"It’s hard to hold the chainsaw at shoulder height, but that’s what he needs to do." [o]
Again and again Nate yanks the snowmobile’s recoil cord. He’s sweating, cursing, though today will only hit a high of four degrees. He hates his father’s snowmobiles. Hates his father’s toys. The boat, the glitchy stereo system.
From the porch his dad yells, “Son! Use the carb cleaner for starter fluid!” Nate ignores him, yanks the cord, swears. His father hasn’t called him by his name in years — should this have been a sign? Other signs: he stopped fixing things. The remodel stalled, a brand-new toilet still waiting in the living room. And his dad — the first to tell a joke, grab someone a cocktail, create a party — was in recent years quick to anger, bitter.
Two minutes later his father bustles out of the house with his shaved head, massive scar, jacket wide open. He’s already ballooned with weight gain from the steroids, though last year he’d slimmed down when he began biking with engineering friends who’d also retired early. He rifles through the garage, finds the spray can of carb cleaner, sprays it once. He tells Nate to pull.
To his father he says, “See?” And then reminds himself that’s not fair.
Nate jerks the recoil cord as his father sprays the cleaner, and the snowmobile roars on the first god damn try. His dad is elated and Nate is livid, madder than he was before because if his dad could have taken care of these god forsaken dinosaurs, why the hell didn’t he? Why is this Nate’s problem? Like the half done electrical in the house? And his younger siblings looking to him for answers and calm?
And his mom, eerily in control, because after all, Nate takes after her.
The snowmobile rumbles under his palms as he drives it up onto the trailer. He’ll get the other one started, and they’ll take them to his dad’s buddy who will sell them. No need for them now.
Fourteen months since the snowmobiles. The remodel mostly finished because Nate’s mom could hire someone since his father’s job was radiation, surgeries, ER visits — now hospice. His dad has softened, his blue eyes vibrating with all he can’t say. Life crueler than Nate has ever known.
After dinner, Nate’s brother and sister leave for the day. His wife and mom start dinner, and Nate snaps beer cans for each of them, and they toast in the kitchen. His father groans in the living room, and Nate goes to his bedside, offers more drugs, something to eat. Dad raises his left hand to Nate, a loose fist, opens his mouth. Nate moves closer. His father bumps his fist to the beer can. “Bumps,” Nate says. His father flashes a smile; his eyes hold it — gleaming. Nate puts his father’s hand around the beer, lowers it to rest on his chest, grabs another beer, brings the women to his father’s bed. They bump cans. Nate helps his father sip.
Two days later, he is gone.
They had all that time to prepare, to adjust, yet now, without him, it’s worse. It’s hell. He’s been gone four months. Nate’s stopped cooking, doesn’t call his mom, doesn’t exercise. It’s June. Time doesn’t matter.
While his wife is at work, Nate skips an earnings call and takes the chainsaw to the woods. Makes the dog stay in the house. Halfway up the path, the smell of new green dizzying, he pulls the cord, and it starts on the first try. To his father he says, “See?” And then reminds himself that’s not fair, that was the brain tumors. His dad used to fix any motor, any machine.
They’ll stop at a bar soon, the cold snaking off them. [o]
He revs the saw, stomps to the first tree on the wooded loop path that encircles most of their nine acres, a piece of land high on a hill bordered by a creek. The maple’s eighteen inches in diameter. It’s hard to hold the chainsaw at shoulder height, but that’s what he needs to do. He spreads his legs, and level with his own neck, he slices into the tree. Woodchips fly. He’s forgotten his safety glasses and ear plugs, so he squints and his head fills with buzzing, nothing else, just what he wanted. The tree’s about to go. His arms wail. He severs the tree, and the top — nearly thirty-five feet — leans then hangs up in a nearby red oak.
There’s no crashing as there needs to be. He’s pissed.
Onto the next. Two black walnuts, then an oak. Two of the four make it to the ground, and he can feel the reverberations in his boots. He’s sweating, and his shoulders singe when he starts on the next tree, a sugar maple. The saw burns, purrs. The chain is sharp, cuts smooth, and the tree top starts to go. This one crashes across the path, and he thrills at the destruction, the mayhem. He’s going to decapitate them all. He tears into three half dead cedars huddling together. Next: maple, shagbark hickory, sycamore, black walnut, black walnut, dead hemlock, maple. He makes his way to the edge of their property where the loop path bends back on itself.
With nothing but the growl of the saw in his head, he sees his wife before he hears her. She’s waving her arms, and for a moment, he wonders what’s the matter — until he realizes he’s the matter.
But he’s not stopping. He’s close with the red oak, more than halfway. She must see it waver because she pauses her arms midair. His shoulders scream. He forces the saw, nearly gets it stuck; the top leans, and he pulls out from the tree, and the oak, though the length is over fifty feet, crashes all the way to the ground, and he knows she’s felt it in her feet through her black leather sensible work shoes.
