Editor’s Note: Yesterday we featured the first half of Chapter Four from Life Loves Death, Geoff’s ongoing NaNoWriMo project. In it, we witnessed the passing of the ice age and saw our hero take up trade as a bronzesmith. Read on for his first-hand account of the emerging age of metal and the importance of tin. (I happen to know that Geoff wrote a paper on the subject of tin as an undergrad, and it was deemed Masters-worthy by his professor.)
Life Loves Death
Chapter Four (Part 2/2)
by Geoffrey Micks
Working a smelting furnace and a smithy was the first trade I ever learned beyond the ability to kill a beast and clean a carcass, and it has kept me in good stead right up to the present: Wherever you go, in whatever age, a man who can work metal lives well. In the same way I used to abandon a given people with my spear, or my bow, now I slunk away with my bellows and my hammer, my tongs and my heavy leather apron.
I suppose the life of a bronze smith might be of some interest to you, but to me it passed in much the same unremarkable string of episodes as my time as a Neolithic hunter-gatherer. The times changed, and I changed with the times. I don’t really know what I should highlight for you, one out of the many thousands of stories I could tell.
I do want to speak a little bit about tin, because tin was a precious thing to ancient peoples, and it shaped our world in a way that you do not perceive today.
For every ten parts copper, you need at least one part of tin to make bronze. Some smiths prefer a ratio of nine to one, but I always thought that was wasteful. You could obtain copper just about anywhere, but local supplies of tin were exhausted fairly quickly, and so tin came from a long way away, and through many hands, before it reached my furnaces.
I first took to the sea in search of tin.
This would have been three and a half or four thousand years ago now. Elsewhere in the world, the Egyptians and the Sumerians were building wonders. My people were happy just to live in our towns and work our fields. What primitive writing we had was limited to shopping lists of symbols and numbers carved into wood panels or pressed into sun-dried clay. That way you could send a message to your vendors and customers without relying on the memory of your middlemen, who had it in their own best interest to be forgetful, or to purloin some of the goods going back and forth for their own benefit. I could say, fifty bags of einkorn wheat bran left my village yesterday. Did you get fifty bags? Yes you did. I want twenty goat kids in exchange for these five hatchets. Is that alright with you? Terrific. You get the idea.
Tin, though, tin was something that we just couldn’t get enough of. I suppose I was living in what is now Bosnia when the idea first came to me that my future was to sail out in search of tin. I was in a tavern. There was a roaring fire going in the centre of the room, and men were sitting around it on short stools, their feet sticking out in front of them so that the wet bearskin soles of their boots steamed. We were the town’s tradesmen, and although there wasn’t such a thing as a guild or a guild hall in those days, we met together once every few months and talked over our troubles and triumphs with the help of good beer, and the new thing that had recently made its way to us, rich dark wine.
“This stuff is too strong for me,” our local brewer always joked when he broached the amphora of wine.
“You’re supposed to mix it with water!” Someone would always tell him.
“Oh, is that what I’ve been doing wrong?” He would always say, and then we would always laugh. We were happy and prosperous men, and it was easy to laugh amongst them.
On this particular night, I didn’t feel like laughing. My wife of the time -–Shalni was her name– had been in the family way when I married her. I had never asked who the father was, and I did not care in the slightest. For my purposes it was lovely to have the chance to be a father from the beginning. She wasn’t very far along when we wed, and so no one ever questioned that I was my daughter’s father.
That was almost twenty years before this night where I failed to laugh at the same old jokes. That morning, the baker’s son had come to me and asked for his blessing to marry my daughter. I was so happy, then! Here I could have not just children, but grandchildren! Alas, what happened next made my blood ran cold.
“It’s time and more for our Apul to marry. Wouldn’t you say, dear?” Shalni asked. “I mean, she’s years older than I was when you and I married, and here I am, an old maid! I thought I would never live to see the day!”
It was true that Shalni had not aged as gracefully as some. For many years, she thought she was deceiving me as to the paternity of our daughter, Apul, and the stress of that had set deep lines into her face. She had confessed everything to me one night when Apul was ten or so, and to watch the relief wash over her when I told her I had always known and forgiven her? It was a sight to see! Still, she was approaching forty in an age where women did not do that gracefully. There were long silver streaks in her dark hair, and she had begun to stoop and shuffle of late.
Apul then said the thing, the thing that everyone I ever loved said eventually. “Oh Mom, you’re not that old! Why Dad can’t be too much older than you, and he hasn’t seemed to age a day for as long as I can remember!”
