Her Masterpiece

a short story by

Loretta Slota Marshall

© Loretta and William E. Marshall, 1982

Far too much had happened this night for her to sleep, even though her husband and the nurse had urged her to try. She adjusted the bed and snuggled her head and shoulders into the comfort of her own familiar down pillow. She was glad she remembered to bring it. She had remembered everything on the suggested list--"something light to read, something bright and shiny, some untaxing things to do..." She had ticked them off like so many talismans, a little known sequel to the proverbial "something old, something new...," assuming those who had been there before her had a mystical wisdom she dare not ignore in this unknown territory. Magazines, a crystal prism paperweight, a grant request she promised to look over, the half-finished needlepoint footstool cover for the nursery...all the comforts and distractions of home. But she knew she would have neither time nor need for them.

A deep blanket of snow had stilled the outside world, and inside the drone of a medley of mechanical noises made the night seem quieter than silence. The soft shimmer of pre-dawn moonlight reflecting off the mounds of luminous snow lit the room more than the tiny bedside light panel. She rested her eyes on the curve of glistening snow on the windowsill. It looked like it had been carved of fine Carrara marble--and the old dream came back to her.

Strange how vivid a more than decade-old dream could be. She remembered the hewn-stone cellar that was her studio in the dream more clearly than the campus apartment where she had been living at the time.

The worn steps to the cellar curved down from a doorway high on the rough gray wall into the center of the studio. There, glowing in the shafts of light from the cellar windows, was an exquisite statue of a madonna and child. The sculpture was of such unmistakable brilliance, purity, and inspiration that all who saw it were overwhelmed by its radiant transcendent beauty--a beauty so timeless that it would speak to the souls of the sensitive through the ages.

It was, without doubt, her masterpiece.

If she never did another work of art, her reputation would be made, would stand, on this one piece. It was the ultimate achievement to which every artist aspires: a once in a lifetime perfection of expression. To some it comes early, to some late, to most never.

She had fashioned the madonna from the same fine Carrara marble that the young Michelangelo had chosen for his grieving madonna, the Pieta, and that countless lesser sculptors had carved into sweet-faced angels to perpetually mourn over graves. The nature of this rare stone is to belie its cold hardness, and the stone had never seemed more lifelike than in this delicate grace-filled statue. Each fragile ivory contour glowed with the soft light of a living thing. The madonna's face was the very portrait of love as she gazed at the tiny milk-white babe enveloped in the baroque folds of her robe. Against the gentle curve of the stone breast, the infant's face was even more than lifelike, for the madonna held a real, stillborn baby in her stone arms.

The baby had belonged to no one in particular and had been given to her to use as she wished in her work. Thus entombed the baby would stay frozen in time, his calm loveliness never changing.

Of stone-cold flesh and flesh-warm stone, she had created her masterpiece. All who came to the cellar marveled at its beauty, and she was as much in awe of her creation as they.

Then slowly her pride and wonder turned to horror. At first she thought it was a trick of the light, a momentary illusion. The shimmering light turned moon cold and then it became as splinters of ice piercing her mind with the grim realization that the infant was not dead.

The baby's eyes fluttered open, and in their slate-blue depths she was confronted with an unfaceable dilemma. To free the infant, she would have to destroy the statue: her masterpiece lost to her, to time. To save her masterpiece would mean leaving the baby entombed in stone where as it grew it would be crushed to death.

The cellar had become the most hopeless of prisons, and the air had grown tomb cold and suffocating. Her agony was excruciating. Then, with no prelude, she had the solution. The baby was out. The statue intact, serene.

With enormous relief she awoke. She lay in her bunk still half-immersed in the dream. It was a fragrant warm spring night, but she could still feel the penetrating chill of the cellar, smell the dank moment of decision. And, even more chilling, was the horrible thought that she hadn't really made the choice. She had resolved the dilemma with a Zen solution from a classic example about a duck in a bottle. How tidy to have plucked this answer from some backpocket of her mind. Too tidy. Of course, in real life she wouldn't have hesitated for an instant to save the baby. Of course....but on a symbolic level. . .

