When Asbury bought the four acres of wooded land fronting a tidal creek, there was only the one oak, and it was already dying. It’d never been a giant, possessing nothing like the soaring grandeur of the trees on Capitol Square in Richmond, which he passed daily on his drive to the office.
No, his oak had struggled to grow among the yellow pines, hollies, and wind-twisted cedars that shaded the marginal land, land which several times a season was washed with salt water—whenever a nor’easter blustered into a high tide or a mighty storm heaved in the Atlantic.
Still the spring the land had been cleared to build the cottage, he and his wife Janie had spared the oak. They had in fact positioned the cottage so that the tree’s farthermost boughs laid shadows on decking to which burgundy leaves spiraled every fall.
Each season he, Janie, and the children watched the oak decline. It bravely put out buds, but fewer of them uncurled into dwarf leaves, and then the top of the tree died, its decay drawing a redheaded woodpecker to the feast, the bird in time sculpturing the highest part of the trunk into a rough, pocked resemblance of an eagle’s head.
In the 14th year of their owning the cottage, the oak did not meet the spring. Still Asbury didn’t have it cut. The children’s swing hung from its lowest limb, and Janie had strung up painted feeders which transformed the tree into a blazing boardinghouse for birds. Sunflower seeds spilled about like yellow rain.
They named the cottage Heron because the great primordial birds strolled the creek shallows on stilted legs. Gulls hovered, and terns splashed the water. Yearly ospreys built nests in spaces between the red triangular day-markers of a channel which led to the Chesapeake Bay.
Like the herons, the cedar cottage was stilted, on pilings, with a stone fireplace, cherry wainscoting, and wicker furniture. Driftwood pieces the color of pearl were stuck about. Sometimes the place, airy with decking and glass, gave Asbury the sensation of winged flight among weltering boughs.
During early November a mean wind hissed in from the sea and broke many trees. The highest limbs were sheared from the oak. Asbury worried that its core was insect ridden and another storm might tip it to the cottage where it would smash the roof, windows, and decking.
He talked to Janie, a tall, limber blonde who coddled her slimness by jogging with him each morning around the cindered high-school track near their Richmond home.
“The birds will starve they’ve been on welfare so long,” she said as she hemmed a white evening gown which shimmered across her knees. The dress belonged to their 19-year-old daughter Jill, who was coming out that winter.
“We can hang feeders from other trees.”
“You know it won’t be the same.”
Asbury intended to hire Hinton Beard to cut the oak. Hinton was a man from Virginia’s hill country who’d come to Richmond to work at Philip Morris’s hogshead mill. Weekends Hinton trimmed trees and did other jobs requiring chain saws and ladders. He was fair-skinned to the point of being albinic, with hands so large that even empty they seemed to be gripping bricks.
“Promised my ladies I wouldn’t do no more climbing,” Hinton said, a natural gentleman who hated to say no, as he was doing now to Asbury. “They claim I’m too old to be dancing around up there.”
Asbury hadn’t thought of Hinton as aging but rather as being weathered by time, like good wood. And if Hinton was old, Asbury himself had put on some years.
“I could do it,” he said, making the remark at the dinner table without thought. Janie, their daughter Jill, and their son Rick picked it up, the boy in his second year at Hampden-Sydney, where he was on the tennis team. Both Asbury’s children were tanned and bleached from lives beside the water. Aburst with the gold of youth, they had an easy cleanlimbed beauty which put them above the fray.
“Call the fire department!” Rick said.
“And the doctor!” Jill said.
“Don’t forget the funny farm,” Janie said.
“The idea seems to be I’m incapable of doing the job,” Asbury said.
“The idea is you’d be dumb to try,” Janie said.
His annoyance carried over to the next day at Old Dominion Securities, the brokerage shop where he was a vice-president. At 46 he felt neither ancient nor physically inept. He jogged, swam, and sailed their 27-foot sloop with as much verve as anybody along the coast. His American-twist serve could still overpower all but the best club players.
