The locals said we were in for a mighty cold winter.
No shit, Sherlock. I stood in my engineer overalls contemplating the mountain of wood before me. All winters up here are freakin’ cold.
We had no money, no income, and until I found a job, we’d have none. But we did have this handed-down vegetable garden to eat out of, this un-insulated barn to live in, and this big pile of stove-length logs to burn in the woodstove. If I could split it all.
Trouble was, I’d never really chopped wood. My father had wielded the wood axe in my family. Was his way of meditating, of working out his books, of getting away.
Before heading out to school one morning, R had showed me how to hold and swing the axe. After that I was on my own. No lost digits. No sliced feet. No sore shoulders. No bruised arms. Maybe a blister or two. I would prevail. A female lumberjack. Just call me Pauline Bunyan. I liked that.
But there was a problem.
Overnight I had turned into a town oddity in a town filled with such things.
I was a special case. The Queen Bee of spectacle. In spite of my best efforts to melt away. Not a chance in a village of 300.
I was doing the unthinkable--full-on men’s work in these parts--whacking away at wood. And doing it on a slim strip of land wedged between the barn and the road into the village put me in full view of the entire 300 as they came and went.
Just hand them my head on a platter, why don’t I.
The heart of town, it turned out, was not the all-in-one post-office-general-store-bank-gas-station-laundromat in the village proper, but the house right there across the road from me. George Benjamin, our neighbor, was the unofficial mayor. Anything of interest and the news that trailed it passed through the retired electrician’s home. Which explained why Mrs. Benjamin (her first name was a mystery) stayed at the stove whipping up cakes for the crowds--crowds that swelled for a time while I tackled that pile of wood.
The first day, as I swung the axe, making my mark sometimes, missing it most, a steady stream of pick-up trucks slowed as they passed, windows squeaked open, and voices popped out.
“Where the menfolk?”
Creepy, they were creepy, I decided, checking out just how alone I was. I shuddered. And ignored them. Swung harder.
Chop chop. Chop chop.
The next day more trucks slowed. More windows opened. More voices.
“Where the menfolk?”
Again and again. Day-chop-after-chop-day.
Finally, holding the axe in front of me, I turned and spat at one of them, “He’s at school, okay? What is your problem?”
A voice from beneath a cap pulled way down over the eyes replied with a steady politeness: “No, no problem at all. Just wondering if I might bring my wife over here to take lessons.” Big grin.
I almost hurled that axe at him.
The banter went on as the pile dwindled and the stack grew until finally I got so good that they lost interest and found other diversions.
I almost missed them. Nothing like disgust to keep the axe swinging.
As I neared the end of my labors later that month, George Benjamin, as he did most afternoons, made his way from his garden, which was on our side of the road, towards me with an overflowing harvest basket. He’d stop and gift me with broccoli and zucchini, carrots and corn, whatever was ripe. Between his wife’s cakes and his vegetables, they were determined to keep us from starving.
As usual, he nodded, said simply, “Fine day, Miss” and handed me a good half of his treasure--including all the cucumbers.
“No, George.” I pushed them back at him. “I can’t possibly take them all.”
“Well, you’ll have to.” He pulled his basket out of range.
“Yep. We don’t eat ‘em.” He looked at me, expressionless.
“You don’t? Then why grow them?”
“Well…” He removed his cap, took his time to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand, put the cap back on, and with the slightest hint of a smile said, “Well… it sure beats splitting wood…”
I sighed. Even George.
He eyed my stack. “You’re doing a good job though. Better than most. Your young feller is a lucky man. You won’t freeze this winter.”
And we didn’t.
Not even during the two straight weeks of -30F temperatures when the water in our toilet froze.
Not even when George had to show us how to plug in a light bulb under our car hood and cover it with a Mexican blanket from our travels so our car would start in the morning.
They say that chopping wood warms you twice--once when you chop it and once when you burn it. Three times in my case. All through that bitter season, I was also warmed by the community that took a liking to a young female flatlander taking on all that wood and all those woodlanders.