The Wooden Boy
– Look, this is going to be a kind of a tribute, to someone so play along, ok?
– Eh, a tribute?
– Yes, well, just play along, will you? For once?
– Sorry, what is it about?
– I’m sorry but it’s been done to death.
– Yeah, but-, will you please just try to be supportive?
– Yes, I’m just trying to help you not disappoint.
– Can I just tell the story?
– I wish you would.
So, Maple Leave Emil has grown up. He never married and never had any kids and one day he’s sitting in his garage, carving figurines, like he’s always done and that’s when it hits him.
– I’m sorry, are you going to start the story with the word “So?”
– What do you want? Once upon a time?
– That’s a bit old fashioned, isn’t it?
– What would please you? What’s a modern way of starting a story?
– I don’t know, describe something unimportant?
Emil never remembered his father shouting or yelling at him. He did remember being locked up in the shed, but it was his haven, his hideout, it was where he carved his figurines. It wasn’t a bad place, but a good one. A quiet place away from the rest of the family, away from the noise of the world that constantly haunted him.
– So, is this the Astrid Lindgren character? Emil?
– NO! Good god, will you just listen?
What he did remember was listening to his parents at night, when they thought the children were asleep. Quietly arguing about their existence. His father wishing them all away, wishing he’d never had children at all. And so, he promised himself not to make the same mistake. He promised himself never to make his father’s mistake and so each time a relationship became serious, each time the women he was with started talking about children, he bolted as fast and as far as he could.
At last, he found himself at the end of the earth, alone in a cottage, carving wooden figurines with the knife the farmhand had given him when he was a boy. He remembered the man as jolly, especially with wine and he often drank, but when he gave Emil the knife he was down on his knees, and he looked deep into Emil’s eyes and told him that there was a bit of magic in the knife and that it was up to him to find that magic.
As a child Emil had been certain that the true magic of the knife was simply that he was allowed to develop his talent. He could carve figurines so lifelike it was astounding. He knew he was good at it, but he also knew that it was the only thing he really could do well. He was a failure at everything else, and so through most of his life he felt it was a good thing that he never had children.
In the cabin at the end of the world however, things slowly changed. Maybe it was dementia, maybe it was old age and loneliness getting to him, or maybe, just maybe it was the magic of the knife. Each morning he woke up and walked to the creek. He liked to keep things simple. The business of the city wasn’t his thing, nor did he like the mental clutter that came with modern comfort. He liked it simple, and though he had running water in the house he walked down to the creek to get water for his morning coffee. That way it wasn’t the coffee that woke him up, but the morning sun, or the cool autumn breeze. He liked his life that way. But then one morning he stood on the bank of the creek with his cap in his hand and the kettle in the other and he glared up at the clouds and a memory of gazing up at the sky with his little sister came to him and he suddenly wished, with all his heart, that he had a little child to whisper his secrets to.
It came over him like melancholia, the certainty that he never wanted children had been so large in his heart, so giant, that it filled the empty space there with things like-,
– Is this going to be a long story? It seems like you haven’t gotten anywhere. Besides, isn’t this prejudiced against people who don’t want children for real? You’re allowed to not want kids, you know?
– Do you want to hear this story or not? I can tell it to someone else.
– No, I want to hear it. Go on. Sorry.
– If you have somewhere to be, I can stop.
– NO. You’re doing great, continue.
As he stood on the bank of the nameless creek at the end of the world, Emil decided he had to do something to fix this. He needed a child, someone to care for, someone to teach the things he knew. Someone who could inherit the knife. Someone to talk to.
Now, a regular person might just have gone back into the world to find some people to hang out with. There are millions of kids all over the world that need a grandpa to take care of them, play with them, but Emil wasn’t a regular guy. Never had been. He cursed himself for not defying his father sooner and swore by everything holy, which was mainly the kettle in his hand, the knife and his cap, that he would somehow get a child of his own. Teach it all he could, and make sure it was well kept for the rest of its life.
He started carving that very evening. It was a big trunk, bigger than he ever used, and the work seemed to do itself, he just sat, reminiscing about old times, his hands working quicker, with more agility, than they had in a long time. He carved all night and when he was finished, he was so tired he didn’t know what he was doing. He fell into bed with the magic of words on his lips and when he woke up the next day the thing, he had carved, was alive.
He called it a boy, though it wasn’t really. Emil knew this, but he was so happy to have a living creature, a magical creature, in his care, that he didn’t mind the oddities. He didn’t mind that it seemed somewhat peculiar, this little life. Somewhat stupid, but children are stupid, he told himself, that was exactly why his father had been furious all the time. Children did stupid things, all the time. But he swore to himself that he would be patient, and that he would teach the thing, the little boy, to live and be good.
He named the boy, and the boy seemed to catch up. He followed the old man out to the creek, to get water in the morning and he learned to put on his own clothes. His movements were stale and clumsy at first, but like all children he became fast and smooth as he grew, and he learned how to behave.
