You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Shaving Horse-

Billy Todd sauntered quietly beside his grandfather as they walked deeper into the woods. When he was younger he would tend to run ahead on these walks, dashing between trees and jumping the many small streams as they moved through the shadows of the trees. Billy was ten, now, and had begun to appreciate what a precious gift it was to spend time with his grandfather.

He still felt the urge to run ahead, but refrained so as to stay by the older man's side.

Hiram Todd equally treasured his time with Billy. Billy's father, John, had grown up during times when Hiram had to work a great deal to take care of the family. Hiram had not had the time to lavish on his precious son, and as a result they had grown apart over the years. Hiram was determined not to let this happen with his grandson, so using the free time purchased by his retirement to walk in the woods with Billy was a great reward for the many years of work and sacrifice.

Every once in awhile Hiram would point at a plant or tree, and Billy would call out the name. Hiram made sure Billy knew of the more useful herbs growing in the woods, how to spot them and how to use them. He taught Billy the many little bits of woodcraft that he had learned from his own father. Things he wished he could have passed down to John, had times been different.

Hiram turned them up a ravine they had not yet together explored. There was a treasure hidden there, one he felt it was time to share with his grandson. As they approached the cleft in the exposed stone of the mountainside Billy suddenly stopped. He glanced around, sniffed the air and turned slowly in a circle.

"Something is here." he whispered. He knew that his grandfather had a touch of some woodland magic about him, and had always suspected that he shared the peculiar gift. The way the woods always seemed to welcome him, the way he so quickly learned things about the woods. It seemed more like remembering than learning.

"Around the big rock." said Hiram.

Billy walked slowly around the rock, and spotted the small cave hidden behind several tightly grown bushes. He gazed into the darkness, but did not move forward.

Hiram just watched. Billy stood still, gesturing toward the darkness of the cave but unable to move forward. Hiram continued to watch as desire and something else struggled within the boy.

"Dad doesn't believe in magic." the young man said. His shoulders slumped and he turned away from the darkness at the base of the stone cleft. "He says that you talk mumbo-jumbo, that you pass on old wives tales and make them sound wise."

"Yes, I know he says those things." replied Hiram. "Those things, and many more. He turned long ago from the knowledge that made up my education. He focused on school and career, and making much more money than I was ever able to do."

Billy looked sad. He loved his father, as Hiram also did. However they both knew that John had grown distant from them, holding them away and never quite letting them inside his personal defenses. Billy knew this intuitively, his grandfather by experience. The death of Billy's mother was eight years in the past, but it had broke something in John Todd that time had not managed to fix.

"Your father has the same touch that I do." said Hiram. "The same touch that you feel growing in you. The touch that was my father's, and his father's before him. Where most of the Todd men read the woods, your father learned to read other things."

Billy nodded, looking no less sad. Though he had lived with his father all of his life, they had not really been together. At ten years of age he was just beginning to sense the nature of that loss, that terrible distance.

Hiram had retired a bit early, just to be available for his grandson. The coming years would be hard on the young man if his father continued to fester in his grief. Hiram wanted to be there for both of them.

"Your father has used the touch to gather wealth, and does very well in that." Hiram said. "Rather than herbs and trees he learned stocks and bonds. He can short sell better than most, and his rewards have been substantial. Yet each year he seems to fall farther and farther away from us."

"I miss him." said Billy.

"I do too." said Hiram. "However, there is something here that can help with that. A little."

Billy looked up at his grandfather, and then back to the darkness of the cave behind the thick green bushes. He turned and pushed past the foliage, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

At the back of the dry cavity in the rock sat an object the likes of which he had never seen. It was made of wood, and looked much like a long bench. Affixed to the bench was a structure made of wood, configured to work in some unfathomable way.

"It is called a shaving horse." said Hiram, in a quiet voice.

Billy didn't have to articulate his question. He just had to wait.

"A craftsman would cut limbs from trees and affix them in that holding device on top of the bench." his grandfather explained. "See the pedal down below? The craftsman could hold or release the grip of the machine on the limb by pressing on that pedal."

Billy gazed at the machine, trying to figure out how it might work. It was very old, and looked like it might fall apart if he touched it. He was not sure if he wanted to touch it. It was not threatening. He even found it appealing, like some kind of museum piece.

