Hollow by Amy McNamara | flash fiction | #thesideshow

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The last thing in the box is a misshapen glob of glazed, fired clay. She sets down her glass gently, careful not to misjudge the distance to the counter and slosh the contents, and picks up the object. When the clear afternoon light falls on the cracked translucence of the glaze—uneven over folds pinched by small fingers; mustard-yellow with a few quick brushstrokes of olive picking out the sharper, crumbly edges at the top—she is taken with its rough beauty: it reveals itself as a fat yellow gourd, slumped and flattened under its own weight as it grew summer-long in damp shadowed secrecy under its canopy of broad, prickled leaves, drips of green standing for curled tendrils and sliced stem, and the impression is so vivid that when the boy turns it in her hands to show the secret interior, she is not surprised by the sunless pale cream of unglazed clay, the hidden cavity bored by insects and rot. It nestles heavily in the hollow of her curved fingers. His name is neatly toothpick-scratched in an adult’s hand.

“You need to make things hollow,” the boy explains with new-found authority, “or else they explode in the kiln. It needs to be all the same thickness.”

He shows her the rough troughs of fingernail scrapes inside, and turns up to her, smiling confidently, waiting for her reaction. She looks in wonder from the glow of pride in his face to this small object, a minute record of care and attention preserved in hardened clay. She cannot fathom how the unformed clay of the infant she held, her child’s child, has grown to this: a knower of techniques, a creator of things.

She sets the mustardy lump on the counter, next to the glass, and reaches to hug him. “It’s beautiful,” she says, because she knows that you cannot say “I see in this the man that you will become.” She knows to choose her words carefully around these small beings; they are so easily frightened or—worse—bored, and then their faces close, their eyes turn down. So she chooses her words carefully, and tells him, simply, “It’s beautiful.”

But his face has clouded. What mistake has she made? She casts back: which words has she said? Has she chosen the right ones from the jumbled current of her thoughts? Then she understands. It was not the words at all.

“Why did you put it upside down?” the boy asks. He shrugs free and reaches to correct it. He sets the unfired side uppermost; it wobbles once on the pinched green stem, and the gourd is gone, replaced by a squat and childish bowl.

She looks from the boy, to the bowl, to the boy again. The pride has not left his face. This is what he meant to make, this was his creation, and it has transformed in an instant back into a misshapen glob of clay. She knows that she must not insist. She insists.

She turns the bowl over and the gourd returns, though now in place of joyous expressionism she sees clumsiness. She makes her voice light, fighting the dark temper that is gathering in her.

“Don’t you like it better this way? It’s a squash, do you see?”

He does not see. “No, it’s a pot. You can put things in it. It’s for you.”

This time, when he turns his face up to her, it is closed. She feels, as if it were her own, the disappointment squirming in his belly, and it feeds her darkness.

“It’s lovely, thank you,” she says, her too-even tone giving the lie to the words, and then he is gone: she has said the wrong thing, and the little creature has flitted away, back to his parents sitting talking with the other guests in the next room, as they always flit away, taking their light and their life along with them, leaving her alone, uselessly yearning after.

Amy McNamara lives and writes in Seattle. She has a recurring dream in which she speaks at length about a subject she knows well to someone who is sincerely interested in what she has to say. Ongoing documentation can be found at acmcnamara.com.