New Wood from Old Trees
By Timothy Mudie
It was a week after my great-aunt Shirley’s funeral that my mom sent me to check in on Len, Shirley’s husband. When I was a kid, I’d loved visiting their house, staring out the car window as we wove through streets where the trees pushed right up against the road and all the houses were set back in clearings at the ends of long wooded driveways. I’m sure it didn’t always smell like wood smoke when we reached their house, but in my memory it did.
It had been years since I’d visited. Once I got old enough, I stayed home when my mom made her bi-weekly or so visits. Even though they’d been as close as grandparents when I was younger, by the time I was in college, I hadn’t seen Len or Shirley except for holidays for probably six or seven years. Now, almost a year out of college, the whole area seemed changed. Houses more visible from the road, the trees thinner. I thought about how good Len and Shirley had always been to me, and I felt guilty for having gone so long without a visit.
I turned into the driveway, unable to keep from glancing at the mailbox. Slowly, I steered along and up to the house. When I saw the mailbox, I noticed something else as well. A massive oak stump, maybe three feet wide through the center, surrounded by woodchips and sawdust. A lot had changed over the years, but this was clearly more recent.
Wanting Len to know I was there, I slammed my car door shut. Walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. Knocked loudly. There was no answer, and for a moment I feared the worst. Len had seemed old even when I was a kid. I had no idea his exact age, but he had to be pushing eighty. At the funeral he wasn’t just elderly. He was broken.
Before I pulled out my phone to call nine-one-one, the sawdust and remembered scent of wood smoke told me where he had to be. I walked around to the back of the house, and sure enough, there was Len, standing outside his workshop, a ten-foot-long stretch of oak laid out on the hard dirt in front of him, tools and transport surrounding it.
His back was to me, and he didn’t turn as I approached.
“Len?” I said, reaching my hand to his shoulder. He flinched as if I’d stabbed him with a hot poker. “It’s just me. Andrew.”
He turned too slowly. Old as he was, old as I’d always taken him to be, he worked magic with wood, always on some project or another, and it kept him sprightly, quick on his feet and with his hands. At least it had while Shirley was around.
As he spoke, he looked in my direction, but I don’t know if he saw me then, if he really recognized me even though he’d grabbed me so desperately at the funeral that it left finger-shaped bruises on my forearm. “The tree saw,” he whispered. “It saw everything. It saw Shirley die.”
“You should go check in on your uncle Len,” my mother had said that morning. “You’ve got the day off, after all.”
It was a diplomatic way of putting it. She was pouring herself coffee as she prepared to leave for work, and I was sitting at the kitchen table, in shirt and tie, waiting for a phone call about a temp job even though if anything came in I would’ve heard already. The first time I had an unplanned week off from temping, it was a treat. More time to apply for full-time work, time to relax, to read, to play video games. The second time it happened, a niggling worry took hold. The third time, I felt sick to my stomach. Now I rarely went more than a month without an unexpected week or half week without work. Without pay. Even though my mother didn’t make me pay rent, I had to pay my student loans, contribute to grocery bills, split utilities and cable and the family phone plan. I’d saved up from summer jobs, and now witnessed my bank account balance slowly trickle downward.
So I had no reason not to go visit Len. To check in, even though Mom meant check up, make sure he was taking care of himself, not wallowing in despair. Not that anyone would blame him. Shirley was his life. They’d been together for more than fifty years. The way they looked at each other, the kindness they invariably showed one another, taught me what a healthy relationship should look like in contrast to my parents who divorced when I was six.
It had been another one of my unscheduled vacation days when I found out Shirley died. Just like the day I went to check in on Len, I was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for a call when my mother’s phone rang. Rare for her to get a call so early, I knew something was up.
“Oh my god, Len. No. What happened?”
Shirley had lived with Alzheimer’s for years, barely leaving the house, Len shadowing her day and night. When people talk about diseases like Alzheimer’s they say there are good days and bad days, and by Len’s account Shirley was in the midst of a good one when she died. Which is why it happened on a rare moment when he wasn’t at her side.
Orange and yellow and crimson leaves drifted across the lawn, early-morning dew making them sparkle in the autumn sun. Such a beautiful day, Shirley said, she would walk to the end of the drive and pick up the mail. It was something she’d done almost every day before the Alzheimer’s set in, and Len perked up on hearing her declaration. It would be one of her good days. But when nearly ten minutes passed and she hadn’t returned, worry set in.
