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A Place in the Trees

Ned, the son of one of my dad's friends was with me in the back of our Studebaker for the drive out to the Dawson's farm. We were trying not to breathe in all the dust, feeling it cake our eyes. It had been hot lately and even with the windows rolled down the heat made us weak. Dad was driving, and sitting next to him was my oldest brother Fat. They were passing a bottle back and forth and talking about work.

I squinted out the window and watched the rows of pear trees go by. I could see all the way to the end of the orchard and then another row would block me. Again and again. It was like running along a fence; dut dut dut dut dut. I was getting tired and I hoped it wasn't much further.

"Let's roll up the window," Ned said.


Ned was older, but I had the say.

"I can't breathe," he said.

"Dad?" I said.


"Ned can't breathe."

"Tell him to open his mouth,” he said.

My dad's eyes shifted from the road to the rear-view mirror. His face vibrated in it and he began telling Ned that he should take some time during work to talk to Mr. Dawson's daughter. He was telling Ned how pretty she was and, if his sons were the type, he would have them chasing after her. He told him what a good family the Dawson's were and how they owned a lot of land and he would be doing himself good to marry her. Ned was scared just hearing about it. He was eighteen; tall and long and he carried himself like a kicked dog. He had ugly hair, plain eyes and talked really slow. I thought maybe my dad had too high an expectation of him. Ned must have thought so too because he kept saying, "Naw, naw, naw."

"Why don't you want me talking to her?" Fat asked. Fat's real name was John. Fat was a nickname he got because ever since he was little he would eat the gristle off everyone's plate.

“You're not ready," Dad said.

“I feel ready," Fat said.

“I'II tell you when you're ready."

Fat must have seen himself being set up for an embarrassment. He shut up and took an extra long drink from the bottle. I watched how many bubbles went to the top. He tightened his lips and sucked air through his teeth.

"Why don't you just give it a go?" I said, "That way when her dad comes out with a gun we can see you run." Fat tried to ignore me but I could almost see his ears prick up.

"He'll come out and say, 'Get your dirty hands off my daughter' and then boom with the shotgun," I said. Now I'd done it.

"Will," Dad said to me, "Get the axes to quit rattling."

The ax heads were clinking together in the back and it bothered him to hear it. I knew it made him think something was wrong with the engine or a wheel was loose. I reached back and couldn't make them shut up so I stuffed my rag in between the blades.

Earlier this summer we were heading up to visit Dad's sister in Yakima. We drove all night and only stopped to go to the toilet or switch drivers. As the sun was coming up, one of the tires blew. Fat was driving and he nearly smashed into a tree before he could stop the car. Dad got out, looked at the tire and started walking back down the road. After a minute he returned and presented Fat with a piece of wood that was riddled with nails.

“Can you see this?" he had asked Fat.

Fat had just shrugged and looked around at the ground. That flat tire taught me more about my dad than any other thing. He didn't have a tire iron or a jack, so we rolled the car up and high-centered it on a log. Dad used a wrench and his boot to get the lug nuts loose. They were hob-nailed boots, like the ones the Army issued. In the early light they made sparks on the wrench when he kicked. While he was kicking at the lugs, two cars pulled up at different times and offered to help. He refused them and never looked up from kicking the wrench. Fat and I had just stood there and watched. It was three hours before we were rolling again. Dad had made Fat buy an iron and jack. They were in the trunk now.

"Are the Dawson's going to let us use their mules?" Fat asked.

"Yes," Dad said.

"That's good," Fat said, "I don't want to have to harness up and drag the logs by myself."

"We'd use the car," Dad said.

"Are we still going to get paid the same," I asked, "Using their animals?"

"We'd use the car."

We slowed and pulled onto the Dawson's road. I got out and opened up the gate. "No Trespassing" was written in red on a white sign. It had bullet holes in it. A wild field stretched out before us and beyond that we could see the house and on the other side of that was the job—a grove of birch trees, swaying and marking the wind, needing to come down.

Mr. Dawson had decided to grow pears on the property behind his house and was having us tear out the timber. There was mostly the birch and some pine. If we used the mules it shouldn't be too hard. We pulled into the house and piled out of the car. Dad went up to talk to Dawson and we waited and shuffled around. I tried to stand behind Ned without being obvious. He let me, but Fat reached around him and cuffed me in the head anyway.

"Bastard," I said and brushed myself off, but that was the end of it.

