The Empty Vessel
The summer they drowned the hornet’s nest, I built my first urn.
For months, the hornets had been at work, and now their nest hung in the oak tree round and smooth, like the bulbous heart of some prehistoric mammal. The nest frightened us yet still, I could not repress my fascination for its beauty, its strangeness. The fact that it was forbidden. I would stand with my brother Sampson and watch it gently palpitating in the evening breeze. To those of us below, it brimmed with evil. To the hornets, it was beautiful, a work of art, a tangible manifestation of that universal urge to grow, grow, grow. Live, live, live.
One day, my brothers crept out past the garden, past the gully, down to the ridge of oaks where the hornets’ nest hung. On a July afternoon already baking in the summer heat, they built a fire beneath the tree and smoked the hornets until they slept. They threw a plastic sheet over the nest, wrestled it from the branch, and brought it to the ground, still faintly thrumming with the dreams of the sleeping hornets. They dropped the sheeted bundle into the creek and prodded it with fallen branches until it sunk beneath the water.
Later, Sampson fished the nest out of the creek and let it dry on the bank. He gave it to me as a gift, and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. The smooth, heart-shaped form was now a deflated husk, still waterlogged in some places. Inside the tunnels and inner chambers of the nest, the hornets lay curled and unmoving, caught sleeping in the midstream of their lives.
I kept the nest on the table near my window and, over time, began to place other objects near it: a delicate twig, a pebble that shone bright purple when wet, a tuft of lichen, a bit of rock that may or may not have been a fossil. It was not until I found the tiny bird’s skull that I discovered the nest’s true purpose. The brittle, thin bone was staved in on one side; it needed protection to survive. I pried open the cracked lip of the hornets’ nest and slipped the skull inside, so that it might find comfort there in the paper catacombs, among all the other dead, flying things.
Later, I added a locust, its wings carved with the delicate tracery of a church window, and then a desiccated lizard found beneath the guest bedroom windowsill. The half-moon of an eggshell. A vertebra found in some arid mound of dirt, beautiful and spiny like a sea creature washed up far from home. Over time, the hornets’ nest became a repository for all of my dead and broken things. It was my first urn, my first vessel, a dry womb into which I consecrated the lost things of the world. It was not clear to me at the time, but in that practice, there was a hole I could fill, a service I could provide the world: mercy, protection, silence, a place to hide.
I told none of this to the woman who wrote the interview. When she asked how I started making the urns, I told her, as I tell everyone, that it was after the death of my brother, Sampson. She, bobbing her head as she scratched away with her expensive pen, seemed just as satisfied with that story as she would have been with any other.
It was a short interview, only a few paragraphs accompanied by a photo of me in my studio, surrounded by urns, but it ran in a very popular women’s magazine and brought me a lot of attention. More students enrolled in my courses, and even my sisters-in-law, who had only ever shown a polite revulsion at my choice of career, were impressed. It was also because of the interview that Marcy called me.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said when I answered the phone. “I got your number from the university. I don’t know if they were supposed to give it to me, but, well, when you’ve lost someone, people tend to say yes.”
Her husband had died, she needed an urn. The funeral was Friday. Could it be ready by then?
They always want them too soon. Making urns is not a quick process. First, I must learn about the deceased, the person whose home I will be making. Then, I make the vessel, sit at the wheel, turn the clay, feel the urn into existence. Bake, glaze, and bake again. It must be held, contemplated, honored, packed, and shipped. Never in a million years could it happen by Friday.
“No, a month, six weeks, maybe. They’ll give you a box to hold the ashes at the funeral home, and you can just transfer them later. Or have someone do it for you if you don’t like the thought of it.”
One of my professional shortcomings is my inability to adopt the smooth, gentle tones of the hospice worker or funeral director. When I tell people no, I tell them no, whether they are grieving or not. Sometimes my clients are relieved by this. They are tired of being spoken to like the fragile bereaved and are happy to return to just being a person.
“Yes, that’s fine,” Marcy said brightly. “I can have someone else do it.”
She continued with a string of questions that she could have answered for herself had she read the article carefully enough. I told her I would send her a brochure and a questionnaire to help me understand more about her husband and how he lived. Then we would have a follow up interview to cover any additional questions she or I might have, and I would mail the urn to her once it was ready.
Thirty minutes after we hung up, Marcy returned the completed questionnaire. It was then I saw Aaron’s name and knew he was dead. The realization spun inside me until I thought I might be sick.
