By Wayne Johnston
Something makes me look up.
Here come the cows.
There are eight of them, steers actually. They’re tame, curious, and bored with grass. They’ll mouth the alder leaves for the new taste, and they’re gathering where the tree will fall.
I kill the saw and set it down. I have two trees down and have the undercut notched in this one. I am close to the critical point in the uppercut, the cut in the backside of the trunk. It’s a big tree, and maybe an inch of wood prevents the beginning of motion and the cracking sound that will signal its fall into the field, right where they’ve gathered.
I don’t like the idea of going into the fall zone with the tree about ready to let go, but there they stand looking as stupid as I feel. Some of them belong to my brother who bought five acres of my father’s land and lives here. My father has been dead for years, and gone from here for even longer, but it’s still his place with his fences, and his handprints are all over it and me. I’m using his saw, axes he gave me, and skill I learned from watching him, which is what I did. I watched him and tried not to make his mistakes. It was the way I drank from his well.
The steers graze on both properties. Part of one of my brother’s steers will end up in my freezer, but I’d rather the hired hit man from the beef packing house down on the flat had the job than end up with the picture that instantly forms in my mind when I see them in the path of the tree. The rest of the herd are boarders and don’t belong to us, which makes it even worse.
I brave the tree and run at them yelling and waving a branch.
They clear the area for a moment but return to the leaves when I head for the saw.
I think fast and decide to hurt them enough to maybe make them hesitate before they return. I throw sticks of firewood I’ve cut from the other trees at them and hit a few. They bellow and run. I keep chasing and throwing until I think they’re far enough away and traumatized enough to stay put for a while.
I start my father’s saw and make the tree come crashing down.
My pickup is parked clear of the target area here in the back pasture that borders a stand of alders. To get it here, I opened a makeshift gate and took down a section of the fence so I can cut a few trees into the field, limb them, drag the limbs back into the woods to rot, then cut the logs into rounds to take home and split for stove wood. Dad made fences with a single strand of electrified barbed wire strung between insulators on trees or metal stakes. The gates are just places in the charged wire that can be disconnected, a hook with a plastic handle that only keeps you from getting shocked if everything is dry. The cows were foraging out of sight, and I didn’t think I needed to isolate them.
The place where I’m standing hasn’t changed much in the decades since I was a kid. The alder trees are taller and their trunks are thicker. The lean-to on the back of the barn is falling down. The barn’s hand split cedar shake roof has been replaced with corrugated metal, and you can hear more noise from the airport industrial park between here and the interstate, but the blackberry vines are still thick and the air still smells like mountain woods. The Safeway and the McDonald’s less than two miles away down on the flat, and the new school, medical center, apartment buildings, and subdivisions for Boeing workers that crowd up to the base of the bluff don’t intrude on the memories unless you let them.
No one lived here then, and my father believed he was responsible for delivering my soul to God. I was in danger. He thought God was angry, and people were evil. If he failed, he believed the consequences for both of us would be so terrible that almost any form of persuasion was justified. It may have come from growing up in a tough situation during the Depression. As a kid, he learned to shoe horses by watching, and reused salvaged, reshaped shoes to keep the horses’ feet from bleeding while they pulled a plow or a wagon.
But I sense more. Something else was driving him, and it was buried deeper than he would ever intentionally let me go, deeper I think than he wanted to go himself. It was as if he had seen something inside of himself that scared him, and he was afraid I was on my way there too. He needed hard fast rules in black and white to keep from going there and he would do whatever it took to impose them on me and bring me in line. I imagined that if he didn’t have God, he might have hidden behind alcohol. I had friends whose parents were drunks, and I wasn’t sure which way was worse.
In addition to his dream of someday living here, he wanted to use this place to salvage me, to teach me the reality of work, the woods and his god. He had me ready to quit playing entirely. I was miserable. I wanted out, and I was getting desperate.
I have to take a pill every day because the doctor says there’s something wrong with my thyroid gland and that’s at least part of the reason why I’m fat. I try to eat only what’s on my diet and only at meal times, but I can’t see much difference when I look in the mirror. I’m still fat. I finish combing my hair and go out to the dining room and sit at the table next to my father and he immediately says,
“I sat behind you in church yesterday and I was embarrassed that you belonged to me. Your hair hangs over your shirt collar and comes together in back like the tail end of a duck. You look like a pool hall punk.”
“If you cut it you’ll give me a pig shave.”
“What’s wrong with a crew cut? You might look like a boy again. If you don’t want a crew cut, you can have a regular haircut and part it on the side like any other wholesome Christian boy. Now you look like a slob.”
