Winter was well underway and Agostino felt it all too keenly. His blanket was no longer adequate and with another thrown over it just about prevented him from freezing to death at nights. On evenings a warm fireplace with logs crackling in a blazing fire made him stare away from goblins of boredom. It became a constant struggle to attend to his daily needful things. He knew his age had finally caught up with him. He was old and worn out.
To be old and with so many hurts still unattended to took their toll: it made him perpetually sour and angry.
The more he glanced at his past, all those little hurts became more insolent and seemed to outstare him. When he was rough and ready he was relieved off his trusty axe. Why? He thought it made mock of his muscular strength.
“Oh I was young and strong of nerves to swing an axe”, his mind was ready with an excuse. ”But did you get a woman, a helpmate for all that fire in your blood?” No why? He was slowly building a cage about him and creepers with thorns were blocking the quietness of his existence. The Cloud Peak was beoming drab and dry!
No more he could bear to look at his dolls. It brought up his old annoyances again. Now and then he saw some children taking a peek into the house and scurry away in fright. They were still frightened of him. Even when he would have made peace it was not possible. The dolls were now ruined beyond repair.
Whenever weather permitted him he would cautiously step out and meet other folks to catch up with news; he took time out to attend a few funerals and visit the houses of mourning. From casual talks it was apparent those children who were once regular visitors to his house had gone each in his own way. Some were away in the fields, or in the mines; some had joined up in vessels or as apprentices to some tradesmen. A few like Polybus and Ciprian had joined with their fathers. Well Agostino could understand they were past the age of playing with the dolls. He had nothing to do with their going away. Yet whenever he looked at his dolls with this new understanding he didn’t feel at ease.
His dolls remained still ruined.
Being old his sleep was light; and one night he heard scratching sounds that a cat would make on wood while filing its claws. He lit a candle and walked to the door.
To his amazement a little boy stood outside his head flaked still with soft snow. It had just began falling. He hurriedly opened the door wide urging him to to come in. The boy, hardly thirteen and shivering a little stumbled in. His clothes were spotted with slush; and his knuckles, the old man could see, were almost blue from cold. Agostino felt pity that he had not reckoned for guests lodging for the night. It was such nights as these his solitary existence showed its nothingness. He revived the fire, which blazed new with a whimper. Thereafter he was on the run to fetch his best blanket to wrap over him. The boy still held on to his valise which was light and he smiled weakly to say his name. ‘Immanuel’, he said. Agostino nodded even as he put some water to boil. Next he handed over his own shirt that was too large for the child. It was at least dry and its coarse weave could keep the cold out. Agostino breathlessly attended to his comfort as best as he could.
Soon a warm broth revived the boy who would have spoken but the old man shushed him and showed the alcove where a bed was fitted. The child weak as he was slumped and let the host tuck him for the night. Immediately he fell asleep. Agostino was not surprised: the boy was faint with cold and harshness of his travel.
He walked across and knocked at the door of the weaver whom among other neighbours had shown him proof of friendliness more often. Though unaccustomed to ask favours he flew to him. It was emergency. So much the weaver could well gather as Agostino mumbled his want. Instantly he fetched a loaf of bread and gave it to him. Silently he took off.
Agostino went tiptoe and hearing his steady breath he
let out a sigh of satisfaction. He knew the boy was none the worse for hazarding out in such a cold night. Silently he placed the coarse bread near his head.
“What is the mystery?” he asked himself as he went to lie in his bed. He just lay still unable to sleep.
When he had woken up he saw the soft morning sun swept half across the rush mat that lay in front of his bed. He had overslept! Quickly he went over to the next room. Immanuel had eaten off half his loaf of bread and he had arrayed the dolls on the bed and he was lost in thoughts with same expression he had often seen in those kids from the neighbourhood.
The doll-maker winced as the child squealed in pleasure. “This is marvellous!” The host was apologetic and in the face of such innocent expression his words trailed in despair. As far as he had seen they were a sorry lot callously reminding of a sorry episode.
