Story art by Brent Nichols.
From the author: What is the nature of an artist’s muse? Kaolin knows from the instant she is created that she was made to give life to Gaius’ art.
Kaolin coalesced from earth and smoke in a dry summer wood.
She filled her lungs with a glory of scents--juniper, heather, sage, a dozen more--and wandered, wondering, among gnarled old-woman trees. Delighted by silky heat, rough bark and spongy moss, she slipped through the half light of dawn, drawn by a hunger, a prickle beneath her skin, a restlessness, toward the gurgle of water on stone.
Where the emaciated stream trickled into an aqueduct, a man with knotted muscles and thick, dark hair dug with a bronze shovel. At the rustle of her presence, he rose like a lion, his strong, sensual hands smeared to the elbows with yellow-brown clay.
Kaolin marveled. She had no hands, only arms that tapered to delicate points.
This man--this was the source of her thirst, the yearning that lured her to earth. His gaze caught Kaolin in a gasp of recognition and he stilled, amazed, as though movement would break the spell between them.
She lifted her wings of gossamer and stretched in sultry welcome, smoke trailing from her feathers' fanned tips to disappear among the woody shadows.
In thrall, the man took a step toward her.
She turned, a languid movement, and her form twisted into the shape of a young olive tree, wings branching to become narrow leaves, toes rooting into cool soil.
He approached her, mud-smeared, taking in her guise, her scent, the sigh of her leaves, her beauty.
He stretched an exquisite finger to caress her cheek, and she caught her breath as sudden pleasure raced across her skin and into her core. Who was this man, this beautiful being of earth and water?
A breeze sprang up, hot and harsh, plucking at her branches.
The man turned, and the withdrawal of his touch left Kaolin bereft.
The wind raised a choking dust.
A woman, clothed in colorless rags that seethed in the turbulent air, materialized on the far bank of the river. Her pale hair writhed about pallid eyes and skin, translucent in the growing dawn.
"Aeola." Gaius splashed through the creek to her side.
Aeola laughed a tinkling laugh and catching his hand, tugged. "The fish is smoked. Come and eat. Who knows what we'll eat tomorrow."
The hot wind rose, tossing Kaolin's branches, tumbling twigs.
Gaius heaved a goatskin bag to his shoulder. "I found wonderful fine-grained clay, Aeola. And I had a vision of the amphora I'll make."
The wind threw Gaius' words to the sky.
"Wonderful!" Aeola gamboled ahead of him down the dry, shrubby hillside.
Gaius paused an instant to look back at Kaolin, and again, heat smoldered in her chest.
Gaius shook his head with a smile of wonderment, and turned to trudge down the hill.
When Kaolin faded from the world to her home of crystalline light, she ached with joy and grief, and a tiny blemish scarred her cheek.
Kaolin danced for him, flame.
Through the drought of summer, she returned again and again, appearing in the downy petal of an orchid, the blush of sunset, the sweep of a valley. She came, too, in abundance of grain, in the spring of a baby goat, in the lines of an old man's face. She smiled in the shine of Aeola's eyes.
She came, always, as beauty.
Gaius returned her gifts. For her, he adorned pots and plates and vessels and ewers. Here he painted her as he'd first seen her, a wind-tossed olive tree. Here she was as a pregnant goat, a bowl of figs, a sleeping child.
At first, they trifled, toyed, teased. But as they grew close, their play became urgent, a craving, a thirst. Gaius cast clay on his wheel in fever, eyes closed, disregarding hunger and fading light. Kaolin infused the clay, caressing his hands as he caressed her. She led his hunt among the rocky hills for pigments of copper and cobalt and zirconium. She pushed him to find her beauty in the brilliance of smoky glazes, in the shapes of ewers, in adornment etched by twig and ash and leaf. Gaius pushed Kaolin to show him pulsing color and line and shape.
They stumbled upon moments of ecstasy approaching godliness, and finding them, were drawn back to each other, to hunt again.
"You work too hard, you know." Nomos, the village baker, stopped in the dust by Gaius' kiln. "A pot of red clay serves as well as one of white. A plain ewer pours as well as one decorated with men at harvest."
The autumn wind whipped across the village square and flickered Kaolin's fiery dance below the kiln and she wished this intruder gone.
Gaius knelt in the dirt and his exquisite hands fed her twigs and sticks. A low table stood nearby with bisque bowls dipped and daubed in glaze. "We paint antelope on the boulders."
"That's different." Nomos settled bony thighs on Gaius' stool. "We show the antelope it is safe to come here and share our goats' pathetic graze." He spread his hands and grinned. "There are no hunters hiding in the brush!"
The wind gusted, clattering sand against the kiln, and Kaolin ducked.
