El Palo Alto
By Simon Barker
We decided to chop down the dead tree to make our bonfire. Every year on the Queen’s birthday we had a bonfire. It wasn’t her real birthday. That came at some inconvenient time, so they'd shifted it to summer. Of course that was summer in the north; here in the southern hemisphere the Queen’s birthday fell in the middle of the year, the darkest and coldest time, the last time you’d pick for a holiday. But it was a great time for fires and fires of any sort we loved.
Once we built our bonfire in the bare paddock at the bottom of our street. But the first, at least the first I remembered, was in the empty paddock behind the Morrison's house. The housing authority had been planning to build more homes there, but nothing ever came of it except that they cleared away all the easy vegetation, so that it became covered in weed grass. Out of laziness they left a couple of big trees that would have been too much trouble to budge and, by the time I remembered, they were already well dead anyway. Sometimes we climbed in them after school. But I didn’t like dead trees because grubs used to bore holes through the bark, fat white grubs with little yellow ravenous heads and Michelin bodies, and then wasps would hover around trying to sting the grubs and carry them off to impregnate them with their own young, which would hatch out and eat the grubs alive while they lay paralysed. I did not like the look of those wasps. They were burnt orange—the colour of local hot rods’ side panels—and their tails ended in long, painful needles. When Luigi's little sister got herself stung her screams pierced clean through us, from one end of our street to the other.
One afternoon workmen arrived in a truck with a very long chainsaw and headed for the nearest of the big trees. We stood as close as we were allowed with our school satchels still on our backs. The workmen in their overalls shooed us away and some of the feral kids from MacKillop Place kept sneaking on their hands and knees, as if no one could spot them. It was the first I'd ever seen of a chainsaw. I watched in awe and respect as the sawdust torrented from the vent. But even more impressive than the machine was the tactics of the sawyers as they cut a wedge—like a gigantic slice of Gouda—from the side on which they intended the tree to topple and then with the chainsaw engine puttering stepped round to the other side and commenced to saw through the width of the trunk at such an aggressive angle as to line up exactly with the bottom of the wedge. To us children it seemed to take an incredibly long time. Finally there remained a tiny unhewn sliver in the centre. While the tree waited upright I was amazed to realise how over-engineered the whole structure had been. Then crrrack. Looking at the base of the trunk we saw nothing until someone pointed us to the tips of the branches where the movement was palpable. Slowly, incredibly slowly, the whole thing listed downhill, there was another crack so much louder, and the entire tree fell.
By then it was fairly late and the workmen hurried off to the pub. The surviving big tree was left untouched. The broken carcass of the one they’d felled remained across the paddock like some great conquered beast. We lined up on its trunk in triumph. That year the bonfire was built around the fallen trunk; no attempt was made to move this immovable object and on the following morning it was still well alight, a shimmering, glowing carpet of coals in a vast ring of singed grass.
Although we were but children, we were determined to saw down the remaining big tree ourselves. The Morrison’s older brother James was in high school in his first year. The rest of us were still in primary school. Besides me and the Morrisons, there was little Kennedy, Luigi, Baxter, the Nijinsky boys plus most of our sisters who, we believed, were good for nothing but gathering grass and sticks. We went house to house searching our basements for saws, axes, machetes—cutting implements of any type. The Morrisons had a bow saw we all coveted. But when we smuggled it across the paddock to the dead tree we discovered that its full length with all its glinting teeth was but a fraction of the tree’s girth, as if we’d never seen the tree before in our lives. Sawing was right out. We’d have to chop. In addition to our other implements, we had a long, heavy, wood-handled, iron-tipped spike with a hinged hook—a sort of giant’s tin opener (actually, a cant-hook, I learned years later from Hemingway)—which was left behind by the workmen who felled the first tree and which none of us knew the use of, but were all sure would come in handy. We called it “The Thing.” Luigi caught his finger in it and ended up with a blood blister the size of a dollar coin.
Simon Barker is an Australian living in Sydney although for a number of years he lived in the Bay Area of California. His work has recently appeared in Liars' League, Prick of the Spindle and decomP.
