By Patrick Vala-Haymes
Blood and iron have always had much the same scent for me. I have never been one to blanch or wrinkle my nose at either.
• • •
Winter blew through the open gate of the smithy. I peeked out from beneath the canopy of my mother’s skirts, and a slender spear of rain struck my cheek. For a moment I considered retreat, but then I spied something of much greater interest than my comfort: a man’s tooled boots and the scarred blade of a sword. A black cloak fell from his shoulders in wide, even folds, and he wore a glove of shiny leather on one hand. His voice was all fog and wet bark.
“A blacksmith,” he said, as if he were looking at a sketch.
“I am,” my father laughed. The forge’s light licked at his face and glimmered blue off his sweat. He set the iron on the anvil and struck it once with his hammer. The bend was perfect. The metal hissed into the brine bucket, sending up a soft cloud of steam.
“Did you think we would not find you?”
My mother clasped me under the arms and hoisted me into the cold air. Even as I fought my capture, I did not let go of my half-eaten apple. I reached for my father, but he was no help. He raised his hammer and was immediately felled by the man’s fist. He rocked backward against the forge and blinked his eyes as if he could not see me. But this was no game. My father did not rise or turn to me. He shuddered as he fought for balance.
Strange hands tore me from my mother’s arms. I was too confused to feel frightened. The man fisted my shirt and pinned me to the work table. He pressed his damp thumb into the hollow of my throat.
“She’s my daughter, my daughter!” my mother pleaded.
Cold steel moved against me, sliding from my leg to my crotch, across my belly. I could not think to complain, nor could I muster breath. Silenced, I gave the scream to my limbs and thrashed at the man. The flat of his dagger turned from my skin. The edge burst from my clothes. He stripped away my tunic and pushed my legs apart. As he studied me, a trace of spit fell from his mouth and landed on my chest. I was not immediately cold. Nor did I cry, even for my rough treatment——though I realize now there is no shame in being a child. I saw the man clearly, and I studied him as he had studied me. His eyes were dark, his brows polished black. There was not a mark on his perfect skin.
“You should have come to us.”
My father’s voice: “She was not with child of her choosing. She owes you nothing.”
“We gave her purpose, even if only to spread her legs.”
I may be imagining the words, for what could they have meant to me then? But I remember the sounds, the bite of them.
“But this… I had expected to find a son. Why else would you flee?” The man touched the blade to the inside of my leg. “A daughter is of no interest to us. More burden than threat.”
I did not notice my mother again until her fingers raked the man’s mouth. The surprise showed on him when he tasted his blood, and again when my mother’s fist skidded off his cheek. She grabbed for his throat, but he was the stronger. He matched her blow for blow and opened a gash beneath her eye. He shoved my mother into the sorting bench. Before he could strike again, my father lunged at him with a branding iron, pressing the hot metal into the man’s neck. The skin there blistered and smoked. Ridges of flesh boiled up around the metal’s shape. The man shouted and cocked his head, as if he might escape the burn. He beat the iron away with his hand.
My father could not slow the dagger that ripped through his apron, through the skin and muscle of him. He knelt and, that quickly, there was no fight left in him. Dark blood flowed over his hands as he tried to keep his insides from spilling onto the smithy’s floor. Though he moved his lips as if to speak my name, he made no sound. The color leaked from his face.
I did not find my breath until my mother wrapped me in the folds of her skirt. I remember the strength of her hands, their heat. I pressed my lips to her throat.
I remember too the soft clacking of beads as the man tossed his knife aside and removed his bloodied glove. He stepped to the forge and pumped the bellows once. There, in the light, he examined his bare hand. A spot of my father’s blood glistened on his wrist, and he dabbed it with a white cloth. He picked up the branding iron and thrust it into the forge. As he carelessly scattered the embers, the forge spat back at him.
“You risk life and beauty for something of so little worth.” He licked the red stain from his teeth. “You were desired. Why is that not enough for a woman?”
