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The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason


Illustration by Steve Cavallo

The northeast coast of the Great Southern Continent is hilly and full of inlets. These make good harbors, their waters deep and protected from the wind by steep slopes and grey stone cliffs. Dark forests top the hills. Pebble beaches edge the harbors. There are many little towns.

The climate would be tropical, except for a polar current that runs along the coast, bringing fish and rain. The local families prosper through fishing and the rich, semi-tropical forests that grow inland. Blackwood grows there, and iridescent greywood, as well as lovely ornamentals: night-blooming starflower, day-blooming skyflower and the matriarch of trees, crown-of-fire. The first two species are cut for lumber. The last three are gathered as saplings, potted and shipped to distant ports, where affluent families buy them for their courtyards.

Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to raise the saplings in glass houses anywhere on the planet. But most folk still prefer trees gathered in their native forests. A plant grows better, if it’s been pollinated naturally by the fabulous flying bugs of the south, watered by the misty coastal rains and dug up by a forester who’s the heir to generations of diggers and potters. The most successful brands have names like "Coastal Rain" and emblems suggesting their authenticity: a forester holding a trowel, a night bug with broad furry wings floating over blossoms.

This story is about a girl born in one of these coastal towns. Her mother was a well-regarded fisherwoman, her father a sailor who’d washed up after a bad storm. Normally, a man such as this–a stranger, far from his kin–would not have been asked to impregnate any woman. But the man was clever, mannerly, and had the most wonderful fur: not grey, as was usual in that part of the world, but tawny red-gold. His eyes were pale clear yellow; his ears, large and set well out from his head, gave him an entrancing appearance of alertness and intelligence. Hard to pass up looks like these! The matrons of Tulwar coveted them for their children and grandchildren.

He–a long hard journey ahead of him, with no certainty that he’d ever reach home–agreed to their proposal. A man should be obedient to the senior women in his family. If they aren’t available, he should obey the matrons and matriarchs nearby. In his own country, where his looks were ordinary, he had never expected to breed. It might happen, if he’d managed some notable achievement; knowing himself, he didn’t plan on it. Did he want children? Some men do. Or did he want to leave something behind him on this foreign shore, evidence that he’d existed, before venturing back on the ocean? We can’t know. He mated with our heroine’s mother. Before the child was born, he took a coastal trader north, leaving nothing behind except a bone necklace and Tulwar Haik.

Usually, when red and grey interbreed, the result is a child with dun fur. Maybe Haik’s father wasn’t the first red sailor to wash up on the Tulwar coast. It’s possible that her mother had a gene for redness, which finally expressed itself, after generations of hiding. In any case, the child was red with large ears and bright green eyes. What a beauty! Her kin nicknamed her Crown-of-Fire.

When she was five, her mother died. It happened this way: the ocean current that ran along the coast shifted east, taking the Tulwar fish far out in the ocean. The Tulwar followed; and somewhere, days beyond sight of land, a storm drowned their fleet. Mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins disappeared. Nothing came home except a few pieces of wood: broken spars and oars. The people left in Tulwar Town were either young or old.

Were there no kin in the forest? A few, but the Tulwar had relied on the ocean.

Neighboring families offered to adopt the survivors. "No thank you," said the Tulwar matriarchs. "The name of this bay is Tulwar Harbor. Our houses will remain here, and we will remain in our houses."

"As you wish," the neighbors said.

Haik grew up in a half-empty town. The foresters, who provided the family’s income, were mostly away. The adults present were mostly white-furred and bent: great-aunts and -uncles, who had not thought to spend their last years mending houses and caring for children. Is it any wonder that Haik grew up wild?

Not that she was bad; but she liked being alone, wandering the pebble beaches and climbing the cliffs. The cliffs were not particularly difficult to climb, being made of sedimentary stone that had eroded and collapsed. Haik walked over slopes of fallen rock or picked her way up steep ravines full of scrubby trees. It was not adventure she sought, but solitude and what might be called "nature" nowadays, if you’re one of those people in love with newfangled words and ideas. Then, it was called "the five aspects" or "water, wind, cloud, leaf, and stone." Though she was the daughter of sailors, supported by the forest, neither leaf nor water drew her. Instead, it was rock she studied–and the things in rock. Since the rock was sedimentary, she found fossils rather than crystals.

