Straddled by Generations
I wasn't always like this, old and decaying, finished and dying. There used to be a time when I was full of life and vigor, full of energy and strength. I had love where I now only have rust, I had life where now I can only expect death. There was once a child where you see this old man laying now.
"Wood!" I remember my father's incantations to no one and everyone at the same time, walking around the house in an irregular and loose pattern, followed by others much than himself and paying very close attention to all of his words, "Wood is going to rule the world! You master it, and you master what nobody else can master. And whoever knows how to most efficiently and economically harness its strength, whoever can use it with speed and quickness, whoever can direct the grain in that substance with greatest skill and intellect will rule the world." This is what it was like to grow up in my childhood home.
"How can a substance accomplish so much, Joshua?" one of his studious listeners asked my father.
"It will be used to build ships that can navigate around the world, instead of the branch-based rafts that barely get accredited with the title trireme," my father responded with a deep confidence in each of his words, "Build a ship out of stone, and it'll sink. Build a battery ram entirely of stone, and it can't be lifted. Make the biggest carriage or the most dainty basket, erect enough housing for the millions in the army in just a few days instead of a few years, carry enough coal stones with wooden scaffolding from the earth's depths to keep the fires alight for decades."
"But isn't it softer than stone, Josh?" asked another listener, "And doesn't that mean it's weaker?"
"It's not softer or weaker, it's just different," my father replied, "If you find the biggest boulder on this planet, find the biggest crack in it, stick in a piece of wood, and feed it just a few drips of water over a period of several hours, the wood will expand, and shatter the boulder into halves. The wood would remain relatively unaffected by the event, but the stone would be completely destroyed. It's very easy to keep a closed mind, to think wood loses its prowess to stone, to seek out the most firm object and come back not with wood but with stone, that's all very easy to do -- but it's not so much that one thing is wood and the other stone, so much as you understand how the two work, so much as you understanding the incredible complexity of bending without breaking, a complexity unknown to the stonemason."
"The carpenter is going to inherit the world, then?" the third of his stargazers looked into his brightness.
"The woodworker is going to inherit the world," he said, "Sometimes the woodworker is a carpenter, sometimes a shipwright, sometimes an architect, sometimes just the lowly farmer who realizes that the hickory can plough his field, give him a place to sleep, and garnish his dish. Stone is the old world. It has come and gone. It just sits there, and it is amazing at that, just like pottery. But wood is pliable, amenable, workable -- wood is changeable. And by this very property, it has the power to change the world."
"But a stone fence can stand longer and against greater pressures than a wooden fence, can't it?" another listener doubted the speaker.
"Yes, of course, but if you need to have a fence that can hold up nearly the same pressures as stone, and you need that fence up and finished by tomorrow, what is your only real choice for making that happen? It's wood, isn't it? Because the stone is too heavy and it would take too long, right?" my father spoke without interruption, "And how often have you needed something not in a hundred years but right here and right now? Chances are the majority of your needs always have and always will fall into the first category: you need something now. What's the difference between those two situations? The one where a wooden fence is built in time to stop hoarding barbarians but a half-built stone fence is overrun and the cities it protected are burned to the ground by its enemies? That is the real difference between stone and wood, not the end result accomplished by the person acting, but by a difference of thinking. That's what I offer you and the world with wood."
I always admired my father, the way he spoke, and the passion that brimmed underneath those eyes, some of the sparks beyond his own comprehension. He always seemed to be stuck in that state of mind, whether he was surrounded by friends and followers, or whether he was completely alone, meddling with sticks out in the yard while sitting on some gigantic, stationary rock. "If wood moves against itself too much, it can create heat, it can burn, it can torch itself, it can put into play a self-destructive sequence that takes either a second or a week and completely eliminate itself," I heard him say once, while holding the blossom of a plucked flower in those fields, "But stone, it just sits there. It gets destroyed if you hit it enough, or if you hit it with a bigger stone, but nothing about it makes it self-destroy, nothing about it has any self-control."
"You're becoming obsessive," my mother used to tell him, "Your theories about wood are making you anti-social and unpopular, you're not eating well and I've heard that some of the winds high up in those minds can make you light-headed and permanently drowsy in your soul, it's not healthy to have so one single subject on the mind and heart so much and at all the time." But she put up with it. She put up with his sleepless nights gnawing away at an idea that spoke through him with broken syllables and half-hearted groans, she put up with the suggestions that were as random as they were ridiculous, she put up with a man who often wore the same clothes day after day, she put up with his becoming quietly entrenched in books, his innocuous curiosity about what was possible, and his nearly fatalistic impulse to have some control on the world around him. With all of that, he could still provide the family with a relatively comfortable home, although as a father and certainly as a husband, he wasn't much like the others in our village. His enthusiasm made him ripe for the taunting of others.
"Hey, Josh! Why do you hate stone so much? And why do you love wood so much?" a stranger asks him as he's passing from the marketplace, "Just because it can change? That's the reason you love wood? You know, you can crush up stone into tiny specks of dust, so small that they can even be inhaled without the breather being aware of the substance in their lungs."
"Congratulations," my father said, "You have taken something that you can't build empires or nations or homes out of, and you made it even less palatable."
"Roads are made of stone, and how could you make an empire without roads?"
"But what rides on those stones?" my father asked, "What substance is that made out of? And what gets more care, the carriage that constantly has its joints oiled and greased, or the stones on the ground, so indistinct and conform that you can't tell which dead empire is responsible for putting them there?"
"You're too devoted to those principles," the stranger lost his patience and walked away, "You go and take care of those principles and ideals and theories, the rest of us have lives that need living, families that need tending, and children's' bellies that need filling."
"Those are my responsibilities, too," my father shouted out without turning, myself just a small child afraid of the entire world around me, "And I handle them just the same."
Some of the people in the village thought that my father looked weird. Others in the village said that his woodchip-covered shoulders and sawdust-filled pockets were signs of sure lunacy of mind and looseness of heart. When my father attended church, the glance he received from the pastor was the most stern and least cheerful out of the whole following. That never stopped him from being the center of attention when the yearly carnival revealed his unusual, wooden inventions to the world, all made tolerable by the townspeople due to the short duration of the festivities and the relatively low quality found in everything presented during those grace periods. Newcomers to the village always found some suspicion or dislike for him, whether it was the one or the other, and I overheard pieces of one of those conversations, "Oh, he's just like that. He won't liven up your conversation, but he'll know how to fix your roof when it breaks." For a long time, I remember wanting to be like him, too, and even expecting it.
There was this one time he wanted to try a radically different route in getting to Metropolis, the capital of the nation and our nearest trading partner. But his plan involved tides falling and opening up land bridges, frozen glaciers tying up water supplies from the rivers, and the possibility that he could scale an extremely steep mountain that has claimed the lives of many on the caravan circuits. When he returned, he was asked, "So, you made it? You survived through the almost vertical steepness of those hills that nobody has dared climb?" Everyone was somewhat interested in what his journey held in it, as they might want to take the shorter route whenever it's available.
He thought about the question for a while, "Yes, I did make it over that mountain ledge, and it actually wasn't too hard, there's a number of pathways that bypass most of the difficult regions. But even with that, I think it took me about the same amount of time as the normal route to Metropolis." When the river flooded after two or three years had passed, only a few kept in mind that the villagers had a place to escape to when the waters reached too high. There was only that tiny fraction of people who remembered that they had somewhere to escape because of my father's meanderings. "Joshua saved us, and only because he was curious," would've been the nicest compliment he was given in his entire life. Even with their lives spared, the villagers were still deeply convinced that my father was a weird man, who did weird things, and thought about weird ideas. I never really thought about which part of that inheritance belonged to me.
