The fire in the kiln roared with many voices. It mouthed around the pots; sucking like a great, hungry beast. Sam shielded his eyes with a chunk of green glass and tossed another log in the firebox.
A brick fell. Sam listened to the cursing as it was set back to right. Skip lurched into view. No one had ever been able to get a straight story on what happened to his other leg, but the man walked with an unmistakable gait. He was grinning as he approached the kiln.
Sam tossed another log. The fire was nearing its peak, nearing three thousand degrees. Even the ash of the wood itself was turning liquid, dripping onto pots. Kiln tears, they called them. Tears of joy.
Skip let out a hoot and sat on a pile of wood near Sam. The man was never quiet. Even when he wasn’t talking he was jingling his keys, sucking his dentures, making sure you knew he was there.
“Please don’t,” Sam said when the other man took out a half-smoked butt.
“What’s one more?” Skip cackled, and lit up anyway.
Sam watched the kiln. The bricks had gold cracks in-between, as if the fire itself was mortar.
“Helluva thing,” Skip said. He just couldn’t let five minutes go by without a word. “All my stuff make it in there?”
“Yup. There was room.” Especially after he’d cracked three of Erin’s full-size figures during the loading process. They stood off to the side in the slag heap.
Skip took a long drag and let the smoke go in a dirty cloud. It didn’t smell clean, like woodsmoke. It smelled like the man’s insides.
Sam tossed another log.
Skip took a sidelong look. “Been thinking,” he said again, “’bout the August show.”
“Space is all rented.”
“I know, I know.” Skip seemed distracted. He took another puff. “I was just wondrin’…”
Sam tilted his head back and listened to the fire. It really did sound like it was talking. Breathing. Like it was alive.
“Since, well, that gal Erin is short a few pieces…” Skip looked over slyly. “Wouldn’t there still be space?”
“She paid for her space eight months ago,” Sam responded automatically, “she’s still got enough pieces to set up.”
“Oh I know, I know all that.” Skip was grinning, flicking his butt out. “but still, say, if she was to pull out…”
Sam didn’t answer. He looked up at the chimney, at the atomized carbon that drifted barely-visible on the night breeze.
“You ever hear the story of the first red?” he asked.
Skip’s grin flagged. “No, can’t say that I have,” he admitted, still watching Sam with a calculating expression.
Sam took a deep breath and reeled his head back.
“Dates back to China,” he said, “some early dynasty. With the very first wood kilns. There was a load of pots being fired for the emperor. When they broke open the door, they found that some of the pots, rather than turning green, had developed the most vivid crimson glaze. Oxblood, they called it.”
Sam stopped a moment, listening to the kiln. If you had a good enough ear, you never had to rely on pyrometers or other equipment.
“When the emperor saw the glaze, he declared it to be magnificent and immediately demanded more. But there was a problem.”
Sam stopped to throw another log on. Three thousand degrees. Hotter than a crematorium.
Skip was shifting uneasy in his seat. He looked like he wanted to change the subject, but didn’t want to push Sam. Sam was one of the few potters who still tolerated him.
“Know how they got the red?”
Skip shook his head.
“A rooster wandered in through one of the vent holes and died in the flames. The smoke from his body reduced the atmosphere in the kiln, made the vivid reds. But the potter didn’t know that. He tried everything he could to reproduce the pots for the emperor, and failed every time.”
Skip was squirming. He never liked to sit still very long. He had ruined six bisque loads so far by wandering off for a cigarette at the wrong moment. He also had a tendency to gesticulate when he talked, which led to a few tragedies at the pottery wheels.
“Finally, in despair, the potter flung himself into the kiln when it was in full flame. And they had their crimson pots again.”
Sam stopped talking abruptly. He could feel Skip’s discomfort at the silence.
Skip rocked in his seat. Finally, he said, “look, we don’t have to talk about this now. It’s getting late.”
Sam rose and picked up another log. “Yes,” he said, “it really is late.”
A week after they started the fire, they broke down the door of the kiln. Erin was at the forefront with Sam, short blond hair caught up in a kerchief. She whistled low and picked up a pot.
“Just look at that red,” she marveled.