The Sculptor’s Gift

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

The sculptor had one of those inscrutable faces, ageless in its childlike antiquity.  His tousled hair gleamed whiter than new-fallen snow, yet his eyes were vibrant teasing pools of vigor and enthusiasm.  The skin of his hands beneath which rippled powerful sinews and thickly corded muscle was as smooth and flawless as that of a newborn infant.  His massive fingers, which looked strong enough to rend lengthwise a tempered steel file, so gently caressed the clay he sculpted that not even a fingerprint marred its impressionable surface.  As he worked, the sculptor sang.  The voice rolling from deep inside him was a rich well-modulated baritone that effortlessly negotiated the complex vocal control of an opera maestro.  Yet it unpretentiously effused the sensitive pathos and emotional spontaneity of a wide-eyed toddler who has just discovered his voice.

The figures that he crafted were breathtaking in their detail; stunning in their demonstration of his skill as a master artisan.  Every eyelash was present.  Every wrinkle on each tiny knuckle was captured perfectly.  Each hair seemed poised to flutter in the morning breeze that skipped capriciously into the open window and across the workbench.  Smiles seemed to hover at the corner of each miniature lip, waiting only for the sculptor to beckon them into infectious mirth.  In lifelike action poses they spilled across the workbench and crouched upon the shelves.  They seemed to have been frozen in time in the very act of scrambling out of boxes or climbing curtains or somersaulting into cabinet drawers.  Tiny heads canted in silent laughter.  Arms entwined one other in perpetual hugs.  Fingers reached, knees bent and bodies strained on tiptoe like a snapshot of a joyful microsecond of a game of tag.

But that wasn’t all.  The door at the east end of the workshop stood ajar, and through the gap could be seen a marvelous room that had once been an empty storage closet.  Now it teemed with color and shape and texture.  The sculptor had created a habitat for his figures.  A whole world waited beyond that open door.  Miniature sculpted trees with fruit-laden branches bordered flower-speckled meadows bisected by bubbling creeks, so believably sparkling clear, they made you want to bury your face in them and gulp down the cold spring water.  Mountain crags shed glistening waterfalls that plunged with static foam into limpid pools.  And everywhere among the diorama, beautiful animals of every sort poised motionless in an unspeakably grand tableau that almost let one’s imagination visualize them grazing, flying, swimming or romping.

On the opposite end of the workshop, a different door opened suddenly to admit the sculptor’s son, striding brisk and cheerful, tenderly carrying a basket in his strong hands.  He was the very image of his father.  Inside the basket were more figures, each flawlessly crafted as masterfully as the rest.  The young man moved to stand beside the sculptor and paused as his father’s expert fingers molded another tiny face with swift, confident strokes.  As he watched, a broad smile of love and admiration illuminated the son’s face.

“It is good,” approved the son.

The sculptor nodded his agreement.  “Yes.  All that we have created is very good.  I am pleased.”  He traced a final detail with the back of his pinkie nail, and then held the figure at arm’s length to appraise it. 

The two craftsmen beamed with satisfaction at the result.  Then the son set his basket on the floor.  “I have finished,” he announced.  The sculptor’s eyes twinkled with delight and he carefully tucked his own newly completed figure into the basket like a mother laying her infant in his cradle.  Then he turned to his son and squeezed his broad shoulder affectionately.

“I, too, am finished.  Are you ready?”

A flash of some nameless shadow scuttled across the son’s brow, like a thunderhead obscuring the sun before a storm.  Then, just as fleetingly as it had come, it was gone and his eyes shone clear and bright as before.  He nodded his head with deep conviction.  “Yes.  I am ready, Father.  It is time.”

It was the sculptor’s eyes that went sad now as he gazed deep into his son’s soul.  For one of those moment of speechless communication understood only between two persons who share the most intimate of relationships, they stood with eyes locked, foreheads nearly touching, breathing in unison.  Then the father’s ragged sigh broke the spell.  “Yes, you are ready.  I feel it within you.”  Suddenly his beard swirled as he turned with a bound and spread his arms wide.  He threw back his head and a deep laugh issued from his throat, cascading into the room like a torrent of living water.  The sound was amplified by the son’s baritone guffaw until the workshop became flooded with wave upon wave of laughter.  Together they cavorted in a joyous frolic.  As they celebrated, it seemed that they had become oblivious to their environment, yet not once did a leaping foot crush any of their handiwork, nor did their gesticulating hands clumsily knock a fragile figure toppling to its destruction.

