||I have chosen today, among other days, because Joseph Lee Birch is here. He is cutting the old maple in front of our cabin. It was he who insisted that it be taken down, that it was rotten in the center, dangerous, that though it stood beautiful and proud a tree perhaps eighty years old it could easily snap in two, without warning, crash through our roof and kill us in our beds. It is the evil concealed in beautiful things that we must be most careful about, he says, because it is always unpredictable, deceiving. I have learned in the short time we have lived here to listen to his counsel.
It has been said of Joseph Lee Birch that he likes his whiskey, that he carries a bottle in his jacket and has been seen drinking on the job. My wife, Susan, takes solace in this and will remind me whenever his name is mentioned. In this way she is able to rationalize her discomfort with him. It is partly about the maple tree, that he is cutting it down, but mostly his unfortunate choice of analogy. It touches the bone. Today I am glad that he is here; he is my stability or order. I am thankful for the awful, loud noise of his chainsaw. And I am relieved that when he looks away from his work rolling the stiffness out of his shoulders and brushing the sawdust and wood chips out of his hair I see no unexpected recriminations or change in his eyes, only the calm dispassionate glance from one man to another; an understanding, an agreement in belief that what must be done, must be done.
Susan is taking Amanda, our six year old, to Madeline Weppler's place this morning, ostensibly to work Madeline's garden with her, to rake leaves and dig and make the earth ready for another season. She does not want to be here this morning. She has the enviable option of being absent, though she is bearing the brunt of feeling responsible and wrong.
She has been awake since six o'clock and I find her sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, staring out the window. This is not like Susan; she is normally reading or doing a crossword, perusing the ingredients of some exotic or adventurous recipe. It is odd to see this gone from her.
At seven thirty she announces that she is taking Amanda to Madeline's.
Madeline Weppler lives alone on a farm ten miles further into the backwoods. Madeline is seventy years old and is as such, I suppose, permissively eccentric. She wears green and orange scarves, beads. She is a magician with herbs. She has become Susan's dearest friend. The drive there, the rough pothole dirt roads, the constant look out for the deer that invariably appear as sudden as phantoms bounding across the windshield, will keep Susan's thoughts elsewhere, hopefully.
"It is an odd time," I suggest, "to pay someone a visit."
There is, in the air, a sense of tension or estrangement as though we are barely connecting or hearing one another's words, as though we have gone through years of dulling, marital unhappiness.
I offer to pour my lovely wife another cup of coffee. She looks down into her empty, stain-dried mug, but says nothing.
I have never seen Susan so flattened, so challenged. It is a hard thing for her. That it has fallen into my hands to correct or make right makes it no less onerous on her. I put my hand on her shoulder as she sits there looking out the window and can feel her gulping back the tears.
"You see any deer?"
It is a subject that still evokes amazement in us to glance out the window and see a doe or a buck in our front yard. It remains a part of the incidental magic or wonderment of living here. To the local hunters the deer are meat, a sacred quarry; to the local gardeners, a nuisance. I suspect that Susan is not thinking about the deer coming out of the trees.
"When should I come back?"
There are some events or moments in life in which, I think, we need to participate in or experience directly because they represent passage or closure, even though they may contain nothing other than a gut-wrenching conclusion. As well as feeling guilty, Susan knows that she will forever be excluded from the completion of this circle. When she returns home this afternoon, it will have been done.
Susan and I live on an island now. It is known to be the largest freshwater island in the world. A single, outdated wooden swing-bridge connects us to the mainland. When, during its routinely appointed schedule, it swings open to allow the lake freighters and the sail boats a clear passage through the straits of the North Channel, we become a community or a place literally separated from the rest of the country. The result is a kind of geographical or cultural separatism. A snowfall remains the subject of a serious conversation here, and we are re-learning, I believe, a forgotten respect for weather and fire and all of the wonderous elements that have disappeared from our genetic closets.
It is a place surrounded by the pounding waves of the Great Lakes; it is a place that has the attraction, if not reality, of being a last frontier. And even when the swing-bridge is stationary or fixed and the cars trample back and forth across its blackened, greasy timbers, tires thrattling and chattering in the beaten wood, the island remains a place not completely associated with the rest of the world at least in the eyes of the people who live here. In some ways our island is real and in some ways imaginary. The people who live here call themselves 'islanders'.
We are known as 'that couple from the city who bought the old Patterson log cabin'. It is a hundred and twenty-five years old and has no plumbing. We have an outhouse. We draw water from a well. The word 'drought' the phrase, 'oh, gosh, it hasn't rained here for years' is often mentioned in connection with our curious purchase. It is accompanied by an equally curious smile. We are, I have gathered, a source of some sort of speculative amusement, the type of which is non-judgmental yet predisposed, weighted in favor of our inevitable inability to adapt.
