The first stone canoe sank. Salt water rushed over the sides of the oblong boat as it bubbled and dipped. The dock felt unsteady beneath Dallan’s feet and the air tasted tangy with foam and rot.
Gorly threw up his hands. “It’s not going to work,” he said. Dallan’s young assistant gripped his shock of shaggy brown hair and pulled.
Dallan looked back toward the City. “We’ll figure it out,” he said, and thought of his family in their first-floor apartment, the bedrooms smelling like his children, musky and sweet, and the taste of the strong black tea his wife snuck back from the rich merchant house she worked in. All of was tinted with bitterness—his toddling bear of a baby son with his big, bald head covered in bruises from trying to keep pace with his older brother, and Jenne’s uncle Fanus with his ceaseless singing, and her aunt Earla, knitting useless clothes the boys either outgrew or tore to pieces. All of them might be in that ocean soon, sinking right with him.
“It’s hopeless,” Gorly said. “The Council never—“
“The Council chose me,” Dallan said, and began back toward his workshop, a ten minute walk from the docks. “They sent as much stone as I could take. There’s a chance. We’ll make another one.”
“You’re kidding yourself,” Gorly said, sounding defeated, and Dallan couldn’t blame him. The challenge from that foreign general was clear, but impossible: make stone float, and he’d spare the City. Fail, and he’d take everything. Gorly had his own worries—a pretty young wife and both their parents, all depending on him.
And thousands more, packed into the City.
“We’ll make it thinner,” Dallan said, “and try a different type of rock. There’s got to be a way.”
“Not in three weeks, there isn’t,” Gorly said.
Dallan ignored him and breathed the salt air, listened to the shouting sailors as the few remaining ships prepared to cast off, and tried to imagine the City on fire.
Jenne pressed against Dallan in the night, and he buried his face in her dark hair.
“We should think about leaving,” she whispered, careful not to wake their snoring family. “The Caistans packed and plan on running, and half the spice district—“
“We can’t go yet,” Dallan said. “Not before I’ve finished. And that army’s outside the walls. They’ll catch us if we try.”
“By sea.” She rolled to face him and her voice grew warm against his throat. “My employers said they have a ship and space enough for our family. We can run, Dallan.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. His little boys, his beautiful wife. The City itself. “I can’t abandon everyone.”
“It was never meant to happen,” she said, tilting her gaze up. Her eyes were pleading in the dark. “That foreign general knows you’ll fail. He only wants more folks to stay in the City so he can take what they’ve got.”
Dallan thought of his workshop: the half-finished statues cresting from the blocks beneath them, their hard skin seeming soft as flesh and lace, the countless hours he’d toiled, the life he’d given his family. They couldn’t travel with his work. They could barely travel with his tools. Without all the stone, out beyond the City, they’d have nothing, refugees from a war waged by people he’d never meet. He wouldn’t let that happen, not to his wife, not to his children. Not to his home.
“I can make it work,” he insisted.
She touched his face and kissed him. It was sweet and terrible. “I’m packing,” she said.
She turned and went to sleep. Dallan stared at the ceiling thinking of boulders tossed by waves.
The second stone canoe sank.
Dallan chose the lightest rock he could find and carved it as thin as a blade of grass. The canoe was delicate, and the walk to the dock was a prolonged agony. But they’d made it, and managed to slide it into the water—
Only to watch it bob on the waves before water began to seep in through the porous stone.
Gorly cried. He knelt and leaned against a pillar, sobbing. Dallan watched the canoe slowly dip down into the darkness beneath.
It took two weeks to make and all the skill he could muster. There was one week left, and he was tired.
Not enough time. “That was the right idea,” Dallan said. “Thin and light and big. But we’ll seal it with tar—“
“Don’t you understand?” Gorly stood, tears streaming into his beard. Dallan bit back his own sorrow—he had to keep it together. His assistant was much too young to have the fate of an entire city on his shoulders.
Dallan felt the same, at thirty, but there was nobody else with the skill required to work stone this way. He had to carry it for both of them.
