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The Dance Of Life
‘If Life is light,
and Death darkness,
then what be a life
lived in darkness?’
Ralph spent the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon experimenting with the old forge in the back of the barn. It was hard work pumping the bellows to keep the charcoal burning hot, while alternately working the metal. He was not in shape for such work, but pushed himself to do it all the same. Flushed and streaming perspiration from the radiant heat, shoulders, torso, and arms aching from prolonged exertion, he smiled with pleasure, enjoying the familiar fire-and-brimstone smell of the forge, and the almost magical glow of molten iron.
Guided by an innate feel for the craft, which may as well have been instinct, the hot metal seemed to come alive in his hands, so to speak. In no time he had forged a new blade for the sickle, hardening and sharpening it to a fine edge. He realised that it was a very average grade of iron he had fashioned; nevertheless, it was in every way superior to its predecessor, and would hold a fine edge for a much longer time.
Encouraged by this success, he began creating a number of other artifacts; horseshoes, nails, a draw-knife, and lastly, a long kitchen knife. This last he spent much time on. He had found a bit of metal which he thought to be nickel, and mixed it in with the molten steel, along with some carbon. Hoping to produce a higher grade of steel by working the carbon in and the impurities out, he first raised the forge’s temperature. He did this by mixing in with the charcoal what Pran had told him was a poor grade of coal that smoldered rather than burned, which Theuli’s father had long set aside. The result was a much higher heat, and soon his metal was close to being white-hot. He then began hammering the metal, folding it back on itself, hammering it out again, reheating it and hammering it once more, repeating the process for hours. When he was satisfied with the consistency of the metal, he shaped the blade, annealed it, and affixed to it a wooden handle.
It was late when he finished. Returning to the house, going in through the back door which opened near to the kitchen area, he found Theuli sitting at the table, mincing dried herbs with a paring knife and placing them in small glass jars, each sealed by a wooden stopper, which she kept in a rack on the inside of a cupboard door.
Smiling, she asked Ralph to sit down. ‘I have kept your supper warm. The others are helping some men a few miles down the road towards town.’ She got up and went to the stove.
Ralph had to stifle an automatic impulse to follow and make himself useful.
Smiling to herself, thoughtfully, Theuli said, ‘My father, too, used to spend many hours over that forge, losing all track of time. I had almost forgotten.’
Before sitting down, Ralph presented the kitchen-knife to Theuli. ‘I heard you complaining about the one you were using,’ he explained.
She stared at the blade in wonder. ‘This is a fine piece of work! But what is it made of? It does not look like iron. Why is it possessed of such a sheen? It looks almost to be made of silver.’
‘Trade secret,’ replied Ralph with a smile as he reseated himself. ‘Give it a try.’
To her surprise, and his, she cut an apple on the cutting block, and the knife cut deeply into the wood almost effortlessly.
Scratching his head, he muttered, ‘Must be very soft wood.’
Lifting an eyebrow she said, ‘It is very hard wood. You see?’ she said, indicating, ‘I have never been able to make more than a scratch upon its surface.’
Ralph was apologetic. ‘I’m sorry! Maybe I should have tried it out on something first-’
She shook her head. ‘No apology is needed; I will just have to remember to use it with due caution. But I must ask you what metal this blade is fashioned from.’
‘I just mixed in some carbon, and a little of what I thought was nickel,’ he replied.
‘Nickel?’ she asked, turning to him, frowning. ‘I do not know this word. Would you show me.’
Taking a lantern from a peg where it hung near the brick stove, she lighted it and led the way outside to the barn, and to the corner where the forge, now growing cool, lay quiet and idle.
When she saw the metal he had added to the steel, her brow furrowed. ‘This is baromiéne.’ Seeing his incomprehension, she added, ‘They are rock crystals. I have never known them to be of any use, except perhaps as an ornament. Children find them amusing . . . these were no doubt left here by Rani and Zuic.’
‘Hm-m-m. They are probably made of mineral deposits with lots of nickel and chromium in them. That still wouldn’t explain why the blade was so sharp, though. I mean, it should have been a bit sharper, and held an edge a lot longer, but that’s all.’
‘I did not realize that you had such an exceeding knowledge of ironmongery,’ she said, a note of respect in her voice. ‘I would like Pran to see this when he returns, if you don’t mind.’
He shrugged. ‘Sure. But I’m not what you could call “knowledgeable.” This is nothing compared to what some people can do with metals, at least not where I come from.’
‘Ah-h,’ Theuli said in comprehension, ‘Pran has told me that although your people have no magic, they seem to have found other means to vie with the Natural World.’
‘Well . . .’ Ralph muttered thoughtfully. ‘When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound like such a good thing.’
‘Is it a good thing?’ she asked him seriously, as they tacitly began making their way back to the house.
They had made their way to the back door, and were entering the kitchen area, as Ralph considered his reply. ‘That’s a hard question to answer,’ he finally replied as he seated himself at the table.
Theuli got his supper ready, then made herself a cup of herbal tea with water from a large copper kettle which sat, perpetually hissing, on the back of the stove, and sat down across from him to listen.
Between mouthfuls, he said, ‘In the place I live, before my people came along, there was nothing but natural wilderness, and people, who lived like the animals did. I mean, not like animals, but they lived in the wild like they were part of it, without trying to change it like we did. Well, no, that’s not quite right. They changed it, but in ways that weren’t as damaging
‘Then, my people came, and kicked everyone and everything off their own land. I guess they thought they were better or something.
