Monday, October 25, 2010
Lucien Durand and Colin Ferguson have lived and loved as partners in life and art for more than twenty years. But happily ever after is never easy. Over time, Lucien begins to resent how Colin's work overshadows his own art, and their relationship falls apart. Colin leaves with nothing but a backpack, and Lucien goes on alone, getting some counseling, developing a practice in raku pottery, and waiting for what would happen next. He never expects that Colin will send his nephew James to train as a potter. With James staying in Lucien's home, a door will open between the former lovers, firing their hearts.
Dreamspinner Press (2010)
Heap logs, and let the blaze laugh out! Robert Browning
Lucien dreamed of fire. They were in the last night of a five-night firing of the anagama kiln. Colin pulled the brick out of the spy hole, studied the bending cones. “Come on, boyo, put those young muscles to work. You think you can keep up with an old man like me?” And they were laughing, shoving splits of wood into the firebox with both hands. Then he was the fire, roaring though the kiln like a hungry dragon, reaching down to lick the pots, laying fire kisses on the melted glaze. He saw one of Colin’s big angels in the back of the kiln, the last piece before the flue. It looked ancient, rough, powerful, and he fled into its arms, touched the glaze with his fiery kiss, left ash on the edge of the wings, on the cheek. Then the angel was cracking, the glaze wildly crazed, the ceramic crumbling under the fire like shattered glass, and he tried to pull back, but it was too late, too late, and the angel fell to dust in his arms.
He opened his eyes, and the lingering traces of the dream disappeared in the gold and green warmth of a summer’s evening in the northern Rockies. Lucien brushed a trace of salt from his cheeks. Even after all this time, he cried when he dreamed of Colin.
He sat up in the porch swing and watched the man walking down the long dirt road toward his house. From the distance he looked like Colin, or maybe those were just memories stirred like dust from the dream. This was a young man with a backpack over one shoulder, wearing a worn denim jacket. A dog walked next to him, a golden retriever mix. Was he coming for the weekend Raku workshop? Lucien stood up, pulled on his boots. He hadn’t said anything about not bringing dogs to the workshop. It had never really come up before.
He stepped off the porch, walked out to meet him, and something in the way the man moved had anticipation and dread tightening the pit of his stomach. The man pulled off his ball cap, ran his fingers through a mop of black curls, and Lucien stopped in his tracks. “Who are you?”
“I’m sorry,” the man said, tucking his ball cap into the back pocket of his jeans. “About the dog, I mean. I couldn’t leave her alone right now.”
Lucien looked down at the golden. She was either very fat or close to…. “Is she about to have puppies?”
“I think so. I’m James. James Ferguson.”
Lucien held out his hand. James was young, and he didn’t have the hands of a potter, no rough callus or cracks on the palm from working with clay. “Who are you?”
“I’m his nephew.”
Lucien would have guessed nephew or son, though Colin had never been with a woman as far as he knew. This boy, James Ferguson, looked so much like Colin that Lucien found his eyes burning with unshed tears. Like him, but young. Black curls, pale skin with a sunburned nose, light blue eyes. He was taller than Colin, tall and broad across the chest, and very young. Colin had been forty-five when he left. This boy was probably twenty-five.
“What are you doing here, James?”
“I came for the raku workshop. I don’t have the money for the tuition. I thought I would ask you if I could work it off. Dishes or cutting wood or something.”
They both stared down at the dog. Lucien studied the long dirt road James had walked to get to the house. “Did you catch the bus into town?”
“Yeah. I just came off a fire lookout job up in the Cascades.”
“You don’t have any place to go, James?”
Lucien watched the muscles in his jaw tighten.
“I have a letter.”
They looked at each other for a moment, and Lucien could see, under the sun-touched skin and young muscles, that James looked tired and thirsty. Dusty and worn and frail. “Come on into the house,” he said. “Of course you’re welcome here.” He looked down at the dog, who was panting slightly but stayed at James’s side. “And the dog. We can probably find her a box or a blanket or something. What do they need?”
