If there was any sting in Curt’s barbs, David wasn’t letting it show. The boy was, in some ways, growing up too fast. Still slight like his mother, just skin and bones and bottomless stomach, but with a mind that sometimes left David staggering.
David was never sure each morning, each moment even, which Curt he would face. Whether it would be the innocent ten-year-old who could often surprise him with the depth of his sweetness, or the Curt who seemed to be along for this overnight at the cabin: the savvy, precocious pre-teen full of cocky self-containment. It was as though there were another Curt hidden inside the Curt he could see. Another person who maybe didn’t like David very much. Had no use for him. Was ready to hasten Curt down a different path.
“You’re strong, Dad,” Curt had quipped as David was lugging two coolers, one atop the other, from the car and into the cabin. “But when we get back home you can take a shower to fix that.”
They’d intended the weekend trip to their little Ozark cabin to be a larger affair. Kathy had said she might come but then demurred the night before. Joe had forgotten all about it when David had called him, and his father told them to go on without him. So that left only David and Curt to joust this time. But it was time in the woods, which generally set its own level for both of them.
And there was work for them to do. An old oak, too near the cabin, was dying, shedding large limbs with each spring storm, and David worried that if pushed the wrong way, the substantial remains of the old tree could come down on his dad’s cabin, and who knew what damage that might cause. So his plan for their visit was to fell the oak in a safe direction. He regretted that his father hadn’t joined them since his woodcraft was better, but David had always paid close attention to his father’s work in the forest. He’d cut down many trees following his father’s example, and he believed he could bring down this tree safely as well.
David had explained his plan to Curt on the drive to the cabin. It was a tree Curt knew, and he was skeptical of his dad’s concerns. The tree wasn’t really that close to the cabin, he’d contested, and how likely was it to fall in that direction anyway? The prevailing wind – his words – would probably blow it down in the other direction. If that ever even happened. “I think your fear is unfounded, Dad.”
Yet the idea of breaking out the chainsaw had secretly excited the boy, so after they had unpacked the car, Curt stepped around the back of the cabin to have a look at the tree. And there he found another large limb on the ground, fallen within a few feet of the cabin itself. Curt looked into the branches of the old oak, calculating their height in relation to the cabin and how the slope of the ground could, quite possibly, cause the tree to fall the wrong way after all. Maybe, he conceded, his dad was right. This time. And with that thought now in his head, the dying tree began to look enormous to him. Dangerous. Maybe impossible to control, but they had to take it down. Or his dad had to, because Curt was not allowed to touch the chainsaw.
Curt hadn’t heard his father come around the cabin after him and jumped a little when he spoke.
“Don’t like the look of that old thing.”
“I think maybe you’re right, Dad.” Curt then grabbed the fallen limb and began dragging it through the gravel toward the fire ring. His sudden act showed that he agreed with his father, though the boy didn’t quite understand it at that level.
When Curt had returned from the fire ring, he found his father standing in the same place, still looking at the tree.
“What do you see, Dad?”
“Just studying it. There’s a lot of weight up there. A lot of trees around it. We have to figure out how we can bring it down without having it twist and fall toward the cabin. Fortunately, it looks like most of the weight still up there is on the far side. See?” He pointed. “I’m feeling a little better about that.”
David stepped up to the tree and ran his hand down its bark. Curt was beside him. They stood there for several minutes as David looked into the branches overhead again and then to the area around the tree. Curt guessed his father was seeing things he wasn’t, but he thought he shouldn’t interrupt him to ask.
David then walked away from the cabin, into an area of scrub and large rocks rising from the ground. He turned and looked back at the tree, at the cabin. He toed a couple of rocks loose.
“We should probably clear some of the scrub around the base of the tree before we start. I’ll need an open area to work.”
“I’ll get the loppers,” Curt said, darting to the cabin to fetch the tools. When he returned, he handed the larger, heavier pair to his father, and then the two of them began cutting the scrubby plants and tiny cedars at ground level.
They worked on the scrub for a while, but David was more vigorous about it than Curt, who was eager to get to the big job of the day. It seemed to him that they had cleared more area around the tree than they needed to, but he could see that his dad was not going to be rushed.