Even in my later years of childhood and study, when I became 14 or 15 years old, I didn't fully understand how far or close I was to where my father stood. There was a time when a well-dressed man came to our house once, carrying scrolls underarm like a village peasant collecting twigs for the fire, and with this tremendous, bizarre-shaped hat that had no utility whatsoever, which I thought would have been met with scorn and laughter from any crowd in our local market, except it appeared to be the emblem of the Imperial Seat of Metropolis.
"We have great opportunities awaiting a mind like yours in our city! Many great opportunities!" the imperial magistrate said, "You'll probably go so far, that it won't be long before you have others working for you, instead of you working for others. You'd never get a splinter or callous ever again for the rest of your life, and you'd live in wondrous luxury and splendor. You, Joshua, will be an owner and manager, instead of someone who's owned and managed."
But my father wouldn't take the offer. I heard those words in the living room of the house, and I looked to my father's face with some awe and joy, but my father's face was old and unmoving. Every family showed some form of surprise or shock, but my father was quiet, still, and unresponsive. "I need to be alone with my guest," he said, before disappearing into the yard with the chirping of crickets and the darkness of night. For a while, we heard nothing, and kept on as though our father had not left at all, then we heard shouting and yelling, screams of anger and rage, these seemingly-violent shadows cast across the wall of our poorly-lit, campfire-warmed home. When we heard disgruntled footsteps trudging towards the house, we knew what had happened. Our father has had his temper tested in other moments, and he can easily be offended by the suggestions of others. We knew what must have happened out there simply by the pacing in between his steps and the depth he was sinking his feet.
A week had passed, and the curiosity in me was too great and the youth in me too naive. I had to ask why he didn't take the offer by the strange man visiting our house and promising us everything.
"Let me show you something," he said, "It's in the workshop." I walked with him, trusting and uncertain of what to expect, but then he showed me a wooden board. "How would you cut this in half? And how would you do it if you know that you had another hundred or so boards to cut? How would you get from here, the substance of construction, to there, the finished and usable product, whatever it was? Take this blade, and show me how."
Without much thinking, I mimicked the action of slicing a board in half at its center. "Yes, of course, that's how you would do it if you wanted to slice the board in half to make two boards of half the original board's height," my father said, "But what if you found out that the one hundred blanks of board weren't enough to cover the whole area, and that you'd need two hundred instead? Then where would you cut the board?" I mimicked the action again, except from the other side of the board, in the style of one chopping short, wooden logs into fragments that could be stacked into a fire. "Yes, precisely," my father said again, "And what if you were asked to do something with the wood that meant you had to cut in a diagonal direction? How would you cut it then?"
I started to mimic the action, but then stopped, and turned to me father, "I don't know, because as soon as you'd start, your blade would be guided into the grain or against it."
"That's right," he said, "If you want to get from here to there, you have two choices, go against the grain and everyone, or follow the common path and take everyone with you. There's no other way to get to the other side of where you want to go. Those are your only two choices, Eliott. You're either with or against everyone. As soon as you make compromises in that, you are lost, like the blade that tries to cut diagonally across wood." He never spoke of it after that, and I was too young and passive to bring it up again. But I always paid close attention to it whenever the subject was brought up. An old relative in town stopped by, dressed much more nicely than my father, and when this uncle had said, "You let your profession determine your politics!", it was enough for my father to show him to the door and explain to him, "You're not welcome here."
When I got older, I began to ask more questions. The answers never came at the right time or when I needed them, but they were always there, just waiting for me to pick them up when I had found a way to be ready.
"Why do the saws bend?" I asked one day in the workshop, "After years and years of working with them, I've seen that the most used saws are the most bent saws. Why is that?"
"It's just the process of normal decay that anything undergoes," my father said, "Whether it's stone or wood or metal."
"Really?" I asked, "That's all it is? That's just the way that metal decays over the years?"
"It has to be," my father said, "You've worked with the material, I've worked with material, we both know that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but anything, whether strong or weak, must die."
"There's nothing else to it?" I asked, "There has to be. I've seen metal nails that remained straight for decades, from the moment they were laid in until a century later when they were pulled out."
"Ah, but what were those nails laid into?" my father quickly responded, as though I had partially taken on the form of one of his opposers.
"Well, wood, of course," I responded, "But that's not what I was asking about. I just wanted to know why metal bends and swivels after years of use in one place but not the other."
A few moments passed by in quiet silence, as my father and I were unloading logs from the shelves and into a cart, until he finally spoke, "Maybe it's the heat." He was quiet for a little, but I listened to curiosity, and he noticed my interest, and quickly said, "It's just heat. It makes it bend. You can feel how hot it is when the sawdust hits your hand. That's all."
"The hotter it gets, the more it bends?" I asked.
"That's what they say," my father said.
"Who said that?" I asked, "And why?"
"We're woodworkers," my father said, "We don't work with metal, we work with wood. That's where our creations come from, it's how we make our living, it's how we state our purpose on this planet. It all comes from wood."
"I know," I said, "That wasn't my question, either. I just wanted to know about heat and metal."
"Well, there are plenty of professionals in the cities when it comes to metal," he said, "You can go and ask them. But from everyone I've talked to who interacts with them, all I can tell is that heat makes it so that you can form metal. We, as woodworkers, are immune to any temperature changes when it comes to determining how we can form our wooden products, so that's not something we have to worry about."
"Like how stoneworkers don't have to worry about whether their fences will be knocked down until the strength of opposing forces," I said out loud, without really thinking of the words I was choosing.
"Why are you asking these questions?" my father said, "Are you questioning the power of wood to change the world around you?"
"No," I said honestly, "I was just curious how things worked. We work with saws, so, why shouldn't we know about how saws and their material work?"
"For the same reason that we don't know how the ground or sky works," my father said, "In one way, it's beyond us, and in another way, it's below us. We don't work with metal. We're woodworkers, we get sawdust on our shoulders, not rust in our lungs."
"I just wanted to be a better woodworker," I said, "That's why I asked. I only wanted to know how metal works so that I can use it to work with metal."
"Then you know about as much of it now as you'll ever need," my father said, "I knew a lot of people who went in that direction and turned up empty-handed, I knew a lot of dropouts at the carpenter's academy who turned into fools and idiots toying with metal scraps and trying to show what they could make out of nothing. Sure, you can make a saw, but who cares? Do you even know how to use it? Do you even know how to use it creatively and to create brilliant works of invention? Do you know why wood is lighter than stone and sturdier than the best-forged metals you've ever found? Those are the questions I have for the metalworker. It's just a new trend. It'll die out and be forgotten, just like Stone and whatever may have existed before then."
"But pottery came after stone, and we still use it," these are the things I wished at that moment to speak, but chose not to, "It never died out of use just because people found something new and interesting, and since stone is still around, I guess it doesn't mean that things that are suddenly new and interesting are going to die in seconds." But I didn't say that, I didn't say any of that. I couldn't.
Months went by, my mind dulled by indecision and inaction. Then there was Francois, who had returned to the village after working in the city of Metropolis for three years. He stood in the marketplace, wearing unusually colored and styled clothing, carrying a backpack made in an unusual fashion in its wiring, and wearing shoes that I had never seen before. His cargo was a vast array of metal objects, including figurines of a horse and a ship, as well as items of actual utility, such as a hammer and a nail, and even basic utensils, like a bowl, a fork. Everyone here knew that he had just finished his apprenticeship as an iron worker at one of the many foundries in the city. "All of these are my creation," he said, "Each of them, I made them completely. I formed the clay that made their temporary mold, the metals that made their permanent, and the final product. And now, to make any of them again, I can simply reuse the same mold and make a thousand copies of the same thing."
"Impossible!" someone shouted, "You've made a duplicating machine, have you?"
Francois reached into his backpack, and pulled out a handful of tiny metal horses, each of them identical in size and weight, in style and form. A wide smile came across his face as people cheered and delighted, as though drawn to someone performing some form of public entertainment -- the musician to their dreams. "And it all can be done only with metal. That's what is going to determine the future. Metal."
