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Winthin Without, by Estelle Sharrock Churchill
"Within Without"
by Estelle Sharrock Churchill

The Properties of Glass

by Lois J. Peterson

My father died at lightning's hand one summer evening as he exercised his dogs in the fields above the town.

I was in the garden bending to hoe peas and beans, hilling potatoes, picking aphids from tomatoes, when the sky darkened and the winds rose in a sudden squall. I hurried inside, leaving the door ajar in order to hear the rain on the stone tiles as I waited for the click of the dogs' nails and the pounding of my father's feet on his return.

I lit the lamps and took a book from the shelf, but before I could be caught by its words, the works foremen, Martin Steel, came to the door and cast his shadow across the room. I rose from my chair and went towards him. He raised his hands, urging me back, as he told me about the fork of fire that brought my father down, that in one stroke turned his favorite dog to ash.

Martin told me that the other was not to be found, but the men from the works, those not involved in returning my father's body to the house, would continue to search and when they had found the dog would bring him home.

Then he dropped his hands and allowed me to move against him. And for the last time I felt the warmth of his fingers against my hair as he held me to his chest.

I had known that Martin Steel loved my father more than he loved me, even as he courted me with posies and trinkets and beads of glass, some as small as tears. I had accepted the flowers and the beads' winking colors because I believed that if I could accept his love for my father and his devotion to me, the glassworks could always be my life.

I felt Martin Steel's own grief in the rise and fall of his chest against which my head rested, seeking its own comfort.

What drew my father, Gerard Dupuis, to the alchemy of sand, soda, and limestone, to a substance that thrives on heat and is transformed and tempered by air, might well have been the same thing that drew him to the open doorway each morning to see the sun rise above the fields, to watch it die back into the earth at sunset.

He always loved color, and wove it around me in the play of light, the sheen of glass, the stroke of a brush with which he conjured bright hues from the walls of our house. Our parlor was the deep blue of oceans. The room beyond where he once slept with my mother, then alone, that in which later stood the bed with its white cover spread taut, was sheathed in a color that burned red in daylight and throbbed like fire in a lamp's glow.

It may have been this need for color that drew my father to glass, or it might have been the heat required to forge liquid from sand and lime. Or perhaps he was drawn to the cold air required to temper glass so it does not shatter.

My father loved both the cold and the heat. I'd often see him bare-chested at the pump at the end of a day that was so cold the ice froze on the dishes before I could dry them. And I'd seen him stand at the mouth of the furnace and stare into its red breath and not flinch.

Perhaps it was just my mother that drew my father to glass, for the works belonged to her father and were handed over to him on their wedding day.

Now my father's glassworks have been sold to a buyer from Antwerp whose offer my father's lawyer urged me to accept.

"This is no enterprise for you," he told me, after he'd read the will over tea served in my mother's fine china.

My father had left me everything, but made no mention that the craft that had been his could have been mine also.

I had requested Martin Steel's presence, but he sat apart and would not meet my glance.

"Will you not stay on here?" I had asked him this before, but he had given no answer.

"I shall go now," he said, now speaking to Mr. Amsted as if it were his question. "I stayed only for Mr. Dupuis. He taught me what I know of glass, and of fire. But there is now a blacksmith in another town who seeks a new man. No, I shall not stay on."

"Will you not remain as long as it takes to see a new gaffer taken on?" I asked. Martin Steel was not the most skilled man in the works, but he knew the business the best from many years of apprenticeship. "I had thought that you'd want to leave the works in hands you could trust to continue my father's work?"

"It is no longer of any interest to me. I have not the skill to determine its future."

I felt the chill of the blue bead around my neck. I raised my finger to my throat. "My father would be grieved."

"That's as may be," he said, meeting my gaze then. "But he is gone now."

The dog who had been with my father when he died and was later found and returned to me, shifted and came to my side. I put my hand into his coat and clutched a handful of his coarse hair. Blister was named for the bubbles that can flaw glass. He was not a good dog, tending away from instruction and seeking only independence.

The dog who died with my father was Teaser, named for the men who regulate the fires and the loading of each batch of glass into the furnace. He could be depended upon to come to my father's call, to stay at his word. He had remained with his master in the fields, and not fled as had this one, in his last act of defiance.

