Jack and I have come up to the old cabin alone. Got here last night. Wind was up and still is this morning, rat-tat-tacking over the roof and getting through the walls, stirring up dead leaves in the corners.
Jack and I, we haven’t wasted any time. As soon as the door was shut, our clothes were coming off, and we didn’t stop until an oak bough split and landed in the yard. We jumped off each other when we heard it. Still scared.
Every time we have to go outside for water or the privy, I wonder if the storm will drop a bough on us. If it keeps up, I’ll find a bucket for us to piss in.
Jack is making eggs on Mama’s old cookstove. I can smell the oil and hear him humming something. I’m searching for wall cracks. I pass my bare arm over each bit, feel for drafts. When I find one, I stuff it with old bits of rag. This was Mama’s job once too.
“What’s that song?” I say.
He stops scraping the pan and his humming, and for a moment it’s just the wind I hear. “Don’t know,” he says, then turns, still scraping eggs. “This place is real nice. Kind of place everybody should go to sometime. Kind of place a man can really think.”
Something about this makes me look away, and I ball up more rag.
“Off alone, nobody to bother us. Go trap some supper, bring it back, cook it. The way men are meant to live.” He stops there, doesn’t mention the rest.
I’m standing on a chair now, a rickety old thing, feet spread because I don’t trust the caning, and I’m stretching up into the roof beams where a sliver of light worms in. I can’t reach it, so I pull up into the rafters and sit, send down dust and leaves.
The wind’s louder here. I smell damp. I rip off another strip of rag, wad it up, and then just at the peak, here’s a little green leaf, like it just uncurled from a bud.
“Get down, Andrew, or I’ll eat your half.”
I’ve got the stem just below the leaf between my fingers. It’s so thin, it disappears like I’m pinching air, and the leaf just hovers. Then it snaps off in my hand.
We find more. There’s six more twigs sprouted, all from the ridge beam. Pop and Uncle Wane left it a whole tree trunk running east to west along the peak. I don’t know why they didn’t use cut timber. Maybe lazy. Maybe they liked how it looked. Now that trunk is sprouting leaves.
We brave the wind, go outside. There’s dead ivy down one gable ground to roof, except now we see it’s not. It’s tree roots. The east end is leafing out. Only a fool tree would grow leaves inside, so most of them are out here. It’s oak. The leaves are big as a dog’s ear, flapping fierce, all ripped off by nightfall if this keeps up.
Back in, we sit around the table, lean in like a secret meeting. “You ever seen dead wood grow leaves and roots?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Haven’t seen it.” There’s something he’s left hanging, and I narrow my eyes so he knows I’ve noticed. “I heard though—well—” He shrugs.
He takes his time. “Well, I heard, a family up near Augusta, they had the same thing. House solid fifteen years, then pow, sprouting roots, branches in the pantry, and when it turned fall sweeping up dead leaves straight into the stove.”
His eyes are on the table. Maybe thinks I won’t believe him. Well if I don’t, guess I can’t believe my own eyes. “So what’d they do about it?”
“Nothing,” he says, eyes on me now, eyebrows up. “Just let it grow. After a while, it busted the house. Collapsed on them while they slept. All dead.”
I can see it, the ridge beam lengthening, widening a hair each year, pressing on the gables till they pop, inching the rafters down the walls, stretching the collar ties until they rip at the pegs. Then the ridge beam itself, whole tree, everything supporting it buckled up, I see it crash down and crack the floor, let all this wind in.
“I never heard about that,” I say. “You say in Augusta?”
He nods. “Colored,” he says, an explanation enough. “I heard it from my uncle Eddie. He heard from a man’s seen it himself.”
Something has shifted between us, and it’s happened without my noticing till now. But that confident man who said twenty minutes ago he would eat my eggs if I didn’t get down, he’s shrunk now, knuckling up on the chair with his hands on the front of it, bending sharp angles. I regret it a moment, even though I don’t know the cause.
But I know what I need to do now. “Come on,” I say, and I’m up to fetch the axe from the wood stack by the stove. Jack follows silent, pulls a coat from a peg. When we open the door, leaves skitter in, and I shield my eyes for grit as we trace again around the cabin.
There’s the root wall, growing down out of the beam like a waterfall and plunging underground. Some of them are thick—three inches, more. Must have been growing for years, and no one checked till now. My gut’s pinched, this tree thinking it can grow as it might please, wreck this house, and that no one like me would come along with an axe.
Up top is best. The roots are thicker there, but there’s fewer to cut. I shield my eyes with one hand, lift the axe with the other.
“Andrew, don’t cut it now.”
