Monday, March 12, 2007

A Collier's Tale

Son, I know how you feel. When I was your age it wasn’t much different. On the mainland they have their kings, bishops, merchants, gunsmiths and shipbuilders, but here on the big island there have always been only two kinds of people: Liars and thieves.

When I was your age, the liars came in three varieties: The smelter workers, the bleachers and the colliers.

The smelter workers worked in the smelters. I didn’t know much about them, and I didn’t want to. The ore came in from the mainland on ships, and the smelter workers extracted the metal. How they did it I don’t know, but I know it involved bellows, because they were always looking for someone to work the bellows. Well, it wasn’t going to be me.

Then there were the bleachers. The bleachers lived up by the lakes, and I’m happy to say I didn’t know much about them either. They stank of chlorine and piss, that much is certain. The textile came in from the mainland on ships, and the bleachers whitened it. It was all a big mystery. I asked one of them once how they did it, he said they drank the chlorine and then pissed it out over the fabric. They were always such comedians, the bleachers.

The colliers I knew a little more about, seeing as my father and four of my five uncles were colliers by trade. My only brother was a collier, and my mother, when she had been alive, had been a collier’s wife, and my grandfathers on both sides had been colliers too, living the colliers’ wretched existence, deep in the great north woods, breathing the fine, black dust and the smoke from the charcoal pits. I’m telling you, there was no way in hell I was going to be a collier.

The colliers, the bleachers and the smelter workers, they hated each other like the plague. They went to the port, got drunk and had fist fights for no reason at all. Every so often someone got killed for no reason. And every time they saw a ship in the harbour it was the same old song: Look at those guns. We made the iron for those guns. And look at those great, big, white sails. We bleached those sails. Hell, we practically built the ships ourselves, with no help from the kings, the bishops, the merchants, the gunsmiths and the shipbuilders. One day we’ll go aboard one of those ships and we’ll travel far and wide. We’ll show those mainlanders a thing or two.

But they never did, did they. They never, ever left the big island, not for a single day of their lives. And let me tell you why not: Because they were liars. They were nothing more than a bunch of drunken liars, and I didn’t want to be anything like them. I wanted to be a thief like my fifth uncle.

The island thieves are the best in the world. They have to be, because there’s nowhere to flee, just round and round the big island until they catch you and hang you. The old gallows stood at the gates to the first smelter in those days, so the smelter workers could spit on the dead thieves on their way to work. Look, they’d say, up there hangs a man who was too proud to work the bellows. Look how far he’s come.

But every so often a thief would come along, a thief of such magnificent skill, it was as if the law couldn’t see him and the noose wouldn’t touch him. My uncle Honza was such a thief. When I showed up at his door with my clothes in a canvas bag and asked him to make me his apprentice he slapped me so hard I thought my head would come off. He dragged me by the collar down to the first smelter and showed me the gallows. Look son, he said, there hangs my last apprentice. I taught him everything I know. Does he look happy to you?

He looks happier than a collier, I said, and he did.

My uncle pointed at the dead man’s bound hands and said: Look at those two hands. Count the fingers. Those eleven fingers have been inside the pockets of kings and bishops. Do you think you have hands like that?

My hands have been to riskier places, I said. They’ve been in the red hot charcoal pit and under the dresses of colliers’ daughters.

That’s all well and good, uncle Honza said, but in my trade you have to have more than skill. You have to have a thief’s luck, as they say. What makes you think you have that?

I don’t need luck when I have this, I said, and I showed him the piece of charcoal I carried in my pocket, as all good thieves do, to conceal them in the night and to help them stay ahead of their pursuers.

My uncle smiled at that, and then he embraced me under the gallows and took me as his apprentice. From that day he set about teaching me his trade, and a hard but kind master he was. Uncle Honza taught me to pick locks and pockets and go down chimneys, making me so fast and silent I was practically invisible. I can’t tell you of the many methods and practices he taught me, for they are as old as the world and as dark as the night, and I have taken an oath to keep them secret.

