Cutting Trail

This is another of the Manitoulin stories that I am writing.  I have now posted these stories in a single file in the Island Stories section of the Longer Works page for those who might like to read them altogether.

Cutting Trail

It is early yet, but I wake, smelling cedar and woodsmoke and old mattresses and mosquito repellent, the smell of the camp, the fire, the forest, all of it, still the smell of summer to me now, all these years later, and I am lying in the top-right bunk, my head closest to the window, its pane already cracked on the morning I am imagining, and broken now.  The sun is just rising, and the crack in the glass glistens like frozen lightening, and everything is quiet, not completely, with birds singing and squirrels dropping pine cones from the canopy and trees swaying in the breeze and coals popping in the woodstove, but profoundly, because these sounds do not break the silence so much as they deepen it, make it a mystery.  The sun finds its way between the log walls, between its upright cedars, peeled and knotty and chinked with some kind of cement that is crumbling away, leaving holes for the wind and for the cold but also for the light, weak still and diffused, that finds its way through the mortar and speckles my sleeping bag in patches of lighter green, patches that drift with infinite patience.

I can hear the others beginning to stir, and I slip to the floor, into the cool, trying not to wake the younger ones.  My clothes are hanging on the bookshelf, as near as possible to the black, rust-ringed ventpipe of the woodstove, where they will be warmest.  They are as warm as my bed was, and all the warmer because I have just plunged into the cold of the forest-shadowed, still-darkened morning, my bare feet on the chill of the linoleum with its coal-melted pockmarks, because I have just shed my shirt and shorts, sleep-warm, to feel the morning more keenly.  I am tempted to stand there a moment, prolong the chill and the expectation of warmth together, but the day promises too much, and I am too eager, and I turn to where my clothes hang on the roughcut bookshelf.

I helped make the bookshelf when I was just a child, watched the pine trees being felled and then sat on the back of the old tractor as it pulled the log wagon from the camp up Jerry Co. Road and Timber Bay Road and Carter Bay Road and then along the few hundred yards of Government Road to Lentir’s sawmill, heavy with the smell of diesel and engine oil and conifer.  The logs went through the sawblade, pass after pass, and the planks fell, mostly bark at first, but thicker soon, the sawdust pluming upward and then settling in fragrant piles.  I watched as the men stacked the furred boards, marked with the sawblade’s half-moon scars, piled them on the wagon, left them waiting to be joined by mismatched nails, some heads broader than others, some steel and some brass, driven on angles that had them splitting the wood, but the shelf they became holds books just the same, and it serves also to keep my clothes close to the stove.

It was on the bookshelf that I caught a mouse once, with my bare hands.  I was sitting in the old armchair, the one that used to be Grandpa’s favourite chair, but had become his camp chair, slowly disintegrating, year by year, taking root next to the woodstove.  I was sitting there one morning, my coffee on the bookshelf, my feet on a length of firewood set upright, close to the stove, and I was reading something, I no longer remember what, a fantasy novel or some poetry.  It was later in the morning, after breakfast had been eaten and the dishes washed but before the day had really begun, and I looked up for my cup, saw the mouse from the corner of my eye, and it froze where it was, along one of the bookshelf’s vertical edges, halfway between two shelves, so that we were eye to eye.  I laid my book down on the floor, not slowly or carefully, just as I would, and I put one hand below the mouse, only an inch or so from his head.  It turned around then, quickly, so I put my other hand above it, trapping it along its narrow path, and I took it by its tail, held it close to my eyes, looked at it as nearly as it could, watched its forepaws swim, not frantically, but with a perfect nonchalance, until I took it outside and dashed its head against a tree, threw its body into the woods.

On the morning I am imagining, however, that other morning, the profoundly quiet morning, there is only my warming clothes on the bookshelf, and I dress alongside my brothers, our voices, whispered and sporadic, fulfilling the stillness of everything, establishing its vastness through our insignificance.  We have not lit the lamps, only stoked the fire in the stove, so we dress and pack in the dimness of the firelight and in the suggestion of a still invisible sun, a light that appears only as lightening in a broken window and as patches of colour that drift through holes in the wall.

