The carving was going badly.
Sarah examined the duck decoy before her and sighed. The bill was shaped entirely wrong. It was supposed to be a mallard, but she hadn’t taken enough off before she began shaping and now the bill was half again as long as it should be.
I’ll flare the bill and make it a Northern Shoveler, she decided. Nobody has to know that it was supposed to be a mallard.
Two customers came in, so she set down the knife and put on her best customer service expression. “Hi, there!”
Two middle–aged women nodded to her. They gave the stall a professional once–over, looking for bargains or hidden treasure, then left again without speaking.
Give it up, ladies. The internet got rid of all that. Go bid on storage units or estate trunks or something if you’re hoping to strike it big.
Well, you didn’t say things like that aloud. Not to the customers, anyway. Sarah picked up the knife and turned the decoy around. The hind ends of many ducks looked alike. She wouldn’t have to change anything much to transform her mallard.
Rauf, who ran the stall across the way, waved to her. She liked Rauf. He sold popcorn and boiled peanuts and curry rub and never complained about sawdust getting tracked across the floor.
The sawdust got everywhere, but people liked to watch a carver work. On a good day they would come in and stare for long enough that they felt guilty and bought something small. She did a pretty good business in tiny duck keychains that way.
Given that there were three other woodworkers in the flea market, all of them better than she was, Sarah figured that she needed all the help she could get.
She didn’t talk to the other carvers much. The old–timers at the market wouldn’t talk to you until you’d been there at least a couple of years.
Another customer came in. She looked up and stifled a sigh.
“Hey, there,” she said. “Good to see you again.”
The old man nodded.
He was a repeat customer, but she’d never learned his name. He wore a dusty black suit with frayed bits at the cuffs. The only things that moved quickly about him were his hands. When he picked up one of her carvings, his face stayed old but his hands became young, gnarled but deft. He ran his thumbs over the carved edges of the feathers, traced a circle around the glass eye, and looked up at her inquiringly.
“Common Goldeneye,” she said. Which was true enough, and nobody needed to know that it had started life as a Long–Tailed Duck, but she’d knocked the tail off and then had to get creative.
He nodded. He set the duck down and his hands were old again. He slowly opened his wallet and began to pull out wrinkled bills. The wallet was even more frayed than the suit.
Sarah took the money. She could smell him on it—old man smell, Bengay and fabric washed so many times that it had lost any hope of getting clean.
He came in every week and bought the cheapest of her decoys. He paid cash and brought his own shopping bag over his arm. Sarah worried about him.
“There’s a fifteen percent discount,” she said, sliding the change back.
“There is?” His voice was so quiet she had to strain to hear it over the sounds of the market.
“Yeah,” said Sarah, who had just made it up on the spot. “To celebrate—um—the new duck stamp coming out.” She waved her hand toward the wall, where she’d put up a poster just this morning. “It’s a Ruddy Duck.”
“Is it?” He looked at the poster thoughtfully. She sometimes thought, for a man who bought so many decoys, that he knew very little about ducks.
He took the change and put it very slowly away, then slipped the decoy into his bag. She had stopped offering to wrap them months ago. Then he made his slow way out of the stall and vanished into the crowd.
She slumped back on her stool. She needed the money, but she felt strange taking it from the old man. Why would anyone buy a carved duck decoy every single week?
On good days, she pretended that he was secretly a millionaire, one of the ones who lived cheap, but that he was overcome by admiration for her duck carvings and had to own them.
On most days, she figured that he had a shopping addiction.
Rauf came over, holding a bag of popcorn. “Here,” he said. “We’re about to start a new batch and you haven’t eaten all morning.”
“Thanks, Rauf.” She wiped her hands off and took a handful. “How’s it going?”
“Slow.” He shrugged. “August is always bad. Everybody’s spent all their vacation money and now they’re looking at back to school sales.”
Sarah nodded. Hand–carved ducks sold much worse than popcorn.
“I see old Jep came by.”
