Sugarman

I have been a holy confectioner to the temple at Dioscurias the past 27 years. When I was eight my parents presented me to the temple priests, and as I was without obvious defect, showed proper respect, had some glimmer of intelligenceand not least because of the many contributions my family had made to the temple’s upkeepI was chosen acolyte and apprentice.

The first four years of my apprenticeship were spent toiling in the refinery, a miserable, soot-blackened building just off the main kitchens. One by one I learned the stations and worked them, 11 hours a day during the sugar-making months, with a break only for noontide prayer. First the slicer, where the beets harvested from the temple fields were cut to release their juices. I lost the tips of the last two fingers of my left hand to the slicer, but such injuries are almost as common to confectioners as they are to carpenters.

Then the sluices, where the beets were mixed with water, then the great vat where it all was boiled with milk of lime to draw out the impurities. My arms still ache from the hours spent stirring the vat with a broad paddle, my eyes still water from the smoke. But the most arduous task was “breathing” the sugar. Several acolytes gathered at the rim of the vat, all blowing into the cooling mixture through long hollow reeds, all watched by one hawk-eyed priest who went in circles around and around, making sure each boy was making enough bubbles and not faking it with faces and puffed-out cheeks.

Our breath, you see, not only helped cool the mixture, it caused the precious sugar crystals to form. But as it cooled, and as they formed, forcing breath though the tube became harder and harder. So all of us tried to fake it, now and then, just to rest our lungs a while. And when you got caught it was a sharp crack between the shoulder blades with the back of the priest’s heavy-ringed hand.

Then came the careful draining, the rinsing in only the coldest water. The thorough drying on the jointless marble floor of the drying room until the pure sugar crystals gleamed dull yellow and white. And last the grinding, the sugar like sand rushing with a whisper from the grinder into raw silk bags. All the acolytes would bow our heads silently as the priest who kept the tablets for the temple prayed aloud. And as he prayed he would weigh each bag one by one, mark down its exact weight to the grain, and tie each bag with a Dioscurian knot that served as the temple’s seal.

Although the work was hard and miserable, it was necessary. Not just in making the sugar needed for our rites, but for instilling in the young acolytes the moral foundation of our temple’s faith: If through patience and toil even the lowliest roots of the earth could be so purified, surely the same could be done for the souls of men? If the breath of men could form a thing so beautiful, so sweet, certainly the breath of God entering into us must do the same?

These, in fact, were the first lessons taught to me by Archidamus, my master. He was so ancient when I first met him it seemed impossible to me he had ever been young. His eyes had been ruined from years of closework, and his hands shook from the palsy of age.

When his declining health meant he could no longer craft the tiny miracles in spun sugar that had once earned him fame, Archidamus had been relegated to a teaching post, a decision that left him bitter. As the years rolled on, all his great works were forgottenas they are meant to be, for impermanence is the hallmark of our medium. But that lesson was one he could never take to heart. He hated the elders of the temple for their rejection, he hated the students under his control for their youth and promise, and I think he hated himself for not having died in his 20s.

Archidamus was an excellent teacher for all of that. He could not stand poor technique or uninspired, sloppy work. He had an uncanny instinct for knowing when a boiling sugar solution was at just the right stage for a certain project; he knew every trick for handling, bending, forming, and molding; and above all, he knew that sugar is as demanding as it is delicate, and that achieving an effect sometimes requires more than any amount of skill can give.

I can remember one day I was trying to form a difficult arabesque. I was watching my 15th try at it cool and harden, when Archidamus swept up beside me and bent down low to the table so his weak eyes could inspect my work. “Scrape this dreck back into the pot,” he sneered dismissively. “You lose all control of your line when you get to describing the greater arc. You’re not pouring fast enough.”

“But master,” I protested, “if I pour faster I’ll have even less control.”

He withered me with a look. “Then you must hope your control is not needed. The hand of God moves all things, Heiron, even those useless flippers of yours. If God wants the arabesque to appear you are as good an instrument as any other.”

It was the practice of many years but eventually, when I was doing my best work, it was as if my hand was moved by another hand. Many times I would step back from the object I was making, astounded. Had I really created something so beautiful? So perfect? It seemed much more likely that I had only been a medium for a higher beauty, a higher perfection. Eventually I completed my apprenticeship, was formally ordained, and then, free from Archidamus’ sneers, I began to pursue my craft in earnest.

My pieces began to receive attention. Then acclaim. And finally, one of mine was chosen for the high altar. The day the high priest Didymus selected it was one of the happiest of my life. It was a struggle to keep solemn throughout that evening’s rites. As it was finally set in place (a spun sugar staircase I had done to commemorate one of the lesser mysteries) I did feel as if I were an instrument of God. It wasand I use the words exactlywonderful and terrifying. For the next 10 days, during daily prayers, I watched my staircase slowly crumble back into powder with mingled pride and heartache. Then the altar was scraped clean, and a new focus was chosen.