On his way home Thursday he stopped at a hardware store and bought a chain saw with a 16-inch blade. The saw came in a black plastic case complete with a tool for adjusting the chain’s tension and a book of instructions. He also bought a red two-gallon can for mixing the fuel. He smiled, knowing that in the rural South the first chain saw was a rite of manhood.
He left his purchases in the Oldsmobile’s trunk and mentioned nothing to his family. He said he wanted to drive down to the cottage on Friday to winterize the boat. Janie would be busy with Jill’s debutante preparations, and Rick had a date for a party weekend at Hampden-Sydney.
“Stay off the bay,” Janie said. “I don’t like you being by yourself.”
He drove from Richmond on a cold, sunny afternoon. The interstate led to Williamsburg and beyond where he crossed the York River to good alluvial tidal odors. He opened a window to breathe air which for so many years he’d associated with the freedom of time off and vacations.
When he reached the cottage, built on a point at the end of a sandy road that crackled with crushed oyster shells, he parked underneath and carried his suitcase to the bedroom. A sliding glass door gave out onto a deck and a view to the harbor, the sand spit, and the bay, which in the fading light was a blue blackness severed by fleeting whitecaps.
He glanced at the oak, not yet ready to bring his mind to the job he’d attempt early in the morning when the wind was down and he could work safely on a ladder.
He mixed a drink and took it and his binoculars down to the water’s edge, where he swept the horizon for birds. Two dashing flights of canvasbacks speared across a silvered sky and curved into the bronze marsh.
He returned to the cottage to light a fire, toss a salad, and broil a steak. Before going to bed, he walked the deck. The cottage was being punched by wind which the oak limbs shredded to a keen.
At first light he was up. The wind had dropped and shifted from sea to land. Because the day was cold, he wore his leather boots, down vest, and knit cap. He walked around the oak studying it. If the lean were right, he could’ve sawed it at the lower trunk, but the tree was definitely inclined toward the cottage.
He would trim the oak’s top, whittle it down three or four feet at a time. He set his aluminum extension ladder against the trunk. From the car he lifted his saw, reread the starting instructions, and knelt to pull the cord.
The engine fired immediately and loudly, causing squawks from gulls who flapped away. He tried the blade on a piece of driftwood, and the saw passed through with ease, not seeming to cut as much as sink.
He switched off the engine, lifted a coil of nylon anchor line from a nail driven into a piling, and tied a bowline around the saw’s handle. He placed the saw at the foot of the ladder and climbed as he held the line. When he reached the bottom limb, he stepped onto it and unknotted the children’s swing. He allowed it to fall. He unfastened the bird feeders and pitched them underhanded to the lower deck.
He drew up his saw, tied the anchor line around the trunk, and began his ascent. The oak was no more than 30-feet high, yet when he was half way to the top he realized he was moving heavily and breathing hard. He was also gripping limbs tightly.
He rested a moment and looked toward the bay. The tide was at slack ebb, and sea birds rested along the luminous shore. A great blue heron perched atop the wooden frame of a crab trap at the marsh’s edge, hoping for breakfast and raptly seized in a gaze of judgment.
He resumed his climb and again felt tired. The saw, which he’d been changing from hand to hand, was loose in his fingers. Was he sick? He wanted to go up no farther. As he hesitated, a tremor passed along his body.
Why, he thought, you’re afraid! He couldn’t believe it. He’d never had trouble with heights. He’d been a fighter pilot who made a strafing run so low over a rice paddy that his air intake sucked up grain. His office was hung with an outsized picture of him and his squadron standing before a plane the nose of which was painted to resemble an attacking shark.
The idea of fear made him angry, and he again began to climb, this time going to the top third of the tree, high enough to think of trimming. He pulled his gloves tight, wiped a sleeve of his flannel shirt across his mouth, and jerked the starter cord. The saw didn’t fire, though he repeatedly yanked the cord. He was sweating.
Arms around the tree, he examined the saw. He’d bumped the choke lever to the ON position while climbing. He pushed it back. When he pulled the cord, the saw started explosively and shot an oily blue vapor whirling around him.
