Obsessions can be sinister or angelic; that was what my mother used to tell me. But I didn’t take her words to heart when she told me of such things as vice and virtue.
In the beginning, I was a boy full of hopes and dreams, a dream much greater than myself, a dream that had a price, and a price that I would pay for heavily.
This is the story of that ignorant boy, of myself, forever ago.
The first time I felt it inside me— it was like a heartbeat, but not quite. There was more. The drumming sounded as if I had three hearts in my small chest. Each of them pounded to its own rhythm, unsynchronised. Something was calling.
In the quietness of the evening, when the last rays of sunlight touched the windowpane, a loud noise echoed within me.
I thought of when my mother would play chords on her small lute. I pictured myself doing the same. But in my hands, there wasn’t a musical instrument, there was clay – fresh, soft, almost feminine clay that my mother had bought me on my tenth birthday.
I strung and glided the clay along my fingers. And a pure, raw yearning coursed underneath the softness of my skin. It circulated, pressing upon the tip of my fingers like strings that vibrated from someone else’s touch. It was like I could almost talk to it or even hold on to it. Then, I began to form this yearning sensation into something tangible. I thought about the shape of my mother’s hand when she played the lute, and I started to mould it.
I was halfway through making the model, blindly following the urge from within, when I heard a twig snap just outside the door of the hut. I knew that it was my mother because I recognised the sound of her footsteps.
‘Mother,’ I called out. I wanted to show her what I was making out of the clay she gave me. But when she came through the door, I could see from her face that she wasn’t having the best day. There were shadows under her blue eyes that I hadn’t noticed before.
‘My dear Jacobo, I got you some dinner.’ She placed a cloth-wrapped bundle on the table and picked up a basket. ‘I’m going to get some blooming moonflower. Eat your dinner, all right? I won’t be long.’
I watched her move swiftly from the table to the cupboard, then from the cupboard to a small bench next to the door. She picked up a candle before she was out again.
I was tempted to continue working on my unfinished sculpture, but I didn’t want to upset my mother. Besides, the smell of fresh cheese was hard to ignore. I moved to the table where a cloth-wrapped bundle laid on top. Unwrapping it, and there it was, a fresh cheese as well as a small loaf of bread. I sat down and started my dinner.
When I had the last bite, the wooden door opened again. My mother entered with a sigh. She removed a shawl from her head, and I could see her long red braided hair hanging down her back, almost touching her waist.
She walked to the cupboard and put the white flowers in a jar before she came over to me. I watched her curiously while chewing the last piece of bread.
‘Oh, my dear boy,’ said my mother as she placed her hand on my right cheek. ‘I know you have something to tell me. I am quite exhausted today. I think I should rest.’
As I looked into my mother’s eyes, I could really tell that she was tired and maybe a little downhearted. But at least, she was smiling at me.
‘Why don’t you come to bed with me after you wash your face and hands?’ she said. ‘Make sure to get all those clay out of your nails, all right?’
‘Yes, mother,’ I said, smiling back at her.
My mother kissed my forehead, and I watched her disappear through the tiny bedroom that belonged to the two of us.
Oh, my mother . . . the first beautiful woman I ever learned to love. She sacrificed everything for me, for this brown-haired boy who knew nothing about life or death and nothing about eternity. I was young, naive and foolish. I didn’t come to understand the love and care that my mother had for me until later in life.
My mother was my friend and my caretaker and the only company I kept, for I had no other friends of any sort. I suppose the richer boys thought I was too poor to mingle with, and the poorer boys thought I was too boring to play with. But that didn’t bother me. I thought my time would be wasted spent with them, running about here and there, playing with swords. I was filled with curiosity for the world inside me.
I went to the bucket of clean water and washed my face and hands, making sure to get every bit of dirt out of my nails. Then, I followed my mother and climbed in next to her underneath the blanket.
‘Mother, can I come with you to the market next time?’ I asked.
‘Of course, my love, I’m surprised you asked,’ she mumbled. Mother put her arm around me, and soon her breathing slowed.
I curled up close to her, breathing in her unique scent from her clothes and her skin; it was sweet and aromatic. Whenever she wore that scent, I knew that my sleep would be ever so peaceful.
I snuggled up closer to her, and soon all the troubles in my head seemed to cease for a while.
Our next days were spent collecting herbs from the woods that mother mixed and ground until they formed a particular shape and had a particular smell.
When I wasn’t moulding clay, I helped her collect some more strange-looking plants and flowers. Sometimes we quietly worked next to each other; my mother with her herbs and I with my clay. Time passed quickly when we were busy.
When the weekend arrived, my mother prepared to set off to sell the herbs in the market again. This time, I joined her.
We walked a long way through the woods, past rows and rows of asymmetrical tree trunks until we arrived at a narrow path made of rows of rocks placed one after another. There were no more trees standing tall beside me; instead, there were tall stacks of stones that mother told me were houses. The first time I saw them, I was fascinated by those stone buildings. They were a shade lighter than the clay I possessed and a shade darker than the cider my mother used for cooking. But their size! I stared up in wonder at them as we walked along a small alley.
