The Longest Battle – Ch 35 – Set in Stone (Part 2)

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Ula had fallen. Ula had cracked. Bits of her were leaking out, escaping the hard shell of serenity she had been cast within. She had spent so long as a stone, so much time with her arms cast towards the skies and her face frozen into kind and quiet silence. She no longer felt kind. She no longer wished to be silent.

The mask she’d been given had been designed to accentuate the contemplative grove of the garden where she stood. She’d been overjoyed when she’d learned that would be her position. Her heart had been judged pure enough that she would be given to timeless happiness. She would serve as a beacon to the weary, aspiring souls who had not yet been given their place. They would see and touch her and be reminded of the peace that could carry them through their darkest days.

She’d worn the mask with pride, the day of her firing. Her heart had soared as she’d been carried into the flame and felt the heat begin to bake out the doubts and uncertainties within her. Little by little the kiln had calmed her fears, quieted the voice in her head that asked if this was what she really wanted. If standing in the garden to be admired was better than seeing her family, better than talking with her friends, better than all of the things that she hadn’t yet done and never would.

Ula smashed a statue off its pedestal. It was the man who had stood in the next spot over from hers. He had been there for many years before she was cast for the garden.

“So silent,” the people who passed by had said. “The absolute essence of serenity.”

They’d called her “vibrantly serene”. That’s what they’d seen when they looked at her. That’s what they’d felt when they touched her.  They hadn’t known what was inside her though.

The Kiln had burned hot. What had begun with the sensation of a scorching day on the beach, the kind that loosens your body and makes it hard to hold a coherent shape or thought had intensified to the point where it became transformative. First her surface and then deeper into the layers of putty beneath, as the heat penetrated her body she’d changed. The concentration required to hold a specific shape had slipped away from her, but her body had remained constant.

Ula had wanted to cry out in relief over the weight that she felt passing off her. The kiln was making her effortlessly lovely and she wanted nothing more than to share that happiness with her sister and her mother.

But of course that was impossible.

The same transformation that hardened her body into delicately cast stone also sealed her inside it. She couldn’t move lips that were formed into a flawless smile. She couldn’t see through eyes that gazed only on the grandeur of the endless sky.

Ula had known that would be the case, but had taken solace in the promise that once the firing was done, once she had been cast into perfection, she would be held forever in the joyous peace that her new face displayed.

Except that hadn’t happened. The kiln hadn’t gone far enough. Even once the firing was done, there was still putty inside Ula. She wasn’t held in the perfection of her form. She could feel its touch, like a blanket of serenity wrapped tight around her, but she wasn’t lost in it. Not like they’d promised her she would be.

She stomped on the fallen statue she’d thrown down. The man shattered into dust. There was no putty left in him. He was dry and unchanging all the way through.

“What did they do to me!” Ula screamed. She writhed and flexed her shattered body and cracked the stone facade even deeper. Putty poured out through the breaks in her thoughtlessly solid skin and she let it run.

Trapped in the darkness of herself, she’d dreamed of nothing but how she could escape the thick walls that bound her. Freedom had come from an accident, the smallest push had toppled her world and cracked her shell. If all of her was going to run out, Ula would embrace that fate. Better to be a formless puddle than to be trapped inside herself any longer.

The pieces of the man she’d shattered caught her eye. The colors were wrong. The chunk before her was banded. On the outside was the pristine white left by the kiln’s fire but deeper in the colors shifted back to the beige of an uncast Putty body.

“He wasn’t fired to the core either,” Ula said. She wasn’t talking to anyone, but she was talking. She didn’t notice it though. She’d been lost in silence too long. Even with broken lips moving to speak new words and fractured ears bringing in the the sounds around her, she couldn’t believe that this wasn’t yet another mad delusion conjured up by her dreams.

“He was like me,” she said. “Until he dried out. He was stuck inside there, until he dried out and now he’s gone.”

Her mind whirled and she spun to take in the rest of the grove. All the statues around her. All of the Kiln Folk. So beautiful. So ideal. So infinitely serene.

Ula screamed. She’d been lovely. She’d been perfect. And that had cost her almost everything. She looked at her hand, her arm, her flawless body. All of them flawless no more. All of them cracked and splintered, but all of them hers again. The real her. The one that oozed out through the pieces that were missing.

In Putty People horror stories, the monsters were often creatures of uncontrolled forms. Mad abominations that held only the barest semblance of a proper person, but were wrong and twisted in a fundamental way.

The fallen girl touched her destroyed face with the remnants of her unmoving fingers. Twisted. Wrong. She was glad to be those things. Glad that she was a monster. Glad that she was free to reject the hateful serenity that had been forced upon her. Glad that at last her outside matched what she really felt inside.

“Ula?”

In the far end of the grove, a familiar girl stood. A sad, miserable girl. A girl who had come to visit her so often. Who had hated her so much for winning the mask. Who had loved and missed her so fiercely.

“Misa?” Ula asked. Her heart thumped an old beat and the memories of days playing together, memories long lost, came rushing back to her mind.

Beside her sister, stood a young woman in black who gave Misa the smallest of pushes forward. Misa stumbled into the clearing a half step and then caught herself.

She looked up at the monster that Ula had become. There was confusion and fear in her sister’s eyes and Ula wanted to look away. Part of her still clung to the girl she’d once been. She didn’t want to see her sister’s disgust at what she’d become.

Except that, part of her did. Part of her needed to.

The disgust was true. It was natural. It was authentic. More than anything, more than even the desire to preserve what remained of herself, Ula was consumed by a burning need for what was real.

It was a different fire than the kiln, but it was transformative in its own way. Within it’s heat, Ula found acceptance. If she had to be a monster to be real, then she would be a monster. She couldn’t go back to being the statue, she couldn’t be perfect ever again. It would be unbearable.

There was only one string that held her back from being free. One thing that connected the monster to the girl who’d become a statue. Misa, her sister, held it in that moment and Ula waited for her sister to do the only thing she could. She waited for Misa to turn away. She waited for the string to break. Severed by the revulsion and hatred that a monster deserved.

The touch of her sister’s hand on her face came as a shock of lightning.

Putty People are careful about touching one another, and especially careful about touching each other on the face. Too much of who they were was stored there. Too many of their thoughts. In brushing a hand across Ula’s cheek, Misa absorbed a river of memories from her sister. Dark, mad thoughts. Things hidden for an immeasurably long time in the darkness inside her shell. Echoes of all of the ugliness that was in her.

Ula pulled away. She could act as a monster, appear as a monster, but she didn’t want anyone to see that she’d always been a monster on the inside. That, even when she was cast into eternal loveliness, what was truly her had been hideous.

She tried to run. Tried to escape. If she could flee, she could melt away somewhere and be forgotten. She would dissolve into the earth and be chewed up by the wind and rain.

Her sister didn’t let that happen.

“Don’t go!” Misa said and grabbed Ula’s broken hand before she could leave.

Before Ula could stop her, Misa pulled the monster into a tight embrace. Ula felt darkness reach out and claim her, but it wasn’t her own darkness.

In Misa’s heart, Ula saw how much her sister hated her. And how much she adored her, and respected her, and was aggravated by her, and couldn’t let her go. She saw how much Misa had missed her and how betrayed Misa had felt and how lonely and weak and scared. She saw all of the horrible things that Misa didn’t want her to see and saw how little they mattered before the few things that couldn’t be denied.

They were sisters and they would always be a part of each other and neither one wanted to lose that.

Whatever their form, whatever the world saw them as, and whoever they chose to be, Ula knew that, to Misa, she would always be a sister, and that she would always be cherished.

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