The Fool took a deep breath, raised the hammer above his head with trembling arms before bringing it down on the piece of glowing metal with a resounding… Ding.
Nothing happened to the metal and the hammer bounced off uselessly, while a shock reverberated all the way up his arms, thoroughly jarring him.
“Ow,” the boy winced as he dropped the heavy hammer on the ground and rubbed his aching arms.
“Oi, don’t just drop the hammer like that, you’ll damage it!” Yelled a balding burly man with a bright red face.
The red-faced man tutted and shook his head, “I told Sarah you were too weak to be any help at my shop but noo, she had to pawn you off on me,” complained the blacksmith.
“It’s not my fault I already learned how to read and write,” The Fool grumbled.
“Stop showing off you little weakling. What good is reading if you can’t even bend a piece of metal properly? Why did you even want to be a blacksmith anyway? You should have gone to learn something that needs less… strength,” the blacksmith grumbled while eyeing the boy’s skinny arms.
The Fool looked down at his skinny arms and sighed, “There’s got to be something I can do that doesn’t involve that stupid hammer,” he said finally.
After frowning for a moment and pinching his brow, the blacksmith’s face lit up and he clicked his fingers in excitement. “Bingo! I have just the job for you.” He shouted before running to the other side of his workshop and digging around in a pile of mismatched leathers.
Seeing the older man’s excitement, the boy started getting excited as well, bouncing about on his tows and grinning like an idiot. The other kids all thought he was weird, but for whatever reason, he really liked learning things. It didn’t even matter what he was learning, just as long as it was something new.
After spending the last few years learning how to Read, Write and Count with Tree Fingers, one day, he had discovered that there wasn’t much left to learn in that area. Or to be more precise, there wasn’t much left that his mum knew and could teach him.
That was why, after begging her for a couple of weeks, she had agreed to let him go learn from the blacksmith.
“Aha!” The blacksmith exclaimed, dragging a bunch of thoroughly worn leathers from the heaping pile in the corner of his workshop.
He heaved the heavy leathers over to a thick wooden workbench and dropped them in a pile at the foot of the table.
“What are those?” Asked the boy.
“These are useless leathers that have been worn down until they are can’t be mended anymore,” The blacksmith explained while gesturing to the tears and holes that covered all the leather that was in a pile by the workbench.
“Do you want me to fix them?” The Fool asked curiously.
The blacksmith chortled and gave the leathers a good kick, “Haha, no these are a lost cause. Rather than fix them, I want you to make something new with them.”
Seeing the kids confused expression, the blacksmith hefted a thoroughly damaged saddle up onto the workbench. It was covered in holes and almost all of the seams were ripped or torn.
“Do you think this can be mended?” Asked the blacksmith.
The boy shook his head and the blacksmith continued, “Right, but leather is leather and we aren’t about to waste something as expensive as this.” As he spoke, the blacksmith’s hands began to move.
The Fool watched intently as the blacksmith brought a small but wickedly sharp curved knife from one of the seemingly infinite pouches on his belt. The burly man flashed the knife along all the seams of the saddle and in a second, it had been separated into a bunch of individual pieces.
He separated the parts into two piles of smaller and bigger pieces of leather. “For the smaller ones, we can’t make anything new from them, so we set them aside to be used as repair materials. As for these ones…” The big man said while gesturing to the few larger pieces of leather that remained.
After selecting a piece of damaged leather, the blacksmith scratched his chin thoughtfully and then clicked his fingers again. He began scratching an outline along the surface of the leather and then when he seemed satisfied started to cut along the outline.
His knife began to dance along the leather with a confidence that could only come from endless practice and experience.
When he was done, he raised up a long strip of leather that was in passably good condition. Ever since the big man had begun cutting, the Fool hadn’t taken his eyes off the man’s hands once.
The blacksmith said nothing and instead, brought out a thick needle and thread. He began to attach a few other strips of leather to the first, long piece and finally, what he was making took shape.
“Done!” The big man said in satisfaction, holding up a long leather pouch with open sides and uneven stitching.
The big man handed the pouch and the small knife he had just used to the boy who was still staring intently at the other pieces of leather as though they were made of gold.
“Here, use this to keep you and your mother safe,” The big man said with a smile.
When he took the little knife and put it in the sheath, the boy frowned. “But I have nowhere to put it,” he complained while gesturing to his clear lack of a belt to put the sheath on.
“I guess you’ll have to make one then,” the blacksmith said with a smile.
