by Nathan Hall
Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.
Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.
Aliyah stood back for a moment, just looking at the sculpture under the light. A naked man in alabaster stood on its pedestal. Slim, wiry with muscle, its figure was sculpted with such precision that she could see fine white hairs on its arms. She could see the veins under its skin, could see its pores. Its face lined in exaltation and mourning, it cradled a nonexistent lover in its arms. Its hair rolled down its shoulders, mussed and wild. It didn’t glow, precisely, but Aliyah knew that it would still be visible in the darkest night, clear, bright, beautiful.
It had stood on its pedestal for more than four hundred years, seconds from weeping, seconds from falling to its knees. It looked the same, she knew, as it had on the day it was made, the same as it had every day since.
Perfection is eternal.
The Creator who had sculpted it was gone. All of them were. Penoctema, the Creator, had been pulled halfway across the Kingdom, to another of the endless battlefields. He waged war in her name, in the name of all who had yet to achieve Perfection. Most people never would. No, most would strive for it their entire lives, would die before achieving their goal. Perfection is demanding.
It wouldn’t be that way for her, or so Penoctema had promised. She would achieve Perfection, and would gain eternity. She would become like those rare Creators, sent to the endless battlefields, fighting the eternal wars. A kingdom counted its strength in its handful of the Perfect. Eternal, untouchable, they swept aside flawed blades, struck through imperfect mail. They cut elegant, bloody paths through the mortal enemy. She had witnessed such battles, seen such paths, tended such victims.
And that awaited her. Penoctema, her father, had promised.
A harp sounded on a stand to one side, each note clear, and clean, and sweet; each note plucked with a precision impossible for mortal fingers to manage. The melody didn’t sit in the air like normal music did. It caressed the air, instead, flowing on winds that weren’t there to whisper in the ear. Each note spoke to her, sang to her. This, it said, is Perfection.
The song reached its end, and the room stood silent for a second, two. Then the melody started anew, as it had for a hundred and seventy-five years. Its Creator had been buried in a mudslide three years ago. There had been attempts at rescue but she hadn’t been found. Aliyah couldn’t imagine the horror: buried, smothered, silenced. Still alive, though, always alive. Shivering, Aliyah turned from the statue.
She’d been in this museum a hundred times in the last fifteen years, had heard that song a hundred times that. She knew its every note, just as she knew every muscle and hair on the statue her father had crafted. She started down a long corridor lined with Perfect paintings, hung with Perfect tapestries. She passed more instruments playing other Perfect songs, each clinging to her mind in turn, each filling her to the brim with bliss.
A thousand creations filled these halls. This was the largest gallery in Svora, the largest in all of Millean. But it was only one. Each of the great cities had a museum; by definition, a city could not be great without one. All over the continent, all over the civilized world, Perfection was displayed in white-columned rooms and marble courtyards, surrounded by Nature’s own wild and fleeting Perfection. The number of Perfect works the world over baffled the mind, the number of Creators on the battlefields, beyond number.
Harps and sitars, drums and violas and tambours, all faded away as she neared the small cove in one corner of the museum. Tall, well-tended bushes served as walls on two sides, the single cobbled stone path leading in and out of the corner. Finally, the last notes fell away behind her. She stopped for a moment, smiling at the silence. This cove, alone in all the museum, was a place of peace. The lullaby she hummed seemed a desecration of this place. But it was the only peace she had.
The lullaby Had been in Aliyah’s family for generations almost beyond number, passed mother to daughter, mother to daughter, like Aliyah’s mother had taught it to her. Dead for almost ten years, in full service to Nature by now, her mother still seemed to return when Aliyah hummed the tune. She could hear her mother’s voice, see her smile, feel her embrace. Even facing the prospect of failure, or the prospect of eternity, it was hard to be afraid when she hummed.
Slowly, she continued on, until she fell under the shadow of the centerpiece in the cove. The sculpture, carved out of the trunk of an ancient oak, was three fourths the size of a man, but resembled nothing else she’d ever seen. Sweeping lines borrowed from nature, bulging curvatures stolen from animal, several sharp spines for fur along what might have been its back. She could identify neither limb nor skeleton, and saw nothing resembling a face. No matter how she looked at the thing, it seemed to glow; like a candle, flickering, when you only watched the shadows. No matter how she looked, it hurt her eyes.
But the Silent Ladies had their own tastes, and when they touched a thing, humankind was not to disparage.
Aliyah knew the Creator responsible for this Perfect monstrosity. Cilora, from the south, where the wars now raged on the Plains. A hundred and fifty years younger than her father, a lover he had kept on occasion, Cilora was small, graceful, beautiful…and in a word, insane.
