The Carpenter

by Peter Hickman

The carpenter’s hands have a surety of purpose. Covered in fine white hairs and detailed, dovetailed wrinkles, they guide the plane firmly in long smooth strokes. The shavings roll and flutter and fall.

The wood seems complicit in the venture. This is not man against nature. They are working together. The carpenter is not slow, is not purposeful, because he is inclined that way. He has been shaped that way, by the wood. In his youth he might have been impatient, searching for direction. But now he follows the bend of branches. Things are as they are.

He steps back to better survey the beam. His white hair is unruly, and scattered with shavings. His brown, lined face is still strong. It still retains the signs of a handsome youth.

It will need a brace in the centre, on the top. That is where the stress will be greatest. There.

He stretches – all that planing has caused an ache in his lower back – and glances outside, where a determined spring rain continues despite the sunlight.

He sees the shadow before the man. Djar creaks inside and surveys the work. It is strange to see Djar wearing cured hides. All bulky and shouldered like the dummies the riders attack in the lists. Djar’s armour is streaked with greasy droplets.

‘Will it be ready?’ Djar asks.

The carpenter nods. They both survey the work. They have not learned to rush these moments, so they stand silently, enjoying the faintly lemony smell the beam shares with them. It is in such a moment that they betray themselves as village folk. Who have known the idle time to muse together. Over a new born calf, a freshly dug well, an old table that has caught the worm.

‘Three days?’ Djar repeats the question. Not because he does not believe exactly. It is just his way of doing things. Reassuring himself, for he does not see the work as the carpenter does. And he has been told to check. So he is checking properly.

The carpenter understands this. Djar is his son, and his son has always been careful. Admittedly the carpenter knows Djar better without those ungainly hides, which he has not accustomed himself to. Perhaps he never will. Perhaps it will be over so soon it will seem a passing aberration, such as the lambs born to the ewe of midwife Ursul, whose heads were joined together when they emerged.

‘It will be heavy,’ Djar muses.

They both turn then, and look outwards. They understand so much that is not spoken. The carpenter might have said, ‘You are right, Djar. When this is assembled it will weigh a great deal. And, as you roll it down the road, past the pond, where the road is always marshy, it is likely to get stuck. And beyond that is the hill, so it will be a great difficulty to haul the thick wooden wheels out and up. Even with the horses. So unless the rains have stopped for a few days…’

Instead they turn and examine the rain together. And Djar knows rain, even better than his father. The shower is weakening.

They step outside. There is a rainbow that bridges their patch of woods with the horizon. That is a poor omen. Almost imperceptibly they both make the ward against the rainbow. For its far reaches lead to the next life, and they have no wish to be hurried there.

‘I’ll tell Honar we had best gravel the road,’ Djar says.

The carpenter nods and they walk back inside.

‘Is that the cradle?’ Djar asks, pointing, for no purpose, for he knows exactly what it is.

The carpenter smiles. There are a lot of off-cuts from such a job as this. Good wood too. He has begun to make a cradle for Djar’s first baby, due at the end of the summer.

Djar puts a hand on the cradle and feels this strange, new thing that will come into his life. He smiles, his eyes soft, and runs his hand along the wood. Then he remembers his purpose, and his armour. He adjusts his shoulder plate, which is loose and gets in the way.

The carpenter walks Djar down the path and watches him go back to the village.

Andhar village is a simple affair. The single puddled road pushes through the wooden houses up to the low, jutting plateau along the side of the valley. That is where the headman, Honar, lives. The outer doors of his large house are open. There is a bustle of activity in front.

The other end of the road, where the rainbow is pointing, leads to Lham, a half day’s walk away. The villagers of Andhar are preparing to attack Lham, because the people of Lham took some sheep. Or some lumber. The carpenter cannot remember.

Four days later they trundle the catapult along the newly gravelled road and past the pond. The wheels crunch deep but they make it up the hill. The tip of Lham’s tallest building reflects the sunlight in the distance. The carpenter’s father helped build the roof many years back.

The carpenter is worried about the new bridge. The old bridge was burned last summer. It was a great shame. He remembers being a boy and watching tadpoles in the green, murky pools at the side of the stream while his father helped to lay the foundations. It was a thing of great pride when it was done. Not often that here, in this world of wood, things were wrought from stone.

They used the old stone pillar in the centre to build the new bridge, but it was quickly done, and the carpenter is naturally suspicious of that. So he tests it himself. He jumps once in the middle of the bridge, trying to get a feel for its strength. He walks down the short steep bank, and peers under at the bracing beams. It is hard to tell in the shadows. There is nothing to do but try it.

The bridge creaks and settles heavily, but it holds. The villagers share nods of pride. They wheel the catapult back to the village and leave it under its own special shelter.

It is a chilly morning, but it will become a hot day, the villagers agree, standing, stamping in the dawn in their clouds of breath. They make their way in a procession down the road. The carpenter watches them until they disappear over the ridge.

It is hard to concentrate. The carpenter finds himself always listening. It is late afternoon of the next day when he hears voices. They have returned. Though he has been listening, though he has been waiting as keenly as the others, he is reluctant to go outside. He is gluing and clamping the sides of the cradle. He cannot drop what he is doing now, or the bars will not set straight. That is what he tells himself.

The voices dwindle. The carpenter cannot tell whether the fighting went well or not. He keeps working after dark, which is not his usual pattern. Eventually someone comes, but it is not his son. It is his sister Mara.

She stays in the doorway, watching him in the lantern light. The carpenter is reluctant to turn around, but he must.

‘It worked,’ Mara affirms.

The carpenter nods. He thought that it would.

‘It was well we had the catapult. They built a palisade on the west side. After the wall fell it didn’t take long.’

The carpenter puts the plane down. He flicks away a shaving still caught in the blade.

‘It was like Festival night, the first night. With all the campfires. Appar wanted to dance,’ Mara says, smiling badly.

Appar was slow on account of his difficult birth. The carpenter smiles at the image of Appar thinking that it was a special holiday. But it, too, is a poor smile. It feels heavy amongst his cheeks.

‘They gave us two carts full of cowan wood. And grazing rights on the field under Liddar’s Spur.’ Mara is silent for a long time, as if she has run out of news.

‘Djar fell at the wall,’ she says, finally.

Mara makes a half step, a tentative gesture towards the carpenter. But she cannot remember the last time she hugged her brother. It would not be the thing to do. Not right now.

‘I will come tomorrow,’ she says as she leaves. She will bring something hearty for him to eat.

The carpenter takes up the chisel again, and works away at the picture he is carving into the cradle. Of a dog, running. But his eyes are not focused on his work. The chisel slips.

The carpenter watches the white seam on the side of his finger that the chisel made. Then the blood comes. He takes an old rag out and wraps it around the wound. He stands there for a long time, until the lantern is burning very low. One hand clamping the rag down upon the other.

‘My son is dead,’ the carpenter says, aloud.

He wants to hear how the words sound. He wants them to manifest themselves, wants to know what they will do to him now that they are in the world.

They disturb a flit-owl nesting in the eaves. It peeks brightly surprised at him, blinks in admonition, and flies away.

The End