Swimming was prohibited in the lake at Little Pass: too many archaeological remains at the bottom. This didn’t keep the local kids from trying to reach the lakebed in a single plunge, with all the air they could fit into their lungs. It was during one such dive, surrounded by the crumbled faces of a lost civilization, that Euphrates decided he wanted to become a woman and a sculptor. She emerged clutching a translucent stone that she had taken blindly from the muddy depths and she kept it for the rest of her life.
The stone was sitting on her desk as a paperweight when she opened the envelope, and it was the first thing she saw when she finally peeled her eyes from the test results. The puncture of the thick needle, the X-rays, the surgery, she didn’t want to think about any of that: she had been through too many operations. Better to think only of the little ancient stone, her constant companion, or of the idols carved from marble and wood crowding the table, the statues, complete and incomplete, of people and animals, the carvings with their hypnotic waves all around her studio. Against one wall was the bed, a sofa really, where she slept (she had moved out of her bedroom, which now served as storage), the wool blanket grazing the floor. Her apprentice would put it in its place on her usual rounds . . . and tidy the piles of books even though no one ever asked her to . . . but how far was the blanket from actually touching the floor, she wondered . . . that one centimeter made all the difference . . . when Haydée says to her, You’ve left it on the floor again, she’ll respond: No, it’s not touching yet . . .
The sculptor blinked and resurfaced, her mind clear. She put the envelope in the third drawer of her desk. The news was expected, it didn’t take her by surprise, but she had many issues left to resolve. She remembered all too well her writer friend, probably the most intelligent person she had ever known. But even though he was in bad health, he hadn’t left a will and now his books were being published in shamefully bad taste: they’d printed his drafts, notes taken on napkins, even some of his grocery lists. That wasn’t going to happen to her. She had a strong distaste for the legal side of things but she had resigned herself, just as she’d resigned herself to the doctor’s appointments. It had already been decided that the final resting place for her body of work would be the regional museum which she had helped set up in Little Pass to exhibit some sculptures rescued from the lake. It wasn’t the most prestigious museum or the one that would attract the largest crowd but a place filled with respectful hands, careful caretakers. They had yet to settle the final details but they were so close to reaching an agreement, with enthusiasm on both sides, that she wasn’t really worried.
She touched each of her statues, one by one, or at least all of those she could reach. They were the few that were left, the ones she had been able to avoid selling off; if it were up to her she wouldn’t have gotten rid of a single one: they were like family, silent relatives. Each one communicated a different feeling, like the one that brought to mind a steaming cup of tea, or the one that absorbed the heat of the day, no matter how cold it was. It was important to touch them, a ritual to wake them up and keep them alive. The swimmer crouched in diving position, completely doubled over, hands disappearing into the water or the air. The perfume seller, one of her first pieces: everyone swore they could smell the half-open box the young woman held with her head bent (she still ran into the model from time to time, now matronly with sagging breasts, working at the local paper shop). And the blind dog lying on his pedestal beside the studio door, perking up his ears but with an unfocused gaze. She stroked him: the bronze was smooth and worn. Her friends always petted him, at her insistence, for good luck.
Then, she said to herself as she left the studio, there’s the issue of the headstone. She’d been working on it for the past few months, since the pain first started, even before she went to see the handsome doctor in the city. Haydée Ricci, her apprentice, had frowned at her pessimism (she should see the test results, that’d show her, the sculptor thought). A headstone is no small matter! It’s a sculptor’s final piece, like it or not. After thinking it over for a minute, Haydée asked, So it’s going to be a sculpture over your grave? No, Euphrates responded, just a headstone, which is more than enough. That’s fine, Haydée said after a while, everything an artist like you does can be considered sculpture. Euphrates smiled. In reality . . . I’m not going to sculpt it on my own. But it will be mine, she assured her. And even if she didn’t sculpt it herself, what did it matter? A true artist, Euphrates had learned, could use anyone’s hands. Where are my keys? Is there cider left or do I need more?
