The marrow of the oaks was wet and blood-red. Oak split beautifully, gave with a moist splintery sound, releasing a sharp sour fragrance very much like the smell of fine bourbon. The lissom maples were smooth and creamy inside, and cut like butter. Sassafras was balsa-light, with a rooty sarsaparilla bouquet that flavored its smoke. And the locust trees: all dead or dying, according to some enigmatic botanic cycle. A dying locust shook off its bark, turned pewter-gray, bone-smooth, granite-hard. It cut with a rasping sound, like iron being filed, and conversed in loud snaps and cracklings as it burned. The old-timers liked to say that a locust post would last 50 years longer than stone.
Pete figured he was the only person on the island -- or just about anywhere -- who cut wood by hand. He used a steel bow saw that had been his father's; 36-inch Swedish steel blade. No power saw, no truck: He hauled the wood in a wheelbarrow, muscling it up the ancient rutted road in groaning, too-full loads that sent thickening rills of pain up through his arms, his shoulders, and started a heavy sweat even in wintertime. For splitting he used wedges and a 10-pound sledge. He was a dead shot; he'd made a casual art of it, he had a way with the big hammer, effortless, his secret almost.
He built his woodpiles with a careful eye. Huge woodpiles, stretching between two trees: lively mosaics of circles, half-circles, triangles, oblongs; full of galloping movement and at the same time solid, monumental. Like the stone walls. He liked to admire them after a day's woodcutting, sitting a while before walking up through the dusk, his hands bark-blackened and callused and a delicious creaky tiredness in his shoulders. Returning to the island each time he would watch the progress of their seasoning -- the lusty colors fading, the radial cracks trickling out and out. It happened gently, over months, over seasons. Patience. The wait -- like the sawing, the hauling, the splitting, the stacking -- had its own just demand on his time. An agreement, a bargain, with these woods, this land. Binding.
Wood rustlers. It had a yesteryear sound, an aura of Wild West anarchy. Pete thought of vigilantes and range wars. A state policeman caught a man in the act of stealing from his woodpile and threw him furiously spread-eagle against a wall, breaking his nose. A doctor came back from a trip joff island and found his garage door jimmied, his wood gone; he put an ad in the paper offering $500 for the wood or the thieves, but nothing came of it. Mornings found bleeding stumps along the distant dirt roads.
Firewood had become as precious as Arab oil. A hundred-forty dollars a cord, and rising fast. Cutting had been banned in the state forest, where the oaks were near extinction and almost nothing was left but the melancholy pines, no good for burning. And still people bought wood stoves, built houses with fireplaces, schemed to get clear of the sheiks and the oil companies. A busy black market sprang up. The rustlers kept what they needed, then sold to people who wouldn't ask questions -- island folk, mostly, who felt they had a right to it. Some even vended the wood off the backs of their trucks in the steamship authority parking lot. Who could prove anything?
One thing you could do, someone told Pete, was brand your wood by spray-painting the ends of the logs with some unusual color. Pete said he'd rather have his wood stolen than do that to it. u
Pete's first encounter with Michaels and Parilli was in January. A Saturday morning; Pete had escaped alone for the weekend. He heard the guttural hum of their truck swelling on the deep quiet, looked out through wavery panes of glass and saw the pickup come jouncing in too fast on the frozen, bone-hard dirt road. They got out slowly, loitered to the dining room door, looking around as though they were testing the air. Michaels was cordially blond, with a mustache. Parilli had a slow, broad body; a tiny brownish mouth in a soft, meaty jaw. His hair was dark and very long. They tugged off heavy gloves and shook Pete's hand. Phil and Don.
"Like the Everly Brothers," Pete said.
Parilli fed him a blank stare. Michaels smiled, inquiring courteously. Of course they didn't remember the Everlys. Another generation. Pete had just turned 35.
"What a gorgeous place," Michaels said, and presented his card -- Michaels and Parilli -- Foresters/Landscapers . . . pruning/ view cutting/transplanting/forest management. Their eyes roamed the walls, snagged on the shelves of Pete's great-grandmother's pink-rimmed china. A fire burned in the large blackened fireplace: oak and maple, cut last spring.
"Your house?" Michaels said.