They had some difficulties, but the boy soon learned manners. He learned right from wrong, mostly. He learned how to read and write, and they had adventures together, and later they would talk about it. This went on until the day Emil lay down to die. He was proud of himself, he had been frustrated but he had kept his calm, never treated the boy the way his father had treated him. He had taught him math, he had taught him to eat right, and he had taught him that keeping his calm was important.
When Emil lay ill, he was sure that the boy would fit perfectly in the world. That no one would even recognize him for what he was, everyone would be certain he was a real human boy, a real human being and not a piece of wood. The boy took care of his father as he lay on his death bed. He did everything a boy should. He talked well of his father, he fed him, made sure he had everything he needed and when Emil died, he buried him by the creek.
Emil had realized in his old age that the knife was a dangerous tool and instead of leaving it with the boy he wanted it buried with him. Maybe it was a selfish wish, but he thought it best. The boy didn’t honor the old man’s dying wish, however. Instead of burying Emil with the carving knife he kept it. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Nothing was ever really a conscious decision for him. The knife simply slid down his pocket, instead of being placed in the old man’s chest.
The boy had learned to carve from his father, not because the old man had really taught him, but because he had seen him do it. The boy built, and carved, a chest for his father. It was made of the finest wood he could find, and he was sure the old man would rest peacefully in it. And then the boy went into the world, the words of his father gnawing at him at every turn. “Be a good boy,” that was important. “Do the right thing,” that was also important. “You are what you eat,” he’d often said by the dinner table while putting tomatoes on his plate. It had been a strange thing, eating food for the first time, but he had learned the habit. He didn’t want to be a tomato though. “Fake it till you make it,” his father had said, laughing. These were good words of encouragement, and so the boy got a job in a factory. He went to work, like a good human being, every morning. He didn’t make waves, and then he went home to an empty house.
He sometimes missed his father, but he had friends. He went to the pub, drank beer and tried to ignore the people who called him strange or odd. His friends never called him odd, but when his wallet ran dry, they went home. It took him a long time to realize that maybe they weren’t real friends and suddenly he started to doubt that his father had been right all along. He started to doubt his own humanity and he tried desperately to remember the lessons his father had taught him.
Be nice, polite, talk to people, do a good job, drink coffee, you are what you eat, you are what you eat, you are what you eat. That sentence started to haunt him. You are what you eat, the old man hadn’t said it often, but occasionally, always with a gleeful smile on his face, except the boy didn’t recognize the words for what they were, and he didn’t have his father around anymore to ask him questions. Though the boy sometimes talked to him, his father didn’t give him any answers anymore. He was just a phantom, uncarved piece of wood on the mantelpiece, a theoretical presence for a lonely boy who had never received anything but theoretical lessons.
So, he started experimenting with his humanity. He stuck needles in his leg at one point and was disappointed when he didn’t feel any pain. When he stuck needles in other people’s legs they screamed. He ran marathons and was disappointed when he never got tired. Other people slept the entire night, even fainted from fatigue if they were kept up too long, but he never slept. He had thought sleeping was something old people did, and he’d kept to his room at night. He never slept, never wept, never felt what other people felt.
– So, this was a bit of a transformation?
– What do you mean?
– I mean, from old Emil to this doll that doesn’t know what’s what?
– Is it too much? Should I make the transition easier, longer?
– Maybe a little, I don’t know. This isn’t my story. Go on.
The boy that was no boy started blaming his father for leaving him, for abandoning him, thinking that he had taught him how to be a boy when he hadn’t at all. The boy knew nothing, and so when he had tried being patient, and good and polite and nice for so long he couldn’t take it anymore he started trying new things. He started with the baker. He was a jolly fellow with such a talent for making everything taste delicious and so he figured he’d be jolly and talented. Then he went to the baker’s daughter. She was beautiful and he found he desired her, desired to be her, to be in her body and not his own. And that had to be a sensationally human thing to feel? But it didn’t really seem to help.
So, one last Hail Mary, before he turned to other ideas he found a boy. He didn’t know how old the boy was, but he figured he was probably around the age he had been when he woke up in his father’s cabin at the end of the world. The boy was blue eyed and fair skinned, soft and vulnerable, just the way he wanted to be.
He was perfect.
And so, he took the boy home to the cabin, and he figured he would prepare him just right, make sure the ingredients were correct and that he used the right method. He wasn’t a good cook, but the very real, little boy was knowledgeable and showed him how to fill the pot with water and how to put salt in the water and how to cook potatoes to go with whatever he was serving, or pasta, pasta was always good too and he taught him how to cook vegetables and even how to make sauce.
