by Adam Smith

The first fig­ure is lopsided—a long, thin arm on one side bal­anced by a short cud­gel-shaped appendage on the oth­er; a bul­bous head like a mis­shapen pota­to. Murak mut­ters, smash­es it flat with a blow of his palm, starts again.

It takes prac­tice, this shap­ing. Murak begins to mold them one piece at a time. A dozen lit­tle feet, flat like the pad­dle of an oar. Legs rolled into per­fect cylin­ders, cut to iden­ti­cal length with a knife. Arms with cupped, fin­ger­less hands, like tiny shov­els. The tor­sos rolled out like bread dough and com­pressed into elon­gat­ed ovals.

The heads he shapes last, rolling them between his hands. Feel­ing the clay cling to the lit­tle waves and whorls of his skin, tak­ing shape from the creas­es and curves. They leave lit­tle trails of brown slime across his palms like slug tracks.

Then he assem­bles them, six clay fig­ures no larg­er than a child’s straw doll. They are blank, cold­ly expres­sion­less. He makes two tiny pin­holes for eyes; no nose; a thin, hor­i­zon­tal slash for a mouth. He leaves them there on the wood­en desk in two neat rows beneath the flick­er­ing oil lamp, sweat­ing out beads of brown water like blood. They look grim but focused. The flat mouth sug­gests res­olute anger, a desire to com­plete a dis­agree­able task, an unspo­ken irri­tabil­i­ty with existence.

If they could speak, he thinks, they would say—“All right, we are ready. We are ready.” But they do not speak. 

He leaves them there to dry, extin­guish­ing the oil lamp with a puff of breath. Smoke descends on a cur­rent of air, wash­es across the clay fig­ures with the charred odor of fish oil.

He dreams. A lit­tle army of clay men with eyes like stones pressed into a stream­bank, mouths sharp as the edge of a blade. They watch him. They do not smile or mock. They stand in per­fect rows of per­fect­ly round, hair­less heads. They go down on one knee as a group, tip­ping heads for­ward. Their voic­es sound togeth­er in a cho­rus. “All right, we are ready. We are ready.”

When he wakes they are still there, two trios of clay fig­urines asleep on the desk. He stares at them through break­fast. Sure­ly they are miss­ing some­thing. Some­thing is need­ed. But he can­not say what. They are as per­fect as his lim­it­ed art can make them. 

He can see the city through the win­dow, hazy in the morn­ing light. The face­less wall, the crenel­lat­ed watch­tow­ers like bro­ken teeth. The round dome of the Acad­e­my ris­ing above it all, gleam­ing in the morn­ing sun­light like the fabled eggs of the gold­en goose. Every bit the leg­end. Every bit the lie.

He break­fasts on boiled eggs. Not gold­en but brown, dull brown with a gray­ish tint, as if the hens ate noth­ing but dust. Here in the flat­lands, the hov­els beyond the city wall, kept at arm’s length across the prairie, it is as like­ly as any­thing. There is dirt and lit­tle else.

A man trudges past the win­dow, wear­ing an expres­sion not far removed from those on the clay fig­ures. Com­pressed lips, taut skin. Eyes that squint against the harsh glare. The air is full of sound. Rick­ety carts, snort­ing pigs, cluck­ing chick­ens. A strum­ming instru­ment accom­pa­nied by voic­es lift­ed in song. A love song, a song about the first time a young boy lays eyes on his unat­tain­able beloved, and Murak does not pic­ture a girl in a dress but a glass bub­ble lift­ing against the blue of the sky, a dome that glim­mers like a gold­en egg.

He doesn’t actu­al­ly recall the first time he saw the Acad­e­my. It has always been there in the dis­tance, vis­i­ble. By day, agleam with sun or reflect­ing the grey sur­face of the clouds. By night, lit from below. Some­times blue with alchem­i­cal glow. At oth­ers it is orange like a can­dle flame, rud­dy and hell­ish as glow­ing embers, the pink of spring flowers.

He does remem­ber the first time he saw it up close.

The young boy fol­lows his father through the mas­sive arch­way formed by the city gates. Murak’s father car­ries four pairs of chick­ens hung upside-down on a long dow­el of wood slung across his shoulders. 

The folks in col­or­ful city cloth­ing move aside for them, away from the scowl­ing man in dusty, col­or­less home­spun. His father forges up the street as if wad­ing against a rush­ing cur­rent. Flac­cid, feath­ered heads swung to and fro with each for­ward stride. He doesn’t look back, and his son strug­gles to keep pace through the crowd that eddies around them, cast­ing bewil­dered and dis­gust­ed glances as they pass.