“Jep. Just now.” Rauf waved toward the gap in her line of carvings. “Comes in every week, doesn’t he?”
“Oh, him! Yeah. Didn’t know he had a name.” Jep. It seemed like a name for a mountain moonshiner, not an old, frayed man. Then again, maybe he’d been a moonshiner in his youth, who knew?
“He used to be a carver,” said Rauf, promptly dashing the moonshiner fantasy. “Had a stall over on the high–rent side. That was years ago, though.”
“He was?” Sarah blinked.
“Oh, yeah.” Rauf grinned. “He did a big carousel over in Nag’s Head. Had photos up in his stall. Horses and dolphins and seagulls big enough to ride.”
Sarah stared down into the bag of popcorn, wondering how she should feel about that.
“You said he used to be a carver…” she said.
“He stopped after his wife got sick,” said Rauf, the grin fading. “Closed up his stall. They sell custom hammocks or something in it now. I don’t know if he’s done anything since.”
“He must’ve,” said Sarah. She could not imagine not carving. Even when business was dreadful and she had to spend half the income from waitressing just to keep the stall open, it never occurred to her to quit.
She wouldn’t have lasted three days. She’d be sitting on the couch and her hands would start to itch for sandpaper and a knife. She’d end up carving the arm of the couch if she couldn’t get a wooden blank.
Rauf shrugged. “I don’t know. You could ask him.”
Sarah turned the regrettable mallard–turned–shoveler around. “Maybe I will.”
But when he came in the next week, she asked him a different question instead.
“Did you make these?”
Jep looked up at her. No emotion crossed the long, dragged lines of his face, but she thought that she’d surprised him.
She held out her phone, with the pictures of the carousel in Nag’s Head on it.
He did not take it, but he bent down to look at the screen. After a moment he said “Yes. Those were mine.”
He did not look like a man who was proud. He looked like a soldier admitting that he had been to war. He bought the cheapest decoy, put it into his bag, and shuffled out of the shop.
Sarah stared after him, and then down at the photos of the carousel.
Many carousels were works of art. This was more. This was—she didn’t have the words—glory.
The horses were a riot of color, gilded and painted, their heads thrown back or bowed far forward under scarlet reins. Smiling dolphins leapt and cavorted between the horses. There was a gull with its beak open, laughing, and a narwhal with a golden horn and a pelican so large that a child could ride in the pouch.
Sarah’s favorite was a walrus. It was snow white, with a blue saddle, and its tusks were scrimshawed with starfish and ships. Its lumpy, bristly face was screwed up in a grin of delight. In the photo, a little girl had her arms as far around it as they could go, and she was grinning too.
A carousel like that must have cost a million dollars, she thought. He must have charged tons for it. I hope he’s rich. I hope.
She knew all too well how much artists undercut themselves. She was painting the shoveler this week, and if she made thirty dollars worth of profit on the accursed thing, she’d be happy.
The next week, when Jep came in, she asked him if he was still carving.
He shook his head, mutely. He bought the shoveler and went away again.
Sarah was beginning to feel as if she had struck some kind of fairy–tale bargain. One carving bought one question, no more.
The shoveler had barely been worth a headshake anyway. She sighed.
Her current project was a Ruddy Duck, like the one of the stamp. They were small, cheerful ducks, with jaunty tails. They also had a specific enough shape that she wasn’t going to be able to turn it into anything else if she screwed up.
When Jep came in this time, she paused before she took his money, and said “Why do you keep buying my carvings?”
He stared down at the floor.
The silence went on so long that she took his money and passed him his change, afraid that she had offended him somehow.
No—surely I didn’t. “Why are you buying this?” isn’t a weird question for an artist to ask!
Jep’s lips moved. She had to strain to hear him over the sound of Rauf’s popcorn maker.
He said “They’re the cheapest ones at the flea market.”
He looked up, once, before he left the stall. She hoped that his eyes were as old as the rest of him, because she knew how stricken she must look. Her face felt hot.
She went to the bathroom, full of shoppers complaining to each other about the price of discount socks and how crowded everything was, and splashed water on her face. She was not going to cry in front of the customers.
