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That Spark of Life

2006-07-13 23:27

  It was my old parents told me this tale. So it must all have been a long time ago. But still it was after serfdom ended.

  There was a man lived in our village those days, Timokha Smallhand, they called him. He got the nickname when he was well on in years. There was no fault to find with his hands really. God give everyone no worse, as they say. With hands like his you could go hunting bears with a knife. And the rest of him was made after the same pattern - broad shoulders, a deep chest, strong legs and neck you'd have a job to bend even if you took a pole to it. In the old days when they had fist-fights on holidays, one close row of men against another, they called that sort strikers. Because wherever they struck they made a break. But the best fighters tried to keep clear of Timokha, lest he get too hot. It was lucky he wasn't very fond of it. It's a true word they say - if a man's strong he doesn't go looking for fights.

  Now, in our parts there's all sort of trades.

  Some get ore out of the mines, others smelt it. Folks wash gold, pick out platinum, dig for colored stone and work in quarries. Others look for gems and polish them. Then there's a lot of trees cut and floated down rivers. Folks make charcoal for the smelting, they hunt and trap and catch fish. You could go into a hut and find one by the stove hammering patterns on knives and forks, another by the window polishing gems and a third at the bench weaving bast matting. And of course there were the fields and the beasts. There'd be a field or a meadow wherever the hills allowed. A real patchwork, it was, and for each job you had to have the knack, and a spark of life to put in it, too.

  That spark's something not everyone understands about properly even now, but with Timokha a funny sort of thing happened. A lesson to all.

  This Timokha, whether it was just that he was young, or whether he'd a bee in his bonnet anyway, he got the idea he wanted to try every kind of work and craft hereabouts; he even boasted: “I'll be master of all trades.”

  His family and his friends tried to talk him out of it.

  “What's the sense of that? Choose one trade and know it inside out. Why, life's not long enough to get your hand in at every craft.”

  But Timokha stuck to it, he argued and reckoned it all out his own way.

  “Wood-cutting - two winters, rafting two springs, gold prospecting two summers, mining a year, smelting - that'll take ten years. And there's charcoal burning and ploughing, hunting and fishing. That'll be just play. When I get old I can do stone carving, or be a moulder, or a saddler at the fire station. Sit there in the warm, turn my wheel, work my polishing stone or prick holes with an awl.”

  Of course the old folks just laughed at him.

  “Less of your brag, ye long-legged stork! Wait till you've racked your bones a bit.”

  But Timokha paid no heed to them.

  “Every tree I'll climb,” he said, “and grasp its topmost branch.”

  So Timokha started learning all the crafts practiced in our parts. He was a stout lad and a hard worker, the kind anyone would be glad to get. Whether it was felling trees or breaking ore - come and welcome. And he'd no difficulty getting taken on for the finer work, either, for he'd good wits in his head and good fingers on his hands - not wooden, but with cleverness in each of them.

  Timokha tried many a handicraft and everywhere he made a good job of it. No worse than anyone else.

  By this time he was wed and had a houseful of children, but still he didn't change. He'd learn one job inside out and right away he'd start learning another. He earned less, of course, but he didn't bother about that, just as if it was the right and natural thing.

  Folks in the village were used to his ways, when they met him they'd say: “Well, Timofei Ivanovich, are you still a locksmith, or have you gone over to the fire station to be a saddler yet?”

  Timokha didn't mind their jests, he'd answer the same way.

  “The time will come when there's not a craft that escapes my hands.

  Then one day he told his wife he was going to try the charcoal burning. She nearly wept.

  “Are you crazed, Husband? Can't you think up something worse? The whole hut'll stink of smoke. And I'll never be able to get your shirts clean. Aye, and there's naught in work like that, what's there to learn?”

  She said that because she didn't know. Nowadays with the furnaces it's easier, but in those times when they still burned charcoal in kilns, it took understanding and knack. Many a one tried all his life but never got the real good charcoal. His family would say: “Our old man keeps us at it, gives us no rest or peace, and all he gets is charred, rotten wood. And our neighbours, they sing all the time and the charcoal has a fine, clear ring, naught unburned, naught overburned, and hardly a bit of low-grade.”

  Timokha's wife could lament all she liked, but she couldn't talk him out of it. He'd only one comfort to give her.

  “I won't go about black for long.”

  Timokha knew his own worth, and when he wanted to change his job he looked about first of all for someone to teach him the next one. And he saw he picked the best man.

