To mirror him, he whittled.
He had been raised in the shadow of the cross
Through over-exposure, he had surpassed even his parents’ evangelical rigour. They had raised a saint.
The world was not necessarily kind to those who found themselves spirit-flushed. His parents had taken some solace from the fact that he would be unlikely to find himself crucified: arms wide, nails run in. Nevertheless, he managed to temper his zealousness. At least to those unknown to him.
From his faith he had derived vocation. Wishing to follow in hallowed footsteps, he took to carpentry. His blistered finger’s tinkerings began in good faith.
Whilst the bible made repeated reference to Christ’s profession, he soon realised that there was little of a practical nature that could be extracted. He yearned for an apocryphal gospel: Christ’s primer in rudimentary woodwork. In lieu of such a tome, he had settled for heathen instruction.
In class he had endured the ribbings of his peers, had tolerated their expletives. Hammered thumbs gave raise to obscenities, the uncouth taking his lord’s name in vain. He turned the other ear.
Each ham-fisted, hammered joist, every crude dovetail, he felt, was overseen by his resurrected mentor. His hands soon proved obedient. Diligent, his fingers fashioned furniture.
Prayers answered, with Christ as his co-pilot, he qualified. Everything in his life went well under his master’s watchful eye. He had his own workshop, his own business. His saviour even proved matchmaker, finding him a bride, a timid miss with a soft spot for hard hands.
* * *
She lacked faith, but he would oversee her conversion.
In bed, unsheathed, in line with heaven’s desires, impregnation had thus far outfoxed him. Miracles of their own had yet proved inconceivable.
* * *
It was in the third year of their marriage that life took a strange turn. Restless, a blanketed tornado, he dreamt that he discovered, in his workshop, whilst sawing, Christ’s face in a piece of wood.
In a zealous fret, he mistook his dream for a premonition.
The following day he handled a familiar material as though it was newly imbued with a spiritual quality, turning timber in his hands as if encountering it for the first time. Given consideration, it seemed the perfect host for a spiritual sign, his redeemer returning to haunt the very material upon which he had died. Working in wood, with hammer and nails, his had been an execution long foreshadowed.
He regarded his dream as a visitation, felt that he was, in some sense, a chosen one. He would not ignore his calling. No Thomas, he was in no doubt about what he had experienced. Every piece of wood that passed through his hands he examined meticulously, no longer for faults but perfections. This slowed down his work considerably. He would remain vigilant. He dreaded the prospect of accidentally hacking the transcendental, attempting to reconstruct Christ from a thousand splinters.
He wasn’t sure exactly what he would do upon revelation. He envisaged a shrine, pews brim with genuflecting pilgrims, his messiah once more suspended by nails, shielded by glass to protect him from his worshippers.
He had kept his quest from his wife, knew that she would look at him in that supercilious way of hers. Alas, unable to lie, his crusade had emerged under soft interrogation. Readied for disdain, he outlined his dream. Her eyebrows did not disappoint.
She struggled with her husband’s preoccupation. She tried to dissuade him from devotional notions, to convince him that what he had experienced was nothing more than a dream. His life lacking variety, his twin interests had simply combined in subconscious patterns. Going against his unshakeable faith, she failed to persuade him.
The fact that they did not share a religion, he had insisted, would not come between them. At the altar, exchanging alien vows, she had believed him. She was less certain now.
In the evenings, with her husband away all hours, she passed time trawling websites for evidence of similar discoveries. She clicked on myriad images. Places that the likeness of Christ had been seen included, but were not limited to: a shadow cast by a tree upon a fence in a caravan park; the mould on a dirty shower curtain; the underside of a dead sting ray; on floorboards; in ice formations; in brain scan shadows; in a halved potato; the frost on a car window; inside the lid of a jar; a lump of firewood; at a chocolate factory; in a pizza pan; in a grilled cheese sandwich; on a pebble; in clouds; upon a chapatti; in shadows; on a tortilla; in a tree; on dental x-rays; in cooking utensils; in rock and stone formations; on painted and plastered walls and upon a loaf’s worth of toast. She wondered if there was anything that had not been graced by his presence.
She considered those who stood grinning with simulacra: dreamers, irascible cranks, grinning simpletons. In snapshots, the vacant-eyed held feeble Jesuses, idols, suffocated for their own protection, in plastic bags. Was her husband set to join their harried ranks? A moment of fame beside his grainy image? She hoped it would not come to that.
She printed off extreme examples and left them out around the house in the hope that he might see his own madness reflected.
As time passed, his certainty refused to diminish. Only an unbeliever would submit so quickly. He had been given a sign. His timber stock was reduced to sawdust. Constructive work had been forsaken at his quest’s behest. In his vision, he was clearly in his workshop, so that was where his miracle would be uncovered.
His thoughts turned prematurely to protection, defending his holy relic though it had yet to emerge from the woodwork. Paranoid, he feared sabotage, practitioners of other faiths converging to meddle with heaven-sent evidence, shadowy cabals hell-bent on destroying rival icons, undercover task forces reducing toasted Christs to unidentifiable crumbs. His talisman would not be consigned to firewood, reduced to ashes. He would protect it at all costs.
Online, she read of all manner of Biblical intervention. In a Chicago underpass, some claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared upon a wall. Scientists talked of salt deposit formations; believers arrived bearing votive offerings. A shrine soon emerged.
