by Daniel de Montmollin, Brother of Taizé
Translated by Brother Anthony, of Taizé
Humanity will never cease wondering from what silt, what clay we were made.
Words are mere ashes asking to be transfigured.
Look at that little spiral of dust, driven out from between two stones by a scorching summer breeze, scurrying here and there across the desert wastes of the quarry. Look, if you find it worth your while . . .
After all, it¡¯s nothing but a little bit of clay, ground to almost nothing under the wagon wheels. And you need a potter like me to tell you: ¡®That¡¯s clay!¡¯ before you even recognize it for what it is.
The word, vibrant as crystal, fluid like a stream, evokes in your mind something very different from these tiny grains of our planet that the wind is playing with, having no more clouds to drive across the sky, no more fields to parch. But look again: the twirling spiral breaks against a stone and vanishes from sight!
Such is clay when it is dry and finely ground—nothing, or nothing much, at best an image of nothingness. For anything that cannot hold together is nothing. After all, what could you make with it? A little statue? You would never get it to rise higher than the soles of its feet . . . A pot? You might as well try to knead a passing cloud, if only one were to pass . . .
Just imagine, but only for a moment since the image has no substance, ringing at a gardener¡¯s door and calling across the beds of cabbages and dahlias: ¡®Here¡¯s a whole cartload of clay for your garden!¡¯ The gardener would not so much as bother to straighten his back to reply: ¡®Keep your clay. Nothing grows in that! Or give it to the potter to make pots for me to transplant my tomatoes in!¡¯
Or suppose that, seeing a workman filling in pot-holes along a local lane, you were to offer him your clay. His reply would surely be: ¡®Keep your present; it¡¯s a poisoned one that would make me lose my job. Now if that were broken bricks from the tile works, it would be another story!¡¯
Keep on making your offer to anyone you like. If you insist, you will always end up with the same reply: ¡®Go and empty your card on the rubbish-dump, or else give it to the potter!¡¯
So there! I have hardly begun and I am obliged to admit that when it comes to clay, there is nothing worth writing.
Of course, we are not for the moment talking about clay which has been sought, discovered, dug, dried, sorted, crushed, washed, sieved, settled, drained, trodden, beaten, left to rest then kneaded in the sweat of the brow and now lies at last in weighed balls, round, smooth and almost appetizing, veritable magnets for the fingertips, real clay at last, ready for use beside the potter¡¯s wheel.
For if somewhere out in the natural world there were clay like that, it would be against all the odds.
No, the clay I have been talking about so far, in these few lines, has nothing to attract human eyes or hands. It is the hot clay of July and August, rotten rock that left its crystal paradise, let itself be carried off by the river on an uncertain adventure, then finally, dying for lack of cohesion, sunk to the bottom of lakes and seas; clay compacted by accumulated ages that our picks rip now from the flanks of disembowelled hills. From the lumps rolling and breaking a rusty dust escapes that clogs your throat and nostrils.
Ah! Truly, if the potter had not uprooted the trees and raked aside the humus, so much might have been said about that alfalfa, that orchard, that wheat field studded with cornflowers and poppies, or about that patch of vineyard, replaced now by this desert, this irreparable rent in the living cloak of the hill . . . Ah! If the potter had not laid bare the soil . . . Stretched out under the cool green fur, the clay could have slept on, idle, lulled by the warm music of bees and crickets, until the end of the world . . .
But that potter is none other than myself, I think, at least for the moment! Then what is the use of dreaming about flowers on this tomb, what is the use of such untimely lamentations when, to express all that can be said, I still have to note one thing: the clay is thirsty.
Thirsty for what? The clay is not sure. Thirsty for everything liquid. It is thirsty but does not even know how to drink, in moderation I mean, without drowning in any drink that by chance offers itself. Away from the potter, it knows only dust or mud.
Have you ever ventured into a clay-pit on a rainy day, or ever dreamed such a bad dream? You think you can walk but the mud clings to your feet. In half a dozen steps, they have doubled in weight, at the seventh you can go no farther, you are stuck in the ground, always assuming you are still standing upright, like a fencing post good for nothing more than to serve as a perch for a stray buzzard, chilled and soaked in a shower, as it waits for drier days . . .
Ah! If the potter had not stripped the hill bare . . . the humus would hold back the water that quenched the thirst of countless roots . . . But the potter cut down the trees and the trees were the guardians of the earth, and the meadow has turned into a desert . . .
What can the rain do with these mounds of clay? Dig ravines, scoop out valleys, form lakes of mud then depart again, leaving the soil to crack like skin diseased . . .
All of that I learned at my own expense, as I am going to tell you now. Only this time the image will not be unsubstantial and you will be able to linger over it without wasting your time, always supposing that you think you will gain something by experiencing some slight anguish.
Look again. See the rain falling, the rain so much wished for throughout the burning summer days.
Only yesterday we were begging the sky to take earth¡¯s part. For the scorched meadows blended with the wine-red limestone of the rocks and houses, with the red sand of the river strung with beads of muddy pools, with the bronzed skin of faces and torsos. Then, as evening was falling, a dark veil suddenly fell across the sky and we knew that it hid a face of fury and fire, for the over-tight cloth was tearing here and there in thin dazzling lines that terrorized the children and prompted the adults to say that the sky would weep rather than rain.
You see the rain falling but can never follow any of its seething tears as they fall. The most you see are the pearls they form at the very start with the dust on the road. But soon the pearls burst and then the road looks like a wall being plastered by a mason, as he dips a sprig of broom into liquid, fine-grained mortar with which he then splashes the wall.
Then the mud runs liquid and, on hillsides, paths begin to shine and shift like waking snakes.
The earth longs to gorge itself at length with the first downpours but in the vineyards, it finds itself carried off by torrents coursing between each row of stocks.
All day long the river carries off the mud, red water, thick blood. The landscape is a gaping wound and you wonder where to apply a tourniquet, you long to cry: ¡®Enough!¡¯ if only the roar of the river did not drown out your voice. The river? There is no longer any river, it has left its bed, it has spread out over the plain until it is no longer possible to know where the earth ends and the sky begins . . .
And I, the potter, am here, trapped, powerless as a rabbit cornered by a ferret deep in its hole. Only yesterday I was saying: ¡®For once the sun is on the side of the potters, it will have dried out the deposits of clay more deeply than ever before.¡¯ To prepare the clay we use, that is the kind of earth I need, clay dry to the core, explosive and melting when we submerge it in the tank, welcoming the water with open arms, if I may put it so. When it is damp, clay locks its doors, water finds no entry and the local folk take advantage of that strange fact to dig wells and water holes where the cattle drink. While if my stock of earth is damp, I first have to divide the solid blocks, expose them to sunshine and cover them when it looks like rain.
So I had been thinking: ¡®This year I will lay in a stock of clay for a long time, for years perhaps, and harvest a whole lot of care and work less. Misfortune is good for something!¡¯ And I murmured proudly a whole set of remarks about the feebleness of the elements that follow mere chance, incapable of providing the potter with clay ready for use. Too hard or too soft, clay is useless in the craftsman¡¯s hands. Whereas I know all the rules of the craft!
It was like a game. At each new sunrise I would think: ¡®One more day gained, more work and labor saved.¡¯ A dangerous game, making me forget that it was not I who was master of the elements!
Whom does the wind obey as it roars among the beams and attacks the tiles from below? Or the lightning, whose permission does it ask before it sets fire to the mound of sheaves just before the threshing day? Could it be the sun who commands the frost to make the trunks of the olive trees burst as the sap is rising, or the mud that tells the river: ¡®Go walk through the village?¡¯ Then the mud spoils the hay and throughout the long winter coughs rattle the chains round the ruminants¡¯ necks, robbing the farmers of sleep . . .
