I WORKED SOME WITH THE SCENT OF THE PURPLEHEART BEING TOXIC IF UP CLOSE. WE CAN DROP IF IT’S TOO UNBELIEVABLE OR TOO STRAINED. IT IS TRUE, THOUGH, AND A NEAT FEATURE OF THE WOOD, SO MAYBE WE KEEP.
At the screeching hoot of the factory whistle that overrode even the church bells, Immanuel began to close his shop. He carefully wrapped a set of small carving knives in coarse, white linen and placed them in leather-lined drawers, then made a cursory pass with a sharpening stone over the edges of ebony-handled chisels. When satisfied their hard steel edges were keen enough to shave the hairs from his arm, he wiped them down with a rough rag and hung them on a rack secured to the wall behind a worn workbench that bore gouges, grooves, and dents. The tools had seen little use that day, which was yet another link in a long chain of idleness. The cuttings and wood chips he swept off the floor filled less than half of a dustpan, and he dumped them outside the shop into a snow-covered bin that was now emptied only once a month. Townspeople, many the children of his former customers, wondered why the old man readied his finely made implements in the morning, only to watch them sit unused, before cleaning and restoring them in their holding places in the early evening.
Having completed his solitary ritual, Immanuel climbed the stairs that led to his cramped living quarters consisting of two small bedrooms, a kitchen, and sitting area with room for a small table. Each tread creaked out the message, “No need to come down tomorrow, there is no hope.”
Immanuel had not been as fortunate in family matters as he had with his craft. He lost both his wife and daughter during a difficult labor. His two sons had yielded to the siren calls of faraway lands. Brothers had died in wars and accidents and sisters were taken by disease. He was left with only his hands, eyes, and an unerring, instinctive ability to bring out the beauty hidden within Alpine hardwood. But he feared that even those blessings threatened to leave him.
More than a score of youths had apprenticed under Immanuel. They lacked not for talent, patience, attention, or instruction. Weeks, months, and years he had spent with them, teaching them how to use only their fingertips to guide a sharp knife to bring out the feathered edges of an owl’s wings, the delicate eyelashes of a youth, or the smooth curves of woman’s skirt. Always he urged his students to greater heights, but one by one they realized that even if they gained his technical skill, even if they labored a thousand years, their work would still lack their master’s unique touch, something that welled up from an inner source that gave its holder no choice but to let it out upon the world, offering both great satisfaction and bitter disappointment. Knowing this, they sadly left Immanuel’s tutelage and took up a less creative trade. Now, it was too late. Even if he found a promising student, there was not enough time to pass on all he knew, and for him the loss of passage of the title of Master Craftsman almost eclipsed the loss of family.
After a supper of beans, rice, sausage, and boiled cabbage, Immanuel sat behind his window, staring out into the night. Below his perch, the swaying lanterns of tired passers-by making their way home from work cast surging shadows against the uneven brick walls. He didn’t envy them retiring to a warm home with waiting family, but he bled from the cut of guilt that he had given too much to his craft.
When quiet settled in, save for the echoing barks of stray dogs fighting for tossed scraps, Immanuel shuttered his window and turned to the empty rooms. Voices of family members long gone spoke from the faded photographs crookedly hanging on peeling walls, his sons’ smiles looked up from the pencil lines on doorjambs that marked their growth, and from the empty chair next to him came the scent of his wife, a musty smell of forest and smoldering fires.
He lay down on his cot, resigned to ill repose, when his hands were stilled but his thoughts ran like a spring river frothing over and around boulders. Dreams of shapes to come from raw blocks of wood had been pushed aside by nightmares of fears and frustrations of his ruining marvelous pieces with a slip of the chisel or where, after weeks of work, his instinct had misled him and he found a rotten core lurking below the grained surface.
Immanuel’s sleep was little more than a series of linked-together naps, and he woke as unrested as when he first lay down. He wanted to stay in bed. Why not let an old trade die with an old man? He pulled the wool blanket over his head.
Bam! Bam! Bam! A loud knocking, a banging, filled his ears. In between wakefulness and dreaming, he saw the sound as a carpenter driving nails in a coffin.
Bam! Bam! The bottom planks were hammered together.
Bam! Bam! Bam! The sides were secured to the bottom.
Immanuel looked down into the coffin, chilled by the draft from a darkness that deepened into absolute black. He shuddered and pulled his blanket tighter, dreading the end of a journey from the warmth of the womb to the wooden box, wrapped tightly in the cold fingers of a death shroud. And in his demi-dream he lost his balance and plunged into the frigid void. He grabbed for the sides and gained a purchase, but the coffin lid came down over his fingers. The bam bam bam spiked panic in his beating heart.
Bam! Bam! "Hallo! Is anyone home?”
Immanuel woke on the floor, tangled in his blankets. The windows were glazed in sheets of curlicues and swirls. He wrestled himself to his feet, stiffly stepped to the window, and undid the shutters. Down below, a motorcar—the color of deep plum and sporting polished chrome headlamps and spare wheel cover—was parked in front of the shops, a plume of vapor rising from its exhaust. Beside it a chauffeur in a dark-grey uniform stood in the soot-stained snow, looking up. Immanuel lifted the sash and said, “I’m not open yet.”
The chauffeur bent down to the vehicle’s partially lowered window and spoke to someone inside. Then, he lifted up and asked, “Are you the craftsman?”
“I’ve been called that. What do you want?”
“Please let us in. It’s a matter of importance.”
