After he unlocked the shop door, and stood look looking at the figures in the display area, Levi slapped one of the wooden figures in the face. The figure bore a fish’s head, and the wide-eyed stare almost seemed to be a consequence of having been struck. He walked to the back of the shop, then stopped and turned around. He trudged back to the figure.
He patted it on the head, making amends, struggling with himself not to tell it, out loud, “I’m sorry.” Throughout this, the creature’s expression remained fixed, staring. But even in the static expression there lived a spark, unmistakeable in Paul’s work. He almost waited for the figure to take a breath. He glanced around at the bird-headed, dog-headed, beetle-headed figures. A menagerie of heads on humanoid bodies. He felt their eyes on him.
Paul’s rise from apprentice to his current standing had been — to Levi — frustratingly short. He hadn’t foreseen the boy’s unprecedented skill becoming troublesome. His figures skewed cartoonish. Levi was initially loathe to put them out. But then they drew customers in with that spark. And the boy’s speed was unheard of.
Levi shivered, and looked through the crowd of figures for those he himself had made. His attention to detail and realism marked them. He immediately began the act of spinning this in his favor. He was a craftsman. He sought to mirror the real by employing his careful arts to create figures that looked like those you might find in wild, with the exception of their necessarily anthropomorphized bodies. And that had its own draw. But the sheer number of figures of his that sat here, unsold, testified to the decay of that draw. And this didn’t even take into account Paul’s quick output, or Levi’s measured, methodical pace. His pieces sitting here outnumbered Paul’s two to one, where Paul’s productivity outpaced him at the same rate, at least.
The sun was not completely risen, and Levi squinted his way to the darker back of the shop. He passed the counter, and opened the door with a light kick at its base. He set his lunch on the bench, amid hand tools, and moved quickly to a set of cabinets.
Most of the wood blocks they worked from sat out in the open. But Levi stood on a step-stool and opened the topmost cabinet, and drew out a large block of wood. He’d been saving this piece, which he’d harvested from a tree he’d found partially burnt in a clearing. He’d taken this as an omen. He wasn’t averse to omens. This one might be thin, but he needed something to go on. A purplish tint in the grain also drew his attention.
He had no reason to think of the figure he was planning as a last ditch effort. He owned the shop. He still sold figures. Regardless, he’d placed that designation on this piece: last chance.
He spent an hour planning the figure on the block of wood, measuring and plotting. Doing this brought to mind Paul’s process. Paul simply started. He couldn’t even tell Levi what kind of creature he would form. He claimed to find them in the piece of wood.
From Levi’s perspective, this wasn’t good work. It wasn’t right. Good work took time, planning, craft. But even in Paul’s crude first attempts, Levi spotted that quality of animation. This created the tension that Levi had lived with for months now. The boy’s work was exceptional, but Levi’s job was to act as mentor. His duty to this boy was to teach him what he knew about working with wood, creating figures. As the boy’s process grew more alien from his own, he felt that he was failing him. But he couldn’t argue with the sales. Unbiased confirmation of the boy’s work.
Figure plotted, Levi took up a gouge and a mallet. He chose his first stroke and swung. Things went wrong. The stroke made solid contact with the butt of the gouge, but the gouge glanced off the wood toward Levi’s arm and bit deeply into the flesh of his wrist. Blood sprayed on the bench, on Levi, and on the block of wood which flew off the bench and onto the floor.
Levi clutched at his arm and cursed. Old scars ran up and down his arms and hands, this was nothing new. But he felt anger boiling up. He couldn’t imagine what else he might have done. His immediate reaction was that the block had refused him.
He grabbed a handful of paper towels and pressed them to the wound for a minute. He pulled them away, and surveyed the damage. Ragged flesh, gaping hole. He needed stitches. He cursed. He walked to where the block had landed, and looked at it. His blood stained it. Strange though, that it should have absorbed so much. It had already gone dark brown, and the streaks grown thin. He kicked the block, which jumped far less than satisfied him. He got more paper towels, wiped at the bench, and attempted to clean himself up somewhat before leaving the shop and seeking help from Dr. Andersen a veterinarian who’d done minor repairs on him before.
He walked to the clinic at eight, but it was nine-thirty before the doctor showed up. Levi waited on the steps. The bleeding stopped quickly, and by quarter-past-eight Levi was wondering if he really needed stitches.
Dr. Andersen, finally arrived, was adamant that it did.
“That’s a vintage World War I trench you got in your arm there. I half expect to see frigging Fritz lobbing grenades at me. It’s not like I’m going to charge you for it. Of course you’re getting stitches.”
Andersen didn’t use anesthetic on human patients, since the legalities of such things became more nuanced than he was comfortable with. Levi appreciated this.
“You pay for it one way or another. Urgent care’ll cost you four, six hundred. This’ll be 20 minutes of squirming and suppressed screaming, but other than that, quite different from a trip to the brothel, you pervert. Here’s an ice-pack. Get that thing frozen stiff, she said.”
Levi smiled and pressed the ice-pack to the wound. His eyes watered as it made contact, but he smiled on.
“How’s that Paul working out? I bought one of his pieces for my oldest girl when she got that new place on Peddler.”
Levi enjoyed Andersen’s banter to a point. Silence begot concentration, and he wasn’t sure that he could take Andersen’s approach here seriously. It wasn’t a good way to work. Then he consoled himself that he came to Andersen because he was free, not because he was the best.
The doctor lifted the ice pack, tapped at the skin around the wound.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Andersen asked.