Well. What did you expect him to say? That he could see your potential? That those crappy ducks were signs of genius? That he wanted to collect them before you got famous and they sold for thousands of bucks apiece?
She wiped her face with a paper towel. Yes. She had wanted him to say those things. She had wanted to think that the man who had carved those carousel beasts had found something good in her work.
At least it’s better than “because I’m passionately in love with you.”
She choked back a laugh at that, or maybe it was a sob. One of the shoppers looked at her curiously, but didn’t ask.
She closed up shop early that day, told Rauf she had a headache, and went home.
When the next weekend rolled around, Sarah wondered if he’d even come back. He had to know he’d upset her.
Unless something’s gone wrong. Maybe he’s got dementia or something. Maybe he keeps buying ducks because he can’t help it.
She wondered what his house looked like. There had to be dozens of decoys by now. She pictured ducks on every available surface, rooms full of jumbled carvings.
Maybe she should stop selling them to him.
She wondered if that would stop him, or if he would just go to the next cheapest person in line.
He came in, and her stomach dropped.
Be professional. You’re a pro. Smile and nod. It doesn’t matter why he buys it, only that you can pay the rent on the stall.
He picked up the smallest carving. It was an older one, a mallard, and she had finally accepted that it was never going to sell and had dropped the price on it.
Her good intentions deserted her.
“It’s not very good,” she said.
He shook his head. The loose skin under his throat moved. “No,” he said. “It isn’t.”
Sarah let out a single, frustrated sob. “Then why are you buying it? And what am I doing wrong?”
She put her face in her hands.
She heard Jep shift from foot to foot, and then he made his slow way up to the counter, and around it. He put one hand on her shoulder and squeezed, harder and heavier than she would have expected.
“You’re cutting too slow,” he said.
She wiped her eyes on the back of her wrist. “W–what?”
He touched the half–carved ruddy, where it sat clamped in the vise. “You’re working too slow,” he said. He pointed to a wobbling line across a feather. “It slips and gouges here. You’re afraid to go faster, so the cuts aren’t clean.”
He took the carving knife from the bench and made a single unhurried cut, still faster than anything she had ever done. A curl of wood came up behind it, and then it was the edge of the duck’s wing, tucked against its body, and the line was long and clean and perfect.
“I can’t do that!” said Sarah. And then, so fast that she almost tripped over her own words, “Thank you.”
Jep looked at her. His immobile face cracked a little, and he said “Will you drive me home? I want to show you something.”
It was madness driving a strange man home, but she did it anyway. She had her cell phone and Rauf knew what was happening and anyway, Jep was so old that if he tried to kill her, he’d probably have a heart attack stabbing her. She opened the door of her battered truck and let him climb into the cab.
He lived only a few blocks from the flea market, down a shaded street. The lawns were by turns overgrown and painfully, shabbily tidy.
Jep’s house was one of the tidy ones. He led her down the walk and paused in front of the battered wrought iron door.
“Please don’t tell anyone about this,” he said. “It’s not… it’s nothing…”
He stopped, as if he had run out of words. Sarah said, “I won’t,” and hoped again that she wasn’t making a very stupid mistake.
He unlocked the door. Inside, it was very dim and she could hear a TV blaring somewhere in another room. The linoleum was a dreadful pattern from the Seventies and there was a little plaster crucifix on one wall, and a painting of sheep on the other. The sheep were fluffy and big–eyed and Sarah couldn’t imagine Jep buying such a thing.
He led her past the kitchen, to the back of the house and a short hallway and a plain wooden door. She could hear the TV through it. He unlocked that, too, and stepped through the doorway in front of her. She caught a glimpse of a room with a couch and a TV and debris littering the floor.
“Hello, old man,” said a creaking, clacking voice. “Come to feed me?”
Sarah’s first thought was that the light from the TV was casting some awful shadow on the person sitting on the couch.
Her second was that she wanted out of the house, and she wanted out of it now, and she would have run if she thought her legs could carry her.