‘Mother, why haven’t you told me about any of this before?’
‘Probably because I’m always more interested in listening to your stories,’ she said.
‘Well, what else have you seen that I haven’t?’
‘Oh, let’s not talk about that. Better that you see the world for yourself.’
Sometimes I wondered if it was because of what she had seen that we ended up living where we did.
Castellfollit de la Roca was a small town. The only way in and out was over a stone bridge. The hanging town, it was called, for it was on top of a flat mountain, with the balconies of the houses overhanging the edge. This town was cut off from the cities and therefore from life. And then, our hut was beyond the woods, even more remote than that little town in the middle of nowhere. So when I first saw those tall, big buildings, it was the first time I was awestruck by something other than my clay-moulding.
We came out of the narrow alley into the market square, which was full of people buzzing around. There were also children around my age running here and there while their mothers were yelling at them.
We headed to a small empty wooden table, and mother started to pull jars of herbs from her bag and line them up neatly. I recognised the colourful herbs she had ground to make paints for me. They ranged from light to dark: orange like autumn leaves and the dusk sky; olive green, pine tree deep green, the light green of fresh leaves; brown like a tree’s bark. And red! Oh! The deep red of pig’s blood. They each had a unique smell of their own.
When we were done setting up, more people started to show up. I suppose all the fascinating colours and smells either attracted or scared the passers-by away. Some of them were curious enough to ask what these things were, then they would whisper in each other’s ears and quickly stride off. I noticed a woman holding a young boy’s hand. When she saw us, she looked down and walked past without a second glance. But not all of them acted that way. Some men came to our table and asked for potions of herbs for pain relief, or even to cheer their mood, and women came for scented potions. My mother would hand them different coloured herbs in exchange for small coins.
The boys in this small town started to take notice of me, another boy their own age. Some quietly approached me when I was wandering around observing the stone buildings. I wasn’t aware of their proximity until I heard a noise behind me and turned to see three of them staring at me, their eyes wide. I suppose they were scared of me, but when I did nothing to show them that I could do them any harm they started to come closer, then closer, until I could see a freckle on one of the boys’ faces.
‘I don’t think you are as scary as my mother told me you would be,’ said the freckled boy.
‘And I don’t think you can harm me in any way,’ said a shorter one, who stood a bit further behind.
I was curious about the way they had addressed me, for I never thought that I could seem harmful. I was thin and pale, and without my dark hair, I might have looked colourless.
‘My mother told me that your mother is a witch,’ said a golden-haired boy, who stood on my right side.
‘But my father said she is too pleasant-looking to be a real witch,’ the shorter boy said.
‘That is because a witch can transform herself from an old hag to a beautiful woman,’ said the freckled boy. His hair was red, like my mother’s.
‘What is a witch? And what is a father?’ I asked them.
All of them chuckled.
‘How can the son of a witch not know what a witch is?’ the golden-haired boy said. ‘A witch is a woman who has evil powers, who would steal children if they wandered into the woods and eat them alive! And your mother seems to be selling dark magic!’
I was surprised by this and angry. ‘That’s a lie! My mother would never do any harm. She takes good care of me and makes me delicious food – and she got me a birthday present!’
‘Well, that sounds just like my mother,’ said the freckled boy. ‘She does all those things you just said for me. Well? What is your name, then?’
‘Jacobo,’ I said.
And that was the end of their fear.
When I look back on it now, I realise those boys had lies and hatred put into their little heads. Like blank paper, they had absorbed all the lies as their truth. But since those boys were still innocent, and the lies that their parents told them hadn’t been fully embedded into their core, they chose to put fun before fear. And they welcomed me into their little sword game as they said they were lacking one of the characters.
We performed a story of The Cid. One of the boys used a wooden stick as a sword and poked me with the pointy end. I asked him why he would do that, and he told me that I was a villain that The Cid had come to slay.
It was interesting at first, those tales they told, and I urged them to tell me more. But they only knew that The Cid was a hero who had slain his enemy, and because he won, nothing else mattered. I soon lost interest, for their arguments and childish conversation bored me. I got lost in my own thoughts about the clay figure I would be going home to create.
‘Jacobo! You were supposed to kneel after I said kneel! You didn’t even listen to me,’ said the freckled boy.
I told them that I would comply, but after the third time that I failed to follow their instructions, they gave up on me.
‘Let’s go, lads. I guess we just have to wait for Isaac to get better and join us again,’ the golden-haired boy told his friends. Then he said to me, ‘You can go back to your witch mother now.’
My brows furrowed. I was irritated – not because of how they had discarded me, but because they kept filling themselves with those lies. They hadn’t learned what I’d told them earlier. And I hated the way they accused my mother of being a witch when they knew that it meant something bad.