Something inside the thing frightened him.

"The craftsmen would often bring these shaving horses to the woods where they found suitable limbs." Hiram continued. "They would turn the limbs into table legs and chair legs and lots of other things. Using a draw knife they would work the limbs until they were finished and ready to be shipped to other craftsmen to be used in chairs and tables."

Billy could almost see in his mind how it all was done. Without thinking he reached out and touched the device.

He felt the sun on his back as he sat astride the shaving horse, pulling at the handles of his draw knife as he shaped the table leg upon which he was working. The knife shaved away bits of the wood, and as needed he would release pressure on the pedal and turn the work in the jaws of the gripping vice.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. Release. Turn. Press down on the pedal. Draw and cut.

Karl Shaeffer was his name. He had come to these woods to work. The trees were good and strong, and provided the right limbs for making fine table legs.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. The blade came against his leather clad stomach as he completed each stroke. Release, turn, press. Draw and cut.

He paused to dress the blade, and then returned to his work. As he drew and cut and sweated, he let his grief flow through his limbs and into his work. Each table leg carried away a bit of the pain. Even more flooded into the shaving horse upon which he worked.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. Release. Turn. Press.

Draw and cut.

He remembered his young wife, as he sweated in the sun and the shavings piled up around him. He pulled a finished table leg from the jaws of the shaving horse, examining it with a practiced eye. He remembered the sturdy limbs of his young bride, his pride in her beauty. He wiped away a tear absently on his shirt sleeve.

Karl set the finished leg to one side of his shaving horse, and reached to the other side to pull another piece of timber from the stack of trimmed limbs. He set the new piece in the jaws, touched up the edge of his draw knife, and set to work once again.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut.

He remembered the kindling of their first child. The swelling of his bride's form as she made room for their child in her own body.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. Release, turn, press.

Draw and cut.

He remembered the heat of the fever, the helplessness as he watched his bride and unborn child burn. Tears rolled with the sweat down his face. The past and present were one.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut.

He remembered the dark hole that waited to swallow all of his hopes and dreams. So many said they were sorry for his loss. They placed them gently into the earth, his bride and his child forever within her, and cast earth upon them. Karl felt his heart fall with the fist full of dirt as he said his farewell.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. Release, turn, press.

Draw and cut.

Karl could not remain on their small farm in their little house. The memories were too much to live with, yet he would not dishonor the love of his family and his loving community by taking his own life. He crafted the shaving horse with his own hands, and when it was done he gave his land to his sister and her family.

He became a bodger, an itinerant craftsman making legs for tables, legs for chairs. He let the sun and rain and wind cleans him as he plied his knife.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. He poured his grief into his work and into his tools.

This was a good place to work. Winter was coming, but he knew a good place to stow his shaving horse for the winter. He would return when the snows had melted and things had warmed enough for him to come back.

"Draw and cut. Draw and cut." said Billy. His grandfather stood beside him. Tears wet their cheeks, and they were not ashamed.

"You are too young to know such things." Hiram whispered. "But your father needs us, and to help him you needed to understand."

"What happened to Karl?" Billy asked.

"I don't know." said his grandfather. "Perhaps he went west. Many did, in those days. He left the shaving horse in this cave a great many years ago. Few can read the memories that stain this wood. It is a lesson I think you and I needed to learn to help your father."

They exited the cave, and blinked in the sunlight. Slowly they began walking back toward Hiram's house.

"What will we do?" Billy asked. "He hurts so much. What can we do?"

"Perhaps we should build him a shaving horse." suggested Hiram.

It seemed strange, the image of his father sitting astride such a device.

"Draw and cut." said Billy. "I don't know how it will help, but I think you are right, Grandpa."

As the afternoon waned and the two walked quietly through the woods, the shaving horse sat in the darkness of the stone cleft. It had given up its treasure of bittersweet memories to the lad with the right heart and mind and proper touch. With a sigh it collapsed into splinters and dust, as did the bones of Karl Shaeffer in some distant grave.

In the following days other wood would come together, and an anachronistic wooden horse would be born. A shaving horse, a thing from another era to be given to John Todd as an improbable salve for healing a wounded soul and a broken heart.

Draw and cut. Draw and cut. Release. Turn. Press.