Levi nodded even though he could still feel. Answering this question “No” was too strong, like a refusal, and Andersen was doing him a favor.
“Go for it,” he said.
Over the next 20 minutes he remained acutely aware of every motion of the needle. Popping through skin, dragging suture material, pulling skin closed. It became work not mention it, and then additional work not to cry out. But he was good at work.
“Last month I put three stitches in that new chiropractor. His leg. He cried like a fat kid at a stomach stapling before I got so much as a hook in him.”
Ten stitches, and he felt every one of them. Andersen laughed when he finished.
“You look good, boy. You’d fit right in at a KKK rally. A touch peakid. How about some orange juice? I don’t have any. You’ll have to go across the street if you want orange juice.”
When he’d thanked Dr. Andersen and left, the morning had grown late and Levi felt like he needed a nap. And then he turned this thought over. It wasn’t just that he felt like sleeping. He felt like quitting.
Instead of walking back to the shop, he headed for home.
He’d considered before that he was in a position of strength. He now had a boy pledged to him, a boy whose work could easily sustain the shop. Whose speed could be exploited. Levi didn’t have to show up. It was his shop. The boy could keep the skill. He’d have the profits. He could sit behind the counter and plan . . . vacations. Well, if not vacations, something else. He could focus on marketing. Start selling the pieces long-distance. And work the little (he censored himself) jerk into the ground. That’s what apprentices were for, if his experience had been standard.
But thinking like this gave Levi the same sick feeling he got when a piece didn’t work. When he tried something new, something he hadn’t learned to control, and the technique showed through too much.
Instead of heading back home he walked aimlessly. He found a sandwich place. He ate. As he did his gaze wandered around the shop until it came to rest on a figure tucked back in a tiny shrine. A miniature fish-headed creature. A Dagon that he’d made, in his apprenticeship.
He saw in the figure where he’d started out. The work was competent. Light on detail, but literal-minded.
Staring at the figure he felt an initial temptation to dwell on its lifelessness. He’d always been a literalist. But he pursued another thought. He still loved making things, so quitting wasn’t fair to his nature. He made things. He didn’t want to become someone who oversaw things being made, or who just sold someone else’s work.
He finished and walked back to the shop.
He nerved himself up to work that block again, and he found that he gained momentum, excited to throw himself into the work, and make something again. He’d do it without worrying about selling it. Without worrying about what Paul was doing. Because he made things.
In the back of the shop Paul had a figure going. Virtually finished. And begun that morning — he could tell from the state of the bench. So fast, Levi thought.
“Oh, hey!” Paul said when he finally noticed him, and flashed shining eyes up at him. “Sorry about all of this, I’m about to clean up. Where’ve you been? I sold two before lunch. And I wanted to ask you about when it’s best to use . . . hold up, what the hell happened to you?”
“It was a dumb thing,” Levi said, looking at his arm as though he just remembered it. “Cut the living blankity-blank out of my arm with a gouge.”
“Oh, I didn’t see you had a piece going,” Paul said.
“It was the frigging first stroke, if you can believe that,” Levi said.
“Damn,” Paul said. “That’s just bad luck.”
“Nah,” Levi said. “Let me show you the block.” It immediately occurred to him how much he liked Paul. He didn’t always remember that. He would work to remember that.
He looked for where he’d kicked the block. He didn’t see it. He looked for bloodstains on any of the other blocks lying in the pile. This would have meant that Paul had tidied up, a non-standard occurrence.
“You didn’t see a piece with sort of a purple-ish grain, did you?” he said to Paul. “And a lot of blood all over it.”
Paul reacted with a caught look.
“This block is a bit purple,” he gestured toward the nearly completed piece.
Levi hesitated and then shot a glance at it. The figure bore a fly’s head, the wings, even in obvious wood grain, had achieved the papery quality of real fly wings. It was great work. And he recognized the grain.
“But it would have been covered in blood,” Levi said.
“This thing was clean,” Paul said. “I checked it all over for faults. No blood.”
He didn’t think Paul was lying. But he might not have noticed such a thing. And he remembered that the block had absorbed quite a lot of blood. Maybe some property of the wood. He didn’t see a way around it. Paul had cut this figure out of his block.
He felt a rage boil up inside himself, but he quieted it. Levi knew that doing anything other than supporting Paul’s talent wouldn’t be fair, and that his anger grew from simple jealousy. He’d never had the promise of investing figures with life. Paul did.
“Yeah, I think that was it,” he said.
Paul made a face.
“Gah, I’m sorry,” he said, massaging fingertips into his brow.
“Don’t worry about it,” Levi said. He pointed at the figure.
“It’s really great work,” he said. “It’s a perfect Beelzebub.” Paul looked relieved.
“Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for saying that. I was really trying to work the details more, like you always say, and it just seemed to happen this time. You know how I feel like I’m finding them there? Well, I feel like I finally learned how to see those small things. Like you taught me that. Which makes me feel dumb, because I’ve had this tendency to feel like this thing, my ability to make these things, is something I can’t control or shape. But I know that’s not true. Because you shaped that ability to see those details in me. And I feel great about this one.”
Levi didn’t look at Paul. He kept himself focused on the piece, and licked his lips and almost spoke. He kept his eyes on the fly god, and gave a short thumbs up.
“This is going to be very useful to someone,” he said.
And as they both looked at the figure, its legs not quite freed from the block, the head rotated and looked up at them. Then it extended its arms, ready to receive an offering.