by Diana Cohen
A potter in an Andalucian village shares his craft—and secrets—from Spain’s dark history.
Pepe and his pottery yard were both ramshackle and to the casual passerby may have looked dilapidated, even unpleasantly cobwebby. All that is true I suppose, but the eyes that turned away after only a superficial glance would have missed a small, self-contained world, teeming with life and rich with history. The hub around which everything pivoted was Pepe himself, young and burnished bronze from the hours he spent muscling clay under the scorching Andalucian sun.
Discovering the pottery was like stumbling into a little community, revealed by my chance tumble down a dim corridor and out into the sun-drenched yard behind. I first saw Isabel, a roly-poly woman swaddled in an old apron, who lived in a few rooms that opened into the pottery yard.
“Ven, ven ” she called to me, beckoning me insistently with that characteristic Spanish imperative of fingers pointing down at the ground and a little scooping of the hand. So I ducked under her hanging sheets and ample underpants flapping in the Mediterranean breeze and found myself in the middle of a dusty yard of clay pots laid out on wooden planks, drying in the morning heat. Isabel had an incandescent smile and chestnut eyes that danced with so much hidden mischief that I would have followed her anywhere. At the time, due to my limited Spanish and her non-existent English, we communicated almost entirely by smiles and hand-signals. Even then I understood that the language barrier was a blessing. Since I couldn’t talk much I could completely relax. I didn’t have to say anything and didn’t have to spin lies and false truths and didn’t have anyone asking questions about my life in California, a life I pretended had never been. I could just get by on my smile.
Isabel was as staunch and sturdy as the trunk of one of the old olive trees that grew on the fringes of town. Her slight young husband rode a motorbike that made an eardrum-piercing racket when he fired it up. When I first met Isabel she was especially round and pregnant with her fourth child. Shortly before the baby was born her husband was killed in an accident, but I never knew how, since at the time I spoke about enough Spanish to ask for a drink of water. I did, however, understand the finality of the word “muerto. ” The new baby, a second girl, was born with a wandering eye that gave her tiny face a sweetly skewed expression. And for a long while Isabel lost the magic of her smile. It never occurred to me to make the connection between her life and my own young husband’s accidental death, since I was too busy forgetting and shoving my past into the shadows.
But the treasure of the place was Pepe. Pepe the Potter, as our family came to call him, to distinguish him from a whole town full of men called Pepe. On that first morning he was in his shed, seated on a board at ground level with his legs dangling in a pit below, spinning a mound of red clay. His smile was simply a sunbeam. The man was hospitable to kids and cats, fishermen who built boats in his yard, elderly señoras dressed in black who shuffled in wearing their bedroom slippers, seeking his advice or a hand with this or that. He was also kind to the gypsies camped on the other side of the cinderblock wall that separated their world from the universe of the pottery.
“Hombre Diana,” he would exclaim with surprise when he would see me walk in through the dust after I too became one of the creatures who called the pottery home. If his hands were covered with the goo of wet clay, as they almost always were, he would invariably offer me his forearm to shake.
“Hombre Diana, I can still hear him say it and know that I welcomed back no matter how long I have been gone. A few days, a few years, it is always the same smile of pleasure as he puts down the cigarette glued to his lipsalways a Ducado, the blackest of the black tobaccoand thrusts out his arm.
If you closed your eyes and conjured up any figure, any shape, Pepe could quickly make it appear from the mound spinning between his fingers. Sometimes he’d have to cut it free to finish the details: the handles of a Greek urn or the ear-lobes of a Mayan mask, but the primary shape was always born there on his wheel. Once Pepe threw a long slender cylinder, then coiled it into a clay trumpet, finishing it with intricate scales and the head of a fish. That coiled clay trumpet hung in the hallway of our old house for years, until our time in Spain had run out. The man could make magic with his hands and a lump of clay he called barro .
The intricacies of glazing and painting fine designs eluded him however. If there is truly a goddess in the kiln during firingpotters will tell you that once the pots are in the kiln they’re in the hands of the godsthose deities of glazing never did smile down on Pepe. Even the omnipresent ghosts of all the men who had worked at this pottery over the generations, loading and unloading the big kiln, were no help when it came to the glazing. Their spirits might still be lurking about, but what did they know of fancy glazes? This was a pottery that had produced the roof tiles for the church in the plaza , casserole dishes for preserving meat in salt when ice was still delivered on a cart by Salvadore and his mule, Pepito, flowerpots and the two-handled coffee mugs called pucheros . This was a place that produced the utilitarian objects that people needed for their daily lives, not decorative pots with fancy glazes.
But Pepe was a dreamer. When I first became a regular, he was working with a young Parisian artist who had imported powdered glazes and was decorating Pepe’s pots in the style of Italian majolica. When they opened the door of the big old white-domed kiln that Pepe called an horno after he had stayed up all night shoveling debris and discarded wood into the flames below, they must have been seriously disappointed. The glazes had run and jumped spots and thoroughly misbehaved. It had to be discouraging to these two artists who had dreamed of making beautiful pottery to sell to the tourists who were starting to wander the streets. So Pepe was doomed to throwing endless flowerpots, ashtrays and casserole dishes and never did figure out how to fully express all his creativity. Yet his pottery yard remained the central address for anything made of red clay in the region, just as it had been for over a hundred years.
Meanwhile, Pepe had to support his growing family: his wife, Carmela, their five daughters and Carmela’s mother, Carmen. And that was before José Antonio was born, and then Rebecca two years later. Carmela, always industrious and inventive, began selling clams, mussels and other shellfish on a damp burlap sack in front of the morning market. By this time Pepe had bought a car and took driving lessons so that he could get up before sunrise and drive into the wholesale fish market in Málaga, almost an hour’s drive east. Then Carmela and her elderly mother would resell at their little spot whatever Pepe had bought that day. And, if they didn’t sell it all, they could always take it home and eat it for lunch.