But who then is master of the elements? There are days when I think: ¡®The elements no longer have a master.¡¯
To the potter then the pain of protecting his earth from the rain. He must isolate the earth and also isolate the water, if he is to preside later over a proper marriage. Tiring work, since clay is low and heavy, and water keeps trying to run away!
The drought had forced the cattle-breeders to start using up their stocks of hay, so that I did not dare express openly my satisfaction. In secret, I reflected: ¡®What¡¯s bad for some is good for others. When the sun is on the side of the potters, or the wine growers who prefer less wine and more sugar, to say nothing of less spraying, it¡¯s not on the side of the farmers. Neither is it on the side of the fishermen who hope for a new flow of water to make the fish hungry, full as they are of weeds and small fry too easily caught . . .
At the first clap of thunder, I realize I have lost and my heart sinks. Humiliated at having been too sure of my luck, I set about cursing the rain that will increase my labor tenfold, the satisfaction crossing to the other side with the imminent return of green grass to the meadows. I even feel disgust at being a potter. Today I would rather be a fisherman and hurl my net into the eddies where the fish are resting, exhausted from having to fight against the current. And I hear myself saying, in an attempt to save face: ¡®It was a wise decision to choose to live on a hilltop!¡¯ But still I feel the water rising to my heart and I shudder at the teeming snakes coming down from the hills, slithering between the rows of vines, gliding along the walls in the lanes, wallowing in the gutters, even slipping into the downstairs rooms of the houses.
This morning the tiler said to me: ¡®Bad weather for climbing on to roofs! Wet moss is like oil on the tiles, I shall have to rope myself firmly . . .¡¯ To his lament I responded bitterly: ¡®If it was always fine, you¡¯d not earn a living!¡¯
Rain is our friend and enemy, cleaving our hearts.
So then you ask me: ¡®Why does the sun shine on the good and on the evil alike, why does it rain on both quarries and meadows, why does the weather divide people, and why do the elements no longer have a master?
Then you expect me, a potter, to have answers for those questions! But the potter is not a member of the council of sages, his hands are too grubby, his feet too heavy, his back too weary!
When it comes down to it, the only thing I can tell you, and it¡¯s getting repetitive, is that fresh clay, wet or dry, is of no interest to anyone. It¡¯s base, heavy, dirty, sticky and sometimes, if it comes from an ancient marsh, it stinks of rot. That¡¯s why no one wants it.
But we must be just! It is, after all, clay—sterile, despised, the cripple of the heath, the drunkard of the marsh—that draws the potter as amber draws a straw or a corpse the vultures. And while I have nothing, or almost nothing, to say about it, it can tell you much about this man with muddy shoes and dirty clothes who, like a rag-picker, gathers trash and finds his happiness in it.
And the happiness of the potter and the clay are one and the same!
So, if you can be patient, I will tell you many other things, if you are ready to come with me across many other deserts and many other floods . . .
But before that, look again. Look at the rainbow, motionless as the last curtain of rain falls. You did not see it forming, you did not notice the seven-brushed compass plant its foot on the ground and paint in the heavens the sign of festivity. But seeing the sun shoot through the clouds its first arrow of light, you quickly turn your back to avoid the blow and the rainbow is there, abruptly set before you like an apparition. Yet it does not fill you with new fears, for you say: ¡®The sun at last! Today the world will not perish in the waters . . .
And to that I add: ¡®Neither today nor tomorrow, for the glorious rainbow is an alloy of water and fire.¡¯
I know of a man who was dying of a hunger for life. A desire was gnawing at his heart, but the desire had no name, so the man did not know what would nourish him. On he went wandering over the wide world, driving before him the bleating sheep of his hunger in quest of verdant pastures.
Then he dreamed a dream in which a potter told him: ¡®Come to me across the burning sands, toward the setting of the sun.¡¯
On waking he related the dream to his spouse and they agreed to make the journey together. Although the woman was pregnant, they set out with their last remaining reserves of strength. They walked for three days, sleeping in the open each night, and finally rang the bell of clay hanging at the door of the pottery.
Seeing how exhausted the travellers were, the craftsman washed their feet, offered them figs and milk. The he brought them to a store-room where straw lay covered with a woollen cloth. An amphora standing upright in the beaten-earth floor was cooling the water it held.
The long trek had wearied the woman who, that evening, gave birth to a boy. Then the potter told them: ¡®Do not worry about tomorrow. This is a large house, there is food and room for many. Besides, I was expecting you.¡¯
During the following days, while the mother rejoiced over her new-born child, the man took his first steps in the city of clay. The collection of low buildings included everything that could be won from the ground: adobe walls, roofs with varnished tiles that lost not a drop of the seasonal rains, gutters and pipes of pottery conveying the water from the roofs to the cistern, and many other objects, all born of the craft. With everywhere on all this earth, traces of the hands that had brought it to the light.
To one side of the courtyard, that was dazzling with sunlight, liquid clay slowly perished in a brick tank under the shade of a gigantic fig-tree. Never a tree of that kind had been so well planted, never so well watered. Never too had a potter¡¯s clay ever given up so graciously and with such profit its washing-water. And if ever a forgotten fig chanced to drop in, leaving a little crater of mud above it, the potter would let it decompose; after a thorough kneading, it gave the clay an extra plasticity.
As soon as summer had come, the water attracted hosts of frogs. But since a frog is not a fig, a stork, trained for the task, kept at a distance those frogs that had not yet composed its meal.
As soon as the drained clay began to crack, the potter¡¯s son would dispose it in steaming mounds across the sandy expanse of the yard. You would have taken them for cakes waiting for the oven and the party.
Not far away rose the kiln, a tall brick construction pierced by a doorway with a semi-circular top. It suggested some sanctuary conceived for secret rituals. Just beside it were piled bunches of rosemary and other wild plants from nearby hills, a dark mound of fuel that would, when the time for firing came, transform the kiln into a stupendous incense-burner.
Over the cooing of pigeons and the thud of the mill turned by a mule circling it constantly, could be heard the low sound of a pulse like the earth¡¯s heart-beats. It was the foot of the potter as he kicked at his wheel to turn it. The strength of the sun was such that it obliged him to work at the back of a dark workshop into which the sun only penetrated by the entrance door. And it was a small doorway.
The man burned to pass through that black rectangle piercing the earthen façade, but he was held back by a kind of shyness. So he went back to his comings and goings where every step allowed him to discover a new detail that must have its importance in a potter¡¯s life. This nourishment, taken in small doses, renewed his strength effectively and strengthened his desire.
One morning, his host called to him from the depths of the workshop. The man entered, his eyes gradually became accustomed to the gloom. The potter was turning amphorae on his wheel; they seemed to grow of their own accord and push his hands to the fullest extent of their form. It took the man¡¯s breath away. Motionless, fascinated as though he could see summed up before him all his years to come, he contemplated the miracle until he was weary.
During the midday meal, the potter announced: ¡®Tomorrow we shall begin the construction of your wheel.¡¯
Simple work, to be sure, for those who know how to hollow out the hard, honey-hued flint on which the point of the spindle will turn, hew from acacia the bar at its heart, shape the pivot and harden it with fire, bring together the various parts of the wheel, finally take care of all those many other small details without which the best turner will get a club-foot much sooner than anticipated, losing breath and any pleasure in life.
The man helped the craftsman as best he could, following attentively each operation as it was performed with the slow precision of someone absorbed in his task without reserve.
¡®It¡¯s done,¡¯ the potter announced as he put the finishing touches to the machine; ¡®Seven days to build the wheel, seven years to train the turner!¡¯
Seven years! That long! The man was dumbfounded by those words, the truth of which he was not to be long in seeing.
