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The Stargirl and the Potter

Jason Erik Lundberg was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is the author and anthologist of over twenty books, including Red Dot Irreal (2011), The Alchemy of Happiness (2012), Fish Eats Lion (2012), Strange Mammals (2013), Embracing the Strange (2013), the six-book Bo Bo and Cha Cha children's picture book series (2012-2015), Carol the Coral (2016), and the biennial Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series (2013-2017). He is also the fiction editor at Epigram Books (where the books he's edited have won the Singapore Literature Prize and Singapore Book Award, and made multiple year's best lists since 2012 in The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Poetry, etc.), as well as the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (est. 2012), and a recipient of the Creation Grant from Singapore's National Arts Council. His writing has been shortlisted for the SLF Fountain Award, Brenda L. Smart Award for Short Fiction, SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Award and POPULAR Readers' Choice Award, and honorably mentioned twice in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

I tell you this tale as it was told to me so very long ago.
She appeared one day in the town. Nobody knew where she had come from, or who her family might be, or what she was called, or why her skin glowed ever-so-slightly with a sparkling luminescence. Nobody saw her enter the town from the main road, or alight from a carriage, or dismount from the back of a horse. One moment she was not there, and the next she was. Although she had a laugh that filled the air with musicality, she did not speak; after some time, most came to the conclusion that she simply did not wish to. She kept her thoughts to herself, and so the townspeople collectively named her the Stargirl.
She sold intricately crafted clockwork devices, delicate little things that danced or performed acrobatic maneuvers without any apparent effort. Bigger contraptions she constructed as well, including a full-scale artificial man that rivaled the sheriff's deputy, and needed to be serviced only a fraction as often.
The young men of the town often called on the Stargirl, and despite the language barrier, she was happy to allow herself to be courted. Most were gentlemen, and treated her as an equal. However, there was one young man, a ruffian and a boor, the sole progeny of the town's most prosperous merchant, who felt that the universe owed him everything; he returned home on the evening in which he tried to demand the Stargirl's affection and submission, and his father uttered a startled cry at his son's sorry state: his clothes in tatters, his hair and eyebrows burned away, and upon his forehead an angry-looking brand in the shape of a crescent moon. When the town Matriarch got word of the ruffian's transgression, she banished him to the Outlands, and the merchant could do nothing but watch his only son disappear into the horizon.
During this time, the Stargirl spent many an afternoon with the town potter, whose own meager shop was sandwiched in between hers and the general store. He was older than her by fifteen years, and a widower, and never imposed on her time. He was an oasis of serenity, a man of few words himself, content to mold and form the rich clay from the hills just outside the town into his creations, which he then fired in his homemade kiln out back.
One day around noon, after two months of the Stargirl's regular visitations, the potter appeared in the Stargirl's shop with a picnic basket looped over his arm. The Stargirl looked at the basket and then tilted her head. The potter cleared his throat. "It's, uh, it's a picnic." His voice was rough and gravelly from disuse, and the utterance rose barely above a whisper. "It's a picnic," he said again, spending the next minute trying to explain what a picnic was, his ears and cheeks blushing furiously. He stopped when the Stargirl broke into an impish grin. "You're teasing me,' he chuckled. 'You already know all about picnics, don't you?"
They walked together out of town, and the potter led them to a small field of lilacs with a grassy clearing. He extracted a cotton blanket from the basket and spread it on the ground. They sat side by side in silence, looking around at the profusion of purple flowers and greenery, until the potter muttered, "This is my favorite place." The Stargirl gently placed a hand on his arm. The corners of the potter's mouth turned upward for the briefest of moments, then he cleared his throat and reached for the block of cheese in the basket. He cut them both slices of cheese and salami, and ripped chunks of bread from the loaf. When he realized that he'd neglected to bring cups for the mead he'd brought, she sipped straight from the bottle.
They returned to town an hour later, and before separating for their respective shops, she kissed him in full view of the main square; he felt the pressure from it on his lips for the rest of the afternoon and evening, and had the most vivid dreams that night.
