The Animal Sculptors

Story by Matt Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 19 Minutes

The land of Filigri was like every other land, except for one thing: Filigri had no animals.

Filigri had tomatoes. Filigri had petunias. Filigri had forests and mountains and cocoa beans. But for a hundred miles in every direction, there was not a single sparrow, a single rat, a single walrus or tiger or platypus to be seen.

In place of the real thing, Filigri had The Animal Sketches.

The Sketches were the most important manuscripts in all of Filigri. The originals had been gathered long ago by the first Masters, forty artists who had ventured beyond the country’s borders and had drawn in detail the wings of birds, the scales of fish, the deep black eyes of wolves, the hairy legs of beetles. They drew everything they could find.

When they were finished, they had a single book.

They brought the book back to Filigri where forty scribes copied out each detail over forty days, producing forty identical volumes: one for each Master. The Masters took their copies of the Sketches back to their studios, locking them in safes or tucking them under floorboards. Then each Master went out and purchased clay.

From that day on, with their copies of The Animal Sketches to guide them, the artists of Filigri made sculptures of the animals they were missing.

Rafael was a very good sculptor. When he was still too young to reach the top of the workbench, he had been apprenticed to the great Mandinelli de Bellio, who was called The Lion. He was called this because, like most Masters, de Bellio had devoted his life to the careful study of one specific animal—in this case, the lion—and also because of his temper. De Bellio was hard on him, but he taught Rafael everything he knew.

For years, Rafael made lions. He learned how to craft the claws, the tufted tails, the bushy manes. He even stood beside de Bellio when his Master’s exquisite lion statues were unveiled on the Senate steps to much applause.

But, in all that time, Rafael worked from his Master’s instructions alone, or from models de Bellio made. Sometimes he would go to the gallery to see the works of the other Masters who lived in the capital, like Concesca, who recreated peacocks to perfection, and Donagione, who crafted insects like no other. But almost always he spent his time looking at lions. He never saw The Animal Sketches.

Time passed, and Rafael practiced while de Bellio worked in brooding silence. Then, one day, while shaping the eyes of one of his lions, the old man suddenly stopped. He stood there for a long time, staring into the gray eyes of the unfinished sculpture and, to Rafael’s surprise, a tear rolled down the Master’s face.

Then this man, so harsh, so hard, reached up and touched the cheek of the statue, like one touches the cheek of a little girl.

“It is a difficult thing,” the old man said, “longing for such beauty.”

Two weeks later, de Bellio died. It happened very suddenly: the Master was in his studio, shaping the paw of a lion cub, when the breath seeped out of his raspy old lungs and did not return. Rafael found him on the floor, laying in clay dust.

The whole city wept for de Bellio. The prime minister spoke from the marble steps of the capital, beside one of de Bellio’s lions, a wreath of leaves wrapped around its neck in mourning. Rafael watched it all as a dutiful apprentice, standing with others behind the minister. But when the funeral was finally over, Rafael went back to the studio. The shapes of unfinished sculptures watched him as Rafael took de Bellio’s key from his pocket and, with shaking hands, opened his Master’s safe.

Inside, the leather cover supple and smooth, was The Animal Sketches.

Rafael sat on the floor for three hours, flipping pages. His legs cramped, but he paid no attention; his stomach growled, but he didn’t notice. His whole attention was wrapped up in the pages, his eyes absorbed with the detailed renderings of the cardinal’s crest, of the dolphin’s fins, of the elephant’s tusks, of snakeskin. All he had seen these past seven years had been lions, lions, lions, but here, in these pages, was everything.

A tear came to his eye. “It is a difficult thing,” he heard himself say aloud, “longing for such beauty.”

That night, while mourners still wailed over the fresh dirt of de Bellio’s grave, Rafael, Filigri’s newest Master, determined he would not specialize in just one animal.

He was going to make them all.

The village of San Grotto was a quaint little town, far from the capital, by the sea. There was nothing special about it. Nestled below the rolling hills that overlooked the ocean, it had a crumbling stone fountain in the square that no longer trickled water, a little marketplace selling fresh fruit, and a single cantina, where the retired old men of the village sat fanning themselves in the heat of the day. That was all.

