Gods of Wood and Stone
Each morning in the black before the Otsego Lake dawn, Horace Mueller took his hands out from under the “Odd Feller” quilt Sally’s mother made them as a wedding gift twenty-some years before. The cold air felt like ice on a bruise. Horace was not a religious man, not in the church-kneeling way. But there in the dark he prayed silently to calm the turbulence in his head. “Thank you, God, for letting me wake another day, whether it brings sorrow or joy. And continue to guide me, Lord, to who I am, and what I stand for.”
He would lie still and recite those words until he felt a presence; a warm visit in his chest that always made him think of glowing embers of a dying fire suddenly fueled by a gust of fresh air, rekindling. It was God, partnering in his existence, urging him to take on another day.
And then Horace went to work on his hands. He did manual labor, and they hurt, every morning, in some way. Sometimes it was arthritic grating of the knuckles. Sometimes it was nerve numbness burning his palms. Either way, he had to work them back to use. He flexed and extended them, stretching tendons and ligaments, feeling metacarpal bones rise and fall beneath his skin. He bent his fingers back, pulling the skin on callused palms. He cracked each knuckle; the small ones made a snapping sound like twigs underfoot, the fist knuckles made a deeper crack, like bat on ball.
Then it was time to get up and throw an armful of logs into the woodstove. This was Horace’s winter ritual: the dawn warming of his drafty farmhouse, circa 1910. It was a headfirst dive into a frigid lake.
On this morning, after a few minutes of hand yawning, Horace put them back under the blanket. The pattern of muslin patches rose and fell as he moved his hands—an invading army under the cloak of darkness—until they found their target: the bunched-up hem of
Sally’s nightshirt gathered just below her behind. He went under it, then approached the waistband of her flannel pajama bottoms, deftly as he could. He knew his touch was rough; cracked calluses irritated her skin, soft as when they met at Cornell. Horace tried to file them down with an emery board, but it only scuffed the hardened skin, creating little needles that scratched Sally like cat claws. He tried to soften his hands with Sally’s moisturizing cream, but it only left his skin plump and vulnerable to the next day’s labor; a failed marriage of a woman’s lotion and a workingman’s hands.
Horace pressed into her, sliding the nightshirt up over the guitar curve of her hip, trying to draw her warmth. He listened as the frigid lake winds leaked through the weathered clapboard siding; the kind of dry cold that sucked moisture out of wood, making the coals in the wood-burning stove burn hotter and faster. He had to get up and get the fire going. But first . . . He arched his back like a waking lion, pushing himself into the humid crevice of Sally’s underside. Sally stirred, and backed into Horace with a slight twitch, the faint promise of intimacy. Somewhere, somewhere in her sleep, she remembers, Horace thought. He cupped her butt and pushed forward, leading with his erection, which parted her thighs and ran the full width of her flesh. He reached around her and grabbed the head, and nestled it against the silky fabric of her panties.
Back in college, Horace’s favorite time was the heavy-lidded mornings, when Sally woke him with a tug, or her lips. She would fall into him, with that skinny little body. Thin, but strong, the kind of woman that never falls out of shape. Horace would sink into her tenderness. Once there, he tried to lessen his weight. He held himself off Sally the best he could, staying up on his elbows. She would rise up to him, and accept him into her body.
After he became the blacksmith, things changed. He tried to keep his rough fingers off her skin, caressing her head and hair, using just his mouth on her breasts, shoulders, neck, face, and ears, unaware his beard irritated her. Sometimes weeks went by. After Michael was born
weeks became months, months became half years. Colicky as a baby, and needing Mommy’s middle-of-the-night comfort as a toddler, Michael was between them so much Horace nicknamed him “the human chastity belt.” He was almost five when she finally removed him from their bed. But then Sally was afraid their noises, heard through the thin walls of the farmhouse, would wake him. She had a harder and harder time relaxing, and Horace had a harder and harder time convincing her it was all right. And now that she was working out four times a week at a fitness club, well, it reminded Horace of the old saying about boxers who stale by fight time. “They left it in the gym.”
So now, on this cold January morning, Horace moved into her . . . if only to prove he was ready.
“Don’t, Horace,” she said when his prodding woke her. “It’s too early. And cold. I’m always cold. Did you stoke the fire yet?”
“I wish to God we’d put more real heat in this house. It gets colder every year.”
“I wish to God you’d let me warm you up,” Horace wanted to say, but instead squeezed himself out from underneath the covers to not let more cold air in. On quickly went the flannel shirt, long johns, and Wigwams he kept piled on the frayed rush twine chair next to the bed. He tiptoed down the hall barely wide enough to contain his shoulders. The wide-plank floors cried under his weight. He reloaded the stove from the small indoor stack, the wood bone dry, warm and ready to burn, and then went out the back door, to get more from the porch cord. The outside air was nature’s cold shower; it shrank his nuts and killed his erection. It was no use to him, anyway. The hard, splintery edges of the split logs dug into his skin and brought new pain to his hands. Just once, he wished his son, now fourteen, would get his lazy ass out of bed and do this. The kid had no problem getting up for early practices in whatever sports season it was. But chores? Or old-fashioned work? Forget it.
