Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Potter

by Dimitrije Medenica




Sneezes leave Oliver dazed. He slips into a smock and steps into his studio where bags of clay and glaze, pots filled with jutting tools, a large oven, and a potter's wheel crowd the repurposed garage. Here is the lair of a man who dedicates every moment to art. Shapes of eclectic color and size line wire shelves, while neon lighting strips bathe the block walls with a laboratory glare. Unusual, but not unheard of for an artist in his mid-twenties, Oliver works without television, music, or radio, because he fears he will not hear his pieces tell him what they wish to be. This morning, however, Oliver's congestion clogs his ears.

"Let's spin the wheel," says Oliver. He drops clay on the tray as his foot lands on the pedal. His fingers hug the tight girth of an emerging candlestick destined for his small town church. One lanky finger dives into the clay, two others skim its surface. They blend the clay as it twirls into oblivion, spitting at the artist: he looks forward to creating a new “masterpiece." At least, that is what his pastor calls all of his pieces.

But Oliver sneezes into his clay. He sneezes so much that his foot slips off the pedal, the wheel slows to reveal the curves of a slender candlestick, and he laughs at how his sneezes form an integral part of it. Nimble hands slide along the candlestick, fashioning an enviable waistline. Then he places the work into the oven, closes the door, and turns his back to face the sink. He sneezes and ties his long black forest of hair into a ponytail.

The winter sky darkens, and as the oven light clicks, it startles his electrical wiring. On murky evenings such as this one, when the only lights are those of his atelier, the artist never feels alone because he nurtures helpless new pottery. This time, a strong connection binds him to his work, for it will replace the broken one in his beloved church.


*****


Some time later, as Oliver washes his utensils and gazes at new mounds of snow forming in his backyard, he hears the voice.

"It's hot in here!"

"Who's this?" asks Oliver, looking over his shoulder.

"It's me. I'm in here," says the voice. It is a stuffy voice, like Oliver’s tonight.

"In where? Who?"

"The candlestick, you fool. Are you going to let me out?"

Oliver kneels to face the oven window. He rubs his eyes and stares. What kind of creature would be talking from inside the oven? How would it have gotten in? That is just insane to even think about! But there is nothing other than the candlestick. So, when a bout of sneezing arrives, he welcomes it, hoping to shake off a growing flutter in his chest.

"Bless you! Now look here, Oliver, I know this is hard to get your hands on, but we're in a pickle. I'm a candlestick and you're my potter," says the voice from inside the oven.

Something cold scurries down Oliver’s neck.

He slips a glove and opens the oven, spilling waves of heat that dissipate into the cold air. Outside, an angry wind batters the window pane, and he checks the thermostat: 55 degrees Fahrenheit. So, why does he begin to sweat? Hoping to relegate the voice to his congestion or to the wind, he removes his masterpiece and places it on an adjacent table, letting it cool while he cleans his tools. Then, he mixes paints. He blows his nose, never taking his eyes off the candlestick and blaming his burgeoning cold for a hallucination. It would not be the first time, of course, but that usually happened after a few glasses of wine.

His painting turns messy: flecks splatter the walls, his smock and the candlestick, while the stubborn wind whistles and batters his window panes.

"Bad work I'm doing tonight,” says Oliver.

"That's an understatement," says the candlestick.

Oliver bends to take a closer look at his masterpiece. He turns it, flips it, his fingers sticking to the paint. Then, gathering his courage, he dares address the piece. If it answers, he will need to seek his doctor’s help, that same one who refused to prescribe anxiety medication.

“You talk?" No answer follows. "You talk?" asks Oliver, leaning over the candlestick to peer into its receptacle.

"Yes, and you're making a mess," says the candlestick.

Something wiggles at the bottom of the receptacle. Oliver sticks a finger inside the hole and his own lips prickle.

"Hey, that was really rude! Do I put myself in your mouth?" asks the candlestick.

"But, how could that be?" Oliver retrieves his finger and bites his lip.

"Ouch! Don't bite your lips, that hurt," says the candlestick.

"I'm sorry," says Oliver. "But, this doesn't make sense."

"How could what be? What doesn't make sense?"

"How can you talk?"

"I don't know, but you sneezed something into me and I came alive."

"What do you mean I sneezed and you came alive? How do you even know I sneezed on you?”

"Well, I assume you did, because you were sneezing when I came alive! Now, that’s a stupid question," says the candlestick. "But there's not only that."

"What else?" asks Oliver as he takes a step back from the table. His hand inches toward a hammer jutting from a bucket. If he smashes the candlestick and it still talks, then it is a hallucination. But if not, then what?

