Of all the work she had to do for her mother, Marisol hated carrying ingots most of all. It wasn’t just because it was boring (though it was), or because it was exhausting (it was that, too), but because it seemed unnecessary. Since Sofia had assigned the task to her daughter, Marisol had devised what she thought were a number of very elegant, very effective strategies to reduce her burden. These included rigging a conveyor belt up the low hill from the road to the forge, that Marisol might operate by means of a crank; of using a system of platforms and pulleys to bring the ingots to the top of the building and then sliding them down into the forge; and of getting a pony – which Marisol insisted she would take care of herself – and having the pony carry the ingots up the hill. All of these ideas were summarily – and Marisol thought somewhat unfairly, since her mother didn’t even seem to consider them – rejected by Sofia. Marisol would carry the ingots from the road, as she had for the last five years, since she’d turned eleven and her mother had decided the girl was now strong enough to bear her share of the work.
Marisol set down the sack of steel ingots and stretched out her back, while the high, hot sun coaxed sweat from her skin. On the road below her, Diego unloaded the last sacks of steel ingots and, with a wave back to her, climbed into his mule cart and trundled off. At the top of the hill came the musical tapping and ringing of the forge as Sofia hammered and shaped the steel. The work there was just as boring, of course, and very nearly as exhausting (and substantially sweatier), but at least work in the forge had the benefit of producing something real, something she could hold in her hands, some token of permanence for her labor. This, Marisol supposed, was probably why her mother withheld those jobs until after the most hated work was done.
With a sigh, she picked up the two sacks of ingots, arms and wrists straining for the weight, and trudged back up the hill while they clanked against her shins.
Inside, the smithy was dark; Marisol dropped the steel and blinked while her eyes adjusted from the bright white day to the shadowy interior, lit only by the fearsome red forge itself, which for all its volcanic heat never seemed to offer very much light. Sofia paused in her work and looked at her daughter, taking in the two heavy sacks of metal at the girl’s feet, and raising an eyebrow.
“That’s a lazy man’s load,” Sofia said, which is what she always said. “You’ll hurt yourself trying to carry that much.”
“How can it be a lazy man’s load if I’m carrying more?” Marisol replied. “Wouldn’t a lazy man want to carry less? A lazy man would just want to lie out in the grass and look at clouds all day, he wouldn’t carry anything.”
“A lazy man would try to get his work done fast, and so would end up getting his work done stupid. One bag at a time, if you please.”
“Pablo’s ready to go, if you’re going to pay him.”
Sofia left her work and hurried down the hill. Marisol followed, somewhat more leisurely, enjoying the relatively cool air outside, the scarce few moments of freedom before she’d have to take up her burdens again.
By his cart, Pablo was, as usual, propositioning Sofia.
“I know you don’t need anyone, but think, Miss Sofia, how much easier the work would be! I am a surpassing cook, you know,” he said, offering a variation of the same argument he brought up every week, while Sofia counted coins into his palm. “Imagine after a long day at your work, when you are hot and thirsty, you come back to the house and there is sweet sherry waiting for you, fruit and cheese to whet your appetite for the meal to come…” he continued in this fashion, describing a variety of increasingly elaborate dishes, made from figs or olives, ham, sausage, partridge, apples, pears, oranges, peppers, in a display of culinary inventiveness that was well-meaning, if impractical: Pablo did not explain, for example, how he intended to roast a wild boar form morning to evening while simultaneously traveling to Valencia (by science? By alchemy?) for fresh fish in the space of an afternoon.
Marisol was not interested in any kind of a father, and was actually quite happy to live alone with her mother. And yet, Pablo’s sheer enthusiasm for food, an ebullience which invested both his plans and the wild gesticulations that accompanied their descriptions, was more than a little compelling. Maybe if he only came to the house to cook? Or else he and Sofia could spend their time together, and Marisol could have the length of the imaginary repast to herself.
Sofia counted out the last of his coins, then smiled and winked at Pablo.
Pablo clasped his hand to his heart. “Ah! Every time I offer my heart up to you, you return it broken. Still, I hope! One day, one day you will change your mind, and I ,Pablo Nuñez de la Barca, shall make you the finest husband you could wish!”
Pablo nickered to his mule, who obediently trundled off. Diego sang boisterously as his cart rattled away, pausing only briefly to blow Sofia a kiss. Sofia waved at him, then turned back to Marisol and pointed to the remaining bags of coal. She held up her finger. “One. At. A. Time.” Then trudged back up the hill to her forge.
Marisol groaned. There were ten more sacks waiting for her.
