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Such an Honor
We kick off May with a new, free-to-read, Sarah Gailey story, set in a world where awards have a powerfully lasting effect. ~ Julian and Fran, May 7, 2023
Such an Honor
by Sarah Gailey
The Ganymede Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Composition was warm in Leonard’s hand, not that he could feel it. Maybe if it had been piping hot or freezing cold, the sensation would have made it through the calloused landscape of his palm—but it was only as warm as the dozens of hands it had passed through over the course of the evening. It felt like nothing. Everyone wanted to touch the damn thing so they could say they’d touched it, so that later, in some way, they could convince themselves that they’d touched him.
Leonard didn’t blame them. He’d done the same thing back in his borrowed-suit days, when this kind of win had felt as unattainable as the bespoke tuxedo he was now wearing. Back then he’d stroked the smooth, faceted surfaces of the Cruxelle, the Łotzke, the Eustacia, each one resting in the grip of some other, better, happier musician. He’d ached with jealousy at the time—jealousy so deeply secret that he hid it even from himself. He’d spent those parties insisting to anyone who’d listen that he was filled with unalloyed happiness for the successes of his peers, that he was grateful to have betters from whom he might someday learn.
Underneath it all, though, his heart had pounded hard with want. He wanted the ballroom lights to shine on him that little bit brighter. He wanted to make great things and he wanted everyone to see how great those things were. He wanted the weight of success to leave him slumped and spent. He wanted everyone to clap.
He’d been filled with want, and yes, fine, with hate. Just a little of that. It was a bland kind of hate, short-lived, unconvinced of itself. Nothing personal. It just made the wanting a little sweeter. He could see that now. A grace note.
He’d won it all eventually. Everything he wanted and more, and no one could take any of it from him. Not ever. And now, in the tuxedo, under the lights, at the center of the crowd, he looked down at the Ganymede in his palm. He saw fingerprints that weren’t his own and he saw the reflected gleam of the candles in the chandelier over his head and all he could think was I don’t want it to be over.
“What’s with the sour face? Are they taking it back?” Tati rested her chin on his shoulder, the pointed tip of her jaw digging into the permanent knot in the muscle. Her chest rested against his back—he could feel the weight of her, but there, too, the warmth wasn’t able to penetrate. A blanket of scars came between him and the heat of Tati’s body.
He missed being able to feel her.
He thumbed the gem in his hand. Didn’t reply. Didn’t want Tati to call him an old grump.
“Come on, you old grump,” she murmured in his ear—so much for that. “All these bright young things are dying to see you get drunk and make a fool of yourself. Are you going to let them down?” One of her arms snaked around his chest and then her hand was in front of his face, her fingers light on the delicate stem of a champagne flute. Her nails were painted Ganymede green.
“I don’t know if I can,” Leonard said. “The Eustacia—”
Tati pressed her lips to the scar on the back of his neck where the Eustacia had gone in. It stretched from the nape of his neck to the base of his skull. “I know,” she murmured, her lips brushing the fine hairs at the base of his skull. “That one really took it out of you. But hey, live a little. If not tonight, when?”
Leonard eyed the champagne flute. He hadn’t touched alcohol in years. After his Spectrum Honor win, his doctor had advised him to retire, explaining that his liver was the only untouched soft tissue he had left. “It regenerates so quickly that it’s a poor host,” she’d said. “But when there’s no room at the inn, the barn starts looking mighty cozy.”
He hadn’t retired, but he’d given up drinking, finding himself suddenly and strangely attached to an organ he’d abused for much of his life. His efforts were undercut by the Eustacia award—totally unexpected, shocking even to his agent, brutal to accept. He hadn’t ever really recovered from that one. Alcohol had simply seemed out of the question.
Tati had been supportive of his sobriety until tonight. She’d even arranged for this reception to host a mocktail bar, which mostly seemed to involve a hungover-looking kid dropping sprigs of rosemary into coupe glasses of sparkling juice. She’d long understood his need to preserve what he still had left.
But tonight was different. He’d caught her crying in the bedroom closet when she was supposed to be getting dressed for the award ceremony. There was a kiss of cigarette smoke on her breath, even though she’d quit smoking in solidarity with him after his first record went Double-Cabochon. The champagne flute she offered him now was filled right up to the brim. They both knew that he wouldn’t have anything to preserve for much longer.
He held the Ganymede Award in one trembling hand, took the flute from Tati with the other. He almost lifted the wrong one to his mouth.
