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The Charcoal Burner

by John Stocks

The Charcoal Burner’s Grave, in Ecclesall woods, Sheffield, is a local monument. It is on the site of a mid-19th century hut where the charcoal burner was found to have died mysteriously amongst the embers.

Fathers and sons; so much unspoken love,
Such a weight to bear, a lifetime’s burden.

The charcoal burner sits on the step
Of his one-room hut as the sun sets,
His old clay pipe clenched between his teeth.
Consumption claimed all his boys,
Until one remained who sailed the seas
To the world’s end for his country’s pleasure.

In the morning he smoothes each last grey hair.
With infinite patience prepares his coal:
A dull faith, almost an ache of longing.
Shadows of flame dancing on his forehead,
His ears prick at each unfamiliar noise:
A twig cracks; a jay breaks from the bracken.

In the evening he picks at embers.
As days slip effortlessly into months
And autumn turns to winter, as it must,
With hypnotic mists after soft rains,
He cracks the surface ice and washes
As the year turns to ashes at his feet.

Now ambiguous transience: unspoken thoughts
As landscapes slip slowly into dreamscapes,
And long into the night he will absorb
The flickering lightning on distant hills
As knives on grindstone flash like fireflies
Shifting form by the furnace’s warm embrace.

On sudden impulse, one cool spring morning,
He makes a small clay oven: his house a pyre.
Then, after taking whisky from his pot,
He burns and dreams of conflagrations:
His imagined self blown to stratospheres
To fall on cold waters of distant seas.
His love, at last, has wings.

Copyright © 2007 by John Stocks

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