Is it my Hammered Heart?
He bolts the door on the last of them, hearing the small group laugh and congratulate each other as they cross the gravel. Probably they are relieved to escape the forge’s heat – even Peter has felt it today, with the coke stoked high to keep everyone busy and the late-spring sunshine on the corrugated roof – but they leave with the satisfying heft of the pieces crafted since this morning: ram’s head keyrings, holly leaves which curl back on themselves as napkin holders, a poker with a coiled snail at its head.
And it has been a long day. Over the years, Peter has learnt that people come to him for many reasons: curiosity, artistry, pyromania. A long-romanticised idea of reclaiming a lost craft. Sometimes the course has come as a gift, and in Peter’s experience, such a gift may be more or less suitable for the recipient. He has welcomed teenage girls with bare arms; old men with hands as warped as the twisted coat hooks he sometimes makes with the beginners; burly, retired steelworkers who splutter at the size of the forge, then soften at the chance to transform metal into something of their own choosing. Peter treats them all the same. Almost everyone is capable of the physical endeavour required, but not everyone has the patience needed: to secure the vices properly, to heat and reheat the steel so many times, to deliver the measured impact which teases a blank rod of metal into something beautiful. Sometimes he feels like a primary school teacher, delivering a lesson on restraint. And every question is directed at him, and it is strange to be treated like a sage when so much in his own life seems to have gone awry.
But Peter retains an affection for these introductory days. He met Megan on the very first one, and all his nerves about how the day might unfold were replaced by an all-consuming fear that somehow he might never see again this fierce, close-cropped woman, whose eyes took the heat of the forge and threw it back at him. And though this latest group have gone – the last car door slammed, wheels crunching away towards the road - some may return for his longer course in the autumn. But for today Peter is done; he can return to the project which has been troubling him. Already he has the nagging feeling that he might have left it too late.
Peter turns his attention to the forge, restacking the glowing coke into a coarse-sided pyramid. While the heat builds, he clears the workbench of the tongs and files the students have left. Someone has abandoned the beginnings of a hammered blade on the anvil. Peter presses it against his thumb: there is an edge, even though the implement is only just emerging from the length of tool steel – a shame they ran out of time. On that first course, Megan hammered a chef’s knife to improbable sharpness, taking it away to the kitchen of the Italian bistro she runs with a friend. After she left, Peter stayed up half the night crafting one small token after another, searching for something to prolong the conversation. He settled on a pizza-cutter, and with her restaurant named for Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and smithing, the flame he forged at its base seemed doubly fitting. When he presented it, she tested it at once, and he was pained to watch the circular blade wobble on its pivot as it rolled. But perhaps it did what he asked of it – less than a year passed before they moved into the cottage together.
Peter lays another steel rod over the hottest embers now, pumping the bellows. When the rod is glowing, he hammers it flat, then forges it to a tight scroll for the centre of the flower; it is time-consuming, can’t be rushed. When the curl of metal is finally complete, he pulls off his ear-defenders, just as the shift-bell in the factory next door blasts. Vulcan’s forge nestled under Mount Etna’s lush slopes; Peter’s hunkers in the shadow of a cereal factory in the north-east of England. When he and Megan first got together, she used to linger in the car park, inhaling the factory’s sweet, malted stink. She rarely visits now. She left home early this morning and Peter realises he doesn’t even know where she went. To York, maybe, to buy ingredients she can’t buy locally, or to visit her parents in Scarborough. Perhaps she has gone somewhere else entirely, with someone he has never met. Didn’t Vulcan surprise his wife Venus in their marriage bed, snaring her and Mars in a net of bronze? - it would serve him right, Peter thinks, if Megan has found someone else. They used to share everything, but if she keeps things from him now, he is as guilty – it has become easier for her to keep to her hot kitchen and him to his furnace, eyes on the coals as if they might scorch away the hurt.
Peter lays the finished scroll at the back of the workbench. There is a little statue of Vulcan there: a hunched, twisted figure with a thunderbolt in his fist. But ugly Vulcan had the power to ignite life as well as flame: a spark from his hearth was enough to impregnate the mother of Caeculus, founder of Palestrina. Megan, who learnt this story at school, used to joke that she shouldn’t sit too close to the forge; then much later they both thanked Vulcan for the gift he had given. Megan’s cheeks flushed as the pregnancy progressed. Peter used to wonder at the heat rising from her body as she slept, imagining the tiny form inside being warmed into shape and life.
He glances at his watch now – wherever she has been today, he’s sure she’ll return for the bistro’s evening shift. If he can craft the outer petals quickly, he might catch her before service starts. He’s cut the rough shapes already, and now he strikes the hot steel sheeting with his rounding hammer - a hundred tiny blows. He could use his oxy-torch, but though the forge is less precise, it feels right to fashion this token from the furnace. A rose for Rose, the little girl who died before they even met her. As he attaches a fine steel stem to the flower’s base, he recalls that last night: how he whispered the story of Vulcan to Megan’s bump – the boy-god hiding fire in a clamshell – and then, the day after, clutching Megan as she sobbed into his shirt, he wondered whether the child had been grown enough to hear his voice. It was the last time he and Megan felt close – their grief since has come and gone in uneven waves, twin tides across a single bay.
Peter is done, and he pulls a broom out to sweep before leaving. But when he breathes in a stray tendril of that malted smell, he thinks of Megan again, and realises that the flower is not right after all. This is not about the little girl; it is the loss of his wife he fears, and it must be something given from him to her. But time is so short, and he must start from scratch. He sits down, then stands up, knocking over a stool in his haste, and props the flower’s stem in a mug beside Vulcan. Then he stirs up the coals, pulling out a rusted coil from a drawer. It is a spring from the old bed they found in the back room the day they moved in; Megan laughed when he said he’d keep it, but then squeezed his hand. He draws it out quickly to a straight wire, and then lifts his hammer to begin.
When Peter sits back on his stool at last, we can see what lies on the burnished patina of the anvil in front of him. He has forged a heart. Is it my hammered heart, he wonders, or is it hers? It’s not pretty, or delicate. It would look better threaded on a leather thong than a chain. But it’s strong and there is a permanence to it; already he can imagine the weight of it against the fine skin of Megan’s chest.
But he has left himself so little time, if the moment has not already passed. He’ll have to sprint across town, so he pulls off his overalls and tucks the twist of metal into his shirt pocket beside his own thundering heart. Vulcan forged himself assistants as beautiful as goddesses, but Peter has only ever wanted Megan. As he locks the shed behind him and breaks into a run, he wills that he will not be too late. The forge’s blaze wanes as he pants through the darkening streets; only the coals at the pyramid’s centre retain their soft glow. If he’s lucky, he will make it before the fire goes out.
First read at Stroud Short Stories.
Chloe Turner’s short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories 2018. She has won the Fresher Prize for short story, twice been shortlisted and won the Local Prize in the Bath Short Story Award, and her first collection, Witches Sail in Eggshells (pub. Reflex Press), was recently awarded the 2020 Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection. Chloe lives near Stroud and can be found on www.turnerpen2paper.com