Even then I was not afraid. As long as I could see my father I knew I was safe. No matter his wound, I was safe. He smiled at me, and I reached for him again. Did my mother not trust that he would protect us? She held me tight and turned my face, so for a moment I could not see. Her heart drummed against my throat, fast and bright. She smelled of milk and apples.
She started for my father. I do not know where he found the strength, but he held her off. And though I do not imagine my mother yielding, my father would not let her tend to his wounds. He pushed her away. His eyes did not leave us as the man freed his sword and flicked the hair from my father’s face.
“Love is such a burden. Why do you indulge it?” He twitched against his pain and set the blade against my father’s throat.
I thought only my father could strike so fast. The man’s sword twisted in the forge’s light, reversed aim, and sped back across the distance to slice a clot of flesh from my ribs. The pain was so little and so sudden that at first I did not protest. My mother’s arms fell away from me and I rode her skirts to the floor of the smithy, smacking my mouth against the toe of the man’s boot. I licked some bit of blood off my lips, but still I did not cry.
My father’s horse stirred, and I remembered he would need grain soon. The lantern needed oil, and the quenching bucket had fallen over. Scraps of iron were scattered across the floor, enough to fill my small basket. The gate was still unlatched. I had not let go of my apple, and I turned to show my mother.
A burst of crimson painted her breast. She clutched the sword, both hilt and edge, as though to steady the blade. The dark point exited her back and scraped against the work table. She folded sideways, striking the ground with the dull weight of a hammer.
Now the pain took me. The cold climbed in me and I shivered. Why did my father not pump the bellows? Why did my mother not move to warm me? I twisted against the cold floor and thought to rise, then felt the wet heat beneath me, first on my fingers. The small tide flowed to meet me, smelling of iron. I turned my face and pressed my cheek to the earth. The pool of my mother’s blood lapped against me, warm and precious.
• • •
I did not know who he was, the man who cut me and gave me my scar. I did not know why, though I did not need the why to hate him. I watched him turn and stride from the smithy. My father’s brand glistened low on his neck, the ruptured skin curling away like rotted flower petals.
• • •
The crone discovered us on the floor of the smithy that late morning near my mother’s body, lying in a pool of mixed blood. I am not ashamed to say my father had comforted me and I was fast asleep. The crone cleaned my father’s wounds and tucked his entrails back into his stomach, then stitched the cut closed with catgut.
I too bear the marks of her bone needle.
My father never cursed his torn flesh, never flinched as the fever roiled through his body those first weeks. I know now his pain was deeper than his wounds, deeper than his bones. But as a child, I could not mourn my mother as he did. I cried only for the physical pain. The other was too new and too strange to warrant much more than a stunted curiosity. I knew only that where there should have been a whisper, a warm breath, a soft breast, there was now nothing but the ghost of a voice whose source I could not find.
The mice that lived in the sod of our roof were not proper company for me, though I found their nibbling and scurrying in the night comforting. With the break of each day, however, I felt the silence in our home. I could not defeat it those first months. Neither could the crone, not with sorcery or warm bread or strange songs.
But what changed even more for me were the smells. There was still the coal fire, or sometimes wood, and the black, wet scent of the stone floor in winter. What was not there was the sweep of my mother’s skirts and the whooshing scent she spread through the room. I could close my eyes when she was with us and know where she was. I knew where I was. Then my mother was murdered and I could no longer close my eyes for fear I would be lost.
How could my father find me in his fever?
I remember waking one morning, surprised I had slept. I thought I heard the stirrings of coal in the grate, and I slid from my bed onto the cold floor of the loft. Through our window came the oozing gray light of late winter. In the dim shadows, I saw a man hunched over the hearth, the poker scratching in the ash, and I realized my father had risen before me. I must have been in a fitful dream to cover his noise.
