There is a god in this tree. She knows it because of last September, when the lady beetles came in plagues; their bloodshells pimpled over this bark and made the oak come alive. It had a face: eyelids, lashes, a fishhook of mouth, always grimacing. She knows this because she’s heard that face at night sucking air through its teeth. She knows this because once, on a clear May, under the coldwater sky, you stood her under this god for a Sunday picture. She waited for the shutter at the root. She waited, and as you played with the camera, the buckle of her church shoe caught a fat, divine lip, twisting there, in a small wink of brass.
You might like to think it was smiling at her – old god, smiling at a spore of human life. But the little girl has never seen anything smile like that. To these trees, she is temporary. She is a dandelion sneeze on the air.
When you tell her you are going to chop down the oak, your child, who has never much appreciated an indirect religion, blows into the backyard to pray to this god. She stretches into her best clothes. She wears the new stockings, black Janes, her Christian white, and as she folds up the itching sleeves of this dress, your daughter lays down her relic. One copper pot – placed at the oakfoot – where she kneels in the Illinois green.
Godtree is big. The godtree is big like the lone leg of a giant something sad has happened to. You’d rather not chop it – it’s the largest you’ve ever tried, and too wrinkled to saw some good firewood out of – but the tree is too close to your house. Its limbs spread like the burst of a child’s hand in the sun. The tree needs to be split, and the season is here. October cooks with a wet, compost, acorn smell. It won’t be June for a long, long while.
In October, the woodsplitting month, this forest molts. It is not snake-molt, where a new thing peels itself out of the translucence of old skin. It is more of a winnowing. The press of a skinny winter drags through it, emaciating the deer, who eat the poplars naked. The forest sloughs clean like an old thigh bone. The sweet grass crackles with fallen apples and dead Queen Anne’s.
When trees are weary, they sigh themselves to the ground. They lie like bulls, biblical, because a littler god has a need. Your daughter is small, but she is big enough to recognize the word sacrifice. She is big enough to hear in her bowels the sounds your backbone would make collapsing. She is old enough to know that ropes snap; that safeties fail; that some trees will fall however they like, and what will a man do to stop them.
It doesn’t scare you, you say. Your boots are clean, your gloves are pig’s hide, and the hair on your throat is blueberry black. What does scare you?
Your daughter is growing old.
If you look for her, she’s easy to find, most days. Eight is too small to get very far. She’ll be in the yard, under this tree, with the wind in her nose and her frowning yellow peacoat, which you bought her for Easter, half-priced. She will be squeaking up the driveway by herself on a bike. She will be in the twelve seconds it takes for you to watch her walk from your truck, down the sidewalk, lined with scrawny dogwoods, and into the redbrick elementary that, for some hours, divides her life from yours.
The day before you cut down Godtree, your daughter leaves from the back of the house, closing the old screen quietly, mindful that it does not swing. Her black shoes are immaculate down the three concrete steps and into the leftover grass. It is after school. The air is low to the weeds. The skillet meat color of evening, caramelizing over her dark hair, makes it look like the sun is caught an inch above the ground.
Your daughter has thought out what to do at the base of this tree. She thought about it in math class. She chewed an eraser to bits, being, thinking. The teachers have told you she is a polite, somber, rainy child, serious enough to be worrisome. In the back of your house, this serious child sits on her knees, worrying, and ruins the new stockings. You would scold her for this, but she figures – by the time you pull them out of the hamper on laundry day, finding mudstains on pantyhose – the thing will be done. And she is not playing. Your daughter is not playing, and you’re in the den drinking cola with Advil for your pains. She can hear the mumble of TV: commercials for dog food, a war history show, gunshots aggravated by the updraft from the bottom of this hill.
The pot waits. It is face-down, heavy, between her legs. It looks up into the branches like a found mirror, something shaken out of the dirt.
Your daughter’s face in copper: thorny, rabbitish, with lashes that make the eyes unfittingly soft. When she bows to this tree, the mess of her winter hair comes alive around it. She leans far, elbows crusty with topsoil, nose running, feeling the stomping of blood in her head. It is not how they do it in church, but there are no pews here, and somehow your daughter knows what to do.
Worship is animal. “I’m a nice girl,” she tells the god. Its reflection tangles in the sunglow of her pot. It does not speak. But Godtree’s soul is there, like she knew it would be: liquidlike, shivering. It whispers. She can see the mouth yawning out. There’s an eye, opening sleepily – an opaque, cataract eye, where a woodthrush roosts. Waking a god is a dangerous thing.
“But I need a father,” she says.
