The Carpenter retired to her workroom at the back of the house. She no longer read or watched the television; music and the voices on the radio became senseless noise that distracted her from her work. The walls of the room were bare; all art was artifice, a pale imitation of anything that could possibly bring her pleasure. Contentment felt a long way off, and even the green and growing world she could see through the window — if she turned away from her work — seemed shabby and ill made. But media was worse by far, and so it had to go.
She disconnected the phone and put her mobile under her hammer. She stopped taking commissions and worked only for herself.
Her husband was worried, and not only about the drop in their income.
‘If you’re depressed, you should really see talk to someone about it,’ he told her.
‘I’m not depressed. Far from it.’
‘But you’ve got to admit that locking yourself away like this for days on end is hardly normal.’
‘No. It’s not,’ she said, and smiled.
Her husband went away, unsure what to think.
The Carpenter’s tools had acquired a sheen she had never noticed before. She looked them over one-by-one — chisel and plane, saw and vice, drill and callipers — as though they were alien to her. They were brighter and harder than the world around them; slightly warm to the touch. Her workbench was a mile from edge to edge.
The house was silent but for the hiss and growl of her work. Her husband was out more often these days, and when he was in rarely disturbed her. Time was she might have wondered whether he was having an affair, but the thought never crossed her mind. Her eyes and thoughts turned only inwards.
Still, it was too quiet, so she made two children — a girl and a boy. She planed their limbs smooth and soft, and whittled them features with a knife, like an old traveller by a campfire, carving inquisitive brows and lips made for laughing. She drew their digits out of the wood, one-little-piggy, two-little-piggies, three and four. She gave them short hair — proof against knots and chewing gum — and wide, luminous eyes to look with delight upon the world.
When she was done, they ran around her, pulling at her clothes and babbling excitedly. She opened the back door and they ran out into the garden, laughing and leaping at butterflies in the sunshine. The sound of their voices weighted and balanced her, restoring an ineffable equilibrium.
When he came home that evening, her husband came to her and asked about the children.
‘I thought we’d agreed not to have kids.’
‘I changed my mind.’
‘This is a big decision to make so lightly. We should have discussed it. Who’s going to take them to school and shopping? Who’ll feed them and put them to bed? You’ve got to admit that you aren’t really up to it at the moment.’
‘They’ll look after themselves.’ Looking at them through the window as they gazed upon the setting sun, they already appeared older then when she had let them outside. Their faces were wise and gentle, and they moved with economical grace. ‘You don’t need to pay them another thought.’
‘You still might have asked me first,’ said her husband. He went upstairs and packed a travel bag, and went away to stay in a hotel, or with his family, or his lover. The children climbed over the fence and into the fields behind the garden, moving further and further away from her, but their whispered conversations carried on the breeze and impregnated the wood of her workroom, and the Carpenter was content.
The next day she made a wolf, a cat, a mouse and a trail of ants, which crawled up over her windowsill and out of the open window, seeking kingdoms of their own. She joined and jointed a herd of bison that milled around the room, butting gently against her until they had all filed clumsily out through the door. As she worked, she felt a splinter press its way into the supple flesh of her palm, but when she searched for it she could find no sign of the irritant. She could still feel it, a slight pain that was almost comforting, tugging her back to herself whenever it moved. She stood, pressing the spot with her thumb as her creations moved out into the world.
Her neighbour leaned on the fence, a middle aged purveyor of harmless malice and gossip.
‘Hello!’ The Carpenter raised her chisel in greeting. ‘Your husband is away at the moment, isn’t he?’ She just looked at him, making no move to answer. ‘Well, I just wanted to say that me and the wife are here if you need us. For anything. Don’t be afraid to ask.’
‘Thank you.’ She turned back to her creations. The cat had caught the mouse, the limp little body hanging from its jaws.
Her neighbour stood there, waiting for more, for something to feed his need for information. It became apparent that he was going to go hungry, and he sank back beneath the horizon of the fence.
Next, the Carpenter made birds. A crow, that sat wisely on a shelf watching her work. She made a small colony of bats, which crawled into the eaves for shelter from the day, and a hummingbird, which flew out into the garden to taste her flowers. She had always liked hummingbirds.
Her woodpile never seemed to shrink. In fact, it grew, taking on the proportions of a small hill in the corner of the room.
She carved a hive, from which bees poured in a golden river, joining the hummingbird amid the flowers. Their buzz mingled in song with the whispers of the children, passing into adolescence in the shadow of the hills.
The vicar from the village church came to see her. She was smartly turned out like a businesswoman in pressed trousers and a blouse, her hair unconsciously aping Ayn Rand. Her shiny shoes clicked on the houses stone tiles, ticking metronomically. The Carpenter was unaware of the shabby figure she cut in contrast, sprinkled in sawdust like newly fallen snow. She rubbed at the red mark on her palm where the splinter hid.
