Slowly, carefully, I carved the last stroke on the bird’s tail. There. Finished. Getting up off the grass, I rushed into the shop to show my father.
“Good work, son,” he said to me, “though there is always a part to improve.” I braced myself. Pop was the kind of person who saw fault in everything. “See the bird’s eye, here?” he asked me. I nodded. “You want it to be shaped a little more rounded with that slightly pointed inner side, like this one.” He pulled a carved bird of his own from the display shelf.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I was interested, but I got this all the time. “Do you want me to change it before it goes in the shop?” I said.
“No, leave it as you like,” he replied, which of course meant I would be changing it.
I went back outside. It was a lovely day, one of those where you feel so extremely happy, like everything in the world is good, from the blue sky with its billowing white clouds to the trees with the little birds singing in the branches. Of course, everything is never quite that good, but you get what I mean. I picked up my knife, which I had left in its case in the grass, and started perfecting the eye that Pop had told me wasn’t quite right. While I carved and whittled away, I thought about everything that had been going on. Mama had died more than three years ago, but Pop and I still hadn’t gotten used to it. Sometimes, at night, I would catch him sitting in a chair by the fire and staring at the one photograph of Mama we had. It was a picture of the two of them on their wedding day, Pop in his fancy black suit that he had never worn since, and Mama in her white dress and veil, with a bouquet of perfect roses in her hands.
It had been a wonderful shock when, a little more than three years ago, it was announced that I was to have a little brother, and terrible shock some months later when Pop told me I wasn’t going to have a brother after all, and besides that, I no longer had a mother.
As I finished perfecting the eye, my vision was slightly blurred with tears. I still missed Mama so much. I brushed away the tears, and, sweeping some wood shavings off my lap, I got up off the grass and went in through the side door of the store to put the little carved bird on a table, where I would later varnish it with linseed oil and put it out in the shop to be sold.
Then I went into our house, which was in back of the store, and went to the kitchen. I took out some bread and butter, made myself a sandwich, and went back outside to sit in the large oak tree and eat. The oak tree was a special place for me. Part of what made it special was that when Mama was alive, she would climb up in the tree with me. It had a perfect set of branches that curved in just the right way, so that you could sit leaning back and not worry about falling out. It also felt like you could see everything from up there. Mama and I used to sit there on hot summer days and see if we could see what the neighbors were doing.
I sat there and finished off my sandwich. After that I just sat there a bit more, looked at the scenery, and did some more thinking. A lot of my time was taken up with thinking now, especially since school was let out. I really didn’t have much else to do. Except carve.
I shimmied down the tree, picked up a stick, and started randomly whittling. As I whittled, our cat, Toffee, came up and started batting at my legs and purring. I set down my carving stick and started petting her. I sat there for a few minutes, enjoying the feel of the soft breeze ruffling my hair and the slightly prickly grass on my legs, until I heard Pop calling me from the door of the shop.
“Son? I need you to come help clean up in here. I’m going into town soon.” I stopped petting Toffee and, leaving my whittling stick in the grass, walked back to the shop.
* * *
That night, I had a sit-down supper with Pop. This was unusual because Pop would usually be in the shop until very late at night. At first we both just sat there in a slightly awkward silence, because we didn’t really know what to say to each other.
But soon Pop said, “How are you liking me teaching you to carve and all?”
“Oh!” I said. “Yes, I really like it.” I paused. “And I like helping you in the shop.”
“Good.” Pop seemed pleased.
“You know, we have pretty good business in the shop,” I said.
“Yes,” Pop said. “You know, I’ve been thinking of moving the shop into town. We do make a good amount of money here, but we could probably make even more in the town, and with your mother gone…”
“Oh,” I said. “All right.” I began to have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Moving away from the only place I had to remember Mama? I couldn’t do that. I started thinking of all the things I would miss if we moved. That was a mistake.
What followed was another awkward silence in which the only sound was the plates clinking. This time I was the one to break the silence.
“When?” I said.
“Hmmm?” said Pop with his mouth full. “I mean, when are you thinking of moving the shop?”
“Oh, I’m not really sure yet, but maybe sometime this summer.”
“Oh.” That definitely didn’t make it better. I started feeling very sorry for myself. I couldn’t move away from here. If we did that I might, God forbid, forget some things about Mama. And I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t.
