The Post-Divorce Catharsis of Chopping Wood

"Lumberjack Mom" by Carribean Fragoza, recommended by Brian Evenson

axe and kid

Introduction by Brian Evenson

cover of eat the mouth that feeds you

When I think about Carribean Fragoza’s “Lumberjack Mom,” I find myself thinking about Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” In the Carver story, a man who has just been through a breakup sets up his furniture on the lawn and sits down to pour himself “another” drink. Soon a young couple comes along, “the boy” and “the girl”, and drink and dance with him in this strange outdoor indoor space. In a short coda to the story, the girl finds herself talking about what happened, “trying to get it talked out.” After a while, failing at this, she stops trying.

Like Carver’s story, “Lumberjack Mom” is about the yard as a liminal space that the struggles inside the house can spill into, but Fragoza’s story flips the script. “Lumberjack Mom” has a boy and a girl in it too, but they’re actual children that live in the house, a Latinx brother and sister. Instead of an abandoned middle-aged drunk, the children’s mother and the children themselves have been abandoned: the story’s first line informs us the father has stopped coming home. Instead of someone spreading his life out on the lawn for strangers to puzzle over later, the children are caught in the thick of things. They watch their mother, trying to figure out what it means that she’s suddenly become obsessed with their yard, and is madly tearing plants out. While Carver’s story is a story about an interaction between strangers, “Lumberjack Mom” is about the interconnections and interactions that continue to exist within a fractured family, and how behaviors and even objects can become symbolic of them. More than that, it’s about what it’s like to be a child when the adults around you aren’t acting adult, when your father stops coming home and your mother spends all her time, like Candide, tending her garden.

What Fragoza portrays so vividly is not an exact inversion of the parent/child dynamic but a subtle partial rerouting of it. What do you do when one parent is physically absent and the other parent, psychologically withdrawn, spends most of her time in that liminal space between the house and the world? Fragoza understands the intensity that children bring to the act of observation, their ability to watch and record, their ability as well to try to solve insoluble problems through imaginative means. In this case, the collective “we” that is these children weigh all the evidence and decide that their mother has the makings of a lumberjack.  So why not encourage that?

I won’t spoil where that decision leads, except to say that the axe quickly comes to function as an expressive focus for their mother. Once the children realize this, they decide it’s their job to direct this expression in productive ways. The way this both succeeds and fails is what this story is all about, and by the end Fragoza manages to get to a place that acknowledges the interpenetration of human pain and connection while nevertheless suggesting our wondrous and even fierce persistence. Fragoza is a keen observer of human nature, and one who understands the ways in which we are always already enmeshed in those dilemmas that we are pushed to make our own.

– Brian Evenson
Author of Song for the Unraveling of the World

 

The Post-Divorce Catharsis of Chopping Wood

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“Lumberjack Mom” by Carribean Fragoza

That Spring, when the dormant roots and seeds started sprouting and our father stopped coming home, our mother took to the backyard with fervent urgency. Overnight, it seemed, vegetation had burst through the cracks, split the tile and cement, broken through the clay pots and tin cans. Grass spilled over the hedges with a despicable gusto. One morning, my brother and I woke up to find our breakfast already cold on the kitchen counter and our mother at work in the backyard, crawling on her hands and knees, clawing out odd weeds with tiny flowers we’d never seen before that now burgeoned in tenacious clusters throughout the lawn. She dedicated hours to these new invaders, ripping them out from the grass like clumps of hair. Fistfuls of roots dangling dirt and squirming worms like freshly torn scalps still steaming. Our mother’s face sweated and twisted under the sun. We watched her silently from the bathroom window, heads butted together. We heard our sister call out from another window, Mom are you okay? Yes, mija. It’s just hot, she answered, wiping the sweat with the back of her bare hand.

The next day, we noticed she’d pulled out some gardening tools, small hoes and some shears that she sharpened with a rock. We recognized the hand-sized, volcanic slab from our grandmother’s house in Guadalajara, from before she passed away. One of her prized possessions, our grandmother had used it to sharpen her knives and shears, sitting alone and in silence at the head of the table. My brother and I would sit in front of the TV and pretend not to watch her. She’d then retreat into the kitchen with her knives to perform mysterious domestic acts.