“I think we should just keep cutting the scrub, Dad, until we have the whole forest cleared. Don’t you?”
David recognized Curt’s sarcasm; this was getting easier to do since Curt seemed to resort to it almost constantly. David wasn’t sure why. He supposed Curt picked it up from his friends at school, and he wondered how many other parents were getting their doses. But then he corrected his thought. He’d never heard Curt say a single sarcastic word to Kathy. Curt was reserving all of it for him. Yet it seemed good natured, or at least not intentionally mean, and David tolerated it as another sign of how clever his boy was becoming.
“I guess we’ve cleared enough, Curt. But you’re going to stay well back,” he said, looking directly at his son. “And when that tree comes down, be ready to run if something goes wrong. Got it, Curt?”
The boy nodded gravely, understanding that this part was not to be joked about.
The two of them walked back into the cabin, putting the loppers on the shelf where they were kept. And then David pulled two cans of 7 Up from the cooler, handing one to Curt.
“So, let’s think this through,” David said, opening his can and taking a sip. “We’ll do our wedge cut on the far side of the tree from the cabin.” He made a slow, slashing gesture with his hand. “It’s a red oak, so I hope it isn’t hollow. We’ll cut it high enough so that when we’re done, we’ll have some decent stump left. For, you know, sitting on.”
“And ruminating.” He had heard “we” in his father’s words.
“Yeah. That.” David was pretty sure Curt wasn’t suggesting something nasty. He was still only ten years old, after all, even if he was ahead of just about every development curve, except growth. And in that he was perfectly average. A perfect boy in every way.
“Given the spread of the branches still left up there, if we cut the wedge right, I’m pretty sure their weight will bring it down away from the cabin. And then, problem solved.”
“I think that remains to be seen, Dad.” There was a lilt in his voice, but the words hung in the air between them.
David put down his pop can and walked over to the tool corner where the chainsaw rested. Curt quickly set aside his own can and joined his father. The serious stuff was about to start.
David took the chainsaw onto the porch and set it down then turned to go back into the cabin. But he faced Curt coming out, holding the tool kit and a container of chain oil.
“Hey, thanks, little man. Just what I needed.” Before taking the items he ran his hand through Curt’s red curls. Curt didn’t seem to mind.
The two of them sat on the porch steps with the chainsaw between them. David carefully filled the oil reservoir and checked the tension on the chain, turning the tightening screw and checking the tension again. Satisfied, he rose to get the can of gasoline, but Curt was quicker and ran to the car where they had left it, bringing it to his dad.
“We’ll fill the saw out by the tree. In case we spill any gasoline, it won’t stink up the cabin that way.”
David carried the saw while Curt trotted beside him with the fuel, his father’s stride longer than his. They stopped before the tree.
“So here’s where I plan to start the wedge cut.” He drew his finger across the bark at a downward angle. Curt was paying close attention, but he didn’t hear “we” this time. “And I’ll complete it here. Before that happens I want you standing over by the car. Understand?”
“Then I’ll make the back cut here, and when I start to see the trunk leaning, I’m going to cut the engine on the saw and run over to join you. If I do it right, the tree will fall right on that big rock over there.” He pointed. “Probably be really loud too, so don’t be startled, okay, Curt?”
“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
“It’s a thought experiment, Dad. If no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
A thought experiment? David wondered. That Catholic school was certainly bringing him along.
“Well, of course it does. It crashes to the ground.”
“But if the crash doesn’t reach an ear, is it a sound?”
“I guess the birds and raccoons would think so.”
“Oh, good point, Dad!”
David smiled inwardly. He had been filling the saw with gasoline as they talked.
“Okay. Time for you to get over by the car. Everything is going to be okay. I’m sure of that. And one of the ways I am sure is because you’re going to be safe over by the car.”
Curt hurried to where he was instructed. He watched as David put the saw on the ground then put the toe of his boot into the grip to hold it in place as he started it.
“You don’t have the safety glasses on. I’ll get them. Don’t start.”
Curt ran into the cabin, emerging a few moments later with the glasses. David was alarmed that he’d forgotten them, especially in front of Curt, but he was glad his boy hadn’t. It told him Curt understood.
