1st Place, Inside Outside Southwest and Images Short Fiction Contest, 2004
Catori slept. Her afternoon nap was an almost daily ritual since the car accident. On this day, her fingers were delicately folded around a piece of broken pottery, no more than an inch wide, its shape indicative of a bowl – white on the outside, an ornate geometric black and white pattern painted gracefully on the inside.
Her sleep was heavy, weighted. She felt as if she were slipping the bounds of earth and time. She tried to wake herself, afraid of how deep the sleep might take her, how far she might actually fall. Intellectually, she knew that this type of sleep was what she needed, what her body craved, much the way an addict needed cocaine or a menstrual woman needed chocolate. But it was this suffocating sleep that she feared and fought.
She only recently began fighting sleep. The first few months after the accident she couldn’t sleep, her head felt as if it were in a ligature, pain pulsed over her crown and along her occipital nerve, behind her left eye. The burning pain in her neck and back wouldn’t allow her a moment of peace. She went through her days in a vacuous state, remembering nothing. This was followed by weeks that were nothing more than sleep. She slept continually. These days she napped once or twice a week, sometimes for 45 minutes, sometimes for two hours.
Somewhere in the distance she heard a door open and close, a heavy thud and the voices of children. Children. Yes. They were her children. Home from school. But the weight of sleep held her down, pressed her into the mattress, her eyelids too substantial to lift. She tried to open her eyes, but her brain was no longer listening, it had taken over. It was in charge and it wanted to sleep.
It was shutting down. Little by little the synapses were going out, like the stars in the sky, twinkling in one moment and imploding in upon them self into nothing. She felt it. She knew each day a few more neurons stopped firing and that she was slowly being transformed from a vibrant, living galaxy into a black hole. She would look at her children one day and not know who they were.
She knew this and she was not yet forty. She had hit her head one too many times. Slammed it into a tree while sledding, landed on it in a fall from a trampoline, another fall from a horse, and then the car accident. Who knew that the jarring back and forth motion would slam her Jello-like brain into her skull over and over and over? That it would change everything. Her life was slipping from her and hse had not fulfilled her dreams, achieved her goals. She had not published her first novel, she was not producing and selling her art, and her corporate career ended soon after the blackouts began. She did have her children. Two sons. Alien life forms who burping and farting and discussion of penises were beyond her comprehension. Yet they were her best creations.
There was squealing and the repetitive thumping of a ball being bounced against the floor. She heard the door of her bedroom open, the plodding of each of his size two footsteps. He forgot to take his shoes off and leave them at the door.
“Mom! Mom!” his seven-year-old voice released her from the captivity of her sleep. “I love you,” he said falling across her chest, his arms on either side of her. She managed to life her left arm from he bed and return his embrace.
“How was school today?”
“Good,” he said and turned and ran from the room.
He understood her afternoon naps. He was two-years-old when the accident happened. He only knew his mother as a perpetually tired woman and yet he loved her unconditionally.
She rolled over onto her side, heart elevated as she had learned in yoga and felt the shard of pottery in her right hand. She stared at it, turned it over in her palm. a Thousand years ago a woman formed the bowl with coils, smoothed it with a stone handed down from her grandmother to her mother to her, painted it with an organic paint made from Rocky Mountain Bee Plant boiled and reduced, using a fiber brush made from the chewed end of a yucca leaf, and fired it in a trench lined with sandstone, capped with a hot wood fire. Catori could see the brush strokes. Had it been a big bowl? Did someone eat out of it? Or was it used for ceremony?
Pottery was something women created. The elaborate black patterns against a white background were handed down from mother to daughter. This was what women did. They made pottery. They cooked. They raised children and they did it in a communal setting of aunts, nieces, cousins, mothers, and daughters together supporting and encouraging one another.
Catori needed women in her life. A clan of her own. It was in a communal gathering where Catori first learned to make her own pottery; a workshop in a community center where half a dozen women gathered and learned to feel the clay between their fingers. To wedge it and work it until it was soft and pliable, then form it into a ball and place it on a wheel head. Hands dipped in water; and electric motor spinning the clay beneath wet hands, fingers pressed together, palms pushing the clay into the center of the wheel. Pushing until it rose in a cylinder between her hands and she pressed it down into itself, into her palm and started over again feeling the slick wetness of the clay ooze between her fingers. She was there to relearn how to be creative. Always a writer, six months after the accident no words formed in her head. She stared at blank sheets of paper unable to form a sentence until she gave up and slept the rest of the day away.
