It was only by accident that he noticed she had gone from hot to cold, as his hand brushed against her skin in bed one morning. It was not the slight coolness that you would expect when ice licked the ground at night but a coldness which seemed to penetrate to her core. He was reminded of when he visited a wishing well whose waters petrified objects. Dozens of ossified teddy bears hung from nooses in the falling water as proof of its potency. He had still been young enough to sleep with a soft toy, too young to understand the desire to give something up in return for its preservation. His mother had plunged her hand into the well for luck and, after touching her chilled skin, which already felt to him like stone, he had refused to hold her hand for the rest of the day. Now, he felt the same mistrust and wondered if it was something in the water. Hadn’t he always told his wife that she spent too long in the shower?
When he tried to bring the subject up, she gave him a stony look.
The alterations in her appearance were gradual: a stiffening that could have been put down to age; a subtle sheen to the skin that could not. Her movements became slow, graceful even, and more and more he caught himself wondering at her beauty – it was still there, underneath the years that had trodden over and under her skin. Where had the years gone? He tried to remember the last time he had looked at her like this, sifting through distant memories which lay buried beyond the years of hard work and the chasm their children had created. Even the old photo albums could not provide him with any clues; once the children made an appearance, the visual evidence of his wife’s existence almost disappeared.
When had it started? When the last child left home? When he retired? Was it neglect? Inactivity? A protective shell? Perhaps, after many years of watching her dreams turn to stone, she had turned her gaze inwards? She did not seem worried, or at least she didn’t say anything to him. But he found himself looking at her more and more and wondered why he had stopped.
It could have been his mind playing tricks, but he suspected not. His friends commented on how well she was looking whenever they caught sight of her. Her skin was not dull, but gleamed and shimmered in the light; her complexion rivalled that of the bonniest baby. He took her to the golf club dinner for the first time in twenty-odd years and she was the belle of the ball. She declined to dance, not through lack of offers, but stood with a stately elegance while he hovered proudly beside her.
There were drawbacks. She now did a fraction of what she used to, leaving the housework to him. He had to learn to cook, although secretly he quite enjoyed it. There was some satisfaction in seeing a handful of raw ingredients become a finished dish, and the smell and sound of an onion sizzling with some garlic gave him a sense of comfort that he vaguely recalled from an earlier life. He anticipated the slow smile he would get when he presented her with something he had laboured over, and wondered whether he had ever given her such thanks in return.
He worried. Was she in any pain? Would she become completely immobile – unable to move around or even eat? Was it something he could catch? He took her to see a doctor, not long after the night he had noticed something amiss, but he couldn’t bring himself to articulate precisely what he thought was wrong and the doctor merely suggested they get someone in to help with the house. He delayed doing so, not really knowing where to look, and by the time he had thought to ask around for a recommendation he had got used to the looks of approval she bestowed upon his handiwork and to having her all to himself. He had to sacrifice reading the morning papers, and curtail his social life but, as the outside world was no longer able to hold his attention, this was no hardship.
The statue of his wife was all he looked at now, every line and crease chiselled so carelessly by himself and the children. It made him cry. He would do anything to turn back time so that he could do better. No sculptor gets it right on their first attempt, but he should have tried harder.
He tried now. Every day he tried with the sacrifices he made, the offerings he left at her feet. And he was rewarded with eyes which tried to smile, lips whose whispered words he couldn’t quite catch, embraces that no longer felt heavy. At night he drew close to keep her warm and listened to her heart beat steadily, louder by the day. It sounded like it was trying to escape. Most nights were spent tracking the rise and fall of her stony chest as though his own life depended on it, as she had done with each of their children.
After a while the husband realised there was no longer any change in his wife’s condition. She seemed to him happier, although he knew that the interpretation of art is always subjective. And when he looked at her now, he wondered whether she had really changed at all: her beauty had always been there if only he had looked; the slow deliberateness of her movements impossible to see until he himself stopped moving; her coldness, understandable. She had solidified into the person she had always been, there was no miracle.
It was he who had been sculpted into someone else, she who had achieved the improbable.
Elizabeth Smith is a full-time mother and occasional writer who lives in Scotland. She has been published in Firewords Magazine and placed third in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021. When she’s not chasing after her two young children she enjoys reading, running and daydreaming. She tweets @Smithinamillion.