The news had meanwhile reached into every nook and corner of that village. The folks had something to chew about. A strange boy had come in search of his father. They had heard from children of some dark secret that made the odd jobs man a queer body. What Ambrose, the imbecile had once bandied about revived. So the dark secret of the doll-maker was true after all!
(to be cont’d)
A few children who had never been inside went to the cottage. To their astonishment a total stranger now had those dolls. He played as natural as though he owned them! They stood there mystified.
Immanuel broke off in the middle of his game and looked up to the children. He with a nod invited them over and soon they were into the swim of things as though their fantasies were one, made evenly matched by their innocence. Even when the host came in they simply continued with their ‘doll watching.’
Agostino made peace with children most of them he had never seen them before. And they, were under his roof as though they rightly belonged there, and accepted what was proffered and ate. They continued with their play.
The old man quickly made himself scarce in order to encourage children a clear field. On the fourth day Immanuel stopped as he made for the door and said,” We are among friends. Aren’t we?” He looked at those children who nodded in agreement. They never before had seen dolls so close. They looked at their host as though scales were dropped from their eyes. In their eyes they knew he was a harmless old man who were possessed with some uncommon gifts. In the presence of a child who sweetly played with the dolls the children knew the doll-maker was a wizard who could make his dolls so endearing. Did Immanuel by his sweet disposition clear the air as it were, or they were natural to believe only what their eyes had seen?
Agostino was going through some turmoil and he excused himself to prepare for the supper. Later in the evening, after the table was cleared the boy sat down waiting. He instinctively seemed to guess at something: What troubled the old man? He asked and Agostino in a tremulous voice that betrayed his troubled mind admitted he was sorry for his life spent foolishly creating some dolls. Ashamed he broke off to ask instead what made him set out through that rough terrain at such time of the year. By the candlelight, the face of the boy had something of an angel surrounded by the aura of innocence.
He replied, ”I came to see you.”
Agostino took a double take. His expression remained clear and sweet as he explained, ”I heard your name while I was in the fields; and during my voyage I heard some boys speak of you with the same affection. Glaucus and Felix are from these parts. You know the children of the stone mason?” Agostino shook his head.
“Of course Ambrose you know,?” Immanuel persisted,”- and he was the cabin boy who attended me and we got around to talk. At one point he said how happy he was once. He was evidently homesick. And you know what he said next? ‘How those dolls made me feel whole and complete!’ The way he said it, he has some strange way of expressing himself,- nevertheless it was convincing, and it made me curious. So many others, why they look back to some dolls with longing and regrets? In all of them, without any exception, your dolls were so impacted. Why I wanted to know?”
Agostino could not believe. He never had thought his handiwork meant to another as much as it was for him. Neither could he imagine those dolls would have rounded off the childhood of any to perfection. In him what loomed large was his quarrel. Whereas his dolls meant something far more than he had imagined.
In short he and the boy seemed to be talking of altogether two different things!
Immanuel with a hand on his arm restrained him.
“You are a good man. So I wanted to come and tell you myself,” After turning towards the dolls, ”and of course see them myself.”
“These dolls are ruined!” Agostino shook up in sobs. He cried and he didn’t try to stop. The presence of the boy made it all seem so natural.
Before turning in for the night Immanuel set each doll on the work bench and setting Safiah against Deborah side by side he said casually, ”See these two have kissed and made up!” He made each doll kiss one another as though those dolls had a life of their own! Agostino looked on with ‘a wild surmise’ as the poet would say.
Some strange thought seemed to rake up the turmoil within and smoothen it once more. He felt joy welling, something new. It was truly felt.
These dolls were no more ruined than he was! In the presence of the boy his handiwork had broken the lie and showed things in their true order: What he did for those children was beyond himself and beyond every lie. He had
given to their drab childhood, a shine that no dark cloud ever massing over their lives could quite erase. A silver lining.