The Morrisons’ old man looked surprised. Mrs Nijinsky was serious. She held out her hand and after Mr Morrison had hesitated a second, wondering whether it mightn’t be a joke after all, he handed over his axe. Mrs Nijinsky took it in her left hand and held it up by the end of the handle, as if it didn’t weigh much at all, and gave it a wiggle. She cast her eye over the head. The axe didn’t look so big with her holding it. Then she stepped up to the tree. It was funny—none of us could believe anything was going to happen, but at the same time we had a sense that something was going to happen. Mrs Nijinsky bent down first and collected sticks, which she laid aside so that nothing could trip her. She looked up at the tree and then gripped the axe handle with her right hand as well. With incredible speed—if you blinked you would have missed it—she struck the tree. We all stood there in stunned silence. For a few seconds she remained holding onto the handle as the note she’d struck from the tree died away. Nobody moved. Then she let go and walked across the paddock to her front yard, as if she’d finished what she was intending to do. The dads looked at each other. Mr Morrison inspected his axe embedded in the tree and shook his head. Baxter’s old man went up and tugged the end of the handle. The thing didn't budge. Mr Morrison joined him. They pulled for a while at cross purposes until Mr Morrison slipped over backwards and we tried not to laugh at him.
“Well, I don’t know what the Mrs was intending, but she’s gone and wedged it in pooerful tight, that’s for sure,” he complained.
Mrs Nijinsky returned with an axe of her own. Its head fanned out in the way that cartoon axes or the axes used by executioners in Hollywood films fanned out. She went to the tree and used her own handle as a lever against Mr Morrison’s so that his slid out of the tree with a piercing shriek that dry wood makes when it doesn't want to let go of something. She handed it back. Mr Morrison seemed reluctant to take it.
“This good axe,” Mrs Nijinsky told him. She meant her axe.
She stepped over to the tree again and tightened her headscarf and rolled up the sleeves of her patterned blouse as far as they would go. Everybody stared. We were used to our dads stripping off their shirts when they worked. But now we looked at Mrs Nijinsky’s big smooth hands and her forearms, which looked as if they’d been carved out of marble, and her biceps. We were astonished. We’d had no idea.
She turned and motioned for us to make room. We reluctantly edged away a step or two, but, seeing the dads standing their ground, we crept back to where we’d been. Mrs Nijinsky insisted. She wouldn't continue until we’d cleared what seemed to be an exaggerated circle. Only then did she swing the axe.
And this time it was completely different. Instead of the men’s chop, pause, look, chop, she chopped with a continuous flowing rhythm, as if she was furiously beating a carpet strung over a clothes line, or banging a drum, first ripping a thin line across the face of the tree at about mid-chest height and then, without missing a beat, starting a second line a foot or more below it. The blows from the axe worked their way across, each one a length in front of the other, as if they were being punched by a machine. The lines were straight and even and then, still without missing a beat, she switched back to the top line and suddenly a great chunk of timber flew off. The kids cheered as it spun like a discus and landed a short distance away. Luigi ran to souvenir it. Soon the air was alive with chips. They shot in all directions. The kids were in hysterics. They were yelling and screaming. We crept in closer and closer, magnetised.
Once Mrs Nijinsky had chopped to the depth of the first two lines she’d cut she immediately started a second line at the top and a corresponding one at the bottom. A new storm of chips flew out. She powered through the outer layer and belted into wood of a more intense colour, a rich red. The little children were fighting with each other to collect the chunks and run with them to the site of the bonfire. The trunk, with each hack of the axe blade, now gave out this immensely satisfying chock sound. We were dancing around in ecstasy. Mrs Nijinsky knew how to chop! She knew how to chop in the way we’d seen wood being chopped in the arena at the show ground by professionals. Our dads were all idiots. Our dads didn’t know the first thing about chopping. Mrs Nijinsky was a champion. All of a sudden it seemed that the tree might actually be felled.