There was a marionette on the couch.
It was the size of a human–being. It had a mouth like a nutcracker and its face was carved like a Roman god. Curls of gilded hair ringed its head.
Someone is working it—someone—there’s a puppeteer up on the ceiling or something—
It turned its head at her, and she saw its expression change. The wood moved.
She backed up so fast that her spine struck the wall opposite. She slid down it. She thought she might be sick.
It can’t be real wood. It’s a person painted to look like a marionette. It’s a mask or a special effect or something.
It snickered. “I can’t eat her,” said the marionette. It clacked its hollow jaws at her. “Or I could try, but neither of us will enjoy it.”
“That’s enough,” said Jep.
The TV was showing some ridiculous daytime game show. The host gestured for an audience member to come down and try their luck.
Are you the lucky person who’s seen a horror and is going to walk away alive? Come on down!
“Enough,” said the marionette. Its voice was nothing like human. “Never enough. Hasn’t been enough since the old lady died.”
Jep reached in his bag and took out the carved mallard. He threw it toward the couch.
The marionette caught it neatly out of midair—it can’t be on strings, no puppeteer on earth could make a thing on strings do that—and grabbed the decoy’s neck. She could see the fingers, beautifully articulated, each ball joint perfect, ending in tapered points.
The duck carving came alive.
Sarah watched as her poor mangled mallard suddenly stretched out its wings. She caught a glimpse of carved wooden feathers, the bill opening, the legs—she hadn’t even carved legs! Where had they come from?—flailing.
It hung poised for a moment, as if in flight, and then the marionette wrung its neck.
The decoy collapsed. It was still wood, it could only be wood, but it was wood carved like a dead bird, the wings trailing down.
The marionette opened its mouth impossibly wide, showing a black, toothless opening that ran halfway down the thing’s throat, and bit into the mallard’s breast.
Wood splintered. The marionette chewed. Sawdust fell down around it, and a single wooden feather drifted to the floor.
It took another bite, and another, then wiped its mouth.
“Where’s my horse, old man?” asked the marionette.
The game show host on TV showed the contestants what they could win. Door after door opened, revealing new cars and shiny appliances, and the marionette turned away. It lowered its gaping mouth to the body of the duck and chewed as it watched.
Jep came out and closed the door. He locked it again, his movements as slow as when he came into the stall.
“What,” said Sarah from the floor. “What. What?” She looked up at him, half in fear, half hoping that he would confirm what she thought she’d seen. “What was that? What—who—“
He helped her into the kitchen and then he made tea. When he opened the pantry to get the tea bags, she could see empty shelves, a few cans, and a pink hat on a hook that certainly wasn’t his.
She could hear the TV from down the hall still, and knowing what was sitting there and watching the screen made her shudder. If she thought too closely, she’d go completely mad. Perhaps she’d gone mad already.
Did my mallard really come alive? Did it really—no, it couldn’t have—it was some kind of trick, he had a live duck in his bag all this time—
Which was completely ridiculous. He’d had the bag on his lap in the truck. She would have noticed if he was carrying a live duck around in it.
She started to laugh and stuffed both hands in her mouth to stop it.
“He can only eat wooden meat,” said Jep. He pushed the mug of tea in front of her. It had a faded picture of a kitten on it. The ancient avocado refrigerator hummed soothingly. “He doesn’t eat much of it, not really. A duck will last him all week. And the wood doesn’t go bad.”
Sarah stared across the table at him. She wondered if he’d let her go, if she ran.
“He’s wood,” she said.
“He’s alive, though.”
Jep nodded again.
Sarah held the mug of tea and her hands shook so badly that she had to set it back down on the table. The faded kitten ogled at her.
“My wife wanted a son,” he said. “We couldn’t have one. So I carved him.” He looked into his own tea. “It’s not a good idea to do that.”
“No,” said Sarah in a high voice. “No, I bet it isn’t!”
It was impossible, of course. She knew that it was impossible.
