Swing Low – Justin KB
February 2, 2022
After the big collapse, I told them all I wanted to work every day til I believed me. I was in the woods in summer, three months into a tree crew job, couldn’t finish a poem to save my life, almost out of ideas, and completely out of cigarettes. But you could always bum one off Eli. He’d look at you with eyes stitched together like he knew you was sorry and sorry to ask, but he’d peel one out, stand for the ritual of you rooting through your pockets for a light, then mutter “damn, you need a lung too?” lazy like a liturgy. Light it for you like a taper. “I ain’t gone be around forever you know.”
Then he’d fell a tree.
That sounds too simple, but for Eli I think it was. He was too old to see the ceremony of saw work, and a tree was a thing to manage. Not unkindly or for no reason, but when he saw an oak older than his grandfather, so wild it’d forgot the sky and looped arms back to the earth, Eli saw a job. He’d go to his knees in its shade. The implements of the trade arrayed before him: a decanter of blade oil; a bull rope thick as two thumbs; a yellow nylon cord thin as a preacher’s patience with a weighted, red sandbag hitched at its end; a file to sharpen the teeth. The saw.
And in a high Alabama summer, with a choir of cicadas sawing off their ragged song in praise at the heat of the day, it all just came together. I wish Eli had saw it. Once, our foreman found my notebook of unfinished poetry and read it aloud over the hottest campfire this side of hell, and Eli was the only one who didn’t laugh, but even so, I don’t think he saw the world the way I did. He rested the saw between his knees and pulled the file through the teeth in a rhythm syncopated with the cicadas and a whippoorwill loosed a castrati octave. I told the sky I never wanted to go back home.
“Hand me the oil,” he said. Eli slid the anointed saw edgewise into the sunlight and saw his work was good. “Run that rope,” he coughed.
I coiled the bull rope palm to elbow, heavy like a tire, and hitched it to the yellow cord. You never saw two ropes more unequally yoked; a profligate shaking hands with a prophet. Then I whirled the sandbag like a sling in the shadow of the tree. It tangled in the overhang. I tugged it back too hard, and it popped the steel side of the truck. Eli twitched his mouth in that way I didn’t have to see to feel.
The second time, it punched stone-heavy through a crotch about three branches too low. “We cuttin this thang down today, or…?” He worked a knot out his shoulder with one hand and dropped the saw. “Ah, shit.”
I went for a third go-round. A storm was coming together in the sunset. I took care to make the cord sing. To make it blur in the thick air like a cutting halo or the ghost of the sun, the red sandbag on its end ripping along like Mars in the void over my head. It sailed true through a sturdy crotch in the seventh layer of branches, but kept flying on like a thief through a window into the green beyond—deep into a thicket of stickerbriar and kudzu on the far side. Like anything done well for the first time, it was done too well. Eli laughed, coughed, and laughed again. The rope hummed, taut as a fishing line, and the kudzu leaves danced and waved the mock salute of a green thousand.
“Welp, boy. Reckon you orta get it.” Thunder hummed in the west like the older angels of the land, estranged from the dirt by our long occupation, returning at last. Eli chicked his lighter and watched the sky. Thunderheads drew across the world like an unwashed sheet. “Put a hurry on it. That don’t look good.” He tossed me a bottle of lukewarm water.
The stickerbriar pulled me in. “It’s hot as fuck in here.”
“Yeah. Kudzu traps heat. Pour that water on your head, that’s why I give it to you.”
I palmed along the taut nylon rope glowing down through the depths, hunting the lost sandbag. My safety glasses fogged. Thorns thin as an ant hair stabbed through my shirt in their hundreds, and I might as well have been naked in that nave of heaving life. Thunder beat the earth like a drum. The cicadas went silent.
I lit another bummed cigarette. The brush held the smoke around me til I couldn’t breathe. I reached up and pushed aside the vines, hungry for air, and got nothing but the clammy caress of leaves drunk with the wind. They laid hands on my brow as briars pulled at my knees and the sky threatened fire. Eli called again, but his words were lost in the swelling pentecost of the clouds.
In the shimmering heat of the stickerbriar, I found it. A red heart, pulsing and trapped in the humidity between the dessicated arms of a strangled hollybush. I pulled. It was stuck. I pulled harder, and harder again, then tore my arm back so far I felt for a moment the tight breath of the storm about to break on my hand and it ripped loose and caught me like a softball square on the jaw.
Laid out, but breathing. A split lip. The air felt awake and alive and new. Dirt drier than talcum on my tongue mixed with blood into a gritty paste. I swished water in my mouth and spat it out, and soon as it hit the dirt a blue fairylight ran across the surface of the spittle and sparked out across the broken soil like a sheet, then winked out. Like the finger of some lesser saint had touched the earth.
A bright interjection split the sky. Like creation in reverse, the world that was suddenly wasn’t. All hot white light that burned out and faded to black; but in that transition I saw with the eyes of the prophets. Those who looked upon bright creation with the eyes of God and felt no fear for He was with them. Revelation. All that’s good and worthy is finished and victory is complete.
As I emerged from the brush, the earth and every molecule in it were anointed with sound and motion. Dry soil jumped and danced in ecstasy into smoke that hovered like incense. Tongues of fire licked the trees and embers swirled in the wind. I called for Eli but I couldn’t find him.
Then came His whirlwind, like a train from everywhere with the rumble of its wheels pounding down the tracks of the universe. The briars and kudzu laid low and confessed to its majesty as it reached down to set foot on the earth.
The tree was caught up and I was knocked back down to the ground. The truck rose too, a chariot among burning branches. And quick as a thief, the whirlwind and all its fires leapt back into heaven as rain began to fall. As the procession flew off into whatever kingdom, I heard a voice in the whirlwind holler, HOME! HOME! HOME!