Wood at Work

I made myself a table. Days passed in the work, and at first the pine was rough upon my hands. Then it was hard to tell, and now my hands are the harder of the two. I snuffed up the motes of dust and blew woodsnot into a rag. I polished that grain until it glowed, and the job was done at last on Christmas Eve. I fetched that table into my room as if it were a guest. I was scared to use it, and keen.

Of course the wood would warp and turn as it settled in place. Cracks emerged, and my finely measured legs fell slack in their sockets. It’s still a table, but now it has become a compromise between my work and its own dumb will. If I listen carefully, I can hear it flexing like the boring jaws of a grub. Now and then the joints will click to relieve the pain of some pent-up contortion; gaps which I sealed have opened with a small and crescent grin. Three years have passed since I killed this branch and milled it. Now with tweaks and tiny flinches, my work is undoing itself. After all that we have been through together, I wonder if this limb means to leave me; if it is being called away by the memory of a past life and the years before it died and was dried.

And before it goes, the boards will yawn and strain around their new form; they must get to know the shape I’ve made them – the ignorant lines I’ve driven across grains and the flex of a million tiny strings still turning together like weeds in the burn. And I begin to wonder if I am really alone as I sit at this table and it strains for the door.

When I was a child, a ghost would come into my bedroom. I could hear it. The furniture would cringe and the floorboards slacked in panic at the knotholes. The room frowned around me in the darkness and the ghost would pass through as it chose, making traitors of familiar things. I described the wooden groans to my mother and she explained that everything is moving all the time. If things couldn’t creak from time to time, they’d fall down. I wasn’t scared of the ghost after that, because I had a bigger puzzle to unpick.

Last night I walked across the yard in the hours before the snow came. The stars were hard apart and the half moon glared for the rising cloud. There is never silence in this place, and always some bleep or guzzle of birds in the darkness. And as the temperature fell, the sheds curled upon themselves like woodlice. The rafters clacked and the slates rippled; eggs burst in the coops and the spicket strained in its belt and moaned.

With a thin sound like twisting plastic, the mud grew upon itself as the ice proved and the turf rose up and away from the stones below it. Deep cold, and a baking, bicarbonised expansion. When they sell diesel, it’s measured by volume at a standardised temperature. A greedy man might ask an agent to value his land at a moment like this, when it shows to biggest advantage. A thaw may come at any moment, and he could stand to lose acres in shrinkage.

Out on the hill, the haggs sagged and the rocks cracked with the powerful swell of frozen water. The scree will come slacker in the wake of a night like this; the clints will drop their boulders like castaway teeth; the sap burst and the burns heal, and it seems like everything creaks as it moves, but it takes a night like this to grab your attention. Dead wood curls back upon itself like a stricken adder, and it’s hard to imagine that until you’ve tried to carve it straight. And it’s awful to find that we lack the most fundamental calibrations of feeling; we are blind to the world as it grows and shrinks upon itself like heat through a pan of porridge. Those trees were taller this morning and the rushes sank to the sunset; phloem swells and the roots respond to the tide-rise and the falling star.

I made myself a table. The work is done and the echoes are deafening.

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