Orichalchi :: of copper by Danilo Thomas
1. Bonded to bronze it was the first metallic compound in common use by mankind, and so extensive and characteristic was its employment in prehistoric times that the epoch came to be known as the Bronze Age.
The grappler’s grandfather, as a young man, each day collected in his pockets bits of copper ore from the depths of the Copernicus Mine. He smelted his pocketed piles of ore in a small stone furnace. He burned the poisons that coupled with the copper aside. He ran the liquid metal in the mold, and made the implement, the axe.
In late summer, the grappler, a young man, buries the bit of the axe in pine knots, dulling the head his grandfather made. The jolt twists his hands loose, a hard shiver that rings in the palms, the shoulders, the spine. He grips the handle harder. He taps the toe of the bit lightly off of the nock he has cleft in the stump.
The grappler raises the handle with both hands, his right hand butting up against the lip, the other hanging tightly to the curve in the pine grip. He brings the head around the outside of his right shoulder, and the swing gains momentum, pumping out over and away from his head. He crashes the heel down, and splinters the fibers still holding in the bark. Sap bleeds from the knot.
The grappler works the axe, pulls on the belly of the grip. He pushes on the throat until the wood releases the head. His hands swell as he pumps the axe out, and they grow hard, callused. He has cut three cords of pine this summer. The timbers lay stacked neatly under the barngable. He swings again. The halved stump shatters. The bit cleaves the mud. He gathers the chips in a barrel for kindling. He sits and sweats in the shade, lightly honing the axe the way that his grandfather told him to. He rubs gun oil into the bit and the eye. He files the dullness. It smells like blood.
2. Copper takes a brilliant polish, is in a high degree malleable and ductile, and in tenacity it only falls short of iron, exceeding in that quality both silver and gold.
Winter comes. 204 pounds, the grappler stalks his opponents. He gets his nose in their faces. He shoots, or bluffs, ducking, breaking noses on the back of his head. He crushes wrists in his callused grip. His coach wants him down to 189 pounds. After practices he binds his body in plastic wrap, layers of sweat pants, sweaters, hoodies. He runs through the halls of his high school late into the night. It is 12 degrees outside. He runs past the thirteen consecutive years of state championship trophies, their dates notched into the championship banners.
Through that glass, his goal is the space left vacant for the next golden figure. He runs. He lugs the hopes of every person living in Birch, this small town, frozen and isolated. Up, he runs the five floors of stairs. Down the hall, down the stairs, down the hall, up the stairs. It is the grappler’s turn. Fully clothed, he sits in the sauna after he runs. For two more hours he sweats, not drinking water or eating more than a tortilla, and the weight comes off. Snow drifts under the gallus frames in the vacant mine yards.
The grappler cuts the weight and he cuts down his opponents, drives their heads into the mat, works their necks, saws forearms across blooded lips. He slams their ribs and hips with his elbows until the boys inevitably fold. One after another, he works them apart with his hands, his head, his arms, his legs. At the state tournament, his fourth in as many years, he is the favorite to win. He is much celebrated at home.
3. The molten metal is sea-green in color, and at higher temperatures (in the electric arc) it vaporizes and burns with a green flame.
The recruitment letters arrive in the spring, and phone calls shortly after. Nebraska, UNLV, Michigan, Iowa, Boise State. All the coaches want the grappler to attend their universities. The grappler has options. He forgets the axe. The stumps do not splinter, the axe dulls in the wind. Packages of plastic wrap stay stacked in his locker. Dust covers the hallways. A hero, his trophy, his name behind glass, he cannot be held accountable. He cannot be touched here where his name proves the town is still worth something. He thickens. He sags. He drives his car into a light pole, and the police bring him home. It is the least they can do. They remember how it was.
He arrives at the University of Michigan overweight and out of form. They give his scholarship to the wrestling champion from Nevada. Away from home his envy sickens him. He is not much celebrated in Michigan and the cans in his room collapse in his callused hands as he wastes and returns to Montana. Nebraska, UNLV, Iowa, Boise State. Gone. A whisper. Snow twisting thinly and low over the rocks in the mine yard.
In his room, at the back of the farm shed, he arranges his medals in uniform rows across the expanse of one wall. He cannot see the splintered, graying wood beneath the foil-embossed navy of his first place ribbons. His metals tinkle when he closes his door, pulsing like the side of a trout in the sun. Late into the night, he stares at his victories, layer upon layer of them, repeating his favorite matches in his head. Engage, shoot, staple. Thirteen seconds. Quickest pin in state history. The past and the present spar in time and motion, the past fixed, and he, dreaming of that life already lived, coils inside of himself, envious of what he was.
4. When heated or rubbed it emits a peculiar disagreeable odor.
The grappler hauls trash with men who remember him. They tell him about MMA matches at the Knights of Columbus. He joins them, trains in Tae Kwon Do and Judo. He grows taught again in this new ring. He wins his first dozen bouts by knock out. He brings home one thousand dollar purses, gashes in his face, a fractured orbital, a cracked sphenoid, a broken hand. His cauliflower ears, no longer defended by the thin walls of plastic headgear, turn to jelly. His wide forehead becomes a wall of bruises and compacted swelling. It contorts weekly, and looking in the mirror through a bruised fog he recognizes the horrors of victory and smiles wide, his teeth an opalescent laceration splitting his face apart.
The fights get harder, and he gets better at fighting them. Missoula. Great Falls. Billings. Spokane. Boise. He fights. He wins. He is much celebrated at home. The sponsors come. The Lion Pit. Rock Star. Tap Out. They pit him in bigger fights on bigger stages against harder men under brighter lights, and just before it is over, for a short while, he again bears the title of champion.
Fractured jaw, and a wire from ear-to-ear. Lips cracked over a snarl of teeth when he comes out of the hospital. Mojave sand piles in a corner of the empty parking lot, and he spends the last of his money on a bus ticket home. He smells diesel at bus stations. He remembers Las Vegas.
5. Copper has been discovered in seaweed; in straw, hay, eggs, cheese, meat, and other food stuffs; in the liver and kidneys, and, in traces, in the blood of man and other animals.
The axe comes up. The grappler returns and the grass is still sweet in the pastures. There is a woman who still celebrates him much at home.
The axe comes down.
The grappler goes on. He is shaped. He is honed. He is bent. His children grow. He is bent. He drives a water truck at the Copernicus Mine for twenty-five years. Friends tell his stories to his young children. They look at their father. The father’s image changes before them. He is honed.
He is shaped. Black lung. The axe tarnishes in the woodpile. His son, a young man, splits wood for the fire. His son swings the axe. The handle has greyed. The boy buries the bit deep in the wood. He is strong. His arms and his legs work the axe loose. He checks the bit. It is blunt but not broken. The boy twists his body into a beautiful mechanism that swings again. He plucks the axe from the stump. The boy swings, again. The boy swings. The boy swings harder.
Danilo Thomas received his MFA in fiction at the University of Alabama where he was the Fiction Editor for Black Warrior Review, issues 38.1 and 38.2. He has taught in Alabama’s maximum security prisons through the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. Raised in southwestern, Montana, he currently resides in Northport, Alabama. His work was a finalist for the 2012 Italo Calvino Prize in fiction, and can be found in Bull, Parcel, Whitefish Review, Juked, Mason’s Road, Midwestern Gothic, Fiction Southeast, 751magazine, The Offending Adam, Newfound, and other publications.