‘Make of Me a Comet’, Kit Harding

Illustrations © 2022 Cécile Matthey

 [ At work, © 2022 Cécile Matthey ] I was always glad, in the watching, that I was not Elsa.

Don’t get me wrong, she was one of my closest friends, but she was also the most demon-ridden person I had ever been close to. She wanted things, and wanted them ferociously. There were times when I envied her knowledge of what she wanted—not knowing my own desires had certainly caused me pain in the past—but then I looked at the price she paid for that certainty and the envy always vanished. I loved her, but she was often not an easy person to be in the company of, and she found her own company far more difficult than I did.

In those early years, when I wanted to see her I went to the makerspace workshop she rented. She had chosen it for the sculpture-garden contest they put on every year, which served as a major showcase of up-and-coming artists in the local community. She had yet to actually make it into the showcase. During the lead-up to one of these, I walked in to find her staring intently at a piece of metal, entirely unmoving.

“Elsa,” I said.

She jumped, then turned and threw herself at me. This I expected—she did it every time we saw each other—and so I caught her easily enough and gave her the tight hug she was after.

“Don’t you make noise?” she asked as she stepped away.

“I did make noise. I said your name.”

She gave me an unimpressed look. “You know what I meant.”

I shrugged. “I did make noise. You were lost in whatever that is.”

She turned back to the metal. “I think this piece is more suited to being the outside of the sculpture.”

“They’re all steel,” I pointed out, waving a hand at the many large pieces of metal scattered around the workshop.

“Yes, but this one feels more like it’s skin. The other ones feel more like they’re something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” While I had some knowledge of metalworking, I often couldn’t see any difference in materials Elsa insisted were different.

Elsa began to pace—stalk—like a caged tiger. “They’re at it again,” she said. “They’re going on about how girls don’t have a place in the sculpture scene. Making giant things out of metal is a man’s game.”

“And you’ll enter the competition and prove them wrong.”

“Like I’ve done every other time I’ve entered? None of this is good enough.”

“You get better every year. And you are good enough. Art’s luck as much as skill.” It was, I knew, a fruitless argument. Trying to convince Elsa not to be overly hard on herself was like building a seawall. You might have some success to begin with, but nature always won in the end.

“And effort, and time, and money. None of which I have.”

“Money, maybe not, but you are putting in a lot of effort and time.”

“Am I, though?” She waved a hand theatrically. “Is living solely on caffeine and staying up all night effort, or delusion?”

“I would prefer it if you lived less on caffeine for the sake of your own health.”

“I’m not having nearly enough caffeine for that to be an issue.”

“Tell me that again after you’ve suffered through a day of withdrawal headache.”

She rolled her eyes. “Come look at the thing.”

I looked at the floor. “I can see the thing.” The workspace was not large, and Elsa’s half-finished sculpture took up a lot of it. She had constructed intricate metal wings which lay spread across the floor. They were made of a metal with a sheen to it, possibly titanium, and each feather was individually detailed, with etchings marking each individual barb. The barbs had not been etched last time I had seen the sculpture, and this told me both what Elsa had been doing for the last several days and approximately how much she had been sleeping—which is to say, not at all.

“I’m not sure what to put them on,” she said. “I know it has wings, but I’m not sure what else it has.”

“And you’re certain it’s not a bird?”

“Yes. It’s something else, something with fur. Something that doesn’t exist in reality. I can see that it has fur, but I can’t see the rest of it in a form I can make!”

“Let’s think about it logically, then,” I said. “What do you have that comes close to mimicking fur?”


Besides that.” The last time I’d left Elsa alone in the middle of hand-etching something that complex, she’d gone until she’d passed out with the laser etcher still on in her hand. I considered it a minor miracle the laser hadn’t injured her, and nothing short of astonishing the makerspace hadn’t kicked her out for safety violations. She seemed to have avoided doing this with the wings, but the last thing I wanted was to get her started on a new etching project when she hadn’t slept since finishing the old one. I preferred her to be alive the next time I saw her.

“They got a new tool,” she said. “It uses lasers and a filter to get some patterns… it could maybe do fur?”

“So let’s get some scrap metal and play with that for a while. You can show me how it works.”

She ducked out of her workspace and soon returned with something that looked like a flashlight with a metal grate set over the face.

“Don’t put your hands in front of it,” she said. “That’s where the laser comes out.”

“Uh, yeah,” I replied.

“We got strict safety warnings about this one. Don’t turn it on unless you’re pointing it at the ground. If at all possible, put it in an anchored frame. And you have to be squeezing it with some force, as a safety feature, so if your grip loosens it turns off.”

“How about we start with an anchored frame and you can apply it carefully to the sculpture after you’ve figured out what you want to do with it.”

