One day a crew of professional land-clearers came in and uprooted the oaks and magnolias, and there was a dust of old moss and tree-ferns in the air, smelling shocked at having been so jarred after an age-long rest. Bright, calloused sunlight shone directly on the ground which had been shaded cool for a foot-thick layer of rotten leaves. The men tied heavy chains around the trunks and the bulldozers pulled, scraping away airplants and mutilating the bark, and sandy roots appeared and were dragged away, everything was dragged away to the big pile in the clearing to be burned later. The air smelled of diesels and vibrated with their pounding roar, and the boy stood in the clearing next to the huge pile of bonfire-to-be and watched.
One of the drivers had come over earlier to find out what he wanted. The man had been fairly polite, actually, which had disappointed him a little, for he had wanted to dislike him personally. He had only replied that no, he wasn't any relation to the owner, he just lived "next door" and he was just watching because he had nothing better to do. The man had looked at him, decided he was no threat to anyone, shrugged, and went back to work. Later a less friendly driver told him to keep out of the way.
By lunchtime, the first pile had grown as big as a fire-pile should get, so they started another about thirty feet away. Several displaced families of blue jays were circling overhead screaming at the orange monsters when the first rumbled spasmodically and stopped. The others came to a halt soon afterward, and the drivers came walking up to the first pile together, talking and pulling off their heavy work gloves. The Negroes who helped them wandered back one by one to sit down slowly and gingerly on the great oak trunks. They sat, not on the other side of the pile, but at the other end of the same side as the white men.
He stood between the two groups, making up his mind whether to stay or walk a quarter of a mile home to get lunch, when one of the drivers got up and said, "There's a nice-sized cabbage palm down towards the swamp; I think I'll get my machete out of the Cat and cut it." As he walked toward his machine an older man spoke.
"Save me a piece, will you?" And then to the other two, "Haven't tasted swamp cabbage in a hell of a long time. You boil it, season it right, and there's a real Florida treat."
The boy caught a whiff of conscious indifference from that quarter, and turned to walk over to where the Negroes sat. He sat down next to an old Negro who was examining the contents of an ancient black lunch bucket with an improvised wire handle, and looked in at the waxed paper and chicken leg.
"Hi, Tony," he said; "remember me?"
The old man looked up, grinned toothlessly, and said, "Hey, Rick! Where you been, boy?" His voice was richly hoarse.
"Oh, school," said Rick, a little dreamily.
The old man missed these words. "Eh?" he said, cupping his hand to his ear. Tony was probably close to ninety.
"School," Rick said, more loudly sorry that he had forgotten to speak up.
With the humor of the benignly senile, the old man chuckled at this, meaning nothing but that existence was amusing, and made no comment. The boy seemed a little fidgety.
"What do you think about clearing out the woods?" he asked, this time loudly enough.
The old man frowned good-naturedly. "Well," he said, "since dey put in de big highway, ain't been much game about; don' guess I trap much any more, so hit don't git to me."
"You hear they're going to dredge the pond and fill in the swamp?"
Tony grimaced. "Dat cain't make de fishin' no worse. Dey been pumpin' out fo' irrigatin' and pumpin' in dere wash-water, till it sudses when you' throws in a rock." He looked tired from so long a speech, and concentrated on the drumstick.
Rick bent over, resting his chin on his clasped knuckles, and stared at his boots. He liked his boots and was proud of them because they were old and well-worn and comfortable with their wrinkled tops and second soles. He thought of a particular tree, a tall dead oak, with a fish-eagle's nest in the highest crotch. It was down next to the swamp, and would be one of the last to go.
"Tony," he said, "did I ever tell you about the osprey nest down by the swamp?"
The old man was quiet, and Rick repeated himself more loudly: "Did you know there were some eagles down by the swamp?"
Tony pursed his wrinkled lips in a dignified pout, and answered simply, "Yeah, I seen 'em too."
Rick was afraid he'd annoyed the old man, and leaned back self-consciously against the logs while Tony went on picking carefully at the chicken bone. He looked across the clearing at the edge of the woods; the trees that he had always seen darkly and mysteriously shaded were now brightly reflecting the sun from their trunks. Yet still they seemed to hide something cool behind them.
He caught himself biting his fingernails and made himself stop, inwardly ashamed.
A new mechanical sound crept into the ringing absence of the bulldozers' thunder -- and automobile approaching through the orange grove behind the giant woodpiles. Rick's ears caught it and he listened, wondering who it was. It must be Mr. DeCosta, he thought, coming to inspect the clearing of his land.
