Read an Excerpt
1 MAX TRADER
If dreams can be portents of what is to come, then I had my fair share of forewarning before my life was stolen away.
Each night, for the week preceding the event, I found myself returned to the workshop of my old mentor. Janossy was ten years dead, the workshop in the old outbuilding long gone, man and farm swallowed by the past, yet here he stood before me. Here was the sunlight spilling in through that splendid skylight high overhead, diffused and muted a hundred shades of green and yellow by the boughs of the maples overhanging the workshop. Here was the long pine workbench, covered with wood, shavings, tools and sawdust, the back of a guitar the only recognizable shape amidst the clutter.
I remember that guitar. Janossy never did finish it, but I did. He was working on it when he died, the top and sides, braces and bridge, a one-piece back. It was the perfect guitar body and deserved the perfect neck. I came close, but I couldn’t match his workmanship, couldn’t match the neck he would have given it. In the dreams, he’s still working on it.
Sandor Janossy had been an enormous man with a temperament to match, embracing everything that touched his life with a huge enjoyment that was evenly matched in its intensity by the strong contemplative side of his nature. He had lived with the immediacy of a Zen master in an ever-present now, viewing the world through the artless eyes of a child, seeing, rather than looking. Which wasn’t to say that he was simple—or at least not in a pejorative sense. Instead he resisted complications, refused to be drawn into their snare.
“When you understand how everything in the world connects to everything else,” he told me once, “you have little patience for more divisive points of view.”
Case in point: the luthier’s craft. Everything connects. Janossy was able to read the wood with a kind of feng shui geomancy, finding in its grain energy nodes connected by lines as invisible, but no less potent, than the ley lines or Chinese Dragon paths that dowsers have found crisscrossing the earth. Building the perfect instrument is a matter of connecting those nodes, maintaining the energy flow between back and top and sides, between neck and finger board and the main body of the instrument. When the nodes connect favorably, when the alignment of the ley lines within the wood are at their optimum, the instrument becomes a mirror that reflects the spirit of the music called up from it in the same way that the adherents of feng shui believe what we do here on earth is mirrored by the astrological powers of the heavens.
Heady stuff for the young man I was when I first came to study under him—more so when I finally understood the ability firsthand.
“The master woodworkers all know this,” Janossy would tell me. “Perhaps not in so many words, but they know when a wood will work with another and when it won’t. They know that it’s not simply the design or the thickness of the wood or the varnish that gives an instrument its heart and soul, but something else that lies hidden deep in the grain, something visible only when you know to look for it. Something that connects only when you understand the connection.”
I’ve missed working with him, missed hearing his voice, missed viewing the world with that vision peculiar to his way of seeing that he was always willing to share with me. Returned to his company, howsoever briefly, even through dreams, I realized just how much.
But I knew I was dreaming. All the time, I knew. Not because I have the clarity of moving through my dreams the way a lucid dreamer does, but because Nia was in these dreams as well, sitting in a corner of Janossy’s workshop the same way she sits in a corner of mine most afternoons after school, a misplaced figure of Gothic Bohemia here, all pale skin and black clothes and dark hair starkly juxtaposed against the warm buttery colors of the workshop.
Her presence was what told me I dreamed. Nia was barely out of her diapers by the time Janossy died, which would make it impossible for her to meet him in this way. And consider this: while she loves to hold forth while I’m working, in these dreams she’d be remarkably quiet, sitting there, hands folded almost primly on her lap, listening to Janossy with the same happy interest as I did.
What did he tell us? It’s difficult to articulate, because what he said faded the same way that dreams can once you waken, the way my dreams almost invariably do. But I remember he seemed to be concerned about something. Seemed to be warning me about something. Or maybe that’s only the meaning I gave the dreams later. I can’t be sure now. All I knew then was that I’d wake up disappointed every morning, wake up and know it had been a dream, no more. Janossy was still dead, the farm was sold and gone and all I had of him is what he left me: the tools he passed on to me and my memories. Nothing has changed. Everything remains the same as always.
Until one night I wake from that dream to find myself in a stranger’s room.
I sit up slowly, taking in my surroundings with mounting confusion. I know the momentary disorientation that can come from traveling or sleeping over at a friend’s, that moment of half-asleep shock that quickly dispels once you realize where you are. But this is different. I haven’t been traveling or visiting anyone. I’d spent the evening in my workshop, designing the inlay pattern for a mandolin that I was in the final stages of completing; then I went to bed in my own apartment, above the shop.
