8 The Tree Cutter by Gabe Wollenberg

Sunshine.

 

It was the first sunshine we’d seen in days, and it was welcome. Playful warmth streamed down from the sky above, cutting through the mist and chill that we had been wrapped in for so long. This was a time when the sun was yet a delight, before it brought the sticky hot that boiled and rotted. That would come.

 

Frankly, after the last few weeks, burns and scorches would likely have seemed a welcome problem. We’d poked our heads out of the root cellar after the roaring storm had finally blasted westward. Things are wild here. The weather moves the wrong way, right? Makes no sense when a storm like this moves from east to west… a storm that follows the sun, instead of moving opposite it, right? That’s not natural. That’s not the kind of storms we get here. That’s the kind of a storm that makes the junior climatologists put on their propeller hats and fire up their doctoral research grants.

 

Anyway, that’s beside the point. The storm moved the wrong way and that’s why the tree broke. It’d spent it’s entire life being blustered from one direction, and then,— poor little thing— it learns about an enemy that can sneak up from behind it. With the force of a Japanese rocket train. If only it’d been looking backwards; at least then it might have seen it coming.

 

It was a big one, that tree. Not terribly old, in fact. I suspect it was my father who planted it. Shortly after we moved to this property sometime around my second birthday. Or rather, sometime around my second year. My birthday is in October. October is a stupid time to plant a tree, so it probably wasn’t then. The one thing my father is not stupid about is trees. Or so I believe. Which probably makes it true.

 

So this storm of storms comes out of nowhere and rips this poor silver maple practically in half. Part of it is standing still, it’s smallest arms hanging off the tiny wedge of trunk that wasn’t pulled down when the big arms fell. Dad said he’d never seen a tree split like that. It’d been a big week for things we’d never seen before.

 

“We’ve never had to bale out our root cellar before, either,” I said.

 

“Nope,” he grimaced. “Never did. Never seen the water actually come up from the ground.” He swirled his glass cup around reflexively and took a sip. Wrinkled his nose and then cleared out his airways with a quick inhale.

 

“Sun’s gonna stick around?” I asked him.

 

He took another snuff of air through is nose, and turned his eye to the sky over the hills in the east. “Yeah.” He said.

 

“Feels good,” I said.

 

Dad nodded, not speaking. His eyes trickled down from the eastern hill and the corrugated steel sheds that had been slapped down across the horizon. Those barns were home to an untold wealth in genetically enhanced supercattle. The little cow hovels spilled all the way down the hillside, across fields of soybean, and nearly into Dad’s own little half-acre garden, which was now thoroughly underwater.

 

He had to know that the garden was a lost cause. He had to know just from the forecasted rain totals that had come in the days prior to the 56 hours storm that we’d spent in the root cellar hoping the walls held.

 

Dad sighed. “I’d hoped we’d get lucky,” he said, taking another swirl and swig from his mug.

 

“Aside from our friend here,” I said, gesturing to the fallen silver maple,” I think we did.”

 

It was true, we’d not had much damage. The horses and goat had broken out of their stalls, but had the sense to stay inside anyway when the rain got bad. The house was wet, but structurally sound — or at least as sound as it had been before the storm — and the family was safe and starting to dry out.

 

I could hear Mom, my daughter and my sister’s kids setting up a drying rack around the southern side of the house. Mom would have the girls picking up yard litter and raking out the driveway in a few minutes; the girls wouldn’t realize that the game mom had put them to was actually a chore.

 

Dad’s attention turned from his swamped garden. He looked at the twisted trunk of the maple laying across the front lawn. It missed the side of the house by a few feet when it fell.

 

“I guess we did get pretty lucky. Looks like Dale up the hill lost more than a few animals.”

 

I looked again at the barns on the top of the hill, realizing that what I had assumed was a mow of hay or dirt up there had was actually a pile of dead cattle.

 

“Wow.” I said. “What’s he gonna do with them?”

 

“Dunno.” Dad shrugged, swirling his mug again. “Probably burn them. Depends how overwhelmed the carcass removal guys are. If the sun stays out like this for a while, it’s gonna get pretty ripe in the valley in week.” He drank from his cup and snuffed air through his nose again. “lets take this tree down,” he said. I dutifully got to it, starting up my little saw.

 

We worked for a few hours, thinning the brush, cutting out the long straight branches and lugging the tree in manageable pieces to a woodpile in the backyard. I trimmed, lopped and cut. He swirled, sipped and snuffed. In all, the contributions were quite equal, or as equal as expected, if past experience is any indicator.

 

The girls were playing some kind of strange sweeping game in the back yard. One of my trips back there, I’d seen them pushing little piles of detritus around with a couple of scrubby branches my mother had made into an improvised broom. When I came back to the front yard to carry on with the clean up my father had not moved, except to turn 180-degrees from the tree and stare wistfully up the hill again.

 

“I’m not sure why I stay here,” he said.

 

It was kind of a strange bomb to drop, given the fact that my daughter and I had stopped here on our way to our home a few days ago to escape the rain. And we’d been evacuated to the basement as the weather worsened. I tried to smile it off. My wife might have asked a question like that, I guess, because she had moved around her whole life, but my dad always seemed permanently rooted to his land. For me, stopping at my dad’s little valley to ride out the latest crisis was something of a habit. The crisis of the westward storm was only the most recent of the string of financial, emotional or vehicular storms I’d weathered in my parent’s valley.

 

“It’s good land,” I said, peaking at the swamped garden. “You’ve worked hard.” He was swaying a little on his feet. His gristled back, baked a cinnamon brown from years of shirtless Augusts tending his plants and garden, twitched and pulsed as he swayed.

