On a bright spring day, a group of young academicians gathered at the banks of the river to challenge each other’s skills and provide a spectacle to whomever had the patience and the interest to stand by and watch. The day before, it was the naturalists who were testing themselves. But on that day, the architects had gathered, and their challenge was to build a tower of stones and pebbles, gathered from the banks or within the river itself, for it flowed softly where they had chosen to hold their contest.
The architects could use no mortar and no glue to build their towers, only their skill to fit the pebbles and stones together so that they might bolster each other as the tower grew.
One architect was winning by a far margin, for he had built a tower half as high as he was tall. He was still building when an aristocrat strolled by with his lady on his arm.
The architect kept building and building, and even his fellow architects were cheering him on, and more and more people gathered to watch. When at last the tower teetered and collapsed, the architect was startled out of his rapt focus by hoots and hollers and clapping.
Having won the contest, the architect’s reward was to be a fine meal at the finest inn in the nearby district. But he was waylaid by the aristocrat, who first congratulated the young architect, startling him once more, and then asked the architect to join him and his lady on their stroll. The aristocrat desired to speak further with the architect. So the other architects went on ahead, joined by other academicians.
The aristocrat asked the architect all of the expected questions, of his birth, his heritage, his education. And though he listened attentively to the answers, it was clear that he was only interested in the answer to his last question. He wanted to know how the architect had bested his fellows.
The architect explained. To him, each pebble was as pieces in a puzzle, like the flat puzzles that he’d loved as a child. His family was not well-off enough to purchase such an extravagance, so his mother would occasionally paint upon the scraps of paper from his father’s factory and cut them up for him. But more often, she would bring him to the banks of that very river and gather twigs, leaves, and stones with him, and encourage him to build towers and bridges and towns with the humble materials.
He began to focus only on the rocks and the pebbles. So practiced did he become, especially after learning the skills and principles of architecture at the city academy, that he could grasp better than others how the pebbles best fit together—without any other binders—to form a tower. The architect had always been fascinated by how structures were built and what kept them standing, and why some monuments survived for centuries, while others collapsed after mere decades.
So he built from fallen twigs, stones, and leaves. During his early academy years, he disassembled and carved up his own furniture to build structures to show his teachers. He once took apart a kitchen chair from the dining hall and reshaped the parts so they fit together to form a model of one of the great temples from the classical era. The academy’s dean punished him with a year’s worth of kitchen duty to replace the chair and make amends for the theft. (It was a misunderstanding, or perhaps a prank. The architect thought he’d obtained the proper permission.)
But the dean was also sufficiently impressed with the model of the temple and encouraged the architect to keep up the good work—only, to do so lawfully.
The better part of an hour had passed as the architect strolled along the river with the aristocrat and his lady, charming both with exuberant tales and with just the lightest touch of arrogance in recognition of a talent that surpassed many of his fellows by far. So charmed was the aristocrat that by the end of their discourse, he began to speak familiarly with the architect, as he would only typically do with a young man of his own station.
He challenged the architect—dared him even—to build a magnificent monument to him from the twigs and branches on the floor.
The architect crossed his arms, then rubbed his chin in thought. As the aristocrat and his lady sat upon a fallen log, the architect worked, gathering the leaves and litter on the forest floor, propping twigs against each other, weaving fibers of leaves and grass around them, anchoring the bottom with a circle of stones. He worked quickly but delicately and in only several moments, he had built what appeared to be a tower of twisting twigs that spiraled up and bloomed into an open bowl in which he gently placed a bed of moss.
He broke a rather stout twig in two and set it vertically in the middle of the bed of moss. He placed a puff of moss on the raised end of the twig, and wrapped his humble but clean kerchief around the twig. Then he asked the aristocrat for the crimson silk kerchief in his breast pocket. The aristocrat handed the kerchief over without hesitation. This the architect lay over the wrapped twig in the center of the bed of moss. And then he dared to ask the aristocrat for his signet ring. This the aristocrat handed over with narrowed eye, raised brow, and amused smile.
The architect had roughly gauged the width of the aristocrat’s finger and the ring around it and found a twig that was just a touch thinner, so that when it was wrapped with two layers of kerchief, the ring would fit.
