The Pot Shard: A Mystery Short Story

Sep 7, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Nancy Means Wright

This mystery short story was previously published in Larcom Review.

I was sipping coffee in the Amtrak cafe car when I felt a lurch and a rough bump–something like the minor turbulence one experiences in flight–and the next I knew I was swimming, plunging through a scaly underworld of claws, gills, ochre eyes. There was only blackness after that; I may have lost consciousness. It was the Mohawk River, I was told later, named, aptly, for Indians. The Indians were all one to me then, in my ignorance and it didn’t matter that the pot shard I took belonged to the Hopi–or was it the Yavapai? I can’t think now, as we shuffled through so many sites that Arizona trip and there they were–red and black clay pieces, just lying on the ground, where they’d been for centuries. What did it matter, really, that I picked one up?

I’m not a superstitious person, I tell you that. I wasn’t then and I won’t be now. I don’t believe all that foolishness about bad luck following the pilferer of shards. Those letters people wrote afterward about divorces, stock market crashes, car accidents, were all made up–I’d put money on it–to entertain the tourists at the Petrified Forest or the Montezuma Castle, or wherever the ruins were. Arizona is a wild state; it loves that kind of hoopla. But here I was in a train wreck, returning to Vermont from Kennedy Airport and the shard was in my purse at the bottom of the river. There was no way I was going to return it. Those spirits, I decided, must make allowances.

The rescuers took us to an inn, those of us who survived (I was lucky after all, there were three still missing) and put us up for the night. I swallowed a Sominex and went right to sleep and woke at six to birdsong. I can’t describe the sound of that song. It was like floating in the throats of thrushes and the larynxes of larks. I was lucky. “Lucky, lucky!” I sang with the birds.

And I do believe in luck, I told the reporter afterwards. Most of what happens to us in life is just chance, after all, a good turn or a bad. I needed that good turn after I walked, empty-pocketed, out of a twenty-six-year marriage. It was one of those no fault divorces: we were two left shoes. And funny, that’s what happened when I was yanked from the Mohawk–one foot bare, a red high-heeled shoe that wasn’t mine clinging to my left big toe. All the bad vibes that go with left sidedness, the Latin word “sinistra–sinister,” I laughed off to the reporter as superstition and she agreed. I was lucky.

Anyway, I got rid of the left foot shoe the way I discarded the marriage–kicked it off! Guilt yes, I wasn’t the child of old Protestant John Knox for nothing. The owner of that red shoe wasn’t there to claim it, only me. As for the marriage, Dan was genuinely hurt, as he still loved me, I think, and I was sorry for that, but angry he’d take no responsibility for its failure. Didn’t I leave him everything–the house, furniture and the grown children? I never said a word against him. I only took my checkbook and set out for Arizona.

I remember exactly where I picked up the shard. We were in a kind of granite basin, a grove of ponderosa pine and pinons, gazing down at a rock-lined pit dwelling, maybe ten feet wide. Only a reddish-brown hue to the earth revealed where they’d fired the pots. They were Hopi pots, yes, I remember now, and then the archeologist, a red bearded fellow with a sense of humor, showed us the shards. I was attracted to them at once: wedges of pale gray, or black on red, that had once been cooking or storage pots, long before the white man came.

I thought how the woman who made that pot had loved some man, was abused or ignored but went on making the pots, breeding babies and died younger than I am now at forty-eight. I could relate to her. Something of her spirit, I felt, crept into me that day and I thought the archeologist a mere showman when he warned, “Look at them and then put them back on the ground, or else the spirits will chase you, and you may be sorry.”

I laughed with the others. He laughed too, and slipped it into my pocket. It was special; it seemed meant for me. Anyway, I’d read somewhere that the Hopis don’t believe in guilt. They live in the present, a day at a time, like Buddhists. They are convinced they came from the region of Tibet, got here on a westward current via Hawaii and Mexico. Maybe the spirit of that Hopi woman would enter me–interesting thought. Even the name, Hopi, gave me heart.

