The Carpenter, by Daniel Kwiatowski
I used to take the blade of my knife and run it across the calluses on my hand. It always made me smile to see the skin dull the metal. At least I thought it did. Might have been my imagination but I took pride in my thick hands. I used to love the way dirt and oil got trapped in all the tiny cracks. A pair of hands that look like the face of a hundred year old man. At least that‘s what I remember.
And it doesn‘t matter how careful you are either. Something always jumps up and bites you. A nail or maybe a stray splinter makes it’s way in. You start to bleed but the blood’s so dark. It isn’t even red. And my fingers are filthy but I still suck the blood right off them. And with my fingers right under my nose I can smell it. My hands are shaking right now just thinking about it. The reason I was born. The stuff I was made of. Sawdust.
See the strange thing about sawdust is that it gets in your mouth and it just… stays. It’s like sand that way. Doesn’t want to go. It holds onto you and you can spit and curse all you want but at the end of the day when you’re lying in bed, you’ll still be trying to pluck it out of your mouth. But see that’s not the strangest thing. That’s just one of the reasons why I love it. No, see what always truck me as funny is the way that sawdust has no taste. Nothing. I bet some people would argue with me about that one, but I’m betting there isn’t a single one of them son’s a bitches who’s felt like they’re carrying two twenty pound bags of sawdust in their lungs. Something so light making you feel so heavy. I used to feel like I was carrying two tons and now I feel light as a feather. I miss it. Not the taste. And why? It’s the only thing in the world you can smell but you can’t taste. You might be tasting something else, the dirt, the glue, maybe even the sea, but it’s not the sawdust. Trust me my tongue works fine. People say you can’t have one without the other. Taste and smell. Well, stranger things have happened.
Stranger things like what? What do I remember? I remember what I can‘t forget. Finding somebody who loves the smell as much as you do. Someone who’s not afraid of the way the body smells. You spend your whole god damn life washing away the smell of what you do. You work so god damn hard and then you watch it spin down the drain. You drown it because you have to stay clean. It’s like writing a book your whole life and every time you finish a page you dip it in white paint. I did it. Id’ come home covered head to toe in my work. I used to sit in my chair. I used to stare at my hands until it got dark, amazed at what they were capable of doing. The moon would come out and suddenly I’d be scrubbing it all away. Of course when you do something long enough there are always traces of it, shadows, ghosts, that kind of thing. But we’ve been taught. You have to stay clean! As if we should be ashamed that our bodies get hard or even a little jagged or maybe a little dull, depending on who you are and before you know it, you’re in the ground covered in mud.
Talk about things being funny.
What was I talking about? Right. Of course. The smell. She loved the way I smelled. I didn’t know her but the second we were twenty feet from each other I could tell. Her nose lifted slightly in the air. She caught the breeze that had just ran through me. I hadn’t had a wash yet. There was plenty of light. It looked like I had been in the sun all day but that was just the sawdust, clinging to me, making another layer of skin.
She comes over. She stands in front of me and we just blink at each other. Every time I blink she’s closer and closer. Every time she inhales through her nose her blinking becomes more and more like sighing. We can feel the heat from each other and she stops blinking. She puts her finger in her mouth and then places her finger on my chest. She traces a line across my chest and then slowly draws a circle around my heart. She smiles when she sees my pale skin underneath and then she closes her eyes and puts her finger back in her mouth. She whispers. She says she’s never tasted anything so good and true in her whole life.
Well I just about fell over when that happened. She could taste it. She could taste what I do, she could taste who I was and she loved it. I wanted to taste what I tasted like in her mouth. So we walked. Just started walking towards the woods. We wanted each other in the shade. The walk and the sun made us both begin to sweat. The dust on my face became mud and began to carve lines down my face. I imagined her licking me clean. I wanted to drink her spit. We were so close to a wall of trees but we couldn’t wait any longer. Everything she tasted was now running down my throat, making the tips of my fingers tingle. I kissed her on the forehead and all I could taste was her salt.
What happened after that is like a dream but sometimes things happen because there’s just no other way that they could happen. Like we were a pair of trees begging for water, the sky opened up. It started with a single drop that fell on the tip of her nose and that was the only warning we had. We hadn’t noticed the sky and now it was falling.
Now, in my opinion, there is only one way that one should ever be washed clean and that’s getting caught in the rain. That’s God or somebody saying it’s time. Because then your work, your life, it isn’t running in circles, spinning down the drain, drowning in a pipe. It’s part of a river that’s running on the land, not under it. You return what you took and it couldn’t be more natural. Doesn’t happen nearly enough. People don’t think like that anymore. But the rain. Yes the rain. We were caught in it. Mother Earth was weeping tears of joy for Adam and Eve.
The funny thing is she was born in the city. Left it for reasons she‘d rather forget. She was a singer and she played an old guitar. She sang lovely sad songs that she had learned from her father. She learned how to sing in the church and was then born again on the road. She said she’d been all over the country. Singing about all the beautiful sadness in the world. Like she’d been plucked out of some dust bowl town about eighty years ago. She played music west of the Mississippi but it was north and south. That’s what it sounded like if that makes any sense. She was like me. Not made for this world, born too late, wishing it was before all this goddamn madness. A simpler time. Too late. Where was I? Right. The rain. The sky. I Can’t forget the sky. The things it does when two sad souls come together. The colors you see.
I remember everything turning green. It was like being a kid again, like hiding under an old blanket. I imagined I was sitting in a tree, inthe middle of summer, when the sun is in the west, in the late afternoon and it sets the leaves on fire. Everything just starts glowing green. It’s the same color when you know the sky is about to open up, when it’s really going to rain. Everything seems darker though because the rain‘s so hungry for the light. When everything goes green you can either be afraid of it or make love in it.
