Book extract: Tallow
‘There,’ I said, balancing the candle I’d snapped off the broach in the palm of my hand. ‘What do you think?’ I ran my other hand through my hair, pushing back my recalcitrant fringe. My fingers came away moist. It was hot in the workroom, but that wasn’t the only reason I was sweating.
Even though I had been making candles ever since I could remember, I awaited Pillar’s opinion nervously. It wasn’t that Pillar was such a great candlemaker; in fact, he often lamented how pedestrian and ordinary his work was and that he only earned enough lire to survive. Pillar was right. His work was nothing special, not compared with the work of the master candlemakers who lived on the salizzada and controlled the Candlemakers Scuola, but what he thought mattered terribly to me. While he lacked the artistic flair of the masters, or their golden ducats to spend on exotic waxes and wicks, his candles were solid, the wicks dependable, and they burnt long and brightly.
‘Well?’ I pressed. He didn’t usually take so long to offer his opinion. ‘Can we afford to purchase more beeswax?’
For the first time, Pillar had allowed me to use some of his precious beeswax, not just to coat our tallow candles to give them the illusion of being more expensive but to make an entire broach. There were now a dozen beeswax candles suspended on the wooden frame above the trough. The wax alone had cost more than we made in a season.
It was a huge risk that Pillar had taken, entrusted to me alone. It was also an act of desperation, driven by what could only be described as invisible flaws in my tallow candles. We could no longer sell what I made and it was costing us business.
Finally, after examining the candle from all angles, he reached out and took it from me. His long fingers gently stroked the smooth white exterior before softly tugging the wick.
‘You have managed to get the wax very white, Tallow, not bad.’ He held the candle to his nose. ‘And while the rich scent of the honey is still present, there are no impurities.’
I’d spent weeks preparing the wax: first boiling it and filtering it to get rid of any contaminants, and then drying it and shredding it into strips to lay out and be whitened by the sun. The whiter the candle, the better the quality and the higher the price we could ask.
‘The lines are even and the candle tapers nicely,’ said Pillar, interrupting my thoughts. ‘You’ve rolled it quite well, too.’
Unlike the masters, who used marble rollers to achieve a symmetrical shape, we used ones carved from oak. It was hard work. My neck and shoulders ached with the memory.
‘The wick is neatly plaited.’ Pillar plucked at the cotton tip a few times. ‘You have shown great patience for a boy your age, Tallow.’ He took a deep breath. ‘The work is passable.’
I couldn’t help it. My chest began to swell, my eyes to glow.
‘But,’ continued Pillar, before I could become carried away with my success, ‘the real test is in the lighting.’
‘Do we have to –’ I began. It seemed such a waste to risk even one. Then I saw the look in his eyes.
‘We cannot ask others to buy what we would fear to use ourselves,’ he said. He was right. We had to test it.
My heart sank. Lately, after years of relatively successful candlemaking, something was going wrong. Although my candles looked perfect, as soon as they were lit and the blue-purple smoke rose into the air, things would start to happen – intangible, eerie things. We first noticed it about six weeks ago, when Pillar and his mother, Quinnatta, began weeping uncontrollably after lighting one of my rush lights. Pillar later blamed the vino they’d consumed. But when they started behaving in other uncharacteristic ways – feeding the stray cats that lolled on the fondamenta, staying awake for nights on end – they began to regard me and my candles with suspicion. They thought I’d done something to them, tainted them in some way, and they were afraid. I would hear them whispering late into the night and catch my name among the fraught murmurs.
But I continued to make the candles and they continued to be affected. We didn’t stop selling them, not then. After receiving odd and even accusatory comments from customers blaming us for their milk souring or their hens laying rotten eggs, Pillar and Quinn decided to withdraw the candles and study my methods in the hope we could work out what was going wrong.
We all knew what it was.
It was me.
Quinn certainly held me accountable. Pillar didn’t openly admit it, not yet. He kept getting me to try different ways of making the candles. I shaped more moulds, even carved a new broach and plaited fresh wicks of hemp and cotton. But as soon as the candles were lit, the inexplicable mood swings and uncharacteristic behaviour would commence again.
Finally, Pillar suggested I try a completely different material. The tallow we were using was old, he said, it didn’t have the right proportion of animal fats and was probably full of impurities. Without asking his mother, he went to the neighbouring Chandlers Quartiere and purchased some freshly imported Jinoan beeswax.
And now my candles were ready. They looked lovely and smelled sweet. But, as Pillar said, the real test lay in the lighting. Placing the candle in a holder, Pillar ceremoniously trimmed the wick. In the past, I’d loved that moment. Lately, seeing the way Pillar’s fingers trembled, it filled me with dread. Placing his nose against the wax, he inhaled deeply. I knew he was stalling.
