A Young Boy on Whose Father a Tree Had Fallen (short story)

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Everything's different now, even the rain. It's cold and Jim's used to the warmth of summer rain. He's never lived in the city, but he knows the air will taste like metal. He also knows the house he and Vye bought is on a street with houses as close to each other as the length of his body.

The hinges on the barn door are about to give way. He opens it carefully; he doesn't want to have to fix it before Thursday. Jim has come to see Boxer before church. His once warm body lies in the middle of the barn floor. Jim doesn't get too close. He half-expects the dog to jump up as always and lick his face. He wants so badly to say Boxer the cows, to see the tail go and the dog nip at the heels of the Holsteins.

Is he dead? Vye meets Jim by the drive house. She likes the Pontiac warmed up. Jim smokes a Du Maurier while Vye climbs in the passenger side. Boxer was such a good dog. It's a shame the Reeves didn't take him.

At church Jim mouths the words to the hymns. He watches the others and takes in a breath when they do, turns the page when they do. Vye's in the choir. She stands at the back, to the right. Jim wonders if she ever watches, if she knows he doesn't sing.

Jim hasn't talked all morning, and he feels that if he opened his mouth, he'd never be able to speak again. He imagines this is the way someone's throat would feel had they done nothing but talk all day. Sometimes he'll go days barely uttering a word. It's not like Vye has to ask what he wants in his coffee or for breakfast. She knows. They carry on like two people moving through the dark in a house they've lived in all their lives. Where they know the rooms better than the sight of their own faces and there's no need to bother with lights.


***

When the minister says, Our Father, Jim can't help but picture his own father dressed for church in a white shirt with suspenders. Jim was only fourteen years old when the tree fell and broke his father's neck. He was home for the holidays. The first snow had come and gone, and the bare ground had reminded Jim more of an early spring than of Christmas. They were in the woods, just the two of them, sawing a Maple for firewood to sell in town. The money was to be put away to help Jim through school. He had wanted to be a vet.

They cut down the first tree. Jim, heeding instructions from his father, managed the saw like a pro. They watched the next tree fall and tangle itself in another tree. The moment unfolded briefly, precisely with an undeniable fate. This was the way things were going to happen, and no matter how badly anyone wanted to change them, nothing on God's green earth, Jim would hear his mother say years after the incident, could change the way that damn tree landed. When the heavy branch got Jim's father under the chin, Jim held his breath. His father was silent, eyes shut as peacefully as if he were sleeping. A bird sound hung above him in the trees. Jim was afraid to move, but he knew he had to. As he crept toward the scene, a twig under Jim's foot broke in two, and as if on cue, Jim's father opened his eyes and barked for Jim to fetch Clive Reeves, the man who owned the farm next to theirs. Jim froze, and it was a moment before he could even get the courage to run. But when his father shouted Clive Reeves for the second time, with what sounded like his last breath, Jim ran. He never looked back. He ran with the force and determination of a sprinter, of someone being chased, of a young boy on whose father a tree had fallen.

Clive Reeves and his hired boy slid a wood board under the limp but conscious man and carried him through the dense woods to the clearing where the horse cart was waiting. The three months that followed are clearer than any other time he can think of. It wasn't the fact that his father was paralyzed from the neck down, or that he was barely conscious, or the burning fevers, or even the daily visits from friends and neighbours. It was seeing the small, black leather bag peak around the top of the stairs that first night, and a low voice whisper to his mother in the hall, Comfort him as best you can, that made Jim realize, for his father, it was only a matter of time.

 

***

After the service, the minister announces that there will be a gathering, a goodbye party in honour of Jim and Vye's move to the city. Everyone claps. Jim looks down, away from the stares and smiling faces. Vye has belonged to this church all her life. She will miss it.

Lorne Johnston, a wealthy farmer who sits two pews back, pats Jim's shoulder in a way that would suggest they were friends. Although Vye doesn't like Jim to hate anyone, Jim has despised Lorne Johnston ever since he set foot in this township. He was born and raised in the city and runs his farm like a factory. It's men like him, Jim has been known to say after a few shots of whiskey, that run the real farmers, the farmers that were born and raised on the land, out of the country with their tail between their legs. Little did Jim know that he would be talking about himself, or maybe he did know and resented the Lorne Johnston's of the world all the more for it.

The choir with the help of Mrs. Owen's Sunday school class has made a papier-mâché piñata in the shape of a hammer. Though they've told everyone they're buying the store, the owner doesn't want to sell for a year or so, and working there, Jim and Vye have decided, would be a good way for Jim to learn the business. It's not lying, Vye said. It's just not revealing all the truths at once.

Jim and Vye are blindfolded and both turned around. Vye takes a crack at the hammer and misses. You have a go now, Jim, Vye says.

Perhaps it's beginners luck or the instinct, usually reserved for the blind, of knowing the location of an object without seeing it. Or maybe under the darkness of the blindfold it's Lorne Johnston's face he imagines when he takes hold of the stick. But whatever the force behind him, whatever the luck or unluck depending on the way one chooses to see it, Jim takes one swing at the glorious papier-mâché hammer and brings it down intact.

