What Happens in the End
The tree behind the shed is sick. Maybe there’s something in its roots. It might be the pine beetles that devour the tops of trees in summer, masticating the tips until all that’s left are the shapes of empty bowls. I’m not sure how long it’s been here, but I’ll know when I cut it and count the rings. One thing I know is that it’s been here since before I was born, before the camp, my grandparents, and their parents. Probably even farther back.
My grandma told me that each ring marks a year of a tree’s life. The thicker the ring, the better the growing season, and the faster the tree grew. It’s strange, I thought, that trees embed within themselves a history of their nearly endless lives. Even stranger that the rings seem identical no matter where you cut along the tree. It weaves a map of itself, like a mirror.
All of this makes my stomach turn. The chainsaw is rusted but it’ll work. I’ll cut it down in the morning when it’s not too hot. The nights will be getting cold, and more firewood will be needed for the winter.
I shade my eyes from the sun with grandma’s old camouflage bucket hat. The embroidered moose on the evergreen flannel is charred from its place on the hook just above the black fireplace. The multicoloured thread frays at the seams. I could hardly stand the heat the last time she stoked a fire. She always woke up before dawn, unhitched the heavy stove lid, and took a long look inside. She quietly talked to herself when she thought no one could hear. “Too damn cold,” she whispered.
Her voice was low enough to wake me as it permeated the camp. She pointed the flashlight in my face, bumped into furniture, tripped as her slippers scuffed on the wooden floor. It was as if she didn’t know every corner of this place, like she knew every branch on Bear Mountain, the sound of every animal.
People get to know every detail of a place when they’re there long enough. Without trying, they meticulously sketch everything in their minds, day after day, and they don’t really know they’re doing it. They never forget. At least not the feeling of it.
My granddad woke up. “It’s hot enough,” he said, turning over in bed. She threw the last few logs in, moved them around with the poker, watched them crack under flame. “Fuller will thank me,” she said.
I didn’t because she thought I would. I never thanked her for many things.
The ATV powered through the mud in the old back trails. The rear-view mirror was covered with dew and pine needles. It felt like every push on the throttle could be the last—a tire would pop, a gear would snap, and we’d be forced to leave the machine behind and hike back to camp. It was too late to turn back.
The shotgun was secure on the front of the ATV inside a makeshift leather holster. We planned the route to Bear Mountain in the trail I helped her cut out, the one past the washout near Deer Falls, towards the top of Porcupine’s Peak where we saw a waterfall through a clearing in the trees. She found the spot before I was born and had some good luck with finding plenty of birds and calves. Either way, the view was worth it.
We hit a bend in the road before a steep, rocky hill. The mountain was littered with loose boulders and gravel from the loggers and their big machines. About four partridges silently roosted in a ditch, bobbing their heads like pigeons. We stopped the ATV, cut the engine, and waited.
Partridges are good at hiding but they’re stupid. They walk in plain sight along the road’s edges as if nothing out there can hurt them. They’re almost like rocks when you aim and shoot, as if they sense what you’re about to do, but they’re too dumb or scared to move. That’s how all of life works, I thought, as I scanned the gutters with feathered statues, seemingly aware but uninterested in their future.
The best way to go is when you least expect it, I realized. I was still young, barely knew anything, but soon I’ll see that most people can’t face themselves head on. Most of the time they’d rather be surprised by it because it makes it easier to live all that life. It’s easier not to know.
I took off my helmet and watched the birds. “They’re not moving,” I said. Grandma taught me how to do it. I crouched low to the ground.
I repeat, “They’re not moving.”
“Yup, I know, but they see us,” she said, “and they’re not going anywhere.” She took out the gun and loaded it with three rounds. She clicked the safety on and passed it to me. She liked to think she knew me pretty well, through and through, and figured I would be scared. But just like anything else, I took the instrument into my hands, pressed it against my body. I knew what was going to happen next.
I anchored myself on one knee and secured the butt of the gun to my shoulder. The metal was wet from dewy leaves back in the trail. I wiped my hand on my pant leg and took a hard grip of the bolt, wrapped my good hand around the handle, rested my finger on the trigger. “What if I miss?” I asked.
“You probably will,” she said. “Everyone misses their first shot.”
I took aim and she made sure the alignment was right before I pulled. She double checked my grip to brace for the rifle’s kickback. I released the safety and did the rest. It was a good, clean shot. The blood of the partridge spilled on the dirt.