Live a little.
“I heard this is gonna be his last one.”
Tati wasn’t eavesdropping on the kid’s conversation. Not at first. She was busy trying to catch the eye of the bartender she’d bummed a cigarette off an hour earlier. Leonard had already finished his third flute of champagne and was finally in the mood for something stronger, thank god. He’d been carrying the Ganymede around all night, looking like a lost hound, but Tati knew the drill by now—once he added a couple of whiskeys to that champagne, he’d be ready to accept the award instead of just trucking it from one corner of the room to the other, holding it out to anyone who stared too long as though he wished someone might take it away from him.
She was thinking about the prospect of his acceptance, wondering if she should get a whiskey of her own, when the overheard words registered. Tati forgot all about the bartender, her full attention now locked onto this kid. Jumpsuit, fashionably deep shadows under the eyes, haircut that looked like it’d been put on sideways. One scar, still bright red, prominent at the nock of their throat. The collar of their shirt was pinned open to display it.
Tati felt her lip lift into a sneer. Of course it would be one of these young dipshits, freshly blooded with new success, uninterested in the lifetime of work and sacrifice it took to be in a position like the one Leonard occupied.
The kid didn’t notice her at all.
“I mean, what’s he even got left? A pinky toe?” The kid laughed. Their friend, a tall woman with the reddest hair Tati had ever seen, laughed with them, but it sounded more polite than actually amused. “I’m just saying, at some point you’ve got to call it a day. Although I guess that’s what he’s doing tonight, huh?”
The redhead cleared her throat. “I think it’s kind of amazing,” she ventured. “I can’t even imagine having a career like that. I mean, he made his first studio recording when my mom was a teenager.”
“Wrist,” the bartender said, leaning across the bar to hand the redhead a coupe glass with a sprig of rosemary sticking out of it. “It was the style back then, so you could hide the scar under long sleeves if you needed to.”
“Why would you ever hide it?” That was the kid with the haircut, because of course it was.
Tati looked over, intending—what? To sneer again?—only to realize the kid was looking right at her. She lifted her chin and met their gaze, unwilling to be ashamed of eavesdropping. “They used to hide the scars,” she said evenly, “because none of us had money back then. We were all running from one loan or another. Nobody wanted to end up getting their arm cut open for rent money.”
The redhead’s eyes were as big as Cruxelle plates. “But—but if you didn’t have money, why make the awards out of such valuable material in the first place? Couldn’t you just sell—”
The kid grabbed the redhead’s arm, nearly making her spill her drink. “She’s just fucking with you,” they said. “Nobody was cutting anybody’s arms open, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Fucking cash bar here, can you believe?”
Tati made eye contact with the bartender, who had more gray than black in her hair, who had a matched set of circular scars dimpling her cheeks. The look they exchanged said it all: We remember how it used to beand fuck this kid and do you want another drink? and more than my next breath.
The pour was tall and the bartender’s smile seemed sincere as she waved away Tati’s money.
“You’re with him, right?” the bartender whispered, but Tati noticed the redhead sending a curious glance her way.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s, uh—”
“A big night,” the bartender finished, pushing a second glass across the bar, this one with a cherry in it. “I saw him back in the day, you know? Pre-Cabochon, when he was conducting with the Sydney Philharmonic. Incredible. This round’s on the house,” she added, “and so are all the rest. You just come to me.”
Tati’s smile felt impossibly heavy. Leonard hadn’t conducted in so long, not since both his wrists and elbows had gone under. But this had always been the plan, she reminded herself. He was an ambitious man, and they both understood the sacrifices that came with the level of achievement he’d always pursued. At a certain point, he had to prioritize his legacy.
“Thank you,” she said—and then she turned around to find the redhead right up against her, staring down at her, wide-eyed and openmouthed.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude,” the redhead said, her eyes traveling fast over Tati’s face. “But are you—”
“Hey!” the kid with the haircut interrupted, their face alight with an excitement that made Tati’s stomach drop. “It’s happening! He’s accepting it!”
“Now?” Tati asked, but the question was pointless. The crowd was already moving, rushing toward the raised stage in the center of the room like water swirling down a drain.
She poured both drinks down her throat without tasting them, without stopping to breathe.
It was time.
