A story by Steve Woller
Bill raced through his morning chores and his correspondence homework, and collected his spears shortly after lunch. He wanted to get some practice in before Ken got home from school. Andrew Symonds came out of the cookhouse as he was heading past it on the way towards the stump.
“Where are you off too, boy?”
“I’m going to practice throwing my spears.”
“Spears? They look like sharpened sticks to me.”
Bill looked at his spears and considered the statement. He was proud of his work, but wasn’t sure there was much of a difference between spears and sharpened sticks.
“Did you harden the points?”
“Do they get blunt on you quick?”
“Mmm.” Andrew leaned his axe up against the grey iron of the cookhouse wall and reached out a thick fingered hand. “Give us a look at one will you?”
Bill selected his favourite and passed it across to Andrew.
“Well it’s certainly a thick one.” He looked closely at the end and pushed his thumbnail into it. “Yep. That’s what I thought. Follow me lad.” Andrew turned and re-entered the cookhouse.
“We’re not supposed to take them in there.”
The boy’s mother’s eyes moved over the pair as they entered with the forbidden implements.
“Back again already Andrew? Did we not feed you enough?”
“No. No. Elephant’s sufficiency, Connie. Truely.”
“Well I hope so.” Her eyes flicked back to Bill’s spear in Andrew’s hand.
“Sorry Connie, do you mind if I show the boy here something?”
“Not at all.” Her questioning eyebrow suggested she too was wondering what was going on. “Be my guest.”
At that he hooked open the front of the coal range and buried the point of the spear in the fire. Bill moved forward an untidy step.
“She’s all right boy, I won’t hurt it.”
Andrew watched the end carefully rolling it round in the flames for a few minutes before pulling it out and blowing on it to extinguish the small flame that had come with it. A wisp of thin smoke curled up from the tip..
“Now.” Andrew said, closing the door to the fire box and handing the smoking stick back to Bill. “Take that outside and rub off all the soot against a piece of concrete or something and see if she’s any harder than it was when we started.”
“Is it O.K.?”
“Better than O.K.” He gave Bill a little push towards the door. “Go on, try it.”
Outside Bill found a piece of flat concrete laying alongside the cookhouse to re-hone his spear on. He brushed some dirt and moss off of it and ran the point of the spear over it a few times. The charred areas sloughed away quickly revealing a amber tinted point. He held it up to Andrew who smiled and tried his thumb against the wood again.
“Much better. Try it against your other ones there.”
Bill mimicked the test on one of the untreated spears. His finger nail bit into the wood easily. When he tried against the freshly seared wood his nail found the going more difficult. It still made a mark but it wasn’t as deep and his thumbnail bent and flexed with the effort.
“Good trick eh? Something that the old ancestors came up with back before all this steel and grass.” He looked down across the farmland.
“Oh yeah, a steel spear would be great.”
“Ae, steel is very useful tool.” Andrew’s voice was soft and strange to Bills ears and the big mans attention seemed to have wandered over the horizon. Bill held back his reply, wanting to say something clever, but feeling that it might be the wrong time. Andrew brightened quickly though, snapping back to the present and sounding like himself when he spoke again. “Speaking of steel, I better go find my axe and get back to work. You have fun spearing things Young Bill, and remember there’s more ways to skin a cat than with a butter knife.”
Andrew laughed, collected his axe from against the cookhouse wall and headed towards the workshop. Bill poked his head in the door and framed up the question he wanted to ask. His mother and sister were scrubbing dishes several paces away from the beckoning flames of the coal range.
“No. You cannot poke your sticks into the fire again.”
“We are using the oven for tea.”
Bills sister nodded in affirmation ignoring the pot and tea towel in her hand that spoke of a different duty being undertaken.
“I don’t need anyone else getting under my feet.”
The younger Connie glanced at her mother and turned back to her work.
“Can I light the pot belly?”
“No. It’s already too hot in here.”
Bill’s mother placed another heavy pot on the bench and reached for a handful of cutlery. She pushed a few strands of damp hair back from her face with the back of her hand and turned to Bill.
“You could boil the copper though.”
“Yeah?” Bill brightened up.
“We’ve got a pile of tea towels that need a wash.” She gestured to a sack in the corner. “If you give them a good boil we can hang them in here to dry this evening.
“But that’s Connie’s job.”
“She is busy helping me. If you want to light a fire and use up all our wood, you need to do some work too.”
“No copper. No fire.”