The real, little boy was happy, he laughed and was merry and he told him that he didn’t have any mom or dad. The boy, who was not a boy anymore, knew this, it had been the main reason he had chosen this particular boy but when the tears started falling and the real, little boy gave him a warm hug something broke inside of him. He didn’t cook him that day, or the next. Instead, he started telling him stories of his father, Emil. The little boy listened with interest and fierce adoration. He wanted to know how to carve, and he wanted to learn how to cloud gaze and it was up to Emil jr., a name the real, little boy gave him haphazardly and quickly, to teach him.
The boy, who had been a doll all his life, decided not to cook the little boy. Instead, he kept him, taught him and found himself enjoying the moments more with every day. He felt soft, and he was no longer lonely. The little boy came with joy that he hadn’t felt since his father was alive and so he raised the little boy as his own. Though he never told him, “You are what you eat”. The notion had become nauseating. The end.
– That’s your ending? Happily ever after?
– Yes. Isn’t that what stories are all about? Happy endings?
– I don’t know, I was expecting something more.
– Like what?
– Well, something juicier.
– Juicier? Something like-,
When the sauce was ready, and the carrots cooked the boy, who was no longer a boy, took the real, little boy and placed him on the kitchen counter. He took his father’s carving knife, a knife that had only been used on wood and that had given him life and he cut into the boy’s heart, making sure the little boy wouldn’t feel any pain. And then he placed the heart in the boiling water and waited for an hour.
He ate dinner that evening alone, saving the rest of the boy for later. When he got up the morning after he no longer felt stiff in his limbs, and he no longer felt lonely. He even felt a little tired. So, in the evening he cooked more of the boy, and so he repeated the process for many nights until he one morning woke up, having eaten all of the little boy. He felt like a new man. He felt like a real man. He felt cold and he felt fragile, and he hurt when he stuck a needle in his leg, it hurt a lot. He went to work, and he connected with a colleague over a cup of coffee, and they laughed at something he couldn’t remember what was when he got home.
“You are what you eat,” his father had so often said, but now he remembered that face as well. That little smile, indicating something special and he remembered the little boy, and his blue eyes, and his little smile and he remembered the light touch of his fingers and the way he had taught him to cut the carrots and cook the water, or pour the salt. His little hand in his big, hard hand.
He went back to the end of the world that day and he sat down by his father’s grave by the creek, and he cried. He cried until there were no more tears in him, and then he fell asleep lying on the grave of the dead man who had almost managed to teach him how to be a real human boy. And when he woke up the next morning, he dug up the grave, and he put the knife in his father’s coffin and filled the hole again. Afterwards his father’s rotting corpse haunted his mind, the lack of nose, the stench, the eye socket almost visible.
When the grave was as it should be he went back to the city and he walked into the police house and told the officer that he had eaten a boy, and that it had turned him into a human being and now he regretted his actions, but it was too late. He couldn’t go back to being sub-human, and he couldn’t bring the boy back. He told them he was sorry, and ready to pay the price. The police officers didn’t believe him, threw him out saying he needed a shrink, not the police. And so, he went back to the cabin. He went to find the bones of the little boy to proof his case, that he was a monster, that he had been a monster all along.
The bones lay where he had left them, in a bag in his room behind the boots he never wore because they hurt his feet. The realization dawned on him then, and he wished nothing more than to wake up from the nightmare. He took the bones, but instead of bringing them to the police he went back to the workstation in his father’s study.
The knife was already waiting for him where his father had always left it, in the top drawer in a fine box with blue velvet. And he started carving, the way he had seen his father carve and he didn’t stop until he was finished. The little boy wasn’t the same, but he was a boy, and he would learn. He would learn to walk and talk, and he would learn to do the right thing and he would teach him, better than his father had taught him, much better.
He would take the little boy into the world and show him, and the little boy was blue eyed and bright and innocent, and he would teach him to dance, and to talk to women and he would teach him to live the way he wanted to live and not the way others wanted him to live. And he would teach him to listen to his body, and not let the bones show too heavily. He wasn’t the pretty boy he had once been, but he would be a human boy, with human emotions and a human heart like his.
After all, he had just borrowed it himself.
– That’s much better, a bit of a macabre tribute though.
– Did I say it was a tribute?
– You did. Is it a tribute to me?
– Maybe. Would you accept the story as a tribute to you? With that horrible ending?
– I wouldn’t have it any other way.
– You do realize it’s basically the same ending though, don’t you?
– It is not.
– You have a needle in your eye.
– What? Where?
– Nevermind, let’s go home.
Eygló Karlsdóttir was born and raised in Iceland but has spent the last twenty years in the South of Sweden where she lives with her daughter and her dog. She is most at home in the short story format and has a collection available called THINGS THE DEVIL WOULDN’T DREAM OF AND OTHER STORIES. She has also published two novellas, ALL THE DARK PLACES and IN HIS MIND, HER SHADOW. Apart from that she publishes a short story zine called THE CHESTNUT regularly on Patreon.
For more information visit http://eyglo.info/
and you can find me on Twitter as @eyglo.