Flash: X is for Xylotomous

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(paid for – if you wish a copy, please go to dreamtime and pay the artist, thanks!)

I dropped my bags and dug out my key. The light leaking under the door indicated that Xanadu was in their studio even though the sun hadn’t edged above the mountains enough to highlight the bell tower. They were more likely still there from yesterday although they sometimes woke before dawn with an idea that couldn’t wait for breakfast, but either way I wanted to see them now that I was back in the States. Everything else could wait. Unless they were carving.

“Who’s there?” Xanadu asked as they walked from behind one of the many curtains in the large room. “Seok!” They ran and threw themselves at me.

I barely caught the ball of energy that was my favorite American. Managing the momentum by spinning in a circle, I returned the hug preventing me from breathing as soon I was confident we weren’t going to fall over.

“What are you doing back? I thought you were gone to the end of the semester? Graduation, right? It’s not June fourteen, is it? Did I miss a day? A week? No the fourteenth is next month. Right? Oh my god you are back, I’m so glad to have you back.”

After they unwrapped their legs from around me, they slid down my body until they had both feet on the floor, giving me time to catch my breath so I could answer a question. “I missed you too, chingu-choo.” My Korean endearment switched to a sneeze mid-word.

“Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m covered in sawdust.” Xanadu started brushing their apron, jeans and shirt, and then started slapping my wrinkled traveling shirt clear of the material transferred during the hug, setting off several more sneezes for me.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I tried grabbing their calloused hands as I switch to Korean, telling them to calm down. Xanadu always understood me better in my native language, they followed my language switch, taking on the more restricted body mannerisms as well as changing the verbal tongue.

They let me grasp their hands between us, before they said, “My best friend, I have missed you like the mountains miss the snow, climbing ever higher to find it, and never lose it again.”

I was rather proud of the sijo poetry moment and smiled down at them as I tucked a loose curl under the handkerchief they used to keep sculpting debris out of their hair. They were asexual and aromantic, but they had learned Korean poetry for me. I lifted up their chin and studied the dark circles under their eyes and the sharpness of their cheekbones. “I believe I had received promises you would eat well and sleep soundly.”

“You did, but I see you have done less well on that task than I.” They reached up their rough strong hands, pulling mine away from their sharp unplucked chin. “May a friend ask what happened?”

“War.” I frown, reliving the tense moments I lived through with the three other exchange students getting smuggled off campus and on a plane two days ago. “It’s spreading.”

Xanadu closed their dark eyes and reopened them. “There are many pictures in your camera.”

“There are.”

“Will you let me see them?”

“Only after we have slept and eaten. Maybe twice.”

They gave me a half smile, then shook, throwing off the emotion and switching to French, the third language we have in common. After that we diverge, me with Mandarin, Arabic, and Urdu, plus Russian in a pinch. They with German and a spattering of Spanish. Children of politicians assigned to foreign posts gave us a unique bond freshman year during the “get to know you” mixer. “Want to see what I have been doing for my senior project?”

Oui bien sur.”

A mischievous smile lit their face. “Excellent. It’s variations on a theme.”

“The dragon and the tiger.” I responded. Variations on a theme was expected; their advisor loved having students explore different mediums.

“How did you guess?” Their face mock fell.

I nodded to the huge scrap metal sculpture in the area closest to the outer double-wide door tall enough to get cars through. Some disassembly would be required to get the tiger leaping at the dragon out of the building. Inside the steel bodies two spiral hunks of metal spun, the dragon in red and the tiger in yellow, like internal flames found in the lanterns which inspired the sculpture. “That gave it away, mon ami.”

“Yeah, it kind-of does, doesn’t it?” They scratched the side of their head, setting some of the dust still clinging to the handkerchief lose. “Would you like to see the rest?” They waved to the smaller statue next to it. “I tried it to do driftwood next after the scrap metal assignment. Professor Altschwager kept harping on scrap metal and using found materials. Not all of us want to be welders, but it made her happy.”

We walked over to the driftwood, and I circle the sculpture. A mask descended on my face. Where the scrap metal had life and unexpected twists like the cutlery used for the tiger’s and dragon’s claws – forks and spoons – the driftwood looked, well, dead. I would never take a picture of it unless I needed it specifically for an article.

“Yeah,” Xanadu switched to English, “you can say it’s shit.”

“It is very well done shit,” I replied. “One might even classify it as manure.”

“She gave me an A for it because, and I quote, ‘you are showing your true skills as an artist now that you have left playdough behind.’”

I wince. “Why is she still your advisor, again?”

