The Apprentice's Dilemma

Submitted into Contest #95 in response to: Start your story with someone being presented with a dilemma.... view prompt

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Fantasy Inspirational

Aurora trudged up the slope, pulling the all too light wagon of clay up towards the Potter's house. How much could one block of clay weigh?

A lot, a tiny voice in the back of her head said. You shouldn't have done that.

It was no use telling Aurora that now. The Potter stood in the doorway, watching her skeptically as she did all his dirty work for him.

At least she had been somewhat clever. She hid the empty gap on the bottom of the wagon since the clay generally tended to stick together, it wasn't vissibly noticeably. She quickly adjusted her pocket so that it didn't sag.

The small block of clay felt much to noticeable. Well, well, well." the Potter said, seemingly annoyed. "Look who's late by 30 minutes."

He held up an hourglass, almost done trickling to the bottom.

She gritted her teeth. The potter wouldn’t notice it if one of his other apprentices was 30 minutes late! It was just that they were boys, and she was the first girl in the large village to take up any apprenticeship usually done by them. And a potter’s apprentice no less.

There were many less grueling jobs; but she was determined to prove herself, to make a statement that she could do anything.

But so far she’s just been digging up clay from the beach with her spade, shaping it into blocks, and trudging up the steep rugged hill to the potter’s house.

His house overlooked the rest of the village; from up here you could see all the small huts, including the one that belonged to her family, a small one dutifully constructed out of stones that she and her brother had hauled over from the lake. Her twin brother seemed to be the only one who agreed that she could do anything the rest of the kids could. She was faster, smarter, and stronger then most of them. 

The potter placed a hand on the weigher, and Aurora knew what this meant. He would see the difference, how the huge block of clay did not have one small block worth of clay in it. He would fire her. 

No. She couldn’t let that happen.

How could she avoid this. It was like one of the riddles that her brother loved to do, all the puzzles and dilemmas that made him smarter, sharpened his brain until it was as pointed as a knife; his tongue could also be that sharp if needed! If you needed something cut, you could use his tongue. Of course, he hardly ever used that tongue of his on his sister.

She thought for a moment. She couldn’t think for too long because the potter was standing in front of her, still holding the hourglass, white sand trickling down into the bottom part, gathering until it finally ran out. How? How could she avoid being downcast? Nobody would accept her as an apprentice after the potter himself, a brother of the chieftain, said for her not to be his worker. 

Something clicked in her brain, something that completely solved her problem. This would be perfect. After all, she still had the block in her pocket. 

It was time for her mother’s magic.

Her mother had taught her tricks to pass the time, tricks that would fool anyone. Magic tricks. She knew how to make a coin vanish and reappear, how to know what card someone picked out of a deck, and most importantly, how to palm something. Pulling the huge chunk of clay up with both hands, she held it in her left hand for a moment while putting her right hand into the pocket. Unnoticed, she palmed the block of clay, curving her hand slightly so she would be able to hold the clay upside down, making sure it was covered from the potter’s line of sight by the huge and heavy block of clay. 


Relieved, she slipped the block of clay into the larger block of clay, and then put it on the scale. For a terrible moment she thought the block of clay was going to fall out, but it didn’t. The part with the block fell down until it was perfectly balanced with the weight on the other side. The potter’s face became displeased. 

“You did okay,” he said, though for sure he didn’t really mean it. “But next time you need to be quicker.

“Now,” he said, “Go inside and prepare the clay.” 

The wind kicked up, blowing her hair to the side, and she was grateful to go inside and start preparing the chunks of clay. 

“Yes sir,” she said.

While going to the pottery room, Aurora caught sight of the potter’s wife preparing dinner, even though the sun would have to move 4 hands across the sky before that happened.

Placing the clay on the stone floor in the corner of the room, she started picking through for debris, like rocks and shells. Every time she collected a shell, she put it in her pocket. If she collected an interesting looking rock, she put that in her pocket too. She knew that her brother would have a lot of fun examining those rocks. He might find out what type of rocks they were. Every so often, when she came across an ordinary rock, she put it in the bucket that was already mostly full of ordinary rocks. 

Next, she took out her pounder from the rack. Her pounder was badly carved of old wood, sharp angles contrasting with the potter’s perfectly curved pounder that was engraved with all sorts of beautiful designs, flowers, and pictures of people pounding the clay- it was made by the finest woodcarver in all of the nation!