Even though Susan and I have not yet lived here an entire year, we feel as though we have become islanders. We have found our home. We boil water to bathe in, much again to the amusement of the local townspeople who cannot imagine such an unnecessary hardship. We remember to get up in the middle of cold nights to put an 'all-nighter,' an unsplit hardwood log, into our wood stove. We remain enchanted by our new lifestyle change, though we are perceived by some to be merely interlopers, gathering quaint stories to take back with us.
Joseph Lee Birch maintains that the place finds the person as much as the person finds the place. So while Susan and I feel that we have become islanders, in reality we are quasi-islanders in the eyes of our neighbors, at best. We have yet to prove ourselves, though I wonder that if after today, it won't be said of me that I at least "did the right thing" that "he took the matter into his own hands and dealt with it".
I watch Joseph Lee pour gas into his chainsaw until a small amount bubbles over the threaded cap. He quickly pulls a rag out of his pocket and wipes the machine clean. He loosens another small black cap and pours pink-colored chain oil into this reservoir. He tightens up both caps and gives the machine a gentle rub with his rag. He feeds his family with his chainsaw, though I suspect he would treat it with the same care and pride in any event.
"I'll show you how to sharpen it someday when you have your own," he says, scraping his thumb off the chain's teeth.
The dead growth and the brush have been cut away now; the maple tree is ready to come down. He tells me that a man can get tangled up in the brush. The tree could fall on you if you don't get away fast enough. Or you could trip, fall on your saw and take a leg off. Just like butter. He's heard of cutters who have fallen on their machines and bled to death before they could even crawl out of the bush for help.
I am wondering whether Susan might not have changed her mind, might not like to watch this, our magnificent though ailing maple tree riven from the sky, when I see the cabin door open. She comes out slowly; Amanda is in her arms. There is a look of grim expectation or caution in her face, her one hand spread protectively over Amanda's face. Amanda neither appreciates nor is pleased by this and is trying to slip out of Susan's grasp. I nod at Susan letting her know that everything is okay, that there is nothing to fear for the moment. She glances at our pickup truck, which is parked out in the field in front of the cabin and makes a sudden dash to it, exposed and vulnerable, she believes, in the open field, her unhappy passenger struggling in her arms.
She starts up the truck and then stalls it in first gear, banging her fist against the steering wheel in frustration. It is not our sedan; she is still learning. Turning the ignition over again, she manages to inch the truck forward only to have it lurch to a stop. I look over at Joseph Lee who would appear to be no more or less intrigued were he watching a bird on a branch. Raising her head from the steering wheel, she sits upright, shakes herself, starts up the truck and drives away down the road, not turning back and waving as she normally would, heading out on the long drive to Madeline's.
Joseph Lee flips the ignition switch on his chainsaw, glances at the base of the maple tree the spot where he will cut out the falling wedge first and then, suddenly having figured out the situation, looks at me for the approval.
He looks up into the turning leaves in the maple tree, the tossing reds, studying the wind, making sure that it has not changed directions. He has calculated that the tree will fall in the field behind us. In the wrong wind, it would come down on the cabin.
"It's a good day...It's the right thing to do."
He cuts a notch one-third the thickness of the tree, pulls the blade out and then cuts downward. The chainsaw roars, but rips easily through the wood. A chunk the shape of a piece of pie falls out of the tree. Once that is done, he starts cutting through from the opposite side. The weight of the tree begins to shift and the little that is holding it upright groans there is a terrific crack, splintering and leaves and limbs sail across the sky; the body of the tree hits the ground with a thump. It is breathtaking, but quick.
Last night, our neighbor, Hayden, who lives a mile or so down the road, came by to see us. I make this sound as though it were a casual visit, unexpected. Hayden and I had discussed the situation on several occasions the trouble, that is. I knew exactly what time he would come over; Susan did not. When Susan, who had been standing at the kitchen sink drying our supper dishes, saw him, she turned white.
It was not as if he had stridden in brandishing the thing for everyone to admire, which I thought was rather considerate and moderate of him. It was in its case, and he had it tucked under his arm, close to his side. But even in the dim cabin light the word 'Remington' could still be seen printed on the case unequivocal proof he had not arrived with cake or some other kind gesture originating with his wife.
"Get that thing out of here!" Susan screamed.
Hayden jumped back in utter alarm, his eyes spinning about the room. What had happened? He looked down at his boots, muddy, though indisputably planted on the floor and for a second he had that look of eerie embarrassment or other-world panic that dreamers experience when they discover they are the only ones naked in a crowded room.
"Let's go outside, Hayden."
I took him by the shoulder and directed him to the door; I reminded him to lower his head going out. Hayden is a tall man. He was somewhat disoriented.
"Sure have fixed the place up nice, and all..." he mumbled. He wasn't sure whether he owed Susan some kind of conciliatory offering. He is a terrifically polite neighbor.