She put on her coat and hat, pausing to smell it first like she always did: a mix of firewood and onion. At the last minute she grabbed a container from the cabinet, a bottle wrapped in straw with bits of apple pulp stuck to the glass. She closed the door without locking it and set off down the hill. She greeted her milk cows and tipped her hat to the pigs, the fat mama pig with her piglets, good morning, good morning. The news in the envelope had set her free. She could no longer put off the inevitable, the thing she’d always saved for later. The regional museum, the fate of her home and her work, the needle, the headstone she was making and unmaking as she pleased from that lump of stone. After half a kilometer she turned and cut through the dry pastures to her neighbor’s house. She left the empty bottle beside the door and continued downhill on the path that led to the main road.
But there was something else bothering her. Yes, that was the real problem. The issue of the ring. Let’s consider the ring, she said to herself. But the sky was more interesting, the birds of prey gliding over the pines in imperfect circles, and when the clouds dispersed the lake gleamed in the distance . . . and under the surface of the water, the silent heads, the perpetually eroding stone.
Half an hour later she was off the mountain. The first bus stop was the cemetery, entered through a wrought-iron gate on the edge of Little Pass, the town straining at its borders but still too small to be considered a city. One corner of the graveyard had been lopped off by the railroad tracks and this was where the headstone workshop stood. It had been opened by her friend Hermes, many years ago, and was now run by his son, Marcel. An enormous sign that the father had carved read: hermes and son, stonework. And underneath the son had added a quote from the sacred ancient texts: the sweet prize on high.
Marcel worked outside as often as he could, but when it got too cold he moved indoors since, as he said, an engraver wearing gloves was worse than one with a hook for a hand. That day he was in the front courtyard, wearing a scarf that he’d wrapped around himself several times. He was sitting in a wicker chair reading a book, his back to an unfinished slab. Euphrates sat in one of the other chairs and shared her unsurprising news. Well, Marcel responded after a pat on the shoulder, we must all eventually go to live in our windowless home. Does that mean that you have to hand over the ring? Do you know who you’re going to give it to? When she shook her head, he added: You must at least have decided what your blank slate will say. That’s what they called the gravestone, to make it sound less grim. She laughed and answered: It’s going to say: with no hurry and no money. But they both knew that neither of the two things was true. Marcel was her closest confidant in town, the only person who had a key to her house (not counting Haydée, who lived in the city and commuted by train every day except her day off ).
On her way uphill Euphrates turned off the road to swing by the neighbor’s house. She picked up the bottle beside the door, now filled with cider, and left a few random coins in the green can. Back in her kitchen, she poured out a mugful and heated it on the stove. She went into the studio and sat at her desk. From the third drawer, way in the back, she removed a small case. For a long while she sat looking at the Ring of Ruirving. It was a simple circle that didn’t quite close, dark gold, like molasses, until it was placed in the light: then it looked as translucent as her stone. The ring was lighter than she’d remembered.
I wanted to take my time to design my headstone, but now . . . I could always choose at random, she thought, but that wouldn’t be fair. Had old Chairo chosen her at random? Among all the artists of such a large place? He had visited her twice at her studio in the mountains: once to meet her and the second time to bequeath her the ring. The first time he came alone; the second with a lawyer even older than him. She had been chosen all those years ago; now it was her turn to choose.
It had been the biggest surprise of her life. Euphrates was still a young artist, promising, with some followers, but not yet widely acclaimed. She had managed to become financially stable and move to the house at the foot of the mountain, with its back to the village where she had been born. Every once in a while she received visits from talented friends, possible patrons, even students who traveled from the nearest city to take classes with her. But nothing had prepared her for that visit. In all of Portent there was no actor better than Chairo; no rising star could compare to the legend of the seasoned performer with his foxlike presence. Euphrates had seen him many times onstage, during the short while she lived in the capital as a young artist, when she’d studied at the Academy of Art and Design. And now here he was at her door asking her to show him the secrets of her sculptures.
The first time he visited she didn’t know what to offer him (she didn’t drink alcohol) so she served him some of her neighbor’s cider. Chairo asked for seconds and thirds and ended up taking the large bottle home with him. He never explained the reason for his visit; just that he needed to meet her in person. A collector friend had introduced him to the work of this young artist, and he had even attended, incognito, a small exhibit of her work at a metropolitan gallery. Euphrates showed him her kiln and her forge, her workshop and her personal collection. Would you like a piece? she offered, drunk with happiness. Chairo let out a long peal of laughter that would remain etched in her memory. I can pay for it, he clarified seriously, and the sculptor insisted: It’s a gift or nothing. Maybe another day, the actor said.
