His tools glistened from years of care. Their edges had crossed his whetstone so many times that they no longer reached the length they had when new, yet their balance remained precise as though time had changed the man as the stone each blade.
Round edged and slant tipped, curled and flat, their palm-rubbed handles had darkened in his grasp and the maker could no longer be seen in the wood. The last chisel disappeared as the cloth was gently tied and the set laid in the box. He looked up.
One final glance at his work had been the tradition. This would be the last time he’d view the singular patterns of leaves and branches and acorns and weaving bark, gathered to compose this work. Each had been painstakingly shaped and carved into the deep-oiled Sapele, every element drawn from a specimen found on the king’s land. No two the same. No pattern created to be carried to another site. Each one held it’s own story, like the eyes of the townspeople and the faces of the staff. Each carried a truth he had not thought to expect nor could have been duplicated by any of the famed artisans recommended by fashion or bid. It was not the parlor that needed his touch. This was clear as the inspiration welled up inside of him and his hands began to turn the wood and chisel. Like a prophet sent to prepare the way, he was the only one who could capture the needs of the king, and he knew it.
The old man turned the whetstone in his hand before he laid it in the corner of the case, next to the chisels, as he had so many times in the past. It’s oiled surface was the reason for longevity in a trade that required an edge sharper than sword, an edge he could feel without looking as it came off the stone. He had an idea from whence this gift had come, but even he didn’t believe in ghosts. He was a carpenter, and what he believed was what he saw and touched and formed in front of his eyes with each press and bend and cut; even so, he had a sense that his prior occupation used the blade in a much different manner.
The moon’s light entered the still room, reflecting off the falling flakes of snow and blowing drifts that had accumulated outside. He stood and studied the illuminated patterns that wrapped the windows and doors, each feathery detail enough to hold one to silence and make him forget his woes. As a whole, the shapes that encased the fireplace and windows and walls and ceiling would surely make a heretic recite biblical verse. He had even found moments when the composition had stolen his thoughts for a time, to return and find his work had continued without him. It was beautiful. It was his masterpiece and the sum of all he had learned. And as expected, tonight, he was finished.
His finger swept the edge of an oak leaf carved three quarters of the way down, along the right side of the last window. Its extensions had secondary sweeps and turns, rounded and contorted, unlike the leaves he had used in a number of other locations that he had discovered, thin and simple in their appendages. He had made note while gathering his patterns that some were pointed while others held the perfection of the iconic shapes he had seen in the works of Friesian clocks and furniture and the detail on fine weaponry, though all came from the same grove and sometimes the same tree. He had found it exhilarating that his work had become so exact that even now, in wood, he could tell each detail’s origin, whether green when plucked or dried and shrunken and picked from the ground. Like a forest left to the winds and squirrels, the composition worked splendidly. The question was, would its message be considered? Without effect, this whimsical score was no more than ornamentation, and that would not do.
The tip of his middle finger, thick-skinned and scarred, slid down another section of leaf and acorn, veering slightly with each curled tip and crooked branch. His hand slid toward the sill until his arm fell to his side, and a satisfaction, gathered from peace and humility, blossomed within him. It was a satisfaction that he knew well.
Considerately, wishing it did not have to come to an end, he raised the last piece of the composition, a tiny whittled basket with a sleeping child nestled within. He brushed the fine wood shavings from its surface and set it in the arms of a small woven doll he had bartered for on his way into town. Its wound composition stood silently in the moonlight. Each strand of the woman’s dress spread and stopped on the table’s top. Around its base a ring of light gave him pause, as though he stared at a lonesome ballerina on a private stage.
His strong hand gripped the wooden handle of his toolbox and lifted it from the floor. With one last transient gaze, he opened the door and stepped out, down the hall, and into the cold.
The snow had begun to accumulate on the cobblestone. Dimly lit lamps outlining the palace road marked a path toward the large gate that had disappeared behind the translucent wall of flakes. He stopped for a moment to pull his collar up around his neck as he peeked into the night. The winds had picked up. He
had finished just in time.