Bill carried the laundry heavily over his back, it’s weight multiplied by his distaste for the chore. Fetching the water for the copper was executed with the same pained weariness. Sailor followed him wondering what new game Bill was playing and if he could be involved. Bill patted him feebly, infirmed by his duties, and carried on with the task. Splitting the wood for the fire brought Bill more pleasure. The anticipation of kindling a fire and sorting out his spearheads pushing back the malaise that had claimed him. His mind now concentrated on what he will need for the task. Some thin cut sappy pine from one of the old windbreak trees to get it started. Then a few chunks of rata to get keep it burning and a couple of big bits to get it real hot. Whistling while he chopped, he had the thought, he’d have split a half a tree down to match sticks if it meant he didn’t have to wash tea-towels.
He stuffed the kindling and some old paper into the fire box, and smiled at the small triumph. It faded when he realised he’d not collected the matches while he was getting the paper. He turned to Sailor who was investigating a scent a few yards away.
When the dog came to him he lowered his voice to a commanding tone.
“Go to the cookhouse and bring back some matches.”
Sailor tilted his head to the right and tried to work out the game.
“Go to the cookhouse and bring back some matches. Please.”
Sailor panted and moved like he was preparing for a game of fetch.
“Yes, fetch. Fetch me the matches.” Bill pointed at the cookhouse. The dog ran a few steps in that direction and turned, looking all around for something he could return with.
Sailor moved in a circle widening his search, he tried to pick up a few wood chips and dropped them again when Bill spoke.
“No. Matches. Like pissht!” He pantomimed striking a match. A look crossed Sailor’s face that seemed close to recognition.
Sailor sat and scratched behind his ear with a hind leg, wiping all understanding from his features.
“Dang.” Bill got up and headed for the cookhouse. “You’re not very smart for a dog.”
Sailors tail wagged. It had been an interesting game, but he wasn’t sure if he’d won or not.
Bill zipped back from the cookhouse with the matches and lit the paper. Flames bloomed under the kindling, caught and grew steadily. Bill fed a few bigger sticks onto the fire and built up a good base. He tended it for some minutes. Watching and waiting for the water to start to move in the copper. He’d intentionally left it a bit shallow in the hopes that it’d warm quicker. As it was it still seemed to take an age for it to absorb the heat from the fire. While that was warming he brought over his spears, and checking to see that no one was watching him get distracted, he gently inserted one into the coals. Turning it slowly like Andrew had done he tried to evenly singe the end without burning off too much of the point. He’d worked hard on shaping it and didn’t want to have to do it again. When that was done he pulled it out and stubbed the small flames out by dragging the point against the earth. This worked nearly as well at removing the carbonised wood as the concrete had done. The finished result however was a little less polished than his first one. Bill poked the other spear head in the fire and had a quick peak at the water in the copper again. It had started swirling strongly and hinted that it might be boiling soon. Bill grabbed the copper stick and stirred the cloths.
When he remembered that the second spear was still in the fire he dropped the stick and dragged the burning brand out. A good portion of the end had gone up in smoke. After scouring the burnt remains of the tip, he was relived to find he had a stumpier but still serviceable point.
Bill put the spears to the side and retrieved the staring stick. Dirt and bits of grass clung to the damp end.
He carried it over to the tank and washed the end under the tap. When he returned to the copper the water was bubbling nicely. He stoked the fire with a few more chunks of rata and gave the tea-towels a good stir. After fetching the soap and washboard he hooked out a steaming towel and gingerly placed it on the board. Bill rubbed soap into any stains he could see and scrubbed the cloth against the corrugated glass of the washboard with vigour. As much vigour as he could muster while trying not to scald himself. Then it was dunked again in the still churning water, carefully squeezed and hung still steaming over the line. On the second towel Bill refined his technique, lifting two towels out and allowing one to cool a little while he handled the first carefully. But the time the towel had been rinsed and was on the line, the second was cool enough to handle. He lifted the next one out to cool and addressed the previous one.
By the sixth towel Bill was getting into the swing, challenging himself on how fast he could do the next one and how hot he could handle the water. He flipped it onto the line and reached for the next.
“Thank you for lighting the fire. Mum said I should do it from here.”
Bills sister walked into his field of view. Her smile was warm, but worn around the edges.
“I’m nearly done.”
Young Connie looked at the cloths on the line.
“She told me to wash them all again. If you’d done any. She said she wants them done right.”
Young Connie stretched her threadbare smile.
“I’ll have to give them a quick rinse in case she’s watching, but it looks like you did pretty good.”
“I can help if you want.”
“No that’s alright. You can get on with your game now. Thank you.”
“O.K.” Thoughts crowded around Bill’s eyebrows, pushing them together. He picked up his spears and took a few steps. “Um, O.K. If you get time you can come and try my spears, if you want.”
“I’ll see what Mum says.”