This article was originally published on April 24, 2019.
This story, first published in the Spring 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly, is now a short film directed by Matt Linderman of Mustard Seed Cinema. The film was an official selection of the 2021 Phoenix Film Festival and won “Best Indie Film” at the 2021 Faith in Film Festival. Watch it here.
The carpenter’s son is dying. With his boy confined to the blue bedroom at the northwest corner of their ranch on the Piney River, he’s moved his workshop out of the garage and onto the patch of sun-dappled grass that slopes down from the child’s window to the water. Everything is tilted and precarious, from his hand-hewn worktable to the power tools cooling atop the maple stumps at the water’s edge, but it’s the only way the boy can watch him work. The carpenter has studied the scene from the blue bedroom window and he understands its appeal: the sun glints off the table saw’s blade and heats up the cedar slabs’ natural blush, and gold and scarlet leaves lie like daubs of paint on the lawn. Behind it all, the soap-green waters of the Piney River swirl around glossy boulders and divide at the little island of birch trees where the two of them used to sit and fish in the early mornings.
He’s a finish carpenter by day, a woodworker by night, and while his working hours have not actually changed since the doctors relinquished his son and said better you should spend these last days at home, there’s a sense of the days lengthening out between six in the morning and four in the afternoon, in contrast with the impossible speed of twilight’s descent. It is the first week of November, and the carpenter is running out of time.
His wife, who left them eighteen months ago, has returned to care for the boy by day. It all enrages him – her returning only now, for this, after everything she did; her cot set up in the third bedroom; the sound of her percolating the coffee and working the toaster as he lathers up in the bathroom before his workday; the fact that he must go to his workday at all, laying trim in strangers’ homes as his son diminishes. But there must be money. Money keeps the boy comfortable. Money means he won’t lose this house, the only structure on earth to have sheltered and known his child. He’d built the place himself, drawing and redrawing the blueprints for months beforehand. He’d measured everything three times. He’d insured it against every incident, insulated it against all the forces of nature. There wasn’t a single nail that hadn’t been driven in with all the force of his passion, and it was like the world beginning all over again the day he completed it and walked his wife and infant son through the front door. He was in love with God in those years, with himself too, and when the three of them passed over the threshold and into the living room, he swore he heard the velvet whisper of a window sliding open, as though a passageway between their world and that other dimension had unsealed itself.
But that was ten years ago, and the carpenter is no longer in love with God. In the hour before twilight when his son likes to watch him work, he does not let his face show the fury he feels. He does not let his lips move when he argues with the divine. These arguments are long and convoluted and make him feel like an actor alone on an enormous stage, struggling to play every part, for he must speak God’s lines too. The effort exhausts him. He carves away at the cedar, creating towers of red and cream curlicues that inevitably spill riverward with the force of gravity, and he argues, often through the entire hour.
Sometimes there is no back-and-forth. Sometimes he simply says, You bastard.
His son has always loved wood, wanted to work it since he was five. It was the greatest pride of the carpenter’s life to show him the trees’ secrets, the violet in walnut, the rainbows of blue and green concealed in poplar, the whimsical constellations etched into birdseye maple. Cutting western cedar, they would stop to breathe in its deep, floral scent, and the boy would say, it’s like fall leaves on fire. He’d loved to organize drill bits in their plastic drawers and to uncoil the orange extension cords that lived on their garage floor. He loved the squared-off eraserless pencils his father kept in his jeans pocket and he loved the pop of nail guns, the rumble and gasp of compressors. As a baby his favorite toy had been the carpenter’s yellow level with its watery windows and the lone bubble that shifted back and forth, right to left, until centered. Together they would set the level atop dressers, tables, boxes to test the rightness of everything. When the bubble wobbled, then stilled between the two center lines, there was a sense of supreme accomplishment: it was they, the builders, who had properly aligned the world.
The carpenter explained to him that the best pieces were seamless, fluid. He taught him the art of mortise and tenon as if it were a holy language and he the last man to learn it. When they worked with a burl or a live-edged slab, they waited for the tree to tell them what it wished to be. Listen to the wood. Follow it. He believed he could teach his son a kind of art, a secret knowledge that would guide him into a profession that would satisfy him beyond any other.
