Dust and Stone

"I need someone to fix these chairs," the man said. Senin looked at him. There was something shifty in his look - he seemed unable to look Senin in the eyes for more than an instant. Senin had never fixed a chair before, but he wanted to work, so he nodded as if he were the chief of the chair fixing guild.

"Certainly, sir," Senin said. "I can do it. What happened to them?"

"Happened?" the man asked. "Hmph. My brother was storing them in the loft of his barn. In the storm last month, the wind knocked them down. They fell a long way."

Senin nodded again. "Shall we get started?" He was eager to complete his first commission.

The man grunted and gestured for him to enter the house. The house was little, but pleasant enough. Through the back windows he saw a little garden sloping downards towards the forest outside the village. Rolling hills stretched off into the distance. Inside, he saw the mess that bespoke a busy family life. A baby, mostly naked, was chewing on... something. A pile of laundry loomed in a corner. And in the kitchen, some old sticks and planks - were those supposed to be the chairs?

The man gestured towards the sticks in the kitchen. "Seven chairs," he said. "My father made them for us years ago. I want them back."

Senin was starting to understand. The man had said he wanted the chairs back, but maybe what he really wanted was his father back. He sympathized, but he couldn't help but think that he wasn't being hired to fix chairs, but rather make chairs from scratch. More than that, he wasn't sure that the flimsy pieces of wood in front of him could ever be made into anything sturdy. But he nodded anyway, feigning confidence. "Let's get started," he said, trying to sound cheerful.

"Hmph," the man said. "This is my wife," he said, gesturing towards a woman who was walking into the kitchen. Senin had been looking despairingly at the old chairs for so long that he hadn't noticed her. She looked energetic, but something about her also seemed sad.

Senin smiled at her, and bowed. "I am Senin the tinker," he said. It was the first time he had ever introduced himself by his trade - or by what he hoped would be his trade. She gave a perfunctory nod to Senin, but looked at her husband.

"Did you hire those boys again for today?" she asked him, with a clear edge of stress in her voice.

"Hmph," the man said, apparently meaning that he had. She looked away, unhappy.

The man turned back to Senin. "I forgot to tell you my name," he said. "I am Cruft the Shepherd. My wife is Fama."

Senin smiled again. His first customers.

Apparently this was enough chatting for Cruft. He walked out the back door, apparently going past the garden and on a trail into the forest. Senin looked at the chairs and tried to think of a plan for putting them together.

Fama interrupted his deep thoughts. "Why won't he work?" she said nervously, looking towards Cruft as he walked away.

"Hm?" Senin asked, not understanding her.

"Our farm," she said. "He should be working on it today. Some of the nuts are ready to harvest. But he's been hiring hands every day for a week, and going to the forest instead. We cannot earn enough if he does this every day." She looked down, clearly troubled.

Senin had been ready to work as a tinker, and hadn't expected that he would need to work as an adviser for domestic problems as well. "What's in the forest?" he asked. "I mean, why would he go there instead of going to the farm?"

Fama bit her lip. "There's nothing there," she said. "Just... some hunters have cabins there. I couldn't think that he's seeing a woman who lives with the hunters. One of their daughters? I...." She couldn't continue.

"Maybe it's something else," Senin said. "He could be buying something for the farm, or making some deals to sell products?"

Fama shook her head. "He never loved the farm much anyway," she said. "We inherited it from my father. Cruft wasn't a farmer. He wanted to be a woodcarver like his uncle."

Senin looked at the broken chairs at his feet. If Cruft could work with wood, why was he hiring a tinker to fix his wooden chairs?

"Is he sick?" Senin said. "Could he be looking for cunning folk or medicines in the forest?"

Fama bit her lip and looked down again. Evidently this was almost as unpleasant a thought as the idea that he could be seeing another woman. "They say that love makes you blind," she said. "Maybe for men it does. But for a woman, love makes you see too much. You see every possible present and every possible future. Most of them are dark."

Senin had never felt deep and possessing love. "So is love worth it?" he asked simply.

Fama looked at him, puzzled. "Worth it?" she said. "It's not a matter of choice. If you don't love someone truly, then you are nothing. The only choice we have is whether to be men or to be dust. We must love if we are to be more than dust, whatever that's worth."

To Senin, the broken chairs in front of him looked like little more than dust and splinters. When he considered his own life, it also felt like it lacked love and purpose, and he felt like he himself was little more than dust. He wondered whether he would be able to make something out of the nothing of the broken chairs, and whether his work would make something out of himself.


That night, as Senin rested in his tent, he thought about everything that had happened during the day. He wondered whether Cruft would be satisfied with the little progress he had made on the chairs. He wondered whether Fama was feeling better after her day of worry about Cruft. And he wondered where Cruft had been going in the forest.

He wanted to help them - but how? Fixing their chairs wouldn't solve their deepest problems. And talk and advice couldn't be much help either, since Senin was too young to have wisdom and wasn't skilled at conversation anyway. He had very few tools for such a challenge.

Senin put his hand on his bag as he remembered one other tool that he had. He closed his eyes and saw the traveler he had met on the road who had given him his glove, that had a power that he didn't understand. The traveler had touched a blade of grass and transformed it into a dozen fireflies.

Senin put the glove on and wondered if he could do the same thing with it. Slowly, almost fearfully, he touched a blade of grass in his tent with his gloved finger. As he pressed on it, he felt it move and change.

But it didn't become a spark of fireflies. It was growing longer, and Senin witnessed its top expand and lighten and separate to take the shape of a lily. He removed the glove just as it finished its metamorphosis. So it isn't always fireflies, he thought. He was afraid to touch anything else with the glove, and put it away.

As Senin fell asleep he thought about what such a glove could be useful for, and what effects a sudden transformation could have in his life or his work. Making fireflies and lilies was unlikely to help Fama and Cruft, he thought. And unless it could turn a pile of sticks into a chair, it was unlikely to help him the next day. He would find another use for it, he told himself, in a strange new world called the future.


The next morning went exactly as Senin had expected. Cruft was gruff and then walked into the forest. Fama was worried as she tended the children. Senin tried to work fast, but the chairs were in terrible shape, and working in close proximity to Fama and the children led to plenty of distractions.

Senin took a break to eat at midday, and decided to walk a little as he ate. He must have wandered onto the neighbor's field, because he saw a few men working on removing a stump. They noticed him quickly and eyed him suspiciously.

"What are you looking for, stranger?" one of them asked.

"Nothing, friend," Senin said truthfully. "Just walking. I'm working for Cruft over there," he explained, gesturing back towards Cruft's house. This seemed to satisfy them, and they turned back to their work.

"Do you know Cruft?" Senin said, making them pause again.

"He's our neighbor. We ought to," one of them replied.

"Have you seen him go into the forest recently?"

They stopped working again. One put down his tools. "I saw him go in one week ago. He carried a hammer with him."

"A hammer? What kind of hammer?" Senin asked.

"A big one."

"What do you think he was doing?"

Cruft's neighbor shrugged. "He is a serious man. Who can say?"

Senin told Fama about this conversation later. She was also mystified - she had no idea why he would carry a hammer with him. At first she was agitated, and then, for the rest of the afternoon, she was listless. Senin worked as quickly and quietly as possible. When he finally went to his tent at dusk, he had almost finished assembling all of the chairs. He told Fama he would finish everything the next morning.

"Maybe it isn't worth it," Fama said.

"What isn't worth it?" Senin asked.


Senin was shocked. "But didn't you say it's a necessary part of being alive?"

"Maybe that's not worth it either."

Senin couldn't think of any reply. He frowned, and bowed, and returned to his tent to sleep.


Senin made the finishing touches on the chairs in the morning. He was just preparing to leave when he heard Cruft's voice. "Hmph!" Cruft said simply. Senin looked at him, unsure of exactly what that was supposed to mean.

It was hard to read Cruft's face. Senin started talking to fill the silence. "Sir, you can see that I have completed assembling the chairs. I have cleaned up the wood dust. I put the chairs all in a row against the wall here."

Cruft nodded. "Fine work," he said, his voice low. Senin almost thought he saw Cruft smile. "Fama!" he said more loudly. "We'll walk now."

Fama came in to the kitchen, her mouth agape. "Walk?" she said. "Where to?"

"I will show you, wife," Cruft said. He turned to Senin. "Bring two chairs with us."

Us? Senin wondered. He supposed that he would have to go with them in order to collect his payment. Fama and Senin followed silently behind Cruft as he led them into the forest.

The forest was thick but the sun was able to shine through the leaves and onto the trail. The day felt pleasant, although Senin could see out of the corner of his eye that Fama was apprehensive or maybe even afraid.

Cruft turned towards the mountains, and started walking off the trail through the brush. Fama and Senin followed.

They approached a tall, rocky hill. On one side was a rock wall, with a flat, smooth face that Cruft approached.

Fama gasped. Senin looked at her, wondering what had happened. She was looking at the rock wall. Senin looked closer, and he saw it: a relief carving of a man and woman, arm in arm. The man was tall and standing proud. The woman leaned towards him, gently affectionate. The carving showed skill and elegance. Only after a long look could Senin see it: it was Cruft and Fama. Cruft had been sneaking into the forest to carve their likeness into the rock.

Was it their anniversary? Was carving a tradition in their village? "The chairs," Cruft said before Senin could ask. Senin put the chairs down in front of the carving.

"The chairs we sat in when we met," Cruft said, gesturing towards them. "Bread, like we ate when we met," he continued, pulling two rolls out of his bag. "And us there. Stone carving is harder than wood carving! Now sit," he said to Fama. He remembered that Senin was still there. "Your silver," he said, paying Senin in full with extra. Cruft put his arm around Fama as they ate and looked at Cruft's carving. Senin walked away, stealing only one more glance at the miscommunicating, confused, harried, poor, eccentric, blissful couple.