Jeffrey Snowbarger

(about 5500 words)

Snap Jaw Small had a tavern act, a foolproof way to win free shots of squirrel whiskey. Think of anything alive—frogs, snakes, snow-white weasels—if it fit in Snap Jaw’s mouth, he’d chewed the head off one. He saved earnings that way. He mailed his wife bolts of linen and sacks of salt. He sent her letters about how cold it was among the choppings. How soon the rivers would rise and the logs would start running. How he’d be home by the time the oaks leafed out.

But Snap Jaw made a misstep in camp one night. He bit the head off Old Dudley’s pet owl. This owl had the most beautiful lay of feathers—flecks of deep black spotting the purest white you’ve ever seen. It was like the everlong beard of God Himself. Dudley cradled his bird ‘till it flapped its last then went at Snap Jaw’s ankles with a spade. After Snap Jaw skipped into the moonlit slash, we never saw trace more of the fella. Word swung round that he’d hired on with a lousy camp south of Spooner. One weekend he went knuckles with a shanty boy out of Hayward. The bout closed with poor Snap Jaw getting his own nose nibbled off for a change.

“He was one dumb kraut,” I said to Muscle Head Moe. Every day we swapped stories, sang all the ones we knew.

“No dumber than any other,” said Moe, referring to Snap Jaw. “I can’t spell justice, but I know it when I hear it.”

“Now, if that ain’t the truth.”

We were skidders then, Moe and me, working the fields of felled pine. We followed the sawyers and hauled their sixteen-foot lengths from the choppings, through snow covered swamps, to the sled road. There the grousers piled the logs high on horse sleds and drove the loads to the riverside where they waited for the spring runs. We weren’t the best skidders, but we were good. ‘Till that day, at least.
We had an ox team yoked side by side. While Moe was yapping about Snap Jaw, one of our beasts lost its footing and snapped its hind leg. The boy hemmed low and painful-sounding like a cow left too full of milk. Moe did the ox in with his axe. He cussed up a storm as we unhitched our load and chained our good beast to the dead. We took turns riding into camp. The other had to jog to keep step.

“Hey! Ho! Cookee!” We hollered about camp.

The faintest sign of smoke coiled from the bunkhouse. The shanty was nothing more than hemlock logs stacked horizontal. When the bitter night winds howled they drilled straight through the gaps and bit you in the bunk. Work was the only way your bones didn’t stiffen like the sweaty socks hung on the dryline strung between the rafters.

Lipmann, the head cook, ducked out. His face was always blushed from stoking stoves and working near the heat. He was built like a fancy vase, wide at the base but slender up top. His shoulders were so slight, he couldn’t buck a tree to save his life.

“We brought dinner,” Moe told him.

“Ain’t nothing but a snacker,” Lipmann said, jabbing me in the ribs.

“Not him,” said Moe. “We lost one of our team.”

The three of us kicked toward our oxen rig, snow crunching underfoot. We rocked above the poor thing all bent out of shape. Its open eyes had begun to cloud, and you could see the shallow dent where Moe had eased its burden.

“Did a knock up job on his brow,” said Lipmann.

“Used the axe,” said Moe. He showed the tool in his left hand. Hair and blood clung to its honed edge.

Lipmann breathed white fog out his nostrils. His sleeves were rolled and steam rose from his wrists slathered in bacon grease. “I seen this before.”

“What do you mean you seen this before?”

Lipmann grabbed himself and spat. “Think I bumped into camp last night?” A line of plug juice dribbled down his chin.

I could see Moe’s face tighten like a hitch. “No sense getting coarse,” I said.

“We’re nearing the end, boys. I know y’all are griping for a good meal. Think I don’t know the talk?”

“What talk?” I said.

“‘Bout my fixings.”

“This ain’t got nothing to do with you,” I said.

But Lipmann wouldn’t let it rest. “Reckon you bums think you’re the first to slaughter an ox for a plate of civilized meat?”

“He fell on the job,” Moe said. “That crime ain’t mine.”

“Scoundrels, both of you, wait ‘till Foreman Snead gets word.”

“You making a threat?”

“Don’t think the liver is yours. Cookee always gets the liver.”