When I was at the pottery I could just be me, wordless and inarticulate. Nobody asked any more than that. I loved the silence and sitting and watching him work. I loved the whole troop of people who called the pottery home: Isabel in her apron, watering her scarlet geraniums, hanging out her washing, Antonio, who could neither read nor write, building his fishing boat, using only a plane, a chisel and a hand saw. I can still hear his deeply sonorous voice as he announced his arrival each morning:
“Pepe, Pepe,” until his friend’s name floated like a particle of dust in the shafts of sunlight.
“Voy, voy, ” Pepe would call back, hopping up from his place at the wheel to welcome his friend. I liked the ginger-colored cats that would sit around watching Pepe work. Between the fish heads and innards that Isabel tossed them each day when she cleaned fish for lunch and the detritus from the gypsy camp, they survived but had no trouble maintaining their sleek figures.
At any time there might be one or more of our many young daughters, sometimes two or three of Pepe’s, Isabel’s two and my two girls, playing together out in the yard.
“Mariquita,” Pepe would sing out genially from his spot at the wheel, drawing out the “quita” like an opera diva holding a long trilling note. None of them were named Mariquita, but the girls heeded the warning none-the-less, knowing that Mariquita was the mythical naughty girl who had strayed too close to the clay pots drying in the sun. Especially in the afternoon sunlight they’d play around in the dust until Pepe finally swung the sagging wooden door of the shed shut and he and his girls would walk home in the dwindling twilight to Carmela and supper.
After that first day I began going back, occasionally at the beginning and then almost every day and every free moment. I tried hard to visualize my hands and fingers working Pepe’s magic with the clay. The cats and I would watch him sloshing around in the big pit where he dumped the raw clay and worked it using his bare, wide feet and the powerful muscles of his short brown legs. Every so often he would pull up a bucket of water from the old whitewashed well where the frogs lived amid the ferns, and throw the water into the pit, droplets of crystal scattering into the sunlight. Then he’d hop back in, stomping methodically back and forth until the mixture was smooth and the consistency of pancake batter. It would rest there in the pit for days while the sun sucked out its excess moisture. Then, when it had just the right consistency, he would carve it into big slabs, like cutting up a giant milk chocolate sheet cake.
By this time he had built a second potter’s wheel for any aspiring potters-to-be, like me and another young woman from Italy who worked there at the beginning. Clearly he relished our company. He was also was a patient teacher, especially when I had so much trouble mastering the art of the wheel. Those damp red lumps would wobble and tilt and were forever spinning off center. Still I stuck with it, perhaps more from cussed determination than anything else. And sometimes Pepe would throw a big cylinder of wet clay and hand it over for me to decorate. This I could do, and I’d lose myself in the work while he sat at his wheel smoking, spinning out ashtrays and casserole dishes and telling me his stories of his boyhood growing up in the years following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).
Pepe was the magnifying lens through which I came to understand the town of Fuengirola and her history, especially the terrible years of hunger after the war. During the years I lived there and for many years after, the Spaniards were engaged in a collective pact of amnesia regarding anything having to do with their Civil War. Nobody said anything, not even in whispers. Except Pepe. Except to me. But I noticed how he always lowered his voice to avoid being overheard and risk being denounced to the fearful Guardia Civil. I started carrying a small notebook and ballpoint pen faithfully back and forth from our apartment to the pottery. On those clay smudged pages I would jot down the bones of his stories in Spanish so that I could capture their essence. By then I understood a fair amount but still spoke only meager Spanish, so I would often have to stop him to ask what a word meant. In that old notebook I recorded not only Pepe’s stories but the stories his father had told him when he was a young boy, squatting in the dust, listening as his father too worked the clay.
“Diana,” he would say, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “there wasn’t a dog or cat or even a songbird around for years. They either died from starvation or disappeared into some cooking pot. Even the rats and mice got eaten.”
“I was born in 1932” he said, inhaling deeply as a big curl of cigarette ash dropped off the end of his Ducado. “Of course I have no memory of the beginning of the war. But my father always said it was a time that turned families, neighbors and even brothers against each other. He used to tell me how the German planes bombed our province of mostly poor campesinos people whose only crime was trying to scratch a living from their small plots of land. So by early in the war Málaga was cut off from the rest of Spain. And that was just the beginning of the hunger. By the time the war was over and Franco had won, a third of the population was dead, disappeared, or had fled to France. That’s what happened to Carmela’s father: One day he started walking toward France and kept right on goinghe was afraid if he stayed that he’d be taken out at night and shot. He never came back to live permanently with his family again. But the worst was yet to come.” He paused to light another Ducado, took a long drag and let the smoke out slowly.
“Meanwhile, the rest of the world had their own war, World War II, and who had time to remember the people in Spain?” He shrugged his shoulders and opened his damp hands with resignation. “Our animals were dead and the fincas , the farms, abandoned. There was no wheat to grind for flour and no bread. Many men and women had been killed or fled or they’d been rounded up and disappeared into prison. And the ones who were left, mostly the young and the very old, slowly starved. And the rest of the world forgot us.”
“Diana,”he always pronounced my name Deeana“you have to understand that to a Spaniard, comer sin pan es imposible, a meal without bread is not a meal. Even if there had been food, which there wasn’t, without bread it’s as though we haven’t eaten. By this time I was about ten, so I remember the Moor who would regularly come by boat from North Africa