Baxter’s old man puffed out his cheeks and blew as if this was something phenomenal, but also, in some sense, something uncalled for. At first we didn’t think Mrs Nijinsky would keep it up for more than five minutes because we couldn’t believe anyone could work like that nonstop. Of course, we thought, our dads would take over and start stuffing it all up again. But, no. Mrs Nijinsky kept up her steady, abundant rhythm. The dads fidgeted and moved about. We just wanted more. We could have gone on watching until bedtime. As Mrs Nijinsky worked her arms began to glisten, her cheeks flushed red and long strands of light brown hair came loose from her headscarf. The ground about her was carpeted with wood fragments.
This went on so long that eventually our dads wandered away. Without a word to us or even to each other they wandered back to our houses, highly irritated. Actually they were disgusted, but couldn’t bring themselves to say. We stayed and watched until eventually our mothers, who’d started peeping at a distance through lounge room windows had untied their aprons and emerged from their screen doors to cross into the paddock. Standing beside us, resting their hands on our shoulders or in our hair they watched the spectacle. Mrs Nijinsky, apart from pausing once or twice to wipe sweat from her brow and shoo us further away, paid us no mind.
By the time the winter sun had sunk low a great sculptured hole had opened on one side of the tree, a hole that looked like it had been sheered through by some fantastically powerful spinning object, like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil. Mrs Nijinsky stopped to look up and calculate the trajectory. Mrs Morrison came through the gap in the back fence with a glass of cold water. “Thank you, Mrs,” Mrs Nijinsky said to her several times, bowing her head after she’d emptied the glass.
About this point, to my immense consternation, my own parents appeared and insisted that we leave for dinner. I threw a tantrum about having to leave before the climax, then gazed forlornly from the back window of our car as we pulled out of the street, seeing Mrs Nijinsky still untired, still demolishing the tree inside the circle of mothers and children.
We returned late at night. The paddock was dark, no signs of life, no silhouettes against the sky.
In the morning I finally saw the fallen colossus. From the Morrison boys I heard the story. As dusk closed in, Mrs Nijinsky had halted, stuck her axe into the tree’s side and ordered the mothers and children out of the paddock. “All out! Out!” Quickly she'd come round to the unchopped side and after a few more chops there'd been a frightening crack and the tree had started to go down. The tree had been rotten midway, and the tremendous impact had broken it into three great sections. Afterwards, Mrs Nijinsky pulled off her headscarf, shook the chips from it, and wiped her axe. Her husband arrived, draped a rug around her shoulders, and accompanied her back to the house.
Very, very laboriously over the next fortnight we heaped the timber into a pile, in the process discovering the correct use of “The Thing,” which was to roll logs too heavy to budge by hand. Although one of the rival gangs from MacKillop Place managed to ignite our glorious pile hours before we were ready, the fire burned for two and a half days, for the entire Queen’s birthday weekend. The grass in the paddock perished from heat shock and during the first night little Kennedy lost sight in his left eye after a firecracker exploded in his face.
That was the end of our fires. Next winter our dads announced there’d been too many accidents, that we could have another fire when we showed we were mature enough. We couldn’t understand. What were they so upset about? They told us that, in any case, there were no more dead trees. But we found some dead trees. No, we were told, we couldn’t. Every once in a while our mothers would remark, “Remember how Carol's mum chopped down the tree?” That only tormented us because we knew it would never happen again.
Little Mr. Nijinsky was the first person on our street to die. One morning, while distributing The Watchtower door to door, his heart stopped. He was found on the footpath, his hands full of literature. After that Mrs Nijinsky kept entirely to herself. Her children married young, moved away.
One by one the other families left. As they got richer they moved to houses where they would have preferred to live all along. None of them had come to our street by choice. It was public housing, cheap; they were forced into it.
The unexpected thing was that Mrs Nijinsky stayed even though she didn’t have to. Her husband, her children were gone. Long after I myself had left, when my own parents were finally fixing to leave—they’d got richer only very slowly—Mrs Nijinsky, speaking to them for the first time after all those years, made a totally uncharacteristic call to bid them farewell. It seemed that, having cleared the land, she was intent on staying.
