Forbearance – Caleb Caudell
December 8, 2020
Through the smoke he saw his father raising the ax above his head and bringing it down onto the wood. As if in a dream or seen at a much greater distance, vaporous, as if the old man with his stiff bearing and hard face were himself made of smoke. Above him the sun was setting and a rind of orange light separated the treetop from the darkening sky.
Jarrett sat and stared and his thoughts went in and out of him like breath. His father worked beyond the hissing embers and waving flame of the fire he had built.
He just has to keep going, doesn’t he, Jarrett thought. Enough wood to build a new house and he keeps going. The man can’t stand to feel useless, to admit he’s old. He doesn’t have to prove himself anymore.
Someday soon he’s going to fall over dead. It’ll be in the middle of some such thing as this, doing more than anyone needed or asked for. He already chopped plenty of wood. No one asked him to build the fire. He’s just going to chop and chop as if in denial of his old bones. Like he had sons not to make them work, but to make them feel they can’t ever work as much as he does.
Jarrett’s brother Reed sat to his right. He was slumped in the chair, his legs spread out, his feet against the fire. Each dwelled in his own solitude, one in a rhythmic seething, the other in vacuity.
Finally Reed sat up and looked at his father and then at his brother. “He’s gonna go all night isn’t he?”
“Just try and tell him that’s enough,” said Jarrett.
“Got more sense than to bother with that.”
Jarrett cleared his throat and sat up and scooted the chair back. He sat down, his face carved with contempt.
“I don’t know how you sit so close,” he said.
“I think it feels good. Getting cold out tonight.”
“It’s not so cold with half your body in that damn fire.”
Reed got out a cigarette and puffed and lost himself in the crackling embers and the smell of burning hickory. Sweat gathered about his pits and hairline. The smoke from his cigarette drifted lazily and merged with the current of smoke from the fire.
Insects sang as the sky lost its light. The orange sunset drained and the fire burned hotter and brighter; the flames blazed up in streams, shimmering like an illusion.
“Did’ya ever hear from the drugstore?” Jarrett asked.
“Nah, I haven’t heard anything yet.”
“You outta go in there tomorrow and ask em again. They’ll give you that job if you bother em enough about it.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stop by tomorrow. We’re doing okay with everyone living here.”
“You don’t wanna go too long without work. You won’t be able to go back.”
“Yeah, well, if you work too hard you won’t be able to stop,” Reed said.
The sound of splitting wood, the same each time; a plodding masquerade of purposive action. The rise and fall of the ax.
Reed threw his cigarette into the fire and looked about and got up.
“Where’d Aaron go?”
“He’s been inside the whole time.”
“Has he now? I could’ve sworn he was out here chopping earlier.”
“No, he wasn’t. Dad wouldn’t allow it. Aaron wouldn’t bother asking anyway. He’s probably asleep already. Damn good for nothing.”
“He’s alright. He helps out from time to time.”
Reed lingered next to the fire and wiped a drop of sweat that had slid down his face.
“Alright then, I’m gonna see how mom’s doing. I might be back out in a bit.”
Reed walked into the house. Scattered starlight poked through the night sky and the moon hung sickly and shadowed.
Still he chops. The woods will be nothing but stumps before he decides he’s done enough work for the day, Jarrett thought as his organs twisted.
Then he fixated on the fire and he felt his brain as the burning underbelly of the licking and spiring flames. Red and orange cinders that will smolder long after warmth is needed. The last light on a cold crusted earth.
The same stubbornness and the same restless pride in him is in me. But it’s not in my brothers. They are like someone else; someone I’ve never seen looking down on me. Maybe they are from someone else, he thought. Who knows what a woman hides in her heart and in her womb. Love for another man, the seed of another man. Who knows, who knows.
