Jan/Feb 2000  •   Fiction


by Francis Till

Once upon a time, there was a man who carved wooden ponies for a living.


He did not intend to make a living at it when he first started this carving of ponies from wood, but even in his novice years there was always someone who wanted to collect the ponies he carved, and most were willing to pay him for them. As things worked out, he began eventually to sell them to the owners of carousels. Since the carving of such ponies was an almost lost art and much in demand, he became quite rich once word got around. It helped that he sold his ponies only for carousels of a very certain type, and that each pony developed a devoted and unique following among the very special riders of these carousels, a following that in turn made rich the men who gambled in paying such high fees for what were, after all, wooden ponies with holes in them.

He never saw any of these carousels in operation, and it was not important to him that people loved his ponies. "I suppose it is convenient," he once remarked when asked what he thought about this use of his work. No, he carved the ponies for different reasons altogether and chose his carousel destinations solely on the passion of the buyers who approached him. He would not, for example, ever sell to anyone who tried to buy on the telephone, or in bulk. His concern in this was for stewardship rather than destiny.


The ponies he made during his early years, before he began populating carousels, were never forgotten, but they had lives of limited use. No one knew quite what to make of them. Although none of them were what could be called rocking horses, even when they were of that general size and form, almost all of them, regardless of size, had been sold to the parents of children. Most of these ponies eventually wound up stored in attics, waiting for new generations of children, but many were sold again to people who were looking for unique interior decoration accessories. Fashion is what it is, though, and it was not long before even the last of this wandering generation of ponies had retired from public view into a variety of the hidden rooms where people keep beautiful, important, useless things. In the end, they all sat about in the dark like ancient memories, waiting to be ridden or otherwise known.

No two of his ponies were ever very alike, but all were more like one another than they were like any other ponies anyone had ever carved before. They were a family of ponies, full of the DNA of his dreaming: a tribe of ponies, even an entire race of ponies, eventually, and they became dispersed, caught in a commercial eddy of the ceaseless diaspora that waits to carry all such groups to the ends of the world. Still, you would always recognize any of them, once you had seen even one.

He did not love the ponies he made, except as a student might love an exceptionally gifted mentor. This is how he could bear to sell them. Many people who bought them loved them, but they had not spent the 1,000 hours of caressing and cutting and thinking and painting it took to make each of the ponies. Compared to him, they had barely even touched the ponies by the time their times were over, and most never saw their ponies as anything less than perfect. A thousand hours is a longer time than it sounds. It is only 42 days, but that is longer than it rained on Noah. Longer than it takes to drown the world. There are 8,760 hours in the average year; 613,200 in the average life from its first confused moment to its last dumbfounded breath. Usually he could not make more than four ponies a year. When he finished each one, he would come out of the workshop and look up at the sky for a much longer time than most people think appropriate, given the nature of business. Perfection's pursuit is a genuine ordeal, and a journey quite really as strange and dangerous as walking over ice to the Poles.


What made him most unique among the small guild of pony carvers was that he had never seen a real pony. The idea of a pony had come to him late one night when he was a very young boy. Almost the very next day, he had seen a sketch of a pony in a book. It was not just any sketch, either. DaVinci had made the sketch, and he had drawn the pony in such a way as to show all its lines of force and support. Almost an anatomical drawing, a work from a medical text-or the kind of drawing a romantic engineer might create if a pony were an airplane or a bridge.

He found this sketch by accident or coincidence, if you believe in either such thing, It was in a book of nudes his parents kept on a shelf too high for him to reach without climbing. He had no natural love for secrets, and so he never climbed to see what it was that was kept out of reach. But they had this day left the book open on a table through a fairly straightforward act of preoccupation. When they found him looking at it, they did not believe he was looking just at the pony. He thought DaVinci must have had the same dream he had had the night before. Almost. DaVinci's pony was not quite right, and it was this act of concerted recognition that his parents mistook for something else.

In his mind, he could see the exact difference between the dream and the drawing.

He knew exactly how to fix the pony in the drawing, how to make the pony perfect. So he carved one, using a forbidden knife he took from the kitchen and a peculiarly shaped branch. A perfect pony. Almost.


His first pony was small. It was about five inches high and his parents were very excited when they saw it. Excited enough to be forgiving about the forbidden knife he'd used to carve the pony, and to treat him as a wonderchild from that first moment forward. Everything about the pony seem perfect, even to him-but when he looked at it a few days after he had finished, he saw things that did not fit perfectly with the dream. And so he began to carve another. His parents bought him a special set of knives when they realized what he was doing. They were very proud of him, but they were not really certain why. Carving ponies was not a destiny they could envision, but no one else of his age and history could do even a part of what he did so well, and this uniqueness seemed to them to be the kind of thing that should engender pride. They thought him perfect in his private quest for perfection, and deferred to his drive.

The second pony was larger, almost twice the size of the first, and looked nothing like the DaVinci drawing that had led to the first carving. It was received with awe by his parents and their friends. But, he discovered, it also fell short of the perfect pony he had so clearly in his mind. And so he began to carve yet another.


All through his life people kept telling him that he should come and see their horses. Most of these people did not know that he had never seen a horse, but there were a few who said it in a spirit of undermining helpfulness, knowing full well that he was carving from his mind and not his eye. Regardless of their intentions, when he told those who asked him to make such trips that he had never seen a horse, let alone a pony, they would always laugh. Many were amazed, but some were simply uncomfortable.

