Robert O. Harder was the First Prize winner in the 2004 Fifth Annual Minnesota Magazine Fiction Contest with his short story, "Peeling Popple", which included publication in the March-April 2004 issue of Minnesota Magazine. Click here for more details on the contest and to read the story.
I begged Sammy to go faster, though his '48 Chevy was already hurtling down the graveled road like a jet, trailing a dusty rooster tail a quarter-mile long. His casual, one-handed hold on the steering knob turned to a death grip when the front wheel caught a soft sand shoulder, nearly dragging us into the ditch. With a whoop, he floored the gas and deftly manipulated the knob until the car weaved back into the fat of the road.
The Chevy didn't have a muffler and the engine knocked savagely; Sammy was forever scrimping on store-bought gas, scrounging whatever volatiles he found lying around. We ignored the racket and continued to swap lies about who could peel the most sticks, who was the strongest, the best athlete, better shot, fisherman, or trapper. We jabbered without letup until reaching the top of Shofner Hill, a tall sugar-sand moraine overlooking our logging camp.
At that moment, we could have been mistaken for convicts getting their first glimpse at the Devil's Island penal colony. It was as if the Almighty had thrown a switch and the world suddenly dimmed. Stories were bit off in mid-sentence, lips closed into thin lines, thoughts evaporated into the ether.
Sammy switched off the Chevy's ignition key at the hill's apex; a procedure he was convinced saved a cup of fuel per day. For an instant, the auto hung motionless on the mount, trapped in a tug-of-war between drag and momentum. Imperceptibly at first, then with gathering assurance, Newtonian laws prevailed. The dead machine nosed over the hill and barreled down the slope like a kamikaze soap box racer, swerving dangerously into a small meadow at the bottom before coasting to a stop.
Morosely silent, we climbed out of the car and trudged to the trunk for our gear. The tall timothy grass was heavy with dew and our boots and blue jean cuffs turned black-wet after just a few steps. The air hummed with insects but we barely noticed them; road-side bugs were dilettantes compared to the real artists waiting in the deep woods.
Sammy was closest to the trail and took the lead. We followed him Indian-style, while behind us a pickup load of Finns pulled in, yakking away incomprehensibly. Without glancing back at them, we lowered our heads and melted into the forest.
The sawyers were already hard at work—the woods echoed with the sounds of bawling chain saws, shouting men, and the snap-crack of trees as they broke from their stumps and crashed to earth. Now and again each saw would calm to a put-put-put while the sawyer walked to the next tree, and then he'd give her the gun again. At least one or two machines were continuously wah-wahhinng, a steady melody to the full chorus of two dozen men peeling popple in the woods.
We joined in without ceremony. The first man dropped off at the first tree, the second at the next, and so on. I stopped beside a downed popple and leaned the peeling kit against its stump, pulling back the left sleeve of my flannel shirt to glance at my Timex wristwatch.
It was nine and a half hours until walk-out.
I took a deep breath and, like a dull, plodding ox, gave myself up to the trees.
The object of our labor was the northern aspen, called popples by the men who harvested them for paper and fiberboard mills at Grand Rapids, Cloquet, and International Falls in northern Minnesota. Despised as "weed trees" by the white pine lumberjacks of two generations earlier, the lowly but plentiful poplar had now risen to king of the forest.
My grandfather was a pinery boy and I had always been envious of him. This was not due to romantic notions of majestic conifers, river drives, cook shanty meals, or Paul Bunyan tales, but because his were lumber trees, and the logging was done in the winter.
The forest was a very different place during the arctic months. Trees, shrubs, and brush were but scraggly skeletons sticking up through ice and snow, an agreeable condition yielding a cleaner, firmer woodlands more easily traversed by man, beast, and machinery. Tree sap was frozen and wood submitted willingly to axe and saw, the cold, crisp air encouraging human endurance. Lumber trees required no peeling, thus the work was more "manly."
Most important, in the winter, there were no bugs.
I stood up from a finished tree and brushed away a mosquito. So far, the popples were cooperating, holding mostly to the sappy, smooth-peeling yellows. A quick calculation determined I had a chance at limbing, measuring, and peeling 180 eight-foot-long sticks. At a nickel a stick that figured to nine dollars—some real money for a change.
