The young man had come to a routine when working on his house site. Standing on the pavement next to his pickup truck, he’d first twist foam ear plugs tight between thumb and forefinger and stuff them into his ear canals. Next, he’d don his cutting helmet and swivel down the earmuffs. He doubled up the ear protection in part to ward off tinnitus—the “little chainsaw in my head” as his father had called it—but mostly because of how the sensory deprivation allowed his imagination to run. In the silence, slowly weaving through the slash and brush fire craters, he’d see clear through the spruce needles and mist of ash to a gravel driveway, its modest privacy curve blending into a front yard. At the house site itself, he’d set his saw on a stump and picture the shingled saltbox with southern exposure and a western farmer’s porch for the sunsets, his wife and child warm inside. His energy would swell with this image in his quiet head. When he’d slip on his chaps and gloves and start the saw, his hands would feel bigger and stronger, as if he’d borrowed them from his old man. Then he’d start cutting.
Today though, the import of his muffled world is that when the poplar tree takes him to the ground, it does so without a sound. And as his body and the tree come to silent rest, it is neither noise nor pain that rushes him, but rather thoughts. They come and come, as if the tree has struck a barren April branch into the flipbook animation of his life. The thoughts are thoughts of a more deliberate and experienced man. Someone like his father. This other man surely would have tried what the young man had tried. There was, after all, a birch tree that had uprooted in the house site’s newfound wind and now leaned into a web of spruce limbs. It was like a spider up there, waiting to drop on his child or wife if he left it. This other man would have also felt uneasy at the notion of cutting the birch itself, head high and unpredictable with the angle. He too would have seen the poplar, standing taught and still winter gray, sixty feet tall and only twenty feet away. Any man would have seen how years of growth turned the poplar into a natural hammer, a quick solution from a safe distance. And anyway, the poplar itself stood much too close to what would be the house’s south entrance. Its roots would be impacted once an excavator arrived. It too would pose a hazard. His wife Chrissy and their little blond girl coming and going in its shadow. Dropping the poplar onto the birch would, what is the saying? Kill two birds with one stone.
And so the cautious man too would have notched the poplar, aiming converging cuts straight at the nobs of black fungus on the birch’s midsection, kicking out the pie slice and examining the gap with skeptical satisfaction. Then he too would have made an even slower backcut, staring at the kerf through his helmet's screen, readjusting the hum of the saw, focusing on the slightest sign that the hammer was falling. He too would have stepped away as gravity took over and the tree yawned open in defeat. But then the chism. For the cautious man would have missed seeing the timber dominoes fall. He would have turned and walked. He would not have paused to assure himself it was working, then been hypnotized by the arch of fingery branches. And yes, he would have missed the satisfaction of seeing the birch pushed from its roost. But so too, the corner of his eye would not have caught the poplar’s butt end pivoting, too quickly, picking up attention and speed and swinging wildly and even backwards somehow, seeking out its sawyer thigh high, a thousand pound bat square into his right leg with all the forest's muffled revenge.
Fool. You’re a damn fool.
The pain catches him now, as if it had only waited for a full understanding of his mistake. His throat seems to cave in, his vision narrows. It spreads from his thigh through his entire body, boiling concrete in his marrow and veins, pulsing out from his right leg.
Walk it off. Get to the road you stupid son’f a bitch. To the truck. Ankle won’t budge. Tied me to the earth it did.
He looks down at the poplar, laying there, mocking him even as its own pressure deflates into the clearing through the same butt end that pins his right leg. He pulls hard but feels only bone untying from flesh. It blackens the world and he pounds the dirt and buries his face and then emerges.
So fucking silent. Narrowing down. Down. Fucking toes on my foot are pointed straight down. How’s it so? Calf’s next to my heel. Impossible.
“Get out,” he yells, breaking the silence even through his ear muffs.
Phone. Knife. Knife’s in the sheath. Phone’s in the truck. You idiot. You fucking idiot.
He reaches to his belt for his father's buck knife, slides it from the sheath and stabs down at his boot. The laces snap apart like twine from a hay bale. Then the leather itself gives way with his jabs. He sees the knife plunge through a dirty sock and into flesh, but feels nothing. He pulls at his leg again, narrowing against the world around him, flesh sliding past bone like a warming Popsicle. Nothing.
He vomits, just a mouthful, and spits it over his beard.
“Focus,” he commands himself. His father's chainsaw lays only a few feet away, on its side now. He sees little vibrations. Sputtering in idle. But he hears nothing.
Thing’ll starve n’ shake off. Ain’t pullin that cord from here neither. How long’s it even been?
Out behind the chainsaw he sees the stump of their Christmas tree, still wet on top as the roots keep trying to feed something lost months ago. He remembers cutting that fir, remembers joking with Chrissy how they may as well take a Christmas tree from the house site. One less to clear later. His little girl, his little blond daughter, silent with awe after he cut it and pulled it over to her. She smelled the thing. Pet the boughs and watched them spring back. He and Chrissy had not hurried her along that day. It was a Sunday and they'd found each other's hands and watched their daughter engage with the tree, watched her take off a mitten to feel the fir needles prick her flesh, watched her stand on the little stump, balancing a moment, watched her shuffle through the sawdust and scrape flakes into a pile. "It's hard to find good help," he'd said, and Chrissy had smiled, looked around the house site, leaned into him slightly and told him he was doing fine, that even his dad would be proud.
