Thirty-Nine: What Work Really Means
Branches must have some sentience in them. They unerringly find ways to slap you across the face, or snag and rip your sleeves. They slither around and tangle on the ground when they're cut, so that when you try to pull one out of the way, the rest grasp it, and hold it back.
What looks leafy and benign while it is seen against the sky is proved to be prickly, scratching skin and drawing blood when it comes to the hand of humanity. They crouch over rocks and hide them, so that when you try to move to get a better hold, you stumble, or lose your footing, and fall down, where they soak and claw and rake at you at their leisure.
I will never see a forest the same way again.
At first, our job seemed it would be an easy one. As the chainsaws cut the trees up, we were to move in and use pruners to remove anything smaller than two inches. These prunings were to be dragged and carried to a pile; the sections of wood were to go to a separate pile on the same side of the road. The horses would drag the biggest pieces to the other side.
For a few minutes I got to admire my horse dragging a large log, his beautiful dappled neck arching as he threw his weight into the harness. As soon as the next large piece was cut, Gary attached the drag chains to the piece, and Zigzag followed suit. Maida, leading Mackerel, released the log and came back from the left; Gary and Zigzag returned from the right.
The men with the saws cut the branches from the tree so that they would not snag on rocks and make the work harder for the horses; we cut the small stuff away so that the later job of cutting the branches up for firewood would not be made more difficult for the groundskeepers. As we moved in with our heavy leather gloves and pruners, the chainsaws moved on to the next tree father down the road.
The rain that had flooded the school parking lot and down town a couple weeks -- was it that long? -- ago had softened the soil enough so that when this storm had blown through with its fierce gusts, trees had been easily uprooted. Wiping rain from my face, I looked down the road. Or what had been the road: I couldn't even see it for the trees across it. It looked like a tornado had blown through.
The next tree was the first to attack me, a spiny spruce of some sort. As I cut the smaller branches away, it rolled towards me and gave me a smack right across the face with the branches from the other side, splitting my lip and making my cheek itch like poison ivy. My skin urged me to throw down the pruners and the gloves and set off across country until I could find someone who had hot running water and an empty bathtub and beg them to adopt me. I was, however, determined to persevere until some merciful adult took pity on me and ordered me to go back to the house.
Only no one did, not for me, not for Marca, not for Michel. Uncle Bodie and Aunt Sully and John seemed to have forgotten we existed. After two hours, Redell blew a whistle and shouted, "BREAK!" Bonita and Holly had pulled the little wood wagon up to the road with jugs of water; we all got a chance to have a drink of water from a few communal cups, and then it was back to work.
The drizzle continued, until nearly everyone had wet shoulders and pants legs. We kept on, tree after tree, and the only reward was to look back at where we had been and see cleared road. The sound of the chain saws was constant, except when they stopped for additional gasoline, which had also been carried up from the house in containers. In a sense, the generator's death had been a blessing: there was enough gas to keep the chain saws working.
I pretended to be a slave, or a peon, the servant of some mythical kingdom, in servitude for life, and having no expectation of a life other than filled with hard labor, thinking that it would give me material for a book some day.
The King had decreed that a Royal Road be built, regardless of forest or terrain from his castle to the sea. Every able-bodied male over age ten was pressed into service, to cut trees and carry rocks ...
Unfortunately, when I left my mind drift, I ended up with barked shins from rolling branches or more welts across my face from flailing twigs. By lunchtime, I was sweating with effort even as the horses were, in spite of the cold and wet. Conversation picked up a little: "What are we going to do for lunch? Will they bring us something, or do we get to go back down to the house and get warm?"
Again, Bonita and Holly dragged the wagon to us, with more water and ... a sack of apples.
"Apples?" said one of the chain saw men. "Apples?"
"It'll keep you alive," Holly snapped at him. "Remember we've got no stove. You need to lose weight anyway."
"Hey, screw you," he said angrily.
Redell barked at him, "Watch your mouth, Stevenson."
"Sorry," he muttered, walking away with two apples.
Marca finished her apple, and after wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her damp sweatshirt, flung the core from her and bounced it off the side of Michel's head.
"You asshole!" he shouted in indignation.
"Knock it off!" Aunt Sully snarled. "Don't show the world your lack of manners!"
"Sorry," Michel muttered, rubbing the apple particles off above his ear, although I knew he wasn't any sorrier than Stevenson.
I lost count of how many trees we cleared from the road that day. I was aching by the first break, ready for bed by the apple lunch, and just praying in vain for a thunderstorm that would drive us back indoors by the second break.
