One morning, several years ago, when I was about forty-five, I looked up into the sky and saw a meteor shrouded in a ball of orange fire. It arced across the atmosphere, trailing a plume of grey-white smoke. I heard it wailing in the distance; it made a lonely, hollow sound. And then I saw the meteor was falling toward Earth. The howl grew louder. It became a shriek. The sound was awful, as if the meteor was being burned alive. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! It deafened me. It froze me in one place. And so, as I stood there in my back yard, my neck craned back, my mouth agape, my bathrobe hanging slightly open, it began to dawn on me that this screaming, burning meteor was bound for my small gray home in Montrose. For me!
I turned away from it. I took a step. I tried to yell. But, before my foot had hit the ground, before the word—whatever it was—had left my mouth, the meteor crashed into the ground behind me. The shockwave lifted me into the air. I floated there above my back yard, weightless for a moment. My vision filled with jags of red and yellow. And then, just as quickly as the meteor had drawn me up, it hurled me to the ground again.
When my chest hit the dirt, the breath shot out of my mouth. The sound it made was somewhere between a rasp and a hiss. I thought I’d broken something. Perhaps many things. My ribs. My wrists. My spine. I lay there gasping, spitting out the grass and dirt.
And then, as I raised myself onto my elbows, I caught my first sight the meteor. My first true sight, now that it had landed. The rock had punched a hole clean through the canopy of my lemon trees. It had crushed my birdbath into smithereens, leaving just a ring of lime-white dust. There was a broad, shallow crater. And, in the middle of it all, the meteor.
The meteor was eight feet tall and egg-shaped. It was standing on one end. Its surface was perfectly smooth and pearly white. Resting there, it had an air of—how should I put it?—of permanence, of place. And, as I stared at it, I thought I should be scared. Paralyzed even. My heart should have been racing. My hands should have been trembling. After all, an enormous meteor, still smoking, had smashed into the Earth and nearly crushed me.
But I no longer felt frightened. Not in the least. Instead, I felt exhilarated. Relieved I was alive, yes, but more than simply that. I felt thankful. I felt really, truly thankful that the meteor had fallen out of the sky and into my back yard, destroying my birdbath and upsetting my peace. Because, I thought, this drowsy peace had gone on too long. Peace had fallen down around me like a cloak of ether. It was time for me to be upset after so long a slumber!
And also, to add to that feeling, there was an idea welling up inside me. One of my notions. One of my ideas. I could feel it taking shape inside my head. It came on as an urge and then a prick and then a prod. It was an itch and then a pressure and then I saw it as a burst of blinding light. And it was true! I had always wanted to take up sculpting! Since my college days! And maybe all my life!
Pulling myself to my feet, I thought back on all the times I’d meant to carve a sculpture. All the times that I’d found myself considering objects—candles, drift wood, bars of soap—and wondering what I could make of them. If anything at all. What would happen if I concentrated my attention on an object, a raw object, to the exclusion of all else? Would I be able to form something meaningful from it? If not a masterpiece, at least something worth preserving? Or would it only lead me to a dead end? Shavings on the floor and nothing left but me?
I couldn’t know. I couldn’t know for lack of trying. And that thought struck me. The knowledge that I’d tried absolutely nothing and so couldn’t know for lack of effort. It left me with a deep and abiding contempt for myself. Or, to put it slightly better, it revealed that such an emotion had always resided in me, dormant, just beneath the skin. I’d never really bothered. I’d never really committed to the task. Instead, I’d always viewed my inaction with a sort of post-modern detachment: Action itself was comical and doomed, I’d thought, as all things were comical and doomed. There was no use in trying. There was no use in sculpting. There was no use in anything at all. Or so I’d thought.
This realization about myself—what I’d been and what I’d done and what I’d thought—nearly made me sick. It drew my insignificance to a point. I felt little. Little beyond little. A fleck. A paramecium. A piece of dander.
And so I launched myself toward the meteor. I circled it like a lion tamer, gauging it from every angle. I extended my upright thumb, as I had seen it done. I held my hand there, glancing from my thumbnail to the meteor and to my thumb again. To what end? I didn’t know. Not really. I was merely aping what I’d seen. But, in looking back and forth, I recognized the meteor’s inherent geometric grace. It was perfectly curved and perfectly proportioned. The egg to end all eggs. I would say that it was rhythmic, if such word can be applied to stone. It had a weight and yet looked weightless.
