Cloaked in Clay

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They say that a sculptor doesn’t create what she sculpts.  She only reveals what is already there in the medium.  I was not finding that to be true.  Either there was nothing to be revealed in the lump of clay that sat on the workbench before me, or I didn’t have the skill that a real sculptor is supposed to have.  The skill of sight.  The skill to see what it is that is seeking to be revealed in the medium.

Come on, I thought.  Reveal yourself.

***

Without a specific project, without impending deadlines, I was bound to start experiencing “sculptor’s block” again.  But this time, I was prepared.  I had a plan.  I had a list of exercises to shake myself loose.  For one week, I got out of my house and my studio.  I drove all over the city with the aim of finding materials out in the everyday world that I could mold into recognizable shapes.  Even if that shape was a simple sphere or pyramid.

Of course the first place that popped into my head was the beach.  So I went one day and made a sand castle.  Just a small one, using a bucket as the mold and some plastic butter knives to carve out angles.  The next day, a friend let me drop by and hang out in her back yard, shaping spheres out of dirt and mud.  The following day, I bought that cheap clay that kids play with and took it to the park, so I could try and sculpt whatever I saw from my bench.  The day after that, I sat at the same bench whittling a piece of bar soap into the shape of a little terrier who was running laps alongside his human companion.

The exercises were fun, and they helped me practice some technical skills.  But I wasn’t really exercising my creativity.  So the following week, I switched tactics.

My usual style was sculpting realistic pieces, not just recognizable, but actually existing in the real world.  So I decided to try my hand at some weird stuff—well, weird for me anyway.  I got a bunch of different clays from my regular place and started sculpting some abstract stuff at first, different geometrical shapes mashed together or parts that didn’t typically fit together.  I ended up with a duck’s head sprouting spider legs and a car whose doors swung open into bird wings.

“That’s more like it,” I said to myself as I stepped back from the largest piece I’d done thus far.

The other stuff could fit in the palm of my hands.  This one was the size of a bust (or at least a human head).  And this one wasn’t a combination of things I’d dreamt up.  It was a combination of things from classical mythology.  A griffin.  The back half of the creature was a lion.  The front half was an eagle.  I’d sculpted both animals separately before.  To challenge myself further, I tried a pose.  The griffin with wings outspread was looming over another creature.  Its prey, or maybe its enemy.

I’d been paying conscious attention to the griffin.  I didn’t really think about what the other creature in the piece would be.  And I found myself shaping not another creature, but a figure.  A human figure.  The figure of a man.

He was lying beneath the griffin, one arm bracing the ground beneath him.  The other arm raised above his head, as if it would provide any measure of protection against the griffin’s razor-edged beak.  He was pinned beneath one of the griffin’s talons.

I frowned.

The griffin was vibrant, its posture tense but electrified with the energy of a recent landing.  But I hadn’t meant for the piece to be so morbid.

***

The next day had me sculpting all manner of wonderful nonsense, from a wormy monster sprouting far too many eyeballs to a high-rise made of mushrooms.

Again they were all small sculptures.  Just exercises.  After lunch I started on another, just letting my hands start molding the clay.  Shapes emerged and I reached for my modeling tools to start carving in details.  I’d sculpted a pair of scales sitting on top of a sleeping crocodile.  A large feather lay on one side and a heart on the other.  The heart was not the symbolic two lobes meeting at a tip.  It was realistic.

It was a human heart.

The scale was tipped toward the heart.

There was a vague familiarity to the piece.  After I was done with it, I looked it up.

Funny thing, that.  The image was from mythology.  I seemed to have myth on the mind.  According to my quick search, my sculpture represented the scales of judgement from Egyptian mythology.  One article I found had a pretty fascinating and detailed description of a soul’s journey past physical death.  But I have a tendency to let myself meander from an actual topic of interest and relevance, until I find myself far afield from where I started (like that time I somehow ended up on a site that sells original props from a movie I loved as a kid).  So I made myself stop after reading only about the scales.

One of the first stops that a soul made was in front of the scales of judgement, where the soul’s heart was weighed against a feather, not just any feather, but the feather of truth.  If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul would endure and have a chance to move on to an afterlife of peace and wonder.  If not…

I gasped when I read about the crocodile-headed god who ate any hearts that outweighed the feather of truth, extinguishing the very existence of the soul who bore that heart.

I glanced again at my sculpture.