‘Anyway, the people who lived there before, since time immemorial, were forced into little areas called “reserves.” This was a really bad thing to do to many of them, because their way of life depended on being able to move around, following herds of animals. The ones living on “reserves” kept getting their land taken away from them, too, and they were forced to live in places where hardly anything would grow.
‘Over time the natural wilderness and the wildlife vanished. Gone forever. The best land, which was taken over by my ancestors was cleared for farms, roads were put in, and cities were built. The wildlife disappeared because we took all the land, and the animals had no place left to go.
‘At the same time, it’s not like my people were intentionally bad, or evil. They had immigrated, trying to get away from what they called the Old Country. I guess they wanted freedom, and a chance to own their own bit of land. Things were generally awful where they came from. And they were pretty ignorant in those days. I really don’t think that they had much, if any, idea of what they were doing. Even so, what they ended up doing was pretty horrible, when you think about it.
‘For a long time, everything seemed like it was going their way, and people like my granddad, and five or six generations before him, were about as happy and satisfied with life as people can be.
‘But they had left the Old Country because too few people had too much wealth and too much power, and there were just too many people. Eventually, in the place I live, which the people from the Old Country used to call the New World, the same thing started happening all over again. Too few people ended up getting too much wealth and too much power, and everything started to turn sour.
‘We have something called technology, which was supposed to make things cheaply, and make doing things easier. I guess that was true in the beginning. But as the people who made technology got better and better at it, things started getting worse, because as the population got bigger, fewer and fewer people were needed to do things. See, we make these things called machines, which do the same work people do. Except that one machine can do the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.’
He sighed. ‘Except it’s much bigger and more complicated than that. Doc knows more about it than I do. He’s seen a lot more than I have, and he thinks about this stuff all the time. But I think he would agree with me that . . . people just don’t live right. For one thing, they’ve gotten too far away from Nature. And instead of trying to control their own lives, they leave the running of things in the hands of others, who can never do the right thing, because the people they represent have completely lost touch. Everyone seems to be lost in his own selfish little world. And nobody seems to be on the right track.’
Theuli seemed to be holding her breath.
Ralph finished his last bite, washed it down with a drink of water, putting his other arm up in a gesture of frustration. ‘How should I know?’ Setting his glass down again, he said, ‘Things have just gone too far. We can’t do away with the things that cause so much damage, because now we depend on them to survive. It’s like we’ve fixed things for ourselves so that we can’t go back.’
As he said this, they could hear the others returning. Doc came in the back door carrying his black bag, and took some instruments out of it wrapped in a bloody cloth. He took an old, little used pot from the bottom of one of the cupboards, filled it with water from the hand pump, and placed it on the stove. He then took the bloody cloth and its contents outside for a bit. When he returned, the cloth was damp, his implements clean. Nevertheless, he placed cloth and implements into the pot of water of the stove to boil. To the question in Ralph’s eyes, Doc smiled oddly and said, ‘Wish I had an autoclave right now. Seems my services came in quite handy after supper, while you were still out pounding metal in the barn.’
Deborah joined them, looking a little green. Rani and Zuic were with her, and seemed to find her demeanour amusing.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Theuli suggested.
As she did so, Deborah responded to the question in Ralph’s eyes, ‘Doc made me help him do a little surgery. Rani and Zuic ended up being more help.’
Rani giggled. ‘Deborah had to throw u-’
‘It’s past time for you two to be in bed. Go, get your bath ready,’ Theuli said quickly, and began preparing them a light bedtime meal.
‘May we help Doc again?’ Zuic asked, in all seriousness, reluctant to leave.
To Doc’s smile, she said, ‘Yes, if he requires it. Now go, both of you.’
The two left with reluctant alacrity.
‘So what happened?’ Ralph asked when they were gone.
‘Oh-h-h,’ Doc drawled, choosing his words, ‘some Men were trying to change a wheel on a wagon a couple of miles down the road. One of them got caught underneath when it slid off its blocks and turned over on him. Crushed his leg pretty badly. I had to set a couple of compound fractures, and fish out several splinters about yay long-’ he indicated a length of about two or three inches.
‘Ouch,’ Ralph winced. ‘How’s the guy doing?’
‘Well, if you go by the way he and his friends were acting when I finished, you’d think a miracle had been performed, and he was going to run the rest of the way to town.’ He chuckled, and pulled something out of his pocket. ‘The Man’s name was Arvann. He insisted on giving me a pair of enormous sacks full of vegetables for my trouble, which are sitting out on the back stoop. You can put them in the root cellar; I can hardly shift them, even with the kids’ help. Oh, yes, and he gave me this as well . . .’
He passed a small but heavy object to Ralph, who admired it uncomprehendingly. Its significance was not lost on Theuli, however.
‘That is a grom-ti!’ she said in pleased wonder. ‘Here, let me show you.’ The object resembled a top made of solid bronze, intricately carved with strange letters in rows upon its surface, as fine as filigree. She set the grom-ti on its point on the table, where it stood balanced, without spinning. While the others watched in surprise, she flicked it off balance with her fingers. It quickly righted itself.
‘What’s it for?’ Ralph asked her.
‘It is said to bring you aid when you most need it,’ she replied with a smile. ‘When aid is given, the custom is to pass it on to another; usually to the one who has helped you.’
‘I couldn’t help but overhear what the two of you were just talking about,’ Doc said.
Ralph shrugged. ‘So? What do you think?’
‘I think,’ Doc replied, ‘that people will wake up one day, at the last minute, when it may or may not be too late. In the meantime, I think that people like ourselves can only do the best we can, and watch and wait.’
The empathic look which passed between Doc and Theuli was not lost on the others.