Which is why it caused no small stir when Rafael arrived.

He came in on the train at the north end of town. The train only stopped in San Grotto once a week, squealing on the rusty tracks. When Rafael got out, he sniffed the seabreeze once and then went to speak to the station chief, who was asleep. A few minutes later, the station chief was running into town with a handful of silver coins, yelling for his sons. They followed him to the train station and, from the last two cars of the train, began unloading crates.

The whispers raced over the town like the plague: the apprentice of Mandinelli de Bellio had arrived.

Soon, all over San Grotto, the villagers were at their windows. They watched as the young men went to and from the train station, carting the sculptor’s crates. They took the crates all the way from the station, past the crumbling stone fountain, past the little marketplace selling fruit, past the cantina where the old men blinked and stared, all the way up to the hills overlooking the sea.

There, at the top of the hill, was a very big house. Rafael had purchased it using the money he had received from selling de Bellio’s final sculptures, along with his studio. The other artists of the city had been shocked and offended—after all, that studio had belonged to a Master for decades—but it was far too cramped for the kind of work Rafael had in mind.

In the house at the top of the hill, in the room at the back of the house with high ceilings and windows that looked out onto the green world and nothing else, Rafael set up his studio.

Then he closed the door and did not come out again.

From that day on, Rafael’s mind was always on the Sketches. He pored over them day and night, memorizing them, tracing their lines. He copied them over and over again onto drawing pads and canvases, working through each section until he knew it from memory. The sheer scale was enormous, but he was determined. Soon his house filled with plasters of waterfowl, busts of antelope, miniatures of ocelots.

Besides his tools, he had only an old, springy mattress and a single lamp, but he didn’t care: all that mattered was the work. In the boiling summer he worked shirtless, the windows open, shaping great mounds of clay while the dust got into his pores, his beard, his nostrils. In winter, he lit a fire and kept on working.

Every Sunday a woman from the town brought him his groceries, but no one else ever saw him. When visitors came, the villagers would point to his house and say, “There, you see? A Master, who was once the apprentice of the great Mandinelli de Bellio, lives there. But no one has seen him for fifteen years.”

Then, one day, something remarkable happened.

A new sculptor came to town.

She emerged from the train, and when she did, she too sniffed the seabreeze. She had a youthful face, but there were many strands of silver in her hair. Then she too went to speak to the station chief, who was, as always, asleep.

Soon this newcomer was accompanied by a procession of her own, with boxes of supplies being carted past the crumbled fountain and past the cantina, up the hill overlooking the sea, to the house on the hill right next to Rafael’s.

The news spread through the village: her name was Fiona. She had been the apprentice of León Otello, renowned for his eagles, who had died last month. She was Filigri’s newest Master.

Rafael did not notice at first. But one morning as he got up from his springy mattress and stood at the window drinking a glass of water, he saw his neighbor standing in the yard at an easel. She was holding a copy of The Animal Sketches and a paintbrush. On the canvas, she had drawn some rough sketches.

But the sketches were not eagles. They were not any one animal.

They were many different animals.

At the sight, something tightened deep within Rafael’s chest.

He watched her from the window for a long time. He watched as she studied the pages of the ancient book, watched as she closed it and painted the rough outline of an albatross from memory, then a pangolin, then a bumblebee. He watched as she took down the easel and went back inside. Then he went back to work.

For many days after that, he tried to ignore this new development. He plunged into his sculpting with greater rigor than before, making molds of shark teeth and little round spider eyes. But the work was slow and imprecise, and he often dashed his creations to the ground. He could not stop thinking that now, in the house next to him, another Master was attempting the same feat as well.

He went on fuming like this for several weeks, until one day a knock came at his door. It was Fiona.

“Hello, Master,” she said. “I have been hearing of your work for years now.”

“Years?” Rafael said, standing in the doorway so as to block the view of his studio. “I have spoken to no one since de Bellio died.”

