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April 2024

Fiction

by Karris Rae

The Woman From Somewhere

         “Can I use my capstone project from last semester?” 

          “We never improve by recycling our work. This shade captures the essence of the region. Its organic beauty challenges the dominant narrative of the Rust Belt…shuttered warehouses, high school dropouts, and such.” He pauses. “You were born there, right?” 

          “Yeah.” Her gray eyes are shale—fragile, brittle. 

          “You’re the perfect candidate for the artist spotlight. Girl and clay, born beside the same river…authentic Ohio folk art. Sketch me a few ideas before class tomorrow and we’ll talk.” 

          He leaves. As his footsteps fade, she sets me back on the shelf. Her fingers press into my plastic skin, incidentally at first, and then probing. “Guess I can still clean y’up today,” she murmurs, and she pulls me back into her arms. “‘Artist spotlight,’ whatever. In a gallery, everyone’ll like you but no one’ll love you.”  

          She bounces me in her arms, so subtly that I’m not sure that she’s aware of it. 

          “But I love you. D’you know why?” 

          I don’t. I know a lot about the world, but her interior is as opaque to me as the planet’s interior is to her.  

          “You remind me of my gramma’s old mortar and pestle. The color, I mean. She’s the first to grow up in Ohio, but she was born in Ireland. Used to say, further away from Ireland she got, more Irish she was.”  

          Sabrina carries me into a tiled room. Her voice drops to barely a whisper as she turns on the spigot on the wall, filling a paint-spattered bucket.  

          “Just started cooking for myself. To make food like hers, I need a mortar and pestle like hers. S’that okay? Or maybe he’s right, maybe that’s a waste. But…if you were a mortar and pestle, you’d smell lovely all the time. Gramma ground everything fresh. Pre-ground spices all taste like dust, fresh tastes like seeds and leaves.” I imagine being her tool—two halves working in tandem, a post gripped tight in her warm hand, releasing the healing essences of herbs.   

          A faint smile curves her lips, not the sparkling one she flashed at the professor. She thinks no one will ever know about it. It is beautiful. 

§ 

          After purification and agitation, I lay in the bucket, stretched and suspended in murky water, for several days. Sunlight comes and goes, comes and goes from the one high, narrow window. 

          Now Sabrina kneels at my side, pressing her fingers into my softened body as if to remind me that she promised to make me, and intends to follow through. As soon as we touch, she feels like an extension of me. She pushes harder, deep, all the way through, penetrating to my core. Smiling as I squeeze between her fingers. Sabrina removes her arm. She digs grit out of the grooves around her nails. 

          “That’s it,” she says. “Just like that.” 

          She ties the corners of the cloth and hangs me from a hook in the storeroom ceiling, the bucket below. Each drop that falls echoes around the orange plastic walls. I realize it’s not one ultimate form she wants me to take, but a series of them—wet, more wet, less wet. Dancing in the river. 

          Light comes and goes. 

          Sabrina wrings me out over the utility sink, and then we go to a new room. This space is full of people, mostly young, some older. I marvel at all the intent motion contained in this one room. Lives colliding and conforming. Each a recombination of elements that came before, mixing, flowing, hardening, fracturing, metamorphosing. Becoming and unbecoming.  

          Sabrina sets me on a linoleum-topped worktable. She digs me out of the cloth, wincing needlessly on my behalf. “Sorry,” she whispers. 

          A blond young man working across the table hears this and grins. “Does the clay…ever talk back?” he asks. He’s toiling over his own lump of clay, breathing rhythmically like gentle, sighing waves.  

          Sabrina smiles, rolls me between her hands. “Not like you think.” 

          Then she pushes all her weight into me, flattening me against the linoleum. Her manipulation is forceful and relentless; I understand now why the man sweats. I’m cold and stiff, unable to anticipate her movements. She holds some shape in her mind that I’m not taking. 

          “Then why…talk to it at all?” 

          “Man, I’ve heard you cuss a storm at the potting wheel. D’you want it to apologize for being old and cheap?” 

          He stops to wipe his temple with his forearm. “Bri.” Bri. “That’s different. The potting wheel just stands for everyone I want to yell at. But then I’d feel bad for being mean.” 

          “Maybe it’s not so different, then.” They both smile to themselves.  

          Soon they’re flowing in tandem, her rhythm coming to match his. Together they push, pull, breathe, push, pull, breathe—two pebbles who’ve shared a riverbed for ages, displaced by the same violent currents. Occasionally, she whispers to me: “Hang in there,” “Almost done,” “There ya go.” I don’t need it, but I imagine if she were on the wedging board, she would. 