He slid a foot along a limb, brought his weight to it, and the limb broke. He watched it fall and thought of himself dropping the saw and tumbling after it. He might land across the blade. No one was near, and he could lie unconscious and bleeding.
God, he was actually shaking and felt weak to limpness! He switched off the saw. On the ground it had seemed light, but up here it was stubbornly cumbersome and wanted to drag him down.
Disgusted with himself, furious, he started the saw. He sliced off small limbs just to prove he could and swung the blade toward a large branch, but instead of parting cleanly, the branch fell in against his leg and knocked loose his foot.
He dropped the saw to hug the tree. The saw bounced and banged its way down until it snapped upward at the end of the anchor line, yet continued to run and buck. The blade flailed and scythed the line. Even lying on its side, the saw functioned with arrogant perfection.
As he climbed down, he trembled, and the tree seemed made of glass. Fear didn’t stop at the ladder, which, like a child, he descended step by step. He righted the saw, switched it off, and wiped sweat from himself.
He sank to the ground and waited for his breathing to quiet. Unbelievable the way his hands wobbled when he held them out. Over the hill at 46 he was. Okay, he’d pack, lock the cottage, and return to Richmond. Go back to his desk and never tell his family or anyone.
No, damnit, he wasn’t through with the tree. A few years ago he would’ve frolicked up the ladder and topped the oak without thinking, knowing in the swiftness of his muscles and instinctive moves of his body what was right. The saw would’ve been an extension of his arm and youth.
As he stood, he wondered what if he succeeded in climbing the ladder and topping the oak and the tree fell on him, swung in as the branch had done. Again he pictured himself lying unconscious among the bayberries, unmissed and unaided for days. He cursed. That’s how age and maturity corrupted a man, made him think what if, what if, what if.
Defeat or not, he couldn’t climb the ladder right now. Janie, Rick, or Jill would spot the cutting he’d already done and want to know. He might lie out of it, but the idea of being false to his family was shameful to him.
No, the tree had to come down. All right, he would get help. He walked to his car, drove out along the sandy road past cottages empty for the winter, and stopped at the wharf near the head of the creek where watermen docked their boats. He’d offer money for a man to go up the tree.
No one was at the wharf, just the gulls with their rusty cries and the boats, the long, white dead-rise crafts locally built, which had outboards cocked to protect the propellers from mud at low tide. Some boats had wire crab pots stacked in them, others oyster tongs and nets. All needed bailing.
He drove to Bittern Marsh, the post office, which was a red board-and-batten building smaller than the den of his Richmond home. No stores or houses were nearby, just grey loblolly-fringed fields stubbled with stripped soybean vines.
From the post office came a tall, muscled black man wearing a felt hat, a blue pea jacket, and high rubber boots with his overall legs stuffed into them. He was a waterman, a person who found his dollars on the creeks and bay, harvesting oysters, crabs, and fish, a farmer of the waters. Asbury smelled the sea on him before they were close enough to speak.
“Want me to do what?” the black asked, his speech slurred through his nose after the fashion of peninsula people, “Climb your tree?”
Behind him at the door was the postmistress, a stout greying woman named Horseley. She’d heard what Asbury wanted and would tell it as surely as if he’d paid to have it broadcast by radio. Probably she would say the “comehere”—what the locals called outlanders—had needed somebody to go up that little old tree because he was afeard to do it himself.
Or the black himself might give the story around among the community of watermen, and they would tighten their jaws and nod with the knowledge that though they had not city money, fancy clothes, or foreign cars, they were made of enduring stuff which would keep them on the land or sea long after the litter of comeheres had blown away.
“Changed my mind,” Asbury said, went to his car, and drove back to the cottage where he looked at the oak. Though he’d been fond of it, he hated it now. The tree had become an instrument of revelation—the closed door to his youth.
