Even the Chairs Have Hearts
“Can you keep a secret?” The voice rasped like a saw on dry wood. “Rrrrghgr! It’s today!”
My eyes shot open and my fists clenched under the covers. I was alone in the cabin, so there must be an intruder—but what kind of intruder makes lots of noise?
There, the rasp came again. “Hey, listen up!” There was a thump and a skid. Then, softer, “Tell the table.”
OK, this was a dream, no big deal. I pushed the covers away and headed into the bathroom, guided by the nightlight I always kept on. Even half-asleep, I loved the cool, smooth wooden floors that I never allowed even the tiniest crumb of dirt to fall on.
While I peed, I studied the log walls in the bathroom, each one chosen, felled, and cut up by me and me alone. I remembered how I’d matched colors and grains to make a harmonious little room. A cocoon. The rounded bowl of the sink was carved from a mighty oak I’d felled in that first month after Wall Street fell. Oh, was I green then! Completely ignorant about forests and the scary natural world out there, to say nothing of all that went into cutting down trees. I’d learned quickly, and thank God for my next-door neighbor, Duke, who’d taught me everything he knew about logging.
I watched the water swirl slowly down the drain, highlighting the rich grain of the wood and the perfect curves I’d carved into the basin. Beautiful thing.
I heard another thump, louder this time. What’s going on out there? I hadn’t heard the cabin door open, and the path up to my porch was well surveilled and alarmed. Maybe a draft somewhere? Impossible, since the windows fit like gloves in the frames I’d carefully measured and joined. Only way to keep warm in winter out here in Big Sky country.
Time to face the music. I pressed open the handle of the bathroom door’s latch, but the door didn’t budge. Even when I jiggled the latch and lifted the door in case warping had shifted it, no luck. This had never happened before—every part of my cabin fit into every other part like a strong hand in a good leather glove.
The voice came again. “OK, OK. It’s time.” A tremendous noise followed, as if all the furniture in my living room (which was also my bedroom, my kitchen, and my dining room) was being moved all at once.
I couldn’t budge the handle. I shouted, “Hey! Who’s there?”
But even if anyone had been there, they couldn’t have heard me, because now there was a regular cacophony going on outside the bathroom. It sounded like a soccer crowd, except this was no crowd of people. This was a crowd of…things. There was squeaking, rolling, scraping, clanking, and the occasional sound of something big falling over. Like my living room was going to a dance.
I had to laugh at that thought, a dance. Dances were fun, right? Who knew from fun anymore? After the months I’d spent busting my butt to build my dream house, I could hardly limp to the lake a short walk away, much less drive to a dance. A sore back, a lingering infection from a wound I didn’t properly tend, knees that gave out—and that was just the half of it. I felt like I’d been at war with my dream house, as if I were trying to tame a herd of wild animals, not just cut down some dumb trees. It’d been quite a struggle—sometimes those trees had seemed like living things that were out to get me! (OK, trees are living things, technically, but it’s not like they have pain or feelings or thoughts). If it hadn’t been for my sister, Donna, and her family—the twins, Sarah and Sandra, my nephew, Lenny, and Donna’s husband Ben—I probably would have lost my mind. Pandemic + unexpected divorce = Not much dancing.
I looked forward to the day to follow. Donna and Ben and the kids were due to arrive before noon. At least, if an intruder had designs on me, I’d get some help from them. Ben was a big, strong guy.
No sounds now from outside the bathroom. I tried the latch again and this time it clicked up. I opened the door and started into the living room.
Except it wasn’t my living room any more. It was a disaster zone.
My four chairs were lined up in a row, not set around the table like I always left them. The couch was tipped over, its legs sticking up in the air like a wounded opossum, and the table lamps sat upright on the floor on the bases that I had carved so lovingly. My big easy chair, a real work of art that had taken me two months to finish, stood nearest to the bathroom. I’d have to walk around it to get anywhere.
As I started around the chair, I heard it again: That voice. That rasp. “OK, stop right there.” The voice seemed to be coming from…my chair.
