The moment he entered the bar, I knew that Mister J. wasn’t your usual guest. Maybe it was the way his eyes darted around, taking the measure of everything he saw, or that half smile as he twirled... [+]
We are simple people. For us, fulfillment comes from hammering a piece of iron into a useful shape; from plowing the black soil for the new crop; from kneading the dough for the bread we all need.
My father used to be the baker in our small, remote village. He died years ago, but not before he taught my brother, Angus, the trade. From the time he could walk, Angus was allowed in the bakery to help with what he could. He’d bring in the kindling to start the oven, cut open the flour sacks, and shape the pieces of dough into loaves. When I was a little girl, he would make dolls for me from the leftover dough, and then my father would bake them together with the bread.
When our father died, Angus was old enough to knead the dough himself. Everyone knows that the blacksmith has strong arms, for it’s difficult to convince iron to take a shape chosen for it by another. But few realize that the baker, too, has strong arms, because the dough puts up a good fight before relenting to be baked. In addition, yet certainly not necessary for his profession, Angus also happens to have a thick, stubborn head.
We have a tradition in our family, passed down from generation to generation. Every day, my brother bakes special loaves for each one in our household. Unlike the bigger loaves for the villagers, ours are small individual loaves decorated with old symbols that only a few still recognize: Angus’s loaf bears the symbol of strength, mother’s the symbol of the hearth, and mine is marked with the symbol of fertility, as was my mother’s when she was younger. Father’s loaf used to bear the symbol of wisdom, and, perhaps, Angus’s will one day too.
The symbols are meant to protect our family and bring us good fortune. But one evening, my mother had reason to believe that a demon had tampered with my bread. As I broke my loaf to dip it into the stew, a small object fell from it, struck my plate with a clank, and sank into my meal. Abrupt silence followed the startling noise. I fished the small object out of my food and examined it close to the candle. It turned out to be a piece of iron shaped into a perfect seashell. But before I could even begin enjoying my present, my mother yanked it out of my hands and threw it to the floor. “It’s evil! Leave it be!”
I had been taught to obey my elders, so I left the iron shell where it had fallen. But I could scarce keep from glancing at its glistening curves. It twinkled there on the floor like a happy little eye.
Later, after we washed and stowed the plates away, my mother went out. The metal seashell remained on the floor untouched and inviting, but Angus would not leave me alone with it. After a while, mother returned with a priest, and soon my mysterious present was buried in the garden, an abundance of holy water soaking its grave.
A few peaceful days passed, and my mother and Angus relaxed. But soon, I received a second present. Buried in my loaf was a tiny metal vine leaf, precise in its detail even to the thinnest vein. My mother reacted even quicker this time and tossed it to the floor. Later, this trinket, too, joined the muddy grave of the seashell.
After a month, the earth had swallowed many more demonic gifts: a dragonfly, a star, a tiny key, and a beautiful medallion. The whole village was convinced that a demon was trying to seduce me, and the priest made regular visits. But no matter how many times I was blessed, the gifts kept coming.
Though all our neighbors were keenly involved in the events at our house, no one noticed an obvious link between the objects: they were all made of iron. I had my suspicions, though, so one afternoon I hid in the bakery behind the mill sacks. Angus had finished for the day and had left the family loaves to leaven. Soon, the patter of quick feet carried in the sleepy afternoon, and Joshua the blacksmith darted into the bakery. I never thought that a man as big as he could move so fast. He found the loaf with my symbol and, with a practiced motion, stuffed a small object into the dough, smoothing the mark with his fingers. I barely managed to contain my laughter until he left. Quickly after, I dug out my present from the dough: a perfect iron swallow. And this gift I kept.
A man then, not a demon, was courting me. Though some might have disagreed. Joshua, with his flaming red hair and huge arms controlling his little piece of fiery hell in his workshop, looked half a man and half a demon to many a young maiden. Still, no true demon could boast a smile as wide and as happy as Joshua’s. I had, on many occasions, admired this same smile.
It took some time and courage to tell Angus the true origin of the gifts. I was naive enough back then to think that the baker wouldn’t mind being tricked by the blacksmith. But mind he did, my proud, headstrong brother. He fumed. He stomped. And he could not be made easy until he had challenged Joshua. Not many would dare challenge the blacksmith, but the baker could and did. They went to the main square, and the entire village gathered to see the fight.
“I’ll break your teeth, Joshua!” Angus yelled. “My sister won’t take a toothless man for a husband!”
“You won’t get at my teeth, Angus, but I’ll get at yours! And when I do, it will be your sister who decides if she’ll have me or not.”
Muscle to muscle, fist to fist, red head to dark head: the fight lasted longer than my heart could bear. I prayed that Joshua would not hurt Angus and that Angus would not hurt Joshua, for my heart was split into two equal halves. A long time later, both men were exhausted, yet both still retained a healthy set of teeth. They eventually tired enough for the crowd to intervene, but no one had won, and Joshua could not take me for his bride.
That same evening, Angus and I both held our breath as I broke my loaf. I eagerly searched the soft bread but found no iron trinket.
“Ha!” said my brother. He was satisfied.
Weeks passed. Joshua seemed to have given up courting me. One evening, we were peacefully sitting around the table eating bread and soup when a sharp cracking noise suddenly broke the silence. With a yelp, Angus spat what he was chewing onto the floor and wrapped a palm around his jaw. My mother and I knelt down, and with our spoons, uncovered an iron bead and pieces of one or two of Angus’s teeth among the remains of half-chewed food. When the pain finally subsided, Angus began to heave with laughter, wiping mirthful tears from his eyes with flour-dusted fingers.
We are simple people—as simple as a lump of earth, a few grains of wheat, or a crude bit of iron. So it was a simple, uncomplicated truth that Joshua the blacksmith had won over Angus the baker, and, as promised, had broken his teeth.
Soon after, I wed my Joshua.