He would explain, if he felt they were genuinely confused, that he wanted to make his pony right before he saw one. He knew from looking at dogs and people, birds and fish and cats, that if he saw even one pony he would have to see them all before he could get back to his image of the perfect pony. And maybe not even then. He knew right from the start and in his fingers that the particular contaminates the perfect.


For a long time he had to do other things to make enough money to keep on with his pony carving. What he most liked doing was going out on fishing boats for four months out of each year. On those boats there was never enough time to think about anything except fish and water and pain, so he never really missed carving. After a four month stint at sea, he could usually afford to spend eight months carving in his barn. Carving the perfect pony. But all good things come to an end, and one day, about five years after he had started putting holes through his ponies, two men came to his barn and started trying to buy his ponies for carousels. They were Italian, and showed him photographs of their world famous carousels. He asked them if they intended to put poles through the holes in his ponies, and they reacted with considerable surprise because they had come to believe this was his intended use for the holed ponies. It was not, and he was reluctant to sell them for this use. They were very persuasive men, though, and by the time it was over, he did not need to go fishing. After that, in fact, he never had to go fishing again, even though he did not always take the highest offer for any particular pony he had carved.


He started putting holes in his ponies because something had occurred to him about wood and perfection one day when he was slightly more than halfway through a carving. Carousels were not part of his plan, and he never, in his own mind, became a carver of ponies for carousels just because they were put to that use. He would never have put a hole in any pony he thought was perfect without it, and certainly never in any pony that was as perfect as the dream. So he would carve until he had to hole the pony to make it as perfect as possible in that incarnation. It wasn't luck that made him place the holes in such a way that the ponies could be used in carousels, no. It was a matter of necessity, and the balance was what it was because of what he knew about ponies from as early on as the night he had his dream of perfection.

Sometimes, in fact, even in his last years of carving these large wooden ponies, he would not add a hole at all because the perfecting of the pony he was carving did not allow for it. Mostly, however, the holes were perfecting in these ponies, and perfect also for their later use. When he didn't hole the carvings, no one else could find the point of balance that a carousel pony must be holed at if it is to be poled without wrecking itself or the carousel (or a hapless rider). He missed fishing on those days when buyers would come to his barn and become very upset because the only ponies there had no holes.

One of these unholed ponies is on exhibit at the Guggenheim, and another is in the bedroom of Sallie James, who came with her mother to visit and fell in love with the pony she found in the northwest corner of the barn. No one is allowed to touch the pony in the Guggenheim (except the cleaning man), but Sallie has been known to fall asleep on top of the one in her bedroom and there is a stain of chocolate sauce inside its left ear.


At the end of his life, he died in jail. This was not an outcome that could have been forseen, given his life up to just before that point, but he was used to being misunderstood by then, and did not find it particularly strange. What happened was that he killed a man one afternoon, and freely admitted to it (although he did not think of it as a crime). As a result of this, he had been convicted of felony murder, but his lawyers argued that he was too crazy to be killed in retaliation for having killed. He told the judge, during his competency hearing, that he was not crazy at all, but that he'd had no choice in the killing, had done it with his eyes shut to avoid seeing the horse that his victim had led into his barn. The victim had been drunk at the time and as unspeakably rude as he was defenceless.

The carver had never looked at the man he killed, not before, during, or after, but the police had photographs to show that he had managed nevertheless to chop his victim up into several very severed sections through the forceful application of some very sturdy and extremely sharp woodworking tools. The horse had not been hurt but had run away, screaming.

In the end, the judge agreed he was too crazy to be executed, a punishment reserved for only the culpably sane or the simple. He decided this because of something the pony carver said. He had always said that he had closed his eyes before and during the killing because he hadn't wanted to see the horse, and that even if he had chopped the man to bits (actually, only three bits, and done with only two swipes of a long, curved, unimaginably sharp forming tool), all he had really been doing was trying to wave the man away. He said, "I told him he would have to take his animal and go, but he did not. All I meant to do was convince him to go." The judge was not convinced to grant clemency on the basis of this claim, mostly because the carver refused to express any remorse. In the carver's view, it was not his fault that the tool he happened to be using when the man stumbled into the barn had been too large and sharp for safe waving-about. It had always been his contention that the man-who hadn't mattered at all-had just paid the necessary price for his foolishness in standing where he had stood: laughing, in front of a blinded woodcutter with what might have been a scythe in his hands.

No, what convinced the judge to incarcerate the carver instead of having him executed was his enthusiastic explanation of how overjoyed he had been in the moment after the killing, as the blood and bits flew into the air. It was in that instant that the horse had begun to scream, and in that scream of terror as it tried to bolt from the blood, the carver had found a clue.

"It was like God," he'd said, rapt. "After a life of silent carving, I suddenly heard the voice that showed me why I had always been wrong. I knew all of a sudden what I needed for perfection."


After about five years of quiet prison life, they let him carve ponies out of soap, using wooden tools. None of the ponies he carved in those years before he died looked anything like the ponies he had made before.

He was happy with them, even though they were smaller than even his first pony. People who saw them before they melted in the sun would tell one another that they looked alive. The ponies of this time in his life had no holes in them, but were widely regarded by the prison staff as works of genuine art. The collectors, however, ignored him completely in this period.