The hell with it, he would go home. If Janie and his family found out what he’d attempted and failed, he’d simply confess, accept their greasy smiles, and trod to the refuge of his office. Men everywhere gave up to age and caution. No logic justified his life’s being different.
He packed and drove all the way to Gloucester Point before slowing his Olds, curving away from the York River Bridge, and turning. He just couldn’t quit and live with his cowardice. He went back to the cottage, 23 miles, stepped from the car, and smoked a cigarette as he looked at the tree.
There had to be another means of bringing it down, some system that would not require climbing at all. Wishful thinking. The oak was absolutely slanted toward the cottage.
For an instant he considered gambling. If he notched the tree on its far side, some combination of forces his eyes didn’t reveal might fell the oak obliquely so that it would miss the cottage a few inches.
No, it would hit and do terrible damage. His impulse rose out of panic and desperation.
He circled the tree as one might a serpent. Suppose there were some device that would keep it from falling against the cottage even if the oak were cut at the trunk. Among the pilings were stacks of salt-treated lumber he intended to use to build a dock. He had nails, a hammer, a saw. In Richmond he was reputed to have brains.
From his lumber he slid a 2” × 10”;. He carried it to the second-story deck, propped one end at the foot of a railing post, and jammed the other end against the tree. So far, so good. The trouble was the weight of the oak might cause it to slip or roll around the brace.
He again went under the house where he lifted a 2” × 4” which he sawed in half lengths of 15” each. He nailed the pieces to the 2” × 10” at an angle that forked them out over its corners, forming a Y with a long stem.
Okay, so what if he put the brace in the ready position and sawed the tree at ground level? The oak would still be leaning to the house. He needed some way of pulling the tree so that it would miss the cottage.
Perhaps he could borrow a block and tackle from the watermen, though even then he’d have to climb the tree and attach the rope high. He didn’t want to go up that ladder again into fear.
If he could push the tree, it was heavy, sure, but with a long timber forced against the top he’d have leverage, especially at the moment the tree was about to fall, the instant it was just in balance.
He went to his lumber pile for a 12” 4” × 4” that he lugged to the upper deck and shoved out against the top of the oak— the head of the eagle the woodpecker had carved. Part of the head crumbled and dropped, but an eye socket was left, seeming to express the tree’s malevolent feeling for him.
He lifted the chainsaw and walked to the oak. If it fell where he wished, it would topple into bayberry growth. He started the saw, yet hesitated. Going home and hiring a professional to do the work would be so sensible. That’s what professionals were for, and he was being stupid and mulish not to use them.
Well stupidity and mulishness were sometimes required to salvage self-respect. He squeezed the pistol-like trigger and touched the shrilling blade to coarse ridges of the oak’s trunk. He made his cut horizontal and held the saw to its work until he was approximately half way through the tree.
He pulled out the blade, released the trigger, and stepped back to look. He’d heard of trees being rotten at the center and collapsing, but the oak stood solid against the sky’s cold paleness, its dead branches not yielding to the rising wind.
He pushed the tree with both hands. There was no sway even when he put his shoulder to the trunk.
He now had to make a second cut, this one down at an angle of 45° to the first. That’s how the instruction book said to do it. The result would be a wedge taken from the tree in the direction he wanted it to fall.
When he began, the blade moved smoothly, but then stalled so that he had to horse it to keep cutting. He guessed the tree had settled slightly pinching the bar, or the saw’s teeth could have met a knot, some tangled grain of wood. He kept at it until the wedge popped out and rolled among bayberry.
He pushed at the tree but felt no give. He inspected the gap the wedge had left. The cavity glistened cleanly. No sign of borers or rottenness.
It was time for the third and most important cut. The idea was to circle to the opposite side of the tree and saw on a plane that intercepted the gap, though higher than the first horizontal bite, creating a hinge which would allow him to tip the oak over.
He smoked and rested. He wanted to be calm when he did this. He thought how a surgeon must feel at the moment before he drew a scalpel across flesh. There would be no walking away once it was opened.
