THE BOWMAKER'S CATS
We'd been to the bowmaker's house before, but not recently, and never all of us together. We'd toured his workshop and house, seen his shelves of stacked bow blanks, his grove of aged Pernambuco logs lain horizontally in the basement, his ebony stumps for frogs and store of mastodon tusks for tips, his drawers of abalone shell, whale baleen, bits of lizard skin, and hanks of Mongolian stallion tail hair. His knives and planes and gouges and buffing pads and leathers. We'd watched him at work pedaling his antique jeweler's lathe, shorn gold filings piled on the floor around him. Watched him heat a straight length of faceted pernambuco in the alcohol lamp and gently pry it back to the exact leg-bone curve in which it would serve the rest of its life. Lined up and hairless in his downstairs window rack to sun-cure, those bows were candy in the brain: sounds to imagine and not yet hear. Perfect, therefore, and better (maybe; almost) to look at than to play. Perfect, too, in the way we could imagine them responding in our hands - exactly mated to the finger's asymmetry, perfectly weighted and balanced, pressure of thumb on the thumb grip, forefinger cocked against the silk and gold winding. Zing! To see one was to ache to hear and play it. Pull, press, draw it down and back and down again across the strings. Listen. Glide the sound out. Polished as gems, shapelier than roots or bones or antlers, but somehow calling these things to mind (also: lager, absinthe, amber single malt in a glass, the outer wrappings of a cigar, sun on a summer wheat field).
Aside from bows that didn't play themselves or otherwise make a sound, and the career-sized store of supplies to make them, the bowmaker had in his possession three invisible cats and a wife whom no one, in all the times we'd visited, had ever seen or spoken to. We'd heard tell of her and were mostly assured of her existence - there were the signs, certainly, even if she wasn't physically present: special foods in small dishes left lying around on the dining room table; the smaller, shorter workbench adjacent to his where she did her rehairs and high-dollar restorations; the jackets, sweaters, shawls, worn-out party shoes and hats, all vaguely retaining a delicate female form, some lightly soiled, and left hanging over the backs of chairs and from hooks and doorknobs and on the dusty downstairs coat rack. She might have been a beauty. Raven-haired or red-haired with a sullen glare and a widow's peak. Or mild and gentle as the surrounding countryside and fall wheat fields. We weren't sure. There was a sorrowful past attached to her - this we knew from our leader who'd been told it by the bowmaker himself: something involving a foreign prince and fleet of stolen Audis and backwards squirrel-hunting parents who had long ago disowned her.
He was always talking, the bowmaker. He did not meet eyes, exactly, as he talked, but blinked and rolled his eyeballs up into his head or cast his eyes away somewhere a few inches to the right or left of us, observing a spot on the wall maybe, stroking his beard and mustache downward with the skillful, blunt-tipped fingers that were his whole livelihood, in preparation of answering (at length) our questions. And as he talked, the more he talked and talked, we were persistently aware that one of his teeth was rotten - hidden there inside his head, somewhere, and undeniably rotten. Possibly abscessed. The smell of it, heavy, boozy, like rotten cabbage or sausage, some kind of funky old meat, stampeded us in wafts, solid-seeming with the humidity of his breath and spit and other odors having to do with the digestion of his lunch. The direction, timing, and relative velocity of his exhalations were not easy to predict - each one's movement unseeable in the surrounding air: try as we might, angling heads and shifting back a step or to the side, the occasional full-face collision with one was inevitable. In this manner all of his meanings and explanations, his lengthy asides and answers became imbued for us with a vague dread and nauseated embarrassment and unwelcome reminder of boiled fish.
We were there, of course, for the bows. To try them, to play them, with the intent, naturally, of purchasing one or two, if the price was right. We had not abandoned our shoes in a heap at his front door to wander his house and workshop sock-footed while he went on about his secret cats or the invisible woman he called his wife. But the more he explained things, the more we wondered. Planes, finger planes, lathes, knives, glues, jigs, clamps, lamps, drawers of shell and gold and tortoise shell and pretty metric screws...with each tool and process laid bare, each variety of wood and exotic material shown in its original, harvested state, we felt increasingly concerned about the things not said. All these years he'd worked reducing his production needs to mimic the most ancient, time-honored bowmaking methods and practices (mostly French, of course): no power tools or artificial lights, no virtual mock-ups, no petroleum products. Yes. But why were there bowls of cat food and water dishes left standing by the door and no cats anywhere? Why the smell of cat piss and no cats? Where did they hide? Where was his wife?
