Welcome to chapter eight of “December, 1919″, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every Wednesday (or Thursday, sorry!). Links to all published chapters can be found here.
Blood dripped and slipped through the rollers of the mill. William cradled his hand, wailing inconsolably, like the machine had ripped it clean off. I turned his palm upward to examine the wound, careful not cause any more undue pain. It was an ugly slash, glistening red and slick, but nothing some iodine and fresh bandages couldn’t fix.
“Oh, William, this isn’t so bad. It’s pretty superficial.” I said, half-lying, trying to keep him from panicking.
“I could have lost my hand!” He said, unsatisfied. “That thing is a death trap.” He pointed at the grist mill with his good hand, keeping the other, wrapped in the now crimson and white of his over shirt, close to his chest.
“You’ll live,” I said. “There’s some aspirin in my bag. You should probably take some before the throbbing kicks in.”
He shuffled off, so I continued the disassembly work. When in use, the mill heaved and chunked, its joints creaky and achy from old age and rust. It should have been replaced years ago, but my father had sworn the gap between the rollers was so perfect, he dare not mess with it. In defense of his eccentricity, our grists had been finer and our brew days smoother since he unlocked the magic of the ancient mill, but as I sat with a wrench and screw driver, separating sheets of sharp, worn metal, I realized just how dangerously out of service it had become.
William had made a deal to sell it to a local wheat farmer for much more than it was probably worth, and given that Nate hadn’t paid me after my little mayor-fueled disappearing show, I needed the money. William continued to whimper like pathetic puppy even though the bleeding had stopped. His quiet sobbing summed up the feeling in the brewery, embodied the sinking emotions of everyone having to pack and box up their jobs, their dreams, their lives, all so the now illegal parcel could be inspected and checked off a list by some nameless IRS lackey in the coming days.
From underneath the shoot, with catcher removed, I picked out large bits of old malt, briefly turning on the motor to clear out any smaller, hidden grains. The mill spun violently, twin rollers moving in opposite directions, inhaling soft, fresh, sweet kernels, mangling them, exposing their unprotected insides before unceremoniously dumping them onto the floor.
But without that brutal journey through and transformation at the maw of a many-toothed monster, the malt would never fulfill a greater destiny, never start the great cycle of conversion and consumption, of birth and decay, of disparate parts coming together to make a greater whole. My father always extolled yeast as the veritable mother of all brewing, but to me, a beer’s real life began at the mill.
Virginia moved silently, like a cat trying to avoid detection. The purple-black under her eye had faded to mottled yellow and brown. She’d come in early and said nothing to me, scouring the inside of the mash tun as if we were going to brew. The rhythmic shick and slide of her coarse sponge on the stainless steel played a background beat to the rest of our work, a somber melody of shuffling sacks and tired sighs. George made no appearances.
As I wrenched loose the bolt holding one of the rollers in place, Virginia passed behind me, moving towards the fermentation tanks. My nerves stood at full attention, sending a shivery salute down my spine when my nose caught the waft of her shampoo.
“Going to be hard to brew without a mill.” She said, an ethereal whisper dissipating into the cold air.
I turned to respond, but she’d already moved out of earshot. I figured after that night, after George had discovered us and threatened us, that she would have given up this crazy crusade. But apparently I was wrong. Always underestimating. Never quite finding that rarefied wavelength where Ginnie buzzed so beautifully with life. Her brown mop bobbed back and forth as she scrubbed.
William caught me staring.
“It’s OK, Jack.” He said, much calmer. “I know you’re both young, but it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here.”
I looked at William, stoicism giving away to boyish embarrassment. “It doesn’t matter anyway.” I said, trailing off.
“Because of George?” William plopped down next to me, right hand firmly squeezing left. “He’s her father, sure, but she’s allowed to make her own decisions. She’s nineteen. No longer bound to his direction, legally.”
I knew George didn’t give a damn about the law. “Thanks, William.” I said, forcing a smile.
“No one knows what’s going to happen. This new law might only last a year or two. Or it might go on forever.” He said, looking across at Virginia. “My point, and the thing you should be focused on, is that we don’t have much certainty to cling to these days. When there’s a sure thing, and you can feel the truth of it so deep in your bones, you should probably go for it. Consequences be damned.”
His words swam around my brain like an Olympian doing laps. I’d allowed my December days to fill to the brim with anger, regret, crippling self-pity, meanwhile ignoring all the potential beauty of a brand new January.
After a brief silence, he nudged my arm, and asked for help up. Once back on his feet, he hugged me, announcing he was going home to have his wife, Mary, nurse his hand. Soon after William, the last of the day workers we’d hired said their goodbyes with tipped hats, leaving the two of us alone, again.
“I’m going to tell William not to sell the mill.” I said, clanging my wrench on the metal still attached to the hopper. “I’ll find a way to make money. Maybe more hours at the paper.” The declaration met only with silence, so I walked over to the tank Ginnie had cloistered herself in like a spring robin on her nest.
“I ruined the perfect gap,” I said, waving the loose roller in front of my face, “but I guess that’s OK. I’ll set it up myself this time.”
Virginia climbed out of the fermentation tank and stood in front of me. “Good.” She said, wrapping one arm around my waist. “And I agree.”
“Agree with what?” I asked.
“William.” She whispered, resting her head against my chest. The sun hovered halfway down the horizon, throwing its rippled twin across the blue and green sprawl of the Delaware as the planet, and my heart, embraced the coming night.
To be continued…