Because I’m impatient and really love this story… here’s a sneak peek at my latest WIP for National Novel Writing Month in all its raw, unedited glory.
Copyright: R. MacCeile 2019
The sun slowly began to peek over the horizon as Paul shuffled quietly down the street. He had been making the same journey for nearly sixty years: three short city blocks from his well kept brownstone to his small jewelry shop. He sighed heavily as he dug into the left pocket of his well worn khaki slacks, searching blindly for his keys. After several moments he produced a large silver keychain.
“There you are, old friend.” He mumbled to his reflection which shone back brightly in the orange hue of the morning sun.
He paused for a moment and carefully studied himself in the reflection as he read the small inscription: Wilson’s Jewelry Emporium Est. July 1955. He remembered the day that he hammered those words gingerly into the soft sterling. It felt like no time had passed at all. He ran his finger over the letters who’s edges had softened with time and care; then he inserted the small brass key into the lock and opened the heavy wooden-framed door.
Cynthia, his daughter, had always lectured him about maintaining the original door to his business. While he had upgraded the windows with modern security measures, he was somewhat sentimental about the door. Unbeknownst to Cynthia, Paul and his late wife Wanda had inscribed their initials quietly into the corner of the frame. He knew it was somewhat of a security risk, but he still felt obligated to keep it. The door creaked in protest as it closed softly behind him.
“I know, old girl. The weather is starting to turn. It hurts my old bones too.” Paul spoke softly as he continued around to each of the small shop windows to lift the security gates and allow the sun to shine through the windows. Once the windows were opened and the sun shone brightly illuminating the small space, Paul set about uncovering and organizing the display cases. He was exceptionally proud of his displays. Ninety percent of the jewelry in his shop he had crafted himself. Being a silversmith wasn’t just a way to make a living. Paul put time and soul into each of his pieces. If the customer wanted to know the story behind a piece before making a purchase, Paul could tell them. He remembered each detail as if he were speaking of his own children.
Of course, in today’s modern society many of his customers no longer cared about the intricacies of hand made items, and were only concerned with the bottom line. How much does it cost, and do you finance? That was all he ever seemed to discuss with his patrons lately, many of whom were sons and daughters of his very first customers. It was nice to have the loyalty of his patrons, however, Paul desperately missed the genuine interactions and true appreciation for his work.
After removing the covers from his stock and turning the lights on in each small display case, Paul stopped to stretch his aging back before walking over to unlock the door and flip the sun-faded sign baring his business hours to open. He paused and looked out the window into the quiet city street. A few of his neighboring business owners were beginning to make their way in for the day. Cars began to line the limited spaces in front of the small row of shops as birds fought over small crumbs they had procured from dumpsters nearby.
Paul loved his shop and the small neighborhood boro it occupied. As if a stark reminder, his arthritic hand began to throb. He knew his days as a jeweler were slowly drawing to a close, but he wasn’t ready to give up his irons just yet.
He walked behind the counter and began to set up his desk for the afternoon. The local high school would be releasing it’s latest graduates in the coming months and had been charged with making a lot of custom class rings. It was a service he offered since the shop first opened, but each year the number of students willing to spend the extra cost to receive a custom ring was dwindling. Out of the latest class of several hundred students, Paul was only charged with making twenty rings.
He opened his workbench and carefully lay each of his tools upon the velvet cloth that had protected them from the elements for so many years. He admired each as he checked them for damage or other wear and tear. He had practiced this ritual each day for so many years it had become a habit. His tools weren’t getting nearly as much use as they had been in years past, but he felt compelled to check them at the beginning of each day regardless.
As he finished setting the tools on the table, he briefly paused to admire them. They were the only remaining friends from his youth; everyone else had passed on either from life itself or from the neighborhood. Paul had his children, but he was at odds with them more often than not. They loved him and wanted the best for him in his ripe old age, but somewhere between teenagehood and adulthood, they had forgotten their father was capable of taking care of himself. His arthritis flared up occasionally, and he wasn’t as quick on his feet, but he was still a man in command of his business and his life.
His face inadvertently scowled as the thought of Cynthia’s latest lecture and he huffed as he rose from the small stool to don his leather apron. He carefully tied the worn straps around his waist before returning to his seat and adjusting his glasses.
