Saw, Chisel, and Plane

Note: This is the second story about Kai. Although it should stand alone, you might want to read Bound first.


“For wood, perfection is found through the application of the saw, the chisel, and the plane. Would that it were so simple for the woodworker.” –unknown

Kinav Island
43rd day of Kahata, 471 AC

Kai stiffened at the sharp sound of his name as it was yelled across the shop floor.The rest of the apprentices did as well, but quickly returned to work. In the far corner of the shop, Master Carpenter Ondan was staring out at Kai from across his immense drafting table. Their eyes met and Kai swept up the pile of sawdust that he had chased out into the center of the floor before heading over to where Master Ondan was sitting.

“Sir,” Kai said when he was standing in front of the old man.

“You were staring out the window again, Kai.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you want to be a carpenter?”

“I would not have picked it otherwise,” Kai said.

“Is that so?” Master Ondan paused for effect. “Because when you chose carpenter, it looked as though you were running away from something, not towards it. Or at least that is what Malik said.”

“I don’t know.” Kai had been about to say that he chose his trade, but if Master Ondan had spoken to Instructor Malik, then the port of evasion was already closed to him. He immediately regretted his indecisiveness. How many times had he heard Master Ondan say that ‘I don’t know‘ was just the weak person’s way of saying no? If you were not sure where to cut, you did not cut.

“At least you are being honest. Do you wish to not be a carpenter?”

Kai thought a moment before answering. “No.”

“When you chose, you could have chosen any number of assignments, from laborer to mason to Guard, but instead you spoke ‘carpenter’. Why?”

“I don’t know.” Kai felt the palms of his hands sweating against the broom handle. He had never spoken so long to the Master Carpenter.

“When you have an answer, come talk to me. Until then, you have much to do.” The old man picked up his pen, dipped it in the well, and continued the sketch that was in front of him.

Kai resumed sweeping the shop floor.

----------- Kinav -----------

Kai sat at the far end of the bar, next to the wall, staring at his small bowl of rice mixed with chicken and cheap cider. He had expected to feel better as the talk with Master Ondan receded into memory, but instead the questions that the old man had asked seemed to be growing heavier, increasing their weight on his shoulders. He looked down at his left forearm, at the tattoos inscribed into his skin. They looked like the ones that everyone else received during their binding ceremony, but in Kai’s case, the one that would draw a trickle of his life force into the Battery was fake. He was a freeloader. It hadn’t been his choice, but he hadn’t fought it, either. Now, it looked as though his attempt to find solace in honest work would end in failure as well.

“Kai, right?“ A woman’s voice came from behind him and startled him out of his thoughts.

Kai spun halfway around on the bench, almost knocking  his soup onto the floor, to find one of the other apprentices standing behind him.

“Yes . . . I recognize you, but I don‘t think that we’ve been introduced,“ he said. He scooted over so that there was enough room for her to sit next to him.

“It‘s fine, I wouldn‘t know your name if Master Ondan wasn‘t yelling it all the time.“  She sat next to him and ordered noodles and a beer when the server looked in her direction. “I‘m Alera, by the way.“

Kai didn’t know what to do, so he just continued eating, stealing the occasional sideways glance at the woman sitting next to him. She was pretty, but what caught his attention was the efficiency with which she ate her noodles. Clamping her chopsticks around the middle of a few and quickly spinning the rest of the noodles into a tight ball before popping the entire thing into her mouth.

“Does he treat all the new apprentices like me?” Kai asked

“No. When I joined the crew I spent a fair amount of time sweeping, but he also had me help with the sharpening and I was able to actually start doing things after about a week. How did you get onto the crew, anyway?

“What do you mean? I was just assigned. Isn’t that how it worked for you?”

She stopped eating for a minute and looked directly at him for the first time. “My father runs a mill on Avlane. I was able to get letters of recommendation from one of the master woodworkers that he employs.”

Kai was unsure of how to respond. He had assumed that the Ondan’s workshop was no different from any of the others that peppered the Island. The only reason he would be assigned to such a prestigious shop would be his father intervening on his behalf. He looked down at his left arm, where two Seals, one of them fake, stared back at him.

“I have to go,” he said.

He only made it a few steps into the street before he was jerked to a stop by a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” Alera said. “What’s wrong with you?”

He turned to face her, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be going anywhere until she let him.

“Are you upset about being singled out?” she asked before he could work up an explanation. “Too bad. At least you have a chance of being accepted, even if it takes some time. No matter how hard I work, how many skills I acquire, they will never look at me as anything other than a miller’s daughter from some rural island. Why do you think that I’m not out drinking with the other apprentices?”

