It’s been a couple of weeks as I knew it would take you a while to work through the last story. You’ll be pleased to hear this one is much shorter. The last day of the month seems like a good time to publish it. I hope you enjoy it.
WHEN conversation turned to their hard lives, Janis always joined in with the complaints even though he didn’t share the pessimism of his work mates. The wages were tiny, the work hard, uncomfortable and usually long. But he liked it, or rather, he liked it better than any of the viable alternatives. At 40 it was in any case already too late to change his profession.
Every day the work got a degree more strenuous and his body, still hard as iron-oak, began to bend and crack as age buffeted him like a gale of eternally increasing force. Picking up the one beer bottle at the end of the day that was his tradition, he felt a tightness running from half-way up his thumb to half-way up his index finger.
Similar aching bands were patched across his back, ribs and knees of a sort he hadn’t felt for more than 20 years, since the days when hard labour was still new to him and it seemed impossible to follow one day of strain and stiffness immediately with another. The sinews which had proven so resilient were starting to lose their elasticity.
The knots would now only get tighter each time they were strained, just like a properly-tied log hitch. Still they weren’t pain exactly, and still bore testimony to the fact that he could do a real day’s work among much younger men, as much as they gave a warning of waning strength and diminishing resilience.
Every time the sun caught the back of his neck as he worked, the ray finding its way through an impossible lattice-work of branches, every time he felt the cold air around a snow pile still ignored by the season in late spring, it outweighed a week’s worth of standing in a ditch in wet mist, which could also have its own beauty until it outstayed its welcome.
Whenever the sun struck him in this special way, Janis would say, sometimes to himself, sometimes to his fellow workers: “Remember this in November!” They would laugh bitterly, thinking him ironic when in fact he was being sincere. For this reason they called him “November”.
Janis knew how to fell any tree in any direction. More importantly he knew which trees not to touch. The others sniggered at him when he warned them against touching this oak or that birch, but they always took his advice even if it meant leaving a single tree standing nakedly in the middle of a bare clearing. He took the felling of a “wrong ash” particularly seriously. Once, he had walked away from a job rather than carry out the felling of such a tree. His work colleagues inhaled nervously as he walked slowly away. They sensed the foreman, who did a badly botched job in anger himself, would meet a bad end.
Men who hope for future good luck will do nothing to jeopardise their chances even if it means telling a landowner to try and find someone willing to risk Janis’ prediction of “bad luck”. Likewise, the owners sensed there might be something in his strange logic and more often than not a tree spared by Janis’ axe and saw was left alone for years.
There was nothing unusual in all this to Janis and he never bothered to explain the language by which the trees communicated. It was natural, just as some people can light a strong and compliant fire while others will always struggle to get it ablaze and then fight to maintain control of its rebellious impulses for hours. Other people are good at finding water sources or lucky in avoiding rocks when they drove the tractor. Most probably everyone had some special sense and Janis assumed that those not at home in the forest might be gifted with music or in the kitchen. Not being competent in either of these areas, he could not be sure.
Occasionally some over-eager new recruit to a work gang or a student passing through for a season would say something that hinted Janis was a bit “simple”. They were mistaken, but Janis took no offence at such mistakes and usually after a few weeks they grew to like him. If he felt so, Janis would tell them during a lunch taken sitting on piled logs and dying stumps about his travels after leaving school at 15 when he had spent five years roving as far as he could, from Romania to Siberia. He had met all manner of people, still remembered the phrases he had learned in many languages and could describe the remarkable landscapes of steppe, tundra, desert and mountain in the tiniest detail from the poppy fields of Crimea that blazed their image into the middle of your eyes, to the doom-grey glaciers of Irkutsk which could blunt a pickaxe in three blows.
He remembered the women he had known back then in the same detail and with the same fondness, but he never talked about them, and left the younger men to their crude and improbable fantasies of the female sex. Sometimes he still enjoyed the company of ladies – who always liked him – but he had no desire for a domestic life. To be out among the forest with the thought that real life was waiting somewhere 20 kilometres away in a small room with a kitchen attached was not to be wished for, but neither was it to be disliked if it made others content.
“As soon as you have brought down a tree older than yourself, you know about things. Or at least you should,” Janis told his friend. Being a farmer of similar age, his friend nodded and passed a cigarette.
Work was intermittent but came along regularly enough. When things got very tight there were things to catch, trap and gather that tasted better than from the shop and were easy to cook even for someone with no culinary skills. Every night he could, Janis spent sleeping outdoors, even if only on the hammock that swung under the porch of his shack. Rainy nights were best because it kept the mosquitoes away.
He woke up colder and more frequently than he used to, and needed to piss in the night, for which purpose he kept a plastic bottle within reach. But he also slept more soundly than he had as a young man when he was still not accustomed to the very particular sounds of the forest at night which seemed to have accepted him. Years passed.
Nothing came along to provide a serious disruption to his life, though the work got harder. Then one day his back went, not when he was lifting a log or straining at a trunk, but when he bent over to re-tie a lace that had been pulled open by a wild cranberry. He knew as soon as it happened that he would never work again and tried not to show the pain to his work mates.
He died a few months later and was found swinging gently in his hammock one morning by his friend the farmer. The few people who came to his funeral paid for it themselves and agreed he had been a good man. They buried him and planted an ash for him. Someone had remembered he particularly liked ash trees.