Build­ings crowd close. There are more peo­ple here than he has ever seen, clus­tered along the edges of the street. Every few paces a man or woman stands out­side a door­way beneath an awning and shouts into the masses.

“Meat pies! Hot meat pies! Mut­ton and beef!”

“Timepieces! Acad­e­my clocks! Sandglasses!”

“Clothing! Silverweave!”

It is clam­orous, deaf­en­ing. Glo­ri­ous. Col­ors and scents. Red wine and roast­ing meat and pyra­mids of sun­lit lemons. Cloaks that flow and shim­mer like cur­tains of water. Lamps burn­ing with­out flame. Coins clink and change hands amid rau­cous bargaining.

His father press­es ahead with an air of dis­in­ter­est, almost of loathing. They turn right, left, right again. The gate dis­ap­pears behind them in the dis­tance, hid­den by the press­ing build­ings. His father’s step nev­er fal­ters. Murak is con­fused by the war­ren of nar­row, wind­ing streets. He hur­ries to catch up.

Anoth­er cor­ner and sud­den­ly the street opens up like a stream emp­ty­ing into a wide, placid lake. The dome lifts above the city like an immense head, a giant toil­ing amidst the clus­ter­ing build­ings. Streets spi­ral out from this cen­tral space. 

He stops, gap­ing. The square is full of splash­ing foun­tains; green shrub­bery painstak­ing­ly pruned into exot­ic shapes; flow­ers plant­ed in col­or­ful pin­wheel designs. Hang­ing lamps flick­er blue even in the sun­light. He takes it all in at a glance, an over­whelm­ing glut of sight and sound. Clus­ters of Acad­e­my stu­dents in scar­let robes chant in har­mo­ny as they walk past the foun­tains, the flow­ers, a shrub in the shape of a strik­ing hawk.

The stu­dents are impec­ca­bly clean, pale, fine-fea­tured. They walk with straight backs, heads tilt­ed slight­ly upward, as if watch­ing some­thing on the hori­zon that no one else can see. So unlike the olive-skinned, dirt-crust­ed boys of Murak’s vil­lage as to be almost a new species. Even the city folk stand aside for them, cast long­ing glances as they pass.

He sees anoth­er shape, halfway across the square with a dow­el of dan­gling birds on his shoul­ders. This is com­fort­ing. He thinks: “chickens”. One famil­iar thing in all this for­eign­ness, old friends from home. Then he rec­og­nizes the stride, the scarce­ly-con­tained fury behind each step. 

He darts across the square, dodg­ing carts, red-cowled stu­dents, foun­tains that smell of rain. He tries to keep the fig­ure in sight but there are too many peo­ple, too many hedges of twin­ing ros­es. By the time he cross­es the square his father is gone. Dis­ap­peared where? From one to the next, he peers down each of the near­by streets. None are straight, all curve off in a sin­gle direc­tion like water spi­ral­ing away from a drain. He can­not see far down any of them.

He notices then the sign above him, a flat wood­en slab with a word—he can’t read—and beneath the word a paint­ed image. A leg of beef. A steam­ing, roast­ed chicken.

He push­es open the door and there is his father, stand­ing at a high counter. He is argu­ing, his face the col­or of a rooster’s comb. The chick­ens are laid out on the counter with limp heads droop­ing over the edge. 

The butch­er is on the far side, look­ing fear­ful­ly across at the large, angry man ges­tic­u­lat­ing with heavy hands. A pink strand of flesh clings to his apron. He looks up hope­ful­ly as the door swings shut with a woody thwack, eager for a cus­tomer to res­cue him from the mur­der­ous peas­ant. There is no one but Murak. His father does not turn.

After a moment’s tense silence the butch­er relents. He nods, dis­ap­pears into the rear of the shop, returns with a short stack of coins. Murak’s father places a coin between his eye­teeth, bites down. Grunts. He wraps Murak’s arm in his meaty fist as he pass­es, tug­ging him back out into the square.

His father says noth­ing as they cross the square back in the same direc­tion they had come. Murak stares up at the Acad­e­my as they pass. There are win­dows high in the stone walls lit from with­in. He sees a face at one nar­row win­dow just below the great glass dome, a young face in a red hood. He is too far away to see the expres­sion, to make out more than the pale flash of fea­tures beneath the red. But he imag­ines the expression—beatific, enthralled, fas­ci­nat­ed. Mustn’t they all wear such expres­sions, in a place so grand?

