Marie chose a maple log from the adjoining storage room and brought it to her workbench. She studied the imperfections nature imparted. The biography of the tree lived through the scars and contortions. In the creation of her project, she would carve out many of the marks, but a chosen few would remain imprinted. Their existence would accentuate the beauty of the vase she imagined. It was a commissioned work for a balding man in his forties, and she knew her masterwork would emerge from the timber. The maple was special; it was scavenged from a tree felled by lightning and sported scarring from the incident. Jagged lines of black and brown burrowed themselves into the wood and begged Marie to transform them. She was a professional woodworker, a perfect candidate to transmute a tree into a vase.
With a calculated strike of an axe she separated the desirable portion from the rain-induced rotting. She was familiar with the weight, the union of metal and wood. She moved the work in progress to a shave horse — a workbench and vice hybrid designed to withstand pulling forces. Switching her axe for a draw knife she scraped the glossy steel blade along the log’s length, liberating bits of bark which fell to the floor. As she peeled away layers she pictured the vase; she imagined the elegant curves she would shape into it, and she pictured how a bit of finish would heighten the contrast of the black scars and the light wood. The vase would be perfect.
The log was soon bare. Marie drilled a metal post into an end and secured the log onto a lathe. Marie grabbed her turning tools and with a press of a pedal, the wood started to turn. Her tools followed the template plotted in her mind and her hands wouldn’t dare deviate from the diagram. Her mind was long accustomed to the strain of maintaining an mental image, she had worked that way for years. Still, getting the exact curvature from her vision onto her work, wore on her.
Within hours the vase sported elegant curves. There was still work to do, however. The surface of the vase was pulpy like rough paper and she still needed to add oil to the wood for finish. Instead of pressing on and pressuring the project to keep its shape, Marie decided to take a break. Working further would’ve distorted the vision of her vase; it would become something she didn’t intend. If she worked any more she’d lose her masterwork. She left her workshop and walked across a lush lawn adorned with two oak trees to her home. Marie’s home was modest with a single story and two bedrooms. She was able to pay for the rent, utilities and other necessities from woodworking. Her craft and passion had become her job and she never had a depressing day. She woke up energetic. Her eyes beamed enthusiasm. Marie lost all conception of desolation.
She changed into jeans and a t-shirt and left the house again. It was five o’clock and the sun was nearly set. Massive evergreens surrounded Marier’s home like sentinel defending from the sun. By 4:30 only small streams of sunlight could penetrate the forest and shed light. It was winter. The cold, with skillful control, painted dewy lawns with its frost-dipped brush leaving behind clear crystals of ice.
Marie’s friends met at a nearby pub, a post-work tradition. Marie was always the last to arrive and last to leave. She worked hard, certainly, but she knew the value of downtime. Conversation, accompanied with moderate amounts of alcohol, were the remedies that soothed her work stresses. The pub was called Great Expectations. It was the only peculiarity in an otherwise average town. Great Expectations was a literature-based pub that functioned also as a library. The pub brought in revenue from its novelty, and also garnered a cultish following. Great Expectations had one rule and patrons knew it well; the established social norm would convert first-comers to follow the rule. The rule was simple, if a little ludicrous: a conversation could only be as loud as the table was big. All tables in Great Expectations were exactly identical, small and round. The pub had a calm atmosphere where there was always chatter that never surpassed background noise. If one didn’t feel like socializing here were soundproof rooms where one could nurse a book and a drink. Marie only used the rooms a handful of times as she preferred to read in the morning. The evening was meant for socializing.
The bar area was was small. It had enough room to sit about twenty people, but the room was always filled with at least twenty-five. It was dimly lit, as is the tendency of most pubs. It was a rough looking place but the serene nature smoothed out its apparent crudeness. The bookshelves organized in the back of the building with long rows of general fiction and classics. Over time, the owner of great expectations received enough donations to start both a non-fiction and science fiction section. The books were worn as if either abused or heavily read.
The group consisted of James, a local librarian, Hanah, yet another librarian — who admittedly despised James’s sloppy work yet enjoyed his company — Carlos, a teacher and Grace, a painter. They were all captivated in conversation in Great Expectations. There was also a blank seat among the semi-circle they anticipated Marie would come fill. When Marie arrived, she was greeted with bright eyes, good cheer, and good drinking. The five enjoyed conversation of the intellectual and the absurd. There wasn’t a boring day. This is what inspired the group to spend every day with one another; they challenged each other and debated to reach new perspectives of understanding. For these five who were disparate in expertise were similar in mind, the smallest nuance became the subject of debate. Marie communicated more energetically than the others. She wasn’t always right, but her voice vibrated with passion that no other could attain. In debates she was dynamic, never fiery. She was more like a fine liquor, smooth in the voice and carried undeniable strength.
While Marie engaged her peers and revelled in their presence, tendrils of shadow seeped into Marie’s workshop. It was pitch black and the darkness that crept under the door made it even darker still. The shadows inched minute by minute until they had conquered the entire room, it had created a darkness so complete it seemed capable of devouring light. The workshop was still for a long time. The umbra wanted to linger in the workshop. It was content to haunt the room as it did with homes of insomniacs. As the moon reached its zenith, the vase with lightning scars, the one that would have become Marie’s masterwork, shattered into a hundreds pieces.
