Unto the Mountain (novel-in-progress)
The windows had been thrown open, the mirrors turned, the body washed and wrapped in winding clothes, and for two days straight, family, friends and members of the Aberdeen Wrights and Coopers Gild had come to the house on Union Street to pay their respects to James Oliver Harmon, master carpenter and proprietor of Harmon & Sons Cabinetmakers and Upholsterers. The men praised James’s craftsmanship, his meticulous and exacting standards, so hard to find at a time when so many Scots were buying cheap, factory-made furniture through catalogues. The women lauded the shopkeeper’s service, the way he would customize his pieces to meet the needs of his customers, even paying home visits to make repairs. His charity too: giving away items to widows and poor families who could not afford his furniture.
A good man. A kind man. Drank too much, sure, but what Scot doesn’t? James Harmon was a craftsman and a gentleman, and he was taken from this earth too soon.
“Anything ye need, Norva—anything at all,” George Allen, deacon of the gild, assured James’ widow Norva. “Ye know we are here for ye. Ye and the weans.”
Allen was walking the parlor as if he owned it. He and the other masters had practically been living at the house since James passed. The guild had paid for the coffin, the clothes, the generous banquet of food laid out in the parlor—something the full-bearded Allen was now impressing upon the dead man’s oldest son Duncan.
“I don’t want ye or yer mother worrying about a thing. Unnerstand now, son?”
Yeah, he understood. The hypocrisy of these men! Where were they when his father was working himself to death in the woodshop on Justice Mill Lane? Where were they when his parents were pleading with the bank for leniency on their debts so the family could pay for the next delivery of coal to fire the stove?
It was all a show. Allen and his fellow stooges didn’t care about their members. All they cared about was ensuring everyone was marching in line, following the rules. This was the life of a craftsman in Aberdeen. Your whole life is prescribed for you: what you can sell, where you can sell it, to whom, at what prices, at what profit. We, the masters, control it all the factors of supply and production. Until you die, at the early age of forty-nine, from a festering brew of stomach ulcers and canker of the bowels, and suddenly they’re coming to the house, hats in hand, offering their assistance to the grieving widow in her time of need. Don’t you worry, little woman. This is why we have the widows and orphans’ fund—to take care of our own.
“Yer a smart lad—all that reading ye do,” Allen was saying. “You and yer brother are fine craftsmen in yer own right. Ye’ll do well carrying on the tradition of fine-quality furniture that yer father and grandfather set for the shop.”
If you say so, Mr. George Allen. It was you and your masters, after all, who stood in our shop and deemed my work good enough to win my so-called “freedom.” But Duncan just nodded. He already had a foot out the door.
The family said their final goodbyes, the coffin was closed, Allen said a few words, followed by Reverend Willoughby of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and then the wrights took turns grimly walking the coffin through the streets to the cemetery, making frequent stops along the way to rest and slake their thirst with swigs from a shared bottle of Scotch. At the gates of the quiet cemetery, the women stayed behind while the men went in and did the burying.
Then it was done. Duncan and John walked their mother and three sisters back to the house, got them settled inside, and set out for the docks. A cold March drizzle had begun to fall. The brothers moved through the dripping streets, past dull alabaster buildings, avoiding the fresh piles of steaming horse dung on the glistening cobblestones. This Aberdeen weather, Duncan thought. It seeps into your bones. He would take snow over this awful rain any day.
Well, he’d have his wish soon enough.
He smelled the bay before he saw it: the sulfurous stench of salt mixed with creosote. The docks came into view. Moored ships being unloaded of their cargo. Another one coming in. A couple more ships farther out, coming in or going, Duncan couldn’t tell. He and his brother sat down against a piling and watched the activity, as they’d done so many times in the past, but today, they saw little of it, their minds elsewhere.
“Those sonsofbitches,” Duncan said.
“Allen and the masters. I’m sick of their shite. Like they care about us. I’ll tell ye what they care about—that we pay our dues.”
John nodded darkly. “Reverend Willoughby too. He asked me if we plan to keep tithing.”
Duncan could hardly believe it. “He asked that?”
“Aye, he did.”
They were quiet for a long while, watching the ship traffic in and out of the bay. John rolled a cigarette, lit it. He took a drag and offered the smoking fag to Duncan, who waved it away. He didn’t understand this new smoking habit of his younger brother’s. It was disgusting and just burned good money.
“Ye still onboard with what we talked about, John? I can’t do it without you. I’ll send for the rest of ye when I find a place to live and have the business set up. It oughtn’t be more than a year or two. I’ll send money home every month …”
“Ye don’t need to send money. I’ll be running the shop, same a’ always. And there’s always the fund, should we get desperate.”
“Don’t ye ever take a shilling from that fund, John! I’ll die before I let ye.”
His brother laughed. “Doen worry. I’ll handle things here. I jes wonder … why lumber, Duncan? Why not jes take the cabinetmaking business over there—lock, stock and barrel? We wouldn’t hiv to worry about the guild and all that shite in America.”
Duncan shook his head. “It won’t work. Cabinetmakers are common as rabbits in America, and we’d be starting from scratch.”
“We’re gonnae hiv to start from scratch no matter what business we’re in.”
“That’s true, so why not take a shot at something where we can make decent money at it? Ye know as well as me that folks aren’t willing to pay more for a table just because it’s better made than somebody else’s. They don’t care about quality! They just want a place to sit for dinner and not have to pay too much for it. The whole world’s going that way. Craftsmen like us are getting squeezed out. It’s all about standardization now. Mass production.”
Duncan paused to gaze out at the waves rolling onto the beach. There was no one out on this chilly March day and the beach was empty.
“This is our chance to start fresh, John,” he went on. “If we don’t do it now, we never will. We’ll end up like Pops—in an early grave and broke, to boot.”
“Alright. So when are ye gonnae talk to Mum?”
“Tomorrow, after she’s had a chance to rest.”
“What about Annie?”
Duncan shook his head. “That’s done. I broke it off with her last week.”
“Jes like that? Ye’ve been going with Annie for three years!”
“No reason to string her along if I’m planning to go away.”
John snorted, shook his head. “Well, that explains why she wasn’t at the funeral. Yer brutal, brother.”
The rain was starting to fall harder. Duncan got up to go. His brother stayed where he is, savoring the last of his fag while gazing out at the gray ocean.
“Everything’s different now,” John said. “It’s jes us. We hiv to stick together, brother.”
Duncan gave a nod. “Yes, we do. Things are going to be better. Trust me.”