Letting Life Lead
They didn’t remember nor care who first saw the red-orange, shiny stones glistening in the bottom of the pottery kiln years ago. Later they found that they could melt and re-harden endlessly. It was abundant and good for trade. They dubbed the bits coupr and fashioned them into jewelry or sewed them as baubles on wool clothing and shoes.
For the women of the village, fire often brought wondrous gifts if one paid attention to the roars and whispers. The women learned to heed the fire well after children threw soft mud from the river into the hearth and the nuggets turned to stone.
They spent much time in the land’s abundance, trying to learn what the accidents could teach. Some villagers thought the venture folly with news of aggressors coming from the east — better to fashion strong arrows and spears.
“Grander roar. Hotter fire.” Hira knelt beside a pit, testing the new bellows for the small furnace. Others in the village were curious, but kept busy with the weaving, the children, and the processing of a successful hunt.
Uren, a fit man with silver in his hair, brought a basket full of the finest blackwood. “Best in all. They sing, I think.”
The cook fire had whispered this secret to the women, too. Wood piled and covered by dirt and surrounded by robust flames, turned dark and brittle. It burned hottest in its second life.
Hira grinned at Uren’s pride. She tilted her head toward Ruan and two others who were preparing the materials.
Ruan frowned. “Not much brightstone left.” She motioned for Uren to begin preparing the ground furnace. They’d had to make a new one that was smaller and didn’t occupy the pottery kiln. “Enough for one more.”
They measured out the last bits. Several experiments had already failed. It’d been Hira’s grandmother that had suggested using unfired clay as holding vessels when they first began melting the metals their village used for adornments. Soon, they had fashioned better containers and managed hotter temperatures.
The smelting group passed the fire’s gift from one hand to the other for luck. It was strong. Heavier than what they used for decorations.
Hira tied her plaits behind her head, sat on her heels, and helped fill and seal hand-sized clay cups. “We’ve got much to trade with the south. Better if this works.”
“It’s been many harvests,” Ruan said. Her hair was dark and slick with oils to keep the tight curls supple. She still wore the clothing of her longaway home, but an outsider wouldn’t know it. The art of decoration and the languages between the two peoples had blended. “But I’d like to travel again. Maybe not across the Great Salt Water like my mothers and fathers before me, but to at least see it again. I’ll never get used to the Cold Sea here.”
Uren prepared the fire; it crackled and popped. “Many would follow just to see the endless summer.”
Children hooted and peered from the trees. The group’s older children situated themselves nearby to clean fish, weave baskets, or carve atlatls.
The eldest, Hira’s daughter, teased, “Uren would not want Ruan’s furs to grow cold, and Mum would want to warm them both.”
Hira pitched a soggy bit of clay, splattering the young teenager’s cheek and braids. “Trouble, be gone!”
The girl joined her peers in the trees and roused them with a taunting rhythm and rhyme. The group laughed and traded remarks and removed their metal jewelry to avoid burns when working close to the fire. Uren filled the kiln from the top with half the vessels and covered them with blackwood. It took time for the new fire to roar, but the new bellows worked better than hoped for.
They waited, each passing the new metal between them. They’d worked out that Ruan’s strange stone had fallen into a small crucible that had been used to melt the coupr before it was set into a fire. Ornaments had been their goal, but the crucible had broken with a bang. Within those ashes had been the chunk that inspired the trials.
Uren removed the first container and set it to cool in a water bath and Hira broke the crumbling, blackened clay. Among the debris was a dark-orange lump — weightier and stronger than the parent ingredients.
Bodies pressed together and children’s heads poked from behind legs for a glimpse.
“What should we try next?” Ruan said.
Hira smiled. “Everything.”
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