We cook eggs and bacon in the cast iron pan, bacon first, crisping in its own drippings, then eggs on top, roughly scrambled into the grease and into the now crumbled bacon. The coffee is perking on the stove too, popping, softly popping, and we say nothing as we pull our chairs next to the stove, its door cracked now, to warm ourselves as we eat.  The coals burn red in the draft of the stove, and the new wood blackens and flames, and it feels like the stove is the centre of everything, not just of the three of us who are eating around it, not just of the cabin that it warms against the cool of the forest, but of everything, the world and the universe and everything.  This is what the fireplace means, I think, it means the place where you begin and end, where you leave and return.

It is this centre that we will soon leave behind as we close the too-wide screen door, softly, so as not to wake the others with its characteristic bang, but I hear the bang anyway, because I have opened and closed that door too many times, because I have heard it screech as it opens and slam as it closes too many times, and I can no longer hear one without the other.  The screech of any screen door now, no matter how distant, is always the screech of that wooden camp screen, with its long diagonal board running between too-distant corners, and my mind always follows the screech with a slam, so I hear it slam that morning, though we do not forget to close it softly, and it sounds like a finality, like we are being cut off from the fire at the centre, at least for a time, and I feel this as an exhilaration.

We enter the forest at the back of the cabin, between the old tractor and the outhouse, though I cannot now find the spot exactly, not after the scrub plants have had so many years to grow, and not after the tractor has been moved over beside the new winterized cabin, its crankcase engine refusing ever to die completely and its chassis repainted until it is immune to rust, and not after the outhouse has slumped and toppled, its particle board chewed by porcupines and rotted by damp.  Too much time has passed.  The marks we made were too ephemeral.  We set out that day, passing between the tractor and the outhouse, to cut a path, to blaze a trail, but all signs of our passing have themselves now passed, and I cannot find our blazes, though my search is diligent.  The world does not remember like I do.  Its memories are overgrown, while mine are stark, barren, like solitary trees on a wide plain, and what stands on the plains of that morning is the instant, only just an instant, when we pause beneath the eaves of the forest and let the trail, not yet a trail, but soon to be a trail, choose for us where it will be, the instant when we feel its need, like a living thing, to be. Not just because the road to the lake, the usual one, is circuitous, first winding away from the lake, through the woods along Jerry Co. Road, just a set of tracks, split by grass and devil’s paintbrushes and buttercups, bordered by raspberry canes and dogwood and sumac, and then spilling out onto the logging road that runs along the hundred acre woodlots toward Carter Bay Road, then another two or three kilometers more to the beach, and not just because the new trail will be more direct, will be straight through the bush to the beach, a walking trail at first, then broader and clearer each time, firm, direct, from camp to beach, but also because the trail simply needs to be, because our willingness to make it has breathed a spirit for it that now requires a form.  This is what stands in my memory, the trail’s need to be, a lonely and aching need now that it is only a memory, but an intimate and insistent need then as we stand before it, hesitate, and are pulled along by it, into it.

We bring with us a machete that we have discovered in the woodshed that summer, its handle wrapped in cloth tape and stained with rust along the blade, a wicked looking thing, so that we hardly dared pick it up when we first found it, just looked at one another to see if it had affected us all with the same dread, and then looked back at the menace of it, the bloodiness of it, though we knew rust from blood.  It was probably brought to the camp by one of our uncles, we supposed, or maybe by one of their hunting friends, but it was clearly unclaimed, lying there rusting in the shed, so we cleaned it and oiled it, sharpened it with the whetstone, replaced the tape on the handle, all the while telling stories about it, until it had become something mythological, hovering somewhere between the sacred and the profane, a gift from nameless gods of no firm allegiance.

We bring the limbing axe too, a hatchet head mounted on a full-length handle, deeply worn and darkly stained around the grip, that somehow survived its first axe head, as few handles do, and has now been whittled down to fit the hatchet head and become the limbing axe, longer than the hatchet, lighter than the logging axe, slenderer than the splitting maul, perfect for trimming branches from felled trees or cutting roasting sticks.

