Helena met The Artisan under a tall cliff, scooped out and overhanging like a tidal wave frozen in granite. The smooth contours of rock made a perfect arc for his back as he reclined, his stumpy and misshapen legs crossed in front of him, facing towards the incoming tide now just a few hours from arrival. In his hands he turned over a solid black gemstone. Cold and raw to the untrained, the warmth in the hands of The Artisan made it as malleable as wet clay. It rippled, like water sealed in plastic, bouncing light across its ridges, as he pressed his thumbs into it; now shaped like a black egg, now a black heart, now a tear drop.
He looked up and smiled, handing her the gemstone gently. She took it in hesitant, cupped palms. The moment it left The Artisan’s hands, it became rough and raw again. Heavier and covered with sharp points, grey scratches and marks like any other chipped lump of stone. The first time they’d met, he’d thrown it to her and the impact punctured her skin. She observed it like a dangerous animal, keeping her hands as still as possible. He motioned to her; put it down on the ground, and she did with great care, the sharp edges sinking into the sand.
Stepping around it respectfully, she followed The Artisan as he got to his feet and began to walk further along the narrowing beach. After three meetings, it still surprised Helena how tall he appeared, despite his short, bowed legs. His torso was elongated, so that his hands only just reached his hips when he allowed his arms to relax. The head resembled the untouched gemstone; raw and sharp, perhaps even a little dangerous. Two bright grey eyes peered out like little dwarf suns – small compared to their supergiant cousins but with a greater heat and density.
He’d promised to show her how to create and to shape. Helena touched the stone that hung around her neck, the same kind of gemstone he’d warped and configured in his hands. This remained smooth and in the shape of a perfect circle. The Artisan had tooled in such a way as to stay warm and not to revert back to its original form. No matter what the ambient temperature it was a constant source of warmth against her chest, never throbbing but simply emitting heat. The only change she’d noticed had been recent. In the past few days, she’d felt occasional clefts, like tiny fault lines that grazed and dragged against her follicles. She’d made a note to mention it to him.
They continued walking, leaving civilisation far behind them. The cliffs seemed to push them out, closer to the incoming shoreline. The Artisan seemed unconcerned, so Helena followed a half step behind him. When she asked, how much further, he looked over his shoulder and smiled again.
Ahead, Helena could see a sheer blade of rock like the bow of a ship pointing out to sea. The Artisan started to jog towards it; she followed. The tide was beginning to lap around it but a series of small stepping stones shaped in a crescent led them around into a hidden bay. Here the sand was a different colour to the rest of the beach they’d walked down – white but with black stripes. Helena tried to kick the sand out with her shoe but the stripes were as impenetrable as if behind a pane of glass. Crouching down to pick up a handful, she was left with white sand falling between her fingers.
The Artisan made his way into the bay. The wide sweep of cliff formed an amphitheatre; from the air it would’ve resembled half a bullet hole. Not just the outcrop of rock they’d navigated, but the entire rock face was made from the gemstone, but as though it had been worked. Helena pressed herself against it; it was smooth and warm. As she tried to get up, she could feel the stone around her neck tugging as though being absorbed back into its’ natural home. She took a step back, trying not to appear outwardly alarmed. She suddenly felt like an intruder.
Near the middle of the bay’s arc, a few feet from the bottom of the cliff, The Artisan stood by a huge jagged boulder, as long and tall as a bus. An aggressive monolith, its presence jarred against the fluidity around it. Helena thought the scene resembled a beautifully carved statue with one unfinished arm just a mangled lump of unworked marble. He gestured her to come over, waving his hands. By the time she reached him, he was already gliding his hands over the rock, grasping every spike and protrusion as though conducting a strange orchestra. The rock began to respond to him. This is how it works, he said. Helena stood impotently next to him.
Here, he said brightly pointing to one of the gnarled corners, now it is your turn. Helena began to drift her hands over it, trying to imitate his moves. She felt a cold scratching on her palms. Looking down at her hands, she flexed her fingers and felt pain. When she held them up to the sun, Helena could see red welts crossing her skin. She started to bleed.
The Artisan chuckled. It is not easy for a beginner. You have to feel it. You have to want it. You have to control it. He grasped a particularly lethal looking piece of the rock without even looking at it. Helena winced, the force should’ve impaled his hand, but instead it wilted. Without taking his eyes from hers, he smoothed it flat. You don’t believe, he said; firmly but not unkindly. Come, we’ll finish this together before the tide catches us. His hands now flew across the rock with the enthusiasm of a frantic painter.
Helena picked the opposite side to him so as to remain hidden. Her hands were stinging badly, but she closed her eyes and tried to believe. Pressing her palms against the rock she started muttering to herself. Unbeknownst to her, The Artisan could hear and cocked an eyebrow. As if in silent prayer, she kept moving her lips in devotional gibberish – I do believe, I do believe, I do believe. The cold stone started to feel warm in her hands. She opened her eyes and saw the raw, scratched face of rock was now smooth and shiny where she had been pressed against it. Just a patch, no larger than her hand, but it had changed. She grinned and now started speaking aloud, spreading her hands further afield, eyes tightly shut. I do believe, I do believe, I do believe. The pain from her bleeding wounds now disappeared, the blood dry and flaking. Warmth crept up her hands, past her wrists and elbows. Helena became lost in a trance, now dancing and swaying like a corn field on a windy day, for moments? Minutes? Maybe more.
She snapped out of her reverie. The Artisan stood next to her with a proud smile on his face. The long boulder was now shaped in an almost perfect rectangle. Four of the visible sides – the four worked by The Artisan – were perfect and smooth. Helena’s side was bumpy but soft and black as coal. In her state of excitement, she’d pushed her hand inside the stone up to her wrist. She paused, looking to her hand with the horror of someone who has punched a hole through the canvas of a masterpiece. The Artisan showed no anger however. Reaching inside the soft stone, he clasped her hand and brought it out. She looked at it incredulously, as he finished off her work smoothing out the rock flat. Her hand was dry and without blemish, as though it had passed through sand or fine gravel. Compared to the sweat on her other palm, there was not a trace of moisture.
Come, said The Artisan, and he gestured towards the rock. It’s finished. We will walk through together. Helena took a step backwards. The gemstone around her neck pricked at her skin. I’ll come with you, he said. Don’t be alarmed. Take my hand.
Helena allowed her hand to be held. Looking numbly, she stepped towards the sheer face, closing her eyes. She could feel The Artisan tugging on her. Into the rock he strode confidently, and she followed.
The feeling on her skin was like passing through water whilst covered in thin rubber. The rock offered minimal resistance but was always there. Her hearing was muffled to the outside, but pin sharp inside the rectangle. Even the jangle of her earrings sounded like a church bell tolling. She opened her eyes and could see all around her tinted black – The Artisan beside her looking forward, the beach, the tide, the face of rock forming a sweep around them, the sky above. With her free hand she tried to grab the stone around her neck but it had become like a slippery gel, constantly fighting out of her clutches. The Artisan let go of her hand and started to walk on ahead, turning backwards to face her as he did so. The light from his eyes grew sharper as the rest of him started to fade. Helena realised that she was having to fight to walk. The Artisan became two bright pins of light, and then disappeared.
Helena panicked as the rock hardened around her, becoming raw and sharp again. Around her neck, her gemstone now welded itself to its surroundings. She was entombed; not crushed but with the rock as tight to her skin as to allow. She could feel the rough face of it scratching and tearing her skin if she tried to move. Frozen now, mid-stride with her legs stuck at twenty minutes past five and one arm stretched forward, Helena closed her eyes and cried out.
She screamed until her voice severed, but she could hear nothing except the onrushing tide. The water trickled in around her ankles from some unknown crack or fissure. When Helena finally dared to open her eyes, the grey rock that had entombed her had changed again. She could not move her head, but could only stare at the stone inches from her eyes; the minuscule formations in the weave of the mineral formed by hundreds of tiny skulls.