the toolmaker

Written 1990
Revised 2002

In Esar they call on me whenever leatherwork is needed. The villagers are poor and pay with a dressed duck, a basket of apples, a cord of firewood. Our house is small. But I love the work. Consider me rich.

Yes, the guilds make offers.

  • Come, they say, supervise a room filled with craftsmen, where we make not one pair of boots, but one hundred.

They are persistent.

  • Come, they say, give thousands of boots your mark. Build your wife and daughter a big house.

But how much more there is in knowing every detail; to kill the animal, as I killed its mother before. Tan the hides, soften, cure them slow.

True, the young buy guild products, since the prices are a few dismes lower and the quality medium but consistent. I cannot stop progress. So most of my customers are aging with me. But they remain faithful. I have continued this way for forty years.

A good run.

This happened some time ago.  I was twenty-nine! At the time, an event of little consequence. A trip to town, to buy a small tool.

It started because of bad luck. Has bad luck ever followed you? Some days it destroys everything. Other days it is a friend.

I was working on edge pieces, tooling designs and crests into boot cuffs. Warm-up work, to precede serious tooling. Four-year old Leda’s first pair of dress boots waited on the table.

A fine detail needed a three-fourths inch awl. But the awl slipped, fell, struck the iron table-top and dropped to the floor. I bent to retrieve it. In pieces.

There are to this day no toolmakers in Esar. It was a half day’s journey by coach to Sed, our nearby city. But I needed a three-fourths awl and nothing else would do. I went in to prepare for the journey, pulled down the bag my mother gave me when I went away to study with my mentor, and put by food, water, a shirt, sandals for the heat.

There were three toolmakers in Sed. I had never been there. Father gave me tools when I first set up shop. But I knew eventually my craft would need the service of a toolmaker. So I kept a list of them handy.

I set out, boarded the mid-morning coach to Sed, en route ate some bread and dry cheese, looked through the coach window as the road bounced, coughing out clouds of dust. Eleven miles is a lot of dust. We reached Sed just past noon. The driver stopped near the first shop.

This was the district near the Gymnasium for children of wealthy parents. The tools were lined up on tables, makeshift. Cards under each tool, painstakingly lettered, stated its price.

I called for the owner.

He emerged; a fat man in his early thirties. Making boots, you become a good judge of age and weight. And his clothes: slept in; his pants: patched sloppily. But on his leather jacket, a beautifully-sketched ivy curled across the bottom. His hobby was leather.

His tools? I tested a mallet. It seemed suitable. But my test brads broke when tapped into a piece of wood. It had poor balance.

I handled the awl he proffered. It seemed fine, made precisely according to time-honored standards of awl-making. But working sample calfskin I’d brought, it proved unpredictable. An awl with no insight. The student followed the recipe but did not taste the spirit of the dish.

I bought a mallet for coarse work, and left, headed for the next shop on the list.

The second shop was in a wealthy part of town. All around, luxuries and pleasures were for sale: painted women and roving boys in dandy dress, wines, pungent cheeses, hallucinogenic mushrooms, tobacco. The townsfolk here were content and well-fed. But on the street, they jostled me without apology.

The toolmaker’s shop was in the fashionable plaza, next to a furrier’s.

Inside, the shop was dusky, ornate, with pillars of mahagony wood and carved putti; frescoes danced over the plaster ceiling with almonds, reds, blues. The first toolmaker kept his bellows, anvils, molds, and carving blocks on display, but this toolmaker had only decor. Ah. Less a toolmaker’s shop than a tool-broker’s. None of the implements of his trade were visible, not even a smelting pot.

First I asked the gentleman (for he was, if one judges by elegant clothing and foppish mien) where he kept his tool-making equipment. He gestured wordlessly to a curtain festooned with Persian embroidery hanging behind him.

Behind lay a small chamber. Three men, stood at bare-chested work. The first worked the bellows. The second tempered an iron bar in the smelter, yawned as he handled the carbon-caked tongs.

The third was bent over a work-table, a magnifying glass in hand. I moved in closer to observe. He carved a name into the handle of a tack puller—an ornate signature. He devoted to its formal perfection ten times more care than the others. I paid him brief compliment, then left the stuffy, hot antechamber and rejoined the tool-broker. The third workman’s labor had impressed me. I asked to sample a leather awl kit.

He was most courteous. From the glass case, he handed me a beautiful instrument with the same elegant signature on its handle. Admiring its lines and lovely markings, I asked the price. The answer was three times my budget. Yet the awl seemed perfect. Despite its high price, I was about to hand the money to the tool-broker when the curtain opened and the first workman entered the show-room, wiping his face with a soiled rag. There I stood with money in hand, poised to give it to the tool-broker, when I remembered that this first workman was the one who ran the bellows in the back.