The architect slipped the ring over the crimson silk kerchief. The golden signet glinted in the soft sunlight of approaching evening.
“There, my lord,” the architect said. “A magnificent monument to you, with humble materials raising and bolstering the symbols of your house.”
The lady rose first. She gazed at the monument. “It is wonderful,” she said.
Beside her, the aristocrat sat peering at the monument. Then, he began to laugh.
“Wonderful, indeed.” He rose from his seat on the log. He shook his head. “Is there no challenge you won’t accept?”
The architect, crossed his arms. “No, my lord. I don’t believe there is.”
Still smiling, the aristocrat peered at him. He turned his head to gaze upon his lady.
“Architect, build me a stair, so high, that I might climb all the way to the heavens, and pluck a star to place in my lady’s hair, so she might have a bauble that is almost equal to her own beauty.”
The lady folded her hands before herself and turned a fond look upon her lord.
The architect realized that his time with the noble couple was done. He bowed to them, though they were looking upon each other and not him. He glanced at the monument he had built. The aristocrat had not yet reclaimed his signet, and thieves were quick, so the architect lingered for just a moment, to guard the ring and to await a proper dismissal.
But a thought struck him.
“Yes, my lord,” he blurted out. “I could do that thing.”
The aristocrat and his lady, startled out of their lovers’ gaze, glanced at the architect. The aristocrat gave him a proper dismissal, warning him against boasting, and reclaiming his signet ring.
The architect bowed deeply to the aristocrat and the lady, and he left them, his thoughts swirling with the tale he was soon to tell his fellow academicians, and with the plans for the stair to the stars.
The architect obtained the proper permissions from the dean of the academy, to build on an open meadow on the southern side of the academy grounds. The design of the stair was the architect’s own. But he recruited the help of his fellows for the strength of their arms and the wealth of their pockets, so that he might obtain the materials he needed. Mere twigs and stones would not do this time.
Only the dean knew the true purpose of the stair. The architect would reveal to no others, no matter how forcefully he was goaded, that the thing they built was meant to be a gift to the aristocrat. When he relayed to his friends and fellows the story of his stroll, of the building of the magnificent miniature monument, he had not told them of the aristocrat’s challenge, spoken not in sincerity to the architect, but in love and fondness to his lady. At the time, the architect had refrained out of respect and propriety for the affection between the noble couple. But now, his omission served to keep his gift secret. Perhaps the aristocrat would hear of it, but the architect hoped that the aristocrat had more pressing matters on his thoughts than the doings of the academicians.
The architect used the miniature monument as a model. When he built it, he had been thinking about an old tale his mother often told him when he was child.
A magnificent tree once lived in their land, long, long ago, when it was covered with wild forests and empty valleys. It was called a “starflower.” There was a perennial that bloomed during late spring and early summer called “starflower,” and some believed the pretty flower was named in honor of that more majestic ancestor. The ancient starflower was a tree with a trunk so wide that only when a dozen men raised and clasped hands could they embrace its girth. It grew so tall that its tops were said to brush against the bottoms of clouds. According to the story, the sun made the tree for his wife, the moon, so that if she grew tired of hanging in the sky and looking after all their children, the stars, she could perch at the top of the tree and rest there a while. Her children loved her so much though, that they followed, and some of them became trapped in the branches. The moon, unable to free her naughty children, turned them into flowers, so that they might sleep, and grow wise enough to regain their light in time. And they did, after a fashion. During the day, the flowers collected the light of their father, the sun, and at night they glowed with that light.
There were no more starflower trees in the region. And even if there were, growing one to full size would take decades.
So the architect built one. With wood and metal and even cloth, he built and built. And around the girth of the constructed tree, he built a stair that spiraled up and up its length. When only half its crown was finished, the tree already surpassed the height of the highest tower on the academy grounds.
The stair was buttressed and supported by many structures from wooden rivets to living, climbing vines that rose up and followed its curve. The architect would climb up the stair, and sometimes rise through the hollow core to reach the top, gauge the work’s completion, and assure that the tree remained sturdy, that the only thing that would knock the tree down was the only thing that could have knocked a real starflower tree down, Nature herself.
The architect grew modern starflowers in the built branches of the crown. As a final, finishing touch upon the day of unveiling, he set within the outer branches, a glass ornament, tinged and shaped to resemble a starflower. A candle set behind the ornament made the glass glitter and shine, like a star.