Walking out from the small alley between the stone buildings, feeling the hard stone under my feet, I sought out my mother. I found her right away, for her fiery red hair stood out amongst everyone else.
‘Jacobo! Where have you been? We must get back before it gets dark,’ my mother said when she spotted me.
‘Are there more things you have not been telling me?’ I asked.
‘What is it? What have you seen this time?’ she said. ‘There are many more things I haven’t told you, my boy. But since you have started to be curious about something else other than your clay, we will start the lesson soon! Now, off we go, help me carry these back.’
‘Books. I am going to teach you how to read and write.’
‘Why do they say that you are a witch? And who is father?’
My mother looked at me with her blue eyes that became sad all of a sudden.
‘I am not a witch. Who told you that?’
‘Just the boys I met. But I don’t really like them.’
‘Of course, I am not. And your father is far, far beyond these woods. He is not coming back, and I’d rather not talk about it, not now. But aren’t we happy, just the two of us? Are you happy with me?’
‘Oh, yes, mother.’
I never knew who my father was, for my mother had never mentioned him to me. When I was old enough to know how babies are made, she explained that a man must impregnate a woman, and that the man who did that to her was my father. But that was it, and my curiosity about my father faded away from my head. It was good in a way because it made my mother’s lines on her brows relax when I didn’t ask any further questions. But after that day at the market, there were some that didn’t fade away. The words that those boys had said, the way they had accused my mother. I loved my mother, and I didn’t want anyone to hurt her. The accusation made my body uncomfortable; it filled my inner self with turmoil.
When I wanted to forget about that discomfort, I turned to clay moulding. And once I realised that I could make a building from clay, I imitated it. The next day, I formed clay in many square shapes, waited for them to dry and stacked them all up until it became a small place that my mother and I could fit in. But that was it.
Something in me was still yearning, unfulfilled. It would only be left at ease if I started to embed those sensations into something solid. I took out the incomplete sculpture of my mother’s hand from the damp box I kept my clay works in to prevent them from drying out. I wetted the sculpture and built up from the base that I had left unfinished. Each layer upon layer, I let my own self diffuse from the softness of my fingertips through the softness of clay. After it was done, even though the piece looked complete and I was satisfied, I still couldn’t grasp the reason for its being. And so, I put it away inside a cabinet.
A week later, my mother started to teach me a lesson as she had promised. After realising that I had been missing out, I sacrificed some of my time in learning how to read rather than spending it all on clay moulding.
For months on end, I paid attention to the alphabet and words that my mother taught me. Within a year, I learned how to read and write. And read I would – all of the books that my mother got for me. My new ability to read allowed my mind to travel far beyond those woods and mountains without having to leave my home.
Those books also developed a sense of something else inside me, for I felt like the range of my emotions expanded. Each book gave me new feelings that I had never experienced before. Everything seemed to be intensified, especially the yearning inside of me. I started to ask my mother more questions about why the people in a book behaved the way they did. I also asked her about all the discomfort that I didn’t understand, until she had no more answers for me.
I would try to mould different kinds of figures while listening to the echoing sound inside of me, until I realised that I couldn’t because I didn’t understand these intense, new emotions. Most of the figures would be left incomplete, and I couldn’t stop myself from smashing some of them on the floor.
One day, just out of boredom, I went through the row of finished clay figures that I kept inside the cabinet. Within it were many small sculptures that I made years ago in the shapes of small animals I found in the wood – little birds, squirrels, mice, animals that I had often seen. When I lifted those small figures and ran my fingers over them, there was a tingling sensation in my chest. It transported me back to the moment when I created each figure, even if it was just for a short second. I felt the small glimmer of joy and happiness of that time, things I had not felt in a while.
Then, it was like a light shone upon me, for I realised that a part of myself, my emotions, my own soul, was embedded within those figures. The yearning and calling from the depth of my being were forever captured and locked inside the figures I made. It was like déjà vu, when smelling a scent unlocks a memory, evoking the fragments of a past experience. But when I held one of my sculptures it was much more than that. It didn’t just transport me to a vague memory of a specific moment; it brought me back to the distinct emotion once again, exactly like the first time I had felt it. And the figure seemed to be alive, like I had created another life in between my hands. I felt so fulfilled, knowing that part of my soul was forever embedded within it.
My eyes shifted to the far right of the cabinet, where the sculpture of my mother’s hand stood. The end of each finger was formed into the head of a mystic creature sprung from my imagination. I made each of them to symbolise each uncomfortable feeling that I didn’t understand. They seemed to be arguing with each other. But now, once, I lifted it up and clung onto it, I understood it perfectly – the discomfort or feeling that I didn’t comprehend before was struggle. And it was this feeling of struggle that I had embedded inside it. But now, as I held the sculpture in my hand, I didn’t even need it to remind me of that emotion because it had already come to haunt me again. I was struggling. I was feeling the forceful restraint of being unable to understand my own emotions, and it erupted into a newfound frustration.
I knew that I wasn’t good enough, and I craved for more.