was, he felt a flood of relief. It had been a dream. Or had it been a warning? The sense of panic returned.
He pulled the covers back, careful not to wake Maria. His feet hit the cold floor, and he tiptoed past Sophia, asleep in her cot. For once, Matteo ignored his daughter’s dark curls and sallow skin, her face which was always magnetic to his hands held no attraction for him now.
So, Sophia’s blanket remained untucked, her pale cheeks uncovered and unkissed by her father’s rough whiskers. Darkness fell across Sophia’s face, a shadow which might have been Matteo’s as he crept from the room, but in the moonlight, seemed to move a step behind him.
Matteo slipped from the rear of the apartment. He gazed across the piazza, the feeling of familiarity and comfort that he had always known there, was absent. He sensed unseen eyes watch him as he crossed the glittering, moonlit space, moving quickly and covertly.
Matteo was both eager and scared as he stood before his Studio. He hesitated before opening the door, his pulse pounding in his ears, his breath coming quick and shallow, yet he stayed his hand, afraid of the truth. What if he had gambled his patron’s money on a folly? What if someone had stolen the stone?
He cursed his own foolishness, his impetuous decision to buy the stone. In that instant, he wished it gone, believed he would be better off without it.
Matteo braced himself and threw the door open. His own shadow, which had been absent in his dream, blocked the moonlight from penetrating the darkness. He blinked, saw the bulk and shape of the stone—the long exaggerated shadow of the sack that covered it, but still, he had to be sure, he must touch it. His hands moved to the roughness beneath the sacking, he groped, as eager as a young man seeking the breast, and when he found the coldness there, he stroked it as though it were a prodigal lover returned.
The sun was rising above the dome of the basilica when Matteo left his Studio. He had cleared a dark corner beneath his workbench, moved the piece of marble there and covered it with damp sacking. Still dissatisfied, he stacked other stone in front of it. Finished, he looked at his bench from every angle, satisfying himself that the marble was hidden from view. Later he would buy a padlock for his Studio, something he had never felt the need for before.
In the days after his dream, Matteo worked from early morning, remaining in his studio as late as the light allow. At dusk he walked across the piazza with his head lowered. His eyes once bright and inquisitive were now dark with suspicion. He passed the café where Rosa served coffee with a side of gossip and looked away, no longer caring to stop for an evening apéritif.
At home, only Sophia’s arms about his neck and her soft wet kisses on his cheek could raise a smile where warmth was once habitual.
Maria worried for her husband, she feared that sickness had fallen upon him. His silence and his hooded eyes were the facets of a stranger. She waited for the darkness to pass, for the man she loved to return to her.
Matteo couldn’t sleep, he sat in the darkness. Maria snoring softly, Sophia’s breath coming slow and even from her cot. In the glimmer of a single street lamp that shone through a frosted window, his hands moved. He imagined them shaping the pink-flushed block of stone. He conjured pieces in his mind, miniatures of the most exquisite detail, work he once believed beyond his skill, now seemed possible.
He imagined Sophia captured in marble, not a bust or a detail but entire. He studied his daughter’s sleeping form, visualised her as she was when Maria readied her for bed. Saw her tired blinking eyes and pouting mouth, all things that could come alive under his hammer and chisel. In his mind, the stone took on the shape of his daughter. His hands move in darkness, sketching a plan in the air, moulding and shaping stone into sallow skin and dark curls.
The image coalesced in his mind, became an obsession as he worked on the remaining commission. He was eager to start the most exceptional work of his life.
Matteo thought about the planes of the stone, the angles, the fissures. He knew the finesse required for such work. He imagined the stone taking shape under his hands. Hands that reach for air, cupping the pictured shape of a sharp chin or pinching a hard snub nose. He can’t remember when he last embraced Sophia. It had been over a month. He’d been busy, he would have time for that later. Matteo believed himself ready, yet even in his ardour, he hesitate. He had not yet drawn the block from its hiding place.
