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Workshop of Clay and Stars


Workshop of Clay and Stars
by Russell F. Hirsch

My brother crafted creatures from clay, brewed their souls, and gave them life.

“But it does not last,” he whispered. “It does not last.”

We stood in the workshop, looking out through the crystal walls at the garden, where two of his creations knotted in combat. One, a miniature hero, valiant to a fault. The other, a monster, terrible in its fury. Both, so eager to test their mortality. They found it at the same time. The hero’s spear thrust mirrored the stab of the monster’s claws. As one, they fell to the ground, clay against clay.

My brother looked on with sorrow. He could have separated them and stopped the fight, but ultimately it would not have mattered. However he shaped their bodies and concocted their souls, they still descended into that strange non-being eventually. Death. It ensnared them all.

“It does not last,” he said again.

“They are not like us.” It was a truth I spoke often, though it wounded him to hear. How many times did I need to reopen that wound before he would understand? “You and I last, brother. We have always been and will always be.”

He did not respond.

Instead, he retrieved the bodies from the garden, cradling the clay to his chest. When he returned, he bathed the fallen hero and monster in a vast basin. The clay softened under his deft fingers and with his craftsman’s touch, he drew out their souls: two little strings of beaded lights.

Despite myself I reached out for them.

Wrath burned my brother’s brow. “How many times must I tell you? Do not touch the souls.”

Abashed, I lowered my hand. I had always been clumsy. He did not trust me to handle them.

He hung the strings of lights in the workshop rafters. They glimmered among dozens of other souls from his past creations.

Already, he was reworking the clay, kneading and flattening it to shape new bodies. His movements were slow, from precision, yes, but also from pain. It took a toll on him, seeing them perish. Still, he made more by the light of those he had already lost.

“Stay here.” He rose and limped to the back of the workshop, where a dark curtain hung.

I tried to lend him my arm. “Rest, brother. Please.”

“I will rest later.”

“You say that and never do.”

Again, the flare of wrath. “Obey me. You are the younger.”

“Let me help you,” I pleaded. My gaze traced the dark curtain. He had never let me behind it, but it was concern, not curiosity, that drove me. “Let me bear some of your burden.”

His wrath deflated, but his answer did not change. “You must have nothing to do with souls. Nothing to do with creation. Stay here.”

I burst out, “How can you love them so?”

“Love.” His laughter, sharp as glass. “Have nothing to do with love, either. You give yourself away and it does not last.”

He disappeared behind the dark curtain. I had some inkling of the mysteries he must work there. It must be where he added the souls, infused the beaded lights that breathed being into clay, for whenever he would reemerge from behind that curtain, his creations would be stretching and straining in his hands, already yearning to go out into the garden, to live.

This time, he was taking longer than usual. I waited, not wanting to raise his wrath any further. Still, I waited, and heard nothing.

I called out to him.

He did not answer.

My hand hesitated on the curtain fabric. Gently, I drew it back.

Two fresh creations, another hero and monster, scampered past my feet, out the open workshop door and into the garden.

“They are your finest yet, brother,” I told him, hoping to preempt his anger.

He did not answer, though he stood in front of me. No, something stood in front of me that was like him but not: a clay figure, the exact size and shape of my brother, as though it was one of his creations without a soul. Was this some new making of his, vaster and more powerful than any that had come before? Was this what he sought to hide from me?

“Brother?” I called. Where was he? Curiosity overcame even my fear of his temper now. “Brother?”

He did not answer.

I cast my gaze around for him. It was then I noticed the shelves, laden with glowing jars of nebulous and shimmering stuff, like the beaded strings of lights, but stretched until gauzy and fluid. Soul-stuff. The jars looked pristine. I traced a finger on a lid and drew it back coated with a fine film of clay dust.

They had never been used.

Something rose within me, dark and impossible.

My brother—I turned to his stoic, statue twin beside me and I knew what he had done.

“Brother!” He had never created with the soul-stuff in the jars. It had been his own being he had used, parceling out little pieces of his soul and gifting them to his creatures, until now, there was nothing left. He, the elder, the eternal, reduced to cold clay.

I dragged him back into the main workshop. I reached for the rafters, intent on snatching down the strings of lights, of forcing those shimmering beads back into my brother’s body, but my fingers passed through them. I could not grasp a single one, and even if I could have, I did not know if they could restore him. Had they not been the souls of things that died? I needed a piece of him that was still alive.

Through the crystal workshop walls, I saw them: his last creations, hero and monster, not yet fighting, but roving the garden, exploring its shady spaces and open places, and the streams that marked the perimeter where the garden ended and gave way to the wild beyond.