During the week that followed, the potter taught his new apprentice the art of beating and kneading the clay. A wearying, interminable week. A ball of beaten clay is distinguishable in nothing from an unbeaten ball. The evening comes and there is not much to be seen in terms of work achieved: he was making the muscles ache in arms and stomach while the master throned over an increasing throng of pitchers. And although the potter repeated like a refrain as he prepared his own balls: ¡®Clay beaten, clay turned!¡¯ the apprentice found no consolation there, for he could still not grasp what that could possibly mean.
Still, at length it did seem that something was happening; this work was kneading him, ordering his breathing and strength and giving him a more intimate knowledge of the clay. And that revived his courage.
At last the potter declared: ¡®Today you can watch me turning.¡¯ The apprentice could not understand why this new week should begin with a holiday, a day of pleasure in fact, but he did not protest and his eyes never strayed for a moment from the living clay.
The next day the potter said, laughing: ¡®Today, it¡¯s me you must watch, and not the clay like yesterday! Have you noticed the fig tree? Does it observe the figs on its next-door neighbor to see how to make its own?¡¯
On the third day the potter finally said: ¡®And now, get down onto your wheel and try to do something on your own!¡¯
The disappointment was dreadful. As if in revenge on the hands that had beaten it, the clay made the panicking fingers dance foolishly. Now the humiliated hands tightened, blocking the wheel, now they strangled the clay, which came unstuck from the turntable.
It was a day of battle and defeat. Yet the potter declared: ¡®It was good, you did not give up! Tomorrow, you will already know better how to watch me. You must not struggle against the clay but with it.¡¯
The days following, the fingers no longer danced and the clay stayed put. But it would not turn smoothly. The pupil could not find the way to achieve that. No correction proved effective, although it needed so little for the clay to enter into a perfect geometry.
¡®Close your eyes,¡¯ the potter ordered, ¡®Don¡¯t look at the clay, it¡¯s not the clay that will tell you where its center lies! The heart of the fig tree is not in the figs but in the trunk.¡¯
But the pupil would not close his eyes, because then all he saw was the confusion of his heart and he thought: ¡®My desire has chosen the wrong craft.¡¯
Therefore the potter quietly got up off his wheel, and went to draw a thick goats-hair curtain across the door. It was night.
For days, the two men worked in the dark. The one turned as if it were broad daylight, and the other was obliged to get a hold on himself, tame his doubts, call back his wandering thoughts. And every time he settled into the firmness of a peaceful heart, the clay ceased to be eccentric and slipped without struggling between immobile hands.
Weeks passed. Each new gesture was the subject of long training and linked up with those preceding it, that continued to mature and became so to speak natural. The apprentice could not understand his earlier torments.
When they met together in the evenings, the two families would sit drinking sweet mint tea and at that moment the master would celebrate the pupil¡¯s progress. So he had rejoiced at the first centered ball, the first still awkward bowl, the first cylinder then the second just like it, the first unbroken belly, the first shoulder rising firmly to the neck. And when there was nothing to say, it meant that the work was progressing secretly or that the day¡¯s success ought to take a humbler place in the dance of the clay and the hands.
But still the old craftsman was not silent. He would place before him an instrument composed of little bells fired in the kiln, just where the hottest flame renders the clay as clear-toned as crystal. Then he would run two little wooden sticks over them until a melody awoke that pleased him, and to that he would murmur songs invented in the course of his various tasks.
That was what the man loved. The songs engraved themselves naturally on his memory, as if that memory was clay and the potter was singing with his hands.
Thus, one evening, the craftsman taught him how and why he had come to be a potter. He sang;
I have travelled the paths of earth
and raised much dust,
dust on my clothing,
on my face, my hair.
Earthen statues, all who live!
I have travelled down paths of earth
and seen so many graveyards,
dust on white clothing,
on faces, hair.
Recumbent effigies, masks of earth!
So I said: ¡®Return, go back!
Roll up those paths of earth,
knead those masks, those effigies,
summon water and fire from above
and restore life to the earth!
He sang in praise of the humble craft:
No goldsmith, I,
no blacksmith, either.
Gold is metal of kings,
iron serves for weapons
or the hoofs of the horse.
I am neither king nor warrior,
I walk on my own bare feet.
I only have my two bare hands,
my hands have nothing but earth,
while water and the furnace
are my two companions.
Earth has no splendor,
does not sing on the anvil.
But the earth has my hands
and from the water, the fire,
it receives both gold and songs.
He sang a prayer to his hands:
My hands invited the earth
and the earth came into the dance.
The earth grew giddy,
and said: ¡®My head is turning!¡¯
My hands then said to the earth:
¡®Fear not, abandon yourself,
we will raise your drunken rapture
to the very edge of your lip!¡¯
Then I said: ¡®Hands,
make the earth dance,
make its shining wave twist.
But take great care.
¡®Between a festive jar
and the dead-end of an urn
there is only a little squeeze
of your fingers!¡¯
He sang a prayer to the clay:
Earth, my heart
has long been at work.
It will make something of you
if only you will take shape.
Keep that moist grace
for the print it will leave.
keep your flesh humble,
My art veils your mud
to the very fire of festival.
My beauty shall be yours,
print of my heart!
He praised the humble earth:
My hands are two ears
pressed against the earth,
sensitive to its slightest murmur.
The earth has never resisted me,
never said: ¡®Leave me alone,
do not beat me too hard!¡¯
The earth has never said to me:
¡®Make a chalice of me,
make me into an amphora!¡¯
I comfort myself with the earth
on days of sorrow and solitude,
raising it up against my heart.
Then my hands hear these words:
¡®I am chalice, I am amphora,
and I am consoled!¡¯
He sang of shared love:
Alone, the earth is virgin,
can never give birth
to tree or garden or man,
nothing taking form.
The earth calls for water,
the earth calls for fire.
The heavens rain down love,
love is water and fire.
Alone, the earth is nothing,
nothing comes to rebirth alone
while love creates out of nothing.
To the earth I have given my water,
to the earth I have given my fire.
My labor is over and I am athirst.
Then the earth gives me to drink
and in the cup she offers
the water pearls in a pearly shell.
Seven years passed. Every year, the woman gave birth to another child. The yard rang with the cries of children modelling whatever came into their hearts. For clay is gentle in artless hands, indulgent like a big dog that lets little children pull its tail and ears without a murmur.
Then the potter died. His son came to visit the man and his wife and said to them: ¡®Pottery is selling badly. We¡¯re going to make bricks. The work is easy, your children can give a hand.¡¯
That is certainly a produce that poses few problems. There is no need to wash the clay, indeed the coarser it is, the better. You just water piles of earth and stir them with a shovel. Then with a bat you beat the mix into wooden moulds to shape the bricks. But shovel and bat exhaust the arms; it¡¯s drudgery fit for slaves.
A drought came. Each day demanded an extra length of rope in the cistern, where the plunge of the jar echoed from ever farther down. Thousands of people died. Water, brought from far away, was sold at exorbitant prices, whether it was drinkable or not, and people took care not to store it in porous pots lest some little might evaporate. The fig tree by the tank lost all its leaves and the stork flew away, having no frogs to swallow.
Inevitably, since they needed at least a little water to bind the clay for the bricks, they stopped work and the owner came to tell his workmen: ¡®Be off with you!¡¯ The man replied at once: ¡®Right, we are leaving.¡¯
That morning, as he had done on the morning he arrived, he strolled from place to place in the pottery, but this time with death in his heart, wondering what was going to become of his family.
He sat down briefly in front of the workshop, and watched for a moment the marks left by a dung-beetle wandering in the dust. The insect tumbled into the funnel-shaped pit of an ant-lion, that set upon its elusive victim from below without success.