The stuttering light that comes in from the red neon sign outside the window of this room illuminates nothing even vaguely familiar. Not the bed, the furnishings, the posters on the wall. I don’t know how anyone could fall asleep with a poster from one of the Aliens movies hanging over their bed. I certainly couldn’t have—if I’d ever been in this room before, which I hadn’t.
So this is impossible. More of the dream, I think, that’s all, except now I’ve left Janossy and Nia behind and moved on to something new. But this dream has what the other didn’t: I can taste my fear. I can smell the room. A trace of aftershave I don’t use or recognize. The vague locker-room odor of a room that hasn’t been aired in too long.
There were no smells in the dreams of Janossy.
But it must be a dream, for nothing else makes sense. I pinch myself, but it does no good and feels too real. It doesn’t help at all. I’m still not where I should be, in my own bed.
I look slowly from the grotesque poster to my reflection in the dresser mirror across the room. I can’t look away. My heartbeat goes still and a deathly silence thickens around me. My ears fill with pressure. My lungs refuse to work and added to the room’s unpleasant smell is the sudden sour odor of wet clay.
Deliberately I lift my arm. The reflection follows suit. I let the arm fall to my side again. I shake my head, unwilling to accept what I’m seeing. I want, more than I’ve ever wanted anything before, to turn away from the mirror, but my gaze is locked on the reflection I cast upon its surface with the same numbed fascination as one might view the scene of a particularly grisly accident. This goes beyond the impossible.
The face looking back at me isn’t my own. It doesn’t belong to anyone I have ever seen before in my life. Instead of my own features, I see those of a stranger reflected in the glass: early thirtysomething, which makes him at least five years younger than my own thirty-eight; hair, thick and dark, unruly from a night’s sleep; face, handsome with chiseled features, cheeks and chin bristly with dark stubble; eyes appearing almost black in the poor light; nose, prominent and wide at the base; lips, sensual, but the mouth a bit too wide for the face.
I feel like one of Rod Serling’s hapless characters from an episode of The Twilight Zone. Slowly I get out of a stranger’s bed and walk toward the mirror in a stranger’s body. I lean close up to it, fingers stretched out until they meet the fingers of the stranger reflected on the cool surface of the glass.
I have to be dreaming, but I know in my heart I’m not. Not anymore. Janossy’s workshop is long fled. So that means . . . that means I . . .
My lungs, once so still, begin to hyperventilate, drawing air in and out of the unfamiliar body I’m wearing at such a rapid rate that I sink to my knees in front of the dresser. I have to lean my head down upon its wooden top. The faint mahogany smell helps to center me. Something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong here, but the smell of the wood assures me that however alien the world has become, I’m not crazy. I might not recognize this room, or the body I’m wearing in it. The situation in which I find myself might be impossible. But it doesn’t disprove what I know to be real. I have a past that doesn’t incorporate this body or room. I have memories of an entire other life—my real life. I have no explanation for what’s happened to me, but that doesn’t change what I know to be true.
I’m not the man in the mirror. This isn’t my bedroom. My name is Max Trader. I’m a luthier. I live someplace else. No matter what my senses are telling me, those are the facts and they can’t be changed. They’re irrefutable. The smell of the wood assures me they’re true, for it was the smell of the wood that seduced me as a boy and so became an ongoing mainstay of my life, defining who I am. If I can’t believe the wood, then everything I’ve ever known is a lie and that I refuse to accept.
No. I know this: Wood, the smell of it, doesn’t lie. Freshly cut, with a saw, a chisel, a knife, roughly planed or sanded as smooth as a child’s cheek. The sappy aroma always rises up into my nostrils, crowding out all other impressions. And if I mean to work that wood, then I apply what I’ve learned from my father and Janossy. First I have to crawl inside the wood and understand it from the inside out, for each piece is particular to itself. The swirling whisper of its grain, the resonance of its molecules vibrating against my fingers, and always the smell, the forest, the wood, the tree, distilled into that deep rich scent that rises from the smallest sliver that might lie in the palm of my hand.
Wood, its smell, working with it, handling it, taking tools to it, shaping it, once saved my life. Or at least saved what was left of my family which, at the time, was pretty much the same thing.
My mother’s name was Abigail and she died when I was nine. She was found to have abdominal cancer, the growth was removed, the operation successful. But a year later, a checkup revealed the cancer had spread all over her internal organs. Her dying took several months. The loss of her broke my father, broke the bond that had knitted my family together the way disparate threads are woven together on a loom, entwined until they become one piece of cloth. When she died, the cloth unraveled into shreds.