Most of the great sword-makers in La Mancha had moved to Toledo, where they worked in the Royal Factory, making the finest swords in Europe, and where the guild could supervise their work strictly. Sofia de la Espada was a twice-unusual case – a woman, in the first place, which the guild did not prefer to admit; and in the second an independent swordsmith, which the guild equally frowned upon. But they couldn’t argue with quality, and while the Toledo swordmakers made the finest swords in Europe, Sofia de la Espada made the finest swords in Toledo, and so, in exchange for a respectable share of the common work, the guild left her alone — except for once a month, when they sent Pablo out with his mule and a half a ton of fine steel.
Marisol savored the relatively cool breeze outside. High, high above, streaking across the crystal blue vault of the sky, one of the Prussians’ iron dragons shrieked, leaving a trail of white smoke behind it. It came and was gone in an instant, the dragon left behind only its voice, a call like the scream of a hawk, a call of tortured steel, echoing across the rolling hills. Its brief appearance stirred something inside of her, and Marisol went back to her work with a bit of renewed vigor. She took two bags of ingots anyway.
That afternoon, Sofia let her daughter work on one of her own projects: a rose made of fine steel, each petal delicately hammered into shape and then all affixed together. Marisol had modeled it after something she’d seen her mother make once, when a new guild master had been to the house, angrily demanding how Sofia could have to audacity to flout the guild and its rules. While he raved, Sofia had wordlessly found some loose scraps of metal and calmly hammered them into a flower, as perfect in its form as any devised by nature. When the guildsman’s breath finally ran down, and he’d reduced himself to repeating, “Who do you think you are?” again and again, Sofia had handed him the flower and smiled. He’d left then, a mildly astonished look on his face, the flower held gingerly in his palms as though it were forged from something less sturdy than steel, and he’d never come back.
Marisol’s rose was…not as good. The edges were sharp and rough, and most of the petals were only very vaguely petal-shaped. Worse, the welds on the stem kept breaking whenever she tried to affix a new one. Today, the whole mess came apart, turning into a handful of sharp metal edges. When Sofia saw this, she said nothing, just clapped Marisol on the shoulder companionably. Marisol went back to work, shrugging off her frustration, letting her disappointment boil away in the hypnotic tap-tap-tap of the forge, find the calm, still mind that blacksmithing required.
Marisol set the shattered metal mess of the rose aside. She worked the bellows until the coals were hot as they could be, kept her mind fiercely quiet while she stared at the glowing red light. She took just one petal in her tongs and heated it to a bright cherry-red, then gently began to tap it into shape. She resisted the urge to worry over her mis-steps, fought down the desire to imagine what it would look like when it was done, throttled her eagerness to get to the other petals that remained. The hammer rang on steel like a lullaby, and soothed her into a half-dreaming state.
“Just do what’s in front of you, and do it right.” Her mother’s voice was sharp enough to rouse Marisol to attention, but the forge was dark and empty, she was alone with the roaring furnace.
It was nearly dark when Sofia called Marisol to dinner, and the girl broke reluctantly away from the single steel petal that she hadn’t quite gotten right.
“No,” said Sofia, as Marisol rushed into the tiny kitchen, eager to get to the gachas while it was still hot. “No, no. Wash yourself up first.”
“Mama, everything in the house is covered in soot, you’re covered in soot, we’re not going to get clean—“
Marisol left the soup and removed herself to the water pump out back, where she tried, with some success, to scrub the black soot from her face.
Spain has been a crossroads of the world for centuries. Celts came from the north, then Africans, then Romans, Germans, Africans again, Franks – armies came and went, kings and caliphs sometimes waged war, sometimes tried to purge (sometimes quite cruelly) the foreigners from their lands. But it was to no effect; good Spanish blood was an alloy of all the men and women who, regardless of how their kingdoms fought or coexisted, did what men and women always do. Strangers met, they fell in love, and every kind of feature could be found in the families of the Spanish plain. This is how Marisol, notwithstanding what must have been a substantial contribution from her long-dead father, could look so different from Sofia. Marisol was tall, as tall as many boys she knew, while Sofia was short – though they both shared the broad shoulders and strong arms that are the hallmark of the blacksmith. Marisol was always jealous of her mother’s sky-blue eyes (her own were black as coal), though not her mother’s pale skin, which seemed to be constantly in a reddened, peeling state from the sun and the forge. Marisol’s deep, nut-brown skin never darkened a shade from the heat, and for that she was grateful. For all their differences, though, there was no mistaking mother and daughter – their wide eyes, easy smiles, and strong, defiant jaws were all clearly cast in the very same mold.
Freshly scrubbed, Marisol returned to kitchen and hugged her mother, briefly resting her chin on top of Sofia’s head, then detached herself and went after the soup with vigor.