He had just finished explaining the procedure for engraving the nipple end of a gold thumbscrew and was now tilting back on his stool, chin in hand, fingers probing externally the area of his rotten tooth, and ready at last to consider one of our "off-topic" questions: "About the cats. Yes. They're just terribly shy. As soon as they hear a person, a human voice that's not mine, they hide under the house. But they're here all right, believe me. You just won't see them." We wanted more, of course. How had they become so shy? Were they always shy? If so, how had they come to be owned by a man as loquacious and full of bluster as the bowmaker? Had his wife played some part in their emotional conversion? Had she played with them, period? Was she with them now, perhaps, under the house, playing? But he would not indulge our interests any further. "See here," he said, turning slightly to reach and pluck down a bow from the rack overhanging his wife's smaller bench: an item of rarest antiquity, sent from Tokyo for new hair - French with a sloping tip, and an ivory frog restored years ago, ostensibly by his invisible wife. "Soft as a noodle," he said, gently mashing the tip in one palm to make the stick move for us, waggle side to side. "Don't try that at home. Rubbery. But this is an amazing bow! Pernambuco like this...it actually doesn't exist anymore, except on the black market. Demands a whole different playing style and method of construction, see? Supple! People, some people, particularly classical players in the romantic style, adore it."
Note, we did not ask how much: more money than all of us together earned in a year; more than we'd ever see in one place at one time. That much we knew. The actual amount was inconsequential. Note, too, we are none of us classical players in the romantic style. We've studied it, of course, some more than others and found it mostly doesn't agree with us. That is, it agrees with us as much as any other style or form of music one hears in passing and hums along with, studies briefly, snapping fingers, but afterwards can't remember. Our preference is for the music which conceals in its expression an emotion so powerful that to state it more directly would be to destroy and contaminate it with drama, driving away the listener - so: more restrained classical and baroque (Bach, say, but not Monteverdi), music of the late Renaissance, Gregorian chant, Monk, Mingus, Miles, some bluegrass, Nick Drake, music of the Mongolian prairies, etc. Again he caressed the tip of the bow, enfolding more and more of the stick in his palm, back halfway to the thumb grip, laughing softly to himself almost as if he were aroused by a lover, he pressed down with his other hand and made it wiggle. "See the flexion! But if you can get used to it, the tone to be had from a bow like this is actually...incomparable! The last one I saw at Sotheby's auctioned for, oh, let's say high six figures. This one's been appraised at slightly less than that because of the, uh, the restoration. An important bow, but not as historically significant as it might be - as others like it."
Again he turned, this time with a hint of rage in his expression - professional jealousy? anxiety? - some of us were able to observe this in the window, which reflected his profile from the neck up, others had to infer it from the sudden squaring of his shoulders and blusterously delicate but undeniably dismissive manner of re-hanging the bow by its tip on the rack overhanging his wife's workbench.
"So, next," he said, continuing with his step-wise explanation of the process of making a violin bow. The oversized octagonal rough shape, the paring away of wood, the constant stress testing, the fitting of the frog; the floor around him was littered with little red curls and chips and shavings of rarest heartwood....
But we'd seen it all now. Really we had! We were ready to play. Only playing, we thought, would make certain things clear again.
Into the testing room we went - not so much a room as a partially renovated in-law apartment of plasterboard and wainscot with strategically suspended head-sized foam wedges and larger baffles, one wall draped in old sleeping bags, all of it arranged not to distort or enhance any single frequency with reflective junk sound. Here again he was in his element and ready to demonstrate for us, stamping his slippered feet, grunting, laughing, clapping hands, clearing his throat, positioning and repositioning baffles so we understood the care he'd taken constructing this perfectly flat, sonic environment: "The only reflective surfaces here...and here, this little bit of floor, and of course some of the ceiling, over there...will give you an overall ambient sound not uncharacteristic of a small concert hall. If we move the baffles you can change that, of course, to your liking, but most people prefer starting here. Kind of the default position. Maybe a bit on the dry side. But honest. It's an honest sound, not too many overtones, a lot of fundamental. It won't hide a thing."
Note, too, we are experts in what we do, but we are not snobs. We are not fanatics desperate to impose our sensitivities or beliefs on the rest of the world. Most of our adult lives we've devoted to the art (the skill? the practice?) of purifying pitch and sonority by the movement of fingers sometimes less than fractions of a millimeter, the better or more exactly to convey our thought and feeling in a musical line and drive a spike through the listener's heart. Our lives are ruled equally by the infitesimal and the grand: a milligram of wood shaved from a bridge, a soundpost tapped and squeezed fewer than .2 millimeters closer to the foot of a bridge, a fingernail pared to make the note intonate closer to perfection, a fleck of gold in our rosin. We don't think twice about any of this. No, we think continually about all of it. Habitually. To the point it no longer really matters. Fellow travelers on airplanes count numbers and study golf manuals, consult the pros on how to adjust the positioning of a thumb or hip or foot inches one way or the other to improve the swing or the putt; we fine-tune the microscopes of our souls to register hair's-breadth adjustments, which no one but us will ever hear, exactly, but all the best of our listeners will know and feel profoundly. We are none of us fussy or delicate people. We like what we do. We also like cooking and driving fast, building stone walls, skiing with our children, chopping down trees, and hunting small animals, as time allows. Most of us, more than anything, long to be loved. In this, as well, we want the bowmaker's help. With his help, we think (we hope), we will play that much more productively, with a warmth and purity of tone no one in his right mind will be able to resist.
