The educated wear silver in their hair. It is supposedly an honor, to be adorned with headpieces, glinting like the moon, that make the rest of the villagers bow as the bearer of such a mark passes. Silver turns commoners to stone, it is said. Silver is designated for only a few, they say.
There are tales they tell you, when you are a child. I remember, sitting on a burlap sack beside the fire pit in the center of the Gathering Place, small and pale among the older villagers who were weathered and browned from too many days under the sun.
They were gods, among us — the people who wore silver in their hair.
I’d watched the flickering flames and listened to the tales whispered around me. Of Solomon, and other wise men, wound in silver, as by a silk worm.
The smoke swirled toward the open ceiling, fingers creeping up to snatch the stars back down to the earth. It curled up into the night sky, the thick, grey arms of thieves.
When my mother died of a slow sickness that took first her bones, and then her mind, my father told me a different sort of tale — that those stars were the souls of our family in heaven, watching down and protecting us.
I locked my eyes on a star in the corner of the sky. The sky does not have corners, a women who wore silver in her hair, had told me once. Even her eyes had been silver and moon-like, like the stream lit aglow by that milky face in the sky before winter nights came and swallowed up our whole world in darkness and cold.
The sky does not have corners, she’d said. The sky is infinite. It is we who create corners, and build walls, not the universe.
I had watched my face reflected in the irises of her eyes.
But that night, by the fire pit, my eyes wandered to the corner of the universe to linger on a single star.
I choked on the smoky air. The smell of burning filled me, making my head feel light and airy. I kept my eyes trained on that star, wondering how that woman could not see the corners of the sky as I could. Our world was trapped in a box; the glittering souls floated there just at the top of it, pressing up against its very lid, trying to escape.
I knew in that moment that we were not infinite. We were boxed in. We could not transcend our cage of existence.
And there was that star, a single soul, overhead, blinking in its tortured insistence. I watched it, as the air filled with smoke, cloudier, and cloudier, until all was grey.
I did not believe that my mother could see me through all that smoke.
He fears that I am like her. I can see it in the way he watches me, as though I am crumbling before his eyes. Her death would have killed him if it weren’t for me. I am the only thing keeping him tied to this world.
I saw him one night, when all the rest of the village was asleep. I do not know what woke me and led me down the creaky wooden stairs of the shop in which the two of us slept.
But there he was, cross-legged on the ground outside. He was drunk, clutching the leather flask so tightly that his fist was red and blotchy.
He stared up at the stars, glassy-eyed and mumbling. I knew he was talking to her. The moonlight painted his tan face an odd, youthful white. It outlined his stooped silhouette in a deep blue. It struck me that he was only a shape — a ghost of a man stuck between two worlds.
I am the only thing keeping him here. I have boxed him into a corner of his own. I am the only thing keeping him from her.
Knowing this is a heavy burden for a child to bear.
* * *
Mina, the woman with the silvery eyes, visits once or twice a year. No one ever says it aloud, but she has taken a special interest in me.
It is as though the entire village is waiting, holding their breath to see if what happened to my mother will happen to me.
Father hates her. It is unlawful to show disrespect to the educated, but the law is more lenient towards mourners and silversmiths — my father happens to both.
Mina pities us both, but it is an arrogant, deprecating sort of pity that makes it difficult for me not to hate her too.
The morning she comes, I sense her presence in the air. The village is quieter. I leave the warmth of my cot and tidy the heavy wool blanket in a bundle on top of it before descending the stairs.
The heat of the shop makes me sweat and turns my skin red. The air is heavy and toxic.
Father stands in front of the furnace. Coals glow and pop inside of it. His skin is crisped from years of metallurgy. He looks almost as if he has been born out of flame. I watch him, with hammer and anvil. A glowing piece of metal coaxes beads of sweat from his pores.