Marie returned after midnight and went straight to bed. She wasn’t drunk. She only drank moderately and knew her tolerance of alcohol. She was instead exhausted from the amount of focus she expended. First it was work which required her to keep her mind fixed on a single thought. She had to know every detail and keep it in her mind’s eye as she worked. Then she switched her focus to her friends. Speaking with them was demanding. Everyone had conversational needs, and though she wasn’t obligated to fulfill those needs, she had a compulsion to ensure they had been. This dragged her into many unfamiliar topics like religion and politics, but with a care for words and an ear for listening attentively, she was able to deftly navigate the terrain.
Unable to tell whether she had woken up or if she was finally dreaming, Marie woke up confused. After a series of deep breaths Marie grounded herself. She stumbled out of bed and grabbed the novel The Old Man and the Sea from her nightstand. She had read it several times and loved it for the combination of simplicity and honesty. In her workshop, the vase was still in pieces and there was no trace of evidence to explain why. Marie was too absorbed into the book to check. Each word lead carefully to the next and brought her closer to the defining moment of the novel. She didn’t want to stop but it was nearing time for her to work.
When she opened the workshop door, she immediately flipped the light switch on. The incandescent bulb chased away darkness that lingered from the night before. The vase lay in fragments scattered along the workbench. She rushed to gather the shards of wood as if hurrying would improve the vase’s chance of survival. Looking at the heap, Marie understood the pointlessness of repair; any attempt at gluing the shards back together would leave lines that detract from the thick black ones. She threw away the remains of her art.
She thought of what came next. Marie had other projects. She was a professional and had a list of other commissions waiting. Marie glimpsed at the list and immediately placed it back down. It was daunting. For every commission was a corresponding vision of the project. Without meaning to do so, each project she imagined shattered too. They sundered into pieces smaller than even the vase had. Marie’s attention was drawn back to the vase, its remains settled at the bottom of the trash can. The vase whose destiny was to become a masterwork was reduced to trash fodder. Marie left the workshop discouraged.
Marie lounged around her home. She watched TV and read. These normally satisfied her, yet today she found no solace. There were only pieces of a project she put too much of herself into. She pressed on and tried to enjoy life as normal. She read until she became distracted and took a break when she needed to. Her attention was waning. What was first a break every hour became every half hour, then every ten minutes. She switched on the television. Television directors spun intricate and compelling stories but the storylines now felt pointless. So she slept away her day. She couldn’t escape the daily tradition of Great Expectations.
On habit, Marie got into her car and drove to the pub. Her friends were waiting. When she sat down her friends all gazed. Each of them had a quizzical look painted on their face, like they would simultaneously ask the same question, but the question never came. Marie’s face had deep pits of black around her eyes. Her face was pale. Neither a smile nor a frown graced her face, instead Marie was entirely devoid of emotion. Her friends understood the look and acted normal for her sake. They forced conversation, speaking in unnatural ways about subjects foreign to the group. Marie was physically present, but her mind was tethered to an ethereal plane of anxiety and dread.The conversation slowly became natural as bottles of beer mounted. They didn’t know what she was going through but each had the intuition to allow Marie to solve the problem herself. They were there for morale support, they were shoulders to lean on.
She imagined all the projects she had ever sold drifting forward through time. It would only be a span of a few human lives before her art crumbled into dust, or was simply broke and recycled. She pictured Earth and it too didn’t matter on a long enough timescale. Marie left for home without saying goodbye. When she got home she checked the workshop on last time. She craved another outcome for herself and the project but no divine intervention blessed her. She fell asleep on her couch shortly after.
Dread was the only recognizable feeling as Marie woke up. Still, she needed to go to the workshop. She needed to move on and start the next project. She was equally impelled to leave the workshop and to stay. Marie glanced again at the list projects she had lined up. She couldn’t picture a completed project without it bursting into an ungodly amount of pieces shortly after. Marie considered cancelling with her clients. She didn’t welcome the thought, but it was necessary because she couldn’t work. She felt bitter. Quitting would turn fifteen years of dedication into waste. Working on art that wouldn’t last — work that only had a shelf life slightly longer than her own — seemed equally pointless.
She thought of Mr. Kelly, the old man who commissioned a rocker. The old man was lively. His exuberance would often lead a passerby into an in-depth conversation. In the end, no one had regretted talking to Mr. Kelly. He was able to adapt to a multitude of personalities and even the most introverted could feel comfortable. Mr. Kelly’s rocker broke, “Simply gone worn out on me,” was how he told Marie. Sure, Mr. Kelly could buy another chair, he could even pull one from the kitchen to sit out on his porch. If Mr. Kelly wasn’t particular about his ritual of “rockin’ and talkin’” it would be a non-issue. Rather, Mr. Kelly prefered being cooped up in his house until he got his new rocker hand-built by Marie.
Marie walked slowly to the adjoining shed and chose wood for Mr. Kelly’s chair. She didn’t envision the final product. She didn’t project her hopes into it. There were no expectations from the work nor from herself. She turned her mind outward to her process. She studied the weight of the log as she placed it on the sawhorse, grabbed her draw knife and began slowly. She acknowledged her presence within the work; how the oscillation of her emotions and of her focus molded intricate outcomes. For a moment she thought of those who asked for her art, those who smiled when they received their commission. Basking in that elation, Marie brought her mind back to focus. She worked slowly. She worked mindfully. She worked.