She smiled. “Still, Master. Word travels. In any case, it seems that you and I have set ourselves to the same task.”

“Well?” Rafael frowned. “What of it?”

“As a fellow student of The Animal Sketches, I would like to invite you to my home to see my creations, and I would very much like to hear whatever advice you may have.”

This surprised Rafael greatly. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “I will come tomorrow.”

The next day, he went. Fiona’s works were arranged neatly in her studio, and for a long time he walked among the sculptures. She had made a great many. He looked over all of them with narrowed eyes. The birds, he had to admit, were quite fine, with great attention to detail in the wings. But the mammals were atrocities. He was appalled at the lack of precision, the sloppy design. Worst of all was the life-size statue of a horse that stood in the very center of the studio. He gestured at it.

“This is not what a horse looks like.”

But Fiona shook her head. “No,” she said, “this is precisely what a horse looks like. See the hooves and the set of the eyes? They are exactly right.”

“The hooves and the set of the eyes? Why, the hooves are much too big, the eyes too far apart! And look, you have elongated the neck and shortened the spine and tail. There is no proportion to this sculpture at all.”

She gave him a funny look. “Have you ever seen a horse?”

He bristled. “Of course not. But I have The Animal Sketches.”

“Well, so do I.”

At that, she got up and went to her safe. When she returned, she was carrying the ancient manuscript. She opened to the diagram of the horse.

“You see?”

He held it up. On the page was the familiar drawing, the same as his own copy of the Sketches, with its thundering hooves and flowing mane. He had seen it many times. He looked back and forth between the beast on the page and the beast in front of him. “Your sculptures look nothing like this sketch.”

“What?” cried Fiona. “They are the spitting image!”

They argued for a long time. Finally, Rafael slammed the book shut. “It is no use. If you will not accept the proper method, I must dismiss your work as a sham. Your birds are fine, but you have no idea how to sculpt a horse. Good day, Master!”

After that, Rafael shut himself up in his house again, only now he worked all the harder. He no longer saw Fiona as a threat, but he was furious over her errors, and for the next several months he made horses, galloping horses, grazing horses, horses in repose. With every horse he made, he fumed all the more, and when the sculptures were finished he would stand back and admire them.

They matched The Sketches exactly, he thought. And to mar such beauty was the greatest evil he knew.

Six more years passed. Then, to the surprise and amusement of the entire village, it happened again.

Another sculptor came to town.

This one was called Pietro. He had been the apprentice of a lesser-known Master named Bruno Dellapetro, who had won praise for his busts of fish. Like Rafael and Fiona before him, Pietro arrived on the train, sniffed the air, and had the young men of the town cart in his supplies. Like the other Masters, he also took up residence on the hill overlooking the sea, on the other side of Rafael.

Again Rafael did not notice at first. But many weeks later, he once again received a knock at his door. When he opened it, he saw that it was Pietro.

“Hello, Master,” he said. “I have heard many things about you. I have heard that you and Master Fiona are attempting to do what has never been done: to sculpt all the animals.” He smiled. “I, too, am attempting this.”

Rafael eyed him with suspicion. “What do you want?”

“You are old now, Master, with much experience, but I am young and have only been a Master a short while. I would like very much for you to visit my studio and give me advice on what I have made.”

Rafael did not answer at first. Then he nodded. “All right. Tomorrow, I will come.”

The next day Rafael went to Pietro’s house. As before, he strode up and down among the sculptures, which were arranged far more haphazardly than in Fiona’s studio. As he looked he saw that Pietro’s fish were exquisite, the scales shaped with wonderful texture. But the reptiles were hideous. He pointed at one.

“This is a crocodile?”

“Yes,” said Pietro, “my finest work.”

Rafael looked at it and frowned very deeply. The head and mouth were much too small, like the snout on a mouse, and the legs and tail were too long, holding the body high up above the ground, like a five-legged table in the center of the room.

“Master,” said Rafael, “you have not made a crocodile. You have made a snake with legs.”

“You insult me, Master!”

