There was at one time, in some part of the world, a kingdom so old that no person alive has lived there, so dead that nothing yet remains of its ruins, and so beautiful that although its memory survives in accounts of historians from other lands, the accounts were so incredible that nobody believes such a place really existed. The trouble, reader, is that the kingdom did exist, and was even more beautiful than historians could describe. The capital city was the most lovely place ever built by human hands, and is the most beautiful to exist since. The queen of this kingdom was pretty enough in her own way. One afternoon while her servants were out in the city, they saw a man at work on a statue of a lady. Even unfinished, the statue was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen, and they immediately inquired after buying it. The sculptor would not sell an unfinished project even to a queen, and so they bought from him a lesser statue, which they took to her at once. The queen was so moved that she purchased every statue he had in his studio, and each one he had ever sold—excepting, of course, the unfinished maiden. And when she had seen them (all but the maiden), she was so impressed that she appointed him the official sculptor of the queen—an office which had not formerly existed–and invited him to live in her court. Having earned a home in the queen’s court, the sculptor sent his unfinished girl ahead of him to be delivered to the court with the greatest care. When the queen at last saw this one, she was so moved by its beauty that she at once fell in love with its sculptor, whom she had never met, and sent for his hand in marriage; flattered and moved by her generosity, he accepted. When she saw him, however, she gave a great gasp; his statues were all of beautiful women, and the queen thought that he himself would be beautiful. Now that he was before her, she realized he was ugly, and she would not marry him. He took up his place on the royal court, but no romance ever came between them.
There was love, though. Although he could not have known it at first, the sculptor’s admiration for the queen would only grow with her rejection. For a great many years he continued to sculpt for her beautiful statues, epics of sculpture, now not just of pretty women but of heroes, myths, lovers, her own likeness. All the while he kept the unfinished statue, and for decades he worked on it until he had finished, and only when it was done did he realize he had fallen in love with it. By now the queen was too old to bear children, as she had stayed her hand out of a deep love for the sculptor, but even so she wished to establish an heir before her death. In place of bearing children, she decided to marry a man with three sons of his own, and choose from these an heir. And so the queen chose a groom and set a date for their marriage, and the great statue, the most beautiful ever, would be the sculptor’s present to the couple, and as the day and hour came he wept, for he felt he was soon to lose both of the great loves of his life. As he was crying, he held the statue in his arms, pressed his nose against hers, and kissed her stone cold lips.
Had he been looking at the statue girl, the sculptor might have realized that the maiden of stone was slowly transforming into one of skin and breath and blood, all of it every bit as lovely as before. As he was not looking, he did not realize it until he felt the warmth of her neck, the slight movement of a heart in a fully human chest; at these he jumped, quite terrified, and stared at the thing he had created. He watched as each digit shook off its rigidity, as every inch of stone melted to skin toned just as he’d imagined it; if it can be, she was more beautiful in flesh. She stood just as she always had, and stared at the sculptor blankly; then, she placed a hand on his shoulder, and said his name. “I love you,” said the statue, and stepped toward him.
He backed away from the once-stone maiden and trembling took for the door. “Wait!” she cried. “Don’t!” But in seconds he was bounding down the hallway faster than her new legs could run. Still she followed him, through twists and rooms and corridors, until they were outside the castle, and all the time she cried “Please! Don’t go! Stay here! I love you!” And when she was outside she did not know where he’d gone, and neither she nor the queen would ever see him again. Realizing that he did not love her, the statue girl sat on the ground and wept.
And as she sat teary-eyed by the queen’s moat, the queen’s groom-to-be’s oldest son crossed the bridge and walked by her. As he saw that she was very beautiful, he said to her, “I am the oldest son of the man who will be king this evening. As I am the oldest, I will be king when he and the queen have died; come with me, and you shall be a queen.” But the statue girl shook her head. “I love another,” she said to him. “He might yet return.” And the oldest son went into the castle, much bereaved.
A few minutes later the king’s middle son walked past the girl. Seeing that she was very beautiful, he said, “I am the king-to-be’s middle son. As I am the most charming, I will be king when the king and queen are dead. Marry me and you will be a queen.” But the statue girl just shook her head. “I love another,” she said to him. “He might yet return.” And the prince-to-be went into the castle, much bereaved.
A few minutes later still the king’s youngest son came and walked past the girl. Seeing that she was very beautiful, he said, “I am the king-to-be’s youngest son. As I am the smartest, I will be king when my father and the queen are dead. Marry me, and you shall be a queen.” But the statue girl shook her head. “I love another,” she said to him. “He might yet return.” And the youngest son went into the castle, much bereaved.
Shortly after the queen herself came looking for the sculptor. The wedding was less than an hour away, and she would be devastated if he missed it. When she saw the girl her face went white with shock, as she immediately recognized her despite the decades she’d been hidden from sight, immediately saw in her that heap of stone which had stolen her heart when she was young. She did not ask what became of the sculptor, but led her inside and gave her pretty clothes and good food and a room in the court and a handkerchief for her tears. A vague sense of dread overcame the queen, and she knew she could not have her wedding at sunset. She postponed the wedding to the following day that he might be found before the ceremony.
