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Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
from The Iron Boys

R__icky did it. Ricky did it. Ricky did it. Very first thing that bird say to me that day. Neverll I forget it. Eighteen aught somethin there about. Ever year since come out a that year. Thats the year the birds begin to talk. Why do years got numbers I wonder. Seem like they didn always.

Eighteen what off I mark it. April. Im crossin the field up beyond the mullein slope. Where Old Jasper had his sackin shed. Used to be a sheeps keep. Course you wont know that now. All the inclosures. Builders draggin in iron shafts an gear wheels. Boilers spittin out chunk an scut. Engine oil all over. Now ever pile a shithouse brick got a mayor an a magistrate.

Well I dont go up there no more. Look at me. Im nothin but a stump sunk in a bucket without these two iron wheels rollin under me arse. Wernt it lovely though to have two roamin legs when the world was young. Course I aint old yet. Not quite. But you know how that goes.

Air smell like fresh cake that day. Not a thought in the world an sudden as your aunts granny a little pipper hop down on a branch right beside this ear. Start flickin his tail an talkin to me. Ricky did it. Ricky did it.

Well what a that youre thinkin. An Im thinkin it too. So I ask him back. Whos Ricky. Whadideedo. Whos Ricky. Whadideedo. An you know that scruffy little fistfull he cork over his red an yellow head. Bead me with his eye look just like a apple seed an says to me. Right to me face mind you. What if he didn. What if he didn. What if he didn.

Well I got no time for scotch banter so I swat that little pecker off his branch an dang he hit the ground dead as dick diddly. Not a scraw more out of him. Not one more word. So I get no answer to my questions that day. I pluck a little wing feather off him to pick out the next piece a apple peel get stuck in my teeth. That little guy he might a been a nutbeater I reckon. Or a beehatch or wax tit what all I know about em. Never did learn the proper names a things.

Only Ricky I knowd then was Pank House. Called Ricky by some I dont know why. He didn like it. Next day Im thinkin on what it is Pank done that might start a bird to talkin.

So its a day or two later. Im workin for George Withy as I done back then. Not in the manufactory proper. Just doin this an that for the man hisself. Im sleepin at the sack house. There aint enough light to make you roll over yet. Then I hear him again. Differnt little guy there on the window sill. Cock bunting it could be this time or maybe a wagtail lark. He stretch up his beak. Throat all swole out proud. Chirp as sharp as a pump handle creak. Ricky did it. Did it did it. Ricky did it. Did it did it. Then he sit there quiet. Tip his head back an forth lookin down at me. First one side then the other. Thats a rum thing about birds. Got two eyes but they cant decide.

Its just the touch a dawn as I say. So I talk to the little guy quiet as I can. Tryin not to wake nobody though you dont want to whisper to a bird. He will not understand you. I figure I charm a little rhyme at him. Pretty little bird. What say you. Did he or didn he. Tell me do. Now some a the ladies they think if its a bird its pretty. Simple as that. Tween you an me just like the ladies some is an some aint.

However. It is a fact as the Black Book says. A cage full a birds is a house full a lies. Pretty or no a birdll twit you twenty times to tell you one thing true. So when this little guy fly off I think god rid an fare well an I would a gone right back down to sleep. But then the mornin whistle up at Withys put steam in my ears an the mill hammers start clankin like it were never before instead a your daily grind.

Week or so on Pank hisself may a answered my question without my even askin. Ever ones at the Green Lion. Its fightin hour. Mill people all shufflin about. Pay in a pisspot. Poundin on the tables. Panks hunched down in his coat. Im sittin next to him tryin to tell if its water in the bitter or whats wrong with him now.

You hear a Ned Ludds army he says. He dont hardly move his lips except they come down on the M when he says army with a kind a snarl. I says Ludds name be on ever bodys tongue. You got your petitions Pank says. Your songs. Your letters in the Notifier. Its Ned Ludd this. Ned Ludd that. Ned Ludd piss an Ned Ludd shat. Ned Ludds weavin em in Pank says. Theys startin to call him King. Thats the story any road. But whos doin the weavin he says. An whos tellin the story.

Then Pank pull out a little leather pouch. Bout the size you can hide inside your fist if you got to hide it an your fist is big enough. In heres iron seed he says. Iron seed. You ever see that before. What come from plantin iron seed I says. Must be iron apples.

