The maintenance crew took down that dead sycamore today, and bucked it up into fireplace-length logs. They would probably be back tomorrow to split and stack it.
There was plenty of time tonight, though, Caleb thought as he sat on the hard wooden bench. Slanting sunlight washed his chest with late-day warmth; it wasn’t even suppertime yet, and the July sky wouldn’t darken for hours. A tree this size shouldn’t need more than a few hours for a man who knew how to do it.
Caleb tried to visualize the basement storeroom they’d been allotted when they came to Harmony Acres. There was a lot of stuff down there that Mabel had yammered at him not to bother bringing. You live in the same three-story house for four decades, raise a bunch of kids and marry them off from it, and the accumulation is awesome. You sell some, and offer some to Goodwill and to others that will get stuff into hands that need it, and just throw some away.
But you kept some things that just might prove useful, even though the retirement community salespeople assured you all your needs would be met. Had he kept the axe?
Early on in their marriage he’d bought a splitting maul, like a sledgehammer but with one face tapered into a fat wedge. He’d given that one up – a tool of brute force, demanding no art – and surely hadn’t brought it. But his splitting axe might be down in the basement, an oversized head whose broad edge he’d kept sharp, the instrument of a craftsman. It would feel good to have that in his hands again.
Some men are big and heavy enough to bring an axe down hard without a lot of effort. He’d been a skinny wretch when Mabel married him, and despite her culinary talent he’d gained only a few pounds until retirement, and not much even since. Lacking heft, he’d learned to bring the axe up behind his head and shoulder and then back over, his whole body applied to the task. The skill lay in bringing that sharp edge down on exactly the vulnerable seam of a log, despite the long arc. It felt good, just thinking he might do that again this evening.
Mabel would complain, of course, calling him a silly old man more likely to split his foot than one of those logs. She’d been skeptical when he began splitting wood in his twenties. But as he learned his craft and got better at it, she’d turned into an admiring, loving wife who knew when her husband needed the reward of solace – and learned how to deliver it.
Once he found the axe, he would invite her out to watch him turn the giant round logs of sycamore into halves and quarters, and some into kindling. When he’d finished, she would escort him up for a hot shower, and then massage a healing ointment into his aching limbs the way she did long ago.
After a time the massaging would turn mutual, and at last, as desire became irresistible to both, she would guide him deeper into oblivion. At last they would drift off to sleep, curled up like kittens, the pang of rarely-used muscles fading into unbroken slumber. Perhaps rouse at first light, still hip-to-groin, Mabel wakening to turn toward him and make love again.
Caleb closed his eyes, savoring memory, almost dozing in contentment.
* * *
The sun must be setting; the warmth was off his chest. Reality struck him like an epiphany: Mabel had been gone three years now, and he knew that axe was long gone, too.
Never mind. Let some workman split those logs tomorrow; they’d served their purpose this evening.
Published in Flora Fiction July 22, 2022