Horace stoked the fire, and it spat a few embers onto the floor,
which Horace snuffed with his feet. He shut the furnace door and stood, warming his hands, admiring his piece of cast-iron Americana. He found it a couple of summers ago, at an estate sale in a Cooperstown Victorian that was being converted to a B&B. It was rusting away in the garage, junked long ago when oil heat was put in. Horace saw it as a restoration project for Michael and himself. They’d move it home, strip off rust, sand metal back to silver bone, then black-coat it back to good use. But it was baseball season then, and Michael was too busy practicing or playing. After school. Weekends. Always.
So Horace did it alone, like most things these days. He pivoted it from the garage, moving leg by leg, then tilted it into the back of his old Ford Escort wagon. The 489 pounds of cast iron pancaked the car’s rear suspension, which creaked and cursed all the way home. It was backbreaking, for car and man. The whole time he was busting his nuts, he cursed Sally for not making Michael help. Mikey had a Legion Ball practice, then Babe Ruth practice. God forbid he miss.
“What’s more important? Helping his father on the rare day he really needs it, or going to yet another of a million sports practices,” Horace argued.
“What’s more important to him, is the question,” Sally said. “Not what’s more important to you.”
That was always the question, and the answer enforced by Sally bitterly defined Horace’s fatherhood.
Horace stood in the dark, the room lit only by fire glow peeking through the furnace grates. He warmed and flexed his blacksmith’s hands, the palm lines indelibly darkened with the dirty gray stains of bituminous coal. Coal shoveled into the hearth, ash shoveled out, just part of a strongman’s work; wielding hammers and pressing bellows and stacking pig iron. His was a lost, ancient craft, with roots older than written history and tools invented in the smoky dawn of civilization. He was an authentic blacksmith, and had the aches to prove it. But he was also an actor, “a living historian” as they said down at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, and an educator. The smithy was first stop
on the re-created-village tour. Sparks flew and hammers rang as Horace forged a new horseshoe for groups of scouts, senior citizens, or kids on class trips and delivered this soliloquy.
The blacksmith is a living reminder of a day when strength and function were inseparable; whenever and wherever God’s great beasts were domesticated to do heavy work, the blacksmith was the man who kept them pulling, and in the process, forged himself into a beast of a man.
From the discovery of flint and coke and iron, the blacksmith was the strongman who understood earth’s metals and minerals, who carried the world forward on his broad shoulders. He was the first to understand the abundance of these God-given gifts in the earth, the first metallurgist, the first maker of weapons, the father of heavy industry, the grandfather of all technology. From the horseshoe to the iron-banded wagon wheel, it was the blacksmith who helped push mankind’s transportation forward. From the ancient Hittite blacksmiths came Damascus steel, and the ’smith became the swordsmith and, then, the gunsmith. The blacksmith is ancient, but he endured, because he is the epitome of self-reliance. And here, at the Farmers’ Museum, you will see the self-reliant family farm, the self-reliant rural village, the self-reliant America, the one of work and prayer. One that should not be forgotten.
He delivered this with theatrical enthusiasm, reveling in his role of eccentric throwback. He was the star of the village. Anyone could dress up and play chicken farmer, milkmaid, or preacher, or run the apothecary or general store, but Horace put on a show. He made flames leap, like magic, from lumps of black coal, then played in that fire with gloved or bare hands. Horace, the giant, the circus strongman, clanged his heavy tools off red-hot metal with delight. With his dark hair long, his face perpetually tanned and leathered by the constant heat of the forge, Horace saw himself as a mythic figure, the revered subject of Longfellow’s ode, an American working strongman like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. He was hardened from the years of wielding heavy
tools. At forty-five, with shoulders broad, chest and abdomen firm, arms and legs thick and sculpted, he had never felt physically stronger. The smith, a mighty man is he. He could snap a quarter-inch strand of pig iron over his knee, walk a 500-pound anvil across his shop floor, and work an easy eight hours chopping wood or banging out steel. He moved the Glenwood by himself and had to replace two porch stairs at home that splintered under the weight of him and stove. And yet all that muscle could not beat back the encroaching despair that his family, his country, and all the things he wanted to think true were slipping away. So he prayed for purpose, and fought the good fight.
Horace Mueller’s hands weren’t always black. He had a double master’s in history and rural sociology from the ag school at Cornell, but the degree certificates were merely paper extensions of what he learned at home. His grandfather was the last of the New York State hops farmers, and his father tried running an Empire apple orchard, but eventually went to work in tool-and-die for a Syracuse company that made intricate locking mechanisms for bank safes. Competition from Asia drove the company to the brink, saved only by defense contracts. But hatch molds for Navy ships did not require the art of tool-and-die, and Horace’s father was let go, into early retirement. Now here was Horace, the next chapter in a family narrative of changing American economy: rural to industrial to information, though Horace was proud he delivered his the old-fashioned way, not through the Internet. Face to face. Americans should know where they came from, he sang out to visitors over the ringing echo of hammers. And know how to grow their own food and make their own goods. Self-sufficiency is a lost art, but you never know when we’ll have to go back, he said with wry humor. Not with these days of killer storms and tidal floods, and a financial industry that could come crashing down at any moment, like some hollowed-out, termite-infested oak. Cash could dry up. Food distribution could come to a halt. Then what?