Then the man, a potter by now, saw a child¡¯s hand holding a little ball of clay bearing the print of a snail-shell. He did not ask by what miracle his son had found that bit of still moist clay. His eyes closed on a memory that grew sharp within him. Suddenly rising, he said to the child: ¡®Tomorrow we leave! There is clay in my village. When I was little, I too used to press shells into damp earth!¡¯
The large family set off for home, bearing the tightly closed bundle of their secret joy. They alone rejoiced and gave thanks for the providential drought! In the plain, they were joined by the mule, seeking in vain some scrap of pasture.
Is not that the finest vase that ever took shape on my wheel? Possibly so; we¡¯ll discuss that when it emerges from the kiln. But for the moment it is certainly the largest in size, from foot to neck and across the shoulders. I had never beaten such a heavy mass of clay. Before settling at the wheel, I was obliged to rest my wrists until they stopped trembling; that could well have introduced some dangerous fantasies.
To get the shape to revolve smoothly around its axis at every point, and to make it round and beautiful, the two of us were forced to sweat a lot! And while my skin dries, the sides of my jar shine with the creamy unction that, like mother water in its ultimate task, smoothes the passage to life. And now that I have regained a more peaceful rate of breathing, I enjoy letting the wheel turn a few times more, before I slide the wire through to separate the form from its maternal gyration, allowing the vase to move with its unchanging profile. Here we have life and rest combined.
For just a few hours, perhaps, the fresh sheen of the clay gives the impression that the vase is finished and that, shining in its glaze, it is already good for life. It is no misfortune that, at the end of his initial labor, the potter be granted an approximate vision of what his work will be like. In that he finds something to spur his dreams and the ardor for new, more hidden developments.
But who is the craftsman who would yield to the illusion provoked by that luminous liquid that has only the brightness of crystal? Who would ever say: ¡®Water is sufficient; why subject this initial form to the second trial of fire?¡¯ For already air, even the mildest, is mingling its currents and is inevitably engaged in drying out the mirage . . .
Voice from ancient ages, words addressed to the earth when it forgot to love the source that made it fruitful:
. . . Truly, you believed in the eternity of the contract uniting you with the regular showers from above! Naively you dreamed, fertile and heavy with fruit, of the limitless faithfulness of the stream! And you found pleasure, when fine weather lasted longer than usual, in dreaming of the bath you would enjoy, once the warmth of midday was past . . .
For a while it was so, and you even prolonged your bath when an unexpected breeze attacked your skin. You refused to believe what was obvious, that the waters were diminishing and that your spouse was dying at your feet. Yet the day came when your very clothing lost its suppleness and you began to dream, barely veiled with straw and thorns, of the high woollen coating of plentifully watered pastures . . .
Now a new task begins, no longer marked by strength or skill, but by vigilant slowness. For once having glimpsed the outcome of my dream, I no longer can endure that water whose task is now done. But it would not do to be too severe with one who has served me so well, and in order to deal delicately with a humor that might burst in fury if too suddenly dismissed, I must send it away without conflict and consent to the gradual drying of the form. My task here is one of careful watching, not without anxiety, for even in my sleep I wonder if the screens are well placed, calming the turbulence of the ever thirsty winds.
The initial drying once complete, the clay retains its water more strongly. Then greater prudence and greater slowness are needed. I pray the sun, impatient though I am to be done, to hold back its beams.
After all, what would be gained by having a hasty ardor crack the clay it is required to inflame?
. . . Here you are mourning, the stream is no more, not the least trickle to prevent you dying of thirst. For since you have forgotten the one who in times past decked you with corn and the hand that anointed you with new wine and fresh oil, it is by thirst that your exile will begin.
I wished that the heavens would withhold their rain: a breath from above has dried springs and sources. Over men and beasts, over the fruits of the ground and of human hands I have called down drought. Now you are ashamed not to be able to draw over your naked shoulder the luxurious vines of former times!
In the shade of the eaves, the drying now seems complete. At least it has uniformly lightened the uncertain color of the damp clay. And the raw clay, when struck, returns a dull, fragile sound.
But such appearance can deceive; it happens at least once in a lifetime that the potter lets himself be tricked, and having entrusted to the fire a clay still too raw, made it burst.
So what reveals the true state of the heart of the clay, proves that every last trace of water has vanished? Well, when at nightfall, before the dew falls, the potter takes indoors his pots, exposed at last to the sun, it is the warmth enclosed in the raw form even late at night.
Earth in mourning, mourning for the water! The pitchers smash against the bottom of the well, the plowshare turns nothing but dust, a doe out in the middle of the fields abandons her kids for lack of grass . . .
Keep calling to the heavens! Your dry eyes no longer move the one of whom you beg for an advance payment of rain. Too light, you are not prepared for a new germination and the fruit I dream of seeing you bear is not one your womb can now conceive, let alone bring to birth.
So I am going to make you travel far through this land of thirsts, in which you will seek in vain springs of water. Ah! If only you could bless the companion who will bring you across the desert and, gradually coming to love him, accept his embrace! Alas, you have lost your former submission and you will denounce the fire¡¯s companionship as violence.
The door of the kiln is walled shut now, the raw form is about to be attacked by fire. But you must not laugh at the potter crouched before the fire mouth, laying now and then a little log on a handful of burning sticks that would hardly do at the moment to cook some soup. For the fire in which the clay is going to change to stone is at the start only a small flame and the potter¡¯s job is to control the growth of its dart.
Then the flame is allowed to lengthen and little by little find its way through the kiln¡¯s dark spaces, the labyrinth of this grotto with its pillars of clay against which, like a still quiet flood it laps and vanishes in a spray of sparks. And whatever within the clay cannot resist the fire slowly drifts away in smoke.
Now my fire shall become your judge and my word burn over you. The brushwood in which you still try to hide will suddenly explode in flame and my wrath penetrate to your very depths!
Then you will cry: ¡®Who can stand before such fire? What is the point of taking pleasure to shape the clay, only to bring it to torture?¡¯
And I shall reply: ¡®Since you have so completely forgotten that your fate is in my hands, it is necessary that my jealous wrath break from its slow moderation and robe you in its incandescence.¡¯
At last the fire possesses the earth, open now with every pore to this new being and intent on not stopping at this initial victory. For the work is far from complete.
(Four baby swallows, still too young to fly, push their gaping, gasping beaks from a nest built too close to the kiln.)
But just what will happen in the secret of the furnace, when the potter increases and drives his fire to such a point that the entire clay raves at the heart of a single flame, nobody knows exactly. Even the clay itself, once it emerges transfigured from the ordeal, will not remember what happened to it.
For the moment, it takes all my strength to maintain a fire entirely dependant on my hard work and if I find a few seconds of respite once I have thrown into the fire-mouth a new ration of victuals, itallows me just time to rejoice at a hope being shaped under the well aimed blows of my labor.
(Still, I find the time to transport the fledglings out into the open, laying them in the first hole in the wall I come across, but not too out of sight.)
Here, the craftsman grows perhaps wearier than ever. It was not light-heartedly that he entrusted the flames with the task of testing the work of his hands.. So as he consigns the last armfuls of wood to the fire, he wonders: ¡®If the vase did not receive enough of the flame, or collapsed under the weight of too fierce a heat, what would I have left to love?¡¯
(The parent swallows have found their progeny and whistle in their plunging flight as if all the cats of the neighborhood knew what had happened.)
You have changed your silver into dross, watered your wine, disguised your face. Identified with this mask that clings so well to your skin, I have no way of recognizing you as the one I desired at the very outset. Therefore I will bring you into the fire, purify you as silver is purified, removing your dross from the crucible.
From afar, far far away, I will bring you back and will again be able to find in you my delight. For in the fire you will have learned once again the words of love!