But Blister was willing and pliant after he came home. Even now he still sleeps across my feet, warming them as nothing can, not the memory of the furnace's great breath nor the rich colors in which our house was draped.

After my father's death, the men of the glassworks kept their distance from me, greeting me only if I approached them. Then they might speak quietly, and I could see the grief and doubt that dampened the light that the fire cast in their eyes as I moved through the works, my skirts brushing the ground, whispering against sand and dust.

I watched the men raise their blowpipes and turn the draping glass. I saw them clip the finished piece from its stem as I would cut a flower from the garden. They did not impede me, but neither did they encourage me as I studied their skill and craft.

I was the glass-blower's daughter, but here was no place for me in the mixing of ingredients, or the introduction of it to fire, or the turning of the molten colors or the shaping of it into bowls or jugs.

They could not know how I love the way the glass weeps like heavy tears from a blow torch, drinking in light and throwing it back changed. How my fingers seek its smooth flanks once it is cooled, or that often I study the shining vessels lined along tall racks in the factory shop, on our parlor piano, and along the high window of the scullery.

If I were the glass blower's son I would have already been marked by flame, molded by fire. Each day I too would have worn the heavy leather apron and long gloves, working long hours with my shirt thrown open to take the glow of the fire, my fingers strong from turning the blowpipe and wielding the shears.

But my hands are smooth, accustomed only to holding a glass or bowl, to fingering colored beads that I raise to the light so I can study their colour, seek out their depth.

My father seldom spoke in the glassworks, choosing to draw the men outside if he wished to talk with them, taking them into the brightness that slashed at their eyes and caused them to gasp at the cool air. But inside where the flames roared, he often sang a song by which his presence was noted and recognized. It was one my mother used to sing for him at night after he returned from his day's work, having shed his apron and the gloves that rose to his elbows.

He would settle his hair with a damp comb in the scullery, then draw his chair to the table and close his eyes and rest while my mother ran her fingers like birds across the keys, her voice following their flight.

The day I was to leave, my bags packed and loaded on the wagon that would take me to the city, Martin Steel came to the door again.

"I am away now," he told me. "I came to take leave of you."

I nodded.

"I wondered if I might keep something of yours," he said.

When I moved my hand to the blue bead at my throat, he said, "Keep that. It is but a small remembrance. It is the music, the sheet which holds the song that your father sang that I require. I once heard your mother play it. I would like the copy, if you have no need of it."

"It is packed and already stowed, " I told him, unabashed by the lie. "But if it's music that interests you, I wish you would take the pianoforte. I cannot carry it with me. I was planning to leave it here for the new occupants."

He shook his head.

I looked beyond the door, to the smoke that rose from the glassworks chimney across the lane. "If you had stayed, so too would I. My father's factory could have been yours."

"It was time for me to move to other things. What will you do?"

"I plan to open a school in the town where I go to board with my aunt." I pulled on my gloves, easing my fingers into them. "I want to start a school for glassblowers. And I will be its first student."

I sensed a distaste in his face which his words could not dispel. "A novel venture. For a woman."

"Without help, that of someone I could trust, I could not keep the works and still learn the trade. As you say, for a woman...." I looked to one bowl that still glowed on the sill. It was as clear and pure as water, without a flaw. "I need those who know the craft and are willing to share it with the students."

He knew better than to ask further about what was in my mind. Martin Steel did not understand enough of sand and lime and soda, of the properties of glass that allow for greater transformation than just that of solid ingredients converted to liquid grace.

As he shook my hand, he told me, "Sadly, I have no use for a piano."

I remained only long enough in my father's house to sweep the ashes from the grate where I had burned my mother's music, the pages that held the notes my father sang when I was just the glass blower's daughter.

And as I left my home, I looked back to the field where lightning had taken my father's life, wielding the same power with which it transforms sand to glass.

I untied the blue tear from around my neck and held it in my open palm where it caught the color of the sky. Then I let it fall behind me in the dirt as I stepped into the cart that would carry me away.

Lois J. Peterson's work has appeared online and in print in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and the US. Her work is upcoming in Room of One's Own, Snow Monkey, Lichen, and Buzzwords. She is the editor/publisher of the print journals WORDS.

 
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