For two long years I lived the life of a thief’s apprentice, sleeping by day and working by night, and then one night my uncle said to me: Son, roll up your sleeping matt and put your clothes in a canvas bag. There’s nothing more I can teach you. You are ready to take the trial. We’re going up to the great forests, north on the island, to the collier country where you grew up. There I will test your skills, and if you pass the trial I will make you a thief, and brand the thief’s mark on your chest.

What if I don’t pass the trial, I asked him, what then?

Don’t you worry about that, uncle Honza said, grabbing the axe that stood by the door; we’ll pick that lock when we get there.

Travelling by moonlight we left the port city and followed the road north, up through the bleacher country, where the endless clotheslines of white, fluttering cloth and canvas reflected in the many lakes seemed like the great, white sails of ships going nowhere. I walked to the front, carrying bacon and potatoes, and my uncle walked at the rear, carrying the long shafted collier’s axe, not speaking a single word to me the whole way. Only when we reached the edge of the great north wood on the morning of the third night, I heard his voice behind me, carried on a gust of wind: We have to travel by day from now on.

At the 11th milestone, where bleacher country becomes collier country, we diverged from the road, westward into the trees, and soon we were deep, deep in the heart of the endless, northern forest. I hadn’t seen the light of the sun at midday in two years, and even when it was sifted and sieved through the crowns of the tall trees it was still strong enough to make my eyes water. Though I was tired from the journey and from lack of sleep, I did my best to tread silently as I had learnt. I didn’t know where I went, I just put one foot ahead of the other, and once in a while my uncle would point the axe over my shoulder, steering me forward. Not a twig snapped under our feet as we moved.

We came to a clearing where the earth was very dark, almost black under the green grass. A low, circular mound surrounded a shallow, round hole in the forest floor, like a moon crater. Mechanically I knelt down and scratched the topsoil away, judging the quality of the dirt, and my fingers blackened with the soot of a hundred fires.

Do you know where we are, my uncle asked me.

Yes, master, this is the hearth of an old charcoal pit, I answered.

Do you know which hearth it is, and who it belongs to?

I looked around the clearing for the holder’s mark, and cut into the bark of an old fir I spotted the sign of the double trident. My heart jumped. Now I noticed also the scars on the trees that surrounded the pit, the many old marks of explosion and fire.

This hearth belongs to no one, I whispered.

Now it belongs to you, uncle Honza said, and handed me the axe. Build a good kiln here and tend it as you have been taught by my brothers. Two weeks from now - at the latest - meet me at the 11th milestone, and bring me a handful of your charcoal. There and then you will take the trial, and if you pass it I will make you a thief, and brand the thief’s mark on your chest. With these words he walked away from me.

While the task seemed unrelated to the business of theft, I knew better than to question my master’s command. Even as I saw him leave the clearing I was already measuring the old hearth with my steps. The rest of that day I roamed through the forest for wood, cutting down fir saplings, gathering branches for lapwood, slicing peat from the bog and filling my water bottles from a nearby stream. Back at the clearing I split the saplings into billets, leaving little stacks of them all around the hearth.

I built a simple, makeshift hut right outside the mound, with its back to the prevailing western wind of these parts, and its back to the old holder’s mark. Then I dug a little hole between the trees so I wouldn’t have to slip in my own shit. Just before sundown I had an open fire burning, frying bacon and potatoes on my skillet. When night fell I rolled out my sleeping matt and went to sleep with my head on a log. A few times during the night I awoke, thinking I’d heard sounds, quiet footsteps around the hut, that my uncle had perhaps come back, or some animal - but when I sat up and looked around the clearing I saw nothing but my own stacks of wood in the moonlight.

At sunrise I ate my bacon and potatoes and then set about raising the charcoal pit in the age old manner. I chose a nice, straight pole for a fagan, sharpened it at one end, and used the back of the axe to hammer it down at the centre of the hearth. Around it I stacked the billets in a triangular shape, one over the other, carefully making a chimney. Walking around the chimney, humming half-forgotten songs to pass the time, I kept stacking the billets and closing the gaps between them with lapwood until the heap reached the edge of the hearth. At midday I liked the dome shape enough that I decided the pit was ready to be sealed.

