Forever: A Novel
There he is, three days after his fifth birthday, standing barefoot upon wet summer grass. He is staring at the house where he lives: the great good Irish place of whitewashed walls, long and low, with a dark slate roof glistening in the morning drizzle. Standing there, he knows it will turn pale blue when the sun appears to work its magic.
The boy named Robert Carson loves gazing at that house, basking in its permanence and comfort. On some days, a wisp of smoke rises from the chimney. On other days, the early-morning sun throws a golden glaze upon its white facade. It is never the same and always the same. He sees the small windows like tiny eyes in the face of the house, the glass reflecting the rising sun. The front door is mahogany, salvaged from some drowned ship along the shores of the Irish Sea, as tightly fitted in that doorway now as any man could make it. There's a low half-door too, placed in front of the full mahogany door like a snug wooden apron. During balmy summer days, the large door is always open, welcoming light and air into the house. The breeze pushes smoke from the fire up through the stone chimney.
Robert Carson goes in, flipping the iron latches made by his father, whose name is John Carson and is called simply Da. The house is as it always is and as the boy thinks it will always be. A sweet odor of burning turf fills the air. He breathes it deeply, inhaling the ancient burned mud of the swamps beside Lough Neagh, where the peat was cut from the bog. Directly facing him is the jamb wall, running from floor to ceiling along the side of the hearth. A diamond-shaped spy hole is cut into its pine boards so that he and his father and mother can observe the approach of strangers. The boy can only do this by standing on the shoulder of the hearth.
The hearth is at the end of a large main room, but it is the center of the house, the holy place that holds the fire. A wide iron canopy rises above the hearth, carrying away the smoke, and on damp, chilly days the boy sits on one of the hand-carved low benches beside the fire. The family has few visitors, but men always sit on the right, facing the fire, so the boy does the same. The women take the bench on the left, and his mother is always there. Her name is Rebecca, but he calls her Ma. He thinks of them as a unit: Ma, Da, and me. The Carsons. To the left of the hearth is the small iron crane his father made in the forge, with its arms of different lengths, and hooks for hanging pots. His mother moves the pots back and forth, in and out of the flame, while the odors of stews and porridges and soups overwhelm the sweetness of the burning turf. There are two low three-legged chairs called "creepies," cousins of milking stools. Built low in the days before chimney flues so that farmers could breathe below the smoke. One day he lifted a creepy, examined the perfect pegs that held the legs so permanently to the seat, and hugged it to his chest, thinking: This is ours, this belongs to the Carsons. Back about five feet from the hearth is his father's own chair, made of woven rush, looking like a throne designed as a beehive. Robert Carson never sits in his father's chair.
Beside his father's chair is one of the many wrought-iron light holders that John Carson made in the forge, long iron poles with four arched feet and hooks that hold lanterns for his reading. They never wobble on the flagstone floor, never lose their dignity.
A wide oaken shelf spreads above the hearth and he can see with his eyes shut the objects that occupy its oiled surface: his father's clay pipes, with their long curved stems, an old thatched horse collar that Da saved from his own youth, a carved wooden cup called a noggin, found in the mud of a bog. Da has told the boy that the noggin is a thousand years old, and Robert Carson is certain that his father is right. To the left, a mound of turf bricks rises off the floor, dried out of dark black bottom mud. The iron tools of the fire, smaller cousins of the light holders, stand as rigid as sentries.
All are part of the hearth, where the fire burns low but is never allowed to go out. As the center of the house, the hearth gives off warmth and food, and is the place to which the Carsons turn in the evenings for talk and even song. On his birthday, while they faced the hearth, his mother told the boy that his magic number would be nine, for he was born on the ninth of September.
"Do you see, son? You were born on the ninth day of the ninth month," his mother said, "and as you grow up, lad, you'll learn: Nine will be your number."