I asked (casually) why he left his post at the bellows. Though I am no expert at making tools (else I would make my own) I know that in the tempering process, if rhythmic pressure is not applied to the bellows, the temperature changes unpredictably, the metal does not crystallize properly, and two years later will shatter at any pressure.

There was an awkward moment during which the tool-broker glared at the workman (most distastefully), the workman glared at me (most distastefully), and I admired the wonderful carvings and signature on the handle of the awl.

I did not touch the awl to my leather, merely handed the beautiful instrument back to the tool-broker, apologized, shut the string on the purse, and removed to the street. There was no doubt this seemingly perfect awl hid dozens of invisible flaws, any one of which could destroy it. Beautiful handles are pleasant to see and touch. I needed a superlative awl.

The last shop was on a back street. A long walk through the poor districts of Sed. There roamed the street cut-purses who would steal not only with money but also my good leather boots. Artists, if you can call thieves artists. I kept a hand to the grip of my hunting knife and carefully checked addresses. I was there.

Entering, I smelled something even stronger than the harsh sting of hardening brass. Sausages. They smelled spicy. And fresh. I scanned the selection of tools and inhaled the aroma. But there were no three-quarter inch awls in the counter display. Hammers, chisels, punches. Blocks for bolt-drivers and for planes also. No awls.

A bell-rope dangled above the counter, I pulled it. There was no sound, which was only confusing when the old man burst through the curtains anyway, with a chunk of dark bread in his claw, the end of a sausage sticking out of the bread. It was difficult to ignore the gurgling sounds of my stomach. I had not eaten since mid-morning.

I asked the man if he stocked any awls. He clutched his bread, appeared to be staring at my leather vest. I repeated the question, louder this time. He kept staring.

Ah, he was hard of hearing. I reached for his hand and touched it. Instantly he smiled and nodded. I took the broken awl from a pocket and showed it to him. There was no response. I waved it. Still he did not move his head or even blink. Was he blind, too?

I released his hand. Making ready to leave, it struck me—how could he detect the bell? I stood still, neither spoke nor moved. He could no longer know I was there.

The oddest shop. The old man paused, then turned his back, eating his sandwich. He had few teeth, so he was less biting than gnawing feverishly at the tough bread. Then I saw, attached to the bottom of his coat, the other end of the bell-rope. So that was it!

I left the shop.

Back on the filthy street, I found a street stand selling local fruit and dry beef. I sat at the curb, slowly chewing the jerky. How the name of God was I to find the awl? The highest quality kid-skins were saved for Leda’s boots. They had to be perfect. I needed a perfect 3/4 awl for the fine work required. It was inconceivable the trip eleven miles to the only large town in the district would be fruitless. The problem was unsolvable.

I tore into a ripe peach; it had a firm texture and a sublime balance of sweet and sour. Sitting there I came close to tears. If nature could make such a perfectly balanced creation, why was there no toolmaker with the same equilibrium? I took a second bite, then bitter, threw the peach to the ground.

For a few minutes I rested. After this long and frustrating day, what lay ahead was the trip home, empty-handed. I rose and began the hike back to the coach station.

I trudged five minutes or so. I was planning how to complete Leda’s boots without a three-quarter. Three toolmakers! Two not capable at their trade. The last one?

  • Ludicrous, I said.

At that exact moment, a leather-gloved hand grabbed my shoulder and jerked me back, nearly knocking me off my feet. I reached for the butt of the hunting knife, regained balance, and whirled about-face to meet the cut-purse. He would not get my money or my leather handiwork without a fight.

It was not a cut-purse. It was the blind, deaf, old toolmaker. With my peach in his hand.

  • A shame to toss one of nature’s most perfect creations into the street. Sure you don’t want it?

I could not respond. After a few more moments, he took a bite of it. He was obviously enjoying it. I remembered its taste. My mouth moistened. He bit the last chunk off, a drop of juice ran down the corner of his mouth. Licking his fingers, he put the pit into his pocket.

  • Can’t let this one get away. Too perfect. He patted his mouth with his sleeve.

I tried to speak. It was difficult.

He put his hands to my face. They were warm and had their own intelligence, it seemed, as they wandered lightly over cheek and chin.

  • Don’t bother speaking unless my hand is on your throat, like this. Unless I can feel your words, they won’t do either of us any good.
  • How did you follow me all this way?
  • Do you want to ask me stupid questions, or do you want to buy an awl?

He grabbed my hand, turned, and led me like a blind man back to his shop.