The train accident was a fluke, the first one on that route in twenty-two years, the conductor said. I enjoyed the notoriety for a while, the talks with reporters, the letters and phone calls that filtered in from worried friends and, of course, my daughters (it somehow assuaged the fact that I’d left their father). And then I put it behind me.

Oh yes, another stroke of luck– they found my purse, fished out by a man ten miles upriver. Imagine! Shard and all, even a fifty-dollar bill, but so soaked it went to pulp in my hand.

Being at loose ends, I moved down to the Hudson Valley where Dan and I had lived for a time and tried out for a couple of plays. I’d been an Equity actress, but found myself too old now for the ingénue parts. I got a job finally in the art department of Vassar College (I was an alumna), took an apartment nearby and for a month or so things went well. I liked the meticulous work of cataloguing paintings as it helped focus my mind. I even showed the shard to the curator, and though she held my gaze a moment, she said nothing about its acquisition. She admired the design, a kind of clawed hand, or leaf. It was fired with coal, she said, not wood. “It had to be, in that desert!” She was awed at how it had kept its shimmery yellowy-red after so many centuries. I might have donated it to the department if she’d asked, but she didn’t. She only said, “We don’t have Indian artifacts here. The Wappingos lived in this area but they were a rather scruffy bunch.” She gave a tinkly laugh, and went on to hang a “very valuable.” She said, “Oil of Eleanor Roosevelt on loan by Anonymous.” And she laughed again.

Then one day I was alone in the main gallery and a student walked in. At least I thought him a student. He had a ponytail, but his eyes were funny. Drugs, I thought. “I hate big aggressive femmes like that!” he shouted, staring at the portrait, and before I could scream or push him out, he took a small arrow out of his pocket and heaved it at the oil, a direct hit at the left eye.

I lost my job over the incident. I should have better control than that over students, the curator said, her fingers lacing and re-lacing. It was her “head on the block,” she moaned. “What will we say to Anonymous? Don’t you understand how valuable a painting that is? It was probably done by–”

“What could I have done?” I interrupted. “He just whipped out the arrow and threw. I was helpless. In shock.”

A wave of sympathy swept over her face, and then hardened. “The college is cutting back,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to hire an extra person. You came in a week when I was overwhelmed, and now…”

I quit to save face for her, but I told my daughter, Lili, on the phone that it wasn’t the punctured portrait so much as the pot shard that upset the curator. “She worried about it, I could tell.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mother, no one believes in things like that.” Lili’s voice shrank at the end, and I felt she did believe. “If it bothers you so much, send it back,” she went on. “You should anyway; it belongs there, in that wilderness.”

“Back where? To that pit dwelling?”

“To that archeologist!” And before I could explain I didn’t know his name, she went on to tell me about her hives. She had this terrible case. “My hands are all swollen, I can hardly change a diaper. And that strep thing is in the area, the one that eats your flesh! I read about this man who got it through a bruise. A bruise, Mother! And three hours later, he was dead. It ate him up! I worry about the children!”

Before I could give advice, tell her to take salt baths, to get to a doctor, she squealed, “Send it back, that shard. Get rid of it! Send it anywhere, send it to a museum!”

“Shall I come up, Lili?” I asked. “Watch the baby while you get cured?”

“No, don’t come. There’s nothing you can do.” She said something about another call waiting for her, the baby crying and the older girl wanting supper. And we hung up.

After that, I took a course in real estate, landed a job with Lane Realty, sold a $250,000 house the first week. The owner was pleased. It was lucky for the company I’d come, he said, they’d been in a downslide. Lucky for me, I thought, that the Vassar thing didn’t work out, and the man who bought the place, divorced like me, asked me out! He was a year younger than I, graying beard, expensive suit, an IBMer. How lucky could a woman get?