The following evening, the Stargirl brought over a small clockwork figure that strongly resembled the potter, which spun up a miniature potter's wheel. It even paused every so often to scratch at a spot beside its left eye, an imitation of the potter's own unconscious tic, and the recognition of himself in this pint-sized simulacrum elicited a delighted guffaw, followed by tears that crept out from the potter's eyelids and drizzled down his cheeks. She went to him and held him, and he grabbed onto her as though she was the only thing anchoring him to the earth. After some time he pulled back, the sadness of loss, and guilt of new love, very evident on his face. She kissed the tears away, then tilted his chin up and kissed his mouth.
That night after a simple supper, they made love for the first time. The potter had lost his wife five years before, and had lain with no woman since; his body's excitement overcame him and he finished too quickly. Through his whispered apologies, the Stargirl reassured him, and held him, and planted little kisses on his face and neck and shoulders, until he was ready again. This time, she instructed him on how to appropriately pleasure her; they finished together, gloriously, and not one person in the town could avoid hearing the sound of their combined laughter.
From that day on, the Stargirl and the potter were rarely apart; the townspeople got used to seeing the pair hand in hand on evening walks, or vanishing into the neighboring hills for a quiet rendezvous. The lovers broke down the walls separating their shops and upstairs domiciles, and joined them together into a continuous shared space.
Just four years after the Stargirl appeared in the town, the Matriarch and sheriff requested her help in creating defenses against the bandits that were terrorizing nearby townships; the Stargirl and the potter combined their talents to create autonomous defenders. When the bandits at last arrived, they were shocked to discover two dozen drones made of machinery and glutinous clay at the mental command of the Stargirl; she directed them to apprehend the bandits with nets, and propulsive bags of rice, and clayey skin that held fast fists or bullets. In thanks, the Matriarch created a post specifically for the Stargirl: Grand Constable.
The years passed. The Stargirl and the potter never begat children; some speculated that her constabulary duties kept her too busy, others that a human being and whatever the Stargirl happened to be were unable to breed, but after some time even this juicy gossip lost steam. The townspeople lived their lives. Some died, others were born. Some left the town for other places, and newcomers arrived to make the town their home. Life continued.
One day, decades later, the townspeople awoke to the sight of two clay statues in the main square, life-sized replicas of the Stargirl and the potter. Crawling over each statue were a multitude of tiny clockwork spiders. No one could find the duo themselves; their combined shop was open and fully stocked, their closets still filled with clothing, their personal belongings unmolested in the upstairs rooms. Maybe they had travelled to her faraway homeland; maybe they had dissolved in air after completing the remarkable statues; maybe they had entombed themselves within. However, despite the conjecture and the search party organized by the then-elderly sheriff, no one in the town ever saw them again. The Stargirl's defenders still patrolled the town's perimeter despite her absence, and the townspeople were comforted by their continued presence.
An additional century passed, and the statues became objects of reverent myth. The tiny mechanical spiders prevented anyone from moving the statues or even touching them. But even the most well-designed clockwork does not last forever, and one by one the spiders stopped working. At midnight on the 137th anniversary of the Stargirl's first arrival, the final spider ceased movement, and in that moment, the statues shivered and slowly collapsed into particles no bigger than grains of sand.
The only witness to this disintegration was a seven-year-old girl with tangled, windblown hair, who felt drawn to the site of the two immobile lovers. She would later tell her schoolhouse friends that a sudden ethereal wind carried the grains into the air, the entire cloud of granules wringing itself upward into the moonlit night, and then beyond view.
The girl's story would be largely dismissed, but one quiet boy in her class believed her, and when he told her so, she smiled so widely that her skin seemed to glow with the twinkling of young stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 21st, 2017

Author Comments

"The Stargirl and the Potter" had three sources of inspiration: 1) Pablo Neruda's love poem "The Potter" (from the collection The Captain's Verses), 2) Gabriel Garcia Mrquez's short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" (about a very different kind of stranger who comes to town), and 3) a former lover with a celestial nickname. Having lived in Singapore for over a decade, I've written about the island-nation and the wider region for quite some time, but I needed to depart from that focus with this story; it felt more "Wild West" to me, a calm tale set in a steampunk frontier (although the locale is purposefully ambiguous). It was written as a Christmas gift, and as an optimistic expression of love, which I was pleasantly surprised still existed after my divorce. It is also about acceptance, respect, and healing, and is almost gleefully free from conflict. It is a gentle story, an urban legend, a fairy tale. All of it is true, except the parts that are not.

- Jason Erik Lundberg
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