Indian Clay by Viva Flores
The blonde lady that visited classroom 3C that day held a wide-brimmed book that was later placed on her lap when she sat in our teacher’s wooden rocking chair on the edge of the linty rug. “Please sit down Indian style”, she said. We had a hard time saying her name, so she just told us to call her Mrs. K. She had come to read our class a story. It was going to be about an Indian girl that was learning to make clay pottery from her grandmother. Mrs. K moved her hand outward in a half-circle motion and then stopped it in midair, making the charms on her gold bracelet jangle when she said, “Many moons ago…”
I thought that sounded funny and pictured a pile of moons stacked atop one another, like the swirled blue marbles that my older brother Charlie kept hidden in his drawer, next to the wallet he got for Christmas last year. Instead of paying attention I stared at her brown sandals, how her bright red square toenails pressed downward with each movement as she rocked the chair. Mrs. K had wavy yellow hair that bloomed a pale white at the tips, like my neighbor’s cocker spaniel, Romeo. I didn’t like Romeo, or Mrs. K.
The Indian girl in the book lived with her tribe somewhere where there was a large field filled with sun and wild grasses, and she wore a buffalo dress her mother had made just for her. There was a part where, after making the dress, there was buffalo bladder left over, so her mother had sewn her a small fringed bag made from it and an even tinier, littler bag for her doll. Everyone knew she was a special girl. I shifted and looked down at my tennies. My mom had bought them for me downtown. I remembered the day I got them, it was sunny and we had woken up early to take one of the city buses from where we lived across town. The tennies were bright white and had big hot pink stars on the sides.
I had been really happy at the shoe store, so much that I had skipped out of it and made sure to hop over the little grey puddles on the sidewalk that the rain had left behind, but later that day as we waited for the bus that would take us home, the little paper bottom from my snow cone ripped and dripped blue dots all over my new shoes. My mom had gotten mad at me and said I was an ugly spoiled girl, so spoiled that I was careless with good things and that I didn’t deserve anything nice. I didn’t think I was spoiled. On television, the little blonde girl in my favorite show was rich, and wore a sparkly pair of fancy dress shoes that matched the big bows in her hair. In every episode, her shoes were a different color. The only fancy shoes I had were hand-me-downs from our neighbor La Señora Ruiz’s granddaughter, Corina.
Corina was two years older than me and lived on the other side of town. A couple of times a year her grandma would come by and leave me a trash bag full of all the pretty clothes Corina had outgrown. Even used, Corina’s dresses and shoes were much more beautiful than mine. Last summer, she had owned five pairs of colored Keds, and I had found them all in the bag, unscuffed and tied together with pale twine. I was so excited, I wore them around the house even though they were still too big.
Corina would never have dripped blue snow cone on her new shoes. She was careful with her good things. My mother had said, “Es una niña fina”. I wasn’t a niña fina like Corina or the rich girl on TV, even though I knew my mom wanted me to be. That day I had cried all the way home because I had disappointed my mom, hiding my new tennies under the seat. I looked up and saw Mrs. K was smiling at me, and I felt embarrassed and didn’t want her to see my feet, didn’t want her to see that I had tried to rip off one of the stars but couldn’t and stopped halfway, making it hang dirty and jagged on my left shoe, ugly.
In the book the girl was saying goodbye to her family and leaving them to live with her grandmother, who wanted to teach her how to make the clay pots she was famous for, the ones with the water bird design. The first morning she was there, her grandmother had woken her up extra early and taken her outside to pray, and then to gather the clay. At the end of the book she was grown up and had designed extra-special clay pots for her husband-to-be’s family, bright blue and flowered. Mrs. K showed us the back cover where there was a drawing of a smiling grown-up Indian woman holding a laughing brown baby in one arm, and a bright blue pot in another.
Mrs. K said that when the girl grew up and became a grandmother, she became famous for her pottery, too, just like her grandmother had been, and that she taught her own granddaughters the same. I wondered if there was anything my mother was going to teach me that her mother had taught her. Mrs. K asked our teacher, Mrs. Fairbanks, if it was okay that she take us all outside, and then asked us to line up. We followed her silently and walked down the squeaky hall toward the double doors that led out to the playground.