Len found Shirley unconscious at the base of the mailbox, blood trickling from her forehead and more soaking her pant leg, blown leaves already entangled in her hair and clothes. The paramedics did what they could on the way to the hospital, the doctors did what they could once she was admitted to the ICU. For three hours, Shirley held on, but in the end she was old and her hip had broken and she’d lost too much blood.
When Len recovered enough to call anyone, it was my mother, his and Shirley’s niece, who he called first. They had no children of their own, no grandkids.
I’d last seen Shirley and Len the previous Christmas. They came to our house with a store-bought apple pie. Even though it was just the four of us, I’d hardly spoken to Shirley, put off and awkward around her fumbling attempts at remembering just how she knew me.
I boiled water for tea, because that’s what old people drink, but when the kettle whistled, Len squinted at me.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, tilting his head toward the kitchen counter. “Coffee pot’s over there.”
Coffee brewing, I sat across from Len at the kitchen table he’d built. Sitting in a chair he’d built. Under the high ceiling of a room he’d built in the house he’d built for Shirley. My first thought was to ask if he was okay, but that was a stupid question, so instead I asked, “What are you building out there, Len?”
Barely, he smiled. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Promise I won’t.”
Now the smile left, and his gaze turned to flint. “Someone killed my wife, Andrew. Someone hit her with their car and they just drove away. They didn’t even call an ambulance.”
This was news to me. No one at the wake or funeral talked directly about how Shirley had passed, leaving it to me to infer from reading between the lines and snippets about what people had heard from doctors, but the consensus held that she had fallen. Slipped on some wet leaves. Broken a hip, hit her head, bled internally. Shirley was old. Old people fell sometimes, and a fall could be devastating. To me, it made sense. I didn’t say any of this to Len, but he must have read it in my eyes.
“The way people drive on that road, they’re maniacs. Whipping around corners, paying more attention to their phones.” He shook his head. “Andrew, her hip was broken. Her shoulder was dislocated. That doesn’t happen from a fall.”
I realized he still hadn’t answered my original question. “But what are you building, then?”
“Someone hit my wife with their car, and left her to die. I told the police, but they won’t do anything. They don’t believe me, and even if they did, how would they find the person? But the trees, they saw. The one in back, I’m going to build it into something. And it’s going to tell me who killed Shirley. And then I’m going to get revenge.”
I had no idea how to answer my mother that night when I got home and she asked how Len was doing.
“Okay,” I finally said. “As good as you could expect, you know?”
She nodded. I got away without any further explanation. What could I say?
Later, I lay in bed, unable to sleep. Worried for Len, but not sure what exactly I was worrying about. That he was going crazy? Or that he wasn’t?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and one year for my birthday Len carved me a model of a velociraptor. It was exquisitely worked, all the fine details perfectly hewn, each claw coming to a sharp point, the faintest outlines of feathers etched into its sides—Len had done his homework. I still had it sitting on my desk in the corner of my bedroom, and I dozed off for a second while I was looking at it, but didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until I snapped from the dream when it rushed at me, jaws open and ready to attack.
Sawdust flew and the chainsaw whirred as Len cut slabs from the tree trunk. He must have seen me approach, but kept working.
“Len!” I tried shouting over the saw, but it was too loud, and anyway he was wearing ear protectors. I wasn’t so I backed off, went and sat inside until I heard the saw whir to a stop.
Outside, Len stood back from his project, holding the chainsaw at his side and assessing his progress. Already, the trunk resembled a person, a thick wide torso tapering to what would become the head, roughly fashioned limbs. The chainsaw work appeared finished. For the rest, Len would need more precise instruments.
“You know how to carve an elephant?” he asked. He turned to me and grinned. “Just take away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”
“Makes sense. And how do you make wood come to life?”
I spoke flippantly on purpose, but I was covering up a growing fear that somehow Len would do this. People had always said he worked magic with wood. Much as I wanted to doubt, something primal and deep inside me whispered that they didn’t realize how right they were.
“Faith and will, Andrew,” he said. “Faith and will.” He lowered the chainsaw to the dirt. “Is that all you’re here for? To tease an old man?”
“Then what?” I asked. “It comes to life and what?” I told myself I was humoring him. That at least he was keeping himself occupied. I looked at the vague outline of a person in wood, pictured it sitting up. Imagined the cool rough hands like clubs battering some careless or drunken driver to death or closing around the driver’s throat. I tried to picture who could have hit Shirley. A teenage boy who panicked and sped off, promising himself to never glance at his phone while driving ever again, assuring himself that the woman would probably be fine? Some middle-aged woman in a bad mood, driving too fast on the narrow curves? It could have been anyone.
