The Swirling Shavings

David Watson

Paul loved wood carving, and it was even better that, after many years of having it provide a secondary income to the hard grind of building houses, it was now his sole source of financial well-being.

Online orders were coming thick and fast for his unique handcrafted works; and with good contacts in the building industry, he was able to source wood from sources other carvers couldn’t.

Timbers such as rimu and kauri, which were subject to considerable restraints in harvesting, often turned up when old houses were demolished.

One day a friend in the building trade called and said an old villa that he and his crew had just demolished had some nice rimu joinery and floorboards – and he could have them if he wanted.

He closed up the workshop right away and set off in his four-wheel-drive utility vehicle to the outskirts of the city, where the pretty but decrepit villa, which his friend had emailed him a photo of, had been pulled down to make way for a new housing development.

It was a mess of old timber and pilings, most of it worthless, but Paul soon spotted the distinctive red-tinted grains of rimu timber amongst the dross of other varieties in the pile.

“It’s all yours, my friend,” his contact said. It would have fetched a fair sum on the timber market but several years ago, Paul had saved this guy from what could have been a serious accident during a build, and he wanted to repay Paul for this.

Paul loaded the planks and smaller pieces onto the back of the 4WD, secured the load, and headed back across town, the traffic quiet as it was post-Christmas and many people were still on holiday. He unloaded the planks and joinery and carried them through to the workshop. Resinous and gluey smells permeated the air, creating the right atmosphere for an afternoon’s carving.

Paul settled on the design for the works of wood he was going to make. They were going to be striking pieces that would showcase the timber’s unique properties – a small table that would feature the grains in all their glory and a bigger outdoor table and stool combo.

He set to work on the rough timber, smoothing off the rough edges and creating a nice pile of wood shavings in the process. Paul loved wood shavings; the way they coiled entranced him and he always left a small pile on the floor of the workshop. He regarded them as a good-luck charm that helped him produce the best work he could.

He was chipping away at the wood when he felt a chill and noticed movement out of the corner of his eye.

He turned around and noticed the wood shavings from the rimu were whirling around and floating up into the air – but some shavings from a job a few days ago, of a different variety of timber, were lying still on the floor.

He checked the windows of the workshop, and except for the skylight that he kept permanently open for ventilation, all the others were closed.

The rimu shavings swirled some more, rose about a foot into the air as one mass, then tumbled to the floor.

As Paul checked the windows, he noted the position of the sun and guessed that the time was about 3:30 pm. A glance at his phone confirmed the exact hour — 3:38 pm.

It was so strange – the rimu shavings took on a life of their own and did a little dance that had a slightly sinister twist, then fell to the floor once more. Paul checked the workshop walls for any gaps that may have allowed a blast of air through, that could have caused the shavings to swirl as they did, but he couldn’t find any. He knew a blast of air wasn’t the cause, because the other shavings hadn’t risen from their good-luck spot on the floor.

The mystery faded in his mind as the afternoon turned into evening, and the preliminary work of preparing the wood yielded to the task of making the furniture. Just as the sun was going down, Paul quit for the night.

He slept in the next morning; this was one of the joys of self-employment and a far cry from his house-building days, when dawn starts in the depths of winter were part of the package.

A long walk followed before he returned home and opened up the workshop. A quick check of emails turned up a buyer for his immediate past job before the one he was now working on.

A retiree wanted the three-legged stool Paul had fashioned out of recycled pilings from an old wooden pier on a remote inlet that had been condemned as unsafe.

It was things like this that made his trade so satisfying. Sure, it had been pleasing seeing houses slowly rise from the foundations and rooms take shape from the initial skeleton-like crossbeams, but nothing could beat matching some handcrafted recycled materials with a happy buyer.

With the deal sealed, Paul returned to his current project. The top of the small table was starting to take shape.

He was immersed in his work — he found afternoons a productive time — when he felt the temperature drop. Startled by this, he looked around the workshop and saw the rimu shavings rise once more, exactly as they had done yesterday.

They did an extra swirl or two then settled back again, as if nothing had happened. Paul remembered the time this had happened the day before and glanced at his phone — sure enough, it was 3:38 pm on the dot.

Something weird was going on, and being a practical man and a tactile learner, Paul was going to get to the bottom of it. But he knew this would mean becoming a word-nerd for a while and spending some time online, poring through records and reports.

First call was a title search on the property where the rimu had come from. Luckily, he’d memorized the address. From there he worked outwards, doing multiple searches under the street name and those of the former owners. After some frustrating blind ends, he hit gold: a report from the 1920s scanned and posted online by an amateur historian of the region, about a murder committed in the same street. There was a picture of the house where the deadly deed had taken place.

Paul opened his email and went to the message that his friend in the building industry had first sent him alerting him to the recycled rimu. He opened the attachment and sure enough, it was the same house — the only difference was that at the time of the photo in the clipping posted online, the house looked habitable.

“Man convicted on evidence that included timepiece,” the sub-heading read. It turned out that part of the prosecution case was that Mr Albert Stanton, owner of the villa, had hit his wife Audrey over the head with a blunt object as they had bickered one afternoon, fracturing her skull and causing an aneurism that led to her death. Stanton denied he was anywhere near the villa that afternoon, but among the prosecution evidence was a bloody clock that had clearly been handled by Mrs. Stanton at the time of her death. It was damaged – police speculated Mrs. Stanton had hurled it at her husband as he advanced on her with the blunt object. It had stopped ticking at precisely 3:38 pm the day she was determined by medical examiners to have died.

“Mrs. Stanton was found lying on the elegant rimu floorboards,” the report stated.

Of course, the stopped clock alone wasn’t enough to convict Albert Stanton but it was part of a chain of evidence that linked him to the scene – if he hadn’t been there, why would a bloodied and battered Mrs. Stanton have had cause to hurl the clock?

Stanton was convicted of murdering his wife and was hanged at the end of the 1920s, the amateur historian noted.

Shivers went up Paul’s spine; the rimu floorboards he was working on were the very same ones Mrs. Stanton had lain on as she died from the blow inflicted by her husband.

Her spirit had stayed with those floorboards and had somehow been released when Paul had shaved and shaped them.

Paul knew what he had to do. As much as it pained him, he knew he couldn’t continue with this project.

He called a friend of his who was a lay preacher at the local church and told him the whole story.

That evening, the friend came to Paul’s place and they took the rimu boards and shavings, and set them alight in Paul’s back yard.

As the rimu burned and was reduced to charred rubble, his lay preacher friend said a prayer and a blessing for Mrs. Audrey Stanton.

Paul never had another spooky experience with recycled timber, but he never forgot those swirling rimu shavings.

David Watson is a former journalist in New Zealand who first tried his hand at fiction writing as a pastime during that country’s COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. He found he liked it and has continued to write since.