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Message to Readers

So this is the first full short story I've ever written, I've never spent this much time on a piece of writing before so please please PLEASE tell me your thoughts and thank you so so much if you take the time to read it! Do you like the ending? Should I omit the introduction about Alric? Is the dialogue believable?

The Woodcarver First Draft

September 2, 2020


    The town of Alric knew neither peace nor war. There existed neither enemies nor allies behind those Earthen walls; time simply passed. Each morning was introduced by the commotion of awakening livestock, each night the setting of the sun. Nothing existed far outside the households of Alric commoners, and that was how they preferred it. The only thing more alien to them than the oceans was strife. Just as these lowly folks knew little of the world, the world knew little of them; the smell of hog roast rising towards the horizon the only evidence the village persisted. 
   Varner Braun's name had been carried down generation after generation in Alric, his daughter Caelen the newest iteration. His ancestors graced him with the opportunity to live prosperously with his wife and two children, which he took full advantage of. Class was of little concern to the Braun family, as no name should ever ascend higher than another's in their little community. Mr. Braun led a respectably unremarkable life as a humble woodcarver. Whatever deficit there might have been financially was made up for by the happiness he brought to the town children, including his own. Frida was introduced to her father's craft at the age of three, the same day Varner discovered his number one customer, and after Caelen was born, supply could scarcely keep up with demand. Frida outgrew the wooden soldiers after a short time, but her sister was never without one.
    Caelen awoke with a cough on an early January morning. Helga arrived at her bedside with hot soup and comforting words. Varner and his newest line of woodcraft were close behind her.
    "This should help with your cold, baby. It's hot, so be careful," said Helga.
    "Thank you, Mama," said Caelen. She weakly reached for the steaming bowl. Her fingertips burning, she placed it next to her bed hastily. 
    "And this should help with your frowning face," said Varner. He handed her a finely crafted nutcracker. Its details and artistry were blatant enough that even a child could appreciate it nuances. And this child did.
    "Did you make this, Papa?!"
    "Just for you."
    Caelen clutched it close to her, despite its rough texture and oblong shape. Her parents left her to finish her soup and fall asleep, checking in occasionally to see how she was doing. Each time the door swung open, Varner and Helga beheld the same scene; their firstborn daughter fidgeting with the limbs of the wooden nutcracker, imitating movement and a loose interpretation of dancing. The following morning, Helga swung open the door once more, eager to see Caelen's smile and the nutcracker's choppy jig. Instead, the bowl of soup she had prepared fell to the floor, along with the rushing teardrops evacuating her empty eyes. Caelen laid motionless on the ground with her nutcracker standing tall beside her.
    It is now April. As spring blooms forth for the remainder of Alric, the Braun household remains locked forever in the decadent memory of that early January morning. Varner's creations lacked love and passion as of late. Helga stayed close to Frida for the better half of every day. Frida never said much in protest. She never said much of anything. But Chronos would not cease the flow of time just for a premature death of a single child; Mr. Braun continued his work, but his crafts were not harbingers of joy or love as they were before. They were harbingers of food and water.
    "Honey, are you coming to bed?" asked Helga. 
    "In a minute," replied her husband. With his drive diminished, his rate of production had declined, though his family's hunger had not. His longer hours thus affected his temperament. "I'm almost done. Just go ahead and go to sleep." 
    "Okay. Good night."
    "You too." The growing darkness demanded he retire, but Varner felt no desire to sleep. His dreams had been perverted the previous nights; peace could only be found in his work, sharing intimate time with what brought his beloved child's happiest smiles but now refused to do for him.
    The atmosphere of his quarters did little to shake his growing despair and frustration. Light existed only in a small circle around him, persisting due to the tenacity of a small candle on the crafting table. What was beyond that perimeter felt distant and taboo. His chair hurt his back, the creaking of the floor reminded him repeatedly what a poor job he had done building it, the grey walls felt like a prison. It had always been this way, but the sadness inside of him drew attention to sorrows he never considered before.
    He held the wooden block firmly with his right hand as he jabbed into it with the carving tool in his left. There was a beauty in his craft, he believed; destruction and creation were not opposites but companions. The gouge was mutilating just as it was modifying, and the wooded block was not desecrated but reborn. Simple objects were given intricate shape, each individually manufactured at the hand of one master, all with the same purpose that could change at Varner's discretion. The lucky ones would go to children, the less fortunate might find themselves on display and thought of rarely. Either way, they served their master. Varner was a god. He created life from nothing.
