High-gloss vessels of all sorts and colours were lined up on the windowsill, the narrowest of all the formerly available surfaces, and they baked again each day in the summer sunshine. Shafts of sun traversed the floor and walls in a daily search for something, pausing for long periods to examine the textures and colours of all the objects they could reach. They slipped in slow motion across pots and goblets, some holding shaping tools and random utensils that had collected there. They probed stacks of packaged clay, they lingered on bottles of paint and gloss and varnish, they took a spin around the wheel. They waited at the door of the kiln as if wondering what remained inside. Every day the silent visitor found a slightly heavier coating of dust, but nothing else was changed.
Vel had been a force to be reckoned with from the day she was born, kicking and screaming. Her dad said she was born frustrated, as if she knew already there were great things she could be doing if only she could walk and talk. The solution for that was to fast-track her development, and if it was possible for a baby to do so, Vel was already the author of her own destiny. She was the leader of the “Bike Riders!”, her neighbourhood pack of kids, before kindergarten began, and she was the most feral of all the pre-teen pirates and wild horses that roamed the woods at the end of the park.
Vel lived her childhood years like she was an eighty-year-old with a second chance. It was as if she was aware that those years couldn’t last forever, but she got as much use out of them as possible before they went the way of all the t-shirts and jeans she wore out with glorious living. When childhood was over and done she had no trouble relinquishing what she no longer needed, but she kept the parts she loved and made sure they never wore out.
Vel always had a knack for sorting her life into what she wanted and what she didn’t want. The sub-categories were what she already had and what she would get, and what she got rid of and what she avoided altogether. She just had a gift for it. She weeded through the people who entered her life like an expert gardener, cutting off the unwanted elements when they had barely shown their heads while tending the good ones with perfect doses of attention and repose. She did the same with school and work, taking what she chose from her education and chucking the rest in the compost where it belonged. It was the formula for a blessed existence.
Her parents did wonder if perhaps her success came too easily. It was great that she had built so much confidence as a child, but they thought she might be unprepared for a fall when it came, as surely, it must in some form. That’s just how life was, for everyone else at least. But Vel, well, Vel began a career in travel writing just as the market perked up. She travelled the world. There was nothing out there that was daunting to Vel. Her radar for shady situations never failed, nor did her independent spirit and open mind.
Each time she came home, she’d go straight to her studio to record in clay the swirl of ethnic designs she had seen in her travels. As she pictured the markets, the backstreets and lonely places she had visited, she would spin her impressions into bowls and goblets. She conjured the people who had shared their food and drink with her against the background of their traditional homes. She riffed on the idea of vessels for food being shared, of cultures, represented by food and creative design, being passed physically into the hands of guests who ate and drank from them. The anthropologist in Vel recognized clay as an ancient and intimate medium. She loved to take a lump of nothing and build it up into something beautiful with her strong hands, and then, with a delicate touch, create the patterns that told a story.
While she worked she edited her current books and articles, adding the personal observations that made them best sellers. Vel knew it was a life most people could only dream of achieving. She revelled in every moment.
Vel hardly noticed the years flying by. She was taken by surprise when her friends reminded her not to make travel plans for the weekend of her fiftieth birthday. They gave plenty of notice, but still, fifty was a surprising number. She felt much as she had when she was thirty. Still fit, slim(ish) and energetic, working out in airports and hiking all over the world. She hardly went anywhere without carrying her 45-pound suitcase. But on her next trip, just to Ireland, she did feel the travel weariness a bit more than usual in her knees. No, just one knee. She thought she’d shake it off once she could get some exercise.
Not far into the coastal cycle tour from Fenit, Vel realized that exercise was irritating her left knee. It ached all that day and into the night. She couldn’t concentrate to write about her day. Frustrated, she took painkillers and slept. The next day, and the next, walking and cycling, the pain was worse and spreading down her shin. Painkillers didn’t work. For the first time in her career, Vel was happier to be going home than to be off to somewhere new.
“It just hurts, all the time!” Vel told her doctor. She focussed on the pain, not the fevers or tiredness. That, she could concede to her time of life, she supposed. “It must be a bone spur or something. It’s just exhausting.”
“Ok, I’ll run some tests,” the doctor said. “Have you travelled to any exotic places recently?” They both had a laugh. Vel felt relieved.
When the tests came back the news was not relieving. It was nonsensical. Bone cancer was not something from Vel’s world. An unknown, unpredictable, uncontrollable factor? What was she supposed to do with that? Her gifts, her own special brand of carefree luck, were no help to her with this. It was not possible to simply avoid this.
“Nip it in the butt, Velly, like you always do,” her dad said. “You can absolutely bite it in the butt, and you’d better get your fangs out.”