"You're not a wizard or even some God, you can't breathe new life into things," says the candlestick.

Oliver's fingers close on the hammer's handle, his heartbeat echoing in his fingertips, making them twitch.

"I see I got your attention."

It is so unreasonable to even answer that nasal voice, but his lips did prickle when he dipped his finger in the candlestick. Did they not?

"You didn't breathe a new life into me!"

"I didn’t?”

"No, you breathed your own life into me, so now we must share it," says the candlestick with a snort Oliver can relate to, for he snorts too.

"That's insane," says Oliver. His fingers tighten their grip on the hammer handle.

"I thought so too, but I don’t see another explanation. After all, I don't relish sharing my life with yours, and one of us has to be somewhat reasonable to get us out of this situation.”

Oliver looks at the candlestick with eyes wide open, hammer slightly raised. “That someone is you?”

"It certainly looks like I am the one with a grip on the situation. I must have gotten your logical half! By the way..."

"What now? You're going to say that everything that happens to you will happen to me?" asks Oliver.

"Probably not everything, but most things. Anyway, I would let go of that hammer--"

"How do you know I'm holding a hammer?"

"I can’t see you, but that's what I would think of doing in your place, yet I can’t guarantee what would happen to you if you smashed me. Maybe my half of your life would come back to you or maybe you’d be left with half a life? Remember, we are sharing your life!"

Oliver releases his grip on the hammer, and it falls back into the bin.

"Incidentally, sight is one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Why don't you glaze me?" asks the candlestick.

"Glaze you?"

"Your eyes are glazed, so if you glaze me then I will also see. Isn't that exciting?"

Oliver blocks his ears with his palms. He kills the lights with a knock from his elbow and scurries from the garage, head reeling with questions. Has he turned insane? What happened? Was he talking to himself? Could it be the candlestick actually talked? No, that would be ludicrous, and he did not even have a drop of alcohol! He slams the door behind him and steps up to the kitchen, but the nasal voice remains clear: "Glaze me now, I want to see!"

"Be quiet, you're not real," shouts Oliver. He turns his television on, maximizes the volume, and microwaves some ready-made ravioli.

He stuffs his mouth with the pasta, but before he can swallow it, the voice returns. "I'm cold in here, so finish with the pasta, glaze me, and you can take me to your living room." In Oliver's mouth, the pasta turns cold, very cold.

"Even if I glaze you, you'll stay on a garage shelf with my other pieces," says Oliver, trying to think. Yet, he cannot, for the endless requests from the candlestick choke him. They dry his mouth as if he was spewing those same words. Despite the heat in the living room, some 75F or so, a chill settles in Oliver’s bones. He raises the thermostat to eighty degrees, but he sneezes onto the blankets he wrapped himself in while on the couch.

"You wouldn't be so cold if you glazed me and took me to the living room," says the candlestick from the garage. Oliver shuts his eyes, switches the lights off and tries to nap, but the darkness that usually soothes him proves unbearable. The chill pricks his joints.

"Fine, I'll glaze you and bring you upstairs," says Oliver. That is insane. Maybe this conversation is all part of his burgeoning cold, or even a flu? He walks downstairs and to the garage, turning on all his lights to their brightest, shivering and wrapped in his blanket. Then, as the glaze dries in its kiln, he endures another bout of whining, his mouth dry from words he never pronounces. His ears ache, while his skin sizzles from heat that makes him feel as he did when last burnt on a summer vacation. So, he tosses his blanket on a chair. He checks his watch and scratches. The time is ripe for rescuing his work from the oven and bringing it upstairs. "I'm itchy," says Oliver, "probably from so much heat and sweat!"

"I'd say so. The glazing's nice, but it's kind of itchy underneath, and it was so hot in the oven," says the candlestick.

"It's funny, we kind of look alike, you and me," says Oliver. He stares at his bare arms. They are full of paint blotches mixed with sweat, while his scratching turns blood and perspiration into a personal mud.

"The perfect couple," says Oliver's work of art. "You're glazed and ugly just like I am." It giggles.

"That's not funny," says Oliver.

"Sure, we've got to laugh, otherwise life would be a bitter concoction."

"This sweating won't stop, I'm itchy, and I'm going to take a shower," says Oliver. "Just shut up!" He takes the candlestick to his dining room and places it on a shelf facing the living room. After that, he swallows the stairs to his bedroom, slams the door and dives into his shower. When he emerges, the sweat returns. He tries to remain calm and sticks a thermometer under his tongue. The device turns red. Donning sweat pants and a T-shirt, plagued by a lingering headache, he wobbles downstairs to watch the candlestick glisten under his chandelier.

