Icelandic model horseshoe, decorated. If you bought one of the (sold out) super deluxe boxed set editions of Storytellers, this is what you’re going to get.
This time, to Gunnar’s relief, Karl was away only for two days. Mother always got upset when father left, but this time she seemed to be upset with Gunnar for some reason. He didn’t like his mother very much and it seemed that she felt the same towards him, even though both maintained the facade of politeness that came with clenched teeth and white knuckles. It was her own fault, decided Gunnar. If she didn’t start fights with father, he wouldn’t have to go away to get some peace and quiet.
When Karl came back home, all smiles, he handed her a book. Sóley threw it on the table without even looking. Gunnar knew what would happen next. He’d be sent upstairs, to bed, and his parents would fight again. Why did mother have to be like this? Father brought her a present. At least they were quiet enough for their voices to become background noise and Gunnar fell asleep, the unfinished nail under his pillow.
“How are your hands? Still hurting?”
“Nay. They’re perfect,” said Gunnar and immediately began sweating at the thought he’d be forbidden from working at the forge ever again. “Never better. Excellent,” he said, avoiding his father’s doubtful gaze, hiding his shaky hands behind his back.
“Good! We can make your first horseshoe then.”
The boy relaxed at first before grasping the full sentence. “A gleaming horseshoe,” he mumbled, trying to sound happy.
Karl looked at him oddly. “Gleaming? Where did you get that from?”
“Eh… a story?”
“The one with the gleaming horseshoes, clearly,” snapped Sóley. Karl winced, but kept smiling. Gunnar turned his eyes away, staring at the forge door. It was locked, like always, but maybe he could somehow get his hands on the key, then work at night… no, they would hear that, maybe when father was away… but then, mother hardly ever left the house…
“Good,” said Karl. “We’ll make a gleaming horseshoe.” He chuckled and Gunnar blushed, although he didn’t know why.
“Next time. A horseshoe is much more fun to make.” Karl sawed off a chunk of flat stock and handed it to Gunnar. “You’ll do the rest.”
“Uh– I– how?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll show you. First you need to do some upsetting, you know how to do that…”
The boy barely contained a groan. Fun to make?
“This is going to be more difficult than the last time, because you have to upset the middle. What you need is this sort of shape…” Karl quickly drew it on the floor.
“So… I have to make the sides thinner?”
“Upsetting, not tapering. You will heat up the middle part, then the cooler sides will stay as they are.. You can do this in two ways. Either build a tall and narrow fire, or cool down the sides in the water tank every time.”
All drawings are incorrectly scaled – for clarity. Look at the drawing sideways – no, the other sideways – then imagine an anvil on the bottom and a hammer striking the iron from the top, as indicated with arrows.
“You don’t get it.”
Gunnar quickly considered his options. “Nay. Not really.”
“Let me show you…” Karl finished the first round of upsetting within two heats, producing a near perfect, rounded shape identical with the one he drew. He kept turning the metal around, but Gunnar wasn’t paying attention, staring at the fire until his eyes began to hurt, trying to figure out how to heat up only the middle part. “The heat spreads towards the ends, the hotter the metal is, the wider it’s going to become. Now, I’ll show you the other way.”
Gunnar expected his father to cut another piece, but Karl heated the metal up, now more evenly, then brought it back to previous shape so fast that the hammer became a blur in front of the enchanted boy’s eyes. When the flattened stock was ready, Karl slowly dipped in the water tank and steam erupted, hissing.
“When you cool the sides and strike from the top, only the middle spreads. Remember the whole thing is going to become shorter, aye? Because the middle is getting wider and that material has to come from somewhere. Look, it also got a bit thicker in the middle – same thing.”
Karl cut another chunk of steel with a metal saw, then handed it to the boy. Gunnar’s first attempt bent the metal in half. Without a word, Karl took the tongs from Gunnar, turned the steel around, struck it just once, and handed the tongs back, the metal flat again. So that was why he kept turning it around! Gunnar continued, again and again, biting his lip in concentration, sweating under Karl’s gaze. Nevertheless, no matter what he did the effect wasn’t the same as that of his father’s work, producing a shapeless object that Gunnar found very upsetting indeed.
