Wood heats twice, Robert Frost said, once chopping, once burning.
I think my math is better.
I say the memory of wood-getting
years and years later
heats once more our hearts.
On a summer’s day,
wearing chocolate brown cotton gloves too big for us
and long-sleeved shirts to save us scratches on the arms,
we ride with Dad in the old clunker pickup
with the whiskey flask under the driver’s seat
up to Mount Fanny.
Driving up a fanny makes us sisters laugh
a joke we’re sure is safe from the adult next to us,
his ears immune to silly twitter.
Dust follows us like beggars trying to join our family.
The whole valley below appears checkerboarded
between the tree branches.
Our house disappears, even the roof.
Alongside the dirt logging road
there lies a pile of slash that will keep us warm next winter
if we work for it now.
That’s our first lesson:
Things desired do not drop into our laps.
The next step after wanting is work.
Sawdust chunks decorate the sky in arcs
as the chain saw grunts, catches, and growls into action.
Insects dining on rot and human sweat join the dance.
Our slapping, no deterrent, seems to amuse them.
Chainsaw smoke stinks up the air.
After the stove-sized chunking
Dad wields the axe and the wedge.
The sleeves of his blue workshirt rolled up above his elbows,
his muscles and sinews,
say this is a man who works,
this is a man who keeps his family warm in winter.
This is what a man is.
His arms are mahogany but we can see the glimpse of
untouched creamy skin just under the sleeve.
This is our dad too—tough outside, but tender underneath.
We’ve seen him cry with his tongue pressed behind his teeth
and we like this about him though we don’t talk about it.
This is our second lesson:
People are not always what they seem at first glance.
As a section of log becomes quarters and eighths,
the sweet smell of what’s held secret under bark
seeps from each crackle of wedge’s split.
Dad stops and blows the dust from his nose on his big, red and black hankie.
Now comes our turn. One girl throws, one stacks, and the pile grows a cord at a time.
We’re clumsy, better suited to the kitchen, and Dad barks instructions.
No soft, sweet talk here.
The V’s are fit into openings of the tops already packed
so that the stack won’t fall over on the bumpy ride home.
The third lesson: If we don’t get it right, we do it again.
This is only practice for the final stacking at home.
From the cooler we take a slug of water
in a Mason jar, or the battered tin cup, and feel the overflow
drip down our chins and chests into our cleavage.
Particles of sawdust cling to the wet and our lips
after we dry them on our arms.
We pee behind the trees, then resume our work.
How many cords of wood is the winter long?
Other men in old pickups full of wood drive by,
checking on our handiwork.
If there are boys in the car
we get interested and embarrassed,
our hair dusty and dripping.
Just a dog, we don’t care.
The pickup bed stacked full and tight,
we head home, the landscape rising up,
trees and grass and swarming bugs, to meet us.
The dust comes too, joining the smoke from Dad’s cigarette.
Our sweat dries and cools us.
Sometimes, if it’s a good day,we all sing.
Karen Keltz 2008
Winner 4th place OSPA Spring Contest