Instead, a miraculous thing began to happen.  Each time they brushed within a hair’s breadth of one of their sculptures, the little clay model would suddenly blink and cough and burst into motion.  Within seconds, the workshop floor was covered with hundreds of tiny dancing figures, swept away in a spontaneous choreography of joy that mimicked but could not match their creators’.  Their tiny peals of laughter swelled in exquisite soprano harmony with that of the sculptor and his son.  The laughter surged through the east door and crashed like a tsunami upon the lush but lifeless world inside the closet.  As it did, the entire room began to throb with a glorious exultant awakening.

Photo by Yogendra Singh on

The air whirred with a kaleidoscope of vivid color as miniature birds of every plumage swooped and soared in an aerial ballet.  Water creatures leaped from the rippling surface in a spray of droplets to wriggle exuberantly before splashing back with ecstatic abandon.  The animals, too, laughed as each in its unique way vocalized the amazement of its newfound life.  Yet none of the little creatures were more overcome with wonder and awe than those who had been crafted in the very image of the sculptor and his son.  In their unbounded enthusiasm, the tiny people swarmed the ankles of their makers, shinnying up their cuffs and gleefully performing spectacular back flips from the toes of the sculptors’ boots until they had exhausted themselves.  Long before their creators had completed their celebratory dance, the tiny ones collapsed onto their backs in the newly living grass, panting from the exertion, their rapturous smiles mellowing into a glow of contented peace. 

The sculptors’ dance did not finish for a long time and they did not rush it until it had come to its magnificent conclusion.  Then, without seeming the slightest bit winded, the father paused  in the east doorway with his arm around the shoulders of his son and addressed the throng.  He told them how much he cherished their company and announced that the door to his workshop–and indeed his very living quarters would never be shut to any in need no matter what the hour. “Enjoy the world we have given you!” he urged.  “Explore, build, plant and harvest.  Marry, feast, play and flourish!  We have designed it for your pleasure, and in your pleasure we shall find unfathomable pleasure of our own.”

Invigorated, the wee creatures leaped to their feet again.  With all the volume they could muster, they burst into a fervent song of gratitude in honor of their benevolent master.  The sculptors closed their eyes and tears of happiness flowed unabashedly down their cheeks as they breathed in the spontaneous laudations.  But after a moment, the fathers’ eyes flickered open and his son could see that the pain had returned to them.  He raised his hand for silence.  “There is only one thing I must ask you to avoid.”  He announced.  A great hush settled upon the carpet of figures as they pressed forward to hear his words.  “In the center of your habitat you will notice a large red button.  Do not…I repeat, do not under any circumstances push that button.  If you do, the door which gives you access to me will close and you will be left alone with a great evil that the button will release.”

The voices of the little ones swelled in protest that they would never think of doing anything to displease such a beloved maker as theirs, and then they scampered off to explore their world.  For many weeks, both maker and made basked in their blossoming relationship.  The sculptor would lie on his back and roar with laughter as the little ones would crawl through his beard or perform cartwheels on his chest.  The sculptor’s son would allow them to climb onto his palm, then he would lift them up and tuck them into his breast pocket next to his heart.  There they would ride, hanging onto his buttons and, giddy from the great height, peer down upon their kinfolk far below who eagerly clamored for a turn.  The little ones found their benefactors to be as generous as they were wise and strong.  Indeed, there was nothing that they lacked, and serenity blessed their days.

Then, early one morning before the sculptors had risen to begin their work for the day, everything changed.  Later, the little ones blamed their chieftain (for they had appointed one of them to be their leader) and the chieftain blamed his woman, but in truth, they were all at fault, for all of them had hearkened to the snake.  Some would say the snake was to blame, but he was just a snake after all in spite of his shimmering beauty. 

He was a large cobra—large, that is, in comparison to the other tiny creatures around him–with a scintillating iridescent hood, which was his pride.  The cobra chafed that no one paid appropriate homage to his glorious beauty.  He held the sculptor and the sculptor’s son responsible for this insult.  How was a serpent to get any respect with a couple of hulking noisy giants clumping about, stealing everybody’s attention?  As his resentment grew, he determined to get his revenge.  The surest way that the cobra could imagine to strike back at the giants would be to rob them of their treasured relationship with their creation.  So that fateful morning he slithered up onto the forbidden red button, flared his hood, and called loudly for the bystanders to gather for an important announcement that he vowed would change their lives forever.