"Part mine. My mother's in the process of turning it over to me and my sisters."
"Then," Michaels smiled, "you're the proprietor, so to speak?"
"I guess I can speak for everybody."
"All righty," Michaels said, and began his pitch. "We want to try out an idea on you. No sweat if it doesn't seem appropriate." Parilli stood with his hands slung in his coat pockets, staring at the wall. Nothing moved in his winter-ruddy, baby-smooth face. "There's so much wood up here," Michaels said. "More than you can use."
Pete felt a tightening in his belly. He began rummaging for explanations, a civil way to say no to the question bearing down on him.
"What we were wondering," Michaels said, "is whether you'd be willing to let us thin out these woods a little. A lot of people don't know this, but a tree needs about 25 feet clear space around it to grow healthy. The woods up here need thinning. We'd pay you, of course."
Pete thought of the deer hunters. The deer herd needs thinning. Always they'd tell you that.But you almost never saw deer up here any more. The deer herd had been thinned to almost nothing.
"I don't think so," Pete said. "I do an awful lot of cutting myself."
Michaels kept right on smiling. "Just for this one house?"
"There must be 50 acres out there."
"Twenty," Pete said. There were 30.
"Well, it's your land," Michaels said. "The wood up here could supply a lot of people, is all."
Pete felt his determination, his conviction, begin to falter. So much good wood here. And all the reports of old people shivering in their homes, stinting food to buy oil and firewood. But something answered him back, a fierce gut-certainty, unassailable, binding, right -- even it it couldn't be neatly explained. No power saws.
Pete said, "If I let you guys cut, then the next person who comes along . . . ." That was true, too. Once it started . . . .
"No problem," Michaels said. "Hey, it's your land."
And anyway, you could bet Michaels and Parilli weren't in the business of distributing firewood to the poor.
"Hey, Donny." Parilli's voice was thick and lazy. "Look at the hah-poon."
"Hey, that's a beauty," Michaels said. "Mind if I take her down?"
"Go ahead," Pete said.
It hung under the mantel; had hung there 80 years. An iron shaft with a time-darkened wood scabbard fitted over its head. Pete could remember his great-grandfather lifting down the harpoon to show him how the double-barbed head swiveled out perpendicular, locking itself in the flesh of the whale. The old man had watched his great-grandson's expression -- then, as now, a grisly fascination -- with an amused glint in his frosty blue eyes.
Michaels lay the scabbard on the mantel and wrenched the barbed head out. It was a good eight inches long. Foolproof. The whale herds, too, had been thinned to near-extinction.
"He won't go nowhere with that in him," Parilli observed. He was almost smiling: a light somewhere, tugging to get out.
Pete said, "It came from the bark Sunbeam. We don't know who owned it."
"They really knew how to make things in those days," Michaels said. He folded the head down again -- it clamped down with a neat, snug sound -- and slid on the scabbard. He rehung the harpoon.
"Nice piece of work," he said.
They pulled on their gloves. Pete opened the door for them and followed them out. He wanted to keep this friendly. It was very cold, but windless and dry. Pete loved the winters here. The knoll with its long grasses was russet and yellow in the morning light. Beyond it, ringing them at a gracious distance, the bare winter woods. Long, articulate, silver-gray bones.
Pete said, "Sorry to be so unneighborly." The tightness in him had dissolved when he'd gotten them out of the house.
"No problem," Michaels said. He had one foot up in the cab of the truck. "By the way. We saw another dirt road forking off on our way in.Looked new."
"Oh. My uncle's going to build a house down there."
Michael's pale face was knitted against the light. "You didn't mention your uncle."
"It hadn't occurred to me." This was true. "He lives out in Wisconsin. Doesn't come here much."
"But he's building. What's he got, a couple acres?"
"Got it cleared yet?"
"Just the road in," Pete said.
"Sounds like he could use us," Michaels said.
Pete thought: Why not? A civil compromise.
"I'll give you his address," he said.
The house had been christened in 1896 by a visitor who had just completed the long -- in those days -- climb up the winding Ram's Hill Road. The family had been searching around for a name for the place. Something that fit, and would last.The guest saw it. Fish Hook: the end of the line.