James shrugged, hitched the backpack over his shoulder again, and followed Lucien up the steps to the porch. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had puppies before. She can stay outside.” He pointed to the worn boards, and the dog curled up, her head on her paws. “Can we get her some water?”
“Of course.” He led the way into the kitchen, and James set his backpack down on one of the wooden kitchen chairs. Lucien reached into a cabinet and pulled out a big wide bowl with a bright blue and white glaze.
“We can just use plastic or something,” James said, watching him fill it with water at the sink.
Lucien handed him the bowl. “Plastic? In a potter’s house, there’re always lots of clay bowls. This will be fine.”
He pulled open the door to the fridge when James took the bowl of water out to the front porch. He was well stocked with food, because part of the weekend Raku workshop was lunch on Saturday and Sunday. He had a pot of beef stew too, left over from the day before. He pulled that out and dumped the cold stew into a pan, set it to heat over a low flame. When James came back into the kitchen, he said, “I think there’s enough stew here for you and the dog. What’s her name, by the way?”
“I don’t know. She’s not really my dog.” He pulled out a seat and sat down at the table. “Well, I guess she’s my dog now, but somebody dumped her. She was hanging around the campground. Waiting for her people to come back for her. I think they dumped her when she got pregnant.”
Lucien spooned stew into a bowl, put it in front of James, and then got the bread out of the fridge and spread butter over a couple of slices. He set those down on a paper towel, poured a glass of milk. James turned to look at him. “Are you having anything?”
Lucien shook his head. “No, you go ahead. I’m not hungry.” His stomach was in knots. He fixed a small bowl of stew for the dog and took it out to her on the front porch. She raised her head and looked at him, soft golden brown eyes, and ran a pink tongue over his hand when he set the food down next to her.
When he went back into the house, James had finished eating and was washing his bowl in the sink. “There’s a spare bedroom down the hall on the left,” Lucien said. "We’ll have to share the bathroom.”
“I really appreciate it,” James said. “Just for the weekend, for the workshop. Then I’ll push on.”
“Are you a potter?”
He shook his head. “I studied printmaking in school, but I ran out of money, joined the Army. I got out seven months ago. I’ve been thinking about being a potter for a long time, but I wasn’t sure…. I mean, Uncle Colin’s a big deal, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
“I wanted to see what I could do on my own. I talked to him about it. He told me to come to you.”
Lucien took a deep breath, felt his stomach knot up just a bit tighter. “Did he really? Where is he?”
“How nice for him.” James gave him a cautious look. “I think we should make a bed for the dog. She looks very close. I’ve got some straw out in the barn. You want to give me a hand?”
James nodded, followed him out the front door and around the back of the house to the old barn. The dog came along, and they walked together into the cool evening. The barn had clean straw in a couple of stalls, and the dog nosed around, went into one corner, and pushed some straw with her paws until she had a pile. She curled up on the straw, set her head on her paws. She was panting just a little still.
Lucien studied her. “This might be a safe place for her and the puppies. It won’t be long now. I’ve only got an old horse that stays in the back pasture and a goat. They won’t bother the puppies.” He looked at James, a quick smile lighting up his face. “They came with the place. The goat belongs to your Uncle Colin.”
A longhaired Angora goat peeked around the corner of the barn, then came in and sniffed at James’s leg. His long fleece was tangled with bits of grass and straw. Lucien tugged on one of his ears, and the goat nibbled on the edge of his belt. “I call him Dickhead,” he said, and James laughed out loud.
They walked back up to the house. The dog stayed in her little stall in the barn, but Dickhead followed them, looking for a snack. Lucien ignored him.
“What can I do to help you get ready?”
Lucien shrugged. “Most everything is done. People who come out for the workshops usually drive home or stay in town. Do you want to see the studio?”
“Very much,” James said. “And the anagama. Uncle Colin said it was the best kiln you ever built. How often do you fire it?”
“I don’t,” Lucien said, stuffing his hands down in the pockets of his jeans. “You can’t fire a wood-burning anagama kiln with just one person. I haven’t fired it since Colin left.”
James studied him. “That’s been over five years, right?”
