Sarah and Lucy had just returned from town. They, unlike I, had walked back and forth, and had also stopped to buy a few groceries. The timing was almost perfect. As I pulled in, they were stepping up onto the porch. From their vantage point, the saw was easily visible. Sarah leaped back down from the porch, plunging into the snow bank between her and the truck.
“Paul!” she gasped. “Is that for us?”
I nodded at her, hoping again for the twinkle. She laughed at my smile and reached into the bed, feeling the heft of the saw under her gloved hands.
“So this is what you were bringing me…I had no idea what it was going to be! This is so great, now I can cut fast before we borrow the horses.”
“I know you like the axe,” I mumbled, embarrassed. My face was red, but not from the cold. “But yes, you can cut quicker with this. You can get a whole bunch of trees down and limbed before Friday.”
Sarah already had the saw on the porch, admiring the oiled teeth and worn grip.
“Thank you, Paul. Thanks a lot!”
“I’ll show you how to use it, hold on now.” I grabbed my gloves from the dashboard and stepped onto the pine. As I showed her the choke, the throttle, the kickback guard, and where to add bar oil, Lucy stepped inside and tossed a single log into the woodstove. It was windy, and the coals burned fast when a gale sucked at the chimney. She put the kettle on and motioned me in through the window. Sarah started the saw herself, listened to its throaty growl for a few seconds, then hit the kill switch.
“I’m going to go out right now.”
“Well, just wait a minute. Show your guest inside for a moment, then you can go cut wood all day.”
She laughed at me again. “Excuse me,” she said half-mockingly. “Lucy, Mr. Paul needs his daily cup of tea.”
I couldn’t help but smirk back at her. “Oh fine, have at it.”
I fished a pair of clear safety glasses out of my coat pocket and handed them to her. “At least wear these to keep the sawdust out of your eyes.”
She grabbed at them as the stepped off the porch. “Thanks Paul, I will,” she said over her shoulder, disappearing into the trees.
Lucy stepped back onto the porch with three steaming mugs and watched her go. We sat on the bench, sipping the tea and listening to the saw, grumbling mostly, but then turning to a high-pitch whine when it bit into hardwood. When I walked back to my truck, Sarah’s mug was still steaming next to Lucy. I could hear the saw, the crash of a tree, the sounds of bark and wood being wrenched in two by the biting metal teeth. As I drove off, the sounds faded behind me and the wind brought clouds to cover the sun and quiet the afternoon.
The day wore on, and as I wrote at home, more and more clouds poured in over the horizon and the formerly bright afternoon turned gray and cold. Earlier, a flannel shirt had been enough. The mercury plummeted and I dove back into my closet, searching for down. As the sun set, I relented and spun the thermostat dial towards the high sixties. Thirty minutes later I was back in my t-shirt, tea in hand, bulbs ablaze around the house. Night had come but the radiators fought off the cold angrily and their oppressive heat boiled and steamed into the house. It was after nine when Lucy pounded on my door with mittened hands, both of them.
“Sarah hasn’t come in yet.” Lucy kept her calm, but it was late and the panic was there.
“What do you mean?”
“I heard the saw start and stop all afternoon, but I guess I stopped listening and now it’s dark and I haven’t heard the saw and it’s freezing out. She should have come back by now.”
I’m already pulling on my thick down coat and digging into the basket that’s brimming with hats and gloves and scarves. Half of them are my wife’s. As we step out into the biting night, the big, dial thermometer on my porch shows twelve and when I breathe deep, the air stops in my throat. Lucy slides into the passenger seat of my truck, the fake leather crackling beneath her canvas pants. The engine struggles and coughs and argues, but in a minute, we’re underway, exhaust spitting blue and angry behind us. The tires bite deep; we chug down my driveway, smashing frozen, muddy ruts underneath the tires. Under the crusty surface, I can feel the tires slipping in the red mud still gooey from the afternoon sun. The rear wheels spin out angrily, spraying dirt behind us as we careen into the cabin’s drive. Lucy is too nervous or naïve to notice and she stays in her stance—leaning deep into the dashboard, praying the headlights can highlight more than possible.
Once I yank the emergency brake, the truck shudders and shivers and we empty from the cab without a word. The cold bites harder now, even though it’s been only minutes. Overcast skies above us, and the mercury has been falling since four. Lucy is trudging through the drifts at the end of the driveway without bothering to speak. We both slog into the backyard; the snow is still almost sloppy from the afternoon heat, but with this new, harsh cold, it’s firming into an icy mass that’s barely snow at all. From the woodpile in the rear of the cabin, footprints lead in dozens of directions.
“Which way?” I ask Lucy. I didn’t see which path Sarah took that afternoon—it hasn’t snowed in two weeks and her footprints fan out like ripples on the sea when a stone skip, skip, skips across a flat pond. The snow is as smooth as that tranquil pond, and the footprints slide across the white expanse, sneaking in between trees and beyond what I can see with the meager flashlight from my glove box.
I’m no tracker. Lucy and I stand, unsure of where to strike out. After endless minutes, after I look and look and look, I pick one set maybe, hopefully, fresher than others and we plunge into darkness. This track is crisscrossed by others, but we push on, deeper into the grove. The dim beam from my light finally illuminates a stump, a pile of sawdust, and the end of the tracks. This tree is days old; the sap has stopped running and the sawdust has been blown here and there and everywhere. She was not here today—these sparse piles are from a bow saw, not the chainsaw that leaves its telling deep, thick piles of sawdust right under the cut in a heavy mass that the wind struggles to blow around. We slog back through the old crusty snow, frantic now, but hoping that the lights and stove will be lit at the cabin, tea waiting, fire roaring.