Sometimes on rainy afternoons, when his father is working in the forge, the boy's mother sits beside the fire to drink tea and eat oat bread while she tells stories. The boy listens silently, the stories entering him in such a way that he later thinks they have happened to him, that he has lived them. Sometimes he drowses, while her voice makes a kind of music. They are the first stories of his life, written on a five-year-old's emptiness. He is awake and asleep at the same time, listening to the magical words, while becoming through his mother's magic the people in the stories. The fire burns steadily in the hearth, and his mother tells him that the fire should never be allowed to go out, because if it does, the soul leaves the house.
Da agrees. There were houses in Ireland, he said once, where the fire had burned day and night for more than a hundred years. In this house, he said, it had burned since John and Rebecca Carson moved in, long ago, before the boy was born. Even as she whispers stories, his mother gazes at the fire, as if seeing people or things unseen by others. Robert Carson later learns that before he was born there were two other children, his brothers, who were born and then died in another house. And when they died, Da poured water into the hearth and moved to this place to begin again. Robert Carson tries (after learning this when he is eight) to imagine those lost brothers, but no faces ever come clear. In bad dreams they have heads with shiny surfaces but no eyes or noses or mouths, and those visions wake him from his sleep. Sometimes he is terrified.
To the left of the hearth is the door to the bedroom where his mother and father sleep each night. A dresser stands outside the door, its drawers holding clothes. On its top there's a wooden tray of knives and forks and spoons, along with a clump of gorse or primrose standing in water in the family's only piece of delft: a tall vase decorated with tulips. Sometimes the boy traces with his fingers the designs on the vase, and caresses its smooth surface. Above the dresser three shelves are cut into the wall, stacked with terra-cotta plates and cups and bowls made by hand in the Mountains of Mourne. To the left is the back door, leading to the West. The room is dominated by the table behind the chairs that face the hearth, its dark planed top burnished by endless cleanings and oilings.
Sometimes he stares at the back door, the one that opens to the West. He knows that no stranger should ever leave through the back door because he would take with him the luck of the house. He knows too that when there's a death in the house, the coffin must leave through that same back door, to be taken to the West, to the setting sun and the blackness that follows.
On the ceiling, great beams cut from bog oak form a huge A, supporting the layers of thatch and sod, tied firmly with fir rods, that lie beneath the slates. His father built this house to last. The roof rests on towers of chiseled stone that form the gable ends, each slab thirty inches thick, cut so fine that they fit together without mortar. The walls are brick, stone, cut rushes that had soured, all bound together and made smooth by river mud and lime wash. They are two feet thick. A house built like a fortress. Even when he is alone, he is safe.
His father was a blacksmith. John Carson. A tall, silent, clean-shaven man with fierce cords of muscle in his arms. In his presence, Robert was filled with a sense of the marvelous. His father could lift carriages with those arms and move his mighty anvil without help and swing the heaviest hammer as if it were a fork.
The forge stood about forty yards from the house, at a muddy crossroads beside a stream. A small wooden bridge arched over the stream, part of a post road (the boy soon learned) that carried men and mail on horseback north into Belfast or south toward Dublin. A smaller dirt road moved into the hills behind them or the other way, down to the River Lagan. Sometimes in the night Robert heard horses clattering over the bridge and tried to imagine the places they came from and the places they were going. His father had bought this land because of that bridge and that road. Those horses need shoes, he would say. Those mail carriages need their wheels repaired.
