Trees in the Rocky Mountains stood as Atlas must have, disgruntled with pain under the immeasurable weight. A gunshot rings through the forest as a giant’s snow-covered spine snaps. My footsteps trace lines cut by Chuck’s massive boots. Everything is enormous to a ten year old. I do not march, but hobble. The metal brace strapped to both my legs makes it hard to bend at my knees. Chuck has not chosen a tree yet. He will likely pick the tallest one, just to piss me off.
Another tree falls nearby, and I stand still for a moment. The reverberation through the ground causes a chain reaction, and the other trees shake off a thick coat of snow.
“Careful,” says Chuck.
I like the danger. I imagine that I have to dodge out of the way just before a tree lands, escaping just in time like an action movie. I wipe my nose on worn out leather gloves. Cold water covers my jeans all the way to mid-thigh and freezes. Chuck tells me that a tree can survive if you only cut off the very top, and he wouldn’t tolerate chopping one down for Christmas.
“That one,” says Chuck. He picks up a branch and throws it at the base. A hill of snow forms under the tree. “Start climb’n.”
The metal spur on my right foot pierces the scabbed bark. The harness I wear is used to climb telephone poles. I lean hard on the leather strap around my waist. Chuck told me that you have to trust this thin piece of leather to support you when climbing. Never get close to the tree, to do so would cause a spur to slip, and I would fall as the strap holds my flesh against bark. White firs can grow to 150 feet in the Rockies.
I sink my spurs higher on the trunk and push with my legs and lean back as the leather strap hops up the trunk. It feels like I’m falling backwards. A long hand saw is tied to my waist and bangs against my legs as I climb.
I hear Chuck call to me, “Put your purse down. Get up that tree!”
I’m too afraid to look down. This disorder is called acrophobia, and I’ve never had it before. Without looking, I flip Chuck the bird. I am thirty feet high.
I reach the first branch. The strap must come off. I hoist myself up on the thick tightrope and reattach the leather belt. Chuck shouts something that I cannot make out. Another branch is on the other side seven feet up. I take off my gloves to clutch onto it with one hand, and the other unfastens the strap. I swing slightly out and dangle now with both hands. The most intense pull-up of my life. I am forty-five feet high.
The branches are close together, and I no longer need the strap. Metal fills the gap under my boot, causing it to slip at times. Branches grow thin and closer together the higher I go. Steel loops, loose clothing, and saw teeth catch on jagged remains of broken branches. The twigs act like fingers, clawing at me to halt. Forceful winds rush through the woods. Trees bend near the top. They have become angry. I am seventy feet high.
I feel branches bend under my feet. The giant groans. Shards of white frost cut at my face and I cling to the trunk of the tree as it bends in the wind. I rip into wood with my saw. My arms are burning, but I’m halfway through. I look down towards the warping barrel beneath me. Cutting becomes harder and the blade squeals as it moves. Soon, the tree pinches the blade to a halt. I am too tired to continue sawing anyways.
I am ninety feet high. I push the branch above me rhythmically, waiting for the wind to help snap the giant’s neck. I hear the fibers crack inside of the cut. The saw falls out, the wind stops and I push with my whole body. The tree gives out one last cry.
Suddenly the sky is revealed to me. I’ve done it. I’ve decapitated Atlas.
Three Months Later
I never liked waking up early. It was a habit Chuck insisted in instilling into my character since he began seeing my mother a year ago. The floor of the kitchen was cracked from decades of leaning down the side of a mountain. On the log walls, pale outlines of replaced picture frames left a ghostly impression on the wall. Inside of my room lay piles of books, and plastic airplanes suspended by fishing line.
I lingered in bed, shielding myself from the cold. Chuck marched in, shook my foot, and poured a glass of water on my head before offering me a cup of black coffee.
“C’mon kiddo. Time to wake up.” Chuck said.
I crawled out of bed and drank coffee in small sips. Mother waited in the living room, codling a nine-week-old cocker spaniel named Annie in her arms. Outside, sunlight slipped through the branches of the trees. Crickets chirped, and slowly faded into nothing. Haunched over, I toiled in a shallow ditch to make way for a gas line.
“This is bullshit,” I said, trying out my adult language in the best way I knew how.
“Good,” Chuck replied, “then you’re the right man for the job. Why do you think your eyes are so brown anyways?”
“C’mon Chuck, I’m just a kid. I don’t wanna do this,” I said.
Chuck grunted, as old men do, and stood up. “Stop bitch’n, this is good for you. Do you want to be a man or not? Grow some cable.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing, keep digging.” Chuck said.
Not a moment’s rest could be found on the hillside where I lived. I ran through the grasses, shirtless with the sun on my back. Annie and I scurried through the underbrush. We chased rabbits, and waded through rivers. If I was lucky, I would sneak back into the house where mother resided, only to be dragged outside again. Though Annie stayed behind, and fell asleep by the fire.
I chopped wood and built fences when Chuck grabbed hold of me. Children walked by and observed me, taunting from the road. One boy, who was bravist of the lot, ran up and slugged me on the shoulder. “Tag!”