"I paint fat grain for the same reason." Gaius stacked bricks to break the wind. "To show the Gods our need."
Nomos leaned two palms on his knees. "Show the Gods our river overflowing, then. Show them our aqueduct gushing, if you want to help. That's why our babies die. That's why our old men sit and mumble. The Gods ignore our prayers for water." He shook his head in disgust. "I don't know what we've done to anger them."
Kaolin, flame, pirouetted above the embers and rose to flick her wings against the brick above her, sharing her fever with the kiln.
"The Gods love beauty." Gaius nudged a log under Kaolin to feed her. "Beauty will draw their attention."
"Eh." Nomos shook his head. "Well, if it's beauty you want, look over there."
Gaius looked where Nomos pointed. "Oh--"
The inconstant wind spun about, flattening Kaolin.
Aeola frolicked with a handful of other young women, tossing grain into the air to let it fall on a blanket, letting the breeze carry away the chaff.
Gaius pulled his paddles from beneath the table and opened the kiln. He lifted an unembellished serving bowl to the table.
Kaolin lifted her flames, feebly battling the gusts.
"No schools of fish?" Nomos asked, eyeing the plain dish. "No pregnant goats?"
"Aeola wanted it that way. It's for her." Gaius gave the paddles to Nomos. "Will you watch the kiln? It needs to cool."
Kaolin cried out a choking crackle that was lost in the laughter of the wind.
"Go!" Nomos encouraged Gaius, pulling down the windbreak and kicking the fire apart. Kaolin tumbled to ash.
Kaolin began to vanish.
Within, her love and pain grew unabated, but outwardly she became like reflection on water: smoke, more than flame; pentimento, more than earth.
Techne cradled Kaolin in his arms, as she'd done for her sisters and brothers who'd faded to dreams. Like Kaolin, each of her kind was complete, but for single flaw. One sister had no voice. A brother had no eyes; another, no words; another, no ears. Techne had no legs. And those who'd ventured into the world, given of themselves, too weak to resist the desire to approach the Gods, had suffered. One sister's wing was shattered. Another had a shard broken from her face. Kaolin carried burns from every touch of Gaius' fingers.
But Techne was young. He had never left their home of globed light. He asked the questions Kaolin once had asked. "Does it hurt?"
"Will it happen to me?"
"If you are very, very lucky."
Her younger brother pondered this with doubt in his eyes, and she pressed her cheek against his hand in reassurance.
"You must remain in our world, then," Techne said. "You can't go back to him."
"To have your feet burned to ash? To have your body scarred? To have your bones and skin and hair blow away like dust in the wind?"
"He also bears the scars of loving me."
"Gaius no longer sees you, even when you go to him," the young one protested. "He forgets you, and his forgetting starves you."
Kaolin was silent. Techne was wrong. Gaius still saw beauty. She knew he did. The beauty of practical things. Of muscles hardened by labor. Of seeds gathered and spread. Of pots, thick-walled and serviceable. And Gaius still gave of himself. He gave respite to a thin wife, delicate as air, easily burned by the sun, inconstant as the wind.
"I've been gone too long."
"You can't go back!"
The boy was untried. He could not know. Gaius was Kaolin's life and breath. He was her conduit to the Gods. She would not leave him.
One last time, she took in Techne's face and form, achingly beautiful but for his missing legs; and the globe of crystal light that was her home, where she'd never had the slightest want.
Then she closed her eyes and slipped into the world.
Summer heat pulsed the air, fragrant with night-scented stalks. The thin moon flicked in and out of a troubled sky.
Kaolin crept into his hut, silent with the breath of two sleepers. Gaius, her Gaius, Gaius of the beautiful hands, lay on his back, one arm thrown over his head, lashes locked, a thin-woven cover pushed away. Beside him, cocooned, lay Aeola, his wife.
Kaolin slid between Gaius' arms, aching with the remembrance of him, of their forgotten intimacy.
Gaius shifted in his sleep.
Do you remember, Gaius?
His strength made her real.
The nightingale's song?
Joy in his touch melted her flesh.
The down on a crocus? The ripple of brightness on running water?
He moaned and held her to him.
Do you remember beauty? For its own sake? Divine, soul-satisfying, Elysian--
She infused herself into his strong, slender hands, became his hands. These hands. That build. That make. That create homage to beauty, homage to the Gods--
He woke, caressing her ephemeral body.
She turned in his arms. The Gods, Gaius. The givers of life, of water--
"Water," he whispered into her hair.
Kaolin crept from the bed and turning that he might look on her face, took his hand. "Come."
He saw her, then, and his countenance solidified with remembrance.
He followed her through the silky heat into the moonlight.
