by patti smith

[from Living with the Animals, edited by Gary Indiana, New York: Faber & Faber, 1995]

MY GRANDFATHER WAS the village potter. He was also the keeper of a famous stream. It was said to have curative powers, and people came from great distances to fill tiny bottles to wear around their necks. All about were trees. The willow curving above the tiled roof of my grandfather's house. The cypress heading the garden at stream's end and just beyond, past the workshed, the dense blossoming of his orchard. In summer the blossoms fell, carpeting the earth. In autumn the golden fruit followed, fragrant and sweet. The people, having filled their bottles, would buy the fruit and my grandfather's wares. His bowls were especially prized. All of his love fused in their uncommon glaze. Each imperishable, unique.

On the eve of my fourteenth year, he sent a messenger with gifts and a letter requesting that I come and serve as his apprentice. I would learn all that he knew and one day inherit his land and continue his work. My father agreed, and the next morning, as my mother wept, I packed my sack, called my dogs, and said my farewells. It was a long way and the messenger and I returned on foot, in silence. My dogs ran on ahead in chase of a hare. As we approached the familiar stream I too broke into a run. The evening's last light heightened the beauty of the woodland, the orchards and the surrounding hills, and I could not contain my joy. I arrived at my grandfather's door flushed and road weary. He welcomed me with a bowl of warm milk and thick sour bread. I could not help thinking that soon I would be drinking from my own bowl turned by my own hand.

That night my dreams were invaded by the baying of my dogs. I dreamed of the forest, the stream and sky. I dreamed everywhere I ran the earth was my own. The next morning I began my studies. I worked hard. The days bled into seasons. I was happy there. My dogs ran free and I was experiencing new sensations, the most consuming being the power I felt when I threw at the wheel.

The seasons bled into years. My grandfather spent a lot of time in space. He would sit for hours in the garden and stare until something in his line of vision would disintegrate, break into a thousand tiny flashes and just disappear. I watched his progress from a small opening in the potters shed. A rock, a bush, and then, to my great horror, his favorite dog. After that he stayed in the garden all of the time--even at night.

One morning I sat before him and our eyes locked. Remembering the dog, I held on. His eyes were like violet flowers--centuries of love and death seemed to swirl in their purple depths. Mine were white--untested, pure. Our energies met full force, but I was younger and stronger and he collapsed. After that I avoided his eyes. I kept my dogs penned in a nearby field, and in a corner of the shed I nursed Mirza, an orphaned whelp, the only surviving trace of my grandfather's favorite dog.

I loved my grandfather, but I loved my life more. I spent a lot of time in the hills with Mirza, searching the caves for new deposits of clay. Soon I would be a man, I would have my own kiln, be my own master. My grandfather remained in the garden, an almost discarnate fixture. I continued my work.

On the morning of my eighteenth year I extracted a special bowl from the kiln. I delighted as always in the birth process of my wares. A firebox provided the heat which passed up through the firebars into the pottery chamber, the chamber of clay dying with the solid birth of the object. Demolishing the temporary structure, I scraped away the dead clay and turned the bowl in my hands--a gift for Mirza. Destruction and creation commingling in a single piece. Something welled up inside me as I placed the bowl before Mirza, and her eyes, violet and wide, seemed to tell me it was good.

That same evening, my grandfather vanished. The people of the village gathered with their torches and searched the field and forest. They never found him. It was my opinion, though I told no one but Mirza, that he had turned his gaze inward and consumed himself. I formed an urn in his memory and applied a special glaze, an almost unholy shade of purple, to match my grandfather's eyes. I set it in the garden where he once sat. I noticed visitors averted their eyes when passing it.

All that had been my grandfather's came into my hands. And I reached beyond him, extending into sculpture. I formed cherubs, statues, monoliths. My fame grew; my wealth increased. Life was good. I was strong and healthy. I could have my pick of the village girls. Yet I dwelled on the outskirts of my own prosperity. I preferred to be alone with Mirza and my new dog, a wolf cub I found in a cave while searching for clay. In time he became my constant companion. Mirza would lie by the urn, regarding us with a mixture of sadness and reproach. But I was too restless to comfort her. I let her draw comfort from the peace of the garden while I went hunting with my wolf dog.

The village widows, bred on superstition, warned me against him. He was a wolf, an agent of evil. I only laughed. He was but myself--a loner with an unapologetic, lively nature. He reveled in his solitude, as did I. At day's end, when the last of the light highlighted all the beauty that was now mine, I stood and surveyed it with greedy pleasure. I opened the store of wine; I drank with abandon. Within me was a burning. "I am my own kiln," I cried. I conjured waves of light, arms, torsos that became infamous mold in my hands. I danced upon the low wood tables as my beast howled. It was our joy.