NOW HORACE LET THE HEAT from the stove all but scorch his hands and melt the stiffness. This was the most peaceful moment of his day, and his own excuse for not making Michael get up. Alone, with the glow, in a silent room still dark but now warm. He pulled up a chair and sat, his feet stretched toward the stove, and closed his eyes. This was the life he wanted: simple, with quiet time to pause and reflect. Contemplate. Dream. Be in touch with his spirit, not run from it. He took a few deep breaths, letting his chest expand with air touched by a hint of smoke.
The abrupt sound of the TV from Michael’s bedroom killed it. All the years Sally muzzled their sex and now he was over there, TV cranked loud enough to drown out a Roman orgy. It was the morning all-sports highlight show, high-pitched, high-drama, high-volume.
Horace walked away from the fire and down the cold bare floor to Michael’s room.
“Michael, hey,” he said, knocking gently on the door.
“Michael, hey, Mikey,” he said louder a few seconds later. “Mikey, lower that thing.”
“COME IN,” Michael yelled.
In one step through the doorjamb, he entered the world he’d wanted to escape.
The covers were up to Michael’s chin. Only the arm holding the remote was exposed, aimed at his entertainment center with the high-def, flat-screen TV and DVD player, his laptop, and a tangle of phone chargers and iPod earplugs, or whatever they call them. There was the Xbox and Wii, and the gadgets and guns to play them. All of which necessitated a 220-volt line being wired into the house to replace the 110, a few years back. Horace protested the excess, from an intellectual and environmental standpoint, but Sally gave Michael his way. And here, Horace saw, in his own family, the latest chapter of economy: diversion. Disconnection from self and earth through the chronic, electronic connection to entertainment and sports, sometimes disguised as “communication.” On Michael’s walls were posters of his favorite
athletes, captured in some moment of glory. Modern pagan gods, Horace always thought, as he looked around the room.
Michael’s shelves held more trophies than books, by far. Every season, every sport, memorialized in stick-on wood veneer, faux marble, and gold-plated-plastic baseball, football, and basketball players. Michael was a good player, and some larger trophies were for more than run-of-the-mill participation. He made all-star teams and travel teams and went to off-season camps. Horace wanted nothing to do with it; it was Sally’s thing. When Horace questioned the expense, Sally said they could afford it, but he knew a sucker’s game when he saw it. All these private coaches and clinics were a new industry, a modern twist on the old baby-model scams inflicted on the parents of the Baby Boom. Now, instead of dangling Gerber commercials, they dangled college scholarships for sports. And parents paid for the long shot, because everybody thinks their kid is something special.
“Dad, what up?” Michael said, not taking his eyes off the TV.
“Could you turn it down? Your mom is still sleeping.”
Michael lowered the TV.
“Want to get up and help me bring in some wood?”
“Nah . . .”
“It’s good exercise . . . it’ll put some meat on them bones,” Horace said, hating his own placating tone, and meek attempt at humor.
“Nah, Dad . . . that’s okay.”
“C’mon. Help out your old man.’’ Horace reached down and shook his covered toe.
“Dad, no. It’s too f’en cold.”
Horace let it drop. He stood for a few seconds, frozen by colliding emotions, watching Michael watch the TV. Part of Horace boiled up to want to force the issue. But part of him was deflated. He wanted a boy who wanted to help—to be with—his dad. Michael was no longer that boy.
“So how’s school going?” Horace finally just asked.
“You know, all right,” Michael said.
“What are they teaching you these days?” Horace said.
“You know, the usual,” Michael said.
On the TV, in dated blurry color, was a baseball player, clearly from the early 1990s with his longish hair and tight polyester uniform. He was trotting down the first-base line pumping his fist in the air, as his teammates ran out of the dugout, jumping up and down like little boys.
The announcer was all but hyperventilating, . . . and who can forget this HISTORIC shot . . . tenth inning . . . Game Six, World Series. Joe Grewww jacks one. GET OUT OF TOWN! Red Sox Nation goes WILD . . . Joe Grewww directing “Bedlam in Beantown” with the fist pump . . . an IMMORTAL moment . . . Of course, the Sox lost the Series, but what the hey, Joe Grudeck’s going into the Shrine . . .
Historic shot, immortal moment. A home run in a baseball game, for Christ sakes, and they’re making it sound like the Surrender at Appomattox, Horace thought. The hyperbole in this day and age was getting increasingly meaningless. The Shrine . . . a baseball museum. He was about to say so, when Michael disarmed him.
“Hey, Dad, you remember that guy, Joe Grudeck?”
“Yeah, a little,” Horace said, suddenly thankful his son had initiated any conversation at all. “I was never big into sports, but I remember him a little. I guess he’s an old-timer now. Like me.”