Our mother used her freshly sharpened tools to cut up the thick roots of unidentified plants that seemed to be waiting for the right time to reveal themselves. She wasn’t going to give them a chance. Eventually, we noticed that her favorite tool was a set of narrow-nosed pliers that she’d stab into the ground to extract even the most reluctant roots. She’d have to pull very hard, sometimes using both hands and the weight of her small body. Often it was the thin, spidery roots that were the most persistent and dug themselves in the deepest. Our mother, however, was very thorough, for any remnant would have sabotaged everything.

She also found tiny insects chewing at the leaves of potted plants that she’d grown from cuttings or from seeds she’d sprouted herself. She not only trimmed these contaminated leaves, but also the ones she suspected would soon become infected. At first she snipped gently at the herbs, only removing the diseased tops of the hierbabuena or oregano. Eventually, she cut them down to stubby brown stems, but left those roots intact.

As the days passed, we watched her rove through the garden, flower bed to flower bed, potted plant to potted plant, and then cycle back methodically to rip out the invasive flower clusters that resurfaced in the grass. When she arrived at the lime tree’s jagged shadow, she immediately got up off her hands and knees. I thought she might have hunched after spending so much time curled over the ground or that she might need to steady her head if it was spinning with blood having been bent low beneath the sun. But she stood straight up before the lime tree as if measuring her height against it. She seemed taller than usual, as if she had height stored inside of her for certain occasions.

That night at supper, my siblings and I watched her swallow down a large glass of water with hardly a breath. And then she announced that she wanted to cut down the lime tree. My brother and sister and I looked at each other in silence. Although she’d never outright said so, we knew she’d wanted to cut it down for some time now. The tree is useless if it doesn’t produce limes, she stated bluntly. And that, she pointed out, was our father’s fault.

When we were very young, my parents had lovingly smuggled the seeds in their luggage from Mexico. They wrapped them in embroidered, perfumed handkerchiefs that they carefully packed into plastic baggies, rolled into socks and then stuffed into tennis shoes. They’d even planted a decoy in their suitcase so that when the customs people pulled out our candied fruits and held up the sugared rolls to toss them ceremoniously in a trash bin, we feigned disappointment. Together, bound by complicity, we silently relished our secret accomplishment, and held warmly in our hearts the knowledge of those protected little seeds that were on their way to starting a new generation. Just like us.

Together, we watched the tree grow. We talked to it as one might talk to a baby, using sweet gibberish and tickling its leaves. We’d tell it what a lovely little tree it was, oh what a beautiful little tree growing so big so big now, bigger every day look at you, drink your water, stretch toward the sun, ay que bonito limoncito. We celebrated every one of its lime tree milestones, its first tender branch and its first flower. Its first lime was observed carefully and treasured. How we loved its sour fruit. She had loved it too.

Over time we allowed the tree to grow at its own whim, not having the heart to cut off a single one of its beloved leaves or branches. However, instead of growing juicy limes that ripened fully and dropped to the green grass for us to gather, it produced many tiny, hard limes that it guarded with a web of knotted branches and vicious thorns. The fruit would ripen deep within the foliage and finally drop to rot on the ground. The interior growth was so dense and low that we could no longer reach under it to rescue the limes. The shade spoiled the ground, and the lime acid spoiled it too. Most trees that spoil their own ground, roots deprived of essential nutrients, gradually suffocate themselves. Yet this one continued to grow, and we accepted it, cruel thorns and all.

Several years ago, our father made his last attempt at landscaping. My mother had asked him to prune the tree, said that it had been choking itself with its own gnarled branches. The tree needed maintenance and care like any other living being, my mother said to my father. He knew where she was headed with this, so he grabbed a machete from the garage and began chopping. He left the tree entirely bereft of its flowers, fruit and foliage, sparing only a large chewed-up grey bulk of thorny twigs and branches attached to its short trunk. It looked like a lopsided brain that had been cut up but remained alive, sputtering splintered thoughts. We wept for days, including our mother, and our father didn’t come home until we shut up. Our poor tree. After several seasons, it eventually recovered its green leaves and grew back its barbed branches, and it even began to flower, but refused to give fruit altogether.

