Wine dark waves lapped at the coast of the Sea of Marmara outside the house of Beyza the potter. The weathered beams of the house held great open windows and milk-vetch and goat’s thorn grew in tangles beneath them.
Beyza sat at her potter’s wheel behind the open windows, dark hair braided beneath a blue scarf and sleeves rolled past her elbows. Her foot moved back and forth to spin the kick wheel so that the clay spun beneath her hands. Placing the lip of the dish between the fingers of both hands she pulled slowly, steadily upward, thinning and raising the wall of the vessel.
When the height was just right Beyza began to expand the mouth. Bracing a wooden rib against the exterior she smoothed the sides, clearing away the excess water. Her foot’s continuous motion ceased and the pot spun into stillness, the surface shining dully in the light from the windows.
Beyza stopped to ponder the shape. The foot of the bowl was small, the width of her hand in diameter, narrowing as it rose. From there, the bowl expanded rapidly, with a broad basin and tall, slightly tapered walls. It was a shape she had been working with for weeks now, struggling to create better and better imitations of the work merchants in the city were importing from the Far East.
She bent down to examine the exterior curve, brushing a strand of dark hair back from her face and leaving a streak of clay across her forehead.
She was startled from her work by the sound of approaching footsteps. Looking up she saw her friend, Negris, approaching from the direction of the road. She was tall and moved like a tulip in the sea-wind, her dark red robe like the petals of a flower.
“Beyza,” said Nergis, “come away from your potter’s wheel and go to the market with me.”
“I should be working, not shopping,” Beyza said, although she stood from her wheel and cleaned her hands.
“You work too much,” Nergis said, laughing, tossing her hair over her shoulder, dark and rippling like a skein of patterned silk.
Beyza straightened her scarf and tidied away her tools, leaving the bowl sitting on her wheel, fragile in its wet state. A brush of a hand or an accidental nudge would render it useless. The carefully shaped clay would be pounded back into a lump and she would have to start all over.
She was careful not to disturb the bowl.
When her workspace was clean enough, Beyza went to the chest by the window. It had been a gift from her husband, Hayri, when they married. She remembered watching him construct it; it was made of dark wood with a mosaic in small ceramic tiles on the lid. She paused for a moment to run her fingers over them – the wood had been worn smooth over the past seven years from the touch of her hands, and the blue swirl of the sea over the tiles was so familiar to her she could see it even when she closed her eyes.
More familiar than her husband’s face, these days, for he had been buried in the hills behind the house two summers past.
From the chest she pulled a worn silk scarf. She laid it gently over the bowl so it would not dry too much while she was gone.
“Now we can go,” she said to Nergis.
The two woman began the walk into the city. They walked past fields of wheat and barley that shone gold and green in the midday sun, flowers bobbing alongside the heavily rutted dirt road. Nergis chattered away about her eldest son, but Beyza was only half listening. She watched a farmer moving between the rows of his field, examining the leaves of his plants. She pictured the golden spikes of wheat splashed across the rim of a platter against a background of smooth white porcelain.
What would it feel like to work with such fine clay? she wondered. The clay she dug from the local hills turned a toasty golden color when she fired it, like the seed pods of goat’s thorn.
The city of Iznik had expanded rapidly in the past hundred years under the influence of a steady influx of trade from the east, and it had overtaken many of the farms that had once surrounded the city. Creamy stone buildings with brightly painted faces lined the crowded, winding streets. The walk was not a long one – Beyza’s eleven year old son made it every morning to attend a school in the city.
The two women went to the Sahil Market, where most of the foreign vendors sold their wares. It was abuzz with languages Beyza did not recognize, shouting and calling back and forth to one another. Beyza followed Nergis through the market as she chattered at vendors, poring over beaten gold jewelry and bolts of cloth woven so fine it was see-through. Date rolls with cinnamon and roasted figs filled the air with a sharp, sweet scent so enticing that Nergis stopped and purchased one. Sticky bun wrapped in a cloth, they continued on, passing stalls of glass beads and strings of pearls, amber and amethysts glittering over folds of linen.
While there were many imports – tea and spices, silk and other exotic fabrics – Beyza had eyes only for the pottery. Bone white porcelain bowls with lips of cobalt blue, darker than the Marmara Sea. Fine lines of indigo swirled across platters, flowers blossomed and tigers crept around the foot rims of serving dishes. Cups so fine they were almost transparent perched on saucers that sparkled like gemstones imported from the south.
“What is it that makes their work so much more beautiful than ours?” she murmured, but she knew the answer. Iznik potters might have the skills to rival those in the Far East, but they didn’t have the raw materials.
