But nettles are not to be tolerated. They settled the question on which I had been turning my back for so long, and one fine August morning, when there seemed to be nothing in the garden but nettles, and it was hard to believe that we had ever been doing anything but carefully cultivating them in all their varieties, I walked into the Man of Wrath’s den.A Solitary Summer, Elizabeth Von Arnim
His back ached, his joints creaked, his breath shallowed. Cooper swayed uneasily, the heels of his worn shoes sticking to the grimy worn-in spillage as he struggled, step by step, along the dreary tavern floor. On his back rested a mighty keg, the weight of which pushed down on his meek frame.
“I could brew my own ale at this rate,” came a call from the end of the bar. It was Grendel, a stout man with a frothy white beard. He stood behind the bar, arms crossed with a surly frown.
Cooper did not respond but instead heaved heavily and continued to cart the empty keg on his back towards the storage room. He deftly swivelled around the merry patron’s, who found themselves gathering to the main floor like a turbulent wave, boisterously dancing and cheering to the beat of live music. The metallic fast-paced tunes of the fiddles, the flutes and the lutes took flight, coursing through the air – giving the run-down tavern a surge of concentrated energy that spread like wildfire. Although, for Cooper, it served only to antagonise him.
Cooper eventually made his way to the storage room and let the keg slide off from his back, following it with a sigh of relief. At that moment he felt weightless as if he would drift upwards at any moment. He decided to take a moment’s respite in the dark and dank room, amongst the towers of wooden kegs that lined the walls. It smelt of stale ale, and the ceiling dripped with moisture that puddled on the floor, nourishing the mould that doubled as a carpet. It was a dull and drab room to rest in, but for that moment, it was paradise to Cooper… and he let his mind wander, zoning out the muffled sounds of music and rumbustious cries of drunkards above.
“Cooper!” Shouted Grendel, loud enough to penetrate through the thick wooden walls, “hurry it up down there!”
Cooper replied with a long, drawn-out sigh and he eyed the closest keg to him. The thought of carrying it already weighed heavily on his mind, but he braced himself. Bent his knees. Kept his back straight. Shuffled closer… and heaved. His teeth clenched, tendons protruding out from his jaw, his face reddened and strained – but he was successful. He was always successful, from the first day on the job to the thousands of keg runs since. And he will continue to be successful, for the many runs to come. The idea of which burdened him more than any keg he’s ever lifted.
Cooper made his way back to the main hall and quickly noticed the immediate silence that deafened the room. There was no sound of clanging glasses, no boisterous yarns and the musical strings had snapped silent. All eyes were on Cooper.
From within the bowels of the crowd a man with long stringy hair and broken jagged teeth lifted his glass into the air – caring not for the spillage of his ale – and hollered; “get ‘er in there ya’ mule!”
A low chant followed from his companions.
Cooper took another step towards the bar.
The chant grew louder as more patrons joined in unison.
Cooper strained as the skin of his fingertips felt like they were going to peel from his bone under the coarse wood shredding into his grip.
The strings of the band joined in, matching to the beat of Coopers arduous steps.
He kept his pace, nearing the barkeep. His scrawny arms felt weak, shaking under the strain of the keg.
His lanky legs felt like they were going to crumble beneath him. He kept going. He had to keep going. His mind was vacant of all thought other than getting this fucking keg to the bar…
The tavern erupted in a cascading roar urging Cooper on.
Suddenly, the bar rushed by in a blur. His foot lost traction. Moments of deliberation felt like an eternity. Then, impact. Cooper found himself face down on the tavern floor, laying amongst the sticky substance of the walked-in spillages. The keg rolled towards Grendel, who stopped it with his foot. A chorus of mockery and laughter ensued.
Grendel hauled the keg up with one arm and hoisted it on his shoulder with relative ease. Cooper strained his neck upwards to look at Grendel, but was greeted with a look, not of disappointment as he expected, but of… Apathy.
“Get up,” Grendel said, “you’ve work to do.”
The hazy beams of dawn broke through the tavern windows, hanging off the rails of dust and curtaining the room while glistening off the freshly gleamed tankards. Cooper finished the last of the sweep, joining Grendel behind the bar in the now-empty tavern.
He held out his palm to Cooper. Within it, lay four copper coins. They appeared worn, disfigured and heavily scratched at the rims.
“… Is that all?” Cooper asked, “Where’s the rest of it?”
“Rest of what?” Grendel replied, “You still owe me for rent.”
“I can barely buy bread with this,” Cooper retorted, snatching the coins out of Grendel’s hand.
“Still better than what most can say out there. You could go back on the streets, if you’d prefer. But, last I checked, they don’t serve bread to gamin.”
Cooper said nothing. He knew there was no use in arguing and that a pissing contest with Grendel would lead only to soaked floors, so instead, he turned hotly on his heels and stormed out of the tavern. The four copper coins clenched tightly within his fist.
The glare of the rising sun stung Cooper’s eyes. He paused to shield his sight with his hand, giving him a moment to adjust. The air was wretched, filled with the stink of stagnant sewage water and a perennial fog that hung low in the skyline – but this was par for the course for the Apartheid District in the city of Hiberia. The lowest rung in a row of broken ladders, it was a residential area populated by folk wealthy in dirt, souls lost to vices and nameless vagabonds meandering between taverns. To most, the people here were just flies on a shit at the end of the shit-stick. Cooper kept his head low and his eyes locked to his feet. He walked down the winding filth layered streets, built with monochromic grey stones and decorated with an ornate wrought beggar on each street corner.
As Cooper walked, the small and narrow streets eventually opened up into wide and welcoming pathways. Pathways that lacked the accompanying sewage canals of the Apartheid District and the hanging miasma of dread. Grey palettes made way for rich colours that dripped into the architecture. Buildings stood erect and well-kept. The air slipped into his lungs like liquid velvet. He found himself at the edge of the Daimon District, standing between the cusp of two worlds – the scourge of the nameless, and the rural idyll of the named. Somehow, knowing that he was the only one to currently walk these streets, made it uncomfortably intimate for him. In these early morning hours, he was now the focus of any corner he turned, of any meandering eye peering out from a window and of any relaxed ear to listen to his steps. Cooper had no crowd to disappear into, and this terrified him. But, he kept walking. Lurking, close to the walls like a shadow. Inwards, deeper into the Daimon District – the smell of freshly baked goods luring him by the nose, caressing his salivating hunger.
Cooper eventually found himself standing outside of a small quaint building, rustic and worn. A lone chimney stood from the top, smoke billowing upwards into the pink sky and the smell of freshly baked goods permeating the air around it. It was enticing, tantalising. A wooden sign hung high above and etched into it was an image depicting a voluptuous woman holding two large loaves at chest height. Cooper knocked on the door and waited in anticipation.
“Just a moment!” A woman cried in exasperation from inside, followed by the sound of latches, locks and bolts coming undone in a cacophony of metallic thunks. After a moment, the door swung ajar.
Standing in the doorway was a small, plump woman who Cooper knew to be Mariana Abode. She had a face as white as dough, with flushed-red cheeks and wild orange hair that curled outwards in long strands, barely contained within the tightly weaved hair-net sitting atop her head. In one hand, she held a flour-covered apron. In the other, a rolling pin raised high above her head, ready to strike.