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|A somewhat uncommon view of Artificial Intelligence, written as my contribution to 'The Project' #6... This story was published in KCC's 'Prairie Fire 2005' anthology.||
by James K Bowers
Many years ago, when I was but a child and the weather was too dismal for playing out of doors, I would sit quietly with my brothers while our great-grandmother told us stories. Nana, as we lovingly called her, was still very young when she arrived in America and was fond of telling us of the day long ago when she had her first look at America from the deck of an ocean liner. As a young woman -- an orphan of only seventeen years of age -- Nana made her journey to the States with all she owned packed in a single small trunk. She would have a faraway look in her eyes as she told how she was entranced by the Statue of Liberty and awed by the beauty of the New York City skyline.
But, having been born into a world where urban marvels were commonplace, these things did not evoke the same wonder -- could not hold the same mystery -- for us. We had only a mild curiosity about Nana’s adventures in the new world, though they spanned the greater part of her life.
What we craved, what we desperately wanted to hear, were her tales of the old country. Sometimes Nana told us of her early life in New York, usually starting with, “I met your great-grandpapa in Shultz’s Bakery while…“ Other times, she spoke of life’s hardships during the Great Depression and would begin, “When your great-grandpapa and I were living in the Wisconsin dairylands…” On other occasions, while recounting a story of her later years, Nana almost invariably began with, “When he retired, your great-grandpapa and I moved back to the city…” Not often, but always to our elation, Nana didn’t use any of several cookie-cutter introductions we knew would lead to a “Nana’s Life in America” story – and we had come to know all of them by heart. No, sometimes Nana would begin her story differently.
We were ever fascinated by the stories of how Nana became that bold, young woman standing on the deck of an ocean liner with more hope than money. So it was that Nana would occasionally give in to our pleadings and tell us of the Europe of many, many years ago. In her tales of the old country, Nana spoke often of her grandfather. My brothers and I would carefully count out the three “greats” while trying to grasp the eternity separating us from our great-great-great-grandfather. One such tale, told to us only once, remains in my memory as if told only yesterday. As with many of her stories of the old country, Nana began: “I never knew my mother and father. Both died when I...”
… was but a tiny babe. Fevers, weakness, coughing up blood – first my father, then my mother not long after. The consumption they called it, but who would know. A doctor in those days could hardly do better than a gypsy fortune-teller. My grandfather, “Papa” as he preferred, took me in after my parents died. Now, boys, Papa was your great-great-great-grandfather. He was a strong and simple man, you understand, living an uncomplicated life, with little care for wealth or possessions. All his life Papa had worked in the quarry as a stonecutter – at least until the day I, the only child of his only daughter, became his responsibility. In order to have a vocation that would not keep him from his home he then turned his skills and knowledge of stone to the creation of carvings and sculptures. The largest of the few rooms in his modest cottage became Papa’s workshop as he plied his new trade, carving mostly headstones for graves and religious figurines for the impoverished rural churches that could not begin to afford a true sculptor’s commissions and fees.
As a tiny baby I grew accustomed to the sound of mallet and chisel on stone, and would even sleep while Papa worked mere feet away from the basket that was my bed. It was not the steady work of the quarry, and there were periods of time, sometimes weeks, when there was no demand for Papa’s work. Perhaps because of this, Papa began sculpting creatures of legend and lore. At the time, I thought this was to keep himself occupied and sharpen his skills, though I am certain now that these were not Papa’s only reasons. There were unicorns and dwarves, faerie-dragons and gnomes, mermaids and nymphs, and all manner of beast for which I still have no names. Each time Papa finished one of his sculptures, it seemed more lifelike than the last.
Word of Papa’s talent spread slowly, but he did gather some small notoriety. In but a few short years, his skill was such that he could afford some few luxuries, though he rarely purchased anything that he himself might have wanted. Papa chose instead to “spoil” his granddaughter with an occasional new dress or trinket. Even in the very lean times, life with Papa was good. Papa was a wise and caring man. He knew that a growing girl might sometimes require the reassurance of his love, and that even the smallest of gifts can often speak louder than words.
The earliest of Papa’s sculptures were often small and less lifelike in their appearance and, being unlikely to be bought for any worthwhile amount, eventually Papa’s small shop overflowed into the small adjoining rooms where we lived. I used to think of these mute lumps of stone as orphans, too, and harbored a tiny amount of pity for their misfortune. My misplaced pity was tempered with the thought that I now had friends, of sorts, that would always be there when needed.
These years of my early childhood rushed past and Papa continued to create his wondrous stone beasts. As I grew more aware of how the world works and of the evils outside Papa’s cottage, I began to envy my silent friends and their simple unburdened existence. I would spend rainy afternoons quietly speaking to them. From the adjoining shop came muffled hammering as Papa’s chisel clinked its methodical way through the portion of stone block that wasn’t part of his latest sculpture. In the earlier stages of his endeavor, large pieces of stone fell to the floor with a thud of finality. Then, as Papa’s beast became more recognizable, smaller chips rained down on the worn wooden floor. Through it all my stone friends stood, silent and unmoving as the stone from which they had been carved. If they ever listened, I could not tell for they never moved, never spoke.
Papa grew older as I matured and his health steadily declined until the winter of my sixteenth year, when he fell dreadfully ill. With fear and apprehension gnawing at me, I tended to his fevers and his chills. Some days his condition appeared to improve, others to worsen, and unwillingly abiding by his wishes no doctor was called to his bedside. Papa had had enough of charlatans and quacks when, in spite of everything the doctors tried, my mother died. And so, it was left to me to see to his needs and nurse him back to some measure of health. This I did for him out of love for him, a love I found to be much stronger than even I had known. I remember crying many times while thinking that Papa would not recover from his condition. I remember also crying in relief and joy when it became evident that Papa was on his way to recovery. Several weeks had passed. Yet another week passed before Papa felt well enough to return to his work, but when he did, he did not return to the sculpture he had been working on before his illness.