Moe had reached his limit. His eyes had a focused look to them as he raised the axe up high. It looked so slow and weightless falling through the air, I didn’t believe it could harm. The blow sounded like the axe had grabbed a sodden stump. Lipmann tipped straight back, eyes wide—aware—as if he knew the full ride down, he’d met his end like a pine Moe’d been paid a nickel to fell. There wasn’t blood at first, just a dent. When the blood did come, it didn’t pool much around his ears like I thought it might. It steamed into the snow, down a hole of its own making.

“Aw, hell,” Moe said.

“I ain’t gonna hook him to the rig,” I said.

“Why’d he have to get all big?”

“He walked from Maine,” I said. “He weren’t that bad a cook.”

“He weren’t that good neither.” Moe lobbed the axe next to Lipmann. The handle bounced off the frozen earth.

“Maybe they’ll think it was an accident,” I said. “What if he did it splitting stovewood?”

Moe had never been partial to ‘what if’s.’ All the yarns he spun were as hard as granite, as armored as fact. He shuffled to the bunkhouse. I didn’t take kindly to the empty burn that crept into my chest. It was sharper than anything solid. Crows made noise over camp, and around me were the littered things of work—grease buckets and pulleys, rusted saws bowed against the shanty, tow chains like rat snakes drooped over the buckpole. This had been a fine place to chop and haul timber and earn an honest wage.

I lifted the axe off the snow. The blood smeared down its edge was tacky to the touch but quickly froze, the metal was so cold.

Moe was inside no more than a minute. He had a flat look on his face that hid any sign of remorse. A frayed rope looped his bedroll over his shoulder. The cold had whitened his hands. To warm them, he kneaded his palms like I’d seen Lipmann work pillows of dough.

“You best be gettin’,” he said.

“The act ain’t on me.”

“You know the stories they’ll spread. The axe fits your hands just the same.”

I threw the weapon to the snow. Moe walked fast from camp, nearly at a trot. I hated rolling up my blankets, and hated more that final smell of the bunkhouse. Pine shavings. Stale tobacco. Sweat gone sour. It was all the things men had given to make this place, cold and mean as hell, feel a hair closer to home.

That smell broke me and I headed for the sleigh road. The good ox stared me past. Frost had gathered on his lashes. His eyes were brown wet fists and made me ache for all I’d seen. He bent his neck and tried to size up his load. He shifted his weight but the dead ox, his poor broken helpmate, had frozen fast to the earth. In one hour’s time everything had changed. When it’s twenty below, what stops moving won’t budge an inch.

* * *

Last I heard, Muscle Head Moe drowned driving the Burnt River. He’d given it a go as a river pig. Turned out he had five wives scattered from Bangor, Maine to St. Louis, MO. I’ve never believed a single story I’ve heard. Then again, what else does a man have to live by? Stories were chasing my tail the day I left the Sugar Bush camp. I knew I had to outrun the lies before they snagged my heels and cut me down.

For two days I walked, no sleep. I ate willow bark and snow and sucked marrow from the bones of a wasting fox. Morning of the third, a supply sled slowed beside me. I was too numb to stand and the driver had to hoist me off my knees. The last thing I remembered, before I left this world for slumber, was the chalky taste of raw potato. I can still see a gray-haired wrist holding the soiled thing up to my face. I slept sprawled among his goods. The driver draped his buffalo robe over me, and every so often, checked to make sure I was breathing. He thought I was a goner, he told me after I stirred. Had to weigh dumping my body to appease the nightly chorus of wolf howls.

This teamster was a good fella. Harrison Brugemann was his name. Several times each day for the next three we turned off the main road and ventured to camps tucked alongside streams and bogs. We dropped off goods, gathered mail. Sometimes, waiting for our horses to rest on their feed, we drank broth with the cookees. By this time I had strengthened fully. I was a new-made man and felt no fear. Little did I know, Moe’s sin had taken root inside me. Like a well-spun lie, I was a vessel of untruth, traveling I knew not where.

Harrison never inquired how our paths came to meet. To his way of thinking, I was an angel fallen to earth. He’d saved my life, and for that I offered to set him up a glass when we found a crossing with a tavern. He shook his palm at my offer.

“Seen drink ruin more men than Death itself.” His face was pale but had that reddish hue the horizon boasts before dawn. “These timber claims do more damage than good.”

“Why do you work them?” I asked. The buffalo robe was stretched drum-tight across our laps.

“I do what I know,” he said. “I worked the choppings once. I was a foreman west of Saginaw. We crammed that river so full it took a hundred pigs to break the jams. Axes ain’t easy to swing after a time. I drive supply lines now. Everyone needs salt, from the thickest jacks on down to the horses.”

