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Thursday, February 10, 2011

the woodcutter (for barbara)

THE WOODCUTTER


The woodshed could hold eleven cords of split and stacked wood and it was empty. Aaron scarcely noticed it as he strode, propelled by fury, into the retreat centre. It was not an impressive shed. He glimpsed a sagging roof and some crooked beams. The retreat center, on the other hand, was solid and sure, boards and brick and stone and large windows that brought mountains and light and sky indoors. Aaron stormed through the front entrance.

The retreat director sat in a chair bigger than he was, eyes obscured by glasses spattered with sunlight. Aaron thought he looked like a ferret but opened up to him anyway. He ranted and raved about his church which had fired him, his elders that had abused him, his wife and children who had left him, his friends who had ignored him, his God who had abandoned him. The director said nothing. Once, in the middle of the tirade, he opened a drawer in his desk and, without taking his eyes off Aaron, plucked a Scotch mint from a bag and popped it into his mouth. After about sixty-five minutes, Aaron stopped, hands and face burning, hunting for a better word, a stronger phrase, an accusation more fierce.

“Have you ever chopped wood?” the director asked.

They gave Aaron a maul, an ax, a chainsaw. And eleven cords of wood in fifteen foot lengths. Simmering with adrenaline, he told the director he would saw the wood in one day and have the lot of it split within a week. He put in two hours before dark that first afternoon. It was early December. The sun set before five. The snow and grass were blistered with small, angry woodchips. They flew from him in swarms. But at five it was too dark to work, even for a man who was reckless. There was a great deal more to saw.

During supper he sat at a long wooden table with three staff members and another pastor named Skiff, who asked Aaron how long he would be at the retreat centre.

“One or two weeks,” replied Aaron, jabbing at his grilled chicken. “Just enough time to get my head together and make plans to take another church. How about you?”

Skiff shrugged. “Another month maybe.”

“Then what? Do you have another church lined up?”

“Oh, no. I’ve pastored twenty years and that’s enough for me. I’ll go into business. Insurance.”

“But. What about your call?”

Skiff smiled and shook his head.

After an hour of communal prayer and Scripture reading the next morning, Aaron assaulted the woodpile with the chainsaw once more, chips snarling up from his fists. After lunch was free time.

“Read. Think. Hike. We can talk. You can work on the wood again tomorrow morning,” the director suggested.

“No,” cut in Aaron. “I have to finish the wood. I only have a couple of weeks.”

Stars sprinkled the backs of his hands when he was done. They were calling him for supper, ringing a steel bar. He set down the chainsaw. He had trouble flexing his fingers and his hands shook. The smell of gasoline rose from his skin and his clothing. Tomorrow, he thought, it is just the logs and the ax. My bone and muscle and will against years and years, centuries of wood. Myself against the Maker of Trees.

The maul was heavy, almost three times the weight of the ax, and his first blows the next morning glanced off the logs erratically. But he was determined to use the maul on the larger logs so he kept at it until his swinging became more sure. As the solid hits grew in number and the logs split with cracks like gunfire, a peace settled over him.

It did not last. With the rhythmic work an iron door in his mind swung open and faces burst upon his imagination, conversations, rooms, pulpits, meetings, angry sentences, words of fire, memory after memory scraping him, cutting around and around so that he struck at the logs with a sudden explosion of rage, blasting through stout rounds with a single heft of the maul. The first day of chopping ended with a snowfall that seemed to scald his forehead and cheeks. He came to the table swollen with pain.

“How goes the battle?” asked Skiff.

“I must have been out of my mind to say I’d ever go back,” spat Aaron. “Whipped like Jesus. Crucified like Jesus. By your friends. By Christians.”

He sat at the window in his room, his light out. The snow had stopped and torn-up clouds hurried over and under a half-moon. The mountain range had taken on a pristine whiteness and the moon was strong enough to give it a sharp, full, three-dimensional effect, almost as if the peaks were pulsing and throbbing, rising and floating, reminding Aaron of the luminous blacklight posters of the Sixties.

“You create so much beauty out there,” Aaron prayed. “Why can’t you do it with the human heart?”