“You have been manipulated,” he hissed.  “The moment you summon the courage to press this much maligned button, you will become enlightened with a truth that has hitherto been craftily withheld from you.  For that which your oppressors call ‘evil’ is actually the first step on the path to gianthood!  The giants fear that you will discover their exquisite pleasures and carefully guarded secrets, which will empower you to become like them.  They fear you, because they know that you can achieve anything that they have done and more.  In their selfish greed, they do not want to be usurped.”

Then the cobra began to sway hypnotically as the crowd, horrified, yet fascinated, jostled closer, trampling each other for a better view of the snake and perhaps a glimpse of the mystic button on which he coiled enthroned.  Closer and closer they pressed, unable to break their eyes away from the beautiful reptile’s hypnotic gaze.

“That’s right.” purred the cobra, “just a little closer.”  He caressed the button with his tail to demonstrate that it was harmless.  “Who will be sensible enough to touch it first?  Isn’t there anyone here who is ready to think for yourself, instead of recycling the pre-digested pabulum that has been spoon-fed to you by your peevish oversized galoots of oppressors?”

A hubbub of discussion arose as the sculptor’s children processed this puzzling new concept.  Then the wife of their chieftain stepped forward.  Her shrill voice carried above the murmur of the crowd, and she raised her tiny hand for silence.  “I will touch it!” she cried, and the rest found themselves struck dumb with wonder at her boldness. 

The cobra’s eyes narrowed and a smirk framed his fangs as his magnificent hood quivered in anticipation.  “You have great wisdom, my dear.  Surely you shall be rewarded in your search for knowledge this day.”  With a supple undulation, he unwound his coils from the button and slithered aside.  “Come, then,” he invited, inclining his head toward its gleaming convex surface.  “Touch it.  Press it.  Lean hard upon it until you hear a click and feel it yield beneath your weight.  Open your future to a new era of thrills, the like of which you have never imagined.”

A cheer broke from the collective throats of the tiny ones.  En masse they surged forward bearing the chieftain’s wife to the very edge of the fateful button.  Up close, the button looked more intimidating than it had seemed from a distance.  It was nearly as wide as she was tall.  The woman could see now that its red color came from a cold flame that flickered and sparked beneath its translucent surface.  For a moment she considered changing her mind, but the mob had begun chanting, pumping their fists in the air and whipping themselves into a frenzy of expectation.

Abandoning caution, she forced a giddy laugh and mounted the button with a perfectly executed aerial cart-wheel that ended with a back handspring.  Flushed and sparkling she extended her fists above her head in a victory pose. She had expected the button to depress when she had landed on it so acrobatically.  But nothing had happened.  This was a bit of an anticlimax.  The crowd began to roar.  “Push it!  Push it!  Push it!”

That proved to be more easily said than done.  Not only was the button spring unexpectedly stiff, but now that she was actually in contact with the button, she found herself seized with a thick dread that nearly paralyzed her limbs and caused her heart to race.  Undeterred, she performed a couple more dazzling moves.  Then she dismounted from the button, ran a few paces to get a running start and attacked the recalcitrant button with a spectacular vault, culminating in a quadruple twisting double back. 

That did it.  As she completed the final salto, the button shuddered beneath her feet. Then it pistoned downward with such unanticipated abruptness that the woman found herself forced to awkwardly fling her arms outwards in order to maintain her balance.  With a loud click, the button came to rest, noticeably lower than it had been before.

The crowd inhaled with a sharp gasp forgetting to resume breathing for several seconds, as they waited to see what marvels would appear.  Nothing but silence could be heard. They stared at the button, frozen with suspense.

Suddenly, with a discordant clang, the ceiling tiles above them dropped open.  A fireworks display of sparks geysered from the button, launching the chieftain’s wife high into the air, then hurling her to the ground with a crushing impact.  From the shadowy utility space above the tiles came a metallic slithering sound, and all at once the air was filled with twisting cables snaking downward with the speed of a cobra’s strike.  The populace of tiny living figures screamed in terror and threw up their hands to shield their heads.  Instinctively they began to run, bowling each other over and swinging vicious punches at anyone who stood in their way.

But there was no escape.  With an intelligent accuracy, half a dozen cables tracked each target and captured it, spearing its needle-like tip into their limbs, and embedding itself deep into their bones.  The tiny figures screamed in agony and thrashed frantically, smashing wildflowers in their throes and gouging up the soft green grass.  When the last cable had been secured, a hissing sound filled the room.  The cables glowed hot as something flowed through them and began to permeate their bodies.  The light faded from their eyes, their joints stiffened, their motions became jerky and before they understood what was happening, the entire lot found themselves transformed into ghastly marionettes, tethered to control cables.