    Physically, woodcarving was not so magnificent. Cramps and splinters were accepted as part of the job, wood chips lined the flooring, and the Braun house, comprised of bricks, smelled of a forest. Commercial production became repetitive all too often, and no eraser had yet been invented for those in the field.  Mr. Braun had a series of scars all across his right hand, scars he wore with pride. Having but one scar signifies failure, but multiple, perseverance. 
    The clock struck midnight yet still the household was active. "Damnit. I need sleep, I'm getting sloppy." He looked down at his table, three shoddy nutcrackers strewn about. His hand reached for one, though his mind could not say why. He held it and scrutinized it. None of the edges were smooth, one of its arms was noticeably longer than the other, and though it lacked eyes, Varner could feel it judging him. He cried. It was a torrential cry, a cry that had been contained in too small a cell for too long a sentence. A cry that condensed just behind his face, trying to split it open time and time again and succeeding when the physical discomfort approached the intensity of the burning pain inside. When he simply couldn't take it. He wanted to cry out, but he lacked the composure to think up words. "Caelen!" was all he could conjure as he threw the accursed nutcracker at the grey wall opposite him. He turned his back to it and disabused his neck of the weight of his head, instead gifting that honor to the table, despite the effects his tears would have on the wood. 
    More time passed, though Varner could not say how much. It was silent when he rested his head and was silent still when he stood back up. Perhaps wanting to apologize, perhaps seeking more violence, he walked towards the nutcracker, but it was not below the mark it had left upon the grey wall.  "Sleeplessness is taking its toll," he thought as he scanned the wall again. "Whatever, it'll show up tomorrow morning." As he went to snuff out the candle, movement distracted him.
    To the right of the table was a scene that would instill horror in most. But the dancing nutcracker gave Mr. Braun a sense of wonder. Its unequally sized arms swung up and down rigidly as its legs forced as much movement as the tiny joints would allow. Varner rubbed his eyes caring not whether it would stop or continue so long as he knew whether it was or was not real. His eyes still beheld the nutcracker's pitiable jig after enduring several of his attempts to wash the sight away. Many thoughts came to his head, some horrified and some amused. What was it? An omen? A deity? Why would a deity use something so trivial to communicate with him? Why would a deity communicate with him at all? What would he tell his wife? Would he tell his wife?
    "It's... it's just like Caelen would..." This was the pondering that ceased all others. Nothing else was a concern, neither the hilarity of the nutcracker's movements nor the possible threat it might pose to his and the rest of his family's mortality. The tears remained, but they were different now. It was joy and not woe that brought them. Hope, not despair. Relief, not anguish. Regardless how distant and peculiar a method it was, he was reunited with his daughter. Its movement stopped however when Varner grasped it with both hands and brought it to his chest. He let out a tragic sound as though he had just killed her, reluctantly placed it back on the floor, and scooted back to let it continue undisturbed. Emotionless, it began its routine for Mr. Braun to watch, a performer on stage entertaining its massive and sobbing audience. 

    Light of morning crept into the walls of the Braun household, awakening each of its tenants against their will. Varner was the most troubled by its unwelcome visitation. He found himself still on the floor of his quarters with a motionless nutcracker less than a meter in front of him. He rubbed his eyes again, and just like last time, nothing changed. It is uncertain if his sigh was out of relief or frustrated disappointment, or perhaps plain exhaustion. It would not be the last time his creation would move. Deep inside, somewhere, he knew this to be true. 
    "You weren't up all night working, were you?" asked Helga as Varner walked into the kitchen. 
    "No, I just didn't want to wake you. The ground is comfier than people give it credit for," he replied. Events from the previous night placed him in an oddly pleasant mood. "Smells delicious, honey!" He gave his wife a kiss on the cheek, then sat down beside Frida for breakfast. "How'd you sleep, Frid?" 
    "Okay," said Frida. "I heard a bang in the middle of the night, Ma said she heard it too."