Now we are at the highest, most difficult degrees of the firing. Ah! so many times throughout the day, because the winds were contrary or the midday sun was leaning with all its weight on the chimney, I feared I would never reach this crucial moment. Yet I did not give up feeding my fire, even if the flame grew no brighter. The freshness of night was sure to come, that spurs the fire! While my heart sensed that the new face of the blazing earth was maturing slowly. (Length of time is not contrary to full maturation.)
I imagined my pots like pebbles rolled by the river of fire. Then once a perfect smoothness has been attained, the diminution of the flame could begin. Soon I would be able to gather up those hollowed stones that the fire dedicated to the coolness of water.
For while it is true that I made every effort to send the earth¡¯s water up to the clouds, it was done so that it could come back down again, rich with greater honors. To the meek, the earth!
Yes, I imagine a day when your life will be a well-watered garden. For you I shall have restored the sources, and from high in the mountains will come leaping abundant streams. The desert will become an orchard, living hedges the banks of the watercourses.
Then let the arid earth rejoice already, exult and flower the steppe, for water will spring up in desert places and torrents in desolate wastes. The wasteland will become a pond and the land of thirst will change into a fountain.
At last comes the moment when the fire has finished testing the earth. It has purified it of every sickness, hardened, strengthened, adorned it with a beauty it contained hidden in its depths, that is the mark of the ordeal it went through.
Now the fire shines with a brightness the eye cannot stand and its baking ardor delays the hour of celebrations.
So for the first time since the work began, I tell my hands: ¡®Keep still! Cut off the victuals and breath of the fire you raised to triumph, and let it die! You are not potter¡¯s hands to have your fingers burned, but to take pleasure in your work.¡¯
Then amazed, you will ask: ¡®How did he end, the tyrant that held me captive; is his arrogance dead for ever?¡¯ He said in his heart: ¡®I will ascend to the heavens, erect my throne above the stars!¡¯ – And behold him fallen into the valley of shadows, the bottomless darkness of the abyss.
Now you remark: ¡®Indeed, clay is nothing much, the clay of barren hills or valley depths; we can only find something to say about it when the potter makes it his. But in the case, what if the potter dies? Will all be said and done?¡¯
What can I reply? I am still here on earth, for the moment at least. I am granted this summer¡¯s day to live. This morning a gathering of sunflowers was watching the sun rise, in the ripe corn quails were telegraphing their secret messages, and I picked some flowers for a vase I would be taking from the kiln after my walk . . .
So, as a kind of answer, I will now tell you this story of a potter made sad to death by what he thought was some clay.
You will perhaps ask if I invented the story or heard it one evening at a gathering of fellow craftsmen. I will not answer your question, because when I say clay, we need to agree on what we mean and when I say potter, then too agreement is needed. Then to the fit hearer, hail!
As a potter, I love this story and if I say love, there too we need to agree. This story haunts me. It never for one instant leaves my memory, it sticks to my hands, although I am someone who washes them twenty times a day. I am wed to it, in a marriage not of reason but of love. To be quite sincere, I must confess that the loving is not always easy and that, on certain days, at least, it seems to want to vanish from sight. I call, it makes no reply. It seems dead, buried in my memory, and my insistences are unable to bring it back to life. Then I grow irritable and my hands do violence to the clay, or unhappy and the clay makes my hands languish. And what little sleep I find is wasted in nightmares . . . So listen!
The sun had chilled its light and was rolling its globe here and there, from one end of space to the other, on the unstable ice of a sky that had lost its lustre, as if it had been rubbed with some coarsely ground silica sand. At the same moment, in another part of the sky, which thereabouts was tinted with violet, the moon was oscillating at the end of an invisible pendulum. Its disk of beaten brass increased in size as it drew ever nearer to the earth until it finally struck against a hill, that spread out across the plain beneath an immense cloud of dust.
The choking peasants rapidly left the fields they had just finished ploughing, and gained the village built on another hill, which had not been struck. On their way, they met the potter and, in a furious rage, shouted at him: ¡®It¡¯s all your fault, you should never have settled here among us; we told you there was no more clay in this region!¡¯ Then they double-locked themselves in their homes, screaming and vomiting with fear.
The potter had not heeded their reproach. He was far too busy controlling the pole of his heavy, rattling cart where a spade and a pick clanged together noisily, presumably of some ancient model, for you never saw any like them in the other tool sheds.
It was true that, already two generations before, the last potter, who had supplied the village with bricks and hollow tiles as well as with cooking utensils, had exhausted the only lenticular deposit of clay in the land. He died with it, soon after his last firing, in conditions judged mysterious, leaving in the middle of the village at the side of the main square a perfectly equipped workshop but one which no one ever dared penetrate after that, for it was said to be haunted by the devil.
It is also true that a pottery without clay and without a potter is one of the saddest things that exist and that a potter without earth is like someone abandoned by heaven. But to call an extinct pottery cursed is taking things rather too far.
One day, people discovered the presence of a new inhabitant. Taken by surprise, they were wary. The unknown craftsman was warned about everything, but nothing alarmed him.
So the potter arrived in the plain, pulling his cart through the ruins of the hill. From time to time, he picked up a scrap of rock, examined it minutely, felt it, touched it with the tip of his tongue and threw it away or placed it in his box following the decision of each moment.
The sun returned to its place, the pendulum snapped and the moon fell behind the horizon. All seemed to be back to normal, at least in the sky that a violent wind had cleaned of its mushroom cloud of dust. So the site of the disaster was soon invaded by the villagers, and you would never have thought that so many people could emerge from a mere twenty or so houses.
There you could see a group of peasants who, unable to realize that their gestures were meaningless, were striving to recuperate the stocks of the vines that had previously been planted on the ravaged hill. The crushed bunches of grapes combined with the earth to form a black, sticky mud. Some women had discovered the head of a goat still apparently alive and were trying to dig the animal out. There were the village elders, stiff as headless trees, erect in their long robes like a forest after a fire. A squad of soldiers too, with weapons that attracted the mob of children excited by the adventure, the soldiers shouting to the children: ¡®Be careful, they¡¯re loaded!¡¯ Last arrived a line of little girls, curving under the weight of the babies, followed by the old cripple on his crutches, who likewise wanted to see what the innards of a hill looked like.
Having completely filled his cart, the potter asked for help to get his goods to the village, for he was telling himself that the time for him to get to work had arrived. The soldiers offered their services, abandoning their weapons in the debris of the levelled hill. They tied their straps to the chassis and, at the word of command, bent to the task. Under the load the wheels of the cart began to wobble, leaving deep scratches in the projecting limestone blocks of the road.
The entire crowd followed the convoy. It made a long procession, like those that wind slowly between church and cemetery. However, it was no funeral cortege and I would go so far as to say that under the bright autumn colors it looked rather joyous. The sun was now shining directly onto the long robes of the elders, some of them yellow, others blue, green, or white, with only occasional irredeemably black ones.
The potter tipped his earth into the tank where the water had for months been awaiting its prey, where every day he added whatever quantity the previous day¡¯s heat had evaporated, now the contents of a glass, now that of a jug, depending on the weather. The tank was made of thick glass, transparent as crystal, a detail that the people had never, it seemed, noticed before. So all could see and hear the bursting of those clods which, shortly before, they would have taken for mere gravel. It might be wondered if in fact they did not prefer them in that new state, for good stiff clay, like a weather vane in the wind, is easily led, while stones, on the contrary, have solid hearts, they stand no nonsense and it takes more than a flick to disturb them.
The potter followed the process with a watchful eye. Once the water had stopped seething, he plunged into the tank a kind of long oar that he manipulated slowly and carefully, with something of the gesture of a boatman searching for the body of someone who has drowned. He maintained for a long while the whirlpool that formed, the outer edge of which licked at the top of the container. Then he withdrew the oar and scooped up a little of the mix in his hand. An elder approached at just that moment, glanced over the top of the copper frames of his glasses, and moved away with a little ironic smile. The potter shook his hand dry and set the whirlpool going again.
