Extraordinary stories from everyday life.
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Stories

Gathering Wood

I don’t know if you lucky folks realized it yet, but health insurance is mostly garbage. I would say a word that begins with “f” and ends with “cked,” but my dad says using profanity in my writing sounds like I’m trying to be cool and not professional, and fuck it, maybe he’s right.

All day I’ve been wrangling over the phone with the phantasmic forces of our economic class system. The representatives of these forces speak with dry dispassion, bidding me chase the other. I’d scream into the phone, but every time it’s someone new on the other end of the line—an outburst is profoundly unsatisfying when the recipient wasn’t part of the buildup. As we wind up the same conversation I’ve had with eight other people today, I look up from the paperwork spread across the table and out the window, and my attention starts to drift.

The sky is blue and nubby with clouds. The soggy, crocus-flecked grass is springy like a new mattress. The budded limbs of the maple and larch toss in a lively wind. Life and debt hang in the balance of these phone exchanges, but nevertheless, I hang up mid-sentence, pull on my rubber boots, and go outside to gather wood.

The storms were intense this year; it was a record-setting winter. One of the birch trees snapped at a height taller than our house. The broken half hangs like the hand of a corpse, branches dragging against the ground. It’s unimaginable that something that strong, that has seen out who knows how many storms, can just break one day.

The soppy, animal scat-riddled ground that blurs into a comforting Rorschach against which the stiff linear limbs and sticks pop out. I pick them up, first a few in my fist, then transferring them to the crook of my arm as they multiply. One after another after another I pick them up...no problem, I can get one more, this little one won’t make a difference, testing my capacity twig by twig, almost gleefully straining the reach and balance of my arms, of which there are just two against so many tiny, practically weightless pieces of fallen wood.

It’s beautiful weather for early spring, which means there are only ravens and vultures in the sky. The grey, wet, half-frozen days are the ones when bald eagles fly overhead, sometimes in twos and threes. Once the sun comes out, they don’t come around anymore.

The deer stand, beautiful and mute, in the woods watching me, having settled it that I’m alone and not a threat. Their liquid, opaque eyes and perfectly turned noses follow me from woodpile to tree canopy and back, aloof, unaffected by my grunting struggle, like spectators at a tennis match.

Sometimes I come upon an unexpected windfall, an orderly-looking heap of sticks under a tree, a gift from the elements. I squat to reach my arms around it and it implodes, all the sticks scattering around. I waddle with my arms full toward each stray, drawing right next to it and stretching my fingertips, the only limbs I have free since the arms are trying to hold the rest together. Sometimes it’s cathartic to lean into the fool circumstances have made of you. Resisting it only makes you more ridiculous.

There’s something primal about gathering the wood, as if I’m stockpiling against a harsh winter. But we burn propane, not wood. In reality, I’m stockpiling for bonfires we’ll have during the summer and fall. Each stick is a unit of time, representing some few minutes’ part of a velvet starlit night, a beery singalong, a blanket-wrapped audience to a crime podcast, a warm, crackling silence in my brain and a hot, hollow comfort in my belly as, in the brief interlude while Bryan goes inside for fresh supplies, I feed my hard labor into the flames and watch it all burn.