A Lesson

by Steve Schauz

The calluses on his hands were near tearing, cracked flesh crisp as desert sands and painful red fireworks whenever he wrapped his palms around the handle. Yet the boy’s hands were still tender and soft – pink and babyish. He hadn’t been hard enough on the boy. It was time.

“Get your coat. And put your boots on,” the man said to the boy after breakfast.

The boy cocked his head, perplexed at first but knowing better than to ask. He nodded and obeyed after his last bite of eggs, skipping away with a lightness in his step as if he were dancing through the house.

From the stove, the man’s wife glared at him, hand on hip, lips curled in a snare. With a splash of bourbon in his coffee for warmth and bravery, the man ignored her, gathering his own gear.

The boy was struggling to put his arm through a coat sleeve. The man hoped he hadn’t waited too long, that it wasn’t too late. He did nothing to help the child. After writhing, the boy managed to get himself bundled. He giggled at his accomplishment, beaming at his father who said nothing, stoic as concrete.

“Outside. Let’s go.”

The birch trees were barren and skeletal, their bark cloaked within the crystalline snowfall that had come earlier than expected the night before. The oaks and maples had yet to drop all of their leaves; the pines became a canopy of blossoming white, frozen and held up seemingly only by the stillness of the air. The snow crunched damply under their boots. Before them laid the stump of a long felled balsam, rising as a mountain over the blanket of flat terrain.

Extending upward from its stump was a wooden handle, dusted with the heavy snow and protruding like a broken bone from the surface. The axe left to rest overnight, summoned for work this morning.

“Take up the axe,” he commanded.

Eyes glossy, the boy whimpered, “I don’t think I can.”

“You’re old enough. You’ve seen me do it plenty of times.”

The boy’s small frame was shrinking, trembling in a gust of wind that whistled through the trees. The canopy loosened and chunks of snow tumbled to the earth with a powdery splat. The boy wiped a mittened hand along his nose, amassing snot into the fibers.

The man placed a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder and repeated, “Take up the axe. I’ll get the wood.”

Walking away to the woodshed, the man heard little footfalls abiding his orders, moving carefully closer to the stump until the steps ceased. He had been a bit younger than the boy when his own father taught him how to chop the firewood. Told him to get his coat, put on his boots, directed him into the winter frost, demanded he take up that same axe held in that same balsam stump. All to keep this same modest homestead warm and safe. The things he had inherited from his father, now to pass down.

He chose several cedar logs from the stacks beneath the tin roof. Best to start the boy on cedar – the softest and easiest to break among the woods congregated within the shed. Good practice for small hands. He piled them into his arms and turned to see the boy at the ready, one knee bent and foot on the stump’s edge, fingers removed from mittens and curled around the handle. The boy tugged and tugged, but could not leverage his strength quite right to liberate the axe. He grunted with each laborious pull.

After a pause, the boy vigorously heaved at the handle, suddenly coaxing it free from the stump. He stumbled back at the release for only a step before standing tall and certain. He was ready. That stubborn resolve conjured comparisons: a trait shared. Like father, like son. Unlike his son though, the man’s father had had to remove the axe from the stump for him many years ago. The glowing embers of pride fluttered briefly in his heart, but he extinguished them measuredly. There was still more for the boy to learn, more to teach; but this was a good sign.

He had sobbed as his father effortlessly yanked the axe free. He couldn’t do it; he was too weak. He wondered if the snow should just swallow him up. With the morning sun to his father’s back, his monumental frame had cast a shadow which fell just shy of where he had stood as a boy. A silhouette of his father spoke to him. Don’t you cry, boy. No son of mine will be a sissy. So he welled up his tears and dammed them behind those words.

Returning to the boy, the man saw his wife observing the scene from behind the window in the kitchen, the lines of her forehead tense and deep as valleys. As before, he ignored her. He hoped the cold might frost the glass so she would mind her own damn business.

“Good job, son. Now, let’s split this wood.”

The man dumped the wood on the ground and swept his arm across the surface of the stump, clearing the snow which puffed up as glitter into the wind. He placed a log upright.

“You got a good grip on that handle?”

The boy nodded.

“Let me make sure.” The man bumped the boy’s hand farther up the shaft and adjusted his wrist slightly. “There. Good. Tightly now. You’ve seen me do this plenty of times. Get a firm stance. Plant your feet.”

The boy nodded and assumed the position. The man tapped the tip of the boy’s boot, and he shifted his weight obediently.

“When you lift the axe, lead with your dominant hand. Your other hand is just for bracing. You direct the blow with your right hand.” The man stood behind the boy, instructed him to hold the axe over his head, and then modified his posture, taking a step away.

