This story is continued from last week's story, "Exotic Wood", and is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "K is for Kneepads"
Potemkin cupped the last piece of wood in his left hand; in his right, he readied the knife. The blade was only two inches, barely longer than the piece of wood itself. Curved and watery, the Damascus steel held a swirling dark pattern that fooled the eye, tricked the unwary into misjudging just where the cutting edge was. It was a knife that had to used by touch and feel more than by sight.
He set the last piece of wood into the last space in the parquet floor. The intricate fractal pattern spiraled outward from the center, seventy-five feet on a side, combining carefully shaped pieces into a combination rose window and sunburst. A hundred different species of rare and lustrous wood had gone into the floor, everything from angelwood and purpleheart to yarrowfen and zebrawood. The floor contained every color of the rainbow and every shade from bone white basswood to midnight black ebony.
And, of course, the wood that sings and cries...
Intermixed among the normal woods, slips and slivers of the most precious wood in the world lived and hid and adorned. Here making a line, there making an angle, here making a centerpiece, there making a frame, they were each at home among the other woods, drawing strength and comfort from them as they never could while kept apart, locked in an ornate box. Closely fit, without a hairsbreadth between them, they were many small sections that made up a single, glorious whole. No glue, no nails, no clamps, dogs or wedges, just the wood itself, shaped by the hands of a master.
A master who had to cut the wood apart before he could bring it back together.
The last piece of wood was a shade too wide for the last space. Potemkin sighed and readied the knife. It was the product of three thousand years' rediscovered bladecraft combined with the most up-to-date nanotech fabrication metallurgy. The deceptive, darkly beautiful blade was sharp enough to go straight to the bone on a single pass, sharp enough to whittle away a tungsten steel bolt, sharp enough to cut away anything a man's hand had strength to work against.
But it still wasn't sharp enough to work this wood without cost.
Still kneeling, his legs numb despite the kneepads his old frame demanded, he steadied the last piece of wood in his left palm. It would take only another sixty-fourth of an inch to make the fit perfect. He held the blade to the last piece of wood and closed his eyes. The wood cried and begged, the long suffering of repeated tortures spilling out in a shriek of pain and terror. He felt the anguish enter his heart, wrap itself around the shriveled husk that remained of his soul. Potemkin became one with the pain, opened his eyes and sliced the blade into the wood.
His vision blurred with the weight of shared agony. A paper-thin wisp of wood floated off and away, fluttering down, down, down, gasping in its newly severed isolation and horror before it fell to the floor, dead.
The pain of the wood lived in him and surrounded him, but Potemkin did not weep. He hadn't wept in fifty nine years, not from pain or fury or grief. He knew that when he finished the floor, he would have to bear an entire lifetime's worth of sorrow, taken all at once like a draft of boiling hemlock. His old ribs thudded with the fear that he might not be able to withstand it. As the cries from the last piece faded, however, he knew that the strength that had brought him this far would see him through to the end.
He set down the knife and picked up the mallet.
The last piece of wood again went into the last space in the parquet floor. This time, it slipped snugly into place. One tap to set it and the floor would be finished. After so many, many years, it would be finished and his life's work would then enter its final phase.
Potemkin readied the mallet. Eleven years since he'd purchased all the precious wood that Waterview had. He'd been forced to buy up Waterview's entire stock of normal woods as well to swing the deal, more than nine million dollar's worth. Time and money... what did they matter now? With a smooth stroke he brought the mallet down onto the last piece of wood THWACK and locked it in place. The last piece of wood made a shocked cry of alarm and then... nothing.
For long minutes, he waited. On his knees in the middle of the finished floor, he waited and heard nothing. But then... the sigh of a contented, happy child, the sound of comfort and love and release.
The old man recoiled as though he'd been kicked in the chest. Tears erupted from him, great flooding tears of joy and regret. He dropped the mallet and clutched at his face, crying out at the burning pain from the too-long unfamiliar sensation of weeping. He bowed his head and fell forward onto the floor, sobbing and convulsing as his lifetime of loneliness and bitterness came welling up. His tears plopped down, spreading and soaking on the last piece of wood and on all the pieces of normal wood beneath him.
During hours and hours, the uncontrollable weeping went on. Hyperventilating and cramping, Potemkin wept and wept and wept. A stroke, a heart attack, an aneurism could have taken him, so violent was the pounding in his head. His fragile old bones might have snapped under the strain of his own gasping and crying.
"I'm sorry... I'm so sorry for hurting you... I had to... I'm sorry..."
Finally, exhausted and spent, he slept, shuddering sobs still wracking his body as he lay curled on the wide, beautiful, intricate pattern he had created.
And in the timeless space between sleeping and wakefulness, a voice called to him. Rising up from beneath him, all the finely cut pieces of the wood that sings and cries spoke to him with one voice. It came to him soft and sweet, like the memory of a song sung in long-gone days of innocence and joy.
"Alexi... Alexi... we know what you have done... we forgive you, Alexi, but your final task remains undone..."
In his sleep, the old man whispered, "Will you help me?"
"You are alone, Alexi, always alone, in this as in everything... we cannot help you, Alexi... but we will guide you... get up, Alexi... get up and gather your tools..."
This story continues with "Quickly, Staunch the Wound", a piece based on next Friday's A to Z Challenge post, "Q is for Quick-set epoxy"
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