After we were done with supper, I cleared the dishes to the kitchen. Then I said good night to my pop and climbed the stairs to my room. I slipped into my nightclothes and got into bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep right then, because I had too much thinking and feeling sorry for myself to do. Then I started thinking some more about Mama. Oh, how much I missed her. I missed the way she would tuck me into bed at night and brush my bangs away from my forehead. I missed her sunny laugh, and boy, did she laugh. All of this just made me sadder, and eventually I cried myself to sleep.
It was the middle of the night and I had been dreaming about my mother. She had burnt the toast for breakfast and we had both been laughing until she got all serious and said, “Thomas, you need to wake up right now. You don’t want the house to burn down, do you?” That had woken me up with a start, and when I realized that I really was smelling smoke, I was scared. I pulled on my boots and rushed downstairs to Pop’s room.
“Pop! Pop!” I yelled. “I think the house is on fire!”
“What?” he said blearily. “I said, I think house is on fire! We have to get out now!”
That woke him up. My pop got out of bed, pulled on his jacket, and took charge. “Son, all of our money is in the cupboard behind the dishes in a jar on the top shelf,” he said. “I want you to take the money and go outside. I will be out soon.” I nodded my head and went to do as he told me, my heart thumping all the way. I had to move all of our china out of the way to get to the money, but I did in the end. Then I took the jar and my coat and left the house. I waited for what felt like forever for Pop to come out of the house, and when he finally did I ran over to him. He was carrying a pile of our things: some clothes for both of us, our carved wooden dishes, Mama’s jewelry box, and the wedding photo. But nothing from the shop. I was about to ask why when he started explaining.“
It was the shop that caught fire,” he said. “My guess is that a rag soaked in linseed oil was left too close to a candle, and just like that, everything was in flames. I might never find out what really happened, but I know it started in the shop.”
“Oh no,” I said. “What will we do now?”
“We’ll do what I planned to do anyway. Move to the town.”
* * *
We spent what remained of the night at an aunt’s house in town, in blankets on the floor and our bundles of clothes as pillows. Normally, that would have been very uncomfortable, but in this case we were so tired we didn’t even care.
The next morning my aunt, whose name was Millie, gave us a breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Boy, were those pancakes good. Then she told us how shocked she’d been to see us: “And when I opened the door, there you were, standing on the doorstep with your bundles of clothes! And I asked what are you doing here in the middle of night, and you told me your house had burnt down! Oh, how awful.”
After that we decided to go and see what was left of our house. We weren’t expecting much, of course, but there might be something to salvage. Aunt Millie drove us there in her car, and what was left of the house, or what wasn’t, was a sight to see. It seemed that the fire trucks had taken their own sweet time getting to our house. There was pretty much nothing left except half a wall here and there, and a chunk of the sturdy old table in what had been the shop. And then, I saw it. It remains a mystery to me how it managed to remain so completely untouched by the fire, but there it was. My carved bird. I ran over and picked it up. It had fallen into a part of the table hollowed out by flame, but it had fallen in after the fire. There it was, with its eye that I had perfected the day before, and its wing feathers carved in so much complicated detail. I started to cry.
All of a sudden I heard a soft purring. I looked down and there was Toffee, winding herself between my legs in a figure eight. I scooped her up in my arms and buried my face in her soft, velvety fur.
It was all too much. Mama gone, the fire, and then my carved bird to remind me of it all. I stood up, dropping Toffee in the process, and my pop came up behind me and clasped me in a great big hug. And then I knew. We would be OK.
* * *
About a month later we were settled into our new house in the town. At first I was really lonely. I didn’t seem to have any friends, except Toffee, of course, but she was only a cat. Then one day, a boy named Billy came over to our house with his mom to bring some cookies. I liked Billy right away. He had a great big smile, and the first thing he told me was a joke.
“Hey,” he said. “What did the banana say to the orange when they were looking for the apple?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Tell me.”
Billy laughed. “The banana said, ‘Keep your eyes peeled.’”
We laughed and laughed over all of Billy’s jokes. The two us became great friends. Apparently my pop and his mother really hit it off too. Thinking over it all, part of me is glad we moved to the town. Now I do a lot less thinking and a lot more laughing. Another part of me misses Mama and our quiet house in the country, but a person can’t have everything. I’m pretty sure that’s how it will always be, though. Most of me will have a good time with friends, laugh, and do everything a person should do to live a good life. But a part of me, deep down inside, will always mourn Mama and that little house in the country. But, no matter what, life goes on. And most of the time, it’s good.