She thought of the carved walrus and the laughing gull and the prancing horses.
If any man on earth could have brought a carving to life, it would have been the person who carved those horses.
“How did you do it?” she whispered.
Jep shrugged. “Wood’s half alive already,” he said. “You know. A good carving’s not a dead thing, if you put enough of your heart into it.”
Sarah clutched the mug of tea. It was hot enough that her hands were starting to burn, but she had to hold onto something.
Yes. She did know. But there was a great deal of distance between believing that good art had a life of its own, and having a thing that sat in a room and tore apart carved birds with its clacking mouth.
“I think more people can do it than let on,” said Jep. “But you shouldn’t make people. It’s not good, making people like that.”
“You’ve been feeding him my carvings,” said Sarah. She said it out loud and felt nothing at all. She knew that she should feel something—grief, perhaps, or outrage. They had not been very good carvings, but she had worked hard on them. She didn’t expect them to end up in museums, but she’d thought that maybe someone was appreciating them.
Apparently they had been appreciated briefly, and only once.
She thought of the mallard coming to life and had to put the tea down and put her hands over her mouth.
Had all her poor carvings come to life at the last? Had they been alive just so that they could die?
Now she felt something, but it was so huge and terrible that she didn’t dare let it out.
“I’m sorry,” said Jep. “They have to be hand–carved. I tried the mass–produced ones and they don’t come alive. He can’t eat them.”
He reached across the table and touched her hand, tentatively. “It’s not that yours are bad. It’s just… I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford anyone else’s.”
She took a burning gulp of tea. It seared all the way down.
When she could speak again, she said “Why don’t you carve them yourself?”
He rose from the table and led her to the back door.
There were two sets of boots by it. One was large and black and looked like the footwear equivalent of Jep’s suit.
The other pair were smaller and faded and had pink flowers on them. She looked away.
It was entirely possible, of course, that Jep planned to kill her, now that she knew his terrible secret, and bury her in the backyard. But stepping outside was a relief and it was hard to believe, as the sunlight fell over her, what lay in the house behind her.
There was a little wooden shed behind the house. He led her to it and opened the door.
It was almost completely empty. There was a table in one corner, and few pieces of wood slid through the rafters. Jars of nails caught the light from the windowsill.
It smelled of pine and dust. Sarah turned her head, tracing pale squares on the floor, where machinery had been and now was gone. There were not even spiderwebs in the corners.
So poor they can’t afford cobwebs, her mother had said once, about a relative. And here it was. The only things left were the shop lights overhead, their bulbs gone dim, but still she recognized it.
“This was your woodshop, wasn’t it?” said Sarah.
Jep nodded. There was no emotion on his face, not even grief. “When my wife was sick, I had to sell the tools. We couldn’t afford the meds otherwise. We would have lost the house, and then someone would have found him.”
He straightened. “I didn’t tell her, of course. I said I’d got a commission. She never knew.”
There was a note in his voice that at first she thought was bitterness, and then recognized.
He sold all his equipment to pay for his wife’s care. And he’s proud that she never found out about it.
She had the sensation again of standing on the edge of an emotion so huge that if she let it reach her, she would drown.
“This is the only thing left,” Jep said. He pointed behind her, up against the wall, and she turned. “Couldn’t find a buyer, since it wasn’t done.”
It was a horse.
It stood twice the size of the carousel horses, the neck arched. Its face was exquisitely carved, its front hooves feathered like a draft horse. The mane rippled. There was no bridle, no saddle, hardly any decoration. It needed none.
The back half, though, was barely roughed in. The hooves were square and the tail was a crude rectangle of wood. She could see the exact point where he had set down the chisel, the different coloration of the wood.
He was working on this when his wife got sick.
It was a crime that it had never been finished.
And what do you want him to finish it with? His teeth?
She thought of the marionette saying Where’s my horse, old man?
She stepped out of the shed and went around the house, toward her truck. Astonishingly, she did not seem to be dead. Jep walked with her, and didn’t show any sign of stopping her.