“Where do you call home?”

“Think I’d be out here freezing if I called any place home?”

“Right,” I said.

I saw tears pull at his eyes but knew it was just the wind. Those struck wanting home were the first to get racked by a fell or killed by a widowmaker. It took an iron cape to make it, a shell so tough ain’t no man, no beast, or poor luck could pierce. I wanted to brag about what Moe had done. But in the state he’d found me, nearly welded to the road, I knew Harrison would grow suspicious. I knew he’d mistake me for the slayer.

* * *

We came to Seney, the first town of size along the route. Our horses nodded at the smells of civilization. On both sides of the road stood false-front shops, most of them taverns, save the cathouse and the land surveyor’s hut. A handful of beat-up souls wandered the walks. I imagined Seney ran like the other northern hubs—it sat quiet during the week but come Sunday morning was lucky to be left standing. At weeks’ end lumbermen would roar in to launder their shirts and feed the little devils that dwelled in their breasts. Broken glass rimmed the snowbanks, and the snow road itself was bruised all over with horse waste and the emptied black ash of smoked pipe bowls.

After I debarked, Harrison stuffed my share of the buffalo robe beneath his thighs. He secured his mink hat, hiked his muskrat collar, and gave his reins a swift whip.

“Watch yourself,” he said.

I reeled back so the sled runners wouldn’t kerf my toes. Across the road three black crows tapped what looked to be the solid heave of someone’s meal. A vision of poor Lipmann came to mind. Why was blood so doggone red? Remember, Moe’s violence was in me. I had walked it in from the woods. I heard bells but saw no horse, nor sled, nor shutting door to sound them. I thirsted for a sign and poked my head into the nearest tavern.

The room smelled like an old boot crammed with pitch. Raw pine walls had been tacked on end and tears of golden sap ran their length like honey. Half-log benches traced the perimeter, and behind the bar, hung a framed portrait of Father Abe Lincoln and a yellow tin advertisement for Peerless tobacco plugs.

The tavern was vacant save two bearded roughs who claimed a back table. A sour cloud hovered about them, due more, I thought, to living in reach of drink than a sweat earned out on the choppings. They wore soot-colored apple caps, red plaid Mackinaws, and oilcloth pants cuffed above the boot. Liquor stains blotched their knees, not pinesap, mud or kerosene, I could tell from the dark shapes soaked into the fabric. Each held a fan of cards to his nose. To the right of their dealing deck a pair of cob pipes smoldered in a brass ash tin. From the shared hollowness of their eyes, I took them for brothers. The older of the two, the one whose beard shone as grizzled as a molting hare, rose to serve me to the bar.

They continued the conversation I’d interrupted. The barman called to his brother across the room. “Be on the look for any hack scouting work.”

“You said it was one blow. One axe. How can two men swing the same handle?”

The barman switched his focus to me. I saw his eyes were milky in their deep bruised bowls. “Thirsty?”

I wasn’t surprised word of Moe and me had spread so fast. Stories ride the wind and outpace the flesh they concern. I put some coins on the bar.

“That don’t matter,” the barman said over my shoulder. “A man got kilt, another done the deed. Either we snuff the sinners out, or we let evil roam free.” The barman squared himself to me. “Ain’t that right?”

“We all of us sinners,” I said.

A quiet as black as a raven flushed between us, and the feeling rose through me that I hadn’t confessed a singular crime, more, spoken the crime I’d become, given voice to the walking dread Moe’s act had forged of my bones. I had done no wrong. I’d simply hiked what I’d seen in from the choppings. But Moe’s deed had built a thirst within. His sin was with me at the bar, demanding I offer it a pour.

A crooked grin leaned across the barman’s face. “Wouldn’t be scouting work, would ye?”

The truth and I had parted ways in Sugar Bush. “I’m a drayman from Detroit.”

He knocked a clay cup onto the bar and drew me a dime’s worth of hellfire. “Come with goods, have ye?”

“Nay,” I said. “My wagon lost a wheel, you seen it?”

His Friday-night voice filled the room. “Got us a salty cur!”

“Salty,” said the man at the table behind me. “Like a buffalo tongue.”

“Like a two-bit lady.”

“We all of us salty,” I said.

The barman tipped his chin. “Long as there’s pine to fell and money to mint.”

