A couple of years back, as a big flea market was winding down in a village near where we lived in the Poitou region, I stumbled across my dealer.
“Keep walking,” I ordered myself. “You donʼt want to go there; youʼve kicked the habit. Besides, you have to save for your daughtersʼ education. No, you cannot free up the cash by selling one of your angelic daughters to the gypsies. Yes, it’s true that you made money on the last deal when the Gypsy King came, on his knees, weeping, gnashing his teeth and rending his hair, begging to pay you to take her back after two hours. But they are unlikely to make the same mistake again. After all, the last time she rode by the camp on her bike, they upped and moved to a swampy malarial sand spit in the Camargue. Be reasonable. Keep walking. Look, there is a late medieval torso of St. Sebastian in local stone that suffered greatly, again, during the Revolution, on sale for a kingʼs ransom. Your loving wife will be so pleased.”
So I stopped.
The tool dealer, a mangy, scrofulous, grumpy old bear of a man, glanced up, flashed an evil, avaricious grin, and immediately got on the phone to his real estate agent and put in a bid on a 10,000-square-foot mansion in the chi-chiest part of Paris.
I couldnʼt help myself. There it was: a strange tool, one that I had never seen before. It was a flat bar, maybe a yard long, with a steel handle sticking out from the middle. There was a big chisel at one end, and a mortise chisel at the other. Wow.
As I picked it up, my dealer was saying something like, “Sure, Iʼll buy it, but only if they throw in the Picassos… OK, they need to toss in the Titian altarpiece housing a relic of the True Cross, too… Yes, heʼs back again.”
Then he hung up the phone. “How can I be of service to you today?”
“Whatʼs this tool called?”
“Besaigue,” he said.
Ever solicitous, I offered him a Kleenex.
“No, my sagacious friend, it is a besaigue. The emblematic tool of French Charpentiers. The one end is a big ciseau that they use to sharpen their pencils and their reparté, and the other is a bedane, which they use to chop mortises. No collector of your brilliant acuity could possibly be without one.”
Walking shirtless to the hotel he had found for me on his new 5G iPhone (he was also kind enough to call my wife to inform her of our change of domicile), I was a happy man. It was only 20 kilometers after all, but I had my beautiful besaigue. After all you could build a house, and an ox cart, with a besaigue. All you had to do was sharpen it!
Actually, the tool dealer was a knowledgeable man, and the price of the besaigue reflected the fact that it had sat, rusting, in a damp barn for donkeyʼs years, and it was really suited only for decoration. But these tools are not easy to find, and they are expensive when you do find them.
Today I wondered if, despite the pitting on the flat of the blade, it might be possible to tune it up and make it work again. So I went out to the shop and took it down from its place on a rafter.
It’s a useable tool, though it obviously needs some major surgery to make it work as it should.
The funny thing about the restoration was that the same morning, I’d gone into the dark, cobwebby corner of my barn and dragged out a stone grinding wheel. It is a good wheel, with a relatively fine white stone that just needs a bit of dressing. But it’s just the wheel and the crank, the frame is long gone. I considered finally getting around to building a bench/frame and water trough for the beast and use it to rough out the besaigue.
“Naw,” I thought, “that’ll take too long. Just use the files and stones.”
Might easily have been quicker…
— Brian Anderson
Editor’s Note: Brian is the translator of “Grandpa’s Workshop,” the forthcoming book from Lost Art Press.