By: Richard Stickann
The heartwood. Intense black. Enigmatic. Symbol of power of the ancient kings. Fruit of the gods. Antidote to evil for the ancients. Exotic. Beautiful.
The wood rubbed smooth against his fingers. It was a dense, richly textured hunk of ebony rising nobly from the floor and ending just above his knees. The top sloped severely as if cut in haste. For decades it filled a murky corner of the basement. When curiosity got the best of him, Ben, and before him his father, marched down the stairs to probe for its meaning, pulling it to different places in the room, under fluorescent light or in shadow, studying it as an artist dissects the intricacies of an unfinished sculpture.
Ben’s eyes fixated on it while his hand searched for answers, his fingers rummaging through its crevices, exploring its twists and curves, seeking out its purpose his father had told him years ago would emerge someday. It had intrigued him for decades the same way it had absorbed his father for decades before. Ben’s father always stressed it would be heard when the time was right. “It will tell you,” he had solemnly said many times to his young son. “When it is the right time and when your life is in the right place, it will speak to you.” And with every assurance he smiled faintly and walked up the stairs. Ben always held back, following his father’s shadow into the dark stairway and then turning back to the wood, shaking his head and whispering to himself, “What is he talking about?”
Ben’s father was a master carpenter. He started out building houses on Long Island before Ben was born. At midlife he shifted from general carpentry to specialties like cabinets and furniture. His notoriety and demand for his talent increased as his skill matured. He and his wife bought a brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in 1966 and he converted the basement into a workshop. It wasn’t long after Ben arrived in the world that the father introduced the son to carpentry and infused in him the same commitment to perfection. “You are obligated,” he habitually reminded Ben each time he brought him to the workshop, “to do the best, make the best, to the extreme.” He had said it so often, Ben knew it and lived it better than the Ten Commandments his mother drilled into him every Sunday morning.
Soon after, Ben took up a hammer for the first time, and his relationship with the wood began. During those years standing over the block of ebony, the father regularly repeated those words to the son. “It will speak to you one day.”
Ben’s father died five years ago and since that time, Ben’s mother fought with her grief. His two sisters married with two children each. And he…. he had labored through too many relationships to count any as valid, and while commiserating with the ebony wood, he counted too many times when he had hoped the wood would talk to him and tell him…. What? Tell him what? It had never spoken to his father, why should it ever speak to him? Perhaps his father’s life was never in the right place; perhaps neither was his.
His grief over his father’s death never seemed as intense as what his mother had displayed. He was never certain why, but he didn’t pursue the matter deeply enough to discover an answer. Their relationship was sometimes tenuous. And though it never kept him awake at night, he thought about it often. It was at those times he turned to the wood for an answer, not really knowing what it was supposed to say. If it was to speak to him, he wished it would happen soon.
It was during those periods of pain and loss he met Lucinda. He hated clichés but he told his mother she was the girl of his dreams. His mother understood, but if he ever told his friends how at the age of thirty he had met his soul mate, the mockery would have been unbearable. But she was. And soon, with some trepidation, he introduced her to the wood.
“Such an intense history. So irritating it won’t speak,” he said as they stood in the basement. Lucinda removed her hand from the wood. “Huh?” she said. He had acted so oddly after he picked her up earlier in the evening. Dinner at what had become their favorite restaurant just three blocks from his mother’s home. His excitement at some piece of wood he wanted to show her. Something about how it talked or hadn’t talked, how he didn’t know what it said or what it might say, or what it should say, or something on that order. She was very confused by the time he paid the check and she didn’t know if she wanted to, as he said, “meet the wood.” He didn’t say much during the short walk to his mother’s brownstone. And then, what had been a euphoria at the restaurant appeared to be a deep disappointment as they stared at the chunk of ebony.
“It’s dark,” she offered.
“Ebony,” he said.