First up, of course, our leader chooses the bow we'd all known he would choose to start with: the dark, sexy-girl one, with a sloping striated head and clear grain (from a stock of wood the bowmaker once was overheard calling his "Pecatte wood") - grain you can see so deeply into it is like seeing through a piece of cheese. No, like looking into a rushing, frozen trout stream and seeing all the muddy and whiskery sun-streaked levels of it revealed simultaneously. No, like.... Anyway, he is hastily unbuttoning his old case, flicking the strings of his violin to check his tuning, wiping away old rosin. And then the moment: he's as delighted in the seconds preceding it as in the seconds we're sure will follow, as sound enwraps the room and the violin sings beyond its heretofore recognized potential, the notes wider, deeper, harder, warmer and more natural, nestling to a fundamental of pitch never before heard. We know it's coming. We see it in his face, mild, astonished as a man about to experience religious conversion; he studies the bow a last time, caressing it in the palm of his right hand and polishing the ferrule on his shirttail, seeing the lamp-lit glow of the abalone eye and slide wink on and off at him from the perfect black of the frog as he tilts it in and out of the light. He is pleased, he is so pleased, he is ready....
The door bursts open and the bowmaker strides back into the room, clearing his throat. He seems nervous, ill at ease anyway, which is to say his manner seems now more abrupt and sudden than previously (and in a way to remind some of us of the weight and shape and heft of particular knives and gouges on his bench two doors down). Had he left the room? When did he leave the room? Did any of us notice? To reenter the room he must have left it, requiring us to presume either a hole in our perceptions, a gap in time, or some kind of hypnotized mind-meld-like group-hallucination in which all of us ceased noticing his blusterous and all-too-noticeable movements in and around a room. No explanation seems adequate to the problem of his sudden removal from and reentry into the room. Regardless, we must accept it, recognizing, as we do, that he is no longer exactly who he'd been before leaving the room and reentering it. He is larger and less ideal-seeming. Reddened. He has lost something and gained something else back in its place. His mood, anyway, is much changed, and we are no longer sure we will hear him as well (which is to say as impartially, notwithstanding his breath and the need for positioning your head to escape its full impact). But like it or not, we will have to hear him.
"The Pageot," he says. He says it in an accusatory manner, slick and decisive as the edge of his knife stripping excess wood from a bow blank.
Yes, some of us say.
We can try it as well, sure.
You want us to play it?
I'd love to!
We'll be glad to put it in the mix.
Strictly for laughs.
Do you have a spare few hundred thousand dollars?
Heh. Very funny.
It's not even for sale though, is it?
"The Pageot," he repeats. He shakes his head and his tone is like none of us has spoken. "The Pageot is gone. No one has been in this shop all afternoon. No one has come in or out of that front door since you all arrived. Which means one of you, someone amongst you, has that bow. Now," here again he cast his gaze somewhere beyond us and then, with a fluttering of eyelids, rolled both eyes up into his head and continued, eyelids faintly thrumming. "Now, I'm going to leave you gentlemen alone and will trust that between the six of you - pardon, the eight of you - you can learn what's happened and return the bow to my wife's bench, no questions asked." That he was moved by the disappearance of his (so-called) wife's high stakes rehair job was evident enough to us without getting a direct look into his eyes for confirmation. Some of us, all the same, peered up after him at the ceiling, in empathy, perhaps, or in the vain hope of seeing reflected there, in whatever he was studying, the state of his soul, while others stood slightly on tiptoe to catch a first glimpse of tears (or any other outward manifestation of a distraught emotional condition) and thereby to guess what it was to be him and so troubled by vanishing cats and wives and now bows. Maybe it was just a very shy bow? Maybe at the first sound of any other bows it hid under the house? None of us pointed out his errors in counting our number and gender, though one of us did clear her throat delicately, perhaps confessionally, forcefully enough, anyway, to draw some attention to herself, breathing in once as if she were about to pounce on a topic or own up to the theft (or to being his lost wife?), but no words came. No one said a thing. "So then," he repeated, "I was hoping it'd be easier than this, but apparently it isn't. Umm. So, like I said, I'll just leave you gentlemen here to sort it out and will be downstairs awaiting your, uh, call." And with that he withdrew.
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