 

“I don’t drink the water anymore,” he said.

 

A white hot lump formed in my belly. He might as well have told me he wasn’t eating from the garden. And I also, self-servingly, wished he’d told me about three swigs from the garden hose earlier. “Why not?”

 

“The cattle.” He said, not turning from his gaze up the hill. “He’s got about 35 head more than he’s supposed to, not that he’s managing the runoff anyway. Not really.” Then it dawned on me: the flooded garden was so much more than a swamping. In a lot of ways, it was a poisoning. Where do you think the piss and shit of 2500 cattle that live on the top of a hill goes? Especially during a catastrophic rain event? Right down into the valley.

 

“I noticed the taste about two years ago,” he said.

 

The lump in my gut pushed its way up into my throat, but I stopped it before it took out my anger on him.

 

“Taste?” I choked out.

 

 

“Taste, at first.” He said. “The water started tasting a little stale. Then it started smelling stale, too.”

 

I realized that the storm we’d just weathered, was probably going to make it worse, probably for the rest of the summer— at least. And could the garden be salvaged?

 

“A few days of sunshine will dry out the garden,” I said.

 

He said nothing. Swirled his mug. Sipped his drink. Snuffed.

 

I was sitting by the fire, later, when I asked him about his teetering and the shakes. I asked him why he had picked today- of all days— the first day we’d seen the sun in four weeks in any meaningful way— why he’d picked today to start drinking again. I was feeling brave, for asking him. We were sitting around the fire pit, burning what little dry wood we could find, and enjoying the stars above us and the open sky. He’d not said much since sitting down.

 

I should have not, I suppose, been surprised to find he’d passed out sometime before or after or as I asked him. At least he was sleeping. I’m not sure how much sleep he’d had while we’d been holed up.

 

The fire crackled and was warm as it burned in the steel ring we hauled out from behind the barn. I’d given the fire pit a few years earlier as a Christmas present— people were still celebrating Christmas then. I’m not sure they ever used it, but I knew it was there, and the girls and I had a great time making a big pot of stew over the open fire. They’d picked Queen Anne’s Lace in the field across the street. It was great to have warm food, even if it was mostly root vegetables. Dad hadn’t eaten any. He said he wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t sure I’d seen him eat anything at all throughout the day.

 

We’d managed to cut our way through about half of the Silver Maple. I’d been culling some of the longer, straighter sticks from the tree and setting them aside. I’d gathered up about 10 of them and had carefully cleaned them.

 

Mom shrugged. “It’s been hard on him,” she said.

 

My frustration slipped across my face— I felt a scowl run across my forehead. I looked away from her and into the fire, and nodded.

 

After a few more minutes, I nodded again. “It’s been tough on all of us,” I said.

 

It was her turn to look into the fire and nod.

 

I slept that night in the old VW Microbus parked in the back yard. When I was a kid, I slept there on an old stuffed mattress sometimes for fun. The mattress was long gone, but there was a raised storage area in the back, and wrapped in my blankets and coat, I was warm enough.

 

As soon as I said good night to mom and decided not to crawl into the bedroom with the girls, (who would be up at the first light) I went out to the long parked VW and put myself to sleep. I missed my wife, and my CPAP machine and dry clothes, and boots without water in them. At least it wasn’t raining anymore.

 

That night I had a dream.

 

I was sitting on a yoga ball in a lavish lakehouse in front of three giant computer screens. The screens were set up in front of a giant picture window, but the only thing you could see from the window was a dry lakebed. I was trying to draw the empty lake bed with a drafting program one of the computers. I couldn’t get the lines of the lakebed right, and so I decided to walk down into the lakebed and see it up close. When I got down to the shoreline outside the lakehouse I found three human skulls half-embedded in the dried lakeweed and muddy shore. The first two skulls looked way from me as I approached, the third appeared to grin and its eyes lit up yellow.

 

I reached for the skull, but as I neared it, it turned red and I felt a stinging sensation on my right elbow. The pain was so great that I woke up.

 

My elbow hurt, but I felt better having slept. I was thinking it would be really great to see if we could find a way to make some coffee on the fire-pit this morning. Even without milk, fresh hot coffee would be a luxury much appreciated— and a nice way I could broach the subject of his drinking to my dad.

 

I rolled out of the VW, still rubbing my sore elbow, to find my dad and the girls hard at work tying up the maple spars I had set aside yesterday. They’d managed to locate some baler twine, wire and a few nails.

 

“Good morning!” my dad said, not looking up from where he was pulling tight a knot of wire. As I approached I could smell the sweet liquor on his breath. The girls tweeted their good morning calls as well.

 

“Papa’s making a teepee!” my daughter said.

 

“It’s going to be to keep us dry and safe,” my niece said.

 

I smiled at the girls. And I rubbed my face with my palm, exhaling. My dad was grunting slightly as he tugged the twine knot at the top of one of the spars. He’d taken all 15 of them, leaned and wired them together, building a 10 or 11 foot tall structure. His cup was set carefully at the base of an ancient Sunburst Locust tree a few feet off.

 

“Isn’t it cool, daddy?” my daughter gasped. “Papa says we can have lunch in here!”

 

I looked from my dad’s cup, at my dad, and then over to my daughter’s face. Her dark eyes sparkled, waiting for a sign of my approval.

 

I smiled. “This is great, Honey,” I said. “Your papa’s got your covered.”

 

I grabbed my little saw and went back to the Silver Maple.

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