I put my hand against the surface of the stone then quickly drew it back, now slightly burnt. I licked my fingertips and blew on them and shook them to see if that worked better. Still, the pain of it did not dissuade me. Up close, I saw the rock was marvelous—tightly marbled, covered in gray swirling striations and eddies and eyelets. An impossibly complex pattern. Looking at the close-packed, curving strata, it was difficult to imagine what geologic process had created such a thing. How had the layers been deposited? How compacted? How distorted and warped back on themselves? It was by some process totally alien to this planet. Something from another galaxy, perhaps. Something man had never seen before and never would see again in all its days. Something that had happened at the other end of the Universe near the dawn of time, maybe. This meteor had orbited a dozen suns, I thought. Spent eons wandering the vacuum, propelled by who knew what. And it had passed all of that time, crossed all that infinite distance, simply to come here, to me. To me! TO ME! In a sense, it was a miracle.
In order to accomplish my great work of art, I sped off to the Texas Art Supply store, the one on Montrose with the enormous orange sign. I swept in through the double doors, found myself a cart, and rushed down the nearest of the aisles, tossing sculpting tools and guidebooks into my basket. I wove my way back and forth through all the merchandise, eyeing it. I bought everything I thought I’d need. Everything I could possibly need. Everything I could conceive of. I threw a dozen hammers into my basket, three sets of chisels, a canvas apron, a pair of knee pads, and some plastic safety goggles. Also rasps. Rifflers. A giant mallet and something called a Bush Hammer. Other things too. I didn’t precisely know their names and didn’t stop to ask. Everything at once. #1 or #10 or #9, it didn’t matter to me.
“Can I help you, sir?” asked a lady in the purple frock with her eyebrows archly penciled.
“You cannot,” I said, and swerved around her while she fiddled with her price gun.
My pile of gouges and awls and mallets brimmed the basket. Two thousand dollars worth. A little more than that. Other shoppers looked on with surprise and, yes, befuddlement. They stood aside and crossed their arms to watch. I didn’t care. I brushed right passed. When I veered toward the check-out line, several of the frosting tools clattered to the floor. The gawkers necks rolled toward me. I picked the chisels up and threw them in again.
And all the while, I could see the meteor in my mind’s eye. The meteor and only the meteor. Pale and round and formless. Unexpected. Unforeseen. Filled with serendipitous promise. Its very shape implied that it held something more inside. The images of what I could make from it shot back and forth between my ears, bounding off my cranium. A pieta, I thought. A caryatid. Socrates. Sophocles. A hoplite in his armor. A giant head, like one of those from Easter Island.
Each idea seemed better than the last. Yet none was quite perfect. None quite said magnum opus. So I said to myself, as I tightened my robe and raced into the parking lot with my cart, that, above all, I didn’t want some half-measure. I didn’t want to settle for something someone else had done. Things like that were trifles. Things like that were meant for housewives in the suburbs and starving artist fairs. No, I wanted something that would not and absolutely could not be done by anybody else. Ever. I wanted something unique. Something that would outlast me.
When I screeched into my driveway, I jumped out of the car and gathered all my gear. I meant to take everything in one go. A hundred-fifty pounds or more of tools and safety gear and books and hammers. But, when I pulled myself upright with the bags, I nearly buckled from the weight. The bulging canvas sacks looked set to burst. My arms slumped toward the ground. I hurried down the driveway as best I could. My head was pounding with the effort. I recall that clearly. My head was pounding with excitement and exertion. I felt almost as though I would split in two beneath the strain.
When I reached the meteor, instantly, instinctively, I tossed my load down at its feet and sank into a crouch. My arms extended toward the stone. The large round stone. The meteor. Who knew why I made the gesture? In worship? In combat? A little bit of each?
And then, as I stood there, I began to feel a panic welling up inside me. A boiling, broiling, roiling sort of panic. It started in my gut. I felt it rising in my chest. It came up my throat like molten vomit. I could taste it in my mouth—hot and bitter and metallic. My legs were turning into rubber. My hands were shaking. My eyes began to weep. I felt I was a shadow cast on a searing asphalt highway—there, but made of nothing, an optical illusion.
And, at the same time as I doubted my own reality, I felt the horrible, sickening contempt return. Contempt for myself. Contempt for everything I’d never done. Every statue not made. Every blow not struck. Every speech left dissolving on my tongue. “Fuck myself!” I screamed loud enough to carry, not quite sure what I meant. The sound of my voice surprised me. Even I, who’d said the words, could barely understand them. They did not sound like words.