‘Your husband is very concerned about you,’ said the vicar. ‘We all are.’
‘That’s very kind. But I’m perfectly fine.’
The vicar frowned, as though she heard those words every day and they were always a lie. ‘I think you should come to church next Sunday. We all need community in our lives, a bit of human companionship. Or if you would rather, we can talk privately. Call me day or night. Any time you need to.’ She placed her hand on the Carpenter’s; finding it unnaturally hot, she hurriedly withdrew, a fox, a goat and a squirrel following her to the front door and beyond. The Carpenter had already put the visit from her mind.
She made a slender salmon, articulated and covered with fine scales. It flopped about in her hands, gasping in the toxic air, so she took it into the garden and released it into the pond. It was joined by a pike, a shark, an octopus with deep, thoughtful eyes, and the neon fire of school upon school of bright fish. They swam out into the deeps, circling a pristine island where creatures mundane and fabulous wandered unhindered. Trilobites drew secret messages in the sand and, lit by the night-time phosphorescence from the waters, the Carpenter’s children — now grown to adulthood — danced.
A local councillor came by on a luminous morning, passing from door to door to drum up support on an issue his interlocutors never felt entirely certain of. He spoke with speed and charm but an overabundance of lengthy words betrayed his rhetoric. His hair was hard and shiny with gel. Finding the front door ajar, he pushed on through and found the Carpenter at work, her face lined with age and exhaustion, her eyes clear and fierce.
He opened his mouth to ask for her vote, to tell her that he and his party represented her interests and needs, that he would organise this and lobby for that; all the vital reasons for which she should throw her support behind him. He had the words rehearsed, had spoken them fifty or a hundred times already this week. But when he looked in her eyes he saw two deep and still pools and was struck by the strangely comforting knowledge that nothing he could say could stir them, that all his promises to improve the life of this woman would be in vain. She was beyond his power and comprehension.
Behind her, through the open garden door, he heard a symphony of wild beasts celebrating their savage harmony. Looking through the window, he saw not the rolling fields he knew but a primal paradise — rivers, lakes, mountains, deserts and forests.
He closed his mouth and bowed, backing out of the house. He dropped his election leaflet on the mat and closed the front door firmly.
The Carpenter had hardly registered his brief presence. Looking down at her palm, she touched the dark mark growing in a jagged coil at the heart of the reddened flesh. A jolt of pain rain down her arm and along her spine, shocking a gasp from her lips. She frowned at it and returned to her work. The hands on the wall clock hung limply at half-past six, and she was no longer aware of the date or even the season. Day and night, she stood turning her lathe and spinning out the world. Her drill bits spat fire.
The vicar came again. Her clothes were dirty and dishevelled, and she felt that the journey had become farther then a simple five-minute walk down the lane. She was sweating and panting, but looked younger, with a ruddy glow to her cheeks and fresh iron in her backbone. She went down to her knees in the sea of wood shavings and sawdust.
‘Please come to church,’ she said. ‘Not to pray, but to teach us. Show us the ways of God and lead us into his– into your paradise. I humbly beg you.’
The Carpenter shook her head and helped the other woman to her feet.
‘You don’t understand,’ she told the vicar. ‘You need to stop asking questions of others and start providing your own answers. I have nothing to teach you. I just want to be alone.’
She took a curl of wood from the woman’s sleeve, releasing it from her hands as a butterfly that rose in lazy loops over their heads. Smiling and weeping, the vicar left her, showering a thousand thanks on the Carpenter as she departed forever.
The Carpenter’s hand was blackening now and very painful, but she did not slow in her work, carving hills and pinning together the spokes of stars. She constructed the sky and ground board by board until no gaps showed in heaven or earth.
Finally she rested, propping herself up against her workbench. Looking out over her creation, she allowed herself a small measure of satisfaction. Her children were coming up the hill towards her, moving slowly on ancient limbs. She smiled, waving to them, and saw that her wounded palm was oozing something dark. A smell like autumn woods filled the room, the pleasant scent of leaf mould and rotting wood.
Her head spun slightly as he placed her wrist down on the bench and, taking a hacksaw in her free hand, she swiftly cut off the other. A sense of profound relief washed over her as darkness poured forth from the stump, swallowing the room and the world and leaving her floating in the kindly void.
Something shone at her wrist, embedded deep in the bone. Welling up on the heels of the night, a bright light burst forth from her arm, bisecting the darkness and revealing her world in bright, new glory. The chiaroscuro coiled in an ineffable dance throughout existence, laying itself from the foundation of reality to the tops of mountains and the tips of leaves and her fingers. Her wounds were healed, and all that was old was made new again. It blended in so seamlessly, one might never have known it was there, but the Carpenter knew. She could hear its song and see it sparkling at the corners of her vision.
Her children, made young and whole again, ran into the room and, arm in arm, they walked out together beneath new skies.