My siblings and I continued to watch the lime tree for signs. We studied the flower buds, careful not to disturb the fragile petals. We also refused to trim it, even though we knew, as we always had, that we should for the good of the tree. We loved it, perhaps as much as we loved each other, but didn’t know how to care for it.

Since then, our mother had avoided the tree. She had blocked it from her field of vision, until now. Sitting at the dinner table, my brother and I said nothing in response to my mother’s idea. However, we saw that our sister was carefully sifting through something in her mind. It shifted quietly in her head, trickling a little in one direction then another, moving it in a subtle bob that was neither a nod nor a shake. Through the silence, our mother’s thoughts seemed to have moved on to a different subject as she finished off her meal in a few large bites and stood up to gather the dishes from the table. As she disappeared into the kitchen, we could still hear her chewing, crunching on her char-edged tortilla. I thought for an instant of her strong teeth, large for her small thin-lipped mouth. None of us had inherited teeth like that.

After several days, when she had finished tearing bald spots into the lawn and taming the hedges, at least for a while, she noticed all of the crap we’d put out in the yard over the years and forgot about. Mostly defunct furniture we never got around to throwing away. She turned her instinct to an old chest of drawers we’d long abandoned in the far end of the yard, where it was now rotting. From our usual window, my brother and I watched her break it up with her bare hands. A family of cats ran out, the kittens chasing after their mother. She pushed the chest over on its side like a small whale carcass and pulled on the panels with the weight of her body. She tore out small rusted nails and staples that once held  the pieces together. We could hear her grunt as she worked, clenching her teeth, the bone of her jaw gleaming. The veins in her forearms and hands bulged as she pulled and snapped off the rotting boards.

At dinnertime, we watched her bandaged fingers scoop food from her plate with bits of tortilla. Without looking at us, she said, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of some of the old furniture in the house. My brother and I were overjoyed, relieved. Our sister’s head bobbed excitedly. There was plenty of old, not to mention ugly, furniture we’d insisted on getting rid of for ages. Most of it was furniture my parents bought on layaway when we were still babies. By now, their emotional value had worn out. Their laminated surfaces blistered and peeled, revealing the cheap particleboard underneath.

The next day, our mother showed us a new pile of what used to be a bookshelf. The following day, a sewing table. Throughout the week, some old chairs, an entertainment center, a lazy boy. She found a rusty saw among the tools our father had abandoned in the garage. She sawed into the legs of various upright pieces, then broke them down into smaller pieces, which she arranged into tall piles in the middle of the yard. As the days grew longer, she’d work later through the afternoon and the piles got larger. My siblings and I came out to the yard to admire them at the end of each day. At dusk, our sister hugged our mother until it grew dark, while my brother and I filled the trash bin with debris. We smiled too, but started to think that maybe she’d cut up enough furniture. We didn’t want her to start chopping the stuff that we actually liked and needed.

It occurred to us, my brother and me, that our mother had demonstrated such natural chopping skills, that perhaps she could make an excellent lumberjack. We imagined her out in the woods somewhere marching with great determination, every part of her body radiating strength as she swung her ax at redwoods that were no match for her. With a single blow she’d splinter the entire thing into perfect logs that would land in neatly arranged cabins, their small windows somehow already curtained. Our mother, smiling, sweated gold.

We decided to surprise her with a new ax and a small pile of neat logs. We installed one strong stump in the yard to hold the blocks, take the blows and hacks. She went at it immediately with remarkable precision and grace, like a dancer slicing each log down the middle. It was a beautiful thing to watch. She held that ax as naturally as if it were the hairbrush she’d used, until recently, to brush her hair out of a braid while she waited for our father late into the night. She’d brush and brush until her long hair gleamed like cascading water or the grain of polished wood.

Now that her wait was over, she just split logs most of the afternoon, one after the other in clean strokes. In the evenings she oiled her calloused hands before walking off to bed without saying goodnight.

Every morning we’d find our mother in the yard, chopping away at logs or pausing to scan the yard for returning weeds. She spent most of her time outdoors, coming inside only to use the restroom, drink some water and prepare her usual tortilla thinly slathered with beans and a bite of raw green chile. My siblings and I were also on the bean-tortilla diet. Following her brief meal, without a pause, she’d wipe her hands on her clothes and reach out again for the ax. My brother and I were pleased by her focus and commitment, but started to wonder what would come next.