But the queen’s fiancé was not a patient man. He became angry at the news, and sent his oldest son to ask that the wedding be moved up. “No,” said the queen, “I am far too distressed.” And the son went back to his father.
The following day, an hour before sunset, the sculptor still had not been found, and the queen still couldn’t bear to go through with the wedding. She sent a message to the foreign prince, who sent his second son, the charming one, to change her mind. “Oh mother queen,” he said to her, “you are so beautiful and kind and my father is so taken with you that he feels he cannot wait to marry you. Please, for his sake, won’t you marry him this evening?” The queen paused a moment, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, love, but I must wait. Give me three days and I shall reconsider.” The boy returned to his father.
Three days later the queen was still not ready to marry. She sent a message to the king, who was immediately taken by a great rage. He was nearly incoherent with anger, but ordered his third son, the smartest, to go to the queen and force her to change his mind. “Oh mother queen, I have come to you without my father’s knowledge, out of interest for his well-being. My father is very upset with all these delays. He fears you do not really wish to marry him, and I fear it is hard on his heart. He has had a hard life, your loveliness, and his heart is weak. The anxiety you have caused him is—well, he could do without it.” In truth, the queen already felt terrible for holding up the ceremony, but still felt she could not marry with her dear friend so recently vanished. In her distress she said that she would go out into the country and search for her sculptor along with her servants, and that if they could not find him in ten days, she would return home and they would wed immediately. The boy thought his father would be satisfied with this, and returned to him.
But his father was furious even before he returned. “What did she say?” he barked. The boy started to explain, but his father interrupted. “Will she marry me today?” “No.” “Will she marry me tomorrow?” “N-No.” “When, then?” The boy tried to explain, but his father had no patience. He struck him across the face, grabbed him roughly by the ears and said “When, when? When will she marry me?” But the poor boy was all out of voice. The abuses were such that he sneaked out at his first chance, and when he told his brothers what had happened they all three left the castle to camp out in the wilderness, intent on staying lost until their father learned his lesson. When they were gone he began to drink, and when he had drunk too much he stumbled up to the queen’s quarters himself to air his grievance. The queen’s bedroom lay at the end of a long hallway; around it were her servants’ rooms, the room where the sculptor used to live, and the room she had given to the little statue girl. By the time he arrived the queen had just left with her servants, and the sculptor had been gone for days, but the statue was there, sitting on the queen’s bed, brushing her beautiful hair, when she heard two tremendous fists beating against the door. “Who’s there?” she cried. Came the answer: “I am the king!” And with that the great man burst in uninvited and advanced on her. As he was drunk and had never had extended interaction with his fiancée, he thought that the girl statue was she. Seeing her look so young and beautiful made him very angry, and with great arms and great strides he approached her. In seconds he had one wrist held fast in his hand; he pulled a knife from his pocket and made to put it against the maiden’s neck. In a final desperate effort she cried “Stop!” and moved her hand to stop the arm that held the knife. A moment later the greatest terror overtook her heart, and the whole of her body turned to unforgiving stone.
Now here is the marvelous thing about statues: They can be vibrant and lifelike and totally believable, charged and violent and emotional, but they are not alive, and they cannot be bullied, and however you push them they will not bend. When the girl who was not a queen turned back into stone, the king-to-be (whose king-to-be status was becoming increasingly dubious) was at first shocked, as he had no reason to believe that his bride-to-be would turn to stone when frightened, and then terrified, as he saw that his arm was caught in the hand that moved to stop his attack. At the moment of her transformation, she had three fingers and a thumb wrapped tight around his forearm, and however he tried he couldn’t loosen her grip. The door, which he had shut, was barely out of reach; the girl herself was much too great to drag or carry; the knife could not cut or break her, and he dropped it anyway; and however he screamed, no one was able to hear. When the queen returned home, much bereaved, from the unsuccessful search for her dearest friend, she was further distressed to learn that her fiancé and his sons had mysteriously vanished, and that the little statue girl had not been heard from since, as the staff assumed that she had gone off with the queen. And when they opened the door the whole scene revealed itself, as the body that had been the man hung lifelessly from the grip of his lifeless vanquisher, even with terror still written on her face.
They had to lob off his arm to get him totally out of it, and then they cleaned the statue thoroughly and put her at the center of the royal courtyard. For years she stood, unconscious of the world; the dead king-to-be’s sons had long since returned home, and the queen was heirless still. One afternoon when she was very old and frail she went out to the courtyard and looked at the girl of stone, still screaming in fear of her long-dead attacker. The queen looked into her eyes, saw her tears preserved in perfect detail, and thought about the man she loved, who vanished many years ago. She began to weep over the statue girl, and when she was almost out of tears she kissed her gently on the forehead, and just as a kiss brought the statue to life, a second kiss revived her, and in moments the queen started at the sound of her screaming the scream she could not finish then. The wide-eyed statue girl looked frantically about her, uncomprehending, and the old queen could hardly speak as she comforted her.
And the old queen devoted what life she had left to raising the once-stone maiden, and kissed her every day and night. Only one thing was not perfect, and that was the maiden herself; years in the sun and the wind and the rain removed the faintest bit of luster, so that when she was again human, she was no longer the most beautiful woman in the world. When the old queen died, she inherited the kingdom, and all was well for as long as she lived.