KC Murdarasi is a Scottish author based in Glasgow. She studied Ancient History at the University of St Andrews, then worked as a missionary in Albania for a few years before returning to the UK.
The Archaic Smile
The van doors swung open, revealing the limestone figure, and Nicholas bit his lip to suppress a gasp. One leg in front of the other as if impatient to move, hands clenched into implacable fists, each muscle as perfect as the day it had been carved. Taking in every inch, Nicholas, curator of the Ancient World collection at the Royal Museum, swelled with pride. This was his purchase; he had negotiated it, organised the funds, arranged the transfer. Now here it was. Nicholas’ pale blue eyes burned as he stared at the statue. It didn’t meet Nicholas’ gaze, instead smiling impassively over his head.
“He’s a happy chappie, ain’t he?” said one of the couriers, jolting Nicholas back to the present. He realised he was shivering in his shirt sleeves.
“You’re late,” Nicholas snapped. “You should have been here two hours ago.” The couriers shot each other a look and started to wheel the carefully strapped statue up the ramp into the Royal Museum.
The London sunshine was weak, filtered by layers of cloud—nothing like the fierce sunshine of Greece, but it was welcome after centuries of darkness. One foot in front of the other, the statue entered its new home.
Nicholas led the way through the confusing passages of the museum, his quick steps sharply defined on the hard floors, until they reached the main gallery. In a small, dark room, off to one side, waited an empty plinth.
“Just here, please,” he said. His hands played nervously with his tie clip as he watched the couriers jack the statue to the right level, then painstakingly inch it on to the plinth. Nicholas’ thin frame, a picture of nervous energy, provided a contrast to the solid musculature of the limestone man who stared calmly over his head.
“Zakynthos Kouros,” read one of the men after they had finished. “Is that his name, then?”
“It’s what it is known as,” conceded Nicholas, frowning at the inexactitude. “It is a kouros, a statue of a young man, and it is from Zakynthos. Hence, ‘the Zakynthos Kouros’.”
“Who’s it supposed to be?” asked the other courier.
“No one knows,” said Nicholas. “It was probably a grave monument for a young warrior.”
“Well cheerio, Zak,” said the first man, “Keep smiling!” The two men laughed as they wheeled their platform back out to the van. Nicholas winced. The kouros kept smiling.
The young man in whose memory the kouros had been carved had been dead for some time when the commission was finished. His family, rich and influential, had the brand-new statue installed on the highest point of the island. The warrior’s grieving mother visited often, his other relatives less so. They left small presents, libations, remembrances, but soon the visits stopped and the young warrior was forgotten. The kouros remained, however. Unperturbed by the years he continued smiling to himself until everyone had forgotten why he was there. It didn’t take many generations before the islanders started to believe that his perfect form, larger than life, must represent Zakynthos himself, the legendary founder of the island. The small presents and libations began again, this time accompanied by prayers and requests for blessings from the hero Zakynthos.
Emma, the junior gallery assistant, popped her head into the room.
“Is this him?” she asked, “He’s amazing! You’d never know he was so old.”
Yes, you would, thought Nicholas, if you knew anything about it. He sometimes wished he could be more patient with junior staff like Emma. She had a real inquisitiveness which should be encouraged, but she knew so little that was of any worth. She had a degree in Cultural Studies. Nicholas thought Cultural Studies was the sort of thing people studied if they had no culture of their own, though he had never said this to her.
“Why is he in the side room? Why not in the central gallery?” Emma asked. Nicholas frowned. He had considered this for some time and still wasn’t sure about his decision.
“It’s easier to protect here. It would be preferable to display it in the main gallery, but I can’t take the risk of crowds jostling it.”
Emma nodded distractedly as she walked round the statue, looking it up and down. “There’s something funny about him,” she said. “It’s as if his forearms are on the wrong way. Or his hands are.” She made a fist and looked from her hand to his. “And his face–that funny little smile! Why did they make him smiling? Is he supposed to be a friendly warrior?” She gave a smile of her own to Nicholas. It wasn’t as effective on him as it was on other men, but it still had a thawing effect.
