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Fiction #110
(published November 28, 2002)
The Crispin and How She Learned the Secret of Swabian Leather Tanning, part 2 of 2
by Aurora Fadlan

I would love to get my blood on you, he said and let her suck the injured digit and then wrap her red hankie around it and hold it tenderly, applying pressure to staunch the flow for a moment before snatching it away again and stroking his pouch filled with his precious tools.

Mainly I'm hungry is what I am, not hurt, he quickly countered. Have you a roll about you? Any old roll will do, even a salty one that's gone stale; I could eat a bear!

No, I haven't any rolls, she answered, scared of his sudden change of mood again. All I have is candy corn. O, and this old pouch of plums.

Why, I love candy corn, you dear girl, he exclaimed, and not just at Halloween either. And as for your plums, I don't think you know how many plums you have in that pouch of yours. That reminds me of a saying from the old country and I say it's high time I took you there and gave you your little adventure, because it's time for you to get the news and take stock of how many plums you really do have in there, he said with a wink.

And suddenly she felt they really were the same age and it was the magic age of 39 when you've had enough experience and heartbreak under your belt that you finally understand nothing and can really savor and appreciate the beauty of a good meal of candy corn and plums.

Who knocked you down cowboy? she asked as he got up from her side and went to squat at their campfire, stirring the embers and blowing on the kindling so that they might lay naked like this all through the night and not freeze and so that he might not have to take his eyes off the lovely girl as she lay curled up on the bearskin as the lights of the campfire and the heavens played upon her skin.

O some young whipper snapper who had a mind to lame me so I could never get to the village (and by that she knew it was the trapper of whom he spoke). He wanted my trade but I had a mind to show him that there was still life in these bones yet. And with that he hurried over to his pouch and began to count over his tools again.

She was embarrassed at having lost his attention again and took out her ditty bag and looked her tools over, too, just so as to deflect the hurt she felt in his interest in his tools over his interest in her which she feared had been quickly replaced again, now that he'd lain in bliss with her upon the skins.

The cowboy didn't have a very long attention span she noticed and she was getting mildly annoyed about that.

So she opened her bag and saw that her tools were indeed all there — the large and small awls, the stout needles, the wax and the threads, the fat little hammers for pegging soles to uppers — all the kit of a shoe maker of our long ago days. Well, when he saw what she really did have in her ditty bag, the cowboy sat up and took notice, you can bet on that! He said, Why what you have there is like something out of the old days, the days when a faithful craftsman traveled from one place to the next, making all the families footwear in the farmhouses where he stayed for the nights it took to complete the task of producing the family's yearly need of footwear. The families tended to honor the shoe maker with a special ration of cinnamon in their puddings and by making special pies and rolls, for the shoemaking time was a festive time of renewal for these families who longed to have the monotony of daily life broken by the annual visit of the shoemaker — when having a shoemaker at one's house for a week or two meant that father would have his stout pair of work boots and mother, her dainty kid slippers for going to meeting. A shoemaker was an honest and trusted and faithful worker and his shoes would wear for two years with care.

And Aurora said, Yes, I know all about that but on the trails . . . O ho — watch out! There is a feeling of rivalry upon the footpaths. Sometimes the shoemakers will knock each other down in their rivalry! They are called crispins, quaint and dignified, so named for the Roman Christian missionaries in Gaul — St. Cripsin — the patron saint of shoemakers! Why those crispins will try to take over their rivals' village if they can knock you down and run on ahead!

Haven't you got a home lass? The cowboy suddenly thought to ask of her, after all these many weeks on the trail together.

Uh well, yes I do, she hesitated, but I long to see foreign parts, for I tire of my trade and all the competition and commotion and infighting on the trail with the other crispins. I'd rather do what you're doing, she ventured to say, feeling especially daring, and he smiled wryly, already having recognized what was in her heart and knowing it all too well.

I can tell you that a girl who wants to travel will when her time comes, he continued. But first, take me to your homeland. I will give your mother the first chance to sample the wares from my trade this season and we shall see if it is to her liking. And lass, fear not, for I promise you that if you stick to your apprenticeship in this leather business of tanning hides and softening them in order to turn them into something really useful and I don't just mean shoes in which to dance and even fly about in but also things like drum heads and banjo skins, with which to make music and really sing, and pages of books to fill of the finest parchment with elegant hide covers, then I know a little village where I will take you and there they have the secret for curing leather that a king would give his crown to learn. This land lies far, far away, even beyond the sun and the moon, but it is not unreachable for you and when you get there, I'll warrant that you will learn this rare marvel of making leather. Leather which is as soft as a baby's cheek. Furthermore, it comes out the most beautiful hue of reddish pink that you've ever set your eyes upon — like rose madder! And it is so versatile that it may be used for everything from the purses for ladies to the traveling bags used by gentlemen to a saddle bag for your one true love — your cowboy (he said with a wink). I am too old to take this trip, too tired and too sad, but I know the name of the village where the secret is kept and I can even draw you a map on how to get there.

She started to protest but in this moment she saw that it was true! He wasn't her age at all, as she had thought when he was tumbling her by their fire; he was about 8 years older!