About that chair: this was no ordinary chair and it hadn’t come from an ordinary place. It was genuine cherry wood that I’d personally scouted out and ordered rough-cut from a mill in Vermont. Cherry is the most beautiful and most expensive hardwood you can get, and it’s worth every penny. Cut and polished the right way, it shines like a star. That’s why it’s usually used for a desk or table, to show off a surface that looks so deep you could drown. I didn’t use it for a desk, though: if my butt was going to be nestling deep down into a cushion after a hard day’s work, I wanted that cushion to be sitting on the finest frame in the world. Cherry is hard to work with, but I took it as a challenge and made this chair so that the grain in the arms matched and the cross rails in the back bounced the light between them like a ball at a tennis match. I used a special seat-sculpting jig and some very fine-blade tools to carve the seat, each scrape done with love. I ended up making exactly what I’d wanted: a seat pattern that, in the right light, looked like a coyote’s beautiful head. Each night, I sat down on that little puppy and thought, I belong here.
But now, it looked like the chair had other ideas. And the dining table. And the bookcase. And all the rest, faced off nice and straight in front of me.
The chair spoke. “Laura!” It said. Then, louder, “LAURA!” I turned to it and said, “Yes, you know it’s me. We’ve lived here together for a while now.”
The chair bent its frame slightly in a way I hadn’t ever designed it to do. “This isn’t usual,” it said. “But it’s necessary.”
I said, “If you say so. I’m listening. Unless you say something to try to stump me.” I thought this was clever, given the circumstances. How could furniture be talking, anyway?
My joke was a mistake. All the furniture started hopping and bumping. The noise was terrifying. I stepped back.
“OK, that was rude. I’m sorry,” I said, ignoring the absurdity of apologizing to a dining table. I apologized partly out of nervousness: when I compared the combined weight of all of those pieces with my 150 pounds, I didn’t like how I’d come out in a struggle.
For struggle was in the air.
“I’m listening. Really.” I wanted them to know that.
Chair (I gave it a name) bumped back a few feet. “OK, “EVERYONE NOW!” it shouted. The next 20 minutes was a nightmare of screeches and scrapes, but pretty soon, I was able to decipher what was being said. I stopped Chair’s mad rant, and asked, “Can I say this in my own language to see if I got it?”
All the pieces bumped their legs on the ground, which I now knew meant, “Yes, Laura.”
“What I’m hearing is that you’re all enraged…” (scraping ensued, OK the term was maybe too complicated) “I mean, pissed off. At me. You’re mad because I took you away from your families, from where you’d been born and grown up, and brought you here, inside, where there’s no sun and no water and no cute little animals. Is that it? Sort of?”
Chair pushed forward with a nasty scrape. “Yes. First, you ripped us from our roots. You made us lonely. Then you cut us up, painted us with sticky stuff that smells bad, and sealed off our only way to communicate with each other—through the air! We use oxygen currents to talk to each other! And our bark! You stripped it! How would you like to be flayed and then have your muscles and bones cut up? Pounded on?”
“But, you’re trees,” I said. “You’re not people. You’re not even animals.”
The room fell silent. It was a shocked silence. Then the dining table lurched forward.
“Maybe I can help.” This voice was higher, sweeter, no surprise since it was made of spruce, a softer wood. I’d loved its smell when I hauled the first logs home.
“Laura,” the table began. “We’re so far apart from you that it can’t be described. Our lives don’t have any goals, any striving, any purpose except to live and grow. To bloom, drop our seeds, and wave in the wind. We don’t fall in love, we don’t travel, and we don’t want anything at all. We are perfect where we find ourselves.”
The bookcase interrupted, snarling as it rocked back and forth. “Yeah, perfect, until your kind comes and cuts us down. You hurt us, you take us into rooms where bad things happen and we get old and dried up. And sat on.”
Wanting not to insult any of the furniture by sitting on it, I slid down the wall onto the wooden floor. It, too, was heaving. Hadn’t humans invented tools to broaden their reach into nature, precisely so they could kill animals and eat them, and fell trees and sit on them? What’s the problem with that? A life without goals? What’s that about? I had plenty of goals, mostly concerned with cutting things down and treating myself to fabulous meals of fried animal spiced up with, yes, plants that had been uprooted, cut apart, and dried. It was especially necessary to forage now that “civilization”, as we’d all known it for millennia, had pretty much ended. Grocery stores were few and far between.
The silence went on. I wondered how close to my cabin my sister and her family were.
“Should I say, ‘I’m sorry’?” I asked.
“How much good would that do? We’re already here. Our lives are over.”
I looked at my furniture, my cherished, lovingly crafted pieces. I saw something I’d never have thought possible: they were weeping. Tears, not of water, but of bitter sap, moved slowly down their polished legs and onto my floor. What pain, I thought, could make a mighty oak cry?
