My father was a bow and arrow maker as well as an archer, and my mother was a beekeeper. Papa had some of the best trophies to be had in the kingdom for a commoner. Ma's reputation was spreading to many towns, her honey renowned for its exotic flavor and perfect viscosity. I was almost seven, nearing the age of apprenticeship, when my parents sat me down after supper to talk. My mother set out a small plate of pastries, which immediately alerted me that this was serious. We were well-off for commoners, but pastries were still only a rare luxury for our family.
And as any seven-year-old knows, when your parents buy you a special treat, it means they want something from you.
"We think it's time we put ya in apprenticeship," Ma said. She was an average woman with rosy cheeks, dark eyes, and honey-colored hair. Papa said she looked like she had bumblebee in her bloodline. This teasing observation stuck with me for many years, and I imagined the reason mother's honey was so much better than everyone else's was because she spoke the bee language, and they understood her.
"Like Liza's?" I asked, mentioning an older girl I had seen in town every day. Papa burst into his melodious, almost feminine laughter; Ma whacked him hard on the arm but couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"No, not like Liza's," he chuckled, shaking his head at me. I was confused, not being the brightest child; I would not understand the joke for at least four more years. Liza was our local prostitute, standing outside the brothel getting some fresh air and being harassed by us children.
"Ye'd study under someone," Ma explained, tapping my hand away as I reached for a pastry. "Learn a trade, a way to earn yer money and support yerself."
I wrinkled my face up. "That sounds like a lot of work."
Papa, my more favored of the two parents, gave me a stern look and flicked my ear. "Of course it'll be hard work, butcha gotta do it, Fletch," I always listened to whatever Papa said when he invoked my special nickname.
"Well…" I hesitated, waiting for them to try and win me over with something good, pretending not to already be puddy in their hands.
"Ye'll do it, an' it's final," Ma said, picking up a pastry from the supper table and handing it to me, less like a peace offering and more like she was caving in to something. "But, Papa and I have been thinkin' about it," she sighed, "and ye get to pick yer trade and whatcha want to work in fer the rest of yer life."
My eyes lit up, a possible prospect already forming in my mind. Papa read my look well and grinned.
"Ye got any ideas, Fletch?"
"Well…" I began again, biting on the nail of my pinky finger, "Kira's father is the Emperor's own falconer, and she never mentioned him havin' a 'prentice, with all she likes to brag 'bout him."
They shared a look, and I knew the idea was out.
Papa gave me an earnest look as I tucked into my pastry with fervor, afraid it might disappear if I didn't eat it quick enough. "That's a bit of a 'spenive apprenticeship, Fletch, but if that's whatcha really want after ye try out a coupla others, then we'll find a way."
Eventually my parents opted for the cheapest apprenticeship possible—having me apprentice one of them. I naturally chose my father's occupation first. It was more work than my mother's (in my mind, anyway) but it was first not only because I was close with my father, but being a wily young spirit felt working with weapons to be an impressive occupation. One you could brag about, like being the Emperor's falconer.
It was in the deep heat of summer afternoons that my father taught me the art of making both bow and arrow, and in the cool humidity of dawn the art of archery itself. For three months I kept at it for the sake of my father, no matter how discouraged I became. It was two months into my training that we gave up on my archery skills, or more correctly, lack thereof.
"Not like that," he would snap, growing impatient. We practiced for hours on end, and while Papa was a naturally gentle and forbearing man, my shoddy aim and average strength was pushing him to the limit. "Draw back farther. You made this bow, how can you not know how to use it?"
So for the last month of my poor apprenticeship, my father threw me deep into the world of bows and arrows. However, my skill in creating bows seemed about as fantastic as my skill in shooting them. I enjoyed the act of creating something from my own two hands (especially a thing that would be perfect for hunting the neighborhood squirrels) but I definitely could not be labeled a fine artisan. The only thing I was good at was fletching arrows, an interesting coincidence considering my special nickname.