She was clearly as alone as he was. Kai allowed her to lead him back into the pub, where her noodles and beer remained, undisturbed.

“Does Master Ondan ever get any nicer?” Kai asked once they were sitting down and he had ordered another beer.

“Don’t think of it terms of nice or mean. Instead, think of him like the wind. He pushes, but there is no malice in it, rather he is just exposing the flaws in your construction, so to speak.”

“So you’re saying that I’m a deeply flawed building, then?”

“No, no that’s not what–” she stopped short when she realized that he was smiling. “Maybe I am.”

“I guess that’s better than being a deeply flawed person, at least a building can be fixed.”

“So tell me, how did you get Ondan’s crew. Are you related to a master carpenter or something?” she asked.

“Not even close, I’ve never held a tool in my life,” he said.

He flinched when it looked like she was about to spray her drink all over him, but she held it in. “Then how did you get in?”

“I didn’t even realize how prestigious Ondan was until you told me. I presume that my father pulled some strings.” Again.

“Hey, it could be worse.”

“I’m not sure about that. Will I have to second guess every bit of good fortune I have for the rest of my life?”

“I don’t know. But your father hasn’t done you any favors, Master Ondan clearly knows what happened and despises you for it. Any respect you get out of him will definitely be earned.”

“What happened to the whole ‘He’s like the wind’ thing?”

“Forget that, the old man hates you.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said.

As he made his way back to the Vaarplikt dorms, he realized that the strange part was that it was true.

----------- Kinav -----------

After talking with Alera, Kai saw the workshop in a more nuanced light. Master Ondan’s criticism was still harsh, but when Kai looked closely at the criticism’s target, he didn’t see fear, rather he saw a combination of curiosity and focus as the master explained why something wouldn’t work or wasn’t quite right. Occasionally he saw shame, too, when someone had made a mistake, but he also noticed that the master didn’t seem to get angry, but simply pointed it out.

Ondan didn’t say a word to him the entire morning, and Kai kept to his sweeping, watching the others as they worked. When it came time for them to leave for the day, he saw groups of apprentices splintering off to share a meal, and just as she had said, Alera was left alone, as much of an outsider as himself. She cleaned her saws and chisels, rolling them up in their canvas cases, and fiddled with her planes before putting them away. When she was finished, she looked at him and smiled, and they made their way out of the shop.

“Without Master Ondan yelling at you, I could almost forget that you were there,” she said.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? You were right about him, he is sort of like the wind.”

She looked at him like he was an insect under glass. “Of course I was right. I’m always right,” she said. After an awkward pause, they laughed together.

“Kai!”

The two of them both looked up at the source of the shout, and Kai saw Rafi standing beside the workshop’s entrance, they had passed right by her.

“Rafi, it’s been a while,” he said after hugging her.  In truth it had only been a couple of weeks since she had left the dorms to live on her own, but after seeing her every day for most of his life, the short span felt much longer. “How are things with the apiarist?”

“Great. I was thinking maybe we could have dinner or something, but if you’re busy . . .”

“Of course not, come on,“ he said.

Kai had been worried about how Rafi would react to Alera, but they had seemed to hit it off. Still, the meal had been stressful. He had watched Rafi for any sign of jealousy, disappointment, anything, but if she had felt any of those things, he had missed it. When it had finally ended, he had fled, pleading errands.

Back at the Vaarplikt barracks, he sat for a few minutes on his bunk, relieved to once again be invisible. A few minutes was all that he could take, however, and shortly after getting back he found himself looking in ernest for real errands. He found none, so he went out.

It was nice out, sunny with breeze, and he walked down the hill and towards the merchant‘s district. Even if he had little money, he could at least look. His feet carried him to a hardware store, and as he looked through the window, he felt his spirit being torn in two. In front of him was a selection of woodworking tools from the basic saws to strange devices with mysterious purposes. Even if he could not work wood at the shop, there was nothing to keep him from doing it in his spare time. But even the cheapest of the tools cost more than three month‘s stipend. He saw the shop owner looking at him suspiciously and moved on.

Three months was an impossibly long time. There had to be a better way. He wandered through the rest of the market, but everything else had lost its luster. He came up with a dozen plans, and rejected each one in turn. He had no skills. Plenty of knowledge, but no skills. Again he headed to the barracks.

He looked at his small bag of coins, which had been slowly eaten away by food, clothing, and other necessities. At the bottom of his chest was the outfit that he had worn on the day of his Binding, a brown and white sarong and green shirt. He pulled it out and looked at it. The fabric was smoother and softer against his fingers than anything he could afford, far too delicate for the workshop.