It was funny—none of us could believe anything was going to happen, but at the same time we had a sense that something was going to happen. Mrs Nijinsky bent down first and collected sticks, which she laid aside so that nothing could trip her. She looked up at the tree and then gripped the axe handle with her right hand as well. With incredible speed—if you blinked you would have missed it—she struck the tree. We all stood there in stunned silence.
We set to work removing the lighter branches, first the lowest, sawing through from above until it cracked and fell. We worked our way up. I was the best climber, so I would carry a rope to the next branch, secure it as far out as I dared, feeling the branch give more and more as it thinned and, suddenly scared it would snap, I would shimmy back to where it joined the trunk to give it the bow saw while a line of kids grabbed hold of the rope and tugged. The first casualty came when the tip of a branch snapped loose, the kids at the end of the rope all fell on their arses, and a bit of loose branch skewered Baxter’s ear. He stumbled away towards his house with blood running and James Morrison supporting the branch end, still impaled, too painful to remove, looking like the pair of them had just come from a bullfight. When larger branches broke off, the trunk whiplashed violently and I had to cling on for dear life. But that was the easy part; gravity did most of the work. Once we got the accessible branches off there still remained the job of felling the trunk. As our sisters skipped around the base of the tree holding hands we simply stared, aching and blistered. All we’d done in an entire weekend was give the tree a haircut.
The grass in the paddock was wet when we reached the tree the following Saturday morning. We now had the Morrisons’ axe, for which we’d neglected to get permission. For a moment we hesitated, clueless. Finally George Morrison took the handle and swung the axe at the bare trunk. It rang as if hitting metal and bounced off. The wood was grey and splintering and pitiless. In our minds we’d pictured what it would be like to hack the trunk of a young green tree and gouge out a great and satisfying chunk. It wasn't at all like that. When the axe head struck at the slightest wrong angle, it would skitter up or down the trunk without damaging the wood. If the blade hit the trunk square, vibrations shivered up our arms and bit into our elbows like vicious teeth. When Ian Morrison hurled the axe at the tree with all his strength the ricochet loosened his grip and it flew off, spinning, the handle whacking Luigi’s little sister in the chest so hard she collapsed on the ground, winded. Her theatrics distracted us from where the axe landed in the grass, and we spent ten minutes scrounging around for it.
All that morning the dead tree humiliated us. We eventually lost our strength and instead of concentrating on one spot we began hacking the butt at random until we worked ourselves into such a fury that we took revenge on the living tree next door, which shed great slabs of its juicy cortex and, we decided, might be a much better target. But we were stopped by Mrs Olsen who hurried up the road in an apron and forbad as to kill anything. After that we sat on the concrete lid of the stormwater drain and moped. We went home to cut ourselves peanut butter sandwiches and drink lime cordial until the Morrisons’ dad returned from his Saturday morning job at the tyre re-treading shop and poked fun at us.
“Tis a quare way to fell timber, laddies,” he said.
He checked the damage we’d done to his axe—it was a clapped-out axe he'd got for nothing; still he grumbled. Jeff Baxter’s old man came over. Together he and Mr Morrison chuckled at our expense. Baxter’s old man picked up the axe and swung it a couple of times as if he was teeing up a golf shot. We were all cheesed off about being lectured, but when it seemed like one of the men was going to chop we brightened up. Baxter urged his old man on. Mr Baxter spat on his hands—which struck us as a very clever thing to do, and perhaps the reason we’d failed so badly. Then he swung. The axe head stuck in the wood and Mr Baxter grunted as he levered it out. It left a little notch. He swung again, actually wedging into the same notch, and had an equal amount of trouble prising the axe out. But once it was out we saw that the second stroke, for all its fluky accuracy, didn't seem to have made much difference. He swung again, managed to cut another notch just below the first and, by stepping up to the tree and using the axe head as an inefficient leaver, managed to liberate a small section, a chip. But that was it. That was all he did. He smiled at the axe head.
“They done a great job bluntening it for you,” he told the Morrisons’ old man.