“We’re close,” Dallan said, staring out at the waves, thinking—the right shape, the right material, enough tar slathered on the bottom— if he gave up sleeping for the next seven days and worked himself dry, and recruited a few other men he knew that might be able to help, then maybe—
“How can you do this to your family?” Gorly said, turning to face him, tears still coming, snot stuck in his mustache. “Your wife and children? We have to tell the Council it’s impossible. Give them a chance to negotiate good terms of surrender. We can save their lives—“
“And what life will that be?” Dallan asked, ashamed of his anger. “With nothing left in the City? How many will starve, come winter?” He thought of his wife’s hair wrapped around his palm, of the smell of her frying potatoes, and the children laughing while they rolled in the pillows, throwing small cornhusk balls at each other, the youngest babbling near-words, the oldest jabbering in half-understood sentences.
“At least we’ll be alive,” Gorly said, nearly begging, and that was what finally broke Dallan’s resolve.
He turned from his assistant, who had given so much, and who felt as close as a brother. “There’s a way out,” Dallan said, speaking toward the City. He heard Gorly come closer. “Jenne’s patron has a ship. It’s leaving in three days. Bring your wife and your parents and her parents, and leave with my family.”
“What about the Council?” Gorly asked, but there was hope in his voice again.
“I’ll stay,” Dallan said. “I’ll see it through.”
“You’ll help me,” he said, turning to face Gorly. He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “For the next three days. You’ll help.”
“I swear it,” Gorly said.
Dallan squeezed, then embraced him. They lingered on the dock, and a single bubble broke the surface, the second failed boat still slowly drifting down beneath them, into the gloom.
The third stone canoe was a masterwork. Of all the figures Dallan had carved from solid blocks, this canoe was the greatest—the thinnest hull he could manage, the lightest stone he could find, and the biggest of the three, gracefully swept and sleek. Dallan marched along behind the City Council and the Guard as they carried the fate of everyone Dallan loved on their shoulders, bumping against the soldiers’ armor, toward the dock where the foreign general and his retinue waited.
There hadn’t been time to test it. The last coat of tar dried that morning, and Dallan could see it leaving black stains on the Guards. He grimaced each time they took a step. He looked to the docks, and all the ships were gone—the last left two days earlier. His workshop was quiet, his house abandoned, and only the echoes of his family were still there. The laughter of his children. Their cries in the night. His wife’s warmth when he couldn’t sleep.
The foreign general smiled at them with white teeth beneath a braided beard. Animal skins were draped over his shoulders. “I’ve seen this before,” he said, eyeing the canoe. He didn’t seem to mind that it was covered in black. “It never works.”
“We’ll find out,” said the Head Councilor, a heavy-set bald man. “We have faith in our sculptor.”
Dallan stayed near the back of the group, though the foreign general’s eyes found his.
“Let’s see if your sculptor is as smart as he thinks,” he said, and gestured for them to lower the canoe into the water.
The Guards knelt and were gentle, though each movement sent waves through Dallan’s chest. All his work, the whole city, it teetered on this moment. He leaned forward, craning to watch as the canoe dipped one way, then the next, rolling with the ripples. It stayed there at the top, bobbing and pitching—but not sinking.
The foreign general shoved through the Guards, then kicked the side of the canoe, sending it away, free of the dock. For some horrible seconds it floated there, perched on the water—
Then Dallan saw it, and the foreign general must have as well, because he began to laugh.
“The closest I’ve seen,” he said. “You had me worried, but it’s not good enough.”
Water bubbled up through a crack in the bottom. Dallan groaned and barely caught himself against a wooden pylon. He thought of Gorly’s tears, one week earlier, a lifetime ago.
He didn’t know how it happened. Maybe he was too tired, and the men helping weren’t as careful as he wanted, and Gorly left before the shape was complete— or maybe it happened as the Guards carried it down, the bottom pressed against their metal shoulder plates— or maybe there hadn’t been enough tar to fill the gap, or it hadn’t dried completely overnight—
It didn’t matter. The crack was enough, and the canoe swamped.
“It floated,” the Head Councilor said. “For a little while, it floated.”
The foreign general only laughed as the third canoe went to join the first and the second.
Dallan didn’t watch what happened next. His eyes scanned the horizon for a shape— a speck, a change in shadow— any sign of his family. At least they were out, his boys, his wife, Jenne’s aunt and uncle. They were away from what would happen next, as the stone boat sank, and he thought of going with it.
ps, well last week’s experiment in format failed, so I’m back to Substack and won’t be messing with that for a while. Thanks a bunch for reading! As always, please share if you liked this one— and sorry for the unhappy ending!