When I first went to college, I had no particular idea of what my life would come to be. I had interests — geography, zoology — but no overriding passion, no dream to carry me into adulthood. There was a cafe near the university, and I went there often between classes. The place had an air of edgy sophistication, with its dingy walls and open mic nights and poetry slams. This was the age of the coffeehouse, when cappuccinos and biscotti were new and exotic arrivals in Midwestern towns, before Starbucks had begun to inch its way out of the hip grunge paradise of 1990s Seattle into the bland strip malls of America. The people who hung out there, with their loose flannel shirts and torn fishnets and thick-soled Mary Janes, seemed to me raw and brilliant. I would watch them, sitting alone with my geology textbook, sipping coffee from a cracked, stained mug. Was there a point in my life, I wondered, when I would also speak about music and poetry with irony and conviction?
I first noticed Aaron early on. His hair was lank and fell below his ears, and he laughed easily with his friends, drinking cheap filter-coffee refills, and talking about books. I am not certain why he broke away from his friends to sit at my table. I had been pretending to take notes on sedimentation and karst topography, and when I told him what I was studying, he laughed.
He offered me a strong, foreign cigarette and asked about my life: where I came from, what I studied in school, what kind of music I liked, what books I had read. My conversation has never been riveting, and I was embarrassed by my answers. I preferred to listen to him talk, stringing out rapid fire references to a list of people I did not know — musicians, artists, other people who hung out at the cafe. He was an art major and mentioned his painting with an offhand shrug, as though it were a very commonplace thing to do with one’s time.
His thin hair glinted gold even in the somber light of the cafe, and, as he talked, he repeatedly flicked a scuffed Zippo lighter against his wrist. After an hour or so, he opened a new pack of cigarettes and showed me a trick involving the foil wrapper. I was so young then, to be impressed by such a thing as that.
To say that Aaron became my boyfriend would be an exaggeration. We spent a great deal of time together, always at the cafe, sometimes by arrangement, but most often because I would go there to find him, pretending I needed a place to study or a coffee to wake me up after class. It must have been painfully obvious that I was going out of my way to make myself available to him, but he did not seem to mind and always sat with me, introducing me to his clever friends who did their best to ignore me. Once or twice, we went to a nearby Mexican restaurant with unlimited chips and salsa. He never asked for my number.
One day, Aaron asked if he could paint my portrait. I walked with him to his house, only about 15 minutes away. He did not invite me in, but instead took me directly to the garage where he had set up his studio. It was not the sort of place you might imagine when you think of an art studio; there were no high ceilings, loft windows, no north light nor paint-spattered pine flooring. Aaron’s friend, who was busy smoking pot and trudging his way through a part-time job at a local bar, did not have a car and consequently let Aaron use the empty space in his garage. At one time, the garage space had served as the workshop of a weekend woodworker. Now, its hand-built, wooden work benches cluttered with brushes, paint-smeared jars of turpentine, and tubes of student-grade oils. There was an easel in the corner and a chair next to a dusty window where he asked me to sit.
The air was choked with must, and the day was too hot to sit for long in that unventilated space. Already, a slight sheen of sweat had formed over Aaron’s skin. I felt my armpits growing damp with heat and nervousness at being alone with him, and I adjusted myself in the chair to try to hide the wet blooming beneath my shirt. Then, finally realizing that the heat would not abate and no amount of shifting would solve the problem, I took off my shirt. It was an act so swift, so impulsive that even I was surprised. Aaron said nothing and knitted his brow, laying out the paints on his palette with a show of serious concentration.
In my plain cotton bra, the nubbly upholstery of the chair grating against my skin, I had never been so visible before. Time does not seem longer when you’re sitting still, nor does it move particularly fast. It simply becomes time, a passing of moments and sensations, a growing sense of discomfort or pressure in the body, changes in the sun beyond the window, the temperature of the room. In the stifling, dizzying heat, I felt my mind dissipate, my thoughts recede, until I was only a body, a body to be looked at and put on canvas.
Aaron and I did not talk as he worked. My head was positioned so that I could watch him, his head darting behind the canvas and then back again, eyes on my face, my body, never meeting my gaze. Watching his face shooting back and forth, the furious movements of his arms behind the back-lit canvas, I did not know whether he was painting or acting. To him, perhaps, they were the same thing. Several times the painting tottered on the easel, and he grabbed ahold of it with one hand. I saw his broad, oval fingertips grasping the edge, noticed the smears of paint across his knuckles, and realized that one day — maybe that day — I might touch those fingers, or they would touch me. Strangely, I did not feel one way or other about it.