My father’s name was Jacob and he was a cabinetmaker, from a long line of cabinetmakers, but there was little work for him in his craft in those days. After the death of my mother, he returned to working on construction sites by day, a silent and withdrawn figure now, distanced from the rough camaraderie of his coworkers, but a hard worker. It was only in the evenings that he could retreat to his workbench in the basement and if not find ease, at least temporarily forget his grief through the use of his tools and the richly ornamented furniture he made.
One evening, when I was eleven, I closed my schoolbooks, turned off the television set and went down the basement stairs to my father’s workshop. My father looked up, but I said nothing. I sat down on a wooden stool in a corner, out of the way, hands folded on my lap—as quietly attentive as Nia in my dreams. My father regarded me for a long moment, then nodded slowly and returned to his work.
That was where the smell of the wood had first seduced me. That was where the familial bond was reknitted, where the distance between my father, myself and the memory of my mother was healed, not through words, but through the wood. Butternut, lacewood and mahogany. Bird’s-eye maple, red birch and hickory. We worked there together, boy and man, side by side at the long bench, making the cabinets and cupboards that grew increasingly more in demand until my father could quit the chancy employment at construction sites and devote his days to cabinetmaking full-time. Until I realized that it wasn’t furniture that I wanted to wake from the wood, but music. I already played the guitar and, though not as well, a half-dozen other related stringed instruments; now, I slowly came to understand, I needed to learn how to actually build the objects that produced the sounds.
I could tell my father was torn between disappointment that I wanted to abandon the family business, and pride that I would continue to work in a demanding woodcraft. He was the one who contacted Janossy, a Hungarian luthier of his acquaintance, and arranged for me to apprentice under him.
I studied under Janossy for nine years, living on his farm outside the city, surrounded by wood—the forest, the log cabin, the weathered outbuildings, the firewood in winter, the shade trees in summer, the cedar pole fences, the apple orchard, and always the wood underhand in the workshop, sitting at the bench, hickory-handled tools, ryoba saw, slivers of wood curling up from the square blades of the chisels, sawdust underfoot.
I loved Janossy as I loved my father. They were of a kind, Old World men who took pride in their work, in the details. It was no surprise to me that this large and exuberant instrument-maker should also harbor the soul of a deep thinker, for in that he was like my father, too. But where Janossy shouted his emotions to the world in a voice bigger than life, my father kept his more private, and in that I took after him.
Now that I am a man myself, those that meet me will often describe me as solemn, thoughtful, even pensive, not realizing that the joy I gain from the details of my life lie inside me, like the smell of fresh-cut wood, instead of manifesting itself in boisterousness the way Janossy’s did. I’m not an unhappy man. I’m not even particularly serious. I’m willing to accept everything at face value, by what it is rather than what it seems to be, which is, perhaps, why I think I’m able to handle my current predicament better than most might.
So, no. I don’t panic, though panic’s waiting for me just beyond the careful ordering of my thoughts as I finally lift my head to face the stranger in the mirror once more. I don’t panic, though I can feel the hysteria in my chest, a swelling presence that pushes against my hard-held calm. I don’t panic, but once I’ve assured myself again that I am in fact awake and not dreaming, I have to seriously consider the possibility that if I haven’t gone crazy, then the world around me has.
I try to be objective as I study the stranger I’ve so literally become, but I find objectivity has slipped away. It’s become a capricious fancy dancing just beyond reach, something easy to imagine but impossible to embrace. If this nightmare is real, then the reality I’ve always accepted as the foundation upon which the world is constructed is now proven to be a lie. The principles of what can and can’t be no longer hold. Nothing can be taken at face value again. Nothing can be trusted. Because if this can happen to me, then anything can happen. And it means that fate, god, whatever it is that oversees the running of the world, is not merely unpredictable, but malevolent.
That realization leaves me unable to do anything but stare at the reflection. It renders me immobile until the panic claws up my throat, a stifled scream finally freed.
“Wake up, damn you!” I shout.
I pick up the closest thing at hand—a small Inuit-styled stone sculpture—and throw it at the mirror. The glass shatters, spraying across the top of the dresser and onto the rug on which I’m kneeling. The sculpture bounces once off the mahogany top, then hits the floor and rolls into a corner. I pay no attention to where it goes. All I can do is stare at the scattering of mirror shards closest to hand where my stranger’s features are reflected back at me, ten, twenty times. Dozens of tiny strangers regard me. Their only resemblance to the man I know myself to be is the hysterical terror I can see twisting the features of each of their unfamiliar faces.