From above their heads where the cobra had slithered into the ceiling, echoed a diabolical laugh.  At his whim, he began seizing cable ends and manipulating them.  Below, tiny figures would lurch into some self-aggrandizing or obscene or violent act.  Soon, shattered little forms lay crumpled across the landscape, the victim of their former brothers or sisters.  Some began to cry out for the sculptor’s help.  They strained against their cables as they struggled to crawl toward the doorway only to discover that at some point during the confusion the door had swung shut, leaving them completely cut off from their benevolent creator.

Image by Pixabay

A darkness descended upon the room.  Thorns popped out on flower stems.  Poisonous insects and plants rose from the contaminated dirt.  The beautiful friendly animals either ran to hide or transformed into predators, chasing down the choicest of the sculptor’s masterpieces and rending them apart before the eyes of shocked onlookers.

Suddenly, a ray of golden light streamed into the madness.  It came from a small hatch near the top of the closed door that separated them from the sculptor’s studio.   Silhouetted in that rectangle of light stood another of their kind.  He gazed down upon them for a brief moment, then gathered his tiny legs beneath him and leaped.  He spread his arms as he fell toward them and those who noticed said that he seemed as graceful as a dove in flight.  Then he landed hard in a thorn thicket and when he emerged, his skin was criss-crossed with a grid of bloody scratches. 

A nearby boy peered at him and suddenly his eyes grew wide as he jiggled excitedly on the end of his cables.  “It’s Him!” he cried.  It’s the sculptor’s son.  He’s come to rescue us.”  But the others laughed at the youngster’s wild tale and returned to the endless and fruitless attempt to free themselves from their cables. 

The sculptor’s son (for indeed it was he) stooped to one of the crushed, bleeding forms that lay nearby and swiftly, expertly repaired it until it stood on its feet again, sagging slightly against its supporting cables.  The son moved on to another and another, touching each with firm gentle hands. All who felt his touch were resuscitated, and the light began to feebly flicker in their eyes once again.

When the cobra noticed what was happening he was both livid with rage and delirious with triumph.  He had expected that his plan would lure the sculptors in, but he had never dreamed that it would so effectively reduce one of the giants to a helpless little toy.  It was time to spring the final trap before the shrunken giant repaired any more of his figures, or returned to his former size and power. 

Cackling, he flicked a lever on a control panel, releasing with a grating metallic screech a veritable snarl of cables.  The sculptor’s son heard the noise and saw the writhing bundle descending upon him, but he made no attempt to flee.  Tears began to flow down his uplifted face and he spread his arms wide to allow the cables easy access to his body.  From behind the hatch in the door came the Sculptor’s voice in a mighty sob so resonant and full of anguish that the entire room shuddered with the tremor.  Then the hatch slammed shut, extinguishing the light beam, and the room was plunged into the blackest darkness the little figures had ever felt.  Amid that darkness keened out the agonized strangled sigh of the sculptor’s son as the cables harpooned deep into his flesh. 

But the instant they penetrated, an amazing thing began to happen.  The cables began to glow with a searing white light, beginning at their junction with his body and racing upwards like lightning in reverse.  The control box exploded in a shower of sparks. The cobra uttered a ghastly scream and fell out of the ceiling to plummet onto the ground, charred and smoking. 

Many of the little people, seeing what was happening, cried out to the sculptor’s son. The instant they did so, the white light raced down their cables, snapping them and setting them free.  Others, absorbed with their own suffering, did not bother to acknowledge the miracle nor call out for freedom.  Perhaps they thought it was another trick, or perhaps they blamed the sculptor for their predicament.  But as many as received him to them gave the sculptor power to become his sons and daughters.

Image by Pixabay

For this had been the sculptor’s plan from long before he had fashioned them:  to make them joint-heirs with his son.  And now, as they watched, the cables that held him dissolved and vanished.  Before their eyes he began to grow until he had regained his former stature.  No, he seemed even taller somehow, and broader in the shoulder than they had remembered him!  Then he stooped and beckoned with a cable-scarred hand to those who had been born again, and they too began to grow until they were the size of a real human, though none of them matched his stature.

As the sculptor’s son gathered them in his arms in a warm embrace, the door to the studio swung open and the Father stood there with a broad smile and outstretched arms.  “Come, beloved,” he invited.  “Come enjoy the banquet I have prepared for you.  It will mark the adoption ceremony that gives you access to all that I possess equal to that enjoyed by my beloved son, your rescuer.”

Then the siblings all linked arms and stepped across threshold into the warm, golden light of the sculptor’s studio.  At last, they had found the place where they belonged.

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