To this day, I do not know what inspiration flooded Papa’s fevered senses, but it was plain that his illness had changed him. He became driven – no, obsessed – with a new sculpture. It began as a small block of granite no more than two feet tall and Papa chiseled at it relentlessly. Slowly, but with the surety of time itself, the sculpture began to take on its destined shape. And a hideous shape it was – a hunched and bent body with the wings of a bat, talons sharp and deadly, and great teeth that lined its mouth like rows of knives.
Days passed as Papa labored over his latest creation, and then, my curiosity too great to contain, I asked him, “Papa, what is this you are carving?”
“It is a guardian for myself and my family.”
“What family, Papa? Here is all that remains of it. You and I.”
“Yes. That is so,” he agreed as his attention returned to his work. Tiny shards of grey stone fell to the click—click—click of Papa’s chisel as it gently caressed the horrific creature. I found I was unable to leave the workshop. For quite some time I stood and watched, transfixed as if hypnotized, as the delicate tapping of Papa’s mallet on chisel brought greater and yet greater definition to this most unspeakable of creatures. The more I watched, the more I dreaded the thought that this grotesque caricature of life might find its way into the other rooms, a dreadful companion indeed for my childhood friends. I shuddered to think of this beast perched beside the graceful unicorns, smiling gnomes, and lithe faeriefolk scattered playfully about our quarters.
“Papa, does this beast have a name?” I asked. The tapping stopped and Papa wiped his brow on his sleeve.
“No. It has no name.” Papa paused as if expecting me to ask him why, and realizing I was not going to ask, he continued. “Names are powerful things, child. This beast shall have no name. In that way, the Dark Prince can hold no power over it. Had you merely asked what beasts of this sort are called, I would perhaps have had a better answer for you.”
Papa’s response to my question intrigued me. I had seen him carving similar creatures before, though not often and never in such breathtakingly intricate detail. He had sold them, always, as ornamentations for great stone churches many leagues distant. So, then, I asked him.
I asked him by what term creatures of this sort were known. He sighed, I thought, because he was tired from his laboring over the beast. He was sweating, perhaps more than he usually did when he worked. He turned then and leaned back against his workbench. “Listen closely, child,” he said to me, “and do not forget what I tell you of the gargoyle. It bears a frighteningly hideous appearance so that evil itself will cower in fear of it. Yet it cares not for it has but one purpose: the gargoyle will protect me from evils until the day I die and then, if you keep it nearby, it will protect you. And some day years from now, when you breathe your last, it will guard your children, and their children until my bloodline ends.”
“Papa, do not speak this way. You frighten me with these folktales. Perhaps you should lie down and rest for a while before supper.”
“These are not folktales this time, my dear,” replied Papa grimly as he again turned to his work. “The carving is nearly done.” Click. “We should eat soon.” Click—click.
“I will make us supper, then, Papa,” I told him as I retreated from the arcane aura of Papa’s workshop. Click—click. “I will call you when it is ready.” Click—click—click. “Papa?” Click—click.
“Yes, dear child.” Click—click.
Those were the last words Papa spoke to me. When I returned to tell Papa that supper was waiting for him, it did not at first occur to me that the workshop was completely silent. I found Papa slumped on his workbench, a light mallet and small detailing chisel still clutched in his hands. I rushed to his side and turned his face toward me and through my tears I saw that he was smiling. Over the now lifeless husk of my dear Papa stood the gargoyle.
I tried to stay in Papa’s cottage for a time, but found too many memories to remind me of my loss. Searching for purpose and a direction for my life, it was a sudden realization that I should travel far from that small hamlet. I sold what I could, packed what mattered, and left the remainder behind.
Passage to the Americas took nearly all the money I had saved, but money is of little value to one who is truly alone in the world. In her day, the Grosser Kurfurst was a very fine ocean liner. However, accommodations for her steerage passengers were not fine at all, by any measure or stretch of the imagination. We were packed together like sardines in a tin, though they did berth the single men separate from the single women, and both of these in an area separate from the families.
One night, while returning to my assigned berth, I was accosted by two young ruffians. Had it not been for three of the crew passing through the area after their hours of shoveling coal in the boiler room, I don’t know what would have become of me. The sailors were enough to scare them off, and those boiler-stokers earned my gratitude if not a true reward. Two bodies turned up early the next morning, and no one could explain the claw marks covering the mangled corpses.
after her long journey across the Atlantic, the Kurfurst finally
made port in New York and I began a new life in America.
One week later, I was processed through Ellis Island and…
…met great-grandpapa outside Shultz’s Bakery the very next week. The rest, as they say, is history. Though it isn’t a history you’re likely to find in any schoolbook. I find myself thinking more and more of Nana as I grow older. Much as I contentedly watched my children grow, nowadays I watch my grandchildren, knowing that they too are safe.
I climb the ladder into the attic, tug on the string that awakens the single, bare light bulb, and squeeze past Christmas decorations, boxes of dusty books, and trunks of old clothes. In the corner is the worn and battered trunk that once belonged to Nana. I examine the latches once more – broken as if the trunk had burst. I open the small trunk and gaze into the knowing eyes of the gargoyle…
|Finishing School||A Soul in the Darkness|
|Aftermath||Ice Dragon (poem) Part 1|
|Darkmoon Ridge (-Prologue-)||Is Anything Worth A Tinker's Damn?|