The walls around us are stone. They were once white, I am told, but now are blackened by ash. Every inch of them is hung with tools. Most of them are hammers, each one with a slightly altered shape. “You need them all?” I had asked him, years ago.
“I need them all,” he’d said.
That was before I became his apprentice and began to learn the subtleties of metalworking: the delicacies of repoussé, the patience of the annealing process, the fragile natures of the metals and the different temperaments of each one.
“Their chemical structure,” Mina would call it, but Father preferred words like quiddity, or essence, or intricacies.
“Everything she knows is from books,” he had told me once. His voice was not filled with disgust as it usually was when he talked about Mina — just an overwhelming sadness. “She knows so little.”
I understood. Mina knew about metals. Father knew them.
I could not help thinking to myself how very many corners books had. Knowledge is infinite, I thought to myself. It is we who create corners for it, make books, not the universe. I wondered what Mina would think of that.
I see her, standing at the door, watching the silversmith at work with wide eyes, like glass. Her eyes are either windows or mirrors; I am not yet sure which.
She waits all afternoon for him to finish.
* * *
They sit outside on the log fences and speak in low voices. The silver pieces scattered throughout her dark hair glitter in the sunlight.
“She is not meant to be a silversmith, Argyros,” Mina says. “She is like her mother in more ways than you realize.”
“Her mother died in more ways than anyone deserves to perish.”
“It is alright to be afraid, Argyros.”
“And what do you know of fear, Mina?” His voice is fierce and angry.
“The girl will wear silver, as her mother did. She is worthy.”
“Who are you to decide who is worthy?” Father asks.
Mina continues, in her low emotionless voice. “She will study alongside us. She will learn the ways of the world, not mere metallurgy.”
Father stands abruptly then, knocking the corner of the log fence down by the force of his swiftness. “No, she will do as she pleases. She will learn what she wishes. She will wear a smile and a proud chin. That is all she needs.”
Mina stands more gracefully than him and places the small portion of the wooded fence carefully back into place. “No, Argyros,” she says, more firmly this time, and I swear her silvery eyes flicker over to my hiding place. “She will wear silver.”
Father looms over her, a snarl ripping his lip from his teeth. “And what if she is like her mother, as you say? What if she loses her mind as her mother did? What then?”
“She will wear silver,” Mina says again.
“I will not let you take my daughter as you took my wife!” he growls.
“She will wear silver,” Mina repeats, as if it is all she knows how to say.
I make a bird out of bronze. It is the size of my thumb, but flatter. My hammer strokes are rougher than my father’s; its beak is bumpy and hooked.
I pound my worries into the piece of metal, as though the bird will fly away with them, but I have made it too heavy, so instead I string a leather cord through its heart and hang it around my neck.
Mina leaves without saying goodbye to me. Father is startled to find me still awake, when he comes in from the dark. He examines the misshapen bird briefly and then takes it from my neck to hang around his own.
He watches me silently, mourning lingering in his dark eyes.
“What did Mina have to say?”
“Get some sleep,” he tells me.
“Am I going to die — like Mother did?”
He sighs and his heavy hand falls onto one of my shoulders. It is warm, but scratchy. He brushes the hair carefully from my face. “You are going to wear silver.”
* * *
One of the first tales we are told as children is that of the Stone Woman. Silver turns commoners to stone, it is said.
Myth, perhaps, but then you have not looked at statues closely enough. There is a particular statue in the village I used to sit perched on as a child. She was beautiful, perfectly carved stone with wings folded out at her sides and a serpent in her hand.
There was a crevice between her sturdy feet and the pedestal on which she stood where I would sit and watch the bustling of the village. It was not until I grew old enough and tall enough to see her face and stare into the empty orbs of her eyes that I saw the torture there inside of her.
I have not returned to that statue since.
The story of the Stone Woman goes something like this. There once was a woman who was discontent, who desired all of the knowledge of the world. She sought wisdom, a worthy thing to search for, but grew weary of the long path that led to it.