‘You really have managed to safeguard the scent, Tallow.’
I was surprised. Pillar didn’t offer praise very often and I’d been careful to preserve what was in the original wax itself – its very essence.
Pillar continued. ‘I’m guessing that when we light it, the fragrance will be very pleasant.’ He noted my look. ‘Don’t be so worried. There’s a perfectly rational explanation for all this.’
‘There’d better be,’ said a gruff voice from the doorway. Quinn glared at us as we stood blinking, like the owls in the local basilica whose sleep has been interrupted by a shaft of morning light. ‘Well, what are you waiting for? It’s clear you’ve wasted our hard-earned coin on this ne’er-do-well again. It’s too late to do anything about it now. Light the damn thing.’
Gripping her favourite mug, Quinn entered the workshop, ducking her head to avoid the crooked lintel, sidling past the benches and troughs, and bobbing under the broach with practised ease. She looked us up and down. When her eyes rested on me, the familiar smirk that twisted her mouth to the left appeared. She gave me a mock toast, and I quickly lowered my head as I’d been taught. Ever since I was four and old enough to understand, I hadn’t been allowed to meet her eyes – or anyone’s, for that matter. I lived in a world where I could not be caught looking.
Quinn came to a halt by my candle and bent to pass judgment. I waited nervously.
‘Not bad, boy. Not bad. But as we all know,’ she said, her eyes running over me again, ‘looks can be deceiving. Come on,’ she urged, ‘let’s see if he’s managed to overcome his . . . problem.’
Melted tallow snapped as Pillar lifted a rush light from the bench and used its flame to light my candle. I heard the slow sizzle of fire kissing wick and then caught the smell of burning fibre. Once I knew the flame had taken, I dared to raise my eyes. Candles tell no tales.
Or so I thought.
A sweet honey fragrance filled the workshop. I watched as first Pillar’s, then his mother’s, face altered. Their eyes widened and their eyebrows arched. Quinn’s mouth straightened and then her lips parted. Pillar’s broke into a huge smile that I just knew would reach his eyes. As the aroma enveloped us, I could feel the years of squinting over the render, of enduring the stench of beef and sheep fat, of suffering burning fingers and singing hair, slip away. That and more. The bitterness that etched sour lines around Quinn’s mouth and cheeks faded, and a ruby glow crept up her cheeks, making her look younger and more at ease with what life had meted out.
Pillar’s face also changed as grief and weariness sloughed away. I could see the grey hairs on his arms darken and watched as his arthritic fingers straightened and stretched towards the candle, towards something that life had cruelly snatched away from him before he could fully taste it.
I rejoiced at what I saw even while a small voice within me sounded a warning. But, blinded by my accomplishment, I didn’t listen. Instead I inhaled, deeply, richly, and for a moment became one with the candle, with the wax. I saw a sun-dappled glade scattered with yellow-tipped flowers, each bent by the feather feet of the bees nestled in their hearts, harvesting their sweet crop. Warmth crept up my body and feelings of contentment washed over me.
Pillar felt the same. Joy was written all over the lines on his prematurely aged face; joy that reached far into his heart and touched his aching spirit. I risked another peek at Quinn but, just as I turned my head, a large, red hand swung at my cheek, and the resultant sharp sting ended my reverie.
‘You stupid, careless bastard! You’ve done it again. He’s done it again, Pillar. An entire batch of beeswax, ruined!’ Quinn punctuated every word with another slap. ‘You did this deliberately, didn’t you?
You ungrateful little sod. After all we’ve done for you, all we’ve risked, all we’ve sacrificed, this is the thanks we get?’
I tried to protect myself, but it was no good. She came at me, both hands flailing, striking blow after blow. I didn’t cry out. It wouldn’t have done any good; it never did.
Instead, I focused on inhaling the mellow perfume and hoped that she wouldn’t scar me this time.
‘You need to control that boy. Do what I do, treat him with a firm hand.’ Quinn smacked a fist into her palm for emphasis. Pillar winced. He knew his mother’s idea of a firm hand all too well. So did Tallow. ‘I’ll have none of that nonsense in my house. You’ve got to let him know who’s in charge. As long as he thinks he can get away with it, I tell you, he’ll keep doing it!’ Quinn drank deeply before wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. ‘In fact, it’ll only get worse – for all of us.’
Slamming the mug on the table, she glared at her son, daring him to contradict her. But Pillar kept his head bowed and pushed a chunk of bread around his plate. It was hard for him to eat anything knowing that, in the tiny room above, Tallow was going without.