          The man sets aside one lump of clay and unbags another. His material is an exotic shade of blue, brought here from far away. Maybe he is, too; he speaks with a strange wind, different even from the professor’s. But Bri looks at him like he’s made out of the same stuff she is. 

          I wonder whether the craggy professor tells him what his clay is allowed to become. 

          I warm, and I loosen. I’m beginning to understand that my task is to flow, not hold. I surrender to the ancient rhythm they’re beating into the table. After some time, Bri cuts me in half with a wire. It bites sharp and swift. With one half cupped in each hand, she inspects my insides, which have now become my outsides. Then I’m reunited and placed in a fresh bag. I feel whole, marred by not even air bubbles.  

          She retrieves another tied bundle from (presumably) the storeroom and begins on a new mass of clay. Then another. As the sunlight fades, other students pack their supplies and leave. Now only Bri, the man, and the supervisor remain.  

          As Bri finishes the last chunk, she adds it to the pile she’s amassed on the worktable. “There,” she says breathlessly, hands on her hips. 

          The man looks up. “Good, now you can help me.” His pile is much smaller. Already the mound under his hands is past done, but he still wedges away, postponing the act of creation.  

          “Uh-huh, and if I help you, are you gonna make ‘authentic Ohio folk art’ for me?” She curls her fingers in the air around the phrase. “Ya Hoosier?”  

          “I’m not a real Hoosier, I’ve moved around too much to be anything.” The Man from Nowhere sighs. “I can’t make authentic anything from anywhere.” 

          “Better figure it out. There’re enough hapless artists as it is,” Sabrina says. 

          He barks with rough laughter. I sense tension in some buried fault line here. After bagging another hunk of clay, he wheels a cart over from the wall. Loads up the bags. Sets off toward the storeroom. Bri, anticipating a struggle with the door, opens it for him, guides the cart through, and returns to the table. While he’s gone, Bri pokes me, making pits and then kneading them smooth again. 

          “Screw it, I’m gonna take off,” the man says as he returns with the cart. 

          “‘Kay, see you for studio hours Friday?” 

          “Actually, no. Dr. Ott said another professor’s subbing for her.” 

          “Uh-huh, and?” 

          “And, I tend to get more done when someone isn't breathing down my neck.” He slings a bag over his shoulder and leaves. “I’ll be back when Ott comes back.” 

          Bri’s prodding is now insistent, anxious, even. One at a time, she hefts her own bags of wedged clay onto the cart, every one except mine, and then she too disappears. She returns with tools and unzips my bag. Her fingers creep down the damp plastic toward me, as if reaching for a handhold in a dark cave. I cling to her as she pulls me out.  

          “You ready? This isn’t gonna—well, I dunno if this is gonna hurt, I guess.” She grimaces. “I’ve never been sculpted before. But if it’s not too much to ask…maybe it’ll be beautiful.” 

          The tabletop is smooth and cool, like me. Bri massages me into it with the heels of her hands. Using the cutting wire, Bri lops off a third of me and replaces it in the bag.  

          “Fuck ‘authentic,’ let’s make something real.” 

          She rolls up the remaining two-thirds, tossing it between her hands as she walks to an electronic device with a circular top.  

          “And fuck Dr. Aguilar’s gallery.”  

          She drives me into the flat top with surprising force. I become a still-life of dynamic impact—thin at the edges and thick in the middle like a droplet frozen as it falls into a pond. She peels me off, dashes me into the surface again. Again. Again. Each time with surprising velocity. Each with a thwack that shakes the professor’s snores out of rhythm. I have felt great shocks of all kinds, diffused through miles of earth in all directions. But never one meant only for me. 

          She checks for air again. Smiles. “Fabulous. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’ve done this before.” 

          With the flick of a switch, the top of the device begins to rotate. Bri cups her hands around me as I spin, leaving grooves that match the spaces between her knuckles. 

          It is the transformative joy of erosion without the passage of time. Bri tilts her open palm and I become smooth. She drags one finger along my edge like a child’s finger trailing in a rushing brook and I bend to match. Together, we make something out of me. I know from her furrowed brow that it’s not quite the right thing. With one hand she rounds me back into a lump. 

          “Too thin,” she whispers. “Too thin and you’ll break. Too thick and you’ll break, and too-too thick and you’ll explode. We can’t have that.”  

          She reforms me again and again. When she finally finds the right form, I know immediately, because she smiles to herself as it comes true. I become a dish—not too thin and not too thick, built to last. Besides a single groove Bri etches with her pinky nail, I’m plain. 

          “Think I’ll just give you a clear glaze and some white in those stripes,” Bri says. “That way your color’ll really come through. D’you feel okay?” 