On brilliant nights we emerged from the shed to dance in the moonlight, only to find Mirza hovering over our joy like an old Greek nurse. She was like the women in the village and I took to treating her as I treated them, with contempt. Perhaps my wolf felt this from me, because he too was showing signs of hostility toward her.

Mirza, who I had rescued with such care from my grandfather's gaze. Who I had fed from a bottle, brushed, and caressed. Who I had whispered all my youthful hopes and desires. But I was no longer a youth, but a man. And she no longer a pup, but a stinging grandmother. Every race is conquering. She was killed by my wolf dog. She already belonged to the past, sympathetic, beyond dignity. She was lying there under the cypress tree pouring syrup from her clock. The spring in the back of her neck was clear and sweet. I don't know. I never drank from it. Nor did I pass long in those eyes, as necessary as the glasses for a 3-D movie. She was sympathetic. In the remote soil of her eyes were the ruins, the arcades, the archways of history.

The women beat my wolf. They demanded his skin but I could not kill him. He was more myself than dog. That idiot smile. He cowered when he saw me but bared his teeth. In a rage I cut them, humiliating him. I penned him up. I put him out to run with the old women. The women with rattles in their chests. I no longer went out to hunt. I longed to run with him, share his humiliation. Maybe I loved him more than before. I grew weak. The lore of fathers. I watched him, lying beneath the cypress tree. When the sky was heavy with almonds. When the sun beat down. When the fanwise invasion of wind whistles in the mouth. He lies there. His eyes, that were white and burning, now remote and sympathetic; resting directly on the future with the sticky sweetness of a clock.

Several nights after I had filed the teeth of my wolf I noticed the atmosphere shifting around me. I seemed to identify with everything. I was the foundation, the sticky coil of a vase. I was odorless stacks of fresh-fired plates, the cold stone of the kiln. It was impossible to work. Rolling the coils was the worst. They became alive in my hand. The lovely unrelenting statues would undulate in smoke. The freshly molded huntress waved her wrists, and I could discern her hips rotating sweetly beneath her girdle of soft wet clay. With a rope and pulley I laid her against the wall.

I was sweating and shivering and she was beckoning. I pressed my lips against her melting face, the coils of her hair squishing between my eager fingertips. I became addicted to a paste of almond meal and paregoric, of humping and shattering art. My trade suffered. Tourists and holy men sought vessels--souvenirs of the graced grounds where my dogs ran in packs. I suffered, passing for hours on a bed of dust, tormented with lust for objects, walls, and an intense craving for a sweet and sticky gas to blot me out. The dogs were wilder than ever. I couldn't breathe. The women had a special tea sent to me.

Then a new shift. The sensation of invasion by a palpitating fist of warm light. The tea was sweet. At the bottom of the glass was a colorless grape. In a few hours it turned. I put it in the glazed bowl I had made for Mirza. It suddenly dominated the room. It was a breast with a sore and poking nipple, the oiled bottom of a slave. I lay on my stomach, my heart pounding against the stone floor--my sex obliterated by objects--the bowl grew still larger. The vibrating grape split and revealed a white snake. Someone had eaten a portion of it. Something was alive and wriggling inside of me. My belly swelled like the cheeks of a glass-blower. I couldn't move. The pain increased into the sound of wailing curses. The women entered, circled, and shook their rattles. Montage of trees, bowl, and canine teeth. Who would feed my wolf... The sting of relief won out. I lay there conscious only of the motion of my head rising, of lips to a glass or a stream of powder entering my vein. When at last the fever subsided I rose with a start. I dressed in a simple suit of cloth stuff and inspected everything. The statues and vessels had been preserved with wet sheets.

Nothing lost. Everything was blooming, the air vibrant and sweet. I found my wolf dog lying in the garden. Perhaps he had shared my fever as he had once shared my joy. But no one had cared for him and he was hardly more than a shadow, a translucent coat of fur stretched beneath the cypress tree. I called for a boy to fetch a syphon and the bowl that had once belonged to Mirza. I remembered the spring and drew from it. I had never drunk from it but the waters were legendary. I dipped from them and poured between his filed teeth. I felt woozy. I laid my head upon the coat of my wolf dog and slept.

Idiot rule. The big tree fucks the small grass. Tomorrow I am a tadpole, an insignificant shell. But this afternoon I pass for a long time dreaming and feeling a thrill to the kill of Mirza. To a time when my young wolf dog was mad with the projection of the human personality.

Copyright © Patti Smith 1995

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