In the old days news traveled quite slowly. Even if something amazing happened, it still took a long time for people to hear about it. So although something extraordinary had certainly happened in this little town at the edge of a great forest, the first strange person didn’t show up asking about it until nearly winter.
By then Pino had worked as an apprentice alongside his papa for nearly six weeks. It had been long enough that he’d started to forget all about his old terrible life. It had been long enough that he’d started to feel like nothing bad would ever happen to him again.
The knock came as he was learning how to sharpen the rasps, watching the master wood-carver swipe the stone across the blades with swift confidence. This made a sound that was quite loud and unpleasant, so they did not hear the knocking until the person was pounding hard on the door, startling them both.
The wood-carver handed Pino a rasp and told him to try—they were making a table—then wiped the dust and sweat off his face with a dirty rag and went to the door.
With the weather having only recently turned toward fall, they’d just begun to use the stove, keeping all the windows in the workshop shuttered after the sun went down to trap in the heat. If not, they would have seen the man coming, and Pino probably would have gotten a good look at him instead of only hearing his voice.
His papa opened the door, the man said hello, and then the wood-carver stepped into the night. Crisp air snaked into the room, sending goose bumps crawling up Pino’s arms. The door was left partially open, but from Pino’s vantage point he could not see either of them.
They spoke in low, murmuring voices, and because Pino was afraid to stop sharpening for fear his papa would be angry, he could not make out what they were saying. But there was something quite odd about the man’s voice.
He sounded terribly sad, just as his papa used to sound before the change.
A few minutes later his papa returned. Without a word he shut the door and returned to his stool next to Pino, his head low, his curly white hair shading his eyes. The lantern on the hook above them cast long shadows throughout the workshop. His papa picked up another rasp from the table and set to work.
“Who was it, Papa?” Pino asked.
“Oh, just a man from the neighboring village.”
“What did he want?”
The wood-carver focused on his work, sharpening, not looking at Pino.
“To make something,” his papa said gruffly.
The wood-carver sighed impatiently and looked at Pino with a stern expression. Then, as if he was reconsidering what he was about to say, his eyes softened and he reached out and tousled the boy’s hair. “Doesn’t matter, Pino. It’s something I can’t make.”
Pino had not been with the wood-carver long, but he found that comment very strange. As far as he knew, there was nothing his papa could not make out of wood.
He could make anything.
Anything at all.
* * *
It wasn’t until the second strange person came calling that Pino began to get some idea of what they wanted. He and his papa were at the well, drawing a bucket of water for dinner, when they heard a mournful sound coming from the other side of the blackberry bushes—a terrible moaning that made the hairs on the back of Pino’s neck rise.
Dusk had fallen, the sky was slipping into lavender, and a cold wind shriveled the leaves.
“Who’s there?” his papa said. “Show yourself.”
The moaning stopped. His house and workshop resided at the distant edge of the village, and so there was no one close by to help if the person in the bushes wished them harm. Pino seized his papa’s rough hand. He did not know what he would do without his papa. It was too terrible to even imagine.
“Come now,” his papa said, “we know you’re there. Don’t make me get my pistol.”
Finally the bushes stirred. Out rolled a slender person in a brown cloak spotted and blotched with blackberries. The face came up, and Pino saw that it was a young blond woman, hardly more than a girl, but her face was so twisted and contorted in strange ways that she looked much older.
In the fading light Pino could not see her well, but he could still tell that she had been crying. Her cheeks glistened like the dew-coated bark of an oak.
“Signore Geppetto,” she said. “Signore Geppetto, you must bring back my husband.”
“He—he was a good man. A sailor. There was an accident—he fell overboard. I miss him so terribly much.”
Geppetto bowed his head. “I’m very sorry for your loss. Now, if you’ll excuse us—”
“It wasn’t supposed to be! It wasn’t his time!”
“Yes, I’m sorry. These things happen. Now, it is getting late and my boy has not had his supper.” He turned away.
“I—I know what you’ve told everyone, signore,” the woman said. “I know you said it can’t be done again. But can’t you try? I will pay you whatever you want.”
Geppetto headed back to the house, tugging Pino along. He gripped Pino’s hand so tightly that it caused Pino pain, but Pino was too afraid to complain. The woman’s face—he had never seen anything like it, so grotesque were her features. It reminded him of his bedside candle when it was burned nearly to the bottom, what remained of the wax all misshapen and lumpy.
They hadn’t gone far when the woman caught up to them, grasping Geppetto’s hand.
“Please,” she said.
“Let go,” Geppetto said.
“Please. I’ll—I’ll do anything.”
“Let me go!” Geppetto cried.
There was a brief tussle, Geppetto managed to free himself, and then Pino and his papa fled into the house. Geppetto was sobbing, and that was almost as horrible as seeing the woman’s face. Pino could not remember ever seeing his papa cry in such a way.
The woman cursed and screamed and kicked at the door. Pino was very afraid. She stayed for a long time, but eventually they heard her walk away. Pino would never forget the last thing she said, a shout from far down the road.
“We want what you have, Signore Geppetto!” she cried. “We just want what you have!”