Neither of us spoke en route. Passers-by saw us; a thirty-year-old man dragged by a blind man through the slum, and trailed, it seemed, by the bell-rope, still attached to the back of his coat, dragging in the dust behind. I stepped over it three times, each time narrowly missing it.

Finally we arrived. He showed me to a stool. I sat; he sat himself down.

He took my hand and examined it with his sentient fingers, touched each callused part, pressed the fingers back to measure the strength of their grip, bent the wrist a few times, measuring its strength and speed. After a few minutes of scrutiny, he disappeared into his workroom.

No clock ticked. The light faded in the shop. Only a glow from under the workroom curtain. I saw his worn cloth boots under the curtain.

As it got dark, he paused from his work to come out into the shop and light its single lamp, also pulling down the shade in the front doorway. He returned to his work. This time he left the curtain open slightly. Through the opening I watched him work.

It was dim. Watching the old man, I could not intuit what he was doing. His blind eyes were closed and he had a piece of wood in his hands. Every once in a while he caressed the wood, made a mark in it with a tiny knife from his work-table.

It was late. The last coach would leave soon. It would leave without me. The next was mid-morning. My wife and daughter would miss me.

  • It’s getting cooler out. Please go into the trunk in the sleeping room and take out two blankets. Bring one to me, take one for yourself.

He went back to his wood. I brought the blanket. He grunted to thank me. I dropped to the chair and wrapped the coarse cloth tightly around me.

I am patient. A leather worker must be willing to sit tending a curing fire for seven hours to give a boot upper the right degree of seasoning, the perfect color, degree of wear, suppleness. But to watch a man hold a piece of wood two fingers across for hours… Restless, I again threw the blanket off, and stood.

The old man said nothing. Did nothing. I paced the shop, stopping occasionally to release an exasperated sigh. Which of course only I heard.

I begged the old man to finish, pleaded, reasoned, cajoled. He focused all his sightless attention on the piece of wood, as deaf as he. He didn’t speak, but seemed to be talking with it, making agreements, discussing philosophy, arguing politics. Anything but making it into an awl handle. Time passed, each new second a taunt.

I was half asleep when he broke from his trance and spoke. The words penetrated the stupor like a bell’s radiant clang.

  • Thanks. Now may I see one piece of your work, so I may see how you intend to use this tool?

Relieved, I removed one boot. I must admit, I had special pride in these boots, and had kept them for myself to wear. The fine tooling had taken a month to complete; they had worn without a crack or sag for five years, needing only one good soaping per month. They were a masterpiece.

He accepted the precious boot in silence, touched it for a brief time, probing it, then held it at arm’s length. After two minutes he was done, and laid it aside.

That stung. This blind man made such a fuss over a little piece of wood, but gave the most perfunctory once-over to an elegant piece of work, worthy of kings, which had taken all-told over two hundred hours of labor to produce (counting the curing.) Who was this fool? I grabbed the boot and thrust it back on.

  • Yes, and if he was a fool, am I not an absolute imbecile, watching him do nothing for hours, when I should be home with wife and daughter?

After some minutes, after working myself into a frenzy of self-recrimination, convinced I had to forget everything and leave the shop immediately. But how to do it without insulting the old toolmaker?

Then he moved. Quickly his hands guided the knife into the block. Within three minutes it was a finished handle. Why had he taken so long? I was hot with anger and impatience, felt the rising sun through the window shine red. Stormy today. I held myself in check. Despite the absurdity of the situation, I still wanted the awl. At least the handle was finished.

The old man rose and approached me calmly.

  • Now I want to ask you a question or two, he said, reaching warm hand to throat.
  • Ask away, I said.
  • You love your trade passionately, don’t you?

After a pause, I answered.

  • Yes, certainly.
  • Of course I love the trade! said the inner voice. If I didn’t love it, I would have bought the first awl at the first shop and right now would be home in bed asleep!
  • I have another question.

Another pause.

  • Go ahead, ask, I replied, impatience leaking through.
  • You have a lot of pride attached to your work. Is that correct?

This time I was silent for a minute or two. The old man waited. Finally I spoke.

  • I suppose I do, sir.

He didn’t answer, only nodded.

  • Why that question? I asked him.

The toolmaker answered immediately, matter-of-factly.

  • When a tradesman has no pride attached to his work, he treats his tools as his friends, his working companions. His work is joyous, and is of himself and God. He gives credit equally to his tools and to God as to himself when he does superlative work.

I shifted in the chair.

  • But when a tradesman has pride invested, sewn into his work, then he places much weight on his tools. They are not his friends. They are his servants, his slaves. He is hard on them, beats them when they do not perform according to his desires. Thus his tools will live a shorter life and must be of a thickness which will withstand a severe beating. This subtracts from their delicacy and decreases the fineness of the work which they are capable of performing.

