BEAUTY LESS DESIRED

Joshua was a carpenter. He had been a carpenter almost as far back as he could remember.

He wielded a fine brush in his right hand and a small bag in his left. He brushed traces of wooden residue off of his most recent sculpture. He was meticulous; he wouldn't allow a single particle to fall away from his bag.

The sculpture was beautiful, by any standard. It portrayed a woman, homely and naked, posed in a confused mix of discomfiture and pride, with her hands hiding her face. The detail and realism of her was exceptional. If not for the coloration and streaks of light and dark grain that wove around the figure, it might have easily been mistaken for a warm and living human.

Joshua held his breath and searched the sculpture for any lingering remnant of dust. Satisfied that none was missed he emptied his bag into a larger one and finally let himself open his mouth wide and deeply inhale. The air was dry and it tickled his throat, and it carried the faint aroma of sap.

He didn't always produce sculptures. Sometimes he created furniture - though it was always ornate. He preferred the works where his artistic control was thorough and complete.

He retained none of his works. The wood was too valuable to simply hoard. He did the best he could, still, to be sure the buyer wasn't in the deal only for the raw material that the art was made of. Trees take their precious time to mature on worldships, and those that do often must be kept alive and breathing so they might help in maintaining the oxygen quota. The corpses of trees had been in generous abundance when Joshua was young, back on Earth. But when a massive, ecology-ending comet was found to be on a collision course with the blue planet, the entire civilized population had been evacuated with urgency. The human existence now was a sad thing, its only star its hope that before the eons would demolish their vessels with decay they might be lucky enough to find another planet as hospitable to them as was home.

Futility keeps a record of failing to discourage the greedy and even underhanded practices of human enterprise. Of the dozens of works that Joshua had completed in the decades he'd been on the worldship, perhaps four might still be intact.

He placed the woman, his sculpture, on a cart together with the large bag of wood particulate he'd subtracted from the original material. He savored the image of his work and memorized her contours, then began wheeling her toward the market.

First he found a buyer for the sawdust - the easier part of the process. Thirty credits per ounce, it was down from the last yield. He scoured the market with his cart, a blanket draped over his sculpture.

He passed a curator who had already bought and, he had later learned, dismantled and resold two of his works. He hid his contemptuous face while he went.

He found a woman he hadn't seen at the market before. She was offering to purchase art of any medium, and she looked trustworthy. He showed her the sculpture and they haggled over the price. When they settled it worked out to just shy of eighteen credits per ounce. It was the best price he'd ever gotten! The woman commented on the sculpture and questioned him about it. When asked for a title he replied only that he didn't have one in mind, but that he felt if she really needed one "Beauty Less Desired" might do nicely.

Joshua thanked the woman and brought himself and his cart through sparsely-decorated corridors and back home. He prayed his work would be put to its intended use and looked forward to when he could afford a chunk of wood and begin again.

Written by Sophie Kirschner