She laughed. “Safety, safety.”

“I can’t care more about your safety than you do,” though it often felt like I did, “so please try to observe real safety precautions?”

“For you, always.” She slipped the laser into a small metal holder screwed to her workbench and tightened the bars. Now it was pointing straight down, which to my mind greatly reduced the potential for accidents. She began to ramble, explaining to me all the fine details of how it worked. I listened even though I couldn’t follow more than half of what she was saying. Elsa’s art seemed to run on the same rubber duck debugging principle programmers used. Letting her explain often gave her ideas for what to do next. I was happy enough to be in her company; there was a light in her expression that was too often absent of late. So I sat beside her at the workbench, occasionally made a suggestion when she said something comprehensible, and watched her. As much as I worried, the energy and excitement of creation was preferable to her dark moods.

 [ Desk collage, © 2022 Cécile Matthey ] The next time I saw Elsa, she was sitting in the mess of her workspace surrounded by metal imprinted with various patterns meant to convey fur, in shapes that looked vaguely like she’d been making an animal. The shapes were different enough that I couldn’t tell what kind of animal, and none of them was an appropriate size to wear the wings.

“It doesn’t look like it does in my head!” she exclaimed when she saw me.

I dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged beside her, then put my arm around her. She leaned her head into my shoulder.

“It never looks the way it does in your head,” I said. “That’s just part of art.”

“Says the wormhole cosmologist.”

“Wormholes are art! I am punching a hole through space using only math.”

“And marvels of technology designed by generations of engineers.”

I laughed. “But that’s the point. I take the things I see in my head and I put them on paper and then the experimentalists take them and poke holes until they find reality. You crash theory into the universe and you get back an ugly kludge that pokes holes in all your theories, and forces you to refine it again, and again, until you’ve gained new skills and knowledge. But even when it’s ugly it’s still beautiful because it’s telling us something about the universe. I poke holes in spacetime for a living, and it never looks like it does in my head. But every time it doesn’t, that’s a chance to keep chasing truth and beauty.”

“You are the only person I know who talks about math the way I talk about sculptures.”

“Only because you don’t come when I invite you to my department parties.”

She sat silent for a while, and then said, “I was supposed to be someone. Natural talent, young, skills… I was supposed to be someone.”

“You are someone. You are someone who is sitting here covered in metal shavings making things you love.”

“But I’m not good enough. I don’t know where I’m going with it. I’m not… not a true artist, not properly.”

“True artists never struggle with what they’re doing?” I asked tartly.

“True artists make their suffering meaningful. Turn it into something beautiful.”

I winced inwardly. I hated this particular rabbit hole. Elsa had bought into the ‘profound art comes from pain’ myth. I routinely pointed out how much more productive she was when not experiencing pain, but it never penetrated.

“You make art, Elsa. You are a true artist because you make art.” I gestured at the wings. “By any measure, that is impressive.”

“Impressive enough to make my name?”

“I don’t know. I can’t know. There’s so much luck in art.”

“I want to make my mark. I want all of this to mean something. I’m supposed to be brilliant.”

“Brilliance is not the rent you pay for existing in the world.” Conversations like this were when I most wanted to curse Elsa’s family. They had taken someone kind and caring and creative and taught her that her only worth was what she produced, and I was left picking up the pieces.

“No, but… I keep hoping this is just the terrifying and exhilarating time before I’m famous, where someday someone is going to take all our selfie vids of this time and put them in a documentary as an example of how human we are.”

“That’s very specific.”

She shrugged. “I don’t want to be an ephemera. I want to make my name.”

“And what about enjoying your life?”

“Art is not fun.”

“I disbelieve.”

“Oh, it’s fun when I know what I want and I can get at it. Etching the wings was fun. Staying up all night and living on no food isn’t fun.”

“I really don’t think that’s the fault of the art,” I pointed out. “That’s just how you choose to live your life. You could sleep regularly and still do art.”

“I know you don’t approve.”

“No, I don’t.”

“I don’t know how to do it any other way. I don’t know how to be anything else.”

“That’s what practice is for.”

She smiled ruefully. “You know me. I don’t do anything I’m not good at on the first try.”

“And that’s a character flaw to be worked on, not something to be proud of,” I said severely.

She just laughed.

I glanced around at the mess of attempts at fur. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve been up to?”

“I’ve been trying to make fur! I can see it in my head, sort of a winged cat but more majestic than that…”

Any cat that could wear those wings was going to be enormous and I wondered how she was going to get it out of the building, but she’d gotten larger things out safely. I listened to her talk excitedly about her art, as usual, but it was with only half of mind. With the other half, I was wondering how long this was in any way sustainable. I could be there for her, and I would, indefinitely. But this intense focus on fame was new, and so much of art was luck. I dreaded the thought of what might happen if she failed.

