by Neal Holtschulte
There is a shadowed room with a small window where the constructor waits to hear her words. The room is cloistered and musty from sweat and dust-clotted corners, but the constructor will prosper here or not at all because this is where she speaks to him.
In the room with the small window there is a white wall. Beneath the scrawled words it is white. Beneath the sharp edged designs it is white. Beneath the smudged studies in charcoal it is white. A horn-shaped receiver and the slack of its twisted cord hang from a prong that protrudes from the wall. The constructor is often found pressing the receiver tight against his ear, writing implement in hand, hovering over a limpid space.
He is waiting for her to call. He holds the receiver until his skin sweats against the horn and his ear goes numb. He taps on the wall. Perhaps he can wake her up if she is just on the other side. She may be. He does not know.
He starts to draw on the wall. A single line or word is sometimes all that is needed to coax her voice. Other times she remains silent. The line comes to an end; the hard edge of lead disintegrating into grimy dust.
Occasionally, visitors come to the small window. They bring news or gossip to the constructor. The constructor loves the visitors and hates them. They are fickle. They appear when she has begun to speak and he shouts at them, “Not now! Not now!” and she stops talking and does not continue for a while though he cajoles her, “Not you. I didn’t mean you.” Other times, when she has not spoken for a long while, he misses the visitors at the small window. Their voices are better than silence. Sometimes they tell him things worth writing on the white wall. Most times he pretends to listen to them while he eats.
The constructor must always be attentive. The horn does not ring or buzz to inform him of her call so he remains alert for the sound of her sweet voice drifting from the receiver. He springs out of bed, no matter the hour. He puts down his plate and fork, though the food grows cold. He rushes over to the receiver and frantically records her words on the wall. These are his happiest times.
The constructor’s life is not all listening and sketching, eating and sleeping… waiting. The white wall must be cleared from time to time, and to clear it the constructor must construct. He begins by peeling instructions, words and images, off the white wall. The texts come away easily; damp and delicate like a spider web glistening with morning dew. They leave a fresh surface underneath. He quickly transfers the fragile instructions to the center of the room where a one-step pedestal rises. Its surface is barked and scratched, covered in sawdust and metal filings. The constructor clips the instructions to lines of rope criss-crossing the room at arm’s length above his head. In a short time, the words and images dry and firm up.
The room with the small window is stocked with every material the constructor might wish for. The materials are piled, stacked, and shelved against the walls. There are bundles of wood; thick logs bound with heavy rope, and masses of sticks tied with twine. There are blocks of clay wrapped in smudged, waxy paper. There are metals; shiny oily sheets, dark earth-toned rods, piles of bits for fixing things together. The room has mottled stone, sturdy paper, and cans of essence of red, blue, and yellow stamped with a bright pure kiss to indicate their contents. The room contains bone, glass, amber, shells, jet, and more.
One wall is hung with an assortment of tools of a practical variety even more numerous than the materials, among them: brushes, knives, tuning forks, hammers, needles, sieves, chisels, saws, pencils, and compasses. Tools for making form out of the formless. Beneath the tools, at the foot of the wall, is a furnace hot enough to consume creation.
The constructor begins by gathering materials and tools and piling them beneath the drying instructions. He then holds a candle up to read the words and make out the diagrams. Finally, he translates the sketches and notes into an object.
Most times he makes a shoddy job of it. His skills at translation are insufficient and the whole mess must be relinquished into the furnace; materials, notes, and all. Occasionally, very rarely, in moments of great lucidity, he accomplishes a fantastic work. The translation is flawless. The result embodies the essence of the writing that hangs above it. When this happens, the constructor takes the object carefully in his hands and sets it under the small window.
When a visitor comes, he holds up the object and croons, “Look at this, look at this! Have you ever seen anything like it in all the world?”
“Yup. Week, perhaps week before last. Reckon I saw something of the like three windows down.”
So the constructor hurls this work into the furnace too. His artisan’s hands, usually so steady, shake uncontrollably as he watches it burn, because he wishes he had kept it, it is loathsome, it is himself, it is unworthy, she has betrayed him with her words, and he has betrayed her. He stares into the flames and time for him ceases. His mind is a storm of madness that must exhaust itself. Objective time ticks by, restoring the balance of his humours, healing wounds that seemed endless. Eventually, he will slide his stool beneath the receiver and wait for her call once more.
Someday, he tells himself, someday I’ll make something new; something they’ve never seen before.
The constructor knows that if that day comes, the visitors from the world he loves and hates will give him a bigger window, but the constructor will not change his ways. The day after, he will be holding the receiver; hoping to be filled with her words, or he will be found constructing; sweating and toiling in the shadowy room with its one small window.
Neal Holtschulte’s work has been published by Ghostlight magazine. He has studied under
and work-shopped his writing with science fiction authors Nancy Kress and Paul Park. He is currently a computer Science PhD student at the University of New Mexico.