When the letter came back from Yavapai College where I’d written to find the name of that archeologist (he’d left the area, gone East, with no forwarding address), I just laughed. I put the shard away in a drawer. My new friend Ron didn’t believe in that bad luck stuff either, he grinned when I told about it. “That’s life,” he said, “ups and downs, good and bad. Right now it’s good,” and he leaned over to kiss me. We were sitting on my new green velvet couch, bought with my sales commission. His beard was like wire and it scraped my face, but I was lonely and it was nice having a man around again. I made dinner for him, and afterward we had good sex on my bed. I was glad I’d bought a queen-size–Ron was a big man, athletic. I had sizable bruises, in fact, on my breasts and thighs.

But after a while he got busy at his job, “Really busy,” he said. We just had weekends, and then only Friday nights, then not even that and I discovered one day there was someone else. I was in the Galleria Mall when he was walking out of Gap. His face turned shades of red, he’d shaved his beard. She looked right through me–a dowdy one, I thought. It was his ex-wife, he explained later over the phone, they were getting back together “for the sake of the children.”

“I didn’t know there were children,” I said.

“Oh well, there are two. Teenagers, you know, one of them into drugs–hard age to leave them alone. But there’s no reason you and I can’t meet now and then at your place. It’s not love in this case, it’s responsibility. Try to understand, Fay.”

“I understand,” I said, and then, “No thanks,” and hung up. I telephoned Lili, who was over her hives by then. She sympathized with me, but the older girl had chicken pox, a rash and fever. They were all in quarantine, and she said I’d better get that hunk of pot back. “Just send it to a museum, anywhere,” she said. “Never mind trying to find that archeologist.”

I said I would, and when the real estate company I worked for folded–houses were in a slump, the owner had caught the mumps from his young son, he’d had it up to the proverbials, he said–I wrapped up the shard and mailed it to the Northern Museum of Arizona in Flagstaff. And felt an enormous load off my back. I was free, absolutely! I could go where I wanted, do what I wanted with impunity. But I found a fire had sprung up at the apartment building in my absence, the old woman a floor above me, smoking in bed. Poor soul burned to death. The flames ate through my bedroom floor. There was no compensation because the landlord had dropped his insurance. I lost my new bed and all my good clothes.

“Come back to Vermont,” said Lili, “you can baby sit. I have a job now with the counseling service. You can stay till you find work yourself, as long as you’ve got rid of that pot.”

I had (I thought), and I did, but I came down with mumps and was miserably sick. Lili was upset because I’d exposed her family. Her Annie would get it after she got over the chicken pox, Lili said, she’d miss work. We were all doomed. Me, I still couldn’t swallow when the package came back from the museum: insufficient postage.

“But he weighed it at the post office,” I said, desperate, and Lili was furious. “You space out, Mother. You have to learn to concentrate! We have to get rid of that shard,” she warned, “before we’re all dead. Take it to the dump.”

“That doesn’t return it to the Hopi,” I said. We were sitting at her kitchen table, weeping over onions.

“There were Indians in Branbury, Vermont,” she said, “The Abenaki. My Neil found arrowheads, right in the vicinity of the dump. He did, Mother.”

But I couldn’t leave it in a dump for somebody else to pick up, could I? Some scavenging child? It was the old sense of Duty, of Guilt. My forebears were Scottish Presbyterians, my grandfather an elder in the Kirk. He’d spy on the parish women, and if they gossiped or giggled, he’d give them a tongue lashing, shrink them to the bone. In the house I grew up, down in New Jersey, there was no singing on Sunday, no card playing, and no dancing. I inherited my mother’s martyrdom, though I hated it. When I picked up the pot shard I still hadn’t gotten over the divorce; my mother was probably rattling in her grave, for shame. My grandfather would have tarred and feathered me.

So I kept the shard. I couldn’t pass the ignominy onto my daughters. I got a job in the local library at the children’s desk and I even dared one day to show them the thing. I bought a book on Hopi Pottery, and studied its history. Slowly I felt the potter’s spirit infuse me again, all that creativity against terrible odds. I found a small apartment so Lili wouldn’t have to live under the same roof with the shard, and things swam along nicely for a time. Lili’s children never did come down with the mumps. I did my share of baby-sitting and enjoyed it. I taught the four-year-old a lot about Indians, for one thing. I even signed up for a pottery course at the local craft center and I thought one day I’d try to make a whole pot of similar design. My younger daughter, Rue, who lived in the Midwest and made pots herself, came to visit, and encouraged me.

