A story by Grant Price
When the artisan finished the chandelier, she wept. Her work was so beautiful that to gaze upon it was to be lifted by the hands of one’s own insignificance, spun around and dropped without ceremony. The artisan didn’t know how she’d created the chandelier. She’d simply worked, driven by a desire to make the best piece she could using the skills and materials she had available. And this was the result. Its body so heavy that it could be borne only by the strongest of ceilings. Its crystal prisms so fine and sharp they could draw blood. Its splendour so encompassing that all else became dull alongside it.
It was the apprentice who found the artisan in her workshop. Her cheeks were wet with tears.
‘Why are you crying?’ he asked, gazing at the chandelier in awe. ‘This is the greatest work you’ve ever created.’
‘That is exactly why,’ she said. ‘It is perfect. I cannot improve on perfection.’
The apprentice smiled. ‘You can make another.’
‘No,’ she said, and left the workshop. The apprentice stared after her for a moment. Then he turned back to the chandelier.
When the artisan did not return, a search was conducted. A will, stamped and dated, was discovered among her belongings, and it was read out in the company of a great number of people who had known the artisan. All any of them cared about was discovering who would take ownership of her final work. The will stated: I leave the chandelier, my best, most terrible creation, to my apprentice. May he not take its beauty for granted and look after it as I know he can.
The apprentice was saddened by the loss of his mentor but could not help celebrating his good fortune. For the first few weeks after the artisan’s disappearance, he would sneak into the workshop at first light and watch as the sun’s rays entered the window, gilding the thousand crystal prisms of the chandelier. They drew in its energy like water to the soil, each one enhancing the beauty of the next. The apprentice knew it was something that would never cease to amaze him, and he thanked the artisan, wherever she was, for having created it.
Idleness stole upon the apprentice without his realising it. The time he’d spent admiring the chandelier was time he hadn’t used to practice his own craft. When he did finally tear himself away from the sparkling prisms and dusted off his tools, he found he had not a single idea in his head. His imagination, once a fire that demanded to be fed, was no more than a few glowing embers. The apprentice was not sure he wanted to fan them. After all, was he not the owner of the most wonderful work of art that ever existed? He recalled the artisan’s words; it was foolish to attempt to improve on perfection.
So the apprentice put his tools away. His days as a craftsman were done. Instead, he decided, he would become a businessman. A plan quickly took shape: he would place the chandelier in a great hall where people could come to marvel at it for a modest fee. The businessman was pleased at his enterprising streak. The artisan had always shared her creations with the world, and her masterpiece should be no exception.
The day of the chandelier’s public unveiling was a success. As the businessman had predicted, people gladly handed over their money in exchange for a glimpse of the work that now hung from a specially designed ceiling in a great hall. The chandelier was low enough to the ground that it was possible to reach out and touch it, though nobody dared. Silence reigned as people devoured the chandelier from every angle, running their eyes over the crystal prisms, the intricate branches, the pear-shaped finial and the countless tiny festoons that shivered in the electrified air. When their time was up, they staggered away shaking their heads, already beginning to doubt they had actually seen such a thing. At the end of each day, the businessman sat alone in the great hall and counted his money, and his busy hands were reflected in every one of the crystal prisms.
As the chandelier’s reputation grew, so did the crowds that flocked to see it. And the businessman let five hundred visitors into the hall at a time. People pushed and jostled to get as close to the chandelier as they could. More visitors meant there were inevitably a few who had no qualms about touching the piece. From time to time a hand would dart from the crowd and leave fingerprints and spots of blood on the wicked edges of the prisms.
When the businessman finally noticed how some were manhandling the work, he was enraged. The chandelier was not meant to be touched. He had been too accommodating to his visitors, and they had repaid him by sullying that which he was tasked with protecting. One day he closed the great hall early, hanging up a sign that read ‘Closed for Renovations’, and spent a week working feverishly on a solution. When the great hall opened again, the chandelier was ringed by a fence with bars too close together for visitors to put their arms through. The people were disappointed. Their view of the chandelier was obscured, and the fence dulled its beauty. The businessman didn’t care; the fence protected the chandelier. And people kept coming anyway.
The fence proved to be a problem for the businessman when a set of important persons descended on the great hall. They didn’t want to have to contend with the fence. They wanted their view to be uninterrupted and unspoiled, just as it had been before the crowds had overstepped the boundary of decency.