That in this century people still gathered in their droves in veneration she found bewildering. Such was their desire to be sanctified. She pictured the devout, emergency bags forever packed lest their idols manifest, at a moment’s notice embarking upon unhinged pilgrimages to see the latest cornflake Christ or brackish virgin.
She found no one who shared her husband’s condition: seeking rather than seeing, soliciting the divine. Perhaps he would find fame of a different stripe, eponymity, a psychological blip named in his honour.
One didn’t need faith, though, to chance upon equivalents. The secular had Elvis, his bequiffed profile almost as prevalent.
Often, she found, they proved lucrative, tinpot similarities sold to the highest bidder for astonishing sums. Who had funds ample enough to waste on such frivolities?
She pictured a curator assembling these hokum totems, inanimate offerings from around the world, a museum of lesser resemblances. On spikes residing in cabinets, muted lighting casting serrated shadows of brittle originals, chintzy cameos: the George Washington chicken McNugget, The Elvis Pretzel. It seemed no odder a proposition than those wax havens, visitors snaking down the street that they may fondle celebrity effigies.
Intrigued, further research revealed their ultimate destinations. Casinos, not cathedrals proved their final resting places. They were bought as publicity stunts, displayed as the pinnacle of chance. The luckless looked in wonder before funnelling coins into one-armed bandits.
Whilst he had the desire to share his good fortune with others, when it arrived, he didn’t wish to be perceived as a mercenary. The stories that his wife left out of other likenesses – assassinated presidents, deceased rock stars – were usually in light of some online auction. It upset him that those who found themselves favoured sought to make money from their discoveries. They were only temporary custodians.
This would not be his agenda. He was content to be known as its finder. He would most likely donate it to his church, a flagging flock boosted by association. Here it would go unhindered by merchandise: there would be no concessions, no Turin Shroud tea towels, no burnished bookends.
In the evenings, her husband absent, his business dwindled to kindling, she wondered how many likenesses had been destroyed. What if such mysteries were revealed to the less impressionable, people who didn’t treat their breakfast as a Rorschach test? How many edible messiahs had been unwittingly consumed?
She read that carpentry was experiencing something of a renaissance in the more fashionable neighbourhoods, the disenchanted returning to nature, the shambolic recasting perpetual drift as artisan passion. She pictured bristled hipsters whittling. What if the wooden icon for which her husband searched fruitlessly, fell into their hands? She imagined the artfully bearded, in their studios, taking Christian miracles for reflections.
What manner of manifestation, she wondered, would be deemed heretical? A post-coital stain on a mattress? Feeling decidedly sacrilegious, she considered saintly appraisals of a lavatorial aftermath, squinting at residual streaks for confirmation of faith, a Perspex sheet placed over the bowl’s rim to protect the blessed resemblance, pilgrims queuing up a shared stairwell, genuflecting before the bowl. It seemed doubtful, she thought, that the devout would wish for such images to smear their faith. Crossing themselves, they would flush, a holy portrait engulfed suddenly in a minor flood. They would wait patiently for another sign – a piece of toast, window condensation – the established channels.
He rarely went home anymore. His evenings were spent slicing wood, hoping to reveal his saviour, a magician endlessly cutting a pack of cards, as he searched in vain for divinity. There was no further purpose to his work.
His workshop sat so heavy with sawdust that to move from point to another was akin to trudging through quicksand.
He risked his fingertips cutting ever thinner strips. Having exhausted supplies, he looked elsewhere. Where was Christ hiding? He reduced stools, disabled tables. Piece by piece, in a cannibalistic offertory, his workbench was sacrificed to the blade. Goggled, he squinted for images. Glass was smashed from windows, their exposed frames run through his blade.
Knee-deep in sawdust he continued his search.
She never saw him now. He ignored her pleas to cease his search. The voice of reason silenced. She felt that he was slipping away, that he had surrendered himself to his improbable pursuit.
Alone at home, she pictured her husband shaving forests to splinters.
She considered faking an image, somehow planting in his workshop the consecrated proof he so desperately sought, her husband stumbling upon it that she may have him back in her life. Let him enjoy his brief exposure, his fifteen minutes of crackpot celebrity.
She would have done it if she could, manufactured a tree trunk like a stick of rock, Christ running through the entire thing, unmissable, with one action relieving her husband of his burden. Sadly, such fraudulence was beyond her.
Sweating, buzz-sawing wood relentlessly, he had not been home for days. He had taken on a grizzled appearance all his own, a gnarled Christ sweating over his labours.
At mass he took communion in this state, Christ invited into his soul that he may find the courage to continue. The priest, startled, looked down upon his roughshod congregant. When had he slipped? Woodchips lived in the bristles of his beard.
Back in his own space, looking heavenwards for inspiration, he noticed the roof’s supporting beams. Scrambling up a ladder, he dismantled the roof, slates cast aside as he knocked in beams.
In the absence of a roof, without windows, with no door, his sawdust swamp was scattered to the winds, an airborne cloud of exploration’s remnants.
Glancing at stacked rafters, he wondered which one would surrender his lord.
Roofless, beneath a moonlit sky, he continued, reduced each beam to smithereens.
His lips privy to mumbled prayers, he awaited his moment.
Sleep deprived, on delirium’s brink, he was about to quit when something startled him. He addressed the cross-section in his hands.
Breathing heavily, he held the wood gently, his eyes moistening as he confronted his sacred vision.
Finally, he was confronted with a sign.
As a light rain fell upon him, he held in his hands irrefutable proof. His faith had never faltered and he had been duly rewarded.
Then his eyes widened.