The Rules by John Walker

The Rules by John Walker

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

They load handsaws, axes, and splitting wedges into the truck bed, putting in last their jack saw with the rusted blade and cracked gray handles, then cover the load with a tarp, the middle sagging already with the weight of a sloppy snow. Cal is dressed for a long day in the woods, wool coat and work boots, canvas gloves tucked in his back pocket. These last desolate months he had refused to leave the house. Torn jeans and undone flannel shirts. Bare gut stitched with hair. He let the garden die under the frost and left the grocery runs to his fourteen-year-old son, Marty, who learned to guide their old Toyota Scout down the rutted back roads and corkscrewing highways to Mariposa. Now Cal takes the corners too fast. Marty feels the tires lose and find their grip, moments like freefall between jolting traction.

Around Midpines, Cal pulls the Scout off the road and Marty gets out to lock the hubs into four-wheel, the first breath of cold a relief after being trapped in the heated cab. He looks up the old logging trail, thick with overhung boughs and melting slush before disappearing into the falling snow. He turns back to Cal. His graying ponytail hangs serpentine over one shoulder and his lips pout under his beard. He gulps coffee from a gourd, eyes bolted straight ahead. Marty’s gaze slides to the empty place next to him where Mom should have been. She had worked fiendishly alongside his father, as if defending this life she’d chosen for them all, bucking fallen trees for a living. They had grown their own food and built all the pens corralling the mule team without cutting down a tree, without spending a cent. Sustaining themselves and the forest, she had said, completing the circle, protecting.

Cal lays on the horn and Marty jumps.

“You freeze to death out there?” Cal shouts through a slit in the window.

Marty folds his gloves into his hip pocket. His palms are red and damp, the snow such a thin mix of sludge that it has soaked through the canvas.

“This trail’s going to be death,” he says, climbing back in.

Cal guides the truck into the soggy tire ruts.

“Tomorrow the sun will be out,” Cal says. “We’ll be able to work with our shirts off. It’ll feel great, Marty. You watch.”

Frosted pastures open up out the window, running toward sheer granite faces and steep, tree-covered slopes, then thick stands of pines close the view once again. Cal stops and points to a giant redwood lying like a wall at the edge of a clearing, tall enough to make a snow shadow on the leeward side. They inspect the break point, a jagged spire in the air. No black crusts the edges, so it didn’t fall from a lightning strike, but from being too old, too big.

“This is the biggest fall we’ve seen yet,” says Cal.

He walks the perimeter, estimating its length, pausing long at the broken trunk, the annual rings.

“It will take months to get this bad boy pieced up.”

He checks the low sun, guesses the time.

“We’ll cut for a couple days, then use the team to bring it down, by the book.”

Marty digs out the small handsaws from under the tarp. The handles are black and smooth from their palms. Marty hands one to Cal, loosens the wing nut on his own, opens the blade. For most of the afternoon they work the small branches high up the shaft. The cutting is easy, some of the wood snapping off with the blade only halfway through, but the snow soaks them, weighs them down. The sky remains dark, the clouds overhead a close, thick purple. Marty’s stomach growls, his sawing arm trembles with exertion, and his jaw hurts from clamping together. Marty stops, listens. His father isn’t cutting, either.

Cal stands away from the tree, staring at it.

“I hate this,” he says. “It’s spring. It’s supposed to be sunshine and sunflowers. Look,” he says, gesturing across the buried pasture, “this should all be yellow, dancing in the wind. All this white hurts my eyes.”

“Tomorrow we’ll work with our shirts off,” says Marty, straining toward the baritone of his father’s voice.

Cal regards him coldly.

“I’m glad I amuse you.”

Marty looks at his boots.

“Let’s get back to work,” says Cal.

Marty helps drag out the jack saw. He loved it as a kid, when the work was too big by years. He’d lose his feet and be jostled back and forth, laughing, a kind of teeter-totter, and Cal’s old joke that if he pulled hard, Marty’s thin body would slide through the cut. When Mom helped, their weight together became a counterbalance to Cal’s on the other side, the teeth humming through the grain. Now Marty can match him alone.

