I am not like my mother. My strength is obvious. Impossible to ignore.
Somehow, Ma can haul tubs of our wet clothes, butcher a pig, and get her way with my father, all while seeming as gentle as a butterfly. The kindest thing a villager ever called me was sturdy. Before I started putting my ham hock fists to good use, I was more likely to get hulking, giant and ogre.
The other kids were unkind, but they weren’t wrong.
I’ve been as tall as my father since my fourteenth year. My shoulders are as broad and my muscles as thick as most of my brothers’. And I’d be just as good as any of them at the forge. Better. But Da won’t let me apprentice because there are no girl blacksmiths. His exact words were, “The forge is no place for a girl. No man is going to want a woman with burn scars up and down her arms.”
No man was going to want me even without–
The pot was warm and the pitch was soft, so I cut off that thought. My materials were much more satisfying than something I’d known for a few years. The gold sheet was the size of my big toe and thinner than a fingernail. I placed it on the pitch and picked up my tools. This week, I was working on a relief of the place where I came to practice, the one place that was so massive, it made even me feel delicate. The wind was strong enough across the open plain that it whisked away the evidence of my fire, but the stones were big enough to shelter me, and in the middle of the day, the shadows weren’t too thick, so I had good light. And nobody used it regularly in anyone’s memory.
I’d already roughed in the shapes with the bigger tools, so now I used my smaller dapping punch to crisp up the edges. I was so engrossed in my task, examining the sheet every few taps to make sure I wasn’t going too far, that I didn’t hear my father’s whistle until he was almost upon me. My body began to panic before my mind caught up. I was scrambling, touching everything, trying to decide which thing to hide first, but then I stilled.
It was time for him to see what I could do.
Instead of shoving everything in my basket, I came out from behind the Sarsen stone that hid me, and waved, holding my ground as he came near.
He was still wearing his leather apron, his hands buried in the pouch. “Well.”
“Well, what?” So I wasn’t as ready as I was telling myself I was.
“Why did your mother push me out the door before I’d finished my stew?” Da fished a bowl and wooden spoon out of his pouch. “I had to eat while walking.”
Although each heart beat felt like a hammer hitting the forge, I swallowed and led him behind the stone. His face turned to thunder once he saw my setup. The fire and pitch pot were small, and I didn’t have many tools, but there was no mistaking what I was doing.
“Da,” I pleaded.
He threw the bowl and spoon down and looked like he was about to kick it all over. I clenched my fists and prepared myself for the destruction, but then he crouched and picked up the gold sheet, turning it over several times before nestling it in his palm and running his middle fingertip over the relief. When he placed it between his thumb and middle finger and held it up, looking back and forth between it and Stonehenge, itself, a little vein of hope sparked to life.
“So this is where my scraps have been going.” His voice was flat and he still wasn’t looking me in the face.
“This was your mother’s idea?”
He crouched next to the pitch pot and carefully replaced the gold sheet. One by one, he picked up my dapping punches, I only had four, and my hammer. “You made these, too?”
The spoon he’d tossed down was close enough for him to grab. It was one of my more intricately carved pieces, with a tendril of vines coiling around the handle, and a big ivy leaf cradling the bowl of the spoon. “I guess it was too much to ask for you to restrict yourself to wood carving.”
When he finally met my gaze, I shrugged.
“Why did the only child who inherited my skill have to be a girl?”
My lips barely curved up.
He patted the ground next to him and I sat. If I opened my mouth, I was afraid I’d ask for too much or tell him I told him so, so I borrowed my mother’s kind of strength and stayed silent.
“Word has it that the ealdorman will be visiting here this winter. His priests have been nagging him to use Stonehenge to solidify his position.”
Ma had told me that, too.
“We’ll need fine metalwork. Finer than anything your brothers can do, and finer than I can manage with my eyes.” He sighed. “Even my fading sight can see that you’re a real craftsman.”
“Truly?” My voice was thick with the tears I was holding back.
“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “But I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”
Da put out the fire while I loaded my work into my basket, and then we headed to the forge to begin my apprenticeship.
“How long have you been teaching yourself?” he asked when we were halfway there.
For the first time in a long time, he grinned and put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re going to hate me soon enough, when I make you redo a shield relief for the fifth time, but we’re going to bring fame back to this village. They’ll be coming from other kingdoms once you hit your stride.”
I let his pride in me, in my gift, swell until it filled every part of me. It wasn’t just me saying it to convince myself it was true. I was a craftsman.