“I will live there one day,” he tells his father as they pass beneath the city gates a sec­ond time, pass from the chaos and col­or into the brown plain, into the fields of wheat and flax and the scat­tered flocks of grey sheep like spots of mold on the landscape.

Murak’s father grunts.

He goes on. “To that round build­ing, in the city. I will live there.”

His father stops then, turns on him with a look that con­tains both anger and dis­be­lief. Murak flinch­es from an expect­ed blow that does not come. “Aye?” He laughs, a sound Murak has rarely heard from this bear of a man with palms like stone. It is not a pleas­ant sound. “The Acad­e­my? A peas­ant boy like you? From the flats? Oh, aye! You will live there with the nobles! With the merchant’s boys!” He belch­es out a gust of laughter. 

He’d been right. A hate­ful, bit­ter, spite­ful man. But he knew. He knew.

Murak set his sights on the Acad­e­my. He under­stood noth­ing of alche­my, noth­ing of the mys­te­ri­ous sci­ences of the ele­ments. Oh, he was aware of them. He knew the humours must be bal­anced. Every­one knew that, down to the lowli­est peas­ant, the lowli­est chick­en-boy in the flats. But he didn’t under­stand.

His father want­ed no help with his chick­ens and lit­tle plot of veg­eta­bles, no boy at his heels like a cowed dog. Instead Murak assist­ed the vil­lage herbal, a tooth­less old woman who reeked of gar­lic and smoke. He trekked into the fal­low fields in search of chamomile and laven­der, fen­nel and rue. In turn, she taught him to read. Dusty apothe­caries, mildewed books of recipes. 

He trad­ed an old fry­ing pan and a dozen eggs to a ped­dler for a decay­ing note­book cov­ered in unin­tel­li­gi­ble scrawl. He could make out few words at first glance, some num­bers scrib­bled along the mar­gin. He stud­ied it more care­ful­ly at night, by can­dle­light, as his father snored drunk­en­ly on the far side of the cot­tage. The words glowed beneath the flick­er­ing tal­low light, shim­mered as if inked in gold dust. He picked out let­ters, strung togeth­er words. 

Night after night he pieced the bits togeth­er like a puz­zle. Secrets. Knowl­edge. Draw­ings he traced with his fingers—two tri­an­gles, drawn one atop the oth­er, point­ing oppo­site direc­tions; a many-petalled flower; an open eye sur­round­ed by a spi­ral of stars.

His father’s drink­ing grew worse. He stirred only to refill his jug from a bar­rel of last year’s grain liquor, lash­ing out clum­si­ly when he found Murak in his way. The veg­etable patch fell to rot. Murak gath­ered eggs and herbs and butchered chick­ens for their meals.

With­in the year, his father died. Com­plained of pain in his stom­ach, went to sleep. Nev­er woke up.

Freed of one tyrant, Murak appren­ticed with anoth­er. Black­smithing was hot, bru­tal work. But nec­es­sary. He learned how to feed the forge fire, how to pump the bel­lows at the prop­er rate so that the dark coals took on an angry edge of red-laced white, how to bank the coals. He watched the smith heat the iron to an orange glow and beat sparks from it with his ham­mer. Murak learned how to heat ores and meld them togeth­er to make a sin­gle, new met­al. The smith was an alchemist in his way, though he did not real­ize it.

Murak dis­creet­ly pock­et­ed tiny nuggets of iron; green-flecked chunks of cop­per; a minis­cule, mis­shapen lump of sil­ver that the smith was cer­tain to miss. At home, out­side the lit­tle cot­tage he had shared with his father, he built his own furnace—an athanor—from draw­ings in the note­book. Clay bricks. A dome of mud and straw. A fun­nel-shaped chimney.

In the evenings he lit the coals, stoked the fire with a bel­lows made from wood and a sheep’s blad­der. He exper­i­ment­ed with his lit­tle frag­ments of met­al, with liquors and tisanes and urine, dried herbs and salts. At first he fol­lowed instruc­tions, recipes laid out in the note­book. He went sev­er­al times into the city with chick­ens, eggs, herbs—whatever he could sell or steal—returning with glass jars, brandy, pow­dered min­er­als, tawny elixirs from the Academy.

As time wore on he test­ed new com­bi­na­tions, new ideas from his learn­ing. He found no need, no desire, to write things down. Ideas and facts lodged in his brain with a detail he would nev­er have been able to cap­ture with his rough, twig­gish handwriting.