A year went by like this, the shard became a kind of scapegoat. I bought a purple and red Guatemalan bag so I could carry the shard with me, wrapped in flameproof plastic. When I’d run into my ex-husband on occasion and he’d make a remark like, “Some people are good at breaking promises,” I’d touch the shard inside my bag and it would carry me through without tears. He loved to get me crying, it swelled his ego to think I might be sorry for leaving him. At night I’d think of bad things I’d done in my life–fibbing to schoolmates that my brother Jack was Jack Nicholson in the movies. Telling a secret about a neighbor I’d sworn to keep to myself. Working full time as a young mother and ignoring the needs of my children; Rue would accuse me of not hugging her enough.

Having the shard was my atonement. It lessened the guilt.

I let my granddaughter play Indian teepee with it when she came to visit. We would put a few kernels of corn inside and she’d pretend to cook them in the pot shard. Corn was life for the Hopis, I explained, and together we made exotic corn dishes to surprise her mother with. Oh, I’d make up to my grandchildren what I’d missed with my own! And then one evening, three years after I’d first picked up the shard, an amazing thing happened. I was in the city of Burlington at a singles dance. It was foolish, but a friend had urged me and I went. I hadn’t met a nice man since the IBM ingrate. I’d learned a lesson there–if I met someone else I’d be more careful.

And I did. A man came up and asked me to dance and it was the archeologist! The very same one I’d met in Arizona, red beard and all! He was teaching now at the university, he said, his wife had died of breast cancer just after I’d first met him. He’d arrived the month before, hardly knew anyone outside his department at the college. One word led to the next, and I told him about the pot shard. “You said it was bad luck, and for a time it seemed to be,” I told him, feeling bold, admitting the theft. I told him about the train wreck and losing two jobs, my apartment burning and all the sickness, and how I’d tried to send the thing back to him but he’d left the state. It made quite a story and I could see he was surprised at its magnitude.

But then he laughed, and asked to see the shard. So I showed him. He turned it around in his fingers–they were long and sensitive, like a piano player’s–and he said, “It’s quite a remarkable piece really, the sheen of that red. It’s a fine example of Tsegi Orange Ware, probably fourteenth century.”

I said, “Yes, it was obviously coal fired, during that drought, when they couldn’t get wood. In an oxidizing atmosphere, so after that only orange or yellow pottery was made, right? But why was the reducing atmosphere that produced the gray, and black on white pottery abandoned? Can you explain that?”

“Maybe it just went out of style,” he said, but I could see he was impressed by my knowledge. “Look,” he said, “Why don’t I take it along? I’m doing an exhibit for the museum. It would make a nice addition. And,” he added, grinning, “maybe your luck will start to turn.”

It was funny, but I felt a stabbing sensation in my chest, a sense of loss. For a time I couldn’t breathe, not because the pot was a work of art but because…well, I couldn’t really put a word to it. I snatched it back from him, dropped it in my bag. “Oh no, I couldn’t!”

He looked at me like I was some dumb femme who kept changing her mind, and for a moment I wanted to thrust it back at him, prove to him I wasn’t fickle and that I was a reasoning woman.

But he just shrugged and said, “Well, if you change your mind,” and handed me his card. His name, I saw, was Olafson. Scandinavians, I knew, were a rational people.

He asked me if I wanted to dance again and I said I couldn’t, I had to babysit early in the morning, it was an hour’s drive home. I held on to my bag with my left hand in case he’d snatch it away (though I knew it was silly). He didn’t ask where I lived, though he did ask if I’d be coming here again, and I said, “Maybe.” Then I said it was nice to have run into him, “Quite a coincidence.” And I walked swiftly, like a woman being followed, into the parking lot.