For days the dream troubled her. She didn't need all the wisdom of her two undergraduate courses in psychology to understand that her subconscious self was having a conflict between her future art career and her desire to be a mother. But she was a liberated woman, wasn't she? Assuring herself that she could have the best of both worlds, she put the dream away on an out-of-the-way shelf of her memory.

In the years that followed, the dream replayed itself for her from time to time like a vintage late late show.

Once it was while she stood in the cool stone walkway bordering the commons as she patiently waited to pick up her master's diploma. Another time was while she was taking her lunch break in an exhibition of "Masterpieces of the Baroque Era" in the museum where she was working.

She never felt she had a conflict of goals or roles. But for more than a decade after the dream she remained single. For a lot of reasons. Perhaps some unresolved fear for her creativity was one of them. She didn't think so.

On their honeymoon she had told her husband about the dream as they built castles in the almost white sand on their special beach. He was of the Ebenezer-Scrooge-it's-a-bit-of-undigested-beef school of dream interpretation. And since she couldn't remember what she'd eaten, he laughed the dream away.

She plumped the down pillow and smoothed the creamy lace on her silky bed jacket, surprised at how rough it seemed. But then nothing seemed the same this night, and she realized that her perceptions of the world had a new measure...

The last time she remembered the dream was as she spent a long private moment in her one-woman exhibition in September. Years of painting and hundreds of paintings had brought her some recognition, and a museum had honored her with a special retrospective exhibit. That landmark in her career had been sweeter as a goal than an actuality. Still, there was something very satisfying in seeing the sweep of her work, a faceted but cohesive statement of that vision always slightly beyond her reach. Her work had taken on the quality of assurance and decisiveness that marked the mature artist. Spare. Elegant. Haunting.

One painting in particular had a presence, a timeless beauty about it that distinguished it from the rest. She had called it simply "The Vision," because it was one of those rare works that had come to her in a dream. Awakening with the image clearly fixed in her mind's eye--a delicate convoluted contour, like the edge of an unfurled petal, its frilled edge drawn by some ancient masterful calligrapher--she etched the contour with black lacquer into a smoky black plexiglas sheet of mirror.

It was the finest thing she had ever done. Though it was exactly as she had envisioned it, the image seemed to have an existence apart from her--like the new life growing within her. After so many years of seeking perfection, she wondered if this painting was as close as she would come. There was something of her masterpiece in "The Vision." Never before nor since her old dream had she been a sculptor or a realist, but this uncompromisingly abstract painting was in some way kin to the lovely madonna and child of the cellar.

She picked up the small faceted crystal orb from the bedside stand and rocked it gently in the palm of her hand, catching the dim light and fracturing it into tiny sparks of rainbowed light--newborn beauty for newborn eyes. What could be taking the nurses so long? They said they would bring her baby to her just as soon as they finished checking him over. From the first moment she had held him in her arms, she knew that he was fine, she was fine, her husband was fine, the whole world was fine. She recognized the feeling from the brief flashes of exultation and fulfillment she experienced when she had created or been a part of something of excellence. Her husband had punned it the divine sparkle, and tonight it had showered on the three of them like the falling snow.

The faint rumble of a bassinet being wheeled down the hall toward her brought with it a great wave of joy and the certainty that she had lost nothing.

"My wonderful, beautiful, darling baby," she murmured in his ear, nestling him in the comfort of her loving arms. As she turned him toward the moonlight, he blinked his deep slate-blue eyes at her and then nuzzled gently into her soft warm breast. She studied each little finger, the curve of his cheek, the exquisite tiny ear still crumpled and pressed against his lovely head.

With the tip of her finger, she traced the delicate contour of his ear--like the edge of an unfurled petal, its frilled edge drawn by some ancient masterful calligrapher.


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