There are three chairs here, all of worn leather. Worn might be putting it lightly—one came from the dump, one from a used furniture warehouse, and one from a neighbor that owns three cats, none de-clawed. Between them sit the floor lamps, and in front, a wooden bench to prop one’s chilled feet and rest one’s mug. The middle chair, the one for visitors, is directly in front of the fire. That’s where I sit when I visit Sarah and Lucy.
“Hi Paul,” says Lucy, swinging open the door and ushering me quickly inside before the cold enters with me. I hadn’t even knocked, but my truck makes a characteristic grumble and creak when I kill the engine and engage the rusty parking brake. And now, on my third visit here, I’m welcomed warmly without uttering a word.
I step inside and push the door closed. Lucy takes the few short steps back to the kitchen and puts on the kettle while I remove my boots and jacket. I sink into the chair.
“Hello, Sarah,” I say. She looks up from her book and smiles.
“Hi Paul!” Her eyes shimmer and reflect the orange glow of flame just beyond her woolen-socked toes, wriggling in the heat. There are woodchips in her hair and her face is flushed.
“I saw the axe on the porch, were you out cutting?”
“Yes,” she says, “I just came back in a moment ago.”
“I can still see the red in your cheeks.”
“It gets cold this late in the afternoon, and I walked far today. I’ll need to borrow a horse to pull the wood out.”
Lucy brings over the tea she made without asking. She knows I want a cup to warm my hands. She sinks into the empty chair and picks up her own mug.
“Where have you been Paul?” Lucy asks. “I thought you were going to come yesterday, or at least help us split wood today.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I sort of got on a roll with this new story, and my back isn’t much for splitting anyway. You guys probably did better without me.”
“No, we waited. I just stacked wood all day and Sarah went to cut more trees. All the wood to be split is still in the pile behind the house.”
I stand, look across the room and out the kitchen window and cringe when I see the pile. And Sarah has only added more today, somewhere deep in the grove.
“Ah, I see that. Well, that’s good then. I can help another day. This week may not be good though. I’m really starting make progress.”
“That’s ok, it can wait. I like the saw and axe more than the maul anyway. Splitting can be a little monotonous. Sawing is too, but then the tree starts to go, and you hop away, your heart pounding…. I don’t know how trees fall so slowly, but in the last few feet they speed up and WHOOMPH slam into the snow and the trees it hits shake down little dead branches all around you.”
I laugh, n0dding. That sound is familiar—my land abuts their woodlot and I often hear them out there, chopping steadily with the axe to form a notch, and then working towards it from the other side with the saw. If they’re close enough, I can hear the saw, it’s steady back and forth whispering through the woods.
Lucy sips her tea and offers dissent. “I like it too, but it seems so intrusive. The woods are all quiet, especially with the snow, and we tromp in and start hacking around. We have enough wood, once we bring out what’s been cut. Then we can just saw and split what’s here.”
“But we’ll need more for next year. Most of what I’m cutting is too green to burn now anyway. And I like it; it’s good exercise and I like being out there.”
“They say wood warms you three times,” I offer. “Once when you cut it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it.” Lucy frowns.
“I know. But we don’t need to cut it endlessly.”
“It’s my project for the winter, and I’m sticking to it.” Stubborn Sarah. We drop the matter for now, and instead they both decide to pry into my work.
“So what is the new book about?” asks Sarah.
“And when we can see some of it?” adds Lucy.
I’m not necessarily shy about it, but with every story there’s a point you hit when it’s mostly figured out and it’s alright to talk about. I wasn’t at that point, not at all. I duck.
“Well I don’t know if it will be a book. Maybe just a long short story. Or maybe I’ll edit it and make it really short—like an essay. It’s still coming together.”
“But what is it about?” demands Sarah.
“It’s about two girls, living in Vermont. In a cabin.” I don’t want to continue an inch farther.
“Sound like us,” Sarah says coyly.
“That’s why I didn’t want to tell you about it! You asked the other day, but it was still just an idea. Now it’s coming together. But it’s not about you. Meeting you both in the woods inspired it, lightly.”
“Okay, we won’t push.” Lucy saves me from stammering on into oblivion. It really isn’t about them, but in my mind it’s an idealized them and I’m 30 years younger and not the neighbor with a scratchy beard and a bad back. Here though, in the cabin, that’s not how it is and I know that and don’t want to have to explain the similarities and vast differences.
We’ve been chatting slowly; my cup has ceased to steam. With a final swig, I drain the last lukewarm drops and place it on the bench near my feet. Sarah heads off to fill it, but I wave her away.
“I’ve got to head back.” I rise to my feet, stiffly. Lucy stands too, and we three are there, standing around the bench, mugs in hand, grinning stupidly because it’s a cold, dark night now but the fire is roaring and there’s so much comfort in that room. I give both a hug and light kiss on the cheek, and promise to return soon to split wood. As I slip on my boots, Lucy plops back down to read but I catch Sarah’s eye. The same pain that hit me in the chest when I first saw her in the woodlot hit again—something in her face reminds me of my wife, but she’s so young that I’ve already started treating her like a daughter.
“I’m going to bring you something for the wood. I just have to get it in working order first.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see,” I say with what I hope is a twinkle in my eye. As an old man, it can be hard to show the boy within, but the twinkle works. But I never know if I’m doing it right. I add a dopey grin and glide out the door into the night.