Nick sat alone in his truck with the engine turned off, staring at the abandoned house that used to be his. The house was derelict, as bare and lifeless as the leafless trees surrounding it. Nick considered the structure through the fog of his breath and the condensation on the windshield. It had once been a stately, safe, inviting place. Smoke unfurled from the chimney throughout the winter, and in summer, the screen door bounced with the same youthful abandon as the young couple who lived there. At night, in all seasons, from its perch on the hill, the lighted home surveyed the town below with a jack-o-lantern grin. But in the years since he’d left, the once enlivened house had withered. Now, it was little more than a bereft box of kindling.
Nick exited the truck, leaving the keys in the ignition. He made his way towards the house, turning up his collar against the vicious wind that sliced through the gaps in the trees. The weather-beaten steps creaked beneath his heavy boots, as did the wrinkled front porch that was whiskered and stubbled with weeds. At the door, he paused before entering, his bare hand on the icy doorknob. Why was he doing this? There was little to gain, but then again, what more could he possibly lose? He’d just give it one more look. He turned the knob. The door was unlocked.
The inside was no better than the outside. The coat stand had tipped and broken, its arms splintered and strewn across the floor. Dark rectangles on the moldy wallpaper marked where the old paintings had once hung. Something rustled in the kitchen. Nick followed the sound down the hall and past the bedrooms. A deck of cards and several broken beer bottles were scattered across the cracked tiles of the kitchen floor. Dusky sunlight from the window over the sink glinted off the green and brown shards, the fallen kings and queens. Nick wasn’t surprised to find the kitchen littered. Dilapidation invited delinquency. Whoever had broken in must have seen the “For Sale” sign that hung for so long at the end of the driveway, noticed that that the house beyond was always silent and dark. Nick wondered why it never sold, why it never generated interest. It was a good house in its day. Good bones. He should know – he built it himself.
The heavy table that once stood in the kitchen’s center had been flipped on its side. Nick labored it upright. It took more effort than he’d remembered. He rubbed a hand across it, staring down upon the dark rectangular surface. The touch was familiar, like that of an old friend. It had been one of the last things he’d made, a final touch, a brushstroke to turn this place from house to home. The touch, the woody scent, flooded his mind with memories. It had been a hard tree to fell. Tall, sturdy. His muscles, though atrophied, remembered the impact of each chop, the thud of axe on wood, the vibrations that shot up his strong, sinewy arms to his well-defined shoulders and broad back. He remembered, also, the morning he’d felled this tree, the dank flavor of the previous night’s rain that settled on his tongue and mixed with the flavors already camping there – strong coffee, burnt bacon, and the maple syrup Elena had poured across the pancakes she’d griddled him. Nick could hear his foolish protests. “Is this the best thing for me?”
“You need your energy,” she’d said as she slipped the pancakes from spatula to plate.
“If you say so.”
Nick remembered her smile, the playful banter. He remembered looking back towards the cabin from the tree line as he chopped to see her standing there, her soft hands cupping the coffee she hadn’t yet finished. On some warm days, Elena would follow him into the forest, helping him find just the right trees to chop down. She’d watch him work.
“I feel like I should be helping,” she’d say.
“It’s just nice to have the company,” he’d respond.
And she’d stay with him the whole day through in those familiar, embracing woods. Sometimes she’d sketch or write poems, sing, hum, muse about nature, the world. Sometimes, during his breaks, she’d lead him to new, unexplored corners. They’d sit with their feet in the brook, climb boulders, tread new paths in the brush. In quiet groves they’d make love on beds of leaves or moss, planting roots, entangling theirs with those of the sentinel trees. Near dusk, their arms intertwined, they’d leave the forest and pad their way back home. They’d eat the meal she’d prepared, share a drink of something warm, fall into bed. It became a beautiful routine. Nick liked routine. The swing of an axe, the pattern of the days, the seasons, their life.
Nick walked to the four-pane window at the back of the kitchen that looked out towards the backyard. Nick had once mowed that yard routinely, but now the grass was overgrown and wilting. Still standing, though barely, were two recognizable structures. The work shed had shifted and now stood as a precarious, spectral, parallelogram. The swing set, too, was ragged. Two monkey bars were split down the middle. The slide was rusty. One of the swing’s two chains, which had also both rusted, had fallen from its clasp and was splayed upon the ground, the never-used rubber seat dangling like a baby tooth nearly wiggled from its gum.