In the corner the fire crackled. The pot of soup suspended above the coals steamed, and the curtain dividing Pillar’s sleeping area from the kitchen billowed slightly. A temperate breeze stirred over the canal outside and slipped in through the open casement, bringing with it the stench of the neighbourhood. Pillar didn’t notice that as much as he did the faint sounds of revelry as the quartiere’s residents enjoyed an unusually balmy night. In a matter of weeks, it would all cease. The canals would freeze and the island streets nearer the mainland would be covered with snow and ice.
Pillar didn’t respond as Quinn continued. ‘I told you it was a mistake to let him touch any more candles! But no, you don’t listen, do you? Instead you go and waste good coin on beeswax. That cost every last one of those hard-earned lire we made over summer.’ Still Pillar didn’t respond. ‘What are you going to do with it now?’
Pillar raised his head. ‘I thought I might melt it down and try to remould –’
‘You!’ Quinn scoffed. ‘You can barely mould ordinary tallow, let alone beeswax! If you lay a finger on that stuff, you’re even more stupid than I thought. He’s infected it. It can never be used. I don’t know why you let him near it – not after what he did to the tallow.’ She leant over and dropped her voice. ‘But you think you know better, don’t you? Giving him chances, encouraging him and after what he did – what he still tries to do – to me, to us.’
Quinn reached for the large ceramic jug to pour herself another mug of vino. She went to top up Pillar’s mug, but he covered it and shook his head.
‘I’ve had enough.’
Quinn shrugged. ‘Suit yourself.’ She took a long draught from her mug. ‘Winter’s going to be knocking at our door any day and we need to find a way to pay the coal and timber merchants, never mind feeding ourselves. It’s clear we can’t let him make any more candles, so we’re just going to have to find something else for him to do.’
Pillar knew not to say anything when his mother was like this. It only made things worse. He stood slowly and rubbed his eyes, wondering what he should do. For all her complaining and threats, there was an element of truth in his mother’s words and that concerned him more deeply than he was prepared to admit. For a few blessed years there, everything had gone so well. Despite his appearance, Tallow hadn’t shown any other signs that he was different and he’d taken to candlemaking like a bird to the air. It had come so naturally to him. And somehow Pillar knew that Tallow’s skills would only improve with age.
Expectation can be a cruel thing.
‘I know you think he can control it, Mamma, but he can’t,’ said Pillar finally. ‘Any of it. Whatever else he might be, he’s also an awkward lad going through a phase.’
Quinn snorted. ‘A phase! Is that what you’re calling it? Think he’ll grow out of it, do you? Can’t help it! My Pillar, always the optimist.’ She shook her head and then frowned. ‘No, you’re probably right. He can’t, can he? And that’s the problem.’
Quinn squinted in an effort to focus. Pillar’s features swam into view – his thick grey hair, his wide nose and stubbled chin. Weak fool! If only he would rage at her, call her names. But he never did. Just like his father, and look what had happened to him.
Her rheumy eyes took in their surroundings. The low beamed ceiling with the cobwebs thick in the corners, the smoking hearth with the old pot suspended over it and, beside the fire, against the grill they sometimes used when they had earned enough to buy a haunch of meat, rested a few rusting tools.
Quinn observed Pillar’s mended shirt, stained vest and the faded blue eyes. He looked older than his forty years. For a moment, pity knocked at her heart. He didn’t deserve this. Like her, he was a victim of someone else’s caprices. And he did try; he always had. Whatever else he might be, he didn’t give up. And he was loyal. He’d always been there for her even when, after too many vinos, she hadn’t really been there for him. She opened her mouth to say something to her son, to soften her words, when she saw his hands.
Night after night, Pillar would rub remnants of the day’s fat into his knotted fingers in an effort to ease his pain. Tonight, they needed no such treatment. Straight and ﬁ ne, his fingers rested on the table, a pointed reminder of what Tallow and his candles had done.
Quinn felt fury and foreboding rise in equal measures. The wretched child was not normal. No, he was clever and canny and, above all, dangerous. He had to be controlled! And Pillar should be doing it. The boy was his responsibility. He’d brought the brat into their home, he’d claimed him. If only he’d be firmer, harder, then none of this would be happening.
Trying not to slur her words, she slowly leant across the table towards her son. The spluttering light cast shadows across her face, elongating her nose and defining her cheekbones. ‘You’re a fool if you think you can get away with this, Pillar. Don’t forget, there’s a reason his kind were wiped out.’ She spat on her fingers and reached over to the candle that spluttered in the middle of the table. She squeezed the end of the wick, dousing the flame. ‘Snuffed out, they were. And that’s what will happen to him, to you and to me if they ever find out.’
