Distal Tapers

Below is a story I wrote which has been rejected by several journals so I took it out of submission contention in order to rewrite it. I thought I would post the old version here and maybe later post my rewrites. As my family will probably detect, the story is about my father who died of cancer and was a wooden sword maker. 

DISTAL TAPERS

By David H Weinberger

 He was a sword maker before he died. He had no particular love or interest in swords, or any other weapons, nor did he have an interest in knights, dragons, Vikings, or medieval violence. So it was surprising when he became a sword maker and although there were clues, his family often wondered why he decided to begin making swords instead of toy trucks or puzzles. He was a sword maker for a brief period of time; however, he produced an astounding quantity and breadth of wooden swords.

 He must have had some knowledge of swords and sword geometry when he started making them because they resembled real swords in both the blade and the hilt. He made double-edged blades with tang, fuller, central ridge, and point. They were primarily made of pine, as pine made up the bigger pieces of scrap in his shop. Pine is difficult wood to work with in building blades because of its softness and its difficulty in holding an edge, but he had a certain artistry with pine and it responded well to his machinations. He built the blade like a blade smith would, with a single piece of wood for the blade and the tang. The blades had lenticular distal tapers, narrowing to a finely honed point. His chosen finish for the blades was a basic wax finish, hand polished to a shimmering glow. His blades all had the same basic long-sword geometry but differed in width and length.

 The hilts he created also followed basic sword anatomy. He always built a decorous pummel, although it served no real purpose as a counter-weight. Sometimes he added a peen block to the pummel but often he left the peen flush. He made his cross guards from hardwood and followed different geometries but usually a simple flat bar: oval, rectangular, or rhombic. These he either waxed or painted. The grips, waxed or stained, were mounted to the tang in two parts. Towards the end, he began to experiment with different grip finishes. Some he wrapped in leather, others he wound with twine. He never added a basket to his swords so all of his swords were cruciform in appearance.

I suspect that this cruciform appearance was the source of inspiration for his sword making. His religion did not worship the cross; however, as a child the cross and the crucifix were crucial and influential elements in his religious education. Perhaps creating cruciform swords was his way of acknowledging the cross and the meaning it had in his life. It was as if each cruciform sword was helping him approach his end, or as he would say, to meet his maker. That is one of the reasons he did not pursue chemo: he claimed he was ready, and actually, desirous, to meet his maker.

 

He told his family about his cancer six months before he died. He sat in the living room with his wife and children and discussed his disease and diagnosis. He had been sick for some time. He was beginning to miss work or come home early. He had prostate cancer before so he knew the signs. The prostate cancer was minor; the therapy was manageable. His current cancer was so spread through his organs, however, that the doctors could not find the etiology of it. The outlook was bleak and the doctors advised him that he did not have much time left. The treatment would be difficult and would not prolong his life for any substantial amount of time. His plan, worked out between he and his wife, was to quit work, enjoy his remaining time, and build furniture full-time. When he became too sick to continue with this plan, hospice care would be used to help him finish his process. Overall, he was saddened to leave his family and his life, but as he assured his family, fully prepared to meet his maker. And he followed the plan as laid out that evening. He quit his job and put whatever energy he had into building furniture and working around the house.

Before he was a sword maker, he liked to build furniture in his spare time. He worked with pine or oak, and occasionally with veneered plywood. He made country style furniture: chests, benches, and curio cabinets. His projects included home improvements as well, such as shelving, banisters, fences, and decks. His handiwork could be seen in all his children’s homes. Grandchildren were certain to get a toy box, as well as one of the many wood cars and trucks he built.

He got sicker faster than he imagined and the difficulties in the shop began shortly after the family discussion. As he got sicker it was more difficult to work the larger pieces of lumber necessary for his projects. Manipulating it through the shop and on the machines was exhausting work, and eventually, he could no longer do it by himself. He frowned upon needing and asking for help in his own shop; it was easier to find projects he could create by himself. That is when he began making swords. He used scrap wood he had from previous projects, mostly the pine and oak, but often incorporated hardwoods: cherry, walnut, or maple. The scrap wood was smaller and lighter and, most importantly, I believe they allowed him to be independent in his shop.

I remember the first sword he built, which now belongs to one of his grandchildren. It was bulky in comparison to his later swords yet it had an attractiveness that belied its common usage. It had a wider blade than he would later produce but the grip fit perfectly in the hand and the sword seemed to have a heft that did not belong to soft woods. Although it was the infancy of his sword creations, I marveled at the realistic quality and brutal beauty it contained.

He spent every moment he could in the shop with his swords. He worked for an hour on stock-removal for a new blade. Then he sat down to work on a new cover for a grip. He worked for several hours at a time, but then needed to take a long break. But he always managed, over the next five months, to work his way back to his shop to continue his sword building. And his sword building continued right up to the end.

 

Hospice care arrived on a Friday morning, after a long and painful, sleepless night. He once volunteered with hospice care and he valued his experience because he learned about himself as he worked with a dying young man. It was the first time he saw a life slipping away, and along with that vision, he began to think about the ideas of mortality and immortality. He was distraught about the young man losing his life, but the experience fortified his feeling in an afterlife, in the idea of God as a loving father, and the idea of a man’s soul being with God for eternity. Not all of the family members believed these things, and in fact several were adamantly opposed to them. However, they could all see the difference the experience had wrought in him. He seemed more peaceful, more sentimental. And in his shop, for some reason, his projects, and later his swords, took on a greater love and care from his hands. As if each piece were a gift he was given.

So it was no surprise that he decided to use hospice care for his last days. They made him comfortable in his bedroom and his family visited him. Grandchildren were sure to bring a sword with them and ask him if he remembered making a particular sword, and if he remembered when he gave the sword to them. It only took him two weeks to die after hospice care began. He deteriorated quickly with each passing day and when he died, he seemed to be relieved, and pleasantly anxious for what was to come.

 

From furniture maker to sword maker, he did not seem to have any learning curve. One day, he just started making swords. The quality and beauty increased with each sword but the basic geometry and anatomy were there in the beginning. And his family, the grown children and the grandchildren of all ages, loved the swords. He started by collecting the swords for himself, but eventually, in spite of his sickness, he had accumulated far too many swords to display for himself and his wife. So he started to give them to his family. Family visits always ended with hugs, kisses, and the gift of a sword or two.

There are not so many swords left in his shop any longer. His wife continues to give away what is left. Great-grandchildren have arrived and are in need of swords so she hands them out when they visit. They are all extremely excited and proud to have a sword made by their great-grandfather. And his wife is happy to be passing on something that was proudly made from his creative hands.

I never took one of his swords. I did, however, admire them. Their sleek profile, their long distal view ending in that polished tip. They certainly attest to his craftsmanship. As the swords dwindle in number, I continue to wonder about the real reason for him choosing to be a sword maker. Perhaps it is the strength and courage represented in a sword: the same strength and courage that he so valiantly displayed in his dying. It could be, that sword making prolonged his independence that he struggled for all his life. Or perhaps it really was the cruciform appearance and he was thinking of his soul with each sword he created.

As far as I know, all of these swords were, and still are, on display in bedrooms or living rooms, and are never used as toys. They represent father, grandfather, and great-grandfather and the skill he had working with wood. The family sees the swords as mementos to be displayed and admired. But I am sure a child at one time must have held one of these swords in his small hands, felt the weight of the blade, felt his hand wrap tightly around the grip, and taken a swing or a thrust in the air before returning it to its place on the wall.

END