You are reading an archived issue of Sleet Magazine. To return to the current issue, click here.

Volume 2 Number 1 • Spring 2010

Lauren Markham

Ballerina Made of Mud

In his studio, a shed off the pump house, figures of heavy people dry on the shelves. In the cove below the house he and Nonnie built, there is water only half of the time. The rest of the time, just mud and veins of clay working their way through it.

He has found that this clay can be sculpted into bodies, that with the right touch, it can harden to still look soft and breathing. Bo sculpts rolls of fat coming down from his clay peoples' chins, curls his wooden tool and then his finger over their necks.

“How'r your fatties doing out there?” Nonnie says to him now and again, motioning her chin toward his shed.

“Growing,” he says back, and she laughs.

They've come to this island each summer since they were first married and this summer could be Nonnie's last. He sometimes looks at her falling off of herself, caved into herself, and hopes so. He carries the shame of this thought with him to his shed and squeezes it out through his hands and into the thick figures and then places them on the shelves to dry.

“You ever going to sculpt me?” she asks.

He's tried to sculpt Nonnie, but she's too small. Every day she gets smaller, while aging seems to make his hands and body swell. To make a Nonnie, he'd need fingers like hers—thin, long—so he wouldn't snap her clay limbs like mackerel bones. The mud-clay holds weight and is best for bigger, denser things. More lasting, he thinks again, and feels hungry.

At Moody's, Bo takes notes on corpulence. He goes there mornings before Nonnie wakes up and eats food she would call bad for him: fried eggs, hash browns, corned beef. He feels over these summer months his own belly begin to fill, his arms wiggling when he walks. He stares at his bare legs when he sits on the toilet and notes how they bulge now against the seat. Breakfast, Bo thinks as he sounds out the word on the menu, breaking the fast of the last night's quiet. Bo goes to Moody's because of the sounds of cleared plates clanking, bacon frying, coffee cups set down on the counter, the heavy waitress taking orders. When he's alone at the edge of the counter he watches other people while bent over his plate. This helps him with his work. He watches the way the big ones steady themselves on the barstools, their fat falling over their waist belts like reams of fabric bunched then folded. He thinks of Nonnie's slight frame, the way he could shift her beneath him and above him with his hands. She'd stayed so small, like a bird. Unlike Nonnie, the women at Moody's insist upon taking up space in the world. He imagines they are clay in his hands, that he is smoothing their jowls, thumbing down the bumps of their spines. He'd make barstools for them to sit on, and a long slick counter, so they could look down at him and call out their tall orders from up there on his shelves.

He wakes up early to go to Moody's by boat, paddling first so Nonnie won't hear. Lately, she seems not to notice him leaving the bed and fills his space with a fragile limb as he steals out. Since the diagnosis, she's slept harder and deeper but he is quiet still out of courtesy and habit. Sometimes, when the early morning tide is too low, he has to drag the boat through the mud. He doesn't mind this so much, anymore. Barefoot, Bo pulls the skiff until it floats. He leaves footprints of mud on the off-white interior once he's hoisted himself in. By the time he's back from breakfast, the tide is up enough for him to bring the boat in, and Nonnie is still in bed.

“Good morning,” he says to Nonnie when he comes inside.

“A beautiful one,” she says, also out of courtesy and of habit, he knows. She turns over to her side of the bed to face the window overlooking their garden. He leaves her a cup of tea cooling at the bedside and moves along upon his day with an awareness of her hovering above him like a summer storm, electric and about to release.

How the shelves fill up! He builds new shelves and goes out often to the veins to dig up more clay. The mud gulps when he steps across it, a sound like a knife sharpening when he slides in the shovel, presses it down with his foot. He knows he's hit a deep clay vein when the shovel makes no sound at all. There, he can hear the layered voices of those he's yet to sculpt and if he closes his eyes, he can begin to untangle one from the others, imagining how each will give way to itself in his hands. Bo stores the clay in hunks wrapped in plastic, kept cool in a dug-out beneath his shed. It's best to only work with one small piece at a time because with too much handling, the clay will desiccate. He keeps his hands slick with a bowl of fresh water and works through the days.