Immanuel started to refuse, thinking to say, “Come back another time,” but his voice failed to follow his thoughts. Instead, he said, "Give me a minute." He dressed, slid a thin sweater over his shoulders, and limped down the stairs, rubbing his hands to help the blood flow. As he entered his shop, he walked into the subtle scent of cut wood that, over time, had permeated the walls, rafters, and floorboards, and his memory—so lacking fresh images of any joy—circled back on itself. There in the corner, his two sons laughed and made battle sounds as they played with the wooden soldiers and cannons he had carved for them. Carla, his wife, was bringing down a pot of hot stew for lunch, her smile as broad as her belly that carried their baby.
Another “Hallo,” broke Immanuel's reverie. His wife and children disappeared, and only his bench, work area, and tools remained…they, and the tarp-covered block of wood at the back of the shop.
"I'm sorry," he said as opened the door. "My mind wanders a great deal these days. Please, come in.”
A tall gentleman stepped in through the door. He nodded to his driver who dipped his head and closed the door, remaining outside. He wore a coat made from angora wool, lined with silk and trimmed with sable. His hat was mink, his boots glossy black leather with gold studs, and when he took off gloves of smooth deerskin, Immanuel noticed soft hands and trimmed nails. The ends of his waxed mustache almost touched his full sideburns that ran well down the side of face. "Are you the Immanuel?” he asked. “The one who carved the figures in the entrance of the State University?”
Immanuel shifted slowly from one foot to another. "Yes. Those are mine,” he said. He looked at the floor to avoid the wealthy man’s expectant gaze.
"They are good. Excellent, even.”
Immanuel lifted his head. “Thank you,” he replied. “I wanted to spend more time on them, but all the bursar would give me was three years.”
“Three years, you say?” The gentleman gently slapped his gloves in the palm of one hand. “I never would imagine it took so long. But, then again, they are very large. You can do smaller pieces much more quickly, yes?"
"Did you see them up close?” Immanuel’s mind closed to the dimly lit interior and opened to the large room provided to him at the school. He stood on a scaffold erected in front of two massive pieces of wood cut from the trunk of ancient redwoods. He had already trimmed them to rough forms, and he was looking, searching for the bodies and faces that lay within. He put his hand on each piece, feeling for what they wanted to be. They were his last major project, and the payment for them had lasted until recently. His eyes still turned to the past, Immanuel said, “The tears…it took months to do make them just so.”
"Yes. As I said, it is excellent work. I don't remember the tears, but I’m sure they are well done. But I came here to talk to you making something for me, a commission."
Didn’t see the tears?
“I said…” The man took a small step back. He surveyed the wood carver from head to toe and then looked around the shop that, though neat and tidy, was bereft of wood in the process of being transformed to objects that combined elements of man, nature, and spirituality. He turned back to Immanuel. “You are still working, aren't you?" he asked, his eyebrows lifted.
"Oh, yes. Yes, I am. I suppose I must work until I die. It is that way with us, you know. Our hands are never still."
"Well, I’m certain you have many more years ahead. My name is Petrov. Alex Petrov. My request is for my wife. She has been…ah, should we say…” Petrov pinched his lips together. He looked away from Immanuel before continuing, gazing into the images of his words. “She has been inconsolable since the birth of our daughter."
Immanuel, too, stared into a corner of the shop, and waited.
"Our daughter was born with a certain limitation…a disability of some sort.” Petrov’s voice softened as he spoke with uncomfortable familiarity and his words spilled out quickly. “She is not like normal girls. She is damaged…injured. Likely the result of a difficult labor since there is nothing else like this in either of our families. She doesn’t speak well. Her face and body contorts in distressful ways. She has been cared for at the Institute for most of her life.
Immanuel saw himself as a much younger man standing outside his bedroom door, listening to the urgent words of the doctor that were overshadowed by his wife’s unrelenting cries of pain. In time, she was reduced to only moans. Then, even those faded away and there was only silence. Silence that hung thick and heavy, broken only by the soft sniffling of the midwife. With a squeaking of door hinges, the doctor came out of the room, his sleeves still rolled up, his face as black as his medical bag sitting next to a bed streaked with crimson.
“And…my word, are you listening?” The question was followed by the slap of the glove leather in Petrov’s palm.
Immanuel waved his hand as if to whisk away the scene he had been reliving once again. “Of course, of course,” he said. “Please continue.”
“Well, anyway, my wife can’t have any more children, and she suffers from a darkness of the spirit. She has lost interest in all affairs, even her hobbies, and nothing holds her attention. On many days, she does not even rise from her bed."
Petrov took a quick look at his pocket watch before tucking it away. Immanuel noted the intricate engravings in the gold case. "The doctors have told me I must find some way to change her mood, else she may fall deeper into despondency. They have warned me she may even try to take her life.
The morning light was trying to break through the closed windows, but the room’s gloominess held fast. Immanuel pulled out two stools from under the workbench. He sat on one and made a sweep of his hand to the other. Petrov remained standing. “It’s clear to me,” he said, “that the birth of a child with defects has caused this problem, and I want to do something about it. I think that a model of our daughter as she would have looked without her faults would give my wife what she needs…something she can look upon and see only beauty, not the deformities."
Having stated his purpose, Petrov looked down at Immanuel. He gripped the soft kidskin gloves first in one hand and then in the other.
Immanuel set aside his grief and considered Petrov’s. "Your daughter,” he asked, “how old is she?"
