by Kate Woodward

The arrangement of his body was the same. Tendons still attached, arteries still supplied and the broad muscles still fanned across his back, but — by God — everything hurt. Times now, at the end of the day, even, sometimes, at the end of the morning, he would struggle to straighten, unfolding like a seized and rusted hinge. The pain from his hips could catch him, pull him up short with a gasp that he dreaded anyone hearing. Each morning he shuffled from his bed and began to break the adhesions that formed again every blessed night.

He retired early, but sleep always came later. He had learned how to soothe his mind and bones. He thought of scrolls, twists, ram’s heads and planished leaves. In the darkened room he felt the hammer’s weight in his hand, took the glowing iron from the coals and blow by tempered blow, made gifts for her. And later, lying against pillows stained grey with oil, carborundum and sweat, he would finally fall into a deep sleep, dreaming of her, and how she had been long, long ago.

Her father came often: a cowl for the stove, a damper plate, a hasp for the shippon door; heavy rings for tethering cattle. Elena always sat high on the wagon, clean and pretty in home-spun linen, her braided hair catching the sun. But — ridiculous old fool — he was her father’s age, not hers — a great brute creature with knots and scars, stained black and charmless, no one on whom she would waste even a passing glance.

He would never marry — who would have him? But for her — for her — he would forge something beautiful. And each day a fresh idea, a hopeful start. But later, frustrated that his skill could not craft his vision, he would drive his work back into the centre of the forge and blast up the heat, willing, willing that his imperfect creation would never see the light of day.

For her wedding gift he made a door knocker, a mask of thin beaten iron, punched and polished and, by far, his finest work but he did not have the courage to deliver it. An old man to a young bride? A man who had only ever sold, to her father, bolts and strap hinges and, once, a box of shining brads?

Her children came. They grew. The youngest boy — bright, blonde and lean muscled — was apprenticed at his forge. The boy learned quickly, making his own tools, punches, drifts and tongs. Within a few days, he could judge the iron’s heat by its depth of cherry red, and knew the precise blues and purples for the tempering of blades and saws. Within weeks, the boy’s right arm grew bigger than his left and he began to develop the bloom of grease, iron and carbon that would never, ever, scrub clean. Elena’s boy would soon take over the forge and then, at last, he would have given to her, a gift worth having.

Kate Woodward is a tall, leggy, northerner with a wicked sense of humour, a love of sport and a talent for pie-making. She writes fiction, poetry (occasionally) and when the electricity bill looms, she’ll write whatever you need.

Twitter: @spugletkw