"There ya go, Fletch," Papa would say, patting me on the shoulder as I feathered the arrow carefully, meticulously. I liked the texture of the feathers, the puzzle of putting the arrow just right for accuracy and speed. Even though I botched a couple quivers' worth, my father described my fletching as "true craftsmanship," more like a piece of artwork than anything he'd ever made.
Nearing the end of my apprenticeship—although I didn't know it was coming to an end—I would pick up soft, colorful feathers dropped by wild birds near the cliffs where my friends and I so often liked to play. Moreover, I collected different limbs and sticks from various trees, which produced an interesting combination of exotic-looking arrows.
"I'm afraid to use them," Papa once commented, examining the artistry of my collection, "It would be a shame for such beautiful things to break."
But I forced him to use the arrows made by his little Fletch for good luck, and not one ever broke. I kept the quiver next to my bed with my crudely fashioned bow, never firing one myself. Even so young, I had a reverence for my work and knew as poor an archer as I would defile them.
It was the very end of summer when my apprenticeship with my father ended. It was dawn, and since our early archery lessons had been abandoned long ago, I was instead working on my third bow in the filmy morning light. The days were cooling down now, icing off into autumn, and Ma was preparing to go into her winter work as the bees hibernated. She sat outside, around the other side of the house, preparing her loom to work with the old Mrs. Huthby next door. In the autumn and winter they wove bolts of fabric to sell to the merchants and tailors. Even though she was so far away, I knew her ears could hear me, feel the maternal vibes circling around me.
Papa came out from the house, his works clothes on, as we had just finished breakfast. I stood with my bow, ready to head to the shop with him, but he clapped me on the shoulder. "Sit down, Fletch. Ya're goin' to be staying home today with yer mother, play with the other kids."
"But what about 'prenticin'?" I asked, pouting. I hadn't sat down, my bow clutched stubbornly in my fist. Nearing eight years old I was three months more mature, and the added experience of work had heightened that maturity. I knew I wasn't cut out to make bows and arrows when all I could do was fletching, but I was too bullheaded to let it go—that and I would dearly miss spending time with my father.
The sigh told me what he was going to say even before he the words came out of his mouth. "Yer fletchin' is wonderful, but ye're just not cut out to make bows and arrows for a livin'. Ye can give beekeepin' a shot in the spring, but fer now ye can think about whatcha want to do, 'sides falconing. Who knows, mebbe ye'll have a way with bees, like Ma."
Although I was disappointed, I wasn't really blindsided with the news that I was not meant for my father's profession. In another couple of weeks I probably would have wound up quitting, anyway. The only thing that kept me interested for so long was my ornate arrows.
I watched my father's back as he went to the shop, which was a good couple of blocks away. Suddenly frustrated I snapped my new, half-finished bow straight in two, satisfied as a loud crack resulted. The noise of my mother at her loom paused for a moment, quietly resumed a steady rhythm as the warp threads were strung. For the rest of the day my spirits were rather down, my heart not entirely into anything, not even bothering Liza or playing with bossy Kira. Ma was gentle with me the entire day, warm and understanding without mentioning anything.
I was nearly eight years old, my birthday one week before the autumnal equinox, and my friends were steadily disappearing as each found their calling as an apprentice. Halfway through the day I became plagued with the question of what to attempt next. I felt a vague sense of panic. What if, by the time I chose, all the good apprenticeships were snatched up! I wracked my mind frantically into the evening for anything, anything at all I would be good at, but came up with blank (I never did operate well under pressure).
My parents were on the whole extremely patient people, and as I was their only child, had high expectations of me and even greater trust in my decisions. If I was wrong, they figured I would learn from my mistakes and make the correct choice given the next opportunity. They did not push any ideas on me for apprenticeships, didn't even hint or suggest at any possible occupation.
So it was, and so I wound up miserable in the winter, trapped up in the house helping Ma and Mrs. Huthby with their dull, tedious weaving.