She came to hear of a certain tree, in a certain garden, that might grant her knowledge and wisdom were she to but eat of its fruit.
On the path to wisdom, the woman came across a serpent who, she came to learn, knew the way to the tree. So the woman followed the serpent that she might eat of the fruit of the tree and grow wise and knowledgeable.
They reached the garden and the woman saw the great tree, winding up to the heavens, each and every branch of it containing beautiful, silver apples, that dripped the dew of crystals.
At the base of the tree were many statues, but the woman had seen the tree and forgotten everything. She reached for a silver apple and tugged; the entire branch splintered from the tree’s trunk to rest in her arms.
The woman had found wisdom and knowledge and held it in her very hands, but as her unworthy lips touched the silver apple, the woman turned entirely to stone.
The story is all I can think of as I wake the next morning.
A woman, entirely stone.
* * *
The shop is bathed in sunlight. Father has been working all night. Rings like those left by mugs on wood have worked their way around his eyes. His face does look very much like wood, I realize: all lines and wrinkles, rings for many, many days lived.
“I have something for you,” he says.
He holds the metal carefully with a cloth and stretches his hands out to me.
I expect silver clips, or a silver band, or silver cords to braid through my hair, but instead it is a sword, gleaming in the light. The hilt of it is ornate and alive with images. The blade is smooth and without blemish. My reflection blinks up at me.
I take it carefully, holding the hilt with the cloth still against it to protect my skin. It is heavy, but my arms are strong from many days in the shop. I lift it and swear I can see my mother’s face smile back at me from the blade.
I wonder, for the second time, whether silver is a window or a mirror.
* * *
Mina comes for me in the night. She will put me in a room, with walls and corners, where I am to learn the wisdom of the world, just as the Stone Woman desired. She will decorate me with silver and teach me about infinity.
Father and I wait outside and watch the stars wordlessly. I find the same one I did all those years ago at the fire pit. It flickers weakly. The corners of the universe have grown more difficult for me to see, but I latch onto that star all the same, and it is almost as if I can feel my mother’s soul reaching out for me from the sky.
Father fiddles with the bronze bird around his neck and asks me what I remember of her.
I tell him I cannot remember her before the sickness came.
He tells me that he is proud of me, that I am to be educated and wear silver, but his words are hollow, lifeless things. He leaves me then — goes back inside the shop where I can hear him weeping.
The sword sits heavily in my lap, still bundled in linen. I stand and begin to wander down the lane. The sword’s silver tip drags through the dirt, fracturing the world behind me in two: left footprint on one side, right footprint on the other.
Mina is waiting for me. She considers me carefully as I approach, choosing the words delicately. “It is a privilege, to become one of the educated. To be one of the keepers of knowledge and wisdom in society.” She bows her head deeply. Her pale, spidery fingers come to trace the topography of my hair. “To wear silver in your hair — there is no greater honor.”
It is as though the smoke has returned. I am choking, strangled by a grey wisp of a noose. “When the sickness came…you took the silver from her, didn’t you?” I stare into the silver of Mina’s eyes.
“Her mind was lost,” Mina says.
“Perhaps it could have been saved.”
“The silver had nothing to do with what happened to your mother.” Mina’s tone is steady, but too cold to be reassuring.
I nod, and then, the cloth falls away. The silver hilt feels cool against my naked skin. I can see my reflection in Mina’s eyes as I plunge the sword into her. It slides, smoothly into the side of her stomach, like a fish slipping into water.
She gasps for breath, and reaches for me, but her face does not seem all that surprised.
I watch as the silver spreads through her, all the way to her finger tips, sealing her in stone. The silver hilt sticks out of her side, like the handle of a pot. Her hands grip at it as though she can pull it out, but there is no movement left in them.
I turn and walk back towards the shop.
The stars twinkle brightly tonight and I wonder vaguely what it is to lose one’s mind.
by Ellis Wright
Mischief managed. – Padfoot