In the circular mound left around the hearth from previous burnings, what colliers call the wedding ring, one finds that special mixture of dirt and charcoal residue which is perfect for sealing. I dug up handfuls of the coarse, dark dirt and poured it over the domed heap, sifting out the biggest lumps of old charcoal and throwing them on my fire where they soon smouldered as if they’d been made only yesterday. Then I patted the dark heap down and thatched it with fern leaves and peat until it seemed just tight enough.

Satisfied, I fried some bacon and potatoes on my skillet for lunch, enjoying that even, perfect heat you only get from charcoal, and which makes it so valuable to the smelter workers. While I chewed the bacon I walked around my handsome charcoal pit, poking air ducts here and there with a stick. After some time my hand began to hesitate, unable to find anything to improve, and I knew it was time. With the blade of the axe I dug out the red hot charcoal from the fire and poured it down the chimney. I even fished out my lucky piece and threw it in for good measure.

I walked around the pit for a few minutes. To achieve the slow, deliberate burn which causes carbonization I had to carefully monitor the inflow. Too much air would cause a fire, destroying the wood, turning it to ash. You can’t sell ash. Too little air, on the other hand, would trap the volatile gasses within the pit, risking a terrible explosion which would almost certainly maim or kill me. I knew this was what had destroyed the last pit on this hearth, and other colliers, being a superstitious lot, had avoided it since.

I would have to watch the pit constantly for the next few days, day and night, until it reached critical temperature. Then I would seal it completely to finish charring over the next seven to ten days. If it didn’t topple over, as a badly constructed charcoal pit would sometimes do, exposing the wood to air and consumption by fire, the mound would then slowly collapse in on itself and I would be able to rake out the finished charcoal and bring it to my uncle.

The hours passed like a smoke, making my eyes water. The shadows of the tall trees grew darker around me. When I became hungry I ate some more bacon and potatoes, listening to the faint cries of owls and the distant calls of foxes. I tended my fire and watched the smoke, sitting with my back to the wind in the little clearing, awake and alone in the deep north woods like hundreds of colliers before me. Night fell.

After a while I heard faint footsteps somewhere in the woods to the left of me. I put the axe where I could reach it, pulled the blanket tight around me and kept watching the smoke. After a while the sound died away.

By morning the smoke from my pit was nice and even. I tended to it here and there, where a fern leaf had blown off or a piece of lapwood fallen. Again the hours passed like smoke. When I grew hungry I fried bacon and potatoes on my skillet. When I grew thirsty I drank water from my bottles. When I grew tired I walked around the clearing, trying to remember the words to those songs I’d tried my best to forget.

“The collier has a daughter;
She’s black, but O, she’s bonnie…”

At nightfall I saw the first, faint glow of the smouldering wood through the cracks in the pit. The smoke was thick and smooth now, and I didn’t feel tired anymore, just heavy. There was no moon that night.

After a while I heard footsteps. A man came out of the black wood and walked towards me.

Hello, collier, he said.

I didn’t answer.

I saw the light, the man said; I’ve been trying to find my way out of this forest.

I pointed to the east.

There’s something familiar about this place, the man said, sitting down on the wedding ring. Tell me where we are.

I said: This is my charcoal pit.

Are you sure, the man asked, are you sure it doesn’t belong to someone else?

I said: No, this charcoal pit is mine. My master gave it to me. It belongs to me.

The man stood up and pointed to the tree behind me: Is that your mark then, he asked me, the double trident?

That’s an old mark, I said. That collier is dead. He’s probably out there walking the woods. If you meet him, tell him he was not a very good collier, because he fell asleep on his watch and the pit exploded.

The man said, I’ll tell him that if I see him. Then he turned his back on me and walked out of the clearing.

Tell him I said so, I called, but the man didn’t answer.

The rest of the night I sang my collier’s songs, keeping rhythm on the water bottles with a stick, and when the bleak sun rose the day flew by like a snap of the fingers.

