Swagazine #4

The Carpenter    by Bryant Stith

IN THE TIME SLOT between when school got out -- two-thirty -- and when the first worthwhile reruns came on -- four o'clock -- Aaron had nothing to do. Since his mother had been hospitalized -- the term his father used was "destructively bi-polar" -- the the house was empty. The eerie, sometimes pounding silence of the house drove Aaron into the woods.
     The woods were alive. They changed visibly; they evolved, unlike the perfectly static world of television reruns. This was exciting, yet also slightly haunting; Aaron sometimes found signs of creatures -- gnawed bark, footprints, broken branches -- but would never actually see animals, aside from squirrels, birds, occasional snakes and toads. Despite occasionally feeling apprehensive in the woods, Aaron also felt an impulse to explore them more deeply. He would walk for what seemed like hours, straying from what few paths there were, racing through little swarms of gnats, trampling along the mossy, mud-slick shores of motionless streams, battling through tangles of thornbushes. The woods seemed to go nowhere. They just existed. The urge Aaron had to purposefully explore them -- to find something, to get somewhere -- was constantly defeated.
     That's when he began building forts. In his garage he found old boards of various sizes, in various stages of decay. Some had clearly been used before, but when, or for what purpose was unclear. Aaron nailed these together to create private dwellings for himself. One was a floorless, box-shaped structure with no actual entrance: to get inside, he'd lift it up, crawl underneath, then let it slam down over him. And sit in darkness. Self-imprisoned. Secure.
     One afternoon he lifted up the structure to squeeze himself under it, when, in the dark shadows, he saw motion: a shiny, black creature slamming against the back interior wall, apparently trying to escape. Leaping back, Aaron dropped the edge of the fort. He slipped on pine needles and fell into a sitting position, staring. He decided it must have been a skunk. Had it tunnelled into his fort? Do skunks tunnel? There was no way it could have lifted open the fort.
     Aaron didn't know what to do. He knew that skunks could bite; that they sometimes carried rabies. Moreover, they sprayed foul-smelling liquid that was nearly impossible to wash off. Frustrated, Aaron picked up a heavy pine branch and hurled it at the side of his fort. He found a rock; it fractured against one of the boards with a hollow pop. For nearly an hour Aaron bombed his fort with branches and rocks. Eventually one of the sides split open. The damage spread quickly.
     When several of the boards on one side of the fort had been demolished, Aaron -- his breathing quick, tense -- stepped up to the side of the structure. The breaks allowed ample sunlight to penetrate the fort. Peering in, Aaron looked for the skunk. There was nothing inside the fort but rocks and bits of wood.
     Walking back to the house to watch television, Aaron tried to shake his sense of self-doubt. It must have been a trick of the light: the utter darkness of the fort clashing with the vivid sunlight creating a sort of moving mirage. His senses had been thrown off. He accepted this explanation -- it seemed scientific -- yet he was bitterly angry at himself for having destroyed his work.
     Aaron's immersion in television was particularly deep that afternoon. He found some of the commercials almost painfully funny. One of them advertised paper towels while simultaneously discouraging pollution: after one actor lauded the absorbant capacity of the towels, another tossed a crumpled up bunch of them into the Pacific Ocean, which several hours later went dry, becoming a plane of cracked earth scattered with countless aquatic skeletons.
     Skunks and other creatures invading one's fort: that must be one reason why people make tree-houses, Aaron concluded the next day. He retrieved a new mess of boards from the garage and began designing a tree-house. [Treehouse photograph by Richard Miller]
     He found that none of the trees in the forest near his house were very well-suited for tree-house building because of their branch structure. None of the branches were horizontal enough, and almost all of them were uneven. Aaron had to nail supports into branches before he could begin laying down the actual floorboards. Once he managed to nail in place a series of floorboards, he found building walls onto them almost impossibly difficult. Ultimately, Aaron ended up with a dangerously tilting two-walled structure. He felt the birds in the forest laughing at him. Resigned, he walked back to his house to watch television.
     "Where the heck have you been? I told you we were going to visit your mother today."
     "Jeez, I forgot."
     "You know how important it is for her to see you."
     "I know. I forgot."
     Aaron hated visiting his mother. Generally they visited her every week, and each time he found her more difficult to recognize. She aged astonishingly quickly in the hospital.