I didn’t know enough about any myth, much less Egyptian myth, to have sculpted something so specific, so particular to that mythology.

I must have seen it or learned about it somewhere before.  I couldn’t remember where.

I’d probably come across it when I was searching for reference images of the griffin.

***

I’d planned on taking a break from actual sculpting the next day and maybe sketching out some ideas for a larger piece, maybe something for a friend.  She worked as a financial consultant and was offered a promotion, which included a small, but very nice office (based on the pictures she’d sent).  She joked about an empty corner where she planned to put a plant or a coat rack, unless I could think of anything else that might look good in that corner.

The practice pieces I’d done were too small to be floor pieces, but I felt like I was starting to get into a good grove.  If I could focus a bit and hold back on the death motif, I was confident I could sculpt something tasteful and fitting for my friend’s new office.  I didn’t know if she liked mythology, but she loved fantasy books and movies.  And she would no doubt be pleasantly surprised—if not out-and-out ecstatic—to get an uncharacteristically fantastical sculpture from me.

I sketched a few dragons.  I think she liked dragons.  And fueled by inspiration (and the bean salad I had for lunch), I decided to just play around with a small piece of clay at my desk, and see what I came up with based on my sketches.

I overestimated my energy levels.  Mornings and evenings were my best times to work.  I could get sluggish in the afternoons if I wasn’t caught up in a real project, or working under a hard deadline.  It seemed as if only five minutes passed since I put my hands on clay, but my attention started to drift, and the scaly tail that I was trying to shape turned into a smooth arm instead.  And what was supposed to be the body of a dragon became the shoulders and head of a human being.  A man.

I was consciously aware of what I was doing by then, and I decided to keep going.  The man was gazing down at something in his hands.  An open book.

On one page of the book, I inscribed those scales again, holding the feather and the heart, tipped toward the heart.  On the other page, I scrawled the rough image of a bird, a vulture.

The man’s expression was one of focus, full engagement.  He was engrossed in the book.  As I studied his expression, I realized that he looked familiar.

It was the same man I had sculpted days earlier.  The one who was pinned under the talons of a griffin.

***

Over the next few days, I sculpted that same man again three times without consciously meaning to, at least not at first.  In one piece, he was lying down, not in bed, but on one of those fancy couches that looked like half the back and one arm was missing—a divan.  He had his hands folded on his chest.  Perched on the arm of the divan peering down at him was a crow.  And perched on his hand was a butterfly.

Symbols of death and of life.

In another piece, he seemed to be wrestling with himself.  That is, I sculpted two men, both the same man.  One of them was trying to walk toward something, but the other one was trying to stop him by tripping his feet and wrapping an arm around his neck as if to choke him.

And in the third, I sculpted only the top half of his body.  He had his hands around his own throat and looked panicked, his mouth open, as if he were gasping for air.

Each time I sculpted him, I had this strange feeling, even when I was consciously deciding what to sculpt, that there was some other…force or will, maybe, nudging and shifting my hand.  Maybe I was just suspicious about my sudden skill.  I wasn’t typically good at sculpting faces from memory or imagination.

I studied the man’s face in each sculpture, trying to judge his features objectively, trying to determine conclusively whether or not it really was the same man.

I didn’t recognize his face.  He wasn’t someone I knew personally.  He wasn’t a public figure that I was aware of.  Maybe I had glimpsed his face on a random walk in the park.  A stranger I would never see again, but whose face stuck in my mind for some reason.

But why all the morbid stuff?  Why all the symbols of life and death?

I took pictures of and notes on all the sculptures I’d been doing.  And I realized something.  I had used the same clay, down to the batch number, for all the sculptures that centered on that man, even that sculpture of the scales.  I stared at the anatomically correct heart on the scales, and was sure that heart belonged to the man.

***

“This is a weird question,” I started.

I was at my usual art supplies store, talking to Acosta, one of the guys who worked there.  I’d gotten to know him fairly well, and he was an artist himself, so he was more knowledgeable than some of the other people who worked the floor and register.

I took a breath and sighed it out.  “It’s about one of the clays you guys have in stock.  I can’t remember if I’ve ever bought it before.  If you can look that up, that’d be great.  But also, I was interested in learning more about the clay.  Like, it’s composition maybe, where it came from, or where it was made.  That kind of thing.”

“What’s the weird part?”

I blinked.  “What?”