It was a sprawling hodge-podge of rooms and hallways, with continual surprises: a right turn in a stairway, a sudden overhanging roof nearly bumping your head, a spacious light-flooded dormer, a closet burrowing deep under the eaves. The floor were of broad, random-width planks painted tile-red. The ancient windowpanes trapped eddies of daylight and darkness, buldged with them. And in all the nooks and close places clung the dry, cedary smell of the past, like the insides of old books.
Pete's great-grandfather had bought the house, the land, in 1895. It had been their summer home, and he'd retired here after a celebrated career as a newspaper editor in the whaling and mill city of New Bedford. His wife had died in 1932; the memory of her was a blur in the family consciousness. But it was as though the old man had been in these rooms only yesterday. As though his presence were raveled in with the air. Pete remembered him perfectly. The thin hands that trembled from Parkinson's disease, and the jiggly tinkling music of ice cubes as he lifted his cocktail glass. The white frizz of beard. The cigarettes he smoked in a long, yellowed ivory holder. His voice was dry and raspy, like chopped glass, and there was an incandescence in his pale face, a lingering ferocity. He died alone at Fish Hook on a warm, golden day in October 1955.
The succeeding generations had fallen away quickly, it seemed. Pete's great-aunt. His grandfather. Grandmother. Great-uncle. And then, incredibly, his father.
He died without grandchildren, the one bitter disappointment in his life. Four children, and not a marriage. Over the years, his impatience had turned mordant. Sometimes at family gatherings a black mood would come on him, he'd brood a while, then loose some acid comment on the mores of the new generation, the shrinking from commitment. You kids and your precious freedom, he'd say. The New Generation. People don't fall in love anymore, they have relationships. His children would flare back at him, till he withdrew again into a stubborn, brooding silence. Pete remembered an epic quarrel at Fish Hook. He remembered his father's troubled face in candle and fire light, big-boned and ruddy with the burn of the island sun. He'd talked about the courage it takes to settle down, to take on responsibilities. His children had argued back, hotter and hotter. It takes courage not to settle down. Their father said he felt sorry for them, then fetched his book and a shot glass of bourbon, and trudged moodily up the narrow staircase, leaving it to their mother to soothe, explain.
He doesn't want you to be alone in your old age, she said. She reminded them of how their father had spent his teen-age summers at Fish Hook with his grandfather, delightning the old man, the two delighting each other. And there was something else: As long as you are alive, their mother told Pete and his sister, I will be, too. In your memories of me. There's a kind of immortality there.
Next day, his father took Pete down the road into the woods, leading silently. Some business to be done. It was autumn, a scarlet and yellow afternoon, deep silence hugging the wooded hills. They left the road where a giant hemlock grew and chose their way in, ankle-swishing through brilliant clusters of poison ivy, circling clumps of arrowwood and barbed-wire thickets of greenbriars. Fifty yards in was a spavined stable, asleep in the shade of the tall trees. Pete's father stopped, turned with his hands hooked in his hip pockets: a heavyset man who carried his bulk gracefully, and with a weariness now, a kind of sadness.
"I want the sun to shine on this stable," he said. "I want it to breathe again."
He grabbed the rusted handle of the door and gave a heave. The door jumped aside, scraping on crotchety overhead rollers. It was dark inside and wonderfully dry, and the air was thick with smells: a musty essence of wood, the sour odors of rotting hay and leather, a suspicion of dung and animal sweat. Framed photographs floated about the mustard-brown walls, bleary and yellow with age. Pete's grandfather on horseback, a rawboned young man leaning his head and squinting against the hard light of a summer sun some 65 years ago.
They pulled boxes and sat near the light-square of the open door. The land rode uphill toward Fish Hook. Here and there a rock extruded, shouldering up lichensplotched and shapely. Monuments, plowed up by the glacier millions of years ago, then smoothed and rounded by an eon of winds and rains.
His father pawed out a cigarette. "It was a bit emotional last night," he said. His way of apologizing.
Pete said, "I do want to fall in love. I do want to find someone."
His father nodded.He sat with his big wrist crooked around his cigarette: thick, clumsy-looking hands that moved so knowingly, so prettily, over the keys of a typewriter.
