The Crimson Flame
John D Ritchie

In the heat and smoky half-light of a forge, steel hammers ring on a steel billet. An old man, dressed in a snow-white kimono kneels before the anvil and sings the cadence, the ivory netsuke hanging from his obi swinging rhythmically as he sways. His words, their rhythm, and the stress on each syllable determining the force, the position and the timing of the hammer blows. Two apprentices kneel either side of the anvil, the third, and most experienced opposite the Master. The Master sings with his eyes closed, only the sound of the blows guiding him as to where the hammers should fall next. The apprentices strike even as the command is uttered so perfectly attuned are the four to one another.

As the work progresses the steel billet is thinned and stretched till it is twice its original length and half its thickness. The metal is then bent back upon itself and beaten until it is, as it was before: one piece, with no visible bend or join.

Now and then the steel is returned to the furnace where two more apprentices maintain a precise temperature by eye alone. Heaped piles of charcoal throb with heat and sparks fly up as the bellows blow air through the charred wood releasing gases trapped inside. The tormented steel groans as it is heated from red through orange, through yellow to white. When the steel returns to the anvil, a new face is turned to the hammers, and the cadence begins anew.

After ten days of beating and folding, heating and turning, over and over again, the steel is ready for shaping and tempering. The old man chants, the apprentices strike, and the steel billet becomes a thing of wonder. It takes on a curve of the most exquisite subtlety, a segment of a circle a thousand feet in circumference. The sides of the billet become thinner and thinner while the centre is held a precise fraction larger than the edges. The steel is being transformed into a blade of such purity and perfection it begins its own song under the blows of the hammers, a keening that thrills the very blood in my veins.

Then, abruptly, the Master stops singing. The hammers are arrested in mid-strike and hang motionless in the air. The last pure note from the blade drifts away into silence. The old man wraps a heavy cloth around his hand and grasps the red-hot tang of the sword. Raising the weapon before his face he bites his lip and spits a single drop of blood onto the smoking steel. For an instant the metal flares and becomes a leaping crimson flame. The Master smiles. It is done.

First published: May, 2010
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