She’s walking towards him now. She holds her hands flat out in front, palms down . . .
He follows her gaze, sees his trees with her. Counts them, has to start over. Thirty-four. More than he thought. Eight hung up in branches of other trees, mostly caught in oaks too big to cut through with his eighteen-inch bar. Widow makers up there waiting for him to walk by, and he’s not sure he cares. The one closest to him already swings in the breeze, just needs a gust, but others, he’s guessing they’ll be there for years. The buzzed off trees are ugly, headless. Just poles. He tries to settle his breath, the adrenaline ricocheting through him. He smells the sweet tender meat of the shredded trees.
She’s walking towards him now. She holds her hands flat out in front, palms down, as if trying to calm a small child. As if telling someone to put down the gun.
He kills the saw, feels the rumble leave his palm.
In the fall, they walk the woods loop. The old dog wags his old tail and leads them.
Any trees that were live when Nate cut them have sprouted thin branches from the top. The maples’ leaves flame; oaks turn toasty. His headless trees look stupid. She’d been furious.
It wasn’t until later that he recalled one of his mother’s tales of the English monarchy — the story of Lady Jane Grey, proclaimed Queen of England before she was overthrown by Mary I, beheaded for treason at age 15. As a show of respect, the foresters beheaded the oaks of Bradgate.
Nate tells his wife the story of the pollarding now, the wild grass in the path browning, the sun shouldering low to the horizon. She says, “Maybe that’s how your mom’s surviving. Keeping stories of tough Victorian women close.”
Nate shrugs, looks up at a blazing white sycamore too big to behead. They’ve tried a couple of times to joke around his act. Trees got a bad haircut. Bonsai.
"But he’s not stopping. He’s close with the red oak, more than halfway." [o]
In the woods, they identify plants, birds, moths, spiders. First it was a way to start talking again, and though they've progressed beyond this, they keep it up. They laugh a little now, talk more. He sometimes calls his mom.
The dog brings a stick, tail wagging, and Nate throws it. They come to the far end of the property, and enough leaves have fallen that they can see into the valley, see creek water flash. He realizes he’s been hearing the farmer’s kids on their four-wheeler — and suddenly he can smell his father’s snowmobiles.
It’s winter, throttle wide open in a fresh field of snow. His father tears ass in front of him, brother not far behind. They fly under brilliant blue.
He feels the rumble under his palms. They’ll stop at a bar soon, the cold snaking off them as they pull helmets, breathe in exhaust, clap each other on the back, feel the race of blood under the skin. ≈ç
Heather Goodman fills out
THE WILD CULTURE SCRIBBLER'S QUESTIONNAIRE
What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
My first memory is holding my little freckle-faced chunk of a brother, who is now over six feet tall and fit as can be. Family is everything to me still, so it’s no surprise this is my earliest memory.
Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Anthony Doerr, John Steinbeck, Barbara Kingsolver, Brian Doyle, BK Loren, Rick Bass, Kent Haruf.
Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
Growing up in the woods of Pennsylvania galvanized my sense of place and the need to protect our environment. My parents let me and my brother explore, and they celebrated our finds — salamanders, broken bird eggs, turtle shell scutes, old bottles. We were taught to wonder at the world, investigate it, turn it on its back, touch its dark, damp underside — and discover and celebrate how that related to stream, mayfly, kingfisher, moss, wind.
If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one art book, one fiction or poetry, one non-fiction, one theory or criticism — what would they be?
Art: Chris Maynard’s Feathers: Form and Function. Fiction: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Non-fiction: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. I’d swap out theory or criticism for reference: National Wildlife Federation’s Field Guide to Trees of North America by Bruce Keshner.
What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
Animals. My family raised an abandoned baby racoon when I was younger, and we became known as the “animal people,” so in addition to more typical pets, several other racoons and even a three-footed opossum joined our ranks until rabies put an end to raising — and setting free — our wild animals.
At what point did you discover your ability with your writing?
It’s a lame answer, but my first publication let me know I had ability. I’d always loved writing, but I wasn’t sure I had ability. A now defunct magazine associated with the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis published my submission for their call for “Postcards of Desire.” My husband framed it for me, and it still hangs in his home office.
Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
I write to figure out the world. The physical, tactile work of fingers to keys or page allows my head to work differently.
If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
To be a “fart in a mitten,” as my dad would say, my advice would be get comfortable with rejection, and if you can’t, do something else.
Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
How there are so many good, smart people in the world, and yet Trump is president.
What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
Skinned knees, briar-scratched arms, freckled nose from digging in the dirt, tapping the trees, hunting the crayfish, fishing the lake, and running the dogs.
If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
How is the inequity of our world allowed to continue?
HEATHER GOODMAN. Motivated to pursue fiction after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Heather's work has been published in Fiction, Witness Magazine, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Crab Orchard Review, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story 'His Dog' won the Nelson Algren Award. She also teaches high school students and edits for Quiddity. She lives in rural Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia.