Clay by Z.T. Gwynn

Down by the river there lives a man who makes clay mugs. Every morning
he dips his greying beard in wax, and rubs coarse coffee grounds under
his eyes. He spends the rest of the day at the wheel, and by this
ceaseless repetition has made himself a master of the craft.

Over the years his hands have wrinkled and reddened, so that as he
throws it can be hard to tell where his flesh ends and the clay
begins. Oftentimes he leans so entirely into a project that the
distinction is rendered meaningless; so close he comes to pulling the
lip of the mug up over his arms, his chest, and then finally his head
to immerse himself completely in wet earth.

Clay is the fundamental stuff of the world, and he becomes it. Clay is
the fundamental stuff of the world, and it becomes him. Whatever he
holds within himself spills into the lumpy ochre matter, and in turn
it digs itself into his skin. Cakes over him. He sometimes forgets how
to speak with words. Men such as he often allow the outside to become
foreign. But always he emerges from his work, more or less himself. It
takes the master only a handful of minutes to finish a simple cup. As
they are produced, he displays them on a re-purposed hat rack outside
of the front door.

By this unique signpost a rare few people find his workshop, after
trailing the length of the Mississippi with open eyes and blind
belief. Familiarity is not a part of the master’s lifestyle, and he
does not approve of them, but he does allow them to watch. Visitors
who linger for an entire day are allowed to select a mug as a parting
gift. They all do, no matter the warnings given.

Niklis found the workshop on a rainy day, and the master staring down
at his clay could think only on the long shadows of his past. The mugs
he made were cloudy grey, and anything drunk from them tasted
bittersweet. “Your beard is looking healthy today,” Niklis said. The
man nodded in response.

Angela found the workshop in the middle of a snowstorm, the river near
frozen, and the master thought only of cold sheets and aching knees.
The mugs he made were crystalline blue, and slowed the drinker’s blood
to a crawl. “Your face is looking fresh today,” Angela said. The man
nodded in response.

A thin young boy named Lars found the workshop on a gorgeous summer
afternoon. The master considered past pleasures, and the joy of a job
well done, and the mugs he made were an intricate mess of colors like
shattered stained-glass panes. Drinking from his chosen lot, Lars felt
the light of the brilliant sun warm the pit of his stomach. He said
nothing at all to the man, and the man said nothing in response.

Unspoken words. The master would think on them. They would occupy his
mind, and they would occupy the clay. For days to come the mugs he
threw would embitter even the sweetest contents, or else drain
themselves at the first touch of a lip. Often had he seen it before.
So on that beautiful day he opened his mouth to his visitor’s
retreating back. “Why did you come find me?”

Lars jumped. “I thought you didn’t talk.”

“Why did you throw away such a fine day, just to be here?” The
master’s voice, raspy with disuse, scratched out of his throat.

“My friends told me about you.” He talked at his feet. “I didn’t
believe them, I thought it was a prank, but here you are. Then I
thought that maybe, sir, by watching you work, I could learn how you
do it.”

“Did you?”


He considered the kid for a long moment. “There are mugs inside every
one of us. They are waiting to be thrown. All you have to do to find
them, is turn yourself inside out. But be careful around here. Once
the clay takes hold—once it hardens around you—it never lets go.”


Down by the river there lives a man who makes clay mugs. On some days
a rare few people find his workshop, but on most days they do not. He
rises regardless. He dips his beard, rubs his eyes, and works as only
a master can work on the wheel. When evening comes he collects what he
has created, and walks with it a short distance along the placid bank.

There he douses his mugs, and digs a pit in the loose shore soil.
While the sun sets, he brings a fire up to blazing heat, and casts his
work into the flame. It takes only a handful of minutes. He watches
the colors run freely from the melting clay, like fresh paint on a
slick surface, to be rejoined with the generous, jealous earth.

Photo by Anthony Shkraba on

About the Author:

Z. T. Gwynn lives in Minneapolis, where he writes through the
winters while crafting grand plans for summertime. His other work can
be found in Flash Fiction Magazine.

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