When the work was done, the dean of the academy sent invitations to the town, and a special invitation to the aristocrat for whom the gift was intended. The wide open spaces of the academy grounds swarmed with visitors and onlookers from all over the city.
The architect presented the gift to the aristocrat. The aristocrat laughed and clapped his hands, for what he had asked in jest of the architect and in gesture for his lady, the architect had made come true.
The architect announced that he would climb the stair and fetch the starflower ornament for the aristocrat’s lady, but the aristocrat halted him and started climbing himself. The dean of the academy, fearing the aristocrat would fall, and suddenly fearing that the architect’s careful construction would collapse, pushed the architect to follow.
Both men climbed the tree as the onlookers gazed up. After several minutes at a comfortable pace, they reached the top. The aristocrat, dizzied by reaching a height he had never reached before, clutched at the branches and at the architect. But once he regained his balance, he gazed all around him, marveling at the serenity within the crown, the opposite of the bustle beneath. He waved down at his lady, not quite sure if she had seen him and waved back, for they were high up, but it was also early evening and the light was dim.
The architect insisted on walking out with the aristocrat on the well-buttressed branch that led to the glass ornament. The aristocrat blew out the candle, and they heard the reaction of the crowd below, as the ornament’s twinkle vanished. The aristocrat looked out upon the grounds of the academy and declared how wonderful it was to be so high. He wished to linger there. He wished he had brought his lady up with him.
The architect reminded the aristocrat that he could do so any time now, for the tree was his.
They climbed down, and after the aristocrat caught his breath and sipped some water, he strode to his lady, fell upon one knee, reached into his jacket and pulled out the glass ornament shaped like a starflower.
“Alas, my lady, I have not plucked the stars from the sky in truth, as you deserve. But I have climbed high and plucked this semblance of a star, crafted with such pains by a man, as the creator must have taken in crafting your visage.”
“Worry not, my lord,” the lady said, “for beauty fades in time, but your devotion is the true gift I accept from you this night.” She gently clasped the glass ornament, and found that it was not all glass, but glass and metal, shaped so that she might indeed set it in her hair. This, one of her attendants helped her to do.
And a great cheer went up among those gathered.
Then the aristocrat raised his hands to quiet the crowd. He offered his arm to his lady. She took it and they both turned to the dean of the academy, pledging to him a great sum of money in thanks for the gift. The dean, most pleased, humbly accepted the money. Another cheer went up among those gathered.
Then the aristocrat and his lady turned to the architect.
“From this day forth, I declare myself your patron,” the aristocrat said. “I will take upon myself the fees for all your schooling, grant you quarters and a workshop in my home, and engage your skills for my forthcoming constructions.”
Another cheer was raised in the crowd, and the stunned architect was jostled by his fellows with many slaps on the back, tousling of his hair, and comical embraces.
So began the patronage of the aristocrat and the great work of the architect.
“Architect, build me a home that manifests all my greatest dreams.”
So said the aristocrat when the architect settled in his new quarters and asked his patron what he should build first.
“What are your dreams, my lord?”
The aristocrat spent many days and evenings telling and showing the architect the answer to his question. They walked through the walls of the manor, the aristocrat pointing out features he loathed and those he desired. As they sat in the aristocrat’s study that first day, tossing forth ideas, the architect noticed the miniature monument on the aristocrat’s desk, the one the architect had built in the forest. The aristocrat had brought it home and had taken to setting his signet ring upon it when he did not wear it.
The architect drew the plans even as he finished his schooling, and the work of construction began.
Several years later, the work was done. The aristocrat invited the city’s nobles, both resident and visiting, to a ball where he unveiled a whole new wing of the manor.
The architect had designed the entire southern wing of the manor with rising towers, shimmering windows, and ornate buttresses. It was built to be sweeping, airy, and lithe in contrast to the solid and weighty main manor. It was built to let in all the light of the golden summers and bright winters, while tempering the heat and the chill, unlike the humid halls and frosty foyers of the main manor.
All the guests praised the architect for his work, complimented the lady on the wonderful party, and expressed friendly envy to the aristocrat. One of the guests even tossed out a mock threat to steal the architect away with lures of a more profitable patronage.
