The Invention of Fire
The water seeped past, groping for the dead.
It was early on an Ember Saturday, and low down along the deepest channel in London, Alan Pike braced for a fall. He sucked a shallow breath as beside him his son moved through the devilish swill. The boy’s arms were thin as sticks but lifted his full spade with a ready effort, even a kind of cheer. Good worker, young Tom, a half knob shy of fourteen, reliable, strong, uncomplaining, despite all a gongfarmer had to moan about-quite a heavy lot, helping the city streams breathe easy. Tom filled another bucket and hefted it to one of the older boys to haul above for the dungcart. From there it would be wheeled outside the walls, likely to feed some bishop’s roses.
Night soil, the mayor’s men primly called it, though it had commoner names. Dung and gong, fex and flux, turd and purge and shit. Alan Pike and his crew, they called it hard work and wages.
Dark work, mostly, as London didn’t like its underbelly ripped open to the sun, so here he was with his fellows, a full four hours after the curfew bell, working in the calm quiet a few leaps down from the loudest, busiest crossing in London. The junction of Broad Street, Cornhill and the Poultry, the stocks market, and everything else. The brassy navel of the city by day; a squalid gut in the night.
Alan squinted through the pitch, peering past his son down the jagged line of buildings spanning this length of the Walbrook. Twenty privies, by his estimate, most attached to private houses and tenements hulked up over the open stream, but two of the highest seats had been built to the common good for use by all. The Long Dropper, this great institution was called, and a farthing a squeeze the custom, the coins collected by a lame beggar enjoying the city’s modest gesture of charity toward its most wretched.
At night, though, no one was posted at the hanging doors up top. The parish was at a hush. The only sounds to be heard were the shallow breathing of his son, a faint snore from one of the houses above, the scurryings and chewings of the brook rats all round.
“Any closer, Father?” Tom, always respectful even when tired out, though Alan could tell he was ready to leave off. It had already been a long night.
“Let us have a look,” said Alan, lengthening his back, hearing a happy pop. He legged it through the muck and mud to the middle of the stream. Earlier they had rigged up a row of lanterns at either end of the stretch to light the crew’s work, show them what they were meddling with. In the past hour the stream had loosened up fairly well at the north end, but the water was still damming farther in, and as he squatted and peered through the stink he had to shift both ways to spy the three orbs of pale light at the far end of the clogged channel.
He shook his head, sucked a lip.
A major blockage, this one.
Something big. Something stuck. The Walbrook’s moderate flow should have pushed most anything down to the Thames. Not this lot, whatever it was. A pile of rotten lumber, could be. Or a horse, lamed on the street and shoved over the bank to struggle and drown, like that old mare they’d roped out of the Fleet Ditch last month. Whatever this bulk turned out to be, the Guildhall would hear about it, that was certain.
Alan turned to his crew. “Fetch me one of those lanterns there.” The young man behind Tom repeated the command to another fellow closer to the lamp string, who trudged back and removed one of the oil lamps dangling from the line. When Alan had it in his grip he held the light before him, up and to the side, and moved ahead.
One step, another. This section of the stream was almost impassable. Up to his hips now. The thick, nearly immovable sludge clung to his legs like a dozen rutting dogs. He had to will his body to move forward, every step a victory.
He was taking a risk, he knew that, and for what?
A gongfarmer’s pay was good enough, sure and certain, but one false step and he could be sucked right under, or release a pocket of devil’s air that would ignite and turn him into one of these lanterns, sizzling hair and all. Alan knew more than a few gongers who’d fallen to their deaths or close to it in these narrow depths. Why, just upstream from here, old Purvis crashed through the seat of a public latrine like the one over Alan’s head right now, poor gonger was rat food by the time they found him, a chewed mess of-
Then he saw it. A hand, pale and alone in the lamplight, streaked with brown and standing out against the solid mound of dung behind it.
“Father?” Tom’s worried voice came from behind.
Alan looked again. The hand was not severed, as he’d first feared. No, the hand was attached to an arm, and the arm was attached to another arm, looked like, and that arm, why, that arm was sprouting from a leg-no no no, from a head, but that was impossible, so then what in-
It bloomed in Alan Pike then, just what he was seeing. This was no pile of gong blocking the Walbrook, nor no horse neither. Why, this was-
“Father, what is it then?”
Tom, beside him now, peering ahead with that boy’s curiosity he had about most everything in the world. Alan heaved an arm, wanting to cover his son’s eyes against the devilish sight, but Tom pushed it aside and grasped the lamp and Alan let it go, a slow, reluctant loosing as the oily handle slipped from his grasp and then he felt Tom’s smaller, smoother hand against his own. Slick clasp of love, last touch of innocence.
They stared together, father and son, at this mound of ruined men. No words could come.
What use is a blind man in the face of the world’s calamities? Turn to Scripture and you will quickly learn that the blind are Pharisees and fools, sorcerers and unbelievers. The Syrian army blinded at the behest of Elijah (2 Kings 16). The blind and the lame banished from David’s house (2 Samuel 5). Horses smitten with blindness (Zachariah 12). More often the blind are mere figures of speech, emblems of ignorance and lack of faith. The blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14). The eyes of the blind, opened through the grace of the Lord (Psalm 146:8). The hand of the Lord rests upon thee, and thou shalt be blinded (Acts 13:11). Our proverbs, too, reek with the faults of the blind. Blind as a mole. Oh, how blind are the counsels of the wicked! Man is ever blind to his own faults, but fox-quick at perceiving those of others.
Blind blinded blinding blindness blind. What did the men who wrote such things know of blindness? What can I know? For I am not blind, not just yet, though I am well on my way. If the final dark of unsight is a dungeon in a dale I am halfway down the hill, my steps toward that lasting shadow lengthening with each passing week even as my soul shrinks against that fuller affliction to come.
Yet this creeping blindness itself is not the worst of it. Far worse is the swelling of desire. As my sight wanes, my lust for the visible world surges, a boiling pot just before the water is cast to the dirt. Dusted arcs of sunlight in the vaults of St. Paul’s, crimson slick of a spring lamb’s offal puddled on the wharf, fine-etched ivory of a young nun’s face, prickle of stars splayed on the night. Color, form, symmetry, beauty, radiance,
There are some small compensations. Sin is to human nature what blindness is to the eye, the blessed St. Augustine writes, and as the light dims, as crisp lines blur, I find I am discovering a renewed fondness for the weighty sensuality of sin and its vehicles. The caterpillar fuzz of parchment on the thumb. A thin knife slipped beneath the wax. The gentle
No pity for me, then. Save your compassion and your prayers for the starving, the maimed, the murdered. They need them far more than I do, and in the weeks that concern me here pity was in especially short supply. It was instead malevolence that overflowed the city’s casks that autumn, treachery that stalked laborer and lord alike up the alleys, along the walls, through the selds of Cheapside and the churchyards of Cornhill. And if the blind must founder in the face of monstrosity, perhaps a man clinging to his last glimpses of the visible world may prove its most discerning foe.
Sitting before me that September morning was my dead wife’s father. A mess of a man, skin a waxy pale, his clothing as unkempt as his accounting. A ...