10. In Down’s End
Master glassblower Kent Gausman dipped the heated tip of his blowpipe into the hot glass in the lower furnace; he moved it up and down several times until he had a gather, a molten blob of glass about the right size. He rolled the gather on the marver, a marble topped workbench, cooling the outer edge before he began to blow. Isen the apprentice picked out a block, shaped like a very large spoon made of apple wood, from a bucket of water. Isen spun the block quickly to throw off the excess water and laid it on the table when Kent nodded. The master glassblower lowered the glass bulb he was forming into the bowl of the block, all the while turning the gather and blowing puffs of air. The glass began to stiffen. Kent transferred the cooling ball to the second furnace, the “glory hole,” to resoften it. Isen dipped the block in the water to cool. In the early stages of his apprenticeship Isen had learned to protect good wooden tools from the heat of the glass; several times a day he had to fetch water from River Betlicéa to keep Kent Gausman’s shop supplied with cold water.
No longer a mere beginner, Isen had five years experience in Alderman Gausman’s employ. He worked at the master’s side at every step of the glassblowing process, including shaping the piece with jacks, pulling it into various forms with tweezers, cutting the piece free with shears, and finishing it after securing it to iron punty rods.
Today the master was making a simple vase, mostly as a way to experiment with color. After softening the glass ball in the glory hole, Kent let gravity draw it out, still attached to his blowpipe. Meanwhile Isen had fetched two trays of crushed colored glass, one yellow and one green, from a rack on the far side of the workshop. Kent held the blowpipe vertically, puffing carefully, letting the glass lengthen as he continued to rotate it; then he rolled it in the trays of colored glass. Back to the glory hole where the colored bits of glass fused into the vase; more shaping and rolling on the marver; finally Kent placed the piece on punty rods for transfer to the third furnace where it would cool very slowly over two days. Kent gave Isen freedom to practice molding the top of the vase with steel tweezers. Isen pulled bits of the slowly stiffening glass into leaf shapes along the rim. The master critically examined the result. “It’ll do.” The apprentice concealed his smile. The master never praised his work, no matter how perfect, so Isen refused to project his own satisfaction. The truth was that Isen’s work matched or surpassed Kent Gausman’s in almost every way. Nowadays, the alderman spent as much time on Town Council, as head of the Down’s End glassmaker’s guild, as he did in the shop. Many pieces sold in the shop or delivered on special order to Gausman’s top customers were actually made by apprentice Isen. So it was time.
“Master Gausman, may I have a word?” They had dampened the furnace fire at the end of the day.
“Briefly, Isen. I’ve got to host Cenhelm Godspear for supper tonight. He wants the guild to accept his son as a new master. The young pup has some talent, but he’s far from ready. I’ve got to make Godspear face facts.”
“Master, my work is better than Elfgar’s.”
Gausman chuckled. “Just so. Yet you don’t see me bringing your name to the guild.”
“Why not, master? In fairness, I think I am qualified.”
“What? Nonsense, Isen. You’ll need a few more years before you jump that hurdle, my boy. You can’t read. Why, you can’t even manage an abacus. You do acceptable work at the furnace and on the bench, but you can’t strike out on your own. Customers and suppliers would steal from you and you wouldn’t know it. No, boy. You need to work for good old Gausman, who can look out for you. And your sister. What would happen to Sunniva if you didn’t have my wages?”
“Teach me the abacus, then.” Isen’s eyes stung, but he kept his voice calm.
“In good time, my son. In good time. Hamia!” The master called to his wife, who was upstairs in the apartment above the glassblower’s shop.
“You need not shout.” Hamia descended halfway down the stairs. She was a fat woman, already dressed in her best kirtle, red with white trim. “The meal is laid on already for guests. Fair evening, Isen.” She inclined her head to the apprentice.
Kent Gausman simply motioned for Isen to be on his way and barred the door after the young man left. A leather cord outside Gausman’s shop door was attached to a bell inside. Isen wanted to give the cord an angry pull and confront the master with his unfairness. But it would accomplish nothing. Without his master’s sponsorship, Isen had no hope of being recognized as a full guild member in Down’s End.
After the heat of glassmaking furnaces, evening airs were comforting. Isen detoured to the river on his way home, as he often did, to wash away the grime of the day. One of the fishing wharfs had a cylinder winch with a bucket on a rope that could be lowered into River Betlicéa. Isen hoisted a bucket of river water, splashed his face and arms, and dumped the rest over his head.
Isen bought bread, vegetables and a wedge of cheese from stalls in Straight Street. Earlier shoppers had snapped up the best produce, but the abundance of summer meant that even late in the day there were things worth eating. Isen carried his purchases in a string net, humming his way home. Maybe eating fresh greens would help Sunniva.
Isen heard Sunniva before he turned the corner into the narrow unnamed street that led to their house. Two storey buildings on both sides leaned out overhead; in some places the upstairs inhabitants had actually propped one building against the other. In winter the alley was dark indeed; on a summer evening it was merely dim.
Sunniva’s cough sounded worse. Isen’s sister was a pretty thing: pale skin and full red lips, long brown hair, and very large brown eyes. But she was eternally sick. She coughed every day and would suffer shakes and fevers, even in summer’s heat. Occasionally a Down’s End fisherman’s son would fall in love with Sunniva’s pretty face, but when this happened the parent put a quick end to romance. No one wanted a daughter-in-law too sickly to work or bear children. On her good days, Sunniva worked on the wharfs, helping fishing crews prepare the day’s catch for market. But she didn’t have many good days anymore. Sometimes when she coughed she spit up blood.
Isen reached the door of the house, if one could call it that. Brother and sister had a door and a roof, tucked in the narrow space between two older buildings. There were two sleeping cots; in the back, a firebox they rarely used. Fortunately, the backside of one neighbor’s brick fireplace and chimney comprised the north wall of Isen and Sunniva’s hovel. In the winter the warmth of the neighbor’s fire helped keep them from freezing.
Isen opened the door. “Here we are, Sunie. I’ve got bread, cucumbers, spinach leaves, an onion, and some cheese. Some solid food will make you feel better.”
Sunniva started to answer, but a cough interrupted. “It sounds wonder . . .” The cough began lightly but quickly grew into a spasm that shook the girl’s whole body. She rolled on her side, doubling up with the effort. She spat bloody sputum into a bowl on the floor. She fell back onto her pallet, sweating from the effort. “Thank you, Isen. Maybe it will help.” But in the end Isen ate most of the food; chewing and swallowing took more strength than Sunniva could summon.
Darkness became complete. After a long session of coughing, Sunie fell asleep. Isen lie awake, listening to her breathing. It seemed regular enough. He let himself drift into dreams.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
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