His prying eyes didn’t sit well so I took my leave. I felt the need to see a preacher. It was a deep feeling, a swell within my innards, a thing with lungs breathing inside me. You get word about scourges, like the ague and consumption, and it makes you wonder whether one got inside you. You feel a catch in your throat and think a cough will come. You look around at folks and question who will claim your brass watch when you kneel in the road, who will filch your penknife and boots. I don’t know quite how I got the need to see a preacher, only that I’d got it. I reckoned it was Moe’s swing still moiling in me.

A man I passed on the walk had a line of brass buttons wagging down his front. With wealth like that I figured he’d know a Man of God. He pointed toward the depot at the edge of town and said there was a shack across the tracks with a crude image carved on the door. The shacks I found were the size of hencoops. Snow was banked waist-high against the walls to fend off the wind. The bones of old buckets and stray boots trashed the footpaths. Hungry dogs lay curled so their tails shielded their frostbitten snouts. I searched the shacks ‘till I found a pine plaque spiked to one of the doors. Chiseled on the plaque was a lumpy beaver crouched atop a fallen log.

I knocked and panned the road. Near the depot loading dock a man with a coal shovel led a bay horse by its bridle, sled in tow. Thumps sounded inside the shack, and when at last the door swung wide, I asked, "Why the beaver?"

The man who answered wore his beard untrimmed like a sawyer himself. "The master builder is my brother," came his reply. He donned a black frock coat that fell open below his knees. His coat had gone weeks without a brushing, I could tell from the white flecks of stove ash dusting its sleeves. In the same hot way you know a story is true, the frock reminded me of Old Dudley’s white owl, a bird with more grace and glory than any rumpled man.

"When I was a boy,” the preacher reasoned, “my father swam a marsh near our home. I watched from the reeds as he scrambled onto a beaver lodge. He pried a hole in the sticks and retrieved a small pup. He swam it back to me, and I housed it in an old brick kiln on our property. That pup was closer to me than kin. But I was doing him great harm. His teeth grew as fast as a bean vine. So enthralled was I with the growth that I failed to notice the danger. I never gave him sticks to gnaw or trees to level and in time his teeth had grown so long he could no longer close his mouth. His teeth set his jaws apart. Finally they cut through the roof of his mouth and he bled, mouth propped agape, his teeth as long and orange as carrots."

"Good Lord."

"Lo!” The preacher swept his hand at the stump field spreading white and dimpled beyond the depot. “A man who trims his teeth on sin will devour whole sections of priceless timber. Verily, I say to the jacks, a man of virtue will perish from the length of his untrimmed teeth. Why the knock?"

"The blood on my hands is not my doing."

Thin blue veins etched the tip of his nose. His stare had a point to it, and I could sense his eyes trying to probe something in my throat. "Own what stains you," he said.

"Can't kill what I never kilt. Moe swung the maul but the posse wants me."

"You were in on the Sugar Bush slaying?"

"Only my eyes. Lipmann weren't the best cook but he didn't deserve what he got."

The preacher paused and readied a breath. "What have you against death, son? Think it won't find you?"

"Listen here, my hands are clean."

The preacher raised his fingers to the side of his head and touched his temples with two light taps. "It's here the dirty work hatches."

Now I can't say why I did what I did next, though had I thought more at the time, I reckon I would have done things the very same way. I believe I had a living thing in me, feeding off my life, using me to get where it wanted like a weevil in a grain hopper destined for the granary. His palms had the ill color of wet flour, and the next thing I knew, I seized his hands, clawing whatever flesh I could. His eyes doubled in size. We stumbled into the brown light of his dwelling. I bent his fingers back on themselves and heard sticks snapping and felt his fingerbones move unanchored from his hands.

His lips opened and I knew I would have to quiet them. I struck him so soundly his jaw slackened on impact. His tongue lolled as if to check whether the bone held, and I struck him twice more. A cut opened beneath his left eye. The red was so red, I punched harder. I pounded past the moment I knew he would never preach lies again.

I bent to yank the coat off his back. It was easier to roll him onto his belly and tug the sleeves from his arms. Once free I shook the frock and the sound of heavy cloth, the rich thwack of good fabric, heartened me. I spread it over a chair and with the back of my hand brushed as many white flecks as I could. I brushed until my skin turned raw. I worked the frock on and felt its smallness pinch my shoulders.