He’s right. I feel like a slob but it’s because I’m fat, not because of my hair. I say,
“You don’t care about me. You’re not touching it.”
“You’re getting it cut tonight if I have to hold you down and shave your head, and don’t think for one minute that I can’t do it.”
“You’ll have to kill me first. You bastard!”
The blackness comes with the sharp impact, followed immediately by the tiny needlepoints of light swirling in front of my eyes. I feel the chair falling backwards. The floor between where I land and the front door is clear of obstructions. He is on the edge of his seat. My brothers and sisters are quiet, staring at me. My mother says,
“You didn’t have to do that.”
She sounds angry and about to cry. I stand up, watching my father, half expecting him to get up and hit me again.
“God damn you!”
I run out the front door as I say it. Our street’s been improved and the mud hole is gone. I run past where it had been, to the cross street, turn right at the corner and continue running a hundred yards or so, until I’m out of breath and my side aches. I cross the ditch and push my way through the salal bushes and blackberry vines into the woods.
Under the tall evergreen trees the brush thins, and the ground is covered with soft needles. I sit down next to the trunk of a large fir tree and watch the road. Within a few minutes I see headlights approaching the stop sign at the end of our street and know by the sound it’s my parents’ beat up Henry J. The car turns the other direction. I lean back against the tree trunk and feel the left side of my face. It’s sore but probably not bruised enough to turn color. I wish it were.
He never hits me with a closed fist. It’s always a backhand and has only marked my face once. The bruise gave me power. It didn’t matter what I had done, he was more wrong than me, and he knew it.
Although it rained during the day, the ground under the trees where I’m sitting is dry and I’m sheltered from the wind. I have on a thin sweater and know I’ll get cold. I move so that the tree is between me and the road and take the flattened package of Salem cigarettes from the crotch of my pants. The package is bent and only one of the four cigarettes isn’t broken. I stole it full from a carton in the kitchen cupboard at a friend’s house. I don’t like the menthol taste but my friend’s mother drinks a lot and probably hasn’t missed them.
I light the cigarette and wish there was somewhere to go. I can avoid my father most of the time except at dinner and on Sundays or when he drags me off to help work on the barn or fix the fence at the property he bought. Getting us to spend time together is the reason they let me have the horse. He likes the horse too. Sometimes when we’re working around the barn, I almost forget how much I hate him, but something always happens and it starts again. I finish the cigarette and put it out against the tree.
I’m getting cold and wish I had been able to grab my coat. If I wait long enough before I go home, there won’t be a scene. They’ll have realized by now that I’m in the woods somewhere. I always come back and know they believe I will but aren’t absolutely sure, so my mother makes him drive around looking, then he’ll go off to a prayer meeting if there’s one to go to, and she’ll be uneasy until I come home.
No one will talk about the fight. If my father is gone, I’ll try to make it to my room without being seen. She’ll look in on me before she goes to bed. If I’m not there she’ll look in the barn where I’ll be, under the horse blanket in the hay, and she’ll bring me my sleeping bag and an alarm clock so I can get up in the early morning to deliver my papers.
To disarm the fence, I had to go to the pump house. The area around it and the well is fenced to make a manure-free zone with the same makeshift wire as the other fences, strung decades ago as temporary but still functional like the fences he and I built between our lives. The well, though shallow enough to run dry during late summer hot spells, has provided good water.
As I approached the barbed wire strand that surrounds the weathered shed and the mossed-over cement well casing, I could hear the familiar pulse of the electric transformer sending out its current. The charged wire is at crotch level and stepping over it is risky especially with shoes wet from the night’s rainfall on the grass.
When I opened the pump house door I was hit by the stale, close air, the smell of musty wood, wet concrete and rusting pipes. A big spider scurried into a crack as I brushed away cobwebs and pulled the plug on the transformer. Behind a grove of trees and out of sight, there are renters in his house. As the charger’s pulsing stopped, the pump came on. The needle on the gauge moved as the pressure built, and I waited to hear the comforting click of the relay that shuts the pump off at the end of the cycle.
We dug the well, he and I, years ago.
We’re alone, just the two of us. He’s in the bottom of the hole wearing a tattered felt hat, filling the metal five-gallon buckets with mud and rocks. He’s using a broken-handled shovel. His ragged bib overalls are tucked into his black rubber boots and covered with filth. There’s a ladder on the ground next to me that I pulled up to get it out of his way after he climbed down. He made it from scrap lumber.
The last owners started this well. They had plans to turn the property into a kid camp or something and thought they needed more water than it would provide, so they tried to dig a deeper one next to the driveway. He says that hole went too deep. The seal was broken. It cut through the strata of hardpan and the water drained away in the gravel below.
