This particular writing exercise was about Hemingway. We were reading The Old Man and the Sea – what a wonderful story, that Hemingway fellow sure knew what he was doing. This was about emulating the way Hemingway describes work, and the fable tone of the piece. The job I chose to describe was random, if memory serves.
The son had never known the great lights of the city. All he knew was the country he had been born in. His entire childhood had been spent in the same small country town, trapped between the deep woods on the West and the high mountains on the East. But the boy was not a child anymore. The fact that his father had allowed him to come to the forest this morning proved that he was now a grown man. Chopping the trees was not a child’s job. This morning, his father had walked up to his bedroom just as the sun ascended over the mountains. He was a tall and strong man, his father, and his huge frame had cast upon the sleeping boy a shadow even darker than night itself.
‘Come, son,’ the father had said.
He had not waited to make sure that his words had been heard. The son had jumped off the bed immediately and pulled on his shirt and trousers in a hurry. How lucky I am, he had thought. My brother had to wait until his fifteenth birthday to be deemed ready to chop the trees. I am only twelve. How lucky I am, the son thought.
Walking into his father’s large footsteps, looking up at his broad back and his unkempt red hair, the son rolled this thought over and over in his mind with pride. The father was glancing around at the trees, now and then interrupting his march to examine one more carefully. He was searching for the one that would make the most beautiful furniture. Although the son knew that the most important part of his father’s job was the working of the wood into tables and chairs and cabinets, he was only interested in bringing down the trees. He hoped to work as his father’s assistant, chopping the best trees and bringing them back to the town to carve.
‘We will take this one down,’ said the father, standing in front of a large oak tree.
And the tree was standing in front of the father, tall and strong and proud. The son watched as his father extended his arm and touched his fingertips to the trunk.
‘Give me the axe, son,’ he said.
It was a bit difficult, at first, to lift the massive axe. The son had to adjust his strength to the weight.
‘Now, stand back.’
The father swung the axe over his shoulder effortlessly, drew in a sharp breath, and swung it back towards the base of the trunk. With a soft thud the axe hit the strong tree. Putting his foot on the trunk just below the place where the axe was now stuck, the father pulled on the handle with all his might, throwing his body backwards to use his weight as an ally.
Again and again the father swung the axe and it looked as if the tool was part of his body. How lucky I am, the son thought, that my father is such a great lumberjack. He will teach me very well and then I will be great too. He watched for long minutes as the axe dug deeper and deeper into the tree. He could see now that the job was not as easy as it had first appeared. The father’s body was strained. His face was white and patches of sweat stained his shirt on his back and armpits. The clash between the man’s body temperature and the cold winter morning materialised itself in little puffs of white every time he released the air from his lungs.
When the sun appeared from behind the high treetops of the forest, the father stopped working and turned to face the son.
‘Have you been watching carefully?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sir,’ said the boy.
‘Then you try it now.’
The son took the axe in his small hands and stepped in front of the tree. The tree stood just as proud and mighty as he had before and he seemed to look down at the boy with a sneer. Tiny child, the tree was saying, you are so frail, you will never be able to bring me down. We will see about that, the son thought. With his frail arms, he swung the axe behind him as his father had done seconds before. He took a deep breath that froze his insides and sent a chill down his spine. Down came the axe, and landed on the trunk, digging a little further into the wood.
Quite proud of his neat first swing, the son turned to his father for approval, but the father stood motionless with his arms folded upon his chest, tall and strong as the great oak tree. So the son swung the axe again, and again, until the father’s deep voice interrupted him.
‘It is ready to come down now,’ he said.
Excitement began to build up in the son’s frail body. Now was the time he had been waiting for. The father stepped behind him to guide his movements.
‘Swing the axe,’ he said.
The son swung the axe.
‘Now put your foot against the trunk and push with all your weight.’
The son put his little boot against the tree and let his body fall forward. The tree did not move.
‘Your foot should be higher than this,’ said the father. ‘Again.’
The son tried again. He stretched his leg as much as he could and inched his boot up the trunk. The tree gave a long whine.
‘Stand back,’ the father said.
The boy took a step back and watched as the tree slowly fell and hit the frosted ground with a loud crack.
‘You did a good job,’ said the father.
The son walked to the fallen oak tree and lightly rested his hand against it. It was oddly warm and he could almost feel it shiver under his palm. He felt proud to have brought down this mighty giant. You see, tree, he thought, I am not a child anymore. I am a lumberjack now.