This tree had been easier to fell, though the swing set had been harder to build. He’d built it the very last summer they’d been there, a time he also remembered well. The heat on his neck. The riotous cicadas. The sweetness of the lemonade. The golden hour shade of her eyes. The roundness of her belly. He remembered her watching him saw one day from the very same spot at that back window. She’d come outside a minute later.
“It reminds me of snow,” she said.
“What does?” he’d asked.
Nick down at the shavings around his feet and then up at his wife. “Might rain tonight,” he said, thinking she might be worried about the state of the lawn. “Be gone after that.”
“No, I like it,” said Elena, a tenderness in her expression. “It’s like seeing the soul of the tree.”
Nick kept sawing. Elena kept dreaming aloud.
“Yes,” she said, as if confirming her own idea, “all this wood, it all comes from trees, but once you chop it down, saw it, rearrange it, give it utility – well, it’s not a tree anymore then, is it? But we shouldn’t forget where it came from, that it once lived and breathed. And everything that lives and breathes has a soul, and when it dies, its soul must go somewhere. We don’t get to see it with people. When people die, wherever their souls go, it’s nowhere the living can see.” He remembered that she had then gone somewhere, though she remained standing in the same spot. She had inhaled deeply, her eyes wide open, aglow. It was as if she was trying to etch that moment into her mind. She took several more deep breaths. “That’s why I like the sawdust, that wonderful woody smell. It’s a reminder of what we’re killing them for, a reminder of the cost of all of this.”
Nick had just smiled. He loved the way she saw the world, the way she used her senses. It was something she had tried to teach him, to experience life and everything in it. He had humored her, played along, pretended, but he had never been able to see the world that clearly. It was beyond anything he was capable of. It was at once laughable and serious, innocent and deep. It was pure and joyful and fully alive. Just like they were.
Nick stood before that window, looking but seeing nothing, not the winter birds flitting by or the track of the sinking sun. Other than a subconscious shiver, his senses were numb. They had been for some time. It was hard to imagine the structure around him as anything more than the sum of its splintered parts – wood, nail, metal, iron, glass – just as it was hard to imagine those individual trees at the property’s edge that clawed at their neighbors with jagged and naked limbs as an interconnected web of growth and life, as a forest, a family.
Nick remained where he stood for a minute longer. His eyes refocused. Instead of the scene outside, he examined the windowpane itself. In the accumulation, he traced two names. He’d never understood what Elena had meant when she’d watched him work that one summer’s day, hadn’t understood how she could make so much of mere wood shavings upon the ground. But standing there, he thought he finally saw it. It was all about what we leave behind. Life is a zero-sum existence. Everything goes somewhere, becomes something. Smoke turns into atmosphere, kindling into ash.
Nick retraced his steps, walking in his own footprints back through the kitchen and past the bedrooms, tracing a flatline along the length of the dusty wall as he did. He reached the doorway and, from his jacket pocket, birthed an envelope containing a letter and two photographs of three people. He laid them on the threshold and then stood and turned to the dim interior behind him. Everything was still except for the millions of floating particles illuminated by the last few beams of fading sunlight. There was almost nothing left. Everything was fading – the wallpaper, the memories. Nick wondered again how anything so rundown and neglected could ever have been a home. This place was no home. There was no life here. It was a just corpse, a body with no soul. But this house had been alive once. It lived and breathed just as they did, brimming with glorious promise, hope, and spring. Now all that was gone, and if it left something behind, Nick couldn’t imagine for the life or death of him where, for even as he pulled the lighter fluid from his other pocket and sprayed it across floor, even as he lit the match, even as he took one last look around that cold, ruined house, he didn’t see souls, he only saw dust.
Evan Miller was born and raised in Massachusetts. After earning his B.A. in Music from Boston College, Evan spent several years working and living in various states across the country, including California and Hawaii. Evan’s writing is often informed by his passions: playing guitar and piano, cooking, spending time in nature, and travelling. Currently, Evan is pursuing a dual master’s degree in English and Teaching from Salem State University. He lives in Beverly, MA with his wife.
© 2021, Evan Miller