••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
A splinter pushed into the soft tissue of Jacob's finger. He was charged with disposing of the wood, breaking it into small pieces. A wedge was hammered into the beams and after successive concussions the timbers separated into one chunk after another. Most of the scrap was burnt and the tiniest pieces were raked for future kindling.
The authorities wanted the sight cleared, and Jacob had to dispose of every last piece. One piece he picked up and pocketed for good luck, whistling like it was his lucky day. For his aged uncle had gotten him the job.
His finger where the sliver of wood had entered was never the same. The splinter inflamed the sight, brought forth memories that later tormented Jacob. Just like when Jacob was with women he pushed into another dimension, a shaft of darkness sheathed by moist walls that dilated his nostrils and involved all his senses, as if he were drunk on the penetration of wood that closed cleanly, inexplicably, leaving the embedded darkness all to itself.
Jacob soon found himself a simple day laborer cleaning up others' messes, sweeping the ground of every bit of debris, staring into the small fires he'd built as if his finger were not the counterpart of all the burning in the world, the ever-present renewal by purgation. Despite the eye-watering fumes, Jacob cleared the air, so he thought, after each particle disappeared.
The piece that he absently pocketed he didn't think about. The rest he raked in neat piles for tinder, as the shavings swirled on updrafts that finally vanished back into the earth.
For the remainder of the ash Jacob dug a large hole. In fact he loved digging, as the counterpoise to the giddiness of the open sky.
Jacob dug holes for trees to compensate for the wood he cut up. He had planted over fifty trees in the year after; it was a frenzied series of replacements on his small parcel of land. He dreamt of the almond, cedar, oak, pomegranate, olive and fig, as if he were trying to imitate the Creator himself, for the vanity of so much building, like the Tower of Babel reaching all the way to the heavens.
Just breaking ground, digging round holes, squaring, placing the seedling, or root ball, or dwarf tree in the earth, lengthened Jacob's step. Feeling the soil between his fingers, smelling the moist earth as he dropped to his knees, made his arms divining rods insuring the nourishment of what he had planted.
Jacob compensated for all the ignoble purpose wood was put to. He insured for the future, trees that mocked the straightest most utilitarian boards, and he imagined a fruitfulness that would bring a halt for a few growing seasons to the cutting of all the forests of Lebanon, the dustbowl the world was being turned into destroying the mighty cedars. Jacob trusted that mysterious force of nature reaching heavenward with every tree he planted, absorbed as he was in the passing clouds, trying to decipher some hieroglyph of meaning. Jacob felt the trees that he planted were the closest he'd ever get to heaven, their trunks swelling to the topmost extension of their branches.
Jacob himself couldn't explain all the trees in one year. He had used up all his savings. It was as if he alone were cleaning up everyone else's mess. For despite bouts of gross intemperance, he was a capable and studious worker.
Jacob loved wood, the swirl of pine and the smell of cedar. And while the weight of oak burdened his spirit he couldn't help admiring the tree itself, such stunning reach out of a remarkable acorn. Maybe it was the immobility of an oak dresser he had once moved. The beautiful blond wood almost gave him a hernia lifting it up steps to his friend's apartment that he concluded it should remain in the ground to do the soaring itself. He admired the rich grain in cherry from the north, and felt apprehensive of denting the soft pine. He loved too the stains, varnishes, the dizzying euphoric smells of the resins, sawdust even, and the cozy warm curls of honey-colored wood. The supple waviness and dark rings he thought told more than his own life span.
Jacob was now past middle age and content to live alone. He had no immediate family to share the trees that grew like guardians around his house. The silvery underside of the olive trees caught the light like so many coins. Even the blackberries he had tried unsuccessfully to plant grew wild in an astonishing abundance, spiting the stock he had planted.
One day word got out about the splinter still embedded in Jacob's finger, and the night sweats he had. Some claimed Jacob was even having visions. For afterwards his finger was never the same; a private agony seemed to have attached to it quite different than the prick of even a sharp thorn. The embedded black, almost indigo, spot appeared as unthreatening as an isolated dot on the shaved underarm of a woman. The wood had reached down past any jagged surface pretensions and lodged cleanly in Jacob's finger as a kind of permanent reminder. Maybe the wood carried bacterial properties from the rust of nails and that's what made his jaw lock for a time, promoting a disinclination to talk about what he had experienced. Soon hardly a whisper came out, so that Jacob chronicled nothing of what he had done, but earned the suspicion of those around him, and retreated to the muteness of his trees. In fact it could be said that even Jacob himself didn't know exactly what he was hiding.
At night there was a banging in Jacob's head, vaguely jogging a memory that couldn't take the next step without cleaning up. He had visions of giant timbers reduced to shavings, honeyed curls and the radiant smile of a child and the wet noses of lambs, wooden pillars pushed against and collapsing, giant arks, and ceilings that turned blood red with a man reaching through, naked from the waist up, saying he'd give anything for the splinter, for the wood in the glass by the bedside.
"Here!" the torso from the ceiling said and held out a bundle of money that when Jacob reached up the man retracted it grinning, as if to say it wasn't going to be that easy.
"One condition, one condition!" the man repeated. And Jacob was bathed in blood until he woke up and found his bedclothes soaked in his own sweat.