The other birds looked on like nothing happened, still bobbing their heads, pecking at pebbles. I passed back the rifle, stood up straight, and looked at the motionless body. We carried it home with the others in a plastic grocery bag. We killed them all.
Grandma bought the wood-splitter last winter from Prevost, her fishing partner. Prevost died not long after, but I don’t remember how or from what.
She would go to funerals sometimes before we all settled at the camp for good. Funerals always seemed like a serious place where children weren’t allowed to go, or, at least, they never took me to any.
Whenever I asked them how their friends had died, they always looked at their feet, slowly shook their heads, and said it was just their time. It seemed nobody knew how anybody died. They only knew that if they were dead it was meant to be. Somehow, they hid their sadness if they felt anything at all. Maybe that’s why kids aren’t always the best to bring to funerals, because we’d never be able to hide our emotions as well as adults.
She needed the wood-splitter despite the loss of Prevost. She couldn’t keep up with the work without it and we needed firewood, enough to last the winter.
I was there to help when the ATV got stuck in the cold mud and to bundle the cedars with chains. I was helping, but she liked the idea of having a big piece of machinery, like a new rifle or ice auger, something greater than herself she could master. I never complained. The splitter did everything, but it was old. Occasionally it would break down and oil would leak out like a wound, staining the rock with black tar. She was so angry the last time it stopped, and she almost pushed it in the lake. Piece of fucking shit, she’d always say. She knew how to fix it. She was never afraid of anything. Something about the machine made her feel in control. They weren’t alive like people or partridges or trees. They worked with a set of parts, each one with their own task, and even when they broke down, they could be fixed as if nothing had ever happened. People weren’t like that, she thought.
She knelt down, pressed her hand on the girder, and propped herself up to take a closer look. Something suddenly snapped, maybe a latch or gauge, and the sharp blade unhinged and barreled down its track.
I didn’t see it happen and she didn’t make a sound as the blade sliced through her wrist. The sound of cut bone echoed off the camp and the lake. The rock was bloody with flayed flesh, mixed with sawdust and fire ants. For a moment through the blood, I saw the insides of her arm: layers of flesh, muscle, tendons, and bone. She collapsed, screamed my name, griped her forearm with her other hand.
I had to do something—she was going bleed out. But I couldn’t move or speak. I stood there frozen like a bird staring at the dismemberment in the grass. She was lying on her side in agony and quickly getting weaker. It all felt so impossible, but also as if there was no other way.
Granddad heard the cries and bolted out the door. He wrapped her hand in two or three bath towels, the ones with tiny wildflowers, and we loaded her in the truck for the 30-kilometer drive to the nearest hospital.
By the time we reached the highway, she wasn’t moving or making a sound. Granddad drove and
kept his eyes on the road. I looked at her. I don’t remember talking. She wasn’t moving.
I pass deep-rooted boulders in the foot trail to the bridge. We built the bridge together about a decade ago. It needs a few more logs of cedar and plywood, otherwise it will sink in the flooding muskeg, even though the spring rain is over.
I notice the sick evergreen behind the shed leaning to one side, like a heavy flower, its branches saggy with dew as it blocks out the sun. It barely keeps its grip in the hard soil. I decide to cut it down later in the autumn, closer to early November, just before the round-up of wood. The beetles have killed it.
It can take almost an extra two weeks to fill up the shed without her. She always had a strong hand, and like a monk, the mosquitos never bothered her. Besides, the wood-splitter has been forgotten, finally heaved to the landfill down the highway, now protruding from the soil like a grave, a monument.
It’s easy to work on the bridge in what’s left of the evergreen’s shade and the cool, gaining air. I take out the decomposed and broken logs from the bridge and throw them in a pile. A wind hits the little pools of water underneath, not yet covered by darkened cat tails and sunburnt grass.
The 15-inch hatchet is dull but sharp enough to cut the last log for the bridge. The slit makes it easy to split the whole thing in half, place it inside the loop of some knotted rope. I get up from my knees.
A wave of heat falls over me before I pack the axe and rope. I feel the hot sun on my neck and back, see its light glistening in the creek. I look behind me, beyond the shed towards the camp, now always empty, and I can’t see the evergreen. I didn’t hear the sound of it falling, smooth and clean, barely even there, as I tied the last knot into place.
Joshua Chris Bouchard (he/him/his) is the author of LET THIS BE THE END OF ME (Bad Books Press), shortlisted for the 2019 bpNichol Chapbook Award. His short fiction has appeared in Feathertale and TheNewerYork. He lives in Toronto.