He grinned.  “You said you had a weird question.”  He narrowed his eyes, and while still peering at me, turned his head to the side.

I took another deep breath, blew it out through my mouth, and nodded.  “Okay…”

I told him about my sculptures and the man that was appearing in them—or at least some of them.  I told him how I noticed what I believed was a connection in all the sculptures where he appeared.  I was using the same type of clay, the same brand, the same make, and even the same batch.

I told him how I consciously tried to sculpt the man using another clay and I could do it, but I could just tell that something was different.  He didn’t look as…alive as he looked when I sculpted him using that one particular brand of clay.

I showed him the pictures of the sculptures I’d done.

He shook his head.  “I guess your ‘sculptor’s block’ is over.”

He gave me some feedback on the sculptures, including the ones of the mystery man.  He didn’t recognize the man either.  And he wasn’t aware of anyone else sculpting likenesses of that man or any other people from that particular brand, make, and batch of clay.

“I’ll look into it,” he offered.  “I’ll get back to you when I find something—or if I don’t.”

***

I sculpted the man one more time in the following days.  A bust of his head.  The largest sculpture of his head I had done to date.  The most detailed.  It was troublingly lifelike for a man I’d never met, for a sculpture done without reference to a living model or even photographs.  I carved out individual hairs in his thick brows, the curl of his upper ear, the slight dimple in his chin, the array of wrinkles in his forehead, and the slightest tension in the skin beneath his eyes.

Based on the expression in that latest sculpture, I had started seriously wondering if someone in my immediate sphere had access to facial recognition software.  And maybe some databases to reference.  Like missing persons.

That expression was full of entreaty and apology.  I’m sorry for what I’m putting you through, that look seemed to say.  But please, please keep going.  Keep going and find out what happened to me.

That was a lot to read into a facial expression, but I kept feeling the sentiment as I sculpted for hours and hours.

I’m not having weird dreams, or even weird thoughts.

But I think I’d prefer it if I were, because then…then it would be visible.  His influence.  Then I would know for sure that he was seeping into my thoughts, into my subconscious thoughts, even when I was consciously trying to stop him.  Then maybe I could try to lucid dream or something and try to talk to him, reason with him, ask him who he is, what he wants, and to leave me alone.

Was he a restless spirit?  Did he have some unfinished business?  Was he reaching out to me to help him finish it?

So long as it wasn’t something impossible or horrible, I was game.  If he needed me to go talk to someone, track down a loved one to say “I’m sorry” or deliver an heirloom to an heir, or even blow the whistle on some wrongdoing, as terrifying as that sounded to me, I was game.

I couldn’t put it into words, the feeling I was feeling.  Some combination of anxious, unsettled, dazed, out-of-touch, and slightly numb.

Maybe the uncomfortable feeling was a good thing, a signal that I’d broken through my sculptor’s block by breaking through something else.  Maybe these sculptures were the result of some inspiration that I just couldn’t pinpoint.  Maybe I had unlocked something within me that was already there.  Something I’d locked up because it was wild and dark, and inappropriate.  I couldn’t decide if that would be more or less comforting than being haunted by a spirit in my clay.

Maybe it was both.

Lots of people were using the same clay.

Was anyone else’s hand directed to make the shape of this man’s face?

Was anyone else sculpting sculptures that seemed to tell the story of some horror that befell him?

I was revealing something in the sculptures.  But what was I revealing?

My soul?

Or his?

***

A few days passed.  I spent one morning sending out invoices for some recent jobs I’d done and catching up with emails.  I’d put my phone on silent for everything except priority calls, so I missed a call from Acosta.  He’d left a voicemail just saying he’d found out a few things if I wanted to stop by during his shift.

I needed a break anyway.  So I headed out, picking up some teas for the both of us.  Acosta was at the register when I walked in.  He waved me over to their break room as he signaled to a colleague to cover the register.

We sat down in front of his laptop.  He flipped it open and started bringing up files.

“I found him.”

My brows rose and I felt a sudden thud in my gut.  “You…you found him?”

I’d been expecting that he’d found out something about the clay.  Like maybe there was some additive that absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and caused hallucinations, or some other mental trickery, in some people.

Acosta brought up an image of an old newspaper article from decades past.

“His name was Henry Clay,” he said.

I gaped at him.