Then Shalni replied, “Oh, well, your father’s luckier than I am. Do you know, there’s not one grey hair on him? I’m not just talking about his head. I’ve pulled the covers back while he’s sleeping. Not one grey hair. Not one spot of old, saggy flesh. Your father’s blessed by the gods!”
“Blessed by the gods!” My daughter and her groom-to-be repeated.
“Blessed by the gods…” I agreed distantly.
So now I found myself in this tavern, and the wine had been poured into a deep bowl called a krater and mixed with an agreed upon amount of water: We were there to talk business before the celebrations went too into our symposium, as our distant trading partners called our meeting. From this krater, cups were filled, not so very different from our beer mugs.
We didn’t go in for all the elaborate paraphernalia in those days. In the centuries to come I would go to thousands of symposia and convivia where my Greek and Roman hosts would agonize over the libations and the appropriate measuring bowls and flagons and beakers or bowls or what-have-yous. I swear they did it just so they could sell the pottery to their client kingdoms who were so desperate to ape their masters’ customs.
Anyway, once everyone had his first beverage in his hand, the town’s baker stood up and said, “I would like to propose the first drink to the upcoming marriage between my son, and your daughter. May they live very happily, for a very long time, and may we live for their grandchildren’s grandchildren to bounce on our knees.”
There was a throaty roar of approval, and everyone took a pull of their mug, but I couldn’t help but worry, who knows? Who suspects? Who will be the first one to stop making jokes and start talking seriously about how I was different from them? What could I do?
For centuries I had developed an emotional callous when it came to the time I would inevitably have to move on. I knew I wouldn’t be of this place forever. Of course I did! For one, I could see in my future a time where I wandered through a sea of sand, leading a long string of what looked like hunched-back horses under a blazing sun. This village was not my forever, but it had been more of a home to me for these last many years than any other I had found in a long time. I loved these people, and they loved me. I didn’t want to go.
What was worse, I couldn’t see how they would ever let me go. I had built my smithy up into the largest in town, and I had three apprentices working under me. I had a wife, and in all likelihood I could indeed expect to have grandchildren within the year. If I just walked away, they would come looking for me. They would want me to come back, and I wouldn’t be able to explain why I could not do that.
“A fine toast!” I said, holding up my hands for silence. “I am sure we will both enjoy trying to outdo one another in spoiling the grandchildren.” That provoked a round of laughter. “May I suggest we drink to the community all of our grandchildren will grow up in? To the future!”
“To the future!” They all agreed, raising their glasses and then tipping them back into their eager, smiling mouths.
I had seen smiles turn to sneers too often in my life. I had to find a way out.
“One point I would like to raise, if I may?” Our brewer said. “When thinking of the future, I would like to suggest we consider building a dock or a pier out into the water. Right now when the traders’ ships arrive, they have to pull themselves up onto the beach. It’s time consuming, and it’s not really convenient for us or for them. If we had something they could just row up to and then unload from their deck onto our dock and then row away again, we could bring in more cargo at a time. We could also charge them for the use of the dock.”
“He just wants to make sure we always have wine,” one of the men said. We all laughed at that.
“Wine aside, if we built a dock, the ships would all come here instead of pulling up onto every beach up and down the coast. If more goods come through our town, that’s only going to be to our benefit. We could start having a regular market. We put up a fence around a field: All business is done inside the fence. We rent space within the fence to everyone who wants to sell something, and we charge a nominal fee for every person who goes in. All the proceeds go towards town improvements, like the dock, or a new hall, or digging new wells, or hiring more guards.”
There was silence for a moment. “You’ve really thought about this. Haven’t you?” Someone said.
“Do you think people would really come to our market –and pay for the privilege—when they could do their business anywhere else?”
Now it was my turn to chime in. “But they can’t do all of their business at the same time somewhere else, can they? Having the dock and the market here means you can come here and get whatever you need all at once. That’s good for everyone. People up in the hills will know there’s a day, say one day a month, where if they come into town they can sell whatever they have and buy whatever they need. Farmers can come in from their fields. Tradesmen can close up shop for a day. The traders who come by sea can start scheduling regular visits -–perhaps they’ll even start stockpiling things here, and hire us to watch over their goods and act as their representatives during the markets! They can show up whenever they like to drop off goods and pick up their profits!”
That got them all talking, but in my mind, things were taking shape. This time I wouldn’t run away. This time I would sail away, and I would be able to keep in touch. They talked with much enthusiasm for a long while, and then I called again for their attention.