"We all do," Pete said. "You'll get those grandchildren." But he doubted they'd be his. He'd never felt the urge, never cared. He'd been so busy building his own life as a journalist, a writer. His own future. Everything so precarious: What kind of future did a child have?
His father said, "I hate to think of Fish Hook without family in it." Pete's uncle had bartered his share of the house for full title to a piece of land to build on.
"Don't worry about Fish Hook," Pete said.
They sat a while. The autumn silence welled up around them. The stubborness loosened in his father's face. "Listen," he said. "We're gonna liberate this stable. Restore it. Cut the trees back -- you can do that -- and dig out the briers and arrowwood."
"What'll we do with the pines?" Pete said.
"Sure. We'll get an adze and make beautiful timbers. Then we'll build something."
"Like what?" Pete said.
His father considered. "We'll build a dam below Sol's Hill. Make a woodland pond."
Pete said, "What does an adze look like?"
"You got me."
"Great Scrabble word," Pete said.
His father's gaze climbed to where the treetops jostled for light. "Yeah, we'll undress these prim old pines with an adze." He rose, stepped on his cigarette and moved out into the filtered sunshine. He was 57, and still strong as a bull. "Okay?" he said.
"You got it," Pete said.
It took them the winter, snatching weekends here and there. Sometimes Pete brought along city friends, but he left them to entertain themselves while he labored away by the old stable. Often his parents would be there. Then his father would be working nearby, uprooting the greenbriers, prying them like molars out of the ground, while Pete cut his trees. They said little, but there was a powerful sense of partnership, of collusion.
A pretty woodpile grew in the widening clearing. The redolence of freshsplit oak was in the air, and a dark peaty odor of earth and bark. The sundown skies were lime and crimson behind the black tangly silhouette of the woods. The logs dried, the cracks trickled out. Once, Pete cut himself putting in a new saw blade, and left a string of blood drops from stable to house. And when the days warmed, his drippy sweat: same idea almost as committing your ashes. A commingling. His grandmother's ashes were here, his grandfather's, his great-uncle's
And then, late that same spring, his father's.
There was no word from Milchaels and Parilli, no word from his uncle, till Pete thought they'd dropped the whole thing. In April, the phone and electic companies put in lines to the house site. Some trees were cut; enough for trucks to turn around. Necessary. Pete was away for a month. Then, alone at Fish Hook on a May morning, he heard a power saw down there.
A blistering sound, carrying lke a hungry scouring wind. So it had finally started. Nothing he could do. The saw ripped and snarled, blazoning merry devastation. Pete forced his attention back to his breakfast, his book, but the noise yawed across his concentration, sent his imagination racing. He swore aloud and got up. The door clunked behind him, and he crossed to the woods with the ripening dewy grasses slapping at his jeans. Now the saw sputtered, salivated uncertainly and abruptly quit. In the grateful silence the morning sounds revived: towhees, a catbird, the liquid cry of a mourning dove, and out of the distance, the lazy jiggling drone of a boat's engine. He passed the stable. Up from a rainwater pool came the banjo-glunk of a frog.
The new road cut in from the right, ingesting the old. White sand and clay, hurrying along in dappled light. The comings and goings of a truck had smoothed out wide, rounded grooves. The road twisted left, leaving the original way to itself again, and rode the broad crest of a ridge. The road builders had heaped trashy gray brush piles on either side; a boulder sat askew and naked-looking, bulldozed out of the way. The road climbed out into the light.
A dump truck, shabby green, hunkered on the summit of the ridge with its nose looking downhill. As he went toward it, Pete was suddenly aware of a vastness, an alien sweep of land; it flashed in his mind that he'd come the wrong way, had gotten lost. The ridge was empty for several hundred yards on either side -- picked clean, lifeless, a ravaged war zone. Pete froze. The stumps were numberless, uninterrupted. The branches had been thrown in ragged hills, baby pink oak leaves wriggling like skewered salamanders. Annihilation.
Finally he saw Michaels and Parilli. They were halfway down the ridge, standing motionless, watching him. Then Michaels gave a cordial wave and started toward him. Pete walked to meet him. Michaels offered Pete his hand.