Obviously, she was not the first person to see shells embedded in cliffs; but the intensity of her curiosity was unusual. How had the shells gotten into the cliffs? How had they turned to stone? And why were so many of them unfamiliar?

She asked her relatives.

"They’ve always been there," said one great-aunt.

"A high tide, made higher by a storm," said another.

"The Goddess," a very senior male cousin told her, "whose behavior we don’t question. She acts as she does for her own reasons, which are not unfolded to us."

The young Tulwar, her playmates, found the topic boring. Who could possibly care about shells made of stone? "They don’t shimmer like living shells, and there’s nothing edible in them. Think about living shellfish, Haik! Or fish! Or trees like the ones that support our family!"

If her kin could not answer her questions, she’d find answers herself. Haik continued her study. She was helped by the fact that the strata along the northeast coast had not buckled or been folded over. Top was new. Bottom was old. She could trace the history of the region’s life by climbing up.

At first, she didn’t realize this. Instead, she got a hammer and began to break out fossils, taking them to one of the town’s many empty houses. There, through trial and error, she learned to clean the fossils and to open them. "Unfolding with a hammer," she called the process.

Nowadays we discourage this kind of ignorant experimentation, especially at important sites. Remember this story takes place in the distant past. There was no one on the planet able to teach Haik; and the fossils she destroyed would have been destroyed by erosion long before the science of paleontology came into existence.

She began by collecting shells, laying them out on the tables left behind when the house was abandoned. Imagine her in a shadowy room, light slanting through the shutters. The floor is thick with dust. The paintings on the walls, fish and flowering trees, are peeling. Haik–a thin red adolescent in a tunic–bends over her shells, arranging them. She has discovered one of the great pleasures of intelligent life: organization or (as we call it now) taxonomy.

This was not her invention. All people organize information. But most people organize information for which they can see an obvious use: varieties of fish and their habits, for example. Haik had discovered the pleasure of knowledge that has no evident use. Maybe, in the shadows, you should imagine an old woman with white fur, dressed in a roughly woven tunic. Her feet are bare and caked with dirt. She watches Haik with amusement.

In time, Haik noticed there was a pattern to where she found her shells. The ones on the cliff tops were familiar. She could find similar or identical shells washed up on the Tulwar beaches. But as she descended, the creatures in the stone became increasingly strange. Also, and this puzzled her, certain strata were full of bones that obviously belonged to land animals. Had the ocean advanced, then retreated, then advanced again? How old were these objects? How much time had passed since they were alive, if they had ever been alive? Some of her senior kin believed they were mineral formations that bore an odd resemblance to the remains of animals. "The world is full of repetition and similarity," they told Haik, "evidence the Goddess has little interest in originality."

Haik reserved judgment. She’d found the skeleton of a bird so perfect that she had no trouble imagining flesh and feathers over the delicate bones. The animal’s wings, if wings they were, ended in clawed hands. What mineral process would create the cliff top shells, identical to living shells, and this lovely familiar-yet-unfamiliar skeleton? If the Goddess had no love for originality, how to explain the animals toward the cliff bottom, spiny and knobby, with an extraordinary number of legs? They didn’t resemble anything Haik had ever seen. What did they repeat?

When she was fifteen, her relatives came to her. "Enough of this folly! We are a small lineage, barely surviving; and we all have to work. Pick a useful occupation, and we’ll apprentice you."

Most of her cousins became foresters. A few became sailors, shipping out with their neighbors, since the Tulwar no longer had anything except dories. But Haik’s passion in life was stone. The town had no masons, but it did have a potter.

"Our foresters need pots," said Haik. "And Rakai is getting old. Give me to her."

"A wise choice," said the great-aunts with approval. "For the first time in years, you have thought about your family’s situation."

Haik went to live in the house occupied by ancient Rakai. Most of the rooms were empty, except for pots. Clay dust drifted in the air. Lumps of dropped clay spotted the floors. The old potter was never free of the material. "When I was young, I washed more," she said. "But time is running out, and I have much to do. Wash if you want. It does no harm, when a person is your age. Though you ought to remember that I may not be around to teach you in a year or two or three."

Haik did wash. She was a neat child. But she remembered Rakai’s warning and studied hard. As it turned out, she enjoyed making pots. Nowadays, potters can buy their materials from a craft cooperative; and many do. But in the past every potter mined his or her own clay; and a potter like Rakai, working in a poor town, did not use rare minerals in her glazes. "These are not fine cups for rich matrons to drink from," she told Haik. "These are pots for plants. Ordinary glazes will do, and minerals we can find in our own country." Once again Haik found herself out with hammer and shovel. She liked the ordinary work of preparation, digging the clay and hammering pieces of mineral from their matrices. Grinding the minerals was fine, also, though not easy; and she loved the slick texture of wet clay, as she felt through it for grit. Somehow, though it wasn’t clear to her yet, the clay–almost liquid in her fingers–was connected to the questions she had asked about stone.

The potter’s wheel was frustrating. When Rakai’s old fingers touched a lump of clay, it rose into a pot like a plant rising from the ground in spring, entire and perfect, with no effort that Haik could see. When Haik tried to do the same, nothing was achieved except a mess.

"I’m like a baby playing with mud!"

"Patience and practice," said old Rakai.

Haik listened, being no fool. Gradually, she learned how to shape clay and fire it in the kiln Rakai had built behind the house. Her first efforts were bad, but she kept several to store her favorite pieces of rock. One piece was red iron ore, which could be ground down to make a shiny black glaze. The rest were fossils: shells and strange marine animals and the claw-handed bird.

At this point in the story, it’s important to know the meaning of the word "potter" in Haik’s language. As in our language, it meant a maker of pots. In addition, it meant someone who puts things into pots. Haik was still learning to make pots. But she was already a person who put stones or bones into pots, and this is not a trivial occupation, but rather a science. Never undervalue taxonomy. The foundation of all knowledge is fact, and facts that are not organized are useless.

Several years passed. Haik learned her teacher’s skill, though her work lacked Rakai’s elegance.

"It’s the cliffs," said the old potter. "And the stones you bring back from them. They have entered your spirit, and you are trying to reproduce them in clay. I learned from plants, which have grace and symmetry. But you–"

One of Haik’s pots was on the wheel: a squat, rough-surfaced object. The handles were uneven. At first, such things had happened due to lack of skill, but she found she liked work that was a little askew. She planned a colorless, transparent glaze that would streak the jar–like water seeping down a rock face, Haik suddenly realized.

"There’s no harm in this," said Rakai. "We all learn from the world around us. If you want to be a potter of stones, fine. Stones and bones, if you are right and the things you find are bones. Stones and bones and shells."

The old potter hobbled off. Should she break the pot, Haik wondered. Was it wrong to love the cliffs and the objects they contained? Rakai had told her no. She had the old potter’s permission to be herself. On a whim, Haik scratched an animal into the clay. Its head was like a hammer, with large eyes at either end–on the hammer’s striking surfaces, as Haik explained it to herself. The eyes were faceted; and the long body was segmented. Each segment had a pair of legs, except for the final segment, which had two whip-like tails longer than the rest of the animal. No one she had met, not travelers to the most distant places nor the most outrageous liars, had ever described such an animal. Yet she had found its remains often, always in the cliffs’ lower regions, in a kind of rock she had named "far-down dark grey."

Was this one of the Goddess’s jokes? Most of the remains were damaged; only by looking carefully had she found intact examples; and no one else she knew was interested in such things. Had the Goddess built these cliffs and filled them with remains in order to fool Tulwar Haik?

Hardly likely! She looked at the drawing she’d made. The animal’s body was slightly twisted, and its tails flared out on either side. It seemed alive, as if it might crawl off her pot and into Tulwar Harbor. The girl exhaled, her heart beating quickly. There was truth here. The creature she had drawn must have lived. Maybe it still lived in some distant part of the ocean. (She had found it among shells. Its home must be aquatic.) She refused to believe such a shape could come into existence through accident. She had been mixing and kneading and spinning and dropping clay for years. Nothing like this had ever appeared, except through intent. Surely it was impious to argue that the Goddess acted without thought. This marvelous world could not be the result of the Great One dropping the stuff-of-existence or squishing it aimlessly between her holy fingers. Haik refused to believe the animal was a joke. The Goddess had better things to do, and the animal was beautiful in its own strange way. Why would the Goddess, who was humorous but not usually malicious, make such an intricate and lovely lie?

Haik drew the animal on the other side of the pot, giving it a slightly different pose, then fired the pot and glazed it. The glaze, as planned, was clear and uneven, like a film of water running down the pot’s dark grey fabric.

As you know, there are regions of the world where families permit sex among their members, if the relationship is distant enough. The giant families of the third continent, with fifty or a hundred thousand members, say there’s nothing wrong with third or fourth or fifth cousins becoming lovers, though inbreeding is always wrong. But Haik’s family did not live in such a region; and their lineage was so small and lived so closely together, that no one was a distant relative.

For this reason, Haik did not experience love until she was twenty and went down the coast on a trading ship to sell pots in Tsugul.

This was an island off the coast, a famous market in those days. The harbor was on the landward side, protected from ocean storms. A town of wood and plaster buildings went down slopes to the wooden warehouses and docks. Most of the plaster had been painted yellow or pale blue. The wood, where it showed, was dark blue or red. A colorful town, thought Haik when she arrived, made even more colorful by the many plants in pots. They stood on terraces and rooftops, by doorways, on the stairway streets. A good place to sell Rakai’s work and her own.

In fact, she did well, helped by a senior forester who had been sent to sell the Tulwar’s other product.

"I’d never say a word against your teacher, lass," he told her. "But your pots really set off my trees. They, my trees, are so delicate and brilliant; and your pots are so rough and plain. Look!" He pointed at a young crown-of-fire, blossoming in a squat black pot. "Beauty out of ugliness! Light out of darkness! You will make a fortune for our family!"

She didn’t think of the pot as ugly. On it, in relief, were shells, blurred just a bit by the iron glaze. The shells were a series, obviously related, but from different parts of the Tulwar cliffs. Midway up the cliffs, the first place she found them, the shells were a single plain coil. Rising from there, the shells became ever more spiny and intricate. This progression went in a line around the pot, till a spiked monstrosity stood next to its straightforward ancestor.

Could Haik think this? Did she already understand about evolution? Maybe not. In any case, she said nothing to her kinsman.

That evening, in a tavern, she met a sailor from Sorg, a tall thin arrogant woman, whose body had been shaved into a pattern of white fur and black skin. They talked over cups of halin. The woman began brushing Haik’s arm, marveling at the red fur. "It goes so well with your green eyes. You’re a young one. Have you ever made love with a foreigner?"

"I’ve never made love," said Haik.

The woman looked interested, but said, "You can’t be that young."

Haik explained she’d never traveled before, not even to neighboring towns. "I’ve been busy learning my trade."

The Sorg woman drank more halin. "I like being first. Would you be interested in making love?"

Haik considered the woman, who was certainly exotic looking."Why do you shave your fur?"

"It’s hot in my home country; and we like to be distinctive. Other folk may follow each other like city-building bugs. We do not!"

Haik glanced around the room and noticed other Sorg women, all clipped and shaved in the same fashion, but she did not point out the obvious, being young and polite.

They went to the Sorg woman’s ship, tied at a dock. There were other couples on the deck, all women.

"We have a few men in the crew this trip," her sexual partner said. "But they’re all on shore, looking for lovers; and they won’t be back till we’re ready to lift anchor."

The experience was interesting, Haik thought later, though she had not imagined making love for the first time on a foreign ship, surrounded by other couples, who were not entirely quiet. She was reminded of fish, spawning in shallow water.

"Well, you seemed to enjoy that," said the Sorg woman. "Though you are a silent one."

"My kin say I’m thoughtful."

"You shouldn’t be, with red fur like fire. Someone like you ought to burn."

Why? wondered Haik, then fell asleep and dreamed that she was talking with an old woman dressed in a plain, rough tunic. The woman’s feet were muddy. The nails on her hands were untrimmed and long, curling over the tips of her fingers like claws. There was dirt under the nails. The old woman said, "If you were an animal, instead of a person, you would have mated with a male; and there might have been children, created not as the result of a breeding contract, but out of sexual passion. Imagine a world filled with that kind of reproduction! It is the world you live in! Only people use reason in dealing with sex. Only people breed deliberately."

She woke at dawn, remembering the dream, though it made little sense. The woman had seemed like a messenger, but her message was obvious. Haik kissed the Sorg woman goodby, pulled on her tunic and stumbled down the gangway. Around her the air was cold and damp. Her feet left prints on dew-covered wood.

She had sex with the Sorg women several more times. Then the foreign ship lifted anchor, and Haik’s lover was gone, leaving only a shell necklace.

"Some other woman will have to make you burn," the lover said. "But I was the first, and I want to be remembered."

Haik thanked her for the necklace and spent a day or two walking in the island’s hills. The stone here was dark red and grainy and did not appear to contain fossils. Then she and her kinsman sailed north.

After that, she made sure to go on several trips a year. If the ship was crewed by women, she began looking for lovers as soon as she was on board. Otherwise, she waited till they reached a harbor town. Sometimes she remained with a single lover. At other times, she went from one to another or joined a group. Her childhood nickname, long forgotten, came back to her, though now she was known as "Fire," rather than "Crown-of-Fire." She was a flame that burned without being burned.

"You never feel real affection," one lover told her. "This is nothing but sex for you."

Was this true? She felt affection for Rakai and her family at home and something approaching passion for her work with clay and stone. But these women?

As we know, men are more fervent and loyal lovers than women. They will organize their lives around affection. But most women are fond of their lovers and regret leaving them, as they usually must, though less often in modern times; and the departures matter less now, since travel has become so rapid. Lovers can meet fifty times a year, if they’re willing to pay the airfare.

Haik enjoyed sex and her sexual partners, but left with no regrets, her spirit untouched.

"All your fire is in your sexual parts," another partner said. "Nothing burns in your mind."

When she was twenty-five, her family decided to breed her. There was no way she could refuse. If the Tulwar were going to survive, every healthy female had to bear children. After discussion, the senior women approached the Tsugul, who agreed to a mating contract. What happened next Haik did not like to remember. A young man arrived from Tsugul and stayed with her family. They mated till she became pregnant, then he was sent home with gifts: fine pots mostly, made by her and Rakai.

"I won’t have children in my pottery," Rakai said.

"I will give the child to one of my cousins to raise," said Haik.

She bore female twins, dun colored with bright green eyes. For a while, looking at them, she thought of raising them. But this idea came from exhaustion and relief. She was not maternal. More than children, she wanted fossils and her pots. A female cousin took them, a comfortable woman with three children of her own. "Five is always lucky," she told Haik.

It seemed to be. All five children flourished like starflower trees.

Rakai lasted till Haik was almost thirty. In her last years, the old potter became confused and wandered out of her house, looking for long-drowned relatives or clay, though she had turned clay digging over to Haik a decade before. One of these journeys took place in an early winter rain. By the time the old woman was found, she was thoroughly drenched and shaking with cold. A coughing sickness developed and carried her away. Haik inherited the pottery.

By this time, she had developed a distinctive style: solid, squat pots with strange creatures drawn on them. Sometimes, the handles were strange creatures made in molds: clawed birds or animals like flowers with thick, segmented stalks. Haik had found fossils of the animals still grasping prey. In most cases, the prey was small fish, so the creatures had been marine predators. But her customers thought they were flowers–granted, strange ones, with petals like worms. "What an imagination you have!"

The pots with molded handles were fine work, intended for small expensive plants. Most of her work was large and sturdy, without handles that could break off. Her glazes remained plain: colorless or black.

Though she was a master potter, her work known up and down the coast, she continued hunting fossils. Her old teacher’s house became filled with shelves; and the shelves became filled with pieces of stone. Taking a pen, Haik wrote her name for each creature on the shelf’s edge, along with the place where she’d found this particular example. Prowling through the rooms by lantern light, she saw eons of evolution and recognized what she saw. How could she fail to, once the stones were organized?

The first shelves held shells and faint impressions of things that might be seaweed. Then came animals with many limbs, then fish that looked nothing like any fish she’d ever seen. Finally came animals with four limbs, also strange. Most likely, they had lived on land.

She had a theory now. She knew that sand and clay could become solid in the right circumstances. The animals had been caught in muck at the ocean’s bottom or in a sand dune on land. Through a process she did not understand, though it must be like the firing of clay in a kiln, the trapping material turned to stone. The animal vanished, most likely burnt up, though it might also have decayed. If nothing else happened, the result was an impression. If the hollow space in the stone became filled, by some liquid seeping in and leaving a deposit, the result was a solid object. Her clawed bird was an impression. Most of her shells were solid.

Was she too clever? Could no one in her age imagine such a theory?

Well, she knew about clay, about molds, about minerals suspended in water. What else is a glaze? There were people in her village who worked with mortar, which is sand that hardens. There were people in nearby villages who used the lost wax process to cast.

All the necessary information was present. But no one except Haik used it to explain the objects in the Tulwar cliffs. Why? Because her kin had barely noticed the fossils and were not curious about them, did not collect them and label them and prowl around at night, looking at the pieces of stone and thinking.

Life had changed through time. It went from the very odd to the less odd to the almost familiar. In a few places on the cliff tops were animals that still lived. So, the process that led to the creation of fossils was still happening or had stopped happening recently.

How much time had this taken? Well, the old people in her town said that species did not change; and as far as she knew, there were no traditions that said animals used to be different. Oh, a few stories about monsters that no one had seen recently. But nothing about strange shells or fish. So the time required for change was longer than the memories of people.

Think of what she had learned and imagined! A world of vast periods of time, of animals that changed, of extinction. Hah! It frightened her! Was there any reason why her people might not vanish, along with the fish and plants they knew? Their lineage was small, its existence precarious. Maybe all life was precarious.

One night she had a dream. She was standing atop the cliffs above Tulwar Town. The houses below her looked very distant, unreachable. There was nothing around her except space, stretching up and down and east over the ocean. (The forest was behind her, and she did not turn around.) Next to her stood an old woman with white fur and dirty feet. "You’ve come a long way," she said. "Maybe you ought to consider turning back."

"Why?" asked Haik.

"There is no point in your journey. No one is going to believe you."

"About what?"

"My creatures."

"Are you the Goddess?" asked Haik.

The woman inclined her head slightly.

"Shouldn’t you look more splendid?"

"Did Rakai look splendid? She worked in clay. I work in the stuff-of-existence. I wouldn’t call it clean work, and who do I need to impress?"

"Have things really died out? Or do they exist somewhere in the world?"

"I’m not going to answer your questions," the old woman said. "Figure existence out for yourself."

"Do you advise me to turn back?"

"I never give advice," the Goddess said. "I’m simply telling you that no one will believe you about time and change. Oh, one or two people. You can get some people to believe anything, but sensible people will laugh."

"Should I care?" Haik asked.

"That’s the question, isn’t it?" the Goddess said. "But as I’ve said already, I don’t give advice."

Then she was gone, and Haik was falling. She woke in bed in Rakai’s house. Outside her window, stars blazed and gave her no comfort.

She thought about her dream for some time, then decided to go on a voyage. Maybe her problem was lack of sex. Her best pots went into wicker baskets, wrapped in straw, along with large plates, some plain, but most with strange creatures painted on them: her lovely bird with claws, the many-legged bugs, fish that wore plate armor instead of scales, and quadrupeds with peculiar horny heads.

When a ship arrived, going north, she took passage. It was crewed by Batanin women, so she had plenty of sex before she reached their destination. But the feeling of loneliness and fear remained. It seemed as if she stood on the edge of an abyss, with nothing around her or below her.

She got off in a harbor town inhabited by the Meskh, a good-sized family. Although they had a port, they were farmers mostly, producing grain and dried fruit for export, along with excellent halin.

Her pottery brought good prices in Meskh Market. By this time, she was famous as the Strange Animal Potter or The Potter of Shells and Bones.

"You are here in person," her customers said. "This is wonderful! Two famous women in town at once!"

"Who is the other?" Haik asked.

"The actor Dapple. Her troop has just given a series of plays. Now, they’re resting, before continuing their tour. You must meet her."