And so for many years I embraced the wonder, the terror, and my role as sacred confectioner. Many more times my works were chosen for the altar. I was often called on to create special pieces for various occasions, to help celebrate a feast day or commemorate the marriage of a noble. In my seclusion, I had no way of knowing how far tales of my work had spread, until one day an envoy of the mighty Selucies III arrived at the temple with a retinue of 30 in his wake.

The envoy stayed more than a month. Under the watchful eye of the high priest he only just managed to avoid profaning our rites. I met the man, who was some minister of culture in the greater empire, briefly. He was fat and excitable and managed to spout some minor quotations of the major philosophers. I made all due obeisance to him and to the power of his master, and he seemed pleased both in me and in my work. Our one tense moment came when he realized that none of my sculptures would survive a trip back to the capital, and asked if I might create a piece for him in wax.

Perhaps he was a more subtle man than I gave him credit; I made a great show of taking offense, and I believe he guessed that it was mostly show and not genuine feelingthat to have my handiwork seen by the first man in the empire was something that appealed to me. Indeed, it had been difficult to keep the thought at bay since I had heard of the envoy’s arrival. And he knew just how to press me. “Imagine,” he said, “if the mighty Selucies III, savior of the continent, should be moved to embrace your faith by the work of your hand? Imagine the glory you would earn for your temple… and for yourself.”

It was the greatest temptation my art had yet set in my path. It was not to be the last. Over the years there were noblemen with sacks of gold who wanted a physical token of their devotioneither to their faith or to some woman. And there were noblewomen who either sought a son with some trace of my skill, or else thought that in offering themselves to me they were as good as offering themselves to God. But the most difficult trials came when I later took on apprentices of my own. Those boys, with such fire in their eyes, did not offer gold or flesh but simple adoration. It’s easier to think more of ourselves than is true than it is to take more than what we know is our due.

In the end I told the envoyafter a long pause to thinkthat the only lasting replica of the temple’s treasures he could return with would be his own, and fashioned from nothing more than the words of his report. Which, I was sure, would create so vivid an image that the mighty Selucies himself would be our guest the following year. He opened his hands in a sweeping, Oriental gesture, and allowed himself to be flattered. His visit, by the time it ended, had nearly bankrupted the temple, but our new fame in good time repaired our fortunes.

So the years turned. I was, for the most part, happy and content. At the funeral rites for my old master Archidamus I felt a pang, not out of any affection for the old man, but from the lesson his life and his passing afforded: Archidamus had broken an ankle in a fall. He had retired to his chambers, refused all food and drink, and simply willed his life away, as though it were a guest that had overstayed its welcome.

I spun a heavenly gate for his funeral rites, the sides composed of variations on the same arabesque I had been so challenged by as an apprentice. As it was placed on the altar I looked at what was left of my old master, lying on his bier, sunken, shriveled, dead. So it will be with me one day, I thought. My eyes will start to dim and my hands to shake, and God will find a new instrument for his glory. I will look on, jealously, at the new people He inspires and the wonders they create. The greatest of my masterpieces will have been scraped from the altar before my decline even begins – the memory of them will have faded before that decline reaches its end.

But so it is with all men, and with all the works of their hands, I consoled myself. One generation builds a palace, and the next pulls down the stones to build a temple. The statue one man casts in bronze another melts down for door hinges. Building in sugar only makes it easier to see the futility of all earthly thingsand, in seeing, to put my faith not in this world but in the world to come. That was what I thought as I stared down upon the lifeless body of my old master.

I think it was little more than three years after we had packed Archidamus away in his vault that brother Lias found the girl.

There had been a terrible famine that year. In lean years the temple took it as a matter of course that the beet yield would be low. And if there was some hoarding by those who worked the soil, well, we priests could turn a blind eye. Even the molasses that was a by-product of our refining we gave over to be mixed with hay or feed. But the sugar… once the sugar was ground and tied in its bag, it was for God, not for men. The holy writs were clear on that.

No one knew how she got into the storeroom. None of us could ever remember seeing her during a servicebut then there was nothing remarkable about her. Mousy brown hair, close-set, dun-colored eyes, dirty face. Perhaps eight? 10? Brother Lias had been ill the past week, and had gotten up very early that morning to use the latrines. On his way past the storeroom he heard her scrabbling about, grabbed her, and brought her before the high priest.

The high priestwho by that time was Thalocratesasked her who she was, and if she knew what a terrible thing she had done. The girl had been eating sugar by the fistful and was sick to her stomach. She was also terrified, and perhaps a bit simple. She couldn’t give much of an answer besides a thin, high-pitched wail and begged to be let go.

Brother Ion rang the bell and assembled the villagers. All the priests of the temple stood in ranks, as if it were a holy day. Thalocrates had the girl produced and demanded to know whose she was. No one answered. Perhaps they were afraid of being made exile and apostate, which is probably what would have happened to them. Or perhaps the girl really had no one to claim her.

Thalocrates observed the crowd long and well. At last, when he decided that no one was stepping forward, he read a brief prayer in the attic tongue and closed saying, “The eyes of God see all.”

Then brother Perdiccas tied her to the stake in the forecourt with her hands behind her back and garroted her to death, so that not a drop of blood would spill to pollute our grounds. Brother Perdiccas is young enough to still have his strength, old enough to act with resolution.