He continued, I am grateful to you for coming to me for help, but I urge you to leave me now and go there. Have your adventure! Find the secret!

Hungry, tired and cold, defeated by life's sorrows, he lit a fresh pine knot and handed it to her. She reached out to him once more, tears obscuring her vision, but he stood fast, unmovable, leaning upon his stick and in that moment, her heart flew open and she resolved to do this thing for him, for herself, for them! For she saw that she could do it and in so doing, restore his youth to him and fill him up with hope again like a spring rain coming down on freshly ploughed fields, the kind of rain that's needed to push the green shoots forward in the ever cycling dance of renewal! She felt her power — it was bubbling up out of her — she knew not from where it came if not from a deep well of ineffable sorrow and nothingness and yet she felt it and in so doing, knew that she could give it definition and a shape all its own!

And they left that spot and found a sheltering cave and entered in for the night and there before the crackling fire she danced for him, shyly at first, until his laughing eyes lit up and drank her in, driving her into a frenzy and in her boldness, he forgot all about his weariness and grabbed for her once again and tumbled her in the bearskins for a second time and she felt the leather of his back soften under her fingertips.

Yes the cowboy forgot all about his weariness and was so strong and brave that it was she who felt weak then, as if every time one of them surged, the other's energy must be drained. Yes, that was how it was and it was right, this dance of give and take, like a perfect harmony — the pull of the tides away from the shores and the swell of the waves crashing back in again. And with the very next day break after the night in the cave where they'd rocked each other in perfect cadence, he whipped up a poem and she a pair of dancing slippers, and all was fine in their world. And they set off the next morning to the home of her parents which suddenly had been, as if by magic, transported to a rural village high in the Swabian Alps and not in the Adirondacks at all. For Swabia, she was to discover, was not only the cowboy poet's home, it was her own true home.

It might have gone hard for the old poet if he had come home to Swabia alone or with another poet in tow, but bringing in a cripsin! Why the whole village turned out with garlands and ribbons and trenchers of Swabian Easter eggs dyed all the lovely shades of the wild flowers and goblets of plum wine! And in the excitement, they escorted him and his young match to the bench in the corner of the greatest, biggest kitchen of all — the one that belonged to the most respected and beloved old crone in the village who went by the name of Daisy. And the tap, tap, tap of Aurora's hammer pegging the shoes rang out through the village as her cowboy sat pensively by, arched over his hide parchments composing the epic prose poem that would immortalize their journey. And the children of the village gathered to peer in through the greasy window panes and admire the growing ranks of rosy hued shoes that lined the bench.

She was working so hard running in and out of the house all day long, stoking the fires under the vats where her leather lay curing, stirring and minding the cauldron, and then tacking the hides up to dry on the sides of the barn and then running back in to cut and cobble the next pair of shoes, also keeping the poets' secret, that she felt she really would one day realize her dream, even though she knew that it doesn't always happen that ones' dreams come true, yet knowing that one way of helping along a dream is to keep it ever in the back of ones' mind like a glowing ember while going about ones' daily work and never forgetting it, but just letting it grow like the succulent plums that ripen plump and juicy under the Swabian sun and with time, are ready for the picking and the making of wine. And that was what Aurora did, even as she worked her fingers to the bone, she did so cheerfully and with her eyes always on her dream. And it was easy for her because she was filled with love, especially love for the cowboy who believed in her.

So this is the story of Aurora's summer's apprenticeship, the time she spent learning all she could about leather in the old duchy of Swabia. And when she returned to the Adirondacks at the end of the summer, she found that the Yankee inventions were indeed being found to be of value all over this great land, and that her town was the center of industry, making not only important, small things that all homes need in order to hum along, like clocks and horseshoes, needles and pins, threads and spool cabinets, fish nets and hooks, but also things such as story dream pillows and map cupboards and hats! Not to mention all the luxury goods in sturdy jars and books — My God! The books! Shelves lined with books — O the riches of this town!

And to this she added the idea she had brought with her from Swabia — of making heavy leather girdles in such a fashion where the wheels of a humming machine could be run instead of by the means of the very clumsy hand made and time consuming methods of former times. And they prospered.

And in the meantime, she and her cowboy had become something like the new nation's interpreters, helping gods and goddesses of the old world literary kingdoms to understand a new language of freedom and growth. Yes, and it was all thanks to the secret of Swabian leather tanning, a simple process as is the case with all great innovations — you simply steep the hardened hides in a mixture of oak, hemlock, and willow and boil them until they are as soft as the mossy floor of the woodlands where she'd grown up and the color of the roots and pine boughs as sunlight filters through, and smear them with a solution of stinky emollient, and when all is said and done and the dishes are washed for the evening, what you have is a beautiful and more useful leather than has ever before been known in the High Peaks. Lo! More pliable and versatile than anyone thought possible. And it was worth waiting for.


And years later, it is said that the Grey Wanderer came riding through Nirvana and came upon an old, though somewhat younger drummer — he was actually a very famous old drummer, by the name of David Grohl, and the Grey Wanderer took one look at his drum head and recognizing the supple pinkish red hue, started to ask him a question, but before the thought was even out of his mouth, the drummer jumped up from his drum set with glee and burst out singing, "Hell yes, I remember Aurora!"

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