“It’s called the archaic smile,” Nicholas explained. “Early Greek sculptors found it hard to carve the mouth realistically. The solution, they discovered, was to carve little grooves on either side of it, giving the appearance of a smile. The archaic smile disappeared once sculptural technique improved.”
“Shame,” said Emma, “it’s really cute.” She reached up a finger to touch the kouros’ smiling face. Nicholas’s hand shot out, stopping just short of grabbing her wrist.
“Don’t touch it!” he snapped, shocked. “Never touch limestone without gloves. The acid in your fingers will damage the rock.”
Emma backed away, stung. She never seemed to be able to do the right thing where Nicholas was concerned. Nicholas saw that he had shaken her and wanted to apologise. But how could he apologise when he had only stopped her from doing something she should have known better than to do anyway? Instead, he spun on the heel of his shiny brown loafer and hurried off to his office.
The Zakynthos Kouros did not remain alone for long on his elevation on the island. Others arrived. Some were merely small relief sculptures, but others were kouroi like him, standing almost as tall as he did. These were in a new style. Their bronze bodies glowed like warm flesh. Their hair fell in realistic curls and the mouths on the faces of these boy-men had perfect, curved, pouting lips. And yet the islanders remained loyal to their Zakynthos, with his rock-cut, dependable, not-quite-right anatomy, his steady gaze and his cryptic smile; the offerings kept coming. From time to time over the decades an earthquake would shake the island. Some of the lighter bronze statues would fall and need to be propped up again, or repaired, or melted down, but the Zakynthos Kouros stood strong, the lord of the island.
Nicholas hunched over his computer, the light of its screen competing with the failing light of the autumn afternoon. He sighed and ran a hand through his unfashionable hair. More and more he had been feeling that he was not cut out for this job, or perhaps that the job was not cut out for him. At thirty-two he was one of the youngest collection curators the museum had ever had, especially of the prestigious Ancient World collection. Luck may have played a part, but Nicholas knew that his drive, intelligence and perfectionism had taken him this far this quickly. Yet now he found that what he’d achieved was not what he wanted. He was expected to line manage other people, people with no similarity to himself and apparently no sensitivity for the ancient world. He had free reign to display exhibits and design collections, which was his dream, but he was expected to submit reports detailing the educational value and accessibility of his choices. He was in love with the relics of the ancient world but he often felt that his work cheapened them.
Shaking his head, Nicholas pushed the subject out of his mind and went to work on his computer. There was a lot to finalise before the exhibition opened the next morning, and the central exhibit arriving late had not helped. He worked away doggedly at the final details of tour plans and exhibit guides before movement below distracted him. The smoked glass of Nicholas’ office looked down on the gallery, and he could see some of the junior staff near his prize exhibit. They had obviously come from other galleries to see the new purchase. Some of them had gone inside the room, and Nicholas could not see from here whether they were wearing gloves. Quickly saving his work on the computer, he hurried out of his office and down the stairs.
Earthquakes had become a feature of the kouros’ existence on Zakynthos, and he smiled on calmly as they passed him by over the decades and centuries. But the base on which he stood was gradually weakened, and the crevice in the side of the hill which had been there for centuries was gradually widening. Even he was not invulnerable; one day, much like any other, the shaking and rumbling started again, and this time the kouros did not stand strong. Tipped over onto the soft earth, with his fists clenched and his face still set in a smile, he rolled into the crevice. Dirt and debris piled on top of him, hiding him from sight. The islanders wondered what had become of their Zakynthos but, as after all earthquakes, they had more pressing concerns on their minds. The rain set the fresh dirt in the crevice, the grass sprang up, and the kouros was lost.
Down in the gallery, having protected the kouros from ungloved hands for the second time, Nicholas realised he would have to do something more permanent. There were Tensa-barriers in a storeroom. He didn’t like using them but it was obviously necessary–there were currently no glass cases large enough to hold the kouros. Nicholas looked around to make sure that nobody was waiting to prod his purchase while he was gone, but it was the end of the working day and the last of the assistants was leaving the gallery. Relieved, Nicholas hurried to the storeroom.