    "Oh, that was my bad, your silly Pap walked headfirst straight into the wall looking trying to kill a roach," said Varner instantly. He could have mentioned the outburst, the sobbing, and the rage induced violence he inflicted upon the nutcracker, but he didn't. His family had enough to worry themselves over as it was. "Left a bit of a mark on the wall, but I'm fine."
    "I don't care how you are as long as you got that roach," said Helga. She chuckled and brought the food to the table, returning Varner's kiss. They ate in relative silence. Varner reached for the bacon, eggs, wurst, and downed half a gallon of orange juice. Helga chopped up her meat and ate it one piece at a time. Frida drank some water. Each member at the table held inside their own unique struggles all stemming from the same incident. They each appeared to have their own method of coping as well. It was Varner's ignorance and good mood that caused the words he spoke next.
    "I saw something interesting last night. One of the nutcrackers I made started to dance." A wordless moment passed . "I know, I couldn't believe it either, but it was just like how Caelen used to make hers dance, remember?" The silence was unbearable. Caelen's named hadn't been uttered in the house for over two months, much less in such a nonchalant way. Varner was confused by the atmosphere he inadvertently created. Frida stared at her plate without blinking. Helga, brave soul that she was, broke the spell.
    "How hard did you say you hit your head?" She thought it would end there. It didn't.
    "No I'm serious, its limbs were moving all on their own, I saw it!" Frida, on the verge of tears, leaft the room quickly and dignified. Helga only looks at her husband, unsure of his sincerity as well as his motive. Did he really expect her to believe him? 
    "Varner..." She didn't know what to say, so she stood up from the breakfast table to pace.
    "Helga, I swear to you, it was dancing. It was dancing just like Caelen would do, it... it was Caelen!"
    "No, Varner, it wasn't. Caelen is gone." Frustration, confusion, sadness, and pity all welled up inside of her to create a singularity of pain and unpleasantness. She could not believe what her husband was saying. She would not. But he persisted.
    "No, no, it was! Not in the flesh of course but it was her, her spirit!"
    "Varner, please. Stop."
    "We were communicating! Not with words but I felt her presence in the room, it was like she was talking to me, through the nutcracker!"
    "That is enough!" she screamed. Varner recoiled, shocked. Frida tensed up in her bedroom. "Caelen is gone! We all miss her, it wasn't fair that she left us but it happened, Varner!" She stopped, noticing the moisture accumulating in his eyes, and took a deep breath. It felt as though her words resounded throughout the entirety of Alric, the truth in them scalding the minds of all those who should hear it, including her own. Their daughter was dead, and neither were ready to accept it. But Helga would not watch another loved one die before her, even if only internally. She changed her tone. "I know how special she was to you. She was amazing... She was a gift. But there are still two people in this house who need you, and love you, so much... I can't have you losing your marbles on us." She smiled through her tears and looked into his eyes. There was fear beneath them. She hugged him tightly. He rose from his chair, returning the favor.
    "I'm sorry," he breathed. 
    "Shhhhhh, don't be, it's okay. I'm afraid too. It'll be okay."
    The succeeding weeks were thankfully mundane. When Varner convinced himself to dispose of the magic nutcracker, it felt as though he lost his daughter all over again, but what remained of his family was happy to see it gone. Paranoia found its way into his quarters during work hours, as one might expect. At times, the anticipation would elicit more madness than any hallucination ever would, as it tends to do. He began to dread his craft, as the next carving might be animate just as well as it might be motionless as a corpse; only time could dictate the welfare of his psyche. It seemed he took for granted one of the bygone benefits of his career: certainty that no matter how his creations appeared, they were all the same in the end. Lifeless. Husks.
    Brief was the optimism in the Brauns' hearts. The conflict at the breakfast table falsely implied hope that things might turn up, and yes, for a short duration their lives reflected that optimism. But as the motions of each long day were confronted again and again, depression and stress found their way back with no distractions of the supernatural this time. The pantry was only getting emptier; Helga's once magnificent dishes were limited by lackluster ingredients - all that Varner's decaying income could buy. Every meal they ate together dampened spirits, as every meal felt less bountiful than the last. Mr. Braun knew that it was his fault but could do nothing. His hatred for the toys he made intensified every sleepless night, causing them to be of even lower quality, further emboldening his vexation. 
    There was a day that he spent no time in his quarters. The day after was the same, as well as the next three.
    "Mama, I'm hungry," said Frida.