“I need a father,” says your daughter, “but you’re going to kill him. What can I do?”
The godtree tells her about the law of exchange.
The fish tank in your daughter’s room is tall and precarious. You bought her this one so she could manage something on her own. Its blue backlight eats the cream off the wallpaper, irradiates the dresser on which it sits, and turns her lips, in the reflection, to dark riverstones.
You put a stepstool down so your daughter can feed them all by herself: one pinch of kibble at seven o’clock, when she gets up for school; a snack at five; brine shrimp before bed. She hardly ever forgets. Only one danio has died – and after netting it out and flushing the bloated, gray body, you both agreed it wasn’t her fault. Her hands leave prints on the plastic. It’s too heavy for a little girl to carry. First she needs something to help her empty it out. A ladle will do, or a milk glass, or a cereal bowl, and hearing her thumping feet on the stairs, you pass your daughter on her way to the kitchen. You say hello; how could you have known?
She scoops out two gallons of tank water. It pours nicely into the bathtub, awfully slow, so you can’t hear a splash. Yolky sun simpers through the cheap window shades of this whole house. When she slides the tank off her drawers, teetering, just enough water removed so that she’ll make it outside, the leftover space looks odd, because there’s just too much dust, and there’s too much light.
Often, in autumn, when the forest begins to darken at six, you’ll find your daughter on the back porch in her sockfeet. She will stand there, smelling the trees as they only smell when they are still – for a few weeks – awake. There is something about the stink of wood. You will breathe in the moss and the promise of animals, and you’ll feel finite, and open, and small. You will feel the limits of your body, the presence of bones in the fat. They have ice age names: femur, ribcage, mandible, shin. These are the heaviest things a person has.
The screen door bangs this time. She holds the tank against her chest and, sloshing, takes it one stair at a time.
When you were a child, you lived in a southerly, sulfuric state where you did not split wood. Your father’s labor was fish. His purpose was a tiny, barnacled boat in a lemon tree bay. Grass shrimp and red snapper tumbled in milk pails. You cleaned them. It made you sick. The skin slipped from your fillet knife and crumpled like wet cheesecloth on the jetty planks.
Your daughter does not have the memory of that stink. These fish are meant to teach her responsibility. They are meant to help her in growing up, in learning that being older means you must sometimes put other things before yours. She enjoys the fish – the snaps of color under her lamplight; cichlids striping through plastic kelp; a cory cat and a tiger barb. She enjoys measuring pellets into a tea spoon and watching them swarm. But it is not a contest to her. She does not hesitate, or overthink it, or bother to cry; your daughter enjoys these fish, but you are her father, and she loves you more.
Your daughter was born old enough.
She places the tank beside her in the spit of fallow grass. She pours more water out to make her job easier and it froths the dirt into a cool, grainy mud. She finds a good rock. The pot is hard, and it’s copper, and it looks, if you are not too old to imagine this, like a kind of altar, a space to lay a small life face-down.
Your daughter does not cry – they are just fish, and you are people. She does not say goodbye to them. But her sober face and swampy eyes take a moment to look at each before it happens, held in her grim, birdtoe fingers, before she flattens them out on the pot face and takes the stone. She holds one-by-one up by the tailfin. They twitch between her thumb and pointer like one muscle – one long, heavy spasm in the air – like Christians on the end of a rope.
She loves you more.
To split wood, you require some strength and some eyesight. You align yourself directly over a short, plump log, and then you give the handaxe a kick, and let your retention go. You fall upon that uncut thing with the full, purposeful weight of yourself. It’s a jumping-jack of faith. What you need, mostly, to be a good woodsplitter, is a bit of zealotry; you need the sureness to take a breath, bow, let out, and let-happen sometimes.
Before you, a long time ago, they would chop trees like this at their ankles, counting coup in the thousands with the head of an axe. You use a chainsaw. It makes your eardrums hurt and runs on gasoline. You use ropes, straining the tree away from your house, so you know it will fall all right. It will fall deliberately. It will fall perpendicular to the white steps like an arm of a cross. You did not hear the dry, then wet, hands-over-head, responsible whack of the stone.
Your daughter is old. She’s an old enough god to crouch on the kitchen floor, press the telephone into her chest, and wait, listening, with every second its own generation, for the splitting, and wait to feel her bones.
Jess Millman is probably sitting on the El right now with a Ziploc bag of animal cookies and a mean stink-eye. She is an editor at Goreyesque Magazine and a Follett Fellow at Columbia College Chicago, where she is pursuing a Fiction MFA.