To break the monotony of watching this daily routine through the bathroom window, we started playing checkers in the bathtub. We waited for an idea to come to us about what to do next as we listened to the sound of wood cracking beneath a neatly sharpened blade. One day, the sound of screams shook us from our pensive game. We ran outside to find her axing through the weathered boards of our backyard fence. Our sister stood by, watching with crossed arms. The neighbors stood frozen in shock over their vegetable patch as my mother shredded the old wood fence. They were nice people. They often left grocery bags filled with freshly picked oranges, sometimes odd fruits we didn’t have names for, hanging on our side of the fence. Usually they smiled and waved at us from their back porch. Today they gripped onions to their hearts, shouted at us in their language. She remained focused on the fence even while my brother tore the ax from her white knuckles and I held her tightly against my body with all of my strength. I could feel her heavy breath pushing through her small rib cage. I expected to feel her heart whipping its wings against her ribs like a parakeet shaken in its cage. Instead, inside I felt a large furry animal balled up, breathing slow but strong. It waited patiently to break out.

We knew that she was ready for more than mere log splitting. My brother and I deliberated while our mother rested in the dark living room, our sister watching her intently. By dinnertime, we had a plan. We proposed an excursion to a nearby mountain to cut down her first tree, after which, we promised to treat her to dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. Another silence spread over the dinner table. Our sister peered at our mom from the bottom of the glass of water she’d long finished drinking. After a minute or two, our mother stopped glaring through the blinds at something in the yard and seemed to be considering our proposal. Finally, she nodded, tight-lipped. We accepted that as a gesture of approval and even perhaps determination. We felt encouraged. Things were going to move forward.

That following Saturday morning, we wrapped up her ax in an old crocheted blanket we found in the garage. It used to be our baby blanket, but for this occasion, we’d pulled it out of the black trash bag where my mother had stored it. We all packed into the car and drove up the nearest mountain until we found enough trees to call it a woods.

My brother and I had printed out instructions from the Internet for beginner lumberjacks. Apparently, selecting a proper tree for your experience level and body type was essential. We fumbled with the instructions while our mom and sister opened the trunk and carefully pulled out the ax, still wrapped in its blanket. It seemed heavier here in the woods, its steel duller but somehow more dangerous, and its wooden handle felt like it might blister one’s hands more easily. Something about the air here made everything more so.

We scouted around for a proper tree, calling back to our mom to put on her new gloves on and get ready. My brother and I disagreed and then agreed on a tree. We chose a medium-size tree that seemed to be drying up. It looked ashy all over, and we could see some dusty spider webs up in its branches. The bark flaked off easily in thick scabs against our palms.

My brother and I shuffled through the crumpled printouts. There were sections about posture and handling the ax and how to strike your tree at just the right angle. It seemed there was a right way and a wrong way to cut down a tree. Our eyes glazed over the italicized and underlined phrases, the little diagrams of people and trees with green check marks next to them for Yes, red circles and slashes for No. We just wanted our mom to get right to it. Cutting trees is a timeless practice, we figured. Didn’t we all cut trees at some point to build our civilizations? It must be the kind of thing you get the hang of once you get going. Although we briefly talked about having our mom use a hardhat or some kind of helmet, we realized that we hadn’t brought one along, so that ended that conversation. We decided not to read the rest of the instructions.

When we returned, our mother leaned against the car eating sandwiches out of paper napkins with my sister. She offered us the ones she’d packed for us, but we told her it was time to get to work on that tree we’d picked out for her. She pulled on the new gloves and flexed her fingers to break in the tough leather. She picked up the ax awkwardly, without a hint of the grace we’d witnessed days earlier. When we arrived at the tree, she stopped. She seemed to not know what to do. Neither did we. We tried to encourage her. Try it out, just hit it and it’ll come! You’ll figure it out! You can do it!

She tried swinging the ax but had a hard time raising it over her shoulder. Her wrists kept getting twisted up. She couldn’t even figure out how to stand and kept shifting and switching her feet around. Finally, she swung and the blade hit the flaky trunk. A few bark chips flew off. She swung and hit it again with a thud and some dust fell from the spider webs onto my sister’s hair. My sister is terrified of spiders.

My brother and I realized something. Chopping down a tree in the woods is completely different from chopping up furniture or logs in the yard. Nothing was happening.

