The sturdy roots of a giant oak were snapped by stormy winds before its trunk keeled over behind our cabin in the snow. No one was there to see it, but in every summer that followed, we saw the tree that once stood between my family and the water occupy the path leading to the old swing-set my father built for my sisters and me as children. Now, we step around its branches to get to the shore, taking care not to crush infant pine trees under our shoes.
My father is upstairs in the loft of the cabin, pulling out the middle drawer of our wooden dresser, unfolding a cotton T-shirt, flattened by the emptiness of a winter away. Within an hour I hear a metallic hum rumbling out of the saw and I know the middle drawer will be empty. For eight years now, he has chipped away at the oak branches, tossing logs onto the mossy ground. When the forest is bright, he can do this all day. He no longer wears a suit at his windowless office in Moscow. Instead, he carries chunks of freshly chopped wood in gloved hands onto a stack to dry. He is content to prepare for the Maine winter he will never see.
When I am alone, I know where to find him. If he is not mowing the lawn, he is chopping wood. He signals his presence by the persistent, dull thud of an ax against a thick block of wood as strips of bark flake off and scatter among pine needles. In each whack, I imagine his memory of subway tracks and winter roads in a distant European city unraveling. His eyes are fixed; his face is flushed. The silence before the fiber snaps is swift.
I break the rhythm and ask him to show me how to cut wood, hovering over the sacred work site. “Okay,” he hesitates as he swings his arms back for one more whack. Two halves bounce to the ground. He wipes his brow and steps aside, passing me the ax. “Do you know how to hold it?” he asks, passing the long wooden handle into my palms. At 21 years old, I find the handle heavy like a baseball bat, and I was never athletic. He takes his time with instructions. I step back. He guides my hands onto the ax, showing me where to place them, and as I swing, my palms slide up and down the handle, before the ax lands on the surface of the block. I leave only a thin dented line down the middle of the wood. I frown at my effort. “Good try!” he smiles. When I readjust the wood, the ax swoops through the empty air and topples the stump off the chopping block. “Careful!” his voice jumps. Laughing, I pass the ax to my father and let him take over. Two halves bounce to the ground.
Careful, he says to me slowly before I cross a street, when I pull out a can-opener, when I announce I am going for a run, if I hike in the rain, if I try out vegetarianism, if I go into the city alone. The world is prickly. Careful means being well-stocked with vitamins, Band-Aids, my hand on my passport at all times and possessing a rabbit-like vigilance. I am well-aware of the dangers in wielding an ax. Seizing its handle would propel me into a realm where life is severed into halves and quarters. Once the wood is cut and dried, it is not the tree in front the swing-set.
I am my father’s second daughter. He has no sons. All three of us girls will gladly take up an adventure in the canoe or help start a fire, but our winter nights are spent watching the likes of Pride and Prejudice. He can quote Mr. Collins, but watches Trojan battles and Cold War espionage on the the airplane. And then he chops wood. “I want to help you clip the pine branches and tidy up the brush,” I often say, when he squints his eyes and tosses pine cones in a pile. “I want to learn the skills to take care of this place.” He nods, and then begins listing all there is to know, how to turn on the hot water, where to find the keys, the code to unlock the tool shed, and suddenly the mystery of Brightwater is cut into perimeters of knowledge I do not fully possess. Like a heavy ax, the space to inherit keeps me turning from the fallen oak towards a living tree I played under as a child.
I am seven years old at the base of an oak tree, gathering twigs from the ground, lining them up to form the foundation of a house for fairies. I kneel in pine needles that leave imprints on my skin, flicking daddy long legs off my knees, driving the sticks into the soil like stakes around knotted roots. I leave my work site and walk towards the woods where I proceed to pull up carpets of damp moss from the soil. I turn around a birch tree and peel its bark like a scroll, silver settling on its black strips like a fairy dust. Empty clam shells make ideal bathtubs, bowls and bed frames. Snap. I push my knee through a dry thin branch into halves, and then quarters, until it is split into finger long twigs.
Behind the warm oak tree, I hear my father drilling, cutting, clipping. Snap. He tosses branches into the leaves, picks up kindling for the fire. When he is finished, he joins me at my fairy construction site. He crouches down in the ground and peers into the pine needle living room and the clam shell bath. “Will I always be able to make fairy-houses?” I ask, afraid of the age when it is no longer appropriate to pick moss for invisible visitors. “Yes, I like to make them even now,” he tells me, breaking a tiny twig in half and leaning it against the house for support, before heading back towards the shed to put away tools.
During wood chopping lessons I help him carry fresh stumps to the shed. I jog with a wheelbarrow over to the work site, piling blocks, leaving the wood guarded by large spiders on the ground. I run the wheelbarrow past the play-set and its rusty swings where my father talks about rebuilding, sweeping dead leaves off the slide. I feel strong as I return the wheelbarrow to the shed and pass a patch where we once planted pansies and drizzled beer into mud to scare away slugs. I am seven years old again, remembering the day my shovel hit a clink of dull metal. My father and I dug around the unknown structure until we extracted a small hand ax caked in soil. The ax was taken to a museum for analysis. The forest we stand in was once open farmland.
I realize the tug to cut wood is buried and dealt with on the surface. The trees will fall, but their roots keep me in wonder.
This exposed jumble of roots on our fallen oak is now home to invisible creatures and mushrooms burrowing in the soft soil. Wild raspberries sprout and dangle from the base of the tree. I watch my father climb over the trunk, adjust his hat and gaze at the giant oak, the eight-year project of clipping, cutting and chopping for some invisible future, for a dry winter and warm summer night we have not seen. Time dissolves into the ground. I hear the sounds of logs hitting the earth until late into the day. At 21, I am still kneeling at the living oak, creating a roof of pine branches and birch for returning fairies. Then I am back at the shed, playing with an ax, swinging my arms back, carving lines across a heavy stump until it falls into two halves.
Careful, I imagine my father’s voice with each whack. When I ran, I got runner’s knee. When I opened a can of baked beans, I scraped my finger. When I got lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he went looking for me. When my older sister smashed open a rotting stump at three years old and disturbed a wasp nest, he is the father who ran , holding my infant self close to his shoulders so that the only sting on my skin was a small speck on my ear.
Careful, he waits as I wave to him from a Russian airport security checkpoint until I disappear onto a plane headed for England, Italy or America—where I can race back to the cabin, out towards the pile of logs, rebuild my fairy house, step over the fallen oak. Careful, I start a fire, stacking dried logs in the fireplace until I listen for that crackle of amber, resurrecting the whisper of tangled roots. This is my response to careful: I will listen to love as I swing, as I cut a stump in half, because I know the splintered wood returns to its roots in the flame or soil. What can be more formidable?