"Theda, that's her name, will be…" Petrov paused for a moment, "she will be ten years old this spring.”
"Ten years. Neither child nor young adult. It is a difficult age to capture properly.” Immanuel took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. He had refused more commissions that he had accepted, even when his worktable was empty. Accepting an undertaking required that he be called. And it required his full commitment. He looked up at Petrov. “I have had better days, sir. You can see that. Once I did very good work, but it has been some years since I have had a serious assignment. Perhaps you wish to employ someone else?"
Petrov pulled his shoulders up and began to pace the little shop. Four steps up to one end, pause, turn, four steps, back. "No, no. There is no one else. A painting is flat, boxed in within borders. Stonework is too hard and cold…insufficient to bring the lost warmth to my wife. Wood is the only material that breathes, and everywhere I go the woodworkers say to me, ‘Other work I can do, but for this you must go to Immanuel.’ They tell me you are still the master.” He turned and looked into Immanuel’s eyes, and his voice softened. “So, I come to you. Will you do it? I can promise a large payment. Perhaps enough for you to retire altogether."
"The money is not the question. It is do I have the necessary vision? The vision and the strength."
The wind rattled the shutters on their hinges, resurrecting images and sounds from Immanuel’s coffin nightmare. He physically shook himself to escape the morbid scene. He had decided. With his gift came duty, however burdensome or challenging. He inhaled deeply, feeling the tang of the piney scent from the cut blocks stacked in the corner. "When can you bring your daughter to me?" he asked.
"Theda? You need to see her? I have a picture here that you could use. I told you she has to be cared for daily."
"I'm sorry, but I can only work from seeing her in person."
"Can you come to the Institute where she is? I can have my driver pick you up."
Immanuel shook his head. "I can no longer work anywhere but here.” He laid his open hands on the workbench. Its surface and his hands were both marked with cuts, gouges, and scars.
Petrov put his fists on his hips, his shoulders stern and his throat filled with words. The strengthening light revealed the long-healed sabre cut on his face that ran out from his full sideburns and across to one corner of his mouth. Immanuel kept his hands on the workbench, deep in the history of the many objects crafted there. A cuckoo clock hung on the wall, ticks and tocks marking the swing of its small pendulum. A handful of beats passed. Finally, Petrov exhaled, his sharp, unspoken words released as a passing gust. "As you wish. You can start tomorrow?"
Immanuel nodded. “Just after lunch is good.”
"And about the fee. This is your advance. I expect to periodically view the progress too."
"There is no need for a retainer," Immanuel said as he pushed back the offered purse. "And it is best that the work be revealed when it is finished.”
At the second refusal of his terms, Petrov stiffened and bright pink filled the flesh in his scar. His hand holding the purse tightened to trembling. Immanuel locked his hands in his lap and gazed at the floor. A clatter of horseshoes on cobbles rang out on the other side of the rough wooden door.
Petrov tossed the purse onto the bench, but Immanuel’s eyes remained fixed downwards. “Done!” Petrov said. My driver will bring her tomorrow. You can tell him then of any arrangements you need for her sittings.”
With agreement reached, Petrov opened the door. A flurry of feathery snowflakes slipped in as he strode out. There was the slam of a car door and grind of the starter. The motor coughed to life and, with a whining of gears, Petrov was conveyed to his world.
Immanuel turned from the door and surveyed his workshop. His mind ran through a well-worn trace of preparations, but eventually came to what was always the question: What shall I work with?
Choosing his raw material was always the most challenging step for it entailed unforeseen elements of both risk and promise. I can never know. Many of his wood providers had, like himself, aged and had great difficulty climbing the slopes and combing through the dense forests, looking for what he called for. Younger woodcutters were impatient and cared little for Immanuel’s precise descriptions. They offered pieces that on the surface appeared suitable enough, but which contained interior flaws. Immanuel knew this could be his last work and desired no compromise.
His eyes fell upon the covered object in one corner. He approached it carefully, almost reverently. Slowly, he removed the tarp, revealing a large block of purpleheart, a dense and unforgiving wood from South America with hidden, deep colors that revealed themselves when worked. Its tight and unforgiving grain quickly dulled tools, necessitating patience, strength, and steady hands. It was also dangerous, exuding fumes when cut that, if one were very close by and inhaled enough, could be toxic.
Immanuel had kept the block under wrap for decades, even though his wife had exclaimed, "Carve the mayor's wife out of it and we will have enough money to make this place our own." He had refused, first saying he wasn’t yet good enough, and then by proclaiming fear of it making him sick. But, still, the wood stood in the corner. He waited for a special purpose, and in time he forgot about his waiting. Will I see it?
His closed his eyes and traced his fingers over the hard, colored surface. "Papa! Papa! Look at me. Look at me now." His son, legs astraddle a hand made wooden rocking horse called to him. “Papa, I’ll write every week,” his elder son, suitcase in hand, promised as he left to work on a merchant ship. "I'm sorry. It was a breech birth, and I did everything I could.”
For decades the wood had sat, patient and full of potential. Now it asked that Immanuel chip, cut, carve, and sand it to the perfection of a reflection not yet seen. It and Immanuel were bonded, for better or worse. Bound by his call for better or worse—and with a bitter smile—Immanuel resigned himself to full commitment. He lifted the cover back over the wood and began to make ready. One by one, he inspected each tool, checking the keenness and trueness of edges, dressing the teeth of the rasps with a flat file the width of a child’s fingernail. Tomorrow. He would be ready.