But the boy will create nothing, will become nothing. Every day is the same now: the carpenter pushes the old truck down I-40 as fast as it will go, smokes a cigarette over the course of the last ten miles of his drive, and pulls into the garage. He takes his tools and the cedar out back and sets everything up, creating a soft cadence of sound that he knows will wake his son out of his drugged sleep. Then he goes inside to see his boy. His wife busies herself in another part of the house while he talks with him, helps him with what little he’s able to eat. Often the boy is too dazed to say much more than How is it coming. When it’s clear the boy has tired of talk, the carpenter steps outside to work, an almost silent film shot again and again through the frame of the bedroom window. At twilight he returns to the bedroom to hold his son’s hand as he drifts into sleep. He eyes the Star Wars figurines lined up on the windowsill, notes the way the dying light sparks against the blue of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. It wasn’t so long ago that his son was in that familiar stage in which he imagined his own future heroism, the call that would come to him from distant suns, the good he would do armed with a saber or hammer of his own. You bastard.
Tonight, the carpenter listens to his house. Is it that the wind has become more ferocious, or is the house less of a bulwark than he’d thought? It seems that the creaks are louder, the whistling keener. To distract himself he thinks of his wife two rooms over, tossing on her cot, and of how much he’d like to turn her out on the street and deny her this protracted goodbye to a child she’d decided wasn’t worth her time eighteen months ago. Rage keeps him awake, and he revels in it. He hates them all: his wife, the doctors, God. Sleep won’t change that. Even when he does sleep, he wakes enervated from endless dreams of battle. In his dreams the other man is much larger than he is, backlit and shimmering, and always they grapple in a vast, sloping field. Once, he felt himself winning, and then the other man’s hand reached out through a shaft of amber light and tapped his thigh. The carpenter collapsed face-down in the soil. Now he recalls with humiliation having walked bleary-eyed into their minister’s office the following morning to ask about the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.
“You believe you were wrestling God?” the reverend asked, hand against his chin.
“I just want to know what the story means,” the carpenter said, digging his heels into the carpet like a mule. “I read it again this morning and it still doesn’t make sense to me.”
“To be quite honest with you, I’ve never understood it myself,” the minister admitted.
“It seems like neither of them won.”
“That’s how it reads to me.” A pause, then, “How is he?”
“He’s dying, Reverend. What do you want me to say?”
When his phone blares out its five-thirty alarm, he’s gummy-eyed and aching, crescent moons carved into his palms from fists clenched in his half-sleep. He’ll have to catch whatever shuteye he can on his lunch break so that when he comes home again to work on the cedar, he will not cut himself or topple down the lawn’s slope into the stream.
He finds his wife in the kitchen, stirring a skillet of scrambled eggs and sausage. She jumps a little at the sight of him. “I thought you’d want something better than toast for a change,” she says, not quite looking at him. The smell of the sausage, maple and spice, has the same effect on him as the smell of her vanilla perfume – it’s too familiar, too officious.
He reaches for his Carhartt. “I don’t have time. The faster I get there, the faster I get home.”
Her eyes are circled with gray, her hair bound in a limp braid. She’s wearing a well-worn lilac robe he recognizes from early in their marriage, a silken thing trimmed with deep violet. He’d bought it for her as an apology gift after forgetting their anniversary. She’s about to say something else when the words fly from his mouth: “Haven’t seen that one in a while. It’s kind of sexy for around the house, don’t you think? But maybe you’re used to that.”
She closes her eyes briefly before turning back to the stove and shutting off the burner. “I’ll just make you some toast.”
“I’ll get something on the way.”
“He won’t tell me, you know.” She says this quietly, her back still turned. “He won’t say what it is he asked you to make. What you’re working on out there. I thought maybe a table – I saw that slab with the curvy edge that you’ve got up against the side of the house. But he said it wasn’t just a table, and that the whole thing was his idea. Is that true?”
“Of course it’s true. He never lies.” Something catches in his voice, and he moves quickly to the front door, zipping up his coat. “Make sure he drinks his water. You have to keep on him.” As if it would make any difference.
He works through dinner in a cold wind that whips along the bend of the Piney River, frothing up the rapids. His boy is sitting up in the window – always it fills him with a rush of hope, followed by furious despair, to see that gaunt little body upright amidst the tangled blankets, the bald head like a question mark – and the pressure is on. He carves the cedar, stopping only to wipe snot from his nose and dewy water from the corners of his eyes. “It will sound just like the river,” he calls out; the boy’s window is cracked just half an inch. “It’ll flow in perfect lines. You’ll see.”
His son nods. His confidence in his father is absolute.
The carpenter adjusts the shims under two legs of the worktable, something he must constantly do on the hillock. When he returns to his carving, he bites his lower lip in concentration, shaping the cedar. The problem, God, is that you think you know what this is like, but you don’t.
– Don’t I?
– Your son chose to die. And he was no child. He was thirty-three years old.
– Do you really think that made it any easier for me?
– Apparently not, as you simply sat there and watched.
– You don’t know what I did.
– Let me put it to you another way. There was purpose in what happened to your son, at least that’s what you claim. There is no purpose to this. None.