Outside I wrung my hands with old snow. They were so hot I could barely feel the sharp ice trying to burn them. Atop the depot a crow rocked and cawed, and in the distance, I made out its mate's faint reply. I had a thirst to settle and turned back toward the tavern. But when I saw the depot where the trains offloaded wares, the sense crept in me that I might flee and make for the choppings. I would walk ‘till the rivers thawed and the logruns began. Then I could catch a raft downriver. But running from sin had done no good the last time I’d fled.

I approached the sledman parked at the depot. He was still loading sacked goods.

"I need a ride but I can't hire you," I said.

"I’m sorry, Father,” he said appraising my attire. “You'll need another ride."

"I have gold," I said. He worked his eyes down my frock and I saw them hitch and stall on my fists. Blood gummed my knuckles. I splayed my fingers to show I meant no harm. "My gold’s in Saginaw, the graystone bank up from the river."

"If you got gold, why the dime shoes? Why is your coat so tight?"

"I'm a hell of a ways from Saginaw,” I said.

"I'll sled you to the next crossing, no further."

I helped load his last sacks. With each heave the frock ripped at the seams. Between loads I glanced at the preacher’s shack. The door yawned in the wind. Before we mounted the sled, the driver checked his riggings and righted the bells fastened along his bay's flank. He stroked the ebb of her back.

"Have ye a trunk, a bundle? A blanket or a robe?"

"I travel light," I said.

"Like the good Lord himself. Very well then."

His last few words rode a tone of suspicion. The sled held steady, not rocking an inch when he mounted. He flipped his reins and the mare lunged to free the runners. Once she gained speed and settled into a trot we hushed over the snowpack. The cold roared through the frock and all my sweaters. I felt it peel my naked flesh below. If we could only make it from town I knew my nerves would settle. The driver glanced again at my hands, though slyly this time. My mind was so sharp, so awake to the world rushing by, that nothing slipped my notice, not the combs of soot wicking from the stovepipes, not the smell of green after we cut a spread of spruce boughs layered across the road, not the waft of sour gas expelled from the mare's tail. The driver persisted in watching my hands. I felt strongly he should look away.

"Spreading the Word?" he asked.

"Just getting a taste of how men survive the cuttings."

Eyeing my fists he said, "Father, your hands are trembling. You cold or hungry?" He drew a burlap sack from beneath the bench seat. He held his hand to me, showing two crimson apples the size of turkey hearts. Since harvest they’d wilted from a better state into sweet wrinkled knots.

"Lord himself trekked the wild," he said.

"That's right," I said. "He gathered gold and game and timber claims. Made folks rich as gravy." The apple felt like a rock in my throat. We passed the tavern and our reflection greased the widows. Other fronts blew by. Ahead, a cluster of sleds and carts had pulled to a stop in our path. Our mare slowed. I pointed at the jam. "What's the snag?"

A snarl of men clogged the road. Their white breath blended in a fog above them. I heard claps and shrill whistles and caulked boots stomping the duckboards. The taunts were aimed at the entrance of a two-story house that the masses blocked from our view. Fancy scroll work adorned the house's eaves and trim. Eight windows, cased in red shutters, glowed a warm yellow and called to me in the graying light of day.

The driver positioned the sled so we could see the doorway. There, framed between the door jambs, a woman’s silhouette beckoned every man inside. Light poured through her lace shawl and left no arousing curve to my imagination.

The driver cuffed his knee. "Mine eyes have seen the glory! She's as nekkid as Venus."

"It's enough to bleed a man dry."

"What would you know about bleeding, Father? Bleeding ain't a clean endeavor." Before the heavenly body reeled his gaze I caught the driver spying my gummed fists. "How does this sit with your soul?"

"It is well," I said. "It is well. Am I not a man?"

"A man of the cloth ought to have different eyes on the world. Does flesh not offend you?"

"How could I bathe myself if it did?" It was then my story outran me. He could tell my frock was a ruse. Beneath my layers my skin blazed, my heart grabbed at the base of my throat, and the apple in my stomach stirred and ached. "But you are right," I said in the low grumble oxen use to vent their exhaustion. "Sin has legs."

"Someone should end this show. Think of her poor mother."

"Yes," I said. "Mother."

I was hugging my elbows when he last looked at me, before I brushed the new snowflakes off the frock coat sleeves and leapt from the sled. The snow road scrunched. I jerked my lapels and fought the top button. I elbowed through the whistles and the gawkers chanting their lust. When I made the first step, Venus saw me charging. My priestly frock shocked her. “Father!” she cried. She choked her shawl around her figure and vanished into the yellow light. I felt men grabbing my sleeves but with a fist I swung at the pulls like a horsetail flicks flies.

