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Fiction #109
(published November 21, 2002)
The Crispin and How She Learned the Secret of Swabian Leather Tanning, part 1 of 2
by Aurora Fadlan

"The problem of shoes demonstrates how the most frightening things can, through inattention, become completely innocuous. Thanks to Le modele rouge, (a painting of lace up shoes, with toes and veins, like human feet) we realize that the union of a human foot and a shoe is actually a monstrous custom."
—Rene Magritte

She's got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
— Paul Simon

Tell me who's a gonna shoe yo' po' little feet? Who's a gonna glove yo' little hand? Who's a gonna kiss your sweet purty mouth? Tell me who's a gonna be yo' man?
— traditional

With the snap of a twig in the frosted light of dawn, Aurora beat back a thump in her heart. She was making her way down the crooked shale stone path, grasping at its tumbled handrail, the likes of which had first been erected more than two thirds of a century ago by the C.C.C., or Civilian Conservation Corps men, who'd been not only hobos and itinerate poets but also hard working men like her grandfather who'd fallen on hard times during the war and yet weren't able to serve due to a lung which had been claimed by TB and was the reason she now lived in the snowy god forsaken hinterlands of the Adirondacks in the first place. He'd come up here from Scarsdale (her grandfather, that is) at the tender age of seventeen to take his heal in the clean mountain air and to sleep on the screened in sleeping porches that had sprung up on every bungalow lining the lake. Once he was well again, he'd returned to finish his degree in ornamental floriculture downstate yet had returned faithfully every summer since to landscape the grounds of the famous TB sanitarium there in the town which had restored the life to his one remaining lung and where he'd learned in a conscious way to breathe in and breathe out and to never take that for granted again. Yes, he'd been lucky enough or diligent enough (depends on how you look at it) to prosper there in the deathly pall of poverty the mountains were so known for but his son had gone off to open a tannery, being big on trapping as a boy growing up wild like that and had self skilled himself in the art of taking the tough skins of bear and beaver and the even tougher ones of deer, sheep and goat and softening the life into them in the concoctions that he cooked up on the black stove in what was once known as the shop, between the two big barns and across the way from the ice house which stood in the shade of the thickest part of the woods that came down and touched the property line (as that had a way of helping the blocks of ice to last longer in summer - the ice packed in saw dust and cut from the lake as it broke up in spring and dragged by work horses up to the ice house in order that the folks might enjoy cool produce and an ice cream in the heat of summer which never did get any too hot anyway here in the Adirondacks. That's why the summer folks came up from the city to summer.)

Now a tanner can sometimes have the appearance of being some kind of a genie from a fairy story as he mixes away his clay, oil and clabber, and brews 'em up good in a big old cauldron hanging from a tripod of sticks and then smoking them out using leaves and nutgalls. Looks to be almost magical methods with which to soften the skins to the point that they would be fit for ladies' slippers.

But his daughter came along and she didn't fancy her dad's methods. (She was called Aurora by the way, named for the dawn, for she was bright like the dawn and always up with the sun.) This all looked a little bit like too much work to Aurora and to make matters worse, she had the high falutin idea that they knew how to tan much more finely in Europe than this colonial self taught self sufficiency and she got the idea to run off to Europe and have an adventure and her dad said, Well, alright, girl, if that's what your heart's set on then I am no one to stop ya but just beware when you're stranded on the side of the road and no none is speaking your language and you're just settin' on your carpet bag and alls what's left is maybe a chunk of brie and a crust of Broetchen to see ya through your day, then you might not think the old tannery at the home front's so bad a prospect for your future. Yes he did believe it might smarten her up a bit and make her appreciate the simple hardworking life of a tannery if she did run off to that hoity toity continent. And if that was her dream who was he to stop her after all? It would just have to happen as it was fated to happen and it would all boil down to a matter of time, he felt sure, and so he gave his daughter his blessings and told her to go on her merry way.

Yes, she seemed possessed of the same dreams that most young girls are made of and though she was only 12 years old, she'd held a tanning paddle long enough (since she could stand) and knew how to check the steel traps and keep em oiled and rust free with the best of em and now she wanted something more out of life. But being only 12 she was foolish enough to leave home without a compass on this little sojourn she was taking and instead of heading east to the seacoast, she started heading west and wasn't any wiser for it, even when she got as far as the Mississippi River! In fact she mistook it for the sea and jumped right in figuring she'd tread until she came upon a sail boat and a salty sailor or at least a raft and a Huck Finn type to float her along. But she got in a jam when the flood waters ran high and got cast out upon the prairie and wound up in the arms of a no good cowboy which may be all well and good if you like horses, but won't do anyone much good if they were planning on sailing! Furthermore this cowboy didn't have sense enough to stay on the prairie and take care of the campfire; he wanted to head straight up into the mountains with her and show her how to check traps.

She said, I know how to check traps already and I'm an old mountain goat by birth so I'll go along with you on one condition: This is gonna be a fun adventure and you won't try to lose me in a blizzard and leave me for bear bait or throw me off any rocky precipices.

Well, I never use 12 year olds for bear bait, he assured her. They don't smell strong enough yet and that would be a waste of perfectly good meat. I always smear my traps with Bag Balm and does it stink! Bears love it. And when you get a little older, you'll love it too because it'll keep your neck from blistering if you apply it very liberally. And when your pert little nipples start to sprout, you can even rub it all over 'em and you won't even get stretch marks. I'll take good care of you, of that you can be sure, and so she trusted him like a father figure even as the young blood in her sexually awakening veins made it so she didn't want to think of him as a father figure at all but as her own true love, if the truth be told.

Why! They climbed so high and for so long that they ended up in Canada which thrilled her to the marrow because she'd always wanted do be Canadian for some reason — no accounting for it — and he said, Now here's where we can get us some silver fox to sell in the provinces and that'll bring a pretty maple leafed penny, just you wait and see.

Just then, she noticed some big old mukluk tracks in the snow and a cold fear took hold of her spine, making her want to turn back right then, but she was a plucky lass and she figured as long as she had her cowboy/trapper with her, she'd forge on. By and by he even produced a flint and a tinder and with it, struck a light and lighted a pine knot for a torch which illuminated a vast track of the woods which they'd been up until this time traveling on pretty much in the dark — for some reason the moon never threw much light on these trails — and at that moment she could see many mukluk tracks in the snow and what was more! Many trails! There were in fact so many trials weaving in and out of the trees, way more than just the one they were on, you could go about any old which-a-way you wanted and pretty surely get lost pretty darn bad is what it looked like to her! And to increase her terror, she could hear, in the distance, low moans as if someone were in a great pain and the pine trees ahead cut him off from the pass they were following.

Two bands of Indian hunters more than likely, the trapper confided. Perhaps there's been a squabble and one of the young bucks has been left here to die.

Well, what can we do to help him? the girl thought wildly, all the while afraid for her own safety, thinking that these same Indians might jump at the chance to hurt her or at least take her prisoner, making her sleep on a small pox infected blanket after they had their way with her — or that's what she would have been afraid of anyway, if she'd been older and wiser but in point of actuality she was too naive to suspect anything so sinister. She just felt gripped with a cold fear that took a hold of her like icy fingers on the back of her brain. But then she'd remembered her cowboy, whom she seemed to have lost along the trail and she reassured herself that she would be safe in his arms again someday if she could just get away from this crazy Cannuck of a trapper man who seemed to be filling the cowboy's boots for the moment. O she was confused and yet she felt it would all turn out okay for her in the end. (My but wasn't she an optimistic thing, not to mention plucky!)