“Yes. I have a raku kiln, gas fired. That’s what I do now. I guess Colin is still wood firing. Did he build a kiln in Thailand?”
“I’m not sure,” James said. “But I don’t think so.”
They walked back to the studio. It was a simple square building with a metal roof, and the raku kiln was in a semi-enclosed space next to it, covered with the same metal roof as the studio. The kiln was set at the front, with a couple of sooty metal trashcans with lids next to it. In the back, behind the barn, the anagama lay quietly, massive, covered in earth, the mound looking like a sleeping dragon. The door was bricked up and covered in adobe. Lucien hadn’t looked at it in a long time, but he could feel James’s interest in it, noticed some pieces of mud were flaking off the door, revealing the old rose firebrick underneath.
“The trashcans are for the workshop,” he said, lifting the lid on one of the cans. It was filled with sweet-smelling sawdust. “I get bags of this from the sawmills.” There were four black plastic trash bags along the wall. “We’ll use all of that this weekend.”
The raku kiln was round, with a ceramic fiber blanket sandwiched between metal mesh. Lucien reached for the overhead crank, turned it so the top half of the kiln lifted off the base. “You see how it works? We pull the pieces out at glaze melt, use the fire tongs to put them into reduction. I’m set up for sawdust or water. We can collect other material as well, like leaves and twigs from the forest.”
He pushed open the door to the studio. It was quiet inside, with the filtered soft gray light of early evening. “There’re a couple of kick wheels, and the glazing station is over here.” He pointed against the wall. The metal ware racks looked like they belonged in a bakery, but instead of loaves of bread, small cups and bowls were resting on the shelves. “Those are already bisqued and glazed. I’ll use them for demonstration this weekend. You know how the workshop goes?”
James shook his head.
“We’ll make some pots and practice firing the ones that are ready to go. Then Sunday we’ll bisque, glaze, and fire. Any pots that aren’t dry can be glazed and fired next weekend.”
“Is it okay for me to stay?”
Lucien turned to look at him. He looked so tired he was weaving on his feet. “Of course you can stay. James, your Uncle Colin and I bought this place together. When he left, he didn’t take anything with him other than a couple of pots. You can stay as long as you like.”
“I just wasn’t sure if there were any, you know, bad feelings.”
Lucien shook his head. “Not really, and nothing to do with you. Why don’t we go back to the house, and you can turn in early. You look dead on your feet.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ve got your letter in my backpack. I should have given it to you before.” James looked at him, ran a hand through his hair, and rubbed hard over his eyes. “So you know who I am.”
“You look just like him. I knew who you were as soon as I saw you walking up the road.”
James took a thick envelope out of his backpack, went yawning off to the shower. Lucien set it down on the dining room table, stared at it like it was a poison bug. He needed to make cobbler tonight. He had five firefighters from Sandpoint coming for the workshop tomorrow. Firefighters were raku fanatics, and they ate like horses. Now with James here, who also looked like he could put away some food, Lucien thought he ought to get a couple of pie pans full of fresh berry cobbler in the freezer. He could make up some hamburger patties too, make things simpler tomorrow. Oh, potato salad. He needed to get the potato salad made. He looked back at the letter on the table, then went to the cabinet over the sink and took down the bottle of tequila.
He had some orange juice in the fridge, and he poured a tall glass and added a healthy slug of tequila. Then he sat down at the table and opened the letter. It was two pages, and the second page was a legal document of some kind with an embossed seal at the bottom. Lucien felt his heart sink. Oh no. What now? He unfolded the letter.
Lucien, what do you think of this young boy I’ve sent your way? Has he grown up fine and strong? He wants to be a potter, so of course I thought to send him to you. I saw David Archer a couple of months ago. He said you’d had several pots bought by the museum in San Francisco, and some went to Minneapolis and some to New York! You have the hands of an angel, Lucien. But he also told me you’re still alone on your mountain. Why don’t you have a lover? Some strong and brave young potter to warm your bed? Maybe you and James will fall in love, like you and I did so long ago, with our hands in wet clay together, and you can stay on your mountain and not be lonely. Lucien, why haven’t you unpacked the kiln? It’s been five years. Don’t you think that’s long enough? I miss you very much some days. Colin
The second page was a legal document, sealed and notarized, saying that the sale of any pots and sculpture made by Colin Ferguson that were currently in the anagama kiln at Salmon River Pottery could be sold and the proceeds split equally between Lucien Durand and James Ferguson. Colin’s address, phone number, and e-mail were on the bottom of this page.