“First of all, you have to hit it from the top, and the moment it bends you flatten it again. When you are heating it up, the brightest part must be right in the middle. But you can still fix it. See? This spot is narrower. Heat it closer to that spot, make sure it’s flattened, then try again. Don’t worry, we’ve got all the time in the world, and you can always start again. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
Gunnar immediately became nervous, barely able to stop himself from nervously glancing at the door leading back to the kitchen.
“I promise you,” said his father, “you will not be a sheep-herder, no matter what your mother says. You will be a blacksmith. Do you know how many forges Iceland has? Two. The other one is somewhere… ah, who cares. Nowhere important. We are here, near Reykjavík. I’ve taught myself everything, now I’m teaching you, one day you will be teaching your own sons. Anyone can herd sheep, but you’ll do things nobody else can do. Now heat it up again and get it in shape.” He pointed at his own attempt, which took him two heats. Gunnar was so far at six, and counting. “I haven’t learned all this in a day,” said Karl encouragingly. “It’s all simple, you’d think, aye? Make it hot, strike it hard, done. And that’s right! That’s all there is to it. Then you practice for five years and you’re good to go.”
Five years, thought Gunnar, his stomach twisting, the sword forgotten. Five years of making horseshoes…
“Go on,” said Karl. “It’s Bjarni again…” He stepped outside to speak to a client, who brought an axe over for resharpening. As they haggled about the price, Gunnar continued his attempts, until the chunk of steel was bent in all possible directions, resembling some sort of worm rather than the elliptical shape his father produced. Tears appeared in the boy’s eyes, but he was too determined to give up. He heated up the whole piece and removed the wonky upset. The sides were flat now, but the whole chunk bent out of shape again – just in a different way than before.
I did this great job all by myself! But you’ll notice some of the sides are flat…
“I will never learn this,” Gunnar mumbled to himself. He thought horseshoes were easy to make.
“Certain people, I swear,” said Karl, throwing the axe on the table. “He thinks fixing an axe is a five-minute job… it might have been if it wasn’t goddamn cracked. I’ll show you how to do it soon… hey, don’t cry, leave that to little girls! This can be fixed! Next time when you’re flattening it, turn it every time. Hit from the top, turn, from the side, turn. Otherwise you get… um, this.” He took the metal away from Gunnar, turned it around a few times, put it in the fire, then demonstrated the procedure. “Try again. It will be much easier now. I promise.”
It was, to Gunnar’s surprise, although it still took him much longer than he expected. “Now the cutting?”
“Chiseling. Take that plate, it will go between your horseshoe and the anvil. Heat it up in the fire, but not much, just a bit, so it doesn’t cool your metal too fast. It still will, because the anvil is cold – but slower, so every heat lasts you longer.”
Gunnar did as instructed, then looked at the chisel doubtfully.
This used to be sharp at some point, officer, I swear… I don’t forge anymore, but took some of my favourite tools home as a keepsake. As you can guess, this one is quite old.
“You place the chisel on top, then strike it with the hammer. Do it lighter on the sides, then harder towards the middle, so the cut gets deeper and wider. Hold the chisel at an angle.” Karl demonstrated the correct position. “Do you understand why?”
“Aye,” said Gunnar, who didn’t. He followed the instructions nevertheless and the result was, at least in his eyes, outstanding. He could practically feel himself turning into a real blacksmith. Maybe he wouldn’t need five years of practice after all!
“I’m proud of you! Now we’re going to punch holes… nay, we’ll drill them. It will be easier. I’ll show you how to use the punch later.”
“You need to nail it when you’re shoeing a horse.”
Oh, of course, thought Gunnar, angry with himself. His moods were volatile, but at least today he felt happy some of the time. It was a feeling he rarely experienced.
“Time to round the sides. You have to do this bit by bit. First, turn it sideways. Get rid of the corner, but not too fast, then flatten from the top again. That creates two new corners. You get rid of those the same way, then flatten. Go on taking the corners off until it’s round. I’m going to show you first…”
“You could go on with the hammer, but at this point I’d just file it off if we had to make it completely round, but we don’t. It’s good enough.”
“Now you’re going to heat it up again and start bending the whole thing. Like the horse’s hooves, aye?”