“When I’ve made my figure, it will know what to do. It will rise and hunt down the person who killed Shirley. Because I need it to.”
He spoke like a zealot, like a preacher calling down fire and brimstone, and for a long moment, I couldn’t say anything, just looked around. At Len, at the woods surrounding us, all the trees. I wondered if they really were watching. “You know, Len,” I finally said, “my mother is going to ask me how you’re doing. I don’t know what to tell her.”
“Tell her whatever you want.” He turned to the trees now as well. Sparrows flitted among the turning leaves at the edge of the woods. “I don’t need much more time.”
Stepping over to the body—the tree trunk, I reminded myself—I put my hand on it, felt the scratchy grain beneath my palm, splinters trying to poke up and into my fingertips. All it would take was one wrong move. Carefully, I lifted it off. “Please don’t do this, Len. I know I promised I wouldn’t say it, but this is crazy.”
He’d always been happy before, jolly you might say, and for a second I thought I saw that again when he winked at me, but his voice was steady and stern. “Then why are you trying so hard to stop me?”
The rest of the week dragged by as I sat at home, waiting for a call about work. Then the weekend. Monday morning, I called my temp company, thinking maybe they just needed a reminder I was available. No luck, no job. I watched daytime TV. Cooking shows, commercials for debt consolidation and online universities. I didn’t apply for any jobs. I’d already plumbed the depths of every job posting site I could find. When I finally went back to Len’s on Tuesday I told myself it was because I couldn’t stay home anymore. I needed to get out, and I had nowhere else to go.
By now, I knew where to find Len, and sure enough he was out back by his workshop. What was unexpected was the eight foot tall oaken man standing in front of him. Plane in hand, Len shaved slivers from his creation, the scraps fluttering to a pile at his feet.
He’d done so much. Weeks of work over the course of just a few days. Even from where I stood a few feet away, I could see the dark bags under his eyes, the pink lines spiderwebbed across the whites. His hair stuck out at odd angles, salted with sawdust. Dark sweat stains bloomed on the underarms and around the neck of his red thermal shirt. His breath was shallow and ragged, and he looked about to drop. Had he slept at all since I’d seen him last? Fueled by grief and strong coffee, I didn’t doubt he worked as much as he could. If he slept at all, it would only be short snatches, just enough so he could get back to work.
But as I examined the figure, that effort showed. The person Len had carved from a tree trunk was more than the witness to Shirley’s death, it was a piece of art. Eyes glared down at me, wide open and bright. The hands strong and gnarled like Len’s own, thick-fingered with knobby knuckles. Muscles seemed to ripple across its body, and if it weren’t for the small divots in them, I could have believed they were actual flesh. It stood ramrod straight, as straight as the oak it had been carved from. No, I thought. Not carved from. The oak it had once lived inside.
Len placed the plane on the ground, removed a tiny knife from his tool belt, and whittled a few final chips from the figure’s right thumb. He leaned back, and returned the knife to his belt.
“I thought to sand it,” he said, “but decided not to. I think it’s better to keep as much of the tree in the person as I can, don’t you? I need it to remember what it was, what it saw.”
I couldn’t help myself. “It’s beautiful, Len.”
His eyes burned, but witnessing what Len had created, the fervor he’d imbued into it already, I knew he wasn’t crazy. And I feared it.
“Len—” I started.
He held up a hand. “I know what you’re going to say, Andrew. I’m doing this. You see that now?”
It was my turn to nod. “You don’t need to, though. You can walk away. What is this going to accomplish?”
Head cocked, Len looked at me like I was crazy. “Vengeance for Shirley,” he said. “Someone took her from me. It isn’t fair. It wasn’t her time.”
I didn’t say that she had been going away from him for years. That every time I’d seen her, she’d asked me how my son was, thinking I was my father, even though I hadn’t heard from him since I was seven years old. That I answered her as if I was him, saying that Andrew was good, growing up into a fine young man. She nodded sagely, smiling, and I wondered if I was right to answer her at all. If the very act of answering her made me not so good.
“This isn’t you,” I said.
“You’re right,” Len said. “I’m not me anymore. All that’s left is this.” He placed his hand on the figure’s chest. “And I will pray to every god that ever was, and every devil, if that’s what it takes.”
The man who had carved me toys, who had read me picture books in the glow of their wood-burning stove was gone. I saw Len’s eyes and knew.
