The puberty tree
The ax had a little glue bead on the edge of the head, covering the edge of the blade. The head of the ax was blue, metal blue, and the glue was this rubbery gum over the shaved-sharp edge, but he cut it with a knife and peeled it off in a long, leathery strip that was like skin. And then there it was. The ax. The heavy blade head with a silver, sliver edge. It had heft, a heaviness and force, a seriousness that was the seriousness of men and work, work and tools and danger, duty and things that had to be done.
Charlie hefted it in his hands. The ax felt good. His hands were big for fourteen and he wrapped them around the hickory handle and held it.
He hefted it one, two, three and he swung it and sunk it into a tree. The tree was right beside the house his parents rented and he sunk the ax into the wood and it went in easy. It sunk in solid with a solid sound and there was a gash of yellow-white wood. He grabbed the ax back from the cut and up and swung it and sunk it in again. The ax made a sound like a clicking tongue. Charlie made a sound from down deep in his diaphragm, like hnyuh, hnyuh. There was a rhythm to it and he liked it and it felt good and he felt like he got it: hnyuh and sunk, click and hnyuh and sunk and click and hnyuh and sunk. He got it, and he cut down the tree.
He knew how to cut down a tree because he had read about it. He didn't have permission and no one was watching, no one was showing him how but he knew how because he had read about it. His parents had hippie books on folk arts and the old timers and being back-to-the-land, even though they were and always would be suburban people who had just played at living in the country. They had a garden and a compost pile, but bought their meat in cellophane and their heat was electricity from the city. But Charlie'd read those books they had. He'd read too about the Texans and Tennesseans who'd cleared land and the pioneers with their cabins of cut and notched logs. Lincoln cut logs like this and so did Davy Crockett and he'd never seen a man do this, actually, but he'd read about it. Then he went and bought an ax at Sears and tried to do it too.
He hacked a triangle of wood on the one side, on the side where he wanted the tree to fall. The front notch was the way the tree would fall, facing away from the house, and the back notch was the one that would weaken the tree until it tipped over. He chopped and the chips scattered around on the ground, little shavery ones and slivery ones and big ones which looked like deformed slices of cake. He was surprised to see the tree was bleeding, the sap sticky, sugary and leaking out of yellow flesh of the heat of the tree, from the lines between the growth rings. He was surprised to smell the tree, to smell the wood and the wound and sap and surprised at how it smelled unlike the leaves and unlike the wood he'd worked in shop, but not unlike as much as more, like this was the way wood really smelled and everything else was only an approximation, an imitation, a reproduction of this experience here.
The handle was starting to be slick with sweat. Blisters were being raised on his palms. He kept at the rhythm of it, not counting it off but finding it with his breath, with his exhales and hnyuh and the sound of the ax head's big bites. He was good at this. He felt good with this. He was sweating and the salt smell was mixing with the wood and it was good and he felt like this is what it felt like for Lincoln, for Boone building the fort, and for the pioneers. He felt this was what it's like for men.
Charlie took a minute and breathed. His breath felt better than before. He bounced the butt of the ax against his shin and saw his work and was proud. Then he went around to the other side of the tree and hoisted his ax up and swung it, hacking out his back notch. He chipped out the bark, which was brown and then slippery green underneath. Then he sunk into the wood, the pulpy heart of the tree, the notch narrower now. He worked slower now, breathing heavier and stopping to try to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. He noticed the sun now, and now there was an ache he hadn't felt before, and his hands were red and raw. He tried to swing harder, going huuh! with every hit. Every hit took a little longer and he slowed and slowed, taking breaks to breath and then, determined and sweaty and grim, taking up the ax again and trying to make each hack enough to tip the tree. He took the ax again, his hands hurting and his arms too and he swung, following through, and then he heard the crack.
It was a sound down deep. There was sound a like a crack, a heavy creak of an opening door, like something solid gapped guttural, a yaw, and then there was stillness and nothing. Charlie could feel the sweat in his ears. He wasn't even sure he'd heard it -- a sound, what sound? -- like maybe it was just a pause of the wind or the shifting shoulders of continental plates, or a popping in his ears. Then he heard the wind. A flutter. And for the first time he looked up at the top of the tree. He looked up to see all the leaves shivered and all the tree-top weight was over the house, over the house and leaning, leaning and shuttering and then the whole tree screeched, like yawwwwwwrrrragh! and it all came at him, over backwards, crashing into the house.
Charlie crawled out from under the toppled tree, out from beneath the busted-up branches and bits of broken house. He was shaking, surprised and scared by the seriousness, and he was dragging his brand-new ax behind him.