The more rhythmically he swung the maul, the more the memories boiled up from the stew of wound and bleeding and betrayal. He tried to concentrate on how his blows landed. He learned to look for the faint crack in the top of the log and strike that squarely. The best feeling he could produce in himself came when a log split cleanly and fell away neatly from the cutting stump. The satisfaction of that hummed through his blood and his bones and even his mind paused to swallow it in, as if it were a morsel of lush scenery.

But not every log split cleanly. Sometimes his blows were off-center. Sometimes the maul blade sank into the round with a thud and apparently effected no change whatsoever. Sometimes he had to pull and pull and pry the maul loose. He learned to be wary of the logs lumpy with knots. He could strike and strike at some of these and get nowhere. Wedges would be used but frequently the wedges got stuck and it cost him more energy to drive the wedges out or through. He would pant and sweat even though it was fifteen below. The moments came when he wanted to quit. But he couldn’t leave wedges in logs or blades embedded in thick, wet wood. He thought of the retreat director sucking his white Scotch mints. I’ll be finished in a week, he’d told him. Yet he had to complete this before he left. Grunting, he yanked or beat the maul out of the knot-twisted logs.

“Some of you are hardly worth it!” he shouted.

It was important to finish each log, no matter what. It was a great victory to finally split the hardest ones in two. But there were clearly some which sapped all Aaron’s strength and still remained truculent. Not many. A few. It was hard to take, but Aaron learned to recognize these logs after a few blows and would toss them aside and never approach them again. They took too much and rewarded him with very little. When stacking came, they would go into the shed whole. A long, slow burn for somebody one winter’s night two years ahead. Someone holding the broken windows of faith in hands and shirt pockets, the fragments pricking and stabbing. Maybe a whole log would help. But to burn well, it would need a split piece too, dried by mountain wind. Maybe in the flame the hurting man, the dying woman would find God once more. Aaron had already burned other people’s anger and pain in the wood they’d left behind. He hadn’t seen much of God yet but at least his flesh had been warmed. Who were the others who had cut the wood two or three years before? Had that been a dry winter or an especially cold and snowfull one? He imagined them battling the woodpile in blizzards, cheeks and ears whitening from frostbite. Now he burned their efforts. In the month of December, the burning of this split wood in his room was the only act that seemed holy to him, a sacrifice that mattered to God, the souls of others an incense drifting up to him. Who would burn his struggles, send flames over his spirit, toss the wood he cut out of his heart into the stove and then pull out a novel, or maybe even a Bible to read? Who would his wood heal?

The woodshed took on enormous proportions when he set up his first stack of split wood. The stack cringed there, dwarfish and inconsequential - it blew down Christmas Day when a chinook gushed through the mountain passes. There was a day of rain and snow and then a high pressure system slashed out of the Arctic, so that Aaron woke to a glistening marrow-red sunrise of forty below.

It took him an hour to restack the wood, which at least had been under cover and was dry. The rest, heaped about the woodshed, split or whole, was frozen together. He whacked at it with the back end of the maul head to loosen it up, his gloves ripping as he jerked the wood from its ice cradles. When the day ended his fingers were bleeding. This went on all through January. Freezing rain, followed by ice, followed by snow, followed by subzero cold. He broke the maul handle trying to force a log from a mass of wood all iced over. He had to use the smaller ax to split. The wood broke apart quickly because it was so cold. But what the maul had done in one blow took the ax three.

“I’ll need a few more weeks yet,” Aaron told the retreat director.

The director sat, hands folded in his thin lap, and nodded, sucking at a Scotch mint.

“I thought you’d be at your new church by now,” smiled Skiff at the supper table.

“It’s taking longer to do the wood,” shrugged Aaron. “Snow. Ice. I need more time.”

“What does it matter? Let someone else do it.”

Other people came and went, on weekend retreats or day retreats. Pastors. Church members. No one Aaron knew. Some would laugh too much for him. Some would hover over fires and tables and shoulders like grey storms. Some were just taking a break. Some were hanging on for dear life. A few talked with Aaron. Sam was leaving the pastorate to go into accounting. John was returning to the military. Ben had had enough and was driving a taxi. Krystal was going into management with a big oil firm. Jerry sat with Aaron at the huge fireplace in the main lodge. The room was dark and the light flashed and flashed on their faces and bodies.