Paul just picked up his mandrel when the bell above the door let out a loud jingle. A rather tall man dressed in a smart suit and cap entered the shop.
“Hello, welcome to Wilson’s Jewelry Emporium. Can I help you, sir?” Paul called as he folded his glasses before sticking them into his breast pocket and rising to meet his guest.
“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for someone to make a custom pendant for my wife. Is that something you can help me with?” The gentleman asked, politely removing his cap.
“Let me see. Do you have something specific in mind?” Paul answered honestly.
“I do. Are you familiar with the significance of the Shinto Omamori custom?” Paul’s guest asked cryptically.
“No. I can’t say that I am.” Paul answered honestly.
“Ah, well briefly for time’s sake, I have an appointment, as part of the Shinto religion a priest often inscribes small talismans to provide luck or protection from the various kami. Kami, being deities. I’d like to have a specific inscription made as a necklace for my wife.” The gentleman explained.
Paul thought heavily.
“I’m not a priest, sir. I don’t think that…” Paul began.
“Oh yes. I know. I’m not concerned with that. Can you make the inscription?” The gentleman interrupted.
“Well, yes. It should be a simple project. I just don’t know if I’m entirely comfortable with it. If it has a religious significance it should be created by someone who practices the religion. It’s a matter of respect.” Paul answered.
The gentleman smiled warmly.
“I deeply appreciate your concern. I assure you, Mr. Wilson if you’re able to manufacture the pendant for me, you are more than worthy.” The gentleman insisted.
Paul looked intently at the gentleman standing before him. He couldn’t figure him out. He was tall, with grey almost white hair, broad shoulders and his suit had been impeccably tailored. He could go anywhere to have this piece of jewelry made for his wife. He could probably afford the flight to Japan if he sincerely wanted to. Paul couldn’t understand why he would seek out a small independent shop like his.
“You have a very good reputation, Mr. Wilson. I traveled a long way to visit you this morning. I admire your principals, and if you choose not to take my commission I understand. Please, give me a call. I have to be going. I’ll be in town until tomorrow evening.” The gentleman said producing a business card from within his jacket. “This symbol, it’s Kanji representing happiness and good fortune. Please consider.” Mr. Johnson explained as he pointed to a small character printed on the reverse of his car.
Paul took the card and fumbled with his glasses. Once his glasses were precariously perched on the bridge of his nose he peered at the card again.
“I’ll consider it Mr… Johnson,” Paul answered.
“Thank you. I really hope you will take the commission, Mr. Wilson. Have a wonderful afternoon. I look forward to hearing from you.” Mr. Johnson said with a small bow as he placed his hat back on his head and quickly walked out the door.
Paul turned to place the business card and his glasses back into his breast pocket as the bell above the door let out a bright jingle once again. He turned around expecting to see Mr. Johnson had returned for something, but instead he was met with only the shop and his wares gleaming brilliantly in the mid-morning sun.
“Hello?” Paul called.
He was met instead with another jingle of the doorbell and a quiet draft of cool air.
“Odd,” Paul mumbled to himself as he sat down to his workbench and returned to his project.
The day wore on with no additional foot traffic. Paul was able to finish his commissioned class rings and sit down to design the pendant for Mr. Johnson. He began with a simple square and decided that he would chisel the design by hand. These days he often opted for his electronic burr to facilitate quick and easy engraving, but for Mr. Johnson, he knew the piece needed the loving attention that only hand engraving could offer. He checked the measurements of his sketch twice more before rising from his workbench and heading to the stockroom. He carefully selected a medium length silver box chain and small blank square pendant that he had been saving for the holiday season.
“I guess these will do. I don’t believe I’ll have Marry and Babbette’s custom order this year.” Paul muttered to himself as he held the pendant and chain next to one another comparing the luster and color of the two. When he was satisfied that he found a match, he returned to his workbench and laid them out side by side.
Leaving his workbench he made his way to the front door and gently flipped the sign to display the “closed” script before throwing the lock and turning out the lights in each display case. He quietly returned each velvet cover to their proper places and stretched his back once again before taking his seat at the bench and reaching into his pocket and pulling the business card Mr. Johnson had left out. He lay it on his workbench and pulled out his glasses. Once he could properly read the number, he picked up his cordless telephone and dialed it carefully.
