Extract: Children of the Land – Bones and Fire / Esgyrn a Thân
Dai picked up the paper on the side table. She tilted it to the pale light from the window, better to read that dear, familiar longhand. One hand stroked her lover’s hair.
I remember picking my way across the field towards you. You hadn’t noticed me and I watched while you manipulated the corpse with your long wych poles as if they were chopsticks in a wok. Later on you told me how you search out straight, tapering branches which you sand and varnish so they resist heat yet fit your hand.
That day, not knowing the care with which you select your tools, I only marvelled at your dexterity.
The pyre burned on the stone plinth which kept it a step above the grass. A few metres away, neatly stacked against the field wall, was the wood store, divided into logs of different sizes and, though I didn’t know it then, arranged by their characteristics when put on the fire. Your workplace, where you were, where you remain, in absolute control.
You wore leather trousers, the burn flecks brown against the pale skin of the veal calf from which they came. Your thighs stretched and clenched as you moved. Your gauntlets were leather too, well fitted to your strong hands with cuffs that reached above the elbow. The mesh covered your face like a fencer’s mask. You were armoured against the flames.
Dai rubbed her long fingers. Her skin was soft with the creams she rubbed in every day, every hour sometimes. She kept the nails short and her grip was strong enough to hold up a corpse at arms’ length on two sticks. Yet the flesh moved loose on the bones. Even as a young woman, even with all the armour, she had had the hands of an old woman, permeated with work.
She too remembered that day.
The fire had been burning well, the smoke rising steadily to about thirty metres and then catching a breeze so that it laid a white stripe in the sky above the sea. Perfect, really, for an introduction to the business.
She looked up at the sound of steps on the path and saw the stranger watching. After making sure everything could rest unattended for a while, she stepped away from the heat and pulled off her mask. The woman watched her as she shook her hair free.
‘You are Dai the Fire?’ she asked.
‘Prynhawn da,’ Dai replied. ‘Pwy dych chi?’
The stranger bowed gracefully, her palms together in front of her.
‘Prynhawn da,’ she replied, her Cymraeg slow but firm. ‘Kaveri ydw i.’
‘Croeso,’ said Dai, jerking her chin down. ‘I am Dai the Fire.’
‘Your hair matches the flames.’
Dai’s short hair, flattened by her headgear, was the orange of calcium burning when the bone dissolves into ash. No one had ever commented before. She found herself smiling back into the stranger’s brown eyes.
‘Dai Tân ydw i.’ She gesticulated at the pyre beside her. ‘That’s what they call me in Cymraeg.’
‘Esgyrn a thân. Bones and fire,’ Kaveri said, nodding at the corpse and enunciating so clearly Dai saw the stud in her tongue catch the light.
‘What can I do for you?’ said Dai. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m a bit busy today.’
‘I am from Pittsburgh,’ said Kaveri. ‘I would like to talk to you about what you do here.’ She gestured at the fire.
‘Will tomorrow do? I must finish this and clean up.’
‘Perhaps later this evening? I have a room in the pub and I could buy you a drink. We can talk work tomorrow but I would welcome your company.’
The body shifted on the wood. It was burning well. Dai squinted up at the sun.
‘In about six hours,’ she said. ‘I’ll need that long.’
‘Six hours,’ agreed Kaveri. She turned and walked back along the path, as quietly as she had come. Dai watched her straight back, the long plait swaying slightly with each step. She could not imagine what this brown-skinned, bejewelled woman from the other side of the ocean wanted with her.
A branch under the body crackled, nearly burnt through. She pulled on her helmet and took a small block of unseasoned cedar from the stacked logs. Fast burning, hot, the right wood for the task.
Using short poles, she positioned it under the shoulders of the corpse, taking the weight from the other branch. It caught.
Into the fire, she sprinkled a handful of camphor resin. She made it herself from the trees she had planted in the homestead field next to the church. The heavy smell cleansed her sinuses.
I sat in the bar nursing a half pint of cider. I’m no puritan and I wanted the false confidence of the drink. Five minutes in your presence, and I knew I needed my wits about me or I would be lost.
I thought I was alert but suddenly you were there. You glanced down at me, asked if I wanted another. ‘Dych chi’n eisau un arall?’ you said, the Welsh so quick I understood as much from the cock of your head as the words. I handed you my glass, said, ‘seidr, diolch’. Your fingers touched mine as you took it.
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