"How?" someone in the crowd snickered, "Is it going to be so bright and beautiful that nobody can question its power? And it's not like a gem or a diamond, because that ain't rare. We see shards of it at certain caverns in the deserts. It's something you can literally pick up off of the ground, if you're in the right places."
"Everyone knows that metal has value as the end of an axe or the blade in a saw or the end of a hoe," Francois said, "But using metal to produce these products in mass, and to do it consistently and regularly, to do it at any random moment or any tremendous catastrophe, now that is going to conquer the planet. It's not about the prince who knows the best blacksmith who can produce the best blade when given a month's notice -- it's about the prince who knows the best group of metalworkers who can produce one hundred moderate-quality blades a day and at a moment's notice."
"So, you even admit that your product is inferior to what people have been doing for ages to make metalware, don't you?" someone smiled and admired their own intellect.
"I can't doubt anything about how the blacksmiths of this day build their products," Francois replied, "They put one hundred times the amount of effort into making what they make. As metalworkers, we can mass produce. That's the power of what I'm building. What I'll establish can live on forever and it can do it infinitely. No matter how good the quality of one deeply skilled blacksmith, it's not going to be enough to match an infinite number of swords."
"An infinite number?" someone asked, "How come you don't know that it might just be a large number? And that it won't be enough to overcome the skill of smaller group? What makes you think that the decades of experience from officers in the military would force one to lead an attack only when carrying weapons of the most qualified production? Who cares about quantity when we have quality?" A few people jostled each other in small laughter over the questions.
"The quality will improve over time and as we get better," Francois said, "We only started doing this the way we have. It's a new way of doing things. It will get easier to make even more and to make each one better. We've only discovered the technique, the method. It's now time to discover the perfection, the classification. You can have one without the other, just like you should know about any science, whether it's stonework or woodwork or even metalwork. You can know that a certain idea works without knowing exactly the best way for it to work. I sometimes believe that it's more about how you think and how you allow yourself to process thoughts than whether you forge metal from hammer or mold."
"Better and better! Like you're improving at making trinkets!" someone bellowed with laughter, "It's just another trend. It will pass, just like those who tried to sell acorns as a product and rocks as a commodity." A few others cheered on this disagreeable voice.
"How exactly do you make the metal?" I finally spoke, like someone grabbing onto a dangling wire only to make it still, "How exactly do you make millions and millions of copies of a single thing?"
A smile finally broadened across the speaker's face again, "The first thing we do is mold clay into the shape we want. Then we cook it, like any potter does, to make it both firm and fragile. The clay mold is exactly what we want the object to look like. Then we heat up metal until it's boiling like water. We dip the object into the metal, along with a narrow piece of glass that leads into the object. Then we slice the cooling metal on both sides with sheets. We then have a metal mold of the object. We then can take the two sides of the mold together, fasten them to each other, pour in liquid metal from a powerful furnace through the hole, and once cooled, we can separate the two layers of the mold. And it's the mold that lasts forever. The object is merely a copy of the mold."
"But, the object is metal, and the mold is metal, right?" I said, "How do you metal one metal without melting the other metal?"
"That's a brilliant question," he began laughing, "Actually, we don't make the mold out of one metal."
"What?" I asked, "You don't make the mold out of metal? Then what do you make it out of?"
"We make it out of several metals," he responded.
"How? Is that another trick to your sorcery?" someone in the crowd jibbed at him.
"And why shouldn't it be possible?" he asked, "You mix water and leaves to make tea. Why can't you mix iron and bronze to make something more powerful than either of them alone? All metals turn to a liquid when heated enough. Why can't you mix any of them up? Why can't you find different results in the product's quality from the percentages of the mixtures you use? And when there's so many metals on the planet, and so many that we probably haven't even discovered yet, and so many ways in which you combine different amounts of these and form them into objects of different use -- how can you doubt that this is the door that humanity's mind is going to take over the next several centuries? How can you doubt that metalwork is going to make all other types of work subservient to its wills and demands?"
"Ha!" someone shouted, "You've spent too much time in the city. What you need to do is get back to the fields and the hills. Those fumes from the furnaces must've impeded your thinking ability."
A few small chuckles and grins were heard and seen throughout the crowd, as Francois looked to the ground and quietly said to himself, "Yes, in some ways, I feel that the real difference between you and I is the way we think, and not what the material is that we hold in our hands." Then with a quick shuffle of his fingers, the hundreds of identical, iron horses were swept away before the view of the crowd.
By the next caravan or mysterious traveler who had arrived in our humble village from the vast fields of the open and unfenced world, many villagers had forgotten about Francois, but I hadn't. Even today, after all this time, I still remember the brash young man, his undying enthusiasm, his unusual style of beard, the bizarre phrases that he used, and the stark contrast between his vision of the world and everyone else's. But he was a young person, and the youth are always expected to be brash and innovating, even if it's to the discouragement of the local community.
My story of the introduction of Francois is the same as my story of the introduction of metal into my life. I had thought about it, given it consideration, listened to those who spoke against it, and ultimately sided with the refined, logical arguments of tradition -- at least, when it came to woodworking. With Francois, that all changed. I was made to confront and even taste the ideas and thoughts that had sunk to the bottom in the endless stir that is the soup of my mind. Not thinking about for long periods of time had allowed such thoughts to disappear and be almost forgotten, in both my emotional and cognitive response to such ideas. With Francois's undying enthusiasm, I was given an undying curiosity. I had to know what metal was about. I had to find out what they were doing in the city. I gave myself no date for accomplishing this. I only knew that it was something I couldn't keep myself from.
Years would pass before I could tell anyone what I was really thinking. These were thoughts and ideas that I kept hidden. I knew what my father would think of them. I knew the suspicion and resentment that would be in his voice, underneath every word, even if he did the impossible and used every muscle and tendon in his body to sound cheerful. And in a small village, one person's story of misery and happiness and hate and love is every person's story.
There could hardly be anything more enticing to street corner gossipers and the so-called ne'er-do-well's than a story about the local madman's son rebelling against his father's creations. If I did as much as walk into my father's workshop, hold out a nail, and tell him that the metal in that one nail could accomplish more than all of his wood put together and crafted perfectly, by the time I heard the story again, it would be about how I stabbed my father in the heart with a nail and burned down the wood workshop. Perhaps a bit unexpected was also the feeling that everyone would pity me more than hoping something good comes out my actions and thoughts.
Then there was Corrine. In my relationship with her, tradition and convention mattered so insignificantly, despite how much I allowed them to rule my thinking when it came to earning my bread and maintaining a roof. I met her because she was a teaching assistant at the only school in our small world. There were a number of things that she disagreed with when it came to the classes and the lessons, and as a teaching assistant in woodworking, I heard about many of these disagreements from the school's principal and the many of the other teachers.
They sounded snobby and old, like a dead decadence that relies on the age-old rule of seniority and title-based positions. If you put them all into a room and asked them to argue about anything, someone would say, "Well who's been here the longest? Okay, then let's do what they say," and the crowd, that democratic demon born from the mob, would fight, beat back, and even kill anyone who disagreed. That's why I was so surprised by the lack of tension in her voice and the iron resolution of her confidence when disagreeing with those gray-haired and embittered grandparents who had been teaching at the school since they were only teenagers.
Of course they had to fire her. She went so far as to say that the world was round, and that the horizon and the sunrise were both "optical illusions," although I didn't quite understand her entirely, but even with her radical ideas, I liked how she pieced together her thoughts. That was my greatest attraction to her, and why I needed to sit by her the day she was discharged to talk to her.
