“The Gargoyle Maker,” by Sarah Diemer
Rose falls in love with the gargoyle maker, a wandering girl who keeps her village safe by creating hideous monsters. But the gargoyle maker cannot remain in one place for long…will Rose’s heart be broken?
(photo by MattEvett)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Gargoyle Maker”
by Sarah Diemer
Her hands are always dirty, clay-dusted. Gray as death. The bread-seller’s daughter, Rose, notices this, every day, watching.
The gargoyle maker’s hands are dirty.
But she’s still beautiful.
Beautiful like a bird-song or a cold winter’s dawn, walking through the streets with that thin, small basket at her elbow crook, looking at the market’s stalls without really seeing. Rose watches her, waits for her, everyday, knows that she’ll come close to sunset. Rose’s heart pounds when the gargoyle maker enters the square, her thick, black hair neatly braided down her back in a lustrous coil. Rose swallows, watches her move through the stalls, among the vendors and barterers and buyers and sellers, moving like a whisper. No one notices the gargoyle maker.
No one but Rose.
Rose thinks she’s the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen…not that Rose is much of a judge. “You will marry a good girl,” says her mother, the bread-seller, every morning when they bake the loaves. “You don’t want to set your eyes on a strange one…not like the gargoyle maker. Get yourself a good girl, Rose.”
But Rose never listens.
The gargoyle maker set up shop in the abbey’s tower, one long winter’s night, a year ago. Rose knows this because the pennant flies from the dilapidated window, high overhead, red and rampant in the dying sun. On it is a ghoulish face, a gargoyle’s face, cleverly painted so that it looks like it’s laughing.
The gargoyle maker’s prices are reasonable, the butcher told her mother. For all her strangeness, they’re reasonable.
And doesn’t everyone need a gargoyle?
Like every afternoon, this one is no different. The gargoyle maker enters the square, her beautiful black hair in a thick braid, her young face expressionless, her eyes unseeing. And her hands dirty. She holds the red shawl tight about her, nose up, proud, as she moves among the stalls, her small basket empty at her elbow.
There is nothing different about this afternoon—it is the same as all the ones before it. But as the gargoyle maker comes closer to the bread-seller’s tent, Rose finds herself moving, as if in a dream. And it must be a dream. Because Rose steps out from behind the stall as the gargoyle maker comes closer, and then they’re standing nose to nose. Just like that.
The gargoyle maker’s eyes are a deep brown, like rich earth, and her lashes are long and lovely. Rose blinks, swallows, as the gargoyle maker cocks her head, staring at the girl.
“Hello,” Rose whispers, and then—dying inside, slowly and with great pain—she says: “would you like to buy some bread?”
“Oh no, thank you.” And the gargoyle maker moves around her, continuing on through the square.
Her voice was soft and warm. Like honey.
Rose finds herself turning.
“I mean…” The gargoyle maker pauses, snared by Rose’s words, and she turns, too. Back. Toward Rose.
“Yes?” she asks, brown eyes flashing, mouth twitching at the corners. But she does not smile.
“I’ve always wanted to see the abbey,” says Rose, all in a rush, feeling her cheeks burn like day-old biscuits. “I almost wandered through it when I was very small. But I never got up the courage…”
Not like now.
The gargoyle maker watches her, head still to the side. “It’s an abandoned building. Like any other,” she says, voice quiet. “But my gargoyles seem to like it.”
“Oh…” whispers Rose, the ache in the word almost physical. “I would love to see that.”
The gargoyle maker is smiling now, mouth truly curling up at the edge. She looks even younger when she smiles. Rose wondered if maybe she was eighteen. Maybe. A grown woman. But she might be Rose’s age, with that smile.
The gargoyle maker steps closer.
“You could come see them,” she whispers, breathing out. “If you’d like.”
“Are they very frightening?” asks Rose, turning back to see her mother scowling over the loaves of bread and the pies. Rose unfastens her apron, pressing it back into her mother’s hands. And then she’s walking through the square with the gargoyle maker, feeling naked without the apron.
Her mother doesn’t say a word. There will be hell to pay later. But not. Right. Now.
“The gargoyles?” The girl tilts her head back and laughs a little. It’s clear, that laughter. Like bells. “No, they’re not frightening. They’re good creatures.”
“I’m Rose,” says Rose, breathless, disbelieving in her own good luck. “What’s your name?”
“Annabella,” says Annabella, the gargoyle maker. “Here…this way.” The front door that faces the village square to the abbey was boarded up long ago, but there is a grouping of bushes, and through that, the cook’s entrance. The door is gone, and when Rose and Annabella move through it and into the echoing, empty kitchens, a flock of disturbed pigeons take off in a rush of feathers. Rose starts, but Annabella puts her hand against the girl’s shoulder. Her fingers are so warm. Rose stills.
They climb a narrow, rotting set of stairs, and then a great, open room sprawls before them. The windows are boarded up, but some candles burn, flickering in the dark. And there are the gargoyles.
They turn, swiveling heads and clicking claws against the stone walls. Rose’s heart hammers against the cage of her ribs as, in the guttering light, they come into view. They are hideous creatures with lolling, stone tongues and sparking eyes and horns and wings and fangs and scales and tails and they are all messy imaginings of animals, really. This one has a horse’s head but a ram’s horns and a dragon’s body with cruel, clawing wings, and this one has a winged monkey’s body but a dragon’s head and goat horns. Like a jumbled mass of chaos, they move forward across the floor, dragging themselves or pacing on too-large stone claws.