And then it happened. At first it was just a feeling, a sensation of something burning inside my head…no, on the car seat beside me. When I looked at my Guatemalan bag, it was smoking! A fine thready smoke, like burning incense. My first thought was that the archeologist had played a trick on me, some sort of magic he’d picked up in his dealings with the Indians. And then I realized it was one of those moments when things come together. It was the curse. It was truly time to get rid of the shard. What I’d come to call good luck, surviving the train wreck, all those strange accidents and illnesses, wasn’t good luck at all. It was bad. At any time it could have been my end. The shard had meant to kill me! Oh yes, I was certain of that now.

Already I was getting sleepy. Whatever was coming out of that shard was meant to asphyxiate me. I stumbled out of the car and ran crazy-legged, back to the couples dance. Olafson was just coming out, as if he’d been drawn to me–or it. The shard belonged to him. He would know what to do with it. He would take it to the university, or back to Arizona, bury it in the earth. I would be rid of its curse.

“Here,” I cried, wrenching it out of the bag. It was hot in my hand, even through its wrapping. “I’ve changed my mind. You can have it. Take it back, bury it. Please! I don’t want it anymore. Look, it’s smoking! It wants to go back.”

“Smoking?” he said, smiling, like I was a child to be indulged. “It’s dust blowing off the parking lot, that’s all. A cold wind. Here, touch.”

I didn’t dare, though I could see the thing had indeed stopped smoking, but I turned and strode off. “Thank you,” I called over my shoulder so he wouldn’t think me rude. My number’s inside the bag. Call me if you feel like it.”

I heard him laugh as I got to my car. It took a few minutes to start the engine, I felt light headed, but relieved, as though something weighty, like a tumor, had been removed from my brain. It would be fun, I thought, to see him again. We might even strike up a relationship, something permanent.

I was about to turn into the street when I heard an explosion behind in the parking lot. The night had turned red, it smelled of smoke and gas fumes; people were running about, waving their arms, shouting. A car had blown up. Someone yelled, “Bomb!”

But the next day’s Free Press insisted there was no bomb. Who would blow up a car in rural Vermont? It was an accident, they said: an old car, it had backed into the side of the stone building in the process of turning. He’d been carrying oxygen in the trunk, apparently he suffered from asthma. The gas tank exploded. He was an archeologist, they wrote, Olafson the name, lately arrived from Arizona. The car burst into flames. He never knew what happened, of course. He died instantly. Or did he? Was there a split second before the explosion when he recalled that smiling admonition of his, to beware of absconding with a pot shard? The curse…

It was good luck, I told Lili back at the house. Oh, bad luck for him, if you believed in that sort of thing, but good luck for me. He had left the parking lot shortly after I did. If our two cars had been any closer, I, too, might have…well, I didn’t want to think about it. “I’m giving up that couples club,” I told my daughter. “I’ll just settle down and have some sort of new career, but not pottery. Pottery is not, well, my thing. I’ll take up rug hooking, I think. Something safe, you know. You just follow instructions and you can’t miss.”

Lili was still perusing the article. “But Mother,” she wailed, “they found it. The pot shard! It was baked a bit more, that’s all. But not destroyed. It was in that flameproof stuff you’d wrapped it with. Your phone number was scrawled on the inside. They’ll be calling you. They’ll want you to come pick it up.”

Already, the phone was ringing….

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Nancy Means Wright has published ten mysteries—-most recently, Broken Strings, coming in May. Her children’s mysteries received an Agatha Award and nomination; a Ya, Walking Into The Wild, is recently out. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine, Level Best Books, American Literary Review, Crimes of Passion–and in King’s River Life. Nancy lives in Middlebury, Vermont. Learn more on her website.

Want to know how to see your ad like this at the end of an article? Email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] for more info. 10% of all ad sales goes to animal rescue.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much, Lorie for publishing my story! And my bio. (My mystery novel, Broken Strings, by the way, came out in May, ’13.) I love all the illustrations you’ve added here. this is a great online magazine!


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