‘They won’t find out,’ he said quickly. ‘There’s no real proof anyway. Just suspicions. And they’ll never amount to anything, not if we continue to be careful.’ Pillar’s voice was weary. They’d been over it a thousand times.
Quinn threw back her head and laughed hysterically. Pillar winced. ‘If we’re careful!’ screeched Quinn. ‘We’re so bloody careful, I’ve forgotten how to live! I barely leave this house any more except to go to the shops. It’s been so long since anyone came here – and because I stopped issuing invitations, I stopped receiving them. Because of your bloody, precious apprentice, I have no friends, no acquaintances, no lovers, no-one in my life.’
Pillar paused. ‘You have me, Mamma.’
Quinn stifled the bitter words that threatened to spill from her lips. He was serious. Sitting there, a hulking great shadow against the glowing embers of the fire, her son really meant what he said. She clumsily reached for his hand and gripped his mended fingers tightly. The weight that had sat beneath her breast for years momentarily lightened. She remembered how he’d done everything in his power to brighten her loneliness in those first few years. He’d worked so hard, tried to bring a smile to her face, despite his own sadness and grief.
Then she recalled that cold, grey morning, over fourteen years ago, when Pillar had returned from Jinoa with a baby. Ignoring her entreaties, threats and tears, he’d stood up to his mother and told her that they were keeping the child, even though, back then, they guessed what he was and how perilous sheltering – let alone raising – one of his kind would be. But that day her son had shown a strength of character she hadn’t known he possessed, and while she had been furious with him, she’d also been proud.
‘Yes, I do,’ she said tightly. ‘I do.’ She patted Pillar’s hand gently. ‘And while you may not believe me, I thank God every day that I have you.’
Uninvited, an image of huge silver eyes filled her mind, smothering all other memories. ‘I have you and . . . him.’ Her eyes grew hard as flint. ‘You have me and I have you; and I have him. Don’t you ever forget it, Pillar. I have him right here,’ she snatched her hand from his and jabbed her palm, her fingers curled into a cage. ‘Right here. Right . . . here. Right . . .’ Her voice slurred and drawled to a stop. Her eyelids became heavy. ‘I’m so bloody careful. But he’s not careful. He doesn’t give a damn. That’s why he’s ruining the tallow. That’s why every time he opens those bloody eyes of his, something happens inside of me. He twists me around; he scrapes away at me bit by bit. At who I am . . . and I don’t like it.’ She punctuated each word with a thump on her chest, at a point over her heart.
Pillar’s eyes flew to the window. It wouldn’t do for the neighbours to hear. If one word slipped out, one whisper of what they suspected Tallow might be . . . Once freed, rumours, like a pestilent disease, had a nasty way of spreading. He jumped to his feet and shut the window. ‘If someone should hear you –’
Quinn’s head wobbled an affirmative. ‘You’re right. We’ll all be locked away in the Doge’s dungeon. Tortured. Murdered. Killed. But would it matter? We’re already trapped, imprisoned.’ Her words came in long, drawn-out gasps. ‘We’re ensnared in a prison of our own making . . . and for what?’
Pillar went and stood behind his mother’s chair. Hesitating briefly, he rested his hands on her shoulders. Quinn gave a small moan. With growing confidence he began to knead them, working on the knots of flesh, the tightness of her neck. All the while, he whispered words of comfort, trying to calm her.
‘And for what?’ she repeated. She leant back into his hands and her eyes slowly closed. He continued his ministrations, feeling the tension drain from her body and a relaxed heaviness take its place. He worked in blessed silence.
‘You’re right, Santo,’ mumbled Quinn.
Pillar’s hands dropped and he backed away. It had been a long time since she’d called him by his father’s name. The vino had contracted time and opened a splintered passage that melded past and present. ‘He can’t help it,’ she murmured, ‘and neither could you. That’s why you did it, wasn’t it? You were tricked. Thought you were taking a risk to help us, but it was a stupid risk, it was all a trick. He lured you away. Seduced you.’
Her eyes flew back open she sat upright, blinking to refocus the here and now, folding her arms around her body. She sensed Pillar behind her. ‘If he can’t control himself anymore, then what hope do we have?’ She tipped her head back until Pillar’s face swam into view. He was astonished to see tears trickling down her withered cheeks. ‘Answer that, you fool. What hope do we have?’
Extract from Tallow by Karen Brooks, the first of the The Curse of the Bond Riders series.
Copyright © Random House 2009
All rights reserved.
In bookstores now, RRP $27.95.
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