  In charcoal burning, Grandad Nefed was well known all round about. His charcoal was reckoned the best. Folks called it Nefed's Charcoal and it was always kept separate from the rest in the sheds, and given out only for the finest work.

  So Timokha went to Grandad Nefed. Of course the old man knew all about Timokha and the bee he'd got in his bonnet.

  “I'll take ye on as my apprentice,” he said, “and I'll teach ye all and hold naught back - but on one condition. Ye don't leave me until you can make a better charcoal than mine.”

  Timokha had no doubts about doing it.

  “I give ye my word,” he said.

  So they agreed on it, and soon went off to the charcoal kiln.

  Now Grandad Nefed was the sort that thinks out every little thing, how to do it the best way. Even about a simple thing like chopping logs into billets he'd something to say.

  “Look ye here, now. I'm an old man, at the end of my strength. But I chop no worse than you. Now why'd ye think that is?”

  “A sharp axe and a trained hand,” Timokha answered.

  “It's not only the axe and the hand,” said the old man, “I look for the best place to strike.”

  Grandad Nefed explained all the ins and outs of it, and Timokha saw he was right, and found a joy in the work too. Some logs would fly apart so it was a pleasure to see, but then he would think - maybe hewing another way would have been better still.

  This idea of getting the exact right spot caught Timokha right off.

  When it came to putting the billets in the kiln, there were dozens of things to think of. It wasn't just that each kind of wood had to be laid a certain way, even with the same kind you had to use your head. Pine wood from a wet place had one slant, from a dry place another. For wood earlier felled there was this way, later felled - there was that.

  Grandad Nefed explained it all honestly and plainly, and now and then recalled where he'd learned this or that.

  “It was a hunter taught me to sniff the smell of the smoke. They've keen noses, hunters have. And it's stood me in good stead. Soon's I get that sour smell I make the draught stronger. And everything's all right.

  “Then one day there was a woman passing by. She stopped by the kiln to warm herself a bit, and she told me: ”It's burning hotter this side.“

  “ 'How d'ye know?' I asked her.

  “ 'Go round it,' she said, 'you'll feel for yourself.'

  “I went round it and sure enough, it was. Well, I put on some more wood and made it right. I've never forgotten that woman's word. They're always at the stoves, women are, they're used to noting the heat.”

  He talked of this and that, but he always came back to the spark of life.

  “Through all these draught-holes our spark jumps about in the dark, take heed it doesn't turn into destroying flame or sink into useless smoke. If ye make a mistake then ye'll find the wood over-burned or under-burned. But if all the vents are well made, your charcoal will have a good, clear ring to it.”

  Timokha was real taken with it all. He saw it wasn't such a simple job, he'd have to work at it, but all the same he didn't think much about that spark.

  The charcoal they made was all first-grade, of course, but when they came to sort the piles, they were never alike.

  “Now why is that?” asked Grandad Nefed, and Timokha himself kept puzzling his head - where had he made a mistake.

  Timokha learned to do the whole job alone. And sometimes his charcoal was better than Nefed's, but all the same he didn't leave the work. The old man laughed at him.

  'You'll never go anywhere else now, lad. You're caught wi' the spark of life, and it'll keep ye till your death.“

  Timokha himself couldn't understand it. Why had it never been that way with him before?

  “It was because you always looked down,” Grandad Nefed explained, “looked at what ye'd done; but when you started to look up, to look for ways to do it all better, then that spark caught ye. it's there in every sort of work, it runs ahead of skilled mastery and beckons a man after it. That's the way it is, my friend!”

  And that's the way it was. Timokha went on being a charcoal burner, and he found himself a nickname, too. He liked to give good counsel to young folks and always told them about himself, how he'd wanted when he was young to learn every trade, but in the end had stopped at charcoal burning.

  “It's this way,” he said. “I can never catch up with that spark in my work. It's over quick for me. My hands are too small, that's what it is.” And he'd spread out those great hands of his. Folks laughed, of course. And that's how they came to call him Smallhand. Just as a joke, because he was well thought of everywhere.

  After Grandad Nefed died, Smallhand was the best charcoal burner, and it was his charcoal that was kept separately in the sheds.

  His grandchildren and great-grandchildren are living in our parts yet. And they look for that spark too, each one in his own job. Only they don't complain of their hands. They know well, you see, that learning can add so much to a man's hands that they will reach up higher than the clouds.

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