The sound grew, and suddenly the car jolted into sight around the corner of the woodpile. It stopped in front of Rick, seeming to settle a little into the thick grey sand, and the door on the driver's side sprung open. An average-looking man of about forty-five got out and walked directly over to the Caterpillar drivers, glancing over the morning's work appraisingly as he went.
As the man began speaking with the drivers, Rick brought his eyes back to the car. A young boy, perhaps eight or ten, sat watching his father. As Rick surveyed him, the boy's eyes tired of their subject and turned to him; they lightened slightly with interest, but a mild distrust crept into them as they touched on the old Negro occupied with his lunch. Then the boy opened his door casually and slid out, filling his sneakers immediately with dusty grove sand.
Rick caught the sidelong look at Tony, and thought to himself that he had never felt any distrust for Negroes as a child; this boy's parents must have taught him that.
The boy pulled a new hatchet from its sheath at his side and walked up to a horizontal limb, upon which he began to chop ineffectually.
"Not like that," Rick offered; "you have to chop at an angle and cut out chips. Like wedges, see?" He made motions in the air with a flat palm.
The boy thought it over, and decided to accept this advice. He took a diagonal swing, knocking out a good-sized chip, and another, at too great an angle so that the blade glanced off and the hatchet flew from his hand. It landed, bouncing on a stump just a few feet from where the boy's father was standing. The man whirled, looked, saw what ad happened from his son's frightened look, and walked over to him, leaving the hatchet lie.
"What did I tell you about that axe?" he said, sternly but not angrily. "What was the first thing I made you promise?"
The boy was silent for as long as he dared; then, accepting te fact that he ad to answer, he looked down at a twig on the ground and said guiltily, "Be careful."
"Alright, were you being careful then?" his father asked. The boy looked up at Rick with a blaming look.
Rick did feel a little responsible. "I'm sorry, Mr. DeCosta," he broke in; "it was really my fault. You see, I was telling him how to chop at an angle, and I forgot to warn him that it could slip that way."
Mr. DeCosta turned to him. "He should have known better anyway," he said, and then spoke to his son. "Don't forget again if you want to keep that hatchet." Then, addressing Rick again with some mild suspicion, he said, "What do you want around here, son?"
Rick felt a little nervous. "Just watching," he said. n "I live down the road -- Mrs. Donavan is my grandmother." He inserted the last like an identification card, knowing that Mr.. DeCosta would know his grandmother.
The man's aspect changed to one of familiarity. "Oh," he said, "you're Mrs. Fowler's boy. Glad to meet you. Richard, isn't it?"
"Yes," Rick said, shaking hands. He felt obliged to smile. His eyes glanced nervously towards the woods.
Mr. DeCosta followed this movement, was silent for a moment, and then said, "I guess you hate to see this place cleared -- used to be some good hunting in through here, they tell me."
Rick said, "I can remember when it was."
"Well," sighed the older man conversationally, "when you can afford to expand, it's sort of a duty to your family. The hunting's better down by the lake, anyway."
"Yeah," Rick said quietly. Then, not wanting to be impolite, "What are you going to plant?"
"Well," explained the older man, "I was going to put in grapefruit, but the way it looks now I may be going into real estate."
Rick looked up with a hint of alarm. "You mean a housing project?"
"Well, not exactly; I'm bound not to talk about it yet; the deal's not closed. But I do plan to build, yes."
Rick was quiet, his forehead slightly creased.
Mr. DeCosta seemed suddenly a little defensive. "What difference does it make, anyway?" he said. "We've got as many trees as we can handle already. Making a grove out of the land won't save the hunting."
Rick looked at him. "It's not just the hunting," he sighed impatiently; "I hardly ever hunt here anymore. It's hard to explain."
The older man stood quietly for a moment, and then looked over towards the woods. A veil passed over his face, and he seemed almost embarrassed; he said, "Well, I have to go talk to the boys," and turned and left.
His son was returning now with the hatchet. He felt friendly towards this stranger who had stuck up for him. "You working here?" he asked.
"No," said Rick; "just watching. Your name's Jimmy, isn't it?"
"Jim," the boy corrected. "How did you know?"
"Oh, my parents mentioned you once. Ever been over here to see the woods before?"
"What, those?" the boy said, pointing to the doomed barricade of living trunks across the clearing. "Nope. Daddy only bought this land last year."