“You seem to have an eye for craftsmanship,” one vendor said. He was a broad shouldered man with a thick, grey peppered beard and skin that had been weathered to leather by years in the sun and wind. “You’ve only picked up the finest pieces I have.”
“What about those?” she asked, gesturing to a set of dishes she had passed over earlier. They were decorated with gold, but the bottoms were sloppily trimmed and the rim uneven.
He shook his head. “Expensive, but not so well made as some of these plainer dishes,” he said, pointing out the blue patterned bowl in front of her. “You know true quality.”
She flushed. “I’m a potter, it’s my work to know such things.”
“Ah, I see. Your work must be fine indeed.”
She fingered the blue patterned bowl. The clay at the base felt like silk it was so smooth. “Not as fine as this, I assure you. Though it might be, if I had the proper materials.” Her work was well known in the city, and sold for high prices in shops in the wealthier parts of the city, but she coveted the imported wares, longed to create pieces with the same delicate vibrancy.
The vendor considered her for a long moment. “Come,” he said at last, waving her around the side of the stall. “I have something you will appreciate.”
Beyza glanced around for Nergis, but her friend had moved on to the next stall and was examining a thick woven rug.
She followed the man to the back of his stall. There were several large wooden crates in various states of unpacking, straw strewn about and heaped in the bottoms of crates. The vendor bent over and rummaged in one of the crates. From within he drew a cup, wide with no handle, to be cupped between the hands.
“It’s a tea bowl, from Jiangxe. The newest I’ve got.”
Dragons chased each other around the cup, minute scales like sapphires, the wings so delicately drawn they seemed to flutter as she stared.
“It’s an experimental technique,” the man said, his voice low. “Rumors say those Eastern barbarians grind up the bones of children and mix it in with the clay before forming it.”
His words broke her trance and she tore her eyes from the dragon to meet the vendor’s eyes. His brown gaze was unruffled.
Would it have to be the bones of a child? she wondered. If it could create such beautiful work – surely the world would take notice if she could create something to rival this elegant cup.
She pushed the thought from her mind and withdrew her fingers, which had been extended in longing to touch the smooth surface.
“How crude,” she said, although the product was anything but.
“Still,” the vendor said, “look at the grins on those dragons.”
Beyza peered close again. The dragons were indeed grinning, their sharp teeth bared. In the dim light of the stall, filtered through the red awning overhead, the fangs seemed to glint with blood.
She left the vendor and found Nergis, who hadn’t gone far. Her friend held out her hand, which now glittered with a bracelet of citrines set in gold.
“It’s beautiful,” Beyza said, although she suspected the gemstones were paste. The two women left the market shortly after, and walked several streets to her son, Deniz’s school. He was sitting in the courtyard outside, poring over a leaflet, his dark hair shining as it hung over his face.
He looked up as they approached, and his face lit up, bright smile splitting his face. “Valide!” he cried, jumping up. He threw his arms around Beyza’s waist, hugging her tightly.
He looked up at her, his dark, grey eyes like slate, a gift from his father. The smile was his too, kind and gentle and brilliant.
She looked at Nergis. “Time for us to go home, I think. I have work to do.”
The morning after she and Nergis went to the market, Beyza went into the hills. Her little house stood, nestled between two hills and just a few minutes’ walk from the river. She walked up river, away from the sea, shoes squishing in the muddy banks where the grass had washed away in the spring rains. She carried her battered leather pack on her back, and Deniz dodged eagerly in her footsteps, carrying a spade. He liked to help her when she went to gather clay.
There were three elements to the clay she mixed. The thick, sticky clay she dug from the hills – too soft to do anything with on its own – the feldspar she bought in the city market, and the crushed up fragments of her broken pots.
The sun was hot on her back, warming her dark hair as they rounded the last bend in the river to the area she had been digging for the last few weeks. Here the river was wide and shallow, weeds growing in twists along the edges. Most of the potters from Iznik got their clay from the seabed along the coast where the river and rains deposited it. Beyza, however, preferred to dig out the clay at its source.
She tossed down her pack and set to work, cutting into the dense soil with her spade. She worked up a sweat while Deniz skipped rocks across the river. She stood at last and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.
Together the two of them packed the clay into her leather satchel. Her back was strong from years of hauling clay and throwing large pots on the wheel, but even so she had to stop and rest twice before they reached home.