They start the teeth into the trunk, cutting lengthwise from the break to a place in the middle. In an hour they’ve gone less than a foot into the slab. His palms throb inside his gloves. When the saw binds, Marty falls back into the snow and he stays down. The sky above him swells black.

“Back to work.”

Cal tosses down his jacket.

“I’m taking a break.”

“Wait until we’re six more inches in.”


“If we rest every hour, we’ll be up here for the rest of our lives.”

Cal stands over him, hand out. Marty works up to an elbow.

“I was thinking that was your plan,” he says.

Cal scans the tree, from the tip down the wide trunk, the saw sunk into the wood. He removes his gloves and beats them on his thigh.

“We’ll work on the branches a while.”

“That’s not a break.”

He walks away, leaving Marty in the snow.

“Get up now, son,” he says.

Marty unfolds the saw to its boomerang curve and works away from his father. He peels his glove off to see if his palm has turned bloody, but the skin’s only pink, creased with his grip. Still, it’s easier than slicing into the core. The jack saw remains stalled in the wood, the handles drooping like broken wings. No one lives this way anymore, handsaws and mule teams, suffocating principles. The work has absorbed Cal—and maybe that’s the idea, to be swallowed up—but it threatens to steal Marty, too, demanding so much of his sweat and muscle that there will be nothing left once the fallen tree is sawdust and a bald slice of earth.

“Let’s get back to the big boy,” says Cal.

“A drink of water first.”

“No. Six more inches.”

“Who are you shitting, anyway?” says Marty. “We’re never getting this tree out of here by ourselves.”

Cal faces him, the open saw dangling from his hand.

“If your mother was here, she’d keel over, hearing you talk.”

“If Mom was here you could sneak her off into the woods and get your jimmy waxed and leave me alone.”

Marty licks his lips, spits away from his feet. Cal tries to return to the tree but his hands are shaking.

“Fucking Jesus Christ,” he roars, rearing up like a bear and casting away the saw.

It cuts through the air and buries itself in the snow and Cal turns hard to face down his son.

Marty squares to meet him, saw gripped like a dagger. The two have the same hazel eyes and cut jaws that jut forward when they’re angry, teeth grinding, biting the rims of their lips. They stand more than an arm’s reach away, but a lunge could fix that, even the smallest step together.

They stand a few breaths, relaxing together slowly, turning away to scan the tundra for the saw.

“Find it for me, will you Marty? I’m—just get it,” he says, leaning against the trunk.

It’s snowing harder, the footfalls deepening. He reaches the place the saw should be and kicks at the snow, but sees only white. Cal starts pounding toward him, but stops when he evens with the truck. He disappears behind the toolbox lid and then lifts out something Marty can’t yet see.

“That is not by the book,” says Marty when he gets back to the truck.

Cal is gassing up a chainsaw.

“Get away from me,” he says.

Snow touches the shiny plastic shell, the links of the new blade.

“We can buck it up right, Dad. We’ll find the saw—”

“I said go, Marty.”

He looks at the fallen tree, the trunk shaved of branches.

“This snow will melt,” he says. “We can come back with the team.”

“It’d take us a year to get anything small enough for a mule to carry. You were right. Congratulations.”

Cal pulls three times on the rope before the engine catches, the exhaust bluing in the cold. He revs it a few times, the thing screeching between them.

While Cal lays into the tree, Marty drags away the branches and cuts the biggest on the Scout tailgate. The chainsaw roars, echoing off the mountainsides and rattling in the trees. Cal’s got one foot propped on the trunk. His shoulders are drawn tight against the saw, pushing it deeper. Marty can smell the sweetness of redwood, almost feel the soggy resistance it gives a blade.

“Dad,” he shouts. “Let me spot you awhile.”

