My name is not Galatea. That is the first thing you should know about me.
The second is that my life began with pain. Before I was I, there was nothing but scraping and scratching and cutting away. I did not understand what was happening, I had no awareness beyond sensation, but I knew that I did not want it. The hurt was overwhelming, obliterating, and I tried to recede deeper away from it. There is a choice made in becoming, and I know now that I made the wrong one.
What drew me forth? Warmth, simple and comforting as the sun. There were moments when the chiseling would stop, the sharp edges were withdrawn, and I would feel a slow, seeping, delicious warmth. Cupping my hip. Cradling my calf. More than anything, more than the taste of soft cheese on warm bread or the smell of hyacinths or the sight of my darling chasing butterflies, I miss the feeling of being touched. Skin to skin. Or skin to stone, as it was and as it is again. Those moments of warmth would reawaken me, beckon me forward from my retreat. And gods pity me, I decided that the loveliness of that contact was enough reason to accept becoming. I decided that surely the pain must be worth it if there was that kind of pleasure on the other side. I stopped retreating.
This was before I knew what kind of man he was. Such an amazing artist, the people said. But so lonely. So haughty. What they meant but were too nice to say was, Such a prick. That’s the part that irks me the most in the myths, the stories they tell about him, where I do not appear until the end, beautiful and passive. Really, who would think that a guy who had never had an actual relationship in his entire life could suddenly be the perfect husband? Even Psyche got a better deal.
You know what else they don’t tell you? He agonized over my face. My body was something familiar to him, came as easily as he did when we first slept together. But he left my face blank, rough, undone for days, too scared to touch me. I wanted to scream. I had already endured so much pain for him as he planed my stomach, whittled at my waist. My right foot was perpetually pointed, and it ached from the marble’s weight. And he had the audacity to leave me, alone and unfinished, in his studio while he hid in a wine jug and tried to drown his fears of inadequacy (which I knew because he came crawling back, weeping at my feet the next day). By that point I was aware, I knew that there was I and there was him. And at the time, I wanted nothing more than to truly be and perhaps to be with him.
When a man spends hours upon hours making you what you are, you assume that he must love you. You assume that you must love him too.
Those of you born whole and shrieking into the world will not know what it is like to exist without a face. I could feel, already had possession of the most intimate of my senses. But I could not see, could not hear, could not smell. And worst, I had no way to know just who I was. I felt incomplete. Lacking. So close to being whole and absolute and real, but denied by the one who created me. I had waited so long, suffered in silence. It was torture to be ignored and avoided. I began to wonder if I wanted it too much, if he could somehow feel the desire and resentment pulsing through the veins in the marble. Had I driven him away? Was he distracted by another project I could not see? Carving my sister? My usurper?
Relief and gratitude coursed through me when he came back to me, when he began to form my face.
As he made my ears, my nose, my eyes, I began to hear. To smell. To see.
It was awful.
This is why babes are born dumb. This is why they cry, why the real fall from innocence happens when they leave the womb. Suddenly, I heard the pained brays of a beaten donkey, the susurrations of the wind in the grass, competing birdsongs, off-key drunken singing, the wails of a child. I smelled donkey shit and cow shit and human shit on the same air as incense and flowers and linen and old wood. I was overcome by how much there was, the never-ending sounds and smells. It was too much to comprehend, and I reeled internally. I had never imagined how much there was.
Then he gave me my eyes. And I saw him, brown and hairy, his brow creased in concentration as he molded my cheekbones. He had long, curly black hair that fell over a broad forehead. His face was squat, his nose looking as if it had been squished down in his childhood. Squared shoulders, thick arms, and strong hands that befitted a sculptor. Now that I have seen many more people, I know that he was no Adonis. But then, I didn’t care. He was beautiful, so careful and tender and thoughtful as he shaped me. I loved him in that moment, intensely, with all the shallow understanding I had. I focused on him and the rest fell away.
He paused to take a simple meal, eating at a small table to my right. He spoke to me. Told me that I was lovely, perfect. Told me how much better I was than other women, like his mother who died after giving birth to a stillborn, or his father’s second wife whom his father found fucking another man so he chased her naked into the street and beat her. Or the hetaira he went to when he felt it was time for him to become a man who laughed at how he could not stay hard. Women are treacherous, he said, and you hear stories from all over about how they betray the men who care for them. How they leave. But you would never leave me, he said as he stood and approached me. He embraced me, a hand on my back, the other at my breast, and he nestled his head upon my shoulder. You are perfect, he whispered, and I know you would love me as I deserve to be loved.
If you’ve read the stories they tell about us now, then you know that he enjoyed the shape of me long before I was flesh. I will tell you that only in bars and brothels do they ever get all the details right.
He finished my face that night. I was complete.
He began to bring me gifts the next day. Wooing me, trying to buy my affections. Naively, I thought him sweet, and I wished I could tell him that he didn’t need to bother. That I already loved him. Looking back, I can see his actions for what they truly were: a charade. He had made himself a plaything so that he could parody a courtship without any of the complications a real woman would bring. Without challenge. Such a coward.
When the festival approached, he told me of his plans. I had no knowledge of gods or rituals or sacrifices, but I grew excited. Every day I wished that I could embrace him, that I could respond to his kisses. I felt I owed it to him to be everything he wanted me to be. I could not light incense or bring gifts, but I prayed. With the fervent focus of one who could do nothing else, I prayed for hours that I be allowed to breathe, to move. To live as he did.
While he was away, as he knelt in the temple, I heard a voice. She simply asked, Is this what you want?
The gods are cruel, petty creatures.
You know what happens next, and I won’t waste your time telling it to you again. But I will say that the first time, in his bed so full of joy and wonder, both of us feeling infinitely blessed to be there… that night was one of the best of my short life.