Other earthquakes followed while the kouros was buried in the hillside. He could feel them pressing on his stone limbs, the earth shifting around him, packing him in more tightly. Sometimes it seemed as if the pressure must crack the limestone, but each time the strong rock held out, surviving another year, another decade, another century beneath the ground. Goats walked over him, rains fell on the earth above him, but the kouros’ stone smile stayed in place.
Nicholas took a deep breath and released it slowly. He always felt more at ease when the museum was empty, when it was his private domain. He set up the garish black-and-yellow striped bands around his prize exhibit, a metre and a half from the statue, far longer than any arm. There was barely any space left in the small room—no risk of a crowd. This was the first time the statue had ever been on display since it was discovered, and Nicholas felt the responsibility keenly. Only expert archaeologists had ever seen this statue, and he could not allow it to be damaged now that it had been entrusted to the care of the Royal Museum. He set up a metal placard holder behind the barrier, then hurried up to his office for the final item.
In the end it was another earthquake which had released the kouros. A spate of tremors occurred close together, sending panic through the islanders, who now drove cars and carried phones but still feared the shaking and rumbling as their ancestors had. The crevice in the hill, so long filled in, started to open again. The dry earth shifted and broke apart. Eventually, one of the many quakes dislodged enough earth to reveal a piece of the Zakynthos Kouros: one foot poked out into the light, as if he had kicked the hole himself. Once the quakes and aftershocks were over, it wasn’t long before the foot was spotted. The exultant looks on the faces of his discoverers when they realised that they’d found a whole archaic kouros reminded him of his early admirers. He smiled.
A piece of paper flapped in Nicholas’ hand as he walked quickly to the centre of the gallery. He slipped under the barrier and placed it on the placard holder, behind the plastic panel. ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very delicate’. Yes, that would do. Now all that remained was to shut down his computer and lock up. He wanted to get an early night, ready for the opening of the exhibition in the morning. It would be his triumph. He leaned down to adjust the piece of paper in its holder.
The smile on the kouros seemed sinister in the half-light of the side room. Towering above Nicholas, it looked far from delicate. It had survived its identity being forgotten. It had survived new styles of art and new philosophies. It had survived earthquakes too numerous for even an ancient hero to remember. It was lord of the island of Zakynthos.
The limestone remembered the tremors, the shaking and rumbling. It remembered the sensation of toppling, falling, from so long ago. Slowly it began to move.
Nicholas looked up from fiddling with the paper, but too late. He tried to back through the door but the barriers hindered him. The kouros crashed down on top of him. Its clenched stone fists pinned Nicholas’ arms to his side. The weight of its torso stifled him from crying out. There was silence.
The opening of the new Archaic Exhibition the next day was a great success. No one commented on the empty plinth in the side room. Instead, people’s eyes were drawn to the star attraction in the centre. One of the junior staff hurried over to Emma as casually as he could and spoke in a low voice so that the spectators could not hear.
“What on earth happened last night? I heard Nicholas got crushed by a statue or something?”
Emma replied in the same low tone. “It was the Zakynthos Kouros, the new one. But it’s okay; Nicholas is going to be alright. A cleaner found him this morning. A few broken ribs, but it looks like that’s all.”
“Poor sod!” replied her colleague. “What have you done with the statue? Was it smashed? That thing’s worth millions!” Emma raised her eyebrows and leaned closer.
“It was completely undamaged!” she whispered. “Nicholas must have broken its fall.”
“Dedicated to the last,” chuckled the boy. “But you haven’t displayed it, have you?”
“Of course I have,” Emma said, obviously proud to have been the one to make the decision. “Nicholas would want me to. But it’s okay, I’ve taken precautions.” She led him over to the centre of the room where the largest crowd was clustered.
“I’ve moved it to the central plinth. The other one must have been unstable. And I’ve put up those metal security barriers, not the stretchy ones. And I’ve put up a sign too.” She pointed to the display board which stood in front of the strong barriers. “It was open on Nicholas’s computer so I just changed it a bit and printed it.”
The limestone statue now towered over a sign that read: ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very dangerous.’
Standing tall in the centre of the gallery, staring over the heads of its new admirers, the kouros smiled.
Karen can be reached via her website: www.kcmurdarasi.com.