Hikaru squats on his ankles in the mouth of the furnace. Moisture steams from his body. Sweat distills into salt stains on his shirt. A square of fabric is tied around his head and tucked into a roll in lieu of eyebrows. In thirty years of tending fires his facial hair has been so frequently singed it no longer grows. The hair that remains, from ear to ear at the back of his head, is grey; pale against the tan of his wrinkled skin.
He positions himself on the very threshold of being burned, rocking backwards as each bellow-breath whitens the heat. Glass dribbles from a vent in the clay wall and creeps along a culvert between his knees, searing at his thighs.
Inside the furnace, he watches the bed of fire, the bed where steel is being born. Ito, his master, described the twisting of its plasma as the frantic crescendo of a ritual dance. To Hikaru, it seems more like a battle: luminous bodies, deformed and grotesque, one moment writhing, the next lashing out. They fight their way to the perfect temperature as he watches and senses.
He lifts his arms to the side and tilts them slowly up and down, like the undulating wingbeat of a carrion bird. The apprentices slow their tredlling, and the bellows match the same tempo of rise and fall. Hikaru, feet stretched and toes bent, poised above the thermals, spots his prey.
He bows his head a final time towards the shrine, then shouts “Work!”
Three days ago, before the forge was lit, they all stood before that shrine, set in an alcove on the wall. Their hands were pressed together and their heads bowed to honour the fickle goddess of iron and steel. Ichiro, his only son, spoke to him then.
“I’m leaving, father.”
“For the army. After the iron is cooked.”
“You are not. We discussed this. I need you here.”
At home, where the son slept on his father’s matting and ate from his mother’s bowl, the discussion had been one sided and short.
Ichiro bowed in respect, but did not defer. “The Emperor needs me. The war needs me. I can’t stay here making old-fashioned toys.”
“Is that what you think of me?”
“I….” His resolve wavered. “I packed my things. When the steel is pulled, I leave for Matsue.”
“So why not now?”
“I’ll help with this burn. And next month… There are boys in the village you can hire. You don’t need me.”
“If I don’t need you next month, I don’t need you now.”
“Go. Leave your ‘toys’. Go. Be a man. Go and fight your war.”
“Go!” Hikaru shouted.
The other forgemen fell still and silent, leaving only the crackle of the freshly-lit fire. Ichiro wiped his eyes on his sleeve, bowed stiffly from the waist, then pressed his chin to his chest and walked out into the snow.
“Work!” Hikaru shouted again, as soon as the door closed.
No one leaves or enters when the furnace is hot. When hungry, they eat a little rice from a communal kettle. They sleep in snatched moments when altered consciousness beckons, an hour or less propped between stool and wall. There is no time to think: of disobedient sons, of ocean-spanning wars, or any world outside the forge’s walls. The goddess is jealous and tolerates no distraction.
For three days the fires have burned, and now iron and soot is fused into steel. At Hikaru’s shout, the rhythm of previous days syncopates into a sudden frenzy. The forge doors are flung open. Each man swings a hook at the furnace walls and pulls them tumbling to the ground: clay bricks fused into blocks with a fragile crust of sand-glass. Each collapse spits a mist of sparks, roiling and ascending.
Brick by brick, the black mass of iron at the heart of the furnace is exposed. Its surface is contorted into blisters and crevices. From its deepest contours, the shimmer of heat gives it the appearance of movement, the lifeblood of the fire still coursing in its depths.
Boughs are laid in front of the iron, to roll it from its birthplace out into the dawn. Hikaru squats by its progress to inspect his work. Running down each side, a band of matte metal is rippled in formations of perfect size and depth. Premium grade steel, for the highest quality blades.
“Old-fashioned toys,” Ichiro had said.
And perhaps he had been right. Once, when his great-great-grandfather tended the flames, all Japan depended on the quality of his steel. Now it will make swords neglected on the hips of officers. An affectation for men who wage war with ships and aeroplanes and machine-powered guns. Men who are no more the samurai of film than their enemy are the cowboys. Old-fashioned toys.
Squatting in the courtyard in the light of a new morning, he is overtaken by thoughts of Ichiro: the scalding bite of rejection, the fear of his child in the mouth of the furnace and, before the scowling face of the world, the futility of his craft. War is no longer won by the finest steel in the hands of the noblest men, but by force of common numbers. Million-strong armies of prideful sons flung at each other in a crucible of lead.
Hikaru topples from his ankles to sit in the snow. He weeps. The raw material of a weapon left the fire this week. A handforged billet of blood and bone.
Ian Duncan is a Welsh poet and writer, recovering in the imagination after 15 years writing non-fiction. His latest book, Tregare, is a collection of folklore poems set in a small rural village. His first novel, The Faith, deals with themes of disability, theology and sexuality.