He shakes his head and reaches for the saw. He feels something shift in his thigh but strains against it, wrapping his cutting gloves around the saw’s handle. He pulls it to him. Furious, his nervous system fully catches up and his vision widens for a moment and he revs the engine, sending its possibility out over the clearing. He sees the house again, can imagine it from Chrissy’s graph paper plans, even sees himself outside cutting firewood for the woodstove, the sun radiating off cedar shingles. It is all a man can wish for. A house in quiet woods and a family to fill it with noise.
He flips the saw over so the top of the bar faces down into the poplar, reaches as far left as he can as he gives it gas and down pressure. It sinks into the tree, only inches from his leg. The sawdust flies into his mouth and he savors it like a buried man tasting a breeze. The log begins to pinch and so he jerks the bar out. He twists and cuts from below so the kerf will find itself. The butt end releases. A five foot section rolls onto his torso and he throws the saw and pushes the log off with both hands.
Get ready to crawl you son’f a bitch.
But he sees the color of the soil then, like someone dumped gallons of dirty bar oil over his right thigh and the needles and dirt. Green becomes black under the weight of it. He feels it as well, feels hollowed out as he looks at his leg. The wound is deep and uneven, a mash of flesh and blood and jeans wrapping around the inside of his chaps. He remembers how he was holding the saw as the tree came at him. He remembers how wide his father's scar was, how chainsaws are not sharpened to cut something as soft as a man.
Never touched the damn chain brake when I cut that thing. One mistake right on another.
He pushes himself onto his stomach, then up onto his good leg and both arms. Narrowing again, blackness ever so briefly, then needles and dirt in his face and he rolls onto his back.
Wait. Lie still. Just breathe.
He’d trailed his family as they'd walked out with the Christmas tree, Chrissy dragging the tree, his little girl following like an angel trying to catch the tip. He’d looked back at the house site a moment and imagined Christmas lights warming the snow and felt sure they would be out of the trailer and into the house by the next Christmas, that he'd clean up the edges and have an excavator in for the road and septic by summer, get the house framed and boarded in and insulated before snowfall. Then maybe shingle it next spring.
Focus, you dumb shit.
He remembers the Maxi-pad and pulls it from the side pocket on the chaps, where his father always kept it. He throws his gloves away to tear apart the plastic wrapper. The pad itself is fresh, clean, so white and blank against everything else. He shoves it into his wound and briefly sees the blackness again.
Wait. Pressure. Try to elevate it. Best you can do.
“Help,” he yells out into the woods. Two times and with all his might, though he feels weakened by the word itself. His voice sounds lonely too, drifting at sea without even an echo, as if the trees have conspired to hold his words inside the clearing. He is miles from a house. That was the whole idea.
Maybe someone’s on the road. Old Bucket Dent out walking his dog. Maybe. Maybe Chrissy will come out with lunch, maybe she’s even come early and right now is picking up our little girl and running.
A wave of something smooth and queasy wraps around his head and squeezes tight. He closes his eyes to fight it back and hears laughter, indeed his little girl's giddy pitch somehow finding its way through the ear plugs and muffs.
No, not on the road. Downstairs.
He smells coffee, hears pots and pans bouncing off one another, and feels the learning feet of a child running down there, sending vibrations up through the studs and floor joists that he'd nailed together, up through the house he'd built on the land he’d cleared, up all the way into the second floor master bedroom where a man now sleeps. It sounds like his little girl is in the living room, maybe sliding blocks on the floor. Chrissy is cooking pancakes in front of the kitchen’s lone eastern window. He can tell from the smell and the scrape of steel on cast iron. He'd added that window last minute, after he’d already framed the wall. As soon as he’d cut the studs and felt the morning sun he’d known it was the right decision.
He wants to go stand at the top of the stairs, to see how a morning looks down there without him. God those stairs had given him such trouble, uneven risers and treads too narrow for his own feet. They took him two tries and two full days to get right but he’d managed. He’d got it by God and he could stand on them now and look over the kitchen and living room. Chrissy would turn from the stove, her hand still on the spatula. His bright little girl would stop playing blocks just long enough to look up. But it is a lazy Sunday. He's come a long way with this home, this little piece of land in the middle of nowhere they'd inherited from his father. He's worked hard on it. He’s got it done too. Stood on top of it by God. He is sure his dad would be proud. But he is also so tired from the effort. So he only lies there in bed, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of house and family bouncing around in his head and feeling lucky.
Now it sounds like his little girl is pushing her plastic stroller towards the kitchen. Maybe a pancake is ready. It had been too late when he’d finally considered the thickness of the kitchen tiles compared to the adjacent hardwood. And so there is a quarter-inch lip and his little girl will undoubtedly raise the stroller's front wheel, not wanting to jostle her doll as it crosses the threshold.
-- Ethan Plaut lives on a three-generation farm in rural eastern Maine. His writing has been published in Ecology Law Quarterly, Wabanaki Legal News, Every Day Fiction, and Glass Mountain.