Murak was not unaware of the con­trast he posed with the red-robed demigods he remem­bered so clear­ly, pale-fea­tured and del­i­cate. The face peer­ing back at him from the sur­face of clear water was swarthy, angu­lar, irreg­u­lar. But they would mar­vel at what a peasant—a blacksmith’s appren­tice from the flats—could do! He would walk those halls, walk beneath that great glass bulb, open to the whirling con­stel­la­tions. He would learn things that could not be learned from a note­book, things only the tem­ple of the Acad­e­my taught.

He made elixirs as effi­ca­cious as those sold by the Acad­e­my shops. The city shops wouldn’t buy them. They pur­chased only from the Acad­e­my. He trad­ed them in the flat­lands for veg­eta­bles, herbs, ores. 

He fash­ioned a lamp—burnished cop­per and glass with a sin­gle amber stone sus­pend­ed from a wire inside—that burned longer and brighter than any of the inef­fec­tu­al cobalt alchem­i­cal lamps in the city. It absorbed the light of the sun through­out the day and poured it back out dur­ing the night, gold­en as a ray of dawn.

Two men arrived from the Acad­e­my. They stood in the door of his ram­shackle cot­tage in silken robes. Old­er men with square, shaven jaw­lines. Dark hair sprin­kled through with gleam­ing sil­ver. They might have been broth­ers, slight­ly dis­tort­ed reflec­tions of one anoth­er. They were brusque, turn­ing the lamp about in the light, study­ing the form. They removed the amber stone, smelled it, rubbed it with a damp­ened finger.

“Where did you steal this?” the first one asked.

Murak scowled. “I made it.”

The sec­ond made an inar­tic­u­late sound in his throat.

The first con­tin­ued. “Sell it to us.” He tossed a small leather purse on the table. It tipped, spilling sil­ver coins like moon­light out onto the scarred wood. More sil­ver than Murak had ever seen.

“I will not sell it,” Murak said. It was hard to meet their eyes. “I wish to be a stu­dent. I will trade.”

The sec­ond man’s cough sound­ed like the bark of a wild dog.

“Take the silver,” the first urged.

Murak trad­ed the lamp, two days lat­er, to a pass­ing car­a­van for a hand­ful of rare spices.

The moon ris­es above the city. It sits bal­anced above the dome of the Acad­e­my, a ball of yel­lowed ivory perched atop the sap­phire glass. Murak moves away from the win­dow, back to his desk.

The six clay fig­ures are there. They are dry, hard. The dry­ing has fis­sured their dusky skin with hair­line cracks. He dips a brush into the tulip-shaped mouth of a glass vial, dew col­lect­ed in the pink light of morn­ing. Liq­uid drips from the horse­hair bris­tles. He sweeps it across the emo­tion­less faces, the tiny, cupped hands like clay chalices.

Wind gusts through the win­dow, sets the lamp sway­ing on its hook, upsets the feath­er quill in its inkpot. Ink drips from the edge of the desk into the rush­es with a crisp rustle.

He scoops them up into his palms and car­ries them, two at a time, out of the cot­tage, out to the athanor like a smok­ing mound of earth in the open field. Two by two he feeds the fig­ures to the flames, to the blur of heat. 

Murak works the bel­lows with his foot, gorg­ing the coals with air. Smoke the col­or of the new moon, the col­or of secrets and mal­ice, inks a rib­bon across the stars. Inside, clay hiss­es like bacon fat, black­ens at the edges. The bel­lows wheeze—in, out, in, out—as the moon ascends, rim­ing the grass­land with light.

When it reach­es its apex he stops, mops sweat from his brow. He banks the coals and walks slow­ly back toward the cot­tage. His head droops. There is no glee—no triumph—in the set of his body, the weary sag of his shoulders.

He does not stay to watch the fig­ures slip from the tiny door of the fur­nace, shad­ows veined with flick­er­ing crim­son. Does not stay to watch them unfold like paper in the cold light. Two-dimen­sion­al, with­out depth, on feet like oars. Nar­row mouths taut like a string. He does not stay to watch them nod toward the cot­tage as if in unspo­ken agreement—as if to say, “All right, we are ready. We are ready.”—and turn away toward the dis­tant city, toward the blue-lit knuck­le on the horizon.

Adam Smith’s sto­ries have appeared in Alle­go­ry, The Grif­fin, Fic­tion Fun­house, and Riv­er Cur­rents. He is an active mem­ber of the Online Writer’s Work­shop (OWW).

One Response to "Flatland"

  • I real­ly enjoyed this! Won­der­ful­ly written.

    1 Lyn said this (June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm)