The Clay Baby
by Anne Corlett
Third Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2014
It sometimes felt as though I was marrying his mother, not him at all.
We’d been planning on waiting a while, to see if we were sure. But when he’d tried to tell her this, his voice tailing off at the end, as though he wasn’t even sure about not being sure, she’d batted his excuses away with a decisive slice of her hand.
“Don’t be silly, David,” she said.
She had unusually large hands for a woman. Not like David’s.
“If you let this one get away, you’ll live to regret it.”
So he’d proposed the next day. It felt somewhat superfluous to requirements, to be honest. We both knew it was happening.
His mother had said so.
Instead of a ring, he made me a vase, the same thin grey blue as a winter sky. Much later, when we’d shaped a life together, I came to realise that blue was the colour of his apology.
I watched him at his wheel, noticing the way his movements grew strong and certain, when there was clay beneath his hands, and I thought I could see a different man, just brushing through his skin; a man without the heft of his mother behind him; a man who fitted into his own shape.
Sitting there, watching him work, I thought of the sex scene in that film – the one with the ghost and the potter’s wheel. But when I reached out to touch him, he shrugged me away.
“Careful.” He covered himself. “My hands are dirty.”
I thought of making some play on that word, remembering the clay-slick passion of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, but his eyes were intent on his task. I sat quietly, waiting until he was done.
A couple of nights later, he accepted my second attempt, letting me peel away his clothes, to uncover the raw skin underneath. With his arms folded, awkward and protective, across his body, he looked unfinished, unglazed, as though his body wasn’t the end product, as though some final rendering process was still required.
His hands, so sure at the wheel, lost all their certainty when they were on me. They fluttered nervously, tracing the outline of my body, without touching. I wasn’t entirely sure that the lines they were drawing were my real contours. I seemed to be the wrong shape, somehow; hollow, where he expected a swell, and rising, pushily, where he wanted nothing more than a hard line of bone and sinew.
“I love you,” I said, shaping my voice into a soft moan of something that could have been taken for pleasure.
“Yes,” he said, his voice a tight curl. “Sorry.”
The next day, he made me an ornament. Tall and irregular, with a tilt to the side, ridged, where his fingers had pressed into the malleable clay.
An abstract, he said it was. An idea.
I looked at it, and thought it was rather phallic.
Like a big, blue cock, I thought, almost shocking myself into a nervous laugh.
I half expected it to look at me and wilt away, with a sad little meep of blue apology.
We went to his mother’s for lunch, every Sunday.
And every Sunday, she’d ask “Any news?” while drawing a vague, round shape in the air in front of her belly, in a way that she seemed to think was discreet.
He’d look away, his cheeks glazed with colour, while I shook my head, and watched the puzzled disappointment swelling behind her eyes.
It’s not as though I hadn’t tried.
He’d spend the day in his studio, his hands deft, the wheel obedient beneath his fingers, and then come home to the dinner I’d made, to the house I’d cleaned; to me, trying to find the right way to stand, the tilt of the head that would catch at his libido, ripe from the clay, and make him want to fuck me.
I had a row of blue phalluses by now, mocking me from the mantlepiece.
Any news? they seemed to say, tilting to look at me, like a whole phalanx of mothers-inlaw. Anything? Anything at all?
One night, I fought with him, twisting myself from under his reluctant touch, to spit accusations.
It’s not me, I hissed at him, in an up-ending of the traditional lie. It’s you. There’s something wrong with you.
His hands moved, as though he might reach for me, to touch me, and smooth my anger into the familiar lines of acceptance, but they stopped short, falling away, to flutter, pointlessly, in his lap, hiding his cock from view, as though collaborating with its reluctance.
There’s something wrong with you, I said again, rolling over, into silence.
He got up early, the next day, and locked himself away in his studio, staying there right until the light faded and he could hide himself in sleep once again.
The following morning, he went back.
Avoiding me, I thought.
On the third day, he came out, with something in his arms, wrapped in a white blanket. There was a flush of colour in his usually-pale cheeks, like when his mother asked, delicate and oblique, if he’d put his cock in his wife yet.
“I’ve made you something.” He didn’t quite meet my eyes.
I glanced at the mantelpiece, wondering if there was room for another phallus.
When I looked back at him, I saw that the blanket was moving.
Something unfurled from within, a tiny hand, perfectly formed, and tinged with a faint, almost imperceptible hint of blue.
The clay baby grew, faster than I’d expected.
It was quieter than the other infants I encountered, whose mothers complained, bleary-eyed, of night wakings, and twice-hourly demands for milk. It slept through, right from that first night, cool and self-sufficient, in its father’s old crib.
His mother came round once, her exultant smile slipping from her face as she looked at the new arrival. She left, without touching it.
“She’ll get used to it,” David said, his eyes sliding away from my face. “It’s just a surprise, that’s all.”
I didn’t care what she thought, I told him, my finger held tight in the clay baby’s smooth, cool grasp.
I didn’t care.
I didn’t care that the other mothers wouldn’t sit next to us at the baby clinic.
I didn’t care that they whispered and turned their faces away, when I walked past with my silent pram.
I didn’t care that old ladies came up to us, ready to coo, with silver in their hands, and that their faces closed, the silver palmed away, as soon as they got close enough to see.
I didn’t care, but I smoothed at the clay baby’s skin, anyway. Every night, in the bath, my fingers working away at the blue, as though I might brush it away, and let the flesh colours push their way through.
As I worked at it, the clay baby changed shape beneath my hands; an arm growing thinner, a leg chubbier, its features blurring and reforming. It accepted my ministrations, its eyes on me, unblinking, showing no preference for either my moulding, or my caresses.
I knew there’d be problems when the clay baby started school.
It had only been with us a year or so, but it was the size of a five year-old, by then. It consumed raw clay, mouth opening to receive the slick grey sustenance, and then closing again, swelling, almost imperceptibly, as the new material was absorbed. I’d wait until the process was complete, before I went to work, my fingers smoothing away the extra bulk, creating layers of fresh clay over its thighs, its tummy, its cheeks. I’d simulate the plumpness of baby fat, pressing dimples in, with my nails, and working the malleable form into a shape that better fit my arms.
Every morning, all traces of my efforts had been erased, as the clay baby shaped itself into a form of its own choosing. It stretched and thinned its limbs, and rubbed away the roundness from its face. It grew taller, slimmer, its features turning sharper and more watchful, no matter how many times I tried to mould it back into babyhood.
I gave in, and let it go to school, pretending that I didn’t hear the mutterings in the playground, as the clay baby filed, solemnly, into the classroom.
“It’ll be fine,” David said, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked, before retreating to his studio.
By two, the clay baby was bigger than me. It no longer accepted my caresses, or my more purposeful touchings. It started spending more time in the studio, with David.
They didn’t seem to talk much. I listened at the door, a couple of times, but I could hear nothing but the hum of the wheel.
At three, the clay baby left home. It slipped away, one day, without a word, taking its things, and leaving the old nursery empty and silent.
For a while, it came home for Sunday lunches. Once or twice, it brought a girl with it. I talked too much on those occasions. Too much, and too loud.
Don’t let this one get away.
As I grew more effusive, David slipped further into silence, as though to create a balance.
I hardly saw him anymore.
His days were spent in his studio, and I didn’t know where he went by night.
One evening, I looked in the mirror. The clay baby hadn’t been home in a while, and David was out, once again. I ate my dinner alone, and sat, restless, in front of the fire. Whenever my wandering thoughts brushed against the edges of my solitude, my heart seemed to pick up speed. It was as though it was hurrying me into my loneliness. Or perhaps it was something else. I had the sense of something undone, something that had yet to find an ending.
My face in the mirror was thin, and there were shadows beneath my eyes. I lifted my shirt, and noted the way the lines of my ribs didn’t seem to match the rounder, riper swell of my breasts. I ran my hand down my stomach, before unbuttoning my skirt, and letting it fall away. My hip bones were sharp, and there was a smooth hollow between my thighs, a feeling of emptiness, of something missing.
I walked, naked to the studio, and found the fresh clay. One handful covered the jut of my ribs, padding my torso and smoothing my breasts away, into a broader, flatter, pectoral plain. Another broadened my shoulders. A third created a satisfying swell between my legs. For that whole night, I kneaded and moulded and worked myself away, drawing in lines of sinew and muscle, re-shaping my features into something new.
When David returned, with the dawn, I was waiting, laid out on studio floor, my altered flesh glistening. He stopped, his eyes widening.
I lifted my unfamiliar, heavy arm and pointed towards the glazes, arrayed on the shelf beside the kiln.
“Blue, I think,” I said, and closed my eyes.
The Clay Baby was placed third in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2014 and first appeared in Issue 5 of Bare Fiction Magazine in March 2015.