I did not take a break from sitting and he did not offer one. For hours, I remained still until the bones of my pelvis ground into the hard seat beneath the upholstery of the chair, and my neck and shoulders began to ache from bearing the weight of my head. The natural light dimmed and Aaron was frantic as he painted, afraid he would not finish in time. Once the light was finally gone, he stood back, shook his head. He had botched the hands, he said, and had no time for the background. He’d have to finish those alone. Though he acted dissatisfied, I could see he was proud as I walked over and put my shirt back on. I stepped in front of the painting.
There was a woman — older than I was — hatched out in bold, impatient strokes. She had my hair, long, blond, except for the green scratched in to denote the shadows, and her shoulders were set in the slightly cowering way I have seen myself sitting in photographs. Otherwise, she had little of me in her. Her torso, exposed in the bra, was a wide, unmodulated expanse without distinction or topography. Aaron had seen nothing of me. Later that night, when I felt those oval fingertips on my skin, nothing they touched would truly belong to me.
At the end of the semester, the finished portrait hung in the student show. Aaron titled it “Girl, No. 2,” although I was not aware of the existence of “Girl, No. 1.” I felt a strange thrill at seeing myself there, on the wall — the woman was not me, did not look like me, was not named after me, and yet she was the closest I had ever come to being seen. Though his friends told him the painting was brilliant, the departmental prizes went to the abstract and conceptual work. Aaron dismissed this, not without bitterness in his voice.
At the exhibition, I noticed some pots from the university ceramics department. Set on a pedestal off to the side, neglected by the crowds drawn to the painting and sculpture, they were clumsy student work. Their thick, viscous glazes mesmerized me, gleaming in the florescent light.
“What are you doing over here?” Aaron laughed slightly. “Ceramics? Kind of cool, but is there a point to making the same thing over and over? I mean, we’re all pretending it’s art, but is it really?” A friend lingering nearby overheard and sniggered. Aaron put a finger over his smiling lips, as though they shared a secret joke.
There was one pot partially glazed in a soft, robin’s egg blue which spilled over its lip and caressed its sides, leaving streaks of pale, earthy clay uncovered beneath. As I stood there, watching the light drip over the edge of the empty pot, I knew then what my life might come to be.
Not long after Aaron’s show, I returned home to my parents’ ranch. Later that summer I received my diagnosis. Recurring pains I’d had since I was a teenager were the sign of a deeper problem. I could not have children, would never have children, my womb cut from my insides like rotten fruit on a vine.
I had never considered life without motherhood. Though it’s true that I had barely even had a boyfriend, I had always assumed that my life would take on much the same structure as that of my parents: marriage, children, a life devoted to raising other people. Now, my life stretched out before me as a flat expanse, a plane without mark or differentiation. I told myself I was not sad — why mourn what had never existed?
When my mother learned of the diagnosis, she wept as though I had died. She wept with an even greater ferocity than when Sampson died, as though this barrenness was a worse fate. How could I be the person she had expected me to become, that God had expected me to become, if I could not fulfill this most basic of womanly roles? After the surgery, she never mentioned my future, never spoke of me getting married or being someone other than the person I already was. We spoke only of the present, and if the future did enter into our conversation, it was in a strained, tense way, as though my mother were holding a conversation with someone who was terminally ill. Instead, it was my mother who was terminally ill, although we did not know it. She died within the year.
When I went back to school in the fall, it was different with Aaron. We had not spoken much over the summer, but now there was an even greater silence between us. Our relationship never formally ended, just as it never formally began. I started to see less of him, to spend more time in the ceramics studio. I ran into him sometimes, sulking along the hallways of the art building, and if I caught his eye, he would nod, nothing more. A mutual friend told me that he had a new girlfriend, an MFA student in creative writing, and I found I didn’t care. I spent more and more time at the wheel. None of the pots I made were beautiful, but their very being was enough for me.
Aaron had been such a fleeting, pointless thing, but he was a marker, a threshold through which I passed into another, unforeseen life. Before Aaron, there was the innocence of expectation, the belief in the fullness that would come with knowing another person. Afterward, there was no fullness, no expectation, only work and clay and the peace I found in making my empty vessels. Forever in my mind he will be tied to these two things: the impossibility of motherhood and my rebirth as a different sort of mother. A mother of all the things that were not and could no longer be.
I should be grateful that he gave me the life I have led. It has not, after all, hurt me to be alone. I have built a life on creating emptiness. A vessel is a thing, but it is also a hole. I give people this nothingness, and if they choose to fill it with water, the green stems of flowers, hot tea on a cold day, the ashen remains of their loved ones, it is their choice. Still, once the water is poured out into the sink, the flowers thrown in the trash, the emptiness remains. That is what makes a vessel a vessel — there is no pot without an unfilled space.