Mr Morrison grumbled and took the axe himself. He was a short, round man with wiry hair, a red face, and a moustache. His rolled up sleeves showed brawny, furry forearms. He’d been in the military, though that was before our time. Now he was in the army reserve, which meant spending every second weekend at a bush camp where he and his subordinates passed their time firing off army ammunition and gambling their pay by the camp fire. Weekends he wasn’t away he made extra money at a mate’s re-treading shop where, to our glee, he used to write “NBG” on tyres that were useless. “NBG” meant “No Bloody Good.” We thought that very rude.
The Morrisons’ old man attacked the tree with Gaelic ferocity. After about 20 strokes he’d enlarged Mr Baxter’s notch enough to serve as a foothold. Sweat was sprouting from his skin and we could hear his breathing. While he recovered, Baxter’s old man walked back to his house for a bastard file. Mr Morrison advised him how to use it. With a few strokes the blade gleamed, but didn’t seem sharper. Mr Morrison attacked the tree again this time wedging the axe in so hard that it took the pair of them, grunting, stepping on each other's feet and farting to yank the thing loose. Meanwhile we looked on, not saying a word. Still hoping.
Eventually half the dads in the street turned up. As they came back from Saturday morning work or shopping or washing their cars they wandered across the paddock and collected around the big tree. Every now and then there'd be a peal of ringing as each in turn struck the axe against the tree. Mr Morrison, as the owner of the axe, felt obliged to take another swing whenever each of them gave up. But the thing was just too tough.
“Why don’t you build your wee fire round it,” the Morrisons’ old man suggested. After having spent so much effort carrying the branches off to the middle of the paddock we all whinged. But there was no point. We were told we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn't have the right tools for the job, the axe wasn't sharp enough and if it had been sharp enough we most likely would have cut off one of our feet. Likewise, if we'd had a saw big enough we couldn't have lifted it, we couldn't have drawn it for a lack of strength. For sundry other reasons the whole thing, they said, was a daft idea. We started to feel like we felt when our dads took over our cricket matches.
Baxter’s old man announced he was going for a beer. The rest of them laughed and turned to go off. It was then that Mrs Nijinsky turned up. This was very unusual. The Nijinskies’ old lady never had much to do with us. She was a funny sort. She was big, really big. In fact she could have been bigger than the men in the street. She was twice the size of Mr Nijinsky. My mother joked that was why he’d changed his name to hers instead of the other way round. His name had been Price. He was a local and as far as we knew he didn’t speak his wife’s language. His wife had migrated after she was a child and hardly spoke English at all. But before they’d married he’d changed his own name by a deed poll so she could be Mrs Nijinsky. He worked as a clerk at the Concord Hospital, which was where they’d met. She was in the hospital kitchen. She wore these big skirts and boots and she put her hair under a scarf. She wasn’t ugly, but no one ever said she was pretty either. That wouldn’t have made sense.
They were the only mixed couple in the street. Out of the other families the Berettas, the Morrisons and the Olsens were migrants. But the Nijinskies were the only mixed couple. Mr Nijinsky was also a Jehovah’s Witness. We used to see him with his hat on heading in the direction of Telopea for the little weatherboard Kingdom Hall. They always looked unhappy, he and his wife.
And Mrs Nijinsky didn't look happy now. We assumed she’d come to complain about the noise or about the tree possibly squashing her fence. She certainly didn't look like she approved of what was going on. She came up to Mr Morrison and stood there without saying anything.
“Well, good day to yer, Mrs,” old man Morrison said.
The other dads said hello. Mrs Nijinsky nodded.
We waited for her to complain about what we were doing but instead she said, “You want cut down tree?"
“Aye, that’d be right,” Mr Morrison chuckled and cocked his head at us. “The wee laddies here are lumberjacks.”
Mrs Nijinsky didn’t laugh. She said, “You want I help cut down tree?”
The first casualty came when the tip of a branch snapped loose, the kids at the end of the rope all fell on their arses, and a bit of loose branch skewered Baxter’s ear. He stumbled away towards his house with blood running and James Morrison supporting the branch end, still impaled, too painful to remove, looking like the pair of them had just come from a bullfight.