A Carpenter’s Craft
Milo Bouchard carried a pail with some bread and ham and a small ceramic water jug. As he walked towards the barn he thought of his wife, Annie, resting peacefully in the bed they had shared for over sixty years. He was a stout man with legs that bowed mildly, causing him to walk with a rocking gait. In recent years, age had begun to pilfer his height and his wife discretely tailored his pants while he pretended not to notice; such was the nature of their relationship. His shoes were old but polished, with metal crescent tips fixed to each heel to prolong the wear. They tapped harmoniously with every stride.
Milo lifted the heavy latch and dragged the barn doors open. Soft citrus light flooded in and illuminated rays of dust. A pile of lumber rested on a low wooden workbench that took up a large portion of the barn and Milo stood before it surveying the hefty pieces of timber. A snorting to his side broke his concentration and a large Percheron draft mare scraped her shoed hoof on the floor of the barn, soliciting his attention.
“ I see ya, Emma.” Milo approached and rubbed the horse just above her snout.
“I think we’re in for a long day here, girl.” He rested his head on her cheek and she nuzzled him, exhaling sharply into his crop of white disheveled hair.
Milo dipped into his pocket, and pulling out a small red apple, he palmed it into Emma’s mouth. With a parting pat on her neck Milo headed back over to his workbench. He circled the pieces of wood and allowed his hand to reach out and gently caress the rough lengths. His hands were a narrative of his years as a craftsman, with thick skin and weathered digits. But his nails were trimmed and tidy, all nine of them; the tip of his left index finger was missing as a reminder to a young apprentice not to force the tool.
The previous summer, his wife had helped him choose the timber and he had laboured over the design until it was perfect. Then he had allowed the project to sit, putting if off and procrastinating. He thought of how Annie had teased him, telling him he would have to get around to it sooner or later. She worried that termites would get into the wood and it would be spoilt. Milo had simply put his arms around his wife and kissed her cheek, telling her there was still plenty of time.
“These things can’t be rushed, love--” he would say with a smile.
“rushing is for the young.” She would finish for him and then she would roll her blue grey eyes and laugh. “But, darling, you never rushed then, either.”
His sleeves already rolled, Milo set to work. He planed and sawed and sanded the planks until they were as smooth as a fresh spring leaf. He fashioned the simple outline of a poppy flower on each piece, then chiseled dovetail joints. Finally, he applied a thin film of varnish. Laying the pieces out in the heat of the afternoon sun to dry, he rested on a weathered tree stump and ate slowly.
Glancing up, he saw his neighbour Marco ambling over towards him, and he watched as his friend turned from a speck on the horizon to a large burly figure; his olive skin had darkened as the summer took hold and had made his Italian heritage even more evident. He carried a shovel over one shoulder and a heavy burlap sack over the other.
“So, you made a start, eh?”
“That I have.”
“I’d say it was time, Milo.”
“That it was.”
“You’ll be needing a hand loading it into the cart.”
“That I might.”
With a nod, Marco headed off towards a large oak tree that stood on the edge of their property line.
Milo raised himself bit by bit and stood for a moment letting his body catch up with his thoughts. His hand soothed his back as he inched stiffly towards the dried wood, limbering gradually with every step; he carried the pieces into the barn. Back at his workbench, he braced the sections and, measuring twice, he carefully hand drilled the holes for the brassware. Next he pounded the pieces into place and lined up the dovetail joins until they fit together seamlessly. He smoothed the sharp edges with his plane, sanded them to a porcelain finish, and retouched each corner with varnish. Finally, as a lavender and crimson hue filled the barn, he set the brass handles and checked the fit of the top.
Milo opened the door to Emma’s stall and his mare dutifully stepped out. She stood with her back left hoof resting on its tip as Milo arranged her harness tack, adjusting it for comfort and fit. Milo led Emma outside and hitched her up to the wagon.
Marco sat on the stump outside the barn smoking a cigarette; he made no effort to move. When Milo had Emma secured to the wagon he went back into the barn and Marco took a last drag before stubbing out his cigarette and following him inside. Silently they loaded the chest into the cart and Milo led the wagon over to the house. Emma stalled, as they got close, but stopped short of rearing up.
“We’re nearly there, girl, come on now.”
Emma calmed and allowed Milo to steer her to a stop in front of the steps that led up to the deck of the small farmhouse. Marco, who had followed behind, helped Milo unload the chest. They placed it on the deck and Milo entered the house.
He returned with Annie resting in his arms. Susan, Marco’s wife, had arrived and was loosely lining the chest with a soft cornflower blue blanket and a small silk pillow. Milo had left Annie in her nightgown. She hadn’t wanted a fuss, nor to look like she was going into town.
“I want to look like I am sleeping,” she had told him the previous year after the doctor had said there was nothing more to be done, “because that is all it is.”
She had patted the top of his hand gently, and nodded, but she had turned away quickly and wiped her cheek. His resolve to be strong had begun to waver and he had fixed his stare on the floor in a battle to maintain his composure.
Holding her tightly to him, he sank to his knees and kissed her lightly on the forehead. He looked up to his friend and gritted his teeth as raw emotion began to rise inside him, and he shook his head, no. Marco held his gaze and gave him a nod, a signal that it was time to let her go, and with that Milo tenderly lowered Annie into the chest. Susan wrapped the blanket around Annie, tucking it under her chin and stroking a strand of her hair behind her ear. She gave Milo’s arm a squeeze and they helped each other up.
“It’s a fine casket, Milo,” she said, “exactly like she wanted.”
They loaded the casket into the wagon and Milo rode with Annie while Marco and Susan steered Emma up towards the old oak. Friends had gathered. Flowers filled the bottom of a six-foot deep cavity and rocks lined the edge. Once down from the wagon, the open casket was covered, carried over to the burial site, and then lowered into the ground with ropes. Earth clattered onto the timber lid as the first handfuls of dirt were thrown down onto the coffin. Surrounded by friends, Milo wept quietly. Then he walked home, with his familiar pitch, and waited for his sleep.