Author : Philip Berry
Every child remembers their first visit to the field. They follow the teacher over the low rise that was a burial mound for the first settlers, and down a glass ramp into the excavated field where ranks of men and women stand staring forward. Each is subtly different in proportion, though their expressions are the same – neutral, heavy, lacking character. That is the tradition – commonality; just one of many; a speck in history.
Some of the statues shine, the metal in the surface having been polished by the families that created them. Some are tarnished, slowly oxidizing. The elements appear as swathes or geographic patterns.
They were made by the second generation of settlers, and by those who have come since. When a settler nears the end of their life, they arrange for an effigy to be made. It must hold a tool or a weapon. After death, it is placed in the great field. Thus we thank nature for the ore which we smelt to create objects that are collected throughout the galaxy. Even the air can be filtered here, its metallic vapours condensed to liquid forms that fill runnels and trickle, gleaming, into the artisanal huts.
When I was sixty, and the joints in my fingers began to stiffen, I was told by a wise woman in the commune that I should begin to think about my effigy. What clothes would I choose for it; what object would it hold? I thought back to the thousands of examples I had seen as a child, and decided that my statue would present a simple pencil, as I am a silversmith and design jewellery.
Last week I looked in a mirror and saw how heavy my eyelids hung, and how the bands of grey across my teeth had thickened. I went back to the wise woman, to ask if I should begin to create the effigy.
She laughed, then asked, did I remember seeing the ‘broken farmer’ in the field. I did. All the children did. He lay on his back, feet pointing to the sky. His chest been cracked open by the fall. I remembered being surprised at how much attention has been paid by the sculptor to the internal structures of the thorax. The chambers of the heart had been modelled perfectly; the great blood vessels had been cast to anatomical precision. In contrast, his face had fallen away over time. Not even the metallic ions in its structure could save it from time’s insistent arrow.
The wise woman approached me. Her skin was bronzed and her mouth barely moved. She tore the top two buttons from my tunic. The fumes from the forge had coated my shoulders and upper chest. The hairs on my chest glistened. She ran a cool finger across the patterned surface, and watched carefully as I breathed.
“Your lungs are stiff. You have a three months to decide.”
“Your place, in the field.”
She laughed again. “Come, we are not children. You have decided what you will hold – a pencil, very modest. Now you must decide, where will you stand? Where in the field?”
I saw the truth of our tradition.
I saw how the metal had entered my tissues, crept along my tendons, lined my viscera, sheathed my nerves, and immobilized my features. I saw myself, one of many, staring forward, eyes fixed, unaware of the children who passed me on the glass ramp.