"Yeah, I know," said Rick. Suddenly he felt that it was his duty to introduce the boy to the woods. "Ever seen an eagle's nest?" he asked.
The boy showed an interest. "No; is there one around here?"
"Down in the woods," Rick said. "If your father says it's all right, I'll show it to you."
The boy trotted over to his father and hung from his sleeve for a moment, asking. Then he ran back. "It's okay," he said, and ran off across the clearing.
Rick followed casually, watching a pair of buzzards circling overhead in the thermals from the newly-bared dark earth.
He was relieved when they passed through the border of the trees, for the compound fracture between the undisturbed woods and the torn earth outside had bothered him. He called the boy after him, moving towards a huge, fern-feathered old live oak impending overhead to his right.
He stood under a giant horizontal limb, remembering the times he had lain on his back upon it and fallen asleep watching the birds above in their industry. Now the birds were either gone or hiding, soundless. He showed the boy a spot on the trunk where lips of growing bark had closed over some slash-wound.
"I was trail-blazing by here once when I was a kid," he said, "and I marked this tree. See how it heals itself?"
The boy looked, touched the lips gingerly, and glanced up at Rick. Rick began walking around the tree slowly, drinking in its beauty and familiar details with a thirst aroused by long absence and the knowledge that this was his last chance. He was brought back to the same place by the sound of the boy chopping on the tree.
"Hey," he said, "what are you doing?"
"Trailblazing," said the boy, trimming the edges of the slash-mark he had made a foot below the old mark.
Rick started to point out that the tree would be gone tomorrow, along with all the rest, and that the new mark would never have a chance to heal; but he stopped himself, thinking it would only be cruel -- let him find out for himself; he'd feel the waste strongly enough tomorrow, when the torn-up trees were burning on the pile. Instead he said, "Come on and I'll show you the tree with the osprey's nest in it."
After a moment's search, he found the old path and set off down it. It was a rather narrow one, the wrong size for any particular animal to have made. Oak saplings and assorted woody plants hedged it on either side. As they went, the boy said, "This path is awful overgrown, isn't it?" And Rick realized that he was right. Weeds were matted thickly on the path, and trespassing twigs from both sides criss-crossed in the middle. It was then that he remembered what had worn the path -- it had been him; he and his old dog had walked that path so many times, trimming it with his machete, that the woods had finally acknowledged his existence and left the way clear. Now, after all the years of only occasional visits, the woods were forgetting him. They continued on in near silence.
They walked for a good ways, until the oaks thinned out and an occasional cypress broke into the ranks of dry-land trees. They were getting close to the swamp. Then in a tiny clearing, tere was the great white bone-like dead oak, water-killed many years ago, and in its top branches a wide, twig-constructed nest.
"Up there," Rick said, pointing. "If you wait around, maybe the osprey will show up." He remembered the times he had caught the great bird at home and seen him and his mate at close enough range that the grey of their distant color resolved itself into the intricate white-and-black patterns of their feathers.
And he remembered vividly the time he had found a young eaglet hidden in the grass around the base of the tree. He had caught it and held it, trying to comfort it, but the bird hadn't shown anything but fear, so he had painfully climbed the tree and put the young osprey back into the nest. And then the next day he had discovered the eaglet lying dead beneath the tree; the parent bird had found it contaminated with human smell and ousted it from the nest. He had felt rage with the osprey for being so inflexibly idealistic. What a price to pay for what seemed only pride! Now he wondered if the osprey had shown instinct or wisdom.
Suddenly he wanted to go on to the pond, to look into that deep clear water. He knew he shouldn't take the boy throughh the swamp, though; finally he decided that he would be safe here. "Listen, Jim," he said, "I'm going over to the pond. Wait here for a minute and see if the osprey comes." The boy nodded.
He threaded his way into the undergrowth, shunning the old path so that the familiarity of every detail might not be so overpowering. Still, he passed many trees with familiar crooks in their limbs and sometimes a scar from a knife or axe that he remembered making. He wouldn't let himself dwell on the fact that they would be gone forever tomorrow.
Then the ground softened and grew blacker, and the cypresses became predominant and finally forced out all the other trees, and he had to step on the cypress knees to keep from bogging down in the mud. Finally there was the old gold shimmer of amber water through the trees, and the swamp ran up short on the edge of the pond. Rick smiled, thinking of the ducks he had hunted and the fis he had caught out of this big pool.