“Just kidding,” Acosta said with a laugh. “He was actually a historical figure.  Anyway…”  He must have seen the stricken and confused look on my face.  I was too dazed to keep up.

“The real name of the man in your sculptures—no joke—was Cyrus Raleigh.”

Was?  So he is dead?”

“I’ll get to that.  And it was no accident that I was able to find him.  It was the clay actually that led me to him.”

“So there is a connection?”

“Yeah, for sure.”

Acosta presented the narrative he’d put together from all the disjointed information he’d found.

Cyrus Raleigh was a relatively well-to-do businessman who lived near the turn of the century, at the tail end of the Victorian era.  He was one of many people who got caught up in a few crazes that were popular at the time, mesmerism and the occult in particular.  But he had the means and the connections to go farther than merely contacting the dead at a séance.  He was said to have searched for ways that a living person could cross over into the realm of the dead and bring back information, proof, and therefore hope, for all those who live, that the human soul truly does endure.  He devised experiments, and would perform them on himself.  He would put himself into deathlike stupors, instructing hired assistants or members of his household staff, in how and when to rouse him.

One day, he disappeared.  He was a bit of a nomad, so none of his friends or acquaintances were suspicious at first.  And he didn’t have close family to follow up with him.  But after a year passed, and he didn’t show up, a search was conducted.  Those who’d seen him last were interviewed by police.  His daily habits, his itinerary, his business, and his experiments were all scrutinized.

There were rumors of foul play.  Rumors of accident.  Rumors of a hoax of some kind.  Cyrus was known to be showy.

He was never found.  After a while, it was presumed that he was dead or perhaps run away to some distant land forever.  The police case was filed away.

In the following decades, on occasion, someone would remember Cyrus.  The mystery around his disappearance would be revisited, but nothing much would come of it.

“Until sometime in the sixties,” Acosta said.  “Half a century after he disappeared.”  He brought up an article on an inside page of a national paper.

An aging member of Cyrus Raleigh’s household decided to come forward and unburden her soul before she passed.  She told a tale that was, on the whole, lacking in scandal, but rife with sorrow.

Natural good health was a boon in any era.  But that was especially so in eras past.  Many people died from diseases that had no treatment or cure.  One would think that a man at the peak of health and possessing of modest wealth and freedom would relish his life.  But Cyrus Raleigh’s obsession with the afterlife, with what happened to human souls—what would happen to his own soul—was so strong that his experiments in reaching the afterlife grew more and more dangerous.

He started with attempts to reach the afterlife through dreams, then deep meditation.  Failing that, he turned to drugs that suppressed his vital signs and sent him into deathlike stupors.  It was in one such instance that he actually did die.  He was found by the household member whom he’d assigned to rouse him that day.  When he couldn’t be roused, other members of the household were summoned.  Three people in total tried to revive him, but could not.  They debated calling for a doctor, but they were afraid.  They were afraid they would be blamed for his death since they helped him with his experiments.  They had helped him to reach a near-death state.  They were afraid they would be deemed accomplices to a “murder of negligence.”

They made a rash decision.

They watched over the body for a few days, just to make sure he was dead.  When stiffness and bloating set in, they were sure, and they took him far out into the woods on his property, and they buried him deep in the ground in an unmarked grave.  They said their own speeches and prayers over the grave.  And over time they planted grass and flowers in the area until even they forgot exactly where he was buried.

They worried for a while that he would haunt them, if not as an actual ghost, then at least as a burden of guilt on their consciences.  This was especially so when they discovered that he had left them all valuable inheritances in his will, giving his house and land to one of them, and splitting a portion of his fortune with the others.  His business ventures and personal possessions he left to friends.

The person who inherited the house honored his old boss by making his children promise to preserve the entire property, including the grounds.  But he passed away only a few years after Cyrus Raleigh did.  His eldest inherited the grounds.  When he came of age, he sold portions of the land that surrounded the house.  Some of it went to providing a park and housing for fellow citizens.

“And one portion,” Acosta said, “was set aside and zoned for business use.  Three guesses as to what business ended up on the portion of the property where poor old Cyrus was buried.”

I leaned back and crossed my arms.  “The clay.”

Acosta nodded.  “A small production and packaging facility was built there.  Once the story came out, police had this lady guide them to about where she thought they’d buried the body.  They got lucky.  The owners of the facility didn’t want to cut down some really old trees growing on the property, so they built their parking lot around the trees.  The woman was able to recognize some of the trees and give the police a rough idea of where the body might be.  The company worked with the police to dig up a pretty big part of their parking lot.”  He clicked open another article.  “They found him.”