They met that night in a tavern. Haik arrived escorted by several customers, middle-aged women with dark fur. At a table in the middle of the room, surrounded by dark Meskh women, was someone tall and slender, broad shouldered, her fur pale silver. Introductions were made. The actor stood. In lantern light, Haik could see the silver fur was dappled with small, dim spots. It was rare for people to keep their baby markings, but a few did.

"Hah! You’re a lovely one," the actor said. "Red fur is unusual in this part of the world."

Haik sat down and told the story of her father, then how her mother died and how she had grown up in Tulwar Town. When she finally stopped, she saw the Meskh women were gone. She and Dapple sat alone at the table under the flaring lamp.

"What happened?" Haik asked.

"To the others? Most had the good sense to leave. Those who did not were removed by members of my company."

"And I didn’t notice?"

"I don’t believe," said Dapple, stretching, "that you are a person who notices much outside your interests. The Meskh have loaned us a house. Why don’t you come there with me? We can drink more halin and talk more, if you wish. Though I have spent the past half an ikun imagining what you look like without clothing."

They went to the house, walking side by side through the dark streets. Inside, in a courtyard full of potted trees and lit by stars, they made love. Dapple pulled some blankets and pillows out of a room, so they weren’t uncomfortable. "I have spent too much of my life sleeping on hard ground," the actor said. "If I can avoid discomfort, I will." Then she set to work with extraordinary skillful hands and a mouth that did not seem to belong to an ordinary woman made of flesh, but rather to some spirit out of ancient stories. The Fulfilling Every Wish Spirit, thought Haik. The Spirit of Almost Unendurable Pleasure.

The potter tried to reciprocate, though she knew it was impossible. No one, certainly not her, could equal Dapple’s skill in love. But the actor made noises that indicated some satisfaction. Finally, they stopped. The actor clasped her hands in back of her head and looked at the stars. "Can you give me a pot?"

"What?" asked Haik.

"I’ve seen your work before this, and I would like a keepsake, something to remember you."

At last the flame felt burning. Haik sat up and looked at the long pale figure next to her. "Is this over? Do we have only this night?"

"I have engagements," Dapple said. "We’ve arranged our passage on a ship that leaves tomorrow. Actors don’t have settled lives, Haik. Nor do we usually have permanent lovers."

As in her dream, Haik felt she was falling. But this time she didn’t wake in her bed, but remained in the Meskh courtyard.

The Goddess was right. She should give up her obsession. No one cared about the objects she found in cliffs. They did care about her pottery, but she could take leave of pots for a while.

"Let me go with you," she said to Dapple.

The actor looked at her. "Are you serious?"

"I have done nothing since I was fifteen, except make pots and collect certain stones I have a fondness for. More than fifteen years! And what do I have to show? Pots and more pots! Stones and more stones! I would like to have an adventure, Dapple."

The actor laughed and said, "I’ve done many foolish things in my life. Now, I’ll do one more. By all means, come on our journey!" Then she pulled Haik down and kissed her. What a golden tongue!

The next morning, Haik went to her ship and gathered her belongings. They fit in one basket. She never traveled with much, except her pots, and they were sold, the money in a heavy belt around her waist.

Next she went to the harbor mistress. Sitting in the woman’s small house, she wrote a letter to her relatives, explaining what had happened and why she wasn’t coming home.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" the mistress said as Haik rolled the letter and put it in a message tube, then sealed the tube with wax.

"Yes." The letter was to go south on the next ship, Haik told the mistress. She gave the woman half her money to hold, till the Tulwar came to claim it.

"This is a foolish plan," the harbor mistress said.

"Have you never been in love?" Haik asked.

"Not this much in love, I’m glad to say."

Haik had started for the door. Now she stopped. The shutters on the room’s windows were open. Haik was in a beam of light. Her red fur shone like fire. Her eyes were as clear and green as a cresting ocean wave. Hah! thought the harbor mistress.

"I’m thirty-two and have never been in love, until last night," Haik said. "It has come to me recently that the world is a lonely place." She slung her basket on her back and walked toward Dapple’s borrowed house.

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"The Potter of Bones " by Eleanor Arnason, copyright © 2002 by permission of the author.

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