The Red Cauldron

The thick red copper cauldron (sṭal – سطل) is rounded perfectly to the base, mottled with spots, it shows years of work, even though to me it is new. Its handles are also perfectly rotund, nailed to the sides with two handmade splints. An arm’s length in diameter, it sits plump on the stove. I fire it up. 

The flames lick the base like honey running over bread, flickering a little in the wind. There’s a chill in the air, something to do with the shifting of the seasons. Equinox day, and a new moon. New years in parts of the world, old ones in others.

Orange flames and blue, it’s not long before its seat begins to blacken. Spots of green have long since started to show in places on its surface. The acid will polish them away.

I add a few ingredients. Alum and potassium bitartrate, white powders to start. Followed by water, and a quick stir with a stick. I use an old piece of wood lying in a pile of unassigned objects we keep under the stairway. It’s better than a spoon, it keeps me a little further from the flames. It used to be part of a loom used to weave silks. We found it in the house when we moved. 

The water is a decoction of madder (Fuwwa – فوّة) and thus blood red. It darkens a little with the stirring of the ingredients. I add the skeins of wool (Ṣawf – صوف), tied together so as not to tangle. Smelling like old books and damp dogs, they swim loosely in the sea of red, taking the colour quickly.

Now we wait. As the pot comes to the boil, I watch as the steam rises upon the cool air. Perching on a nearby wall, sandy with mortar, I feel perfectly comfy, buffered as I am by sun, wind and steam.

The act of watching a pot boil should not be undersold. It is in watching the pot that you too, can be transformed. In the slow and steady gaze, a connection is fixed between object and user. It is not just wool, cauldron and herb. It is earth itself, from which the mine produced ore, the roots were dug and the wool, spun. To which we all will one day return.

And so we spin. Spin as I stir the boiling pot, reddening by the minute with a shaft of an old silk loom. Silk or wool, the process is similar. Like different colours of mud, we are the same but different. Me, the former owner of this house, the one who taught me this craft and the others who will take it from me one day.

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