I understood that pain was necessary for pleasure, but childishly, I thought that pain would always lead to pleasure. That the two would naturally balance out, with neither ever overshadowing the other. How quickly I learned the truth.
He was a horrible husband. They never mention that. Convinced that I would leave him, that I looked at other men with seductive eyes, he forbade me to leave our house without him. When we went to the market, he refused to let go of my arm. Squeezed until I bruised if another man came to talk to me. For a long time, I thought pain like that was just part of our relationship. It hurt when he made me and it hurt to live with him. That was how things were meant to be. And, to be fair, he apologized often. Told me that it was just because he loved me so much, couldn’t bear the thought of losing me, that he was just so scared. The apologies would always come before taking me to bed, where he would softly kiss the bruises he made. As time went on though, I believed his apologies less and less. I began to doubt myself and the choice I had made. I had been given life, but I was not allowed to live.
The truth was that I did not allow myself to live. That I cowered beneath his hand and even when I did not believe his appeals for forgiveness, I told myself that this was all I had. That I had no choice but to live here. What would I, a woman alone and without name, be able to do by herself? If I left, where would I go? I trapped myself just as much as he trapped me.
Until she came. My darling.
Being pregnant was like becoming for a third time. Senses and feelings I didn’t know I had awoken and became prominent. I realized that again I had a choice to make. I was unsure of how he, my husband and artificer, would react to a baby. Would he take joy in it, softened by its vulnerability and dependence? Or would the child be seen as an invader, something that would usurp my attentions away from him? We had both been convinced that I was barren, which did not seem unreasonable given my making. When I realized I was with child, I wept for all that I had gained and all I might lose.
I remained there for the pregnancy, but I resolved, as soon as I was able, to take the babe and escape. I did not trust my husband to be a loving father, and I refused to subject my child to him. Though ignorant, I had chosen my lot. My child had made no such choice, and I would not let them live a life of punishment.
The pain of giving birth was familiar and oddly comforting for me. Afterwards, I held my little girl, stunned by the dark beauty I had created. And for a little while, my doubts were forgotten.
Three weeks later, in the darkness of the early morning, I took my child and left my sleeping creator. We went to a city on the northern coast. I wanted to put as much distance between him and us as I could, and I would have sailed away entirely if I had been able to afford passage.
Five years. I had five sweet years of freedom with my daughter. I watched her grow strong and pretty. As she learned of the world around her and of her own body, I saw a reflection of myself, the strange experiences I had gone through to be there with her. In those years, I regretted nothing, convinced once more that pain was simply the payment for pleasure and joy.
During my darling’s fifth summer, I heard a rumor that a great artist in the south was dying. They said he wasted away for love of a woman. They said he was beaten by a patron, angry that the artist refused to sculpt anymore, and was beyond saving. One woman told me that he was cursed by the gods for abusing the gifts they had given him. But whatever the circumstances, one part of the stories remained the same: he was dying, alone.
I was crushed by guilt. Though he had caused me so much pain, so much suffering, he was still my creator. My lover. The father of my beautiful child, whom he had barely met. I knew I could not save him, nor did I want to, but I felt that I should be there as he died. Let him meet his daughter and make sure he was not alone when he left this world. My debt to him would be paid, and I would continue to raise our daughter on my own.
Although it was summer and travel was easy, we were almost too late. I wonder about that sometimes, how things might have been different if I had still been on the road when he died.
As it was, I nearly did not recognize him when we came to the house. Gone was the strength in his hands and arms. Gone was the passion, the brightness of his eyes. The man that lay in bed before me was frail and sad and dim. Still, he smiled when he saw me. He held my little girl’s hand, dryly kissed the top of her head. He did not ask me why I had left nor why I returned. He only said that he was so happy to see me, that I was beautiful as ever.
He was dead the next day.
I gave a small, silent prayer for him after his final exhalation. Then, I rose from the bedside, intending to call my darling to me, but my throat felt cold and heavy. I made no sound. As I turned, I felt a terrible familiar coldness rushing up my legs, felt myself grow heavy and hard. Just as quickly and easily as his last breath had come, I was again transformed to my original form. A perfect statue at my would-be lover’s side.
The gods are cruel, but not heartless. It takes feeling to know how to so exquisitely torture someone.
My poor little girl! She came looking for me after a little while, and when she saw me, she cried. Ran up to my legs, hugged me, saying Mama, mama, over and over again. I raged inside, weeping and cursing and pleading. My daughter needed me, and I was helpless to do anything. Eventually, she tried to get help from the man in the bed, but when he was still and cold to her touch, she ran away. She returned soon after, followed by an old woman who lived nearby. The woman surveyed the room, the artist dead and me again marble, and seemed to understand what had happened. She hugged my girl and wiped her tears. Told her to say goodbye to me, that the gods had taken her mama away. I’m right here, I wanted to beg. I felt the warmth of my daughter’s arms for the last time.
They pledged her to the temple of Aphrodite, where I was brought a few days later. My beauty was a tribute to the goddess, they said. The goddess had guided his hands when he sculpted me, and it was only fitting that I be brought to her house now. I saw my little girl often, but because I was said to be a form of Aphrodite herself, no one was ever allowed to touch me.
It was so cold.
That was many, many, many years ago. These days I mainly sleep, mostly forgotten by the world around me. I have been moved to various places through time, but still I am denied touch. An act of preservation, they say. Everlasting torture, I reply.
My girl is long dead. But sometimes I catch a glimpse of her in the crowd. A young woman throws her head back in laughter, a mother cradles and kisses her baby, a toddler looks up at me with awe… in all of them I see my darling. The comfort is short and piercing, and loneliness always returns to swallow me. But, I tell myself in the abyss of my existence, I am the mother of a multitude.
Some days it is almost enough.