By Brian Druckenmiller
Pierce Patterson lay in a clearing beyond the woods at the edge of his family’s property, his eyes toward the sky, looking past the clouds that his father always felt resembled tools or scarlet oak leaves or caulks or logging legends. Pierce saw the blue beyond the clouds, the rivers and streams and lakes we tend to forget exist up there. He wished he could be there, swimming or flying through the sky canals, navigating through and away from the cloudy images of Edenberry, where men lived to be loggers and women lived to produce more loggers — a woodsmen culture that kept this exclusive rural roost thriving for so long.
Edenberry was aesthetically special, surrounded by majestic cedars, pines, and hemlocks, the lush green fading into yellows and reds, the roads lined with decorative hornbeams and catalpas and rustic log buildings and houses. It made for a wonderful portrait, but a portrait only shows the surface. While classic logging practices made a fine heritage to hold onto, there was an order in Edenberry, an order Pierce didn’t very much care for. Men who were uncut for labor were evil. Women who couldn’t reproduce loggers were evil. In fact, women were evil until married. Anywhere else was evil. Edenberry was good for Edenberry, and that’s all that mattered. Of course, Pierce would never vocalize his concerns for that would pronounce him an outsider, and the Patterson name would be chopped into chips.
The crisp grass scratched the back of his neck while ants meandered around his blistered bare feet. Shards of sunlight probed his face while a small, otherwise insignificant cloud sailed down a sky-stream.
“That’s us,” he said, pointing up and nudging Lorraine. Lorraine was spoken for, the wife of a brawny high climber named Tom, the mother of another. Her wrinkles were the result of more than twice the years Pierce had seen and the inevitable toils characteristic of an Edenberry woman. If word got out that she’d left the house without permission, she’d be beaten. For the affair, Tom would most likely kill her, and, as Edenberry would see it, rightfully so.
She smiled nervously.
“There are roads,” he continued. “It’s not like anyone would stop us.”
“Yes, we can physically leave,” she brushed an ant off her thigh, “but that makes lives harder for those who don’t deserve it.”
“Tom’s no good, though. Your kid ain’t much better, either.”
Lorraine sighed and turned her body toward Pierce, who smiled immediately. She saw a vibrant soul, someone with a thirst for life beyond Edenberry’s restrictions. Pierce saw the same in her, past the wrinkles and grey strands and cracked lips. She enjoyed the wilderness and often sought sanctuary in areas of the forest where the men’s blades hadn’t diced yet, where wildlife sang songs in rhythm with the percussion of her bare feet against the cool earth while running the sun-carved paths through thick spruces and sweetgums. That’s how Pierce met her. He was 16 and, watching Lorraine skip from a distance, didn’t know such pleasure existed — especially for a woman. A man got pleasure through whiskey, and arm-wrestling, and axe-throwing, and a good day’s labor, the woman through the logger’s success. But none of that excited him, no matter how great of an axe-hurler he was.
“I mean others,” she said, avoiding the hackneyed conversation. “There’re some good people here, and two less people will put the burden on them.”
Pierce motioned to her and they kissed. His hands traveled underneath her shirt, fingers dragging along the ridges of her skin. The ants scattered on their entwined legs, biting, burning, the heat skulking up their legs and oozing throughout their bodies as both of them tried to forget that the world existed.
Pierce often thought about his mother, although he never got to know her. She was killed when he was four after a miscarriage with his unborn brother, Jack. At least his father, Stanford, believed it was a boy, and when the Council got word of a woman unable to fulfill her purpose, there were repercussions. Pierce wasn’t sure what exactly happened, and his father’s only answer was “What needed to be done was done.”
Stanford claimed that Jack was a tough logger, the fetus’ brawn too much for his wife’s fragile womb. Jack became a legend, a tall-tale that logger fathers would tell their logger children before bedtime.
Stanford raised Pierce by himself, which gave the men more ammunition to use against their wives: A logger could even be a better parent. But more than parenting, Stanford handed down the gift of Hurling. Although Pierce grew to be a fine sawyer, the Edenberry Axe Hurl was an event historically dominated by Pattersons. Once Stanford became too weak, he counted on Pierce to pick up where he left off. Pierce didn’t necessarily carry on the prowess, but, at an early age, showed more dominance than any Patterson, making his father and ancestors look like women. He was nailing standard 20-foot bullseyes by age ten, the Hurl’s 55-foot by thirteen. He found his part in Edenberry.