Hayden and I stood outside beside the maple tree that Joseph Lee would be cutting down and quietly discussed the state of affairs. Susan's outburst had generated no damaging consequence. Hayden said that he knew women thought differently. There was no harm in it. We could see her at the kitchen window putting the dishes away, and twice she looked outside, though she could not see where we were standing in the darkness. She must have thought of us as nothing less than heartless conspirators and grievously mistaken. She had never really believed, nor ever would, that it had to be done. Seeing Hayden there, knowing that we were outside organizing it, she knew it would.
"I've got to tell you," Hayden said, carefully, not wanting to give me the complete impression that community gossip was something he was normally a part of. "That had you not decided to do something and I think it takes real guts the W...that someone you may know who was going to report it...I mean, people just don't feel safe...."
My stomach turned in knots; I was most worried that moment that I wouldn't sleep through the night, that the whole thing might become more surreal than it already was, that exhausted and emotional, I would lose control.
"Jesus, Hayden. Don't you think I know this."
"I guess you do, at that."
"Not to mention a law suit, or the poor..." It was not possible to conceive of it ever going any further.
"Some of the local hunters are concerned, as well...I mean about the deer they're being driven away."
He had obviously spoken to a number of people, or they to him. It was likely the community's way of addressing the matter, electing a representative, politely prioritizing or expediting my response. I should not have, but I believe that I looked decisively unwell, stricken.
"Hell. Nobody likes to do it, but it's the right thing to do. You have a bad roof, you fix it. This isn't the city. You can't just pick up the phone and have somebody else fix it you do it yourself. That's just the way things are done around here. You must know that by now."
* * *
I begin my dreadful walk to the back, to the fields.
When I look at him him watching me with that defiant, angry grin of his I hear myself say, "I... am...so...sorry..." Aloud. I hear these words as though they are pushed through thick, black oil. There are no other voices or sounds to be heard other than the rustling of the leaves that sound like water, leaves fading and fluttering, cider yellow in the sky. I cannot say his name; it would bring me too close to him.
I wish, to myself, that it were not me alone with him, that I was not his destiny, that there could have been someone there with me more detached, indifferent or experienced who might guide me through to courage, to doing something. But there is not. I try to remember the scream from the man who was walking, then his face; me wrestling the dog off of him.
And I wish, that among all of the frightening, razor-fierce flashes we had seen grow in him, which only seemed to fuel and harden his spirit, that he had not put his teeth through Amanda's skin, that he had not become so fiercely excited when he had done so and could not stop himself, until, out of sheer terror, I had to knock him out cold. I am sorry, as Susan has now convinced herself, that he was likely beaten and abused before we got him. What use can it be for her to admit now that she should never have picked him up from the pound? She had put no more thought into him than as something that would complement our new lifestyle, an accessory that would look pleasing or suitable on a rug near a glowing fireplace.
It is with a strange relief that as I approach him, careful to take his collar, he turns inside-out with rage, bristling, foaming, and is not at this moment mysteriously docile or abiding. I grab his tan, reddish fur in my fist, holding his head down, making sure that his teeth cannot rip my arm, and tie the rope more tightly around the tree.
I find Hayden's rifle just where he said he would hide it leaning against the cedar tree in the field behind the cabin. He has put some old branches against it. I slip it out of its case and hold this strange and powerful object in my hands, feeling its weight, smelling the gun oil a smell that is clean, hard. He has put three cartridges into the chamber partly because he is not completely comfortable with me using his rifle, but mostly, I think, because he suspects that I may falter if I were required to load it.
I do wait, hesitate, for several moments. It is a cruel, sickening sort of forever. I can think of every reason why I cannot do this and every reason why I should. And suddenly I am struck by some kind of sheer exactness of where I am. I feel as though there has never been a moment like this one one so sharp, it is like glass. Or maybe it is what all moments really are. It cannot be turned around. It is advancing has advanced. The force of it is dream-like. My will or consent are no longer involved, or material. And then, and then I am calm. Calm. I am only a deed. An action. I see spit flying from its enraged mouth, snapping; the eyes wet, wild, a thing tearing at itself. And as Joseph Lee is cutting off the great gnarled limbs of our maple tree, slicing its boughs away covering the ground in shavings and wood chips a single shell casing falls near my feet. And then a second. The leaves are falling, because it is Autumn; it is Autumn because this has become my home.
* * *
Joseph Lee Birch tells me that his people call this time the "moon of the falling leaves". A long time ago, the Great Spirit fought with the evil spirit high in the heavens. When the evil spirit was slain, his blood fell to the earth and stained the forests and the trees red. And ever since then, in the moon of the falling leaves, the trees turn crimson in the memory of the Great Spirit's victory over evil.
I will tell Susan about this. I will also tell her that I nearly did not do it, that when I aimed the rifle and pulled the trigger, the first shell jammed, or wouldn't fire. That when the poor, wretched animal heard that empty click, heard the hammer strike that shell and nothing happened, something in him awakened. He knew. His eyes blinked and he just looked at me in astonishment, though neither or us could turn the moment back. Susan will need to know this. This is her home now, too.