    "Dinner will be ready soon, honey."
    "I'll be hungry after dinner, too," said Frida.
    "Don't be silly, Frida, you'll be stuffed."
    "I'm always hungry after dinner," said Frida. Varner came in to see his beloved wife holding his beloved daughter and wondered how long they had been like that. The smell of burning pork told him a long time. Later that night as he came to bed, nice and early, Helga said nothing to him. She had felt guilty about her anger before, but would never apologize for her starving child. Terrible remorse overtook him. He didn't sleep that night either.
    A certain overlong night would be his last, he decided. It was not unlike the others. He wore the same face that he wears every time he enters his quarters. He sat down on the chair by the table opposite the entrance and thought of better days, as he always did. The sun had set hours after he'd entered, as it always does. He picked up yet another wooden block and the same gouge that he always used and began eviscerating the block as he always did, not caring about the creative aspect of his actions. His hands were sore as they always were and on multiple occasions he jabbed the damned blade into his right hand as he always did. One down. Next block. He tossed the stupid nutcracker onto the floor. It started moving. He pretended not to see.
    Varner gave extra attention and finesse to the second project of the night, hellbent on getting this one perfect. Every mistake from previous failures was thought about, and measures were taken to avoid them. He measured each arm three times over throughout the process and made doubly sure to round and smooth each and every surface, maintaining the precision of a surgeon throughout. One of the feet jutted out a tad bit farther than the other, he noticed. Mr. Braun would not accept this oversight. Patiently, he sanded off the end of the right foot for many minutes, humming to himself. Just when he was satisfied, the left foot was blatantly longer than the right. "No matter," he thought, and simply gave it the same treatment. Oh but what a bother, now the right foot was longer. Back and forth he went. Sand the left, now the right, then the left, then the right again, then the left then the right left right left right left right until its toes were completely gone but still the goddamned nutcracker danced!
    Reluctantly, he bent down to look at the bewitched thing. It taunted him by offering no reaction. Varner's presence meant literally nothing to it, yet its presence was everything to him. Suddenly, determination struck. The woodcarver cautiously stood back up and, without averting his gaze, tiptoed out the door as though the nutcracker was a lightly sleeping infant. Once he was out of the room, he slowly closed the door, waited five seconds, and opened it back up with the same laze. Alas, the damned toy was not so devious as he worried; it remained in the corner performing its arthritic jig. With silent haste, he journeyed down the grey hall to awake Helga, like a children with bad dreams. And much like that child, too, he stood frozen at the door, contemplating over the pros and cons of what he so desperately wanted to do. Behind that gateway, his beloved Helga slept, absent from his fully conscious nightmare. But he could not suffer this alone. The door creaked open, he hurried to her bedside and shook her.
    "Helga, come look, quickly!" 
    "Wha- what? What is it honey?" She let out an extended yawn.
    "Please, Helga, you most come!" 
    "Varner, are you alright?" she asked, but that fear in his eyes was there again. He needn't answer. 
    Varner said nothing more as he took her by the wrist down the grey hall and into his quarters. They entered simultaneously to a still and motionless room, complemented by the still and motionless nutcracker on the floor next to the table. "What am I looking at?" asked Helga. Varner dropped to his knees and crawled to the carcass on the floor. "Varner?"    
    "No no, it was just dancing a minute ago," he said to himself. But his wife overheard. She said nothing. Varner clapped his hands at it and waved. "Move! Move! Please, move!" 
    "MOVE, DAMN YOU!" The house shook as his voice hit the walls. Footsteps resounded from outside, and suddenly Frida emerged.
    "Mama, what's happening?" she asked.
    "C'mon, baby, let's go," said Helga as she brought Frida close to her side and rushed out the door. Varner, still on his knees, flipped around to watch the rest of his family leave him. He scrambled to get up but couldn't, and so he fell back to the ground, lying on his stomach, drowning in his tears and snot. The nutcracker laid next to him in silence.
    The women of house Braun did not return. Or maybe they did. Varner wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of hardly anything. The only consistency he relied upon was the assurance he would wake up each morning in his chamber and fall asleep in his chamber while his five wooden figures danced for him throughout each part of his daily routine. Feint footsteps and shadows at the foot of his door suggested that there were others living in the house with him, though nothing to suggest that they were his wife and daughter - not that it mattered to him anyway. 