“What?” I say, not looking at him.
“Let it go,” he says. His voice gets scattered by the wind. I can feel him behind me, but it’s like the wind is carrying his voice from a whole mile off.
I turn around, and he is so close. Like he’s going to kiss me, or then I think choke me, and I rear back against the house, slam the roots. “You said it’s liable to collapse.”
He steps in, pressing me back. The roots are sharp. I’m twisting. “I got a bad feeling,” he says. “Come on.” Our eyes lock in some tenderness or malice, but then he reaches out, rips the axe from my hand so hard my skin burns. “Let’s go in.”
He lays that axe down on the woodpile like it’s a baby. He’s shaking. I want to get in the truck and drive off. I don’t want to let him out of my sight. “Explain that,” I say, still by the door.
Jack looks over. “You can’t kill your own house.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That means you swing that axe, that’s killing something supposed to already be dead. You fell it now, you’re killing a part of yourself.”
I stare at Jack, standing by the stove wood. Who is this riddling man? Where is my childhood friend, romping through woods, discovering sex, hiding together just us two? I have never seen this man before.
“If this house is anything like me, I’ll protect it, and now I’m seeing that means as much from you as any goddamn upstart tree.”
His eyes stop pinning me. Now they spin out and up, and I see him inhale heavy, like it’s catching, the kind of breath that would be loud if I could hear it through the yowling wind. It takes him so long to inhale, it’s like he’s never breathed before. But my anger or my fear is still busting for its spout. “Were you fixing to cut me with that axe?”
“Why’d you think that?” he barks so fast. “You’re the violent one.”
The scorn in him is enough to quench me. I just drop, chastened, and what do I say? What did I think he’d really do, who he’d be? Jack. This man of my life. This was all supposed to be about having ourselves a little time, let us just be, free of all our sneaking. Now I’m accusing him. This wind keeps howling.
“You and I,” he says. “We live in whole worlds different. You tell me you want a place to fuck. Here we are, but fucking is the end-all of it I see now. Who do you think you are? What are we really doing here? You’re just like your daddy.”
I don’t know what he’s seeing in me or that tree’s roots like some mad prophet. It’s there over us, wooden giant, and I think of those little green leaves sprouting in a dark room, bound for nothing but dying. Somehow we make it to the table. We sit, and I inch forward till I get my arms around him, hold him like Pop held Mama, and he’s shaking like the wind is in this house strong as outside it.
“Tell me what you mean,” I say, “us living in different worlds. You and I, we’ve spent more time than I care to count.”
He backs up, sitting at that table with just our hands touching. Then those he pulls back too. “We were kids, Andrew. We didn’t know what the world was like and who we’ve got to be now that we’re in it. This morning I wanted to let it all go. I felt free this morning, Andrew.”
“We are free. We’re free right now in this house.”
His eyes go past me. They rake the walls. “If it’s only in this house,” he says, “then we’re caged.”
I dream of trees that night. I dream them erupting from the ground, great leafy domes like boxers’ mitts, fireworks sprung out not stopping till they cover up every bit of view. They’re angry and they’ll shake me down and grind me up between, but I jump tree to tree, or it’s Jack there jumping, just as rickety but gripping harder, pausing with each jump to stare straight into me, and we keep chasing something all night long.
The wind is still rampaging next morning, and before Jack is up, I start the fire, boil up coffee. I start another check for cracks where my rag patches blew in, but once I’ve done the walls and pull up to the roof again, it’s those leaves I’m investigating.
Not much light makes it up here, specially now I plugged that split at the ridge beam. But I’m thinking about Jack’s story and wondering what this growth could mean. I pick through the rafters to right above Jack still sleeping, and the depression where my body lay beside. I watch him a minute sprawled out like he did in his daddy’s barn those times we’d snuck up there together. I’d be getting down. A man content, he’d stay to sleep. I see him breathing.
Pop framed this place with pegs. Not a nail in the house, and quite his point of pride. Now I rise on shaking legs, lean against the gable for balance, hunch at the roof, examine the joins. I have no tools with me. Nothing to measure square. But even without them, I see it bulging. The ridge beam is pressing out at the gable peak, and all through it I see cracks and a long warp that curves my hand back when I press the palm to it, and I know we’re lucky it hasn’t snapped the whole wall off.
“Oh, birdie in a tree, how’s it up there?”
I think I’ve lost my balance. I grip two rafters tight, look down to see Jack’s eyes open. Still prone on the bed, he stares up at me, grinning. For a second, the world tips, and I think I am staring at a man floating, a picture I saw once, one of those Indian gods with lots of arms. “Morning,” I say finally. He yawns.
