Sawdust

by James Turner

The man slips the still chainsaw from the tree trunk. Amongst the sawdust and oily stains on his overalls, the label reads ‘Billy.’ He presses a hand to the elm tree, a slow crack echoes through the forest, and it descends to the bed of bracken.

Daylight falls across the clearing and the circle of tree stumps. Billy runs his cracked fingertips over their initials, her face hidden in the shadows of his mind. The smell of damp earth sweeps past on a slight breeze. Chunks of dark hair poke from Billy’s hat and a beard creeps up his cheeks, towards grey eyes. The sun slips behind some clouds, and he drops his heavy frame to the warm rings of the stump. Her laughter floats through the undergrowth, hiding behind trees and under bushes. Billy looks down at his hands, no longer young and sticky with sap, and closes his eyes.

The chainsaw roars to life, slicing off a five-foot log, which Billy drags up to the cabin. He lifts it onto his workbench and switches on the kettle. The wall covered with woodworking tools, each cleaned and oiled and back on their hook. He works one end of the elm into a dome, the amber rings stretched over exposed grain, and with a chisel, he shapes a mouth. Blowing away the sawdust, the lips part and take a deep breath.

‘Finally,’ they say, revealing a straight set of wooden teeth. ‘I’ve been trapped in this elm for forty-three years. Please give me a pair of eyes so I can see.’

Billy’s head drops, and he pours himself another coffee. He gouges out the indents of two eyes, soft and youthful, and they blink open.

‘There you are,’ the mouth says, eyes moving around the room. ‘Thank you. Could you whittle me up some ears next?’

The man works through the night, hands blistered and moustache stained with coffee. A face appears. A pinched nose, high cheekbones, full lips and waves of cropped hair. It is the face of the man’s first wife, the face that follows him through the trees.

‘They used to hang people from those elms,’ the mouth says, eyes on the cabin door. ‘I watched them all die. Are they still out there?’

‘Most are gone,’ Billy says, sharpening his file, as he shapes the crevices of an ear. ‘I’m trying to find my wife, Hazel. She died out there too.’

‘What did you do to the others?’

The first was by accident, a desperation to keep Hazel real until the mouth came to life. It screamed until he drilled it shut and fed the log into the wood chipper. Billy returned though to find a different soul in each tree, but never his wife. So he practiced, lips parting each time and secrets spilling out. When he finds her, she will be perfect. But so far, he has nothing but a pile of woodchips.

‘Please don’t,’ the mouth says. ‘I’ll do anything.’

‘Be quiet and let me work.’

Over the following days, the man hacks away at the log, carving it up, sharpening the edges. Billy shapes her slender limbs, the slight torso. Every inch worked smooth with a file and sandpaper.

He hangs up the last tool and takes a sip from his mug. The eyes closed, lids twitching as he places a hand on the pointed shoulder. A finger moves and a knee lifts.

‘Are you done?’ the mouth says, turning the head.

‘See for yourself.’

It sits up on the bench and looks down at the golden whirls on its body.

‘This is so wrong. I’m a man. A thin man with a potbelly and knobbly knees.’

Seeing its reflection in a mirror, it swings its legs towards the floorboards of the cabin.

‘You’re my best effort yet,’ the man says. ‘Beautiful.’

It lunges at Billy, but he is ready, and he fires a nail gun through its foot, pinning it to the floor.

‘I’m sorry. Please, I’ll do anything.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Billy says, holding a rag to its mouth. ‘I just need one thing from you.’

The eyes open to sunlight, taking a moment, before finding Billy sat on a stump, nail gun in hand. Her body laid out in the middle of the circle.

‘This is where I found her,’ Billy says, waving the gun across the clearing. ‘I never had a chance to…’

He drops the nail gun to the floor and steps over to her body.

‘Just let me say goodbye…’

The head nods and he kneels down beside her.

‘I’m so sorry Hazel,’ he says, slipping an arm around her neck. ‘I couldn’t let you go.’

Her hand lifts to squeeze his arm.

Billy leans down to kiss her on the lips, a soft touch, before going in again. The other arm swings out and knocks him to the ground.

He wakes to the smell of gasoline, tied to one of the stumps as Hazel stands before him, a lit match in hand.

‘Wherever she is,’ the mouth says. ‘She deserves better than this.’

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