Cal pulls up on the chainsaw and walks around the tree.

“Show me how to use it.”

Cal shakes his head.

“This is too much saw for you.”

He draws a deep breath, stretches his back, faces the trunk. He sinks the chainsaw into the wood again, but withdraws and lets it idle.

“You know your mother sends money?”


“Five hundred bucks worth of guilt every month. I hoard it away.”

“That’s good,” says Marty. “Right?”

“We made a life for ourselves out here, exactly the kind she wanted, and then one day she accuses me of running away from the world. Like that was suddenly a crime.”

Cal looks to his son.

“This chainsaw is technically yours. I used the guilt money. I thought, what the hell? The rules have changed.”

“Let’s work the jack saw,” says Marty. “Let’s do it right.”

Cal shakes his head. The chain spins, chews into the trunk in a spray of dust and chips. Marty feels the splinters stinging his cheeks and turns away, then the sound changes. The engine stalls, pulls at Cal, almost ripping itself from his hands. The blade revs back to life and finds its way into Cal’s foot.

Marty goes to him. The canvas top of his boot’s split, soaking red. He palms his father’s forehead and looks into his stony eyes, wide and dry.

“Dad, Jesus.”

“It’s numb, Marty.”

“I’m getting you to a hospital.”

“Do you hear what I’m saying? I can’t feel it.”

Marty moves down to the tear. He pries open the smiling gash in the boot to the cut, an angry bite taken from the slope, gushing with blood. Marty packs the foot with snow, pressing fistfuls down into the split.

He helps Cal to his feet. He’s unsteady, the wounded leg dragging, and the ground is slick. They fall twice, three times, and Marty lands with his head on his father’s chest. Above the trees, the horizon is the color of aluminum.

Cal shakes his son.

“Marty, get up now. I don’t want to die out here.”

Marty’s eyes open. Together they rise, and he doesn’t know if he’s carrying Cal’s weight or being lifted in his arms. The imprint they leave behind is unrecognizable, four legs, two spread arms, a bloody hole burned into the snow.

Marty drives the truck down the trail, the headlights cutting cones through the storm. He keeps his father awake as night closes in. They reach Mariposa, and Marty waits in a freezing room while Cal is stitched closed. Cal shows his son the butterfly sutures and Marty drives them back to their trailer.

That night, Cal uses a hammer to crack walnuts, rolled to the table in the rented hospital wheelchair. He bangs on the pointed tip of shells and scatters fragments across the room. The bits he can reach he saves in a coffee can. Marty feels each hammer crack in his knees, exhausted but not wanting his father to stay awake alone.

“Most people use nutcrackers,” he says.

Cal puts down his instrument, crosses his arms, leans back.

“We have hammers,” he says.

He rolls the chair back and looks at the pinkish bandage on his foot. His hair tangles down his shoulders, stripes of gray in dirty blonde. His skin is ashen and eyes glassy from the painkillers.

“It’s still snowing. Can you believe that? What a shit year this has been,” he says.

Marty comes to the table and brushes shell fragments into his palm and empties them in the trash.

“I forgot to check the team. I need to do that.”

“You haven’t forgotten those mules since you were eight years old,” says Cal.

“Weird day,” says Marty, buttoning his houndstooth coat over his chest.

The cold stings his face, burrows up his sleeves. The moonlight is oily on the snow. He hears the team moving in the pen, sees their blue shapes taking form beyond the rail fence. Of course he had remembered to water them, to lay out the feed and to stow the empty sacks before dark. The mules shuffle indifferently as he approaches. He steps up on the first rail and leans his elbows over the fence and whistles. Their heads turn his way and then shake his presence off as if escaping a fly.

“Get your rest,” he whispers. “You’ve got a mother of a big tree to haul down.”

Marty steps off the fence. He can see Cal through the window, cradling his head, elbows propped on the table’s edge.

“Get your rest,” he says again, this time sure he means it.

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