          I sit silently on her still wheel, hoping she senses that yes, yes I do

          Back in the storeroom, surrounded by half-formed things, I dream of plants I’ve nourished and loved: sassafras, dandelion, ramps, Queen Anne’s lace, chickweed. Their oils soak into my pores, my own green darkened by chlorophyll. 

          When Bri returns for me, the bridge between her forehead and nose is notched. I worry that she’ll crack open from the force of her heavy footfalls. She touches her fingertips to me and then stands there as if afraid I’ll melt back into river mud under her hands. 

          “He was right,” she says. “Ott’s out. It’s Aguilar today. I could leave, but I need to finish up before you’re due…” 

          She carries me on a tray alongside blunt tools, back to the room of making. I’m firm enough now that I rattle against the plastic. I realize she’s shaking.  

          And there’s Aguilar, the professor with sandstone skin. He sits at the desk, ostensibly reading, but his eyes follow Bri as she crosses the room. She sets me down on the same table she and her companion shared days ago. Aguilar puts his book aside and rises. Bri pretends not to notice, bowing her head as she rips a plastic bag open. My remaining third—the incipient pestle—lies inside. But he’s coming whether she looks or not. 

          “Glad you could join us this afternoon, Sabrina,” he says.  

          “Hey.” 

          “I just wanted to touch base about your gallery project, since it’s been a few days.” His gaze slides down to the open bag. Then he sees me, the bowl. “I see that you decided not to follow my advice, after all.” 

          “Yeah, I, uhm. Just went with my instincts, I guess.”  

          “I won’t tell you what you can and can’t do.” His tone is measured. “But I will say that I think you’re passing up a genuine opportunity.” 

          “Why’s it have to be this clay? I went to the Cuyahoga River for this.” 

          “Because I want to give you every opportunity to make your mark. Listen, Sabrina. I go through a lot of application packets, every single year. But I remember yours because you spoke so passionately about showing the world what a girl from Mogadore can do. Remember?” 

          “Yes,” Bri says quietly. 

          “You’re right, you could use whatever material you want. God, the fact that you collected it yourself is already a testament to your commitment to represent your community the right way.” He shifts his weight to the other foot. “Forget the gallery. What I want most is to help you align your priorities with your goals. You want to be a real artist, yes?” 

          “Yeah.” All shale, ready to splinter. 

          “Real artists make real things.” 

          Students at surrounding tables have noticed that Bri teeters on the edge of tears. They speak a little too loudly, considering how close they are. 

          “This clay was meant for wonderful things, and so are you. But for either of you to reach your potential, you have to push yourself. If you want to be the champion of your hometown, you have to do heroic things.” 

          Bri swallows. “Wha’do I do with this, then?” she asks. 

          “Clay is the most human medium,” Aguilar says. “Not like paint, which takes permanent form almost as soon as the artist imagines it. Not smoky like words, wafting around the artist’s fingers but never firmly in her grasp. As long as clay hasn’t been fired, it can be remade as many times as the creator needs.” 

          “And what’s it mean when a person gets ‘fired’?” 

          Aguilar smiles broadly. “When they decide their current form is ‘good enough.’ Ironically, it’s the only thing that truly prevents one from becoming better.” 

          I don’t want this, to be pushed into becoming bigger and grander until I have nothing to do with the stream from which I was lifted.  

          “So I should just…remold it.” 

          “It is that easy.” 

          Bri looks at me, sheltered under her hands. I’ve been sitting on the shelf waiting for her, pleased with my shape and allowing the air to harden it. She looks up to her professor. He nods sagely. Please don’t, I want to say in her language of wind. I’ve heard of stones with fortuitously placed holes who can whistle their thoughts. But she’s pressed all the air out and I can say nothing. 

          Don’t

          Bri takes a deep breath, digs her nails into me, and wrenches me in opposite directions. I crumble and break along the fault line, dry, fracturing like the tiles of a parched riverbed, armored plates buckling, shards falling to the table and beyond, pulverized against the floor. Hairline cracks appear in my sides, aching, raw, exposed, parts that I’ve come to think of as my insides failing to become my outsides again. It’s still moist under my hardened skin and the cool air needles between the wide, tender cracks. 

          Bri takes all my broken pieces, including the mangled pestle and the bits on the floor, and puts them in a pile on the table. She does not collect them all. I can’t stifle the thought: I will never be quite whole again. She dips her hands into the bowl of slip at her work station. 

          “Is this gonna be enough water?” she asks. There’s iron, now, where shale once was.  

          “Probably not, no,” Aguilar says. “I’ll get you a spray bottle. Try not to drown it, though, that gallery deadline is coming up fast.” 

          “Okay.” 