Pank look at me like I know somethin. Shakes the bag. Little shump shump in there. Many a these be sowed all over now he says. Ever sheep meadow garden plot an green yonder. What rise up is your black smoke everwhere bloomin out the factory stacks. What you doin with em then I says.

Here he says. He take somethin from his inside pocket. Look like a horseshoe but not much biggern a babys tongue. I says thatd shoe a pony bout the size a my dog. Course I aint had a dog since Rat Tail Jack run off an Pank know that. You watch he says. Pulls out a old king a hearts. Hands me over that horseshoe pointin up. Says hold this like this. Drops some iron seed onto the card. Bout as much as two pinch a snuff. Now bring that up under slow he says.

Well I almost fall off a my stool. That iron seed jump round like I dont know what. Like the swirly canker knots where they sawed the limbs off a that big old walnut tree used to stand outside the Lion. Black Woppers eyes we use to call em.

Pank he tap that seed quick back into the pouch. We drink a while. Ever so often he stare across the table at me like he want me to know what hes thinkin without his sayin it. Swingin that pouch a seed like a clock weight there on the long cord. Wipes the ale foam on his sleeve. Pries the horseshoe out a my fingers. We be the Iron Boys now he says. Ned Ludds men thats a differnt thing. They say they go under ground. We go inside the seed. What we do is magnetize it. Sow it with a spell. Aint no golden age here about. No more silver neither. Thats certain. Iron age an so be it. Our new crops is gonna drive out the old.

Well thats the first I hear of it. Wernt a week go by before Pank give me my own pouch a seeds an little horseshoe an a knave a diamonds to go with it. So I can help spread the word about the iron seed. Like the Black Book says, Iron sharpeneth iron. Thus a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.

Some days on Im stoopin for champignons. Up there in the flush shade a the sleepy sisters. Thats what I call em. Them big old trees left all alone when they clear off South Pightle for the coal road. Hardly move your feet an you fill up two big side sacks. I dont know what it be like now. But Im pickin the new pearl whites for the Widow Dedoray over to French Town. Had a darn permanent swell for her daughter Silvy. Go on half a year or so. I bring Widow some chose choisie she call it to tease me. Bein come from France. Fine pickins. She dont seem to mind if I stay with Silvy up in the hay shed a day here an a night there. Silvy dont mind neither.

Widow she speak our tongue just enough to make me say this an that. Call her Veuve an such like. She an Silvy laugh an talk into each other some times so I dont know what Im thinkin even in my own words. Never could tell about them two. Widows husband killt somewhere. They come here from the French wars about all I know. Lot a French up French Town way. Lot a comin an goin back then.

That night Veuve cook them fairy caps down into a nice slew with new butter. Fried porridge along side. Sweetwater mead to float it all on. Veuve pour me it out slow in a tall French glass. Never saw the color shine like that before. I slop mead in a mug when I get it which is hardly ever. But I mark her dimple smirk an I can picture one or two sharp wags might a brung over that mead. Silvys cheeks is gettin red though shes not hardly drinkin it.

Some reason I feel dumb as a door knob sittin there suckin my lips. Knowin what I come round for with my grimy sack a champignons. Widow she go all slack an sad. Says her own name several times. Dedoray. Dedoray. Got a mournful thread a French music to it none the less. She run her hand down Silvys hair over an over. I say somethin but it come out all flat there over the table.

I cant help bein burnished up inside though. Slip a little smile over to Silvy but she wont look back to me. Not from blushin neither. Somethin other I can tell. Soon it get to be with or without her Id do better bein outside than sittin there lookin into her mamas sad eyes. You can get lost in there cause its a foreign country. I bid em good night an carry my bag back to the shed. Before I go up the ladder I slump down on the barrel half an stretch my legs out for a pipe. Sheen a the meads boilin off my face an Im still a little wobbly tell you the truth.

Bout the time a night you cant tell a cow flop from a countin stone Silvy come out an scurry on by without a nuzzle. Shy with her aint far from sly so I grab at her dress but shes clambered up the ladder ahead a me. I get up there shes layin face down in the sackin I once stuff full a fresh meadow bells. We long since flatten that out sure an dur. Im thinkin it might be time for me to stuff it up new though thats a job a work. First time she was like a little meadow bell. I tell her that. The strong delicate shakin is what I mean. But I didn know what she could understand much a the time.

