The History of Sweat

The history of sweat is the history of a statue.

When we speak of statues, we conjure the image of Michelangelo laboring to liberate a shape from the marble that imprisoned it. (That statue wanted to be chiseled free from cool hard stone.) But there are many ways of being a sculpture, of coming into solidity, and not all such stories are tales of liberation and release. There is tragedy in three dimensions, and form can be a prison. Such was the case here.

Here, a weak man lived in a time of conflict. It was a battle time, a time of mud splashed with shorn limbs and grass drunk on blood. This man ran from each fighting, hid waiting for an end to each struggle and then crept amidst the bodies and took up the cold blades left on the field. He brought them home and set them on a pile in a corner. When he had amassed a tall collection of other men’s sharpnesses, he melted them down and poured the metal into a mold and fashioned a statue from it. It was the height and shape of a soldier he could look in the eye, and the man spent long afternoons doing just that. Here he conjured his bravery as he stared at the reflection of his own own gaze in the polished metal. (As it sank into the surface of the statue’s body his gaze turned steely, became solid just as the liquid metal had turned solid in its mold.)

The statue would not stare back. Born of battle and its movements, the metal of the figure chafed against its form. It mourned that motion – that of the myriad wielders of the weapons melted to make it – and as its maker stared, the statue wept the sweat of those myriad men. The sweat had a bloody iron tang and the man’s eyes bore in until it poured down the statue’s face, at which point he would brush his hands across its cheeks and rub the sweat on himself.

This was the smell of courage. He wore it like a second skin, a liquid cloak that let him move in the rooms and homes and gatherings of others as if he were a brave man, a strong man. He came to rely on it, and kept the statue in a room like roses in a still, bleeding its sweat and bathing in it like a perfume mask. He did this for many years, keeping a diary of his liquid trophies, shelves of books with dated pages smeared with thin layers of wax that had each been impregnated with that day’s sculptural perspiration. These were his sweat-books, his archive of liquid misery.

The last entry in his diary has a date but no wax to go with it: he hadn’t had time to complete the distillation of that day’s harvest. The neighbor who found the man’s body attempted to resuscitate him, but his lungs were full of fluid and he had already stopped breathing. This was the first of a series of dry-land drownings that followed the statue as it was passed among members of the man’s family after his death. Eventually it was melted down, and the drownings stopped, and no male descendant of its maker was ever again born with the ability to perspire.

 

[To return to The Elizabeths, head over this way.]