Silence. No cue card.
He carves the cedar, breathing in the scent of leaves on fire. His strokes reveal the deep violet-red that always drew his son’s eye. When finished, this thing will be precisely what they’ve wished it to be, God’s senseless interference in their lives notwithstanding.
On a Tuesday night, the boy asks for the carpenter’s cigarettes. In his complete surprise, he hands over the wrinkled pack of Camels and waits. The boy turns them over in his hands. Not trusting his voice, the carpenter asks, “Did you want to try one, son? Is that it?” It’s too horrible, the idea that his ten-year-old might have something so dreary and mundane on his bucket list, but trips to the ocean or hot air balloon rides are out of the question, and so there’s a part of him that’s perfectly willing to take out his lighter and hold it for the boy until his thumb burns.
His son breaks into a weak laugh. Oh, that sound – it’s a broken bell in an abandoned cathedral. “No, Dad,” he says, covering his mouth. It’s something he only began to do after his diagnosis, as though afraid he’d infect somebody with his own mortality. “No.” He mashes the carton between his hands, twisting it and mangling it until the cigarettes are unusable. The carpenter watches this in silence.
“I want you to stop,” his boy says, glassy-eyed with the mess in his lap. “I know it’s hard to quit, but stop. I want you to live a long –”
“I’ll stop,” he says, too loudly. “Here.” He takes the ruined cigarettes and dumps them in the plastic trashcan by the bed. His hands are shaking. “Now get some sleep. Or did you want to read more Narnia tonight?”
They read together. It is something the carpenter used to work hard at dodging even when his son was tiny; he’d tell the boy he needed to get to bed early when in truth it was simply that he hated to read aloud and hated the way he stumbled over words his son could already pronounce with ease. Now he’s unable to say no to any request and so he works his way through the story, licking the calloused tip of his index finger to turn the pages. The chapter finished, he takes his shower, where he weeps and bangs his fist against the grey tile.
When he emerges from the bathroom it seems to him that the floor has tilted; he stumbles over his own feet as he crosses the hall toward his room. His wife, also on her way to bed, stops in the hallway and reaches out to touch his arm. He steps back. In the moonlight, she’s pale and wide-eyed, thin in her nightgown. “I heard you,” she says softly. Her voice is unbearable, full of the old tenderness. “Please, talk to me. Let me listen.”
“There’s nothing to say, and there’s not going to be. Just help me care for him, and then go back to your life. I know you want to do right by him, so do it. Then let me be.”
She says his name, her hands in her hair.
“I have to get some sleep. You should, too.”
He is too tired and cried-out for anger, but when he lies back in his bed, he finds himself addressing God again: I know there’s no blood, no whip, and no nails. But I believe my son has suffered worse than yours.
Silence. He tries again: At least yours was quick. One day.
– One day is an eternity here.
– At least your wife didn’t betray you.
– Every woman on earth has betrayed me at one point or another, as has every man.
– But did you have to walk around your house with them all there as you watched your boy bleed out? Did you have to pretend to believe they cared?
– There was nothing to pretend. I knew they cared, or that they would, eventually.
– I’m not willing to wait for eventually.
– Then it’s a good thing I am.
They grapple again in the carpenter’s dreams, God’s skin hot and glimmering in his hands as they tussle in the field.
The first three tiers are done, as are the live-edged chutes braided between them like vines. His son’s inspiration came from a video of a Rube Goldberg device, watched on a laptop balanced across his knees in bed back when he had the energy to do such things. The carpenter hadn’t understood why it pleased him so, but he knew it was his last chance to be the boy’s hands, serve as a proxy to his imagination. Somehow he also knew that this object, whatever it turned out to be, would be his life raft after the boy passed. It would be the last thing to embody the boy’s spirit. It had to be perfect.
It’s an unusually quiet Thursday, the wind silent and the house still, no cars on the byway. His wife has gone to do the shopping and whatever else she does in town. His son is already asleep at six-thirty in the evening. The sycamores and birches are ghostly in the falling light. The carpenter works on, sweating in the November chill, hoping to finish the fourth tier before darkness falls. One of the boy’s doctors warned him that if the boy began to talk a good deal, or make a sudden show of energy or agitation, it meant he was close. There’s been no sign of such feverish enthusiasm, but earlier, when the carpenter came home, he found the boy talking with his mother, the words coming fast, hurling over one another in their rush to some unknown end. “You remember them, don’t you? Those water games at Uncle Andy’s, with the rubber buttons and the plastic windows. You could hook rings on poles or try to get basketballs into a net. You never told me I was too old to play with them. You never said anything when I went to ask for them. You knew I just loved them.” His mother was crying weakly through this strange speech, but the boy didn’t seem to notice; his face was aglow, his eyes faraway. “I just wanted to say thanks for that. I never did.”