Leonard did not want to be helped onto the stage, but everyone seemed determined to help him anyway. Hands kept appearing under his elbows and he knew they didn’t belong to friends because his friends knew how much his elbows ached—a side effect of the Łotzke. That one looked like a fist-sized ruby, but rubies usually went for the eyes; if industry gossip was to be believed, the Łotzke was something else, lab-grown and totally unique. It was notorious for taking out knees and elbows.
He’d won it twice. Elbows, both times. Worth it, he thought ferociously, remembering the years when everyone thought his career had gone stale. He’d lost quite a bit of mobility thanks to that one, but it was worth it. Everything was worth it.
The stage was tall. He could see the entire crowd, could see all the way to the back of the room by the bar. Tati was trying to work her way forward, pushing past people. He couldn’t hear her saying I’m his wife and let me through, but he could see the unceasing movement of her lips and he knew she’d make it to him.
The crowd quieted. Every eye in the room turned to him. The microphone was in front of the operating table, which he liked—it meant he wouldn’t be glancing at the crisp white sheets out of the corner of his eye the whole time he was giving his speech. It was a speech he’d been laboring over since he learned that he was to receive the Ganymede. He wanted to do it justice.
Still, the words felt inadequate. His voice felt inadequate. He had to pause for breath so frequently. His legs trembled from the effort of holding him up for so long.
Tati was approaching the stage. She stumbled, caught herself on the arm of a tall redhead. Her eyes were locked on his.
“And of course,” he was saying, “I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my wife, Tati. She has been by my side from the beginning. She supported me when I was first starting out. I would go to auditions on my lunch breaks and come back late. I got fired so often that we started celebrating the one-week anniversary of every job I managed to keep.” Pause for laughter was written on his notecard. He tried to catch his breath. “When I wrote my first concerto, I tried to throw it into the fireplace. Tati is the one who stopped me.” She was coming up the stairs at the side of the stage, hefting the skirt of her gown with one hand. “And every time I succeeded—from the first time I made real, spendable money off my music, to my first recording contract, and through every award and honor you all have seen fit to give me”—god help him, was he really tearing up?—“it’s been Tati who has stuck by me as I recovered.”
He turned to her, held out his arms. She walked into them and he heard her breath catch, felt the hitch of her rib cage.
“Don’t cry now,” he whispered into her ear. “Or you’ll get me going, and then they’ll all think we’ve gone soft.”
She let out the softest breath of a laugh. He turned back to the microphone and lifted the hand that still held the Ganymede Award. It was an emerald the size of a plum, Barion-cut. Green so deep you could drown in it. He’d heard that the next recipient would be getting moldavite instead—ancient glass that had formed at the site of a meteor strike. More fragile than an emerald, but rarer, too. More valuable.
He felt a twitch of that old, sour jealousy. But then he felt Tati’s hand on his shoulder, giving him the gentlest squeeze, and he let it go. This was his night. This was his honor. This was his emerald.
He would accept it graciously, and then it would be his forever.
They’d gotten special permission for Tati to make the incision. A physician’s assistant stood near the bed, ready to offer help if she needed it, but Leonard knew she wouldn’t. Tati was always, always rock-steady.
Her gloved hands didn’t shake at all as she unwrapped an oversized swab soaked in red liquid. The familiar smell of chlorohexidine overwhelmed him with memories of other nights like this one. They hadn’t had anything that nice at the beginning of his career. He could still remember the chunk of amethyst that had come with his first recording contract. Tati had helped him accept that one, too, with rubbing alcohol and a kitchen knife.
What a long way everything had come. What a long time he’d been working to get here.
A light laugh ran through those gathered at the very front of the crowd, and he realized he’d paused halfway through unbuttoning his shirt, lost in the past. He gestured down at the chlorohexidine swab with a fond smile. “Good memories,” he said, winking at the audience. They laughed and then their laughter died all at once. They were tired of waiting, wanted to get back to the bar for one last drink. These things always ran too long.
“I’m so proud of you,” Tati whispered as she helped him onto the operating table. She shoved pillows in front of him and behind, so he’d stay on his side, supported. She ran the swab across the whole expanse of his side, leaving a swath of dripping orangey-red across the map of scars that marked his every success. The gem got swabbed, too, erasing the patchwork of strangers’ fingerprints that marked its every facet.
Leonard stared out into the crowd as Tati unwrapped a sterile scalpel. He didn’t need to watch as her eyes locked onto the smooth expanse of skin below his very last rib, didn’t need to supervise the flick of her wrist that would slice him open. He trusted her with every fiber of his being.