The line buzzed several times before the classic ring tone filled Paul’s ear. He waited patiently as it rang several times until a chipper female voice called: “Hello, Mr. Johnson’s Office, how may I help you?”
“Yes, hello. This is Paul Wilson. I just wanted to let Mr. Johnson know that I will be happy to fulfill his commissioned order. I should have it ready within the week. If he would like to discuss the cost he can reach me at 342-0908 between the hours of 9 am-7 pm.” Paul explained quickly, but clearly.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Mr. Johnson will be pleased to hear that. What was the number again?” The cheerful receptionist asked as she shuffled paper around and clicked a pen.
“342-0908,” Paul repeated.
“Thank you, Mr. Wilson. I’ll relay the message to him as soon as possible.”
“Thank you… I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name?” Paul asked, but before he could finish his question the line went dead.
“Well, I guess that’s that then.” Paul huffed as he returned the phone to its cradle and began to gather his things and head home for the evening. He considered storing the chain and blank pendant overnight but instead opted to leave them on his workbench. Aside from Mr. Johnson no one had even window shopped at the store. There was no reason to think anyone would even notice the small shop after hours.
Paul quietly returned his tools to their drawers, slipped on his coat and headed for the door. Before he could reach the door a cold wind blew from behind him, voraciously ringing the doorbell, and launching the old door wide open.
“What on Earth?” Paul exclaimed as he quickly grabbed the large wooden door to prevent it from breaking the hinges. As soon as his foot crossed the threshold the wind stopped. “Now you hold on just a minute there… whatever you are. Don’t show up and make a mess of my shop, or I’ll call Mr. Johnson back right now and cancel the order,” Paul scolded gesturing broadly at the emptiness around him.
Paul was met with an eerie silence as he quietly closed the door and engaged the lock.
“I must be tired. I need to get home and lie down. Goodnight, old girl.” Paul whispered as he patted the door handle as if he were saying goodbye to an old friend before heading down the street toward home.
The next morning Paul shuffled into the shop as usual ready to begin his day the same way that he began his days for the past sixty four years. He opened the door carefully, paused to admire the initials carved into the frame and listened to the slow squeak of tired hinges as the door closed behind him. He reached for the lightswitch entirely out of habit while simultaneously clicking the lock on the door behind him. As the old florescent lights flickered to life and his eyes adjusted he was met with shock.
“What in the world?” He gasped.
The shop was immaculate, and each display case had already been opened for the business day. Each piece filling the display case was sparkling with a freshly polished gleam that Paul hadn’t seen in ages. Concerned at this strange turn of events, Paul immediately rushed to the back room to check his inventory. At first glance it didn’t appear that anything was missing from each of the display cases in the front room, but he couldn’t understand who or what would gain access to the shop simply for the purpose of polishing his wares.
Much to Paul’s relief he found the safe securely locked, and what little cash he kept on hand in the change fund balanced. He relaxed slightly as he set about taking a thourogh inventory of the front display cases. Each piece was exactly where he left it, the only difference was the polish and missing dust covers.
“Huh. Well… whatever you are, thank you. I don’t know why you did that for me, but I did need to clean up the inventory. Where did you put my dust covers?” Paul spoke, looking out into the empty shop.
Suddenly, a loud thump sounded from behind him next to his work bench. He slowly turned around expecting to see an intruder lurch out at him, but instead saw the dust covers strewn across the floor. It looked like they had been neatly folded on his bench and fallen to the floor.
At that, Paul laughed.
“Alright. You’ve had your fun Mr. Johnson. Who’s here? Where have you been hiding?” Paul called as he bent down to retrieve the dust covers and return them to their proper home.
He was answered with only silence and a gentle breeze brushing past his face.
“I admit those are some pretty fancy tricks you’ve got there, but I’m too old to fall for the whimsical magic thing, Mr. Johnson.” Paul mumbled again with a chuckle as he continued the necessary chores to open the shop for the business day.
Soon he flipped the sign to display the faded open, and made his way to the work bench. He carefully placed his tools within reach, tied his apron, donned his glasses and sat down to work. The chain and pendant were exactly where he left them the night before. Considering the other events of the morning, he was slightly surprised to find them undisturbed. He carefully placed the pendant into the desk top vice and made sure it was secure before digging out the business card Mr. Johnson left with the symbol he requested.
