The Town Blacksmith
It was as if time was frozen. Fragments of what once was seemed now to be shards of broken glass that lay scattered all around me.
I pounded on the anvil, and large plumes of smoke rose from the forge as sweat rolled down my face.
I reached for the tongs and pulled the glowing shapeless iron mass from the fire and pounded the malleable lump into a horseshoe.
Wiping the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand, I walked outside into the light, away from the hot smoky shop.
I watched as carriages, with large wooden wheels clattered by on the worn cobblestone streets.
She wore a blue cotton dress that billowed in the wind, her carriage drawn by horses prancing proudly in front of her as if they knew their passenger was one of immense importance; one of a different ilk than I, the town blacksmith.
I am a common working man, a nobody, a singular, forgettable man whose footprint upon this Earth will be as insignificant as most of the commonfolk. I’ve resigned myself to that fate. It is my fate and I’ve accepted it.
Today she was alone, her husband, the banker, had fallen ill and Doc Messenburger, along with two servants were tending to him. She had come into town, I suppose, to pick up supplies – groceries, paregoric, or some elixir from the druggist. I often wondered and pondered what people were doing as they hurried around the village going from shop to shop — or stood on the boardwalk, in the shade, and carried on with each other in intense animated conversations.
I watch her climb gracefully down from the carriage assisted by a young man, dressed in denim and wearing a tattered and dirty straw hat.
I’m sure the young man’s motives were cleverly obfuscated for the lady seemed to accept his assistance with grace and a smile. After he had helped her down from the carriage, he watched her walk away with more than a slight interest – more interest than a young man should have for a married woman of her stature. I could see he wanted to follow her but wisely didn’t.
You could see the anguish on his face. I could see something else.
She walked into the druggist’s shop. I watched her start to open the door but stop when a diminutive old gentleman, in a black shirt, and expensive gray hat, gently took the door from her gloved hand and opened it for her – she smiled slightly and nodded her head. He walked bent over so she appeared taller than he. And from my vantage point, I could not tell if she said anything to the gentleman or not. If she did, it must have been in a whisper.
I watched her disappear into the shop.
It was a typical summer day. The sun was mid sky, and a few beautiful, puffy clouds dotted the otherwise perfectly blue sky. It is summertime in the Midwest and the town, and its people appear to move in slow motion. And for an observer such as I, it makes the watching easier –much easier than on those brisk days of late-October when people rush in and out of the shops, hurrying to get their goods and then return to a warm place, out of the chilly October wind.
Today though, was too hot and too humid a day for bustling around town doing errands. But some errands would not wait for a cooler, more temperate day.
Her errand must have been of great importance for she seemed, despite the heat, to be in a hurry. I watched her leave the druggist’s and walk back to her carriage – gracefully and with a slight arrogance that was befitting her station.
The young man, who seemed more patient than most his age, had milled about the carriage the entire time. Perhaps still thinking of the lady.
The carriage is parked right across from my shop, so I have a good point of observation. He takes her small, properly gloved hand into his large, smooth, boyish hand and helps her back up and onto the buckboard.
I watch her smile at him again as she placed the package, she had procured at the druggist, on the carriage floor.
His gaze never left her though and she looked back at him. For a second their gazes locked for what to them must have seemed an eternity – but was really just an unimportant second – a mere wisp of time in my day.
She grabbed the reigns gracefully and shook them and the horses pranced at her command… and the carriage clattered loudly away, bouncing on the cobblestones below. And it grew louder still as it gained speed.
I watched the young man watch her drive away with an expression I am not sure I could accurately describe. Longing? Desire? Yearning? Admiration?
Perhaps all of them or maybe none of them, I think as I watched the carriage pass from the cobblestone street to the dirt road that led back to her place, the place where she belonged.
Huge plumes of dust rose from behind the carriage as it made its way down the dirt road carrying an entire life’s story and a package. The package must contain something important; I think.
And I give the young man one last glance. He is still looking in the direction where the carriage had been, still watching with the look I cannot seem to describe.
I have had my daily quota of observing people and I have much work to do, although I am sure it is not that important if another horseshoe gets made today or not. No one has been in my shop yet today – no one needed horseshoes or nails or a horse re-shoed.
Perhaps it is too hot for shoeing, or maybe it’s too hot in my shop.
I pick up the billows and fan the forge and sparks fly up in my face. I look into the orange glowing coals, and I see the young man’s face. Yes, he was yearning. I see it clearly now. An unrequited longing.
The dreamy-faced young man I see in the glowing coals of the forge is me. Not the man I am now, but a younger, more winsome man. It is the face of the young man I once was, and I see the yearning in his eyes. I can still feel her gloved hand in mine and feel the gentle, soft sweet cloth of her dress on my skin.
I feel emotional tears welling up in my eyes, but I will not let them come. I cannot let them escape.
I put the iron into the forge and fan the forge with the billows. Great clouds of smoke rose in the air and the heat from the forge raged against my flesh.
With beads of sweat dripping from my brow, my thoughts, like those ephemeral clouds of smoke around me, drift and float away.
What we believe is the only reality we have. I fancy myself a great observer of people and what I believe about them is only true to me.
The hammer strikes the glowing, malleable, iron and I shape it as I will. My reality is shaped in the forge of my mind, and it becomes whatever I wish to make of it.
Sometimes the forge burns fiercely, and the iron is as malleable as clay. And sometimes the forge is out of control – too hot or too cold — and no matter how hard I hammer the iron – it won’t bend and become what I want it to be.
Another horseshoe is done. I hang it on a hook in my shop and wipe my brow with the back of my blackened hand.
It’s another day in the life of an ordinary man.
The forge is still hot, and I think about putting another ingot of iron in it, but instead, I walk outside again to observe life again, to see what I may be missing. I never used to think I was missing anything, and I’m not sure, from what I’ve seen from the boardwalk in front of my shop today, that I’m missing much at all.
I observe the people lolling around on a hot summer day, engaged in conversation, or just dozing off in the shade. I can only imagine the ocean of their lives; all I can observe are the ripples on its surface.
And my reality will always be what I believe it to be, but it may well be that the reality I believe is but an insignificant ripple on an endless sea.
It is too hot to work. But in the shade outside my shop, it is a perfect day to observe and wonder if all I ever see are the ripples of lives floating on the ocean of my imagination.
This man still yearns, and the forge still burns, as life goes on all around me.
I drift back from the land of frozen time and realize that I am late for work.
There are no forges, carriages, anvils, or billows. No smoke rising. No cobblestone streets nor dirt roads. There is only the sound of the steady rain outside my window… and the rhythm of it reminds me that it’s time to go to work.