David slid the glasses onto his face and tousled Curt’s hair again. “You know you’re the best son in the world, right, Curt?” The boy returned to his vantage near the car.
David repeated his earlier steps and had even grabbed the handle of the pull cord, but then he stopped.
He was thinking about Curt. He realized that his son wasn’t going to be a boy much longer, and though part of him wished he could keep Curt that way, he knew his wish wasn’t right, wasn’t fair, and wasn’t going to happen regardless. He pictured Curt and his buddies – Luis, Sean, Matt – wearing their honest smiles and adventuring around the neighborhood on their bikes. Curt laughing at the television or at some joke he would hurl at his parents. His fleeting moments of spontaneous, unguarded affection. It was all going to be ending soon. Too soon with a clever boy like Curt who, it seemed, wanted to sprint into adulthood. The boy had no idea what difficulties waited for him there. His pockets were still innocent of a ring of keys or a wallet, yet even the normal challenges of a boy his age, his school work, seemed to come easy for him. Not a challenge at all but almost a frolic. If it was inevitable, what could David do to prepare his boy for it? To give him a little direction? A little confidence? What could he teach him?
“Curt, come here.”
Curt hustled over, worried that something was wrong, that his dad wasn’t going to cut down the tree that day.
“We’re going to make the wedge cut together, Curt.”
Curt found himself suddenly thrilled, and terrified. He had never even carried the chainsaw for his dad, but now he was actually going to use it?
David removed the safety glasses from his face and carefully slid them onto his son. Curt didn’t move, paralyzed by sensations altogether new to him. Man’s work. Serious business. The off-limits chainsaw. His father considering him big enough, man enough to take this huge, this frightening step. Curt uncertain he was, certain he wasn’t. Wanting to do it. Afraid to do it. Pull yourself together, Curt said silently. You can’t back out now. Not in front of Dad.
As Curt was careening through these thoughts, his dad had started the chainsaw. David set it on the ground before his boy, and after a moment of hesitation, Curt lifted the idling saw. The vibration seemed to make his whole body shake; its sound filled his ears. The saw was too heavy for him. He could barely get it off the ground and knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it long enough to make even the first part of the wedge cut.
But then his father reached around him.
“Switch hands, Curt. You’re a lefty, so you’re holding it wrong.”
David held the front handle of the saw as Curt inverted his hands, putting his right on the trigger and his left on the front handle. This worked better, but it was still too heavy. He didn’t want to tell his father this, but he knew he had to.
Except that he didn’t. David kept his arms around his son and gripped the saw. They would make this cut together.
“Okay,” David said over the noise of the idling engine. “It’s going to be really loud, so if anything goes wrong, I won’t be able to explain. I’m just going to pull you away. Got that, Curt? I won’t be angry. We’re going to be safe and smart about this.”
Curt nodded his head. They were going to be safe and smart. His dad was going to make sure of it.
“Give the trigger a pull just to hear how loud it’s going to get. Once we start the cut, we need to stay with it until we’re done. I want you to understand what it’s going to be like.”
Curt barely pulled the trigger, and the idling engine growled a little louder. Then he pulled more and the whine filled the forest. It never sounded this bad when he would watch his dad or his grandfather. He released the trigger.
“Remember how I showed you where we’d make the first cut?” David shouted above the grumbling of the saw.
Curt again nodded his head.
“Well, let’s do it.”
Curt could tell that it was his dad who was really lifting the heavy saw, was really directing the blade to the correct angle. But his dad’s hands were right beside his, so they were doing it together.
The slightest pressure from his dad’s right hand told Curt that he needed to pull the trigger, which he did. The machine screamed. Then they touched the whirling chain to the tree and began the first cut. Bits of old bark flew free before the chain bit into the wood itself. Sawdust began powdering Curt’s jeans. His father held the saw, directed it as it bit into the tree, while Curt held on, a part of it. The noise was painful. The sawdust was already tickling his nose. The vibration was hurting his arms.