The Dawson's place was big and white with black trim. There were huge windows on the ground floor and a porch that wrapped all the way around. A veranda, Ned called it. Dad and Mr. Dawson were standing on the veranda. There were four gables sticking out of the top floor and they had gutters. The grounds were nice too, with flowers and shrubs arranged in just the right place.

"If I lived here I would have that room,” I said and pointed to the one closest to us, "That way at night you could crawl out on the roof and have a chew and watch the stars."

"We could all crawl out and have chews," Fat said.

"We could try and spit on each other," Ned said.

"Shut up," we said.

"When are we getting started?"

"After Dad agrees to terms with Dawson," Fat answered.

Ned had been pacing around and his eyes were on the watch. That stuff Dad had told him about Dawson's daughter had him. He kept putting his hands in his jeans and pulling them out.

"I think she's watching you out the window," I said to him.

"Which one?" he said and put his hands in his pockets.

"That one there," I said and pointed to a window you couldn't see through. I thought Ned was a good guy, but he was funny when it came to girls. I grew up with five of them. Maybe it would be good to get Ned to come around more. If he got to know my sisters, maybe he could relax. He would never get married like this. I got back into the car and pulled out the axes. Three were ours and one was Ned's. His was a double blade with a white boned handle. It was beautiful and the edges were sharp. A double blade is how I got the scar on my shin. I was probably the millionth person to get up on a cold winter morning, half asleep, to cut wood for a fire. Chop, slip and gouge. Dad had looked at it and said, "Let it bleed for a while and then wrap some cloth around it." I still had to carry in the wood. Now, if I had broken the ax handle, that would have been something.

Ned had positioned himself between the window and the car. He was still trying to look like he had something to do. Fat was sitting on the bumper and strapping on his boots. He stood up.

“I suppose we can start on the opposite side of the house and work our way in," he said and was showing the plan with his hands. He must have heard me tell Ned about the beautiful spy.

“That sounds good," Ned said, grateful he had something to keep busy with. He stood next to Fat and his hands did their dance and I watched the dance move to the rest of him. He was all fidgets and wiggles.

"We can drag the logs through the middle and strip them over there," Fat said and waved his long arm toward a clearing a hundred or so yards from the house.

"Good," Ned agreed.

“That way we'll keep the dust down and it won't choke the Dawson's out of their house," Fat said.

They were both staring out at the trees and trying to look serious and purposeful when Mr. Dawson's daughter came out of the house. She was wearing a simple brown dress and had a child in each arm. I could see the sinews in her neck and chest strain with the weight of the children. She was tan and a strand of her red hair was stuck in her mouth. She was wiggling her lips around trying to free it. She stood by her father and looked down at me.

"Hello," she said.

"Hello," I said, realizing I had been walking towards her. She wasn't that close now, maybe thirty feet and her voice had put the spot on me.

One of the little boys was reaching for the ground and she let him down. The other one held tighter.

“I have a tree house in the woods," she said.

"Oh?" I said, walking closer but wanting to stand still.

"I would stay there and make up friends until dark," she said, "Every day."

I nodded.

She asked, "You're going to cut it down?"

"I don't know about the tree house," I said.

"You are," she said, "My Father told me you are. You're cutting down all of it to grow pears."

I shrugged agreement. If the tree house was in those woods it was coming down. A tree house. I tried to see this beautiful girl wearing her soft brown dress climbing around in a tree and I couldn't do it. She belonged here, just like now, standing on a porch and looking down and smiling and holding children. I stepped forward to get closer to her and said, "If I can, I won't cut it down. " I smiled.

She smiled brighter at me and I could see into her eyes. She put her hand on the messy head of the other boy and let him down. I took another step forward.

"It's all right," she said. "I never have time to get out there anymore. I spend my time here."

Her father turned and said something to her. She looked at me, then at him and went into the house. She held the door open for a second to let the kids in. I half raised my hand to say good-bye. I wasn't sure what to do with it. It looked like I had an itch.

My father came down off the porch and we gathered around him.

"Fat," he said, "follow Dawson around the house and get the mule. You two come with me."

We grabbed the axes and headed out to the woods. Dad walked in long easy strides with a hatchet to mark the trees that were to fall first. He would lean back and look around and then step to a tree and give it a lazy swing. Thunk. Then he would give it a twist to free the chip. I watched him and followed his eyes. I wanted to know how he figured on which tree was coming down first. Ned took his ax and started hacking on one of the trees. Dad watched him for a second and then told him to stop. Ned stood with his face a big question.

"Cut it where I put the mark," Dad said.

"What difference does it make?" Ned asked.