When she struck, it was quick and neat. Leonard drew a sharp breath in at the burn of the blade. He hadn’t felt anything that crisply in so long.
The crowd murmured, and Tati continued.
The smooth, slick facets of the Ganymede pressed against the incision like a tongue probing at closed lips. The gem was cold, so cold, unbelievably cold—the pain of the gem stretching his wound open, the heat of his blood pouring over the ladderlike ridges of his scarred belly. His head swam, his gut twisted, he felt like he was falling or maybe fainting. His vision went dark at the edges as Tati shoved the gem in and then up, toward his solar plexus, into the one space he had left to offer this honor.
And then it was done. The emerald was inside of him, nestled against what remained of his liver. Within a few days, his body would give way to the stone, allowing it to replace however much of him it saw fit. It would reshape itself. It would become him. No matter what happened to his mind, to his body, to his reputation—no one would ever be able to take this away.
His only regret was that he didn’t have more body to give up. If only he could have found some way to sprout a new organ, a fresh limb, a second spine to give over to his career. If only he could have tacked on a few more years of work.
Tati stitched up his wound. She used a second swab, this one soaked in saline, to clean him up. She taped a thick gauze pad over his side. She helped him to sit up. The pain was tremendous. His head was swimming. He couldn’t catch his breath.
The crowd erupted into applause.
“I was there when he got that one, you know. Ten years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” The new docent is tall, with a wave of red stubble covering her tattooed scalp. She’s talking to Tati in the voice that young people reserve for very old people and large dogs. “We actually talked that night. I’m sure you don’t remember.”
Tati does not remember. Then again, Tati doesn’t remember a lot about that night. It’s not that her memory is going, although everyone assumes it is because she is old now, older than she ever thought she could get. It’s not age that has made her forget this young woman. It’s just that on the night Leonard accepted the Ganymede, she’d gotten apocalyptically drunk. Most of what she remembers about that award is the hangover she’d been crushed by the next morning.
“Oh dear,” she says. “I’m sure you were wonderful to talk to.”
The redhead smiles in a way that tells Tati this is probably not true. “It was an honor just to be there,” she says smoothly. “Do you come to see him often?”
Tati nods. “Once every few months, at least,” she says. “It’s hard to get a ticket with all the tours, but I try—”
“Oh,” the redhead interrupts, her brow drawn. “Oh no. That won’t— You shouldn’t need a ticket. Wait here, I’ll arrange for you to have a permanent pass. I can’t believe nobody gave you one yet.” She’s still talking as she walks away, her stride furious. Someone, Tati thinks, is getting yelled at today.
“See?” she whispers to Leonard. “Dropping your name is still getting me VIP passes.”
He looks good. They’ve lit him well. The mortician who opened his body up did so with a single elegant incision down the center of his body, all the way from the top of his head to the apex of his groin. It’s better than the Y-cuts being sported by some of the others in this same exhibit. They reek of desperation, the bodies opened up as wide as possible to show off every little nook where a jewel might be hiding.
Leonard’s display is better. Less needy. He’s not quite as fully exposed—but the result is a fascinating sense of depth. It’s like looking at two halves of a massive geode. The awards and honors he accrued throughout his life glint tantalizingly, whether brightly lit or lurking in the shadows of his rib cage. He demands deep inspection. He deserves close attention.
His head is the best part. Tati isn’t the only one who thinks so. She’s certain that this is the reason Leonard is in the very center of the exhibit, lit by multiple carefully placed spotlights. This is what must bring all those tour groups through. This is what sets him apart from the Y-incision artists and authors and musicians around the perimeter.
That single vertical incision had cost Tati extra, but she knows she made the right choice. Leonard had put it into his will. In those last years, he’d shifted from thinking about what he could do right now, to focusing instead on his legacy. On what he might leave behind, and how it might outshine the legacies of everyone who had come before him. He’d accepted everything he could. He’d made himself into something completely unforgettable. And she’d supported him every step of the way — from the first slice into his wrist, slipping amethyst under his skin, to handing the mortician an envelope of cash to ensure that Leonard’s vision would be made manifest — all the way up to this display.
As the light strikes the shining facets inside of her late husband’s skull, it refracts, scattering a rainbow of light across the ceiling, across the floor, across Tati’s face.
She smiles, uses her sleeve to wipe the fog of her breath off the glass front of his display case.
It was all worth it. If only Leonard were here to see.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
“Such an Honor,” © Sarah Gailey, 2023.
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