There was once upon a time a smithy and a smith. The smith, however, was no common smith, for his day's work was done before sunrise. That is very hard work. It makes one tired and sad. It makes one quiet and patient. It needs much strength, for one's life is spent alone and one's work is done in the gray of morning.
It was night and the smith was not in the smithy. The fire-spirit was asleep in the forge. His breath glowed but faintly under the ashes and blew a leaping spark into the darkness. The spark, however, soon went out. Only a glimmer of light remained. It sought something hastily and at random in the darkness of the smithy.
The bellow's vast paunch hung in peevish folds. It looked like a corpulent gentleman who had suddenly grown thin. One could have laughed, but there was no one in the smithy who knew how to do so.
The anvil turned its fat head and pointed snout slowly in all directions, and looked at the old iron to be forged that day. There was not much. Just several pieces. They were lying in a corner, covered with dirt and dust, like people who have a long and difficult journey behind them.
The anvil was annoyed. "What riff-raff has collected here!'' it exclaimed. "What a mercy it is that it must go into the forge before it is placed upon my shining head. Otherwise it would be too revolting. No, thank you! Our set is clean."
The anvil screwed up its great snout contemptuously and turned its back upon the old iron. The anvil was a fat-head. It forgot that it was also made of iron, and that the old iron that had traveled so far would shine even as it shone when the fire-spirit had laid hold on it and the hammer had forged it. It thought that, from the very start, iron was either shiny or dirty and dusty, and that it simply remained so. It was, as I said, a fat-head. Neither did it know how laboriously its master had gathered this old iron to forge anew in the gray of morning. The old iron was very much relieved when the anvil had turned its back upon it, and it no longer felt its look of disdain. All the pieces felt this distinctly although they were so dusty and dirty. Now they began to speak in whispers.
They were pieces that varied very much in age. Some were ancient and really should have been in an old curiosity shop. Some were quite young, having been but a few years in the world. But in appearance they were all alike.
"You are so rusty," said a chain sympathizing to an old sword. "That is a very bad complaint. I am sure you cannot feel well."
The sword sighed gratingly between hilt and blade.
"I have suffered from it for long," it said. "I have had it for many hundred years. They are bloodstains. In the course of my life I have seen terrible things. I have been through many hands. One man slew the other with me. One took me from the other to slay still more men. Blood and tears have eaten their way into me. I have known little quiet. I have been drenched in blood, and the man who shed most blood rang the bells with the same hands, and called it his triumph."
"I am only a few years old," said a young saber, "but I have experienced exactly the same."
"I have seen other triumphs," said an old rusty bolt. "I saw men who had triumphed over themselves and the world with their thoughts. I bolted the door behind which they were imprisoned. There they sat and died in their chains. But their thoughts went past me through the prison door, out on to all the highways and byways of the world."
"I am much younger than you," said another bolt, "but I have had to do the same and I have seen the same thing."
The fire-spirit in the forge breathed more strongly and the first gray sheen of dawn passed over the old iron. It became very much embarrassed and depressed, for now its many stains were more distinctly seen than in the light of the fire-spirit, breathing laboriously in the narrow forge. The pieces of old iron looked sadly at their dirt flecks and spoke confusedly and woefully.
"I had to hold a murderer," moaned the chain. "It was his last night. Beside him sat a man in a gown, with a book in his hand on which there was a golden cross."
"One part of me was once a bead in the rosary of a silent old man," said a long knife. "It was in India, and the silent old man swept the way before him with his weak arms, so as to tread on no living creature. He called the worms his brothers, and prayed to his gods to bless them. He spoke of the chain of things. He drew the swastika in the sand, and fingered his rosary with devotion when the wind blew the sign he had made away. The foreign priests from Europe scoffed at the faith of the old man."
"Well, we have Europe and its civilization now," said the saber grimly, and shook off a stupid golden tassel hanging from it.
"We must go through many forms," said the knife. "That I learned from the old man. Only I do not know into what form we are to go."
"We cannot remain in these forms," cried all together. "We are dirty and stained. We want to be forged anew. Let us go to the fire-spirit and ask for a new form. But do not let us wait till the sun rises. We do not want the sun to find us like this, for it lights up our dirt and stains. But the smith will not come so early. He is certainly still asleep."
Thereupon a spark flew out of the forge into the midst of the heap of old iron.
"The smith is not asleep. He will come soon!" hissed the spark. "He is no common smith. His day's work is done before sunrise."
Then the spark went out.
The door opened and the smith came in. He was a quiet, serious man with sad eyes. That came from his day's work. He went to the bellows, which smoothed out all the folds of its paunch and swelled up till it was quite fat. The fire-spirit awoke in the narrow forge, and the smith held all the old iron in the glowing heat. Then he lifted it out of its baptism of fire and placed it on the anvil.
"What shall we become – what form shall we get – what form?'' asked the old iron, and the knife thought of the poor old man in India.
The smith struck. The sparks flew.
He forged but one form: the last of all forms. He forged the soul of the iron.
It was his day's work.
When he had finished, a shining ploughshare stood on the dewy ground before the smithy.
Then the sun arose.
Translated from the German. First published in English in "The Plough," (Autumn 1939).