"You know, I won't glisten if you switch your chandelier off," says the candlestick.

"Leave me alone," says Oliver, whisking hair strands that cling to his neck, contorting to scratch the middle of his back.

"You'll stop sweating if I don't glisten! Stop scratching, it's driving me nuts. You can't imagine what it's like to be itchy and have no hands to scratch with. Turn that light off!"

Oliver obeys.

"Hey, Oliver?"

"What?"

"Scratch my base, will you?"

"Are you serious?"

"Yes, you're making me itchy."

Oliver lifts the art piece, scratches its bottom and places it back on the shelf. Then his sweating stops and he climbs to his bedroom.


*****


In the morning, Oliver’s stomach growls. He pulls his curtains to see mounds of snow and, hearing no voice from downstairs, he dares deem himself free of an evening's folly. He tiptoes to the kitchen, prepares a breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and bacon. But upon finishing his breakfast and sitting at the kitchen counter, his stomach growls.

"Good morning, Oliver," says a nasal voice from the dining room shelf. "I'm hungry."
"Leave me alone, I hoped you weren't real," says Oliver. But since his sinuses have eased their grip overnight and he stopped sweating, he asks, "What do you need?"

"Aren't you still hungry?"

"Kind of, but I'm full and my stomach's still growling. What are you trying to say?" asks Oliver.

"I haven't eaten, so I'm starving," says the candlestick.

"You don't eat. You just don't eat!"

"Suit yourself, but sticking a lit candle into me would go a long way."

"Why?"

"Because I need some wax to melt, fill me with yummy energy, and then you'll feel better too. Do I have to explain everything? Hello there, anybody home? We share a life."

"Fine," says Oliver, resigned. He lights a narrow candle and sticks it in the hole.

"Thank you, wasn't so hard, was it?"

"I guess not," says Oliver. His stomach cramps lessen immediately and his hunger leaves. Of course, the candlestick spends a considerable time convincing Oliver to wipe the excess wax from its bottom after the candle has waned. That is after Oliver has made multiple trips to the bathroom.

So it goes for a week. The artist follows the candlestick’s bouts of caprice and feels better, but he grows tired of such a burdensome relationship, one that he qualifies as somewhat abusive. Not to mention that it is a relationship he would have difficulty explaining to anyone! He longs to gift the candlestick to his church, hoping that a place on the altar would suit his tormentor. Maybe a good talk with his pastor will ease his torment? Yet, he also fears that distance in this new relationship will not solve his troubles, for the voice follows him even outside his house.


*****


On a cold Sunday morning and under a shy sun, Oliver walks to his church, a package under his arm. In it lies the carefully wrapped candlestick, although Oliver did leave a bit of the candlestick unwrapped. Despite the sunlight, Oliver threads with care. Each step into the sidewalk’s powdery snow is tentative, for shadows seem plentiful this morning. Over his eyes lays a veil and he thinks he knows why.

When at the small town church, Oliver climbs the steps, clinging to the handrail. Although clear of snow, the grayness blends steps into one another. He finds the closest pew by patting his surroundings in semidarkness despite the shafts of sunlight. After that, he breathes and removes the lid to unwrap his work of art. The nave brightens, the shafts of sunlight gain a more natural color and brightness. No longer does he need to pat his way around the nave. As parishioners fill the pews, he expects a thank you from the silent candlestick. Nothing comes. Maybe that is good: the less interaction, the better!

Sitting in the back pew, Oliver attends the sermon, longing to divest himself of the burdensome candlestick. When everyone leaves, his pastor steps back into the nave to greet him. "Here you go, pastor, my promised piece. It's very particular, so please place it at the altar and keep it well fed with a candle," says Oliver.
"Thank you, Oliver, I'll remember that," says Jeanine, dimples pinching her cheeks.

"Please, I mean it. Please heed my words," says Oliver, laying his artwork into the pastor's smooth hands, his move as delicate as if he had been holding a box of eggs.

"No worries, it'll be pampered," says Jeanine. She beholds a slender, elegant shape, and she smiles. But what it has in form, it lacks in color coordination because of the paint blotches. "It's beautiful, Oliver!"

"Thank you, I had problems with the painting, but it'll look great on the altar, and as you say, each piece is unique," says Oliver. Jeanine raises her new altar piece for the sun to embrace, and Oliver begins to sweat..

