My friend had loaned me the use of his cabin in New Hampshire for two weeks. His thinking was that, with the divorce now final and me plainly having trouble concentrating—he had known me quite well for decades—I needed some time to clear my head in an environment where there was no work to be done, no internet, no subway crush, where instead all of those things were replaced by an endless stretch of dark, dark woods. It’s a testament to my general confusion that I was talked into the idea. It’s a testament to my hunger for direction that I never, at any point during my six-hour drive north, tore up my driving instructions and turned around to head home.
To state the obvious: it’s only natural to be afraid of the woods; our species invented fear specifically so we would stay on our toes when we were ambling about in the woods. Now, I know what everyone tries to tell you—they claim that the city is what’s really dangerous, with all the crime—but there’s only one species to watch out for in the city, which simplifies things enormously, and the vast majority of your encounters with that species are predictable and benign. Generally speaking, if you meet a man on a street corner, you know he belongs there. He’s there because he lives nearby, or he’s taking a walk, or he has to get to work. If you meet a man in the woods, on the other hand, he doesn’t belong there, and he can only be there because he’s hoping to murder you with an axe.
Nonetheless, I took my directions and I went.
I will say that the cabin was a comfortable one. My friend had had builders tear through the old log version of the thing and put in central air and heat, new insulated windows, bright hardwood floors, lots of open-air space. He had put comfortable, dignified chairs in the room that was part living room and part dining room. The shower, fed by who-knows-what—a well or mountain stream or something—was a handsome construction with a head like the center of a sunflower. The water came down over one’s body in a broad wash, shoulder-to-shoulder. Of course, it would be impossible to hear the approach of one’s killer while in the shower, so—though it’s slightly embarrassing to admit—I mostly avoided it. Early on I just washed my upper body at the sink, jerking my head up between splashes because of various mysterious noises, looking reluctantly at my old-man face in the mirror.
The woods were, naturally, still outside the house, looming, my friend having decided to leave the outdoors in a mostly as-is condition. He had also neglected to remodel the shed next to the house, and so it was the prototypical dark, ramshackle structure, its boards worn down by the elements to a sullen gray, the gaps and holes revealing a deep darkness within. Inside this unlocked shed—I felt compelled to check, and regretted it afterward—were shovels and rakes and various things like that, and a torturer’s gallery of tools hung on the wall. I mean, I know my way around a screwdriver or a hammer more or less, but there were also various saws and picks and shears—and there was even an axe, a heavy axe, hanging ready. Which meant that if a deranged murderer were to make his way to this house and realize at the last second that he’d forgotten his axe, he wouldn’t be out of luck after all, wouldn’t have to turn and slump back dejectedly toward the asylum or maximum-security prison or wherever; he could just borrow one for the evening. Well, I guess the trip wasn’t a waste after all, he’d think, pulling down the axe—or, if he felt like being a little more nimble, the hatchet next to it. He might even laugh to himself. I’m glad I didn’t go to the trouble of lugging my own weapon here!
All that said, it was pleasant enough sitting on the screened-in porch in the summer evening before the sun was down, flinching at the unexplained snappings of tree branches and foreign animal sounds and swatting at the mosquitoes that found their way in, but otherwise calming under the repeated administrations of scotch and twilight, appreciating the gentle dimness and the musty but not unpleasant smell of things. I’ll say that the smell of the woods is probably not dangerous.
My divorce had, I suppose, been coming for a long time. You know that your divorce has been coming for a long time when you tell your friends the news and they respond not with horror but with sober Mmms. “Mmm,” my cabin-owning friend had said, nodding. “Mmm,” said my partner at the gallery. “Mmm,” said my therapist—though of course if he hadn’t seen it coming I would have had to fire him. Even our children seemed unsurprised; my son said, “Why didn’t you do this when I was in college, so I would have had something to blame my problems on?” My son is something of an amateur stand-up comedian.
I think my wife and I discovered the widely known secret around the time that we stopped fighting altogether, when it just seemed too tedious to attack or fight back. There was an evening when my wife forgot to make a certain phone call that needed to be made, and when she told me I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of, “You couldn’t even remember to do that?” but then, lacking the energy, I just shrugged and said, “Well.” And my wife, who would normally have responded to the implied criticism with something like, “You’re a bitter man,” only said, “Right.” The air in our living room had become still, almost shocked. That was, I’d say, when we knew for certain.