     It was as almost unbearable environment. Aaron felt like something forced him to stare at the other patients, while forcibly preventing him from looking directly at his mother. His mother's ward was crowded with troubled adults -- some walking extremely slowly, mummbling to themselves, their hair like exploding squirrel's nests, their eyes foggy; some of them sat catatonically, staring at plants, or at unopened books on their laps; some argued with ridiculous levels of emotion over board games, or TV channels; some did weird aerobic exercises, as if trying to strengthen the muscles of limbs they did not actually have. Every time he was there someone seemed to be weeping loudly, but he could never find the source of the voice. There were foul stenches circulating through the air, like olfactory weather-patterns adrift on the currents of the two old rotating fans occupying opposite corners of the room. Aaron occasionally saw pills, capsules, and enema bottles on the floor.
     "He's begun building tree-houses."
     "Oh? Tree-houses? Tree-houses..."
     "They're excellent. He's a regular Frank Lloyd Wright."
     "Jeez. Oh, come on, Dad."
     His mother stared at him. She rocked slightly. Her facial muscles twitched irregularly. Usually she appeared tranquilized; verging on sleep. He had never seen her this uptight before. He had no idea what had caused the change.
     "Did they teach you that in school, Robert?" She spoke in a quick spurt.
     "It's Aaron, Mom. My uncle's name is Robert. Your brother."
     Her embarrassment was pronounced, and he immediately regretted correcting her. Her face grew dark; she frowned, her lips quivering. He could see tears gleam in her eyes.
     "It's okay, Mom. Really."
     "You were always so strong. Active. Active. It's good. It's good. Keep active, Aaron. Aaron?"
     "Yeah," he said, looking at a huge, blurry painting of black and white cows across the room. "Yeah, it's Aaron."
     The next afternoon he couldn't find the tree-house he had begun constructing the day before. It was gone. He found the tree, and he climbed it: there were nail marks, but the tree-house was gone.
     His first thought was that for some reason his father had torn it down. Maybe he had actually been saving the wood for something, and dismantled Aaron's tree-house to get it back. But Aaron checked: the wood had not been returned to the garage.
     Aaron returned to the tree. Again he climbed it. If someone had maliciously destroyed the tree-house, why would they bother carrying off the wood? Aaron scanned the forest for signs of the boards. About a quarter of a mile away -- about as deep into the forest as one can see before everything fades into the mass of branches -- Aaron perceived an unusual shape amidst the trees. Unable to wrench his eyes away from it, he leaped to the ground and began running.
 [Treehouse photograph by Richard Miller]      From the ground, he gazed up at it. He recognized many of the boards; they had not been changed. But the structure of this tree-house was flawless; it had four walls, a doorway in one of them, and a slanted roof. Climbing up the tree, Aaron tried to remember what his father had done the previous night: after they had returned from the hospital, his father had sat in front of the television drinking scotch until the news came on. There's no way he could've built this during the night. And that morning, Aaron remembered, his father left the house before he did.
     Aaron spent the afternoon inhabiting the mystery of the tree-house. There were no readable signs on the structure itself that explained its origins. Whoever had built him the tree-house was a very skilled builder, and off the top of his head, Aaron could not think of anyone like that. His father owned tools, but never managed to make anything useful.
     Walking home that afternoon, Aaron expected to see his uncle's car in the driveway. Robert must have come at some point in the morning, observed the clutter Aaron had nailed up on the tree, and decided to make Aaron the house as a gift -- maybe to console him during this difficult period of his mother's troubles.
     But Aaron called his uncle's home, which was in another state, and his aunt told him that he had been at work all day; they had even had lunch together. No, she was sure he had not visited Aaron.
     "Dad, were you at work all day?"
     "Uh huh."
     "All day?"
     "Uh huh."
     "All day?"
     "Look, I even ate lunch in my office. Why?"
     The next morning was Saturday. Before the cartoons came on, Aaron -- rushing to put on his shoes -- strode into the forest. He ate two chocolate-chip granola bars while he walked. When he got within sight of the tree, he froze.
     It was gone.
     Dropping the granola bar, he ran to the trunk of the tree. He stared up into the branches. The tree-house had vanished.
     For several moments he felt dizzy. The contents of his stomach seemed to come to life: the grains in the granola seemed to germinate and grow into stalks -- burgeoning tangles of coiling plant-stems, writhing in his gut, poking against his stomach walls. Aaron fell to his knees. He thought of the skunk -- the trick his senses had played on him. Aaron thought of the crazy people in his mother's hospital, their bizarre behavior, their inability to perceive reality. He thought of his mother, and what he overheard his father and her doctor saying about illnesses being "passed on."
