Carpenter’s Workshop by Vincent Van Gogh

The Carpenter’s Wife

It started with the incessant sawing sound on a Friday morning. An acquaintance would have thought that her husband the carpenter had come back home at last but then they already knew her too well. She was a proud woman and once you went against her mental scheme of what is upright she wasn’t one to take you back even if you were to go crawling on your knees.

Besides, the sawing didn’t sound like the carpenter’s. His was an aggressive, almost frenetic, zig zig zig but this one was more nimble and slower, as though while the former was propelled by some matter of life and death the latter sounded more languid, as if it had all the time and leisure in the world. It was possible that some outsider or stranger had broken into their house but then again but what for? What was there to steal? Planks of wood? A hackneyed saw? No, it could only be her.

Then came the Sunday Mass and only two of her children came with her. The youngest wasn’t there. That was the first time she (and before her husband left her, they) hadn’t brought all three children to the church for Sunday Mass. She didn’t look different and she just had her face straight and emotionless as always although the two children sat still, more solemn like they’d just gone and matured somehow way past the age in which children fidget and get distracted as is expected of them on such occasions. Though what really caught everyone’s attention was after Mass when all the children went up to the front to get a blessing from the priest. She didn’t let the children go. She just left with them right after the priest said “Go in peace” and the congregation “Thanks be to God”. Just stood up and walked down the aisle and exited. This did not go unnoticed. And when her neighbors got home after the Mass they swore that they heard the sawing sound as if she had been at it right after she’d arrived from church.

No one thought to pay her a visit until Wednesday. That was the day they started to smell it. It started as a faint whiff that no one commented on but it was a very hot day (there are only two seasons in this country, hot and very hot) and soon the whiff turned into a full-blown scent. That was when one started to ask the other “Do you smell that?” and the other reply “Yeah”, and then both, upon finally admitting to themselves what it was even though they’d already known it deep and insidious in their subconscious since Sunday except they didn’t want to think it and then just now all doubt obviated by this undeniable evidence, “Good God”.

They all first spoke to Popoy to do something about it since he was considered the wiseman of the barangay, if not for his thinking or actual conduct at least for his age and the gravity of his bearing that came with it. They watched from the windows of the house across hers as he knocked on the door and they all heard how that leisurely sawing stopped for about three seconds and continue again. When the door opened a slit just big enough to let pass one of her children, the eldest, or at least what was left of him, poor frail boy that had gotten frailer still, they saw how Popoy turned his head to the left in a sort of grimace as if he’d been punched on the jaw. But they all knew it wasn’t any punch. It was the odor. They smelled it too when the door opened.

Popoy turned to look back into the house as if in a kind of hesitation with his face all crumpled up and then he looked down at the boy and then talked to him. The boy let him pass. Fifteen minutes elapsed and they saw how Popoy ran out of the door and stand meters away from the house and then exhale and breathe with his hands on his knees as if he had just held his breath for all those fifteen minutes.

That night on a wooden table over the daily liter-and-half bottles of beer with the men (and this time the women too, except not to drink) of the barangay Popoy told them what he saw:

“So I enter and the first thing I notice is the smell (“What all of us first noticed” one commented and another: “Shh.”) and I see the two children, son and daughter, there at the corner. Poor little creatures looked half-dead like they hadn’t eaten ever since their father left and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what happened to the youngest one as well (“Oh my God didja see it Pop? Didja see it?” and “Shut up and let him tell the story”)

“So holding my breath the whole time I go to where the sawing is coming from and just as I expected it was in the workshop of the carpenter (“Mang Larry” one said.) pray to God he is safe wherever he is now. And there she was sawing non-stop on a plank of wood on a table and she didn’t even look up at me. On the other side I see beside her what looked like some box or crate such that you would use for carrying camotes or cabbages and such except that it was crude and looked like it would fall apart if you did try to use it for carrying camotes and cabbages and such. I mean what could you expect. It was her husband who was the carpenter, not her.

“I stood there the whole time watching her — who had gone all thin and frail herself, see — and the whole time she didn’t even look up to me like she hadn’t felt my presence. Or I reckon she chose not to look up and talk as though conserving what energies was left in her to be building whatever it was she was building (“You didn’t ask her?” and “Wait for him to finish for God’s sake”).

“So I tell her ‘Lhinda’ and at last she stops mid-sawing with one hand on the saw and the other on the plank of wood and looks up at me and what I saw startled me. Her eyes were sunk deep into her face with dark circles around it like she hadn’t slept in days and it looked like she’d suddenly aged a good twenty years or so. I felt a pity mixed with a little fear.

“And get this. She stared at me for a good five seconds and I’d forgotten what I’d come to say and then she squinted her eyes and then continued to saw. Yes, you heard it right: just continued to saw without a word. So I called her again.

“‘Lhinda.’

“And she: ‘What.’ Yes, just like that — What. — without even stopping the sawing or looking up at me again. Like it was me who was being the inconvenience around here.

“‘What are you building there?’ I ask.

“‘What’s it to you,’ she says.

“Before I get to reply she starts to grumble, ‘Dumb men all they ever do is poke around and criticize and leave and never serve for anything.’

“‘Your children are starving, Lhinda,’ I said. ‘You have to feed them something.’

“So she pulls out the saw and then she points it at me like some extension of her finger and she wags it at me metal flapping all about and she says: ‘There you go again you damn men. Just telling me off and never doing anything about it.’

(“Jesus she’s gone crazy” and “Poor Lhinda”)

“And so I say to her: ‘Where’s the young one, Lhinda?’

