Aching for another chance
Ben is no longer in a hurry. Just exhausted, dirty and terrified of the wooden box on his lap. He leans into the once familiar gate, seeking comfort – not only for his aching city back. He remembers hanging the gate, sitting on the hand-drill while his father turned the arm and wood-shavings curled out of the hole like fantastic flat worms and mixed into the pungency of sun-baked fynbos and his father’s pipe.
As soon as he’d found the box he had tried to open it with his pocket knife – ‘the one you must always carry on account of the python’. But the six screws needed more exact handling, demanded a rusty respect and now he is grateful that the moment of opening had been herded into a more roundabout destiny. Why had he burned with a need to know? Mama had not told him what was in the box, only that he would find it at chest level and an imagined arm’s length nearer the surface. And that is exactly where – eventually, after hours of searching and digging – he had found it. Terrified or not, he must do it.
All six screws come out smoothly. The lid shifts as Ben pulls out the last screw and he catches his breath on the smell – a whiff of stinkwood and something else, both smells entirely familiar. He slides the lid open further. It sticks half way. Still it’s a biggish box and he can get his hand in. He brings out the chisel, wrapped in an almost disintegrated oil-cloth. The carving edge is worn concave; the wooden handle now fits in his own palm, the squiggly Italian name and unbelievable year etched into the wood at the top. How could he not have known this would be in the box. Of course!
His grandfather had been a sculptor, but his father, the man of this box, the man whose hand belonged to the chisel, had made furniture. Exquisite, handcrafted pieces.
Memories crowd in like a stampeding herd, he can hardly make out details but the energy of it rocks him. Enormous tree falling – seemingly silently after the whine of the saw, held in slow motion by the stinkwoods and yellowwoods still standing, waiting their turn in years to come. The soaking beams in giant oil troughs; the rats – sometimes caught unaware in the night – lying oil-smooth, face down, tail straight the following morning, looking like snorkel divers. The long strips of riempie hanging from roof-hooks like giant biltong sinews.
Ben reaches into the box again, not looking, feeling. Cold, smooth with patches of something crumbly. Another memory stirs; the two-shelf bookcase near the fireplace in his parents’ bedroom. That’s all there was –their bed, their chair, the huge fireplace, the bookcase, and on the bookcase the jade green…..yes! He pulls the carving out, the curled up almost formless but unmistakably cat body, now slightly crusted – with what? It looks like miniscule barnacles, but as he rubs the fist-size sculpture on his cords the crust comes off and the stone takes on its original murky gloss.
His hands – his fingertips – tingle as though strange and new blood is pumping into them after years in a vice. Without touching he knows – suddenly and with a riptide of memory – what else he will find.
He had heard the big saw on that autumn mid-morning, but ignoring the ban – sure that it was only for when he was young and didn’t understand the dangers – he had rushed into his father’s workroom, heart a drum in his throat, stomach clawing under his ribs, clutching the immaculate cream-coloured envelope with the magical embossed stamp of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music on the left – above his name and address.
He remembers his father’s shoulder, his hand on it momentarily. He remembers his father’s startled blue eyes and then the astonishment in them and the sound that came from his father’s open mouth. At first he hadn’t known what it was, the hand that shot across the workbench, the blood that squirted from his father’s arm.
Nobody ever blamed Ben. Not to his face anyway. Not even when, five years later his father took the gun in his good hand and ended something for himself, nor when two years after that Mama died – some said of grief.
Ben didn’t take that scholarship. He never did learn Hungarian, nor stand again on the Fisherman’s Bastion where he had held the hand of a parent on each side and looked down on the Danube river that had inspired the first music he fell in love with – at three, listening to Mama. He did study piano, his mother had insisted, but locally and with a reticence that kept his brilliance at bay and sent him fleeing to law school as soon as he completed the doctorate she had set her heart on. He had also kept on playing in the amateur quintet.
The small box comes out of the bigger box easily. Stinkwood too, also with a sliding lid, the 27 delicate white hand-bones at peace on the soft brown leather inside.
He hears his father’s voice again, telling of the dignity of hands, his own hands, his father’s hands, his grandfather’s hands. The gift we can offer the world his father had said, the roughest and the finest skills, the touch most intimate.
Ben places the objects carefully back in the box. He knows what he must do.