But as he stepped quietly up to the water's edge, he saw that there were very few lily pads left in the once-sprawling patch; the weeds growing around the edge looked a little dried-up, and the hyacinths had died out completely. As he bent down he saw that the once-clear water was now clouded with a scum of green algae. "It must be from the filth tey dump in here," he thought; "the algae thrives on it." If there were any fish they were hidden beneath the green cloud.
But the big rusty nail was still in the water-oak there where he had driven it long ago to rest his cane pole on, and he decided that perhaps the seeming decline of the pond was partly just his imagination -- he was old enough to have been disillusioned more than once by the idealized images that time and distance can create.
Then he heard the chopping, a hollow, resonant chopping sound of an axe on a hollow tree; he wondered what the boy was up to. Suddenly, over this sound, came the building roar of the bulldozers starting up again, and he winced slightly at it. The chopping sound was now like the bass-drum beat keeping the rhythm of the harsh music of devastation.
Realizing suddenly that it must be the dead oak that the boy was chopping on, and feeling indignation at the boy's irreverence, he started back, picking his way over the roots and bog without much attention for anything but his footing. When he got to the dry ground, he took the path, because it was quicker.
When he was only about fifty yards from the tree, he heard a great heavy cracking noise and a crash, and knew that somehow the boy had hit a weak spot and downed the great dead oak miraculously with a hatchet. He felt anger rising slowly in his throat, and quickened his pace; that kid was going back to the clearing where he belonged.
He hadn't quite believed that the tree could be so easily felled, but one glimpse of its white skeleton stretched out on the ground confirmed it. He didn't see the boy at first. Then looking to see where the hatchet blows had severed the only solid wood that had kept the tree from falling, and seeing the dark rotten pulp spilling out onto the grass where the trunk had snapped close to the ground, his eyes fell on the boy.
He had apparently been unsuspecting of the danger of the tree's falling, and, bending over to chop, been caught by the sudden and precipitous fall of the tree. Now he lay pinned beneath it, and if the tree had fallen a little more he would have been crushed. He was only pinched now, and ad had his breath knocked out. When he saw Rick he managed to wheeze, "Help."
Rick became coldly perceptive, feeling adrenaline shock his mind and body into calmness. He went to the tree and gave it a testing shove, and the movement drew a creak from the base as the tree settled another inch, forcing a gasp from the boy beneath. The trunk hadn't broken off completely yet, Rick saw, and the brittle wood that still held it was ready to give at the slightest impulse. Then the tree would drop and crush the boy.
He observed all this without emotion, without having yet had a chance to think. Picking up the hatchet, he looked around the small clearing. Over to one side he saw what he needed: a short, not-too-rotten trunk, about two feet in diameter, lying across another smaller log. He jumped over to it, and, using the hatchet as a hook, strained to roll it over. The boy moaned from beneath the tree, "Please," and Rick pulled harder. At last the log rolled free.
The rattlesnake which had been sleeping under the log coiled back in alarm at this invasion, and sounded his warning buzz. Rick moved without thinking; the hatchet flashed out and then the snake was writhing headless in the dirt. The buzzing stopped, but there was still a buzzing in Rick's ears. The shock of meeting a snake had always been a strong one, and he almost stopped to think and feel. Then, feeling persecuted, as if the woods were malignant, out to thwart him, destroy him, he goaded himself into action, tugging the log toward the tree with frenzied strength.
Then he was pushing the log into position beneath the tree, placing it beside the boy on the side away from the stump, so that when the last fibers of supporting wood gave way at the base the log would act as a fulcrum, flipping the short end off the boy. He wrenched the log into place, the sweat getting into his eyes and half-blinding him; then e rushed around to the stump and began hacking at the still-unsevered part. After a series of blows the tree gave up one last loud snap and broke free, and the severed end flew up, catching jeans and flesh with a sharp edge, and then he was sitting on the ground holding his knee, and the white tree skeleton and the sky and a great bird-shape whirled about his head, and a sickening blackness poured over him.
When he woke up his knee hurt and Mr. DeCosta was helping him up and talking to him about how his quick thinking had saved Jimmy's life, and he answered with a far-off voice; then they were walking away, the man holding him up, carrying him out of the woods, and he didn't even notice the 'dozers dragging away the old trail-blazed oak.
As he was being helped into the car he strained his neck to take one last desperate look over his shoulder at the woods.
Provenance: Trinity Collage, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1966