He felt elated.
That night he slept soundly as if nothing ever troubled his mind.
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Certainty of our character is not something that we can recall out of the blue. It must be made part of our nature so certainty is a cumulative result of lessons we have learned by living right. The story of Samson, a Judge of Israel has an important lesson. Keeping company with Delilah he was forced to reveal the secret of his strength to her. He was so smitten by her that he never realized its consequences. Consequentially he was betrayed by her to his enemies. When Delilah told him the Philistines had come to take him he shook himself out his drunken sleep but found that his strength had left him. Character is in preserving the certainty of the promises that Life holds for each of us. Like Michelangelo’s case it needs courage, discipline and care to bring it to fighting fit. Moses was uncertain as to the circumstance that would save him. Only that he was certain the Lord of Israel would keep His promise.
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Agostino The Martinet
Agostino kept an open house. It was in keeping with the custom prevailed in that region. Even when he went visiting for three or four days at a stretch.
He vaguely knew where he had come from and of a few of his distant relations who still lived here and there. He took trouble to seek them out little by little. Having found those old souls took warmly to his rekindling their kindred spirits he made more frequently such visits.
Besides such visits sharpened his appetite for coming home: ‘looking up his dolls’ as he said. His dolls, twenty of them kept his house he knew. He learnt to tolerate the presence of boys and girls who dropped in as matter of custom and left by sundown. His critical eye as always looked out for trouble. Whenever he came in from his visits he looked out if the children were in best of their behaviour or not.
Once on his return he found children assembled about his dolls. They were fully into their game and it did not upset him as much as what his creatures: Marcos was pushed around and apparently had knocked Diana almost to the edge. Quickly he attended to them and said as if no one in particular, ‘Do not touch!’ That rule holds whether I am out or in!” Controlling his annoyance he laid on the table some titbits he had brought along. He avoided looking at any one in particular. Since he knew he had made the point clear enough he thereafter tried to act as normal.
After that irritated outburst there ensued silence. The boys were cowed and girls pale with nervousness.
The children soon went off after nibbling some roasted nuts and raisins. Polybus the bird-catcher’s son however murmured, after making sure he was safe, ”Augustine could be annoying!” Their fantasies where they played them out didn’t mean a thing. But the dolls were crucial to them. The doll-maker was becoming somewhat crabby to their taste.
After he had freshened up Agostino went leisurely over his dolls. These were his life-blood, the result of endless sweat and dreams. He was assured of his success in the manner children from the neighbourhood took to them. It always made him feel good. But his concern for their safekeeping also alarmingly grew. He always was alert that the creatures were not damaged by mischief.
” The children are for mischief,” the dollmaker asserted,” but not with my dolls!” He grew more watchful when his young admirers trooped in.
One night. In the middle of that night he got up with a start. And he had heard some stirring; and it came from the hall! He peeked and he stood stock-still, his heart thumping with excitement. Those dolls were not in their usual place. He turned around and saw them on the worktable. “My dolls are alive!” he exclaimed despite of himself. Yes, they were as natural as those children who for every afternoon had kept their vigil by them. They skipped and hopped across the chisel marks and looked over the traces of glue with the intensity of a child in real life. Three boys turned to Deborah and one offered a butterfly that had permanently settled on his forefinger. While Glacis held out a bunch of grapes from a little wicker basket he held in his other hand. Another showed surprise at Safiah a girl who showed jealousy at the attention Deborrah got from boys. It was so uncanny that shook up the old man. Agostino gasped.
They obviously overheard and they immediately went to their appointed places.
The doll-maker was elated but as he went back to his bed he was troubled. “The children served them as models! No doubt of that!” He was convinced.
Next morning he got up with a start, “What if the children were to serve them as bad example?” Agostino had poured his entire life and he knew too much was at risk. ‘He was certain the children under his roof had to be perfect in all manner. That much lay within his power. He was sure. “I cannot allow my life’s work to be spoilt.”