“There is one thing I need to do my business that we do not reliably get, and when we get it, we’re paying the middlemen far more than we should.” The other smiths around the fire nodded at me. They knew what I was saying. “Tin comes to us from the sea. If we’re going to start attracting sailors here, then the tin will come more reliably. That’s fine. Why are we paying so much for them to bring it to us? Why don’t I sail off with one of these ships to wherever the tin comes from, and buy it there at a fraction of what it must cost us here?”
Silence again, then one of our potters said, “Would you really be willing to do that?”
“Well, why not?” I stood up, pacing around the fire. “I have three boys working my smithy for me. My daughter is grown. My wife is too old to give me any more children. Give me free use of this dock and free use of that market, plus whatever I buy, sell, or trade on my own account, and I’ll take care of the town’s shopping.”
“Would you be willing to purchase on my behalf?”
They all wanted me to go, once they knew I was going to do it for so little. They didn’t know what I was really gaining, though: I would never see my friends form a lynch mob against me, as I had so many times before. That was worth more to me than each of their weights’ in gold.
It didn’t take long for me to convince Shalni, either. Oh, she was anxious about my leaving, but as far as she knew it was only for a single season, perhaps a year at the most. I told her with the proceeds of my journey we would secure our future against our old age. I would not have to work my furnace until the day I died just to keep us in bread and cheese.
I also waited until after my daughter’s wedding. I built her and her husband a fine, sturdy log cabin, half-way between the beach and the town’s palisade. It seemed an odd location to them, but I explained to them that their house would one day be a corner of the market we were going to build, and perhaps their children would run that market when they grew up. The two of them accepted that instantly, for the talk of babies was thick and fast between them.
I got onto the first ship that was willing to offer me passage, and half the town came out to wave me goodbye when that ship pushed off the strand, and the crew began rowing out into the open sea. I stood on the deck for a long time, waving back. The men aboard must have thought me hopelessly weak for weeping, but I was saying goodbye to true friends and family who wished me nothing but the best.
I had been on boats before, little ones, and even ones as big as the bireme I now found myself on, built to work great rivers like the Rhine and the Rhone and the Danube. I had never been to sea before this, though, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the Adriatic and the Aegean. When they were calm, they seemed to smile just for me. When they stormed, we always pulled ourselves ashore in plenty of time, and so the wind and the fury seemed like some kind of spectacle for my amusement. I delighted in learning how to work a sail, and I learned to meditate while rowing, so that sometimes I caught glimpses of my future while the drum beat to help us keep time: I knew then that much of my life would be spent at sea, and the thought made me happy, so happy.
I worked on my village’s behalf, diligently, for many, many years. I sailed from port to port, and always I directed the traders there to my distant home. A sort of postal system existed, and I received the shopping lists of what my village wanted. I always provided for them. Sometimes the sailor passing me the shopping list would say, “I was told to ask when you are coming home?”
I would always say, “Soon! Tell them soon! I’ve just made a very exciting business deal that I want to pursue further.” I always found an excuse. Perhaps Shalni blamed me, but we didn’t have a way for her to tell me that. I made sure that she was comfortably taken care of, and for years I was given the message, “Your wife is well. Your daughter thrives. Your grandchildren send their love.”
I would say, “Send them my love as well. I hope to be home as soon as I can!”
Then one day word arrived that Shalni had passed away. I wept, and the sailor who bore the bad news took me to the nearest tavern, and we got drunk together, and I said quite honestly that I had thrown away our golden years together in the pursuit of wealth.
“There, there, friend,” the sailor told me. “It’s not your fault you married a woman so much older than you. She was bound to go first, and at least you always took care of her.”
More years passed, and eventually I sent word back to my village that I was too old to make the journey home after all, but that I had found another young man to take my place. They should direct all future shopping lists to a man named… I forget what name I gave them. It was me. It was always me.
Many years later, I found myself on a ship heading for my village. We pulled up to the dock, and I could see my daughter’s cabin, half way between the shore and the village. A great palisade now surrounded an enclosed market, and her cabin stood by the open gate. A young man who looked very much like my dead Shalni worked the gate, collected fares from people going into the market. I also saw my daughter, looking like an older version of her mother, sitting on a chair outside the door of her cabin. I did not get off the boat.
Eventually the shopping lists stopped coming, and so I went back a second time. This was perhaps a hundred years later, and so I was eager to introduce myself as the village’s foreign agent, the fifth or sixth in a long line of such men who had worked on their behalf in ports up and down the coast. I didn’t get the chance. The whole village had been burned to the ground. There was no market. There was no cabin. There were only ashes. I asked the captain to sail on.
This time my eyes were dry. I was learning new tricks in my old age. That day I learned how to let the past become the past. I would sail on, and see what the future had in store for me.