“Is this the right size?”
“Depends on the horse. But this one will be yours, ours to hang on the wall. It brings luck, you see. Half of the shoes I make never even get anywhere near a horse. This one will hang in the room, where everyone can see it. Right above the door. Once you make it all gleaming, of course. But first we’re going to bend it. This tool is called a bending fork. Only the hot part will bend. Stop when the metal gets darker, or you’ll break the fork, your horseshoe, or both.”
Photo: Dorota Kozerska. This isn’t a horseshoe, obviously. The dark chunks stuck to the metal are iron oxide mixed with coal dust – it needs to be removed (explanation further).
“We’re almost done,” said Karl, patting Gunnar’s head. “Only the holes left. You’ve done a great job! And your face is all dirty. That’s good. Means you’ve been working hard.” He licked his blackened finger, dipped it in the bits of dirt covering the anvil, then drew a moustache on Gunnar’s face. “Do mine now,” he said, and the boy did so, laughing, then happily grabbed his horseshoe, deceptively black, and burned his hand again.
“Burns are a part of the job,” said Karl as Gunnar kept his hand submerged in the ice-cold water, gritting his teeth, pretending it wasn’t hurting at all. “Look at my wrists, my hands. I’ve earned each of those burns. You wouldn’t get those with sheep, aye? This, here, is real work. If you can’t stand the pain, you have to go and herd sheep. Can you stand the pain?”
“That’s my boy. You’re doing great. Now… let’s make it gleam. If you’re absolutely sure that’s what you want.”
“I don’t know,” said Gunnar carefully. “Why not? It’s in all the stories. All the kings have horses with gleaming horseshoes.”
“Aye, maybe the kings can afford to replace horseshoes every week. If you want to make it gleam, you have to file the sides round, then sand it until it’s all pretty and shiny. But then it’s going to start rusting immediately. If you leave it like it is now, it will last much longer on our wall. It will still rust, don’t get me wrong, but it will take years instead of weeks. So, what do you prefer? I thought so. The last thing we’re going to do today is heat it up evenly, then use the metal brush to get rid of the oxide – this dirt all over the anvil, that’s oxide.”
Gunnar nodded, his hand still in the tank, and watched Karl clean the horseshoe. It didn’t look that different to him – just dirty, dark-grey surface. But if father said so, it had to be like this.
The unfinished, undecorated, hole-free, but more or less correctly shaped first shoes I’ve made during my first course. As you can see, those are very different from the model I described, but that’s as gleaming as they get. For a decorative horseshoe I’d use beeswax finish which would keep it rust-free for many years – and make it nearly black.
“Let’s go and eat something,” said Karl. “We’ll finish them later. How’s your hand?”
Gunnar looked at the large, white burn, then hid his hand behind his back. “Good. Great.”
Karl opened the door and let Gunnar through. “My son,” he said, as if Gunnar needed to be introduced to his own mother. Sóley’s lips formed a thin, white line, but she said nothing. Gunnar’s bewildered gaze wandered between the two faces, one angry, one defiant. He had an odd feeling that something wrong was going on, as if he got stuck in the middle of a silent wrestling match.
“I know you want to make a sword,” said Karl. “We’ll make a blade next time. It won’t be a sword yet, that would be too heavy for the first time, but we’ll make a big, sharp knife. You like that?”
Gunnar opened his mouth, but no sound came out. That was too exciting to put into words. No five years of making horseshoes after all!
“My son,” Karl repeated, patting the boy’s head. “My flesh and blood. Sóley, we’re hungry. Any dinner for hard-working men?”
“Where is Greta?” she snapped. “Why did you bring me a book? Where am I going to get eggs now? Will we be eating your book for dinner?”
“Greta? Ah, the hen? Oh, probably wandered somewhere, hen are dumb…”
Sóley threw the ladle on the floor and stormed outside, slamming the door behind her.
“Women,” Karl said with a heavy sigh. “They get all emotional for no reason. They can’t help it, it’s in their nature. Eat, big boy. And then you’ll go and sweep the forge until it’s all gleaming.”
Read about Gunnar’s future in Storytellers, my first novel, available for preorder now, release date March 28.