The commission for Madam Moretti was the last of the four. Matteo knew it was poorly finished. The commission, a simple memorial for a deceased mother, was not a challenge, but it was deserving of his attention. The disappointment in Madam Moretti’s eyes stung like a slap to his face.
He knew he had not performed well, he thought of previous commissions—wondered if some of those were also not to standard. Had he been slipping slowly without knowing? Or worse still, without caring.
His mind turned to the block and the life he wished to breathe into it. Was his skill worthy of the marble? Was he good enough the realise his dream of a Sophia in stone. Doubt pricked at him. His chisels rested on the workbench as though taunting him.
Matteo waited a week and then another. He dithering, finding excuses not to begin, until finally he drew out the block, unwrapped the still wet sacks and ran his hands over the stone. He saw the work that he must accomplish, knew the cuts and strokes intimately, understood what it would take to extract the child from the cold womb of stone. He re-wrapped the marble and returned it to its hiding place, telling himself he would start the work tomorrow.
At his bench, Matteo drew out the tools of his art. La Mazza, the mallet that strokes the chisel, he took it in his hand and felt its heft, it felt comfortable to him, soothed his mind. Next, he unwrapped the leather apron and examined the chisels arrayed in size. The tools, once his fathers, had served him for a quarter of a century, half of Matteo’s lifetime.
He knew each of them. Lo Scapezzatore, the largest of the chisels for splitting stone. Lo Scalpello, the rough shaping chisel which reveals the shape of the work, the equally big La Gradina with its teeth, shaped to bite into the planes and grain of marble. These were the chisels which he would use to reduce the stone to a rough form before finishing with his round blades. These he tested last, L’Unghietto, the little fingernail chisels that pick away at the stone to reveal the body beneath.
He ran his thumb across their faces, felt the nicks and the roughness. The blades were sharpened a thousand times by his father and a thousand times more by his own hand. They were worn and so familiar that they felt moulded to his palm—like an extension of the hand that held them.
Matteo suddenly doubted the tools, questioned their sharpness, their accuracy, he feared they would betray him. Then wondered if they already had. Was it they that have reduced the quality of his work? He recalled the hurt in madam Moretti’s eyes and felt a sickness in the pit of his stomach.
He must replace his tools. Ali scalpelli—the chisels, all of them, but how? New blades were expensive, and he was already in debt. He had some money. The money he’s been saving to buy the satchel and books Sofia would require when she went to school in the Autumn. She coveted a soft red leather bag, and he’d promised it would be hers.
He’d saved a few coins from each commission. The money he’d tucked safely into his desk drawer. He thought of Sofia who had been sick for the past week, her breath rasping, and her eyes streaming as the meadows of Tuscany spilling pollen into her overburdened lungs. He told himself that he would replace the money before September, that Sophia would not go without her satchel. He would complete this great work, and become a sculptor of note. Matteo would become wealthy. This thing that he did was after all as much for Maria and Sofia as it is for himself. And so Matteo, an honest man, told the third lie. This time, it was too himself.
Sophia’s cough was torturous, a gasping wheeze. Matteo woke to see Maria cradle their daughter in her arms, he saw the perspiration on Sophia’s brow and the worry in his wife’s eyes.
At Maria’s bidding, he fetched damp rags and water. Maria used them to cool Sophia.
The dust from the summer fields had entered Sophia’s lungs. She struggled to breathe. Maria’s eyes were filled with unshed tears. Words unspoken hung between them.
“Matteo, we must summon il dottore”.
Maria, who had always been calm, spoke with an urgency that frightened him. He was already pulling on his trousers and shirt. His mind turned to the drawer that contained the money for a red satchel, for books. The money he’d intended to steal. Self-loathing rose like bile.