I tensed my neck to speak, but stopped.

  • That is why I ask. Pride is an emotion very important to one who makes tools.

What could be said? Never had I heard such words. They hurt deeply. They were all true. The broken awl had taken many an angry beating. Even the delicate work on the masterpiece, my “pride,” had suffered because of that. I looked down at the boots, then up at the toolmaker’s face, into the eyes that did not see.

He removed his hand and rose, no doubt to return to his workroom to finish the awl. I pushed his shoulder,placed his hand back on my throat.

  • Wait.

The toolmaker stared at me through broken eyes.

  • You were right. I have been prideful of this work, and impatient with yours. I am a disgrace to the dignity of the trade. I am sorry.
  • Please, said the toolmaker, there is no need…
  • I swear all that will change beginning with this moment. I have seen how much this attitude costs me, costs the quality of my work. I can no longer let this happen. I swear to you.

He shook his head.

  • There is no need for this. Any tradesman with integrity abandons such things when they no longer serve him. It is to be expected. What is more, friend, I am sure you are already far more critical of yourself than you need be.

He smiled.

  • No, one does not need to examine excellent workmanship for long to recognize it. Your boots, obviously your finest work, are flawless and quite beautiful. As one man of integrity speaking to another, I admire your work.

He paused. I waited.

  • It is much easier to give unexpected praise. It seems like a real gift then. Too many give praise for nothing, or withhold it when it would simplify things.

Simplify things. I understood. Many times had I accepted praise. Every time I thought it something earned, for deeds, for plying a trade. Praise was salary. Now I understood a new use, a better use, for praise.

He rose and went to check on the temperature of the metal in his smelter. Pulling tongs from his kit he extracted an awl bit, white-hot. With a few motions, during which I and every insect in the room shared his focus, he finished shaping it, stroked it with the tongs, and plunged it sizzling into the bucket.

Throughout the operation, his manner was paradoxical. He was totally focused on the bit, but worked in such a casual way a person might mistakenly believe he was thinking of something else. He touched the metal with the confidence of a man who could coax incredible feats from it, yet his touch remained light, as if he were handling hot metal for the first time. He rolled it up and pulled it to a point so quickly that I gasped as at the final stroke in a bullfight.

It was done. The toolmaker laid the awl on an oilcloth, wrapped it three times around, carried it to the counter. Then he sat.

I glanced at the little parcel once, then at him, greeted his eyes. They saw nothing, but gave off the same red light as the rising sun had. Twice, three times, I alternated glances between the parcel and his face.

  • Open it, please.

I uncoiled the oilcloth; three, two one. There was my tool. No mistaking it.

  • Will it do? he asked.

I lifted it, balanced it in right hand. It was light, but the sharpness of its point bespoke heaviness. I searched for the fragment of kidskin, found it, laid it on the counter.

When I touched the awl to the skin, the leather drew it in. A few scratches. A design emerged. It came from the leather’s own distinctive natural patterns; from the tool; from me. In moments, we three created something.

The man watched. When he felt I was done, he came to me and put hand to throat.

  • It is done!
  • Good, was all he said.
  • But there is no signature. A fine piece of work such as this must credit the skilled hands of its maker. Will you sign it?

He smiled, shifting his weight on the stool.

  • No. There is no need. I made the awl for you. Now it has been born, I have no hold on it.

I looked at it one more time, then re-wrapped it in the cloth.

  • Here, I said, keep this kidskin. I have not put my name to it, either.

Wrought into the leather were mountains, a sunrise red as fire, a stream, and the lights of the village Esar. He accepted the gift, running his hands over the leather lightly, reverently, then he nodded.

  • Thank you, he said, it is a beautiful sketch.

I looked into his eyes one more time, knowing I would have to hurry to catch the mid-morning coach back to shop, wife, and daughter.

  • How much do I owe you?
  • Seventeen pesos, please.

I paid him. A very reasonable price for any superlative awl.

  • I will tell the others of the village of your skill in making tools. There are other toolmakers in Sed, but none whose tools are of this quality.

He thanked me again. I bade farewell.

Plans for Leda’s boots were turning in mind. Walking through the slums back to the coach station, I passed a beggar. He put a hand out. I glanced down. His feet were bare.

I reached into the sack and took out the leather sandals. Today would be too hot for boots. I doffed the boots, placed them on the ground in front of the beggar.

In the light sandals, I suddenly felt light, very light. And I flew home, the leather wings on my sandals catching the light of the sun and shining.