I don’t tell him what I’ve found till after breakfast. Jack is scrubbing the egg pan in the wash bucket. I’ve just come back from the privy. “I got to go into town,” I say, shifting. “The gable’s warped. It’ll bust if that tree keeps growing and I don’t get something to brace it.” And if I don’t cut it, maybe it will still all the same.
Jack doesn’t turn, but I can tell he’s straightened up, muscles tensing in his shirt and pants. “We haven’t got what we need here?”
“No tools,” I say. “And I need some sturdy metal. Got to brace it with something’s not going to give.”
He nods. I think it’s settled. Then he says, “You go, and they’ll know you’re staying here.”
I’m not happy about it either. We planned this trip in-and-out, stocked all the food, drove in after dark, did it all so we wouldn’t meet a soul. Folks in a town this size, they’ll see me sure, even if I drive straight on and get the tools somewhere else. And soon as they know we’re here, well, a couple queers, black and white together, shit, we’ve got something to explain, if they let us. “I’ll keep my head low. I’m sure we can stay another day or two, tell them I’m out hunting, won’t be back. No one will come.”
He whips his hands off. Water droplets hit the floor. “Well,” he says, turning, “you best get on. See if the roof ’s still standing when you get back.”
I remember Pop, any time he left. Hunting, a trip to town, whatever. He’d stand here where I’m standing now, and Mama’d be standing by the table, one hand pressed on it. Then just before he opened the door, he’d swing round, lean over, kiss her romantic as a picture pose. I go on out.
The truck has leaves caught all at the base of the windshield, a pile of them wet with rain that must have come in the night. The wind hasn’t calmed a bit, and fast as I can I pull the slop off in a lump, climb in the cab, start the engine, pull out.
The drive winds back ninety yards to the clay track, and I follow that straight to town a mile on. Dead branches all over the road. I drive over them, fearing the jostling might wrangle the axels and pretending it won’t. I make it to town a little sore, but the truck’s still sounding fine.
I recognize it all from childhood. We came here for ice creams or the soda fountain at the end of each hunting trip, and to the Poldak’s for supplies while Mama got groceries. Now with the wind, folks have battened down whatever hatches they could. Canvas staked over flower beds, nobody on the streets. I’m afraid I’ll find the stores closed, but I don’t.
In Poldak’s I find some iron rebar. That’ll hold it if anything, but how I’ll fix it to the wood? I stand a while puzzling, till the clerk comes nosing. “What can I help you find?” he says.
“Just looking,” I say.
But the man comes close, fingers the stack of rebar. “You welding?” he asks. I shake my head. “What’s your project?”
“House,” I say. “Hunting cabin. Beam is rotted.”
His eyebrows lift. “If you don’t like welding, you can solder a piece of this rebar to two brackets either end. Then drill in and screw them to the beam either side of the rot. You got a soldering iron?”
“No,” I say.
“Well, less you want a full blacksmith’s job, that’s what I’d do. I can sell you a Weller soldering gun, the brackets, and the rebar for nine dollars.”
I buy enough to make four sets: two for the east gable, two for the west. I have to buy the screws and the driver too. No drill. I don’t have money for a drill.
“You got no tools?” the man says as he’s writing my receipt.
I say nothing.
“Where’s this cabin? I’ve never seen you before.”
“Not close,” I say. “I’m passing through. Still have fifteen miles or so.”
“Well, watch out for this wind. It already brought down two of my magnolias.”
I’ve just realized, I can’t leave yet. “Can I work on these bars in your garage? No electricity out there.”
The man eyes me. I imagine every terrible thing he’s thinking. “Come on,” he says. “Need me to wipe your diaper too?”
Thank God I lose myself a bit—the smell of melting solder lifts me out, like Pop is checking on my work here, and I’m his diligent young pride. I’m kneeling hard, but I won’t move to breathe until that iron’s done each join. Good Sunday penance, and I walk out with Mama in the field, and Jack and his sister Betty just visible across, and we all grumbling the soil’s still so spare, as if I believed it could be anything but fertile by the time I’d grow to a man.
That imaginary day, later Jack and I go take my gun out. I practice shooting things, and maybe later we’re in the barn or in the woods, we mess around, or no. It’s all before that still, before we went mucking it all up. Just friends with not a worry in us. I feel that pain he drew on me last night. Two worlds different, and when he said that, I knew how much I kid myself. Two different worlds is the then against the now. That clay-choked soil. These aching knees. The solder smelling like mama’s pressed-out flowers, fastened up in winter like a flat bouquet, beautiful until you see all the dead.
