A Knife Forged in Fire: The author wanted a Japanese-style kitchen blade made for him by hand. What he witnessed was a combination of artistry and atomic magic. (LAURENCE GONZALES, JANUARY 9, 2024,Chicago)

Sam brought out what looked like a deck of tarot cards with nothing on them. No Hermit. No Hanged Man. No Fool. They were gray, thicker than ordinary cards, and clearly heavy in his hands. Inside of them a message waited. He had a long ritual to perform to release it.

As he shuffled the cards, they clattered together, revealing the first hint of their message: They were made of steel. He stacked them and squared up the edges so that all of the cards were nice and straight, nothing sticking out or crooked. Everything neat. The alchemical precision favored by Newton in his dim laboratories.

He clamped them in an industrial vise. Now the cards made a block about the size of a thick paperback book. They would never be individual cards again, these 12 pounds of two different kinds of steel, arranged in alternating layers.

The vise was mounted on a large metal table in the shop that Sam shares with his two brothers, who are fine woodworkers. The shop is in Skokie, which means “marsh” in the Potawatomi language, for these environs were once rich and populous wetlands before they were drained and turned into rows of low industrial buildings like this one and sturdy, modest residential homes. But the brothers have transformed this space into a marvelous cabinet of wonders in which to create whatever they might dream. Much of what is inside could have come from the 19th or early 20th century, great cast-iron machines of fabulous design, embossed with symbols no longer thought necessary to display on slick modern devices. In addition, some of the things in this sprawling realm of clutter might have come from another galaxy, like the ballistic cartridge for the table saw. If you accidentally touch the blade, it senses electrical conductivity and retracts. It’s gone so fast that it can’t cut you. It’s all part of the magic of this place of transformations.

Sam lowered his black face shield and picked up the MIG welder and pulled the trigger. The room lit up to an intensity such that Sam was cast as a silhouetted troupe of antic spiders dancing on the walls and floor and ceiling, sparks flying around him like a cracked nest of hornets and in his hands a burning blue hole at the center of things. All this to the roar of the forge’s fire across the room, heating up toward 2,400 degrees, and the insect chattering of the welder chewing away at liquid metal.

Sam bent over the light, his body curved around it like some sorcerer who’d caught a star and had it pinned there on the bench and was leaning over to examine it and chip away the edges. The bits were falling all around him and bouncing up in little arcs off the diamond floor of heaven. It was positively spooky the way that light stole the glory of the crisp and sunny autumn day outside the open roll-up door.

When he was done and I could look more closely without safety glasses, I saw that he had tacked the cards together with a misshapen bead of melted metal at each end of the stack. As a 12-pound solid oblong block of steel with runes inside, the stack would now be called a billet. To finish it off, he welded a two-foot length of steel rebar to one end to make a handle so that he could hold it.

Sam is afraid of some of his machines in the way that the lion tamer is afraid of his cats. You are confident. You know your skills. You have been doing this a long time. But you know that wild animals are always wild animals, and a false gesture, perhaps an unexpected noise, could set in motion events that could not be stopped. This pact requires utter honesty, complete truth. Sam is harnessing powers that few of us ever encounter in our lives. He’s directing them in order to reach down inside of this deck of tarot cards and transform the very atomic nature of its being. He’s doing what sorcerers do: magic.

John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, owned some of Isaac Newton’s papers. They were about alchemy, which was Newton’s lifelong obsession. Keynes gradually came to the conclusion that Newton “was not the first of the age of reason.” No, Keynes said, “he was the last of the magicians.”

Not the last. We have some right here in Chicago.

Sam Goldbroch is a knife maker. He was getting ready to make me a traditional Japanese-style kitchen knife.