Truth is thats part a what get me all boiled up about her. Every thing has to be spoke with a touch here an a motion there. Kiss a this an a taste a that. Aint no word for it whether it be whisky or water. Or theys a word you dont know but you both pretend to. Then just us lookin in at each other like who can you be.

But now our nest is all flattened out an Silvys tryin to hide herself in it. I crawl my fingers up under her dress to hope she smile round at me. But she pull up an sit starin at the wall planks. Holds herself tight. Swayin with a little whimper. I didn know what to do or what it all mean. I try an put it together in my mind with Widow lookin at me odd an singin Dedoray her sad French name. But I wernt sure a that neither. Clangy mead is still makin my thoughts runny.

So I just press myself up against her. Feel her shiverin little breath bones jerk two three times. I yearn to know what could have her holdin her sobbin inside like that. I scrabble up some straw into a mound an plump up the sackin an button off her dress an lay it over. Im startin you know but she wriggle off with a shiny streak down from each eye.

Alls I can do then is turn her real slow. An then it over take us an my face get wet from hers. Im bout to bust big the whole while Im rockin. Tell ya though. Theres a iron achin been come on me for some months down there. Deep inside under it when I get hard like. Cant say exactly. Might a worried me some but the only times I feel it I aint stop to worry bout nothin.

Teeth is bitin teeth like you do an we buckle up against it. Little ptou ptou she go. Thats the way she use to laugh to drip spit in my mouth. Im right there ready an I know just where she is too. Aint nothin like that knowin an I knowd it with her better than any one. Her fingers clawin on my back. Mine scoopin to lift her. An we Jack an Jill it down that steep hill quick to the bottom where you just lie there dizzy bloomin sweat an tryin to catch your breath.

Then Silvys shiverin so we dress her all back up an me too. Sit there shinin an she do look silvery an I tell her so. Dont know why it always surprise me. Shes a water baby an a moon child an all them silver things. She draw her soft hand round my chin. Which feel as sharp on me as old rye stubble. Must a been rough on her silky cheeks.

Dont know what make me think of it just then but I pull out my bag a seed an little horseshoe an knave a diamonds an I shows her all of it. A look I never seed before cross her face while beholdin them scanty particles. Its just Black Woppers eyes I says. Cause Black Wopper make her laugh just me sayin it. But now she say no. Not good not good. She make me pour the iron seed back in the bag careful not to spill a tiny bit. Then she run the thong twice around like a ladys packet. Tucks it in my pocket. Presses on it like to say seal it away for another day but never again come what may. Thats what it seem like. Then Silvys holdin herself tight an shiverin again an lookin off like a dark cloud go over.

So I lick off her dried up tears an whisper Ill take her back now. Inside if she want. Though I never did go in afterwards before. There at the door I hold her from behind an push my face in that long hair that smell like a sweet breeze blowin round her an me. She stumble her hand back an cup me where my swells gone down. That black throbbin I speak of start to burn like a piece a coal in the steam box. But then she slip through the door quick an dont want me to follow I guess or let the chill in. I didn see her face or say good bye.

Some times the worst pain dont hurt at all right away but only later. I walk far along into the night not feelin my feet. Come out on a knoll I didn know but two trees on guard. Roll up my empty sack behind my head an lose myself up amongst the stars. French silver giggles. Veuve an Silvy talkin behind their hands. Them unknown tongues an whispery things roam all round inside me. Are there birds out there what speak French I wonder.

Them stars look near. But all the footsteps on the earth be a vastly number an Im alone in the middle of em an half of em feel like mine right now. An then. Right in that stretch when your face feel the first light but no airs stirrin that dang bird come back. Dream or waken I darent say. But there it is him again. Him or another.

Soft now. Across the meadow where mornin already start to crawl across the ground. That sound cut through the air like a whistle knife. Ricky did it. Ricky did it. Ricky did it. I keep my eyes shut an whisper like to someone lyin next to me. Or may be to the stars. If Ricky did it I will too. If Ricky did it I will too. An I swear somebody out there hear me.

Thomas Frick wrote much of The Iron Boys as a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is working on a second novel and on a book-length philosophical investigation. He is co-director of publications at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (updated 11/2006)

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