But his dad’s arms were wrapped around him. Huge arms that looked so powerful against his skinny own. His dad was right behind him. He could feel his father’s chest against his back. His dad was holding the saw for him, and with him. They were making the cut. Words abandoned him in that moment; he couldn’t say why something so frightening felt so good.
And after what seemed like forever and yet hardly any time at all, he could feel his father lifting the saw free from the cut. Curt let the engine idle.
“Okay,” David said above the noise. “First cut done. Ready to complete the wedge?”
Curt wanted to step away. He wanted to blow his nose, wipe his face, brush the sawdust from his clothes, stop the ringing in his ears. He hadn’t realized he would be making the second cut of the wedge.
“Yeah, Dad,” he breathed, hoping his father heard.
David tilted the saw so that it was perpendicular to the trunk and then guided it toward the tree. Curt pulled the trigger again, and the chain bit in. This cut was easier because it was shorter. They were going directly across the tree rather than through it at an angle. In no time, the second cut had met the first, and with a quick flourish, they had popped the wedge from the tree. It landed at their feet. David then cut the saw’s engine and hurried Curt away.
“That tree is unstable now,” he said, looking back. “So, that’s a good wedge we’ve cut. Now’s the hard part. I’m going to make the back cut alone, and you’re going to stand over by the car again. This is serious, dangerous work, and I want you safe. Understand, son?”
His arms were still tingling from the buzz of the saw, his ears ringing. It was a bigger moment than he had expected; it was over, and he was ready to step back for a while.
David set the saw down and then slid the glasses from Curt’s face, placing them on his own. Curt ran over to the car. Once David was satisfied with this, he returned to the tree with a part of its trunk now missing at sitting-height.
Curt could not take his eyes off of his father. He couldn’t see exactly where David was directing the screaming saw this time, but he could see David, and that was enough.
David bent, leaning toward the tree with the saw in his hands. Curt could hear as its whine increased, as it bit into the wood a third time. And after his father had barely started, Curt saw him pull the saw back, shut off the engine, and hurry away from the tree. David stood halfway between the tree and Curt, and Curt wanted to go to where his father was standing but knew he could not. Curt could see the tree beginning to lean. He could even hear wood snapping rapidly in what was left of the trunk. But only for a second before the whole tree smashed onto the leaf-covered ground with an almighty boom that filled the forest. He felt the impact in his stomach, in his groin. Many of the dead branches still in the tree had snapped and bounced, hitting the ground a second time.
David turned to Curt with a smile on his face. “I definitely think that tree made a sound when it fell!”
Curt wasn’t ready to speak yet. The scream of the saw. The violent crash. His ears ringing and arms buzzing. His dad’s strong, strong arms had been wrapped around him. Not like one of his hugs either.
Curt looked at the fallen tree, broken across the large rock. Directly across the large rock, just as his father had said. He looked at that break. And then he looked at his father. And he felt a smile forming on his face. His dad had done it. He didn’t know what to think.
“Right where I told you it would fall,” David said, as though reading his son’s mind, pointing to the rock and the tree snapped across it.
“Even a broken clock is right twice a day, Dad.”
David had Curt use the chainsaw to cut the smaller branches of the fallen tree, now parallel to the ground. He only had to lift it a foot or two and then let its weight press it against the wood. David stood two steps behind his son as he worked his way through a few of the branches, showing him where to make each cut so they had decent pieces of fire wood and some that they would split later with the sledge and wedge for the potbellied stove inside the cabin. Although Curt grew more confident with each cut, the weight of the saw wore him down. David urged him to give it more gas, that he needed to tear into the wood. “You’ll be at it all day at that rate, Curt!”
Curt knew his father could have ripped through all of the fallen branches in the time it had taken him to do these half dozen cuts. But the saw was heavy, and loud, and the vibration was really starting to hurt.
Curt thumbed the off switch then turned to his dad. “It’s making my arms buzz, Dad.”
“Oh. Just a second.”
David went into the cabin and reappeared a moment later with a pair of gloves.
“These are padded, Curt. They should reduce some of the vibration.” He handed the gloves to his son. “Do you want me to start the saw?”