With the fever of passion, he drew his tools, his clay, his water. Shunning the wheel, he kneaded the soft earth. Kaolin warmed the clay, became pain, became one with his hands, his art, his vision. Together they worked, together--
Gaius turned, startled.
"What are you doing out here?" Aeola's voice from the doorway, querulous. "It's the middle of the night."
"Hush," he whispered. Kaolin writhed in his hands, slippery, her passion an overpowering fever. "Go back to bed. I couldn't sleep."
The woman shuffled forward heavily, and a breeze sprang up. "What are you making? We need no more pots."
Kaolin moaned, caressed his palms. Water...
"Its--it's for the aqueduct," Gaius said.
Aeola approached him, thin and big-bellied. She frowned, her unbound hair whipping about her face. "A figurine? What use--"
"It's you," Gaius showed her the form in his hands, Kaolin in his hands.
"That's not me."
Kaolin turned in the wetness of his fingers. The hot wind cooled them, rattled straw on the village rooftops.
Gaius indicated the large belly on the statue. "It will grace the spout of the aqueduct. To show the Gods why we need water--"
Aeola laughed and the gale swirled stinging dust around them. "The Gods need your sweat in the fields, not in your trinkets. How can you work when you've been up half the night? Come to bed!"
Kaolin arched, filling his hands, becoming his arms, shoulders, neck, heart.
The sirocco howled.
Kaolin throbbed with the beat of Gaius' pulse, wild ecstasy flooding her limbs. Build! Make! Create!
"Please," Gaius cried against the storm. "Go in. I'll come when I can." He turned back to Kaolin and stroked the figurine, shaping, refining, opening his soul.
"No!" Weeping, Aeola fell to her knees by his side, hair and rags billowing in the blast. "I am your wife! I bear your child--I need your strength. Your child needs your teaching. The village needs the food from your labor. You cannot waste--"
Gaius turned on his wife. "This work is my life and breath, my conduit to eternity--" Kaolin's fever filled him, blinding Gaius to the woman at his feet. "Aeola, I love you, but I cannot leave my work. Go, now. Please! I will return to you by and by."
Kaolin infused his belly, his legs--
"You choose fire over the very air you need to live?" Aeola's shriek rose to join the tempest. She lifted her hands and the poles on the huts shook, tools clattered from the benches, branches tumbled about the square.
Gaius held the figurine, held Kaolin, up to the Gods. She was perfection, now leather-dry, and hard, and strong.
No! Aeola withered to dust, whirled into storm, shrilled and snatched at them, spitting sand.
Gaius and Kaolin laid the figurine in the kiln and Kaolin ran down Gaius' arms and burst into flame, slashed by the sandstorm's erratic blasts. Kaolin scorched the kiln, blistering its base, igniting the air within, fusing the clay.
Aeola pummeled Gaius with choking dust and stones and branches, battered the kiln, throttled Kaolin, snatching away her breath.
Kaolin returned to Gaius' body--his heart, his mind--and together they burned as one flame. Together they drew the masterwork from the fiery womb. Kaolin Gaius rooted into the earth, kiln embraced in the pyre of their arms.
Aeola screeched in wrath and agony.
But Kaolin Gaius rose up against the wind and spoke in one voice. "Aeola! You will not have me. My path is not the toil of the earth, but the immortality of the Gods." Gaius Kaolin flung fiery hands out to the sky and the kiln burst, its blast a wall striking the wind, driving the gale upon itself. With a final screech, Aeola fell back to the maelstrom of her beginnings.
Shock and silence filled the village square.
In the stillness, shards of the shattered kiln showered onto the dry earth. Aeola, the wind, was gone.
Gaius Kaolin cradled the figurine in the breathless calm, bereft of wife, lover, child...pain and hollowness. The years ahead would be companionless. Childless and celibate.
A waiting, a hush, filled the skittering of kiln shards striking the earth.
What was done, was done.
Gaius Kaolin brought the figure--full with child and beautiful beyond understanding--to the spout of the aqueduct and fastened it there.
Kaolin Gaius knelt and raised the masterwork to the gray Heavens. Please, Gods, accept this gift.
A sign? The ways of the village and the word of the Gods would live in clay figures and painted pots.
See our need. Bring us water that we might live and prosper, to glorify you.
Raindrops. Pattering on stony ground. Presage to a dry lightning storm? Or rain, real rain?
The figurine blushed, a pulse of rose giving life to porcelain cheeks.
The thrumming of rain on earth intensified.
And the skies opened. Gentle, nourishing moisture soaked the thirsty soil. The aqueduct trickled, surged, gushed, washing away all trace of dust and wind.
Gaius Kaolin rejoiced in the rain. She, he was, water and smoldering earth. He was, she was, flame, epiphany.
This story originally appeared in Enigma Front: Burnt.