Thursday, April 15, 2021

Little Wooden Boxes by Alex Rollings

A workshop isn’t like an office. It’s more like a mad scientist’s lab. The machines hum and whirr and crash as the madman goes about his work, slinking from process to process, from machine to machine, and from madness to madness. The madman makes it all look so easy; he really does.
The madman stands about five feet tall with a rapidly receding hairline. He wears a pair of grubby jeans that carry nearly twice their original weight in sawdust, oil, and other unidentifiable substances. Over a filthy t-shirt, he sports brown overalls that he could have sworn used to be white.
His hands are dark and stained, the edges of his fingernails are black, and his calluses are so thick that you could probably build another man from all the skin. He wears eye-protectors that have at least seen the turn of three centuries.
This man is what we in the business call a ‘Maker’. You may also refer to him as a ‘Tinkerer’. He’s one of those old men who insist on building a small chair for every child and table or cabinet for every adult—a useful man to have around. Utterly insane, but still useful.
It’s hard to see what he’s working on as he rests his backside on his trusty stool and hunches over his project. It makes odd noises; little metallic pings and the harsh crunch of tiny gears forced to work with their neighbours. His workbench was littered with bits and bobs that most people couldn’t identify if they had the world’s most complete book of bits and bobs.
His hands moved slowly, using delicate tools to manipulate fragile parts. Tiny springs were inserted into narrow tubes, and minute chains were threaded through a complex system of pulleys. Screws so small that they required a specialist screwdriver held it all together.
He reached forward and tilted the lamp toward his burden. He removed his eye-protectors and replaced them with an ornate pair of spectacles. He lifted the piece to his eye, careful not to block the light. He stayed like this for a long time, searching for something that would only be apparent to him.
What he held was a box, small and rather plain, and made from wood that held a deep brown colour. He had sanded and varnished and polished until the wood shined like a rare piece of jewellery. There was no golden inlay, and no painted characters. It was a box, masterfully made and finished, but it would easily be overlooked when placed next to gaudy, colourful examples. There was a beauty in its simplicity; the joints were snug, and everything fit together with an accuracy more befitting a highly engineered jet-engine. It had been built for strength and durability; it was something that had been designed to survive.
The maker nodded slowly. He was pleased with his work. He didn’t know how long it had taken. He started when it happened and how long was that ago? He didn’t remember. No, he did remember. He knew exactly how many days, how many hours and how many minutes it had been since he got the phone call. He just liked to think that he didn’t remember. He wanted to pretend that the time that had passed was nothing and only a few hours at most. It wasn’t, but that’s what he liked to believe.
He cleaned his workbench, vacuuming up the dust and using a cloth to clean the rough wooden surface before sitting the little box in the centre. He then washed his hands, removed his overalls, and inspected it one last time. It was as perfect as could be accomplished by a humble maker such as himself.
He picked it up carefully, treating the absurdly strong little box like a piece of fragile crystal. He stepped out of the workshop into the harsh sunlight, taking a moment to scowl at his garden. It had once been his pride, but now the weeds encroached, and the flowers wilted. He had let it die to focus on little boxes. He didn’t know if this was the right decision, but it’s the one he made.
He made his way into the house, through the kitchen, into the hallway, and up the stairs before stopping at the door. It was shut, like always. He knocked, like always. There was no reply, like always. He let himself in.
The room was dominated by the bed and the frail figure that occupied it. He understood the medical machinery that stood beside the bed, but he didn’t like to look at it or touch it.
Dozens of similar wooden boxes covered every surface and were piled high in every corner.
placed a kiss on her forehead. Her face was serene, and the silence of the room was only disturbed by the low humming of the machinery and the regular blip… blip… blip…
He cleared a space on the bedside table and slowly opened the box.
A delicate melody drowned out the synthetic sounds. He liked to think that he had outdone himself with this one. He convinced himself that she loved it.
He thought he saw a smile twitch at the corners of her mouth, and whether this was real or a figment of his sleep-deprived imagination, he didn’t care.
He sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand in his. As the music-box slowly wound down, he continued the tune in a quiet, rough voice.
You know, I think she probably did smile.


© Alex Rollings

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