Later that night, after the guests left and those who were staying had retired to their assigned chambers, the architect approached his patron. He pledged his loyalty to the man who was first to set a coin before the architect in payment for his work.
The aristocrat laughed and patted the architect on the shoulder in thanks, declaring that he needed no such pledges. But he was glad of it, for he had been nervous all the long night. The architect had learned that there were many nobles the aristocrat keenly desired to impress, and they were all in attendance that night.
Over the course of the next several months, the architect completed his studies and left the academy as a lettered academician in the field of architecture. In attendance at his commencement were his family, his friends, and his patrons—the aristocrat and his lady.
During that same time, as the architect’s assurance bloomed, the aristocrat’s assurance seemed to wilt. Rumors reached the aristocrat’s ears that some of the nobles who had attended his party, and those who had visited his manor thereafter, examining every detail of the new southern wing, spoke of having feigned their enthusiasm. They spoke of the magnificence of the architect’s first work, the starflower tree that stood on the academy grounds. And they wondered if he had already squandered all his best talent and energies.
The rumors angered the aristocrat on the architect’s behalf. But the architect cared little for the opinions of those whom he named “the envious ignobility.”
But in time the rumors changed focus, and they claimed that it was not the architect who was to blame. For the starflower tree was born of a mere suggestion from the aristocrat, and was mostly the vision of the architect. But the southern wing of the aristocrat’s manor was born of detailed instruction. The architect was constrained, his talent stifled by the aristocrat’s eager desire to impress. The wing was airy because there was no foundation, no deeper sentiment than to be the envy of others.
The architect noticed and even remarked to the lady that the aristocrat seemed withdrawn after hearing such rumors for many months. The aristocrat spent many days and nights in the southern wing. Even when his lady spoke to him, he answered her absently at first, and only when goaded with some particular tone in her voice that only he must have recognized would he rouse from his reverie and lock a gaze of true attention upon her.
The architect approached the lady one day and declared that he wished to build something for the aristocrat to lift his mood. Something humble that only the aristocrat would see. The lady smiled and agreed, and they resolved to speak more on it later.
But that very evening at dinner, before a year had passed since the completion of the new southern wing, the aristocrat declared that one wing was not enough. He gave the architect his next assignment.
“Architect, build me a home so magnificent that I will be the envy of my betters.”
The architect glanced at the lady, but she was peering at the aristocrat, at her husband, as if he had a presented a puzzle whose purpose she could not glean.
The aristocrat said no more. And when the architect retired to his quarters that evening, he began to draw the plans for a manor. He did not heed the words of his patron from that night. He heeded the words that his patron had spoken years ago, when he sought to manifest his dreams. Perhaps the architect had failed his patron. Perhaps he had not understand his patron’s dreams at all. But the architect was older now, and he was lettered.
He reviewed his old writings and thought upon them.
The aristocrat had not always lived in the city. He had grown up in the country, surrounded by nature, surrounded by the elements in their rawest forms. He had weathered storms and floods. He had flown kites upon swift summer breezes. But he loved living in the city. He had wondered how he might combine the two places he loved within his own home.
Thus, the architect had built the southern wing to be open, to let the elements in, sunlight and air, and even the rain in the central cistern.
Now, he went a step further. He drew the plans of how he envisioned they could transform the entire manor, of how he could honor and build in all the elements. He drew fountains with pumps that would keep the water freshly flowing. He would construct a detour from a nearby stream into and back out of the mansion, so that the residents and guests would be delighted by the visitations of fish and other watery wildlife without the animals being caught forever in the manor. There was ample space in the eastern courtyard for great fire pits and torches along the iron rails and the stone towers. In the western courtyard, the one bordered by a forest, he would built a mock hill and a cave entrance within that led down to a set of underground rooms. The walls of the rooms would be glass so that the residents could see the roots of the trees growing above and around the chambers.
As he drew, the architect grew excited and hopeful. Here would be a house that would inspire something greater than mere envy. Here would be a house that would inspire wonder. Here, truly was his patron’s dream made manifest.
For weeks, the architect labored on the plans and drawings. He wanted the aristocrat to see them first, but when the lady entered his workshop one day, and asked to see what he was planning, he showed her. And he was encouraged when he saw the dawning smile upon her face brighten into the glow of a grin.