"Hey there," I said, "I'm the teaching assistant from woodworking, you've probably seen me around. I heard you had some interesting words, and that they were enough to shake up the upper management of education into some action." She was staring at a squirrel that had been getting chased by a bird over some piece of fruit, and it was only a moment or two before she started to act like she could hear what I was saying. I chose it as a moment where I could easily get in and make myself heard before the others would hound her for the firing, asking her to repeat everything that had happened, from elliptical orbits of the planets to how the sun and the moon controlled the heights of the seas.
"I didn't tell them anything that they couldn't figure out for themselves," she smiled, and it was a smile that lifted my conscience, my spirits, and my body. It was that smile I imagined every time that I dreamed of loving a woman. "They shouldn't have hired me if they thought that it was a problem for me to take what I do seriously."
"Why do you take it so seriously?" I asked.
"In a way, teaching these children is like deciding what gets put into their minds," Corrine replied, "And that's not something you can take light-heartedly."
"What's up there in the skies is that important?" I said, "It's not like we've ever known anyone who's been up there in that endless pattern of blue."
"It's not about looking for the pattern, but looking for where the pattern stops," she said, "It's not about being lost in the infinite expanse of darkness, it's about being drawn to those points where stars poke their brightness through and break off from the primary pattern in their unarguable magnificence."
"Then why are we arguing about it already?" I tried to give her as wide of a smile as she had given me, "And besides, how are you going to find where the pattern stops if you can't find the pattern?"
"Well, why don't you tell me?" she asks me. I always imagine this conversation with her innocent smile and eyes like dotted pearls, "You're the woodworker. You're the one who spends all day looking for that pattern of grain in a piece of dried plant material so that you can cut directly through it. How do you find the pattern and where it stops?"
"Well, in my line of work, the pattern doesn't really ever stop," I said, "It goes through the material and the tools that I use. It is constantly pervasive."
"Are you sure that's not just the routine of having steady employment?" she asks, "And maybe the pattern is just what you do and what you leave behind."
"The pattern is in the thought of it," I said, "Because everything that you build out of wood can be different, but how you think between one task and another is where you'll find the pattern that keeps everything held together."
"And if you recognize that, do you recognize where the exceptions to that pattern begin to appear in view?" she asked.
I knew the answer, and I knew it almost instantly. "Do you always ask questions like that?" I said, doing my best to seem unaffected by her words.
"Only when I want an answer that has a mind behind it," she said with an internal grin.
I loved Corrine, and it didn't take me more than a year to realize that. Looking back now, it feels like it must've been only a few weeks before I knew how I really felt about her. Our conversations with each other were full of her unconventional and unusual reaction to everything that had to do with tradition, and I learned to like talking to her. But it was more of a reflex than something which I learned, only it took enough conversations for me to convince myself of it. And it's difficult to keep secret questions out of the dialogue when you're with the one person you've trusted with your own uniqueness. Of course I asked her about metal.
"What do you mean, 'what do you think about it?'" she said, "It's just a naturally occurring material on this planet. Civilization has has found a way to use it, the way we've found a way to use the clay in the mud and the branches on the trees. Why would I have any thoughts on it that are different than those I have on rocks I stumble on by the shores or those that I avoid on the roadways?"
"So, you think nothing of it?" I asked, "Is that really how you think?"
"Only because I don't know any better," she lightened the conversation with her smile, "What do I think about metal? Nothing more than anyone else in this small village of ours. So that might be why I think that way, but after seeing how ignorance has led to so much folly, maybe I shouldn't be so ready to act on what I don't know. What, then, am I missing from the story of metal?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," I said, "There's no crime in asking about what you don't know, as much as it may be difficult for another teacher to believe that."
"Well, you know so much about crafting and working with wood," she said, "Some of the students there really admire your ability and skill. So, of course, you would be the first person I would ask if I had a question about working with metal, even though I know they are quite different."
"You chop wood," I said, "That's all I can do with it. I cut it. With different angles, shapes, sizes, and species, all I can really do is saw through the sturdiest plant that anyone has ever known. But you melt metal. All day, at a wood workshop or a metal workshop, you'll find workers banging against their product's material, using tool and sweat to make something out of nature's unblossomed value, and even if the workers themselves don't know it, even if it is just routine for them, even if it doesn't matter so much as they get paid, there still is a real difference between how you make wood valuable to people and how you make metal valuable to people."
"And this difference matters?" she asked, "I ask, because it seems like you believe it does."
"Humanity has only put out work because it affords some comfort and decency of living," I said, "That's the only incentive towards it, whether we intend that standard of existence of to be just for ourselves, for the ones you care about, or, in most cases, both. So yes, I do believe it matters."
"You think that devoting our science and understanding to metal will yield better gains for everyone in the world?" she asked, "Because it's possible. I don't know. I never really thought about those questions."
"You would if you used metal every day to saw through the toughest grains of wood known to human society," I replied, "With wood, if you want to make a hundred tables, they each need to be made by themselves. With metal, you only have to make one mold, then the only limit to how many tables you can make is how much material you have. Infinite copies. In a thousand years, not one table will survive and the future will never know exactly what we did to make them, but they'll still be able to find the molds of ancient metal workshops and produce brand new and identical copies out of it, whether it was made to produce silverware or swords, toys or tools. Wood is mortal, it is born, then it lives, then it dies, then it decays. Metal is immortal, it was never born, it always lives, and it doesn't die and decay. There might be something different about work when in one job what you produce is gone in a century, but at another job, what you produce will be the basis for all future civilizations and cultures that develop and grow."
"Metal and wood," she smiled, "I didn't know they'd be so different until you talked about it." And she was right, I didn't really talk to anyone about it, because I couldn't. The day was faster approaching where I finally had to leave everything behind and go into the city. My father first explained metal to me when I asked about the saws, Francois first introduced me to its great magic, and Corrine convinced me that I should investigate those things that draw my curiosity. They each could only give me a glimpse into those large, uncharted territories of human endeavor and exploration.
Why would a wood worker go to the city? That's the question I was imagining myself being faced with when I needed to tell my family and others in the community about my departure. "What is there in Metropolis that satisfies you more than having your own loved ones around?" I could already imagine these words from my own mother's lips. The schoolteachers where I put woodworking into the minds of the youth, the numerous shopkeepers and well-known gossipers in the marketplace, and sometimes I even think the rye in the fields and the apple trees on the hills -- all of them would want some explanation on why the son of the wood worker didn't stay in his home village and went to the city.
Explaining it to Corrine would be easy. I would only tell her what I already told her about metal, and another thing besides that, I would tell her that I intended the trip to be short. If she asks why I won't tell my family that it'll be short, I'll tell her that it's because they wouldn't believe me. But explaining it to them, now that is where someone like I would have a deeply penetrating, internal quarrel. When I was young, and I had a question about wood, about any part of it, from splinters to grains to species to technique, he could solve any of those problems, and I would know that none of our neighbors or fellow villagers would have had the interest, the ambition, or the intelligence to solve the problem. There's a type of real loneliness in who we were and what we did, and then I had to tell them that I was going to leave them a little bit lonelier to do what I needed to satisfy my mind and my heart. I knew it was going to be painful.
Nobody broke down to tears and screams, but there was a chasm crossed. My father didn't say anything, he just walked away, and my mother kept asking me "why?" while looking like she was only seconds away from crying. Corrine didn't understand, even if she said she did. She had a lot of questions about the self-destructive nature of inquisitiveness that convinced me of how she really felt. But by the end of our conversation, there was at least some type of agreement that I was going and that I had something I needed to find. Looking back now, I would say that their reaction was the like someone going through the grieving process and stuck in the middle stage of losing hope. Nobody seemed to take the madman tinkerer's son very seriously. The conversations, the gossip, the argument, the disagreement, the misery and agony of it all, just so that I could go and find the city. I thoroughly enjoyed the first few days of being away from all of their criticism and misunderstanding. But that's a story best told by a regular traveler on the caravan paths, from my experience, anyway.