I carry the pack first, while the other two wield the machete and the hatchet, one clearing the brush, the other felling small saplings and obstructing limbs.  The machete makes a swishing sound, punctuated by sharp pings, through leaves and stems, swish-ping-swish-ping-ping-swish.  It flickers in the growing sunlight, a rhythmic flash to accompany its rhythmic sound, and it leaves the ground stubbled and bristled like an unshaven face, and the hatchet follows, treading the stubble of the machete underfoot and cutting more deeply into the stuff of the forest, taking the limbs and the saplings, mostly cedar and pine, leaving them to line the path and to scent the air with pitch, like the incense of some sacred procession.

The cuts we make are deep, we think, deep enough to make a lasting wound through the forest, to make a trail of blood that can be followed, something to be reopened again and again, to be packed with ash or horsehair until the scar has formed, a ritual scar, a duelling scar, to show where we have passed, what we have done, badges of honour that we inflict on the body of the forest. We do not merely blaze a trail, we emblazon the flesh of the forest, claim it, make it one of us through the scars of our tribe, through the mutual drawing of blood, for we receive wounds as well as give them, take our mensur marks with the necessary courage, with the requisite indifference, as falling boughs and tangled thorns and stinging nettles trade us mark for mark, badge for badge, brand for brand.

These are the sort of marks that we might expect to find even years later, on our own bodies and on the body of the forest, if we thought about such things then, but we are enraptured by the still open wounds we are making, cannot imagine a future, not of any kind, certainly not a future where we will come looking for traces of the blows we strike today, where we will need those traces, search for them, and not find them, where we will wonder whether the stumps have been covered by forest litter and the severed limbs hidden by new grown branches, or whether we are looking in the wrong places, because the marks that seemed so telling have disappeared in that short a time. We cannot imagine that this thing we are making, this spirit taking on flesh, this need drawing us forward, this presence becoming fuller and heavier in our wake, will ever be anything than it is now. It will always be in this moment of becoming, always be bleeding itself into being.

I first knew the blood of trees like this when I watched the maple sap drip down spigots into tin pails in the sugar bush behind my grandfather’s farm, thinking that the bleeding of the sap, drop by drop, pling, pling, pling, into the empty bucket, and then deeper, hollower, plink, plunk, plonk, as is it filled, that this bleeding made the tree real, made it be.  The maples were still just waking into spring, still just dry bones awaiting flesh, but their blood flowed in them, flowed from far beneath the snow-patched ground to grant each branch a veil of the goldest green to set against the cloud-patched sky, and I stood there to see the drops collect, like the blood that had dripped from my brother’s arm when he fell from the monkey bars and broke the bone so that it punctured the skin, and we helped him home with those same drops falling behind us at every step, and it was unalterably true then, looking into the pail, that everything real must bleed, that only blood makes something truly be, and the sap became suddenly sacrificial, like a cup held to catch the last life of a dying God.

We do not stop to collect the sap-blood that we spill that morning, but it is no less sacrificial in its way.  The blood of a sacrifice is no less holy if it falls to the ground, serves rather to sanctify the earth on which it falls, makes it holy ground, so that we could not turn back if we wanted, could not go back that way, not without taking off our shoes and rending our clothes and putting ashes in our hair, not without consenting to go on our knees, our hands clasped before us, like pilgrims on a sacred way, mopping up the blood with cloths to be the relics of some future faith.  The path behind us is hallowed by the blood we have spilled, by the wounds we have made, and we are no longer worthy to walk it, because it is our sins, our violence that has made it holy.

