The Craftsman’s Hands
It was one of the last warmer days of the summer. Some people can’t let go, but others embrace the cool air, knowing very well that one day before too long summer will return.
As the sun set on the mountain top, Giuseppe stood above his workshop table, sanding away a small piece of wood so that when touched it would feel like a fresh pearl. Against his aged, swollen, bent hands, there was nothing – other than maybe a woman’s touch – that felt so nice.
This is what he loved about woodworking: taking something so coarse and irregular, and meticulously toiling until it was a miraculously delicate, beautiful work of art. Who knows how many hours he was in that workshop – he truly loved his craft. As he tidied up, he looked at the intricacies of the wooden picture frame that he had made decades ago – it was riddled with cracks and the paint was peeling off. Inside the frame was a much younger photograph of him and his one other love.
He missed her dearly.
They had met many moons ago when his hands were smoother, less tender and rigid. Giuseppe had just begun to serve as an apprentice with the master wood carver in a small Italian town called Fabrizia– stuck up on a hill and stuck in its ways. He had brought the master’s work down to the valley to sell it in the market.
There were bookcases and saltshakers, animal figurines, flutes and beautiful boxes expertly carved by hand – their recently dried coats of varnish glistened in the sun.
She was from the valley, and stopped by the wood carvers stall – it was a small wooden wine bottle stopper with a figurehead that caught her eye. She smiled when she saw it, and Giuseppe smiled when he saw her. The head of the cork was a painted figure of Pinocchio, with a red hat and rosy cheeks.
She was beautiful and sweet and she didn’t mind the sawdust all over Giuseppe, or the smell of glue and resin and varnish. Her name was Marianna – and despite what people said, she was going to be a doctor.
Their parents forbade them from seeing one another – people from the mountain never married people from the valley.
Giuseppe and Marianna paid this no mind, and after a few years they grasped each other’s hands while they were married at a chapel halfway between their homes.
He worked tirelessly for a month perfecting the gift he would give his new bride. The picture frame was engraved with the mountain and the valley reminding them of their roots. Grape vines skillfully carved around the border represented all of the merry times they had. At the bottom and centre of the frame were two clasped hands – a symbol of their love.
Time passed, in shavings of wood, where hours would feel like seconds in his workshop. Marianna went off to the big city to become a doctor. She was following in the footsteps of Maria Montessori – the first female doctor in the country – who had recently made a big stir in the Italian newspapers. Just like Dr. Montessori, Marianna loved children. She couldn’t have any of her own, so she dedicated her life to helping as many children as she could.
She returned to her small town bringing the latest medicine for everyone. People in the mountain protested – they thought of it as poison. But she carried on, treating the most severely ill children and seeing them grow up to be healthy young adults.
It was the night before their 10th wedding anniversary. As the rain lightly came down on their house between the mountain and the valley, Giuseppe noticed the paint on the picture frame was fading – he picked up a brush and began touching it up.
Every year, he would repaint the frame keeping their love alive and bright.
He woke up early in the morning like any other day, but today there was something unusual. The joints at the end of his fingers felt stiff and sore. As he began to work on his next carving, the pain became worse and worse. He needed to rest his hands.
He went for a walk in the garden, and rubbed his aching hands. After a while the pain subsided, and Giuseppe thought nothing of it. He called his wife over to see the newly revitalized frame.
Marianna was elated, and the two left the house to share a bottle of wine and a meal, hand in hand.
As time passed, again in sawdust and slivers, Giuseppe’s pain got worse. But now his hand wouldn’t feel better as the day went on like it used to – it would get worse. Something happened that saddened Giuseppe deeply. He began to have great difficulty sawing, carving and sanding the wood. Just as his carving knife whittled wood, the bones inside his hand had been scraping against one another, slowly but relentlessly wearing down over time.
It was the evening of their 20th wedding anniversary, and the rain poured down on Giuseppe’s workshop. Marianna, who had noticed a change in her husband, peeked inside and saw Giuseppe clenching his teeth as he touched up the paint on the picture frame. She watched him as he picked up his knife to finish carving a small sculpture-- there was sweat on his brow and he was wincing after each small movement. In his frustration, he threw the sculpture to the ground, shattering it into pieces. He slammed the table.
“My hands! My hands! I am nothing without my hands!” He screamed, breaking down into tears.
Marianna rushed in and embraced him. She grasped his hands and promised him that she would do all she could to help him get better.