     Aaron's mind went blank. It was a psychological defense mechanism he had used in the past -- during fights between his parents, the early but horrifying stages of his mother's illness. He set his mind on a blank channel, and rose to his feet. In order to get air-time on this channel, thoughts had to be inoffensive. Constructive and health-oriented. The tree-house must have simply been a harmless trick his senses had played on him. Or perhaps he had actually fallen asleep in the woods, and had dreamed that he saw the tree-house. This he found the most comforting hypothesis; he accepted this. Straining slightly, Aaron smiled. His mind was a warm, blank channel. He stared up at the tree one more time. The tree was a blank channel. Lowering his gaze, about to turn and leave, something in his field of vision jumped out at him like a bullet.
     In the distant trees -- about a quarter of a mile deeper in the forest -- he saw a familiar Problem. A familiar Irregularity.This time he didn't run. This time he half-expected it. As he came closer, he saw that this was not the same tree-house that he had seen the day before. It was quite similar, but this one had a pointed roof; two sloping sides, rather than one. This one seemed considerably larger. This one had more symmetrical boards.
     Climbing up the tree, Aaron noticed that the wood seemed sanded; almost perfectly smooth. Inside, Aaron found that the floorboards were richly oiled. There were several horizontal slots under the roof which allowed in light.
     Aaron remembered the time. It was morning. He had left the forest just before sundown the night before. Someone had built this tree-house -- this flawless construction -- during the night.
     Aaron returned home in a state of profound excitement. The depth of the mystery was swallowing him, consuming him like a dark night. But he was convinced that this was happening for him; someone was doing this for his benefit. He felt no fear.
     He returned to the tree-house around midday. He spent an afternoon trying to think of a letter to write and leave in the tree-house for the person who was building them. Finally, he wrote "Who are you?" then signed it, "Aaron."
     On each of the five subsequent days, Aaron found new tree-houses. Each one was larger, more complex, and more stylish than its precursor, and each one was deeper in the forest. The next tree-house Aaron found -- the third -- had a hinged door, a shingled roof, and a small glass window.
     The fourth had three small rooms, rather than one large one. One of the rooms, which seemed physically lower than the others, had a medum-sized bay window.
     The fifth tree-house had two stories. The lower room had a brick fireplace. There was a small table and a chair in the upper room.
     The sixth tree-house had several skylights on its upper floor, contained a total of nine small rooms, and an empty bathtub that had both a drain and a pipe leading to the roof that would channel rainwater into it.
     And the seventh? The last tree-house?
     Aaron decided that he would enter the woods at night and catch the carpenter at work. The carpenter had never written notes back to Aaron explaining his identity or his purpose, though Aaron left new notes in each tree-house. Aaron knew there was a danger that the tree-houses might stop coming; that their builder would simply get bored, and leave Aaron's life. It would be horrible to never understand why this was happening. Aaron resolved to go into the woods that evening.
     As usual, when his father drank himself to sleep, Aaron turned off the television. Had he awoken when the set clicked off, he would have seen his son wearing a coat and holding a long, black flashlight.
     The flashlight began fading after Aaron travelled two miles into the woods. Aaron worried; without a flashlight, and with the moonlight thoroughly blocked out by the trees, it would be nearly impossible to see in the forest.
     It wasn't until the light died completely about half an hour later that Aaron spotted the bizarre light ahead of him. The trunk of a huge tree -- about a half miles away -- was emitting a strange, hazy glow. Aaron stopped walking. For several minutes he stared at the tree, focusing and re-focusing his eyes. Then he began walking toward it.
     As Aaron approached the tree, he saw that the massive trunk supported a gigantic tree-house that was perhaps as large as any terrestrial home he had seen. It was strangely shaped -- its roof was considerably wider than its base -- with odd, angular protrusions, like compact rooms thrusting out of the main contours of the building. As he neared, Aaron saw that the glow was coming from a string of small white bulbs, like Christmas lights, leading up the trunk. Dropping his flashlight, Aaron began climbing the trunk.
     There was no formal doorway to the gigantic tree-house; the only possible entrance Aaron found was a window. Aaron opened it, and climbed into what felt like a very large room; Aaron could not see the walls or the ceiling. The space seemed to contain a limitless emptiness; every noise seemed amplified and sustained: Aaron's footsteps, his breathing.
     "Hello?" Aaron called out. The sound of his voice seemed suspended in the air of the room for nearly a minute -- its tone losing definition, becoming a sonic blur -- but only very, very slowly losing amplitude.
     Walking slowly, with his arms extended, Aaron reached a door. Opening it, Aaron found that the door was only slightly taller than his head; the corridor the door opened to was roughly the same height. After taking roughly twelve steps, Aaron found that the corridor was not straight; there were unpredictable turns, and even slopes, as well as occasional steps up, then steps down, and several doors -- some as few as three feet apart -- not leading to other rooms, but simply to more of the same corridor.
     At one point Aaron found a hammer on the floor, along with several nails.