“Please,” I said, “just take a break. You look like you haven’t slept in days. Lie down for a minute, get some sleep.” I wanted to tell him to see how he felt when he woke up, but didn’t bother. Sleep wouldn’t shake his determination.
But he was obviously worn out, and the very hint of rest staggered him. For a long time he didn’t say anything. Finally, he nodded, and said, “Okay.” I followed him to his bedroom, watched him remove his boots and lie back on the comforter. His eyes closed, and I shut the door behind me on the way out. He wouldn’t stop, I knew, but maybe there was still something I could do to stop him.
In front of the giant oak man, silent chainsaw in my hands, it didn’t take much of a leap to imagine the figure alive. Angry eyes regarded me, as if weighing judgment or daring me to make a move. I stood frozen, one hand on the handle of the chainsaw, the other on the pull-start.
I didn’t really know how to use a chainsaw. With my father leaving when I was so young, no one had taught me that sort of thing. I’d seen our landlord start a lawnmower using a pull-cord, so I had an idea of how it worked, but I never had the need to use one myself. Strangely, I wished I had helped Len mow his lawn or snow-blow his driveway sometime. For all the time I’d spent observing Len, I never actually learned anything. If I started the chainsaw now, I’d probably chop my arm off.
Still, it was the only way to stop Len. To slow him down, at least. Scenes ran through my mind. Slicing the wooden figure to pieces. Len creating another. Burning that one to ash with gasoline and matches. Len creating another. Hacking it apart with an axe. And so on. All those images, and none showed an end to it. There were so many trees. This was going to happen.
I lowered the chainsaw and went inside. I put on a pot of coffee and sat at the kitchen table that Len had built while I waited for him to wake up.
I jerked awake when I felt a hand on my shoulder, my sleep-addled brain terrified that it was the figure. Of course it was just Len, the grip of his calloused fingers unexpectedly gentle.
“Do you want to see this?” he asked. “It’s all right if you want to go.”
Still groggy, I stood up. “I’ll stay.”
“Don’t try to stop me.”
I shook my head. I already proved that I couldn’t. “If this is what you have to do, I’ll be with you when you do it. I’ll see it through.”
He took me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes. I wasn’t sure whether it was to see if I was lying or to thank me. He seemed clear now, fresh and awake, but no less determined. After a few seconds, he nodded decisively and said, “Let’s go then.”
Dusk had fallen outside, and thin clouds brought the darkness even sooner, muting the world. No birds sang, and even the squirrels had ceased rustling in the treetops. Cold grass crackled under my sneakers and Len’s boots. The figure waited for us in the fading light.
It wasn’t a full moon. Nothing so portentous, nothing that would make a person believe Len was about to bring a wooden man to life. And yet, I truly believed he would. The confidence radiated off him, hot and shimmering.
As I stood at the edge of Len’s work area, my feet half on grass, half on hard-packed dirt, I wondered what would happen if the figure did wake, if it hunted down the person who had hit Shirley and killed them. Would it come back here after? Fall to pieces, leaving the police with inscrutable oaken clues? I was sure Len hadn’t thought of these consequences, and I was equally sure he didn’t care.
Len murmured under his breath as he approached the figure, hands held palms out in front of him. I couldn’t make out the words. An incantation? An overpouring of all his frustration and anger and grief? Maybe just Shirley’s name over and over again. Facts from their life together. The date they first met, her favorite movie, the first song they danced to at their wedding. But it could have been anything.
Like a faith healer, Len laid his hands on the figure’s chest, mumbling all the while, his voice rising and falling musically, though the words were still obscured. He screwed his eyes shut. Veins bulged on his neck and wrists. It was like he was trying to force life into the wood. Not breathing it into the figure, but shoving it, refusing the oaken man a chance to decline. Len’s face reddened, noticeable even in the failing light. If I didn’t have such faith in him, I would have worried he’d give himself a stroke. Instead, I watched and waited, expecting something shocking and clear. A flash of lightning and thunderclap. A fiery hole opening in the ground. A ray of light piercing the cloudy dusk sky, shining on the figure alone.
Len trembled with effort. Finally, he finished his prayer or invocation or plea, and his head drooped. He stepped back and scrutinized the face of the figure he’d carved. I held my breath. The wooden man turned its head.
I gasped and nearly fell as my knees suddenly liquefied. Creaks and snaps came from the figure’s limbs as it settled itself, shifting its feet and flexing its thick fingers. Its lidless eyes stared down at Len. I reminded myself to breathe. This was magic, an actual miracle occurring in front of me, and my brain wouldn’t process it. As the figure took its first step, I couldn’t do anything but gawp.