Ned wasn't my father's son and didn't know not to question him about how to do things. Dad didn't answer him and continued stalking the trees.

I started on my own tree, on the mark, but kept watching Dad. I looked around and imagined how the trees would lie once they were down. I understood why he put the mark where he did. Once the trees were down they would form a kind of star; one on top of the other. That way we could easily get the rope around one end and drag it out with the mule. It also would make it easier to strip them. When it was time to drag them out, that's exactly how it was.


We had two of the stars of trees finished. Each star was made up of about six trees. Fat was cinching rope around one of the ends and I was getting the mules revved up to pull them. Dad had sent Ned to the house for water.

"The stretch on the rope needs to be about eight feet," Dad said, "No more or there will be too much slack."

I cinched the rope to the mule and we started to pull. After about the third log we had a nice trail smoothing out toward the clearing. Ned came back from the house with the water and we stopped to drink. He called me over to him.

"Dawson's daughter, Emily," he said, "asked me your name." I grinned, " And?"

"And that's all, " he said, “Just your name."

"Did you talk to her?" I asked, "Like Dad wanted you to."

"No, she asked me about you first off. What was I supposed to say? That red hair. What did you talk about?"

"Nothing, " I said, "Just about a tree house she has in these woods."

"I don't see any tree house," he said.

"It's probably on the other side of these birch here," I said. Ned looked over towards them.

"If there is one," I said, "it's coming down. I told her I would try and save it."

"Save the tree house?"

"Wouldn't it look funny?" I said. "Even rows of pear trees with this huge mountain of a tree house overlooking the whole plot. It's just not going to be."

"That's no way to get in with Dawson's daughter," Ned said. By dark we had found the tree house. I had been following back into the woods with the mule after dragging a log out and Ned pointed his chin to a twisted and dark oak. An oak, in the middle of these skinny white birch, looked out of place. Its stoutness, being hunkered down behind the other trees, had kept it from us. It spread out through the birch's greener leaves, the colors blending where they met and blocking out the sky. The birch would grow fast, leaving the oak to starve for the sunlight it was losing. It would take years.

Up and in its arms it held an unstable platform made of two by fours. The floor was a rotting door laid flat and on one side looked to be the remains of what once might have been a wall. There were no boards to climb. The huge torso of the tree was bent over and would have made that easy. About halfway up the tree's height an unraveled rope hung down, probably for days when rain made the tree too slick for feet. Dad had found it first. At the base of the tree his hatchet had left a fresh mark; white against the black bark.

"I don't want to have to hack through that," Ned said.

I stroked the mule's neck and didn't say anything.

I think I was thirteen when we lived in Hermiston. We were staying in a one bedroom house, all of us, on a man 's farm. Just behind us was a sagging old barn. Most farmers would leave these barns empty and wait for them to fall down and rot away. Like they thought the huge things would just disappear. I never understood it. Fat and I would sneak into the barn on days when there was no work and swing from the rope and pulley that used to haul bales of hay into the loft. Rotting wood and hay, animal dung and must and the sun shining between the shrunken boards and the hollow creak when we swung back and forth inside the ribcage of this huge dead thing. When we talked it was always in a whisper in case we might bring it down with us in it. As I remember it, it wasn't the swinging that drew us in but the chance that it would come down. The chance that we could get killed. Like climbing high up in a tree.

As I looked at the tree now and the rope hanging down that reminded me of the barn, I wondered what it would be like to grow up in the same place your whole life. No picking up and moving, following the crops or avoiding Dad's debts. I imagined that Fat and I would have had a tree like this, one that we could have made permanent. We would have probably stolen the wood, or found an old door like in this tree, and we could have built on it as we Went. I thought of all the fights Fat and I had got into over this swimming hole or that abandoned car. It would have been a good thing just to have a place. This Emily had her place and now it was marked with my dad's hatchet.

"How are we going to fall this one down?" Ned asked me, "It doesn't even look like it'll fall with those branches. It's wider than it is tall."

He seemed upset about it so I said not to worry and we walked the rest of the way to meet Fat and Dad.

Fat was waiting with the rope, "Where have you been?"

"We were looking at that oak with the girl's tree house in it," I said.

"I saw that,” Fat said.

"It's a good tree for a fort," Ned said.

"The branches are dying," he said, "The birch is choking it. Couple more years and your fort would come down with you in it, or a heavy snow .  .  .

“Just cut the birch down around it,” I said.