Sitting back on a small stone bench against the brick wall, Aliyah looked at the carving for a moment, as she often did, just trying to make sense of strange angles and nonsense edges that folded back into curves. She never could. There wasn’t any sense to be had.
This was the only work the museum had recovered from Cilora, though she had finished a handful of Perfect pieces in her lifetime. Usually, she didn’t work in wood. Usually, sand and clay were her mediums. Usually, she built them up directly on the ground, which made it impossible to separate, impossible to recover. It was against the regulations, of course; in fact, the very first guideline was to work from a movable platform. But Cilora didn’t pay any mind to the laws or fashions of the lands. She simply continued to create.
When Aliyah had asked her what she’d been meaning to make when she started this masterwork, Cilora had claimed she didn’t know. She’d said that she had never put in her years for Perfection, never served a true term of Apprenticeship. As a result, nothing she made ever turned out like she meant it to, and in the century between making it and being asked, she had forgotten entirely. Aliyah had laughed at that, sure the woman had been joking, at the time. But then Cilora had given her such an odd look…
Aliyah wondered even now whether it had been a joke after all.
She’d reached the end of the lullaby. Almost without thinking, Aliyah started humming another note, another, another. The first was certain, the second unsure, the last faltering. She did not hum a fourth. She never did.
Nine years had given her one note, possibly two. Her mother had added a dozen in her lifetime, which impressed Aliyah. She’d died while still relatively young, while Aliyah was hardly more than a child. She’d been gifted. Aliyah forced down the bitter thought that her mother should still be the one adding notes, rather than she herself, and started the lullaby over again.
Adding to the melody was a tradition as surely as was the passing of the melody itself. All the contributions of all the women in her line fit loosely, fluidly, rightly. It reminded Aliyah of Nature, and her beauty, her Perfection. There was none of that in the Perfection of man. Man’s Perfection was devious, dishonest.
Her eyes were again on that carving. Whatever else she wanted to say about Cilora, she had to admit: whenever something entered Cilora’s head, she wouldn’t be dissuaded from it. How had such a tiny woman wrestled this sleek, if twisted, form from the trunk of an oak?
When she looked at the carving, her eyes blurring in an effort not to trace nonsense lines, Aliyah thought of her father, of his telling her the story of how he met Cilora. It was one of his favorite stories to tell. He told it the same way, exactly the same way, each and every time. Aliyah had learned it by heart before her tenth birthday.
As fond as she was of the eccentric little woman, Aliyah thought she would go mad if she ever had to hear the story again.
“I found Cilora on the streets of the Compolien. It was a summer night, sometime—oh, going on three hundred years ago, now. Her feet were bare, her face and hands covered in dirt. She was begging alms from the sailors in her tattered pink gown. The most beautiful vision I’d ever seen. Ahem, this was before I met your mother, mind.
“Sailors on shore leave aren’t the company for a beautiful young woman to have of a night. A Creator was better, I thought. So I invited her to stay in my manor. I didn’t ask her to leave again for seventy-odd years.
“She wasn’t yet twenty, on those first few months, but she showed immediate promise.”
“Promise of what?” Aliyah had asked for a while, when she was between the ages of asking the question and being prepared for an answer. Her father always looked away, clearing his throat and almost seeming to blush. Not that that had stopped him from saying the same the next time he told the story. Eventually, she had started asking the question just to see her unflappable father flustered.
“In any case, I took her under my tutorage, taught her to create, provided her fees. She was more than worth the cost. For the first time in a hundred years, I had companionship that counted. She had natural talent in the arts, more than any of my previous apprentices. But she frustrated me.
She painted these nonsense pictures. Every time I looked away, she snuck off to play in the mud! Her music contained no meter, her dances were wild and unrefined. She would never, I thought, be a true Creator if she did not learn to apply reason and moderation to her works.”
“But you were wrong,” Aliyah usually said. Her father always gave that roar of a laugh.
“I was wrong,” he acknowledged. “I returned from buying fresh bread—there was a place down by the corner, and it made the finest I’d eaten before, or have since—and I returned to find Cilora changed. Perfected.”
Aliyah had again reached the end of the lullaby. The first note came without thought, and then the second, slightly different than she had given it before, slid smoothly alongside. She managed a small smile, despite the memory she knew would follow, the rest of the conversation she’d had with her father about Cilora.
To armor herself against the memory, she tried to focus on the melody. How had that last note changed, and why? She didn’t know. To her father’s chagrin, she had refused to learn about music. Refused to taint the lullaby, and her memory of her mother, with the examinations that had so ruined other art for her, examinations that had allowed her to pick creations apart, piece by piece, to find imperfections.