Now, I wasn’t supposed to be ruminating on all that up there in the cabin, but, my friend’s good intentions—as well as his good scotch—notwithstanding, I found I had a little too much time and space to think. He did have a television, but no reception, and although there was a VCR and DVD player there were, naturally, no videos or DVDs. His bookshelves largely held cookbooks—Big Game Chef was one of them—and some of those popular biographies of the various founding fathers, all in hardcover. When I opened one of those I heard the revealing crack in the spine that said the book had never been opened before. I nodded with approval; books like these would never have been opened in my house, either. In the end, all I could find for distraction on those shelves was a manual explaining what to do in the case of various disastrous woods-related events: encountering a bear, being bitten by a spider, getting frostbite—that one, at least, was unlikely—getting caught in a river in flood, consuming poisonous mushrooms, finding a snake in your path. If I had been the editor for the book, I would have insisted the title be, Why You Should Leave the Woods This Instant.
Oddly, I didn’t leave. There was, first of all, my reluctance to make decisions for myself in the wake of the divorce. There was also, maybe inevitably, the feeling that these two weeks in the woods must represent some kind of test for me; I had a vague schoolboy memory that some Native American tribes, before the Europeans arrived, would send people into the woods on quests of self-discovery from time to time. I thought that those drum-beaters of the men’s movement must do the same. It was perhaps a bit generous to be sitting in a velvety armchair in an air conditioned room, a glass tumbler in one hand, and think of myself as one in a line of men who had braved the forest for the purpose of spiritual growth, but after a week of jumping at every owl-hoot, I very much thought of myself that way.
In this spirit I went into the second week of my stay determined to do something appropriately rugged. I wasn’t sure what, though; hunting, even if there had been a gun in the cabin or shed—and you can be sure I checked as soon as I arrived—was a laughable notion; fishing was also out; pitching a tent and sleeping outside would have been gratuitous; and even mushroom-picking, after perusing that manual, seemed risky. I considered bird-watching, but I thought that that might be a little too delicate for the present purposes, and in any case I found I couldn’t make the birds out in any detail from the kitchen window.
I settled eventually on trying to make a fire in the fireplace; there was some firewood on the screened-in porch, and the slight smell of woodsmoke that was already all through the cabin made the idea feel very promising. Plus, I had never made one before, and that made it an apt choice for an impromptu vision quest.
Of course, it was not a simple thing, making a fire. Quickly enough I realized that the logs needed coaxing, that the newspaper and kindling sticks next to the firewood were there because they were more flammable and thus good for getting things going, but even having determined that it still took quite a few tries before any logs became willing to burn, and one of the early attempts led to a smoke-filled room until I found a lever in the fireplace that let the smoke out through the chimney. By the time I had produced an actual fire I was filthy and covered in sweat, and the added heat made the room very uncomfortable until I turned the air conditioning up. Nonetheless I was proud in a way I had not been in some time, and I can tell you that sitting in a velvety armchair in an air conditioned room with a glass tumbler in one hand is not anything like sitting in a velvety armchair in an air conditioned room with a glass tumbler in one hand and a fire going. The popping of the logs didn’t even alarm me after a while. It seemed to bespeak a level of enthusiasm inside the wood itself that matched my own. I went so far as to take my socks off and prop my feet up near the warmth of the flames, and then I dozed, as content as I had been in some time.
When I woke up from the nap, I saw that the fire was quiet, was in fact starting to die, and I felt surprisingly sad about it. I had become, in no time at all, deeply attached to the fire. Perhaps it was the feeling that I had done something I had never been taught to do, or that I had accomplished something essential to human life when so much of my life had been lived on other, less physical planes, or perhaps it was that I looked into this fading fire and saw in it the terrible possibility that I would once more—one last, damning time—fail to keep something important going. Whatever it was, I decided then and there that it wouldn’t go out on my watch, that it would still be burning when, in a metaphorical sense, my tribal chief or spirit guide or men’s movement troop leader came to find out what I’d learned—in other words, until the second week was up and it was time to go home. I brought more firewood in, and after some experimentation found that maintaining a fire wasn’t as hard as making one from scratch. There was a good deal of poking and tong-use, but there wasn’t much else to it.
I kept this up through the afternoon and dinner, bringing all my activities to the hearth so I could continue to poke and use tongs as necessary, or even—this was another of my innovations—from time to time shovel ash out from underneath. Even when I sat on the screened-in porch at sundown I found myself eyeing the remaining firewood appraisingly—I was curious about whether logs with bark burned as well as logs without—and I did go back inside from time to time to check on things. That night I slept on the couch instead of in the bedroom, and perhaps because the couch was short and not all that suitable for a bed, or because I frequently needed to use the bathroom anyway, or perhaps because I was in fact progressing on my quest, I naturally woke up a number of times during the night and used those opportunities to tend and stoke the fire.