“Now, make sure to lean into the strike. It will make your blow more powerful. Give it a try.”

The boy clumsily brought the axe down. It struck the edge of the log, chipping bark and splinters. The rest of the log flew up from the stump and landed in the snow with a powdery splash. The boy leaned against the handle, disappointed.

“That was a good first try. Good stance, and you’re putting your weight into it. You just have to work on your aim,” the man said as he collected the log from where it fell and replaced it on the stump. “Try again.”

He couldn’t recall how many attempts it had taken him to finally split a log. With his father looming over him, the man could only recall that, no matter how poorly he landed a blow or how inconsistent the delivery of force became, he just kept swinging, pulling the axe free of the stump and whipping the axe over and over and over his head, again and again until, suddenly, a log fractured into halves with a mighty crack. When that moment came, his father had slapped him on the back. Well done, boy. He had been short of breath; his muscles felt tender. With each swing, he had heard the words in his father’s voice: Don’t be a sissy.

The boy resumed his stance, examining the log as if calculating the trajectory of his next swing. Then he brought the axe down. This time, the bit planted squarely at the log’s diameter, though it had not sunk deep into the fibers.

“Now you got the aim, but you lost some power. Gotta have power. Try again.”

As the man had grown into adolescence and obscene hormones, he mastered the downswing, usurping his own father for the chore of chopping firewood. It felt good to support his family, to heat the house that he knew one day would be his, where he imagined a wife and children of his own because he could think of no other future. It was all he knew.

Yet, beneath what he knew, there was a feeling he could not name. It swarmed him at night when his breath became heated and ached for touch. It came when someone got too close to him and his skin would buzz with the almost-contact of that moment, and he would cling to that transient “almost” for what could feel like forever. It came when all the other boys in his class discussed breasts and which girls might just let you, you know, if you asked them out, but he felt nothing. He asked the girl who would later become his wife out anyways. It came when he looked into one of those boys’ eyes for a moment too long, but they all looked away.

There was a feeling he could not name.

Whenever he felt it coming on, swift and insurmountable, he would swing down the axe with his full force, splitting maple into halves and quarters in an instant and sending the pieces soaring from the stump and onto the grass or snow with a muted thump. And then another log placed with haste, another hefty swing, more pieces shattered; another and another and another until his arms were liquefied and his back had become a tangle of knots. Collecting the firewood even through the soreness, he had felt strong, powerful enough to bury that feeling deep into the wood that would burn and the stump where it would dissipate into the soil. Gone, soon to be destroyed. And when it came back, and it always came back eventually, then he would take up the axe and swing down harder and harder until his calluses were near tearing.

His boy would need to learn to do the same. He had better.

“One more time. You almost got this.”

The boy inhaled, then pitched the axe with an animalistic groan. The log snapped in half under the blade and the axe lodged solidly into the stump. The boy was sweating and panting when he looked up to his father with a glimmer in his eye. The man patted his son on the back and cheered, “Well done, boy.”

Years passed in this way. Winter after winter, the man watched the boy grow taller and stronger and watched himself grow older: grayer in the beard and rounder in the gut. No matter the years, his wife observed through the glass. Both he and his son learned to ignore her watchful presence.

Today, a crisp autumn day on the cusp of winter, the boy has ripened into that bizarre terrain between child and man. He has followed in his father’s stead, taking up the axe to chop the firewood so often that thick calluses formed on his teenaged hands. This is a difficult age, as his father remembers all too well. So even though his father is able and willing to chop the wood, he permits the boy to keep his hands busy, to swing his way through that blossoming feeling that his son must certainly feel now as well. The man has no doubts about that shared feeling. Like father, like son. But he doesn’t know how to discuss it, nor should he ever. Instead, as his son brings the axe down upon maple logs, the man lingers outside, pretending to tend to other important tasks all while contemplating what he ought to teach his son in this moment to the rhythmic thud of the boy’s downswings. Or is there nothing left to say?

“Shit!” The boy cries out. He turns away from the stump and dashes inside where the man’s wife has disappeared from the window frame. The man approaches. The axe is sunk deep within the stump and split maple lies around like piles of fallen soldiers at battle. It will take significant effort to remove the axe from the stump this time around. And then the man sees it: blood soaks the handle, dripping red from where calluses have finally torn.

Formerly an editor for Portage Magazine, Steve Schauz is honored to have his first ever publication within this magazine. He is currently a college administrator, but he is in the process of transforming his passion for writing into more of a calling and a career. He lives in Minnesota with his feline sidekick, Cora Rey.

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