He has to fight to slow his hands so as not to make a mistake. He can’t afford the time it will take to redo anything.
We were happy then, God, during the Uncle Andy’s days. You must have been there with us at that craphole of a pancake restaurant at least once. It’s closed, you know.
– I remember. And yes, I know it’s closed.
– But the truth is she never loved me. She walked right out on us.
– Because she was a whore, that’s why. She saw something she wanted and just went after it.
– So it was all her, then.
– Excuse me?
– There was nothing you did to drive her away. You made no mistakes in your marriage.
– That’s right.
Silence. Then he lets out a yelp; he’s driven a one-inch splinter into the skin of his palm, just below his ring finger. “Shit,” he whispers. He hasn’t sworn out loud in months. The splinter is deep, and it hurts; he can’t flex his fingers without feeling it edge up against the nerves.
He marches inside, into the half-bath off the laundry room where he keeps his first aid kit. A minute later his wife is in the doorway, mouth pursed in concern. “Splinter?” she asks.
When they were young, she used to pull them out for him with tweezers; in fact, she’d had a talent for it, sliding the needles of wood out with a grace that convinced him she was born to be a mother. Now she moves close to him and studies his palm beneath the bathroom’s yellow light. “That’s a bad one,” she affirms. “Let me try?”
“I’ve got it.”
“Don’t be stupid, you’ll just make it worse. Christ, what are you doing?”
He’s using a pin to rip up the skin and expose the splinter’s frayed end. Tiny beads of blood bloom from the wound.
“Stop,” she says, grabbing his hand. “Do you have tweezers in here? Good. Come on. Just hold your hand open.”
Grinding his teeth, he holds still as she gently pushes the splinter toward herself, pressing her nail firmly against the opposite end. The bit that emerges is infinitesimally small, barely visible to the carpenter’s eye, but his wife deftly nips it between the tweezer’s paws and has drawn it out before he can breathe. With a small laugh, she deposits the shard on the edge of the sink. “Put it under your pillow for the splinter fairy,” she says. It’s an old joke of theirs, and he almost smiles before he catches himself.
“Thanks,” he says, putting the first aid kit back under the sink. “I have to get back.”
“I think you’d better stay in.” She hesitates. “He’s coming in and out of sleep, but when he’s out, he’s talking.”
“I know. I heard a little, earlier. But I have to get this done. You understand?”
Another pause. “Yes. I think so. But when it’s dark – I’d like to be with you two, together, if you don’t mind. I hate this separation at night. I hate it.”
“You hate the separation.” He says this, then looks deliberately into her eyes.
She flinches but holds her ground. “Yes, I do.”
“Do what you want,” he hears himself say.
“Thank you. I’d like to sit with you all tonight.”
He nods once and returns to the backyard to attach the cedar slab tabletop.
It’s been years since he was vulnerable to splinters. Over time he’s grown a second skin over his hands, a tough whitened shell pocked with callouses. His cuticles are ragged but healthy, his nails thick and pink. It unsettles him to find that there are soft spots in the moonlike surface of his palms. He works steadily but more carefully over the course of the next three evenings, wary of the chisel’s path.
On the third night he allows his wife again to sit with him in his boy’s bedroom. Suddenly finished with reading, the boy seems to want only to talk, and there is no recognizable pattern to his thoughts. As the nebulous grain of burl wood sends power tools cartwheeling in all directions and thus requires the slow and careful use of hand tools, so his son’s swirling mind requires more attention and naked intuition than the carpenter is used to having demanded of him.
“I stole from your purse once,” the boy tells his mother, mouth twisting.
“It’s all right,” his mother says, patting his hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
“There was a kid at school everyone made fun of. I liked her but I joined in anyway,” their boy goes on, eyes on the ceiling. “Her name was Ashley and I called her Ash-can like everyone else. Her mom was an alcoholic and all her clothes were Salvation Army, that’s why people ripped on her. That was just last year.”
“Do you want some water, son?” the carpenter asks, leaning forward.
“I had these mean thoughts. Just mean,” he continues, his voice fading a little.
“Everyone does,” his mother says.
Now the boy’s eyes are filling up. “I kicked a bird in the street. It wasn’t dead yet but I kicked it just like everyone else was. Why did I do that?”
“Baby, baby. Come on now.”
The carpenter says, “Why are you telling us all this, son?” Then, unconsciously echoing his wife, “Come on, now.”
