The Knife Maker


The knife maker didn’t start out with a perfect knife.  He was a keeper of birds and at that time there were birds that came to be known as “jays” which were kept for their feathers-more blue than ocean or sky, weightless as the web of a spider, tough as lichen on a rock and the rock hosting the lichen.   Even the shade whispered in awe at their brightness, blinked at their sharp cutting tails that flashed like blades of blue glacier ice at the bird’s whim.  The knife maker gathered the feathers from the birds’ pens for the fashion industry of the day and took them to the long paths of women who nimbly knit them together with the sinew of stringy ducks’ legs, making long gowns of iridescent blue, indescribable blue-gowns bartered away by the knife maker’s mountain people with shore peoples who traded shells with sharpened edges for the dresses.    The sharpened shells made breakable scrapers and weapons that shattered in the hand and the knife maker, keeper of birds, watching the feathered tails of the jays in their shaded pens, watching the shade flinch at the sharpness and shape of those tails, picked up a hard stone and began shaping it with another, honing away the lichens and honing the sides into the sharpness, if not the color, of the jays’ tails. 


After mountain knives were perfected, feather dresses weren’t needed for barter and jays were freed from their high-netted pens to scatter the skies over valley and shore. There were no shore people left, no one to wear the blue gowns once the knife-maker perfected his craft. The jays began squawking. They have squawked ever since.

It is said that when the knife maker puts away his hard shaping stone that the jays will warble arias of great beauty. In September of the year two thousand and eight, this has not happened to date.


[After W.S. Merwin, “The Broken,” The Book of Fables]


A Ghosty Tale — Accidents and Meetings

When Interstate 5 replaced Highway 99, business life faded along a two-mile stretch running into and out of Snidely, California. Andre’s House of Beauty, Snidely Hardware and Feed, Kiki’s Stop ‘n Go, Adam’s First Rib Steak House—to name a few. A handful of these, Andre’s, for instance, reopened in the MegaMartSuper strip mall. The extra miles, less than six, were hardly a minor inconvenience to most; after all, these weren’t horse and buggy days; people did have cars.

“Beauty is moveable,” Andre would say during comb-outs, then cluck his tongue, tsk-tsk, for those less fortunate trades people “Unable,” as Andre would put it, “to bridge the gap, so to speak.”

Of a nature sensitive to the emotions of others, no tongue-clucking was heard when Kiki’s head leaned into his shampoo bowl. There were no casual sighs as to how decrepitly ramshackle and forlorn the Stop ‘n Go had become, nor mention of any boarded up buildings left behind.

Instead, Andre might ask after her dogs, “Paul and Mary? How are they these days? They must miss Peter. A shame, that.”

He might ask after other things, too, but stayed clear of the “old” days.

Serendipitous happenings occur—of this, Andre was certain, and would be for eons after his death. Take, for example, the accident. Any Wednesday at 9 a.m. would find Kiki in Andre’s chair, her head relaxed back into the retro robin’s egg blue shampoo bowl, his long-fingered hands massaging, coaxing conditioners in for body and bounce.

But Mary had been poorly on Wednesday morning; Kiki had taken her to the vet and postponed until Thursday at four.


Precisely the hour when a FedEx semi came through the back wall, moving Andre’s interior House of Beauty on through to the parking lot. MegaMartSuper shoppers glanced across acres of parking toward the mishap, then moved on with their business, as if wind at a window had rustled blind slats to draw momentary attention.

It’s not so bad back out on Old 99. No danger from big rigs, and that’s a plus. Rick, the dead waiter at Adam’s First Rib, had a crush on Andre from before, and the crush had not died when his auto immune system failed. Kiki, Rick’s older sister, always promised she’d bring Andre around to visit, albeit they all had pulses then, but . . . you take what you can get; that’s what Rick’s always says.

They wag their heads and cluck about how things might’ve gone, but never complain—not truly.

I watch them from the loading dock at Snidely Hardware and Feed, a fifty-pound sack of oats loaded now for a horse and the child who once fed her, a filly named Star who cantered in a pasture not too far up the road. It’s quite something . . . I shake my head everyday, half disbelieving . . . how the old neighborhood keeps gradually filling back in.

If Only I Hadn’t

If only I hadn’t been looking for sea glass that Thursday on that beach, I wouldn’t have spotted what looked like a discolored tongue.  The beach was Pete’s Beach and for a Thursday the weather was Sunday good—maybe better.  Not an ominous crow in the sky or a gull in sight as I walked where the tide’s foam lip had just slipped back from licking forward, where the sand was tight and wet.  Even though it’s a walk out of distant memory, nearly a quarter century back, I still see the occasional small barnacled crab scrabbling across my path from one trail of seaweed to a stone or another clump of wrinkled, leathery flags.  The beach was littered with many such clumps, a few broken shells, a fair amount of scattered small stones—but no sea glass, or so it had seemed. Then one of those crabs, hardly the size of a quarter, bits of red showing through the craterlike growths on its shell, darted diagonally across the sand.  The sideways scrabble took the crab over the tongue-shaped rock, directing my search for sea glass right to it, the same way that old bouncing ball in Mitch Miller’s Sing-Along Hours moved the eyes of viewer’s right along to the next word of the song.  The crab jittered its sideways scurry straight to the gray-mottled-with-red, or red-mottled-with-gray surface of the beach debris.  It was shiny somehow, and frosty dull at the same time, and had that peculiar shape that reminded me of a tongue.  I had no choice but to pick it up.

            But the it I picked up wasn’t sea glass anymore than it was stone.  The it I picked up was a tongue.  An odd wedge of discoloration and deflated bloat that once was muscle and now was a grotesque, hardening mush.  Why it glistened in the Thursday sun like reddish sea glass—I do not know.  I can barely record these words.

            That Thursday that seemed Sunday good, that day when I put the tongue back on the tight, wet sand—has never let me go.  I was a programmer then and the walk on Pete’s Beach was a walk to free up the angst of numbers scurrying like crabs from one formulation to the next inside my weedy thinking.  I worked for a multi-national company with thousands, not hundreds, but thousands of other employees waiting for the tricks that would make their workdays possible.  Won’t even mention those employees’ end clients and what might or might not result from some glitch I made if my numbers were wrong—my programming numbers.  This was not a good time for a tongue turned or turning to mush in my hand on a beach in southern California.  I was from Des Moines.  Sea glass would’ve been magical to take home—but not a decomposing human tongue.  I put the tongue back where I’d found it.  The crab was gone.  And then I was gone, too.

            I was gone from that beach on that day.  I was back with my programming numbers.  I was back in Des Moines by week’s end.  The crows are plentiful in Des Moines, always communicating what I had done on Pete’s Beach.  The sky was full of what I’d done, or failed to do.  The sky was the only witness other than the small quarter-sized crab.  Sometimes the little crab is there in my dreams to be plucked time and again by the crows and swallowed down in a gulp.  But he comes back like that god, Prometheus—the one who stole fire to give it to man and got chained by Zeus to a rock somewhere for a bird to pick out his gut.  He comes back like Dionysus.  And like Jesus.

            If only I hadn’t been looking for sea glass, I might have a chance at redemption.  At resurrection, too.

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