Paul Becker


It may have been two hours later that the donkey and Frenhofer arrived at the top of a slight incline in the road to find a dead child blocking the path. One could hardly ride over it, thought Frenhofer. The child was lying diagonally across the way and was half enclosed in great fat lumps of dried out clay, mostly bleached white now in the sun but with still some hints of moisture around the cracks. The clay was the same colour as the skin of the child, as though one thing had been born of the other, either it had exuded the clay in death (covering right side of face neck, chest, torso to midriff and finally enclosing hip and all of one leg and right foot) or the child had been pressed and sculpted from the raw clay. Impossible.

The donkey was munching a tuft of burnt black weeds near the corpse's head, indifferent. Frenhofer considered the child for a moment and then bent over to it. Not wishing to pull on the child's foot in case something happened, Frenhofer made a grab at the clay, but when he pulled it just crumbled off in his hand like a dry mud pie. The foot revealed below was unusually translucent. After several abortions, Frenhofer walked back to the wagon and found a length of dusty rope. He passed a slip around the child's ankles and then dragged the considerable weight, clay heavy, to the roadside and away from the wheels of the truck. As he dragged it the clay shook, cracked and crumbled across the surface of the half child to which it adhered. Frenhofer watched fascinated as the cracks widened like fissures in the earth, mini boulders of clay cascading down onto the corpse's chest, dust riding as the mud turned to powder. He left the rope tied to the ankles of the child. The donkey was already moving off down the road.

For a while Frenhofer rode at the back of the wagon, looking back as the road slowly passed, his head was so empty he could hear it rattle as the wagon rocked. A neglected piggy bank, the last lozenge in the tin. No life passed apart from the occasional fly, bored of twitting the donkey or glutted with salt from its sweat, with the blood from its wounds. The sky was too blue to even contemplate, dreamless, no life there at all.

Some more time went by. Frenhofer went back to walking beside the wagon as the rocking had brought on more nausea. He stared at the ground. He drank a pint of warm water from the breaker after he had puked on to the road, the gulps and gasps loud in his ears. The donkey stopped again a bit further on when it found a strip of selfish shade under another lonely tree by the roadside. Frenhofer poured a few measures of water into a large tin bowl and let the animal drink. When it had finished, he placed the bowl back under the water keg, taking care to put a rock back into the bowl to stop if falling off the wagon. After a while of waiting, the donkey began to move again unasked and Frenhofer tried once more to sleep at the back of the wagon, lying on his side, watching the wheels furrow up the dry dirt track, the sloughs of white dust and powdered mud.

Frenhofer was woken suddenly by a bump and a scraping of metal. Some sort of collision. Looking up he saw a black-faced and bearded man rubbing his eyes and looking out from the bed of another wagon. Both sets of wheels had jammed together, both drivers asleep. The donkey was sniffing around the behind of the stranger's horse like a dog. The horse was confused and a little startled even under its blinkers. Flies exchanging one beast for the other in a sudden frenzy of riches. Frenhofer and the black-faced stranger stared stupidly at the entangled wagons.
'You were asleep you idiot!' shouted Frenhofer, 'What do you mean by trying to wreck my van?'
The black-faced man got off the back of his wagon and led his horse backwards by its halter. The horse was uneasy at this reversal. The man mounted back up, onto the seat of his wagon and geed-up his horse - a scrawny beast, almost a mule. All this time Frenhofer had been staring at him belligerently, muttering, and as he passed, the stranger lashed at Frenhofer with his whip. He missed, hit the donkey's rump instead and Frenhofer's wagon jolted away from the stranger who had already turned his face to the horizon. Frenhofer pulled up the wagon, jumped down and picked up a rock to throw at the stranger. He saw at a glance the man was too far away already but threw it anyway. If Frenhofer had a crossbow, he would’ve sent a bolt after this bastard, a bolt shot straight into the marrow of his spine, just to watch him dance about like a puppet, a beetle on its back.

Frenhofer forgot the stranger and his wagon and tramped along at the side of his own. The donkey stopped of its own accord a little further down the road and was watching Frenhofer suspiciously from over its shoulder. When Frenhofer reached it he punched its mouth. The donkey stumbled back a pace just a moment after the blow and then, well, that was it. It started to walk on again and Frenhofer jumped back into the driver's seat. A short time later, a box at the top of the load, presumably dislodged by the collision, cut loose and jammed into Frenhofer's back, leaving a bruise to develop over the next day or so. He re-tied the whole thing and then went back to walking at the wagon's side. The air smelt of chalkiness and was clammy and close. Clammy chalkiness. The donkey led them clumsily onward.

It was at the end of the third day that Frenhofer's work loomed up over the horizon.

What it was exactly was, to Frenhofer, all but an irrelevance. Even to talk about what he wanted it to be seemed like weak tea, too ordinary, or too prolix. He had been too long engaged in things: semblances of figures, surrogate humans like wax likenesses at Roman burials...

If a dog could sculpt a likeness, considered Frenhofer gulping down the last dregs of warm water, would it sculpt only other dogs or would it make its own cats: figments of desire encompassed. Frenhofer considered that to get to...whoever...whatever it, the work was, had constituted an act of considerable will power as well as the destruction of almost every other piece of remaining work. Old work. After all, what use was it? Bookends. Paperweights. Looking up at the distant tip of it, Frenhofer could was implicit even in that great unshapely mass...that an emptying out had occurred that should not necessarily be taken lightly. It was never just a voided bowel, more an amputation, an extirpation, a surgical procedure to get rid, to get rid of everything encompassed by what he did that he no longer required, would never find the life to make use of. Of course, the argument could be made that his oeuvre was always essentially reductive, he was a stock simmerer, a spring cleaner, filling buckets and bins until the void space behind the barn was packed with detritus, the dust of smashed plaster, wasted clay. But it was never easy to destroy attempts at something fine, something real. Frenhofer hated to throw away, to waste his time on applied failure, a pointless activity. Yet it had to be done because that, that was not yet IT, the thing and if not then what justification could it have in the world for existing at all? The donkey could smell home now and was picking up its pace a little, anticipating, what? a rest? food? Frenhofer knew for certain that the thing was right but not right and had to be destroyed to be continued. He must jump straight to it. A pick axe, a dull spade. Throw the wet clay back into the sack, unravel the armature!

Sometimes as he worked high up on the ladders the thing would in his mind begin a reveal, a shape would show itself. A strange form of anamorphisis, a boring Rorschach never before experienced and he was kept going for days in the misalignment of his senses that whispered he had hit on something. It would always prove illusory when he wondered off a thousand yards to look back at the thing itself: inauthentic, false, a cheap settlement made on the courthouse steps and the image would be slowly, painstakingly destroyed, remodelled, reworked with no sign remaining of its brief manifestation. No sign at all. And so then, formlessness would take over, no man's land fought over so painfully, so irrevocably lost. He had eventually determined that the thing would be monumental, a mountain climb. He moved up in scale, the barn he began in was demolished around the work in progress like a Christmas wrapping, and the work gradually built its way out of the studio and into the open air. Now he gave more thought than anything to the simplest of ideas: the impact of size. Armature became architecture, the surface a series of tectonic plates, always shifting. Frenhofer secretly relished the inevitability of failure, somehow factored in to the narrative of the thing's construction. The possibility of it ever being completed. Frenhofer spent all he had on sand, cement and plaster, wire and wood. He had heard about a disused building over towards the city that was filled with old sacks of cement and had gone backwards and forwards many times with his wagon to collect everything that was usable. Sackcloth he had by the hundredweight to dip into plaster and fold over armatures. Frenhofer made thousands of sketches, all to little avail; the thing was almost too big for him to make an impact. That version too like a fat cloud, this one too much of a hideous mountain. He realised the process was flawed. This was not some bust that could be squared up from a drawing; the thing must learn itself, its own shape, (or lack of) everything, all its formal dimensions and amplitudes from within. And yet Frenhofer carried on his sketches regardless, habits long formed, unshakeable despite all the evidence. He was trying to perfect a language he had never actually acquired. He soldiered on and sometimes, the inevitable false yearnings to finish, to succeed in his endeavour, to give the world his final work of finished genius, all of this overcame him and hurried the work along to the edge of yet another precipice, of saying something solid and Frenhofer would have to hack his way back step by step to where he started from, to nothing, and the armature then only twenty feet high, would be torn back, dismembered, curled plaster husks littering the floor of the barn like ribcages. He began again; wheelbarrows of plaster ran up the planks, dipping in hessian strips that made their way to the new cold summit and just as quickly back to the floor. Where did all the rubbish end up? He buried much of it in plaster pits dug into the powdered earth but the wind soon took care of that. Now they were just thrown loose to be blown where they would. He had enough of piles; as though all he was doing was filling the earth with more shit, something else to be chipped away at, sculpted. And then what?