Arpita pushed down on a pedal and the black wheel began to spin. A hum filled the courtyard. She flecked drops of water onto the surface of the spinning disk and the smell of water and clay, like rain on earth, permeated the air around her. A tingle radiated down her neck. The lump of clay hit the wheel with a flat thump and wobbled. She cupped the clay and the hum switched to a whine and the tingle swelled into a surge of electricity and her hands molded the ball of clay into a cone. Her thumbs hooked into the top of the cone and the clay yielded and she pried open a mouth and the shape changed yet again.
When she was done a humble pot stood broad and squat and glistening with an air of elegance. As an afterthought she pinched the rim and gave it a lip. The image of the silver star glued to her previous art project flashed in her mind and she remembered the lavender scent of her mother's congratulatory embrace. She rotated the wheel so that the pot faced the corner of the courtyard where the art teacher was working.
The art teacher was drying her classmates' papier-mâché monsters—disproportionate, multi-limbed, teeth-baring—placing them where shafts of sunlight had already warmed the sandy-brown ceramic tiles of the courtyard. She crossed the open space, wiping her fingers on the maroon and stained apron she wore, and bent down and inspected the pot.
"It's marvelous, Arpita. Wonderful." Arpita beamed.
That evening she stepped off the school bus and found the door locked; her father out for a walk. She tried the door handle several times, each time expecting it to give, before sitting down on the cold concrete. When he did return, he apologized to her and unlocked the door, allowing her to enter first.
After taking her evening shower, she joined her father in the living room. He was hunched over the glass dining table, sipping a cup of tea and reading from a stack of crisp, white, printed sheets. Beside the stack was a bottle of Pelican blue ink and a silver Parker pen. Occasionally her father would uncap the pen, press the nib against his tongue, and then write on a sheet of paper. By the end of every evening, Arpita would be able to spot a circle of blue within her father's mouth.
He looked up at her and smiled. "And how was your day, today?"
"It was okay."
"Ms. Bidapa and I worked on something. A pot."
He frowned and squinted at some writing on a sheet. "A pot?"
Arpita looked at her hands and remembered the overwhelming rush of power that flowed through them and said, "Yeah."
He uncapped the pen and began writing. The nib made a dry, scratching sound before the ink flowed. "Great."
"Yeah," she said. She picked at the seams of the couch. In the corner of the room were bubble-wrapped vases and a stack of packed paintings, the last vestiges of her mother's presence.
The next day Arpita received a message from the art teacher, requesting her to join her in the art courtyard during lunch break. After a hasty lunch she walked over, relishing the sunlight and the rustle of the cherry tree's leaves. The art teacher was wrapped in her maroon apron and talking to the school principal. A knot formed in Arpita's stomach. She slowed down and inspected her uniform and laces before joining the two of them.
"Ah, Arpita, there you are."
"Hello, Ma'am. Hello, Sir."
The principal was wearing gold-rimmed glasses. He had a scar that loped from eye to ear and Arpita struggled to focus on anything but that pink slice. She clenched her toes.
"Well, I was just showing the principal the magnificent piece you created yesterday." She pointed at the pot that was resting on a windowsill. "Made from scratch."
All three of them turned. Arpita felt a gout of golden and warm pride drop into her stomach and spread. She smiled and looked up at the teacher. "Thank you, Ma'am."
The art teacher smiled and nodded and slid her hands into the front pockets of her maroon apron.
"Yes, it's very well done." The principal nodded at the pot before looking at her. "Arpita, an international art competition is taking place two months from now. Our school has been asked to participate. I have asked Ms. Bidapa here to select one student to represent high school and," he smiled, and the scar curved with his lips, "one student to represent middle school." He picked up a folder from a table nearby and handed her a manila envelope. "It's a terrific opportunity."
Her father let her in and then stepped out.
"This way works, right? I'll wait for you and then, once you're here, I'll go for my walk." He smiled and then turned. The heavy door clunked back into place.
In the living room she noticed the corner was now empty. She placed her backpack on the couch and eased the pot out. It was filled with ripped-up strips of newspaper and she thought of it as a gift yet to be unwrapped. She held the pot by its rim and set it on the edge of the table, away from the papers and the bottle of Pelican ink and the Parker pen. The final touch was turning it so that the lip faced the door.