Before we went to work on it, if someone hadn’t told you this hole was here, you wouldn’t have suspected. A thicket completely covered it. Blackberry vines grew through and over the rotting fence posts lying side by side across it to keep kids from falling in. We couldn’t dig it deeper until we cleaned out all the branches, rotten lumber, old wine bottles, jars and cans, the dead cat, and all the other rubbish that had fallen or been thrown in.
Down in our hole, water runs down the sides, oozing through the raw earth around him, trying to refill it as he digs. When it gets too wet to work, he runs the noisy gas-powered diaphragm pump. The pump is expensive to rent and due back at the end of the day, so we have to finish. The hole has to be deep enough to have good water, even in late summer, but not so deep it breaks through the hardpan and becomes useless.
The cloudy sky and drizzle don’t matter since we’re wet anyway. The rope block and tackle centered over the hole hangs from a tripod made of three long pieces of rusty water pipe bound together with a piece of old chain. I pull a loaded bucket up, secure the block and tackle, unhook and dump the slop away from the hole, then lower the empty back down to him. I tried going down the hole for a while, but am too slow. Up here I sometimes get a short break, but because he keeps an empty bucket down there to work on while I’m dumping, the work is steady enough to keep the wet from making me too cold.
This one is heavier and my hands are muddy. As I unhook, it gets away from me.
The hole is deep. I have time to yell before it hits, but I picture him looking up at the sound of my voice and his glasses smashing as he takes the bucket full in the face. I don’t make the sound.
I’ve wanted to hurt him. I’ve daydreamed that he would be out of my life. If he doesn’t move, the bucket will hit his back and break it, or break his neck, or at best an arm or leg. This is an awful dream coming true. Even with the excuse of cold, muddy hands, it’s my fault the bucket is falling. There’s no phone or even electricity in the cabin. I can’t legally drive. I know I can’t get him out of the hole by myself.
He doesn’t see it coming, but moves just enough as the bucket hits. Its round side glances off his hip, and he doesn’t make a sound, but does this epileptic dance down there in the muck to shake it off. After a few minutes when the pain seems to subside, he meets my eyes.
“Are you going to do that again?”
“No,” I say.
He won’t even let me put the ladder down. He goes back to work digging.
I keep pulling up and dumping buckets until the hole is as deep as he wants it.
Outside, as I shut the door I noticed a slug climbing the damp side of the casing over the well. It was big and brown and looked like something you wouldn’t want to step in. The casing is sealed and it was unlikely that the slug could get in, but it was a slug just like this one in the same place, attracted to the same dampness that forced me to acknowledge that he was unraveling. On that day I checked the pump, and like today it was cycling fine.
He had a dark side, but it didn’t own him completely. When the bucket was falling and I thought my dream was coming true, I learned something that helped me make pictures in my head the night I actually loaded the pistol he kept hidden in the bathroom. The pictures kept me from using it and forced me to relieve my desperation by confronting him in another way. When I got him to see how I felt, he didn’t beat me as I expected, but cried and apologized.
He wanted me to be something I couldn’t be, to believe something I didn’t believe, and I loved him and wanted him to love me back too much to pretend, so I met him head on and the love intensified the hate. We were both in a terrible dilemma. After the night I didn’t use the gun and knew I couldn’t, even though I couldn’t pray with him, he quit trying to control me. I found in other places the love and support necessary to thrive.
We started building fences between the huge parts of our lives that couldn’t overlap. Over time, I learned that I hated him because I loved him. I also learned that he loved me in the only way he knew how. We learned to keep the manure out of the well and we were careful not to dig into the hardpan. We could talk about and work with mechanical things, building projects, firewood, gardens, horses and hay.
When he phoned and was refusing to drink the water but couldn’t explain what the problem was, I came. Maybe I could help. I thought it might be mechanical and therefore neutral, part of the common ground we had cultivated between the fences. I tried to get him to explain the trouble.
When I understood that he was sure there were slugs in the water, I realized something new was wrong with him, and his new wife had probably not entirely been driven by aversion to farm life and her desire to move to town when she complained about him wasting money buying two new electric fence chargers that she didn’t think he needed. The one I unplugged today was one of them.
I believe he loved me with a fierce fear and a terrible kind of integrity, but even after the years of Alzheimer’s and the fences it tore down, he died a painful enigma to me. His unraveling only created glimpses through the veil.
Before I head home with my truckload of wood, I drag the brush from the pasture and restring the wire at the edge of the woods. I check on the cows, secure all the gates, and return to the pump house to plug in the fence charger. For now anyway, there’s water in the well, the pump is working and the beasts are in their proper places.
Copyright Johnston 2016