“Go suck a dick!” I called, and the taunters would ooo at the use of my adult words. From behind me Chuck would laugh and shoo them away, like grouse started by hounds.
Meat piled on my diner plate when my mother and I lived with Chuck. I remember the hungry days, when Mother and I sat alone. When she met Chuck, I told her we didn’t need him.
“We’re fine, right now aren’t aren’t we?” I asked her.
“No,” she would reply. “You need a father, every boy needs a father.”
I sat and poked at my plate of food, thinking of the time before I lived in the mountains. “I’m a man now, right?” I asked chuck from across the table.
“Not yet,” Chuck muttered as he held a newspaper.
“Come on, I’m totally a man! I chop wood, I build fences, I chop down trees and I cuss like a sailor! I can live out all on my own if I wanted to.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I bet I could live all on my own out there in the woods.”
“Door’s open,” Chuck said.
“I’ll do it! I’ll leave tomorrow.”
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Chuck said.
Mother looked up from her meal at Chuck.
“What?” Chuck said, “I used to go camping all the time when I was a teenager.”
“Things were different twenty years ago, Chuck.”
Chuck smiled and scooted closer to Mother, whispered something in her ear and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He looked back at me and winked.
“You’re so full of shit,” Chuck said to me. “I’ll bet that you can’t even last a weekend out in the woods.”
Low-hanging branches of Ponderosa Pines brushed against the blue-painted steel of Chuck’s truck as we traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Cell phones didn’t work this deep into the woods, among the trees of what Chuck called “Middle of Goddamn Nowhere.” I looked out at the valley and counted how many minutes we had been driving on my fingers. Lost count about half an hour ago. Spring started, though my breath froze to the window as I rested my head. I felt a glance from Chuck.
“Turd,” Chuck said before he stuck his tongue out and laughed.
“No!” I retorted, “You’re a turd!”
“No, you are!” Chuck laughed again.
My feet were just long enough to reach the floor, and my right leg kicked up periodically. I wondered if Mother would worry about me while I was gone. I wondered if I would look mean after trekking through the woods for the next few days, like men with strong faces did in old black-and-white movies. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t a kid anymore and I let everyone know it.
Chuck turned off into a clearing and stopped. I hopped out, put my hands into my pockets, and walked a few feet deeper into the long grass next to the road. Chuck looked out to the road then to his watch.
“Alright, we headed here from the East,” Chuck raised his finger, “That way‘s North. Try to get back by Sunday.” With that, Chuck squeezed his enormous six-foot-two body back into the truck and headed towards the direction we came from.
“Don’t cry while I’m gone, fucker!” I shouted at the departing truck.
I was new to cussing, and liked the way the words felt as they rushed out. I shook out the laziness from my legs and started off. Soon I broke off the trail and upwards a quarter mile down.
The orange sky turned black within hours. Cold crept in on me and my footsteps became faster and faster. For the first time in my “Man Journey,” I was scared. What if there was a bear in the woods? That’d be a lame sight. Chuck and Annie finding me with with my guts tied in a big knot, and Chuck giving my corpse a big “I told you so” look. Though, the thought of bears wasn’t what frightened me.
The forest was littered with things that simply had no right being there.
Rusted trucks and cars were a common sight. Lockboxes and picture frames with faded photos still inside, stuck halfway out of the ground. Mannequins, door frames, vending machines, crashed planes, metal debris, telephone poles with detached cable coiled up at their base. It all just stood there like soldiers in the rain.
What scared me most were the abandoned houses. There was at least one every few miles. Every house had broken-in windows and peeling, grey paint. Hornets buzzed through the corridors, and field mice nestled themselves in the walls. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but darkness within these houses held a property that made my hair stand on end.
I should have made shelter. I should have made fire. I did neither of those things. Instead, I told myself that I just had to be brave, just for one night.
I stepped past the threshold of a home’s skeleton. Plaster had been picked off of the walls. Wind whistled through cracks in the roof. My eyes adjusted and made out halls and doorways. In a room there was enough moonlight shining through a frameless window that gave me a small amount of comfort. I rested my back to a corner of the room so that I faced the doorway.
“You’re not afraid of the dark,” I told myself.
Chuck taught me that men don’t fear the dark. Men aren’t afraid of cold nights, living in the woods, finding their way home or being lost. A tear ran down the side of my cheek. Above all, Chuck taught me, men never cry.
I learned that it’s better to build a fire and shelter that night, though I never learned how to not fear being alone.
I rose the next morning and carved my initials on the wall. I ascended to the peak of the mountain and back down the other side. I marched among the houses, trees, and trinkets and wondered, “do these things even belong to anyone?”
I almost tripped on an old wooden clock, which no longer counted time. It seemed familiar to me, as though I saw one just like it on the mantle at home. I headed East towards the sun, and at noon the sun would travel to the otherside. Mountains live in the shade for half of their lives. I hiked for two days, sliding between the shade and sunshine, avoiding the broken houses and building fires. Elk stood silently in the forest and watched me cross over thickets and bones and rusted tire rims.
