CUTTING WOOD

He sat uneasily on the ragged edge of the trailer. The wind was blowing dust clouds from between the wide cracks of its ancient boards. Tiny things crawled and buzzed in the pits and crannies of the weathered wood. So he tried, in vain, to sit even closer to the edge. The heat beating down from the sun made the breeze irrelevant. It was unclear if solar radiation from the nearest star or apprehension about the task at hand was causing him to sweat so profusely. Behind him, more securely seated near the front of the trailer, were his dear cousins, Gene and Raymond. They were chatting about something that didn’t matter in the greater scheme of things. So he didn’t even pretend to listen.

For a thin moment, he did allow his gaze to pan the far horizon. A discordant line of trees and low-slung underbrush formed a lush, if irregular, border to the neat fields of late summer corn and watermelon. In the distance, atop a hill, a solitary house curled a thin wisp of smoke from its chimney only to have it quickly dissipated by the spreading breeze. And therein lies the reason for the task at hand. To chop and fetch a load of wood to feed a hungry cast iron monster. He pictured his aunt pacing impatiently with her giant pots of pears and berries sitting on cooling steel. On a table nearby was a vast array of freshly washed Mason jars, arranged as neatly as soldiers on parade.

“Hyahhh, Mule!”

His reverie was rudely shattered by that yell. He hadn’t even noticed the tall, musular man he knew as Uncle Bill swing onto the trailer and grab the reins, and was nearly flung off the back of the trailer as it suddenly lurched forward. Rocks and dried Mississippi red clay were thrown up behind them as he clung for dear life. Over the scraping sound of wood on earth, he heard his cousins’ laughter. And just for an instant, he resented them. Of course, an instant was all he could spare as his desperate fingers dug grooves into the trailer.

They suddenly hit a gully as the mule hit full gallop causing him to lose his grip and fly a full foot into the air. Just as he was about to be thrown into the rain-gouged trench, a hand reached out and pulled him toward the front of the trailer. It was Gene’s.

“City boy!” Raymond chirped, looking smug while miraculously sitting securely on the side of the tumbling trailer.

He shrugged off the scare and looked hard at his cousin and wondered what goes on behind those impish eyes and crooked smile. This hot, summer day in 1963 seems like a lifetime ago. But, so many times, in quiet solitude, he would remember this moment in time, and wonder again and again, why some of us live and some of us die.

But for now, the task is to chop and fetch the wood. And he was determined to do it as well as anyone. He looked over at the ax that rattled in a corner of the trailer. What a malevolent tool, he thought, an instrument of unbridled evil and destructive potential. He considered how easily it could sever a foot or cleave a toe in half. Or a wild swing could send the blade sailing off the stock to split a person’s skull and splatter his brains. Yes, it could do those terrible things, but on this particular day, this fading, distant instant within a lifetime, it will only cut wood.

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