‘Now look here,’ said a spokesperson for a political leader. ‘We didn’t travel halfway around the world to look at this thing through a gap in a fence. What do you propose to do?’
The businessman rubbed his hands together.
‘You should have a separate viewing area for important persons,’ said a prince. ‘Away from the crowds.’
The businessman nodded. ‘That makes sense.’
‘It should be elevated,’ said a bishop. ‘The higher the platform, the closer to God.’
And so once again the businessman hung up his sign that read ‘Closed for Renovations’ and worked feverishly for several days. When the great hall reopened, the people saw that a balcony, positioned above the fence, had been erected all the way around the room. It offered an excellent view of the chandelier. What they found out soon afterwards was that the balcony was open only to those who could afford it. And there were few who had the vast sums the businessman was asking for.
After the balcony went up, the usual respectful silence in the hall was gone, replaced by the discontented mutterings of those below and the chattering of the privileged few above. The people at the bottom found it difficult to concentrate when they knew there was an unimpeded view of the piece in the same room. They shifted and stared and twisted their hands against the bars of the fence, as if to do so would cause it to fall to the ground. But the fence was sturdy and remained where it was, and the obscured chandelier hung just out of reach behind it.
The businessman first noticed something was amiss when he checked the attendance figures and saw they were down. He climbed up to the balcony and, for the first time since he’d hung up his tools back in the workshop, gave the chandelier a good, long look.
And he saw it had lost its lustre.
The businessman couldn’t place his finger on it exactly. From where he was standing it appeared to be the same chandelier, with the same crystal prisms, branches, finial and festoons that the artisan had spent so many hours assembling. It was still beautiful, no doubt about that. Only now, when he looked at it, he had no desire to linger on its lines and curves, nor did he feel the gut punch that came from staring into its thousand crystal eyes. It was a mystery.
He arranged for a specialist to come and look at it and give their opinion. The specialist spent a day and a night going over the chandelier with a fine-tooth comb, before presenting her findings to the businessman.
‘You say it has one thousand prisms?’
‘That’s right,’ said the businessman.
‘It only has nine hundred and eighty-nine,’ said the specialist.
The businessman eyed the balcony and shook his head. ‘But how can that be?’
‘Perhaps people have taken them,’ she said.
The businessman reasoned that eleven small prisms out of a thousand were but a drop in the ocean. If he made sure no others were taken, it would be fine. In time, he could even fashion replacements for the ones that had been stolen. They wouldn’t be the same, naturally, but they might help to restore the chandelier’s brilliance. All the same, he would have to close the great hall for good. He couldn’t trust the people—especially those at the top, the ones he had expected more of—to keep their hands to themselves. It was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one. The artisan had bequeathed the chandelier to him on the understanding that he would protect it. Perhaps he had lost his way since then, but now he would make right.
But there was a problem. Since the businessman had hung up his tools, he no longer remembered how to make any pieces of his own. After reopening his workshop, he sat for hours at his drafting desk with pencil in hand, but the page remained blank. It was as though he’d never had the skills in the first place. Day after day he tried to find a way to reignite the flame of his imagination, to stoke a fire from which he would be able to warm himself. But his efforts were in vain. Meanwhile, the chandelier continued to sit in the great hall, sealed off from the rest of the world. Many people demanded that the businessman open the doors of the hall once more. It wasn’t right to hide the chandelier away, they said. It was selfish, an injustice to the artisan’s legacy.
The businessman refused. He told them the chandelier had been compromised, that parts of it had been stolen under his very nose, and that it had to be protected from prying hands. The people dismissed his statements, believing him to have lost his way, to have allowed the power of the chandelier to go to his head. He was weak, they said. He didn’t deserve to be its keeper, especially if he was unwilling to share. The businessman closed himself off to their taunts. They didn’t understand. They had no idea what it meant to own something so precious.
The workshop became a place of desperation rather than inspiration. The businessman dreaded going to the table, hated himself for having given up his trade after the artisan disappeared. He wished she would return and guide him as she had done before, but knew she would not. When he was not in the workshop, he had to face letters from bankers and lawyers and advisors who told him he was losing a considerable amount of money every day. Any profit the businessman had made from displaying the chandelier was now being used to pay off loans he’d taken out to build and renovate the great hall, and it wouldn’t last for much longer. He had no other income.
