Jess leans over the potter’s wheel, as his mother instructs. Brace elbows on knees, place both hands around the clay. Press foot slowly on the pedal and start the wheel spinning. Now. Force the clay into the very center. You’ll know it’s there when it’s perfectly smooth. Not smooth as in un-gritty. It’s still gritty. It’s terra cotta—Jess is a child, he’s using inexpensive material, not the porcelain his mother uses. So. Smooth as in spinning perfectly within the hands.
Jess strains with the effort; he is not often allowed in the studio. But the clay has its own mind and goes everywhere but the center. Slightly below, slightly above. His heart races. The skin on his hands is raw. It will be a long time before he’s invited back.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ his mother mutters.
Rachel’s irritation smacks Jess across the face. He wipes his tear and smears clay on his cheek.
Jess’s memory of that afternoon is from the vantage of a ghost in the corner, except the end, when he is back in his child-body. He regards his present-day afternoon, his beautiful, enormous studio with a darkroom at the back and a little kitchen to the left where later he will prepare a snack for the twelve middle-schoolers he is teaching today. Fundamentals of Photography is a weekend workshop that supplements his salary as a wedding photographer. His mother scoffed at both photography and weddings, of course, as she did the classes he taught. Those who can’t—she reminded him periodically. He never retorted that at least he could pay his rent on time, unlike her. Or that he was in demand for his services, unlike her. Or that everyone has the right to pursue a creative life, that it’s natural to want one, that to create is human, so fuck off. That’s the real bitch of being raised by a frustrated artist who could be violent and frightening. Eventually you understand they too are suffering. Eventually you worry you will become them. Jess returns his thoughts to the present. Please, God, let me leave no marks.
‘Valerie, watch your light,’ he shouts across the room. ‘You’re casting a shadow.’
She looks up, looks to her still life of tulips, moves. ‘Sorry!’
‘No time for sorry,’ he says. It turns his stomach to raise his voice. ‘Focus on the picture. Pun intended.’
These tiny artists are his hatchlings and someday they will fly into the world and be free.
The power cuts. The spinning clay halts. And then, an alarm. The kiln is cool enough to open and Rachel is luminous with expectation. She dons thick gloves and takes up long-handled iron tongs. She approaches the brick gas-fired monster standing floor to ceiling and pulls out the key brick, jutting out at the top. Then the next. The scalding air ripples into the room and bends around the little boy, who has crept up to watch. She is a red goddess and he is nothing. More bricks come down, a painstaking task. The boy reaches towards one; it’s too hot to get even five inches away. Finally, finally, the bricks are low enough and Rachel scrabbles at them with her gloved hands. She peers inside. Scrutiny. Then disappointment.
Rachel uses the tongs to withdraw a large urn. To the boy it’s as beautiful as a miracle, tall and perfect. He would give anything to make such poetry. But he is only seven. What could he give?
Rachel clicks her tongue and sets the urn on the counter. Another piece comes out. A platter glazed with soft pink. That one Rachel drops on the ground like dirty clothes. Lightning bolts across the surface. A series of delicate tea bowls. They get the same treatment. On and on, each piece receiving a harsher sentence, until the last ones are flung against the wall. The kiln is empty. The little boy is weeping. Rachel looks at him sharply. ‘What are you doing here?’ Her voice is the threat of punishment and the punishment itself. She leans into his face and asks again.
Throwing pots: the term for using a potter’s wheel to make a vessel. Jess has turned that phrase over and over in his mind for the last thirty years. Its edges are rounder. But it still draws blood.
Valerie has removed the tulips from the vase and thrown them on the floor in a heap. Oh no. She is crouching next to them. Jess cannot see her face. The lamp is on its side. No. It casts a halo around the mess. Jess approaches. He has encouragement to offer, a gentle word, a hug, commiseration. Before he can speak Valerie looks up with bright excitement. ‘Can you hold your hand over the bulb with your fingers spread out? I have an idea.’ He does and lines of dark and light fall on the crisscrossed stems like oracle bones, an ancient pattern calling forth some new future. ‘Perfect, yeah,’ she says. ‘So cool.’ She crouches at his feet. ‘I love this class.’ She takes the shot.
WHITNEY CURRY WIMBISH is an American writer in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by Barren Magazine, MIROnline, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, has received honourable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions, and is forthcoming in Great River Review. Her reportage/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review. Whitney holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School and can be found on Twitter at @whitneycwimbish