Music would remain sweet, and gentle, and powerful, mysterious and beautiful, infinite and wise, her breath and her pulse. It was life to her. The whisper of grasses on her feet and the wind in her hair, the sun on her face and the cool spring rain. She refused to make something so natural cheap and ugly in straining for Perfection.
The memory sparked again in her mind, refusing to be rebuffed. She started humming more quickly, but memory intruded.
“Really?” Aliyah had retorted a year ago, just before her father had set off to his latest battlefield tours. “Is that why she gets drunk, covers herself in red paint, and dances naked under the new moon? Because she’s Perfect?”
“She’s from a different time,” Penoctema had blustered.
“She believes the Sisters will suck my soul out through my nose if I don’t eat an onion, whole, every month.”
“So she’s superstitious,” he said, less confidently.
“She bathes in leech ponds and drinks goat blood!”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then make me understand!”
“I can’t!” Her father’s face, usually bright and smooth and vital, was lined and aged with frustration. “I can’t understand the woman. How am I supposed to make you understand?” When he sighed, scrubbing his grey-speckled growth of a beard, he looked as old as an Age, if not quite as old as he really was. “I’m telling you this because I love you, Aliyah. I doubt any other Creators have told their progeny.”
Aliyah gave him a look that spoke every word she was too wise to say aloud. In response, he leaned close, patting her hand.
“When I became Perfect, I gained more than you could ever know. Time. Authority. Acclaim. Freedom. Yes, freedom more than anything. No worries, no rules, no urgency. So much.” Her father’s eyes held hers, unwavering, unflinching. “But for days, weeks after I was transfigured by the Silent Ladies, I wept for what I’d lost.”
“Wept?” she’d asked. The word tasted strange on her tongue. Wept, upon gaining eternity.
Her father only nodded. “When we gain who we are—who we will be forever—we lose who we were. All of our imperfections, weaknesses, flaws… They are either polished away or grown to features in their own right. You see now? I don’t love her, Aliyah. Not for who she is. I love her for who she was, who she can’t ever be again.”
Aliyah realized her whole body had tightened with the tension of the memory. Her eyes were closed tight, her jaws clenched, her fingers balled into fists at her skirt. Slowly, she loosened, eased, straightened. She opened her eyes, smoothed her skirts. Standing, turning resolutely away from the masterwork monstrosity, she stepped into the shadows of the bushes, where she could see nothing but the greenery.
Nature. She called to Aliyah, soothed her. Beautiful yes, but never reaching for anything more. Nature was content. Nature was happy. Fleeting, yes, but also eternal, in her own way. And every life had been touched by her unplanned Perfection.
Nature had been wise when the Silent Ladies had ascended. In love with the grasping for Perfection as much as they were with Perfection itself, the Ladies had forestalled offering Nature eternity, waiting to see what such a creature could produce when at her most determined. When, finally, they knew that Nature did not deign to pursue them, the Ladies offered Nature their gift if she would only promise to continue her good work.
Nature refused. And when the Silent Ladies scolded her, reminding her that they would be present when her children’s children returned to dust, Nature laughed, and promised that those children would have children, too, and that her sons and daughters would continue forever to vex the Sisters with Perfection, and by living short, beautiful lives, rather than their own grotesqueries.
Aliyah found herself smiling, again. Humming, too. That third note wasn’t right. She didn’t think about it, not really, but she wanted the lullaby to be even more beautiful when she taught it to her own daughter, years from now, than it was. But she would have to try something else, with that third.
Nature’s Folly, the story was called. Wherein Nature is portrayed as a fool, for refusing a gift given freely. As a child, Aliyah had guffawed at the arrogance of that choice. After all, when the Silent Ladies touched a thing, it was not for anyone to disparage.
Now, however… She started toward the exit, but halted when she reached another masterwork, this one easier on the eyes, and on the heart.
A woman was drawn in charcoal with fine gray lines, her eyes dark and intense, her hair light, wispy, almost floating. There was a tiny scar along the jaw, captured so precisely from the model to the paper that she could almost see how it had faded against the skin over the years. Her neck was graceful, leading to a necklace of pearls and gold, down to a fine silken collar at the edge of the paper. But while the lines of the drawing were always fine, the farther the artist drew from the face, the fainter and less detailed the sketch grew. The woman’s eyes drew all the attention, so deep with light and shadow, traced with reflections, as though they held the very woman’s soul inside. Her expression was bright and loud with the joy of the moment. She had fallen for this artist, this Creator.
Yes, this was a picture drawn by a master, yes. But almost as importantly, it was clear how much he loved his subject, how he had studied her every imperfection in order to capture them all Perfectly.
She only had one memory regarding this drawing. Well, two, but the second was just her father repeatedly recalling the advice he had given her the first time.
