The drawknife meets a steady resistance. Pull. Pull harder. The wood underneath the blade splits or shaves off in hard heavy shavings, more chunks of wood than thin strips of leavings. I’m sitting, slightly hunched, the peg clamped to the table tightly. The table rattles as I tug on the two handles of the curved knife, or at least it did until I screwed it to the wall. The pegs are about a foot long, oxagonal, with a blunted tip at one end. It’s my job to sharpen them, so that they can keep the new barn together. There’s 250 of them, and it takes me two days.
I’ve never done this before, and at the beginning I feel freakishly slow, that I’m being too picky, that the drawknife isn’t doing what I expected it to do – one moment it takes away too much, and in another, too little. Slowly, though, I speed up. I become a little more aggressive, know how to gauge the amount of force needed to make each cut in the wood. Soon, as I feel each sharpened point to check for any uneven edges, I savor the silky smoothness of the peg where the knife has passed exceptionally well.
Physically, it’s still not easy. My slightly-hunched position, inevitable with my closed posture, causes my back to ache when I get up. There’s a hard tug in my arms every time I pull the blade toward me, something that only becomes more and more difficult each time I start after a break. Especially when I begin again, I tend to skew up my face with the effort. It’s hard to ignore that my body rebels after doing such a task for such a period of time, and it’s most visible in my hands.
Thursday afternoon, I decide to wrap my palms and my knuckles in gauze, to protect them from the strain, to blunt the pain now manifesting itself in blisters, some of them under calluses I already had. The next day, I add a pad under each of the gauze wrappings, then several band-aids. It looks as though I have been in a streetfight, and from my hands alone, it’s hard to tell who could have won.
I have a series of blisters that cascade from my pointer finger to my ring finger on my right hand, the first on my second finger on the pad, nearly in the center of the fingerprint, the next on my third finger in between the second and third knuckle, and the last on my fourth finger nearly at the crease of my upper knuckle. I have a large blister at the base of my third finger, and one in the same place on my left hand, only this one is the worst of the lot. I show my hands to people on that Saturday, and they gasp at the cream-colored specter lingering under my skin. I also have two more blisters to either side of it on that hand, and a couple more small ones besides. Taking off the band-aids was a relief, but it did make opening the screw-top bottle of wine difficult that night.
I continued going, past the point of aches and that of pains, shearing the wood away. I watched the shavings fall, blurry outside of my concentrated field of vision, and they seemed to me to be the clippings from the haircut of a golden-headed boy. They stuck to the mesh of my shorts, so the illusion was broken each time I brushed them off with the back of my hand. It helped that I’d had to take off my glasses as I worked; they fell down my face as I sweated. I could also feel sweat bead and run down from the crease of my knee to my ankle, like feeling a ghost run its finger down my calf.
The focus required was immense; one wrong step and I could seriously cut myself. However, it did not stop the thin lines of cable running between my music player to my ears and back again. I was transported into a focused trance, the sort of thing that people find useful in meditation. I’ve never been able to truly meditate – I haven’t the patience – but this book always calls it to me. It’s deliberate, perhaps a bit slow, with an interior rhythm of its own. It doesn’t pace itself for your life, you pace your life to it. This makes it a great book. It makes the word great turn pale.
At the end of the day, you return to fill up your water bottle one last time, and as you do so, you step into the old red barn. The swallows on the eaves set into the air, calling to each other, weaving around each other, as you stand looking up in the wide doorway. They fly out, you flex your hands, and smile.