The floor heaved, but not with anger this time: it, too, sobbed. I flattened my right palm against its knots, noticing how they fit perfectly in the spaces between my fingers. Almost as if we were related, made of the same stuff.
Leaning back against my log wall, I thought over what my furniture had told me. They had suffered. Had I ever thought about the pain of any living thing I’d cut down? What did I know of their lives? Because they couldn’t talk and didn’t have brains, I assumed that they were there for the taking. And I had certainly taken. And taken. To build my own little corner of the world.
But wasn’t that the thinking that made everything start to go bad in the first place? Wasn’t that like the first little cuts in the trees of the New World that led to building railroads, clear-cutting the way West, invasions of wooly adelgids and hemlocks dying in droves and, from there, to deforesting the Amazon and the loss of oxygen worldwide? Wasn’t the removal of forests what allowed cities to metastasize and become hotbeds of infection until the final deadly viral outbreak?
I and the furniture stayed like that for a long, long time. I felt my own watery tears dropping onto my thighs as I sat on the slaughtered floor, the floor I’d killed with my own hands.
“Chair,” I said. “Dear Chair. I think I’m starting to understand something at least. But what can I do here? I mean, what’s done is done.”
Chair bumped its legs. “Rrrrghgr! You could stop doing it. What you’re doing.”
I asked, “You mean, cutting trees down? Making furniture? But that wouldn’t help you.”
The little oak side table said, in a high, whiny voice, “No, but it would help my brothers and sisters. They’re still out there. They could stay there.”
I thought this over. If you put it into a human context, where people care about their family members, it made sense. Just agree to preserve the forest. I could do that.
I told the little table, “If I promise to stop cutting down trees, stop where I’m at, you’d all be OK with it?”
More silence, but now there was a sense of movement in the air, a sort of rushing noise, like wind through tree branches. Maybe they used secret communication channels, hidden veins of xylem and phloem that hadn’t been completely hollowed out by death.
Chair spoke. “Yes,” it rasped slowly. “We’re all OK with that. More or less.”
“What’s the ‘more’ and the ‘less’?” I asked.
“’More’ is that you won’t cut any more of us down. ‘Less’ is that you’ll keep us forever and never put us on a junkpile and torch us. Or let kids play on us.”
So much for the term “hardwood”: my cherrywood chair had a soft heart! It wanted to stay with me as much as I wanted to keep it and the rest! No problem with those conditions! Except that last one.
“I can promise that. And more, I’ll promise to tell other people what’s gone on here. That way, more trees will be saved.”
Chair bumped and scraped. “Rrrrghgr! Good.”
I sat up straighter. “But there’s one thing I can’t agree to. I hope it’s not a deal-breaker.”
Chair said, “Rrrrghgr?”
I said, “The ‘kids’ part. Kids need to play on furniture. They love their favorite chair like they love their favorite blankie. My family’s on the way here, and all three of those little monsters will want to climb on you. On you, especially. Because you’re so comfy and cozy.” I knew they would, because Sarah and Sandra and Lenny always fought over who would sit in “The Throne.”
I paused. “Please.”
My wooden friends started up again with their noises. It sounded like any meeting, anywhere, any time. After a few minutes, they quieted down. There was a sense of a decision in the air.
Chair spoke. “OK, they can climb on us. But there’s a condition.”
I wondered whether the “condition” was going to be good for me or for them. Or maybe, for all of us? Was that possible?
“OK, what is it?” I asked.
“We want you to tell them everything that’s happened here. We want the kids, the young ones, to understand how we feel. Then they won’t mess up the forests like your kind did.”
I hadn’t foreseen that. Wouldn’t talking furniture want to keep their special skills a secret? What if “my kind” wanted to put them into a circus, or charge admission to “Talk to a tree?” But I was delighted! What a wonderful surprise these new family members would be for my regular human family! Like stepping into a magical world! I didn’t mull my answer over for long.
“OK, Chair, deal.” Chair bumped the floor.
“Just one thing more,” I went on. “Can I call them right now and tell them what’s waiting for them when they get here?” Chair bumped twice. I picked up the phone and pressed “Donna.”
“Hey, can’t wait to see you. Lots to share. Sis---can you keep a secret?”
 To this day, I don’t know how the furniture and I communicated. Maybe it was all the Morse code I’d been using as my ham radio hobby. Furniture can tap, after all. But, judging from the outcome, we did, indeed, make ourselves clear to each other.
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