The next night he was back again. I could see him watching me from the edge of the clearing, standing between the trees. His hands and face were black. He was pointing at the tree behind me.

Come on out and keep me company, I called to him.

Slowly he moved towards me, and I stood up and went to meet him. He stopped just outside the wedding ring, his black face like a hole.

Come closer, I said, you look thirsty.

I am so thirsty, the man said, stepping over the wedding ring.

Take this bottle, I said, and the man took it with his black hand and put it to his charred lips and drank in big gulps.

Look at that charcoal pit, I asked him, have you ever seen so fine a charcoal pit?

I’ve seen better, the man said, and I’ve seen worse. But I guess it’s good enough. And with those words he walked straight into the glowing pit and disappeared, taking my best water bottle with him.

After that I had the clearing to myself. The next nights I could sleep soundly, knowing that the pit would tend itself from now on, and after another ten days the mound had collapsed completely. I raked out the charcoal, adding most of it to the wedding ring, taking only a handful for my master. After almost two weeks in the smoke and dust I looked like a collier, and smelt like a collier, and even a bath in the stream could do nothing to help that.

Uncle Honza was sitting on the 11th milestone eating a pear as I came out of the forest. There you are, he said, what do you have for me? I held out the handful of charcoal. Taking his time he looked them over, picked out a good, solid chunk, and put it in his pocket. Thank you, he said. I hope it brings me luck. And now, son, for your test: Go into the bleacher country, steal me a white handkerchief, and meet me here in two hours.

I did as he said. What else was there to do? I went into the bleacher country and stole a fine, white handkerchief from the clothesline. It was easy. Nobody saw me. I brought it to my uncle by the milestone, but before he said anything I already knew.

I can’t let you pass the test, uncle Honza said. There’s a black smudge on this handkerchief, and I specifically asked you for a white handkerchief.

He put his hand on my shoulder. Son, he said, you’re not much of a thief, but the charcoal you gave me was pretty decent. You’ll be better off going back into that wood and doing what you were born to do. That’s what I wish I’d done, years ago when I was your age, but there was nobody there to tell me and I didn’t have the patience to find out on my own. Goodbye, son. Say hello to my brothers from me. And with those words he turned around and walked south, whistling an old song that he didn’t know the words to anymore.

I only saw my uncle Honza one more time after that, a few years later. Do you remember that day? Your father had chopped off his toe by accident and couldn’t go to the port city market, so you and me had to load the wagon. Due to unusually heavy rains that year, everyone else’s charcoal was spoiled by moisture, but our charcoal was dry as a bleacher’s wife, and we made a killing at the marketplace. I showed you around the city, and when we passed the first smelter I looked up at the gallows, and who did I see hanging there from the crossbeam if it wasn’t my uncle Honza.

I pointed him out to you, and do you remember what I said? Look, son, there hangs a man who was too proud to tend the charcoal pit.


Anonymous ungovernable said...

you great storyteller you!
i'll be late for school now.

10:28 am  
Blogger suttonhoo said...

mmmm... bacon.

only problem reading something this well told is I want to read more.

*waits patiently for the next time*

12:34 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

If I have caused one person to be late for school, and another to hanker for bacon, my work here is done.

3:03 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

Completely off topic: last night I dreamt that you assasinated the newly-elected prime minister of Norway (a sort of amalgam of Dagfinn Høybråten and Olaf Thommesenby) by hiding in a snuff box, and then leaping out at the appropriate time, covered in a cloak and a pirate hat and shooting him with a dueling gun.

5:08 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

How is that off topic?

7:10 pm  
Anonymous Sexy Sadie said...

You wrote that all by yourself?

11:21 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

Yes, but the voices in my head helped me a LOT.

12:29 am  
Blogger Antagonous said...

your story is too long for my short attention span

I'd like to hear more about mgl's dream though. Not too much more, my brain is not up to it.

4:37 am  
Blogger Mikkel said...

If you don't read all of it you miss out on the hot sex scenes.

4:57 am  
Blogger anne said...

count me in with suttonhoo - waiting patiently for the next exhibition of your storytelling prowess

6:00 am  

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