The next morning Immanuel woke early and fully rested after a night without nightmares. He took the luxury of lighting a fire in the downstairs fireplace. Mustn’t be cold for her. He thought of her sitting in his workshop. She may be bored. What does a girl play with? He opened a lower cabinet and pulled out a small wooden box dusty with neglect. He slid the mitered lid from its groove and rummaged around until he found several little figures he had carved for his sons. Their pinned arms and legs had limited movement, but enough to allow positioning. Using small pieces of trim, he began to fashion a miniature set of table and chairs. It will have to do.
The morning passed quickly and at lunch he cooked a pan of biscuits and sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon. Children have big appetites.
After he had swept the shop, there was nothing more to do but wait. Immanuel sat on a bench in front of the fireplace. Then, he stretched out, using a tool apron as a pillow. He stared into the deepest part of the flames and felt warm fingers brush his face. "Immanuel, you have a God-given talent." Immanuel's teacher was talking to him. "You have been with me only three years now, and you can turn a piece of the coarsest wood into a masterpiece. People are asking for my apprentice to do their work! There is nothing left for me to teach you…you must start off on your own."
Immanuel's eyes moistened as he relived that parting many years ago.
"Here. This is for you." His instructor held out a hand-stitched leather satchel with red straps. "This is a set of my best tools. My master gave them to me and now I pass them to you. Take this letter, too. It is your introduction to the owner of a shop in the village just beyond the capital. He will rent you a shop.
Immanuel humbly took the tool bag and the envelope, his eyes speaking the thanks that could not rise past his throat.
“One more thing. You will not become wealthy. Many who work with wood make a good living. Some, if they gather a following and adopt a merchant's attitude, do very well. You, though, carve into wood what you perceive in the hearts of others. Sometimes it is hard for people to see what you do, but you don’t have any other choice. Good luck, Immanuel."
A loud popping noise, too loud to have come from the fire woke Immanuel. A car door slammed. He fought weariness to pull himself to his feet, and the big iron knocker on his door thudded the arrival of his visitors. "Just a minute. I'm coming. I'm coming."
Immanuel unbolted the door and saw Petrov’s uniformed driver and a little girl. She wore a tight black vest that buttoned over a white blouse with puffy sleeves. A long, green skirt dotted with small white flowers covered her stocking legs to the middle of her calves, and her shoes were crafted from shiny, black patent leather. So small for nine. One hand was contorted, with the thumb pulled across the palm and the fingers splayed outwards. The framework of her body was likewise uneven, with one shoulder higher than the other and one foot turned inwards.
"Please come in. It's warm inside."
As they entered, Immanuel took notice of how carefully the driver supported Theda as she took awkward, uneven steps. Immanuel stumbled himself. His legs were still stiff from his nap. He steadied himself on one of the posts that supported the upper level. The driver looked at Immanuel, leaned almost imperceptibly toward him, and took the slightest of sniffs.
He thinks I have been drinking.
"My legs. They are asleep. Give them a minute and they will be like new. Let me take your coats."
The driver helped Theda pull her arms from the thick sleeves of her coat before removing his own and handing them to Immanuel. Then, he carefully smoothed her collar and straightened her braids on her shoulders. Immanuel hung the heavy outer garments on a wall peg and said as he turned back to his visitors, “Let’s give her time to become comfortable.” He set the box of toys on the bench and patted a blanket he had folded over the seat. Theda limped over and sat. She stared into the box. Immanuel turned to the driver and said, “I’m Immanuel.” He offered his hand.
"Mr. Petrov and his wife call me Carlos," the driver replied. He looked at Immanuel’s held greeting, the slightest knit to his eyebrows. Then he shook. Not firmly, not weakly. Not short, or long. It was a neutral returned gesture, meant to avoid calling attention to itself.
“Please sit.” Immanuel motioned to a small table with stools. “I’ll warm some tea.” He struck a long match and lit a pile of shredded kindling in a small, pot-bellied heater that doubled as a stove. He blew on the emerging flame and added a handful of wood chips and two lumps of coal. Once the miniature hearth glowed a dull red, creating a circle of warmth, he set a teakettle on the cooktop. He opened a cupboard and asked, “Two cups or three?”
“Three,” Carlos replied without looking. “She likes to try to hold her drinks, but let it cool, please. And fill only partway.” It didn’t escape Immanuel as he finished preparations that Carlos rarely took his eyes off Theda as she reached into the toy box and selected two figures.
When the teapot whistled, Immanuel poured the boiling water into the cups. He set them on the table along with the biscuits. "How long have you been Mr. Petrov's driver?" he asked.
"Ten years. A family member knew the Petrovs and they needed a driver. So, here I am.” Carlos blew on Theda’s cup and then lifted it to his lips to test. He stood and walked over to her, then knelt and put his face close to hers. Softly, he said, “Theda, would you like to come have something to eat?"
Theda stood and awkwardly walked across the shop, dragging one leg. In one hand, she clutched the figure of a little girl.
For my daughter.
Carlos lifted Theda to her stool. He tenderly tucked her napkin in under her chin.
"I take it that the Petrovs are a good family, then?" Immanuel asked, watching Theda as she used both hands to hold the teacup.
"They are decent. They pay regular. And almost every year I have enough time off to go home and see my family." Carlos paused, glanced up at Immanuel, and then shifted his eyes back to Theda. "And so I guess you would call them good,” he added.