She started to pound the clay, breaking up the large clumps of clay with her pounder. For a moment there, she had thought about using the potter’s bat; it would be much more efficient, but she figured she had done enough sneaky things that day, including what she was about to do. 

She watered the clay, making sure it was moist but not liquid, scooping up water from a bucket with her hands, and pouring it over the clay.

Then she kneaded it, her hands rubbing against the satisfying texture of the clay. She pushed it until it was flat, then rolled it all up into a ball and pushed it down again. She did this over and over until the clay was perfect. Next, she shaped it into bricks again. This was a painstaking and slow process. It took at least the time for the sun to move three hands across the sky. She dumped all but one of the bricks into a pretty urn that the potter had made; the one that remained would be put in her pocket.

Aurora tiredly trudged out.

“You may go now,” the potter said.

Relieved, she trotted down the hill. Going down was much, much easier than going up with a wagon full of clay. 

It was a beautiful day, the grass was dripping with dew, the trees were flowering with pink flowers, and the lake below was sparkling with blue. All around them was water, the island was surrounded by a sparkling deeper blue and the wind had settled so that it was warm now. 

It was completely perfect. She took out the piece of clay, and imagined what she could turn it into. A flower? An urn?

And then something came to her. Yes, now that would be what she would shape. It would be perfect. It was the symbol of the little island, the very being of magic itself. 

Her project shape in her mind, and it flew away into the back of her brain, ready to be used for later. It still left a trail of flames behind though, and they danced, even though it was gone, and slowly they faded away.

She could only think of it as she walked home, cradling the brick of clay gently.

All the houses were like hers, made of rocks and reeds and other things people found lying around, like driftwood and bricks. 

She didn't even notice herself tripping on a rock, falling down, and bleeding. She just ran.

She ran faster, the dirt flying up behind her, her bare feet powering her on. She was the fastest kid in the entire village. She could go on and on forever!

But she decided to stop at her house. Papa was renewing the reeds on the top of the house, making sure there were no gaps for the rain or snow to go through; after all it was spring, and although it was rare, it could still snow. 

She walked to the back, making sure she was unseen, her head nodding along to the steady blowing of the breeze like it was the music the people played with their instruments every time a new year began- to welcome the new revolution around the sun. 

She sat down cross-legged on the long pale grass that waved gently in the warm wind, rubbing against her skin. 

She sat backwards so her dad couldn’t see what she was holding. As if on cue, the last reed was put into place and her father climbed down on the stones that stuck out, not knowing that his daughter was at the back of the house. She heard him sit down to rest, just like she had after she was finished running. 

Kneading the clay softly, she broke it up, making sure it was shapeable. She kneaded it again, feeling the soft but sturdy clay give under her hands. She flattened it, seeing that it was about as thick as her hand. 

She started to shape. She had never done this before, but it felt like something was guiding her. It was like the bird was in there already, waiting to be unleashed so it could fly into the sky. She just molded it, starting with the body so that she could build on it later. The details would come after she had sculpted the thing. Squeezing it harder, shaping its neck, and then a head to go on it. She fasted a small beak. She didn’t realize that the sun was setting, she didn’t realize that the rest of her family was coming home; her brother from the fields helping his mom walked in energetically, while mom herself was not feeling very energetic. Her brother- Lao- would never get tired of doing anything. He had an infinite attention span and could work on a puzzle for days straight, only stopping to eat meals so he could “fire up his brain”.

She didn’t notice the sun setting, because the bird itself seemed to glow in the dark.

The wings had proved to be the hardest part yet, sculpting it’s wings so that it looked like it could fly away. Right now she was working on the flames that coated the body of the beast, the fire of the Phoenix. 

She had painstakingly carved with her fingernail feathers to go on the wings and body, proud facial expressions for the Phoenix. 

“Good job,” she imagined the Phoenix saying. “You have done well in carving me.”

When she was finally done, she hid the Phoenix in the longer grass, went inside, and sunk into a deep sleep, not even bothering to eat dinner.

The next day, she brought the Phoenix in her pocket to get painted. As usual, the Potter sent her down to collect the blocks of clay- that grueling work that she did every day, and when she came up from the long walk up the hill, she weighed the clay under the Potter’s watchful eye and was sent in to prepare the clay.