Digging for clay makes him sweat. It's where he gets his exercise, something of which Nonnie approves. When he's out at the veins, he notices that the clay smells metallic and always the same, while the mud stinks variably from all the different things that die there and decompose. But once the ten foot tide is up—eleven, at full moon—you don't smell a thing. The mud bottom is hidden, the mussel shelves too are hidden, and the brown seaweed hides beneath the shoreline like unwanted hair. Nonnie used to paint watercolors of high tide and these paintings hang silent on their walls like Bo's figures on his shed shelves after he's shut the door. This rocky shore, he thinks, the white of the stones, the green pines and their living mint smell, are all held together at the bottom with mud.

“Hold it!” Nonnie would scold him from the garden as he trekked from the dock with his pants rolled up, mud thick between his toes. She'd aim her garden hose at him and grin. “You wash those feet before you step into my house.” These old things are things he thinks of while working away at a clay figure's body.

The morning light casts its way in through the small window in his studio and through a single crack between the wall planks. Bo closes his eyes and feels the clay woman shape herself in his hands. This woman is a ballerina, dancing. She wears a leotard that he imagines pink, flesh surging over and around its tightness. Her flesh is tight, substantial, without infirmity. She's up on one slippered toe, her boastful arms in the air, her plump lips pursed at the sky as though to hold her balance. He's had to worry the proportions just right so that she doesn't fall. She trembles to hold her pose, concentrating on one fixed point above those lips. Bo imagines a darkened crowd cheering her on and that is, in part, what holds her up. He sculpts concentric rolls for thighs, fold upon fold of thick reddened thigh.

When a piece is near complete, like this one, he smoothes the coarseness out of it with his sponge. He dips the sponge into the water bowl and runs it along the backsides, the legs, the protruding stomachs, the cheeks, the foreheads. To tell if a piece is surely done, Bo stares at it until his eyes fog. Turkeys are done, people are finished, Nonnie would say. The ballerina's finished but it's hard for him to put her up. Some are like that.

Last night he watched Nonnie sleeping in blue black light and imagined his clay figures with him at the edge of the bed. If we were to sculpt you, we'd walk around this island and pick up small things and paste them together with Elmers. Feathers and twigs and long dried out grasses. Pieces of your own hair to make your smile and cinch up your waist, dandelion fluff to stuff your shirt. It would be a mess. The glue would stick to our hands and unwanted pieces would adhere. We'd have to peel them apart. We'd sweat onto the small parts of you and would have to prop you against something, a mug, a lamp, to keep you standing.

But it isn't true, the things he imagined saying. Building her from nothing like this would be impossible.

If he were to sculpt Nonnie, he would have to carve her out of marble like a Bernini. Not from the bottom up, but from an exquisite block of pure white rock. He'd carve into it, removing all heaviness, trying to find within the bulk her slight frame. If he knew how to carve marble, he'd chink away piece by piece, sweating, nervous, the mess of rock on the floor beginning to outnumber in volume what was left on the stand. Yes—he'd sculpt her life-size. As he came closer to her, he'd begin to hew in smaller motions, taking away less and less each time, gently and with sharp care but with a certain cast of blame. He'd shave away the rock from her neck and from the vein that shows itself when she smiles. He'd fashion detail of her nose, her deep cheekbones, her collarbones, the clumsy knuckles of her knees. He'd get more and more precise, with each motion knowing that he was closer to breaking her. By the end, parts of Nonnie would be so slight, so delicate, they would ring like crystal. By the end, she'd be there before him, incandescent, with light through the rock, and he'd know: there's more detail there, more I can make of her, more tendons that pull in her, more angles in her face. But the fear of going too far so as to crack her would be enough to make him stop.

He'd hoist her up on his shoulders and carry her down from the shed, over the wet grass and down toward the dock. Take me to the clay, she'd say, and he'd labor through the mud to the thickest veins. There, in the clay, the weight of her would push him down until the clay reached his knees, his waist, his neck. He'd sink down, and in, through the clam canals, their shells breaking against his body. The weight of sculpted Nonnie would bury him in the clay.

Lauren Markham is a writer, educator and refugee advocate living in the Bay Area. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College, and her work has been published in The Providence Journal, Glimpse Quarterly, Two Hawks Review and Third Wednesday. She has worked with marginalized youth in the Bay Area, Uganda, El Salvador and Boston. Lauren is passionate about education and the use of art as a tool for healing and growth.

top of page
to fiction
to poetry
to flash
to irregulars
to interview