“I don’t know.” He looks at his father, and his hazel eyes are piercing, more complex in their whorls of color than he can recall them being. What he sees there is all the astounding intricacy of walnut – hazel, palest blue, violet, sienna. How had he never noticed before? The boy says, “I want to talk to some people and tell them sorry but I’m – I’m too tired.” He lets his head fall back on the mountain of pillows behind him. His skin is ghastly white, rivers of capillaries showing through. “I’m too tired.”
The carpenter rises. “You get some sleep, buddy. Getting close on the waterfall, you know.”
Alone in the backyard beneath the stars, he works his jaw, the fury rising in his blood like a fever. You are sick, do you know that.
– I beg your pardon.
– You’re in control, you can put an end to it. Make him well. At the very least don’t make me sit here and watch him beat himself up for these tiny little sins.
– He’s a child with the heart of a man. He’s taking responsibility for whatever he can.
– You want me to say he’s a better man than I am? Fine. He’s always been the better man, even at eight years old. He had more patience. He thinks I’d use mortise and tenon every time, but I like the power tools. It was him that changed me. He walked into the garage at three years old and all of a sudden I never wanted to see a hinge or a screw sticking out of the wood again.
– Now you’re saying something real, son.
– Don’t call me that. Don’t cross the line.
– I’m like your wife. I want to sit in the room with you at night.
– You can both keep to your own rooms, thanks very much. Make him well again and I’ll let you into my house whenever you ask.
– Those are the conditions?
– I’m afraid I –
– That’s what I thought.
He pulls the green tarpaulin off the almost-finished product and studies it in a wash of moonlight. When he replaces the tarp and steps back, he miscalculates the ground’s slope and almost falls backward into the river. Cursing, he steadies himself and glances furtively at his son’s window. The room is dark. After a long pause filled with only his own breathing, he crouches down and drives his fist into the soft earth, punishing it for its unevenness, its unsuitability. This little hillock was just a pretty place to read and watch the water back when their lives were simple. Now it’s another body to wrestle, a force continually pushing back. Even the trees’ browning foliage and the river-fed undergrowth seem to be encroaching on his workspace with malicious intent. He wants his garage with its level concrete floor and walls of neatly organized tools; he wants its insulated quiet and its humid air smelling of pine sap and mineral oil. He wants his son to wander in after school in his blue jeans with his hair all cowlicky, eating a Twizzler or slurping a Dr. Pepper the way he used to, and he wants the God he grew up with, who never asked questions or demanded much of anything save that he do his job, put food on the table, and attend church when he could to ask for what he wanted.
His son rarely wants the television, but today he asks for a movie – Ben-Hur, a film he’d once watched obsessively, two or three times a week the year he turned eight. The carpenter finds the old VHS in a jumble of tapes in the living room closet and cleans it off. Then he wheels in the metal tool cart he converted into a portable TV stand awhile back, when the boy became too weak to leave his bed. “I’d watch it with you, but I have to work,” he says, pointing out the window at his worktable.
“I know. Can you put it in now?”
“Sure.” He slides in the tape, grateful for the reprieve. He never could bear to watch this movie with his son. It was the way his boy always stood at wide-eyed attention for those quiet scenes in which Christ materialized. Always the man was seen only from behind, as when he offered water to the disconsolate Ben-Hur in the desert, but the music shifted dramatically when he appeared. It was the sound of water moving in a slow cascade down a staircase of leaves, and it played at the film’s end, too, when the lepers were healed in the rains of the thunderstorm that followed Christ’s death. The carpenter says, “Are you sure you want to watch this?”
His boy looks at him. “Is it OK? I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
“Yes, yes. Of course it’s OK. I’ll be right there, right outside.” He exits the room, fists opening and closing at his side. He will surely wrestle God again tonight, and try to pull the other down the sloping field into whatever ditch lies below.
He works through a downpour the following night, beneath a makeshift shanty constructed of tarp. He returns from the yard to find most of the house in inky darkness save for the faint glow of his son’s nightlight and a square of light from the entrance to the basement. There’s not much down there besides canned food, the furnace, and the boy’s bicycle, and he starts down the stairs thinking he’s left the light on from earlier when he went in search of tomato soup. He finds his wife sitting in the middle of the gritty brown carpet between the storage closet and the bike rack, a photo album open across her lap.
“You shouldn’t,” the carpenter says roughly.
His wife snaps the book closed. Rising, she settles it back into the box she’d pulled out from under the old picnic bench they once used as a laundry table. “I know. I don’t have any right to look. I’m sorry.” She moves past him to the stairs, biting the inside of her cheek.
What he’d meant was that it would only hurt her to look at those pictures of their son when he was healthy and carefree. It stung him, what she’d assumed; just what sort of person did she think he was? He stands there a minute with his hands jammed into his pockets and then he strides over to the box and removes the photo album. He sits down on the picnic bench and opens the book to a random page. The crinkle of cellophane is enough to make his chest tighten; it’s the sound of an intact family, of a woman scrapbooking at a kitchen table while her husband fixes the dryer and her son builds action-figure kingdoms out of blankets and chairs. It takes everything he has to keep paging through.
