Instructions on Carving by Kristin Stein

1. Climb the cement steps to the workshop and press the door firmly with your palm so it’s flush against the wall. Unlock the hook and eye latch.

2. Fill a plastic Shop ‘n Save bag with dry wooden shavings to line your gerbil’s cage with. Try not to sneeze. Tie the bag’s handles into a firm knot and wipe your hands on your shorts.

3. Above the workbench on a thin wooden shelf, notice a bruised yellow book. The spine says Carving.
​ You’ve always wanted to learn how to carve so use a coil of Pink Panther insulation to hoist yourself on the workbench.

4. Feel the dust itch the insides of your nostrils and sneeze loudly, step backwards but don’t fall.

5. Reach up, pull the book down with the tip of your index finger. It falls to your feet with a thick sound.

6. Flip through its glossy pages and look at the photos of carvings. There’s an old man with a whittled wooden beard but it looks too difficult. Settle on a duck because it’s the easiest.

7. Find a block of soft wood, like white pine or butternut. 8. Stand at the workbench with your hip cocked slightly forward and trace the duck’s outline on the wood with a flat carpenter pencil.

9. Look out the window at the line of maple trees bordering the rock wall. See your brother stepping out of the hen house cradling brown, white, and blue spotted eggs in the hem of his shirt. Ask if he’ll cut out the outline.
10. Watch him stoop over the scroll saw, his black ​No Fear
​ baseball cap turned backwards, strands of bright, coppery hair falling in front of his face. Wonder why only you and your brother have red hair in the family.

11. Sit on the back porch by the garden with the heavy black pocket knife you borrowed from your dad. Use your thumb to press against the back of the blade and guide it along the grain, watch the wood peel away in long, curling strips.

12. The head and beak are more challenging because they’re smaller and have more detail. Do the best you can.

13. Place the finished duck on the plant stand in the living room among the Lemon Button Ferns and drugstore ceramic rabbits. Inspect it solemnly and decide carving isn’t for you.

14. When it goes missing, ask your brother where it went. Laugh as he shows you how he tried to fix its head but now it’s tiny and disproportionate to its body.

15. Fall asleep on the couch after drama practice. When a policeman shows up at your door and says there’s been an accident, go with your brother to the hospital in Albany. Sit in the ICU and half listen when two policemen say they need someone to identify the bodies. Notice you’re still wearing the costume from drama, leggings and a black top, but it’s too late to change. Your brother goes to the morgue alone while you curl up on the vinyl couch in the hospital room. Never ask him about it.

16. Sit on the swing by the bare lilac tree and push your stocking feet into the snow. Take a fistful of snow in your gloved hands and throw it at your brother’s dark window. It’s too dry to pack into a ball and scatters in the wind.

17. Find any reason to yell at your brother. Try break through the silence in the house. Don’t apologize.

18. When he leaves, don’t say good-bye. Don’t ask where he’s going. Watch him load bags of clothes and books and plastic Ninja Turtle figurines into the trunk of his grey Chevy. When his car disappears around the copse of grey sycamore trees find the wooden duck and cup it in your palm. Listen for his engine but give up after an hour.

19. Fifteen years later, stand in ACE Hardware and stare at the racks of carving tools. Tell yourself not to cry.


Kristin Stein is a Portland transplant from the Adirondacks. She is studying creative writing at Marylhurst University and plans to continue to an MFA program after she graduates. “Instructions on Carving” is her first publication.

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Comments 1

  1. I like the format of this story. I like the way it sneaks up on you and leaves you feeling empty, cold, feet in the snow.

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