It was several days before I went to see her again. As much as I love Elsa, I try not to let worrying about her take over my life. I have classes to teach, a partner to spend time with, and a dog to walk. All of those things deserve my full attention. I’m not much of a maker, myself, but I do have hobbies, mainly gaming, reading, and keeping up with the latest in VR tech, which probably could be considered a subset of either gaming or teaching, depending on what you’re using it for. I don’t have driving goals like Elsa does, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to fill my time.

Of course, going for too long without hearing from Elsa is its own kind of worry. She might just be lost in the throes of creation, but she might also be having a real depressive spiral.

My partner keeps telling me I’m not responsible for Elsa’s mental health, and most of the time I know that, but there’s this sense of responsibility that never quite goes away in the end.

I could tell something was wrong as soon as I entered the workshop. While there was now one large chunk of metal shaped vaguely like an animal in the workshop, no work was currently being done on it. Instead, Elsa was lying on the floor beside it, unmoving.

Panic flashed through me and I forced it down. Panic would do nothing to help her. I moved rapidly into her workspace and knelt beside her to check for a pulse.

Her eyes opened as soon as my fingers touched her neck.

“Stop that,” she said. “It makes me feel like you’re going to choke me or something.”

“You didn’t move when I came in,” I said. “I was… concerned.”

“Because I’m lying on the floor?”

“Because you weren’t moving and I wasn’t sure if you were breathing.

“Because inhaling too many welding fumes and dying painfully of internal chemical burns is definitely how I would kill myself.”

I rolled my eyes. “I was supposed to know this how?”

“I didn’t expect you were going to be here. Or that you’d see me lying on the floor and immediately jump to ‘clearly she is dead.’”

“You’ve been obsessing about fame lately.”

She sprang to her feet. “Yes. I have. That’s not because of a depressive spiral. And it’s not mania, and it’s not the ‘artists with bipolar must be lightly and delightfully crazy’ act the gallery people like so much bleeding through and getting too real, either.”

“What is it, then?” I asked.

She turned towards the sculpture, and when she spoke, her voice was barely more than a whisper. “The suicide rate for bipolar is one in five. There’s a family history of cancer. The odds are on me dying young, and I care about being remembered. I want prove I was here, to leave something behind.”

“I’ll remember you.”

“That’s different.”

“You’re being awfully hard on yourself.”

She smiled bitterly. “When am I ever anything else?”

I had no idea how to respond to that, and we stood there for a long time in silence, as I turned her words over in my head. Her death had haunted my nightmares for as long as I’d known her, as I watched her fight her suicidal impulses. But even when she was clinging to me in tears or insisting she was a burden to me, she’d always seemed very casual about the idea of dying. She’d never seemed frightened or even particularly bothered by the idea.

“You’re a comet,” I said eventually.

“What?” she asked, confused, and turned towards me.

“From Starsail. ‘Make of me a comet / I’ll roam the farthest skies / Seek farther in night’s darkness / And speak to you no lies.’”

She smiled and offered the response verse. “‘If you would wander freely / Then pledge you will return / For if you slip your orbit / Your light will cease to burn.’ Making a point, are we?”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” I asked dryly.

She laughed. “It doesn’t go away, you know. You can offer all the encouraging words you want and it still doesn’t go away.

“Not permanently. But there are better days.”

“I still want to leave my mark on something.”

“I know.”

Something about that conversation seemed to break the work open for Elsa. She was uncharacteristically vague about what it was going to be, but her mood improved and she seemed to be working on it without the same degree of difficulty plaguing her. I was extremely curious by the time the opening night of the competition came around.

Elsa had made sure I got a ticket and greeted me at the door when I came in.

“Come see!” she exclaimed, nearly bouncing with excitement, and grabbed me by the hand and led me through the gallery towards where the sculptures were displayed.

Towering over the other sculptures stood a tremendous winged figure. The front was an enormous cat done in shining brass, looking ready to leap off its pedestal and into the crowd. But as I drew closer, I saw that the back half of the cat tapered into a comet’s tail. A cat-comet, with wings to fly it across the cosmos.

Beside me, Elsa was watching my reactions.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“It’s wonderful,” I said with feeling.

I had no idea if this would be the thing that gave Elsa the fame she was after. But it was stunning, certainly the pride of the night. She might wish to make a name, to leave something behind. For me, no matter what else happened, my strongest impressions of her would be nights like these: the nights where the art was beautiful and the mood was joyful, where I could watch her smiles and laughter, where she shined bright enough to truly resemble the comet I had named her.

© 2022 Kit Harding

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