She slid the permission slip—the sheet of paper that had been inside the manila envelope—beside the pot. She smiled at the placement of the two. All her new clay creations and papier-mâché homunculi were displayed on that very spot for review and inspection. The wash of lavender and her mother's slender fingers caressing her hair before bed were praise enough.
The door slammed and from her bed Arpita listened to her father rush from room to room, speaking on the phone. A drawer opened with a clatter. The fridge was opened and closed repeatedly. After a few minutes she heard the swish of his trousers and he appeared by her doorway, struggling with a black leather satchel.
"I'm sorry, I have to meet someone. It's urgent. I'll be back as soon as possible, okay? Dinner's on the table." He turned and left. The door slammed again and then a ringing silence filled the house.
Arpita tiptoed out of her room. Her dinner, a plate of tomato and cheese sandwiches, lay in the center of the dining table, beside her unsigned permission slip and the clay pot, which was still packed, still facing the door. The stack of papers was gone. Leaving everything as it was, she returned to her room and closed the door behind her.
On the walls of her room were grey rectangular boundaries of dust that had collected over the years. The paint within those boundaries was a richer shade, making those rectangles look like miniature doors in the walls. She imagined opening one. At first there would be darkness and a tunnel to crawl through, but at the very end there would be blinding light and open space. There would be the pottery room, its shafts of sunlight, its shelves of papier-mâché monsters, and its warm tiles.
Arpita lay down on her bed. Her fingers traced the edges of the seven silver stars that were pasted to the bed's headboard and she remembered the warm weight of her mother causing the bed to creak and the mattress to dip and bring the two of them together. Every night those slender, perfumed fingers would trace her forehead and explore the dip and rise of her nose. A shiver would cascade down the length of her back and she would close her eyes and savor the gentle current of energy that came with it.
The door opened with a click. In the dark, under the sheets, Arpita did not move. A wave of expectancy rose from her body. She held her breath, her shoulders anticipating the warmth of her father's hand.
"Goodnight," he said.
A balloon of silence expanded and pressed against the walls and the would-be doors of her room. There was a slosh of liquid and she pictured her father drinking from the Pelican ink bottle.
"Goodnight," he said again, before leaving.
In the middle of the night Arpita stepped out of her room. The steady drone of her father's snores punctuated the silence of the night. From the narrow corridor she peeked inside her parent's room and saw, in the pale watery light coming through the curtains from the street lamps, that the shelves were empty and the walls bare. Her father's forehead was smooth and unwrinkled and his lips were parted. He lay curled up on one side of the bed, away from the dip in the empty half of the mattress. Arpita felt a compulsion to run her hands along the hollow of the dip, to climb into it and to nestle beside her father.
"Pa?" she whispered.
The blank walls absorbed her voice.
Her father continued to snore.
Arpita turned. In the living room she saw her father's satchel lying beside the pen and the bottle of ink. The permission slip was signed. But her pot was still there, still packed full of crinkled newspaper strips. She felt a heavy bolt fall into her stomach. She remembered the way Ms. Bidapa had rolled the 'r' when she said 'marvelous' and stretched the 'n' in 'wonderful', and then she pictured her mother's slender fingers raising a papier-mâché figure to the light and turning it to inspect all the angles.
Standing in the corner of the living room, she slid her bare feet across the floor. There was no dust. The floor had been swept and swabbed. She thought about those wrapped-up paintings and the sound that bubble wrap made when popped and then the image of her clay pot, neatly packed and resting in the corner, waiting to be taken away as well, flashed in her mind. Her throat contracted. She walked over to the table and began pulling out the strips of newspaper from the pot's innards and letting them fall to the floor. She leaned across the table and picked up her father's bottle of ink and unscrewed the cap. It made a rasping sound. The ink inside glinted like liquid metal. It was so unlike the circle of blue in her father's mouth.
From a crack in the base, a thin vein of blue ink flowed out. It spread slowly away from the clay pot and towards the leather satchel. A tributary split away and began to drip onto the floor. Arpita stood in the empty living room and watched, hands by her side, eyes shimmering and fingertips blue.
BIO: Bikram Sharma received his BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He is an editor in a publishing house and in his free time enjoys getting lost in bookstores.