I miss you very much some days. He drank the glass of orange juice and tequila down. Yeah, and I miss you very much some days, too, you shit.
Four casseroles full of cobbler went into the freezer and about a gallon of potato salad into the fridge. He reminded himself that this was Colin’s usual game, and he did not have to play. Colin had thrown a line into the river? He was not going to rise to the bait. He was a clever trout, and would stay hidden in the rocks. Lucien took a couple of clean towels and put them on the dresser in the spare bedroom.
James was asleep, sprawled on his back with one arm flung out. He had ginger freckles on his nose and wicked-looking black whiskers coming up on his chin. His bare chest was covered in thick black hair. He was bigger than Colin by a couple of inches. And so young, so tender and young. Lucien wondered if he was in trouble. Was there something other than the urge to be a potter that had brought him out here? He had come from a fire lookout job, four months alone in a little cabin on a mountaintop in the Cascades. What had he done in the Army? Was he running from something?
And why would anyone bother to tell him? This was just like Colin, to decide to fix someone without bothering to check that anyone wanted to be fixed. Living with Colin was like living with a wasp loose in the house. He picked up the phone. The legal document Colin sent contained a phone number in Thailand. Colin sounded sleepy. Of course he had caller ID.
“Is this my dear Lucien, or does James need rescuing? I don’t know anyone else in the wilds of northern Idaho.”
“James is fine,” Lucien said. “He’s sleeping in the spare bedroom. And I ought to kick your butt.”
Colin laughed, and the warm sweet sound of it ran like honey down his spine. “What do you think of him, Lucien? Is he very handsome?”
“He looks just like you. But very young and very tired. What’s wrong? Is he in trouble? Do I have to guess?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong! He won’t tell me. You figure it out. Maybe he just needs a handsome older lover to guide his hands into clay.”
“Colin, for crying out loud….”
“It’s not like you have another lover. Why not, Lucien? What’s wrong?”
“How do you know I don’t have a lover? Did you bug the bedroom before you left?” Colin laughed again. “And you? Have a handsome young Thai houseboy to tend to your every need?”
“Yes, two houseboys. Their skin is so sweet, brown and fragrant as lemongrass. But they sleep with each other, not with an old man like me.” Lucien listened to him breathe. “Have you unpacked the kiln?”
“I don’t want….”
“You don’t want my pots? Or anything I can give you? Then sell them and give James the money. He’s hungry, Lucien. He needs a stake. Not like you. You’ve made your name now, right? You don’t need anything from me?”
Lucien looked up. James was standing at the kitchen door in jeans and bare feet, watching him. He held out the phone. “It’s your uncle. He wants to talk to you.”
James took the phone, giving him a look that clearly said he knew he was being thrown to the wolves. “Hey, Uncle Colin. Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, yeah, he looks fine, just….”
Lucien raised his eyebrows, watching James’s cheeks flush bright red.
“No, Uncle, I just meant…. Okay. Okay. Listen, I need to go check on the dog.” James gave him a pleading look, and Lucien took the phone back.
“He brought a very pregnant dog with him. I left her out in the barn with the goat.”
There was a silence that stretched all the way to Thailand. “You still have the goat?”
“I thought you told me you killed my goat and roasted it in the backyard and ate it.”
“I might have exaggerated.”
Then Colin was whispering French in his ear, words of love that tickled like butterflies touching down on overheated skin. James stuck his head in the back door. “Hey, um, Lucien? Do you have some old towels or something?” His eyes looked ready to pop out of his head.
“How many puppies?”
“Six so far, but I don’t think she’s done.”
“I’ll be right there.” He turned back to the phone. “Did you hear that? You’re a grandfather.” And he hung up on Colin laughing in his ear.
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