Giuseppe never liked medication. People in the mountains took herbs, olive oil, wine and occasionally brandy when they were ill. He had never thought to see a doctor, and most certainly had never taken a pill. However, while working in the big city, Marianna had met some scientists who were experimenting with a new drug. It was called paracetamol.
By this point, after so many years working, the joints in Giuseppe’s fingers had jagged edges, and scraped against one another like a sawtooth. These small shards of bone stuck out like the thousands of wood splinters in his hands.
Marianna begged her husband to try the pill. Although he was reluctant and distrustful of the new medicine, he tried it for his beloved wife.
It wasn’t a miracle cure, and his hands still had some pain. But the strange white pill worked, and after a while Giuseppe was back in his workshop. Giuseppe worked harder than ever, day by day creating new masterpieces. His works now became well known in the surrounding towns and soon, all over Italy. He was eternally grateful for his wife.
Time passed, and as his bones became worse, Marianna kept coming back with new medication that seemed to work just a little bit better each time, allowing Giuseppe to work in the shop and create new works of art.
But Giuseppe would stay less and less in his workshop, and more and more in the house with his wife. Marianna had been slowly losing weight and becoming weaker.
Despite his aching hands, he would carry her from the bed to her seat at the dinner table. He would cook for her, feed her, and bathe her. As she grew sicker still, he took her to the hospital where she would stay. There, he sat by her side and braided her hair – until it all fell out.
It was the evening before their 30th wedding anniversary and thunder clamoured in the sky. Giuseppe looked out of the hospital window at the torrential rain as he touched up the paint on the picture frame. His wife smiled at him weakly as tears ran down their faces, as they held each other for the last time.
The seasons passed and Giuseppe didn’t take his pills. Instead, he turned to a new medication -- wine. Years went by, and he became idle in his house while the wood in his shop rotted, and his tools rusted. Giuseppe’s hands became crooked, swollen and excruciatingly painful, but this pain did not compare to losing his beloved wife.
By the 40th anniversary of his wedding, his hands were so stiff and agonizingly painful that he could no longer paint the picture frame.
As he closed his bottle of wine with a cork, a splinter caught his thumb. The once smooth bottle stopper with Pinocchio carved on the head had become coarse and worn down with time. He took it to his workshop where he found a piece of sandpaper. Although it caused him great pain and took many hours, he sanded away until it was smooth. He gazed at the photo inside the deteriorated picture frame and for a moment, he smiled. He leaned the frame against his stoop and looked at the setting sun as the summer air began to cool.
A soccer ball flew through the air.
It crashed into the brittle picture frame, shattering it into several pieces. Giuseppe flew into a rage, cursing and scolding the child that came to fetch the ball. He chased after him, shaking his fist. As the child ran away in terror, his foot got caught in the cobblestones. His ankle twisted and he tumbled to the ground.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! It was an accident!” the child pleaded, as tears streamed down his cheek.
Giuseppe’s rage was halted when he saw bone piercing through the skin of the boy’s leg. Blood was dripping, and the ankle swelled.
“We need to get you to the hospital,” Giuseppe said, picking him up, and walking down the mountain.
The boy's name was Antonio. He was from up the mountain, and had never seen a doctor before. As his ankle healed, the boy helped Giuseppe around the shop. He began by washing windows, then sweeping the floors. He was sent to the town to buy new tools.
After a while, Giuseppe allowed him to hold the tools. He told him where to strike the wood. He told him where to put the blade, and how to sand. He started to take his pills again, so he could show Antonio with his own hands how to master the wood.
The young boy was fascinated by the meditative process of turning something as coarse as a piece of wood into a masterpiece. After his ankle healed, the boy would work at the shop every day after school – he had developed a liking for woodworking, and under the tutelage of Giuseppe, his skills began to flourish.
In return, the boy cooked for Giuseppe, helped him do chores and taught him how to play soccer. Antonio worked day in and day out in the shop, honing his technique, much to the delight of Giuseppe. Hours would feel like seconds, and soon he was covered in sawdust and smelled of wood varnish.
Time passed in shavings of wood, and the boy was now a young man. As the master woodworker aged, Antonio held his hand, and took him for walks in the garden.
The sun was radiant against the blue sky on the 50th anniversary of Giuseppe and Mariana’s wedding. Antonio smiled as he handed his mentor a gift. He unwrapped the gift for his dear friend – Giuseppe’s hands could no longer function.
It was a new hand carved and painted picture frame surrounding a photo of Giuseppe and Marianna.
It was beautiful.