For someone who spent their entire life in the village, entering and exploring the city was an adventure. There is as much lure and lore behind the marketplace dealer who is always available from the same time in the morning until the same time as night as a city dweller might find in nightshade flowers and glowing bugs. Whenever I had discovered something interesting and unusual in the forest, it was I who had set the time for how much I would investigate and how much was worth probing. But in the city, the only feeling I had was about how little time I had left and how quickly I needed to learn things.
People in the city talk faster than those who have always lived in the country. We've learned to talk to each other the way we approach situations, whether they are abandoned, sawed oaks in the nearby forest or new, opening job positions in the nearby street. And so I studied this, though it drew on the patience of my listeners sometimes, so that I could know at least a little bit about it. Looking back from now, I can imagine myself as being a stupid person, without any clue as to what direction to go in or what stars to navigate by. Apply any phrase to it, one you learned in the country or one you learned in the city, and that underhanded nomenclature is what defined my character as I had entered the city. It can sometimes be painful to remember who you were, but I still try to remember. No matter how hard it is to be a country youth in the aged city, I still try to remember what it felt like.
"Hotter than hell," these words can be found on the bathroom wall of the first metalworks that I worked at in Metropolis. In the days of past, I would listen to my father talk about how we were carrying on the great tradition of all woodworkers everywhere, and about how much dignity and pride that our creations bring to their memory. I traded this for Samuel, the first metal worker I was partnered with at the factory, "I don't like people who master a highly complicated and very difficult skill without having some touch of madness. If you have the ability, you deserve the deformity." There wasn't much talk of tradition, at all. There was talk of the others who were working in these cramped conditions, gossip about their fellow laborers and sweaters, there was plenty of that. But the way the air carried their words was quite different than how it was carried by the openness of the countryside.
We made everything. Every type of cookware that you could find in any kitchen, any type of bolt that held together any house, any type of buckle or toy or tool or compass or coin or clip that you could imagine. We made it all. There were so many villages and towns sprawling out from Metropolis, my own one of them, and they each have this permanent dependence on the utility provided by only a few hundred factories. Millions are locked into the dependence of this situation by the power of metal. But it is a dependence forged by the power we hold in our hands, not by coercion or violence. The city doesn't whip the countryside to its heels, it flagrantly struts itself about with all of its glorious vanity. This doesn't mean that everyone in the city respects those in the country. In fact, there is still quite a bit of distinction, some of it in the pride of doing what so few others can do, and the other part of it in the alienation of how different we are from what our native-born communities wanted and expected out of us. Most of the workers at my plant hadn't been born in the apartment-lined neighborhoods where they now lived.
We were different together. In a city of bakers and marketplace sellers, in a mecca of financial power and military might, in an urban landscape of girls selling roses, boys selling shoe shining, waiters and waitresses selling their smiles, builders selling their buildings, carpenters selling their tables and chairs, scribes selling their writing ability, bureaucrats selling their managerial skill, in all of it, we were different from the others -- we made everything and we did it with one single and simple substance and then we did it with a repeated and complicated method. All of the others, from barbers to porters, they had that type of profession and job in the countryside. It wasn't ever nearly the same thing, the clientèle and the hours and the pay, but even in the small towns, you could still find nearly the same type of any of those professions. But you wouldn't ever find factory workers or factories. Metal belonged in the city. There were thousands of others who worked at my job doing the same thing that I did. The operation required such a steady, reliable supply of intelligent minds with working hands that no small village could possibly sustain it. Metalworking was the reserved art of Metropolis, even if metalworkers still made up such a small amount of it.
Even though it felt like I could finally see everything in all directions, like the eye of the nation looking out onto its own people, it felt like I could barely enjoy the view long enough to have a single breath. I was always learning, studying new molds, mastering new alloys, understanding now processes, even making suggestions and plans for optimizations and improvements. I felt so high up, even if my face was always constantly looking down into the endless depth of that bright-red furnace, avoiding the random and unpredictable flames that suddenly shot through its side and its corners. There was once a time when I thought sawdust was irritating to shake off my shoulders and get out of my face. My father simply shrugged, "That's what happens in this type of work." If he could feel the heat that I feel through the day, I wonder if he would've complained. But I took it, I accepted the suffering that came to me through the working and creation of metal objects. I accepted that my power was also its own burden.
Nothing could take my own responsibility away from me, and that's something the city was so convincing with when it came to its own dwellers. There's simply too many of us for anyone to forever be the target of misfortune and cruelty and brutality for too long. Someone else, much bigger than whoever threatens you, is bound to come along and bump them out of the way, just because some of the larger predators like their meal while it's still alive and struggling. There were too many opportunities, too many voices, too many wants, too many ideas, for anyone with all of this to think that nothing can be done. Sure, it was also easy to feel small and insignificant, as though you were nothing but a grain of sand on a tremendous beach, but in all of that anonymous living, you were so free from those things that haunted the villager: the chieftain who also made all of their family members in charge of all defense and military operations, the small store owner who also was a loan shark and made use of famine to exploit the workers, the priest who was quick to threaten heresy and excommunication unless you allowed them to torture you with unpaid labors or ridiculous ceremonies.
None of that could've existed here in the city, because if anyone wanted to play that game, you could simply walk across the street, and there'd be too many people there to throw out the massive exploiter and burn down his house. That doesn't mean there wasn't corruption. It simply took on much more deceptive forms: clandestine, organized crime with its underground markets, the public office of police officer and magistrates with their billy clubs and handcuffs, the bought-off mayor and his administrative cabinet with all positions almost publicly available for sale, the newspapers with their sensational stories and the universities with their unusual classes about philosophical discourse. The way you trap someone when they're a worker in the city is very different than the way you'd trap someone when they're a peasant in the village. It was something that took both my time, my innocence, and my efforts. But it is something that everyone who learns to live in the city can appreciate, like the villager in the countryside avoiding poisonous plants and dangerous animals. In both cases, it was never about eradicating the problem, so much as bypassing it with as little damage as possible to the particular individual undergoing it. Everyone in the city is still a little bit of a villager.
It wasn't long before I had gone back to the village to convince Corrine to return with me. One of the things I learned from the city is the joy and amazement that came come from teaching someone else something completely new and amazing. I had been a teaching assistant, and what we were giving the children and students was nothing more than what we could read from books. It wasn't anything new, or impressive, or surprising, or curious. It was usually a much more stylized and somewhat fact-based version of what all of our parents had been telling us since childhood. As those growing into adulthood, it wasn't anything that we could really learn from. But in the city, it seemed like you needed to have some kind of trick or spell to hold a conversation with a complete stranger for longer than a few seconds. You needed that special type of charisma that could draw in a personality that never learned to focus on anything. Naturally, those who live in the city talk a lot faster than those who live in the countryside. It's because we want to convince others more of what we say, that we think giving someone a barrage of words is the same as giving them a barrage of emotion and feeling. But no matter how the desire results, all of us city dwellers have that same impulse: we want to impress and influence other people. I learned a little bit about what made Francois who he was.
My home village felt simultaneously far and close to where I lived in Metropolis. It felt so close, because it was such a small dot on the map, but it felt so far, because the distance from the hill where I gathered fruit to where I grew up was several times the distance between my apartment and the nearest restaurant. That was the one thing about the city that impressed me the most: my own journey to and from it. It was what I carried with me, the cargo of my mind and thinking, lifted and moved about by legs and arms instead of by axle and wheel. Ultimately, it wasn't ideas that got me back to my home village with my experiences ready for others to indulge in them, it was the callouses on my feet, the depth of my eyes' vision, and the coordination between hand and eye in navigating the terrain. It gives me an unusual feeling to think about how much a high-level function like thought is so dependent upon low-level functions like how you use your hands and your feet. Like the infant born to a cradle, I was only born to village, but when I stood up and walked on my own, making my own decisions and evaluating my situation for myself, then I realized I had become a city dweller. But for a few days, I was going to be a city dweller living in the countryside.