“Have you met, Graspy Gallagher?”

The fine arts department only had three professors at any time, Gallagher, the chair, and known for being an equal opportunity ‘hands-on’ instructor so long as you were small and young, Altschwager, an instructor in love with being cutting edge and advent-garde, so long as you did things her way, and a random grad-student cycling in from a nearby sister University, picking up their teaching requirements toward a masters or doctorate.

“If I burn it, will you be heartbroken?”

“This is why you are my best friend.” They hugged me from the side. “Absolutely, we shall make the biggest bonfire the day after my exhibition is over.” Stepping away, they circled the monstrosity again. They tapped two fingers against their lips. “Only maybe not, because the way the wood came together at the bottom gave me the final idea for the bronze.”

I dropped my eyes from the soaring battle originally inspired by the Winter Seoul Lantern Festival we had gone to before I packed off to my political science program in Europe. “Oh, yeah, that is…” I turned my head sideways before dropping to a knee. The support of the dragon and tiger to leap at each other had removed their lower legs, yet the substitute structure flowed… I reached behind me for my camera and grasped nothing. It was still packed in the bags outside the studio door.

Their eyes twinkled as I blushed and stood up. “Ready to see the bronzes?”


Xanadu guided me to a curtained area. Two sizes of dragon-tiger pairing shined on the shelves besides her pottery and clay sculptures.

“No clay variation?”

“Not where Altschwager will ever see,” my friend growled. “But there are four of them. I shipped them to New York. One’s a pot, one is a relief, and the other two are more traditional. The one I was finally happy with became,” they walked to where the bronzes sat on the shelves and waved at them like a game show host. The lower group of five stood nearly three feet tall while the upper, smaller ten casted pieces were about a foot each. Among the metal pieces were the casts used to create them looking the worse for wear. “I have to give the school five to auction off over the next few years in fundraisers. They are getting the small ones. But…” They picked up a wadded ball of cloth with care and brought it over to me. “This is for you.”

I accepted the cloth and unwrapped it. It was a sixteenth bronze, the bottom inscribed with the year and her name as the maker, and mine as the inspiration in Korean letters. I turned it, seeing the driftwood had became clouds and waves lifting the dragon and tiger into the eternal battle in the sky. I ran my fingers over the imperfections, gaps between the dragon scales, a missing claw on the tiger.

“Sorry it isn’t perfect. I couldn’t justify ordering more bronze. That shit is expensive. So I gathered the scraps from cleaning the others, then assembled the most intact parts of the molds and snuck this in under the wire for me using the smelting lab.”

“No, it is perfect.” I choked and swallowed hard. “A true original.” I smiled through the tears. “A Xanadu Georgladis original.”

“That is for sure, no one else’s will look like that one.”

I coughed to clear my voice before asking, “Anything else?”

“There is the stained glass next.”

“How did you afford that?” I frowned as we ducked between curtains, the tiger-dragon statue weighing heavily in my hands.

“You remember how we had that woman next to us on the plane ride back to the states?”

“The … editor?” Was that only six months ago?

“Yeah, well, she got stuck at a table at a gala with an art critic or gallery owner or both.” Xanadu stopped outside of another curtained off area. “It’s a New York thing, going to galas I think. Anyway.” They quieted, smiling up at me, waiting.

“Anyway?” And I gave them the answer they sought. I missed them.

“Anyway. She had gotten my name because she had been completely thrilled to meet a sculpturer. Remember how she said she had edited a few fantasy books but hadn’t been able to fact check the art descriptions. Well, she friended me as soon as we landed, and I did it right back.”

“You can’t have too many friends,” we said together. An important adage we both learned in diapers thanks to our parents.

“And at the gala, she broke out her phone and showed the art critic the new person she met flying back the day before. Showed him my website.” Xanadu paused, laid a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for setting that up for me, taking all the pictures, everything.”

“He loved Mothra didn’t he?” Mothra was a concrete statue in the student art garden from her sophomore year. Around the medallion bottom were hundreds of caterpillars, all species native to our state. Above them were an opened cocoon, the outside filled with Greek letters giving all the traditional subjects of knowledge, and above that rising out of the cocoon flew a West Coast Lady butterfly. They had given it a big long intellectual name which appeared on the plaque in front of the sculpture, but its nickname on campus was Mothra.

“Offered to find me a buyer, said he wouldn’t accept less than a quarter million for it. And he would only go that low because I was an unknown, but the school owns Mothra since they paid for the concrete and gave me a grant to make it.  I sent him some of my clay work instead, including the test piece for the bronzes.”