It could be that the lighting down here is off, or that he’s bone-tired. But the photographs he’s on look completely foreign to him, as though another man, someone he didn’t particularly like, had stepped in for a cameo, then ducked back out just after the pictures were taken. He squints. Here is a snapshot of the two of them in his garage workshop. The carpenter is bent over the worktable, focused and intent; the son eyes him from the table’s end, exactly like a dog awaiting orders. Is it his imagination, or does he, the carpenter, look a little too impressed with himself? In another, they’re all at the aquarium; his boy is clutching a stuffed orca whale to his chest, and just behind him, the carpenter is rolling his eyes. He remembers that day and what he’d said to his son: “You’re too old, and it’s a girl’s toy anyway.” Why had he said that? He closes the album and begins to pace the basement floor. In a moment, it comes to him, the fight he’d had with his son not long before that trip.
Together they’d watched a documentary film on the captivity of orca whales. The orcas were hunted, separated from their little ones, and kept in tiny pools that were little more than bathtubs. Their dorsal fins flopped over in defeat after so many years of swimming in circles. They made desperate attempts to contact their loved ones via long-range vocals that went unanswered. The carpenter’s son wept at the film’s conclusion. “It won’t go on forever,” he’d tried to tell his son. “Come on, now. There are even good parts to keeping those whales in captivity. They learn about them, so they can help the ones in the wild if they get sick.” He had no idea if this was true. His son looked up and said, “I’m thinking about what they said about how hard the whales work to make the trainers happy. How they try to do all the tricks. I think I know why they do that.”
“They do it because they think if they do it good enough, the trainers will love them. And if they love them, maybe they’ll let them go free.” The boy dissolved into fresh tears, completely breaking down, and then the carpenter’s wife rushed in, wanting to know what had happened.
Still pacing the chilled basement, the carpenter has the monstrous thought that his boy had looked at him in the same way. Was he really in love with the wood and the workshop, or did he feel that he had to perform those tricks in order to win his father’s love?
Instead of going to bed, he lets himself back out of the house and down to the river. I was always interested in him. I let him be his own person.
– How many times did you cut him off when he tried to talk to you, unless of course he had a hammer in his hand?
– He loved the workshop. I know that was real.
– Yes. He loved books too, and riding through Spring City on an autumn day, kicking up leaves with his tires. He loved that girl he tried to tell you about when he was eight. He loved to write little poems.
– I’m speaking for you, God, so if you know all this, it means I know it too.
– Please. You were the same way with your wife. No curiosity.
– No curiosity? What the hell?
– Language. You don’t remember that strange little argument you had, years ago? She left her diary open and was surprised that you never touched it or even asked about it. “I’d have to read yours,” she said, and you laughed and said, “Why?” What were you so afraid of?
– This is insane. I knew them. I was always there for them. Do you see this house I built? Do you know what went into it?
– Yes. You built the house.
In the silence that follows, the carpenter kicks at a tool bucket he’s left out on the grass.
The minister arrives on a Sunday evening. It is not a social visit – the carpenter has made that clear. It’s business. The minister’s brother is a gifted metalworker and the carpenter has put in a request. Per the carpenter’s instructions, the minister comes straight to the backyard with the package, bypassing the house.
“About time,” the carpenter says. “He made it exactly to my specifications?”
“He says he did. I don’t know anything about it, so you have to trust him. He did comment on just how exact those specifications were.” The minister says this with a small smile that infuriates the carpenter.
“It has to be right. This isn’t a game.”
“I know that. Will you open it now? I’d like to see it myself.”
Begrudgingly he opens the package. What the metalworker has made is a kind of net of copper leaves, bound together at the stems; they glimmer in the November sun, throwing off sparks of red and orange. The carpenter moves his fingers over one of the leaves and nods. Almost forgetting the minister, he pulls a sheet off his nearly-finished table and kneels at its base.
The minister gasps.
“Wait,” the carpenter murmurs, distracted. The network of leaves will have to be properly attached later, but he’ll be able to tell right away if it was made correctly. He holds it up against the descending tiers of cedar, the delicate live-edged shelves that form a kind of staircase below the tabletop. The minister’s brother has been true. It’s a flawless fit, the leaves clinging to the tiers like hands, forming cups below the shelves’ tilted ends, creating the illusion of movement and breath.
“Never in my life,” the minister says softly. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The carpenter hesitates. “It was my boy’s idea. The whole design.”