“Um.” She kept her comments terse, afraid to make any mention of the wood talking. Perhaps it had said something and that was why he displayed the disappointment. Or maybe he was silent because it was still talking. She didn’t know and she began to worry she had missed something months ago when they first met.
Lucinda took a chance. “Ben, about the talking, “she began meekly, not wanting to overstep any boundaries between them that might still exist.
“I know it sounds crazy.”
She nodded but he didn’t notice.
“It belonged to my father.” He rubbed it gently. “He kind of willed it to me a few years before he died. He had it for a long time, decades. When he gave it to me, he told me it someday would tell me what should be done with it.”
“It would talk to you,” she clarified, finally understanding what he meant.
“It never talked to your father in all those years he had it?”
“No.” He touched the wood one more time. “It may talk someday. It may never talk. It may talk to my son should I ever have one.” Staring solemnly at the ebony, he wished for something that may never happen; she wondered what it might say if and when it does speak to him.
She rose up on her toes and kissed his cheek. “It will, someday,” she said.
She grabbed his arm as they made their way upstairs. He turned back to the wood. He listened and he smiled. Yes, it will, he thought. His muscles relaxed, his mood recovered, a great deal better than when they had descended to the basement. He glanced at Lucinda. Yes, it will.
He laid the plane on the workbench and studied his progress. Over the years he had thought at times the wood had said something to him, but each time the words were vague and the sentences incomplete. Nevertheless, he prepared the workshop each time but suddenly felt insufficient, in some way flawed by the woods inability to fully communicate. The first effort was a cabinet never begun because he was not sure if it was what the wood wanted. Then he planned a chessboard with the ebony the black squares and the Norway maple he had stashed away under the stairs used for the white.
He had heard it the last time he visited. Not at first, but after Lucinda had soothed his hurt feelings. He had thought it was just a false impression triggered by his deep desire for the wood to speak. An illusion that had beleaguered two men over one lifetime and a good portion of another. But the last time he and Lucinda had left the basement after he introduced her to the wood, he knew what he had heard was real, a genuine message giving him a task he was more than willing to take on. He took up his tools and continued working.
What he saw in the wood took shape. A month later it was finished and he brought Lucinda back to the basement. She was apprehensive, doubtful the wood would speak this time, if it would ever say anything. Their talks about the wood always made her uneasy knowing how much Ben craved its pronouncement, but also aware how depressed he got when it didn’t make one.
He led her down the stairs, promising to turn on the light when they got to the bottom. He had set up a table just a few feet from the stairs. On it was his creation. She tightly grasped his arm, unsettled by this latest attempt to face the wood. What did he have in mind? A new approach? An attempt to find a new translation for a language he had been unable to understand for so long?
When they reached the basement, he flipped the light switch. Her eyes went straight to the corner where the ebony rested. But it was not the same. The chunk of wood had been altered, only half the size of what had sat there the last time she visited.
Ben saw where her eyes were directed. He grasped her shoulders and turned her slightly. “Here,” he said, and pointed to the table.
She sent Ben a look of confusion with squinted eyes and tight lips. He knew that look, so he took her arm and led her to the table, picked up the box and handed it to her. It was heavy, as it should be made from ebony. The size of a… what could she compare it to? She studied it carefully. Like the musical jewelry box her parents had given her for Christmas when she was ten. It was maple, she recalled. This one, all ebony except for the small inserts of rock maple at each corner. The same maple with which Ben’s father had made the table that still sits in the dining room of the brownstone.
“Open it,” he said.
She laid it on the table and pulled off the lid. Inside was a tray, also of maple. Nestled inside the tray a ring, simple, yet as presented, very overpowering, a ring of carbon fiber with a core of maple.
And then he asked Lucinda to marry him. She said yes.
She thought the basement light flickered when she responded to his question. She was sure her heart flickered. She pulled the ring from its nest and handed it to Ben. He slipped it on her finger. The wood had spoken, and as they hugged, she tried to determine when, though it mattered little now, just so it had spoken and said something worthwhile.