And so he built his forge first, before he built the house, before Robert came into the world, and put a kind of barn around it, with thin plank walls and a roof above it, not worrying about insulation, since in the heat of the forge and the sweat of his labor he welcomed the wind. There was a corner reserved for fuel: wood at first and then coal or charcoal from England. In another corner he piled a scrap heap with broken shears and ruined horseshoes, pieces of undercarriages, even some lumps of bog iron. All to be melted in the heat ("No metal can resist great heat," he told his son) and then transformed by his marvelous hands into things new and useful and beautiful. In a small room off to the right, he kept his tools: hammers and tongs, chisels and punches, swages and cutters, all hanging on handmade nails. A dozen different hammers: cross peins and straight peins, dressers and chisel makers, round-faced hammers and double-faced hammers, small leaf hammers, soft-faced hammers for cutlery and blunt-faced hammers for making files and rasps, along with hammers that had no names. Five or six sledges leaned against the wall, each head weighing more than five pounds. When he started a new job, he gently caressed each hammer, as if paying his respects, hefting one or two before making his choice. There were tongs too, box tongs and side tongs, straight-lipped tongs and wedge tongs, and a dozen handmade tongs of his own design; sharp-faced chisels, with handles and without; a box full of punches, shaped like hearts or shamrocks, for special decorations; a selection of swage blocks, along with shears and drills and bits. The boy's mother told him that she and his father lived in that tool room until the day the roof was placed on the house, while a fiddler played and men danced with women until the rising of the moon. That day, or rather, that night, they went into the house and set the fire in the hearth they believed would last for the rest of their lives.
The forge was the heart of the shop, as the hearth was the soul of the house. It was the place where metal was made soft in order to be worked, and his father had built it himself, using a combination of cut stone and brick from a kiln in Belfast. In Robert's eyes, the forge resembled a kind of unroofed fort, with the fire burning on a cast-iron grate about a foot below the parapets, all of it about thirty inches above the ground and forty inches square. No marauding army could ever breach that fort. Or so Robert thought. A bellows was plugged into a pipe that entered the forge from the rear and controlled the intensity of the fire.
At some point, without ceremony, his father gave him the gift of work. He was allowed to work the bellows, with its three flat boards, its upper and lower chambers, its leather casing forcing air through the small valve at the end. Man's work thrilled him. His skin pebbled when he saw the fire suddenly brighten from his own efforts, sparks rising in the air, all of them red, racing for the chimney. Then the rough iron slowly turned red, and then white, and when it was white, more sparks danced like fireflies in the heat. The sweat poured off the boy then, from the heat of the fire, from the pumping of the levers of the bellows, from his excitement, and he wanted to stop, all strength gone, and then glanced at his father, working with his tough intensity, and tried even harder to go on.
"I'll finish that now, lad," his father said to him at certain moments.
"No, Da, I can do it."
"Fair enough," his father said, and smiled to himself.
In those hours in the forge, his father would say almost nothing else.
The smoke and sparks rose from the fire into an iron canopy and then through a metal chimney into the empty sky. On cold, clear winter nights, the boy would sometimes gaze at the distant stars and wonder if they were frozen sparks from his father's forge. He asked his father about this one chilly night.
"Aye," he said. "They all go up into the universe, son."
"Do they ever burn out?"
"Never. When you see a shooting star, lad, that's a spark trying to find its way home."
His father's beliefs were as simple as the things of his life. One of those things in the forge was the great tub he called the slake bath, half a wine cask filled with clear, stagnant water. Across its top were two rods that held a smaller tub—a bowl, really—that contained brine. He needed water to adjust the temperature of whatever he was making, cooling the piece swiftly in the water, or more slowly in the salty brine, and sometimes he would return it to the fire if it had cooled too much.
"The first time you do something," he said, "it might not be perfect. But you can't give up. You must try again."
To Robert, such words seemed to be said that day for the first time in the long history of the world. You can't give up. You must try again. Important things to be said by a master for whom the most important of all the things in that shop was the anvil. It stood a few feet to the left of the forge, a mighty workbench that to his boy's eyes was powerful, mysterious, indestructible, and magical. It was the only object in the shop not made by his father, but John Carson loved it with a passion, the way a fine musician loves a grand piano, and he passed that fervor to his son across a thousand different afternoons.
The anvil had come from Scotland and weighed exactly one hundred and seventy-one pounds. The shape was simple and elegant, a kind of small table with a great curved shoulder called the horn. The body was iron, but the face on top was made of steel two inches thick, welded to the body. From the heel to the tip of the horn, it was about two feet long, the face four inches wide. At the heel of the face, slots were punched through to the bottom: the small round pritchel hole, the wider square slot called the hardie hole. With his tongs, the boy's father could insert hot iron bars in the pritchel hole and bend them into any shape. Or slot his many smaller attachments into the hardie hole. The anvil was nailed to a smoothly planed block of bog oak, which had been driven several feet into the earth floor. A leather strap ran around the top of the oaken base from which hung many smaller tools. Robert swiftly learned that the anvil could sing. When his father struck it with a hammer, the ringing sound rose into the air, and sometimes was answered by the calls of birds.