Fat didn't say anything. He looked like he was considering the possibility that it might work. Finally, he looked up at the growing darkness and motioned for us to hurry up. We got back to what was left of our pile of trees. Dad was sitting on the end of one of them and smoking a cigarette. Boots unlaced and his ax in the leather sheath. It was the end of the day.

We all sat around him and unlaced our boots. Ned was rocking back and forth to stretch out his back. Fat had a cigarette and was trying to light it.

“The matches are sweaty,” he said.

Dad handed him his smoke and Fat jump started it. I wanted to ask for one but knew the answer would be no. A cigarette was something you didn't ask for from Dad. One day he would just light one and give it to you and then it was all right. After that you could share the bottle on the way to work too. Dad put his smoke out under his foot and lit another one. He took a long drag and then pointed it towards the nearly dark woods.

“That oak is going to take the morning,” he said, “Fat and I will cut it down. Ned, you and Will can finish dragging the rest of these sticks out while we're doing it.”

“I want to work the oak,” I said.

"You'll drag the logs out,” he said.

"I've never worked an oak,” I said.

I wanted to say something before he continued. I jumped in and said, “Did you see that treehouse?” Dad didn't seem to hear me so I pointed at the shadows and said, “Up there?”

He looked at me and I wished I hadn't used “tree house.” I should have said fort or maybe loft or something.

"Dawson, er, Mr. Dawson's daughter, Emily,” I said, "Her name's Emily. You would think he might want to save it for her.”

"No," he said.

"I mean, she probably uses it a lot, " I said.

Dad didn't say anything but I saw Fat was starting to pay attention. I felt pressure building up. I shouldn't be saying any of this. It was foolish.

"It's going to be hard to drop the tree with all those birch around it," I said.

I had Dad's attention now. He kind of leaned towards the oak. I knew he couldn't see it but he knew it was there. I was picturing it in my mind. Fat flicked his smoke and looked at me.

"It would be easier to drop it when it's clear, " I said.

Fat asked what difference it would make and I thought a second.

"If it doesn't fall, " I said, "I mean, if it leans against some of those birch, we might have a problem. I mean, it might be hard to drop them for the chance the oak could come down on one of us."

They were thinking now.

"It wouldn't be safe," I said.

Ned wasn't watching the tree. He was looking at me with this face. I hoped what I was saying wasn't giving Dad or Fat the same face that Ned was looking at me with. I turned to look and Dad stood up, wiping his hands on the front of his pants.

"You're right," he said, "We'll wait till we have all the birch down."

He stretched his arms and looked at me with squinty eyes.

"Besides," he said, "I'd like to see if we couldn't take some of that hardwood home for ourselves."

On the walk back to the car I was trying to figure out what those squinty eyes had meant. Either he was feeling sly about getting the oak—hardwood being worth a lot of money—or he thought he saw something in me. I didn't like him seeing things. I fell back with the animal and thought of the girl on the porch with her smile and her hand on the young boy.

"Stand back, " Fat yelled.

We all turned and ran with high steps and our shoulders hunched up as the bough of the big oak gave out violent cracks. The sound punched my ears and I could hear it creak as it prepared to fall. There was a quiet whoosh slowly building to the sound of a big gust and then of a train passing close as the branches bent back and then, wump, it settled to the ground. I was squinting my eyes to keep out the dust that had kicked up. Ned was too late and was rubbing his.

"Don't rub them," I said, "It makes it worse."

"That was a big tree," Ned said, fidgeting with his hands and trying not to rub.

We walked over to where Fat and Dad were standing by the jagged stump. They were looking down at it. Dad motioned to look closer.

"Watch the life run out of it," he said.

As we watched, in the center of the stump, thin sap was beginning to well up. It seemed to come out of everywhere on the new white surface of the wood. The sap swelled and then spilled over a ridge or slowly filled up a crack. It was like the tree was trying to hide the part that was gone, but the sap, you could see through it. I leaned down closer. The smell was sweet and strong. Piney. It made you take deep breaths. Fat started to climb up onto the surface of the stump. He put his leather boot in the middle of the growing pool.

"Get down," I said.

He looked at me and then looked at Dad. Dad didn't look up and Fat settled his feet to the ground. It seemed wrong to climb around on it just yet. We all seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Finally, Dad picked up his ax and started walking up the length of the dismembered tree. He started at the joints of the branches. Using the natural forks and bends of the wood, he began to strip the oak. Small pieces at first, taking time to clear the leafy tangly parts well away from the next swing. Some of them took two or three short strokes to free. One by one, we all joined him. After a time, Ned and I began crawling in and around the thicker branches to free them from the log. None of us talked. Just the sound of the timed breath with the swing of the axes and the dull echoes of each strike. I stopped to rest and peered out of the tangle to see my dad standing and smoking a cigarette. He was smoking like he was done for the day, with long drags and slow breaths out. He would stop and roll the smoke in his fingers, looking at the glowing end and then watching it to his lips. He was thinking.