“You have to love what you’re working on. You’ve got to love it as if it were your child. Because until it’s finished, it is a child. Ever growing, changing. Vulnerable. Relying on you, as Creator, to shelter it, to raise it right. If you abandon it, like an infant, it will die of exposure. You must guide it into what you want it to be, what it’s meant to be.”
She had never told him the truth, but she was sure he’d suspected. She’d never loved anything she’d worked on to appease him. Not the paintings, not the pictures, not the sculptures, carvings, or dances. Nothing. She didn’t have room in her heart for that. She wasn’t strong enough to love something with all her being, and then be told, by dreaded silence, that it simply was not good enough. The very thought almost drove her mad.
It was then that she had decided that she would never attain Perfection. She wasn’t strong enough, or crazy enough. It was Nature who had been wise, who had been right. The true freedom was not in attaining others’ Perfection, but in striving towards her own.
Even so, the drawing was sweet, pleasant to her eyes, sweet to her mind. She hadn’t even realized she’d started humming, until she reached that dreaded third note, her voice climbing almost higher than comfort to reach the note that she felt might fit better.
The note locked into place, not with the smooth, fluid rightness of the others, but with a solid, rigid finality.
The world tilted under her feet, and her knees crumpled. A sting raced along her palm where she’d broken her fall onto the stone path; raising her hand to her face, she found a raw, red patch of scraped skin. Blood already sprouted to the surface. But her mind wasn’t on her pain.
The world was still turning, turning, turning. Beyond staying upright, beyond bearing. She fell onto her back, continuing to stare at her palm as the blood weighed heavier with each beat of her heart.
She could hear her pulse thudding in her ears, more quickly than any of the drums in their masterworks. She could feel the blood shooting through burning arms and legs, into pricking fingers and toes. She could feel that desperate, urgent vitality, that mortal thrum.
She could hear her breaths racing from her throat, heavier than any reed flute could manage, harder than any pipe. She could feel the air in her chest, swelling her with what sweet, new life. Her whole body sang with it, even as the world spun out of control.
And then it all…stopped.
She watched her hand until her eyes burned. The wound was gone. It wasn’t raw, like she had blotched it dry, or scabbed, like she had let it stop on its own. It wasn’t scarred, like it had happened months or years past. It was smooth, and clear, and soft, like it had never been.
The world stopped spinning more slowly than it had started. She didn’t trust the ground to stay where it was, yet, and didn’t trust her legs any more than the ground. But that wasn’t what kept her on her back on the cobbled stone floor.
Silent. It was all silent. From where she was, she couldn’t hear any of the motley melodies provided by the masterworks. But it was the absence of other noises, closer noises, that startled her.
Neither filled her with their fleeting joy.
Instead, the joy just…was. Singing in her skin, her every inch alive with it. Alive. Like she had never been, like she’d never known what it meant to live.
And then, as the minutes passed into what might have been an hour, there was that other feeling, slowly building, like she had held her breath for too long.
She covered her face with her arm and gave in to the growing need.
The voice sounding the lullaby wasn’t her voice. Hers was quiet and shaky, reluctant to be at all. This voice was deep, for a woman’s, melodic and sure. This new tongue didn’t stumble over the notes as her old one sometimes had, instead navigating the intricacies of the lullaby with the familiarity that was due her. Her throat produced long, loud, clear notes, each one precise, each as it was meant to be. Each note Perfect.
And then she reached the end, and she… kept going. It wasn’t the end, after all, some new part in her whispered. Not like it had been that morning. Now, there were just those last three little notes to finish it off.
She hummed them beautifully.
Her daughter, whenever amid the coming centuries Aliyah chose to bear her, would receive the song to learn by rote. She would offer up a pale imitation of Aliyah’s own. She might add to the lullaby, and with Aliyah’s permission. But any addition would be an aberration, a detraction from the Perfect song that already was. Always there would be a small silence, a distance between the Perfect whole and the foolish effort to expand it. Never again would a member of her line work the lullaby like a puzzle, adding her own complexity to the whole.
Aliyah had stolen countless generations. She’d stolen her future from her ancestral past. This lullaby wasn’t hers. It wasn’t for her to Perfect. Who were the Sisters to decide she should have eternity, when it was unwanted?
At the thought, she remembered Cilora. Had this been what had happened to the madwoman? Had she been striving for Perfection at all? Or had she been deceived into achieving it?
Her next thought was of her father, and she laughed. No. She wouldn’t strain for Perfection her entire life, only to fall short. Her father had made sure of that, just as he had promised.
But she wouldn’t live an eternal life on the battlefields, either. She had promised that to herself.