I suspect Jack meant something different. God, him black, me white, that makes us—man, I don’t know why. I don’t want to know about that, rather just the him and me. But I guess from how he talks, he says my not wanting to know’s a whole tree’s root.
Knees numb on the last joins, I’m seeing yesterday before we found that tree. “The way men are meant to live,” Jack said. I change the voice. I shift my eyes. That could have been Pop right there at the stove.
The supports hang out the truck back, but they’re heavy enough the wind won’t take them. It looks darker than when I drove in, but it’s not late. I ease the truck back along the track, stretching up in the seat to see what’s lying on the road. Some of the branches are thick as my arm, and the wheels whine every time we jump one. I conjure up the cabin to stop jittering. Get the cookstove up. I’ll nap a while, fix the supports on later tonight. Jack will help me, a good two-man job.
Not ten feet in front of me, a foot-thick trunk slams down. My eyes are closed. My hands hurt on the wheel. I check if I’m moving. I’ve braked in time. God. Shit. It missed the truck. I’m fine. But I can’t even see past, this damned hill of leaves and wood. Road’s blocked. No other way.
It’s a fool’s choice, but I cut the motor and run. Hand on my brow, chips slashing my arms, I jump the trunk at the low end and sprint mad towards the turnoff. I can see it there—left, down the trail. The drive is the longest ninety yards I ever ran, around one bend and another. I’m afraid I turned on the wrong one. Then there’s the cabin just like I left it. There’s the oak bough dropped in the yard the night we came. I hit the door, get in.
“Jack?” I shut the latch and the dark’s still. “Jack, you here?” God, just wind. God, no why—God, I don’t dare—I step in, then back, I brace my body on the door. I’ve crushed my hat up in my hand.
Outside I can hardly see. The hat blocks everything but three feet in front, and I keep my hand up to check the rest of the grit. I make the trees and squint around. “Jack?” I yell it. Again, again. My voice sounds like it’s someone else hollering mad.
He’s there—“Jack!” I scurry up, but the shape melts. Please. Here in this wind. But I laugh—why I didn’t think, just the privy. I start back towards the house and see that tree’s head rearing, east gable wall, branches writhing in a globe big round as the house, great chasms between each branch like mouths, wood teeth that’ll break a man whole like fingers stuck wrong side of a hinge door. The wind screws me forward, and I stare back, see in that pit mouth—“Jack”—He’s staring straight at me, full in the wind, holding that tree’s limbs—“Get down!” and I’m still running straight at him, or the wind is running me, and he makes no move until he’s swallowed down the gullet. I hit the wall.
Around. Face to the cabin. Wrong side of the door, but on, and there’s those snaking roots up hand on hand until I clamber over at the roof before the wind rails back. I crawl the bark blind until a bough juts up. I chance a look—“Jack?”
He’s come to the edge, the base of the main branches three feet on. He stares out. I don’t know him. He says, “Where’s the truck?”
I’m gasping, say, “Come down.”
“I didn’t see you drive up.”
“Tree fell. Blocked the road.”
“Damn, and you ran back here?” I catch his grin before I have to shield my eyes again. “You loon.”
“Please come inside.”
“No,” he says. “You come in here.”
I don’t get it. I just crawl, and in a moment I’m snared there in that tree. Jack’s around me like blankets, rubs me down, laughs gruff at me. He props me on a bough. Wind’s still slamming, but this tree blocks all but a spit and a cough. The grit falls out of it and trickles down the roof, and I’m left staring at Jack’s face.
I try my voice, then realize there’s no words in me. I just make a noise, and Jack keeps laughing. “You want coffee?” he says.
“Coffee?” I shake my head. “You got coffee up here?”
“Where’d I keep coffee, queer.”
Now I laugh, dead weak. “Jack. Jack what are you doing up here? Are you wanting to get hurt?” I sound mad.
“If you’re scared, you can go in. I’ll come later if I want.” That wasn’t what I meant.
Jack’s locked my eyes. No grin. No slack. Then no hate, no fear, no love either. Under us, the house groans. I feel it in my seat, and I’m remembering yesterday, the way he sheared that axe out of my hand, and who he is, or me, or us both there under our necks. I feel the splinters, all that wood straining as the ridge beam swells a little thicker, a bit longer.
Jimmy Kindree is a queer Minnesotan writer living and teaching at an international school in Norway. He spins yarn and knits with it, throws pottery, nixtamalizes corn for tortillas, plays the banjo, and writes fiction. He is trying to understand the universe as best he can, and he blogs about this every Sunday at wordsliketrees.wordpress.com. His work has appeared in Pif Magazine and is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain.