Fiction / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Faces from the Earth

by L.M. Magalas

Jian had always loved the smell of his father's workshop. Every day after his chores, he would take the lunch his mother carefully made and travel to the pits. Every day as he crested the hill, he would stop and look at the trail of small shacks that lined up along the pits. There were always swarms of men coming and going like ants below, carrying and heaving, bending and breaking. Jian would be careful not to disturb the workers, and would weave his way, carefully but quickly, to his father's workshop.

Jian never decided what it was that he loved so much about the small shack that had become his father's second home. An order from the emperor a few months ago for the most skilled potters had brought Jian's father Shi to the pits. Jian knew it wasn't so much an honour as it was a way to stay alive. So long as Shi and the other potters were able to continue meeting the heavy demands set on them by the emperor, the longer they were allowed to live. But somehow, despite the pressures and labourious work, Jian's father found joy in his craft and his workshop.

Jian was quiet as he stepped into his father's small shack. It was a small black hut with a slanted roof that dipped too low on one side. Two open doorways faced each other on opposite walls with one leading to the road and the other leading to a firing kiln. Despite the heat of the day, the workshop remained cool, and Jian took comfort in the familiar smell of earth and clay that met him at the door.

Jian found his father as he always found him, hunched over the table that lined one wall of the shack. A block had been cut out of the wall, providing Shi with the proper lighting to see what he was doing without ruining the comfort that the darkness provided. Jian came over to his father and, standing on his toes, peeked at what he was doing. His father smiled.

"You are right on time, Jian."

Jian smiled up at his father, pleased. His attention turned to what his father had in his hands. "Who are you making?" he asked.

Shi turned the clay head he'd been holding in his hands towards his son. "You must tell me," he said. "Who does it look like to you?"

Jian frowned at the clay face before him, studying the eyes and the beard. Suddenly he brightened. "It looks like Lu Ni Nuan, the fish seller."

His father laughed, a big hearty laugh that sounded as though it might embrace the world. "You are right," he said. "You have got a very good eye. Now, shall we see what your mother has given us for lunch today?"

As Shi and Jian began to eat lunch, a heavy knock came from the doorway. Jian recognized Cheng, another potter, with a number of clay heads piled in his arms. Shi motioned with his finger to the empty table next to his work bench.

"Put them down there, please," he said.

Jian's eyes ran the length of the wall. At the one end, Cheng was unloading a pile of clay heads, moulded and shaped from the earth of Mount Li. They had eyes, a nose and a mouth but they were expressionless, all the same. On the other wall of the shack was another table full of clay heads, only these clay heads were something more. They had expressions and emotions on their faces, happy and proud or timid and shy. They were old, young and the ages in between, fathers and brothers, uncles and grandfathers. They spoke. They lived. And it was by sitting at that table, the one that lined the wall, the one that connected the empty heads with the live faces, that Jian's father brought clay to life.

Jian swallowed the rice in his mouth before speaking. "What is the emperor going to do with all of the heads that you make?"

His father shook his head. "I do not know. Some seem to think it is for a shrine to be placed at the foot of the mountain."

"What do you think?"

Shi smiled at his son. "I think that I have made enough heads to build a small army."

Jian took another mouthful of rice, chewing thoughtfully. "How do you decide?"

"Decide what, my son?"

"How do you decide who you are going to make? What if you run out of faces?"

Shi shook his head. "You can never run out of faces. It would be like running out of notes of music to play. With twelve different notes, the possibilities are infinite. So are the faces of the people that I sculpt. And as I make them, I give each of them a story."

Jian followed his father to his work table and sat down next to him on the bench. He watched as his father took a head very gently in his hands. Soon his father began to work with the clay, as familiar to him now as breathing or sleeping.

"I try to think of whom I want to make," said Shi, building upon the nose on the face, giving it shape. "He is a young man, strong and ambitious."

Jian's father continued to shape and mould as he spoke. "He is eager to fight but has never seen battle. He has learned to fight from his brothers, who are the reason for the small scar here on his jaw." Shi's movements become slower and more gentle. Slowly, Jian saw a face begin to emerge and before long, he was looking into the excited eyes of a young boy, terrified and exhilarated in the same breath.

As his father carefully placed the head on the table with the other faces full of stories, Jian had a thought. "Father?" he said.


"I was wondering...did you make me? Did you sculpt my face on one of the moulds?"

Jian could not place the look in his father's eyes, somewhere between disappointment and fear. "No," said his father. "I did not."

"Why not?"

Shi frowned, "Because I do not know what the emperor plans to do with these," he said, motioning to the table. "But I want you to keep everything that is you close to you. Your essence is your own. I would never ask you to give away the only thing that is you, nor would I take advantage of doing it myself."

Jian didn't fully understand what his father was saying, but he knew that whatever it was, he was probably right in doing it. Jian smiled at him.

"Thank you, father."

Shi smiled back. "You're welcome. Now, time to go home. Your father has to work."

Jian began to leave but stopped in the threshold of the door. Turning around, he said, "I do not think it is fair."

Shi looked up from his table. "You do not think what is fair?"

Jian motioned to the lively faces, beaming at him from the corner of the room. "That you do so much beautiful work and that the emperor is the only person who will enjoy it."

Shi lowered his hands from the head and smiled at his son. "You must never forget that one's pleasures are no more important than any other's. For me, one person's enjoyment is enough, no matter who he may be. If one other person may enjoy my work, I am happy for it."




She stared in awe at the thing standing before her, the two of them separated by thousands of years and three inches of glass. It was magnificent—that was the only word for it. It was a piece of history, but more than that, it was a piece of beautiful artwork and exquisite craftsmanship.

She had gone through the entire exhibit, and had come back to this one. It was said that every one of the faces on the terracotta soldiers was different. For some reason, she liked the face on this one the most. She wasn't sure what made her like this particular soldier so much. Maybe it was the way he stood. Maybe it was the expression of exhilaration, the mix of panic and adrenaline it evoked. Or maybe it was the detail of the small scar on the soldier's chin. Whatever the reason, she was captivated and wondered how many others had come by this glass case, had looked up into the soldier's eyes, and felt the same.

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