The Glassblower by Helen French

Vincent sat close to the furnace, sweat dripping off his forehead. His legs ached with the strain of trying to sit still, trying to show that he wasn’t nervous.

“Who’s it going to?” Freda, the glassblower asked. She sat at a bench in front of the furnace with an ethereal sort of presence that made Vincent wonder if she was even real.

She was a thin figure dressed in tight-fitting clothes with ragged edges in greys and browns and blacks. She looked like smoke and ash made into woman. He had a feeling that she’d been born in a furnace. That if she ever tried to leave the workshop, her body would turn into smoke and fade away. 

“My goddaughter,” he replied. “I haven’t seen her since she was three years old. Thought she ought to have something to remember me by.”

Freda nodded sympathetically. Vincent supposed most of her customers had sad tales like his. Death imminent. Desperately trying to record memories to send to those loved and lost. Trapping them in glass for the recipient to open and experience at their leisure.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Freda said. “But it will hurt. Did anyone warn you?”

He shrugged. “Got told it stings a little.”

“That it does. But if I don’t make the connection to your body, I can’t infuse the glass with your chosen memory. It won’t be able to take shape or colour.”

“Don’t you add that yourself?” Vincent looked around the room, at the shelving at the back full of vessels of myriad shapes and colours. 

“For regular glasswork. But this is different. For the magic to take, the base glass has got to be plain as plain can be. We need to leave room for your memory to make its mark.”

Vincent shivered. “Can we start?”

“We can. Can you please hold out your arm?”

Freda, still seated, picked up what Vincent assumed was a blowpipe, but she did not go near the furnaces. Instead, she began to swirl it in the air. Silvery smoke began to flow out from the furnaces to meet it. 

Once she had a good candy-floss amount of smoke collected, Freda arched the blowpipe down, so that the end of it was at the same level as Vincent’s outstretched arm.

She began to mutter. Vincent couldn’t make out the individual words, but he sensed something powerful behind them. He shuddered – had he done the wrong thing by going there? Was there still time to leave?

He was still mentally going through that short list of questions when Freda started whirling the blowpipe in a circular pattern around his arm, creating a tight O of smoke around his skin. It didn’t touch him, but it burned all the same. She then drew a line of smoke connecting the circle around his arm to herself, wincing as it made a connection with her chest.

“This lets you funnel the memory to me as I craft. Be strong.”

Vincent nodded as he tried everything in his power not to cry out. It was like holding his hand too close to a bonfire, but not being able to pull away. The pain wasn’t escalating, at least. Perhaps he could manage it.

“All right,” Freda said, placing the blowpipe into the furnace. “I’m going to gather the glass now. It’s time to start reliving the memory you want to fix. As you remember, I’ll shape and blow it.”

“I’m not sure I can,” Vincent said. He was in too much pain to draw it up. All he could think about was whether the skin on his arm would be blistered afterwards.

“Focus,” she whispered, and the word felt like magic.

Vincent closed his eyes because it seemed like the only way to do it. He reached… and ahh, there it was:

The beach near his childhood home… 

Sand dunes and seashells… 

“Not much longer,” he was vaguely aware of Freda saying. “Stay focused.”

The ocean crashing onto damp sand. Salt on the air… 

The curve of the coast against the horizon…

Sunset and sunrise… 

Not much of anything really. But it was always beautiful to him. Beautiful and peaceful.

He got lost in it for an age.

“Done!” Freda yelled, interrupting his thoughts.

Vincent opened his eyes to see a small but lovely glass jar in her hands, flecked with blue and gold. How long had he been remembering?

As Freda was saying, “I need to get it into the annealer,” Vincent noticed the smoke she’d gathered earlier had unravelled from his arm and collected around her feet.

Before he could say anything, she tripped. 

The jar fell.

The glass shattered.

Something whooshed past them at high speed, blowing out of the workshop and towards freedom.

Vincent stared at the remains of the glass jar. Even its colour had gone.

Freda frowned. “Some memories don’t want to be captured.”

“But it was a good one. I don’t understand…”

She stared at him hard. “Was it really?”

He thought back to the beach, which held so many memories, most of them happy. 

Of all the sunsets and sunrises. The sea and the salt air. Childhood runs. Adult walks. Baby’s first steps. Family gatherings.

And then – oh, scattering his wife’s ashes there. Precisely because of the memories. Because the beach had meant so much to both of them. But now her death was a part of the memories too. A part of everything. 

He thought he could separate it out – share only the happy times. But it turned out his mind didn’t work like that.

“I’m sorry,” he said. 

Freda reached out and squeezed his hand. “Joy is often accompanied by pain. Even if you can’t share your memory, be grateful that you have it.”

And when Vincent began to cry, she was polite enough not to mention it. There was glass to clear up, after all, more customers to come, and more memories to capture if they’d allow it.

Leave a Reply