The Other Land
December 14, 2018
Your father’s truck smells of sweat, oil, and stains too old to remove. You climb in anyway. The truck is how you get to the “other land,” land that’s mostly shale and bad for building on but good for growing trees. It’s the land farthest from the house you grew up in, land promised to you because, no longer living in Maine, you wouldn’t want a house there.
The trip is short. Down a hill, up a hill, past the church, make a left without stopping since the stop sign is gone, down another hill, go off road, and park. It’s where you found every Christmas tree as a child. It’s where you and your father hunted for rabbits. It’s less than a three-minute drive.
Your father is an old man with a new knee. He moves faster, easier, and without the cane he kept misplacing. The difference keeps startling you. Last year, he was a slow man in his 70s descending towards death. Now, he’s cutting down trees for firewood. It’s the difference a surgeon can make. It’s the difference of plastics, metal alloys, and magic. It’s the difference of a year and your last visit.
He picks up his chainsaw and gives you instructions: “Pick something dead that’s still standing. Preferably not pine.”
Right away, he gets to work. While you are distracted by the yellow-green leaves waving between the dark green pines, the old stone wall burdened by moss and lichens, he finds the standing dead and gets to work felling and slicing, commenting, “That’s good wood, there,” and then memory, sharp as chiseling teeth, draws up the time twenty years ago when you bought a chainsaw and bragged to him about the low price you paid, and he asked, a little amused, “What kind of a chainsaw did you get for that price? A McCulloch?”
No one can shame you as efficiently as a parent. Your father still works for the local lumberyard selling building materials, hardware, and tools that are better than what you found for cheap at a boxy chain store. You could’ve asked for his advice, but you didn’t.
“Had to have been for that price,” he said. Of course he was right. The McCulloch never cut right or lasted.
Here, in the overcast June cold, you’ve learned too late to ask for his help; your father’s abilities are not your own. His not-a-McCulloch saw slices through another snag only he can name by naked wood—he can name them all: maple, birch, beech, oak, spruce—so you take your place on the sidelines, stepping back so as not to get clobbered by what he fells. He’s efficient. Just like when you were little and he was impossibly tall, you can still count on him to get a job done.
You wander off to pick the buttercups, avoiding the muck from recent rains. You place one under your chin because you can’t help it. The buttercup reflects its yellow color onto your skin because buttercups are reliable and everyone likes butter, just like your older cousins used to say when you’d play this game with them. But you’re supposed to be helping.
Your father leaves trails of firewood that you collect and stack in the back of his truck like a useful daughter. This “other land” is the bottom of a narrow strip of what was once a 60-some-odd-acres parcel, broken up into three lots. It’s the bottom of a backwards “L.” It’s where your father always took you to find Christmas trees. It’s where you hunted for the rabbits your father liked to eat in stew. You point to a dead tree on the fringes of the trail and say, “There’s one.”
“That’s pine,” your father says.
“Oh.” You look down and go back to collecting and stacking.
“Eh, we could use it,” your father says. He’s gracious when you get it wrong. He likes that you tried, that you took an interest in what he knows.
You recall the intoxicating scent of campfire smoke. Later tonight, you will fall asleep with that smell in your hair. You think of the corn your father will grill in its husk and how you can never get it right when you try, how it ends up raw in places but burnt in others, and maybe you cook it poorly on purpose so that your father will still have to do it for you. “Get back,” he says, and you take your place on the sidelines so as not to get clobbered, and you decide that the sound of chainsaws humming is the sound of your childhood.
When your father decides you have enough wood for the week, he points to a massive oak. “Remember when you found that giant toadstool under there?” he asks.
“Maybe there’s more now,” you say, pleased that he remembered your discovery.
Together, you cross over the old stone wall, which is crumbling in places from the weight of age and moss and lichens. Instead of toadstools, you find Jack-in-the-pulpit. Your father is pleased so you take pictures of them. He takes you farther up the hill where, if you stand still for too long, the mosquitoes swarm. “At least the black flies are gone,” he says, and you agree.
Despite the high-pitched mosquito wines and sharp, needled bites, you stand in place because, under the dappled shade of trees your father can name, among the poplar saplings, wild calla, and leaf litter, there are pink lady’s-slippers. You find more than you’ve ever seen in one day. They are your favorite orchid, delicate and puffed out with air, looking more like a vulva than a flower, or like a hybrid of plant and cloth, a shrunken apple decoupaged with pink rose petals, or like a brittle baby slipshoe attached to soldier-straight stems in the woods. Your father can always find them. He has spent enough time on this “other land,” land where he once led your mother and sister and you through the deep snow to cut and drag out Christmas trees, which was never as quick or as easy as it looked on TV. It’s where he told you to shoot a rabbit but you were too slow and so he killed it himself. He has told you that this land can be yours; it’s only shale and not good for building a house, but a summer cabin would do. And when your father is gone, you will still have your father because you will have this land, this other place, thick with childhood and what it is like to be home.
Walking back to the truck, your father points out trees—the massive oak intruding upon the old stone wall, a birch so old that the bark is dark and deeply textured instead of papery, smooth, and white. There is amazement in his voice. “That tree was just a sapling when the first settlers came through here. Can you imagine what that tree has seen?”
It’s a repeated question he has asked since you were a child. You’ve never really answered. You’ve never asked him what he imagines.
Your father’s truck smells of sweat and oil and stains too old to remove. The truck is how you leave the land. You climb in anyway.
from Issue 30.1
PAMELA BAKER’s work has appeared in The Southeast Review, NewSouth, Cream City Review, The Journal, Bayou Magazine, and other journals, as well as the In Fact Books anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she teaches composition. She also coaches an Odyssey of the Mind team, works as a nurse, and looks forward to winters.