At last, so soon, the sun rises above the trees, and the dawn chill disappears, all at once, between two breaths, melting the pitch of pine and balsam so that it smears our blades and coats our hands, collects falling needles and flakes of bark to rub our skin to blisters.  The dew evaporates, thick and clinging, mixes with the sweat that no longer cools but paints our skin in streaks of dirt that collect in the corners of our eyes and the creases of our bodies.  Everything has changed, between one blow and the next, and we are staggered by this new and sudden forest, humid and calescent, swarmed by deer flies, swift and relentless.  We stop often now, every time we trade places, exchange pack for machete, machete for hatchet, hatchet for pack, and the pack, once a burden and a nuisance, becomes a relief from the labour of the trail, lightening with every stop, as the water is shared around, dwindling far too quickly.  The ground keeps opening into meadows now, thin grasses growing in the crevices of the shield rock, a hatch of grasses across the lichen-covered stone, like a miniature landscape of fields and hedgerows, so we must mark the path as we can, drag fallen logs from the forest, move what stones can be moved, and all the while there is the sun and the sun-heated rock, and we have not, as best we can guess, gone even a third of our way, though the sun is high enough for us to eat what food we have brought, sheltering in the shade of a birch stand.

We have misjudged. We did not scar the forest, only forced ourselves a little way from its womb, from the frozen lightening and the drifting green sunlight and the gentle fire at its centre, and now we are infants, crawling about in a world we could not have expected. We do not inflict the trail on the forest. We cling to it, like an umbilical cord stretching bloody and white-blue behind us, or like Ariadne’s thread, unspooling through labyrinthine fears, or like the cord tied around the ankles of priests, to drag their bodies from the holy of holies if they should anger their God and be struck down. We dangle on the end of the trail, our weight holding it taut behind us, and our greatest fear now is that it will break, be eaten up like a trail of bread crumbs, leave us untethered to face whatever monsters or gods await us in the forest’s holiest and most labyrinthine places.

The thread of the trail grows tighter and tighter behind us, fraying and unraveling as our arms tire, as we allow ourselves to weave now, between trees and around meadows, taking the path of least resistance, scarcely breaking the skin of the forest, and still, we can only be perhaps two thirds of the way to the lake. We take off our shirts and wrap them in awkward bandages over our raw and blistered hands, and our bodies, pale still so early in the summer, are soon sun-red and scratched, smeared with pitch and pine needles, traced with lines of sweat and dirt, as if the forest is writing its story on our skin, leaving its icons and hieroglyphs, fearful scripts, intelligible only to itself, but surely the language of some primordial magic.

On other days I will walk beneath those same trees, quite apart from any trail, and the forest will move me, and I will write about the dogwood shooting up from the litter, the scrambling junipers, the saplings of spruce and balsam, the birch and cedar, and I will write that they make the sky stand vertical, that they rupture its vastness, trouble its expanse, urge it still higher to the terror of its beyond, and I will write that their limbs are like roots burrowing into a blue, thin, transparent soil, their trunks suspended above a green, impenetrable sky, adrift between two heavens and two earths, surrounded by long shadows, sun-flung and invisible, their branches becoming roots that are cast, insubstantial, into earthen skies, and I will write that the sun strikes down through them to touch the ground and grant each branch and leaf beneath its halo all of gold, but on that day we are unmoved. It is a far different forest that we walk, a forest of stern will and fearful incantations that tolerates us only for a time, inscribes itself on our bodies, drives us through its sacred places, covers our traces almost as soon as we have passed.

It is into this forest that the sun begins to cast itself, so soon, before we have reached our end, touching lightly the tops of the trees to our left, and we know that we have failed, that the trail will not find the lake to link the cabin to the beach with a sure, straight line, not on this day or on any other. The sun sets as finally as the slam of a screen door, and something finds release in us, as if the line that tethered us has been cut by it, as if we are no longer bound to make our scars, no longer tethered to the womb or to the one who holds the thread or to the ones who wait to pull us from the inner sanctuary. We have been loosed into whatever awaits us, be it monster or god, and we no longer walk but run, dodging and tripping and stumbling and running, for it seems to us that we can make out the blue of the water through the trunks of the trees, a blue that has been revealed only by the setting sun, and it calls us, though it is still a long way off, calls us, as surely as the trail has driven us.

It has us by the ears and nostrils now, drags us by sound and smell as much by sight, the water-blue, there, somewhere beneath the sky-blue, there, between the crowding trees, there again, and broader now, nearer and more certain, a rolling-and-crowned-with-white-blue, a curling-and-traced-with-green-blue, through the last of the cedars and over the pitted stones, it casts our things aside, tears our clothes from us, and seizes us at last.

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