“Which he, having the heart of a goblin instead of an artist promptly sold,” I guessed.

“God bless globin patronage.”

“May we all be so blessed.”

They chuckled as we finished our exchange. That had been the result of several very long arguments about the heart of art and the stomach needing food being the way to an artist’s heart. “I was really blessed. Two of the large bronzes and one of the small bronzes which I am allowed to keep are already under contract.”

“How much?”

They gave me a number which would pay for the apartment we had been looking at in New York City to kick start our careers, for the two years we guestimated it would take to become established. Not the apartment with the amount of money we thought we could beg off our parents without feeling like total losers; no, our wishlist one with space for their studio and my photography computers. “And I still have three large bronzes and four small bronzes to sell, plus the stained glass and word carving ones the clays paid the materials for so the school doesn’t get a dime from them either.”

I grip the bronze in my hand and reevaluate its worth. I hope I never need to sell it. But it could get me out of some real tight scrapes like the one I just escaped. Art gets you further than cash in some circles.

“Ready to see the glass.”

I nodded and they pulled aside the curtain, leading to a shadowed area.

“It’s complete, except for the internal lights on the tiger.” They moved over to a metal cart and pushed some buttons.

The memory of the driftwood was gone and only waves becoming clouds remained. The dragon’s moustache and beard tangled with the tiger’s jowled mane. Blue, green, and red crash with orange, brown, and luminous black. The tiger glass at this time only reflecting the bright dragon.

How is that hundreds of glass pieces soldered together?

I forgot to breathe.

“Well, what do you think?” Xanadu returned to my side. “Seok? Anything? It’s horrible isn’t it? Don’t spare my feelings, come on. You are my best critic. You are always honest. I know. I stink. I don’t know why I quit my political major for this.”

“Xanadu.” I managed to creak out. I clear my throat and try again, my voice still only a whisper. “Xan, Xan. It’s amazing.”

“I am just a glorified potter. Professor Altschwager is right. I should just throw mud in politics because I am not worthy of throwing mud on the wheel.”


They stop, stunned. I don’t shout much.

“It is the most amazing thing I have seen in my life and it kills me there is no way I can capture it on film.”

“I … really?” They stare up at me.


A smile creeped up their face.

I repeat myself. “Really.”


I nod at them. “Okay.”

“You are the first person, other than Jordan who helped with the soldering and Christo with the electrical, to see this.”

“Not even the advisor from hell?”

“No, not even her. She stopped visiting with the bronzes. Said the statues showed I could make a living recreating casts of famous statues for the mass market. Said she would give me a final passing grade so long as I didn’t screw up the senior exhibit.”

My eyes drift back to the lit stained glass. I couldn’t not look. “Mi-chin nyeon.”

Xanadu bit back a laugh. “Rude.”

I had gone a little far with that profanity, but I wasn’t taking it back. There was no way Professor Altschwager was that tone-deaf with the real talent Xandadu represented. “You said you had some woodwork?”

“Yes, I was getting that ready now. I finally found the perfect wood to finish.” They bounced over to the electrical controls and turned off the stained-glass statue. My heart fell, then resumed its normal beating in my chest. “I couldn’t find the right wood for the dragon scale. I went through everything and then I picked up some padauk from the imports over in the city.” They went over to the other side of the curtain and hit it a few times until two parts separated and they held them open. I looked over my shoulder one last time before the curtain closed.

The final curtain opened to the smell of linseed oil. The smell of cooked glass and drying clay which permeated the rest of the studio became overpowered by the smell of wood and oil.

The statue was unfinished. Clearly so.

But the thing is, Xanadu is first and foremost a sculpturer. Assembly of scrap metal or driftwood, working with casts, and putting together the complicated jigsaw of stained glass. That they can do, but it isn’t their strength. Give them clay to build a face, cement to shape a butterfly, marble to create a thought of a storm, and the world will stand still. Wood can be carved, sculptured.

The other stuff wasn’t three-D to start with. It was never alive.

I turned away and hit the walls until I found an exit and strode to the front door in the bright light of morning shining through the windows. I popped open my carryon and pulled out my camera and ran back into the room.

We didn’t make breakfast at the student union, but we did make lunch.

(2,814 words, first published 5/19/2024)

Capturing the Tiger and Dragon Series

  1. X is for Xenophile (4/28/2024)
  2. X is for Xylotomous (5/19/2024)
  3. X is for Xanthic (6/9/2024)
  4. Exhibit (7/14/24)
  5. Exit Strategy (9/1/2024)

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