“We have company,” says the gargoyle maker cheerfully, squatting down on the floor as the smallest gargoyle waddles over toward her, depositing itself in her lap. It has the body of a small dog, but the head of an eagle and a unicorn’s horn. “This is Rose, my lovelies,” says Annabella to the stone monsters. “Rose, these are my creations…the gargoyles.”
“How do you do…” Rose manages to get out, not because she thought it the best thing to say, but because pure instinct has taken over. The guttering lights and hideous creatures fill her with fear, but Annabella doesn’t seem to be frightened. In fact, she laughs a little as the small stone dog-eagle-unicorn rolls over onto its back in her lap, as if it’s a puppy begging for a scratch.
“You…you make these?” Rose asks, then, as Annabella stands, patting another of the great beasts. Annabella nods.
“All of them,” she smiles, scratching the tallest gargoyle behind the ears. “My father was a gargoyle maker. And his father before him. I am the last in a very long line,” she says, voice wistful. She shakes herself from her reverie, grinning sadly. “And, as you know, everyone needs a gargoyle.”
Rose shudders, thinking of nightfall. “I’d…I’d better be getting back,” she says, mouth dry.
Annabella is watching her, eyes round and full and sad. “It was lovely meeting you, Rose,” she whispers, stepping forward. She kisses the girl on one cheek, and then the other. And then Rose is stumbling backward, back down the stairs, hand against her cheek, heart pounding.
Annabella places her own hand along the smooth, stone flank of her newest gargoyle, closes her eyes.
The nightmares squirm along the ground on misty, clickety-clawed hands. Perched over the doorway, the bread-seller’s gargoyle watches it closely.
The nightmare comes no closer, wailing its defeat as it turns an eyeless face away from the door.
There was not always a gargoyle to protect them.
The nightmares did not always leave.
Rose lets the curtain fall, shudders.
But not before she sees the light in the abbey tower, burning.
There is peace in that.
The gargoyle maker comes to the market, empty basket in hand. Rose is out of the stall in a heartbeat, apron off, smile wide.
But Annabella is not smiling today.
“What’s the matter?” asks Rose, taking a step back. Annabella will not look her in the eyes.
“I’m needed elsewhere,” she says, tiredly. “I have to go on to Shroud City. Everyone here has a gargoyle, now. It’s time for me to go.”
Rose’s heart is in her throat. She remembers her mother’s lectures. She remembers being told this would happen.
She remembers hoping it wouldn’t.
“I’ll…I’ll come visit you, in Shroud City,” says Rose impulsively. Annabella smiles, but only for a heartbeat, shaking her head.
Rose is a village girl with a village heart and she’ll marry a nice village girl, and they’ll live in the village until they die.
For the gargoyle maker, life will be very different.
Annabella has always known this. But still, as she packs her great trunks that night, she cries, tears falling against the stained wood.
The gargoyles are no comfort, then.
She wishes that Rose had never noticed her. She wishes she had never noticed Rose.
Annabella moves to the window, the high and lonely window. Down below, the nightmares move across the cobblestones, crawling and quivering. And the gargoyles with their beautiful, baleful eyes keep them in the streets, out of the houses.
Safe. The gargoyles keep the village safe.
Annabella knows Rose’s window. Every night, Rose goes to the window and watches Annabella’s tower. She’s seen Rose do this. But tonight, as the nightmares crawl past the bread-seller’s house, the window moves. And Rose climbs out of the window, feet hitting the cobblestones.
As one, the eyeless nightmares move in their worming across the ground. As one, they turn toward Rose.
Annabella watches for a single moment before turning from the window, heart in her throat. She runs down the steps and down the stairs and out the open door hidden behind the bushes, the open door her oldest gargoyle guards.
And Annabella, too, is out and in the square.
Rose is running toward her, pack banging against her slight back, eyes wide with terror. The nightmares move slow, but there are so very many of them. Rose runs into Annabella, crashing against her as they tumble, and they’re standing, holding hands, turning as one toward the wall of moaning creatures that squirm across the cobblestones toward them.
Annabella closes her eyes. She stills her heart.
And that great, burning spark that exists just there, above the pulsing heart, ignites. It is the spark that begins a gargoyle in her hands. It is the spark of strange, stone life she carries. As her father before her. And his father before him.
And when she opens her eyes again, they are not good, brown eyes, but the roaring spark of a gargoyle. And the nightmares pause in their pursuit, mewling beneath her gaze. And, as one, they turn away.
Annabella breathes out, sagging, and Rose embraces her tightly.
“What were you thinking?” Annabella hisses, shaking Rose, but just a little. And then she crushes the girl in her embrace.
And then she’s kissing her. But just a little kiss. There are still nightmares about.
“I’m coming with you,” says Rose, voice all resolute and quavering. Annabella shakes her head quickly, but is pulling her through the bushes and through the door and up the stairs.
“And what of your mother?” she asks in a rush, her heart beating wild. Rose watches her, mouth quirked to the side.
“She knows,” whispers Rose then, quietly. “And she doesn’t like it. But a girl’s got to make something of herself. And Shroud City is so large…surely I can bake bread there, can sell it…maybe open a bakery…”
“This is really what you want…” asks Annabella, voice soft. Shaking.
“Yes,” says Rose. “I want to try, anyway. This. Us.” And then, shyly: “you.”
Beneath the sparking eyes of the gargoyles, Annabella kisses Rose.
But then they turn away with stone smiles behind stone hands, giving their maker privacy.
If you liked “The Gargoyle Maker,” you can now enjoy entire months’ worth of stories in the Project Unicorn short story collections on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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