Read by Sean Hebert
Patrick and Michael were lumberjacks, and they both lived in log cabins in the deep forests of British Columbia, in Western Canada. Their nearest town was a little place called Squamish, which boasted, in order of importance, a sawmill, three bars and a railway station. Sometimes a lumberjack would marry a barmaid and take her off to his log-cabin in the woods, and that was what had happened with Michael and Mary, for Patrick had not been quick enough off the mark.
Patrick and Michael were both fallers and they’d been working together for fifteen years up and down Canada. They came as a team, and a good one: so close were they, like brothers, that they’d even built their cabins nearby each other, before a great stand of pine. They lived a mile apart, but in the forest that makes men close neighbours.
One fall morning, Michael knocked on Patrick’s door. The smell of brewing coffee and frying bacon wafted out as Patrick opened the door and stared at him. Michael was wearing travelling clothes and carried a kitbag. He didn’t come in.
“I’m off on a job in Saskatchewan for three months,” said Michael. “Look after Mary, will you?”
And with a nod, he turned on his heels and stamped off through the forest. Patrick stood looking after him, his slow-but-steady brain grinding through the various possibilities, cutting and shaping them, like a sawmill. Work was scarce that year. He and Michael always worked together. But Michael had taken this job alone. It took two to bring down the big trees: two to work the felling-saw. So Michael must be working with somebody else. And that was as far as Patrick got before he smelled the bacon burning.
That night Patrick went over to Michael’s cabin. Even in his deepest betrayal, he felt obligated to look after his best friend’s woman, there being no soul else for miles. Besides, she might know more about this job in Saskatchewan. He brought a bottle of whisky to loosen her tongue up some, and to keep the cold out.
Mary met him at the door. Her hair was still nut-brown, her eyes sea-blue and her waist dainty after fifteen years, just as they’d been when Patrick and Michael had first seen her. She wiped a hand on her white apron and shook his. The rich scent of stew curled over her shoulder and tickled his nose. He thought how nice it would be not to have to brew his own coffee and fry his own bacon every damn day of his life. She looked sad, so he held out the whisky-bottle.
“Brought this,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said.
She didn’t know much more than him about the Saskatchewan job so after dinner talk turned to old times. They talked about Michael and him, about Michael and her, and finally they didn’t talk about Michael at all. The level in the whisky-bottle fell lower, but the cold must still have crept in on them both, for they ended up sitting very close on the settle in front of the fire, huddled as if for warmth.
And so it went on. Fall had become winter by the time Michael was due to return, and all Mary’s good stews had put inches on Patrick’s waistline, and all his good loving had put inches on hers, too. Then on Christmas Eve morning when Patrick was splitting logs out in the snowy yard, he looked up and there stood Michael, a great sack on his back, a great smile splitting his face. Patrick nearly chopped his own foot off there and then.
“Michael!” he cried, and ran to greet him. Michael looked weather-beaten and lean from his time away, hard and straight as a redwood, and Patrick felt his own hand soft in his friend’s. All he’d done for months was chop firewood, eat Mary’s delicious meals, and make love. He suddenly felt cold and afraid.
Michael pulled Patrick into a bear-hug. “You’ve been looking after her, then?” he said, indicating the pile of split wood.
“Oh yes,” said Patrick, “every day. I come over and chop wood and she makes stew. I’m always home by nightfall,” he added quickly.
“You must come for Christmas dinner tomorrow,” smiled Michael. “We can talk about our job in Saskatchewan!”
The cold feeling in Patrick’s chest crackled into his gut. “Our job?”
“Yes, with Mason, your old hooktender. He’s in Saskatoon now, needs two men for a big job in spring. He knows you’re good for it, but he wanted to train me up so we could work together. Pretty good news, eh?”
“Yeah,” said Patrick faintly, “pretty good.”
Next morning Michael suggested they go and cut down a Christmas tree while Mary prepared the meal. It took a while to find the tree he wanted, hours of walking, seemingly in circles, and finally Patrick stared up at it in disbelief. It was a vast ancient pine, two hundred feet high. It seemed oddly familiar, but even to a lumberjack, trees are hard to tell apart.
“Don’t know if this’ll fit in the cabin, Michael,” he said.
Michael grinned. “The top six feet will. The rest can be firewood all winter. Stop you having to come round every day.”
That was when Patrick knew with utter certainty that Mary had told him. He glanced around frantically. He had no idea where he was and there was no place to run. He looked down at his soft belly, the axe in his soft hands. Then in a single movement, without warning, Michael heaved his axe off his shoulder and swung it in a dizzying arc straight at the trunk of the tree. Automatically, Patrick swung his own axe in the rhythm they had fallen into for the last fifteen years.
Two hours notched the trunk: now they put the back-cut in with the two-man saw. With every pull, as Michael stared upwards, Patrick stared at Michael’s face in terror, wondering when the blow would fall. Nobody takes a lumberjack’s woman and emerges unscathed. But still they sawed, until the noonday sun stood high in the white-blue sky and Patrick thought he could smell roasting turkey, though they must be ten miles from Michael’s cabin. Finally Michael stepped back, satisfied.
He pushed the vast tree hard, once, with a great animal roar that sparked icicles in Patrick’s blood. The pine creaked and leaned and fell, slow and stately at first, then with a deafening crash that seemed to split the earth in two.
“Why don’t you go chop off the tip,” said Michael, “and I’ll clean up here?”
Patrick started the long walk to the end of the tree. As he pushed through the newly broken forest the things around him became suddenly familiar: the mountain-range in the distance, the glimmer of a frozen lake to the west. And when he reached the end of the great pine, he realised why. Beneath the top of the tree, crushed to splinters and sawdust, lay a log-cabin. His. And on the flattened door was a note which Michael must have pinned there in the 6am dark, when he came to pick up Patrick.
BUILD FURTHER OFF NEXT TIME.