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Heirloom

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1990. Heirloom. Tyro 26:92–94. [ISSN 0836–4346]

Morning sunlight streams through half-drawn curtains, dust motes dance in the draft that seeps past the windowsill. They incandesce briefly, swirling Brownian patterns, borne away into oblivion after a brief dance with the light's magic. A golden wash of dawn crosses a stained vertical shaft of wood, dustballs collected under one gracefully arched leg. The table greets the morning.

***

In the coolness of another morning, he pauses by the mill gate, savoring the silence. Dew lies heavy on the grass and on the leather work shoes that are half-soaked through to woolen socks, and the ache of time is heavy in his bones. His breath steams much as the mill's boilers will soon steam to drive the mighty saws. He has come himself, before the heat of day, before the amplified mosquito-whine of the mighty saws begins. To choose the wood, both his palette and his canvas. Potential.

The guard at the gate knows the old man, waves him past and on to the drying shed, where the wood lies in great stacks, resting upon the stringers: the inertia of dormant potential ready to become actual, if properly coaxed. Dust motes dance in the dry breeze that comes to banish the dew and catch and reveal the rising sun's light, the smell of pine tar and damply decomposing wood shavings that filter in from outside. A quiet footstep on a gap-traced wooden floor.

Resting a hand on the rack of birch, caressing and feeling the resting energy... but no, not the right energy. Not the walnut, the maple—though almost!—never the cedar, though it has that almost-acrid scent that is so tempting. At last, the oak... a feeling almost of recognition, mutual appraisal, acceptance. A touch to confirm...

***

There comes the bang of a screen door, the household cat off to inspect the day, door sliding rustily on a metal frame inanimate as wood never is. Dust vanishes, off to where it hides by day, borne on a heavier passage of air, the scent of distant woodsmoke, the heaviness of dew striving to take to the air. Light washes across the table, poised as a maternal hand pauses by the light switch, hesitates, halts. Dawn has always been enough.

Wheat flour cascades across the burnished metal surface of the bowl, the metal gently scarring the old wood, scars covered by a renegade drift of escaped flour. The crack of egg on old wood fills the quiet, is echoed by a moist smear on the table, the plop of liquid into a bowl. The blueberry-scent of yeast, unwieldy butter, the gentle pressure of firm mixing, and a hand pauses to sweep straw-colored hair from tired eyes. More mixing, and the light grows slightly. There comes the release of weight in the direction of a heated oven, glowing infrared reaching out to caress the table, and the table's firm, weathered xylem rebounds ever so slightly, ever so lively.

Later, a return to the table, pounding down the rising dough, then off to rise more on the stove top again. And again...

***

The table saw sits idle now that the wood has been selected with such care. This is no job for such a tool, but rather, one for the gentle, caressing sweep of a long, hand-sharpened saw that has never seen rust. There comes the singing of wood, a bow drawn across its strings, the heat that arises in the wound and coaxes a smell of gentle burning from the palette, the canvas. Then the smooth, tireless strokes of the plane. Wood chips grow upon the floor, amidst the sawdust. It is long before the fading of the light greets the first completed planks, the tabletop yet to be.

The lathe sits idle in its turn. For the next day, as the previous day, the work demands a gentler hand. There comes the sweep of files and rasps, the deft tap of chisels, the smooth flow of the drawknife. And a leg takes form...

***

Chairs, wooden by necessity, scrape across a kindred floor, soft children belly up to the table where the fragrant loaf of bread rests, blessing the air with its presence. Elbows untouched as yet by time rest upon the scarred wooden surface, touched by everything except time, crumbs and butter scattered here and there upon the stained surface. Here a drop of milk, hardening to its own peculiar sort of crustiness, there a dab of strawberry congealing to lure flies and the ever-busy ants. Echoes of childish chatter ring in the rafters, conjure a warm smile from the figure by the oven, who stands ready to rescue a second loaf.

Crinkled paper bags bearing the weight of lunch, resting against a fellow wooden servant, sticking here and there to remnants of the morning breaking of the fast. Then gone, as the screen door bangs sharply shut and the children are off to school. The cool sweep of a rag that eases the stain, casts crumbs to the floor to be swept up later by the figure that stands gazing past the door, past the painfully bright sun to where small feet skip onwards. Dampness from the rag seeps into the wood...

***

Rasp, rasp, rasp... rasp, rasp, rasp... Half unseen, light drifts of wood abraded so carefully from their neighbors pile upon the floor. The heavy hand, so light yet firm in its passage, eases away at the wood, revealing what lies beneath, coaxing form and function into being. There is kinship between the heavy veins that lie atop the guiding hand and those that once fed an oak, which now are subdued and incorporated by that rasp, rasp, rasping hand.

There is a peace concealed in those movements, a harmony and oneness with the wood as old eyes seem to watch something beyond what eyes ordinarily know. The shape, so carefully nurtured in days gone by, glows under the attention of its partner, grows under the attention of its partner until it is more than the oak it was. Satori comes, the wood ceases to grow, but incorporates within itself something of its master.

And in the stain that seeps into it, touching it with a color that only enhances what was there already, scraps of calloused flesh, of oil from fingers, the imprint of a hand that has rested less fully in many other places than it paused here...

***

In the coffee-curl of steam from the chipped earthenware mug, in the dimly reflecting black surface of the liquid within, the woman's gaze goes back in time to the memory of her father, who had gone almost unseen in the week before his death during the labor of love he performed in his tiny workshop. Of the table that emerged only after the funeral, and the tears come once more to bless that careworn face.

A heavily veined hand rests upon the table, feeling the deeply ingrained texture of the wood, seeking and finding what lies there, more than just shaped wood: the palette, the canvas, the craftsman.

Author's notes

This story was inspired by Neil Diamond's song Morningside. Sure it's schmalzy, but I like it and hope someday to leave a part of myself behind in my work, though I work in meme and rhythm, not wood.

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