an excerpt from HONEY FROM THE LION

  Available 9/8/15 from   Lookout Books

Available 9/8/15 from Lookout Books

A man with drooping lids and a big jaw told Cur to follow him. He seemed to know the way, but once they were out of sight of the railcut, Cur trembled like a compass needle. The others fanned out into unseen places. The earth smelled of rain and ferns. Riggings of grapevines hung and animals skittered over the branches. Hemlocks and red spruce strained above him and vanished into a green oblivion. Sunless dark and the odd javelin of light. The forest was old here. He heard the bite and sigh of crosscut saws and, further on, the staccato cadence of men notching tree boles with ax and sledge.

Here a wild cherry. Young Shelby Randolph had leaned against it decades ago and felt the scalloped bark through his Federal blues. A bear had raked it in the night, red gashes through the purple rhytidome. But Neversummer led Cur past it, to an even bigger tree, a spruce.

How to knock one down without killing yourself was the puzzle. Cur whistled. “I didn’t know God made them that big.”

The man spat on his hands. Cur didn’t see how that could help at all. He took a moment to consider this new partner: over six feet, with an unsightly Habsburg jaw and auburn hair cut too short, to Cur’s eye. Not a scar on him besides, no lost fingers or any of the typical wounds.

A felling notch had been cut into the tree’s base, tall enough for a child to stand in, crescents of wood littered about. Cur ran his fingers over the raspy grain. The man motioned him around to the lee side and Cur took the other end of the briar. This man took famous care of his saw. When Cur touched the blade, his fingertips left glowing wormtrails in the verdigris.

The handle warmed Cur’s hand and drew blisters within the hour. The man said hurry up. Dust was spitting all over. It hung in their noses, brows, and hair. Cur tried to wrap a bandanna about the handle, but sweat and pitch made it hard to hold—it tried to jump from his hand. He cussed and finally stuffed the bandanna into his pocket. Occasionally they dribbled kerosene on the blade. Wolves called the crosscut saw the misery whip, a name understood by anyone who’s ever used one. Finally, Neversummer said quit, for if they cut anymore the tree would fall of its own choosing and that’s the last circumstance you want. When Cur let go of the saw, its rhythm hummed in every finger.

“Get on my bond side,” Neversummer said. Shoulders straining, he swung the ax, hollered a Jericho shout, and gave it nine licks. When it began to wince, he flushed out of there and cried gamely, “You ought’er run.”

With a metallic groan the tree twisted and fell—so fast, so slow, the drizzling molasses, as they all do. It parted the forest like a blade, the world shook and blurred with its percussion. Branches snapping, birds flaring. Like a courthouse coming down.

In a moment, the forest was as still as the day it was born. The spruce had torn a hole in the canopy and let down the light. Tons of timber, a tree that took 212 years to grow and kept rain off generations of deer. Its absence was more powerful than its existence.

Cur heard echoes, or thought so, then realized other trees were falling, five, six, ten, with the distant sounds of a battery. His hands shook. He stuck them in his pockets so the fellow wouldn’t see. Cur glanced sidelong, such as you gaze at the solar eclipse—he couldn’t quite look directly at Neversummer. This is the one I want to live like, he thought—Cur’s immediate attraction to the man was almost sexual. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt that small knowledge tucked in his brain, a thrill, a recognition. Neversummer radiated confidence, patience, proportion. What Cur felt was love. Cur had not felt this way since Sarah. He’d come to cherish McBride also. Cur would be nothing without them.

For his part, Neversummer, the unknowable man, was admiring the saw’s black sheen, the spangled kerosene. Then he put out a scaly hand to shake. Cur had no choice but to offer his trembling fingers. Neversummer knew better than to smirk and shook anyway.

“You did all right. Proud to work with you,” he said. “You get used to it. You can get used to anything. Captain Ketch asked me to break you in.” Neversummer slung tobacco from his mouth with a finger. “You ain’t broke yet. Let’s get on to number two.”

 

from Honey from the Lion, Lookout Books
©2015 Matthew Neill Null