Whenever Jacob drank in the local tavern he maundered about his past, about the splinter still in his finger and fevers that had lasted weeks, then dwindled to a dark spot until every spring it grew inflamed. Most took this as evidence of Jacob's loneliness, having no wife, no family, only a splinter in his index finger, and the piece by his bed, and the trees he had planted, so they laughed and poked endless fun at him. All except for Joseph the Baker. For him Jacob's story was the yeast, a literal rendering whose significance grew with each telling.
The groans Jacob said he heard from the wood conveyed the spikes crushing the cellular tissue for all to see, especially Joseph who watched every morning the rise of dough. The baker knew that like the miracle of bread, history, legend, the stuff of myth surrounds us all the time, if only our instruments are keen enough to detect it.
The axe to cut the timber down, the tools to shape it, the dripping sweat distributing an array of electrolytes, are all picked up when the mind is ready. The cumulative weight of any whole can be extrapolated from a tiny sliver of wood in the finger, reconstructed in its entirety, down to raking up the mess.
The massive cross rested on the shoulder that bore the heft of the wood, defying gravity under one man. The bloodstains, the sweat and tears, the dust gave everyone an unearthly mask of being enshrined in a pantomime for all time.
The wood’s lightness in the glass testified to the wedge driven into the timber, conveying the uncertain significance of this strange cuneiform. Its driftwood lightness testified to the dragging, to how the extraordinary burden on the shoulder of just one man had changed everything.
Jacob imagined the stiffness of his desire going soft and tender once satisfied, and he couldn't reconcile the two except by the shoulder on which this wood had rested with an accumulated weight that was unimaginable to the little man who had cleaned up the mess of an empire.
The baker sensed that middle age can get airy, brittle, the bones hollow, tormented by the power they once had. The will remains, the imagination, Jacob describing the sunlight playing on the glass by his bed, reddening it with tiny prisms of salty vision from the utter oppressiveness of the heat recapitulating the climb.
The baker at his oven saw the bloody indentations from the lashes, the massive wood making the footing treacherous, the rag offered to wipe the face, the spitting and curses hurled, the rotten fruit thrown that stuck to the thorns.
How everything would come to be glamorized he had no idea. The crawling would be forgotten, his abandoning the cross altogether, hiding in a ditch, covering his head, refusing to move, the prodding, his rising reluctantly, having to be forced to take it up again. Then stretched out, held down by so many men, and the spikes, the screams even had seasoned soldiers wincing.
"Heave ho, heavenward," someone mocked, "you're almost there, King of the Jews!"
It was all there in Jacob's dream, in the wood swirling daily like wreaths of blood in a water glass, the sunlight playing tricks on him. And the pain in his finger had him gripping his bed, his brow beaded with sweat, an agitated pulse at his temples. Jacob would squeeze his finger to reproduce the agony up the hill, being nailed and hoisted up for all to see.
The baker, sensing all this on Jacob's face, was lifted like Jacob in the air, outstretched himself.
One night there was a banging at the door, and Jacob awoke startled.
"Who is there?" he called.
"Open up! Open up!" voices demanded.
And Jacob couldn't have thought he was entering the gates of paradise, a dream involving ladder. His wooden bed told him otherwise.
There he was in the tiny house surrounded by so many trees on this small plot of land with what he thought was an insignificant splinter in his finger, despite the suspicions of the baker. The full moon gave no indication of what was to come.
It was the villagers, absent the imaginative baker, who arrived in the dead of night.
What had they come for, what did they want? A passport to the afterlife, indulgences for their sins; did they know all along, or had they just heard Jacob rambling at the tavern, and had finally come to believe him? Anything to enter the gates of heaven.
The villagers broke open the door and fought at the passageway for entrance, surged into Jacob's room, believers, doubters of every stripe, necromancers, those who wanted to gain an edge in the afterlife. They rushed to the small stand by Jacob's bed.
"There it is!" one screamed, overturning the glass, fighting tooth and nail for the gray wood as one smashed the glass against the head of another, and others jumped on Jacob himself beating him down, grabbing at his bedclothes until someone tightly gripped his index finger.
The rest wrestled on the dirt floor for the piece of wood, rolling around in bits of broken glass. The room was soon a wreck, the crude little stand had overturned, Jacob's one chair was broken, the coverings on the windows were torn down. The fighting spilled out into the front yard under the moonlight with the trees Jacob had planted mutely passing judgment on the cursing, spitting, and kicking up of dust, at everyone trying to get that one little piece of wood that grew so abundantly in their trunks, driftwood that the stream of time had deposited in a clutching fist as a passport to heaven. A powerful kick in the groin, to the front teeth, made it change hands any number of times. Soon the wood disappeared but villagers continued their attack, stepping on each others’ faces, noses, kicking eyes that swelled shut losing sight of each other, but still kicking and swinging blindly.
The wood could have been splintered into a hundred pieces had reason prevailed, and not the greed, as they pummeled each other, bit a chunk of nose here, a whole ear there, took a mouthful of soft cheek, the better part of someone's Adam's apple, twisted fingers limp, tore at scrotal sacs till they all lay groaning on the ground with the wood nowhere in sight.
The villagers grew forever suspicious of anyone who afterwards had any good fortune, each thinking the other had secretly reaped benefits from the wood.
Jacob himself lost consciousness and bled to death in his bed where his finger had been so violently removed that no one ever found it either.
© Richard Krause March 2017
richard.krause at kctcs.edu
Richard Krause collection of fiction Studies in Insignificance was published by Livingston Press.
Seventy of of his epigrams have been translated into Italian - see them at aforisticamente.com
He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky
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