One Hundred

Here's the very first Drawtober story I wrote, along with the picture that inspired it. The prompt for the drawing, "A Medieval robot, along with its operator," helped set the tone.

One hundred turns of the handle. By the time he was finished, his legs trembled beneath him and his breath came in short, wheezing gasps. Merek lowered himself from the platform and gazed up at what he had created:  a man. A sort of man, hewn of wood, bolted and wired together, carved by his own hand. Crude, but magnificent.

Merek nodded, satisfied.

“Come,” he said to the wooden man.

The wooden man wore the pack Merek had prepared, while Merek carried a rucksack and leaned on his walking stick. At the edge of his modest property, which was marked by a small stone upon a larger stone, Merek looked back, once.

One hundred turns of the handle would power the wooden man through one entire day. The wooden man easily kept pace with Merek as they moved across the fallow field, toward the village.

At the end of the first day, they camped. In the morning, Merek hoisted himself into the low branches of a small tree and cranked:  one hundred times.

They detoured around the village, a longer route but necessary. Merek did not want to be stopped or questioned about his companion.

On the third day, he looked back. He could no longer see his home and wondered if he was making a mistake. In sixty-three years, he had never left. He’d been born there, grew up there, learned his trade. Took care of his father and buried him under the willow tree when old age took him. Merek had married his love young, and they had shared his home. She was gone now, too. Had taken with her the children they never had, ghosts of their own hopes. Still, it had been a happy place. At night, after the sheep were in their pen and the work of the day was done, he would take out his knife and carve by the fire, while his wife knitted and sang. Curls of wood fell onto the floor. He held up the object he had made.

“A bird!” his wife said, delighted.

He placed it in her hand and she fingered the handle.

“Turn it,” he said.

She did so, counting under her breath. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

The bird flapped its wings, turned its head to and fro. Its tiny beak opened and closed.

“It’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Will it sing?”

Merek shook his head. “It has no tongue,” he explained.

“Then I shall sing for it.”

And she did, her lovely voice warmer than the flames that blazed in the fireplace.

He made other birds. He made a furless dog, able to wag its tail but unable to bark. He carved creatures no one had ever seen, and they roamed the yard until they wound down, and then Merek turned their handles again — one hundred turns for each.

He never showed her the child he made. Instead, unable to bring himself to disassemble it, he left in the night and buried it in the center of the fairy ring that sprouted each spring, out by the willow tree where his father rested.

Now, Merek pulled himself onto the top of a fence. Balanced as he turned the wooden man’s handle.

They walked side by side. They crossed the river, Merek riding the wooden man’s shoulders. At night, under the stars, when Merek grew cold, he drew the arms of the wooden man around him.

He crawled onto a boulder and turned the handle. Once finished, he sat at the base of the rock, breathing heavily. Regaining his strength.

He dreamed of his wife. Of her laughter, often heard, as sweet as her singing voice. Of her body, warm against his in the bed they’d shared for more than forty-five years.

In the foothills, as they climbed, Merek’s walking stick broke. He took the wooden man’s hand and continued to climb.

The rain came, and Merek sat beneath a tree to wait out the storm. He fished in his rucksack and found the oil can he’d brought along, and when the sun returned, he oiled the wires and bolts that held together the wooden man’s joints.

Higher up, the air grew thin. Merek labored for breath. He ate the last of the bread he had packed, drank the last of the water. Above the treeline, the mountain was covered in scrub brush and stones. No trees to climb, no fences upon which to balance. He moved slowly, hunched over, and slowly gathered stones. Piled them. Wobbled as he turned the handle. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

Together, they climbed.

Sometimes when the wind picked up, he heard her voice, singing.

On the fifth or sixth day, Merek stumbled. His legs were finished. His stomach moaned, the sound of a wind blowing through a hollow tree.

The wooden man lowered itself to the ground, its handle turning more and more slowly, until it stopped.

“We are finished,” Merek said.

He fell asleep dreaming of the mountaintop.

In the morning, he found himself floating. Hovering several feet above the ground. He opened his eyes and discovered that he was being carried in the arms of the wooden man. Its joints creaked as it walked. Its face and shoulders were chipped, its body weathered from the journey. Its handle turned, and somehow, the wooden man climbed.

Merek drifted to sleep as he was carried, lulled by the gentle movement of the wooden man. He dreamed of a giant wooden man, even larger than the one he had made, one whose strides spanned whole cities, whose arms could carry entire families.

He woke when the wooden man stopped. It had finally happened — the handle had stopped turning, and the wooden man would move no further. Merek steeled himself, searched inside himself for the strength he would need to drop to the ground, gather stones, climb them, and turn the handle again. He searched, but could not find it. He had no strength left.

He opened his eyes. They had reached the top of the mountain.

Merek gazed out from the pinnacle. It was a clear day, the afternoon sun blazing. He could see everything. The forest where he and the wooden man had gotten briefly lost, where he had played as a child. The river they had crossed. The village they had bypassed — Merek had sold his sheep’s fur there, had bought flour and sugar and a scarf he knew would please his wife. His own home, a tiny speck. The land he had tended all his life. The place where his wife was buried, not far from his father, not far from the child he had made.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely a rasp. “Thank you,” he told the wooden man.

The sun began to set. A gentle wind rose. Merek’s eyelids fluttered, and he struggled to keep them open, to keep his gaze on the rivers and trees and village and home. Shadows on the mountaintop grew longer as the swollen sun sank lower.

Merek rested in the arms of the wooden man. He heard singing. The wind had died and carried no tune, and there were no birds at this altitude. Yet he heard it:  a wandering melody, punctuated by a faint creaking, as if the wires and bolts of the singer’s jaws were rusted, as if the singer himself had never before given voice to the song inside him.

The sun dipped behind the mountain, and the people in the village below lit their fires.

***