He didn’t, but he stepped aside so his father could. Curt pulled on the old, grease-spattered gloves. He could feel the padding inside worn through at the fingertips. He took them off to shake out the twigs and bits of leaf and maybe dead spiders in them. They belonged in the fire, not on his hands.
The work was actually harder after that with the too-big gloves on. Curt thought that he’d had enough of his dad’s lessons in manliness for the day, so he put on a masquerade, cutting slowly, pausing longer between each cut, heaving noticeably as he breathed. Wiping his brow. It worked. After a few more cuts, David decided their work was done. The remains of the fallen tree would wait for them.
Together, David and Curt cleaned the saw and then put it away. After that they straightened up the ravaged area behind the cabin, but they moved slowly and only did what seemed necessary. They worked but spoke little, David only giving a few simple directions. Curt said nothing much at all.
Night would fall quickly that early spring day, and after a can of pop on the porch, Curt began building their evening fire – another successful one-match fire, made with wood he had cut himself – because dark, steel-colored clouds had rolled in and threatened rain. They had their dinner early: burgers and chips and pop. They ate the chocolate bars but didn’t make the S’mores since Kathy hadn’t come. Then they sat together, mostly in silence, as they watched the fire burn down and the orange embers snap and glow. Had Joe come with them, he would have been smoking his cigar then, adding his own reflective silence to their mostly silent conversation. Quieter now because, David noticed, Curt was more withdrawn than even the usual he had become lately. He worried, looking back on the day, that Curt might not have been ready for the saw, that he may have forced his son to it too soon. Expected more than the boy was prepared for. How can you know these things?
Ahead of the storm, strong gusts of wind blew through the bare trees above them, filling the forest with soughings and creakings, and Curt realized that his dad had been wise to take down the old oak. In his lap he held the wedge they’d cut, unwilling to throw it on the fire as his dad had suggested earlier. He had made that wedge. Or at least been a part of it. That was good. But he feared, pretty much knew, that he had disappointed his father when he complained later about cutting the branches. It had been too hard. The saw was too much. He knew that. He wasn’t strong like his dad, and his dad knew that, too. But when he brought out the gloves, how could he stop? His little performance worked, but he hated that he had to do it. Not only that he couldn’t keep working, but that he had to deceive his father. That he wasn’t – what? – strong enough? man enough? to work beside his dad in the forest. He didn’t know, and it burned in him that he didn’t know.
The clouds had held off, allowing them their dinner and musings before the fire, but finally began pelting them with fat drops. In the dying light, David spread the remaining embers so the rain could quench them. Curt had already retreated to the cabin porch, the wedge still in hand. David joined him soon after.
“You did good work today, Curt. You can tell Mom all about it when we get home. Tell her what a man you’re becoming. I’m proud of you.”
Curt was more tired than he expected, not only from his work with the heavy saw and then carrying and stacking all of the logs his father had directed him to make, but with the raw excitement of his day. With being trusted by his father and then with his own inability to dismiss this, to make a joke of it. And, he couldn’t deny, with his frustration about his father’s expectations and with himself. He had thought long about how he felt, what he had done, and who was now. Going over each moment in his memory. He was exhausted.
David offered to show Curt how to lay a fire in the wood stove; it would be cool that night and they needed one. But Curt declined the lesson and later declined the chance to play a few hands of Gin Rummy by lantern light. Instead he stripped to his briefs and searched his body for ticks among the freckles but didn’t find any.
By the time David was ready for bed, having stoked the stove and straightened a few things in the cabin, Curt was already there and in the deep sleep that only bone tired and blameless boys can achieve. David undressed and joined his son in the bed. He lay on his back with his hands behind his head and stared into the darkness above him. The rain was drumming on the metal roof. Steady and monotonous, but soothing.
“If I tell my son that I will always love him,” David whispered to the universe, “but he isn’t awake to hear me, will he still know it in his heart?”
The universe answered David Clark, for Curt stirred in his sleep and rolled over, throwing his arm across his father’s stomach and resting his head on his father’s shoulder.
David wrapped his arm about his boy and pulled the quilt over both of them.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to the Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. His stories have been published in various journals, and he never strays far from his laptop.
© 2018, Paul Lamb