The first home I visited was where I had grown up. I went back to see my parents, Joshua and Aiden, and to see what how they would evaluate the decisions I had been making in my life. My father didn't say anything about my plans, my mother always questioned every bit of them. After making something out of the somewhat narrow-minded education and uninspired lessons on tradition and authority, I was now back again, to let them judge whether the results of my rebellious and inquisitive nature yielded more than if I had been timid and obedient. It was from here that I was given to the world, and it was from here that I fled from it, or at least everything that I knew about it. And now having come out of the cavern of human civilization, after having stopped in my retreat, it is to my home village that I return. The childhood was nurtured in the country, my character was forged in the city. Not quite like one, not quite like the other, standing on that beam between thought and action, between critical thinking and conventional ideas, between the endless rows of buildings and streets and the endless rows of trees and bushes.
"Why did you come back?" my father asked, "Did you finally fail? Did you finally realize that you're not going to get anywhere unless you dedicate and devote yourself to wood? You must've finally realized that. It must've happened. You must have finally seen that you're going to get nowhere in this world unless you are completely one-and-one with the grain of the world's lumber. You want another chance at it? I don't know if I could spare it. If I did, it would be your last, last, last chance. But then again, I don't know if you have what it takes to build up the greatest memoirs of our glorious Wood Age. It might be better if you go off with those metal people and do what they do, no matter how much it is the bane of pastor, mayor, and professional soldier. I don't know if you could survive your last chance. You'd probably just go off at a random moment to chase some Revolution or Renaissance in the city, like a boy chasing a butterfly in the middle of an important lesson from his parents on self-discipline. You mock me as much as you mock yourself. So, tell me, why did you really come back?"
"I was just stopping over from my time in the city," I said, "I wanted to show you some things I've made out of metal."
"No, no, no, we don't allow metalworkers and their witchcraft in this house," Joshua said, "The only thing a metalworker has done well is making something that can be used to craft and build using wood."
"You already opened the door expecting that out of me, so how can you curse me now?" I asked.
"Oh, come now, Joshua," Aiden came to my defense, "It's been too long since we've seen him to criticize him so quickly. He's not here to cause us trouble, you know that."
"I sometimes wonder about that one point more than any other," my father's face turned to a grimace without exchanging eye contact with me.
"I live in the city now, it's where I belong," I said, "It's where I work my trade, where I learn knowledge, where I interact with people, where I relax and release my stress, where I do everything that a human being needs to do. And on top of that, I'm the most archetypal city dweller, a metalworker. If you don't like that fact, then yes, I am going to be a problem for you if I'm in your life. Both wood and metal know how to bend, unlike rock. You can't really tell me that I'm entirely too different from you or that my difference is so great that you can't understand it."
"You assume too much," my father stood up, "That's the problem with you people in the city. You think that everything can be done rationally and logically and intelligently, no matter how much it is against tradition and the ages and the history of the people. The earth is made for man, not man being made for the earth. That's all that you big-minded, heavy-headed city people think, and you've always known that's what those types of men and women are like, because that's how we raised you."
"You know, it's more about what people are capable of saying than of where they came from," I responded back rather harshly.
"Oh, you can speak for yourself now, in your own father's home, when you're coming back here from your miserably personal and social failures in the city," Joshua replied, "And what is it that's so good about their words? What makes them valuable enough to throw away everything you were given for nothing?"
"I didn't throw anything away except whatever blocked the path between myself and my happiness," I replied.
"Oh, so wood makes you miserable?" Joshua asked, "The most versatile and powerful force on the world has given you suffering and unhappiness? So you go from a workshop with sawdust to a den with a fiery inferno, and all of your problems are solved? Is that it?"
"In some ways, yes, that is all of it," I replied.
"Get out," my father screamed, "You just blew your last chance."
"And you won't ever have a chance, until you believe in what I do enough to let me live with it," I said.
"Get out, get out, get out!" Joshua kept screaming, "You think you're welcome here? Well, you're not. Get out, go back to that city, go back to your addictions and your filthy living and your indulgent luxuries and your fine restaurants and your cheap pubs and your accessible taverns and your ready-made, underground markets. If that's all you need to be alive, then we can't shake hands."
"Goodbye, father," I said, turning to my mother, who had already left the room, and then saying nothing more, I walked out. I never returned.
I walked down the main street of our fine, little village, remembering all of the wonderful faces of the old days and all of the memorable places I had played when I was a child. I don't ever remember walking down that street feeling the same sense of disconnectedness to this village's people as I was feeling at that moment. For a few seconds, here and there, it felt like I could've been looking at the childhood setting of anyone, that this could have been any village, like its people and its homes just simply pick up and walk away from their origins any time I move a mile. The same, but different, like the sight of the blade splitting the log, like the image of the magma filling the mold.
Even though I had become something entirely different from these people, there were still smiles, there were still greetings, there were still old faces that were tender and kind, even if my memory failed me on most of their names. Nobody seemed to react to my lack of direction, nobody was really watching this lost man wandering through endless fields of curious mist and absent memories. Just walking past a wooden fence post held together by nail and wire, just standing before the house with its wooden logs so perfectly joining together into one, single, column of stone, just looking at the pebbles that get kicked around by the wooden wheel and metal axle, and I hadn't ever felt so alone in my life as that moment. I was far from the home I had made in the city, I was purged from the home I had been born into in the village. There was nowhere I could go, there was no place that was made for me -- there was only the endless green of the ground, the endless blue of the skies, and the endless wind without mercy. I should've known this would've happened.
Making the grass out from the mud in the developing rain, I noticed someone staring at me. My eyes widen and are drawn into that source of attention and seeking. It was Corrine, with her beautiful eyes and her adorable smile. She looked happy to see me, the one really welcoming sight to someone who just suffered through a rather unpleasant journey and an unusually crude reception. At that moment, Corrine was the sun contrasted against the miserable darkness of my mind's universe.
"How have you been?" she asked, "You've been away for so long, you must have some stories to tell me. You must have some new ideas and thoughts that you couldn't get from a place like this." And she reminded me that there really was nobody waiting for me back in the city, besides my own home and its only purpose of serving me. She reminded me that the people who are waiting for me, whenever they can be found, it may from anywhere.
"I've been doing well, I missed you," I said, "Say, do you have some time?"
"I do, actually," she said, "I was about to ask you the same thing. Dinner at my parents' tonight is expected to be wonderful, you really did just arrive in time. They'll be really interested in what you have to say with your journey to Metropolis. And before then, there'll be plenty of time where we're alone."
"I've been alone for the past few weeks with the chirp of the crickets and the howl of the wolf," I replied, "It'll be nice to finally be alone with someone who can actually understand my responses." With a few more wonderful words, imaginative stories, and curious questioning, we went from the marketplace to her house in a time too short to expect. Then we were finally alone, or at least, we were together without anyone else. It felt the way my visit to my family should've been, full of welcome and love, with enough of it to forget all of the biting, harsh cold of the outdoors and the unforgiving frostbite of this year's winter, along with all of the news of wars and conquests and lootings that have been the basis of most villages' gossip. With Corrine, all of that cruel criticism and relentless hunting seemed to be disarmed and restrained, made as helpless in its threats as much as in its attacks. It was in the candle-lit warmth of her small home that made me really feel love. When I first came back to my home village, I felt like there was no place that could make me feel this way, and now I'm feeling very much so the same type of feeling, except it's fleeting in the opposite direction.
"Why don't you come to the city?" I asked.
"Well, I don't know anyone there," she replied.
"You know me," I said, "Why don't you come with me? There are enough people for there to be universities and colleges instead of just a small school intended only for children. Why don't you try it out?"
"I'll need to think about it," she smiled.