In all years and all seasons, he could see his father working iron with his back to the forge, using tongs to lift the molten iron from the fire and then laying it in a white lump upon the anvil and with his tools transforming it into a sickle or a horseshoe, a lamp holder or a pot. His long-fingered hands were very quick, and in movement he seemed all of a piece: arms, hands, hammer, metal. Everything was fitted together to create rhythm and ease and power. The face of the anvil, for example, was on a level with his knuckles, the best height discovered by the old ironmasters for swinging hammers without tearing up the muscles of the back. Sometimes he dipped the iron in the water of the slack tub, adjusting the temperature as he worked, his brow furrowed and creased, his legs spread to create a fulcrum, his mighty arms bringing either raw power or fluid delicacy to the task. Sweat poured from him in all seasons. Even in dead winter, his gray collarless cotton shirt turned black. In summer, he often sent the boy to the stream with a pot for fresh water and drank it down, letting it splash over his body and neck before returning to hammer and iron and heat.
When the sun began to set in the west and he was finished for the day, he would hang the bellows on a high hook against one wall, to keep it from small dangerous invaders, then sit a while in silence, and then walk to the house. Six days a week, he scrubbed the smell of salt and sweat from himself with cold water and a coarse cloth. On Saturday nights, after the boy was sent to bed, he bathed in a large wooden waterproof tub lashed with iron bands he'd made himself, the joints so tight not a drop ever touched the flagstone floor.
One Saturday night when Robert was six, he saw his father enter the new room that he was building as an addition to the house, the room where the boy soon would sleep. Da had broken a hole through from the main room and fitted it with a door. Two new walls were already up, draped with canvas to ward off rain, awaiting only their coat of lime wash. But the western wall was not yet finished. Da entered this unfinished room carrying a lumpy burlap package in one hand and a lantern in the other. His tub awaited him about six feet from the hearth, where two huge iron pots of water simmered beside the open fire, but John Carson was not yet ready for his Saturday-night bath. The boy's mother rested in the bedroom. Robert feigned sleep on his rough bed rigged from a base of stools placed near the jamb wall.
When his father entered the unfinished room, the boy slipped off his cot and eased into the shadows to watch him. His father untied the cords of the burlap package and removed the skull of a horse. Robert's heart tripped. On one of their walks to Belfast that summer, his mother had shown the boy a horse's skull off to the side of the road, bone white and sad. The Carsons did not own a horse, and that lonesome skull made Robert whisper a growing desire: to ride a horse. He told his mother that above all he wanted to ride a horse with his father. His mother hugged him that afternoon, and said, "Aye, a horse. I'll talk about it with your father."
And here on this Saturday night was his father with a horse's skull in a burlap sack. Da gazed at the skull for a long moment, holding it in two hands as if it were a chalice, and then in the light of the lantern, he squatted low and began to mix mortar in a tray, thickening it with dry straw. He placed the skull in a hollow place in the wall, and then used the mortar and some kiln bricks to hide it. He was breathing hard. Then he paused, placed his fingertips against the now-blank wall, bowed his head, and spoke for a minute in a strange clotted language.
Robert hurried back to the makeshift cot, and lay awake with his eyes closed and his heart thumping with excitement. A horse's skull! In the western wall! He heard a smooth click as his father shut the door of the unfinished room, hiding the wall with its new and secret resident. Da's boots fell separately to the floor. He walked on bare feet across the flagstones and knocked gently on the bedroom door. The boy's mother whispered words Robert could not understand. Then she was at the hearth, her smell altering the air, and the boy heard her pouring water into the great tub. Water that gurgled. Water that murmured. Eyes shut tight, the boy heard a rustling of clothes, and then Da's voice saying Ah! as he eased into the water. Then there was another unbinding of clothes. Silence. Then she said Oh!
Robert opened his eyes. Squinting, so they couldn't see that he was seeing. His mother was standing in the tub, facing his father. Her flesh ripe and flushed in the orange light of the hearth. Her breasts full and dark-nippled. Her belly round with a thick black V of hair below. She squatted and slipped into the water with Da, and Robert closed his eyes in shame and fear. He could hear small splashes of water, wordless grunts of approval, a sighing stillness, a chuckle, then a silence again. The slippery sound of water and soap. Of hands on flesh. A long, soaking silence, like peace. Finally the sloshing sound of a body rising from water, and the boy peeked again. His mother was drying herself with a rough cotton towel, smiling, drying under one heavy breast and then the other. His father rose from the water. Robert closed his eyes.
His father was seldom in the house. He had customers in the shop, travelers, wayfarers, men with horses needing shoes, or men awaiting sickles to be carried to harvests, or men with ruined tools to be ground and hammered into second lives. They called him Mister Carson if they were strangers, or John if they'd been there more than once. Sometimes when the moon was high, the boy saw other men emerge from darkness, great burly men with wild orange hair, their shirts cut from animal skins, and Da stopped work and retreated with them into the tool room. They used the language Robert heard when his father buried the horse's skull in the wall and they never called him John. At other times, Da borrowed a horse and packed his tools and kissed Robert's mother on the cheek and then rode off into the hills. He was gone for three or four days, a week. The boy was always afraid that he would never return.
"He has work to do," his mother said. "There's so few like him," she said. "He needs to help people who can't do what he can do."
There were no houses near them and no children his age with whom Robert could play, and yet he was not lonely. He often spoke with Bran, their dog, and the dog understood him. Bran had dark red hair and a setter's long nose, and he understood all of them. In bad weather, Robert was almost always inside with his mother or playing on the leeward side of the cleared open patch that surrounded the slated house. Sometimes, he threw sticks and Bran raced after them, his ears flapping, his legs a blur, snatching the stick with a sudden pounce, then turning, racing back to the boy, dropping the stick precisely at his feet, then demanding that they do it all again. Sometimes, Robert's mother prepared lunch for his father and the boy carried it to the forge and Da thanked him and hugged him with his hard, sweaty arms and then took the food with his handmade forks and knives and sat under the hawthorn tree and ate in silence, gazing into the Irish distance.
In the house, Robert helped his mother as she prepared food or tended the fire. She told him when to add fresh turf. She taught him to count by numbering the remaining bricks of turf, and then she would make notes on rough paper. She called this the List: the names of foods and supplies that she would need for the week, or tasks to be finished. Peddlers came by in horse-drawn carts, one with huge sacks of potatoes and mounds of fresh-picked vegetables, another with turf, a third with butter and eggs, cheese and milk (except on rare days of high heat), and his mother haggled with them in her teasing way, and bought what she needed and crossed the items off the List. Or they would go to town together for beef and fish. They walked to Belfast on Saturday mornings, passing St. Edmund's Anglican Church into lanes gradually more crowded with farmhouses and people: Robert's first glimpses of the world beyond their house. Bran was usually out front, his head high, alert to danger, peeing on stone markers.
On the edge of Belfast, the houses at first were scary to Robert: small, narrow, cramped together, all made of dirty red brick, with wet slate roofs and chimneys poisoning the air with sulphury smoke. From a distance, it was hard for him to believe that human beings lived there, and as they came closer it always felt to him that the clouds had chosen to banish the sun. Robert watched the strange new people: men in dark long coats, collars pulled high under dark cloth hats, women in dark skirts that reached the ground, dark shawls hiding their white wintry faces. Many houses were crowned with English flags, but even they had molted into permanent gray under the steady gray rain and the steady gray smoke from the coal fires. The only flashes of color came from the scarlet jackets of the English soldiers.