"Are you all right?" Jeanine asks.

"Yes, I'm fine. Let's see how it looks on the altar, will you?" Side by side, they walk between the pews, four eyes fixed to the spot where the old candlestick stood. The dim light suits Oliver and the candlestick because the latter does not glitter. Then, as Jeanine moves to switch the light on and over the altar, Oliver grabs her arm. "No, please, it's so much better in this low light!"

"You're the artist," says Jeanine.

He stands below the altar steps, wringing his fingers, whispering to the candlestick. It will love its new home, yes it will. Yet, when Jeanine reaches for the altar, the folds of her robe catch a railing and she drops the candlestick.

It shatters on the steps to the altar.

The artist and the candlestick open their mouths to utter silence, and Jeanine kneels to gather the shards. But, Oliver sees the nave twirl. He loses balance, his knees buckle, and he falls to the floor. His fall makes no noise, or is it masked by the heating vents above the altar? At the bottom of the steps, he stares at the ceiling and hears Jeanine speak something he already cannot understand. He is soon wrecked by spasms and incapable of uttering a word. His every breath is highjacked by the fractured and out-of-breath candlestick. Jeanine looks back, pieces of the candlestick in her hand.

She crosses herself and shouts for help. The ambulance arrives within minutes, too long for Oliver and the candlestick. His moans melt into those of the candlestick, those same ones only he has ever heard. Then, he thinks of panicking as he feels himself rise into the air. He hovers above himself, looking at a crying Jeanine and listening to fresh moans from the candlestick. There is no doubt that he is dead, for all pain has left him and Jeanine shakes his life-less body in a vain attempt to bring him back.

Death is as he expected. Yes, there is a bright light waiting to take him away, but it shines from the rosette window above the door. A growing emptiness takes hold of his soul, one akin to the loss of a close friend. The more he tries to stretch toward the light of freedom, the more his soul stretches toward the candlestick, and the more he hears the candlestick moaning, groaning, and sniffling.

"Don’t leave me like this," says the candlestick between sniffles.

Oliver does not answer. Something is missing. It soon becomes clear. As the candlestick would say, Oliver is missing his other half! He comes back to hover over his body, then the candlestick shards. No, he must not abandon his other half. He cannot.

Just as if the candlestick was hearing him, which it may be, it says, “I knew you’d come to the right decision!”

Maybe the candlestick is right? Maybe that way Oliver will have the opportunity to come back to his world as a whole soul again? Never mind the vessel he inhabits, that may be fixed later. He closes his eyes, his soul fills with weight, and like a balloon dropping bags of sand, he glides toward the candlestick. He passes a kneeling Jeanine who wipes unstoppable tears, and he touches sharp pottery shards as he melts into them. Although not painful, the passage proves uncomfortable as he breaks apart. “Candlestick, are you there?” he asks. But no voice answers.

Again, he asks.

Nothing.

Nothing but for Oliver’s voice fills the shattered work of art. Through a myriad of viewpoints does he watch his pastor, just like the eyes of a fly see from a thousand angles simultaneously. Except that with Oliver, all the angles from which he sees Jeanine constantly change, making him dizzy. Jeanine’s fingers grow larger, as if she wanted to grab his eyes, or face. Does she? Does he even have a face?

"Look at how these bits of pottery still shine,” she says.

"That’s not pottery,” he says, although he doubts she can hear him. Something cold drips down the memory of his spine, and he tries again: “These are my eyes.”

Instead of answering, Jeanine toys with the shards. They sound like a thousand tiny bells. Oliver’s world turns into a twirling blur. "Please, stop!” shouts Oliver. Pews, columns, candles, doors and stained glass windows form a tornado of images, and Oliver feels so dizzy that he almost heaves what should have been his breakfast. "Stop it! Please, stop making my world twirl," says Oliver, wishing he had the stubborn candlestick voice to help him be heard. But, of course, it is only his nasal voice he hears.

Then, Jeanine’s fingers stop moving. She opens her eyes wide and brushes her hair behind her ear. “Oliver?”


THE END


2017 Dimitrije Medenica

Bio: When Dimitrije Medenica retired from architecture, he began writing about fictional architects, physicians, artists, and quirky characters. A graduate from Columbia University, he works on short stories, some art, and a novel about a six-fingered medieval healer (dmedenica.com). His work was published in Aphelion Webzine ("Your Sleep Is my Sleep", August 2013, and "People Glue," May 2015), Bewildering Stories, and HelloHorror.com.

Website: Dimitrije Medenica

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