"Come on, you know and I know that you've been thinking about it," I said, "You need to think about it some more? You can easily find some employment that pays better and gives more benefits and more regularly than the school system in our backyard. For all of the time you've spent walking to and from that small, rotted school building, you could've walked to and from Metropolis at least one hundred times. But you're still thinking about what you want?"
"Okay, I've thought about it," she gave me a smile, "But I still need to deliberate on it." And that night, I slept more deeply and restfully than any other night I could imagine -- dramatic rage followed by tremendous calm tends to ease my conscience sufficiently to make me so completely unconscious.
"I've always felt alone, like nobody here would understand any of my ideas or my thoughts," I heard this quiet voice as my body began to show signs of waking, "This type of loneliness stays with you forever. You feel in your veins, in your heart, in your nerves, in every part of your body. It haunts you, it's your ghost and your demon. At one point a savior, at one point the apocalypse, knowledge and my fascination with it has left me few friends here in this village. You, the woodworker mechanics, you're the source of fascination and interest, you grew up out of something useful and you do something useful. But there's nothing useful about knowing how the stars move, why they move, or even if they're moving, instead of us moving around them. Nobody gets anything out of that. I'm a witch without the disadvantage of burning wood at my feet. That's what these conservative peasants make you think about knowledge and its spreaders."
"You're alone?" I somberly wake to the discussion Corrine is having with herself.
"Take me to the city," she said, "I've been alone here in the village all of my life."
"How much time did you take to make your decision?" a few words stumble out of my mouth.
"Only one night," she said, "I wanted to know how it felt waking up and knowing that you live in the city and that you're a part of it."
"But you don't live there yet," I smiled at her passionate remarks.
"It's more in the mind than it is in the body," my critical suggestions didn't waver her enthusiasm, "I'm tired of being a small fish in a small pond, I want to be bounded and limited by nothing. I don't see any way for me to reach that point without leaving this village and getting to somewhere much bigger. I'm tired of nipping at these stale waters, I need to be able to flow into and out of the waves. I can't be bound by such small limitations, I can't let traditions keep me from surfacing and sinking in those powerful tides."
"Do you know what you're going to do yet?" I asked with a cautious smile.
"Oh, what isn't there to do?" she replied, "It seems like any possible hobby or trade or occupation that you could imagine is available there, some of them combined one with the other, so that you need not pick which specific part of your mind you're using at any single moment in the day -- all of them can be done at the same time in a single action."
"You do really want to go there, don't you?" my heart was lifting.
"Yes, I thought you would know it more than anyone else," she said.
"So, when do you want to leave?" I loved her. Everything about her. The passion, the expressiveness, the thinking, the curiosity, all of it, every part of her danced through my imagination and dreams, and knowing that she was willing to come down this tattered path of unconventional ways with me toward Metropolis, to know that, is like having my love finally accepted. From that moment onward, we spent the rest of our lives together.
Departing from her family was far more time-consuming although far less dramatic compared to the departure I received from my parents. There were good intentions, kind words, recommended advice, cautionary tales, and long-winded repertoires from their ancient wisdom. I let her have every second of it, not jealous of what I never had, but maybe deeply resenting it. I don't hate myself or my past. At this point in my life, at this age of my existence, it's too late to let myself fall into those emotions. I've tried to accept the ways in which I differ from everyone around me, not to fight them, the one metalman surrounded by taunting and argumentative woodmen. And this one way in which she differs from me is something that's good for her, it's something that she deserves and appreciates. My past doesn't have to be hers. It doesn't have to live in the memories of anyone but me.
The first few days out of the village, I paid close attention to Corrine's changes in her manner, her interest, her sensitivities, and anything that might've been going through her mind. It takes decades to reach the point where you're sufficiently prepared to leave the care and nurture of your parents and family, but only a day to leave it all behind and find something new. Those decades always seem too short, those days always feel too long, and it's easy to think that you can find as much value in momentary seconds as you can in lasting years. It's easy to think, whether your internal spirit is full more of wonder or more of conflict, whether your frame of thinking was made more by agreement or more by opposition. The forest is beautiful, wonderful, lovely, and abundant, but just because you understand the symmetries of a leaf, it doesn't mean that holding it can make you feel at home. There may be a few wanderers who never settle down that would disagree with every part of that statement, but they are few and their disposition is not at all like those millions who grow up and blossom in villages, towns, and cities. Corrine was a wanderer, but on a different plane, and physically, she's just as vulnerable as any other human being.
But she loved the city. The few days of travel became dreary and tiresome by the end, but by our arrival, she was amazed at so much activity and so many people participating in it. Every shingle and awning and porch-converted-to-bar-and-restaurant was just an invitation to her eyes to find out what all the other people have been up to since she was born in the village. Every sidewalk conversation, public air vendor, and lawnchair cafe drew her in as though she had never seen people before, like she was taking her first introductory tour of society and was absolutely thrilled by what she saw. I, too, was reimmersed back into the city, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors -- when I had a short talk with a metalworker about using tin as an alloy, followed by another talk with the grandmother who lives next door about leaving coffee cups out on the window sill, Corrine turned to me and said, "If this was the village, someone would think that you're in charge." I smiled and returned with, "Yes, I'm chieftain of cups made from both pottery and tin."
With the city, she grew, becoming a speaker, professor, and scholar at one of the universities. But I grew, too. During those early years, I was still technically considered a "junior metalworker" by my supervisors, even if they said that they appreciated the effort and intricacy of my work. After enough appreciation, they finally reciprocated by giving me the newest tools, the complicated molds, and the unusual requests. When it came to something experimental and new, they started to ask me more about my opinion on it. "Hey, hey, new designs and new customizations, from the customer who always screws up what they ask for? Why don't we get Eliott's opinion on it first." And the managers would look down the production only to see the relaxed eyebrows on my forehead turning upward toward their words.
More and more, I'd see workers in aprons covered in metal dust approaching me, not with tools or cracked material, but with blueprints and paper designs. They were caring less about how I was performing on the local level of my own furnace and more about how I could perform on the higher level of operating the entire factory -- or, at least, that's what I impressed upon them during my conversations, and if anyone disagreed, I asked them to talk it over with the owner of the factory about why we should tell the customer their request cannot be accepted. But, as I learned, being the young, inquisitive villager in the midsts of the city, the moments when I would excel the greatest would be the moments when I was disagreeing with my bosses and fighting them on the decisions they were making.
One day, we got in an order for swords, shields, chainmetal, crossbows, arrows, and even a catapult to top it off with some artillery. It was probably one of the biggest orders we had received. But it wasn't long before all of us metalworkers became too curious about it. We spent our entire lifetimes being too curious about how everything is made in the world, that's just how we are. I'm surprised that management couldn't see that far ahead of us and predict how we would react to so much mystery and lure in the backrooms of our factory's offices. Finally, it came out on break, my friend and co-worker, Daniel, proudly pulling a document from the hidden, inner chambers of his coat pockets. The piece of paper was crumbled, dirty, torn, and now had at least several chest hairs floating across its barely legible text. The orders were coming from the Prince of Anacropolis, the nearest city state that just about equaled Metropolis in its power and strength.
"Do you think they're coming to Metropolis?" was naturally the first question, but some of the wiser voices prevailed in answering it.
"Of course not!" one of the aged metalworkers spoke, "You couldn't take a street in Metropolis with the amount of weaponry they're buying, much less hold it for too long. I'm not trying to be proud of my city, I'm just stating the facts about the numbers of potential combatants, in case there really is a threat."
"And besides," another sage added in, "Predators don't hunt other predators. Everything hunts something smaller than itself, something where the odds of fighting are more reliable and guaranteed. Anacropolis wouldn't invade Metropolis, because they would only destroy each other in the battle, and even if I don't know anything about their people, I still believe that massive, suicidal tendencies don't apparently exist as soon as you leave here and go into another city, but I could be wrong."