“Am I right, that what you need finally is water to –”
Sharply he says, “Don’t spoil it. Don’t say it.” It occurs to him that what he’s been working on is as close to something sacred as he’s ever gotten. “There’s something wrong in saying it out loud.”
“I understand. I think all artists feel that way. My brother –”
“Tell him he’s done well. Here.” He digs into his back pocket for the check he’s had written out for days.
“Michael won’t take pay for this,” the minister says gently, holding up both hands.
“I know what it costs to work with copper. I’ve been putting this aside since the day my boy told me his idea. Give it to him.” He thrusts the check into the minister’s shirt pocket and turns away. “I’m close,” he says. “I have to finish.”
“I’ll let you be, then.” The minister hovers a second. “We’re all praying for your family, you know.”
“Thanks,” he says shortly. “Thanks a million.”
The minister gone, he tilts his head back to study the trees, whose leaves are now almost completely brown. You want me to say it, God? Fine. I wanted to tell him it was my idea. I wanted the credit.
– I looked pretty full of myself in those workshop pictures.
– You don’t love the wood?
– I do. But I came to misuse it. As I misused my son.
– How so?
– I made the wood his only route to my love. I was afraid he’d grow up into someone I couldn’t understand. Now you see what a repulsive son of a bitch I am.
– You did not misuse your son. You tried to keep him close. And you cared for him all on your own after your wife left.
– I did wrong by her, too. It’s time I took it like a man, like he does.
– What do I do?
– Finish what you began.
He tinkers with the leaf network for five or ten minutes before circling around to the garage for some tools. He’s rummaging through a plastic drawer when he hears voices in the house – his wife’s and the minister’s. He closes the drawer, heels off his boots so he can let himself into the laundry room without alerting them to his presence.
They’re in the kitchen, out of sight, and he wants to go in to them, but something pins him in place long enough to hear his wife say, “Isn’t that in the Bible? The sins of the parents get visited on the sons? It’s a punishment for what I did to them.”
“Don’t think of it as a punishment.” The minister hesitates; the carpenter, standing beside the dryer, holds his breath. “Think of it as an awakening.”
The carpenter backs quietly into the garage. He’s forgotten what tool he needed, and he stands there awhile, hands on his head like a man awaiting arrest.
They have a long and difficult Monday night during which the boy keeps climbing out of bed, mumbling unintelligibly, and they have to keep leading him back. On the road coming home from work Tuesday, the carpenter is too dazed to realize he’s going fifteen miles over the speed limit. The officer who pulls him over looks closely at him and asks too many questions. “You can just give me the ticket,” the carpenter says finally, to end it. The other man’s look of fatherly concern is insufferable.
When he comes home, ticket in hand, he finds his wife collapsed at the kitchen table, crying stormily into her hands. His immediate reaction is to throw down his lunch sack and rush down the hall to the boy’s room. Heart slamming in his chest, he shoulders open the door. But his son is still alive, still breathing, sleeping with his arms strewn behind his head like a baby’s. The window’s curtains are pulled back as usual to reveal the still life of the outdoor workshop.
Back in the kitchen, he flicks the overhead light on and off to get his wife to look up at him. “You scared the living hell out of me,” he says breathlessly. “You know that?” Then, “What happened?”
She looks at him from between the slats of her fingers. “He said he forgives me. For leaving.”
There is a long pause before he lowers himself heavily into the chair across from her.
“I brought it up. I wanted him to know – I needed him to know it wasn’t him I’d left. It wasn’t anything about him. I told him it was just me, doing something selfish. Being an idiot. And he said it didn’t matter.” She lets out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “He said, ‘It wasn’t very long, in the scheme of things.’ Where’d he get a phrase like that? I barely kept it together until he went to sleep. Then I came in here.” From below the table she lifts a bottle of red wine, half empty. “I had this in my car. A couple of bottles, actually. I’ve been going at it some nights, when I don’t know if I can take it.”
“I do that too. I mean I did. After you left.” He rubs his hardened fingertip over a scratch in the tabletop, no doubt made by his son’s pen or colored pencil years ago.
“I was horrible to you.”
He says nothing.
“I know you think it was just about him –”
“Don’t say it –”
“But it wasn’t. I know that now. I was never even in love, and it wasn’t about the sex either. I was in love with his loving me. I was this whole new person with him. I got to pretend to have no history. You understand? It was all lies, me thinking I could just start over and be perfect.”
Quietly he says, “What all had you done that you wanted so bad to be someone else?”
“It wasn’t any one big thing. It was all the little things. I wasn’t the person I’d planned on being. I’d just – disappointed myself. I just didn’t like who I was.”
