The Legend of Blacksmith Isaiah

© Jim Derrickson

published in ANVIL Magazine, October 1996

In the very wee hours, when only the last jack-o-lanterns shone out from the sleeping houses of the town, Brutus Scuttlefield and perhaps Apollos or one of the other farriers would set with a low fire in front of the old blacksmith shop of the long-gone Isaiah. In the quiet night, they would take a smoke and gaze over the night, musing.

The deserted shop - a three-sided affair with an open front - had been built generations ago by the old smith, back before there was even a town and there were only the wild forest mules roaming about. Isaiah, having nothing else to shoe, would chase them about. Of course, the balking creatures wanted nothing to do with the menacing iron worker who could not be happy lest he was shoeing and within whose eyes it was said a hint of lunacy lingered; but Isaiah taught the mules that there was nothing to fear and then it was alright. The animals created a beautiful kind of mule choir as they scattered in the trees with their new shoes, forging a purpose, and the good Isaiah never considered scolding the beasts for their mischief, but rather allowed them to do as they pleased. All the better anyway, if a right front should be ripped off while the animals cavorted - it only allowed Isaiah the joy of putting it back on again. Hopefully, the iron would be lost altogether, and the smith would be given a reason not only to reshoe but to bend barstock as well. Isaiah never encouraged any animal to rummage for lost shoes.

When times were lean for honest, sweaty labor, the old blacksmith would play a game of dare, where he would see how long a shoe would last using less and less nails - only two or three, and sometimes, even one. It was a game in which he was invariably the loser, affording him constant farrier toil, and his sensibilities reeled with ecstasy every time a disconcerted mule came back to his shed to be redone.

Later, when the community grew, Isaiah became the grandfather blacksmith of the town, day in and day out. Morning and night he worked and talked, performed shoeing and ironwork, his arms growing great with banging, and the many wives he took left him one after another, unable to compete with the mesmerizing effect of the coal forge.

He was admired by all, but the old man had been dead now for two years and no one really knew anything about him anymore, save for legends told at drunken late-night circles, mostly fabricated, or by the remains of his old shop. Few citizens were aware that he haunted the town.

The deserted shop was half in ruins, and through the tangle of black lily vines that hung from the sagging rafters, an engraved plaque - the infamous poem of St. Peter letting the lowly farrier in at the heavenly gates with the blessed reward of rest, lay shattered in pieces upon the dirt floor. The place was a shambles, but for all its tumble-down condition, it was to the farrier brotherhood a sacred place where a man could think. The great old anvil, standing in the center of the shop, gave the brothers comfort and a sense of home. It was not unusual for the maidens who sold wildflowers in the town square to come across the shop in their early-morning gatherings and find a brother fallen stone cold asleep beside the exhausted coals of their late-night vigils.

Brutus and Apollos sat before the fire pit looking out over the town. The embers gave off a faint warmth to the men that was pleasant in the approaching autumn.

"It is good to be here," said Brutus, dreamily, puffing on a stogie pipe. "The town lies quiet; the horses that today danced in their new shoes are now nestled in their stables. The children and dogs, God save them, have finally grown quiet, and", he nodded to a distant falling star, with the moon dust trailing after it, "the cow jumps over the moon - a sign of prosperity. All is well, brother Apollos, and the town once again rests, awaiting a new day to come."

"'Tis true," answered Apollos. "For I have just been with Felixia of the golden slippers. All is well indeed."

"Who? What? Why was I not told of this?"

"Guard thyself, brother," interjected Apollos, suddenly alarmed. "For the coals from the old forge do fly all about thy large head."

Brutus, noticing, caught the stray, floating chunks menacing his person and turned them into the flames.

"'Tis the old ghost Isaiah," he said, gazing about. "I would have guessed the old spirit to be drifting about the town at this hour, guarding barnyards, inspecting shoes . . ."

Brutus looked to Apollos for affirmation, but the brother was unable to comment, as his nerves reeled at the discovery of an actual ghost so near. He looked warily into the invisible half light and began to chant:

Oh, Isaiah - ghastly, dead farrier
go find a place to haunt that is ghastlier
Dash thy -

"Stop!" interrupted Brutus, warding off the sickly magic from Apollos' rhyme. "The spirit does no harm."

"No harm?" countered the brother. "Isaiah - now, who doth hover about the mercantile and the donut shops? Isaiah, who followed me and blonde Suzy up to lover's lane? Who doth hover about the haunts of maidens . . ."

"Enough," said Brutus. "The spirit does no harm. And besides..." Brutus turned mockingly upon the other brother, "shall Apollos, the promiscuous, blame an old spirit for being a lover of women?" "Lover of women?" asked Apollos. "Even after he dieth?" But to this, the look on Brutus' face was enough, and no words were necessary. Apollos looked chagrined.