The same game was repeated several times, so people got tired and returned home. The next day they came back as if by mere chance to see how things were going. But nothing seemed to have changed, the potter¡¯s face was still as serious as people had always seen it. And whenever the oar stopped moving, the contents of the tank quickly divided into two, with the mass of sand at the bottom and clear water above.
Again the next day nothing new had happened; the oar was still turning between his two hands tense with fatigue. The elder with glasses came and said to the potter: ¡®My friend, don¡¯t you realize that you are stirring sand? Why have you remained deaf to our warnings?¡¯
But the potter seemed not to have ears for remarks of that kind. Neither would he touch the food that a woman brought out of pity for his nascent madness, that she affirmed would end badly.
There came a moment when her prophecy received some credit. One evening, the farmers returning home from the grape harvest tried to dissuade the potter from going on with the sterile task that was, in fact, beginning to get on their nerves. They even went so far as to take the oar from his hands. Just as they had managed to drag him out of the cursed workshop, the poor fellow escaped and hurled himself into the tank.
The church bell rang just then, and since the sacristan was standing in the front row of the onlookers, no one dared try to go to the help of the drowning man. Meanwhile, he had vanished from sight, despite the transparent glass, for the water had grown opaque, taking from top to bottom the color of clay. A baby screamed in its mother¡¯s arms and a dog answered, strangling at the end of its chains. The elders bowed their heads and the soldiers, who were playing at tarot near the fountain, dropped their cards.
When after a moment the drowned man emerged on his own from the tank, bright with sticky mud, the peasants came to their senses and carried him to the fountain, where they washed him down with bucketfuls of water.
The potter did not seem affected by what was already being called his attempted suicide. You would even have said he was smiling, not at all embarrassed by his nakedness, standing in the basin. Someone handed him a towel; he wiped himself down carefully, then went to bed. He slept all that night, all the next day, and another night too.
During that time, the mud had slowly settled. Through the walls of the tank, you could clearly see a little layer of pebbles at the bottom, like the shells the ocean breaks and piles up in the hollows of rocks. That layer was covered with a bed of gravel, then one of fine sand. But above that, all you could see was a red deposit of clay, with only room left near the top for a span of clear water.
The moment he awoke, the potter siphoned off that useless water with the help of a tube from a wine cellar that still tasted of wine. With a scoop made of tinned iron, like those used for liquid manure, he decanted the fluid clay into some twenty or so large plaster shells that would complete the drying of the mud. Once that task was done, he announced to the curious onlookers that it was time to prepare wood for the firing.
In the village there were several houses in ruins where broken beams lay abandoned under stretches of wall they had brought down in their fall. That wood had to be freed, the sound parts separated from the rotten, then sawed up, and split. The idle soldiers proposed their services again and soon their all-purpose saws were ploughing through oak boughs with hearts hard as bone, giving them moustaches of sawdust.
The next day, the potter was able to remove the clay from its moulds and for long hours kneaded it on the beating-table.
The villagers were delighted at the prospect of seeing pots being turned, for one of them who had travelled had told them that it was a most agreeable thing to watch. Thus, when the potter took his place at the wheel, a crowd of onlookers gathered at once.
Contrary to general expectations, however, the potter set about modelling a figure. He worked with extreme dexterity and in the end it was as delightful to watch as the shaping of a pot, to say nothing of the fact that the figure was beginning to look strikingly like someone well-known to them all, a drunkard, a poacher, who played the accordion at dances and made everyone laugh by imitating each of them. The model came alive under the modeller¡¯s thumbs, until it was more lifelike than nature. He was clearly drunk, as at the end of every dance, one hand dragging the accordion, the other flailing in the air.
The village was having a fine time, having quite forgotten about the sun and the moon, as well as the goat which had given its bell a good shake as soon as it had been dug out. They had never had such a good time, never laughed so much and at so little expense, never so much applauded some trick by a juggler, and they shuddered with pleasure on seeing that the show was going to continue. Indeed, a new character was emerging from the clay.
At haymaking time, the grocer¡¯s daughter had got into trouble with a passing day-laborer. Once harvest was over, her father sent her off to stay with a cousin in town under a pretext that fooled no one. Now here was the poor girl sitting on the edge of the wheel, embarrassed by her swollen belly. People dared not laugh much since the grocer was there among them, though not for long, as he then went home cursing the fellow he reckoned too cheeky by far.
Then came the turn of a wealthy landowner. With one hand he was weighing up a sack of coins, with the other he was prodding his liver. Satisfaction and anxiety both had their share on his clay face.
When evening came, each began to think: ¡®Tomorrow, perhaps they¡¯ll be laughing at me.¡¯ And the forecast came true. So the number of spectators decreased as that of the models grew.
During those days, the earth revealed the failings of each, the greeds and sorrows, the full and empty stomachs, the hidden angers and the false joys, fear before the future and anguish at death. All was laid bare to the eyes of all.
Never was a man so detested as the potter in those days, but no one dared lay a hand on him for, since he had emerged from the tank, he was considered a magician.
The last images to take shape were those of the children. To assist at their birth there remained hardly any witnesses except for a few women who had too much suffered from their own weaknesses to be upset when they were recognized.
In the space of a day, clay children invaded the workshop. They were playing war games with the soldiers¡¯ weapons. One mother recognized hers by his pants, that were always torn, another by his skinny limbs. One boy was waving the knife he had stolen from his father.
A woman said: ¡®Mine¡¯s the only one left; he limps so he¡¯s always the last of the gang.¡¯
The hands began to work with the last remains of the clay. His mother said: ¡®That¡¯s him alright. The shorter leg turns sideways too.¡¯ But she was shocked to see her son suddenly collapse and limply fall flat on the wooden wheel.
Just then the whole village heard from afar the dull sound of a shot. People went racing down into the valley as quickly as they had hurried up on the day of the catastrophe.
In the time following the child¡¯s funeral, no one called on the potter. Hearts were dulled, hearts in which oaths turned endlessly like the seaside pebbles in a hermetically sealed pebble-mill. No one could find anything to say about death, their own of course, but even less about the death of a child. Occasionally someone went so far as to throw a passing glance, as if throwing a stone, toward the workshop, and murmured, chewing their tongue: ¡®Swine, just you wait!¡¯
The soldiers had a hard time getting their guns back, for the terrified children had hidden them at once. The elders held frequent palavers on the village square in an incomprehensible jargon. Like them, and probably for the first time ever, the whole population was animated with the same intention: they must get rid of the magician. They pondered how it should be done and it was not easy, for the potter had clearly committed no crime apart from having modelled people as he had seen them.
The figures dried. The potter arranged them in the kiln and bricked its entrance shut. Then he kindled the fire. The wind pushed the smoke down, and it spread through the streets and houses, for the weather was lowering. Then the people grew afraid. They had the impression that the air was suddenly unbreathable, that it was attacking their skin like a swarm of wasps when the plowshare digs through their nest. They went rushing toward the fountain, intending to bathe their faces in it, but the fountain was empty and water was no longer flowing from the bronze spout, sticking out stiff like the tube of a canon.
At that moment the soldiers happened to be marching in proper order in the direction of the workshop, and people shouted: ¡®Kill him, for God¡¯s sake!¡¯
Only the mother of the cripple, who seemed to have lost her mind, rushed among them, begging: ¡®Not now, not now; he¡¯s put my child in the kiln and if you kill him he won¡¯t be able to give him me back!¡¯
But the soldiers pushed her aside and forced the crowd to shut up, knowing what orders they had received. They stopped at the entrance to the yard and only one of them went on until his silhouette was close to that of the potter.
