Pushcart Nomination from The Fourth River, Issue 13
Fiction by by Jolene McIlwain
After you’ve felled the tree and dragged it from the site and hauled it to the mill, one of the first things you do is scale it, measure to find out how many board-foot it can yield.
Always measure the small end.
According to the Vermont Log Rule, a log with a diameter of 11 inches cut into a nine-foot length offers up about forty-five board-feet. One that’s 36 inches in diameter, same length, should yield 486 board-feet.
Then you have to grade it.
Check for knots and branch stubs, seams with ingrown bark, ring shake, gum spots in black cherry.
I’ve started to teach our daughter, Myra, how to grade and scale and she’s shown promise. She has a head for numbers, for recall.
We’ve had this business for thirty-five years. My father sought out permission from the Bishop to start up before I was born, and he’s been milling every season since. Now I’m sawyer and he’s more known for his work as a hammer man or sawsmith, fixing our saws and those of nearby mills, Amish and English.
Myra’s interest lies more in his job. By the time she was four, she knew the difference between a cross-peen, twistface, and a doghead. She knew how to measure blade tension and dishing when she was only eight. It comes natural to her. To right things. She doesn’t even flinch when he pounds out the saws.
Then there’s the saw kerf, the width of cut made by the saw. That loss has to be factored in, too. I can tell you exactly what each cut will do. I can tell you what type of cut is best for each kind of job: quarter sawn, rift sawn, flat sawn. I can tell you the type of wood or how wet it is by the sound it makes when it meets the blade.
What I can’t tell you is how much my wife Hannah’s been hurt by how I’ve cut her or how wide the kerf is that I’ve laid upon her heart.
When you marry, scripture says you are joined together, but in truth, to do that you have to be cut away from your family, you cut away from yourself. These cuts are necessary.
But I’ve done more than that.
I’ve given her another seed that wouldn’t grow.
My wife Hannah’s like a quarter-sawn board, the kind that’s best for flooring or treads on stairs—it’s stable, doesn’t easily produce slivers or warp or cup, like flat-sawn wood. Flat-sawn’s best only for visual appeal, like my eldest brother’s wife. Rift-sawn’s the worst cut of all, like my mother-in-law.
That’s why it was so hard to take when Hannah slammed the screen door on me after I showed her the casket. I’d built it straight and true from wood I’d myself sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until my hands were raw.
“Too small,” she whispered. Only that.
But little Daniel fit into it easily, despite the thick blanket she’d wrapped him in. Perhaps she thought her love for him might somehow expand his small body, might help him to continue his growth, even underground.
“It’s 31 ½ x 13 ¼ x 11 inches,” I said, as if to convince her.
Myra stood at my side. Hannah just stared at us and shook her head, back and forth and back, again and again.
I used poplar, known for its straight-grain, uniformity of texture, its light weight—though that never mattered, for when I carried what I’d made to the grave, my boy inside my box, I could barely find strength.
I thought Hannah would be pleased.
She’d been the one to find the small stand of poplars near Sidle Creek. She used to go there and lie on the ground beside the creek, the swell of our son part of her silhouette, and twirl their tulip-shaped leaves round her second finger and search the tops of the trees to spot their blossoms.
But she didn’t even touch the box. Turned her head when I told her it was cherry stain I’d used. She’d have none of it.
Jolene McIlwain’s fiction has been twice nominated as finalist in Glimmer Train’s contests, earning an Honorable Mention and a Top 25 designation. Her work appears in Prairie Schooner online, The Fourth River, FlashFiction.net, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an artist grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.