Those were good days, those days of the fire. It more or less commandeered my inner life and gave me something physically active to do; I could feel my blood moving around in me. I had, in fact, very few thoughts of being eaten by bears or murdered by humans. I even began to take long-ish, confident showers, leaving the fire to its own devices for that time, and I especially enjoyed turning the water off and having its sound replaced by the snap of the fire. I had very few thoughts about the divorce.
The only trouble was that the supply of firewood was not infinite. In fact, perhaps because it was summer, there really wasn’t very much in the woodbin if you considered how much it was capable of holding. Toward the end of the second day it became clear that the end was close at hand, and that soon I’d have to resort to piling kindling on, and newspaper, and of course none of that would last very long. Looking away out the window as though unable to face a terminal patient, I tried to think of a way that the fire could make it through the night. I began to wonder if I had failed after all.
I don’t quite know what got into me. I suppose I had become so devoted to this fire that I was willing to do anything for it—that, plus a full day of glass tumblers, had gotten into me. Before I knew it I had picked up a flashlight and stepped out of the house. I didn’t stop there, either. I walked across to the shed, and—only feeling a slight terror constricting my throat—opened the door. There, inside the shed, my vision quest clearly moving toward its climax, I pulled from the wall what turned out to be a surprisingly heavy axe. I can tell you that you would have to be a very physically fit murderer to use one of these, day-in and day-out. In any case, I set it down, untucked my button-down shirt, and picked the axe back up again, leaned it in a manly way on my shoulder. I was after firewood.
This was not a well-thought-out adventure; it was quickly becoming full-on night, and I had never even held an axe before, nevermind chopping a tree down. Later it also occurred to me that you might not, in fact, be permitted to just chop some tree down—what if it was endangered?—but I didn’t think of that then. I thought only of the fire, or almost only. It did occur to me to push into the woods just a bit so I wouldn’t take down some birch or dogwood or oak or what-not that my friend liked to look at from his porch. I did also manage to be frightened, and I jerked the flashlight back and forth in such a way as to produce quick-moving shadows all around, which did not make things any easier. I felt no compunction stopping at the first substantial tree rather than pressing my luck further in. I was probably fifty feet from the cabin—far enough that I wouldn’t be chopping down a prominent part of my friend’s view, close enough to make a run for it if I needed to.
It’s not easy to swing an axe purposefully. I imagine it would be somewhat easier if you were swinging overhand, but that wasn’t what was called for here, and so instead I had to use a motion that seemed to come to me from distant and unpleasant memories of baseball bats. I had the flashlight on a nearby root, its beam directed up at my target, and I tried to channel Babe Ruth.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered it was damned near impossible to connect with the same spot twice in a row. On top of that, none of my cuts were very deep. They were noticeable enough that my friend later teased me about them—he told me it looked like I’d tried to engage the tree in a knife fight—but not deep enough to make the trunk start to doubt itself. Nonetheless, I kept at it until I could feel blisters starting on my hands, until I felt slick with sweat and was breathing so hard that I thought heart attack was a real possibility. Did the manual cover that one? What to do if you have a myocardial infarction in the woods?
I set the axe down and panted over it, considered my situation. I hadn’t chopped anything down and I felt awful. As a matter of fact, however, I also felt excellent. I was sweating what would have to be called an honest sweat, and had some honest blisters, an axe at my feet.
What would my spirit guide say? You don’t have to cut this tree down, it would say. You don’t have to keep the fire going any longer. You have come to the mountaintop where your great quest ends. Really it would be no problem if you wanted to go back to the cabin and just have a drink.
I listened to my spirit guide. Hefting the axe to my shoulder, I picked up the flashlight and started back. Then, on an impulse—I could see the lights of the cabin easily from where I was—I turned off the flashlight and slowly made my way back without it. This was the moment when the man returns from the woods with his newfound wisdom, returns to his people. In my case, it was only a cabin, but there was certainly that feeling. I made it there with very little stumbling, and surprisingly little fear, returned the axe to the shed, and then I paused outside and looked up. It’s true that you can see a lot more stars out in the woods than you can in the city, and that they are very pretty—very, very pretty. I stood with those stars a good little while, stood there out in the open until some quite ominous noise reminded me there was no need to push my luck.
That night I stayed up until I ran out of wood and the fire went out—I did use the rest of the kindling and newspaper on it, which would provoke some astonished complaints from my friend—or at least I tried to stay up; in the end I nodded off and missed the very last of the fire.
When I woke up, the flames were gone; I nodded sagely. Still there was the occasional snap from the dark embers. Each time I heard one I raised my glass to toast my spirit guide; the drink had certainly been a good suggestion. Then, when the fire had finished speaking once and for all, I got up, took a long shower, and started to pack my things for home. Even after the shower, my hands left the smell of smoke on everything they touched.
David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—plus a chapbook of poetry called Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a nonfiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). His first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award, and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. With a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.