In order to protect himself from the glow of an already bright fire, the potter had put on a long leather apron, and an overcoat singed here and there, with a hat pulled down low over his eyes. Pretending to want to share in the task, the soldier cautiously threw a few logs into the mouth of the kiln. They had scarcely landed before the whole length of the wood flared into flame and the chimney disgorged billows of black smoke. From time to time, the potter pulled out a brick from the door and checked the progress of the firing. After a few more hours, he checked the kiln once more, turned toward the soldier, and said, pointing at the log in his hands: ¡®Look well, this is the last!¡¯ And resigned it to the flames. Then the executioner seized the potter by the shoulders and hurled him into the fire. The rest of the squadron rushed in to wall up the kiln. The bricks used to close it cracked on contact with the embers and the fissures had to be plastered over several times with damp earth.
The chimney swallowed its plume of smoke and everyone went home under a sky livid with those silent streaks of lightning people attribute to the heat.
I will finish briefly, since there is nothing much interesting about making the round of the farms to see people agitated in their sleep, seeking a little cool spot in the folds of their sheets.
What interests me is to follow the mother of the little cripple. All night long she plied her tears, down every last alleyway. She passed a hundred times in front of the kiln, and each time came a little closer as the heat radiating from it diminished. Now her hands can stand to touch it and she begins to scrape away the hardened mortar holding the bricks together.
But the cement has hardened. Someone passing by asks her what she is doing. She replies that she is trying to open the way for her child that the potter put last into the kiln, just behind the wall. The passer-by offers to help, takes a little hammer and makes an opening where she points. Then the mother is able to take her child out of the kiln and carry him off in her arms.
She takes him all over the village, showing him to people rising early to milk the cows. She tells them: ¡®Look how well he is now. He isn¡¯t limping any more, his two legs are the same length and the left one isn¡¯t turned sideways. There¡¯s no sign now of the little hole he had in his chest . . .¡¯
I know, people pretend not to like happy endings. They say: ¡®Those are stories for children, or to offer a moment¡¯s comfort to the unhappy.¡¯ It was fun for a while, so long as it was not clear how it would end. Now they smile, as people smile at the door of stables where they have other things to do than be bothered with the crazy caresses a woman out of her mind is lavishing on a terra cotta statue. But after they have coated their hands with the grease used when milking, sat down on the stool, pushed their head into the swelling leather of the hot stomachs, they say: ¡®All the same, it¡¯s true that the kid had both legs the same length! Then my figure, the one the potter made of me, what¡¯s it like now? Does it still have a stomach-ache or not? Has he finally been able to pay of those debts? Has he had enough to eat? Is he still afraid of dying?¡¯
Then once the milk is set out to cool, the manure swept out of the stables, the bread dipped in soup eaten, they reckon there¡¯d be no harm in going to take a look.
That is why, at about eight in the morning, all the villagers are there in front of the kiln, as if at a rendezvous. They seem awkward, the more so since the bricked-up door is closed again. They ask the woman: ¡®How did you open it?¡¯ She replies: ¡®I didn¡¯t; it was a man, I couldn¡¯t see him clearly; it was still dark. His voice sounded like that of the potter.¡¯ They answered: ¡®You¡¯re mad; the potter¡¯s dead!¡¯ And she insists: ¡®It was my son who was dead, and that was why he was restored to me!¡¯
That¡¯s where my tale ends. I have already said how fond I am of it. I repeat it over and over to myself as I work, though it is not always possible, as I have also already said. It gives me patience when the light from my kiln is slow to shine out with its final brightness, that light my eyes find hard to bear.
On the night before the firing, I could not get to sleep. But now the job is done and the workshop swept ready for the party, I lie down and am asleep in a flash. Then I have dreams that make me sleep more soundly still . . .
The weather is grayish, it seems. A regular sky above the green expanses of meadows with short grass and no flowers. It must have rained in recent days, one of those good springtime showers that wash down the melting snow, for the river is flowing level with the grass. Its water is gray like the sky, smooth and silent like a closed door. The door is not visible in the dream, but now I understand that it is there too. My fishing pole is a pen-stroke projecting weightless from my hand and I no longer remember if I fixed a hook to the end of its interminable line, that barely whistles when I whip the surface of the water. But it does not matter. The fact is that every time the invisible thread touches the river, close to me or far away, as it happens, my line arches and trembles in my hand. Then, with every cast, the door opens for a brief moment and I reel in, slapping over the water first and then sliding across the grass, a fish high as a jug and wide as a plate. I fish all day, or all night if you like, and by the end I have made such a miraculous catch that I can scarcely glimpse the green of the grass around me, shining and variegated like enormous rainbow perch or rather like those pharmaceutical pots they used to paint in the old days in the free exuberance of the faience factories . . .
I have fished in that way in many different rivers and many lakes, but I have also entered any number of rocky clefts and dank caves. And the treasure of Golconda is as nothing compared with the fabulous stocks of crystals and precious stones I have sometimes been allowed to contemplate in the dark belly of the earth.
It was yesterday, on the threshold of night, after the spongy layer of cloud had risen high, then vanished lightly in the wind.
In a moment the valley, that had been so silent prior to the thunder storm, became a nocturnal city, with the river an avenue and the marshes its crowded neighborhoods. There, a host of pippins, frogs and toads set about counting the stars out loud.
Then you felt a longing for some scrap of the light you had been denied by the day¡¯s dullness; but a more moderate and more discreet light, less broadcast, better defined, a light fit for the night, that would modestly push back the shadows while reconciling you with them.
A longing for a little warmth, too, less oppressive than in the expectation of a storm, to banish the shivers of the rising mist.
In the meadow, amidst the thistles and wild carrots, you disposed a willow stump that had been hollowed out when still alive, that the flooding river had deposited like a dead animal of another age on the gravel shore. You filled its carcass with a little straw and a few odd sticks.
At first the fire was smothered, but the fierce creature soon spat away the smoke and robed itself in a light layer of flames that seemed to you a party dress. Indeed, you were not wrong to enjoy that simple moment of happiness which grasshoppers came to share with you.
The stump took fire from within. Through the thinner walls of sapwood, blue blades began to pierce that set about carving a mask of varying aspect, with many mouths. Then the mask lost an ear, a cheek, a brow. Soon there was nothing but a circle of jumping-jacks growing ever thinner; one false step brought them tumbling in chaos onto the bed of embers.
Now it is morning. You watch the last wisps of smoke rising from the last scale of bark. Of all that happiness only a memory remains. You wonder: ¡®Was that mask not simply the mask of death gnawing away at the last scraps of life in the grimacing ruin?¡¯ And as everyone does, you repeat: ¡®Ashes to ashes, the end of all things.¡¯ Soon the wind will come and blow the dust away; nothing will remain, nothing but a scorched bald patch in the midst of the thistles and wild carrots . . .
Suppose that now I told you, as I did before regarding the clay: ¡®Gather up those cold ashes carefully; go and offer them to anyone you care to!¡¯ Undoubtedly you would reply: ¡®Are you laughing at me, or playing games with me? Why do you want to make me look to everyone like a joker or an idiot?¡¯
You would be right, or at least, nearly.
I know very well, nowadays no one care about ashes any more. There was a time when the village housewives used them to bleach their linen; the farmers enriched the fields with them, and hams were even preserved in them after being salted down. But today no one does any of that. People still like to see firewood neatly piled against the wall of a house, promising warmth, a store of life. People love it when it burns, especially. But its corpse is no longer of any interest. It is mere gray dirt. Combining with rain, it forms a corrosive mud that pierces your skin like a needle. So people try to be rid of it. That is why, if you took my advice, everyone would laugh at you and this time, no one would even think to say: ¡®Take your gift to the potter!¡¯
Yet, if you were to offer it to me, I would not fail to show my gratitude. For you must learn, there is a future for ashes.
