Clayton Wade’s ideal woman lies motionless on his workbench, eyes transfixed like frozen knots. He is a luthier, a sculptor of violins, and she is his living, breathing stock. Today is fretwork day, and Clayton’s skin is tingling, gooseflesh rising high and hard. Carving f-holes excites Clayton even more than shaping his women’s bodies. F-holes open a channel leading straight to the soul, allowing its true resonance to permeate the air. Their screams, in contrast, are like cats being swung by their tails: no depth, no heart
. . . no soul.
He glides his hand across her skin, searching for imperfections, finding none. Her fear is cold, rigid, almost undetectable. He has chosen well; she is perfect. Momentarily, he will flout semantics and improve on her perfection.
True masters, he claims, need no stencil to sketch perfectly matched, twin f-hole designs. Clayton follows her curves with his pen. His hand, as if moving on its own, draws a tight circle and then a sweeping line, first following the gentle inward curve of her waist, and then swaying outward, mirroring her hip’s graceful arc. He finishes with another tight circle, and then parallels his sweeping line upward, circle-to-circle. He sketches the second f-hole, and then moves back, admires his work, and reaches for his drill—a hand drill, of course. Clayton would never touch perfection with a power tool.
Nobody hears her cries as he plunges in the drill. He slowly rotates the drill’s handle until the pilot blade encounters no further resistance. Then he begins twisting in the twin, half-round blades, removing a perfect circle at the top of the “f”. He drills a second hole at the bottom of the “f”, matching his sketched circle, and sets the drill on the table next to him. He detaches his fret saw’s blade at the handle end, carefully feeds it through the right f-hole’s lower drilled hole, front to back, and then reattaches it. He ignores her frenzied shrieks as he plucks at the blade—Plink! Plink! Plink!—listening intently for just the right pitch to indicate—Plink!—that the blade is properly tightened.
Satisfied, he gazes at her one more time, tracing the outline of her waist and hip lightly with a fingertip. Her skin is taut, ready for his blade. Willing or not, she is about to reveal her soul.
His first stroke plunges the saw blade’s teeth into the f-hole’s outer line. Clayton saws in short, delicate strokes, carefully navigating the line’s sweeping curve. She no longer screams. Her only sounds come from deep within—sounds of a soul escaping.
Perfecting his cuts with a fine razor knife, he adds a pair of perfectly centered, V-shaped notches to the f-hole’s sweeping lines. Then he moves on to the opposite side. Within minutes she is singing full-voiced, releasing a lifetime of inexplicable beauty that has been trapped within her woefully uncommunicative body. Her soul floats on air, pristine and warm. Clayton feels recharged, ready to line up his tools and refine the rest of her body, honing and shaping until she matches the image he has created in his mind. Although the world might prefer her untouched, Clayton has deafened his ears to their protests. They are ignorant. They are judgmental. They will never understand.
An almost imperceptible shock leaps between his skin and hers as he reaches out to touch her, admiring the beauty he has given her both inside and out. Suddenly, the shock intensifies. Clayton senses the lightning bolts he has come to dread drawing nearer. He is trapped, his frozen eyes fixed on hers when the lightning finally strikes. Something snaps inside Clayton’s head. He feels as if someone has shut off the lights in his brain, and then immediately turned them back on. She is not she anymore. He touches her skin, which is no longer skin. It is wood. She is wood. No screams, no soul—just lifeless, sapless wood. Clayton feels dazed, empty, alone.
Everything seems wrong, inverted, as Clayton gazes around his shop at his collection of women, now nothing but violins. He trembles, violently hopeful that something inside his head will change, that the lightning will return and once again flicker the lights. He clenches every muscle in his body tightly, like he did early this morning, the first time the lights flickered. Like he has every time the lightning has returned, and the round hole Clayton has fit into so snugly all of these years has suddenly become square.
Eyes closed, eyes opened—lights off, lights on. This time he tastes the lightning, like caramelized sugar left in a pan to burn and then slathered thick and scalding on his tongue. He gazes around the shop again, and there they are, his unstrung sirens, some lovers, some whores. Although Clayton has made over two hundred violins, he has never sold any of them, and never will. Beauty this sacred, he claims, must never be shared. Nobody would understand. They are too ignorant, too judgmental, to hear what Clayton hears.
His newest find squats alone in the corner, eyes transfixed, awaiting his touch. She whimpers, her voice falling into a tortured vibrato as Clayton casts her a fleeting glance. The corners of his mouth twitch wildly as if preparing to curl into a fiendish smile.
Back to work, he mutters. She, on his workbench, has become she again. He hums softly, stroking her skin, imagining the long, sculpted neck, pegbox, and beautifully scrolled head he will fashion for her—after he saws off her existing head and neck, of course. Clayton sketches a dotted line at the base of her neck, and then reaches for a coping saw. Not so delicate work this time. He gazes into her frozen eyes, his gooseflesh as rigid as nailheads, and presses a fingernail against the saw blade.