The article proclaimed that the bones of a missing man from the late 1800s was found in the parking lot of a local factory.

Some distant relatives were located.  They claimed the remains and gave them a proper burial.  They were understanding of the decision that had been made by the household staff back in the day.

“The facility is still in operation,” Acosta said.  “We actually have a direct supply deal with them.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes as Acosta turned his laptop toward me, so I could take a closer look at all the research he’d done, the information he’d uncovered.

“I don’t understand,” I said.  “If the mystery is already solved, then why did he…why did I sculpt that face with that expression?”  I showed him a picture of the miniature bust I had sculpted.

“Wow.”

“What does it look like to you?”

“Pained.  Worried?”  He creased his brow and his eyes shifted as if he were looking at the details of the face.  “It’s like he’s saying, ‘please.’  Asking for help maybe.”

“Begging,” I said, nodding.  “Pleading.”

“Is that the sense you got when you were sculpting it—him?”

I nodded.

“I’ve noticed something,” I said.  “I can’t sculpt faces from memory.  When I tried to sculpt his with another piece of clay I couldn’t really.  Or even if I used the clay that originated from that factory and tried to purposely shape it like his face, it didn’t work.  The man only seems to come around when I don’t consciously think of him, when I try to sculpt something else.  It’s not my skill, not my will.” I gave a mirthless chuckle.  “In other words, he only seems to come out when I get out of the way and just let the clay reveal what lies within.”

“He was tinkering with crossing over to the afterlife while he was still alive,” Acosta said.  “You think it’s possible that a part of him stayed behind, or maybe got stuck here?  And then ended up in that clay.  You think he’s trying to tell you something?  Or…are you just messing with me with all of this?”

He peered at me through narrowed eyes.

I looked at an old photograph of Cyrus Raleigh.  The face looked just like the bust I’d sculpted.  Except for the expression.  His expression in the photograph was pleasant, not smiling, but maybe on the verge of a smile.

“Or maybe he’s messing with the both of us.”

***

I was back in my studio, staring at a lump of clay.

“All right,” I said to the clay.  “All right.  I’ll keep sculpting until I figure out what it is that you’re trying to tell me.  What it is that you want.  I could just stop using this brand.  I could get rid of all the sculptures I’ve already done of you.  But I know it’ll bother me.  It’ll haunt me.  So I’ll keep sculpting you—for now.”  I held out my hands.  “But these are my hands.  This is my life.  And I for one am in no rush to find out what comes after.”

I felt the need to say it.  I’d been worried I’d wake up one day in my studio, exhausted and covered in clay, only to find that I’d entered a fugue state and sculpted until I dropped.

I kept in touch with Acosta over the following days.  I reviewed all the articles and pictures and tidbits he’d found out about Cyrus Raleigh.

And I sculpted.

Sometimes, I let my hands do what they wanted.  Sometimes, I used a model or reference images.  A few times I used the “haunted” clay.  And I did sculpt Cyrus again.

I don’t know if it’s because I knew who he was now.  Or because of the declaration I’d made to the clay (or to myself?).  But the sculptures changed.  I did the griffin again, in a different pose, rearing back.  But this time Cyrus was riding on its back.  I actually laughed aloud when I stepped back and looked at that one.  That one might be worthy of scaling up to fit in the corner in my fantasy-loving friend’s new office.

I sculpted a bust of Cyrus reading again, only this time, the vulture on one page was replaced with the image of the serpent eating its own tale.  The classic image of the cycle of life and death.  And this time, the scales on the other page were even with each other.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it seemed to indicate balance and harmony.

All the soft “maybe’s” that had been kicking around in my head were hardening into “I believe’s.”

I believed the clay had been echoing the thoughts that Cyrus Raleigh had as he realized he wouldn’t be returning back to life that last time.  I believed his pained expression was not a message to me, but an imprint of regret, and a last pleading to the forces of the universe to let him return to life.

I believed that I had succeeded in unlocking or unbinding something within me.  Something wild and dark, and sometimes inappropriate.  That my subconscious memory had served up ideas and images of things my conscious memory had long forgotten.

And while I was busy trying to reveal what was in the clay, the clay was revealing what was within me.

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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