“Don’t think too badly of him,” he said. “My wife tried to teach him some manners. She loved him. He misses her.”
So do you, thought Sarah, thinking of the flowered boots by the back door and the hat still hanging in the pantry.
“It’s the TV,” said Jep. “But if he doesn’t have it, he gets restless. And there’s nowhere he can go.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Sarah, with her hand on the door handle.
He stood on the sidewalk, not moving. Then he made the barest shrug. “Keep feeding him,” he said, and turned away.
She drove around the block and then she parked the truck and bent over the steering wheel and sobbed.
She cried for horror and for her poor dead carvings and for an old man who had lost everything and then had lost his wife too, who was left caring for a monster. She cried until her eyes were dry and burning and her nose ached and her forearms hurt where the steering wheel cut into them, and the world was still terrible.
Then, because she’d left the cash box there, and because some habits die hard, she went back to the flea market.
“You okay?” asked Rauf. “You don’t look so good. What did he want, anyway?”
Sarah exhaled. Her throat was raw. “He showed me his workshop,” she croaked “He doesn’t carve since his wife died.”
“If my wife died,” he said slowly, “I wouldn’t do anything again. I’d just close up the shop and sit down and wait to see her again.”
Sarah had met Rauf’s wife two or three times, a small, round, dark–skinned woman with a smile that could light up a continent. She wondered if it was her smile that could make her husband want to do nothing but sit down and die if he lost her.
She wondered what Jep’s wife’s smile had been like.
“Hey, it’s okay,” said Rauf, seeing her face. “She’ll outlive me. She’ll do better without me than I would without her.”
Sarah laughed dutifully and went into her stall. She threw her tools into her bag—all of them, and the paints too, which took three trips out to the truck—and dropped the half–finished ruddy on the passenger seat.
She went home to get the rest of her gear, and then through a drive–thru because she couldn’t live on Rauf’s popcorn all day.
And then she drove back to the little house with the painfully tidy yard and knocked on the door with her hands full of chisels and a bag of burgers.
Jep opened the door and blinked at her.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ve brought my tools. Let’s finish your horse.”
Sarah thought, at some point in that mad night, that she had learned more about carving in the last five hours than she had learned in the fifteen years leading up to it. Her hands were nicked and bloody and her arms ached from holding the heavy wood at the proper angle. She did not have a vise remotely large enough, so they had to improvise with the table and the walls.
The years did not fall away from Jep’s face, but his hands were younger than they had ever been. He stroked the tools over the surface of the horse and under the blades, the muscles came to shining life.
She knew that her tools were cheap, amateurish things compared to the woodshop he must have had, but he held them as if they belonged to a master.
When he passed her the knife and gestured to the horse’s tail, she stared at him.
“Are you sure?” she said. “My ducks aren’t that good…”
He stared down at the horse.
“The greatest thing I ever made came alive,” he said finally. “Because I wanted to make my wife happy. And now she’s gone and it sits there and I feed it and sometimes I dream about setting us both on fire.”
Sarah’s hand closed convulsively on the carving knife. She swallowed.
“You’re a good girl,” said Jep. He sounded tired. She knew that it must be very late. “I don’t know if this will work. But I want you to know I’m grateful. And I’m sorry about all your decoys.”
“It’s all right,” said Sarah, even though it wasn’t.
She steeled herself, and began to carve the tail.
It was closer to morning than midnight when Jep cut the last hair on the back hoof. Sarah had been sanding the flanks until they gleamed under the shop lights.
He stepped back and looked at the horse.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, that’s not bad.”
There was a noise at the door.
They both looked up, and Sarah took a step back.
The marionette stood in the entryway.
It’s between us and the outside, what do I do, can we distract it…
She moved so the horse was between her and the creature. If it came at them, it would have to move out of the doorway, and she could make a break for it.
And what about Jep? He can’t move that fast.
“I locked the door,” said Jep. “I always lock it.”
The marionette rolled its carved eyes. “I’ve been able to open that lock for the last ten years.”