In the day’s to come Agostino showed much attention to their presence. The children noted with a sinking heart. His proffered glasses of lemonade or dried fruits didn’t lessen the rigor of his course in good manners. They noted he was more like a school master than as a doll-maker. They chafed under his crabbiness that didn’t take note of their spontaneity. The more he became a stickler for proper decorum he became as odious as a Pecksniff. ”Don’t do this, don’t slouch, sit up!” and thus went on his admonitions. He began noticing words and gestures that had hitherto escaped him and every slip in their manners was named. He didn’t so much intend to shame them but keep what was acceptable behaviour fixed in their minds. It was for dolls’ sake!
No one could understand why it had to be this way. Their fantasies they had for long tied to the dolls that in some way expressed their innocence and their childhood. Now the wet blanket of a doll-maker loomed large and so menacing! and their fantasies were in danger of being smashed to bits and pieces! In the days to come the children took secret council far away from presence of the doll-maker and they concluded that they had to shape up. They could not risk making him an enemy. In order to be able to play with the dolls, – these were their world too, they would do all to please their maker.
But their heart was not in it. So much was obvious to the doll maker in a matter of three months. He had let the children who were so well behaved and so considerate free run of the house as before. Each month he would be gone on visit and he noticed nothing amiss. How relieved he was as he came home as usual!
The dolls were as perfect as the first time.
Six months later he had retired as usual and in the small hours he was awakened by some alarm. Safiah was on a rampage and was astride over Deborah pummelling her left and right. Those two boys whose attention to the fair Deborah had snapped something in her, obviously. Agostino took their spirited fight as if transfixed. Soon the dolls took sides and a general brawl broke out. It was something he had never foreseen. It didn’t take much to lay the cause of their bad behaviour.
Agostino didn’t sleep for he was upset. He looked back at the delight that he found in their creation. ‘It was all for nothing!” He sadly shook his head. How they were spoilt was beyond his ken. Only that he knew those children whom he let in had contributed to their bad conduct. He felt deceived! From that point his anger built on itself by fits and starts. He was in a fury.
When those kids from the nearby lanes dropped in they were astounded to see the doll-maker barring their path. He shook his fists and spluttered with rage, ”Be gone!” They stood there shuffling unable to understand. But his fury and threats made them well understand they had better clear off. They went off.
(to be cont’d)
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Posted in moral philosophy, tagged character, circumstances, creative genius, Gaugin, Stendhal, TE Lawrence, Thoreau, Truth, Variable Speeds on December 16, 2008|
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Where does life of a man or woman begins? Birth is merely a point, a reference point, a milestone as death is. Influences of life from its parents have already made its own impressions even while it is still a foetus. A life is measured between birth and death as a way of convenience. But it misses the essentials, which are supplied by life. Stendhal in his own time had to put up with indifferent public and conspiracy of silence from literary critics of the day. Nevertheless he kept on with his writing of which a few perceptive minds, Honorè de Balzac was one, were enthusiastic about. Stendhal dedicated his ‘ The Charterhouse of Parma’ to these ‘ happy few,’. He also predicted that he would be read some 50 years hence which uncannily was proved true.
Oneness of things works on a different timescale than we hold. We have a quality time and it is for doing the needful things like our creature comforts. We are simple and misguided to think of success in terms of material riches. It is arbitrary. Creative genius of Van Gogh or Gaugin was such that they had different priorities in life and they outraged the conservative tastes of the day.
Van Gogh sold only one painting in his troubled life and now his works are priceless. Paul Gaugin’s bad luck persisted throughout his life. He left France and Paris the art capital of the world hoping that the king of Tahiti would buy his works. Before he could see him the king had died leaving him to fend for himself to a yahoo life as TE Lawrence qualified any life that was given into ‘ possession of aliens.’ Worse still his only skill, which he possessed was of not much use in Tahiti. He was forced to a life in a limbo entirely cut off from the world of art, which was necessary for him. Three years after his death in 1903 in Marquesas islands, an exhibition of his retrospective works held in Paris was a triumph. It caused a revival and interest in his works. Soon he was judged as one of the greatest painters who had impressed upon the 20th Century art.