¡®Really? How?¡¯ You ask. ¡®What magic could ever bring anything out of this nothing? Or again, what comforting illusion do you want to make me victim of now?¡¯
My reply; ¡®Think back. Did I deceive you in the days when I told you about the clay dust? Did I lead you out into that desert in vain? Was the earth not saved by fire?¡¯
Now, if clay is dust, you should realize that in this apparently unfortunate destiny ash is its faithful companion. Robed in ashes, in grief, my pots go into the kiln and from that image of nothing the fire will produce a festive garment!
How can I make you understand that? To initiate you into the secret that makes my joy complete, will it be enough for me to lead you once again into the kingdom of rejection and death?
Rather, come with me to burn some dead bracken. A discontented farmer offered it to me, saying: ¡®If this poison interests you, it¡¯s yours!¡¯ The plant had come sailing proudly out of the forest, taking over pasture land and submerging clover, fescues and quaking grass.
For days on end, I cut down the high palms which already, when alive, reminded me, and only me, of frost crystals glazing winter windowpanes. Then I turned the heavy swathes each morning after dewfall and again a second time under the midday sun. Today the plants are dry, ready for the fire that will have to be carefully controlled.
In the middle of this patch of bare earth, that I have swept clear of every last scrap of grass, I kindle a forkful of russet fronds. It flares up in a flash, crackling like fish in a frying pan, then collapses gently in on itself like a balloon deflating. In the rising heat swarms of sparks rise heavenward then drift softly down, scattering across the field.
Now you understand the day¡¯s task—to avoid seeing the precious harvest scattered, the fire must be covered with a new layer of thatch every time the flames are about to break through the previous load . . .
Now the blaze is bigger, the fork-loads have to be added rapidly. Light tinkling sounds emerge, like fine stalactites of glass splintering. The music intrigues you. Will you believe me if I say: ¡®That is the song of drops of glaze being born!¡¯?
Now I will show you something even better.
We have finished transporting our harvest. It is all here now before us, a hut of fire high as a man. Two days and two nights will reduce it all to ash. The evening breeze rises and its blowtorch pierces brightly lit rabbit warrens in the depths of which incandescent lava flows. Enjoy the fascinating spectacle, if you can bear it, but be quick for it must not last. The ash must not melt and then grow cold too soon, or it will form a shapeless mass, black and hard as volcanic glass. Therefore the stack must be firmed down with an iron spade to allow it to resist the wind¡¯s claws . . .
The rest of the work is mine now—collecting the ash, removing the charred scraps, grinding it, washing it, removing the faithful witness that will give me knowledge of this new-born mineral through the patient questioning of the brightest flame in my kiln. It¡¯s my job, as they say, with the potter fumbling about like a blind man until the day when he draws from the kiln fragments of light.
But festivals are not always so easy to come by. Late autumn last year, for instance, with its unending rain. The whole countryside was tottering on the over-saturated sponge of the earth. Several old trees, affected by the river¡¯s changing course, toppled across the stream to provide derisory bridges in places where no one was inclined to cross. Poorly supported by their too-short roots, most of the maize stalks collapsed into the mud and their ears rotted beneath the ice, for it was already December.
The only way to avoid total disaster was to harvest by hand!
As I freed my boots, made prisoners by the mud at every step, I repeated, to give myself courage: ¡®It¡¯s the potter¡¯s luck again! In good or bad weather, the machines crush the stalks and coat them in mud . . .¡¯ But still, I would have liked the fog to stay away!
Once the ears of corn had been saved, I cut the stalks that were still standing upright and carried them held high out of the swamp. Days and days of hard labor for a stack of straw that would shrink even more as it dried, so long as it did not simply rot. Enough glaze for a few dozen vases . . .
To be ready to work like a convict in that way, surely I must, in the fire of an ancient dream, have received a splinter of opal in my heart?
That may be why, since that day when for the first time I made ash melt, nothing makes me happier than precious stones. Not those prodigal children of rock, although turquoise or emerald leave me lost in jealous admiration, but stones in the form of pots discovered as I open my kiln, born of the almost nothing of ash through the grace of the fire.
So you ask: ¡®But how does it happen?¡¯
Well, look once again at the countryside! Today, not a breath of wind. Motionless, fields, hedges, forest look to you like a picture, a décor planted there for the slow, monotonous coming and going of the herds. But the image is deceptive, veiling the secret movements of unceasing labor! No, I am not alone in burrowing like a mole into the maternal globe, taking into my store earths of every texture and color—and every day I wonder what new rock will give me the joy of drawing it from its darkness—for the roots of every kind of plant are busily working like miners underground, providing the stalk, the leaf and the fruit with those salts that will draw on the power of the sun to give its specific quality to the species. While the water in the sap carries those salts to every part of the plant, the fire gathers them in the form of ashes, which is therefore an essence of earth, good for the potter, each species giving a specific quality to the glaze.
The day I learned that was a day of joy. Daughter of the rock, the ash added its dust to that of the clay. At the point where people see only death began for me a festival; my scrap-merchant¡¯s heart kindled with a new fever and my former lamentations over plants sacrificed flew away in smoke—plants could recover their rightful place on earth!
With that I became a potter like a peasant, gathering in at the proper season acacia, oak, sacks of vine-cuttings or straw duly labelled with the year and the locality, like vintage wines . . .
Yet there are days when I wonder: ¡®Really, what has happened to me? What wizard has bewitched me so that the way I look at everything that seems alive—that yet sooner or later will turn into ashes—has changed, as if the whole world were called, each thing in its order and at its proper hour, to undergo the precious metamorphosis by the work of a fire, the inexhaustible source of which I am still unable to imagine, the fire of the earth dying out beneath its ashes?¡¯ If I limit myself to the present moment, how is it that I can consider forests and heaths, fields, vineyards, ripe corn and the seething plant life of the wetlands as kingdoms with a single expectation—of the day I shall offer their dust to the mysteries of my kiln, as though I and I alone were charged to hasten that surprising and blessed flowering . . .
But I can see that already you are listening with only half an ear to my meditation; it is time for me to stop. Now the fever is gaining hold of you as it has so many others before you. I had scarcely told you the wonderful secret before you longed to make the adventure your own, no matter if it should start in the torrid sunlight of summer or amidst the winter ice.
For a brief moment, your memory flashes back over all those wood fires of earlier days, that you kept poking back to life in the fireplace to prolong the pleasure, as well as the blaze of a pine grove, a haystack, a barn, and all those blazing horizons that were not those of sunset, consuming human hearts.
Then you say: ¡®Ah, if I had only known! In joys and in catastrophes, what treasures have slipped through my fingers!¡¯ But then you add at once; ¡®Since the earth is always at work, forget about the past! The neglected ashes of days gone by will fertilize new, living generations.¡¯
Here you are, more impatient than a child on the threshold of a party. A thousand projects, unthinkable but yesterday, swarm into your mind. Now you are thinking of burning rose cuttings for me, dreaming of a flowery glaze, or vine branches in this year of excellent vintage . . . Your imagination runs wild, breaks free of the limits of the possible. You would like to cut down one oak tree every month of the year to give a varied appearance to twelve hitherto unseen pots; sort autumn leaves according to their color, the flames of maple, the glow of the cherry. You ask me: ¡®With the ashes of reeds, could you not have the river swirling in a cup? Will you turn me broad dishes where seaweed can pour the depths of the ocean?¡¯
And since ash is said to be the end of all things, why not begin again with every kind of ash?
At that, one wild question breaks into your reeling dreams: what of human ashes?
I confess, a child already asked me. So I told her how a grieving potter, on a remote island, far from here, eager to celebrate a memory . . .