Something came free in his mind. Two ideas that had been joined together to form the illusion of one were broken apart, split along the grain. His fine clothes were his last remaining link to his childhood, to his father, and he had clung to them not for that connection, but rather as a proxy for dignity. Station and dignity. He would have to forgo one in pursuit of the other.

Minutes later he was back at the market, searching for someone who would buy his fine clothes.

----------- Kinav -----------

At work the next day, Kai‘s hands hurt from the effort of shaping wood with his new secondhand tools. Even with the money he got from his clothes, he had only been able to afford two saws and a single small chisel, but it had been enough to turn a piece of wood that he had dug out of the shop‘s scrap pile late the previous evening into a breadboard.
As he made his circuitous route of sweeping, Kai lingered near the workspaces, attempting to glean the truth of what the other apprentices were doing through observation.

The first thing that he noticed was that although the tools had the same form as the ones he had purchased, the signs of deferred maintenance were absent. The working surfaces were clean, as he had expected, but so too were the other exposed surfaces. In some ways, he suspected that his tools might be superior. The wood on the apprentices was still fresh and a little rough, not yet worn by use and polished by the oils of the hands.

As much as he wanted to watch Alera work, he worried that she might see what he was doing. Just because it was apparent to everyone how little he knew, there was no need to illuminate the fact.

The day passed quickly, and by the end of it, Kai’s head was filled with ideas from watching the other apprentices work. He was so eager to get back to his tools that he didn’t hear Alera approaching as he left the shop for the day.

“I see that you’ve taken an interest in woodworking,“ she said. In response to his look of surprise, she added, “I saw you watching the others work as you swept.“

“If I‘m going to stick around, I might as well learn what I can,“ he said.

“Well if you want, you can come over to my flat and you can use my tools.“

“That would be good,“ Kai managed, cringing at the awkward words. “When should I come over?“

“How about now?“

“Now?“ It was a surprise, but he would be damned if he let the opportunity slip by. “Sure.“

They made small talk until they arrived at her flat, only a couple of blocks away. She lived on the bottom floor of one of the buildings that perched on the side of the hill. It wasn‘t the cheapest, but she said that not having to worry too much about the noise she made while working on projects was worth it.

The flat consisted of a single room only slightly larger than Kai‘s room at his parents‘ house had been, but after living in the Vaarplikt barracks the flat‘s privacy made it seem twice the size. There was a small stove offset between the kitchen area and the center of the flat, and one wall had a row of high-set windows, partially obscured by the shelves of potted plants which were attempting to monopolize the incoming light. The other end of the room was dominated by a large workbench that looked like it wouldn’t fit through the door.

The living area was disturbingly neat, with nearly everything packed onto shelves and into chests and boxes, all of which appeared to be hand made. While Kai had been absorbed by his environment, Alera had rummaged around in the kitchen.

“I thought I had more to eat, but it looks like we‘ll have to make do with a seaweed salad and some salted fish.“

They were both hungry, and ate in near silence. When the food was gone and the workbench was cleared, Alera immediately began to take out tools and wood. She placed tools on the bench: two saws, three chisels, a small plane, and various pieces of measuring and marking equipment. Kai had a cursory understanding of everything except for the two saws, which he could not tell apart until he picked them both up and examined the teeth, side by side.

“The one with the simple teeth is for making rip cuts, with the grain. The other one is for cutting across the grain.“ Alera was standing directly behind Kai as she spoke, and Kai felt a bit nervous, like she was judging him.

She took out a few small pieces of wood and laid them on the bench in front of Kai, who picked them up and turned them over in his hands. He hadn’t noticed, but she had shelves along most of the walls that held long pieces of wood. Each piece had a note written on it, but Kai was too far away to read them. She saw him looking at the lumber and explained.

“The wood has to be seasoned, which basically means drying it out. If you use green wood, it will shrink after a while and ruin whatever you built with it.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kai said. He returned his attention back to the wood in front of him. Confronted with the array of possibilities presented by the raw wood, all of the ideas that had occurred in the shop had fled him. “What should I make?”

“How about a bench hook?”

“Sure . . .” He had no idea what she was talking about.

It must have been clear on his face because she handed him a piece of wood. “Like this.”

It was simply a wide piece of wood with a couple of dowels sticking through one end and lip on the other. The dowels fit into holes drilled into the workbench’s surface, forming a sort of raised platform with a rail sticking up on one side.

“You can hold wood steady against it as you saw,” she said.

“Brilliant,” Kai said. He had wished he had something to do exactly that when he had been trying to cut straight lines on his breadboard the night before.

“Look closely at that and see if you can’t make one for yourself.”

“Sounds good,” he said, and she took out another bench hook and began laying out measurements on the pieces of wood that she had taken out for herself.