I brooded upon the child the rest of the day, and passed an uneasy night. There was nothing else to be done, of course, but it seemed to me a great pity. A great waste. It troubled me still the next day as I set to work boiling my sugar and water in a little copper pot, carefully spooning the molten liquid to check its state, then plunging the bottom of the pot in cold water to stop the cooking at just the right moment.

My object that day was to craft a spreading tree to celebrate the coming harvest. I began with a small, flat knife, spreading an impasto for the trunk that I would later carve to look like bark. While it cooled I drizzled with a wooden rod to make the brancheslater I intended to do each leaf separately with a small metal hook.

The branches… disturbed me. I had been hoping for something more alive, more joyful, but these seemed to be branches in a gale, bending back as if in distress. Perhaps, I thought, I could return to it later on. I began work on the bark, but at every turn the hardening sugar seemed to defy me. My gouge would slip its point; a small crack I didn’t intend would appear. My frustration mounted until I finally set down my tool with an oath and leaned back to rub my eyes.

When I opened them, they could not get their fill for staring. Instead of being far from finished, the piece was almost done. But it was not a tree. The spreading branches were flowing hair, the trunk a ragged dress, and the crux where they met had become a pleading, human face. I looked around me quickly, and scraped the whole thing back into the pot.

Again and again that day I tried to sculpt a tree, and again and again the sugar defied me. A leaf became an ear, a branch became an arm and alwaysalwaysin some unintended confluence of elements, her face would appear, her face just as it was the moment Perdiccas had slipped the knotted sash about her neck. I did not think that I had studied the moment so well.

It is a tree I am trying to depict, I told myself, and a tree is very like a person. I must simply try to create something else, something far from a helpless, hapless girl. I tried to create a mountain scene: The crags became her hands raised in supplication. I tried to create a lion: The lion’s eyes became the girl’s eyes, its whiskers the tracks of her tears through the grime on her cheeks. I tried an arabesque, a thing of pure form, not related to this world of suffering at all: The upright became the stake from the forecourt, the arc her body desperately trying to pull free.

There are no secrets in the temple. We brothers own all things in common, even to our innermost hearts. I did my best to destroy the images of the girl my hands set before me, but priests come and go in the workshop all the day, and besides, wasting sugar is a sin. It was only a matter of timefour days, I thinkbefore Thalocrates came to me as I worked. I’m not sure how long he had been observing me before he spoke.

“Brother Heiron,” he said, and I started. “What are you making?”

“Brother Thalocrates,” I repliedfor even the high priest is still brother to us all“I do not know.”

He came around my worktable and looked long and hard at the figure I had made. I had by this day given up trying to control the flow of the sugar. I had hoped by surrendering to the image to purge myself of it. And so, though it was a flat and not a standing piece, I had made what was almost a perfect depiction of the peasant girl’s last moments in life. Its creation had been almost effortless, and it was, I believe, the finest work I had ever done.

Thalocrates stared long and hard. All around us, the other priests in the workroom were silent and still.

“This is what you choose to spend your labor on?” Thalocrates said softly. “This is the shape you choose to weave the holy sugar into? You see this as a fit offering upon the altar of God? The image of a profaner?”

“It is no choice of mine,” I replied. “My hands move only as God moves them.”

Thalocrates darkened. Then, moving with sudden swiftness, he overturned my entire worktable, breaking its marble top, scattering the image of the girl in a thousand shining pieces across the floor.

“Liar!” he roared. “You work to serve your own vanity. Long have I watched you Heiron, and long have I feared that one day your own talent would poison your heart. Now that day has come. Such blasphemy cannot glorify God.”

“And how does it then glorify me?” I pleaded. “I have struggled these past days to create somethinganythingother than this. Other than her. I know the mere sight of it would destroy me. Why? Why should I willfully do such a thing?”

Thalocrates drew himself up to his full height, which is impressive. He looked around him, making clear that his next words were for all the brothers as much as for me, and said, “Because all that is made from sugar is fleeting. Even fame spun of sugar is fleeting. But a heresy such as this will be remembered, for all the life of the temple. Condemned, reviled, but remembered.”

For a while after that, they did not know what to do with me. I was confined to my chambers and expected any day to feel brother Perdiccas’ sash about my throat.

In the end they let me go, exile and apostate into the world. Ironically, I think the fame I had brought to the temple in the past played a part in their decision. I am now a pilgrim in a world I am poorly equipped to deal with and not likely to survive for very long. But then, what in this world does? Vanity, vanity, all is vanity sayeth the Lord…

I cannot help but wonder if the high priest was right. Was it God that inspired me, or my own desire to create something, anything, that would last the test of time? If it was God, then to what purpose? I know that all things but God and the over-sweeping sky will one day pass away. My heresy, the temple at Dioscurias, even the mighty Selucid Empire itself will all one day be forgotten. Why should God want the face of that girl to be preserved, through me, beyond her passing? Is it perhaps a lesson? God’s way of telling me that really, nothing passes away? That everything endures… if only in His memory?

Whatever the truth may be, I do not think it is for me to say.

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