19 October 2010

The Woodcutter

A trip to the cabin required an accounting of many things. I was a child, though, and all I had to think about was to bring the clothes that I didn't mind getting dirty. I'd brought the ones that couldn't get dirty before because I was a little girl. Then, in the forest, some bacchanalian impulse would always whisper to me, and the clothes would never be the same when we came home, even after the laundry. So I would bring the pants with the patched knee and the worn sweatshirts and last year's shoes. A flashlight, a book, and maybe a toy. Certainly not my new and most favorite toys, and no toys with pastel fabric or moving parts which could become gummed with sap or dirt or pine needles.

I never wanted for lack of something to do at the cabin, though, or at least I don't remember. There was pretending to be done between all those trees, and we would be gone from there for such long stretches that when we visited again, the pretend magic would have all grown back, and the pretending would have to be done all over again. Pretend stew made from a fallen, rotting tree, pretend sweeping with a twig broom, pretend living in a secret fort in the woods. These were all my thoughts; nothing more weighed on me.

But as I say, there was much more that needed provision, because there were neither running water nor electricity at the cabin. My mother prepared all the meals beforehand, or planned them, and managed to fit every perishable necessity into an ice chest or maybe two. There would be water to fetch right after unloading the station wagon. Mom would remain in the cabin to arrange things and Dad would take my brother and me to the spring to fill our dozen empty plastic gallon jugs. I would undo the lid and place the jug within reach of Dad and my brother at the spigot. Some of them still smelled like milk, the way it smells after sitting out for a just a while. A little sweet. We would make repeat trips throughout the week as we emptied batches of jugs.

Most important, however, was the tidy economy stacked beneath the raised foundation of the cabin. Aside from filling up the kindling boxes, I never had to bother with it. Even in my teenage years, I was never asked to split logs. The times I had asked Dad to try it ended in splinters.

But the woodcutter could do it. He adopted a rhythm. Pick up the log, put it on the block. Swing once to stick the axehead, swing again to split it. My dad could do this for an hour or more, taking breaks to arrange the split logs under the cabin. I could see it was hard work, but I had to wonder if he didn't enjoy the skill of lodging the axe right in the center of the circle, the stroke describing the diameter of the tree. My mind's eye places meat the perimeter of split-log-flight-distance watching each stroke to see how near the middle it would come.

Once I took a photograph of my brother cutting wood. He was a college student and he had taken off his shirt. His lean body gave a faint shine of perspiration and his shaggy hair was a little damp.The photograph catches his axe in the air, above his head, and his face clenched.