Suddenly she looked about and her trapper had vanished into thin air! Lucky for her! And yet she could still hear those moans coming from outten them bushes. It was a hard situation for the girl. But she remembered hearing about the Good Samaritan in the home meeting house with its plain little nine over nine pane aquamarine windows and its white clabboard siding and the green shutters and how she'd seen a picture of the Good Samaritan in the family bible — the one with all the names of the babies born and died of all her people, as well as all the old folks, recorded in it, along with the curious locks of hair — even a pie bald one from some long lost relative, might even have been a brother she'd never known, who was rumored to have taken a voyage down along the Mississippi River and was never seen or heard from again, and feared drowned. So O though her teeth chattered in fear and the hackles on her back stood straight up and her nipples, swollen with growth and sexual awakening, tingling and erect like mosquito bites and rubbing against the muslin nachthemd she was wearing, she resolved to go on, mustering every ounce of courage to forge ahead into the thicket of the unknown woods from whence that weak moaning came.

She came upon a bundle of buckskin huddled on the ground and at first she mistook if for an abandoned heap of clothes but soon discerned that a person lay heaving and almost dead beneath the defeated clump. His buckskin breeches were thin and holey, but he lay swaddeled in a coat of sable with a hood drawn up over his face and to top it all off, he wore a cap of beaver on his head. A bundle of leather lay at his side.

Left by the wayside! Is that how you find yourself? she roared when she recognized her cowboy. Well, that serves ye right seeing as how that's how ye done me!

But her foolhardiness and bravado fled as quickly as the words were out of her mouth and the scare that she felt as she gingerly poked at him with a stick to see if she could get a rise out of him and be sure he was all right preoccupied her. For she loved him as deeply as ever, despite his inattentiveness, not to mention that they were still in danger of being attacked by Indians at any moment, though it appeared as if they were all alone in their Waldkathedrale, which is how she preferred to think if it. (Untamed and theirs.)

The woods were still and cold and suddenly the man stood bolt upright and grabbed her by the shoulders and said, My god — girl! Look at you! You're gorgeous!

It was as if he was seeing her for the first time! As if he'd never really taken notice of her at all on their way up here after he'd found her wandering around like a drowned rat in the prairies and had whisked her away up here into these mountains and left her for dead. Perhaps she had just grown up a lot or something in that time — there's no telling what was on his mind. And in this moment, she saw him in a new light, too, and saw that he was not nearly as old as he'd seemed to her in the prairie — why he surely was NOT old enough to be her father! And the cataracts had fallen out of his eyes and now they sparkled with the clear brilliance of mountain pools and forest kobolds and rays of sun, all flecked brown and green and yellow and blue at once and she was dazzled by him and felt her whole being shudder like a waterfall going over a gorge.

Had some enchantment been at work here? Had they nibbled from the opposite sides of a mushroom, causing her to grow up and him to grow younger so that they had somehow magically grown towards each other during their mutual yet separate vision quests so that they might become real partners and very well suited to embark on a new journey indeed?! In that moment, it seemed so!

The first thing he did after the dazzle passed was to reach for his bundle and fumble inside to see if his tools were still there and to his great joy they were! The penknife and the twig and the quill and the elderberry ink pot and the hides of parchment for writing on — all there — because, you see, he was a cowboy poet! (which explains why he wanted to head to the mountains with her and not stay down in the flatlands tending cattle.) He let out a whoop, so happy was he that all his tools were safe.

That rascal! he shouted, as he bounded to his feet, (and she figured, by that, that he must be meaning the trapper.) He wanted my territory and being somewhat younger and spryer than I, he almost succeeded in taking it away from me when he knocked me down and left me here to freeze or to feed the wolves! I had an idea he stole my tools, as well, but the blow I dealt him before I fell scared him off, I fancy, and here you are, my darling girl, right back where you belong with me.

Aurora was breathless at this proclamation and all flustered at the unexpected rush of his attention and recklessly blurted out, The drummer has made off with everyone's shoes and we must hasten to the village and set up our tannery so that we may cobble together the shoes from this leather I have procured in these mountains! Not a boy or a girl but needs shoes there!

And then she thought to add, as she came to her senses, Are you hurt, my cowboy? Look at your finger, it's bleeding! Let me kiss it.

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