That night, after Deniz was asleep, Beyza went to her potter’s wheel. The bowl she had thrown the day before sat there, now trimmed and bone dry, dusty to touch. She lifted it gently between her hands and held it up in the moonlight streaming through the open windows. It was well crafted, but lacked the ethereal beauty she craved. Even the unfired clay seemed coarse and unrefined to her, before it had darkened in kiln fire.
It wouldn’t have to be the bones of a child.
The thought came to her, unbidden, something she had pushed to the back of her mind. She thought of her husband, buried two summers back over the rise behind the house.
She left Deniz asleep in bed and took up her spade. Outside the moon was nearly full, the skies clear and shot with stars like silver thread. She made her way through the tangles of milk-vetch, goat’s thorn snarling the bottom of her robe with its tiny burrs.
The place where she had buried her husband was marked with a carved stele, bleached from the bright sun. The ground that had once been a patch of bare, recently churned earth, was now overgrown. She sunk her spade into the dirt, slicing through thick green leaves.
She dug for what felt like hours, until the moon was overhead and her body ached. She thought of the look on Nergis’s face if she found out what Beyza was doing, and kept on. Nergis didn’t know what her work meant to her, didn’t understand the burning desire to create something so beautiful that God himself would take notice.
Thrusting the spade deep into the ground once more something grey broke the surface.
She knelt and rummaged in the dirt with her hands, feeling along the length of the bone, still stretched with fragments of the burial wrappings. The skin and muscle were gone, nothing remaining of his original flesh but a few brittle tendons and ligaments.
She paused, suddenly feeling the dirt that had caught under her fingernails and left a dusty film over her skin. It felt invasive, plucking his bones from the ground where she had once said prayers over his body.
But his body was of no use to him now, and she’d already come this far. She looked toward the house, half expecting Deniz to be standing there to catch her rooting in his father’s grave. He wasn’t. He was still sound asleep in the house.
She left the grave dismantled and carried the bones back to the yard outside her house. Kindling a fire in her kiln she placed the bones where she would normally place her bone dry pots and jars. The kiln was nearly six feet long and six feet wide, with a firebox in the front for her to tend and steps in the back for the pottery.
By the time the sun rose she had a blazing fire. The wind fluttered against the mouth of the kiln and the sound of the roaring flame inside the kiln seemed to mirror the beating of her heart.
Deniz came to join her much later, when the sun was already nearing its peak.
“Why did you let me sleep so late?” he asked. She shrugged, and he helped her tend to the fire for several hours. Sparks scattered every time they opened the firebox to feed in more wood the skin on her face and hands soon felt brittle and crisp. The heat that emanated from the small brick structure felt hotter than the sun.
She did not let it go as long as she would if she were actually firing her pots – just until the bones splintered. After that she let the fire die, although she knew it would be the next morning before it would be cool enough to retrieve them.
“Why are you stopping so early?” Deniz asked. He had helped her with her kiln many times and it usually took two days to run.
“The pots inside have shattered,” she said. He peered inside, looking for the cracked and broken pieces of ceramic.
After she left off tending the fire, she went inside the house and slept.
She might have slept all night, but she woke to her son shaking her. “Something’s been digging in father’s grave!” he cried, trying to drag her from her bed.
“It was probably a bad spirit,” she said, but she followed him outside to look at the mess she had made the night before. The sun was setting, cradled by the Marmara Sea and flaming red as it died. In the light the damage looked far worse – Hayri’s grave stele was off kilter, the dirt dark and rich around the base, obviously overturned.
“Who would do this?” her son asked. She hugged him close and said nothing.
The next day, when Deniz left for school, she went to the kiln and retrieved the fragments of bone. She ground them into as fine a powder as she could manage. It was dull grey, different from the crushed ceramic she usually mixed with her clay. She tossed it with the feldspar and went to the clay that she and Deniz had hauled back from up river. With hands strong from years of kneading dense clay, she mixed the new material into the clay body, trying to make sure it was evenly distributed. When this was done she split off a piece and molded it into a sphere.
She went to her wheel and sat, staring at it for several minutes. This could be the beginning of something beautiful. Beautiful and terrible.
Throwing down the piece of new clay, she kicked at the base of the wheel to start the top spinning. Her foot fell into a familiar rhythm, and the light streaming through the windows soaked into the dark fabric of her robe, into her bones. Warmth and light, like a kiln. Wetting her hands she placed them firmly on the clay and it spun beneath her hands, like every other time.
Just like every other time, except with the possibility of more beautiful results.
The work seemed to shape itself beneath her hands, as though guided by something within.
Katy is a garden enthusiast from Michigan, graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor’s in painting and ceramics. Her poetry has previously been published through Temenos, Rising Phoenix Review and The Write Launch.