“If these things do belong to someone,” I thought, “would that person even recognize them? Would they even be considered the same objects that were left behind?”
“A bit of both,” I concluded. My legs burned from exhaustion. I reached another peak of a mountain, thinking that home would be on the other side.
“Yeah. A bit of both.”
Late into the third day, I found the first road with a sign. “Nectar Street.”
My heart fluttered. I recognised where I was. Just south of the Barnes residence, and a mile or so from home. I bolted up the hill for fifty meters and hooked a right onto Spruce Street. I could taste the iron pumping through my blood, and I was drenched in sweat but didn’t care. Dogs barked as I ran past.
Chuck’s cabin rested under aspen trees, sitting in the shade just as I remembered it. I darted over the yellow snapdragons and through the iris bushes. I took a breath outside the white-painted door to the cabin and grinned widely. I thought about how worried Chuck and mother must be, how they would cry and rush up telling me they would never let me go into the forest again and I’d say “I did it fuckers! I’m a man now, that’s for damn sure!”
I pushed open the door and called out. There was silence for a moment, then I heard Chuck’s voice, “Well, I guess he’s back then.”
“What?” I asked.
Mother stood her post near the fire.
“Well kiddo,” said Chuck from his resting chair, “feel like a man?”
“Yeah… well I don’t really know actually.”
Chuck snickered and rose from his seat. He leaned down close to me and whispered, “Come on. You’re mom’s pissed with me.”
Mother looked at me again. “I hope it was worth it,” she said, “So, are you a man now?”
“A bit of both.” I replied.
A dry storm lingered the next morning. Something had changed in the air, and I awoke sore and tired. Chuck didn’t need to drag me out of bed, and I worked in the fields with him without complaint. Children came and taunted, though I remained silent and continued on my way. Now and again I would lean on the staff of my shovel and breathe in a lung full of air and breathe back out slowly.
“You’ll start sprouting chest hair at this rate,” Chuck said.
I walked to retrieve Annie at the kennel. I noticed for the first time that everything was silent. I looked into the kennel, which had hay bedding, two dog houses and an eight-gallon water bucket.
A feeling overcame me, that somehow I was still trapped within the forest. I looked out to the Douglas Firs at the end of the driveway. Annie’s head was deep inside the bucket and her legs dangled out, motionless. A cold wind blew in, and the hair on my arm rose at attention. I unlatched the chain link gate, pulled Annie’s wet body out of the bucket and held it in my hands. She had gone in for a drink of water, but the well of the bucket was too deep. She had drowned.
Mother wept when I walked into the cabin and showed her what happened.
“My baby,” she whispered through her tears.
Chuck and I went out to the tree behind the house and I dug a grave. We stood there while thunder groaned in the distance and plumes from cotton trees drifted into the grass. Chuck and I stood with our heads low. I wouldn’t budge or say a word. I lowered the sheet-covered corpse among the roots and didn’t shed a tear, because men don’t cry.
Mother left Chuck a year later after she found him with another woman. I returned to him when I was nineteen. I wanted to see Chuck, because though I hate to admit it, he played his part in raising me. I wanted to tell him I would leave to live in Portland. In the mountains, there are cars made of steel, and dogs roam without leashes. I waited in front of Chuck’s cabin, next to the empty kennel.
Paint had begun to peel away. An axe I once used to chop firewood was planted in a stump to the left of the entrance. It had not budged since I left. Glass panels of the greenhouse had shattered, and grass grew in from the cracks between cobblestone. I rubbed my fingers through my beard, and smoked.
A choking sound came from up the road. Chuck’s old, blue truck puttered down the driveway, and I hid the lit cigarette behind my back. Chuck stepped out.
“It’s alright,” Chuck said. “Go ahead. You can smoke if you want to.”
I nodded and took another drag.
“Look at you,” Chuck continued, “bearded and full of piss and vinegar, based on what your mom told me.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I said and smiled at him.
He invited me inside and offered me a coffee. The room that I used to live in was vacant now. A crack in the floor of the kitchen had grown and caused one-half of the cabin to sit at an angle. Chuck’s belly protruded out in an impregnated shape and his head was bald. Rooms and sheds on his property contained old magazines, boots, car parts and metal engravers. Pine cones piled in boxes where squirrels had left and forgotten them. Chuck was no longer the overpowering force I once feared, but had become an old man.
“Need to get rid of all this crap,” Chuck said. “I need to lose it before I die. You want it?”
“No,” I said.
Chuck grunted, as old bastards do, and hobbled to his chair.
“I guess you’re all grown up now aren’t you?” Chuck asked.
“A bit of both,” I said.
“You don’t have to go, you know. You could stay here and work for me. Take over this place when I die.”
I looked at the cracked window in the corner of the kitchen. Birds chirped outside, and grass had grown over the grave I dug long ago. Chuck was wrong. I had to go, because home was still a far ways away. Somewhere over on the other side of the mountain.