“If I can’t write, what’s the point in living?” Catori said to one of the dozen of doctors and therapists that filled her life after the accident.
“It will come back,” the doctor promised. “Try something visual or tactile. Do something with your hands.”
That was how Catori found herself in a pottery class with other women: Rainey, Julie, Kelly, Beth. All women in their 30s and 40s, raising children, running businesses, married. The women talked while they worked, chatted about spouses and children, about friends and bosses, dreams and wishes. They discussed politics and laughed together, sipping homemade orange liqueur.
“Try forming the edge of the bowl like a piecrust,” Rainey suggested.
“Collar in the top of the vase and then flare it out,” Beth recommended.
“Sometimes I feel they don’t listen to me unless I yell at them,” Kelly said.
“I asked them to pick up their toys and when I got back the toys were still on the living room floor. I threw them out with the trash,” Julie added.
Catori observed. She listened. She copied the shape, the form, the dimensions of Rainey’s bowl. She mimicked the design Kelly stamped into the still wet clay. She realized the challenges of being a mother were not unique to her alone. She ogles over the sensuality of brown clay that turned to chocolate in her hands.
Working with clay taught her patience. It took weeks to learn to center the ball of clay, to pull open the cylinder, to rais the walls of a bowl. It took months of practice to throw bigger, wider, larger bowls. Clay is imperfect. Her work was shaped by hand, something she created with her own strength and vision.
Had women done the same thing a thousand years ago as they dug the earth, formed functional bowls, jars, mugs, and ladles? Did they talk about their husbands out tending the fields or hunting deer? Did they gossip about the family living on the next mesa or up the adjacent canyon? Did they brag about how well their son played a hoop game or danced at ceremony? Did they show off their daughter’s first piece of pottery? Did they share their pigments? Dig clay together? Did they show each other how they painted each stripe, angle, and pattern? They created priceless works of art everyday. Pottery traded for beads and seeds and things from lands far away. Elaborate black on white patterns reflecting the tapestry of the stars in the sky, the path of the moon–an offering to their god. It was Rainey who gave Catori the pottery shard in her hand and another natural clay piece that looked like a woven basket. Tiny indentations made with a fingernail the same size, the exact curve of Catori’s own pinky fingernail. they came from Rainey’s mother’s home near Cortez, Colorado.
It was sacred, the pottery shard Catori held in her hand; an ancient woman’s form of worship. She felt connected to the past through it. By holding it in her hand the purpose of art became clearer. Art didn’t have to be distant, something intellectual and ethereal, the aesthetic of which was debated on college campuses and in New York lofts. Art was supposed to be something created everyday. Art was living. Living was art. Something formed and shaped, one coil at a time, smoothed, centered, built. Walls were formed with even pressure that forced the clay to reach upward, the potter’s fingers acting as guides. The clay was not citrus until fired, the glaze did not shimmer until heated.
It was time to restructure her dreams, rewrite her goals. Writing wasn’t about publishing. Her sculpting and pottery weren’t about galleries in Santa Fe or reviews in Southwest Art. She was alive. She could write again and she had been given the gift of pottery. She was blessed.
Catori climbed out of bed, replaced the pottery shard in her sacred ritual bowl–one of the first pieces of pottery she ever made. It was turquoise in color, a broken rim all jagged like arroyos and cliffs and in it she had gathered things of meaning and value to remind her. Sage from New Mexico, a piece of brightly colored wool, a raven’s feather all gathered during a week of creative exploration, a mudra goddess made out of clay purchased from another woman potter, love notes from her husband. Rocks and crystal from her sons; a foil candy wrapped imprinted with “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
She went to the garage and sat down at her pottery wheel and felt the clay slip beneath her fingers.
Submission were evaluated by the Images Staff. Images is the literary arts organization at Fort Lewis College, a nonprofit publisher of unknown poets, writers and artists. Special thanks to Maria’s Bookstore and Durango Mountain Resort for providing the contest prizes.