A Stone Marking a Happy End

5 min
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The sculptor was working when he died. There was dust under the his fingernails and sweat on his brow. Lines were carved in his face, though they were less delicate than the ones his skillful hands carved into stone.

His eyes were green and full of life, almost as youthful as when he had first entered his trade many years ago. They were pale, though, like the lichens that slowly accrued on his masterpieces.

His art was beautiful, carved for families who paid large sums of money for monuments to their members. But it brought nobody joy.

The sculptor began as a boy, carving swirls and faces into blocks of wood, carefully sanding out splinters and smoothing the imperfections in his skill. He carved angels and skulls and roses.

His father carved out a living, barely, as a schoolmaster. He was strict and had little time for the boy, and still less for the boy’s creations. He’d sit at the table as the boy carved and write notes in red ink on students’ papers, ever the critic. But the boy needed encouragement, not criticism.

His mother adored his art. His mother, who told him stories every night. His mother, whose smiling eyes followed the boy’s hands as he carefully carved the damsels and dragons she described. His mother, who told him that his creations were priceless and perfect, who knew he would find his way. His mother, who died.

It was raining when they buried her. The gaping hole in the earth swallowed her in a plain wooden coffin. Her gravestone had nothing on it but her name.

The boy and his father watched the ground swallow her up, standing still as statues. The father’s face was unmoving, carved from smooth, white marble. The boy’s lips trembled. Rain trickled down around them, and they stood under their black umbrella in their black suits and watched his mother descend into the black hole from which she would never return.

The man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, but the boy shrugged it off. He stared into the grave after his mother. Shovels covered the coffin with dirt. He kept staring. There was a long silence.

“We should go,” said the father. The boy nodded. Neither of them moved.

The boy’s hand was in his pocket, clutching a small, smooth piece of wood. He’d made it for his mother in those last few days when she lay there in bed, too weak to do anything but watch him carve her a gift. He still hadn’t finished when her end came.
The shovels finished their job, the black hole replaced with a muddy scar in the perfectly trimmed lawn of the cemetery.

The boy walked up to the grave, ignoring the downpour. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and put his carving on the grassless spot that marked his mother’s new home. Tears mixed with the rain on his face.

He didn’t look up as he trudged back towards his father.

When he took a last glance at his mother’s grave, he was surprised to see a man in a light brown coat standing before it. The lone figure was looking down at the boy’s gift. The boy squinted towards him through the rain as the man picked the carving up. The man then walked away in the opposite direction, and both he and his coat vanished into the graveyard.

The boy blinked rapidly, trying to make out anything he could. But the figure was already gone.

He took his father’s hand and they left together, sheltered from the rain under the umbrella. But the boy was already drenched.

It had been five days since the funeral. The boy and his father were at home. It was quiet. They didn’t talk to each other.

The boy sat at the dining room table. A bowl of oatmeal sat before him, growing soggy as he stared at the wall before him. Someone knocked.

The heavy oak door creaked as his father opened it.

A man stood outside. He was old and slightly stooped, and he wore a familiar light brown coat that looked as though it had seen better days. His hair--what was left of it--was slate grey. He had a hand in his pocket, but he pulled it out to briskly shake hands with the father.

They exchanged greetings, and the father gestured him into the house. They came to stand in the dining room doorway, watching the boy. The boy made a point of not turning around to see them.

The guest entered the room and cleared his throat.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was firm, but gentle. He withdrew something from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of the boy. “I found your figurine.”

The boy looked down at the carving he’d been presented with, then up to the man. “This was for my mother.”

“I’m sorry.” The man lowered his eyes, avoiding the boy’s gaze.

“It’s okay.” The boy held the figure back out to the guest. “You can keep it. She can’t see it anyway.”

“Our guest didn’t just come to return your carving,” said the boy’s father. “He wants to offer you an apprenticeship.”

The guest nodded. “Your carving is superb. I figured you’d like a career in that field.”

The boy’s father put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “It’s exactly what you want. What do you think?”

“What exactly does he do?”

The father swallowed. The guest laughed goodnaturedly.

“I carve gravestones.”

The father whispered something into the boy’s ear, something about needing another source of income since his mother was gone, about needing the boy to take care of himself. The boy stared intently at the gravestone carver.

“I’ll do it,” he said. He held out his hand to the guest, and they shook hands.

The gravestone carver was kind, but distant. It came with the trade. Seeing the people left behind by so many dearly departed, he couldn’t help but try to avoid similar pain.

Sometimes customers came in pairs. A mother and father, asking for a small gravestone covered in flowers and cherubs for one who left too soon. A father and son, there for a plain gravestone to mark the mother’s remains. Children, there to memorialize their parents with an engraving.

The boy learned from the gravestone carver. There was always work. People were always leaving the world, alone or in pairs or in droves. Disasters were good for business, but bad for the spirit.

Vines ran around the monument to a grandmother who had gardened till the end, angels watching over her eternally. Angels watched over many resting souls, carrying them up. Skeletons danced on some graves and stood solemnly above others. Grey stones came to life throughout the cemetery.

The boy carved his father’s gravestone for his father’s new wife. His father’s new children commissioned it. They didn’t know him, and he didn’t know them. He didn’t resent them. The work he made them was equal to the work he gave all other customers. No more, no less.

When the gravestone carver died, the boy was no longer an apprentice. The newly minted master carved his old friend an elaborate marker, fit for a king. But the art brought him no joy as it had when he was younger. It reminded him of the emptiness people left behind.

That day the sculptor began a sculpture that he never quite finished. With each new grave he carved came a new modification to its beauty, until it was a collection of styles and images tastefully combined into one. His life’s work.

He never quite finished.

He was working on it when he died. There was dust under his fingernails and sweat on his brow and determination in the eyes that shone from his aged face. Lines were carved in the stone, as full of emotion as the ones carved by time into his face. His eyes were green and full of life, though he was nearing death.

He chipped a final line into his masterpiece, the sum of all he had created. He took a step back and sighed contentedly, then fell to the floor in that endless slumber from which no man wakes.

They found him later, and they buried him. He rested with his mother and his father and the man who taught him his trade. The gravestone he poured his life into marked his resting place.

Though he left the world, it wasn’t empty without him. His sculpture was a reminder to all that the birds still chirped in the mornings, that flowers grew in fields, and that the grass of the cemetery was alive and green over the resting bodies of their forefathers.

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