Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: J. P. Johnson
Title: Ending paths
I know all paths must eventually end; yet this one winds on and on.
Through such rough country too. The bush out here is untamed. It doesn’t care. You might go mad in it, try to destroy it, try to make farmland out of it, but the endless bush doesn’t give a damn. And it will go on, uncaring, long after you and I are done yelling at it.
The outback, she used to call it. Hardly. We bought the only place we could afford together, it was only an hour or so from Melbourne, but as far as she and all my old mates were concerned we suddenly lived way out in Woop Woop.
But anyway, I’m walking this path through bushland, way out in the sticks. Got my axe in hand. Don’t panic now, I’m no murderer, it’s just that I’m getting firewood. People have a weird idea that the bush is bloody hot all the time, but it is, in fact, often cold at night, cold enough that my boys and I have to huddle up in our rinky dink little house. It always seemed warmer before. Nowadays, it seems I’m out collecting firewood all the damn time, keeping the place heated and lit with a constant blaze in our ancient fireplace.
Now a fire in a fireplace is no worries, but my two young sons like to point out the irony of me, a career firefighter, spending so much time collecting firewood in order to start fires. I joked with them yesterday that I’d had enough of putting them out, thought I might try lighting a few. Not a good joke, Dad. Not even a good Dad-joke.
I shake off the memory of their worried looks. Must concentrate on this path that keeps winding on. Twist an ankle out here and it’d be a very long wait for help. It’s rough country, for sure, but beautiful in its way. The light trickles down through ghost gum leaves and somewhere nearby I can hear the song of birds. The smell is strong and clean, the kind of bushland scent that you only get when you’re far from civilisation. Smells like a thousand years of nature doing nature without interruption, of growth and death, decaying leaves and rich, rich dirt. I’ve been carrying the axe so long I can feel my hand cramping up, but I’m almost there. Been working on a particular tree for awhile and I’m almost completely sure that it’s just up ahead, on this never-ending path. It’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive, this tree. It’s a huge old carcass, a rune from ancient times, a monument to the past. And I’ve been lopping off branches for weeks. Such a big monster that I’ve barely made a dint in its sheer size.
But I can’t see the old mate yet, except for in my memory. The trail beneath my feet, well-trodden by those exact same feet, keeps going and going. I feel my knees now. They hurt. They never used to hurt. I used to charge up fourteen flights of stairs – axe in hand, helmet on head – and I’d be fine at the top, bust the door down and save the day. Back when fire fighting made a hero of me. Back before everything stopped.
Now, I have pain in my knee joints. And my back is killing me. Even these tough old hands are sore. The skin is like hardened leather and I used to think I’d never be so soft to ever get blisters again. But time is a killer. And time has passed, not that much I suppose; it’s only been a few months since the accident. But there’s a few months, and then there’s a few months. Caught a good look at myself in the bathroom mirror the other day and I swear I look a decade older.
I ignore all this, the painful knees, the sore back and hands, the fact that shaving my head and growing a beard did not in fact make me look strong like I thought it would, but rather like a tired old mountain man. I ignore all this and trudge on, my eyes gazing up, looking for the old tree that would mark the end of the journey. All paths must eventually end.
Through a gap in the canopy, I see it, that massive old wreck. It looks like the hull of a sunken ship, its trunk a dark, dead grey. Tired as I feel, I’m almost there, so I lengthen my step and march on. The sun beats down; I know I said it gets cold at night, but the heat today hammers upon me. Drops of sweat trickle through the long, coarse beard. I should never have grown the damn thing. My boy said I looked like Santa at first, but now he doesn’t say much of anything at all.
No, that’s not quite true. He spoke up yesterday, told me off about that lighting fires joke. “That’s not funny, Dad!” But it’s true. I haven’t put out a fire since the accident, since the day it all stopped. I’ve lit a lot, and I find myself staring at the flames, sometimes all night. The whiskey goes to my head and I lose track of time. My sons will go to bed and I’ll sit there, drinking and fire-gazing until 2, 3 in the morning. Thinking about the old days, remembering. My old man used to congratulate me for the fire fighting, for how I’d risen up the ranks a bit. “It’s a real man’s job, yours, you’ve done well.” I remember him saying that and how good it made me feel, way back then. Not sure if I agree with it now. A real man would be able to parent his kids. Even alone, even without help.
A real man wouldn’t give up on being a Dad.
I reach the end of the damn path and the tree is before me now, in all its glory. I am exhausted. I sit myself down, resting my back on its hard trunk, stretching the tired legs. Knees, back, hands, it’s all a tight knot of pain and I let the axe fall to the soft dirt. My fingers trace gnarled roots and the texture of the tree trunk. So grey, this wood, grey and cold, like a tombstone. I sigh and clamber myself up. That’s not funny, Dad.
Axe back in hand now, I rise and scope out the tree. I have hacked many of the smaller branches off, on previous wood-collecting adventures. The larger ones remain. I consider. A branch at eye level on my left would provide plenty of wood. I could lop it off here, carry it back home and segment it there.
Then my eye is drawn to another branch, bigger, older and much, much heavier. There’s evidence that it’s been damaged in the past, either by termites or storms. It’s on my right and it’s way above eye level, so high up that I’d have to reach for each swing. But look at that mighty lump of wood, huge and inviting.
Just like the one that got her, I suppose.
I grunt and snatch up my axe, the smooth wood of the handle a familiar comfort in my hand. I raise the old friend up, let it backswing behind my head and then the double-handed, above-head hacking begins.
Bloody hard work, but the music of it is a symphony. My axe thunks with each swing, biting deep into dead wood, the rhythm ringing out through the bush like the deep, strong heartbeat of some primordial beast.
This is the first thing I have understood.
Time is the echo of an axe in a wood.
I read that once, back when I was a young man. My old man arms are burning now, the muscle pain sharp and focussing, bringing clarity. Each bit of me hurts, and the pain is welcome, a relief, a reminder.
Sweat runs down my face as I grunt out more cuts. I’ve dug the axehead more than halfway through that huge branch when I start to see them, short flashes of memory with each thunk of the axe, like photographs appearing and disappearing behind my eyes.
Me in the truck on the way to a house fire with my team when I get the call.
Me arguing and abandoning the CFA boys.
Coming over a rise to see the bushland in flames, a nightmare sight. My taxi driver refusing to go on.
Me running alone, for so, so long, in full firefighter gear, with the same damn axe in hand, through screaming, burning hellfire.
Finding my wife’s crashed car, seeing the damage and the flames all around.
Seeing the heavy burning branch that has fallen from a tree above to smash through the windscreen.
I close my eyes and swing. The boys will be fine; they’re stronger without me. What good can I be to them now anyway? I swing again, blind and deaf to everything but the pounding of the axe in the wood.
The expected sound makes me look up; eyes wide open with the clarity of what has happened, what will happen. The axe falls from my hand as I peer at my tombstone tree. The dense branch I’ve been hacking rips itself from the trunk, its heaviness causes it to twist as it falls, so that the rough hacked edge is the first thing to hit me.
The boys will find my body at the end of a long walk through the uncaring bush, just as I once found their mother’s.
All paths must eventually end.