Each night I work on my father’s head, the moist clay staining my hands mahogany to the wrists. At exactly eleven the studio lights snap off and I make my final preparations in the dark, a damp towel, plastic wrap, then a plastic bag, winding each around the head. Tight enough so the clay won’t harden and become unworkable, loose enough not to deform the emerging shape. Then, slowly, I lower the entire heavy package into my bin.
I walk home without looking back, breath smoking in the frigid air. The streets are empty, quiet, pools of light amid the blackness. I kick a flattened can, step on leaves, leave dark footprints in the fresh thin snow. When I lie down on my cot after showering, after picking the clay from beneath my fingernails, I still smell of it. I go to sleep thinking of that rounding, reddish lump.
The next night, despite my precautions, it’s dried some. Eyes closed, I rest my cool forehead against the cooler clay, seeking communion. Speak to me, I say.
It doesn’t. I bring wine, a crust of bread, fruit—an overripe pomegranate, a sour apple, a glossy, swollen orange—and leave the offerings on the table, then scrape off the rind with a scalpel and begin working again with dampened fingers. Each night, the scraping takes longer, but I don’t mind; it lends texture to the skin, even as it diminishes him.
The ears are easy, small, lying close to the head. The nose is long, the mouth a narrow slit. But the eyes are hard, building them up and then pressing them out with my thumbs as if trying to blind him. I hatch out his hair with a pencil point and scoop out his pupils with a salt spoon.
After a week it’s heavier than a real head, the center rigid as bone, and when the lights snap out I’m uncomfortable closing it up in the plastic bag. I hold the head in my lap for a while, humming, thighs trembling from the weight. At the door, the janitor rattles his keys, signaling that it’s midnight and time for me to go, and a church bell rings in the distance. Though I know I shouldn’t, I leave a slight opening in the bag for air and don’t close the drawer entirely.
The next night the offerings are gone. I know the janitor took them but I let myself think it might be something else. The clay is solid. He’d rolled onto his face when I closed the drawer—I’d heard the soft thump but hadn’t gone back to check, spooked by the thought of him moving—and now his mouth is distorted, the lips parted, as if he wants to speak. The weave of the towel is imprinted on his cheek. I grasp the head between my palms and raise it to my face. The eyes have skinned over, one ear is pressed flat. I whisper into it, a song, one he never sang to me when I was a child, making up the words as I go. Good night, sleep tight, I will always love you. But it’s no good; the ears are wrong now, the eyes, his mouth never twisted in such a fashion.
I put it on the shelf beside the others facing the blank dark window, sixty-three so far, and slice off a fresh slab of clay. I sit a long time before it under the hum of fluorescent lights, watching its glistening plane bleed a reddish-brown water, taking in its earthy scent. The first strokes are always the hardest, rounding those sharp edges. But my father is in there, desperate to get out, eyes closed by the heavy clay, mouth filled with it, and eventually my fingers scrabble at it, desperate to set him free. I pick up the clay slab and drop it repeatedly onto the wooden work bench, teaching it, teaching myself, the shape it means to reveal. It’s all right, I say, speaking to myself, to the clay. And I remember as my hands get busy, smoothing the warming surface, pulling here and pushing there, what he told me years ago: Work is a form of prayer.
He will return. He will return. He will return.