“What can I do?” The man stared into a sparking log. “I used to imagine Jesus huddled over fires like this with James and Matthew and Philip. What if they’d stopped? The heart killings came to them. But they rose from the dead. What if they’d put out the fire in the dark and gone home?”

Aaron clawed and chopped at the wood to free it from ice and snow. Then, his gloved hands slippery and shining, he would balance the logs on the stump and swing, silver spraying his face as the wood broke. Exhausted, he would end a day with an hour or two of stacking. When darkness poured over the mountains and over his eyes, the shed still looked large and empty. Eleven cords of wood. How much did he have cut and stacked now? Two or three, if he was lucky?

The days came when he didn’t want to do it anymore. He’d had enough. The adrenaline had been scorched from his body weeks ago. Now he felt tired. Alone. But it was the sort of tired that does not let you rest. And he knew if he did not go to the woodpile he would not be able to seize the bone weariness that would give him sleep. He forced himself into the rich royal blue of sky and the clear cold that traced the pattern of his spine. Chop. Cut. He had thought he would dream of the wood but he never did. His dreams were full of color and movement. No memories. No anger. No axes. No woodchips. Awake, he sat at the stove in his room and watched the stars fall gently. Wood from other tortured souls burned.

Weight melted from his body. His hair fell over his ears. Dirt worked under his skin and nails, water blisters broke and his palms thickened and yellowed. There was no one to care whether or not he grew a beard, so he let it come. Glancing into a mirror, he allowed himself a lopsided smile - he was perfect for a series of sermons on the Old Testament prophets.

February was a mercy. Yes, that was the only word that meant something. Dry and warm, chinook after chinook pulling golden fire over the foothills and forests. The wood loosened in the heat. He no longer had to break it out of its rock face of ice. Crack. Crack. The rounds split neatly, long grain exposed like a fine stone crystal. Scent rose through his being. He would chew the pale splinters for the flavour, sensing he was feeding on years as well as on minerals, on fresh resin in old trees nurtured by wind and frost and fast glittering meltwater.

He grew wearier. Sometime after Valentine’s Day he was sure the shed was half-full. But it had taken him so long to get there he despaired of ever finishing the job. Well, other things had never been finished in his life. The wood could be left too. He could walk away and be a free man anytime he liked. He’d done enough. His wife had written him a letter. What was he thinking, she wanted to know. Should they continue the separation? Should they divorce? His denomination sent a curt typewritten letter - If he divorced he could no longer serve with them as a pastor. Would he like some counseling? His pension stood at forty thousand dollars.

“Everything in me is tired,” he told Skiff. “But if I don’t chop, I can’t sleep.”

“I’ve been praying for you.”

“Thanks, Skiff.”

“It’s the terror that has to go, Aaron. I pray God will melt the ice that locks you in.”

The ax flew, a shining head painted red. At five o’clock it was still light. At six the sun remained well above the horizon. March blustered over his head - snow flurries, some rain, some cold, but more light, more warmth, slowly, the earth turning, the sun drawing near, spring advancing like a green-speared army of deep intent.

Aaron pulled an old Bible down from the bookshelf above his woodstove. How long since he had read King James? It was like delving into Hamlet or Macbeth. He chiseled away at the Psalms and the gospel of Luke. He lay back on his bed, someone’s wood work burning, the light snapping jaws on the ceiling, or no, was it David leaping in front of the ark?

“God,” he would breathe in the dark, “Oh God, Oh Father.”

Skiff met him at breakfast. “Some of us are doing a prayer walk each day to get ready for Easter. Would you like to join us?”

Aaron shook his head. “It’s good of you. But Easter is where the trees and the fallen wood are. I have to be there.”

Another stack went up, skimming the ceiling. Perhaps it was possible. The ax plunged into smaller logs now. Shorn, pieces dropped left and right from the stump. Carefully, he would build up the wood walls within the shed, as if erecting a stone wall without mortar. He had learned how to shore up the ends by laying the wood in alternate patterns. Wood stacked in December and January took on the color of honey. Greener wood was dark and stained. Round and split, small and large, knotted and smooth, clean split or ragged, the wood rose up from the ground, filling the shed.

He was no longer tired. Perhaps it could be done. If he stuck it out. He stood back frequently to look at the woodshed and its swelling substance. There is a beauty to this, how the wood fits together, he thought. Yet surely it was random. But how the symmetry then, the wholeness, the completeness? Out of January and the killing winter dark, how this?