After spending a week working for the blacksmith, the Fool could proudly say that he now officially had fewer cuts on his fingers from mishandling the knife than successful creations.
Not only that, but he also hadn’t completely ruined a piece of leather in the last two days. Even the blacksmith was shocked by how quickly he was improving.
The red-faced man had even gone so far as to suggest to Sarah that the Fool become his apprentice. Unfortunately for the big man, she had refused.
That day, as the Fool walked back to his house, constantly fiddling with his new belt and sheath like a preening bird, he suddenly smelt something bad.
Now, smelling something bad in the slums isn’t anything unusual, in general, slums aren’t exactly the cleanest, best smelling places.
But, for the most part, he had grown used to these smells. No, this smell was different, rancid. He had smelt it before but never from this close before.
Driven by curiosity, the boy pinched his nose, which didn’t help in the slightest and stepped into the alley where the smell was coming from.
He tiptoed down the alley and the further he walked, the worse the smell became. It was a rancid smell that bit at the back of his throat like it was trying to choke him. It left a sour taste in his mouth like bile and as he got closer to the smell, a sick feeling began to rise in his throat.
Finally, he arrived at the source of the smell and what he saw made his stomach churn.
Lying against the rough wooden boards of a shack, in a puddle of murky brown water, was a small kitten.
Its fur was patchy and matted and when he peered closer, the boy could see its sickly skeletal form. The little creature’s eyes were half-closed and unseeing, it was staring right at him but didn’t seem to have noticed his arrival.
The boy gasped and went to move it but then stopped. He was terrified that he might harm its frail body if he moved it too suddenly.
But even as he stood there, looking at the panting little creature’s tiny body fight to take each breath, the smell grew fouler and more rancid. He had to fight to keep his meagre dinner in his stomach.
He reached out a trembling hand and with one finger, stroked the tiny creature’s head. It barely opened one eye fully, which seemed to be a herculean task for the dying kitten and fixed the single, golden eye on the little boy who was crying while stroking it.
The kitten closed both of its eyes fully this time and let out a soft purr. As it did this, the smell magnified, almost making the boy throw up.
But before he even had a chance to, the smell disappeared completely and so did the purring. The boy kept stroking the kitten for a long time after that before he realised it was dead.
Finally, he stopped and gently lifted its little body that was so frail he could barely feel its weight. It didn’t feel right to leave the little thing here.
He brought the kitten back to his shack and when he finally arrived home and Sarah saw the kitten in his arms, they both cried together for a long time.
The next day, Sarah brought her son out of the slums and past the fields where the farmers were working.
Despite leaving their home at dawn, there were already hundreds of people in the fields, tending to the grain and rice or leading the livestock to their pastures.
Sarah brought the little boy who had barely slept at all last night to the top of a small hill on the edge of what could be considered the farmland.
At the top of the hill was a small tree and beneath the tree were three big stones.
Sarah brought the little boy to the first stone and spoke quietly, “Pay respects to your grandparents,” she said while bowing to the rock which had a few symbols carved into it.
The boy wiped the tears from his eyes and tried to smile. Then, he bowed to the first stone and whispered, “Thank you,”
Sarah nodded and brought him to the next stone. This one was smaller and although he could read the writing on it and knew who this grave belonged to; the boy waited for his mother to speak first.
He watched as his mother gazed at the stone with a complicated expression before finally sighing and bowing, “This is my teacher’s grave, you don’t have to pay respects if…” She hadn’t finished speaking before the boy bowed to the stone and once again whispered “Thank you,”
Finally, they arrived at the last stone. It looked like it had been placed there more recently than the other two and when he read what was on it, the boy started to cry all over again.
“Pay respects to your father,” Sarah said in a voice choked with emotion.
They hugged each other and stayed on the hilltop almost until the sun went down. When it was almost getting too dark to see anything, Sarah dug a shallow grave with her hands and the boy placed a small bundle wrapped in a rough woollen blanket into the hole.
As Sarah covered it with dirt, the Fool went to find a suitable headstone and returned with a funny shaped rock.
When she saw it, Sarah grinned, “It looks just like a ball of yarn,” she said with a soft smile.
“Do you think he will like it?” the boy asked hopefully.
“I know he will,” Sarah said before placing the round rock onto the freshly dug grave.
While they walked home, the boy, who had barely spoken that entire day, coughed to clear his throat and gave Sarah a nudge, “I knew that story was about you,” he said accusatorily.
Sarah laughed and hugged him as they returned to their shack beneath the soft glow of the full moon.