The cancer was aggressive, so the treatment was too. “We’re going to cut away all the disease and create a nice stump to work with,” the surgeon said. He actually said “stump”? Vel had been having trouble processing.
“They’re going to try for a below-knee amputation,” she told her parents on the phone. “Best case scenario.”
“A baloney amputation? Have you checked this guy’s credentials?” Her dad was truly unstoppable.
Vel laughed, taking herself by the surprise. “Maybe he was just pulling my leg, Dad.”
The surgeon took the joke away when he took the knee away too.
“Come on, I worked on this the whole time you were out. Nonie.”
“Nonie to knock. Or how about: Nonie left, but I am Vel anyway?”
Vel spent her fiftieth birthday with her friends, reclining in a wipeable plastic chair, getting her toes done. “Half price?” she quipped, and she could feel her friends relax a little. It was scary for them, too, seeing her, minus a leg, hooked up to a machine receiving chemotherapy. No one knows how that works until they need to.
Vel realized she should have shared some of her wild adventures while they were still fun. Instead of a travel brochure or an inflight magazine, it was a catalogue of prosthetics her friends bent their heads over as they considered the immediate future. They had brought her a present from the shop downstairs. It wasn’t a snow globe from Iceland or a bookmark from Peru. It was a headscarf, made in China, sold in America. It was meant to cover her lack of hair rather than her hair. They had chosen one with kitten skulls in black and white, with pink bow ties. For some reason they still had their ears. They wouldn’t be cute without them. They’d be too real.
Vel had been polite about the scarf. She had had a cheery day, as abnormal as it had been. When she looked at those skulls the next day, she threw up.
“Dad! You really shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Just checking on my girl. You still have your spark.”
It wasn’t a spark. It was an ember growing dim.
She was tired. Bone weary. Stress fatigued. Exhausted. How do you have hope when you can hardly drag yourself to the bathroom? How would she ever get her life back when she couldn’t even operate her pottery wheel anymore, never mind travel? She was just so tired.
Vel curled into a tight ball and allowed herself to slip into darkness.
The long rays of summer sun came every day to explore the studio. The change was very slow, but the Sun and Time were old friends of the patient, quiet kind. The long rays melted across each patterned vessel, the halted wheel, the cold oven; and Time indicated how the layers of dust that accumulated on them were a study in themselves. Something an anthropologist or forensic scientist might appreciate.
The layers were a record of Time, separated into eras. The lowest, right against each surface, was the oldest layer and the first to settle. This was dust of clay, thrown everywhere during the artistic process. It was fine in grain and reddish in colour. The second, in the middle, was thinner, paler and softer. This was the dust of disuse, the dust of emptiness and undisturbed space, the dust of Nature taking her course. The third layer, the one that settled in on top, was the thickest and most recent. It was the one that was active. This was sawdust.
A shadow passed across the window, distracting the rays from their investigation of the studio. Out in the yard, an artist was stepping back to study her work. It was larger than any of the pieces she had done before. She considered this one to be the first that wasn’t for practice. This one was a showcase of her skills.
It was nine feet tall. It featured a little boy launching into the air. Below him, in a rambunctious pile, were creatures from an imaginary forest, where wolves and monkeys, rabbits and parrots lived together in harmony. These were just roughed in as yet. Their features, along with the boy’s feather and leaves outfit, his panpipes and his prosthetic leg, and the fairy on his shoulder, would be added with finer tools. For now, Vel hefted her chainsaw to cut some chunks from the base. She loved the feeling it gave her, recrafting formerly living organisms into something fresh and beautiful. It was power over destiny that she had never felt before.
In her travels far and wide she had seen plenty of hardship. People lost limbs all the time, and they lived without them. Vel had been fitted with a bionic prosthetic. She could do her job without a leg. In fact, she could probably do it better, now that she fit in a niche all her own in the travel writing genre. Now that she was strong and healthy, Vel was ready for a comeback. She was ready to be better than she had been before.
As always, she cut what was unnecessary from her existence. She didn’t want to build empty vessels any longer. She wanted to destroy in order to create. She wanted to wield the power to create vitality in something dead with her own two hands, like the surgeon who had cut away the rot and the prosthetist who made her new leg, all rolled into one.
She thought of how the surgeon had referred to her stump in such a matter-of-fact way and wondered if, in that moment when she had barely grasped his words, had been the seed of her new adventure. Her dad took the credit for himself, saying that it was his new nickname for her that had inspired the chainsaw carving. Stumpy. “Stumpy’s Chainsaw Sculpture.” How he loved watching her explain to visitors that she hadn’t lost a leg to her art.
She was pleased, so far, with her piece. She wanted this one to be perfect. It was going to stand in the healing garden at the Children’s Hospital.