"So be it," the dissenting brother said finally, taking on a fresh pipe. "It is true that the old Isaiah at least is not evil, taking all in all. And he does have a right, I suppose, even if grey and dead and cold, to admire maidens. I will leave him to his own folly."

They paused to take in the evening, to gaze on the sleeping town. "He was a good old blacksmith,' Brutus observed.

"Did you know him"? asked Apollos.

"No. But I have read from his daily log, that did lie forlorn beneath the anvil:

April 16th - iron shod the horse of a damsel -5 cents

July 23 - iron shod two forest mules - no charge. Did fashion a bar shoe.

On his dying day, he wrote that there be no loud, obnoxious wake to remember him by, and what do we do each October first but throw the biggest and most ear-shattering hooplah of a wake that we can possibly accomplish. At least the spirit does not rue us. Perhaps the dictation was a joke."

"Perhaps," said Apollos. "However, I have always enjoyed the first of October sprees. And, joke or no, I would not have them discontinued for a slice of the moon. I feel strongly, Brutus, that the October 1st sprees, hazardous as they appear at first glance, are important to our overall happiness and to the well-being of the town. Perhaps if they were discontinued some folly would occur, or something bad would happen."

"Like what?" asked Brutus, dazzled.

"Perhaps a fire. Or the corn would not grow. The pigs would all run away and the cows would cease to give milk."

Brutus was in awe at the wisdom of his brother farrier. He gazed over at Apollos. Why, the man was so stuffed with wisdom, it looked as though he had eaten a cow. "Apollos, do you really think so?" Brutus asked. "Fire bringeth sorrow," answered the sage, "and what is a day without the happy squealing of ham-ripening shoats? It would have been better, Brutus Scuttlefield, if you had never laid eyes on the cursed log."

"But Apollos, then there would be no spree at all."

Momentary confusion glanced upon Apollos' sensibilities, and then scattered to the winds. "We had better not discontinue them, brother. It is best for the well-being of the town."

"We shan't, surely," affirmed Brutus.

"But it is strange," Apollos went on. "You would think that grown men would have the courtesy at least to honor a man's last wish."

"Yes. You would certainly think so. It is the least we could do. But then we are farriers, and of course must do as we please, regardless."

"It is the nature of the blacksmith," agreed Apollos.

"Yes," reaffirmed Brutus.

"Yes," affirmed Apollos, yet again. They were already looking forward to next October 1st.

* * * * * * * *

But things went poorly for the old spirit. Time passed, and the day came when he was no longer content to clank about the dusty shop and whistle up the coal forge chute. Dismay gathered around Isaiah like a gang of Baskerville hounds that howled their misery into the sleeping moon. His only wish - to do iron shoeing - had been taken away from him when he died, and now . . . now there was no such thing as happiness.

Standing in his deserted shop, Isaiah looked down at the smashed plaque of the farrier's poem - the last two lines mockingly unbroken - where the depicted smith, having just announced his trade to St. Peter for speculation, waited hopefully to enter through the gates.

". . . and St. Peter smiled and said, "if you please, blessed farrier, enter into thine eternal ease."

"Thine eternal ease," mimicked Isaiah. "Why, the thought is profane." He gazed at the plaque with disdain and terror.

Isaiah made a few disparaging attempts to find consolation, but nothing seemed to work. First there were his "undead" comrades - surely they would welcome the ghost's supervision, as he easily recalled how they had leaned upon him for direction when he was alive, but instead there was only pandemonium whenever Isaiah's spirit seeped into the barnyards and attempted to run things. He went to the horses, knowing that at least they understood, and so he poured out his troubles to one beast and another, but the animals only continued to chew their grass and did not understand a word he said. In fact, they did not even know he was there.

Bereft now of all, Isaiah grew moody and aloof, hanging around gloomy street corners with the staleness settled in his eyes, or roaming about listlessly with nothing to do at all, miserably transparent. For awhile, he had tried to fool himself into thinking it was fun to be dead - a desperate attempt at sanity - but in the end the lie was so ludicrous that after a foolish interim, he was more lost and disconsolate than ever. What was to become of him? He would not go to heaven; hell, giving no comment, apparently would not have him; and so there he floated, caught between one world and the next, useless to everyone, a burden to himself.

Finally the ghoul flew off into the distant fields and wailed into the night, for it seemed to Isaiah that surely all possibilities of hope had been tried. The sound of his wailing was frightful - whenever he did, some mule would join in with its braying, curdling the ears of any listeners - and when any of the brotherhood sat up with Brutus into the night and witnessed the hellish articulations, it did make them shudder.