One may in course of his or her life come up for many disappointments. What are many missed opportunities or disappointments of a genius if he is denied what is his due? It is not that the public or the masses are dumb but the sorrows of a genius owe to the fact the public and the genius march to a different beat; The public have their opinion on tastes and would act as an arbiter of what is good and what is bad. These guardians of morality derive their authority from their perception of finite time: they fashion their judgment to explain their times from their insufficient evidences; they are like automatons sold to the tyranny of time. Creative minds have a different concept of time. As the sage who said, these march to a different drummer than they. Character is what balances a life whether it is done on the coordinates of time or Time. These variable Speeds still give Character its recognizable form. Truth.
Truth is that quality which, like a keystone, holds all facets of a life where influences, what is derived and what is patently homegrown, are in equipoise.
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Once while waiting for a customer to come Agostino sat on his front veranda and whittled away a piece of wood out of odds and ends piled in a basket. His penknife went on with a sure touch, and the man with whom he had some business to talk over startled him. To that purpose they had agreed the night before the hour and the place. He had completely forgotten about him! The fellow did not frown at his neglect. Instead he stood there rooted and then squealed; and said the face was the spitting image of the stove maker. “Why look at that pendulous nose and his double chin!” Before he could add a word Agostino abruptly changed the subject. He didn’t want to waste his time he explained by way of an apology for his curtness. He was rather put out for his lapse. Nevertheless the customer went that day happy because he had done a thorough job with his broken down chair.
That evening Agostino while going through the day’s events knew he had discovered another side to his many talents. He picked up the figure of the stove maker. It was his spittin’ image. Well he was ugly. Yet something in that soothed him in a way he had never before felt. It was inexplicable! Like some sorcerer he had lifted some discard and given it a new dimension- a second chance!
In the days to come he applied his leisure wholly to carve figures in wood. At first his figures were quite crude; yet he kept at it till he could invest character in the way he set out features and posture to a form. With patience and perseverance he polished his craft till he could take pleasure; even the tedium of creation gave him joy. Art was not in his axe; neither was it in his penknife or awl. But something in the way he applied his hands so closely to a block of wood, and tried to keep to what he had only imagined worked. It made the piece of wood something else.
It made all his toil worthwhile.
Such was his thrill that he invited those who happened to pass by to take a look. They said with one voice, ”How smart the oddjobs man is!”
Agostino made three dolls no bigger than his palm. It took him about one year. He had drawn them from life and gave them familiar features that however were so mixed.
Yet that didn’t fool his young admirers. They could detect who served as a model for any particular figure they happened to examine. One day Cyprian, the son of the drover hazarded to give name to one doll but the sudden arrival of the doll-maker put a stop.
Agostino did not care much for the children who stopped by to watch him at work. Being much of a loner he learnt to work on despite of their curiosity. Slowly more children from the neighborhood came to look at the handiwork. They watched with bated breath at the furious way he blocked out in wood and how his strong hands glided over details as if the metal knew its routine. While he worked on the head his chisel cut away only the non- essentials and lo and behold the nose, ears or the chin they could see come largely unscathed. Thereafter while he applied cuttlefish bone along the surface smoothening the skin it always caused great commotion. ‘Will he succeed or miss? The children would wonder. Had he rubbed too hard and knocked out a nose or an ear that would have rendered all his effort in vain. No, his attention and mastery over his material always succeeded.
In their awe Agostino thought they were sincere and let them free run of the house. He even let them handle the dolls as long as they were gentle. He liked the way their eyes lit up to watch his creations. Soon the children from the neighborhood become a constant fixture in that cottage by the Cloud Peak.