“There’s Indian Clay under everything, under all of us”, she said, once we were all outside. “Native-Americans used to make pottery out of it, other things, tools.” Now she was wearing a purple shawl, interwoven with green threads, and it hung carelessly off her waist, its ends dragging on the floor. A few small shovels were passed out, but after a few minutes we were all just using our hands, like we knew how to do.
“Go ahead”, she said, “Gather it and knead it until it’s warm”.
She then placed Dixie bowls filled with water on the floor, and passed out small handfuls of Popsicle sticks and toothpicks. “Can you make anything? Maybe a bowl, a cup, a bird?”
I looked across the yard at my best friend Terese, at her straight long black hair and the way the strands were infused with sun. Terese was shy and dark and beautiful, that’s why I loved her. I imagined Terese and I made the best pots, so much that everyone would notice and then we’d be famous. Ms. K left a little while after. The small bowls and plates everyone had made were placed on the windowsill to dry, but by the end of the day the rounded saucers that had been carefully made just got crumbly and broke. None survived. My cup that was smooth and crisp when it was wet was now just an ashy pile of dirt. Mrs. Fairbanks said we probably hadn’t dug deep enough to where the real clay was.
I looked for it somewhere else once, on some summer night when I was thirteen, in our backyard underneath the honeysuckle vines. It was after the rain, and I had kneeled and swatted at the ground, pulling up handfuls of sloppy-veined mud. I thought I scraped it with my fingernail.
Now I am a grown woman.
A grown woman standing in front of an oval medicine cabinet mirror. A brown face looking solemnly at itself, gums and teeth that seem terrifyingly ugly underneath the fluorescent light.
“When did my pores get so big and noticeable?” I said aloud, then blinked, looking at my ruddy face. I opened the medicine cabinet mirror and took out my white clay mask. The label said the clay was collected in the rain forest and that it would help even out the crow’s feet that have been forming around my eyes, and the laugh lines.
The mask made my face bone white, white-faced. There was a storm outside, and hail was hitting feverishly against the windowpane, a loud pap-pap-papping that sounded like knocking at the door, knocking that threatened to invade my attic apartment. I walked out of the bathroom into my bedroom half–expecting to find someone there, but there wasn’t.
Sensing a sliver of movement, I asked, “Who’s there?”
The rain lapped at the window and I scanned the room, all the walls, eventually settling on my collection of framed Renaissance women. Their faces all seemed different, somehow. I suspected some of them had moved from their original poses. No, I knew it. That long-haired countess was scowling when I bought her. Now she was smiling at me, and had let her hair down, melting. I moved suddenly, hoping I’d startle her, but only the lace curtains fluttered in response.
The lights flickered, everything mocking me.
Opening the medicine cabinet door, I looked until a flash of metal. The manicure scissors. Sliding my thumb and index finger into the holes, I began trimming my right eyebrow, hand shaking and
not paying attention
accidentally pinched a thick piece of flesh between the blades and in a whoosh pressing down hard sliced off a tilted crescent moon shape. What began as a flush pink I watched curiously blood running fast and covering my left eye in a crimson river drip-drip-dripping on the tiled floor.
It stung. I looked into the mirror at myself. Now my eyebrow was really uneven I thought, squinted and frowned, clipping off what I felt in thickness the same amount of flesh on my other eyebrow, but this time it was a bigger chunk, deep and square-shaped that caused a smarting and a line of red that quickly raced down over my other eye onto my cheek and chin staining my silk robe spreading like black ink dying. I looked up and smiled into the mirror, little rabid dog. Pincushion, pincushion, where was the Indian clay.
Viva Flores is a Chicana poet and fiction writer. Her writing has most recently been featured in Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul, Black Girl Dangerous, Tlaa: A Collective Indigenous Expression and the fall 2014 issue of The Official La Tolteca ‘Zine. Viva was also recently a featured speaker at Cal-State LA and UCLA in November 2014.