The Woodchopper

With his old blockbuster axe, Moroz split the log into half. 

Two pieces fell to the sides of the solid stump he used for wood chopping, and he bent down to pick one of them up with a hardened hand. He brought the axe back over his shoulder and, with a minimum of force, he let it down again. Two more halves dropped off.  

As a farm boy back in the old country, he’d been taught by his own father. “Yarko, the tool does the work – not you,” he’d been instructed while they scythed fresh hay in the summer field on their small holding. His father carried a whetstone, and some bread rolls his mother had baked, in a leather satchel.  He would sharpen their scythes with long, steady strokes when they took a break to drink cool water from the creek and eat their lunch.

Now, Moroz stood the axe up and gathered the split logs lying around the stump like fallen chess pieces. He stacked the timber along the wall of the long red barn that he used as his summer workshop. He was probably about two cords from fully covering the length of the wall. 

It was late November and first snow so he was late this year. Usually, Moroz would have the whole wall filled – some 30 cords – before the leaves even started turning in September. Five cords to heat his own place with the cast-iron woodstove; the rest for sale. The cash from the firewood, and the occasional tow of some city person’s snow-stuck car or from ploughing the parking lot at the diner, would float him through winter. 

In later spring, with the cords sold and gone, Moroz would go into the workshop and tie Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations from cow corn, twine, small branches and wheat stalks.  The valley farm stand on 209 would buy the decorations from him early and sell to tourists later. Holidays that Moroz knew nothing about would float him through summer.

It was only two cords left, maybe a day’s worth of work. Moroz knew he should sharpen the axe himself and get it done tomorrow. He could use his old lathe, but it had been giving him some trouble. He could use a whetstone, like his father, but he didn’t. Moroz also knew he was looking for a reason to drive to town. Going to Knobby’s would give him two visits: one to drop off the axe and one to pick up the sharpened version.

Any excuse had done for the last three months. Visits to the credit union to deposit $50 of pennies in a paper bag. Getting one can of Folgers Instant Coffee at the Stewart’s Shop. Having a midday cognac at the Dew Drop Inn after a decade of not drinking at all. 

Saying hello when Dicky Schoonemaker, who had a metal plate in his big Huguenot head from his time with the Big Red One at the Battle of the Bulge, or Horace Bissinger, an ex-Marine from Iwo Jima who captained the volunteer firemen, said “Hello Jack”. Yarko or Moroz seemed too hard for the Americans – Americans whose Dutch ancestors had lived on the mountain and in the valley since the 1600s. Maybe, it was for the best. ‘Jack’ didn’t have a war – and opposing sides of a war – to talk about.

It was the most time he’d spent ‘downtown’ – the diner, the credit union, Stewarts, the bar, the fire station, the second hands good shop, and six vacant store fronts with For Rent signs with scribbled in phone numbers on them – since coming here. Since quitting his job fixing machines at the Bulova watch factory and moving from Brooklyn to the mountain in 1957. Seventeen years. 

Moroz had now spent as many years on the mountain – passing through seasons – than he had in the old country before the war. It didn’t feel like it. The screech of snowmobiles from his neighbor’s property – the first rides of this winter – made him duck his head. 

Moroz took a deep breath and then watched the exhaled steam disappear. He picked up the axe and crunched across the snow to the sky blue ’64 Mustang, his town car. It was covered in road salt and rust, and now looked more like a piece of slate than the shiny star he’d bought in a different time. In a time when he’d cared enough to carefully change the Valvoline and check the brakes.

Soon, if it was like every winter, Moroz would be jump-starting it’s battery in mid-winter from his GMC work pick-up. But, for now, the engine turned over and the V8 rumbled. The axe rested against the passenger seat; it’s head among discarded copies of the Cyrillic print newspapers that went straight from his plastic post box to the car’s floor. Moroz kept the subscription, but never read the paper.

He let the car warm up. Smoke chugged out of the exhaust and drifted up into the leafless trees and the grey, snow-filled sky. He put on his winter hat with fur flaps that mostly hid his white hair.

Town was down the mountain. After pulling out, Moroz put the car in neutral and let it roll. Past the two trailer homes with National Rifle Association signs in the front yard that he’d never seen before. Past the converted Jewish bungalow colony where Mexicans now slept between kosher kitchen shifts at the modern Jewish resort with tennis courts under lights, indoor ice skating, and Jerry Lewis on big weekends. Past the store on the edge of town that he’d once owned with his deceased wife; it’s red neon ‘Wines & Liquors’ sign always on.

In town, he pulled a left and drove in behind the Stewarts to Knobby’s Auto Repair. He felt the brakes pull a bit, but he was here for the axe. 

As he got out of the car, Moroz saw Libby. She was wearing a tight Christmas sweater with Santa and his reindeer, flared blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a tie-dyed scarf around her neck. And round purple sunglasses in near winter. Her hair frizzed out – like a fern – from under the scarf. The regulars at the Dew Drop would take bets on what sweater Libby, their bartender, would be wearing of a night. It was good reason to stare at her rack.

Libby was one of the ones that stayed upstate after the big concert in ‘69; she’d been in town since September. The old locals would say the hippies were so stoned that they couldn’t remember where they’d come from to go back to. Some made upstate home now. Living on clumsy communes that collapsed after months, or selling candles to the roadside farmers’ stands, or growing cash crop they’d drive down the Thruway to the East Village. 

She was talking to Knobby’s son, Dugal, who was giant and slow, as he awkwardly pushed a shovel through the snow in front of the shop. 

“Hi, Mr Jack,” the kid said too loudly from under his orange Gulf cap.

“Hi also Mr Jack,” Libby said with a smile.  

“Hello Miss Libby and Dugal. I come to get axe sharp,” Moroz said, trying to get the accent right.

