Secret - Poem by Jared Carter
When my father reached the mandatory retirement age, I applied for permission to visit him for an evening. I wanted to encourage him as he made the transition from a lifetime of hard work to one of leisure and rest.
My walk took me through the oldest part of the city, down cobbled streets and along brick sidewalks half-obscured by patches of crabgrass and occasional clumps of dandelion.
He had placed a candle in the window of his small frame house - the very house in which I was born, and had spent my childhood. Other houses along the street were boarded up. People had been moving out; many of the houses stood dark and empty. There was a burnt smell in the air, like fresh tar.
I passed beneath an enormous elevated highway. From factories half a mile away, behind chain-link fences, tall chimneys gave off showers of sparks and plumes of smoke. Through banks of overhead windows came an odd, flickering light cast by the ceaseless cutting and welding of metal sheets and iron girders.
My father greeted me at the door. He looked tired and worn, though I pretended not to notice. He took the candle from the window and led me to the kitchen. We sat down at the same wooden table I remembered from my youth. From a half-filled bottle he poured two small glasses of wine. With the candle between us, we talked about his retirement, and how the house was holding up. Eventually he asked about my wife and children.
I steered the conversation to the subject of his health. What was he going to do with his remaining years? I had a suggestion. As a young man he had been good with his hands, and had hoped to become an artisan - a carpenter, perhaps, or a cabinet-maker. Circumstances had prevented this, however. During his final term at school his abilities had been reassessed, and he had been given a more technical assignment.
Nonetheless, I said, I distinctly remembered that when I was a boy, he had fashioned a series of remarkably lifelike dolls, and had given them to my sisters to play with. These beautiful objects were made of beeswax and linen, and wood from an apple tree that stood in our yard. He had carved the heads and hands from a fallen branch of that forgotten tree. My two sisters played with these dolls every day until they fell to pieces. I mentioned this now, in the hope that his former pastime might again become a source of satisfaction during his declining years.
He thanked me, and explained that it was time I learned something he had never told to anyone else. Not even my mother had known of it during her lifetime. He took down a coal-oil lantern - the kind used in the early days of railroading - and lit it with the candle. He beckoned, and I followed him through the door to the cellar and down the stairs. We passed through whitewashed rooms where strands of cobweb brushed against our faces. He paused before a low wooden doorframe set in the earth - a feature I had never noticed before. He opened the door.
We entered a downward-sloping tunnel and descended for several minutes, reaching out to touch and feel our way along the damp, rough walls. Eventually I could no longer hear the humming nor feel the vibrations of the factories and mills in the industrial sector above us.
We came out at last into a measureless, dark, cool space somewhere beneath the city. I expressed surprise, for I knew there were no caves in this region.
He agreed, explaining, as he took down and lit a second lantern and handed it to me, that he had hollowed out this space by himself during a period of many years - had brought up the earth in small quantities, and scattered it in abandoned lots and waste places, in such a way that the authorities had never noticed.
The sound of his voice was swallowed up in the darkness that surrounded us. I held up the second lantern. Its gleam failed to show the limits of the excavation, and I had no way of judging its true dimensions. Crude timbers shored up the edges, but the earthen vault itself, looming in the darkness over our heads, appeared to be of cathedral proportions.
In that same instant I saw the reason for our descent: immediately before us, on a platform of planks, lay supine a colossal male figure, fifty feet or more in length. It was nude, muscular and lean, and extremely vivid in every detail. Its size and the dimness of the light prevented me from seeing it in its entirety, but at my father's bidding I approached and began to examine it more closely.
An upturned hand lay alongside the huge torso. The deep creases of the palm, the whorls of the fingertips, the thick nails - all this was truly remarkable. While studying these details, I had the momentary impression - no doubt a trick of the shadows - that a slight tremor had moved across the figure's chest.
I moved in that direction and held up the lantern but could detect no further motion. Everything was still. Some elusive presence, momentarily drawn close, seemed to wait suspended now, as though about to flow again. I stood beside a massive forearm over which great veins coiled and intertwined like the exposed roots of a tree. I turned to my father.
"Is it finished? " I asked.
"No, not yet."
"You're still working on it? And this is why you always seemed so tired? "
"Only a little longer, " he said. "When it is done, it will have taken my entire life."
"But how? " I asked. "And why? "
"I cannot remember, " he said. "I began it such a very long time ago, before you were born. I brought the necessary materials home each night from the factory, in small quantities, hiding them in my lunch bucket. And the tools, too, though there were not many I could take without arousing suspicion. But the skills I developed were more important than the equipment.
"I learned many things as I worked here by myself. Now, as you can see, I am nearly exhausted. My brain is weary, my body worn - from years of daytime labor, from long nights spent down here in the weak light and the dampness of the earth. It has taken me so long I have forgotten the secrets of the craft I once taught myself. My mind has begun to fail. I could not tell you how I managed to build it, nor even why I began. All I know is that it is here."
"Yes, " I said, gaining the courage to reach out and touch one of the enormous fingers, and finding the skin to be as warm and supple as my own.
"Originally I may have conceived of it as a commemorative vessel or tomb, " he said. "I seem to recall that at one time its chest contained a cavity, behind a set of sliding panels - a space into which a human could have climbed. It might have been a bridge or pilot-house from which the figure was to be steered, after being equipped for movement. But it could just as easily have been a temporary stage of construction, one that was eliminated as improvements continued.
"Whatever the intention, " he said, raising his lantern above the colossal chest - whereupon I blinked several times before assuring myself that it was not actually breathing - "there is, as you can see, no trace of any door or opening."
He indicated that we should be returning soon. "But what will happen now? " I asked. "What will become of it? "
"It will remain here, of course, " he replied. "It would be impossible to lift it to the surface, unless the factories and warehouses directly above it were first removed. We are too far down, and it is much too large. My last act, before my death, will be to seal off the single narrow passageway that led us here, so that no one will ever find it."
"And it will lie here - forever? "
"I do not know, " he said, taking the lantern I held and putting out its flame, and hanging it on a nearby post. He held up the remaining lantern so that its pale light fell across his enormous, shadowy creation.
"That is not for me to know, " he said, pointing ahead now and guiding me back toward the entrance to the tunnel, "nor for you."
First published in jaredcarter.com
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