"Haven't seen you around," he said. "It's Pete, isn't it?" The sun had gently tanned his winter-pale face.
"What are you guys doing?" Pete said. He wanted there to be an explanation, like wanting a dream to add up, to make sense. He didn't want trouble. Even now.
"What do you mean?" Michaels said. His smile was tentative, watchful.
"All this cutting," Pete said.
"Clearing for your uncle, like you suggested. We called him, made an agreement." Down the hill the power saw rested on a stump, its flat steel arm flexed high in the air, sunlight glittering on its chain. A gasoline can waited nearby. Parili stood with his hands on his hips, looking patiently from Pete to Michaels, and back again at Pete.
"How much did he tell you to cut?" Pete said.
"Oh, clear these slopes. He wants to plant an orchard down there."
"He didn't say anything to me," Pete said.
Pete said, "He couldn't have wanted this."
"How do you know if you didn't talk to him?" Michaels was smiling coolly, waiting him out.
"We better check with him," Pete said.
"Go ahead and check."
An appeal, a plea, started and died in Pete's throat. Please, you guys. The morning light beat down, white as pearl, almost blinding. He closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead. His heart was thudding, something rising in him, roaring-hot. Stop them.
"I think you guys have cut enough," he said.
Michaels' smile paled. "We got an agreement with your uncle, buddy."
"No. This is it."
"Sorry, pal." He turned, ambled back down the hill. His shoulders were thin, sharp, under a flannel shirt. "Let's go, Phil," he said.
Parilli threw Pete an expressionless glance and picked up the saw with one hand. The two of them moved to the fallen, shorn trunk of an oak.
Pete called to them. "No more. I mean it."
Parilli looked up at him.
"Start the saw," Michaels said. "He can't stop us."
Parilli leaned over and with a short one-handed jerk brought the saw spitting to life. Pete was moving toward them, the roar in him rising and rising, till he could feel it seething in his shoulders. His strong, woodcutter's shoulders. Parilli revved the saw and pressed it deep into the giving wood of the oak -- as Pete took Michaels by the shoulders and flung him aside like a rickety-jointed doll. Michaels shouted into the blast of the saw. Parilli's head swung round; the saw sprang back at him, somersaulting, and Parilli's yell stretched like a bright ribbon over the wideness of the morning.
The saw had shut off. Parilli sat on the ground with his legs splayed out in front of him, staring with big dumb child's eyes at the bone-deep gash across his thigh. Shredded corduroy, masticated pink tissue, hardly any blood yet.
Nausea juiced through Pete's belly, then checked itself. Michaels had come beside him and was gawking at the wound. His mouth hung open, and there was a desolation in his face, a nakedness.
He dropped to his knees, laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. Parilli stared, mute, as the gap began filling with wine-dark blood. Stanch it. Pete whipped off his shirt. His mind was working with an ice-blue clarity -- the sudden bold logic of the thing, the justice. He knelt beside Michaels, and the two of them fed the shirt-beige polyester into the welling gash. Parilli closed his eyes, tossed his head back and let out a stuttering groan. A strangling sound. They raised him, forming a chair with their arms, and staggered with him up the hill. His thick arms clung grimly around their shoulders, pinching them together. Pete reached gingerly and opened the truck. They eased hum up and in. His head thunked back against the glass. Pete shut the door on him. Michaels clambered up on the driver's side.
Pete said, "I'll call the police. They'll meet you on the road."
Michaels nodded, still vacant-faced.
"Do you understand?" Pete said.
Michaels nodded again and started the truck. Pete spun and loped out ahead of it. Past the displaced boulder, down to the turnoff, hard right, and uphill toward Fish Hook. The cool dewy air flowed on his bare shoulders as he ran. Faster now, hurtling through swaying dapples of light. Past the stable, the hemlock tree, and out into the bright clearing sweeping up to the house. He sprinted to the door, burst in and flopped gratefully down by the little antique table where the telephone sat. Police would be 1212. He paused to get his breath. Then the silence of the house rolled in around him, thicker than he'd ever heard it, more massive, and he saw himself, childless, roots but no branches, evanescent, perishable, forgotten. He picked up the phone. His voice sounded husky to him, and strange.