She said that she was drunk off the way I smelled. I ran my hand across her thigh, underneath her simple country dress. The wild flowers on her dress seemed to be swaying in the wind. The tips of my fingers snagged her stockings and cut them to shreds. I apologized for my rough hands and she took them in her own and kissed the tips of each finger. When she finished I did the same for her. They were so soft. I’d never felt hands so soft. Only the very tips were callused but even her calluses were smooth. Years of skin being polished by the metal strings.
She said she wanted my hands inside her. I hesitated. I was afraid. I thought I’d tear her up inside but the rain never stopped and she carried my fears away when she took my hand again. My rough fingers were on fire now and she was burning away all the sharp edges. She told my hands what to do and they listened closely. And the rain just kept coming and before too long we were washed clean. We were two pale ghosts in the rain. We slid down each other, onto the ground and then before too long we were covered head to toe with black mud. So much for staying clean. We made love right there in an open field. The only things watching us were the trees on the edge of the field. The sacred forest swaying back and forth in the rain as if it were nodding its’ head in approval. It wasn‘t afraid.. There was no fear that a lineage of axe bearers might be the next thing to follow. There is a reverence that no longer exists but I felt it that night. I could feel the ground giving way, like I was pressing us both into a quiet grave. Her hands were digging into my shoulders and me wishing, wanting her to tear me apart with those soft hands. All the while the rain did it’s best but couldn’t rinse away the smell of sawdust. If anything, it only made it hang heavier in the air.
We refused to stop until the rain stopped. Who could last longer? The rain or us? Proud to say that the rain had nothing on us and now the sun was gone. We couldn’t see each other. Our bodies were covered in mud and we looked like two small lumps of land. We were shaking, so we just held each other. We became a big dark stone heaving and sighing in the night. She’d smile and I’d see the white of her teeth. I Smelled her breath and thought I could choke to death on it and that might be heaven itself. I asked her to sing a song for me and she said not until I sung one first. I told her I could build her a house but I wasn’t much of a singer. Though, I used to sing in the church too, with my mama and people said I had a heavenly voice. I was pretty young. I always made my mama so proud but she’d never let me forget we were singing for God. That’s who we were singing for. She’d remind me that Jesus was a carpenter and I’d always say he couldn’t have been that good at it if he became a fisherman instead.
I told her this as the mud slowly began to dry on our bodies. She wrapped her legs around my waist. I think we must have rolled about a hundred yards from our clothes. We weren’t too worried about it. I felt like I‘d just woken up. I felt careless and connected. Her flesh moved in and out as my fingers pressed it. My hands were so used to the cold, stiff beauty of wood. Her body was still but it never stopped moving and it was so warm. As it grew even darker the sound of crickets and frogs grew louder and louder. She said in a strange way it reminded her of the city. Having never been, I couldn’t quite understand but when I think about it now it makes sense. The whole world’s just white noise anyways. It doesn’t matter if it’s a field of crickets or a mess of yellow cabs. Eventually the sound swallows everything up until you forget about it or notice it for the first time.
I asked her again to sing me a song and again she tells me that she won’t sing me anything until I sing her something. I tell her I’ll build her a beautiful little bird house and then the birds can sing to her all day long. I’ll build her a whole town of bird houses. Every morning she’ll wake up and hear the sweetest song imaginable. She just stares at me through the darkness. She takes my hands again and she kisses the tip of every finger and tells me she can taste what my hands are capable of doing but she wants to hear my song. She said the thought of anyone building her a town made her sad. I could tell she wasn’t looking for anything I could build her. My fingers started to feel stiff. I wanted to saw them off. She asked me again if I would sing for her.
I clenched my hands and they became two stones unable to hold the body next to me. I was angry. I was scared. I could feel my teeth putting pressure on my tongue. I thought I might bite it off . I was becoming rigid again. I tried to unclench my hands. I felt a finger snag on her skin. I pulled my hand away. I was building a wall between us and I didn’t even know who she was. I turned my head away from her to see if I could locate a tiny mound that would most likely be our clothes. I couldn’t find it so I looked up hoping to see the stars but the clouds were hiding them. I was just about to sit up, let go of her, when a small miracle flickered in front of us.
I believe he was watching us. He was waiting for the right moment. I needed the stars and so he flew in to take their place. He was my shooting star. This single firefly hovered just above our faces. His pulsating glow imitated the green of the storm and it was in everyway just as powerful. He made the whites of our eyes glow green. We had to smile, so then our teeth were green. I put my hands back on her body, still warm, my fingers started to melt. I noticed how her breathing moved in and out with the glow of the fire fly, like they were breathing for each other. I told her a story about fireflies. When I was very young my brothers and me caught dozens of fireflies and put them in a mason jar. Later that night when we were in our room, getting ready for bed, we unscrewed the lid and let them loose. The whole room began to glow green. Our father walked in and was furious. He made us catch every last one. I told her how we used to squish the fireflies and smear the glowing blood on our faces like war paint.
Our little friend began to rise further and further into the air until we were in the dark again. I could hear the wind making the leaves sound like running water. She ran her fingers through my muddy hair and said I didn’t have to sing if I didn’t want to. I took a deep breath of air. I could smell the sawdust on her breath. I don’t know where the words came from but I started singing something. I remember.
I’ll build a roof and place it right above your head
I’ll build a roof and place it right above your head.
If the rain falls on your bed then you can see me dead
I’ll build a…..