April. He took Easter communion at the shed, sitting amidst the tall wood as if in a cathedral. He chewed the bread carefully. Drained the ceramic cup. Took a splinter of fresh birch and placed it between his teeth. Jesus and wood. Carpentry and killing. Tables, chairs, and crosses. Wood fire and light in all darkness.

Forgive me, he wrote his wife and children.

Forgive us, she responded.

Yes, yes, he penned in the light of another’s cross.

Let us love one another, he wrote the church. Even if I never preach to you again. Let us love one another.

Yes, responded the church.

May I have another chance? he wrote the denomination. May I be as one who serves? May I try to live the evangel somewhere? May I learn to shepherd and lay down my life for the sheep? May I try again to be like Jesus and not hide the wounds?

But the denomination did not respond.

“The wood is praise,” Aaron told Skiff.

They sat on a bench drenched in mountains and crystal clear sunlight. Skiff smiled, gnawing on an O Henry bar.

“Perhaps it’s time to go out then,” Skiff said.

Aaron shook his head. “I must complete it.”

“Let another take on that joy.”

“It won’t mean anything to them, just to cap off my work. Let them have their own vocation. Then it will mean something.”

“A cathedral was not built in one lifetime. Not by one man.”

“Some of this is second growth forest. Others planted it. Others cut it and drove the logs here. But it’s my task to split and build. All of it. This is what I give to God. It is all of my days. Years from now, at night, in terror, cold and alone, a man or a woman will carry the wood to their room and they will pray by its light, cry by its flame, hear God in the cracking of the poplar and birch, hope again after a week, a month, a hundred nights. It is what I have to give them. I can never know them. But we are going to Jerusalem together.”

Skiff nodded. “I ought not keep you from your worship any longer then.”

“Are you still going into insurance?”

“Sure. Insurance against evil. I’m staying with the Lord, Aaron. His walking. His campfires. His parables. His cross. And the resurrection of the dead - I’ve always wanted to find out how that fish tasted he grilled on the beach. When the morning finally comes, I’ll be with him for breakfast.”

And you could say the ax sang to God in the flash of its swing. That Aaron praised God as the wood rose to heaven. That he would not stop until it had been done and every log, every stick had found its niche in the house of God he fashioned within the eleven cord shed. That it sounded so crazy to him to think and act this way over a pile of wood. And it was so crazy. It must have been Jesus smearing dark mud and God’s spit over his eyes, fully blinding him and telling him to wash off the blindness in the pool of Siloam.

Mare’s tails shot out crimson, snapping with the coming of the light. Aaron stood looking at the cords of wood, reluctant to leave, having replaced a final piece of maple which had fallen with several dozen others during the night. The ax was propped against the stump. For another, he thought. Then he turned to go into the main lodge and the retreat director was behind him.

“That’s all,” said Aaron. “I can leave this morning. I’m meeting my wife for coffee in town.”

The director nodded. Blood light glistened over his glasses as the sun slipped up the mountain slopes. A warm wind puffed out his plaid shirt from his scarecrow frame.

Aaron looked back at the shed. “It has to be like the wood, doesn’t it? Bit by bit, cutting, stacking, ice, snow, another stack, another stack, some days ready to fly like a swallow, others just wanting to fall to your death. The splinters dig into your skin, the cold, the doubt rips at your mind. You try to pray, you try to worship, and you add another piece, and nothing is happening, you look and you look for God, and surely nothing can be happening. Jesus presses on to Golgotha. Paul presses on to Rome. Somehow we learn that God is most true when the dark is most real. All I did was swing an ax. I became a free man. Just one day after stacking another piece of a thousand pieces. I became the cathedral. It’s your whole life and maybe you’ll recognize it. Maybe another generation will see the cathedral.”

Now it was morning. The director had his hands in his pockets. But one arm reached up and around Aaron’s shoulders and a surprising strength pressed Aaron into the director’s skin and bone and life and the scent of garlic and earth, for the director worked in the greenhouse during the winter and in the garden during the summer. And there was the scent of Scotch mint. The director propelled Aaron toward the lodge as a cloud moved and the morning star, not yet obscured by the common day, lit up like a match head over the white mountains.

“Come and have breakfast,” the director said.

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