“I can see it now,” Derek told the stone
He pounded hammer to chisel, slicing flanks from a refrigerator-sized Indiana limestone block. The rhythmic blows - chank, chank, chank – shot shards across his three-sided studio until they smacked against plastic-covered walls.
A plume of rock dust that smelled like an oily beach, hung in the air, and slathered him from his work boots to his goggles. His chest heaved. His forearms throbbed. He was 48 years old, and his art felt more like work each day.
He flexed his wrists. He was sturdy at 6’2 and 210 lbs. His limbs were still as hard as baseball bats and his hands were huge like catcher mitts. His fingers and thumbs were scaped from years of wrestling stone.
He stepped back three paces to eye the stone stuck amid metamorphosis. The bottom third was still thick and square, untouched. The middle section was mottled from dozens of blows and leaned haphazardly like frozen campfire smoke.
The top revealed a woman’s wide forehead and soft but piercing eyes. She was barely visible, still just peeking from stone, yet he found her hauntingly lovely.
He turned his back to it and scanned his front yard – the vast gray waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca off Washington state’s coast. A breeze tickled his cheeks. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket, but he decided to put it back and inhale the heavy marine air instead.
A ferry was plying past toward the trendy islands that overcharged visitors for a little rest amid nature. The island didn’t have a public dock for a reason. The 100 or so residents named it “Misfit Island” since most of them lived there because they didn’t fit anywhere else. They were back-to-landers, and pot growers, and anti-socials.
“I am not a misfit,” Derek would told his neighbors.” I’m a dropout. I could fit in elsewhere and, in fact, I still have skills that made me rich enough to let me live on the very edge of the very edge.”
And he felt untethered after his wife, Nina, died of cancer. He dodged friends and acquaintances with excuses so he could spend his time banging on, chiseling, and sanding stone. His commitment intensified when he began to notice of how selfish, often stupid, people could be.
Derek felt like a god when alone in his studio. He knew he possessed a gift. He could see life, at least the illusion of it, hidden in cold blocks or rock. He could shape posture and personality. He could cement the ephemeral into a moment that lasted forever.
He turned from the water and surveyed his work again. The studio was packed with figures, a menacing owl, regal looking busts, even spare modernistic curiosities.
She dwarfed them all. Derek felt she was reaching for him. He shook his head and inhaled again.
He grabbed his hammer and chisel and approached the stone again. It almost seemed alive. He imagined she was trying to break free. He worried his next blow could cause the limestone of crumble, and he would lose her forever.
Usually, he worked on the body first, but he was entranced by the woman’s face. He gingerly shaved the sides of her face, giving her high cheekbones. He tapered her from there and carved a lush, wide mouth. The more progress he made, the faster he worked. Hours passed before his hands and forearms screamed at him to take a break.
As he surveyed her yet again, he admitted for the first time in years, that he was lonely. Her gaze – its gaze – quickened his heartbeat. He pulled down his facemask “Who are you?”
He pawed as his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He felt embarrassed and walked to the shore to clear his mind.
Gulls glided back and forth. A loon bobbed a few feet offshore. An otter broke the surface, snorting spray and diving again. A heron stood erect, waiting for a feeding opportunity.
A flock of mergansers suddenly formed a squawking, thrashing frenzy, thick as an islet about 500 hundred yards out. He had seen them feed hundreds of times and had never seen them this agitated.
It looked like a raft or maybe … a human? He retrieved binoculars and tightened the focus until he was sure. He saw a mop of hair. Someone was wrapped in a life preserver.
Derek ran to his dingy and rowed toward the commotion. He recalled the ferry boat passing by and wondered if it had lost a passenger. He reached the spot in 15 minutes, evicting the squawking birds.
The person looked like a woman.
“Can you hear me? he called. “Are you OK?”
She didn’t respond so he gingerly pulled her onto his boat and began going through the resuscitation procedures he learned in the U.S. Coast Guard. After 10 minutes, she coughed up water and choked for air.
When she focused upon him, her eyes grew full, and her body tightened.
Derek held up his hands as if being robbed. “I found you floating …” but he couldn’t finish his sentence. He rowed to shore in numb silence. He held back all the questions percolating in his mind.
Upon landing ay his dock, he collected a dry towel, clothes twice her size, and a jug of water. After taking a shower, she began sipping coffee, but eyed his every move.
“I’m Katie,” she rasped. “Thank you.”
Derek wanted to pepper with questions but was too stunned.
“I’m Derek. If you feel strong enough, I’d like to show you something.”
She followed him to the studio. He stepped to the side ad silently watched her scan the sculptures. At first, she gazed demurely as if she were inside an art gallery. Then she saw her face jutting from the stone.
“What the hell!” She looked at him and backed her way toward to door. “Who are you? Why is that….me?”
“Why are you here?” Derek stammered.
“I was on the viewing deck of that ferry,” she said, “and I realized I was tired of the world.
“I guess I’m a dropout.”