“You can say it, you know. I’m sure if you felt like a disappointment, it was because I treated you like one.” Stunned at having said it, he sits back in his chair. He can’t quite bring himself to look at her.
From the boy’s room comes a rustling, and then his faint voice: “Dad?”
The carpenter leaps up from the table. “Son?”
In the blue bedroom, his boy is standing beside the window, and he’s as thin and spectral there as the birches on the river. “You’re not going to work on it tonight?” he asks, the words warbly.
“Yes, yes, of course I am. I just got home a little late. I’ll get out there right now, unless you don’t want me to.”
“I do want you to. Can you use the floodlights like we used to? I want to sleep to the floodlights.”
“Of course. But you need to be in bed, kiddo. Come on.”
He works into the night, blinking through the glare. Dust and flying woodchips look like moths in the white light and in his peripheral vision always he sees his son’s shape, propped up by the pillows and bathed in the soft radiance of the maple veneer nightlight he keeps plugged in beside the bed.
If you had killed him tonight, I’d never have forgiven you.
The fountain table is nearly complete. All that’s needed are some finishing touches, and then the water. Two or three more days. He calls in sick to work before he falls into bed, his right hand still fitted around the ghost of the chisel.
The last Friday of November, the carpenter finishes the table just after dark. In his exhaustion he falls asleep at eight o’clock and dreams not of wrestling gods but of his wife and young son. It’s winter in this memory, and they’re in a warmly-lit café in Spring City’s little downtown. Snow is falling slowly past the windows, catching up the red and green of Christmas lights strung across the glass. His son sips cocoa and walks over to the café’s chalkboard to write something. A poem, a haiku of sorts. Why hadn’t the carpenter written it down on a napkin, the back of a receipt, anything? His wife smiles over her tea and reaches for his hand. In the reality of the memory, he stood up to get himself a refill; they’d been fighting over who knew what. But in the dream, he entwines his fingers through hers and squeezes. They have a brilliant child, an empath with a gift for words and a love of beauty. He’ll be an artist or writer or filmmaker someday, or perhaps a preacher. And the two of them – they have a long and winding road to walk together. They’ll start tonight. He’ll ask her … he’ll turn over in bed, and he’ll ask her.…
He wakes in a cold sweat. He can hear his son’s voice, avid, the words a babbling brook. He leaps out of bed and bolts down the hall.
His boy is lying back against the pillows, hands working above his chest. His eyes are circles and there is an ethereal light there the carpenter has never seen, even in the boy’s worst fevers. “I knew I’d see you again,” he says when his father leans over him and touches his cheek. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.…”
The carpenter calls his wife’s name.
The boy is still talking as the two of them sit down on the bed beside him. “It’s the same sound,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “It’s just the same.”
His mother covers her eyes, then pulls her hand down to look at the carpenter. “He’s going,” she says softly.
“No.” The carpenter rises, looks frantically out the window. “He has to see it. I can turn on the floodlights. I finished it tonight – all I need is water –”
“Don’t you leave.” Her voice is fierce, her hand on his wrist. “Don’t you dare leave.”
His throat is so tight he doesn’t think he can respond. Slowly he sits back down on the edge of the bed. Somehow, his wife’s hand ends up in his, and he knows he’s holding too tight, hurting her, but he can’t seem to let go. Their boy looks at their hands and nods. Then, to his father, “It wasn’t for me anyway … for you –”
The boy’s eyes shift to the window. They follow his gaze. The carpenter, now clutching his son’s fingers in his left hand, sees moonlight on the rapids, the white arms of sycamores, the silhouettes of his worktable and tools and the fountain table beneath its shroud. When he looks back, his boy has gone.
It is at dawn that he goes into the frosted backyard alone and lifts the sheet from the fountain table. Down at the river he fills a metal pail with icy water and hauls it up the slope of the lawn. He holds the bucket in his arms, feeling its weight. Then, slowly, he pours the silver water down the first shelf of cedar. It spills down in bright rivulets, rushing right, then left, then right again, cascading down the cedar steps and branching off the copper leaves to form tiny waterfalls that rejoin the first river in its voyage toward the table’s base. The cedar’s deep violets and reds fire to life like old leaves drawing new breath. The new sun refracts off the water just as the carpenter had hoped it would; sparks fly and the copper of the leaves trembles as trout tremble within a current.
The stream is moving fast, but just before it spills out onto the soil, the carpenter drops to the ground and lays his head at the table’s base. Frigid water bathes his neck and hair. It shocks him, but he stays where he is until the last drop has soaked into his clothes.
He rises and staggers back into the house. There is much to do today, and he can only think so far ahead. But he will ask his wife to stay with him tonight in their bed. He’ll sleep beside her, and he’ll sleep beside his God, level at last.