Jim removes his blindfold and looks at the piñata on the floor. Everyone stands around grim-faced. Jim feels like the spoilt child who has thrown a tantrum at his own birthday party. In the moment before anyone has a chance to speak, Jim sees a young boy, the Keller boy, not much older than five or six standing beside him. He hands the stick to the child who bashes the hammer with all his might, at which point all laughter and gaiety is resumed, leaving Jim officially off the hook.

 

***

The goodbye party is in full swing. They've even broken out some of Gillespie Keller's homemade beer for the occasion. Someone's put the phonograph on and everyone is dancing to Guy Lombardo and remembering. Even Jim is dancing despite himself. Vye smells the same as she did twenty-five years ago. She smells of Lily-of-the-Valley talc: her luxury. A small luxury that sits on the back of the toilet in a round pink tub that she has used after her bath all these years. For a brief moment, Jim can't help but feel young.

When the song ends everyone changes partners except Jim who slips over to a corner table and watches. There's something about the dog that he can't get out of his mind. As he was leaving the barn this morning, he swears he saw Boxer's tail twitch. If he mentions it to Vye she will say he is crazy. She will say it's his eyes playing tricks on him or wishful thinking. And she will be right. He knows that as well as he knows anything else.

The day before last, before the vet came to put Boxer down, Vye said Boxer placed his paws on her shoulders and looked into her eyes as if to say save me, save me. When Jim brought the shovel around the back of the house, Boxer followed. What bothered Jim as he dug the hole that would eventually be the dog’s grave was that Boxer probably thought he had done something wrong, that somehow he were to blame for the events that were about to unfold. The dog's eyes didn't plead with Jim the way they had with Vye. But the guilt ate at him all the same. They couldn't take Boxer to the city. If the cars didn't kill him, the confinement would be something close to suffocation. He couldn't have done that to this dog. And if no one wanted him then a quick, painless death was the next best thing.

 

***

For the last three hours Vye’s been keeping an eye on Jim. He's moved from his corner only once since they danced and that was to use the toilet. Jim can't help it if she's social and he's not. Usually he leaves right after church and someone from the choir drives Vye home. He's staying today because it's special—because they're leaving. In some ways it might have been better for Vye, more fun, if he had just gone on home as usual. He knows it would have been better for him. He feels bad that she feels she has to watch him. On the ride home she won't say anything about it, and neither will he.

As they drive down the gravel lane toward the farm, Jim feels a calm and quietness that has never been there before. He stops the car in front of the house to let Vye out. She is annoyed with him for the way he behaved at church. Jim parks in the drive house. He turns the ignition off and sits for a moment holding the steering wheel, for dear life. He shuts his eyes, and all he can think of is the barn and having to carry his dog to the hole that he dug and covered with tarp.

If Jim could change everything, he would. He would stay by his father's side as he lay dying on the cold, damp ground. He would wait for someone to come because the help that did come didn't make a difference in the long run. How he would have loved to hold his father's hand and hear his last words. If Jim could change everything, he would keep the farm or at least save his dog. Events have a way of spinning out of control like contract you can't get out of no matter how hard you try. There is no such thing as chance, Jim decides, no such thing as chance at all.

Jim hears what he thinks is a low growl coming from under the car. It's sound he's heard before, in the woods, the sound of a wolf gone mad. Jim opens and shuts the car door and waits. Whatever was under there is gone. He walks out of the drive house and lights a cigarette.

Noticing the barn door open halfway, Jim walks over to it. When he steps inside and looks for Boxer on the floor and sees only the empty space where the dog had lain, for a moment, the thrill of a second chance overcomes him. He decides right then and there he will do whatever it takes to keep Boxer alive; if he can't get the dog a good home then Boxer will come with them to the city.

As Jim runs toward the house to tell Vye, he hears the growl again. He turns and finds Boxer, teeth bared, foaming at the mouth, and ready to attack. Vye appears at the screen door. She cups her hand over her mouth while Jim speaks softly to the dog. Boxer, it's me. Where's my good boy? Where's my dog? Boxer.

If the dog recognizes Jim, he doesn't show it.

Vye heads to the Reeves for a gun. There is no time to get the vet. Jim stands still holding his breath barely keeping the dog at bay.

When Vye returns with the gun she passes it to Jim, and the dog doesn't seem to notice. Jim holds the rifle the way a surgeon holds a knife before he cuts. His hands are steadier than they've been all afternoon. And dry, it surprises him that his hands are dry. He points the gun at the head of the frothing and mad animal before him. He touches the trigger. The metal is cold and smooth. He can hear everything and nothing at once. A bird drops a twig on the rear of the car, and to Jim it's as loud as a branch falling from a tree. But Boxer's growl, which he knows is loud, sounds to him as muffled and soft as breathing. He shuts his eyes and stands for a moment, unmoving.

Then, Jim puts the gun down. Whatever fire Boxer has left, Jim cannot be the one to smother it. Without looking at her husband, Vye gently removes the rifle from Jim's hand. She raises it slowly, methodically, and then aims at the dog. She's a good shot. She's been shooting at tin cans ever since Jim can remember. As he walks toward the farmhouse, he hears the bullets leave the gun and break the dog's flesh.