I climbed down the ladder and waited for my father to turn to me. When he did not, I tore a bite from the loaf that hung over the table and chewed on the crust——a man must respond to such pilfering, I reasoned. My father laid a block of coal in the ashes, then bent to blow on the embers. The flame was low and sent its blue light washing over his face like a splash of spring sky. I wanted the heat of the fire, but even more, I wanted to be near my father. I did not wait for his invitation and offered him a pinch of bread.
My father has always cried more easily than I, and the tears leaked from his eyes. He did not flinch at my closeness or my need to look at him, and he made no sound. I confess I wanted to heal him. To get on with the day and slip once more into the patterns of work and home. Hear the crack of his hammer again, his laughter. Wet trails wound into his beard, glistening there like icicles. He sat near the hearth and took the bread I offered him. He was without a shirt or tunic, and I could see fully the raised scar that lit the skin from his belt to his breast. I laid my hand on the scar, surprised at how smooth and hot it was. How perfect and rich the color.
My father lifted my shirt then and put his fingers on the scar at my ribs.
“I can feel your mother’s heart beating there.”
He smiled at me, though his tears did not stop. He spun me around and pulled me onto his lap. We ate the entire loaf that morning and my father drank a whole pot of tea.
• • •
Long before first light my father pulled the worn travel case from the loft, wiped it clean with a chamois, oiled the hinges and repaired the latch. He braided new leather for the handles. Before he returned to the house, he stopped at the tailor’s and the baker’s. When he carried my mother’s trunk through the door, I was already awake.
“You did not wake me,” I scolded him. “You’ll want help with Donaldson’s wagon this morning. The tongue is rotted and both axletrees need replacing. I can re–cut the hubs while you shape the trees. We still have that block of ironwood.”
My father set the trunk on the floor.
“You’ll want to take some of your mother’s things,” he said. “I’ve set them on the sideboard. Nothing for the kitchen, mind you. Helena has no such needs. But the teapot——you can put flowers in it if you want. I’ll get another. I’m not going to give up tea.”
“We have work to do this morning.”
“You must ready yourself for travel.” He flipped open the trunk. He removed a simple dress——skirts and bodice all of one piece——holding it awkwardly in his arms. “The tailor’s daughter is heavy with child and has no husband. Helena will take care of your needs once you arrive at Powys Wood, but for travel——”
“You took a wife in trade for a dress? I do not want it.”
“No, Morgan,” my father laughed. “No. I built the woman a cradle.”
“When did you do that? We’ve had so much work.”
“You do like your mornings in bed.”
“No! I’m up with the light.”
“There’s a time before the light. There is always work to be done.”
“It’s a terrible dress. I will not wear it.”
My father’s face tightened. “I offer you a gift.”
I stepped past him and looked in the trunk. Folded there was my leather apron from the smithy. A hammer——the handle worn to my fingers——a hoof rasp, a bundle of horseshoe nails and a gold pommel. A loaf of bread.
“You do not need my help this morning,” I said.
“You’ll leave at noon. A rider spotted the coach at Gordy’s Crossing last night. Two days late. You can be thankful for that, if not the dress.”
• • •
I hung the hoof pick from my belt and watched the street from behind the smithy’s gate. The coachman chewed on a stick of jerky and spat, shifting from one crooked leg to the other and turning a restless eye on the road leading from the village. What had he to fear more than I? My father eased Hotspur past the man and checked the knots on my horse’s halter. He slipped the lead rope through an iron ring on the back of the carriage.
“I’ll not wait on him,” the coachman slurred. “If he stumbles or throws a shoe——”
“He will not throw a shoe,” my father assured him.
“We move at a good pace. We have a schedule to keep.”
“Is that why you were two days late?”
“Did I not tell you about the brigands? Pistols, they had. My team——”
“Your team shits a lot. Did they shit on the brigands?”
“Any team can outrun a sword, but did you ever see a team outrun a ball from a pistol? I had to rest them after.”
“Two days? I suspect you found a tavern.”
“What’s a life worth? At least a bucket of ale. You’ve got to give a man that. Where is she?” He searched the street, the market, the corral.
“The corral. I did not think to look there,” my father teased. “Do you have an apple? She’ll come to an apple.”