Theda struggled to hold her tea, but Carlos let her manage without assistance. She nibbled at a biscuit, holding it between the heel of one hand and the slanted fingers of the other. Then, she sat back, hands in her lap, and looked at Carlos. He nodded, and she pushed away from the afternoon treat and turned back to the bench with the toys. She tripped and fell. Immanuel started to rise, but Carlos laid a firm hand on his forearm. Theda lifted herself partway and knee-walked the last few feet. “I let her try,” Carlos said. “She tells me to let her.”
“Enough for me to understand.”
“Oh. I thought Mr. Petrov said she didn’t talk.”
Carlos tilted his head and shrugged his shoulders. “We hear what we want,” he said.
A log in the fire cracked loudly. Theda flinched at the sound, dumping the box and its contents to the floor. Immanuel stifled his instinct to rush over and help. “It must be difficult for her…at the Institute,” he said quietly.
“I take her on drives as often as I can,” Carlos said. “I roll the windows down and she turns her face outside.”
“The Petrovs see her often. Or, uh, Mr. Petrov?”
Carlos straightened in his chair. Then, he let out a breath of air held too long. He undid the top two buttons of his uniform and spoke quietly, staring into his cup. “They see her on the holidays. Maybe.” He took a sip—his first. “When I drive Mr. Petrov to his factory, we pass the Institute. He rarely asks me to stop.” Carlos set his cup down on the saucer with a definitive “clink.”
“And Mrs. Petrov? Perhaps my work will help her?” Immanuel asked.
“Perform your miracle,” Carlos said. “If it means Theda then receives even the shadow of a mother’s love, it will be a good thing.”
Immanuel looked away and saw that Theda was sitting quietly on the floor, looking up at them. Her eyes wandered, but always came back to where he and Carlos sat. “I must start now,” Immanuel said. His knees protested as he stood.
“Do you need me to help pose her?” Carlos likewise stood.
“No. Let her do as she pleases. What are your duties from this point?”
"Mr. Petrov instructed me to bring her here and to take her back when you were through. She must return no later than dinner, though. I brought my newspaper, and I have to write my family. May I sit over here while you work?"
"Of course. Make yourself comfortable.”
Theda played with the little wooden people in the way that all children do, walking them around and tilting them toward each other in play dialogue. As she occupied herself on the floor, Immanuel went over to his workbench and laid out his tools. He had moved the purpleheart from the corner that morning, and it now sat, covered, on a stand nearby. He lifted the wrap and, watching Theda as she manipulated the stiff-jointed figures, began to run his hands over the block. It was a substantial piece, just under three feet high, a hand and forearm thick, and its heft demanded respect. Only after satisfying himself that he could see a rendition of Theda rising from a stable base did Immanuel turn to his tools.
Theda occasionally paused in her games and looked around. Once, her body went rigid and her hands fell to her sides, twitching in an irregular rhythm. Immanuel halted his work, his wooden mallet suspended above a chisel, but resumed the rough shaping of the block when Carlos said, “It happens now and then, but always passes.”
Carlos carefully folded his newspaper and put it away. He set a sheet of crisp paper on the table and began writing. The silence of the workroom was broken only by the scratching of his thick pencil, Immanuel’s carefully considered taps on the cutting tool, and Theda’s occasional babbling and cooing to her make-believe friends. Soft air currents carried dust motes from darkness into the shaft of light that broke through the wavy glass window. They hung in suspended animation until washed back into the shadows. The minuscule particles lit by the passing sun existed as members of a host, and who was to say which would find their way to brief illumination and which wouldn’t.
Eventually, the travelling sunlight faded into the baseboards, and the factory whistle marked the end of one shift and the beginning of another. Immanuel set down his tools and covered the block of wood. Carlos—he had long finished his letter and was resting with his hands in his lap—shifted on his stool. Immanuel stood and gingerly arched his back. "Enough for today,” he said. Can you come tomorrow morning?"
Carlos, too, raised himself from his seat. "We will be here.” He straightened his coat and said, "Theda! It is time for us to go. Let me help you with your coat."
Theda had gravitated to the front of the fireplace as the chill outside had begun to work its way in. The warmth of the fire radiated from her cheeks, looking as though rouge had been applied. For just a moment she sat, legs splayed out, hands turned in, holding the little wooden girl that she pranced about the small table Immanuel had fashioned. Then, she reached for the bench and pulled herself upright.
Carlos carefully straightened one of Theda’s arms, slid the sleeve over it, and then did the same with the other. He guided her out of the shop, into the back seat of the automobile, and tested the closed door’s latch before going around to the driver’s side. Immanuel stood in the doorway to watch them depart. Through the steam of the puttering exhaust, he saw Theda turn and look back as they drove away. He felt suddenly cold and tired. My hands hurt.
Immanuel inspected the two chisels he had used for the first cutting. Dull. Each in turn, he ran the hard steel blades across a set of water stones gifted from a customer who wished to pay more than Immanuel had asked. He was estimating how long the commission would require, trying to force from his mind the nagging fear that it might take more time than he had. He coughed as he wiped down the sharpening stones. The wood? The rumors of its effect now seemed more than just a whispered fable.
Once he had his equipment ready for the next session, he brushed the loose chips off the wood stand and onto the floor. He began to sweep and the pungent aroma of the wood rose to his bent face. He coughed again and tried to breath only through his nose, hoping to filter the fumes.