“And then get this. She stops her sawing and then wipes her eyes on her sleeve and then she whispers ‘Get out.’ (“Oh God I knew it” and “Oh God! Oh God!” and “Shhhh”)

“So I raise my voice at her and I say it. ‘Everyone in the neighborhood can smell it, Lhinda. Are you out of your mind?’

“She sounds like she’s sobbing now except no tears are coming out of her eyes and she just continues sawing and then she says, ‘Maybe. Maybe.’ and then ‘It’s your fault you men.’ And then after a while she says, ‘I’m gonna do this myself. Every one of you men has failed me and my child and I owe it to him to bury him. Just me. By myself.’

“‘That’s not right,’ I say. ‘That’s not right. You’re building a tomb aren’t you? A darn tomb to bury him in?’

“‘I owe it to him. It’s the last thing I can give him. Only I can do it. Not you men.’

“‘God’s sake Lhinda the smell is gonna drive us all mad.’

“And she: ‘Get out.’

“And then I add: ‘You’re not even building the tomb properly, woman. You’re not even laying the planks straight. You can see through it for crying out loud. God help us all.’ Because it was true, see. The wooden planks were all over the place and they looked like teeth with gaps in them. (“That’s not right. That’s not right.”) Because like I said, it was her husband who was the carpenter, not her.”

“And then she shouts it: ‘Get out I said.’ And it looks to me like she’s fixing to throw the hammer at my skull so I walk briskly out of the workshop not without me hearing her say ‘Darn men’ and then I leave.”

There was a silence. It was broken when one of them asked: “But didja see it?”

“No,” Popoy said. “The smell was too much and I couldn’t take it any longer. I went out.”

“No need to see it,” one said. “That odor proves it. Smell’s as good as sight in this case.”

“Poor child,” said one of the women. “Oh God. I can’t imagine what state it is in right now. He deserves a proper Christian burial.”

“Poor woman,” said one of the older members, shaking his head. “First her husband leave her and now her children start dying on her one by one. Who wouldn’t go crazy like that?”

“We ought to help them,” said the woman. “What would the Lord do.”

“What do you reckon we do?” said the Popoy. “Say a prayer for them?”

“What would the Lord do,” she muttered. “Whatever you do for the least…”

“Listen, Aling Rosa,” said the older member. “What can we put together to help them? As it is we have barely enough to feed our own children.”

“We do have to get rid of that smell,” said Popoy.

The provisional council of beerdrinkers and idle women all assented to this.

“What we ought to do is barge into her house and get the body and go and give it the proper Christian burial it deserves,” said one of them. He was the tricycle driver Stevie.

“Christian burial or not we just have to get it below the ground,” said Popoy. “Before that smell drives us nuts. I reckon it will be the source of diseases for all of us too.”

That night in that very council the men toasted (and the women nodded in agreement) to the plan of barging into her house the evening of the next day and then look for the body and wrap it in a sack and have it buried in a plot of land half a kilometer away from their slums. It was a good plan, they all (except Aling Rosa) agreed.

Except as they watched her (Lhinda’s) house from the window of the house across that night of the plan they saw her go out of the door and with her, the small wooden tomb on a rickety cart. She must have thought that the whole barangay was sleeping and rightfully so, since it was near midnight, except that she was not aware of the smell and how it was affecting all her neighbors just as perhaps a fish is never aware that it is in water and is not even aware that there exists a concept of water. She came out of the house pulling the cart, she herself looking moribund, as if she were pulling her own tomb toward her own grave where she would be carrying out her own burial. The children followed her in a solemn procession, silhouettes like skeletons in the dim light shed by the moon. Like a black parade of envoys sent from the land of the dead.

Some of the men followed her. When she reached the burial ground, a small, empty plot of land, they stood behind the trees breathing through their mouths. They saw the unmistakable bald, flabby profile of the old parish priest, except he was donning undershirt and slacks. He had a shovel and he had dug a hole and now he was facing her.

“I didn’t doubt you’d finish in time,” said the priest.

“It’s the only thing he deserved,” she said. “So many men have betrayed me and him you see.”

“Well, you finished it now. Now he can rest in peace. With the one Man who never betrays.”

“Never betrays? Hah. Where was he anyway. When my husband left. When my son died on me. He just went out on us like the rest of them. Went out and hid himself and kept silent. Darn men.”

They laid that small tomb in the earth and the priest let her shovel the soil back into the hole with the shovel. Neither she nor the priest said anything when the children knelt and helped by pushing the soil into the hole with their bare hands. When it was all done the priest took the shovel and compacted the earth and then he blessed the burial ground.

The priest wiped the sweat on his forehead. “Chose to keep silent, you said.”

“Sorry?”

“And where do you think you got the strength to do all that despite the fact you practically haven’t eaten ever since your husband left you?”

“Chance.”

“Chance? Chance that you, who would have died under ordinary circumstances from lack of food, were able to make that tomb and bury your son in it?”

“And what about my son dead? Is that His way of helping? Some way to help. I’d rather that He leave us then.”

“Leave you? When your son is now with Him and they both looking down on us and helping us from above? And if the son complains to Him why He lets you and the children suffer, He whispers to him His grander plan, the plan that is beyond the logic of men because just like the ocean can never fit in a hole dug in the sand His ways are beyond ours.”

“And so He keeps silent.”

“Silent no. Because He has not kept silent. He talks to us but it is we who choose not to listen. We refuse to accept how He chooses to communicate and we turn a blind eye and look for Him somewhere else. He is never silent. He is always with us.”

She knelt and wept on the soil where her son was buried and her children watched her. The priest looked at her with compassion and himself shed a tear.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.