Seven years later, an unfamiliar voice called to announce the arrival of Chairo that evening. The sculptor ran down the hill, but instead of leaving the empty bottle she knocked on her neighbor’s door until she woke him from his nap, startled. Please tell me you have some cider on hand, she begged. It was the end of spring and Euphrates returned home with the neighbor’s last three bottles, one in each hand and another tucked under her arm. She put the bottles in the fridge and that night they once again drank cider. The lawyer politely refused a glass but did accept the chair Euphrates offered: his knees couldn’t hold out. Chairo, on the other hand, could hardly remain seated. Not yet, not yet! he said to his lawyer. Euphrates had no idea what was going on and she thought: He wants to buy one of my statues, no, he wants to buy all of them.
The old man finally explained: The Ring of Ruirving is a prize given to the best living artist, and now I will hand it down to you. It’s a secret prize and no one must know of its existence, except for the foundation that finances it. Your only task is to continue dedicating yourself to your art, and when the time comes, hand the ring down to the only artist you feel truly deserves it.
The lawyer took the little case from his pocket and opened it. A month later, Chairo went to live in his windowless home. When Euphrates received the news she tried the ring on for the first time.
She called Haydée into the studio the following day. Her apprentice was a nice girl, even though she had the habit of hiding the negative reviews. Euphrates found it funny: the critic who had picked apart her last exhibit was a newborn babe; he still had so much to learn about life that the sculptor took his bad review as a triumph. If she wanted to improve as an artist, Haydée would have to learn to read criticism more carefully.
I need to schedule a meeting with Maestra Brasi, she told her apprentice. Haydée was used to important names but this request surprised to her. Euphrates didn’t want to go into detail. Doing so would mean explaining about the envelope in the third drawer. It’s a kind of job interview, she said vaguely. Later Haydée poked her head in: Brasi had accepted. Euphrates was feeling increasingly feeble, so they arranged the visit for that very week, on what ended up being one of the coldest days of the year.
That morning Euphrates woke up with a knot in the middle of her back. She went out to the barn, her footsteps crunching the snow. She was slightly embarrassed by the amount of filth. Haydée cleaned, and had cleaned up especially for this visit, but it was never enough: the sculptor would rather excavate an entire mountain than wash a single plate. As she ate breakfast she looked at the utensils and dishes she ate off of, as if seeing them for the first time: she noticed a duck hiding in the reeds, a bee carved into the fork handle. There were fatty glops floating in the milk: the most delicious part, she decided. Haydée had the idea of scheduling a breakfast with Brasi, but Euphrates always got up so early that it was still dark out, and she wasn’t going to wait for the other artist to arrive.
Fifteen minutes later she was vomiting her breakfast into the kitchen sink. If only I had time to dedicate myself fully to my blank slate, she thought. But she had to meet with Brasi: she couldn’t leave her the ring without being sure. The old man had put his faith in her, and she had risen to the challenge. But then she thought: Risen to what challenge? For the first time she rejected the simplistic notion that had exerted so much influence over her for all these years. And so she asked herself: But did I rise to it, or not? Did I pass the test or did I fall into the trap? She turned the faucet on and rinsed her mouth out with water, then changed her shirt and sat in the studio waiting for her guest to arrive.
Brasi must’ve been perplexed by the invitation, Euphrates thought. They had been rivals since they’d first met: they were practically the same age and their careers had run parallel, competing for the same grants, the same awards. But Maestra Brasi, as everyone called her, had no idea about the Ring of Ruirving, and on that point Euphrates had her completely beat. Their rivalry hadn’t impeded a particular form of friendship, forged through regular contact, as polished as Euphrates’ stone, and just as hard at the core. Brasi criticized Euphrates, to her face and behind her back as well, but as far as Euphrates was concerned the competition had been beneficial to them both.