But as he grew older, he missed his mother, wondered what she looked like. And Jack too. As he learned more about Edenberry, he silently questioned things. He had no idea whether outsiders had it better, but not knowing brought curiosity and with curiosity came hope.
Pierce entered the fairgrounds, his teeth chattering lightly while clouds smothered the sky and the smells of sweat, sawdust, and smoke polluted the air. The sound drowned out the commotion of the crowd as Edenberry smiled and prattled about how great the Edenberry Fair turned out in its 42nd running. Spread over several acres behind town hall, the fair was where Edenberry celebrated Edenberry; a year of hard work paid off for most during this weekend event — the only weekend loggers have off annually. The town enjoyed smoked turkey legs and meats on sticks and barrel whiskey. Local vendors sold wooden furniture, carved statues, and whittled trinkets. There were carvers, sawyers, and high climber demonstrations and competitions. Older folks dressed as old-timey mountaineers and Bunyan-esque lumberjacks with thick red beards to entertain the children. When Pierce was a boy, he would tug on the beards, wondering who was phony and who was a real legend.
He followed the scent of the turkey legs to where Lorraine was stationed — all women had to work the event because, considering that producing and providing for loggers was considered love and not work, they essentially had every day off. The sweet smell of the burning hickory chips and succulent bird made her easy to find. Tom was at the high climb demonstration, and Stanford was signing Pierce up for the Axe Hurl. Still, Pierce couldn’t do too much in front of the whole town — she’d be the damn devil if there was the slightest suspicion of the affair. So he flashed a smile and handed her change for a turkey leg.
“Are you ready?” she asked, raising her voice to compete with the town. She handed him some meat.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
She winked and her smile was too big, too friendly. Her expression retreated as Tom stepped in front of him. He didn’t say anything, and Pierce couldn’t see his face, but he placed his hand on Lorraine’s shoulder. Pierce imagined Tom staring at her, shaming her every second his eyes were fixated. His grip looked tighter and Lorraine tossed his hand off her. Pierce couldn’t see over Tom, but heard the wallop of an open palm on her jaw. As Tom turned around, Pierce caught a glimpse of Lorraine sinking into her shoulders, looking at the ground, Tom’s hand branded on her face. Pierce looked up at Tom, the image of what loggers strived to be with his massive muscles that bulged enough to stretch the fibers of his shirt. He lifted his right boot and nodded at them, making sure Pierce noticed the sharp climbing spurs, and set it down near Pierce’s toes with force. As he walked away, he deliberately rammed his shoulder into Pierce, nearly knocking him over. Pierce felt Tom’s eyes on the back of his head as he glanced at Lorraine. She was shaken, her image hazy behind the smoke from the woodchips. She caught eyes with Pierce, and she mouthed “Sorry,” to which he silently responded “For what?” He walked away, ashamed that he couldn’t do anything.
Collective admiration was the vocal backdrop to the Axe Hurl: It took a real man to throw a double-bitted axe overhead 55 feet across a field and into an angled white oak stump with painted red rings shrinking towards a center dot. They booed the failures, especially the axes that landed short, calling those men women and throwing grub at them. This would be Pierce’s finest performance; he made the event look as easy as dropping wood into a burning fire. Toss after toss. Thwap after thwap. Bullseye after bullseye. Cheer after deafening cheer. Pierce was as close to divine as a man could be.
In the championship round, Pierce had been perfect. His first two throws were bullseyes, giving him ten points going into the final throw. His opponent only had four — impossible for him to catch up. Pierce lifted his axe and Edenberry roared. He sighed and wanted it to end.