Paul traced the design with painstaking precision into a rubber stamp; then he carefully pressed the stamp into the ink pad and onto the pendant. When he was satisfied that the design was centered and symetrical, he carefully selected the necessary scorper and pressed it into the soft sterling silver. After the rough design began to show through, he replaced the scorper with a spit stick and really brought the design to life.
Paul spent the previous evening researching various techniques to recreate kanji correctly. Normally, the characters were painted with careful brush strokes onto parchment or silk. He took great care to recreate the fluid brush strokes as he honed the design. Paul was entranced with his work. He took care to perfect each piece he created, but something about this pendant was different. Once he finished the engraving he paused to look at his work.
Mr. Johnson hadn’t been very specific in exactly what he wanted the design to look like, other than he wanted the kanji to be inscribed in a necklace. Paul watched the light reflect off the newly cut pendant and decided that it needed something else. Time would eventually tarnish the negative space left by the metal Paul had carefully removed. Silver was a fickle metal. It wouldn’t take much for the oxidation to become obvious, and yet he still thought the piece was missing something.
He scowled at the piece as he thought of what he could do to make the kanji stand out against the bare metal. He thought about paint, but that seemed like a cheap short cut. He could oxidize the negative space chemically, but it was a risky proceedure that might damage the integrity of the pendant all together.
“What do I need, huh?” Paul spoke quietly to the empty room.
As if to answer his crucible began to rattle on the shelf across the room. The flash of recognition shone over his expression. Niello, it was perfect. The process would be time consuming, and he was certainly out of practice but the deep black contrast was just what the pendant required. He carefully left the pendant snug in the vice as he stood up, stretched his back and began gathering the necessary tools and ingredients for the niello.
He shuffled to and fro in his storage room first collecting his crucible, torch and ladle. He returned to his work bench setting everything down in a carefully arranged order; then set about firing the furnace necessary for preparing the various ingredients. Working with heat and flame was one of his favorite parts of being a silversmith, however it was time consuming and dangerous work as his youthful eyesight began to wane. Normally if he required the furnace or any other molten metal work he would schedule a time for Cynthia to help him. This time, he made an exception.
The furnace roared to life as he ignited the burner and made sure to double check the temperature. He glanced at his watch and noted the time the furnace should be at the proper temperature and continued back to the store room to collect the rest of his materials. A few moments later he set the necessary ingredients down next to the crucible as he fetched his tongs and double checked the temperature of the furnace.
He carefully secured the delicate crucible into place with the tongs, grabbed his well worn leather fireproof gloves and set to work. He slowly added the proper ingredients to the crucible as it reached the correct temperature and began to glow red hot. The metal sparked and hissed as it began to melt. Paul had forgotten how much it thrilled him to watch something so strong, yet so delicate melt into a puddle. He left the crucible and his mixture to sit as he prepared the second half of the niello equation.
Using his third hand stand, he set up the steel melting ladle above the small flame of his torch. He carefully flipped on the over head exhaust hood to draw the fumes out; then set to work melting and mixing the lead and sulfur necessary to bond the niello mixture to the sterling. It was a quick process that resulted in a burst of smoke and hiss of flames. Soon, the two mixtures were ready to be joined into one furious fire.
The metal seemed to dance as he combined the mixtures and stirred them with a steel stirring rod. Where the lead and other metal had been glowing with liquid heat as individuals everything immediately became a dark black bubbling cauldron as soon as the two were mixed.
“Ha! I’ve still got it.” Paul called proudly to himself watching the metals mix and meld to the proper consistency.
He continued to stir a little bit more, just to ensure the proper mixture before he completed the smelting process by cooling the niello in a flux bath of ammonium chloride. As soon as the molten metal hit the liquid bath it began to break into small pieces as if it had been shocked. Paul carefully collected the grannuals and added them to his pestle where he ground them into a thin paste.
When the paste was complete Paul began to apply the niello around the delicate kanji inside the charm. He took the smallest spatula in his tool kit and carefully scooped the mixture from the cauldron and took great care to place it perfectly within the fragile lines.