          Bri rolls the heel of her hand over the broken pieces. They—we—grind and crumble against each other silently, refusing to mend, remembering all that we’ve lost. Even when Bri coaxes us into melding, large air pockets hold us apart under our shared skin. The sprayed water helps us bind together, but not by much. Bri stops short of drowning me by a hair’s breadth. Inside, air bubbles with oozing walls shift uncomfortably, as if worms wiggle between us.  

          Then thwack, into the table, not exhilarating but core-rattling. Thwack. Thwack. With genuine anger that travels from her face to her arm and I know it’s genuine because it’s meant only for me to see—not something revealed but something slipped. Some of the worms squirm to the surface, but most still writhe under our skin. 

Aguilar returns to his desk. 

           “I’m sorry,” Bri murmurs. Her voice is as gentle as her touch once was. “He’s right, though. Gramma didn’t pay my tuition so I could make stuff I can buy at the dollar store.” 

          Thwack. Bri doesn’t cut me with the wire this time. 

          “It was selfish to keep you to myself. I don’t want to be a sculptor so I can make things I want. I’m supposed to show the world we’re worth their time.” 

          She leaves me ravaged on the table while she digs in her backpack for a notebook. She rifles through the pages violently.  

          “What would an Ohioan make?”  

          She sighs. 

          This, I want to tell her, still furrowed by the imprints of her wrathful, driving fingers. Anything made by you. 

          Mid-rifle, she freezes as if she’s heard me. She tilts her head, lips working as she studies the page. She nods and lays the book on the table so she can see it as she works. I don’t understand the sketched shapes there. It has many pieces—all sharp angles and flat surfaces. Seemingly constructed more by machine than human.  

          Has she forgotten how her fingers flowed over and through me? Did she ever feel, as I did, that we were two halves of the same animated sculpture? 

          She tears lobes off me, sets them aside. Lays one flat on the countertop. Digs in a drawer underneath and reappears brandishing a rolling pin, a ruler, and a blunt knife.  

          “D’you know why I need a mortar and pestle? Like, why I can’t just use hers? Because they fucking threw it in the trash. Gave me the jewelry, but trashed the only thing I wanted.” 

          She kneads half-heartedly at unbound seams, giving up when they don’t immediately fuse. Shrouds me with parchment paper as if she doesn’t want to watch what’s about to happen. Then she rolls the wooden pin over me, erasing her own fingerprints. Organic curve becomes dimensionless. I fit in no hand now. 

          “Kept telling me she’d want me to have the stupid jewelry, ‘What d’you mean you’re selling it?’” Bri adopts a mocking voice and tilts her head back and forth. “Well, it’s not like any of them were jumping to pay for my degree.” 

          She rolls. My brittle edges spread and split open, extended beyond integrity. The air-worms stretch long and thin inside; the pin smooths the weak creases on the surface but leaves me fragile within. 

          “They kept saying she loved me, she was proud of me, like I didn’t know that already. Like I’d ever doubted it, just ‘cause she didn’t say the words. And the funny thing . . .” 

          Bri picks me up, turns me over. Rolls, rolls. With her knife, she excises the worst of the ragged verge. The dull blade tears as much as slices. 

          “The funny thing is, everything they said she was proud of me for achieving—every fucking one—made me less like her. Like it was good I turned out different.” 

Slippery fingers seize the edges, now bleeding with slip. They stroke without love, gliding cruelly over tender crevices. 

          “People should learn to shut their goddamn mouths.” 

          Bri sets this aside. Rips more pieces apart, creating separation in spaces that should be closed. She beats the trimmed edges back into me, as if it’s so easy to make this part of that. It used to be easy, but it’s not anymore. Once pressed and baked by mother earth, stones do not change shape but with violence. And once broken open, their wounds do not close. I don’t understand what I did to earn her hatred. I thought we were made of the same riverstuff, kept young and malleable by the same rains. 

          I wonder…when the air-worms devour me, when the moisture and air expands and I explode in the heat of the kiln…I wonder if Bri will hold my hot shards in her hands and have the courage to say it was an accident. Or if she will repurpose my corpse as a metaphor for something even she does not believe. 

(continued)

Karris_headshot_edited.jpg
Karris Rae
Louisiana, USA

Karris Rae is a fiction MFA/MA candidate at McNeese State University. She is also a reader for The McNeese Review and an assistant editor for Boudin. Her work has appeared in Metaphorosis Magazine, Reápparition Journal, The Chamber Magazine, The
NoSleep Podcast
, and Free Flash Fiction, and is forthcoming in 50 Give or Take, Fourth
Genre Magazine
, and Gargoyle Online.

I wrote this in my dad’s ICU room, waiting to see how his coma would end. I was thinking about the time I’d sacrificed to attend my MFA program, 1,290 miles away from home—and about family, art, and origin. 

karrisrae.com 

 kraemccollum@gmail.com

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