Carved in Wood


Our Correspondents

Our newest correspondent, Merritt Tierce, is writing about “the varieties of obscurity.” First up: a fateful trip to Greece leads her to the Museum of Wooden Sculptures.

Wood carving by Giorgis Koutantos.

Giorgis Koutantos, The Combing.

I lost my wallet last week. I’d been out having drinks, wearing jeans into which I could have forced something no wider than a penny; at the train station I sat down in a chair on the platform, slid my ticket into my wallet, and wedged my wallet under my thigh. The train arrived and I stood up and boarded, leaving my wallet there on the platform.

I discovered the loss when I started looking for my ticket as the ticket checker approached. I was immediately distressed, of course, though not by the loss of the wallet itself, or my debit cards or my ID, but at the most likely permanent disappearance of a piece of paper with an address written on it, the handwritten address of the Greek wood sculptor Giorgis Koutantos.  


In late May of 2010, I went to Greece because my best friend, who had died the previous summer, had been there thirty years before. I’d won a small travel grant to fund, ostensibly, research for a novel; in truth I just wanted to visit the places she had told me about.

My friend had lived, briefly, in a cave somewhere on Crete. I didn’t know where her cave was, but I heard there were caves near Axos, so that’s where I went, part of the way by bus and the rest by hitchhiking. When I arrived, I realized I didn’t want to find the cave my friend had lived in. It would be demolished or developed or empty or someone else would be living in it. So I went for a walk, which was all I could ever think to do on that trip, thinking, as I was, constantly of her, thinking, inevitably, of how I had been walking around Spain the summer before when she died. I had sent myself away from her to walk around Spain because I wanted to be like her, a traveler, and then she died while I was gone. I felt it, the moment of her death. I was walking down a street in Alicante, pulling my suitcase, and the weight and light slipped out of the world and I stopped and stood still for an hour, unwilling to move in the direction of confirmation.

A year later, in the broad blank afternoon, I walked into a white building labeled MUSEUM OF WOODEN SCULPTURES. No one was there, but the labor of a man’s life surrounded me, in a room full of people carved from pine, eucalyptus, olive, cypress. A wedding scene, a deathbed, an eagle the size of a dragon. At my feet, a man lay on his back holding a woman, each of them clutching salvation. As I looked at the rainbow striations in the wood and thought, The maker of this will know how to make love, he walked into the room, holding a chisel.

It’s beautiful, I said. Thank you, he said.

Giorgis had carved a fair number of the people who lived in the village and introduced me to each sculpture. Some of the figures I’d seen already, just that day, along the path to the museum—an old man sitting outside a café, in full military dress from some now-ancient war. Some of the figures I’d recognize later, on my walk home, like Giorgis’s friend the shepherd, his beard and all his woolly, belled sheep. My favorite, a carving of a photograph: a framed image of hair combed down over a face, the wrist and comb midstroke. His grandmother. Her nightly ritual, he said.

Giorgis Koutantos, The Wedding.

Giorgis Koutantos, The Wedding.

We talked about English and art and isolation and Facebook, and I told him about my friend’s cave. I asked for his address—I’d imagined sending a letter, some correspondence about his work or mine or life in the village. But I never mailed him anything, and I don’t know why I kept the piece of paper in my wallet for six years. I suppose because it’s necessary to remember that for twenty-five years a man has been hauling storm-downed trees up a hill with a truck and a crane and then hacking and chipping and smoothing and prying and making them into his mother, his father, that old soldier, Zeus, a donkey—hitting the trees day after month after year to make them into whatever he thinks of to make.

And I suppose the symbols on this piece of paper refer to a place where my friend is not, to a place where I will not find her to tell her that she died. This one address that is not hers reminds me that she is also not at any other address, or in any cave except the backless hollow of my memory. This is only the address of a room where an invisible face masking unknowable thoughts is shrouded by hair and carved in wood.

Merritt Tierce is the author of the novel Love Me Back and one of the Daily’s correspondents.