His cleaning took him to where Theda had played. There, all the little people from the toy box were lined up in front of the fireplace, not in a random, haphazard manner, but with purpose. As Immanuel bent to pick them up, his arm stung, tightness drew across his chest, and the room dimmed before his eyes. He fell to his knees and rested his head on the bench. Such a spell had befallen him before, but this episode was much stronger… and longer. Please. Please go away!
Slowly, the pain eased and his chest opened to breathe. He sat on the bench, his elbows on his knees and his eyes buried in the dying coals. He kneaded the palms and fingers of his hands to ease their cramping and weariness. For a moment he considered telling Petrov that he was no longer capable, but he angrily buried the transgressing thought. I’ve never left work undone.
He held his hands out before his eyes and smiled. They were his calloused and scarred. Even though not the stalwart soldiers of his youth, they still held strength, wisdom, knowledge, and experience. “Trust your hands,” his teacher had said. “They will always know what to do. If you doubt, and even if you suffer, your hands will carry you through.” They will.
Immanuel rose and turned full circle, taking stock of his workshop. Elation, the heart of a young man, had long gone elsewhere, but what was left was the deep love of his trade. He slowly climbed the stairs to ready himself for the next day. And the day after that.
A routine soon took root. Carlos always arrived early midmorning. First, they would visit over tea and the fixed offering of biscuits with cinnamon and sugar, and then Immanuel would excuse himself and go to his worktable to continue where he had left off the previous day. Immanuel had removed any potentially dangerous objects and gave Theda free run of the shop. At times, she would drift off into a nap, cuddled up on a pallet laid before the fireplace. Immanuel's hands were busy. Many times, Carlos looked over the top of his paper and saw the block of rough, unfinished wood beginning to take shape. He also noted with concern that the craftsman’s coughs were becoming more harsh and frequent, most noticeably after he had carved a large amount of wood. An odd, pungent odor wafted from the becoming statue during such times, but he was not close enough to detect enough of the faint scent to identity it.
As the three thus filled their days, winter began to lose its hold on the village. One day, a sudden thaw turned the streets to mud, and Carlos was unable to drive from the Institute. The next day he came at the appointed time. "I know you would have come if you could have," Immanuel said, “but it is a pity to lose even a single day." Carlos noticed that Immanuel's face was somewhat grayer than before and that he stopped frequently that afternoon to rest.
The days warmed and lengthened as the sun delayed its departure behind the western mountains. Immanuel opened his shutters one morning and leaned out to take a deep breath of the fresh spring air. A fluttering and peeping caught his attention and he looked up to find that the swallows had come back once again to nest in a crevice under the roof overhang. He watched the mother and father birds—undoubtedly the children of the children several times over of the first families that roosted there—rebuilding their nests. They work so hard. With that thought came the memory of the three years he spent building his trade before his wife’s father would allow their marriage.
The streets below filled with his neighbors beginning their day. Mothers shooed their children off to school. Men, with lunches packed under their arms, hurried to their work sites. Those heading to the factory were easily identified, for they were the first on the streets in the morning and they hurried along, heads down. The out of sight staccato clip-clopping and snorting of horses around the curved building walls announced the impending visit of coal and milk delivery men making their rounds up and down the cobbled surface.
And another sound, husky and smooth, spoke from his memory. "Immanuel, come back to bed a little longer," said his wife on such mornings. And while the birds outside sang their song of life, he and Carla accompanied them in their own celebration of being young, alive, and in love.
Then Immanuel’s shoulders fell as his wife’s voice disappeared. He slowly lifted his hands from the sill and leaned back from the window. It has all changed. His family was gone, the roofs and walls of the town were streaked with the black and deep ochre that the factory smokestacks spewed day and night. But downstairs a mission nearing completion awaited his touch and he could think of little else.
When the car arrived, Carlos hopped out and quickly came around to open the door. Out stepped Petrov, followed by Theda. Once all were inside, Immanuel set an extra plate at the table.
"Well, how are you coming?" Petrov asked as he drained his cup. "It has been almost three months. You should be about finished, shouldn't you?"
"These things go at their own pace," Immanuel answered. "Sometimes quickly and sometimes not so quickly."
Petrov drummed his fingers on the table. He glanced to the covered shape on the work stand. "How does it look?” Theda had not come to the table for tea and biscuits, but was sitting at her bench, her usual toys still in the toy box. It seemed to Immanuel that her arms and legs were more drawn up than usual.
"It is progressing," Immanuel replied. He did not stir to remove the tarp. "Certain features are difficult. I told you that I am not as young as I used to be."
Petrov frowned. “How much longer do you think it will be, then? I am planning a trip through the mountains, and I will need Carlos to drive us."
Immanuel looked to Carlos, who had also not joined them at the table. He was standing to one side of the entry door, arms held stiffly by his side. "I think that, when the time is right, you will have what you desire," Immanuel answered, returning his gaze to the table’s surface.
Petrov hesitated for a moment, tapping his cup on the saucer. "Very well, then. Carlos, take me to the factory." Looking at Immanuel, he asked, "I assume there is no problem with her staying here until my driver returns?"
"The little girl and I get along very well. She will be just fine."
Petrov nodded at Carlos, and the chauffeur opened the door. Moments later the exhaust and whining of gears sounded their leaving.
Immanuel turned to his work. He carefully lifted the cover and folded it on a nearby bench. He was in the final stages, and a simple slip would ruin everything, leaving no recourse for there was no longer any excess wood. Every cut had to be perfect or all would be lost. He hesitated reaching for any of his carving blades. The last is always the hardest. But even harder than not making a technical error was the challenge of gracing the wood with life. While the figure was clearly recognizable as Theda, it waited for a special moment to breathe.
A soft paat on his work coat startled Immanuel. He looked down and saw that Theda had come to his side. Slowly, she reached out and traced the carving on the cheek. Then she brought her hand up to her own face. She turned to Immanuel and for the first time looked deeply and steadfastly into his thoughts. Immanuel nodded. He saw tears pool in the wells of Theda’s eyes and he felt guilty. As though he had been party to an injustice, a cruel act.
Immanuel had never touched Theda. Whenever she needed assistance, or wood shavings needed to be brushed off her dress, it was always Carlos who tended to her. Now, he reached out his arms and her frail little body folded into his. Her held-back tears flowed freely down her face and onto his linen blouse. She shuddered with the sobbing of pent up sadness. With one hand, Immanuel patted the back of her head and with the other kept her secure in his embrace.
Eventually, Theda's outpouring began to subside. She was so tired afterwards that she went to sleep on Immanuel's lap. When he was sure she wouldn’t wake, he gently lifted her and laid her on her pallet. He went to his workbench, looked at the wooden figure, and opened a lower drawer. In it was the red-strapped kit holding his best tools. It was with them he always did the final carving. One by one he lined the instruments up on a leather pad on the bench. They were already sharpened, ready for their turn. But he was tired and, despite his willingness to begin, he knew he had to rest. He folded his arms on the work surface and let his head settle on them.
Carlos had car trouble and it was almost evening before he came back to the shop. He opened the door and hurriedly stepped in, but Immanuel and Theda were not in their usual places. Then he heard a gurgle, almost a groan, coming from a far corner. There, deep in the shadows, he found the woodcarver propped up and Theda sitting beside him. He hurried over and with a closer look in the dimming light saw that Immanuel’s eyes were closed. His right arm drooped, the right side of his face looked as though it was trying to slide down and off, and spittle dotted his lips. His breathing was uneven, paired with a choking sound. Theda sat beside him, her bent arms around him as best she could manage as though she were shielding him. Carlos put his hand on Immanuel's shoulder, and asked, "Immanuel, what is it? Are you ill?"
Immanuel's eyes fluttered. His lips moved but he did not speak. Carlos looked at Theda. She tried to speak, but words were trapped somewhere behind the wall of her affliction. She tried again, but could only utter a series of unconnected, stuttering noises. Her face suffused and she bit her bottom lip till it bled. She laid her head against Immanuel’s chest.
Carlos gently tried to unwrap Theda’s arms, but she clung even tighter. “Theda, we must get him to the doctor. Let me help.”
At first, Theda shook her head, but then relaxed her grip. Carlos lifted Immanuel, surprised at how light he was, and carried him to the automobile. Then he returned for Theda. On their way out, they passed by Immanuel’s work stand. Despite his hurry and concern, Carlos stopped. The carving stood upon there, its deep red and purple bathed in the dying rays of the sun. Throughout all the time the craftsman had been working, Carlos was never able to see the cutting closely, and out of respect hadn’t tried to. He had seen the chips fall, heard the tapping of the mallet on the chisels and the scrapings of the knives, and saw the rough block begin to take shape, but he was too far away to see detail, and Immanuel always covered his work immediately when finished for the day. He was humbled by the great beauty before his eyes, a smaller copy of Theda rendered in another state. She held her hands at her sides, half hidden in the folds of a long, pleated skirt. Head tilted slightly back, her long tresses fell in waves and covered her shoulders. A dance instructor’s best student would have envied her posture, legs straight with toes pointing forward. Her mouth was closed, with lips just slightly touching, and her eyes focused on some object in the distance. There were no knife marks, no flaws…the colored patterns of the grain and the flow and curve of muscles, bone, and clothing blended together into an object that was neither wood nor human, but a masterful combination of both. He wanted to stay and revel in the work that captured Theda’s inner beauty as an outward manifestation, but could not delay conveying Immanuel to care.
Carlos placed Theda in the front, but as he started the engine she climbed over the seat where Immanuel lay. Carefully, as much as her awkward movements could, she laid his head in his lap.
Immanuel walked across a white-covered field. His nose burned from the biting cold that frosted the hairs in his nostrils. The frigid blanket wrapped tightly over the land had left a coating of hoarfrost on the grass stems that shot up from the ground like crystal spikes. His boots crunched on the crust formed at night when the warmed snow hardened at the sun’s leaving. He had taken this walk before, many times. Across the pasture lay the forest from which much of his raw material came. It was his practice to select trees for his work, sometimes watching them grow for years before marking them for the cutter. At times, he would clamber over the downed trees, seeking those with the right curve, rubbing his palm across peeling bark, feeling for the direction of the grain. He rarely had a predetermined image of what he wanted, but let the wood choose him and what it desired in its next reincarnation.
This visit, though, was different from those previous. The wall of green opened to receive him, but instead of hearing the voices of the trees speak through his mind and to his heart, it was as though they whispered silently among themselves, as a village crowd would about a person no longer trusted. When he laid his hand upon a moss-covered trunk, he felt it withdraw from his touch, not as though it was repulsed by his hand so much as it no longer welcomed his caress, much as a young woman turns from an old lover, desiring the embrace of another.
Standing in the diffused forest light that cast no shadow, Immanuel held his hands up before his face. For most of his life they had been his stalwart allies against the sea of failures and disappointments that rose all around. They had never failed him. Carefully, he turned them to and fro, examining their every detail. He knew the source of each scar, most from his early years when his impatience or inexperience forced them to take unwise actions. Several nails carried permanent, deep seams where they had been split by an errant blow of a mallet. The calluses were well earned, with new layers pushing forward to take the place of those worn away by hours of work. Then, There! Immanuel saw them tremble, just a small quiver like aspen leaves in the breath of a wind. That is what the tree felt. It no longer trusted him.
Immanuel felt a burning deep in his chest. A caustic belch passed his lips, and his guts contracted, wishing to rid his body of the indigestible sense of doom. He bent to throw up and felt himself fall. As he toppled to the ground, his eyes shuttered with a firm latch. He felt himself pass through the ground, sliding past hairy roots and buried rocks, headed toward a destiny buried away from all minds. Then, before he descended into oblivion, he felt a lifting force buoy him upwards. He rose as though from the depths of a deep well, the light beyond his eyelids strengthening as he ascended. He fought to open his eyes, and managed to raise his left. All around was white. White walls, white curtains, and white sheets. A woman leaned into his narrowed field of view. A white cap that tied in back sat upon her hair. Her smock was white with a large, red cross in the middle of her chest. Her eyebrows lifted, and she turned and said, “Doctor, I think he’s awake.”
The bed jostled as a large man in a white lab coat filled Immanuel’s vision. He had a thick face, with a full mustache and long sideburns. Immanuel felt rough fingers fully open his good eye as the doctor flashed a light back and forth. Next, his right was forced open, but it only provided a blurred scene. The doctor slid the stethoscope from his neck and Immanuel felt the sensor’s cold metal on his chest. "He's coming around now, I believe," the doctor said. He followed with, “Immanuel, can you hear me? I am Dr. Sergei. Nod if you understand what I am saying."
Immanuel nodded once, slowly.
"You have had a stroke. You are in the hospital."
Why is he yelling? Immanuel tried to speak. Part of his mouth and tongue were numb, as though he had bitten into a hot pepper. Words started in his mind, but fell apart when they tried to cross his lips. With effort, he mumbled, "How long have I been here?"
"Four days now," came the answer."
"Where am I?”
The doctor leaned back and another man came into view. It was Petrov. “You are in the Bulgov Institution. When Carlos discovered you ill, he brought you here.”
How will I pay for this?
Petrov turned and said something to the doctor that Immanuel couldn’t make out. Then he centered his face above Immanuel’s and said, “You are with my doctor. It is all taken care of.”
Immanuel was too tired, too dependent to protest. He knew that Theda was kept at the Bulgov. He tried to raise himself on one elbow, forming the words in his mind to ask how she was, when Petrov said, “After I found out you were ill, I made the necessary arrangements with the doctor and then went by your shop to make sure it was secure." He paused for a moment. "I saw the statue on the workbench. It is magnificent.” Gone was Petrov’s stern demeanor and measured expression. He was excited, smiling, younger looking. “I took it straight home and showed my wife. You can't believe how much better she feels. For the first time in years she has taken an interest in what is around her. In fact—and I can hardly believe this myself—she is scheduling a showing of Theda…”
Theda? No. Not her. Her statue.
“…to our friends, who will undoubtedly be contacting you for…." Petrov paused and started to stammer an apology.
"No need,” Immanuel lisped. “I will not work wood anymore." He was confused. I don’t remember doing the final work…it was unfinished. He turned his head to one side, and saw Carlos, his driver’s cap clamped under one arm, standing by the door. "How is my little Theda?" he asked.
Petrov started to answer, but Carlos spoke first. "She is fine. Every day she has come by, bringing flowers." He pointed to the vase of fresh blooms on the windowsill.
Immanuel noticed the doctor and Carlos exchange looks, and he held in the questions on his tongue. Petrov withdrew from the bed and retrieved his overcoat from a hook. “I must get back to work,” he said. “If you need anything, you have only to ask.” He exited without waiting for a response. Carlos nodded to Dr. Sergei and left the room. The doctor walked to one side of the room to a small cart and rolled it back to Immanuel’s bed. He lifted a sheet, revealing a paring knife, a vegetable scraper, a chisel, a broken file, scraps of sandpaper, some nails, and a small hammer.
"The other day," the doctor continued, "when Theda was up here with you, one of the housekeepers was cleaning her room when she noticed something behind the dresser. We have strict rules about what our wards can have, so she naturally investigated further. She found these,” he indicated with a pass of his hand. “I learned that our repairman had been missing some tools, but he thought he had just mislaid them. Apparently, Theda took them.”
Carlos came back to the room, holding the door open for Theda. She stumbled up to the bed, carrying a towel-wrapped object in her arms. "When we searched her room more thoroughly," Dr. Sergei said, "we also found this." He lifted the towel and revealed the figure of a man carved in wood. Immanuel noticed that it was made from hill country pine, a common wood used in building and repairs. He held out his good arm, and the doctor gave it to him.
Immanuel examined it carefully, turning it over, rubbing his fingers along the grooves and curves. The details of the sculpture were done with a delicate touch, and the proportions were just right.
"It is good work," he said. "Given the quality of the wood and that it was probably done with very ordinary tools, it is excellent, indeed." He set the figure on the cart and reached down for Theda’s hands. Before he could bring them up his eyes, his question regarding who had finished the sculpture was answered, for he felt the calluses that any woodworker was bound to acquire.
Carlos reached under the bed and said, “When I learned the truth, I went to your shop and got this.” He held up the hand-stitched leather bag with red straps.