 

***

Jim is sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for everyone to leave the yard. Reade Reeves is shoveling the last of the dirt over Boxer's grave. Jim can see this from the window, and he knows this will be one of those moments he will remember for a long time. He will remember the bed squeaking when he leaned toward the window to watch his neighbour burying his dog. And how the quilt felt as he clutched the side of the bed. He will remember wanting to crawl under the covers, wanting to shut his eyes and forget his whole life but not wanting to muss the bedding that Vye washed and ironed and made up only this morning.

The news of Vye shooting Boxer because he couldn't has spread through the entire Reeves clan so that now Reade's daughter is standing on the grass beside her father, watching. Watching, if Jim can believe his eyes, with a finger up her nose. He thinks she's the one who wets the bed every time she stays over the night. So much so that Vye's taken to laying down green garbage bags underneath the sheets.

Though he should be relieved this will be the last time he will see her, he is not. He's as resentful of her standing by the barn, picking her nose over Boxer's grave as he would be were she sitting here pissing on Vye's clean sheets. Jim puts his hand over his face. He can't watch this. He can't wait for them to leave. It will be a whole new life he tries to console himself. It will be a whole new life when they move to the city.

Vye comes out of the house with lemonade and small bowl of sugar cubes. Reade, who has just finished with the grave, wipes his brow and accepts the drink thankfully. Later, Vye will say, Wasn't that nice of Reade to bury Boxer? But what she will mean is he should have done it himself. He would have if everyone had left the yard. Jim had wanted to bury Boxer, but Reade just took over. The same way Reade's father, Clive, took over all those years ago. Though he knows it shouldn't, it burns Jim that the Reeves are so good. Is Jim good? Vye would say that he was, but Jim doesn't know. He doesn't think so.

It's been almost an hour since Vye shot Boxer, and Jim realizes this will be how he measures time from now on. As it was when his father died, so it will be again—one chapter closes, another opens, not necessarily better than what came before.

 

Annotations and comments

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a captivating opening sentence.
I *love* these three sentences, the repetition of "rain" strengthens in this case, I think, and "he knows the air will taste like metal" is just perfect in all ways. The last sentence on the graph, I like the idea, but it's just not as strong as the first three.
i'd like to say, "nice juxtaposition." but it's not really one, is it? jim is moving from one broken down home to another (it might not be dilapidated, but it's unoriginal and narrow).
to an American reader that sounds like an awfully fancy smoke
hot and cold dichotomy is really working.
This is starting to feel incredibly sad. The dog, the lovers who aren't...
great section, more nonlinear than many of the other parts, which is just what i like. not sure about "the sight of". one's own face strikes me as being known to one with greater immediacy than, say, the "sight of a man" or "sight of a building". not sure, thought i'd mention it.
i agree with marcus. you could just omit "the sight of." "better than their own faces."
I disagree with Marcus, I like it...
Hi Ryan, Thanks so much for you feedback! I appreciate it.
is jim away at school?
known.
not sure if this is necessary. i think the reader knows it's a special night (their last night).
Is this cliche?
The "echo" of a falling branch here is powerful; I assume that you want the reader to think about the tree that fell on Jim's father. If so, might you consider deleting these lines? The "but" undercuts that moment, and the subsequent sentences could perhaps be best left to the imagination.
"like stones" broke my attention somewhat when, at the second coming of death in this tale, it was very high and I was tense. What's wrong with "he hears the bullets leave the gun and break the dog's flesh." But as I think I said elsewhere, I've got used to eliminating "like" connected metaphors. perhaps i'm too nitpicky. but this story is so close to perfect...
At this dramatic moment, I felt that these two syllables (and the word before it) extended the sentence slightly too long. Taking these out balances the parallel structure, and makes a more powerful sentence. I tend to read sentences like poetry when the drama is high.
Hi Michael, Thanks for the thoughts on this.
Your other note is great too. For some reason, I couldn't reply to it! Great to have a poet's eye on this. Hope to see your poetry up on RL soon!
Jim has been measuring his entire life. good choice of words- "measure."
i like the fact that jim never utters a word; he even mouths the words to church songs. the poor man has no voice, does he?
Richard, Thank you for your extensive comments! Much appreciated!
that is the question, indeed. it's a worthwhile question too. what does it mean to be good? is it possible to be a good man in such a hostile world?
brilliant. I don't usually like or read realistic fiction at all, but you had me here, right from the title. "Is Jim good?" will stay with me as will many images here and your treatment of time passing & the effortless way in which you weave existential issues into a worthy, a tragic tale even. boxer.
Hi Marcus, Thanks so much for your close reading and insights. I really appreciate it. I'd like to (eventually) include this in a collection of short stories so the precise feedback is very helpful. Kathryn
Reading the word "measures" here charges the story - it's like a power line going back to the first paragraph (Jim measuring the distance between houses). I'd hoped that you'd refrain that, and you did. For the last sentence, I'd like to read that idea worked over a little bit more, or twisted, if that was something you're interested in driving at.