"If I could but only let the spirit shoe even one of my horses," offered Brutus, "I would do it gladly. In fact," he added, considering, "given half a chance, I believe I would let him do them all."

"Yes. Me also," was always the ready reply given by whomever was present on any particular evening. In the entire town there was not a brother who did not wish in his heart that he could donate to Isaiah's cause. And so the days went on and the craziness grew. The spirit's eyes turned cold from lack of well-being. Like frozen marbles, they would turn round and round in his head until the dejected coldness made him insensible with ornery displeasure - a reeling madness incomprehensible to those faring better than he. None of the citizens, by now well aware of the sulking, transparent lunatic in their midst, could understand the irrational acts that soon began to occur in the town. They were only incensed that Isaiah was not content to just be idle and vain. But they did not pause to consider the sorrow of a dead farrier who longs for the gritty joy of a shoeing nail between his teeth.

In the end it was too much for the ghost, and as the last geese began to fly southward that autumn, Isaiah decided in his grief to forsake all and become an outlaw spirit. His spinning eyes focused with alacrity on crime. He began to try to dream up evil and to haunt the town with lawlessness. Roaming desperado that he had now become, his once-mild, grey countenance turned a sickly death-white and his bones rattled with wickedness. Isaiah would loosen horses from their stables and ride them through the streets at night, tossing his head high up in the air with his ghoulish laughter. He would howl up the chimneys of households and scatter the families into the street, leaving the untouched suppers for himself. At the Hamsteak Saloon, he would butt romancers out of their stools and take their places, bewitching the maidens that the men had wooed and dazzling them with his invisible flirtations. Eventually ghost Isaiah earned the hot anger of every citizen in town.

* * * * * * * *

The next few evenings passed by with spritely, cool autumn air. The season of late had been pleasant. During this time, Isaiah had been trampled by horses, overlooked by maidens, and outwitted by striplings. The job of criminality was strenuous and taxing upon the spirit's sensibilities. Sourly, he took up a vigil of sulking out in the gruesome swamplands.

At the accustomed hour, Brutus and Johny Parthemus sat by the fire at the old shed and were assaulted by the irate spirit, who rushed out upon them, making frightful barnyard noises. An unnerving scuffle ensued, and afterwards the terrorized brothers stood shivering, with the chilled blood dashing to and fro amidst their various innards. They watched the horrible ghoul (having enlivened the scene of its attack with the sickly odor of bog slime) dash away in a fury of hysterical laughter.

"I did not know this," said Johnny, as he caught his breath, visibly shaken. "That old Isaiah can no longer shoe. Somehow, it does not seem such a bad thing to be dead."

"Yes," replied Brutus, also heaving. "But it is to him." Only now did the full impact of Isaiah's plight strike the brothers in all its seriousness, and they knew something must be done.

They tried to squeeze an incantation from their skulls, and when nothing happened, they stood about, pondering feverishly. They sat cross-legged and tried to be mental. They thought of insane persons. Suddenly Brutus stood up and gallantly blew his tin cowhorn. Its squealing magic seeped and toodled into the night, summoning every farrier in town.

* * * * * * * *

In a little while - the time being so late it could be measured not by mortal spring hammer clocks, but rather by the slinking shadow of the unknown - an assemblage of rough and unshaven brutes, many still in nightshirts and barefoot, made their way brazenly without jack-o-lanterns to the old graveyard at the edge of the forest. It was the farrier brotherhood, of course - an entire race of them. Carrying a lantern, they looked about the grim place for a ghoul in the trees. The severe melody of a dirge seemed to penetrate the atmosphere. And then they saw it: a faint, white mist tangled in the dead branches above them. A chill ran through them all.

"Isaiah! Hark!" Brutus called. "Come forth, oh, Grandfather."

Overcome with morbid curiosity, he climbed up into nearby tree to get a better view.

"Isaiah! Thy brothers bring thee glad tidings. Hear, Isaiah, and do not be deaf."

"I did not know ye were my brothers," countered the spirit, doggedly. "For thee and thine hath shamed me - the grandfathers of all farriers in this whole country."


"Nay no, but rather, yeay. Thou wicked child of Satan! Ye do go off, gaily a-farriering for the sheer fun of it, right before the grandfather's very eyes, while he can do nothing."

"Nay," repeated Brutus, confident in the persuasiveness of his magnetic personality. "We shoe for we must, Grandfather, not to spite thee."

The spirit, considering, softened then, as this idea had never occurred to him before. "Alright, Brutus, I am sorry. Perhaps you are right."

"Yes, Grandfather. That's the way, old man."

"But for me it is all over," Isaiah then announced, addressing everyone. "Go thy way, brothers, and I will say farewell, for I am tired and wish to sleep forever!" The discourse was shocking, but Brutus broke in upon its mesmerizing effect, dizzy with untold news.