The businessman despaired, unable to see a way out of his predicament. He began to resent the chandelier for what it had done to him. It was not a gift; it was a curse. He understood now what the artisan had meant when she called it terrible. If he didn’t act, it would ruin him. He couldn’t reopen the great hall, because he had no money to employ people to watch over the chandelier. And he had alienated those who had once supported him, by withdrawing from the limelight and placing the thing under lock and key.
There was only one option left.
The businessman sold the finial first. He reasoned that since it was at the very bottom, it could not very well affect the integrity of the rest of the chandelier. It was much heavier than he expected, and he had some difficulty removing it. It fetched a pretty price from a discerning collector, and the businessman was able to pay off some debts. He believed that he might be able to use the rest of the money to make a fresh start. But when he realised how much it cost to start one’s life over, he was forced to go to the chandelier again.
This time he uncoupled a few of the crystal prisms. These he took to an art dealer, who gave him much more than the businessman thought they were worth. The dealer made it clear that he was willing to buy more at the same price. The businessman thanked him, but declined. He had to keep the rest of the structure intact. He didn’t know if he was imagining it, but it seemed to him as though the chandelier’s appearance had suffered again. It couldn’t be because of the finial; it was virtually invisible wherever one stood. Then again, he reasoned, he had owned it for a good while now. Perhaps he was simply accustomed to it. Yes, he decided. That was it. There was nothing to worry about.
The businessman returned to the chandelier each time he needed money. A prism here, a festoon there, even a branch from deep in its heart. When he entered the great hall, he no longer looked at the chandelier as a whole; he saw only the pieces that would keep his head above water for another month or two. He closed his workshop, finally admitting to himself that the well was poisoned and no more ideas would be drawn up.
He became irritable, erratic, paranoid, certain that people on the outside were plotting to take the chandelier away from him before he could do any more damage to it. But they were the ones who had damaged it in the first place. They had stolen from it, forced him to close the great hall and pay his debts by harvesting from the artwork he was burdened with protecting. It was their fault the chandelier hung lopsided from the ceiling, like a boat listing into a bleak ocean. It was their fault the businessman could no longer bear to look upon it, that he had to shield his eyes when he entered the great hall. And it was their fault he’d considered razing the place to the ground with the chandelier inside. But if he did that they would hound him to the ends of the Earth. He would be known as the man who had destroyed the most intricate, most prized artefact ever crafted by a human being. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Instead, he continued to harvest. Festoon by festoon. Branch by branch. Prism by prism.
When the fixture that attached the chandelier to the ceiling failed and the chandelier fell to the floor, the businessman wasn’t in the great hall. He arrived a while later to find it on its side, shards of crystal studding the floorboards like miniature mountain peaks. He was surprised to realise he didn’t feel guilty about its fate. He was only sorry he hadn’t harvested the prisms on the underside before they were destroyed, for now they were useless. He didn’t tell anybody what happened, nor did he try to move the chandelier. It remained where it was, lying on its side, unrecognisable from what it had once been. The businessman fetched a pair of sturdy rubber boots and gloves to protect himself from the spiky embrace of the shards. And he set about rescuing the parts still in good enough condition to sell.
The great hall fell into disrepair. It became so unsightly that people would hurry past it. By now, the chandelier had been out of the public eye for so long that those who had seen it could no longer recall if it truly was as beautiful as they had believed it to be, while others assumed its splendour had been the subject of much exaggeration.
One day a group of children noticed the door of the great hall was ajar. They hesitated, wary of the dark, musty space, but one girl, cloaked in the boldness of youth, marched inside. The others followed. Amid the warped floorboards, ruined walls and collapsed balcony, they found a chair, a few tangled bits of metal and a pool of broken glass. A single intact prism winked at them in the darkness. The girl picked it up carefully, wrapped it in a rag and put it in her pocket. Then the children left before anybody could ask them what they were doing.
Eventually the great hall was torn down. People came out to watch its demolition, glad they would no longer have to endure its presence. Few recalled it had once housed the most beautiful chandelier the world had ever seen. Those who did wondered, fleetingly, what became of it and what had happened to the artisan who created it.
No one remembered the businessman.
This work was featured in our fall/winter 2020 issue.