Common and often rejected in favor of ink, in my hands I hold a pencil. A slim cedar barrel inlaid with greasy graphite. Seven inches long, one-quarter inches thick. Frequently yellow. Includes a tofu flavored eraser held in place by a silver ferrule. Did you know, during World War II a fighter-pilot’s pencil concealed a silk map and tiny compass? Consider the pencil a secret agent. A spy. A hunter. With a continuous line it captures the contours of its observed: shadows are pinned in a paper field, a figure is rendered; the pencil bites at the model’s neck, it strokes the abdomen, hairs emerge and cross hatch. Unexpected gestures and pressures release particles and black dust.
My father left behind a collection of pencils. 300 plus. Stockpiled in a shoe box, gotten from farm equipment dealerships in Saskatchewan: Quality Tillage Tools, United Grain Growers, Western Lighting Rod Insurance Co. A single red pencil traces his bloodline to Finland. A handful reveal my move away to another province: Palm Dairies Saskatoon; BC Ferries. His collection includes a bouquet of pencils from Ohio, picked in 1986 when he went to bury his alcoholic sister, Arlene; thin as cigarette paper and yellow as rye, she had completed her process of self-mummification: Wasserman’s Uniforms and Shoes, Kolbinson’s Pharmacy, Columbus Stone and Marble Centers. Evidence. We make our mark again and again.
The oldest pencil in my father’s collection is and E.F. P. Barrel no. 122 HB Japan, circa 1932; green with green stripe. As a child I would steal pencils from my father and scrawl on walls throughout the house. Pencil lead can be made from your bones. Carbon heated compresses into diamond, graphite and coal-like boneblack. Promise me you’ll bake my bones in an airtight furnace at 3500c and draw with me.
Until then, I’ll add to my father’s pencil collection.