“It is good,” she said.
When at last, the architect presented the book of plans and drawings to the aristocrat, he stood by, breath bated, hands clammy, and expectant gaze set upon his patron’s face.
“It will take a decade of work” the architect said. “Perhaps longer, but it will be magnificent.”
The aristocrat flipped through the book, showing no expression. Only his eyes seemed to move as his gaze skipped across the pages. He did not study the book long, spending only a few minutes before he shut it, set it down on, and turned to the architect.
“Build me a tower that is higher than your starflower tree, higher than the highest tower in our land. A tower so high that if I were to shoot an arrow from the topmost chamber, its arc would carry it all the way to the home of that ignorant and envious fellow who lives in the red manor.”
For a moment, both were silent. The aristocrat awaited the architect’s response. The architect awaited any comment on his plans for the manor.
“Name a price for the work,” the aristocrat said. “Whatever you deem fair. Take whatever stones you need from the manor. Hire whomever you must. Build it in the eastern courtyard. It must take no longer than a year. Think on it, and we will speak again in the morning.”
The architect gazed at his book. He did not know what to do. He had never heard his patron speak of any particular noble with ill intent or ill will. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the sudden grudge. The lady might know. Other servants in the household might know, either the truth or the rumors.
He did not go to the lady. He did not go to the tavern to drink with his fellow academicians. He did not go to the kitchens to hear the gossip from his fellow household workers.
The architect took his book of plans and drawings and he went to his bedchamber. He flipped through the drawings time and again throughout that night, and he came to realize that it was not just his patron’s dream made manifest, it was his own. If the manor drawn in his plans could be built, it would be his greatest work.
As he flipped again and again, a resolve grew within him.
The next morning, at a somber breakfast, the architect gave his patron his answer. He refused to build the tall tower.
“I do not know your cause for despising your fellow noble, my lord,” the architect said. “Perhaps it is a just cause, but as I refuse, it is not my place to know.”
The aristocrat frowned and his sudden sigh belied an impatience unlike his usual calm. An indifference to the cleverness and beauty of the architect’s designs, where once every detail inspired exclamations of delight.
“I fear I am witness to a growing bitterness in my lord’s heart and mind. I will not lend my hand to a work that would further poison your noble character.”
There were no others at the table. The aristocrat had asked to see the architect alone. After a moment of silence, the aristocrat spoke, and gave his answer.
“Then you may leave, as you are of no use to me now.” His jaw was clenched as he spoke. “Let me find one who can build me such a work. And let me release you to build for another, for I begrudge you not the work you have done for me. Only I have outgrown you, architect, and perhaps someday you will catch up. But I cannot wait.”
He continued. “There is no triumph in creating works of wonder and beauty. There is only weakness there. I need a work of supreme magnificence. A work that declares to all that I must not—and cannot—be ignored. That I must not—and cannot—be denied. A work that draws all eyes to me, not in admiration—for I have traveled that way and it led me not to victory—but in fear and in envy.”
“No triumph in wonder and beauty?” the architect said. “You did not always believe so.”
“I have grown beyond such beliefs.”
“If that is so, my lord, then I fear you have grown in the wrong direction.”
The aristocrat raised his fork. “I wish to dine alone. You are dismissed.”
The architect went to his quarters, not knowing what to do. Restless, he paced about, at times fuming against his patron, at times halting and gasping as if a thin and icy hand had gripped his heart. And at times, calming himself enough to consider all that the patron had said, and weigh it against all that he knew to be true about his work.
He set the book on the stand beside his bed and lay upon his bed thinking. He dozed off, and when next he woke, it was to the sound of banging on his chamber door.
The architect was still dressed. He opened the door to one of the manor’s servants, a gardener who spoke so quickly that the architect did not understand at first. He only heard the man say “fire.” The architect rushed through the hallways where others were waking and learning the news. It was the middle of the night. Something was burning. There were cries of “fire” all around.
When they made it outside to the front courtyard, the architect saw that the manor was well. It was safe. It was not burning.
Then, he spotted the distant plume of black smoke against the milky light of the moon , and he realized what it was that was burning.
