Chair #3

Makomo sat in the shade of the big tree and waited for the boys to arrive. The ground had been swept clean and his tools sharpened, and although the joints in his hands felt very stiff he knew that the best remedy for the pain was work. And there would be plenty of that soon enough.

He had been given the honor of carving Oba’s ceremonial throne. All the men in his family had been woodcarvers. His older brother had once made beautiful carvings, but he had given that up to take a job selling shoes in Douala. That had been forty years ago. Makomo had hoped to have a son to apprentice, but that did not happen and now it was much too late to begin teaching anyone. He would be the last.

II

It had been two years since he’d felled the tree he would use, two years since he’d made the half day’s journey to the grove. He had been there many times in his life, beginning when he was a boy strong enough to carry his father’s axe. They had always made the journey on foot, and he had continued to do it that way ever since, even after the bus service had started, which could have taken him at least to the crossroads and saved him several hours. He was glad to make it on foot, for he felt it sharpened his senses, gave him time to clear his mind and calm himself.

He had started out just before sunrise. He walked alone, carrying only his axe and a jug of water and was glad that he did not meet anyone along the way. He took that as a good omen, a sign that the path had been cleared for him and that the orishas were in favor of his commission. There was no higher honor for a craftsman, even though the seat would only be brought out once a year, remaining unseen and unused the rest of the time. He did not like the idea of it spending so much time hidden away. He did not like to think of the carvings being so alone. He comforted himself by thinking how happy they would be on that one special day and of how much more they would be appreciated.

He had reached the grove just after mid day. He was not overly tired and it had not been too hot, but he nonetheless waited to begin his search. There was no hurry. It could take days to find the right tree. A few extra minutes wouldn’t change anything. Besides, there were rules to follow.

Squatting down at the edge of the grove, he had offered a prayer. His father taught him to do this. “Ask permission to enter,” he had said. “Don’t just go barging in like you own the place. Let them know exactly why you want to come in. And don’t try to hide anything, otherwise they’ll think you have no confidence in your skills.”

Makomo wandered slowly among the trees, enjoying the cool of the shade and patterns of dappled light. Whenever he paused long enough to place his hands on a particular tree, he’d become instantly overwhelmed by the silence of the place. Not a rustle among the dry leaves beneath his feet, nor a creak from the branches over his head. This he also took as a good omen, for only the gods could cause such a hush.

On the third day he’d found the tree. It was not one he could remember having seen before, even though it was in a part of the grove he had walked through many times. It was no bigger than the other trees around. It’s shade was just as generous, its bark just as smooth.  Outwardly, there was nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. And yet it was unmistakable. Some trees were just more alive than others. It was the same with people. Who can tell why the gods prefer one over another. He supposed they were entitled to have their biases, just like everyone else.

As he walked around the tree, images had begun to appear in his mind. Faces mostly. Some of them women and some of them men. A few of them animals. All of them possessed of great character. And the faces had kept coming, one after another, winding round and round up the base of the tree. He knew instinctively what sorts of bodies they had based on the expressions they wore, whether they were hunters or healers, basket weavers or storytellers. He had never seen so many faces in a single tree before.

That night, lying on his side at the foot of the tree, he had dreamed a great mouth opened up in its trunk and that he had gone inside and found many people there waiting for him. They stood in a wide circle around an empty fire pit and many of them were swaying with the cold and some of them he could hear moaning. And so he had set about building a fire.

The ground was littered with wood, and he quickly realized that they were all bits of carvings he had done. Every piece he gathered told a story about his journey as a woodcarver. “Ah, yes! This was the first,” he said, picking up a small piece that was polished smooth with years of fondling. It vaguely resembled a mouse. He then heard his father’s voice: “Find what is waiting in the wood,” it said. “Find it clearly in your mind. See your hand working the knife, gradually removing the wood to reveal an eye or a claw. Do not try to be fast like me. I am fast because I have already made the carving in my mind, many times over, and so I do not need to hesitate.” Makomo was reluctant to add his mouse to the fire, which had come suddenly to life and glowed faintly in the hearth. But the orishas were still cold and shivering and, besides, he had no bag to put it in, nor any pockets, so he dropped it into the flames and watched as it turned quickly to ashes. Gazing up, he saw the faces emerging from the darkness, saw their skin begin to glow and their eyes shine. He searched for more fuel to put on the fire but now there was only the wood from the handles of his tools: the mallet and the rasps, the chisels and the adze, his father’s axe. These he could not bring himself to put into the fire, and so the flames grew weaker and weaker until once again it was dark and cold and the faces began to moan. Just then Makomo heard the mouth of the tree begin to close and became afraid that he would be trapped, and so he had grabbed his father’s axe and fled, waking from his dream just as the tree slammed shut.

Makomo had felled the tree that following morning. His axe was sharp and the wood had yielded willingly to his every blow. The weather remained cool well into the afternoon and the air had felt very fresh in his lungs. There had been a breeze in the treetops, which Mokomo took as a good omen because it blew in the same direction he had wanted the tree to fall.

Eventually, the tree had begun to sway, and for an instant Makomo felt as though it were in fact standing still while the rest of the world was swinging upwards towards the sky. The sensation was so strong that he had had to lean on his axe to keep from falling. It was then he had realized that this would be his last big carving.

III

The boys arrived just before mid day, towing the heavy trunk behind a Brahma cow, a long cloud of dust rising into the air behind them. He had been very diligent in preparing the ground. Not a pebble or a leaf or single chip of wood could be found anywhere. His tools gleamed. It was important to begin work in this way. In his mind he saw the faces, faces he had carved over and over again since felling the tree. “I have made the carvings in my mind, Babu”, he said, as though his father were there with him again. “I will not need to hesitate.” Makomo felt ready to begin.

~ by calebnrogers on January 22, 2021.

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