The wooden man stood in front of Len, waiting for a command. “You know what to do,” Len said, his voice steady. “Whoever killed Shirley—find them and kill them.”
With deliberate slowness befitting an ancient oak tree, the figure walked around Len and me, plodding past the house, down the driveway to the mailbox. Len and I followed close behind.
“You did it,” I whispered. “How did you do it?”
But Len waved me off, eager to see where the figure would go. I wondered if he would follow it all the way to its destination. If he would watch it snuff the life out of a person. If he could be the same person himself if he did.
The figure stopped next to the mailbox. Len marched up to it, glaring. “Well?” he said. “Let’s get moving. I brought you here for revenge, damn it. Go find whoever took my wife.”
The figure’s face couldn’t move, its features frozen, and yet I thought it too appeared confused. Confused and sad.
“Let’s go!” Len shouted, smacking an open palm against the figure’s chest. “Who killed her? Who took Shirley from me?”
The figure stood rooted to the spot, gazing implacably down at Len. And I saw it. I pictured Shirley’s death how it actually must have happened. An old woman, shaky, slipping on wet leaves and falling, trying to stand, falling again. Her brittle bones cracking, her hands scraped and bloody. Too hurt to move, too winded to speak, she laid down and waited while she bled out. There was no hit and run, no one to swear revenge on but God.
“Len,” I said softly, reaching for his shoulder. He spun to face me, and from the look on his face, I knew that he’d realized the truth as well. There was no one for his figure to hunt.
“What is it going to do, Andrew?” he asked. “It has no reason to live now. What is it going to do?” He fell into me, dry hitching sobs escaping his throat.
I didn’t have an answer for him, but I didn’t want to tell Len that.
I spent the night at Len’s, sitting at the kitchen table in silence, and ushering him to bed when he finally dropped off from sheer exhaustion. I didn’t bother to call the temp agency and let them know I’d need a day off. They weren’t sending me out for work anyway.
All night long, I tried to sleep, but whenever I managed to doze off for a minute, I would quickly jolt back awake. Outside, the figure stood by the mailbox, unmoving, searching for revenge that it could never take. How long would it wait there? Would it stand until ivy and saplings took root around it, growing up and consuming it over years? Would it ever die? I had no answers, and I doubted Len did either.
Len woke early the next morning, before the sun had crested the treetops, the sky still creamy pink and orange, like rainbow sherbet. Incongruously beautiful, a promise of new beginnings, when not far away loomed a solid wood symbol of futility.
Silently, Len walked past me, put on the coffee. He didn’t ask about the figure, still standing vigil against fate. If only there were a way to get revenge on bad luck. On growing old. But if that existed, surely someone else would have found it by now. Surely Len would not be the first to rail against the dying of the light and win.
I didn’t trust myself to speak. Len sat across from me and stared at the table while he waited for the coffee to brew. I looked down at the tabletop as well. The grain of it swirled like cream mixing into coffee, light wood and dark wood intermingled. I wondered what Len could have sold this for, had he made it for sale, if everything he built hadn’t always been intended just for his family. I glanced around the kitchen, took in the hand-turned cherry wood bowls, a hanging set of maple salad tongs, walnut cutting boards.
“You know, Len,” I said, my voice cracking, unnatural after such prolonged silence, “you really did something amazing. That… thing out there. It’s magic. You did magic.”
He grunted, but didn’t lift his head. It wasn’t a sound of agreement, just recognizing that I spoke.
I went on. “You always could do that with wood, I think. The way you can make things. The way you create something new out of something old. I never realized it before.”
No response. Not even a flicker of motion when the coffee pot sputtered to a stop. Smells of the dark brew filled the room, mingled with the faint hint of cold sawdust from outside, the warm and thick scent of wood burning in the stove.
“Can you teach me?” I asked. “Teach me to build like you. All I have is time, Len. Teach me to make things.”
Finally, he lifted his head, his eyes shimmering with unfallen tears. For a long time, he stared at me hard, like he was trying to figure out how serious I was. Was I just patronizing him or did I really want to learn? Did I have it in me to follow in his footsteps? What could he carve from me?
His hands splayed on the table as he pushed himself up and crossed to the window. He pulled back the curtain, peered in the direction of the wooden man outside. The curtain dropped back. Len turned to face me. And nodded.
About the Author:
Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and LeVar Burton Reads. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at timothymudie.com or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.