Thieves, I thought. Living, when my brother does not. My own wrath burned, fiercer than ever before. I rumbled from the workshop. My steps scorched the garden ground, my gaze withered ferns and flowers, my breath soured the streams. I snatched them up, hero in one hand, monster in the other, and brought them back inside. I tore them apart, limb for limb, prying them open, looking for my brother, for the bits of his soul they concealed, but I was clumsy and furious—the shimmering stuff did not come cleanly when the creatures died. It did not pearl into strings of lights; it smudged like smoke, slipping uselessly through my fingers. Insubstantial. Unattainable. It rose and smeared along the ceiling, a milky band among the rafter lights.

I looked at my hands. I looked at my statue-brother. I had destroyed the last living pieces of him. He was gone.

* * *

I veiled the crystal walls in black and sat with my brother, his clay trunk cast in stripes of white and shadow by the lights in the rafters. They brightened, as though straining to speak with silent voices. I could not look at them. So, inward I drew, until I was as still as he was.

Ages passed. Eons. But who was there to count them besides me? All through that time, the rafter lights brightened, until they seared even the inside of my eyes.

“What?” I finally demanded of them, as rage at my brother broke forth—for abandoning me, for refusing my help. “What do you want? I thought I was to have nothing to do with the souls?"

Clarity blazed as I spoke the words.

I turned to his clay corpse. He had known what could happen to him. He had not wanted me to follow in his fatal footsteps.

I wept then, and embraced what was left of him. Bathed in my tears, his body softened. His hands almost seemed to close around mine. I squeezed—too hard—and his hands broke away, twin mounds of clay clutched in my own.

I kneaded them, first without purpose or plan, and then, with intensity. I rose, threw back the veils on the walls, returned to his hands and shaped them anew. He was gone, but perhaps by creating, I could remember him better.

The creatures I molded were misshapen, not nearly as beautiful as my brother’s heroes nor as finely fearsome as his monsters. They were something in between. Not like me. Not even much like one another, but I pored over them and finished the pair, proud of my work.

Given their form, the time came to grant them being.

“Fear not,” I told the rafter lights. “It is not my own soul that I will use.”

Instead, I went behind the dark curtain and, acting on instinct without a recipe from which to work, I selected two jars of swirling soul-stuff. One silver, one gold. I set a fire in the workshop hearth and hung two cauldrons over it. Into the first I poured the gold fluid. But as I went to add the silver soul to the second cauldron, I caught a glimpse of my brother-statue. In the flickering light of the fire, his face seemed suddenly alive. My hand slipped, I fumbled the jar and its silver contents sloshed into the first cauldron, mingling with the gold. The concoction hissed and spat, but the souls swirled and merged, until I could no longer tell them apart. Two had become one.

Uncertain how to proceed, I left it to cool, until an idea struck me. I placed both clay bodies into the mixture, sure that the souls would separate, the silver absorbed by one body; the gold by the other.

It was not so. The mixture did not separate, but soaked into both bodies equally. When the cauldron was dry, two creatures lay together, moist and fleshy, at the bottom. I did not know what I had created. Could two separate bodies share the same soul?

They were sleeping when I pulled them out, their arms and legs twisted together. I untangled them but they twitched, distressed, so I let them wrap arms around each other again, and they settled. My miniatures were gangly and lopsided but they were mine. I understood then the love my brother felt for his creations. It soaked into me, as though I too had absorbed the gauzy soul of silver-gold.

I let them sleep while I went out into the garden. Half of it lay barren and dry, where earlier, I had stormed after my brother’s final creations. In the other half, the wild had pressed in and overthrown the delicate order of beautiful things. The flowers of the garden choked; the thorns were overgrown.

I weeded and watered. I patched the turf and whispered tender words until stems straightened and streams once more ran sweet.

“You will be home to my miniatures,” I crooned. “Beautiful and bountiful. A home that lasts forever.”

When the work was done, I looked around and saw that it was good.

My clumsy hands grew gentle when I handled my creations. Carefully, I lay them in the garden.

I was watching through the crystal walls when they awoke. They opened their eyes and beheld one another. They stretched their little arms. They rose and walked about, their hands entwined all the time. But they did not seem to notice the well-groomed garden. They paid no heed to the home I had labored over for them. They had eyes only for one another. They turned and lifted their hands, and as they did, they lifted my heart, for I thought they saw me watching and waved. Instead, they placed their hands on each other’s cheeks and ran their fingers through each other’s hair. They pressed their lips together.

I stomped into the garden.

They saw me then, and cowered, trembling and clutching one another. My little one-souled-two-bodied miniatures—they loved each other and feared me.

I reached down and separated them, and sat between them so they might admire me, their creator, but with a little gasp of pain, they ran around me and grasped for each other again. Twice more I separated them. Twice more they ran back into each other’s arms, murmuring and caressing, casting me looks of terror before turning their faces from me.

I understood my brother better than ever. He had warned me: Have nothing to do with love, either. It does not last.

