Once upon a time there was a sculptor named Kumar, who carved statues of spirits and deities for the temple in his village. One day, the pujari of the temple brought him a block of marble bigger than himself. The marble was cold when Kumar first touched it. The gaze of the pujari was cold and factual, too, but unlike the gaze, the stone warmed under his hands. He felt its grain, caressed its surface. Finally he put his ear to the marble block and listened.
‘Let me out.’
A yakshini they asked for, and a yakshini whispered to him from the stone. So he took up his hammer and chisel, and began to sculpt.
Every day, with every tap of his hammer, he spoke to the yakshini. He asked her what shape she wanted to be, what position she wanted him to give her. With every chip of marble that he carved away, she answered, and as the work continued, her features began to emerge from the block.
The pujaris came to ascertain themselves of his progress, but while the yakshini stood before them, still rough and without detail, they didn’t see her.
“You had better hurry,” they said. “The statue must be ready for the festival two weeks from now.”
“Two weeks?” Kumar exclaimed. “I cannot do her justice in only two weeks!”
“You must and you shall. You will be rewarded for your efforts.” The priest opened his hand, and Kumar understood.
After that, he worked day and night. Ever smaller chisels cut away at the yakshini’s emerging figure. By the light of the sun, the moon and the stars he laboured. Sweat glistened on his brow, slickened his palms as time ticked by. More than once he lost grasp of his tools, causing nicks that were never meant to happen. The first few times he apologised to the yakshini and prayed for her forgiveness as he polished the blemish from her marble skin. After a week he stopped apologising, although such accidents became more frequent. In fact, he didn’t speak to her at all; he was far too busy for that.
But she spoke to him.
‘You are hurting my arm,’ she said as he tapped a small piece of stone from the crook of her elbow.
‘The line of my dress is awkward,’ she warned him, but he didn’t step back to see, like he used to.
‘That is not how my hair should be!’ she complained as he left the curls at the back of her neck unhewn with no intention of finishing them.
Kumar didn’t hear her. He didn’t stop to listen. He chipped and polished, but didn’t heed the statue’s words. As he toiled, he released her, but no matter how fine the polishing sand he used, she only lost her shine.
Not until the evening of the last day did he touch her without the aid of a tool. Knowing time was up, Kumar ran his fingers over the smooth planes of her face, the details he had carved in her attire. He felt sharp edges where there should be none, and bland facings that he hadn’t had the time to shape.
“I couldn’t make you perfect, but you are still beautiful,” he said to her. “Beautiful enough to attend the festival tomorrow, I’m sure.”
He ran his hands over her cold body, but sensed no warmth, no reply. Only the shadows on her face grew deeper as the lamp burned low. Then the pujaris came for her.
“You did it! Marvellous! Perhaps she is a little less detailed than your usual work, but acceptable. We will send a cart tonight to bring her to the temple before the morning.”
Kumar bowed and thanked the priests. When three golden coins were pressed into his palm, he bowed more deeply still. Three! Three coins! He hadn’t expected such a rich reward. He held the money to his chest and patted the statue.
“That was well worth the hard work these two weeks, don’t you think?”
The yakshini gave no answer, but even as he spoke, the temporary pedestal beneath her marble feet cracked and crumbled. Alarmed, Kumar reached out. He caught her as she fell towards him, forgetting for an instant that stone is so much harder than flesh and bone.