Over the course of the next few hours, Kai managed to reproduce a rough version of Alera’s bench hook, or what he preferred to think of as the bench hook’s distant cousin. The it didn’t fit quite as tightly together as hers, and the edges were rougher, but Kai didn’t mind.

“Nice work,” Alera said. In front of her was a finished box that matched the ones in the kitchen. The two of them cleaned up, or rather, Kai assembled everything into piles and handed them to Alera to put away. Every once and a while her hand would brush against his, and it felt like a cool breeze on a hot day, sending a little shiver through him. By the time they were finished, it was dark outside.

“You can stay the night if you want,” she said.

“That would be nice,” he said. She laid out her bed and then a small guest cushion. She offered him the more comfortable bed, but he couldn’t take it in good conscience. They sat around the small stove in the middle of the room and talked until well after midnight, by his guess. He was asleep moments after laying down.

----------- Kinav -----------

It was a good thing that Kai didn‘t have to work the next day, he didn‘t wake up until the sun was already well above the horizon. The cushion that he had slept on was thin on the hard floor, but it wasn’t any worse than the his bed at the barracks. And the surroundings were better.

“Do you want anything?“ Alera asked. She was standing by the door holding a kettle that she had apparently just filled.

“Thanks but no, I need to go meet Rafi,“ he said.

He couldn‘t tell if it was just wishful thinking on his part, but she looked disappointed. He wanted to stay, but he had promised Rafi that he would meet her, so he started towards the barracks, where they had agreed to meet. The sun was already an eighth of the way to its zenith, Rafi would be getting up soon. He broke into a jog.

Rafi wasn’t anywhere to be found. After circling the Vaarplikt campus several times, he gave up and went to his barracks. He could go back to Alera’s, but he already felt bad enough about missing his meeting with Rafi, and going back would only make it worse.

He couldn’t sit for long without his mind returning to woodworking, and soon he was off again to the market to buy some paper to sketch out his ideas.

----------- Kinav -----------

When the two of them reached the workshop, Alera flashed Kai a brief smile of encouragement and Kai walked over to the broom rack. The days had gotten better since he had met Alera, but even so he wasn’t sure how long he could take the drudgery of doing nothing but cleaning up after the other apprentices. The shop was working on a curved arch to decorate the main street heading out of the harbor district, and since there wasn’t much to sweep yet he paused to look at the wooden patters stacked up against one of the walls.

“Kai.”

The voice that came from behind him belonged without doubt to Master Ondan, and it was all Kai could do to keep from cringing. It was time. He was going to be kicked out of the shop.

“Yes, Master Ondan?” Kai responded, turning around.

“Is there a problem with the patterns?” The old man’s expression was unreadable, and Kai hoped that the note of annoyance that he heard in his voice was just his imagination.

“No, I was just thinking about how difficult it must be to judge the shrinking of the wood as it ages.” It was the first thing that came to mind and de hoped that he didn’t sound like a complete idiot.

“Very difficult. It is not something that can be done by thinking, it must be known.”

Kai’s heart leapt as he realized that Master Ondan might not be kicking him out. He didn’t bother to ask about the apparent contradiction between thinking and knowing, didn’t say anything at all in fear of breaking his apparent run of good luck.

“I have been watching you,” Ondan said. “You used to be like a mouse, always running this way and that, simply trying to stay out of the way. Now you are more like a kingfisher, watching ever so carefully as those around you work.”

Confused, Kai began to apologize, but was waved to silence.

“Apparently we were both wrong about you. You do desire to become a woodworker. And although I fear that the other apprentices will not like having to clean up after themselves again, you can consider yourself one of us now. Before you start working with the wood, you have much to learn, and so you will begin by sharpening all of the tools.” Ondan reached out and squeezed Kai’s shoulder, looking like a proud parent. The look swept away any thought that his father might be involved in Kai’s acceptance into the shop’s hierarchy.

“Thank you, Master Ondan,” Kai said. From across the shop he could see Alera beaming at him.

“Now we have to see if we can’t grind that enthusiasm out of you.” Ondan said and waved in the direction of the wall that was covered with tools. Spare saws, chisels, and planes for when the apprentices had need, but also unusual tools that were only used on occasion.

For the first time since his Binding, Kai forgot about the false tattoo on his forearm.


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This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.


Notes: This was a strange story for me. Following Kai as he started to build himself after his decision at the end of Bound wasn’t too bad, but I had never really written much in the way of romantic relationships. I didn’t want it to be the main focus of the story, but at the same time I didn’t want it to seem unimportant or without reason. In that sense, this whole project has been fantastic, as it has allowed me to work on all sorts of different stories, which was one of my original goals.