Unknown to him they thought he was a sorcerer. He had carved three dolls at first. They saw his cleverness was inhuman. Cleo Nike who never liked to speak ill defended the doll-maker thus, “Agostino is regular like you and me. But may be too clever for my liking.” Ambrose who was treated as an idiot, said all those dolls were done in memory of those children lost so young and in suspicious circumstances. How they laughed him down! What followed it got somewhat out of hand. Only the timely arrival of the doll-maker put a lid on the rough play.
‘ Agostino is a wizard!’ It was their secret and they shook hands on it. They would never breathe a word of it to their parents.
Whatever they might have thought of Agostino it was at his cottage they always converged. Those three dolls had grown larger in number, and there were a few girls adding to the collection. By the time he had made ten dolls, five of them boys the children could well anchor their fantasy to the five pairs.’ Watching the dolls’ had became a routine and these five pairs had taken a life of their own filling as large as life. It made their fantasy world colourful and always gave them something to talk about.
Agostino indulged their presence only as admirers who did rightful homage to his handiwork. They were intrusion, nevertheless an unavoidable distraction.
After he had finished the twentieth doll he stopped. It had taken three years of constant toil. Since he worked as oddjobs man he took to applying final touches after supper. Till late into the night he could work by the candlelight sitting by the workbench and before the fire. That rounded off each day satisfactorily.
He showed the same care in their dress as he took in giving names and character. He dressed them in clothes, which were currently in fashion. With loving care he stitched dresses in bits and pieces of silk, calico and natural fibres he could lay hands on. Those sequins and mother of pearl in-lay work he had saved came now handy.
He fell in love like a foolish father with all of them. Still he had his favorites. Marcos, an ivory skinned lad with curls of wool was dressed in sailor suit with gilded buttons. Deborah had a dress in long skirt with four flounces and a blouse. She showed a shepherd’s crook in her hand and a basket of wool, which was picturesque. ‘For a shepherdess on her way to market she was dressed, too pretty.” so said the stove maker once. When the news reached the ears of the doll maker he said,” Bah!” He wanted his creatures to look their best. He was looking into an ideal world rather than what their humdrum lives would have warranted. Thus he happily worked out details for each. It made sense to him.
Ah, the dolls took so much of his time and during the day he kept them arrayed on the workbench. With great care he put each away for the night on a shelf he had fixed between two windows.
He knew he was neglecting his career. Making dolls now took his all. But he was old and he assured himself that he had reached a point where he needed not do anything where he could not put his heart and soul.
(to be cont’d)
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Uncertainty principle ought to teach every life the importance of making a stand even where there is nothing to hope for. Moses was a timid man by nature and it was on him God had entrusted the children of Israel. Consider him stuck between the Red Sea and the chariots of the Pharaoh and his army. Each of us is like Moses in one sense. We are hemmed in by circumstances. The vital point to remember is that circumstances are always on uncertain mode while how we make a stand is on certain mode.
Just because of recession and economic meltdown do we throw down the towel? Do we give up our lives as of no consequence? Do we leave our wives and children in the lurch because some crooks have made off with our life savings?
Circumstances are of uncertain mode while our actions have certainty: energy spent in one sense is part of our energy profile. In addition our options are progressively narrowed according to what choices we make. Our actions after we have finished whether good or bad have a life of their own.
Look at history: At the close of WWII the Allies dropped bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It ushered in the atomic age. What was its effect? The Allies won the war but created a condition for a nuclear war between the USA and USSR. Now the world’s biggest worry is that rogue nations may decide to use one in order to score a point. It may be to prove the devil’s ideology or it may be sheer out of malice. The effect is a no man’s land and makes a mockery of cause for which a nation would make a stand. The WWI was a war to make an end of all wars. We are living still from the hangover of that war.
Tailspin: Circumstance that Moses faced was uncertain but his certainty of God’s promise was rooted in something else. What is our certainty in our everyday lives, (leaving aside connotations of God,) but our character?
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