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This tree knows my name. She has waited for me to reach her for almost a year. I have cut down her sisters and brothers, one by one, for months now. She is waiting for me. I and my axe are here. My boots are firmly planted in the snow, one forward and one back. I raise the axe and take a deep breath. This will take me some time. I have not eaten in almost two days.

“Caroliiiiine!”

The tree hears my name one last time. I lower my axe and turn back to the cabin far behind me. My sisters are calling me back. This tree has been granted a stay of execution. I lift and rest the handle of the axe over my shoulder and I begin to walk back to my sisters across the field.

I study the stumps that I walk among. Most are the same size, but two or three were bigger. This birch was useful to us. We used the papery bark to insulate our cabin ceiling, make five baskets with our names carved into them, brew surprisingly tasty tea, and poorly construct a replica canoe. We used the orange inner bark to add to our garden’s nutrients. And we used the wood itself to keep warm all winter.

I step over the stump of the tree I cut down on January third, on a mild and sunny day.

I had gotten a splinter in my hand from the last axe handle. I cursed and threw the axe when the splinter drove deep into my skin between my thumb and forefinger. I was irate. I wasn’t as hungry, then, but I was still in a foul mood. Marilyn had wrapped my hand after removing the splinter. Suzanne had finished cutting this tree down. When she was done, with a flair of drama and futility, I plunged the blade of my pocketknife into the stump so I would always know which one angered me. The blade had gotten stuck and its metal is now as orange as the wood around it.

There is no smoke coming from the chimney behind my sisters. I miss that smell. I only smell ice and pine needles now. My boot gets stuck in a bramble of upturned roots. When I kick it free, a swath of orange slivers flies like flames into the air and lands silently across the snow.

I pulled that root ball out of the ground when I had been pleased with myself on December ninth. We had made a good meal together and cooked it over a roaring fire that afternoon. I had had too much to drink and had wandered outside to see the stars with Adrienne. By then the canopy of trees had been beaten back far enough from our porch that I could watch my two favorite bears ambling across the sky. I had pulled on my boots and tromped through the snow to this stump and pulled against it with my well-nourished arms and I had removed it from the ground, tearing many of the roots by hand. I had been a barbarian for no real reason. Adrienne had looked on with concern. I regret this stump, too.

As I get closer to my sisters, I notice Maggie has her scarf around her neck and face. She never wears it because she is never outside for long enough to need it. I walk carefully around the bench halfway between the cabin and the tree that knows my name.

On October seventh, I built that bench with Maggie’s help. We had been exhausted when it was over, but we had still carved our names into the wood. It was going to be where we would sit and read together every afternoon. I told her the hard work was over and our new home would be perfect. This was how we would relax and enjoy our new surroundings. We hadn’t worn our coats. Maggie started coughing that night and was bedridden for two weeks. The temperatures dropped and she never went far from the fireplace after that. I never sat on the bench without her. I never sat on the bench at all.

It is eerie that they just watch me. They don’t talk amongst themselves and they avoid each other’s eyes. Marilyn looks at my face and I catch her eyes and smile. She doesn’t smile back. The others seem to watch my feet. I come to four divots in the snow.

Suzanne helped me drive four posts into this spot, on July fourteenth. Two posts were side by side here, and two were over there, a couple yards away. Between them we laid firewood that became a small mountain. We were happy with this work. I was proud of this work. When the mountain was tall, I knew I had been right in inviting them. I knew we could be together for a long time here. And then the mountain became shorter in the colder months. Last week, we had pulled out the four posts and burned those, too. The woodpile was gone. I promised them this morning that the last tree would be enough to get us through the last of the winter. Today is February sixteenth.

Adrienne looks up as I come within earshot. “Caroline, we need to leave. There isn’t enough here for us.” The others look from her to me. I tighten my grip on the axe handle to have something to hold onto. I step through the circle of stones a few paces from them.

We made a fire between these stones on May first. It was the last night of chilly air and we had been alive with excitement for a new era. We had toasted providence and prosperity. We had believed in a new future for our family. Even in her caution, Marilyn had toasted me for my wisdom and preparation. We had laughed and told stories of our lives with less sadness than in years past. The difficulties of the new world seemed so far away. The fires of other towns and villages were beyond our vista in this valley. We slept in peace that night, around this dying fire. Maggie had curled up next to me as the embers cooled. I woke up with a smile on my face in the grey dawn.

Maggie warms her hands with her breath as I come to a stop in from of them.

“We’ve talked it over and we can’t stay here. There are no trees left,” Marilyn says with thickness in her voice.

I think about gesturing to the tree that knows my name, but she is only one tree. She cannot sustain us. I know that. Everyone knows that.

“Please come with us," Suzanne says. "We can go a few towns over, to the east, to where we’ll all be comfortable together.”

I can’t speak. I let go of the axe and let it fall with a thump into the dirty snow. I shake my head. Maggie starts to cry. Adrienne walks away first. I notice now that they all have packs on their backs. They have been ready to go all morning, it seems. That’s only fair. They must be hungry, too.

I look past my sisters and see the cabin. As the women in front of me slip away into the grey fog beyond our home—my home—I think about how long I can survive if I turn the cabin into firewood. Behind me is the tree that knows my name. I turn to face her and see her so far away that her white bark blends into the sky and snow. She is all but absent, invisible. She does not call my name.

Marilyn turns back to face me and call my name once more. “Please come with us, Caroline. Please, please come with us.”

I could make it through the winter if I burn the porch first, and then the eastern wall that doesn’t face the wind. The birch bark that insulates everything could keep me warm until I need to burn that, too.

I look at Marilyn and run into the cabin. My heart races and I run to my bed in the corner. I see my own pack on top of the bare mattress. It is full and bursting at the seams with everything I own. I start to cry as I throw it onto my shoulders, fumbling with the straps. I run out of the cabin and find Marilyn’s eyes again. She hasn’t moved. I start to run toward her, laughing and crying. I am delirious and ridiculous, but she smiles and walks back toward me.

This woman knows my name. She has waited for me to reach out to her for almost a year.

February 07, 2020 17:58

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2 comments

Felicity Edwards
11:21 Feb 15, 2020

An interesting story, full of pathos. Well done.

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Teddi Robinson
10:34 Feb 14, 2020

A very delightful story with no errors in the writing.

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