The pumps were insufficient. The architect knew it as he drew closer in the manor’s carriage. The academy’s officials made a circle around the burning starflower tree so that none would come too close. Despite the valiant efforts of the men manning the water pumps, the fire had already reached the crown. The whole tree was ablaze. There were no buildings close by, no other woods, but the tree was so massive that there might still be danger of embers traveling far.
The academy and city officials would have to remain vigilant until the fire burned itself out.
The architect asked if any had perished in the blaze. None had. And he clutched his chest and breathed in relief.
The lady arrived in another carriage, but the aristocrat was not with her. They did not have to search far before they found that the aristocrat was already there. He was sitting in the back of a constable’s carriage.
“You must forgive me!” he cried out, as his lady ran toward him. But his gaze was not her. It was on the architect.
The architect approached with hesitation. He had never seen his patron thus, disheveled, distraught, weeping. Just as he had never seen his patron filled with bitterness and retribution before the recent months.
The aristocrat explained. He was being arrested for the crime of arson. The architect’s refusal had angered him. He had felt such great anger that he planned on marring the starflower tree, that tree that all said was the architect’s true triumph. He had only meant to scorch it, but he knew that the architect had built it sturdy and sound. So he climbed the length and poured oil upon its trunk and its branches. He would set fire to it, expecting that it would blaze, and burn out, and have an ugly scar upon by morning.
Even as he poured the oil, he regretted what he had done. He tried to climb down as quickly as he could, to tell someone, the dean, what he had done, so that the oil could be cleaned and the tree made safe. But somehow, by some ill luck, as he hastily removed the matches from his coat after reaching the bottom, one of the matches lit. In a panic, he cast it out and it landed on the tree.
And the tree burst into flame.
Many weeks later, the architect returned to the manor to collect the last of his wages and bid farewell to those whom he had befriended. He had already said his goodbyes to the lady of the manor weeks before. She was absent that day, visiting family in the country.
But the aristocrat would be present. The burning of the starflower tree had been deemed an accident when all was revealed. It was the property of the aristocrat, and none had been harmed. None had lost their own property. The aristocrat himself deemed that he should be punished by the law for his intentions, but he was set free with his only punishment being to make reparations to the academy for the destruction of their grounds and the removal of the charred remains of the starflower tree.
The architect entered the aristocrat’s study. The aristocrat sat behind his desk. He rose with some difficulty and smiled through a wince. The architect felt a twinge of pity when he spotted the cane leaning against the desk. The aristocrat had damaged the nerves in one of his legs when he leapt away from the blaze. The aristocrat handed over the final payment of wages. The architect nodded and turned to leave.
“Architect, you have never built me what I have asked you to build.”
Though he should have been angered, the architect felt unexpectedly saddened by the patron’s sentiment. He turned and nodded to acknowledge the patron’s words.
“You have always built me better than what I asked you build.”
The architect blinked. “Then why did you burn my greatest work? My supreme achievement?”
“You have not yet attained your supreme achievement.” The aristocrat reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a book. It was the book of plans that the architect had drawn for the magnificent manor that he had dreamed of building for his patron. “I do not deserve such a home.”
“But your lady does…and you might again, someday.”
The aristocrat smiled and some of his former humor returned. “If I grow in the right direction.”
The architect did not return the smile, for he did not share the aristocrat’s good humor in that moment. He gave a single nod of acknowledgement.
“I must discover my own dreams, my lord. But despite everything, I am grateful to you, for without you, I would not have been challenged to build all the wondrous things I built under your patronage. I would have struggled to earn a wage. You have always been generous with wages.”
“When you make those dreams manifest,” the aristocrat said. “I hope I will have the good fortune to witness and to gaze in wonder.”
The architect felt a final swell of affection for the aristocrat. “Do not fret, sir. For a bridge yet remains between us. That at least did not burn when the tree burned.”
The architect took a final look at the first thing he had ever built for the aristocrat, the miniature monument, upon which the aristocrat still set his signet ring when he did not wear it.
The sight of it sparked an idea and the architect resolved to jot it down once he reached the tavern outside of the manor walls, where he would sit and eat the enjoy a meal alone.
The architect bid the aristocrat farewell and left the manor, feeling a flickering in his gut, even as he felt a burden lift from his shoulders.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.