The breadth of the Estate was something I had heretofore been proud of, but as the afternoon drew on, I wished fervently we had just had a tract home, maybe one of those so-called "estate lots" that comprise half an acre. But our road went on and on.
I would not quit before Michel or Marca; Michel was viciously tossing branches onto the junk pile, welts showing across his face, his dark hair plastered to his head from his hood sliding off and letting the rain soak him. Marca had left off trimming and was helping drag the long branches to their separate pile, throwing her powerful legs into it, and snarling with the effort.
Well, this will certainly keep Staff from arguing with her in years to come, I mused, and then turned back to my trimming and dragging.
By the next break, I thought that I was going to be a dead boy in minutes. I had never been so tired in my life. Or so filthy. Or so wet by weather. And still, the trees were fallen and had to be removed. The only consolation I had was that I wouldn't have to be at school the next morning.
What I Did on My Fall Break, by Owen Reich-Ambris. Teacher, I froze and starved and worked my piquant white ass off. The End. Go to Hell.
The good news by late afternoon was that the drizzling rain stopped; the bad news was that the wind picked up again, not dangerously, but cold, and chilled us in our wet clothes. All that I could think of was a sleeping bag in front of the fire. To hell with beds, I wanted hot flame to bake me.
We had got all the way to the property line by the time the sun was sinking. We had to quit before the light failed to find our way back. We had to quit before we had to leave people behind to be eaten by bears or coyotes. The horses were soaked with sweat and steaming in the cold from their efforts; the people moved like zombies, no determination in their steps at all.
The sound of hooves on the road alerted us that Morton and Kelsa were back from town with the packed stuff. We waited to join them.
In the morning, I had thought that we'd have the road cleared and a jeep into town and back before they returned. But the devastation was so great that we'd have to make another day of the work at least to get the road open. What might have been a romantic effort on the part of the pack horse team had become something essential.
Kelsa was slumped in her saddle, not in the mood to answer questions. "Leave me alone," she yipped at Michel, when he tried to grab her stirrup to detain her.
Our company of workers followed their horses down the hill.
I went all the way to the stables, and offered to help with the horses. Maida patted me on the arm. "They did good work today, didn't they, Sir?"
"Yes, they did. They are totally awesome, thanks to you."
"You have done great work today, too, Mr. Owen. All these beasts need is some rubbing with a towel and their feed. They will be fine, and Gary and Morton and I will take care of that. Just help your sister back to the house."
I hadn't realized that Kelsa had lain down on one of the benches in the stable and fallen asleep. "Come on, o gnarly-headed one," I said, pulling at her arm.
"Take off and go shit yourself out of your own ass," she said, only half awake.
"Kelsa, get up. We have to go back to the house, " I said in a commanding tone, actually mastering my baritone voice.
"I hate you, I want you to know that." She could barely walk.
"You could have let Michel go instead of you."
"I should have." She struggled to her feet, and staggered with me to the lane. She was too big for me to carry, which was a blessing, as I was too tired to carry anyone.
We made it to the house, to our rooms, changed into dry clothes, and dragged our sleeping bags from our closets to the warm study downstairs.
Ready to sleep without food, we were surprised when Philomena appeared with a tray, laden with bowls of soup.
"I thought we didn't have cooking capacities," I observed, taking a bowl of succulent-smelling soup.
"We built a fire pit under the front portico, and made soup on it."
The soup was of broccoli, beef slivers, and rice, thick and delicious, filling and blessed as it hit my belly and restoring my faith in Heaven. "Whose genius was this?"
"Your grandmother, Sir. She said we should find enough bricks or rocks and use the ovens' racks for a grate, and make a wood fire to cook. There were a bunch of cement blocks out by the equipment shed, so we made a kind of stove."
"My grandmother is so wise, so good. May I have another bowl?"
I woke Kelsa up to make her eat some soup. She had been exhausted, and gone to sleep as soon as Michel brought her sleeping bag to her. Aunt Sully had dragged the wet clothes and boots off her, bundling her up.
Aunt Sully and John looked pale, but after eating bowls of soup, and tucking us in, went upstairs, as had Uncle Bodie.
During that night, I was aware, more or less, of one of the staff replenishing the fire, not letting it die down.
Marca had gone upstairs to bed, but Michel and Kelsa and I slept like mummies in our sleeping bags in front of the big fireplace. I knew what Michel and I had experienced, but it wasn't until the morning that I understood what Kelsa had undergone.
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