“I only tell you the truth. This looks nothing like a crocodile.”

“It looks exactly like a crocodile. Besides, have you ever seen one?”

“Of course not,” Rafael growled. “But I have The Animal Sketches.”

“Well, so do I.”

And he too brought out the ancient book. He opened to the page of the crocodile for Rafael to see. “Look here. It is the spitting image!”

On the page was the drawing of the crocodile, the very same that Rafael had been studying just that morning. Rafael looked back and forth between it and the sculpture. “Master, I’m afraid you must be going blind. These look nothing alike!”

They argued over the diagram for a long time, until, once again, Rafael slammed the book shut. “No more! I will not take lessons on the proper size of a crocodile head from a blind man. Good day, Master!”

Once again, Rafael returned home and shut himself inside. And once again, he returned to his work in a frenzy, this time making crocodiles: crocodiles attacking, crocodiles resting, baby crocodiles and ancient crocodiles. With every new sculpture he remembered afresh Pietro’s errors, and his rage deepened all the more.

Even a crocodile, he thought, could be beautiful. If Pietro could not capture that beauty, could not immortalize it in a statue, then he would do it himself.

On and on and on he worked, and light waned from his eyes.

The years passed. Rafael worked at a feverish pace. He studied the Sketches. He slept only for two or three hours a night, and his studio filled up with animals upon animals, a staggering number. But, even after all this time, he was far from finished.

Then, one day, a knock came at his door one last time. He opened it and, squinting out into the sunlight, saw both Fiona and Pietro on his doorstep.

“Master,” said Fiona. Her hair was now fully gray. “This cannot go on. There are too many animals, and we are growing old.”

“We have been arrogant,” said Pietro. His face was no longer youthful, but creased with lines. “We cannot do this alone. We are each students of the Sketches. If we are to see this task finished in our lifetime, shouldn’t we work together?”

But Rafael shook his head. “I will not,” he said, his voice was scratchy and dry. “You are not Masters at all: you are charlatans. You study the Sketches, but your work is not accurate. You mar the beauty of the animals. Good day.”

And he shut the door.

It was the last day of winter, in the evening, when the wind began to blow.

It came from the sea, and when it came it rattled through the pots and pans hanging in the marketplace, making branches sway and windows creak. At the train station, the station chief woke up and poked his head out the door. Mothers in town waved their children inside. The old men at the cantina sat up straight in their rocking chairs, their wrinkled hands quivering a little in expectation.

Something was coming, they thought. Something from far away, something that had been watching for a long time, patiently, was about to reveal itself. The villagers, who had lived for decades by the mighty sea and knew its ways, locked their doors and sealed their windows tight. But some of them peeked out from between the curtains, looking to the east.

There was a storm brewing over the hill.

The woman who brought Rafael’s groceries saw the dark clouds gathering as she was walking up the path. Thick and black, they were a whirlpool just above the hilltop. She left the paper bag of oranges on Rafael’s step and rapped on the front door.

“Master,” she cried in a hoarse voice, “best leave this place; take shelter in the village! The heavens themselves have come, and they are gathering against you and your house!”

Then she turned and ran, buffeted by the winds.

But inside the house, Rafael paid no heed. The roof groaned and the walls creaked, but still he worked on. All around him were his sculptures: looming rhinos, crawling insects, howling hyenas. Their gray eyes watched him as he bent over in the dust and darkness. He was old now, very old, and his hands ached as he molded the clay.

He would never finish. He knew this now. There were many more pages of the Sketches to go, far too many, and he sat surrounded by unfinished works, paws and antlers and feathers unattached to bodies, scattered on the workbench.

Still, he thought. At least what he had completed was perfect. He was sure of it.

He paused, rubbing his bleary eyes with the back of his wrist.

Then he heard the deep roll of thunder.

Next door, Fiona, hard at work on a muskrat, looked up. On the other side, Pietro, sitting hunched over a diagram of a wombat, also looked up.

The storm broke like a hammer against the hilltop.

The winds came down. Rain was on the wind, jumbled up, coming in sideways, but the winds were what mattered: with the force of a battering ram it slammed into the three houses on the hill, shattering glass and splitting boards. Rafael was thrown to the ground with a cry. All around him, his sculptures fell: all his life’s work, every marble and clay animal formed from his fingers in exquisite detail, went crashing to the ground.

The heavens unleashed themselves in judgment, and the roof was torn from Rafael’s house. Shingles ripped apart and rafters splintered. Then the walls came down, wooden beams collapsing with a sigh, windows shattering in the maelstrom. Rafael shut his eyes, covered his head, and waited to die.

Then, all at once, it stopped. Rafael sat in the darkness behind his eyelids, his only sensation his own breathing. He felt his clothes, soaked through, clinging to him. He felt shards of wood and clumps of grass under his knees. He felt the sun on his head. He opened his eyes.

The storm had rolled back, and the sun was shining on the hillside. All around him, in the wreckage of his house, lay his fallen sculptures. The sunlight coming through the clouds was shining on their shapes, cracked and gray and still.

And, as Rafael watched, they began to change.

The ostriches grew feathers. The leopards grew spots. The porcupines sprouted quills and the lizards sprouted scales. Frozen clay, dull, lifeless, began to bend and move. Smooth surfaces became covered with fur, blowing gently in the breeze, and dead white eyes deepened, became black and reflective, glowing like pools under a field of stars. The air was awash in sounds and colors and life, and he was submerged in the pages of the Sketches, moving before him, no longer flat on the page but sinew on bones, breath in lungs.

All the animals looked at him.

Then they were off.

Birds took to the air. Antelope sprang into the grass. Elephants stampeded down the hill. Rafael felt the wind as they passed, smelled their fur, heard their sounds.

And as he sat there, he saw the other Masters. They too were on their knees in the ruin of their own houses, holding their copies of the Sketches. Around all three Masters lay statues that did not come to life: Rafael saw Fiona’s horses shake their manes and gallop off, while his own stayed frozen and lifeless; he saw his own crocodiles drag their heavy tails down to the water while Pietro’s did not move. But there were many more that were unfinished. Suddenly, Rafael realized: even together, they had not come anywhere close, not even after all these years. Now they sat together, naked under the laughing heavens, as some of their statues remained lifeless while others came alive and joined the herds.

But none of the three Masters were angry or proud. How could they be? Together, they sat in the grass, their faces streaked with tears of joy. As Rafael watched the animals go, his heart went after them: all the long years of work fell off his shoulders and he felt young again. He did not care anymore about sitting in the dust; he wanted to run after the animals, to run into the green pastures beyond the horizon.

Then, at just that moment, he felt hot breath on his neck.

There, behind him, was a lion. He had not made any lions, not since the days of de Bellio, and yet there it was. The wind was tossing the thick hair of its mane, and its deep brown eyes shimmered like water. Rafael trembled all over; he trembled so much and couldn’t stop. But the lion just looked down at him, real and alive, and Rafael sat gazing at it. Then, with a shaking, frail hand, he reached up and touched its cheek. He felt its fur, rough and warm under his fingers, and a single tear trickled down his face.

The lion roared, a sound that shook the whole hill, and ran down the hillside.

That is the story of how animals came to Filigri.

After that day, there were salmon in the rivers and goldfinches in the trees; buffalo wandered the prairies and geckos clung to the walls. There were common animals that had been sculpted by many Masters, and other animals that no one had ever seen before. The animals were everywhere, out in the grass and out in the forests, and the people rejoiced.

Many would credit the three great Masters from the hilltop in San Grotto. They would imagine the sculptors had done some strong magic, that their statues had been so great and wonderful that they had conjured the storm and brought their creations to life.

But the villagers of San Grotto knew better, and so did Rafael, Fiona, and Pietro. They never forgot the day of the storm. They could still feel the charge in the air, feel the wind roaring against them. They could still smell the breath of the animals and hear their cries and see the color of their eyes.

And they knew, deep in their hearts: when beauty had finally come to visit them, all their work had been nothing but straw.

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