Amy places the whisker back into the mug of steamed milk and glances over at Kat next to a pile of empty teacups. She sits on the tall kitchen chopping block, sketchbook balanced on her lap. She snaps the book closed and hops off the block. Looking around the shop at the customers, she wipes her hands on the apron settled around her waist. Her gaze lands on a couple playing backgammon in the corner. The mystery of the woman’s shape catches her, and she scoffs at the man in the slacks with a wrinkled and stained collar shirt. For whom are these women beautiful? she thinks.
“Your water is boiling,” Amy says as she loads a tray with cookies and teacups.
“You don’t want it to boil, just to bubble.”
“Right, right,” Kat says.
Kat had been living with her sister in the cramped apartment above the teashop since she dropped out of art school the year before. Amy taught her how to run the shop and brew the specialty teas. Sauntering around the circular tables, Kat often couldn’t help but drop into conversations, always wanting to discuss her art projects or the difficulties of copyediting Blake’s works (“How to transcribe watercolour poetry—it’s an editor’s nightmare!”). She would sit herself on the floor cushions and pillows, pulling up to the lowset Indian table holding a pot of Sang de Mère tea. The thick red tea, mottled with spots of spices, purges your system of toxins with a burning sensation running from the sinuses to the lower abdomen. Kat would pour herself a cup and snatch conversations out of the air like yards of ribbon.
After a few months of this, the teashop grew to house a small artists’ co-op. “Why don’t you showcase some of your own art?” Amy asked her one day while they hung bundles of lavender to dry beneath the window.
“What, here?” she asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to sculpt for this kind of space.” “I’m sure the shop will inspire you.”
Kat began sketching the shapes of the women who came in for tea. At first they were meaningless sketches she drew to pass the time, but she eventually brought them home and into the studio she set up in the breakfast nook. Her first sculptures were of the Mennonite women who frequented the shop to buy their loose-leaf tea. These women came and went quickly, leaving Kat to scrawl their bodies onto scrap paper as they walked out the door. The Mennonite men were always handsome, the women always worn, their bodies seeming frumpy under the dresses and bonnets and layers of cloth. The men were tight and toned, their skin like leather under the sun, their beards worn like coats. Their villages were places to lament, the only thing to see was the sky, and when rainless it shone like the face of glass, reflecting the worked land and the rising smell of dung as the sun bore on.
To maintain the anonymity of her subjects, Kat would only sculpt particular parts of the body, anything that stood out—the slender bones in an arm, a rounding Buddha belly, the delicate way that a woman’s ear sits poised above her raised neck. The fleshy inspirer had to be completely unaware of the clay-blasted model bearing her likeness, which stood unceremoniously in the center of the shop. Kat would feature the sculptures on a rotating basis, making sure that the unknowing model had seen her own body in clay. These women would walk and turn about the shop, glancing casually and admiring the beauty of the sculpted bodies without recognizing them as their own.
The mysteries of the Mennonite shape remained Kat’s favourite. The thick cloth of their dresses hung about them and covered their bodies so thoroughly that the paleness of their skin probably shone like luna moths at night. This is how she would imagine them, naked, as she sat in the breakfast nook moving the clay ever so slowly. She chiselled away at the rounded chins and soft lips, kneading as though it was doughy flour for breaded jam sweets. She carved the fingers from one another, fat round hues that she pictured covered in blueberry dye and moist sugar, sweating over hot saucepans of boiling lamb. Her imaginary Mennonites were constantly working in their sculptures, never settled in art like the other bodies she sculpted. The other women were nestled in moments of time; the sculpture of a mother looking downwards, her children tugging the corners of her baggy shirt. Her loose body sagged in the sculpture, revealing the harsh lines of her scarred skin. Then the sculpture of the young woman that worked reception next door who outgrew all her jeans, sipping on fruit-flavoured ice drinks while giggling to colleagues, running her fingers through her hair and tugging her short dresses further down her thighs to cover the wide rolling skin that escaped. This sculpture was caught in a moment of anxiety—falling short of all aspirations, even the one to fit into her jeans again. Her flushed face turned away with shame.
Kat would spend weeks making only one part of a body, sculpting only lower legs and ankles in the winter months—all of them from the exact same body but from different angles. They all held thick ankles descending into the heel of a foot. Though Amy never said anything, she recognized these features immediately.
Kat finishes a batch of Rooibos de Provence as the man with slacks and ratty hair gets up from his backgammon game and makes his way to the counter. He passes the three sculptures Kat has displayed, all three of a dimple of flabby skin on the under-side of an arm that extends upwards into the collar. Four round freckles sit in a cluster at the base of the collarbone.
“Hey, could we get another pot of the German Chocolate tea? And,” he pauses, swinging his head in the direction of the sculptures. “We were just wondering why your sculptures are all of the same person?”
“I’m sorry?” Kat says, confused.
“Well, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but, you know, your freckles.”
Kat stares at the sculptures and then raises a hand to the freckles that sit on her own collarbone.
“Excuse me for a minute.”
Kat grabs her sketchbook and leaves the shop. She sits outside on the ledge of the shop’s sign, the wind skirts about her thick, naked ankles and sandals. She pulls out her sketchbook and flips through it. Shock spreads across her face as she recognizes the bodies on the many pages as her own grand and voluptuous shape staring back at her perversely.
Sarah Ross does most of her formal wordsmithing in the field of Communications in Ottawa, where she is a member of the Bywords Selection Committee. She has only recently begun submitting creative writing for publication. To date, she has been published in Across the Creek, The Maynard, Guerilla Magazine, and scissors and spackle.