"No, Isaiah! Wait!" he cried. "You don't know this, but in heaven, horses wait for thee!" He blurted out his secret with childish incoherence.

"Oh! I have seen a vision!" Brutus announced, and with this he stood up with the air of someone who is suddenly important; his great, galoopish frame nearly tumbling off the tree branch. All eyes were upon him.

"Behold! I have seen a vision! Brothers, the little children of God stand idle in heaven, wishing to ride, but cannot, for the want of Grandfather Isaiah's coming!"

"Blazes! The smith hath been drinking!"

"Brutus is distracted. I always knew he was without sensibilities."

"Nay," said Brutus, more emboldened for all this attention.

"Hear ye me! In heaven they wait to hear the tinkling of Isaiah's hammer. St. Peter himself hath come to me. St. Peter hath come to me - Brutus Scuttlefield - having compassion, for he knoweth your plight, oh Isaiah. And so St. Peter came to me, and revealed to me the last two lines of the sacred farrier's poem!"

"What! Missing lines?"

"Yes, brothers, it is true. The sacred farrier poem, that everyone knows, does not end with "thine eternal ease" at all! There are secret, missing lines that only the good saint possesses. And then St. Peter said to me, preferring me above all others, "Go, Brutus, my favored servant, with the secret lines, to Grandfather Isaiah, for lo, he doth suffer in the trees. Go and reveal to him the secret truth about the farrier. Go, Brutus Scuttlefield - bestest, chosenest messenger, for thou are the best farrier in town. I, St. Peter, have spoken!"

And so, the suddenly pompous Brutus revealed to amazed eyes the mystery of the last two lines - the two lines that, he said, are told to every shoer only after they have been led inside the kingdom and the gates closed behind them:
By the way, your work isn't finished yet
I certainly hope that you like to sweat. Amen.

There was a long moment of dead silence. Isaiah was stunned. And so was every other blacksmith in the entire place - so stunned that some fainted from the surprise, while others were struck near crazy with disbelief. All skulls reeled. Then all at once, a great confusion of clamoring voices broke out. But Brutus, waving a stick branch in the air, succeeded in stymieing the others, so that finally only Isaiah could be heard.

"Hoorah!" he shouted. "How beautiful! How beautifully it rhymes! But it is the best part of the entire riddle! Why would St. Peter leave it out, Brutus? Why?"

"I know not," confided the brother.

But there was not time for idle cogitation. The moment had come. Turning timidly toward the outer dark - toolbox in hand and ready to go to work - Isaiah opened himself to the judgment of St. Peter, trembling, as he did fear for his acceptance above. For he did commit flirtations with maidens during his day; Isaiah did play bingo on Saturday nights, and there were the drunken brawls! He couldn't have lived without them.

But just then, as if descending before the spirit's deliverance were delayed yet again, a great light engulfed the dowdy spirit, and the next moment Isaiah vanished into the night.

Brutus clamored down the old tree now to join the others. But when he reached the ground, he found himself surrounded by anxious, questioning eyes from all sides. "Brutus!" the brothers cried. "Oh, Brutus!"

Some of the voices begged relief from misery while others threatened with brawlings. They all called desperately for release from the terrible new parameters indicated by Brutus' awful revelation. But Brutus had done his job, saved Isaiah, and now, wiping his hands together, he was through for the evening. To the cries and threats of the brothers, he remained blissfully stone-faced and had nothing to say.

And so they all prayed for mercy, each for his own reasons, but most of all they prayed that the mysterious extra lines of Brutus' revelation were not true, and probably continued to do so for the rest of their natural lives.

And that is how old Isaiah was finally made free from his gruesome shackles. Some still maintain that Brutus's amazing discourse was the slanted trickery of a crazed attention-getter standing in a tree at three o'clock in the morning, and the story is always a grand subject to make coffee fly in diners and chaos to rule in the taverns of the town. But Brutus has never spoken of the incident even once since that haunted autumn night that old Isaiah was taken away.

A gust of wind blew through the glade, extinguishing the lantern, and the brothers were left in the dark. Almost immediately, they all dropped off to sleep, sprawled in the road, lying across rocks and roots in disarray, with no light to shine on them now but the light of their own good and stout hearts.

For the sake of another brother, they had unselfishly given up an entire half a night's rest, and, perhaps, their sanity. The night was now far spent. And that is where the brothers were left that night, snoring gratefully until the dawn came and the haunted autumn night of the legend of Isaiah faded behind them, into another happy day in the town.

Jim Derrickson, gifted contributor to ANVIL Magazine, is a farrier in Anchorage, Alaska.

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