He wiped his hands, pulled his gloves on tight, and readied the saw. The blade quivered as it touched the trunk. Part of him wanted to hurry while the rest of him drew back. He cut only a few inches before stopping and going up to the deck where he raised the 4” × 4” and rammed it against the tree’s top. The oak was not disturbed.
He went down, cut another two inches, and climbed to the deck. He pushed the 4” × 4” hard against the tree. Nothing. He was being too cautious with his saw—more than cautious, cowardly.
A third time he returned to the tree. As he started to cut, his saw stopped abruptly. He jerked the cord. The engine wouldn’t catch. He unscrewed the black fuel cap and found he was out of gas.
He smoked and allowed the saw to cool before refueling from the red can. He poured oil into the reservoir which lubricated the groove of the cutting bar. The saw started at the first pull, no choke, and he stepped to the tree where he fitted the blade into the cut. This time he went a good three inches deeper through the trunk.
He lowered the saw and climbed to the deck to push the 4” × 4” against the tree. Still nothing. He was wearing himself out on stairs.
As he again used the saw, he glanced at the top of the tree and shouted, believing it was falling on him. He jumped back and threw the saw away. From the driveway he stared at the oak. It wasn’t moving. Rather, a mare’s tail of cloud floating over had created the illusion.
His skin tingled, and he coughed. Because he felt he was going to give out before he finished, he lifted the saw, started it; and cut recklessly for 20 seconds. When he straightened, the only thing holding the oak was a hinge of trunk an inch-and-a-half thick.
Surely the oak would fall, yet when he ran up to the deck and pushed the 4” × 4”, the tree resisted. He flung off his down vest and hurried to the ground for the saw. Just a kiss of the blade would be enough.
Delicately he worked the blade into the cut. He was tense and shaky. He used only a short burst of power, yanked the saw out, and rushed to the deck.
He could’ve taken his time. The tree withstood the 4” × 4”, though the wind was assaulting it now, a result of the sun’s heating the earth and causing an updraft which pulled air from the sea.
He set his feet, breathed deeply, and shoved the 4” × 4”. Was there a slight give? The upper limbs did quiver. No matter, the oak wouldn’t go over. Yet if he left it even for a second, the wind might nudge it toward the cottage.
In a rage he cursed and pounded his body against the 4” × 4” one last time. The tree tilted. It didn’t fall but was definitely tipped away from the cottage. The brace dropped to the ground.
He ran down the steps, started his saw, and sank the blade into the widened cut. The oak creaked, settled with ascending speed, and thudded among bayberry, its length lying exactly where he wished.
He was exultant. He laughed, circled, and raised a triumphant fist. He went to the refrigerator for a beer and stood over the oak as if it were a fallen foe.
“By God, you did it!” he said. “You outsmarted it!”
He used the rest of the day for trimming limbs from the oak and sawing the trunk into sections of fireplace size. One winter day he would bring a sledge and two iron wedges to split those sections for his woodpile.
That night after two drinks and a dinner of frozen pizza, he stood on the deck. Wind blew from the northeast, carrying coldness and snow which flickered against running lights of a ship passing along the coast. He heard the somber buoy bell, but the keening of the oak was gone, as was its shape, an emptiness in darkness.
He looked down to where the tree lay among the crushed fragrance of bayberry. For him nothing would ever again be as glorious as the daring move, the beautiful, thoughtless act, the sureness of muscle and reflex which preceded thought, the eye that knew before it measured.
Yet he’d been compensated for the loss, paid for the seized swiftness and certainty with a mind able to cope. If what he’d achieved was not quite victory, neither was it a rout.
In the morning he woke to find snow on the land and marsh right to the water’s edge where the tide had washed it. He locked the cottage, put his stuff in the car, and drove out.
He slowed to glance back through steam from his exhaust. The exhilaration was gone now. He remembered the oak in summer leaf above the cottage’s shingled roof. A gentle, aching sadness entwined with a descending peace. Like the oak, time was sawing at him; and like the oak, too, he would endure until fallen, he hoped with half the dignity, will, and strength.