Ars Technica, A Short Story by Paul McQuade


Ars Technica

The knife cuts in, wickedly. Splinters crest in spiked knots. The knife digs deeper. For a purpose. For a promise. Joshua keeps his promises. His hands glisten with sap. There is sweat on his brow and a streak of cracking blood on his cheek. He drives the blade deeper into the wood.

There is only one promise he has not yet kept.


On a train platform in Hamburg, Joshua tells me: I will marry you.

On a grey coast on Skye, Joshua tells me: I will build you a house by a lake.

On a Sunday coloured chamomile, Joshua tells me: I will give you a family.

I promise, I promise, I promise.


Joshua builds a house by a lake. He takes a sheet of blue paper, on which is drawn, planar lines and angles, brackets, wall mounts, dimensions, and he cuts down cedar, cuts down pine trees, assembles them in metal joints and settles them in a pool of wet stone. The stone thickens round the wood. The house springs out of cement. The roof is blue shingle. The walls are burnt cedar. The windows look out over a lake, whose water rises and falls as the wind moves over it in hush.

A reporter comes and photographs the house for a magazine.

“Won’t you be lonely up here?” she asks. “There’s no one else for miles.”

“No,” Joshua replies. “I have everything I need. And I’ll be too busy for socialising soon, anyway.”

“A new project?” she asks. Her voice rises. There was no news of new buildings from J. Tapia, ‘the green architect’, save for his new home in the middle of nowhere. A new project would put a whole new spin on the article.

Joshua smiles. He walks over to one of the floor-length windows and begins to rub his right palm with the thumb of his left hand.

The reporter has heard that this is a sign of his creative impulse. She hastily makes notes while he looks out the window, over the lake. She tries to get more information on the upcoming project but Joshua says nothing, just remains standing there, by the window. In the glass, a frailer version of himself stares back.


We gather everyone we know on Skye.

The island is purple heather. Everything smells of cold honey.

Joshua puts a silver ring on my hand and makes me a promise.

Joshua always keeps his promises.


I give up my flat, my city, and my friends. I move to a house of black cedar with a blue shingle roof. The newspaper keeps me on the books for opinion pieces and reviews. I write a couple of words between making meals, refilling the coffee pot, filling out grocery orders for the week.

Joshua works in his office with the door closed. The sound of scratching fills the house, like rats in the walls. The air smells like grass after rain. There are fingerprints on the kitchen table, stuck there with sap.

Joshua works only with wood. It is what he is known for. Not one building is made of concrete. He says the houses have to breathe. The structures are supported by steel wires, metal joints, and hidden pressures. They look impossible.

I don’t need to work. Joshua has enough money for both us. But I need to be doing something, need to keep writing. Only then do I feel truly alive. Whenever I stay still too long in the new house I feel like I am stuck in amber.


Joshua digs the blade in, twists, lets it glide. The bark peels. Underneath is a smooth surface still sap-studded. He repeats: dig, twist, glide. When the piece is finished he puts it to the side with the others. There is a pile of wood shavings at his feet, and to his right, much smaller, is a pile of finished objects.

Some are long, others short. Some are perfectly round. There is a small pile of oddly shaped pieces that look like continents. They are hollow. They look as if they are meant to fit inside each other.

That will come later. First the hard part, the craft. It is methodical: it involves an emptying of the mind, repetition, precision. His arms are tired. His fingers are covered in splinters. But he has made a promise. And he always keeps his promise.

He lets the knife rest and blows sawdust off the piece in his hands. It is long and tapered, with an indent at the end. Smooth and round as a fingernail.


I have nothing left to write. The newspaper doesn’t have enough work and what they send me is too easy.

I used to write poetry when I was younger, before I needed a real job. I start to write it again. It feels strange to write that way. As if the words don’t quite belong to me but have a life all their own. A life particular to them.

The poems are no good, but if I throw them in the bin, Joshua will see; if I burn them, Joshua will smell it. And I don’t want Joshua to know I am writing them.

I take them down to the lake and fold them up. I let them go in the water. They fly off like fish, animated by a life only words know.

The poems darts to and fro in the silver lake.

Joshua has yet to keep his promise.


Joshua puts the pieces together with steel string. They search each other, know each other, lock together. He runs his hands over their joins. His wedding ring glimmers in the halogen workshop lights.

This is how his marriage was, as well. A perfect fit. A click. And the coming together, one life into the other, sealed with a metal join. No matter the rest; no matter that seeds will not take root. No matter. There is nothing he cannot do with wood.

A few more pieces and it will be done.


I write in the morning then feed the lake before I make dinner.

Afterwards, we move to the living room and drink in front of the wood-burning fireplace. It is not in the wall, but floating in the middle of the room from a cable in the roof. Joshua is the one who fills it. Its heat fills the whole house. As if the building is breathing big warm breaths.

I do not tell Joshua about the poems.

He rubs the palm of his right hand with the thumb of his left.

He is working on something.


“What is it?”

“A son.”

The thing walks around the living room. It has the shape of a boy. But it moves like clockwork, and its eyes are smooth wood. Its lips open and close to reveal the hollow space inside its skull. It even has a wooden tongue, damp with sap.

It is held together with steel wires, metal joints, and hidden pressures.

“What do you think?” Joshua asks.

“Is it alive?” I ask.

“Well,” Joshua says. “Not technically.”


Joshua and I spend our days with our wooden son. His wooden limbs click when he moves. He learns to climb, to run, to jump, to fall and roll and tumble. Whenever he gets too close to the fireplace, Joshua yells at him. The wooden slats of his face shift, his eyebrows draw together. Sap beads on his wooden eyes. His mouth opens and closes, but no words come out. Joshua’s eyes glisten. He seems frustrated that there are limits to what he can do with his craft, that life lies elsewhere. I take his hand in mine. The silver rings press against each other.


I take our son down to the lake to feed the water poems.

He laughs silently as the poems dart off in the water like little fish.

I give him a poem to feed the lake. He places it in the water and watches it fly off.

The second poem joins the first. They zip to and fro around each other.

He puts his hand out for another one but doesn’t put it in the water. He just stares at it, then pops it in his mouth.

He laughs. A clear high note. Like the chime of a bell.

He begins to speak.


Joshua takes up the knife again. The handle settles into the calluses of his palm. His hands are sore. He has pried all the splinters from them and they ache.

He doesn’t know how he did it. His whole life he has made buildings that breathe. But they do not change. They do not speak. Nothing he has made speaks. Until now. And he does not know how.

But he did it. And he will do it again. A daughter, this time.

He has made a promise.

Paul McQuade, Summer, 2014

Paul McQuade: Glasgow Writer

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This section: Love Poems, Stories and Tales from Glasgow writers

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