Jep rested both hands on the horse’s back. “I see,” he said.
The wooden lips twisted up. “Are you surprised, old man? That I could open it, or that I didn’t strangle you in your sleep some night?”
The marionette looked down at the horse.
Its face changed. Sarah couldn’t explain it. A light came behind its eyes that had been missing before.
It said, very quietly, “Oh.”
It took a step forward and Sarah knew that she should be ready to run, but instead she burst out, “Don’t you dare try to eat this horse!”
The marionette laughed, but it wasn’t the horrible clacking laughter that she had heard earlier. It was softer and more rueful, the most human sound that she had yet heard it make.
“I won’t,” it said. “I understand why you’d think that, but I wouldn’t.”
It took two more steps forward. Sarah backed up. Jep didn’t.
It stroked one long, articulated hand over the horse’s neck.
She could see the exact moment when the horse woke. She saw the flanks heave as it inhaled, and saw the marionette’s ball–joint fingers tighten in the suddenly liquid mane.
“We did badly by each other, old man,” said the marionette distantly.
“We did,” said Jep quietly. “She’d have been disappointed in us.”
It shook its head. “She’d have understood.”
The horse lifted its head. Its carved nostrils flared open and it turned and nuzzled the marionette’s arm.
“I’m going now,” said the carved boy. “Finally. Now that I have my horse.”
“All right,” said Jep.
It—he—swung up on the horse’s back. They were perfectly sized for one another. He had to lean far forward to go through the doorway, but then he was through.
As one, Sarah and Jep followed.
The moon was the eye of an ink–dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars. They walked through the shadows of the sideyard. The pale wood–grain color of the horse was bleached to blue–white bone.
Moonlight surrounded the boy and the horse as they walked into the street. The click of wooden hooves on asphalt became a clatter as the horse broke into a trot, and then into a run, and then the moonlight was a blue ribbon before them and they were running up it and there was no sound at all.
And they were gone.
Sarah had to put Jep to bed. He was heavy, for all his frailness, and she was practically carrying him as they reached the bedroom.
She tried to set him down on the near side of the bed and he struggled until she helped him around to the far side, where the blankets were pushed back. “My side,” he said, by way of explanation. She looked at the other side, at the neatly tucked pillow and the faint depression in the mattress, and she would have cried again if there were any tears left in her.
She got his shoes off and left it at that. His frayed suit wouldn’t get any more frayed for being slept in.
She picked up her tools. When she had duplicates, she left him one, and when she didn’t she left him one anyway. Her credit card could strain to another few knives if it had to.
She let herself out of the shed and drove back to the flea market in the moonlight. She kept expecting to see a horse and a rider, but she didn’t and she thought probably no one else ever would either.
She was exhausted, but there was no chance of sleeping. She didn’t feel like going home.
Instead, she keyed in the security code and let herself into the empty building. Her stall was dark, but she turned on one light, and saw the reflections winking in Rauf’s popcorn maker across the way.
She had the right tools to finish the ruddy, so she did.
There was light coming in through the skylights when she put the last line on the feathers.
She sat back. Her neck ached and her eyes were gritty. It was the best thing she had ever carved, even better than the horse’s tail.
She didn’t know what she was waiting for.
She set down the sandpaper and sighed.
“Maybe I’m being stupid,” she said. Her voice sounded thin and lost in the vast echoing spaces of the market.
The duck carving flexed its wings. Its unpainted bill opened, just a fraction, and then it shook itself and settled back down. Its tail flicked, and then it was a wooden carving again, with no more life than any piece of art has on its own.
A single wooden feather slipped free of the wings and landed on the table.
She picked it up. It was unpainted, and more perfectly carved than anything that she had ever done.
But not, perhaps, more perfect than anything she could do.
She stroked her hands over the wood, then got up and turned out the light and went home.
(Editors’ Note: “Wooden Feathers” is read by Max Gladstone and Amal El–Mohtar, and Ursula Vernon is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 7A.)
© 2015 by Ursula Vernon