Matteo did not replace his tools, nor did he draw the block from its hiding place. Instead, he sat by the window, cradling his daughter in his arms while he cursed the verdant beauty of the country of his birth. The trees, the heavy heads of sunflowers, the heady scent of lavender, all anathema to him. Things that produced the dust that entered his daughter’s weak lungs.
He wiped the sweat from Sophia’s face and forehead, bent down to kiss her. Tears pricked the back of his eyes when her eyes flutter open. She smiled, but then her eyes closed again.
By evening Sophia had stopped struggling for breath. She was quiet but for the gentle, irregular movement of her chest, the slow and painful rise and fall. Il dottore had been twice in the day, but Sofia needed the skill of a city physician, and that would cost money that Matteo did not have.
The look he saw in Maria’s eyes was not of disappointment or of chastisement, it was of resignation and of love. But Matteo did not see that, he saw her only through the lens of the emotions that stirred within his own chest. And so, he translated Maria’s look into one of disappointment in a husband unable to provide for his sick daughter. He felt the sting of her ire even when no such thing was evident.
The block was the only thing of value he owned, so he would sell it. Once Sofia fell into a light sleep, he stood to go. He kissed Maria, told her not to worry, then stepped out onto the piazza.
The Studio was silent in the moonlight. The voice of the block no longer called to Matteo—he wondered if it ever had. He drew it out from under the workbench, stripped it of the sacking and in the silver light he saw that it was only marble, an off-cut, he saw the flaws in its grain, the unevenness of its blush. He wondered how he could ever have been so enchanted by it.
He struggled to load it on his truck alone. Its rough edges cut into his arms and gnawed at his hands. It slipped and jarred against his knee—pain shot up along his spine. By the time he’d secured it, he had come to hate it. He blamed it on all that was wrong in his life. He blamed the block on Sofia’s illness, blamed it on Maria’s dissatisfaction.
Matteo drove from Studio to Studio, to all the sculptors of the region. Each looked, but all shook their heads, none so much as made an offer. In the soft light of the early morning, Matteo saw the stone lose its lustre, saw the pink blush fade from its open plain as the veins constricted and slowly disappeared. It was just a block of plain white marble.
Domenico, the last one he asked, refused to make an offer on the block, he told Matteo that he was speaking nonsense.
“Marble does not lose its colour, Matteo,” he shook his head.
Matteo did not insist any further. He was beaten. The Marble had betrayed him.
Sofia died in her sleep. Too weak to struggle with the filth in her lungs. Too weak to cough and finally too exhausted to breathe. Matteo stood over her, unaware of Maria by his side, tears cascading down his face, tears of sadness, loss, frustration and in the end, tears of rage. His anger was at God first, then himself, and in the end, it turned against a block of cold dead stone. The stone that had possessed him—stolen his life, his art, his wife, and now his daughter.
When they buried Sofia; when Matteo shook the hand of those who came to look at a failed man, when even Maria walked away, leaving him, he stood alone. He glared at the small mound that covered his daughter. Matteo cried.
He stood until dusk. He waited for Sophia’s spirit to rise, waited for his daughter to forgive him for his sins. She never came, and so he left, walked alone toward his studio.
In the darkness, Matteo drew the block from beneath the workbench. He planned to smash it, reduce it to rubble, but in the pooled light of the moon, it looked again flushed with the blood of quarrymen. Again it spoke to him, but this time it was in the voice of his daughter, and Matteo lifted La Mazza and reached for gli scalpelli, the chisels.
He worked until an hour before sunrise and then walked away from his studio. He left the door unlocked. There was nothing there he cared about. He turned towards the mountains, leaving behind everything he had ever known.
In the silence of her husband’s Studio, Maria stood, her hand clamped to her mouth. On the workbench, in perfect scale, stood Sofia, her face shining with the blush of marble. Even Maria’s unpractised eye could see the genius of the work.
Dave Kavanagh is the managing editor of The Blue Nib. His debut novel, The Tangle Box is due May 2021 from Adelaide Press.