I crawled up to the tree house. It was still mostly intact. The floor had come loose and was leaning against a branch. It had become a door again and I poked my finger in the hole where the handle goes and pulled it out of the way. The remains of the wall were now the floor and I could see where the rest of it had been attached. It might have been a room once, but I couldn't see where a roof had been. There was a small green picture frame nailed to the side of the wall. There was no picture in it. It just framed a hole where a knot had been. I looked through to see the ground. Once it probably looked toward the house to see the parents coming or pirates on their way to conquer the castle or howling Indians with painted faces. Something like that, I thought. I took my ax and pried it off the board. It didn't break and I crawled out and set it by my jacket.

My dad had started to work again, stopping only to wipe the heat and the sun and the dust away from his face. By late afternoon the huge oak was just a log next to a pile of gnarled branches and leaves. Again we were sitting around my dad as he passed a smoke to Fat. They lit up and Ned and I watched. Ned was bouncing his ax on his boot.

"Can I light the pile?" Ned asked Dad.

"You can light it," he said.

"This one's going to burn all night," Fat said, looking at the pile and then at his glowing smoke.

"It won't burn long," Dad said.

"It'll burn hot," Fat said, "We should get the mule back."

With that, Fat got up and led the mule over by the new trail to the clearing and tied him up. Ned was dumping kerosene over the pile. He was careless; splashing it on himself while Dad was watching. After a minute to let the fuel soak in he was standing in front of Dad with his hand out for the matches. Dad finished his smoke, stepped away from Ned and put the butt out under his boot. He pulled the matches out of his shirt pocket but didn't give them up.

"Smell your clothes," Dad said to him.

Ned stood there.

"You were splashing the kerosene all over yourself and now you want to go lighting that pile with these matches, " he said and offered the matches to show Ned.

Ned looked down at his clothes stupidly and then watched as Dad strode over and in two quick swipes, had the pile on fire. It spread rapidly and pretty soon it was crackling and giving off an amazing heat. We all picked up our stuff and stepped back to watch it burn. The flames rose up and turned into smoke and the smoke carried tiny sparks that disappeared into the sky. I held up the picture frame and looked through it and watched as the tree gave in; the branches sometimes bending towards the heat and the flames. By morning it would be gone. We headed back to the house.

When we got there, Fat went around to the barn to put the mule away. Ned was loading up the car and Dad was back on the veranda talking to Mr. Dawson. I stood by the steps and couldn't help looking into the windows to see if she would come out. It was getting dark and I was starting to see my breath. I put my jacket on, holding the small green picture frame in between my knees to do it. Just then she came out. She was in jeans now and a sweater. Her hair was down and pulled around on one side of her face. She smiled at me. I slowly reached down and grabbed the picture frame, trying to make it smaller somehow, so she wouldn't see. I almost put it behind my back but ended up holding it in front of me with both hands. I was thinking of something to say. She looked off behind me at the smoke rising from behind the last of the trees.

"That's a big fire you made," she said.

"Yes," I said. I wondered if she knew it was her oak tree that was burning out there. "Is that my tree house?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "It shouldn't burn very long. It's hot. When it gets dark you should be able to see it through what's left of the birch."

''I have to go in." She was still looking out at the rising gray cloud.

“You should sit out here for awhile and watch," I said.

“No," she said, “I have to clean up."

She looked down at me. She wasn't smiling but she seemed happy. She looked at the frame in my hands and put her hand against her chest. Not because she was surprised; I think she holds it there a lot. I offered the frame and she leaned forward and took it from me. We looked at each other as my Dad brushed by her and came down the steps.

“Let's go, Will," he said and headed to the car.

Mr. Dawson was holding the door, calling her. As she turned to go I wanted to say something. She reached the top of the steps, the front door. I drew in my breath and held it. Mr. Dawson put his hand on her shoulder, moved to the side and led her into the house. It was dark enough now and the glow from the fire played on the windows, cast my shadow in front of me. I waited there at the bottom of the steps, imagining they would ask me in.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of CLR

Mat Coffey

Mat Coffey earned a Master of Fine Arts from Arizona State University. He grew up in Portland and has returned to live and work.

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