“Chopping again, huh. I was just askin Dugal about the trails around the lake. What they’re like when there’s snow,” Libby said.

She’d always been kind to him. The locals always kept him at a safe and stale distance. His name. His weird English. A past they couldn’t understand no less trust. His solitary life on the property up the mountain and amongst the trees he was steadily chain-sawing down. But Libby just smiled and asked him what he was drinking even though she knew it was always Hennessey cognac, neat. 

Last week, as afternoon light battled through the bar’s darkened front window, she’d reached over the sticky bar and flipped over his hand, crusty and knotted like a ball of hard wire. She read his ‘life line’. She’d told him that there were new roads and horizons ahead for him. He made sure to keep staring at her slim fingers and wrists, covered in Navajo Indian silver and turquoise bands, and not look up at her. He saw the raw red tracks on her forearms. 

He remembered the scar further up on his own arm.  Where the sympathetic Lithuanian doctor with horn-rimmed glasses had cut out his military tattoo in a janitor’s cupboard on the General Stewart DP boat to America. Moroz, who had lost his real name in an underground bunker in a Carpathian forest, remembered eating lime Jell-O for the first time in the ship’s mess and wondering at the wonder of America.

“The trails, Jack. Do you know them?” Libby said and snapped him out of his mini-daze.

“Yes, very beautiful. I know well. Made for horse and wagon when rich people had hotel there,” Moroz said. He knew not to mention the hunting seasons he’d spent around the lake, and how he used to sell butchered venison from the blood-covered tray of his pick-up.

“Well then, scout, take me. Lead the way. Show me what there is see. My only day off, man, and no wheels. I’ll buy you a coffee at the diner after.”

Knobby was standing at his cash register, covered in oil company stickers and with yellowed invoices sticking out all over, and watched them talk. Dugal flicked the shovel’s handle from one hand to the other, but missed. It fell in the snow which was starting to melt as sun peaked through the cloud cover. Knobby, who never said much but sometimes asked Moroz to play gin rummy over an upturned 44 gallon oil drum, nodded at him.

Moroz’ leg muscles tightened. He felt the bumps of the shrapnel in his left thigh press against his skin. He breathed in hard and out came: “Sure.”

“Groovy,” Libby said and headed toward the Mustang. “Roll em roll em rawhide. Be cool, Dugal.”

Moroz stepped quickly ahead of her to open the Mustang’s heavy door, and move the axe to the trunk. 

“A fine gentleman for Lady Libby,” she joked and climbed in. She tossed her Army/Navy store backpack in the back seat. The kid waved good bye at her.

As Moroz pulled the car back on to 209 and then right up the mountain, Libby played with the radio. There was usually only one or two stations, and that was worse when there was weather. But the clouds had opened and she caught the hippy station out of the college town on the other side of the mountain.

“Love this song,” Libby said. “My life story!”

A girl’s high voice sang: “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good”.

“How about you, Jack? Good or bad?” she asked him.

She didn’t wait for an answer and climbed onto her knees on the seat. Libby reached back and got a joint out of her olive green backpack. She lit up with a scratched-up Zippo. The car filled with the smell of the patchouli on her body and the weed on her lips.

The sun was now strong on the road. It shone where the snow had partly melted away. Moroz was getting hot under his red-and-black chequered woollen winter parka. Plus the weed and the scent of this girl. He gripped the window roller tight and let it down fast for cold air to blast in.

“Probably both, right. There’s always light and shadows,” Libby didn’t wait for his answer. She toked again and a little burning piece of weed fell on the upholstery. Libby tamped it out and laughed.

“Only you can prevent forest fires, Smokey Bear.”

She seemed to put words to the noise in his head. In translation. She put color on the blankness. It drew him and it scared him.

Climbing higher, the V8 growled. Approaching the mountain-top lake, Moroz took the curve before the look-out area at 70mph, faster than usual.

The deer startled and ran out of the birches of the tree line. He slammed the Mustang’s brakes. They didn’t fully catch and the car’s back wheels fishtailed to the right. To stay on the road, and away from the cliffside, Moroz cut the steering wheel hard and into the deer’s body.  

It was a big buck. The car’s grill hit him in the legs. His head and his shoulders flipped into the windshield with full force, as the brakes smoked and Libby screamed. The car slid into the roadside gravel and then the tree line. It careened back and forth off three trees.  It stopped. 

Antlers and part of the deer’s muzzle had pierced the windshield. His dark eyes were blinking and blood dripped onto the dashboard. He thrashed his back legs to get free but it jammed him further into a mangle of metal, steam and broken glass. The girl kept screaming; her eyes were locked shut.

Moroz saw her upheld hands were a slick of black and red. Hot engine oil and animal blood. The door on her side had folded in and trapped her. Part of her seat was starting to smoulder from the joint she dropped on impact.

The deer burst into fight again. Two of the buck’s twelve points stuck Moroz’ throat; others caught and twisted in the steering wheel. Moroz grabbed to hold his blood with one hand and for the ignition key with his other. It was slimy to the touch. He palmed it hard and was battered again by the animal’s antlers. He slammed his way out of the car with his shoulder. He fell on his knees. 

The inside of the car was starting to flare with flashes of flame. The buck fought again, and bashed his back legs through the other side of the window. Libby tried to block the blows of his black hooves with her thin forearms. 

The radio news played. The North Vietnamese were massing forces for a final offensive against the weakened South. Where his MIA nephew, Michael, was probably buried in someone else’s war.

The sky had clouded again. Dreamy flakes floated down, some sticking and some not on the wet black asphalt to Moroz’ left. His throat pulsed under his wet hand.

It must be noon, he thought. Moroz crawled toward the wrecked Mustang’s trunk and the blunt axe.

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