And mine did not. My wrath returned. Plants wilted, crumbling to salt and sand. The streams churned and boiled. So, my own creations turned from me? Spurned me?

“If you will not call my garden home,” I thundered. “Begone.”

I picked them up and cast them out, beyond the boiling streams, into the thick thorns of the wild. If all they cared for was one another, then that is all they would have.

“Fend for yourselves,” I shouted after them. “Never return.”

* * *

Once again, I drew inward, veiled the workshop walls, and sat in silent solidarity with my statue-brother. However, curiosity overcame me again. Again and again. Too often, I peered out through gaps in the curtains, seeking a glimpse of my creations in the wild. Too often, I stalked to the edge of the desert garden and looked for them beyond.

Too often, I saw them.

Life was unkind to them. The wild winds were strong and weathered away at their bodies until they sheathed themselves in bark and leaves and made a shield of the wild against the wild.

Yet every night, they seemed to take solace in lying together.

One of them began to change shape, growing and rounding, though the other stayed the same. A night came when the rounded one wailed with pain. It was a sound that consumed the world, then subsided, and from between the legs of my rounded creation, a miniature creature emerged.

I froze as still as my statue-brother. My creations had become creators. They were like me.

I watched them every night then. Where once they had eyes only for each other, now they had eyes only for their miniature. They clutched it to their breast and sang to it softly. They hacked back the wild around them and carved out a garden of their own.

Over time, a pattern emerged. One of my creations grew rounder and produced a miniature creation of its own. But their miniatures did not remain miniature for long. They seemed to straighten even as my two creations stooped. One by one, their own miniatures left them, venturing beyond their little garden, further out into the wild. Finally, a time came when none of their miniatures remained. Sleepless, they watched for them, but saw none return.

I laughed, and let that laughter knife like lightning through the skies over the wild. Now they knew it did not last.

My own creations grew more lopsided. The bending places of their bodies stiffened. Cracks began to show. They shriveled and hunched and still, each night, they looked deeper into the wild for creations that did not come back.

* * *

A morning came when my creations did not rise.

So, they were now too weak even to stand? I intended to laugh at them again but when I opened my mouth, I called out to them instead.

They did not answer.

A second time, I called.

They did not answer.

I hurtled across the garden and over the streams. I raced into the wild, a wind rushing through thorns, until I came to the place where they lay.

A third time, I called.

They did not answer.

Once, they had eyes only for one another. Then, they had had eyes only for their creations. Now, their eyes saw nothing.

I strode into their garden and clutched the clay of their bodies in my hands. Cold. I ran my fingers over them, trying to sense some tremor of a soul within, but I was too late.

Someone else approached the little garden. I lowered my creations and drew back.

It was one of their miniatures—the first they had created. It stared into their empty eyes. It ran its hands over them and found no more life than I had. It too, had returned too late.

It knelt at their side and wept. I wept with it, rattling the wild branches all around, and over our twin grief, a third voice cried. That is when I realized the weeping miniature had a miniature of its own, swaddled against its breast. I marveled. A creation of the creation that my creations had created. Did it go on and on, this strange cycle? Did it last? No… at least, not like me. This was something different. They were something different.

I drew closer. The weeping miniature and its own little creation looked up and seemed to see me. They reached out their hands, as though hoping I could bear away their grief and mold it into something new.

But grief rent me just as it rent them. I stumbled back, the wild shaking in my wake; back through the sands of my garden, back to the workshop. All the while they keened. It was a sound that consumed the world. But what could I do? Could I soak the corpses of my creations in another soul from the jars behind the dark curtain? No. That might bring back a life, but not their life. My creations were gone. They did not last. Nor would their creations. Nor had those of my brother, who had begun this all.

I stared into his statue eyes. Cold. I raised my gaze to the rafters, where the beaded lights of his soul still shone. Then, I raised my fists and smashed them against the workshop walls. Crystal shards rained around my feet.

“Go!” I beseeched my brother—not his stone effigy—but the rafter lights, the pearls of his soul. “Go to them!”

The lights shivered and stirred. With a sigh, they streamed past me, out the workshop, across the garden, and into the wild where they unfurled through the sky as a net of glistening points and gauzy trails.

The miniature and its little one stopped weeping.

They lifted their faces to the light.

* * *
Russell F. Hirsch writes fantasy in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has previously published work in GEIST, Gingerbread House, and The Nashwaak Review and he authors a weekly online newspaper satirizing fairy tales, The Once Upon A Times. You can learn more about him at russellfhirsch.com and on social media @russellfhirsch.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

Growing up, I was fascinated by the idea of worlds beyond our own, full of magic and enchantment. As I got older, I loved how fantasy—whether set in our world or in a secondary world—could reveal the magic within our own reality. Fantasy is a space where history, myth, politics, science, religion, and metaphor can all interact, and their combination gives us a sense of enchantment that heightens our everyday life.

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