All eyes were on him except for four: Lorraine and Tom’s, who stood well behind the target at the tree-line. He assumed they were arguing, but couldn’t hear anything over the rest of Edenberry. Lorraine looked distressed, Tom red and fuming. He kept pointing at her legs, and it dawned on Pierce: the ant bites. Tom knew she had been outside their house. Pierce knew he would beat her. He knew next time he’d see her she’d be bruised, tarnished like used firewood, hysterical with disturbing rationale: It’s Edenberry, he knew she’d say. Everyone has a role and I wasn’t doing mine.
Pierce’s grip turned irate and blood seeped through his clenched fingers. Then, Tom smacked her. Smacked the hell out of her, knocking her to the sharp grass. The crack tossed between the tree lines. There was a natural casualness to it as he leisurely leaned with his right hand against a sycamore, left hand viciously swung, his knuckles jarring her jaw. He laughed at her, pointed at her, crumpled and useless on the grass. He riled up other loggers, getting them to laugh, too. Their wives did nothing.
Lorraine was strong, but she might not have survived much longer. Pierce knew it was time for them to leave.
He took aim at his target, then launched his six-pound, double-bitted axe, bellowing a battle cry he never knew he could bellow, his muscles flexing with every heavy breath. The axe divvied the sky in two; most all looked on, although Lorraine and Tom were still not paying attention. He thought of grabbing Lorraine and running until the roads turn from dirt and mud and stones to paved roads and highways, where other towns would offer other things, including other people — some nice, some mean, but all new, all different. He couldn’t wait to smell the air — whether fresh or filthy — just as long as it wasn’t Edenberry.
The axe had barely passed its trajectory’s zenith as it soared above the official target, a throw that would yield zero points for Pierce. Edenberry watched with loose jaws, wondering how the best hurler could miss so badly. Pierce appeared unemotional, his face dirty, his hands calloused, ripped, and bloody.
He envisioned Lorraine’s youthful spirit retaking her lifeless exterior; the wrinkles and cracks would still be there, but as artifacts of survival rather than marks of identity. He couldn’t wait to kiss and make love to this new Lorraine. The real Lorraine.
He thought about his mother, and how beautiful she must have been. How he wished he’d known her, but was happy that she was not a woman of Edenberry. And Jack. He envied Jack for getting out as early as he did.
Curiosity meant hope. It was time to become an outsider.
So when the axe completed its final rotation and sunk deep into the sycamore, splitting Tom’s hand in two, detaching his thumb and index finger and a slab of his hand from the rest of the ligament, blood staining the land and moistening the dry grass, Edenberry was loud with panic — their best high climber instantly stripped of his abilities. Children and women cried while men pretended not to. They called for violent retribution.
Edenberry and the Council had no choice but to exile Pierce immediately. Some called for his head while others cursed him, but an excuse saved the day: The axe slipped out too early in his swing. Everyone believed him; not even God could throw an axe over 100 feet with such precision.
Pierce expected that Lorraine’s fate would be similar. The excuse that a crying Lorraine desperate for attention caused the distraction and ultimately the slip would force Edenberry to label her unfit to serve, her selfish display defiling the beloved event and accounting for the loss of two loggers: one through exile and the other through deformity. She had served her purpose, she birthed an aspiring high climber, so Edenberry had no reason to keep her around.
And he was right, although he sold Edenberry short.
He didn’t try to fight it. What would’ve been the point? The one thing stronger than a man was men, and there were many of them, each with something ghastly in their eyes. Pierce’s eyes were wet as he was forced to watch a Council-member pry the axe from the tree and proceed with her punishment. He immediately saw his mother, knowing that her fate must’ve been similar. Although he had no idea what his mother looked like — Stanford had not one reminder of her in their home — we all look the same in the end.
Pierce was forced to leave, so he turned around and walked the dirt road alone, wiping blood and tears from his face. Eventually, the rocks and dirt under his boots leveled into the smoother, paved road of the next county. He looked at the sky and saw the solid layer of clouds. No blue. No shapes or figures. Just cloud.
Brian Druckenmiller lives in Conway, SC, and teaches English composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. His has fiction forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine and anxiously awaits his fate with too many other literary entities to list here. He tweets @BRDruckenmiller and blogs at Letters from Brian.
I just died a little on the inside…
This story was absorbing and brilliant. I truly admire Brian’s vision and writing style.