Inside the lobby I heard her feet trampling upstairs. I inhaled the sweet pungence of lavender and rose.

"Look here!" I hollered. But no one answered my plea. Plush canary davenports lined the walls. Oil paintings of foggy woodlands glimmered about the room. A tea table piled with pillows blocked direct access to the stairs. I started up, working the rail with both hands. I aimed to find her so she could complete my sin. But at the landing I met a short man wearing a black suit and a purple silk cravat. He acted like a man who owned things, like a man with things to lose.

"Father," he said, plunging three fingers in his vest pocket, "have you an appointment?"

"One of your girls has made a mob of men,” I said. “She was showing her all to the wolves, turning her hips, hooking her back, giving glory to the holes of her lace shawl."

"One of my girls?"

"She scampered beneath this roof."

I scanned the narrow hall of doors stretching behind him. He stood for a second, balling and relaxing his free hand. Though his mouth was closed, he seemed to be working something between his molars. A second more and anger seized his jaws.

"This will not stand," he said. "In your presence, Father, nor in mine."

He turned and let out a coarse scream, a terrible moan I took for a name. He stomped down the hall and slammed his hip into the first door. It flapped open and out spilled a woman's shrill disgust. Behind her cry a john's voice hollered, "I paid my time!"
The pimp flattened the second door the same way. The panel tore off its hinges. He entered and from the door I watched him pull a girl off her stool by her hair. "Was it you Belinda? Trouble keeping your knickers tight in front of the priest?"

"God, no," she said, paddling her arms like an upturned turtle.

The pimp slammed my shoulder as he fled down the hall and left me watching Belinda. A fray of hair lie strewn across her bedsheets. She pressed her fingertips into her eyes to stifle her tears for the violence she'd endured. I meant to speak then and stop the tirade, but before I could snare the pimp and lay him low myself, he'd found the final door, snapped its knob with his heel, and was holding his last lady, the one I had seen, the one the wolves had circled. Her flesh had the pure whiteness of the fat streaking a skinned doe's back. He sunk his claw into her brown scalp. Hairpins struck the floor.
“Giving goods for free, are you? You know Father here don’t approve!”

I turned, I could not watch as he shoved her out the window. The shattering sound was enough to break me from my violent trance, but when at last I opened my eyes, her absence stopped my heart. The knot of apple had risen to my throat and I choked.

I flew down the staircase. My boots made five steps at a time. I flung my body through the men blocking the entryway. Their whoops had fallen quiet. Leaping from the porch, I landed on my knees. I fought to my feet and tore behind the house.

A snowbank had softened her fall. I saw the dent of the dove’s landing rimmed with sharp glass. She had rolled to her knees and was grabbing the road before her. She pulled at the snowpack like a bellrope. Her knees left a ladder of red prints, bowls of bloodied snow that followed her toward the depot. The bright blood tracked her eviction from town, and seemed, more than her doorway show, to cut a bone of feeling from us watching her hobble past. Of one thing I’m sure—it was the thing inside, the ghost of Moe’s swing that left those crimson dents.

I am an old man now and the timber barons have shipped their saws to the Cascades. I live in the swamps I helped clear. I bent to lift the girl that night and she set her teeth into my shin. The cold had pimpled her skin. I draped the frock over her back and watched it slip and catch on her heels before it came to rest as a black puddle in the road. The mob steered their frenzy toward the pimp and his fancy house. Their fury flushed like a freed jam. Heels broke boards. I heard the sharp smash of lanterns and saw a man use his teeth to rent a satin pillow. Only after the great fires roared and seared Seney was my story forgot. It took flames to whip things clean, a pure heat that left me blotched and blistered and scarred.

I have long thought of the ox who watched me leave the Sugar Bush camp, the beast with brown fists for eyes. Moe and me had yoked him to a load he'd never bargained, to his team-mate who’d slipped on the job. We are all yoked—I now know—anchored to a chain of deadweight. It tethered Snap Jaw that night he skipped towards Spooner. It scratches my throat each evening while I listen for flames to swell once more and scorch the old cutting fields. Out my door spreads a sea of massive stumps. If you come to this land I will show you.

Jeffrey Snowbarger lives in Wisconsin. He has been published in Tin House and other journals.

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