The Axe

by Lisa Beebe

She found an axe by his bed. Not a gun, even though he owned one. An axe.

He had moved west before her, and he wrote to her almost every day. At first, his letters were newsy and cheerful, but their tone changed after he arrived at the plot of land.

Twice, he described the land as “sunny and welcoming,” and something about the repeated optimism felt forced. She suspected he was nervous living alone in the wilderness.

He wrote of his plans to build a cabin near three towering oaks. He said the trees would provide shelter, shielding them from the summer sun and the winter winds.

Each letter chronicled his progress. As time passed, the letters turned darker. In one, he sketched three trees looming over a small log house.

He wrote that he was building the cabin with pine, and that sometimes, as he chopped the logs, he felt like the three oaks were watching. He tried to play it off as a joke, but she knew him well enough to sense the truth.

Later, he considered cutting down the three oaks. But when he stood, axe in hand, looking at their ancient trunks, it felt too risky. If one of them fell the wrong way, the nearly complete cabin would be crushed. He had chosen the site because of the oaks, and he knew it made no sense to get rid of them. He blamed his apprehension on loneliness, and said it was a sign of how much he missed her.

In another letter, he said that when he was inside at night, he could hear the trees moving. The branches tapped the roof as if they were testing the cabin’s structural integrity, and the rustling leaves sounded like frustrated sighs. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the trees were coming for him, and it made him question his sanity.

When she suggested moving up her arrival date, he wrote that the cabin wasn’t quite ready.

He wrote that he’d installed an iron fireplace to serve as both stove and heater, and they’d need plenty of wood to last the winter. He cut trees from the nearby forest and hacked them into logs. Instead of storing the wood near the cabin where it would be easy to carry indoors, he stacked it far from the three oaks. He wrote that the logs would dry out faster in the sun, and that dry logs burn better, but it sounded like an excuse.

As her arrival neared, he wrote that he’d ordered curtains from a store in the nearest town. He hoped they’d make her feel at home, but he was also eager for the privacy they’d provide. He said the trees seemed to watch him through the windows at times, as if they were tracking his movements.

In his last letter, he called his fear of the three trees “irrational.” He knew it was the wind thrashing the branches against the roof at night—nothing more.

The night before she was due, a storm rolled in from the north. Strong winds shook the trees, and rain pelted the sides of the cabin.

Sometime that night, it happened. A branch crashed down, breaking through the roof. Rain soaked the mattress and the wooden floor. A puddle formed around the axe.

Her carriage arrived the next morning. The land was sunny and welcoming, but he was nowhere to be found. When she saw the damaged cabin, she wondered if he had gone into town for help. It was strange they hadn’t crossed paths on the road.

She went inside, and in the bedroom, she found his axe. She knew he would be disappointed if it rusted, so she lifted it from the puddle and carried it outside.

As she stepped out the front door, she looked up at the three trees. She felt none of the threat he had described in his letters. Accidents happen, but she was sure the cabin could be repaired. They wouldn’t let one fallen branch ruin their dreams.

Then, she recalled the bedroom. She had seen the gaping hole, but there was no sign of a broken branch.

She stood beneath the largest oak tree, thinking. As its lush, green limbs swayed overhead, a small red leaf swirled to the ground in front of her. She set the axe down and reached for the leaf, noticing its unusual pattern. As soon as her fingers touched it, she knew it wasn’t a leaf at all. It was a piece of plaid fabric from one of his favorite shirts.

Closing her fingers around it, she was overwhelmed with dread. She stepped closer to the oak’s massive trunk, looked up, and shouted his name. There was no answer, but she continued to call for him, tilting her head back so far she could see only branches and sky. She felt dizzy, and in her panic, the branches began to close in around her.

She tucked the scrap of fabric into her sleeve, turned, and grabbed the axe. She hoisted it with all her strength, swinging it over her head. The steel blade sliced through one of the tree’s lower branches, knocking it to the ground.

The rest of the branches pulled back, as if reacting to the wound. Before they could come for her again, she dropped the axe and ran. She kept running. When she could run no more, she walked. She followed the road for miles and miles, all the way back to the town.

Shortly after she returned to her family’s home in the city, she bought herself an axe. This one was smaller, and she could lift it with ease, even when she was tired. For the rest of her life, she slept with it next to her bed.

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