The Weathervane Oiler
(from Depictions of Blaff)
One night in December, the wind rising outside, through the noise of surf, Blaff, the usually taciturn Blaff, who is hunched like a gargoyle on his wooden chair, nodding into the fireplace, quietly admits —"Yes, and to think that once I wanted to be a weathervane oiler." Obviously we asked: "What?" "A weathervane oiler," says Blaff, "someone who oils weathervanes. With a little can of oil he climbs up inside steeples and oils the weathervanes, so they won't get stuck or clatter too loud." "Ah," we say. Aware now that the surf has taken over when his voice left off, we are listening again to the wind as it shakes Blaff's wooden shack on this stretch of terra firma inshore from the dunes.
"That was a good sixty years ago," says Blaff. Chin in hand, he looks around, checking on us: Are we worried? Are we awake? Then he leans back, stretches his legs, heaves a sigh, and speaks again, very softly, but not mumbling.
"It was hardly a vocation, just an idea, and I never did try it out. And pretty soon it was archaeology, another idea, digging deep shafts, a descant to the oiling, down, to complement up. I used to wonder where they'd meet, the way up, the way down. Archaeology was more like a vocation, and I had already scoured whole fields of ploughland, sometimes finding flints." After a long silence Blaff took a sip of the Armagnac and brightened: "Imagine going up the stone staircase from the presbytery, at first the wide ascent, then it steadily narrows, for the steeple proper starts, and then, rung by rung, you climb the iron interior ladder, till the cathedral, or church, spreads out far beneath you. At the top of the ladder, which is raked, by the way, so you have to mount it leaning out and holding very tight, you come to a little door, and you open it. The town is now four hundred feet below you, tiny houses, trees, tinier people in the streets. If it's night, you see the lights twinkling, hear the swish of ravens' wings, their sharp calls piercing the medley of faint fragrances, frying fish, acacia, bonfires, according to season. On a clear day you can survey the shire, much of the island, with all its shires, the mountains, rivers, meadows, towers, castles, perhaps a sea shore? Now comes a difficult bit. You have to sit, just right, on the threshold, lean out backwards and reach up over the lintel coping, and so you grope overhead for the first rung of another iron ladder, the one that's fastened to the slate or stone facing of the steeple. Your fingers find the rung, you take hold, and whisk yourself up off the threshold, grip the second rung, steady your feet on the coping, and haul yourself rung by rung up the ladder. With practice, not so difficult after all.
"There's a can of oil in a holster attached to your belt. then you're at the tip, you reach up and squirt oil into the socket into which the perpendicular rod of the weathervane is slotted, and, reaching up even higher, into the joint where the horizontal bar goes, the one that tells which way the wind is blowing. Then you climb down again. Down again you climb. The last wriggle through the little door is the most difficult bit. You have to angle your body in through the doorway just enough to get a foothold, before you let go the bottom rung outside, on the top rung inside. That done, you take a last fond look at the little worlds that are spinning or twinkling far away down there. I can't say how often you have to oil a weathervane...."
We ask: "What if...?" Blaff grins: "Then you're a goner. Make no mistake." And again he hunches. And is silent. Then again he sips, no, this time he gulps his Armagnac. And he lays a log on the fire. And he is hunched again, his face to the fire.
We have a question; "Were there many weathervane oilers at work in those days?" "I think not," Blaff tells us. Then he stands up. "They certainly were not unionized," he says, "and maybe it was steeplejacks did it on the side, as piece-work, or as recreation? Or perhaps, I used to think, the discipline was too repugnant, nobody did it, and that was why I felt it might be a vocation for me. There would always be work, and you could travel all over the island, get to know all kinds of people, garbage men, itinerant princes, and having selected and trained an heir you could retire with honours and the blessings of an archbishop."
As an afterthought: "Some cathedrals have towers, not spires, towers with a cone on top, easy to reach. And there are many churches, in towns and villages, which have no weathervanes, so you could mount a subsidiary business, installing them. And then what? there could have been artisans, artisans designing complex and subtle weathervanes for me to install. Animals or angels. Swordsmen or saints. Works of art, so indescribable, so high they'd be neighbours to the invisible. As it was, the manufacturers stopped at poultry. Even then, poultry, common roosters might be more resistant to the elements than fabulous elaborate seraphim and whatnot. Just something shining up there, what more do people want? As for archaeology, the less said the better. My discourse is built of my dissensions; but something shining down there—to dig something tangible out was a dull desire, only a diffident nudge from a desire that altered itself as the days flew by. It might have vanished altogether now: a desire to know that down there is where it was."
Again the crash of surf. Heat of the fire. Blaff crouches, hunched again, gargoyle again, on his wooden chair. "The thing might be," he says, "to evolve a mode of knowing that actually takes up into itself the tangible, a subterfuge of domination and so becomes, not as now a little oilcan flourished in the face of the elements, but an all-sufficient element in itself, an agency that quells the rage of what in us corresponds to the elements, namely the distempered will.
"But you see," he now murmurs, "I've been stumbling on a back road of the eighteenth century. Any moment now," suddenly he is pointing to the door as a huge blast of wind buffets it, and Blaff is calling out—"any moment now, one of those terrified starveling poachers will rush in, or a waif gnawing on a stolen cheese rind, and can we hide him?"
Noted translator Christopher Middleton was born and raised in England and today lives in Austin, Texas. He has published several books of poetry, most recently his Collected Poems, and several prose books, including In the Mirror of the Eighth King (Green Integer) and Crypto-Topographia: Stories of Secret Places. Depictions of Blaff will be published by Green Integer in 2009.
Copyright ©2009 by Chrisopher Middleton