Gossip and speculation reached a fever in all of us as soon as we saw that paper from Daniel. And with the seal of the Prince, we had no doubt of its authenticity. But other evidence supported it as well, like our determined shipping routes and destinations, and a little nook that we were asked to impress onto the handles of the blades, it looked like it was just the size and shape for a glassmaker to put in the emblem of Anacropolis, a brown hawk. Naturally, it's not the first time we began making products only to be finished elsewhere by workers of stone, wood, and glass, but each of those experiences made us better at predicting how people were going to be using our creations. It sometimes felt like being the top craftsman, who directs and organizes all of the other craftworkers below, and not below in the sense of orders and coercion, but below in the sense of skill and talent and technological foresight.
By the end of all the discussion and argument, every worker in the metalworks knew what the Prince of Anacropolis was planning and who he was planning to do it to. It was an order for an army and the order was going to be used to oppress and brutalize the local citizens of that city. We all knew this, but being a peasant, and with many of us having peasant backgrounds originating in the village, not all of our views about the army and armed force were consistent. But at the very minimum, every single human being in that factory was concerned about what they were doing to make a living, every single worker wanted to understand what they were building and why it was being built. There was no single, indivisible mass of workers who had one idea and one thought, but there was one group of laborers sufficiently split up into its various components, some of them majorities, some of them minorities, and no matter where someone stood, there was no arguing about what was the topic for all of society to be concerned about.
"Well, I'm against it, and every part of it," the youngest and newest recruit to our industrial army chirped up at lunch, "Why are we making tools for those who simply want to cause pain for others?"
"He makes a good point," an older co-worker spoke up, "If someone in this room asked me to make a tool for them just so they could harass others here about how good they are, using their skill to subordinate others around them, I'd tell them where to go to suffer and how to get there miserably. So why should I be more afraid to tell the same thing to some prince?"
"But why should I even care about it?" someone finally made an opposition to the small growth of instigation, "What does it concern me what they do at Anacropolis? We live here in Metropolis, and there are people over there who want to send gold and silver our way if the only thing we do is our job."
"Oh, so the suffering is far away? Is that enough for you to think that it's acceptable to give to others just to profit?" a young, long-haired metalworker's screams became more and more noticeable, "Their mothers and fathers die just like ours, their sons and daughters go through misery in war just like ours, their people know joy and happiness and torment and deprivation just like us. Do you really think a few empty miles of forest and mountain are enough to make this similarities disappear instantly?" There was a hesitant quiet among the room, as everyone tried to think of a way to respond to the young man, but nobody had any real answers for his questions, so it seemed like he was ignored, even if his words reached the bosom of our soul while tapping and ricocheting off of each of our mind's bones on the way there.
"We don't ask what they're going to cook when they order a bunch of pots and pans, we don't ask what they're going to grow when it's a bunch of rakes and ploughs, we don't ask any of that and never have, but now you want to consecrate our collaborative decision-making in a room that we've only used to eat our food," an older worker stood up among the people, "We work the metal, and the only questions we answer are how it's done when asked by another co-worker and when will it be ready when asked by a customer. That's it, that's all that we do."
"I hope you don't think like that when you're off the clock," the long-haired, young man responded back to the response of a few muffled chuckles.
"You young kids can laugh at anything, you don't know what it's like to have a family!" the old man rejoined.
I finally spoke up, loudly and firmly, "I think, as metalworkers, we always imagine what we produce and what others are going to think about us because of what we made. There are going to be no good things that come out of making weapons to serve emperors and kings." There was a quiet, followed by grumbling and elbowing, concealed whispering and underbreath mutterings, publicly known hand symbols and secret handshakes. A few others burst up then, some screaming, "You're taking too much risk with the power that is Metropolis!" and "You're taking too much risk with working for Anacropolis and against the people!" Too many people were talking and shouting and screaming and yelling, the masses weren't deliberating, they were executing their own thoughts.
"I'm tired of all this bickering and arguing!" one of the grandfathers among the workforce finally yelled, calling all to his attention and everyone to quiet, "We've had several hours to talk it out, let's put it to a vote. We go with the vote. Any objections?" Nobody said a word, and then, a group of people around the grandfather began splitting up pieces of paper, and in a very short period of time, we all knew what we all knew: we were against the making of weapons to support tyranny. Not everyone felt this way, but enough felt this way to make everyone want to support the decision. We didn't just inform our managers and the executive holders of the company -- we formed committees to inform the factory workers of our competitors about this monster from Anacropolis, to make sure that everyone who could do something to resist this abomination would do something. For me, as much as I fought for and struggled for this, it felt like the power beneath the movement swept me away with it, like I couldn't have resisted its power even if I wanted to. In too many ways, I was still a young man and a new person on the adventure. I sometimes still feel that even today.
We had a family, with a son that we named Francois, and a daughter that we named after Corrine, Corrine II, although we usually called her Cory. There were many days of shock and surprise when Cory would bring home books with these fascinating ideas and social theories and human hopes, they always struck me with a raw and intense power. The ideas were such amazing things, it was stuff you would never hear, not any cafe or streetcorner or restaurant that you can think imagine, but they were so intriguing, they always made me feel impulsive and responsive to how even I really thought and felt about the world around me. There was a cosmic connectivity in her divine algorithms, and it made me feel like Metropolis was such a small place and that the Universe had so many more opportunities. In a lot of ways, she's like her mother, and that gives me confidence and strength.
Francois is a good son, and he always took picked up technical and scientific knowledge with ease and fluidity. He had always impressed the neighbors and their children with the way he fixed toys or built forts, and when he got older, he impressed them with how he could explain the ideas behind books and the laws behind physical motion. I thought he was well-liked and that people believed in his enthusiasm, and so, that's one of the reasons I always thought that the way I fathered was right and properly intended. His understanding of the way things are would've fit quite nicely with my own understanding at that age. As a woodworker, you spend your whole life crafting products out of logs and grains, and then one day, you're crafting a human being. And you're happy to know that this human being is like you, because it's the only thing you'll find in this world that can make you realize that you've made the right decisions.
He came home from the metalworking academy one day with an unusual contraption in his hand. "What's that?" I asked.
"It's a miniature pump," he said, "Take a look at it. It's amazing."
I looked at the bizarre creation in my hand, "What does it do?" I was completely bewildered by it, "What are these rings for on the sides?"
"Those are gears," Francois said, "It's a pump, it pumps water out of the ground."
"How does it do that?" I asked.
"With steam," my son said, "With lots of hot water."
"You use hot water, to get cold water, out of the ground, by means of a so-called 'geared pump'?" I tried to understand.
"Yes, of course," my son said confidently, "One of my friends at school showed me. We played with it during recess. I saw it working. It's such a different way of how things work, these machines."
"Machines?" I asked.
"Why build something that gets built once you're done applying your labor to it?" he asked, "Why not build something that can build other things? Then human labor isn't wasted in trying to define something in hours that can be accomplished more uniformly and more consistent with human needs, and in only seconds. It's the way of the future, it's going to be the way of the world. Don't you think so?"
Straddled by generations, like the wheat bending under the weight of the dragonfly, the bamboo bending under the crushing power of the snow, the wood that curls and twists by the heat of the fire, the metal the boils and stews under extreme flame. And by the end of it all, by the end of all that excruciating misery and pain and learning and suffering, when it was all done and complete, I only knew that I had died, that what I built wasn't going to be the most important thing that lasted forever, that my tools will rust and my body will decay and my mind will evaporate. Stone is replaced by wood, which is replaced by metal, which is now replaced by machinery, and with each, there are so many lifetimes spent in their production and mastery and skillfulness and teaching. Like the technologies of the past, I finally can fade away.
"What do you think about it?" Francois refocused my attention, "To me, it's really just like a different way of thinking."
"I think it's fine," I finally said, "Can you show me how it works?"