As he carefully inspected his finished product, he flipped on the small heat lamp near his work bench and lay the newly formed piece under the heat to dry. He loved the way the niello’s deep blackness seemed to make the sterling pop out from the back ground. It was exactly what he invisioned when he started the project and he swelled with pride as he watched the finished product jump from his imagination and into reality.
Paul busied himself cleaning the rest of his materials as the pendent would need time to dry before he could complete the process. He made a bit extra niello and would need to store it as well as making sure his crucible was clean and prepared for the next time he might need it. The cleaning process was tedious but he enjoyed it. His father had always told him that cleanliness was next to godliness after all, and worked hard to instill the love of order and attention to detail that would serve Paul well later in life.
Of course as a child, Paul was resistant to follow his father’s advice. He felt compelled to blaze his own trail as he left home a headstrong, independent teenager. As the years wore on, eventually Paul was able to see the wisdom in his father’s words and applied them to his profession. Now, at the ripe old age of eighty one, Paul couldn’t imagine doing things any other way. Everything had a place, and everything was in its place as long as Paul had something to say about it.
Once the rest of his tools were clean and properly stored away, Paul checked on the pendent. It was ready for firing. This process would require something a bit different than a furnace or a torch. Paul carefully picked up the pendant and carried it across the shop to the small kiln he kept primarily for any pieces involving niello. The kiln had been sorely neglected in recent years.
“Oh my. I guess it’s been a bit longer than I thought.” Paul coughed as he brushed a thin layer of dust from the outside of the kiln and it’s controls. “Old girl, don’t burn down the house.”
Paul turned around to find a suitable firebrick to support the pendant during the firing process, and when he turned back to the kiln he met a swirl of dust and ash.
“Hey! Hey now, that’s enough!” Paul called waving his free hand in front of his face to disperse the dust and ash sent aloft.
As quickly as it started, the dust cloud and ash settled quietly to the floor. The kiln was left immaculate in its wake.
Paul stared at the kiln; then turned completely around surveying every small space where a person might be able to hide. Finding no evidence of anyone besides himself in the shop he returned to the task at hand. He selected the correct temperature on the controls and lit the kiln. It wouldn’t take long for the kiln to reach the proper temperature and soon he would be able to see the fruits of his labor. He was excited at the opportunity to watch the niello set. It was one of his favorite parts about the technique. He sat the pendant and the firebrick carefully on the counter next to the kiln and shuffled his way back to the front of the shop. He glanced at his watch, and the shadows outside the shop windows. He spent nearly the entire business day carefully working on the piece for Mr. Johnson. Time had passed so quickly he was almost unaware of it.
“Hmm…” He muttered, again looking at his watch. “I think I have time to finish this part tonight. The polishing will have to wait until tomorrow.”
As if the kiln could hear his thoughts the timer alerting him that the temperature was ready sounded. He paused, to listen for the sound again in complete disbelief. The kiln usually took at least half an hour to reach the proper temperature. After a few moments, the sound clearly rang through the shop.
“I’ll be…” Paul gasped returning to the kiln and double checking the settings.
Heat radiated off of the small kiln and the red glow of the filiments could be seen through the small heat resistant glass door.
“Well, whatever you are, you’re kind of handy to have around. I’ll be sad to see this piece go.” Paul chuckled to himself as he donned his leather gloves, and carefully placed the firebrick with the pendent nestled snuggly on top directly into the kiln before shutting the door.
Due to the heat of the kiln it didn’t take long before the niello began to bubble into a white haze as the flux spread and evaporated from the mixture. Like a thunderstorm rolling across the horizon, the white haze soon gave way to a dull red glow; then a bright red glow and eventually the niello melted and set itself into the negative space left behind by Pauls careful craftsmanship.
Paul watched every process with a growing smile across his face. He loved taking raw materials that others would find lack luster or useless and turning them into something coveted by even the most persnicketty of customers. As the bubbling began to subside and the niello settled, paul removed the brick and pendent from the flames to inspect his work.
The first application was flawless and Paul swelled with pride.
“I’ve still got it, Whatever You Are. Look at that. Just look at that.” Paul laughed as he carefully removed his gloves and set the fire brick on top of them. The pendent would have to cool over night before it was ready for polishing.
He smiled again as he tripple checked the pendent for quality, before shutting down the equipment and closing the shop for the day.