Once again, she went through the process of picking out debris, adding it to what was already in her pocket from yesterday- she hadn’t had time to show her findings to her brother- and pounding the clay with her beaten Pounder, hitting it over and over. Next, she walked over to the other end of the room, passing all of the professional tools the potter owned. After grabbing the watering can, she filled it with the bucket of water, watching the crystal blue liquid splash down into the fancy watering can that did it justice. She walked back and watered it over the clay, watching the drops sink into the clay, making it fresh. The potter had today told her not to use her hands; to use the watering can; but that she would regret it if she broke it. 

Of course she wouldn’t break it- what did her master think she was- a destructive lunatic? No, she wasn’t a destructive lunatic, even though she had half a mind too, as the Potter made her infuriatingly angry and mad. 

After she was done she repeated the painstaking process of shaping it into blocks with her bare hands, creating one brick of clay after another, knowing that one day, all this clay would be turned into beautiful objects like urns and bottles and things of the like- that was the Potter’s specialty. She made quick use of her work so that she would have extra time to paint the Phoenix. 

She eyed the paints- there were shining gold, red, orange, and yellow- and she intended to use them all. She dumped the blocks into the urn to join their brethren and laughed at it all.

Every time she did this, it felt a little funny, because, after all the work that had been done to shape the blocks, she carelessly dumped them into the urn like it was all nothing, even though it was many hand-lengths of grueling work.

Finally, The part she had been waiting for. She pulled the bottles of the paint of the shelf, and again, got caught up in that trancelike mode. She painted and painted for the remaining time that she was in that room. It became fire, the raging fire that destroyed entire forests, the flickering fire that helped many people by cooking their food, the blazing fire that kept people warm in the coldest of nights…

All of those were the Fire of the Phoenix.

And stroke by stroke, she gave the gray creature color, the flames soaring off it, the body, wings, and head, gave them fire. 

It was done. The phoenix looked ready to fly away, ready to soar off into the clouds, to create more fire. 

She wasn’t sure what to do now, so she busied herself by putting away the paints and arranging everything so that it looked like nothing had happened.

Aurora walked out to the Potter, her pocket lump’s parameter even bigger now that it had taken a form, hair blowing in the breeze. 

When she got to the Potter, he told her to go and put his pieces in the kiln- the requests of his settings were very detailed, and she pulled a wagon full of beautiful painted art toward the kilns behind the Potter and his wife’s house.

There were two of them there; big stone ovens that the pottery baked in so that it became hard-

Once done, it felt like glass on your hands, shiny, and smooth, and fragile all at the same time. She shoved half of the creations into one of the kilns- the rightmost one, and she shoved the rest- including her phoenix- into the leftmost one.

She struck a match and threw it into the left kiln, then another into the left kiln, and set herself up placing objects neatly on the kiln, just as the Potter had ordered. 

She was so tired. She yawned and trudged back to the potter, wondering what she was going to have to do next.

She snuck around to the back, or at least she tried to the next morning.

Just then the Potter came out. He wore a displeased expression on his face.

She set off to do her regular chores. They didn’t seem to be short enough.

She hurried through getting the clay, weighing the clay, picking debris from the clay- and adding it to all that was in her pockets from the previous two days, pounding the clay, watering the clay, shaping the clay, and dumping the clay into a large urn. Then the potter sent her to collect the finished pieces from the kilns in the back and Aurora ran to the kilns with the two crates she was to load the works of art into.

She looked in, and loaded all of the pieces- mostly beautiful intricately sculpted urns and vases.

She unloaded them all into their respective crates, and gasped.

The Phoenix.

It was so shiny, the red and orange and yellow and gold paint blending together and creating the bird, even though it was a piece of pottery no more.

Aurora never really knew what happened then, but what she thought remembered was that she scooped the Phoenix up, and it felt amazingly smooth, like the urns of the Potter.

Suddenly, it felt like the world melted. The piece grew hotter and hotter, and bigger and bigger, and the shiny surface became feathers, real feathers, and the Phoenix moved. And then the Phoenix said, "You have done a good job creating me once more." It looked appraisingly over Aurora, and she felt a warmth creep through her skin on the cold spring day.

And then the Phoenix flew away, and she watched it, blazing fire, fly across the island, blessing all who watched it. The Potter was staring open mouthed, her family was gathered in front of the hut.

She looked up into the sky, the big blue sky, and felt a sudden love for the world.

She would keep this day in her heart forever, she thought.

May 29, 2021 00:07

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1 comment

Sirius Pureza
00:14 May 29, 2021

I had to crop 500 words.


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