     Finally, after what seemed like two miles of corridor, Aaron discovered a door on the wall. Straight ahead, the corridor continued up a low flight of concrete stairs. Several inches of soft orange light spilled from under the door. Aaron knocked, waited for about ten seconds, then opened the door.
     The room reminded Aaron -- in its size, and in its barren, block-like shape -- of the gymnasium at his school. There were more than a hundred lit candles spread out over the floor. They weren't arranged in any particular order -- neither in rows, nor in fancy diagrams. Some seemed on the verge of burning out, their flames flickering and struggling; some had already gone out, and were nothing more than puddles of steaming wax, cooling, solidifying. Others were bright flames as high as two feet above the floor.
     But even this many candles could not fully illuminate the immense room. Shadows of amazing complexity seemed to bounce, vibrate, or swerve across the floor and the walls. Patches of the room were still quite dark. Gazing around bemused, Aaron began walking, directionlessly, away from the door.
     His eyes swept the room. At first it appeared to him that all of the candles were cream-colored. Then he began spotting blue ones, and then red ones, black, green, and multi-colored ones. At first he believed that they were all unscented, but then he began to smell pine, sandalwood, frankincense, and a variety of scents that were foreign -- and some repugnant -- to him.
     After walking around in the room for about fifteen minutes, finding no doors, no objects aside from candles, Aaron decided to pick up a candle from the floor, re-enter the corridor, and follow it further. As he reached down to get a candle, he heard someone clear his throat -- accusingly, as if to suggest that Aaron was breaking a rule. Aaron looked up, and saw a figure slumped against a wall, half concealed by shadow.
     Aaron stared, speechless, for several seconds.
     "Are you the carpenter?" he almost whispered.
     "The...well, the builder, yeah. Uh, you..."
     "Why do you build these tree-houses? Why are you doing it?"
     "Uh...yeah, I'm the carpenter. Carpenter. But I'm also the guy who takes care of your mother."
     Aaron's eyes seemed to stop reflecting the candlelight.
     "My mother..."
     "You asked...why I did this. You want to know? Let's..." He rose from the corner, slowly, then began walking toward Aaron. "Let me show you. Or, explain. But I have to show you. You see, there's--"
     As he stepped to avoid a puddle of wax, the man planted his foot on a very weak board. It snapped under him, and he fell forward. Apparently the support for that section of the floor was also flawed; when his body hit the the floor, several more boards snapped, and he fell, entirely, through the floor. Aaron heard a prolonged yell. He rushed toward the gaping hole in the floor. Peering down into it, Aaron could faintly see -- perhaps illuminated by the lights on the trunk of the tree -- what appeared to be a swamp. There was movement: Aaron could see an object splashing. It began thrashing violently. There was a brief scream, which terminated in a muffled, gurgling sound. His eyes adjusting, Aaron could see the man being devoured by some sort of huge, shiny, fish-like creature. Then silence, broken only by several flaps of the creature's tail against the surface of the water.
     Aaron rushed away from the hole in the floor. He raced back to the door -- having to turn frequently to avoid stepping on candles -- then entered the hall. He shut the door of the candle room behind him, then raced in the direction of the entrance.
     Racing through the lightless corridor, Aaron bumped into several doors. Finally he bumped into one that was locked. Aaron threw himself against it. He pounded it with his fists until he was certain that he had smashed the bones in his hand.
     Finally, he retreated in the other direction. He remembered that the hallway had, beyond the entrance to the candle room, turned into a concrete staircase. Perhaps that would lead to an exit.
     Before Aaron reached the entrance of the candle room again, however, he bumped into another door. This one was locked as well.He was trapped in a stretch of corridor. He slammed his shoulder against the door until he felt his skin tear open. He screamed -- the echoes taunted him. Finally he collapsed on the floor.
     He told himself to shut his mind off. Tune to a blank channel.
     He began crying. Every channel was filled with panic or despair.
     When the pain in his hand and his shoulder subsided, he fell asleep.
     Aaron's father appeared at the hospital alone.
     "He's gone, isn't he?" his wife asked, "Something's happened to him...?" He was speechless.
     "I'm right. I can tell from your face."
     "He's...no! He's on break -- it's his spring break -- and he's visiting with my sister."
     She shook her head. "No," she said.
     "Look, Martha, you need to relax. Aaron's fine."
     "You'd've made him come if you knew where he was."
     "I don't care. It's good. They'll never find him. He was always so active. They'll never be able to get him. Not like they got me. Not like they got me."


last page || contents || next page

© Copyright 1997 by Swagazine, All rights reserved.
Photographs courtesy Richard Miller.