Picture by Bods: Snow-topped underground sign at Colliers Wood
Tom knows he’s grown, and it makes him nervous: but surely he’s got one more year left. He chops trees and splits wood with care, slower than everyone else, trying to quell the too-enthusiastic growth of his muscles. He gains a reputation for skiving, but he stays light.
And cold: when the collier arrives Tom strips off his outer layer of clothing, eager to empasise his narrow limbs. He gets no acknowledgement. The collier looks past him, then runs his scarred hands over one of the cords of wood, turns around to survey the space.
“This’ll do nicely,” he says.
Suddenly everyone’s moving. Tom and the other farmers’ sons begin to shift the wood from its stacks, bringing it to the edge of clearing. The collier’s men brush the dirt clean, scooping away twigs and leaves, dropping any stones in a pile. The collier leans against a tree and watches; then walks slowly around the edge of the clearing, dragging a stick behind him, inscribing a forty-foot-wide circle. Later, Tom knows, the collier’s men will take the stones they’ve been piling up and lay them out along the shallow line.
Tom and the others aren’t allowed inside the circle, so they haul in quartered logs from more distant corners of the forest. The collier’s men take the logs and stack them tightly, airless around a central chimney.
It takes days for the wood to be stacked. By the time it’s finished, the pile is towering above everyone, three times Tom’s height and broad with it. Dirt’s been laid down thick over the top of the logs, leaving an artificial hill with nothing to give away its real purpose except the vents at the bottom and the chimney at the top.
The collier’s men lie on the peak of the mound, dropping twigs and dry bracken down the chimney. The collier walks around the base, looking it over one last time, reaching out once or twice to pat the dirt. There’s a torch already lit, stuck in the ground, just at the edge of the circle; when the men have slid down the slope of the mound, one of them (short, with a red beard) picks it up.
“Ready?” red-beard says.
The collier nods. Red-beard runs up the side, slowing as he reaches the crest, then he leans in the chimney, holding the torch before him. Silence. A curl of smoke, then another. Red-beard slides down, and the long burning begins.
On that first day, the smoke comes fat and grey, different to how Tom remembers it. Inside the mound, the wood is shrinking, and twice the collier calls on a grey-haired man, shorter than Tom, to stamp the dirt down and keep the smouldering wood under control. If there’s space for flames to break out beneath the earth, all their work will be reduced to mere ash.
On the second day, the smoke is thinner. The collier leaves some of the watching to his men; walks around the forest, comes into the village. Tom rushes out to offer him a piece of cheese.
On the fifth day Tom times his visit perfectly, emerging from the trees just as the collier stands up from his tent and frowns. Tom can’t read the smoke, but he can read the collier’s face—it’s time for another stamp-down, and the small grey-haired man is asleep, too drunk to wake.
“I can do it,” Tom says, and his voice sounds so loud in the quiet wood. “I did it last year twice, and three times the year before. I don’t know if you remember, you said it was nicely done.” Nobody remembers, he thinks, as soon as he’s said it. “I’m still pretty small,” he adds.
You need to be small and light for the stamping, though strong enough to put some heft into it as well. Sometimes the mound’s earth cladding collapses, and sends the stamper into the incipient charcoal below; and that means death, or disfigurement, unless you’re light enough to be dangled to safety on the end of a rope. Tom’s sure he can still do it. He’s sure.
The collier looks him up and down, then nods. “Rope’s over there,” he says, tilting his chin towards the far side of the clearing. Tom knows, of course—he’s watched five of this year’s stamp-downs from the edge of the clearing—but he doesn’t let on. He just walks around to the rope, and loops it around his waist.
It trails over a high branch, and one of the collier’s men, a big grimacing friend of red-beard, takes the other end. “Off you go then,” he says.
Tom wants to run straight up the warm mound, or spiral pell-mell around the bottom in joy. Instead he climbs up slowly, heading towards the chimney. The smoke (a strange pink-grey, this morning) comes up into his face in a rush of heat. He waits for big-grimace to pull the rope taut, then he starts stamping.
It takes a while, but he’s jubilant for every moment: the smoke, the mystery, the forest around him, the ring of stones centred on him and the fire. He stamps and stamps, and has to be told to stop, though his feet are sore and his legs are tired.
He comes back on day six, but his timing’s off; then on day seven he’s lucky again, and on day eight a spotty blond boy comes for him in the village, summoning him away. He’s been asked for. Not just tolerated, but asked for!
On the twelfth night, the smoke looks different even to Tom’s untrained eyes. He can’t sleep, of course, so he creeps out and finds the collier alone, circling the mound and watching.
“Almost done,” he says to Tom. “Tomorrow some time, probably.”
“Does it need stamping down again?” Tom says. “I don’t mind if there’s nobody to hold the rope.” The dirt’s never collapsed beneath him; he’s never felt safer than he does on the mound.
“No,” the collier says, “not yet. Maybe in the morning.”
“So you’ll all be leaving soon? Where are you going?” The villagers will wait at least ten days before digging the dirt clear, waiting for the newly-formed charcoal to cool; but the collier never waits.
The collier shrugs. “There’s a village up north. The wood’s not as good there, just pine.”
Tom’s surprised; he’d never thought that some wood might be worse. “Not much pine here,” he says.
“No,” the collier says. “It’s a good place, this one.”
Now’s the moment, Tom thinks; he’s imagined this converation so many times. “I, I’d like to see some of the other places, though,” he says. “Does pine burn differently?”
“It’s testy, pine,” the collier says. “Unreliable. You have to watch it.”
Silence again. “Do the different types of wood all make different types of smoke?”
The collier nods. “Different smells, different colours.”
It’s now or never, Tom thinks. He breathes deeply, then coughs.
“I wish my boy was as interested as you are,” the collier says, looking at him. “I’m training him up, of course. You’ve seen him around, he’s the one I sent to the village to fetch you that time.”
Oh. The boy: younger than him, not old enough yet for stamping down the dirt, but not far off it. Blond. Spotty.
“Still,” the collier says, “time to start teaching him what’s what. Give it another ten years and he’ll be the one camping out all night and waiting for the smoke to change. And I’ll have somewhere decent to sleep.”
Tom should, he think, be grateful; the collier has saved him the humiliation of asking to learn, and being refused.
“Should be done before sunset, by my reckoning,” the collier says, and squints at the mound again.
He’s right; in fact it’s not long past noon when he calls on his men to block the air vents and the chimney, and smother the slow burn. Early enough that the group leaves that same day. Tom stays inside.
At night, for the twelve nights before it’s safe to clear away the dirt, he lies on the mound and looks up, and then shuts his eyes to the lingering smell of smoke.