Sunday, December 7, 2008
Village Carpenter by Edward Henry Potthast
Julia placed the glass of lemonade on the corner of the bench. He stopped working only long enough to flash a quick wink and smile. She didn’t linger for she knew her husband well. The distraction of chatting while working was counterproductive, particularly on a project as special as this.
Beads of sweat gathered in the creases of his brow. Their idle threat became real as the stream of perspiration reached the corner of his eye. With a heavy sigh Gerald Lyons laid down his mallet and chisel. He brushed at the front of his apron and with the aid of his good eye located a relatively dust free spot. Now was the perfect time to enjoy the glass of lemonade, while he could still scoop the layer of oak chips that floated on the surface.
He watched her thin form disappear behind the door of the shack, much thinner than when they had married. The wages of a carpenter were scant and he regretted that as much as anything, but she never failed to smile even when the groaning of her stomach threatened to drown out her small voice. Gerald was born into poverty, but for Julia this existence was chosen.
Julia Rothchild had come from money and privilege. Being the sole heir to untold fortunes she could have had any man in the village she desired. Her parents made no attempt to disguise their disdain for her poor selection; a village carpenter. Horace Rothchild III agreed to the union, but under terms that would benefit him. The marriage would be allowed only if his daughter signed paperwork stating she surrendered all financial ties to the family, including the forfeiture of a dowry.
Gerald cared nothing about the dowry, but in good conscience could not ask Julia to make such a permanent and unwise decision for her future. He quickly rescinded his offer for her hand and made himself scarce. Yet such a woman of strength and commitment would not be so easily deterred.
“Father, would you have your threat of financial ruin control the decision in my heart? A carpenter is not worthy in your eyes, but was Jesus himself not a carpenter? Make no mistake, I am prepared to give up all that I know to become Julia-Rothchild-Lyons. I shall much prefer to die a pauper with a song in my heart, than a princess upon a throne having lived a life of regret.”
With that she promptly signed the papers and left the ballroom never to return.
Some in the village believed Julia suffered from a fever and the women on the street often told her so, but she responded quickly as if she knew their words.
“Just as Gerald can glance at a standing tree and envision a finished product, I have the same gift for people. You should search the world over and if you find a man with half the heart of mine, claim him as your own. His passion is rarer than diamonds and his love of humanity more precious than gold.”
Gerald sat the glass down and returned to his work. He remained unconvinced. Although her words of praise were crafted from conviction beyond his comprehension, he could not deny their power. In her presence he became more than a man whittling at wood. She saw potential in him than he could not imagine for himself.
Julia arrived back at the shop as he finished wiping down the wood.
“Is it complete?” She asked.
With a wide smile he said “It is done.”
The walk to their destination passed within viewing distance of her parent’s home. He watched carefully her reactions, but she only kicked at a stone in the path.
“My Julia, do you ever wish to go back in time, where a life of excess filled the voids of poverty? At this very moment your father’s servants are preparing a feast and I offer you only bread crumbs.”
“Despite the great many room in my father’s house he could not find space for his own daughter and thus that house will never be a home to me. For now he chooses to remain blind rather than see the full extent of his wickedness.”
The sun sank low in the sky as they knocked upon the door for which they came. The small shack belonged to a downtrodden woman and three starving children. She and the two older boys did their best to maintain the crops, but the labors of the field more suited a man. A farming accident had claimed her husband and as the horses careened out of control one of the plow’s shears found the youngest boy’s ankle. A crude severing of his right foot left him lame. Gerald knew of hardship, but not of this magnitude.
In her hunched back Libby Childress carried a heavy burden. Lines of worry etched themselves prematurely in her face, but stubbornly she found her feet more times than the world had knocked her down. By example she taught her boys all that she could. It only seemed right that someone lend a hand in providing the things she could not.
Julia removed two large loaves of bread from beneath a towel and a dozen small eggs. The aroma of fresh bread brought the youngest hopping to the table. Gerald knelt on the dirt floor so that he might speak to the boy.
“Sir William, you are adapting well to your misfortune. You come from fine stock, but even in your youth surely you must know this.”
William’s eyes were fixed on the steaming loaves that sat just beyond his reach. Gerald placed his hand on his head and ruffled his dark hair before standing.
“Momma, may I please have a slab of bread?”
“I should think you might give a word of thanks before you go nibbling at them like a mouse without manners, young man.”
Young William promptly folded his miniature hands and bowed his head. Although tiny his sincere words filled the small space.
“Thankee Lord for this fine smellin’ bread and Mr. and Mrs. Lyons that brung me—eer us I should say, these vittles.”
Libby tore off a corner and William hopped away smiling. She turned towards the visitors and stood as straight as her back would allow.
“I too must thank you for your charity.”
Gerald quickly took exception to her remark.
“No Libby, do not mistake this for charity. Do you recall the harsh winter following your husband’s death? Julia and I would have frozen to death, had you not allowed me to fall the large oak tree on your property. We were able to spare a small portion of the trunk.”
Gerald moved to the door and reached just beyond the threshold to retrieve his work.
Libby’s eyes clouded and she was moved to tears. She ran her fingers along the edge and moved closer to the fire that she might read the inscription. She cradled the two small oak crutches in her arms as if they represented such hope as a newborn babe.
Her trembling voice read aloud so that all might here.
“One glorious day we shall all be made whole; the blind should see and the lame shall walk.”
So goes the story that my grandfather told me when I sat upon his knee. As for the existence of such a village and carpenter I have no proof. True or purely myth makes no difference. It is a story for all generations and as a tribute to my deceased grandfather I will wrap it up with his very predictable but profound words.
“Kindness will come full circle, but also shall evil. Examine the contents of your own hearts and choose your paths wisely.”