When I spoke to Marcy on the phone, I could tell she knew none of this. If Aaron had told her about a girl he met once at a cafe, whom he dated in college, whose portrait he had painted, then she had no idea it was me.
She answered at the first ring and, without pause, said, “Caroline, thank you.”
I did not ask how she was. The bereaved stand too close to the profound and inaccessible — I had learned not to fall into trivialities with them. Instead, I began with my set routine of interview questions, pretending that Aaron was not a person I already knew.
Marcy told me that they met at work when Aaron was in graduate school and working for a temp agency. He had been a high school guidance counselor in the public school system. He was friendly with his colleagues and mostly liked by his students. Aaron was the first person who had ever tried to help them understand who they were and what they might want to become, the first person who ever really saw them as people.
“Did he have any outside interests?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Marcy laughed. “It was always work and family for him. He just liked things as they were. But, you know, he majored in art at college. Isn’t that funny? I can’t think of a less Aaron thing for him to do. He said that if he’d met a guidance counselor like him in high school, maybe he would have made a better decision. Otherwise, we were both so busy with work and the kids. We have two boys – I should have mentioned that. I guess being a father was what he did in his spare time. Do you have kids?”
I told her I did not.
“Oh,” she said and laughed nervously. It sometimes makes people uncomfortable to learn I don’t have children. They don’t know what to do with a life that to them seems so empty.
“I envy you your sleep,” she said. “I am tired. So, so tired.”
I did not respond. It might have been a joke meant to smooth over an awkward situation, but her voice trembled slightly, as though she were standing on the edge of a precipice.
“The boys — I love them, of course, but how am I supposed to explain all of this to them? And then Aaron used to help so much — just the little things, putting them to bed when I needed to be alone or just to drink a glass of wine and talk to a friend on the phone. He gave me the space to be human. Now that it’s just me, I have to do it all. Where is there room for me now that he is gone?
“They tell me, you know, that people have lots of strange reactions to a death — that it’s OK if I feel something else than sadness, relief even. It’s not relief that I feel, though — It’s as though through all this living, through all these years of having whatever it is everyone says we’re supposed to want, I’ve just been stripped down to nothing, like the bare walls of a house some other person’s family has outgrown and moved on from. That life, the one that was supposed to live inside of me, that I was supposed to build for everyone else, has just been ripped out of my insides, and now I am nothing but a collection of empty rooms. I hear the echoes of my children playing when they were younger, my husband’s footsteps, their doors closing at bedtime, my husband leaving the house for work. All those people once inhabited me and now they have moved on, and here I am, wondering when I became so silent inside.”
Then, as though apologizing, she said, “I forgot you don’t have children. I mean — not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that you’ve always had yourself, no one has taken it from you. You couldn’t know what it means to give that self over and then be so emptied, so abandoned.”
What could I say that she would understand?
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s just that I envy you so much. Your life, it must be so full. There is no one who can rob you of that, who can dismantle you. No one can touch what you’ve made because you have made it all alone.”
I sit in my studio in the pouring light and position the clay on the wheel. Breathing in the smell of the clay is like breathing in the center of the earth, its bones and organs and muscles, the stuff from which the heart of the universe is made. As I turn the wheel, the urn takes its shape — from a low, compact mound, it spins upwards with a smooth muscularity, pulses beneath my fingers. It is a body, an organ, a body without organs, a fetus growing heart and bones, springing from the form of its parent. Alive and whole.
The clay is a quick and living thing, and my fingers coax it into form, making of it something cohesive, an object to be looked at, recognized, that has a purpose. Before me, the urn was simply earth, but now I have mothered it into being, brought it into existence, my generous palms splayed, its hungry mouth opening, shocked and jubilant to be a thing alive in the world.
Once I finish, the urn towers above the wheel like a monument, an obelisk. I use a wire to cut it from the base and put it on a shelf to dry, where it will become as white as parched sand. Then I will bake it, glaze it, bake it again. And then it will hold the bones of Aaron, the first and last of my lovers, who is now gone. He is in a state of nothingness — if he is anywhere, it is there, the empty hole where nothingness lives.
If it were my last day on earth and I were able, I would make my own urn. I would spin it, put it aside to dry, and mix a glaze of pale egg blue. It would be up to someone else to bake the clay, to give it its color, to place me inside. I would hope the urn would not break in the kiln and that the last of my pots would be the last of my homes. My child would be my keeper, the keeper of the body that made it.
I am full, I realize. I am a collection of dead things, a nest of fragile and delicate beauty, a place where the ends of lives are stored — all those remnants of unfulfilled strivings, moments forgotten, people now come to an end. We all have our roles to play. I am the maker of pots, the mother of empty spaces.