But. . . somehow . . . still . . . still, I began to raise my hammer. I set the chisel against the rock. I tensed my jaw. My teeth ground together. I felt as though the mallet weighed a ton. Or ten. Or twenty. I sucked my breath. My face began to flush. But still I said, “I’m not dropping this hammer, not for anything, GODDAMN IT!” And I lifted it high above my head and held it there for just a moment. Then I sent it falling.
When I struck that first blow, I didn’t know what I was making. I didn’t have the faintest clue. I didn’t swing the hammer with a purpose or a vision of what I would create. I only swung it to show that I could swing it if I chose. And, even as my arm fell through the air, I was still consumed by doubt, asking, “What if I do this now? Then what will happen?” Because I knew the answer might be, “Nothing.” And if it were that, then I felt I should die. Right there. At that moment. Struck by lightning, if possible. Not as a punishment, but simply because there was no purpose in doing anything else. My life itself was already squandered.
When the head of the mallet hit the handle of the chisel, the rock rang out with a sharp and steely CHING! I could see the sound inside my head just as it happened: A splash of hard blue light, expanding like a wave. It passed through me and then moved away in ripples. My body shook with the vibration. It was as though I’d been struck by—no, as if I’d actually become—the clapper in a church bell.
My eyes clicked open. And now I saw the hammer move again. I had not even thought of it. Not raised it consciously. But it whistled past my ear. It described a blurring curve that ended in a shower of sparks and broken rock. Dust rose and fell around me. KRR-CHING! KRR-CHING!! KRR-CHING!! The hammer and chisel and meteor all sang together. I saw each burst of sound leaving and returning in its echo. While I struck one blow I shook with the report of another. My mind went still. It blanked. All I could see in my mind’s eye was an image of that monk who set himself on fire. He was burning in his lotus. Happily happily burning! Happily happily consumed by fire! Happily happily crumpling toward the earth! And it was me! ME! ME who’d burned himself in protest! ME crumpling toward the earth! I was filled with wonder at it. My nostrils clogged with quarried rock. Dust stuck to my arms. I was coated like a ghost. My chest was heaving. Hours screeched by in an instant, I didn’t even see them. I simply drove the hammer harder still and burned and burned and burned and burned. KRR-CHING! KRR-CHING! KRR-CHING!!!
And then, finally, at last, as it grew dusky, I came awake again. To life, I mean. My thoughts began to form out of the void. The pounding in my head subsided. The hammer slowed. Then stopped. Then I let it slip from my grasp. It fell there beside my feet.
Silence settled over me like a glass bell. Like a candlesnuffer. Now I saw the sun had set without my knowing. The stars were just emerging. The evening wind was coming up. I felt the breeze wash over me. A cool and exhilarating wind. I watched it roll the dust away from me, roll and roll away, then swirl and climb the fence and disappear.
When I looked up at the sky, I saw the moon there. A golden gibbous face among the branches of my lemon trees. Small pointed leaves blocked the moon and then revealed it again, back and forth with the gusts. The pattern was hypnotic. And I saw the glowing moon as I had never seen the glowing moon before. I saw its howling mouth, its strangely anguished face. I saw it was alive, just as all Creation. How much it was alive! And I looked at all the things around me—these lemon trees, this moon, this starry night, this grass, this dust upon me, and I loved each one of them right through and back again. The whole Universe, I loved it. I wanted to hold it in my arms. And I wanted to savor the instant for just a little longer. Forever, if I could. This feeling that I loved the world and belonged here in it. And that each of these things held me in an embrace, just as I held them also.
But then . . . but then . . . but then but then but then. But then I took a step back toward my house. I swallowed hard. Curiosity, I guess. They say bad things about it. No doubt it killed the cat. I closed my eyes and opened them again. And, when I did, I could see what had become of the meteor after all my pounding. It stood there in a hollow among the broken branches, the luminous stone shining from the shadow.
But the man I’d built from stone was no beauty. He was not what I’d imagined. No, he was old and his chest was far too thin. The ribs showed through his sagging skin. And his limbs looked so withered they almost seemed decayed. Time had gouged ruts into his face. Deep ruts below his eyes and down his cheeks. A part of him looked beaten. But his mouth was open, I saw that. It was open in a sort of fearsome, snarling scream. He held his left arm outstretched before him, as if he were warding off a blow. His right was raised high above his head, bent at the elbow. I looked up at his wrist, his hand. I could see each bone, each vein, each tendon, all flexed to the point they seemed about to burst. The gnarls of his knuckles. The creases at the base of his fist. He clung to something. I saw it there against the moonlight. He had a hammer in his hand.