He finished knotting the rope and let my horse nibble his fingers. He looked to the smithy’s gate but did not call me. The sun was already high, the day pleasantly warm.
I kicked open the gate and dragged my mother’s battered trunk over the threshold with one hand. I fisted my sword in the other. All my fidgeting could not loosen the tight shoulders of my bodice. A cage, a cage to chafe at my skin! Why do more women not turn to violence? These clothes were worse than an insult. Nor was I free to silence the laughter and hoots of the boys who had never seen me in anything other than my leather apron and leggings. I was not made for dresses. I had rather climb the scaffold. I hitched the skirts up to free my legs.
The coachman harrumphed and climbed onto his bench. “Will you not help the girl, man?” he urged my father. “Can you not see she struggles?”
I leaned my sword against the carriage, then bounced the trunk onto my knee, hefting it up to the surprised coachman. He caught the leather handle but struggled with the weight. When I pushed harder, the trunk rolled over the side-rail and toppled onto the man, pinning him to the bench.
“Will you not help us, man?!” the coachman wailed.
I braced myself on the rail and lifted the trunk, sliding it onto the roof of the carriage. There I secured it with a length of rope. The coachman righted himself and smoothed his tattered coat. He offered me a hand down, but I did not accept the courtesy.
“Would you like us to stow your weapon?” The coachman pointed at my sword.
“No, sir.” Who knew what manners of men I would meet on the road? I would not give up my defence so easily——even if I did not always speak my bluster and my boldness was still unproven.
I fumbled with Hotspur’s lead rope and the knots on his halter. Though they were perfect, the work of my father, I loosened each one, then snugged them tight again. Hotspur’s forelock needed combing. I lifted his forefoot and balanced it across my thigh. Though his hoof was clean, I made work for myself by snatching the hoof pick from my belt and tapping on the shoe to test the set of each nail.
“Come on then, or we’ll be wanting another pint before we go,” the coachman sang.
I wished my horse had more feet to tend to. Perhaps twenty or thirty and those needing shoeing, enough work to get me through the day and back to my bed. I was done much too soon. When I raised up from my crouch, my father stood before me. His hands hung loose over his apron, empty.
I took my sword in hand and opened the carriage door. I did not believe my father would let me go, and I waited for the fall of his hand on my shoulder or——please!——his voice to remind me of work left undone.
“Do not go cock-strutting before your Aunt Helena. She’s a woman of refinement and will not suffer your arrogance.”
His face betrayed nothing, as though my leaving were common. His feet were anchored, his legs bowed in a stance that worked equally well for judging the tilt of a wagon or the gait of a horse. I could have cursed his steadiness. Instead, I ran at him. I tossed my sword aside, kicked my skirts away, and leapt into his arms, wrapping myself around him and holding tight with every muscle I could summon.
My tears ran onto his neck and to his shirt. My father, who had never so much as patted my head in the view of men, drew a great breath and whispered my name. I was such a light weight for his powerful arms; I realized then he would not push me away. Instead, he made the labor mine. He relaxed his grip and waited for me to lower myself to the ground. He retrieved my sword and pressed it into my hand.
My father held the carriage door for need of something to do. I have always known there was no distance between us, no matter that we quarreled openly or spent days in silence. If I walked back into the smithy and traded my skirts for a leather apron, he would not fight my choice. Though he was not a man to allow his daughter an easy victory, he knew my greater fight was with myself.
Thus, he did what a father will do: he added his strength to mine.
I climbed into the coach.
Patrick Vala-Haynes, author of “The Blacksmith’s Daughter,” is a Sundance Screenwriting Fellow, fiction writer and poet. As a freelance fight director, he has choreographed sword fights and hand-to-hand combat for more than a hundred stage productions. His written work has appeared in Sand, The Oregonian, Newsweek and other magazines. His short story, “The Henchman,” won the fiction award at the Montana Book Festival. He lives within running distance of the Oregon Coast Range.