He stood up and dug a rut into the dirt with his boot, back and forth, listening to the splitting wood against the moaning night and whispering flames. I must be of his flesh because I can’t stop. Only with me it’s not my body but my soul that never slumbers. I don’t dream when I sleep, I think. I turn over the waste of days. Like some puzzle that can’t be solved. I can’t let it alone. Just like how he sits for a second and then he’s up again, with a task for himself no one asked him to do. No one needs him to do.
Jarrett walked from the fire, the heat against his back, the flames throwing ghostly light and cutting fluid and flickering shapes out of the ground. Down a dirt path to a wooden shed. He opened the door and lit a match. Rakes and shovels and a bench downcast and grainy in the wan light. Leaves rustling, something scurrying; a rat or a mole. Jarrett turned and looked at the small hatchet and the long ax on the wall to his right. The curved wooden handle and the blade his father said was too dull to split wood but he would sharpen it soon.
Why won’t he let up and just be old already? Why doesn’t he die? I’m getting into middle age and I feel like dying and he mocks me with his rusted rigid grip on life. The man looks damn near one hundred. He has no color in his face and his eyes don’t tell you anything. His pupils are like dull drops of paint, just stains, leftovers of some life. He works and works. It’s because of his pride. My brothers have no pride. They sit around and pretend to work. They lift one finger and say they worked the whole day.
Jarrett thought and pulsed in and out of seeing the ax and its lusterless heavy head. What do my mother and father see in each other? My mother sits at the window. She shrinks by the day and my father won’t stay still. He won’t sit in the house, he’s always out inventing things to do that don’t need to be done. And he holds it over our heads. He won’t tell us he wants help and then he’ll act like we’re all lazy sonsabitches. When we try to help he says he doesn’t need it and then he holds himself above us like he’s the only one who works, the only one who knows what work is. I know what work is, I can never rest.
The match burned down and the flame singed his finger as he wore himself out with his thoughts and begrudged his brothers who did not work hard enough and his father who worked too hard. The sloth and pride squeezing his wrathful brain. Standing in the dark again he lit a match and walked to the wall. He grabbed the ax and dust floated and fell. From the shed he stomped onto the grass and dirt. The fire had swelled and seemed ready to burst and bathe the yard and the house.
Jarrett threw the match and listened for the splitting wood. The ax coming down and after a time the sound of wood being stacked and then back to the sharpened blade sinking, the old man and his old bones he refused to feel. He must be aching all the time but he won’t say it, he won’t admit how frail he really is, Jarret thought. The man must feel nothing but pride. He won’t feel anything else. Maybe because two of his sons are not his but living emblems of betrayal, of woman’s deceit, a prison he locked himself in, led into this hell by the lies of love.
Why did my mother do it? Give herself to him and other men. Shut up inside herself with her secret lusts and dreams. Sit in that damn window all day like an unlit candle, no light left for anyone. Why did she have us and say nothing about why? She gave us life to watch her wither. Our prime is their decline. They will not die until we are right behind them next to the grave.
The ax in his hand, Jarrett walked from the shed to his father and stood staring until the old man stopped and looked at him. Jarrett wondered how long they could stand there in silence, if they could pass the bitter cold night in senseless staring. If any two men could, it would be them, he thought.
“Wanted to see if you needed any help. If you’re going to keep cutting more wood, might be good to have a hand.”
“No, no, I don’t need any help. You can just enjoy that fire or go inside if you want.”
The father went back to work. In the light from the monstrous fire, in the light now shellacking the yard and wall of trees, Jarrett stood studying his father until his thoughts dug into him and felt like burrowing beetles. His flesh stinging and undulant, he could no longer stand and think.
He raised the ax. It seemed to hang in the air, in a space divested of time, as if in a still frame, as if it were not held by a hand of beating blood. The father carried on unmindful of the son at his side. Jarrett brought down the blunt edge on the back of his father’s neck. The fire spit out beyond the rocks and scorched the grass. Jarrett chopped and chopped. It felt like cutting through a dead fallen tree and he was empty of thought for the first time.