Our mother dropped the ax onto the pine needles covering the forest floor. She didn’t want to do it. Her heart wasn’t in it. It was more difficult than we all expected. And besides, she said, the tree, although it was dying, deserved to die with dignity on its own. Let’s just leave it alone. Just leave it alone and let it die, she said softly.

My brother and I stared at the ax on the ground. I ran to it, panicked that already it might be rusting and then all hope would be lost. Our mother dropped to the foot of the tree and buried her face in our sister’s arms.

After that, our mother insisted on staying indoors. She picked up the crochet needle my grandmother had left her, complete with an unfinished doily still attached to the spool of thread. My mother’s siblings had found the crocheted thing at the base of our grandmother’s armchair shortly after she passed away, and somehow figured that my mother should have it, though she had never crocheted. Nonetheless, she’d kept it at the base of her own seat on the couch. We watched her pick up the doily and needle. She held it in her hands and laid it on her lap before throwing it back to the floor, and remained still and silent until it became dark.

My brother and I wished she would pick up the ax again. We bought a fresh pile of logs and even collected some old furniture from the neighbors, hoping to entice her back to chopping. We rubbed the rust out of the steel and even oiled the wooden handle. We laid it out on a pretty gingham cloth next to a pitcher of cold lemonade on the kitchen table though she hardly made her way to the kitchen at all now. If only we could get her started again, we could figure out what to do next.

She remained in the living room for three days.

On the fourth day, my brother and I went out to collect more furniture discarded along the curb. We weren’t ready to give up on our mother. We began arranging the pieces around the front and back yard. We placed them by the front door and near windows where she might catch sight of them. There was one particularly attractive small log about the size of a meaty arm that we even left out on a coffee table in the living room.

When we returned from one of our excursions, we noticed  a trail of splinters, long shreds of wood. The small tables we’d left in the front yard had been pulverized. We were excited. We looked at each other eagerly. Finally! Our mother, we were going to have our mother back. We’d figured things out. We were going to make the best of it.

We followed the trail of debris to the backyard. We followed the sound of her ax. It sounded different than wooden logs or particle board or panels of cherry wood or anything like that. Our sister stood solemnly at the gate to the yard and did not look at us.

We found our mother chopping through a tangle of branches. Her arms were gashed by the long thorns, as if they’d been fighting back for their lives. Her face was also covered in a web of thin scratches, but they were hardly visible against her darkly tanned face. The scratches were lined with tiny beads of black blood that shone like unblinking eyes in the sun.

The lime tree, our little lime tree. We were aghast. She had chopped it down. She chopped our lime tree down to brambles. She’d slashed off all of the leafy branches without regard for  the countless white blossoms, heavy with pollen and bees. The yard was littered with tender leaves, their young flesh brilliantly green against the coarse dry grass. The blossom scent was sweet in the dense air. She’d cut through the tree’s gnarled underbrush, which was piled waist-high all around her. She stood at the center of a ring of thorns with the amputated limbs strewn at her feet. Through the underbrush, we could see that the limbs had been healthy and green at their core. They were covered not in scabby bark, but in a thin skin that would break easily even with the lightest fingernail scratch. We remembered how vulnerable the tree always felt to us.

Oblivious to us, our mother continued chopping the remaining branches with greater ease and expertise than we had ever witnessed before. Finally, she arrived at its naked trunk that stood alone among the brambles that now filled most of the yard. We could not reach our mother without crossing this field of thorns. Our mother, ax in hand, and the tree trunk, alone, guarded by this destruction.

We cried out, “No!” Not our tree, not our little lime tree, but our shrieks awakened her from her dizzy reverie, and then, as if in reflex, she swung the ax into the tree’s body, piercing it halfway with the blow. And without pause, she swung again a final time, leaving but a thin ligament of green fiber attached at the base of the tree’s neck. Without breathing, we watched our mother drop the ax over the bed of thorns and grip the trunk’s limp fiber with both hands. She wrenched it free with one long grunt that became a scream at the end. It shook the wild parrots out of the neighboring trees, and all we could do was watch them flap away as her scream dissipated into the hot, colorless sky. And the air became very still and unusually quiet. Except for my mother’s breath, which came in long draughts, in and out like a strong tide.

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