While working on something else, the first line of this tale popped into my head, and I had to stop to see where it would go. I have no title for it, so I’ll call it “Three Rivers” because that is the setting. I see it as a coming-of-age story, maybe a short story, but I suspect something longer.
This all starts with me hanging from a tree branch about forty feet in the air after my successful effort to break the one I was standing on.
Life is about hanging on to something.
It had not been my intent to break the entire branch, just enough of the thinner part so we could encourage our campfire with some solid firewood, which was sorely in need of some wood after consuming all the twigs we could pick up to flame effectively enough to cook our lunch.
Now you might be wondering why we – my friend Dan and I – were cooking our lunch in place with so little fuel for a fire, and that was because we had ventured out to the town gravel pit for some exploring. The gravel pit being what it was, sand and rocks, we did not arrive with a full expectation that wood would be plentiful. Wood would. Imagine that was someone’s name. Hi, glad to meet you, my name is Wood Would. Edward? No, Wood Would. Wood Would, the Third. God, I kill myself sometimes.
We are not sure it was actually the town’s gravel pit, that is, owned by the Town of Three Rivers, but it was a place of some history, where the Onondaga Indians camped years ago and left as proof all the flint arrow heads kids like Dan and me had collected on school trips and the pieces of pottery that lined display cases in the local library. Miss Harrison — in New York in fifth grade, you studied local history – Miss Harrison told us that the Onondaga picked this spot where three rivers converged because the spring floods enriched the soil, and the rivers provided swift transportation and a good defense, and, you know, water.
Well they must have chopped down all the trees because there was only this small patch of them at the far end of the gravel pit. It was pretty thick with a few tall maples or oak trees, I guess, standing in a place that suggested they lost interest in cutting down trees, or had cut down all they needed, and left these here; either way. But someone, maybe other campfire-makers, had sawed off the lower branches up to maybe eight or ten feet, leaving just little stubs, which, I was glad to report, made excellent footholds, so I thank you former campfire-makers for that bit of convenience.
It would be proper to mention here that Dan and I arrived at the gravel pit intending to cook lunch over a fire even though neither of us brought a hatchet or was in possession of even a simple knife. We did bring some hamburger meat wrapped in tin foil with some potatoes and carrots, a favorite dish of the local Scout leaders who managed to be the only people in the camp in the dead of winter with an actual stove. The seeming rustic meal added to the adventure.
Some of these trees were tall with branches filled with leaves and provided relief from the direct sun that blasted the gravel pit into a moonscape. Many others, for which I was grateful, were just tall sticks, dried, maybe dead, like the survivors of some inferno that blasted the bark away, leaving a damaged branch no defenses, like Dan said he felt sometimes when his father, all drunk and roaring, tore through their house yelling and throwing things, his mother trying to stop him: Please Joseph, stop. He’ll never do that again. If you stop, Joseph, Dan will apologize, won’t you, Dan? Joseph, no! until the neighbors called the police and his mother would collapse on the couch and cry her eyes out and Dan would stroke her hair and listen to her sob and his insides boiled with fear and hate and thoughts of revenge. Revenge and leaving, but maybe not in that order. Dan didn’t talk about his home much.
Or maybe the trees died because campfire-makers like me and Dan had hacked away pieces of them until it was too much and they just stopped caring and stood in the gravel pit like war veterans.
I had to be forty feet in the air because the lower branches were too thick, maybe eight or ten inches around and even though they were dry, I could not break them, or sometimes there just wasn’t anything to hang onto. So I climbed higher. Dan watched, and if he was concerned about my predicament, he did not voice it, merely pointing out possible locations of thinner branches that might more easily give into my efforts.
Finally I found one. It was eight inches around where it attached to the tree and about four inches thick out about ten feet out. Conveniently there was a stout, ten-inch branch stretching out at the exact height of my outstretched arms. Grasping it firmly, I began to rock up and down, but near the base, it would not budge. Moving out a maybe six feet I again began the rocking up and down and to my initial joy, I heard a crack and as I looked down I could see at my feet a separation. Success! Except it didn’t break. So I rocked again and there was another crack, and I rocked harder, and there one last crack and there I was suspended forty feet in the air dangling from a tree branch while my friend Dan below yelled, Way to go, and picked up the chunks of the shattered limb.
I’m not sure what would have happened if I had immediately followed the broken tree limb in its fall to earth, though I suspect it would have been bad.
But as fate would have it I did not fall. As the broken limb grew smaller in my eyes, I instinctively pulled up on the branch above me and kicked my legs and wrapped them around that trusty branch. Or what I hoped was a trusty branch. It did sway some. I shimmied my way back to the trunk and unwrapped myself. I paused a moment at the juncture and felt a sense of accomplishment, in part, I’m sure, because I had not killed myself. Had my older sister been there she would have surely scolded me on breaking one of society’s rules about safety or something else someone else would find offensive. But she was gone, off to college, and many times I returned home to a dark house that would stay silent for hours. Just me and the house, lights on next door, family at supper or tossing the ball in the backyard; just me and the silence. And as I hung there from that shaking tree limb forty feet in the air I knew that this was not about life or death because that was not the only choice. Life is not the opposite of death; sometimes it is just a beginning.
And sometimes hanging forty feet in the air after breaking some firewood is just about cooking lunch over a campfire with your best friend because you never know when you’ll do it again.