    On a particular morning, Helga awoke in silent anguish shrouded in tranquility. She tossed the blankets to the other side of the bed, inconveniencing nobody and skipped down the bright halls into the kitchen. It was the type of morning that left its guests parched. Thankfully, the pail outside had collected masses of rainwater. Some of it spilled as she picked the bucket up like it were a child, but her smile was resilient. Mrs. Braun resembled a happy go lucky flower girl, the pail swinging back and forth as she ventured into the hallways once more, her fingers gripped tightly around the handle of the basket. 
    Varner sat in a prayer position before his many wooden suitors. They were not synchronized, there was no rhythm. The additional entertainers resulted in an even less grand performance, each of them writhing about to their own heartless beat. It was a visual cacophony. He heard footsteps outside his door. And then, there was pail on his head, and a puddle near his feet. Helga grabbed his ear calmly and guided him through the house to and outside the front door; he only struggled at first. Once the sun could see him, Mr. Braun cursed and recoiled. His wife placed her hands on his face gently, and brought it down to her own. 
    "I'm going to make this as simple as I can. Get rid of the dolls, or I'm taking Frida and leaving you. It's your choice," she said. He paused a moment. Longer than a moment, actually. How unfortunate his life had become. How cruel it was that in such a short time, everything was different - no, not different. Worse. A simple Alric commoner with a loving family who would never wish harm upon any single thing regardless of how evil or pure that thing might be, and suddenly all he had sworn to love and protect was fading away. If it were his way, he would absorb all the sorrows of the world and at this moment, it felt like he had, but then why do his wife and daughter suffer? As if on queue, Frida stepped outside and clung to her mother. Too afraid to see Varner as he was, she shoved her face into Helga's side. The sight was too much to bear for the poor woodcarver; the anger seeping through Helga's expressionless face coupled with Frida's refusal to even look his way crippled his heart. 
    She had made it simple as intended, though not easy. Not for the aching and broken Mr. Braun who found true solace only in what his spouse hated more than anything. It was not easy for one who could find no respite three long months after death whispered a lullaby to his precious daughter. It was in its simplicity that her deal housed its cruelty; there were only two options, no room for negotiations. But somewhere inside, this man retained his sanity and rationality, however modestly he clung to it. He made his choice in silence. 

    It was now August of the next year. Varner Braun returned home after yet another bountiful evening at the Pig's Head tavern. Like every workday, the constant sounds of revelry and debauchery left him tired, but happy. He could hardly wait to walk through that front door, to greet his Helga with a vibrant hug, to pester his daughters with inquiries into their days and the names and hobbies of boys they spent time with. Well, at least Frida; her sister was too young. He entered, and was not disappointed.
    "I'm home!" he said. His wife was on the kitchen counter, preparing dinner. He picked her up and kissed her smooth skin. She tasted like hickory. Just how he liked it. "Frida!" he said as he came lumbering down the grey hall. His eldest daughter was laid out on the floor of her bedroom where he left her. When he entered, she slowly stood up and wrapped her arms around her father. He picked her up, too, and brought her to his chest. She became motionless again until he bent his knees and put her back down. She looked up at him and lightly swung her arms around. 
    "How was your day?" he asked.
    "What did you do?" he asked.
    "Are you still talking to that Hannes boy?" he asked.
    "You've always been so quiet." he said. Then he walked out of the room and into his quarters. An eventful place for him in the past, it was now where he liked to relax. After all, it housed his favorite person. "Hey Caelen, Daddy's home!" She danced over to him slowly and rigidly. like she always did. He didn't hug her because he wanted to behold her as long as he could. Day in and day out, she would never stop dancing. "I could sit and watch you forever, honey, but it smells like dinner is ready!" He picked her up by her tiny fingerless hand and carried her into Frida's room, where he picked her up too. In the kitchen, Helga still sat upon on the counter. He sat his daughters down on the dinner table, and then did the same for his wife. They were too short to reach their food from the chairs. Varner happily took his seat at the head of the table and began passing around raw potatoes and carrots. "Now Frida I know you don't like your vegetables but you've gotta eat!" he said. After she did nothing, he attempted to stuff it into her mouth himself, but she couldn't bite. The carrot fell to the ground. She always had such poor manners.



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