I was ruminating over whether to save or spend the dough when another peeler, a new fellow, stumbled past me and commenced working a short distance away. I had to chuckle. The guy was still lugging around his Zenith transistor radio. It was one of the new portable jobs, a reddish, coat pocket-sized item that looked like something a girl would keep in her boudoir. During morning coffee, one of us pointed at the plastic box and called the man a "fairy." He turned the same color as his radio and stalked off. The old Finns cackled so hard one fell off his log and a couple others nearly choked on their cheese sandwiches.
Although I had laughed along with all the rest, I couldn't help keeping an ear cocked towards the guy's squawk box—anything to keep my mind off the hard work and discomfort. After a time, he finished peeling his tree and Elvis and the "Hound Dog" faded away.
All the entertainment lightened my mood and I decided to take a break. After watering the lilies, I dug a tin of Copenhagen snuff from my jean pocket, slit the seal with a fingernail, and drew out a pinch, wedging it between my gum and cheek. I didn't much care for snoose but couldn't stop using it without the Finns needling me to death. I never let on I only chewed in the woods and usually took just enough to keep a steady dribble at the corner of my mouth.
While leaning against a tree and working the wad, I had myself a proper look around, like some feudal lord taking in his realm. The spring had been uncommonly wet and warm, and the trees were in full bloom; every leaf, bush, and blade of grass appeared to have been hand-colored with its own shade of green Crayola. The mingled fragrances of wild roses, daisies, tiger lilies, honeysuckle, and a hundred other flowers lingered in the air. Sun rays radiated down through the forest canopy in wide golden bands, spotlighting everything they touched. A short distance away a small creek burbled, still swollen from snow-melt runoff.
A sudden, cooling breeze wafted through the trees, driving the bugs into the grass. I became pleasantly aware it was the first moment since getting out of Sammy's car that something wasn't chewing on me.
As if the gods were further at my pleasure, the outfit's chain saws abruptly quieted. I could hear songbirds twittering in the scrub oaks, busily competing with darting chipmunks and tail-lashing gray squirrels for food and nesting materials. The snowshoe rabbits had turned dark and were hard to see, but I knew they were around, quietly nibbling on tender shoots emerging from the dank soil. Nearby a pair of crows quarreled noisily and overhead, a hawk sailed to and fro, hunting for mice.
I scowled when a puffy cumulus cloud drifted across the sun, killing the breeze. Seizing the chance, a mosquito rose from the grass and drilled me on the cheek. I smashed it with my hand, swearing profoundly. Another bit me on the neck and I screeched like a lunatic.
Crazed by the attack, I spied a large, black beetle sunning itself atop a mushroom. I spat a glob of tobacco juice at it, missed, cursed vehemently, tried to squash the bug with my foot, missed again when it scurried under a log, kicked the log four or five times, hurt my foot—then unleashed a string of oaths worthy of an old-time bullwhacker before finally running out of breath.
My next popple was a smooth-barked, thin-limbed yellow, and I settled down. Wielding a hand axe, I started at the butt and one-armed my way up the tree, hacking off branch after branch. Using the hundred-inch measuring pole, I marked the sticks off with notched Vs, grunting with satisfaction at squeezing out an exceptional six pieces.
Starting again at the butt-end, I adzed out a narrow strip of bark along its full length. Returning to the tree's butt, I pulled the peeling iron out of my belt and dropped to my knees. Before beginning, I checked myself for exposed skin, thinking once more of my winter-logging grandfather and what it would be like without the summer insects.
Without them, the hot and muggy days, long hours, poor pay, and hard, dangerous work would be a trifle, ho-hummed away with the wave of a hand. Without the bugs, the job could be sneered into submission, reduced to a task no more onerous than sharpening pencils. Without the scourge of winged, female invertebrates and their blood-sucking cousins, the world would be a candle-lit dinner with a beautiful woman, soft music, and the soothing sound of water gurgling from a fountain. With them, it was jackals and hyenas devouring carrion down by the river.
The mosquitoes attacked first, their overhead, droning armadas whining down like German Stukas. White-mottled deerflies and green-headed horseflies preferred flanking maneuvers, relentlessly seeking out gaps between shirt, pants, gloves, and socks where they could sink their poisoned daggers into soft, blood-rich flesh. Chiggers chewed around the eyes, and only later would puffy lids betray their presence. Wood ticks formed the terrestrial guard, and those left undiscovered had usually bloated up to the size of a quarter by bedtime. Sometimes hydrogen peroxide dousings wouldn't convince the ugly slugs to let go and we had to break them off, leaving their festering beaks still in our hides.
Heavy clothing helped, but was killingly hot. Bug dope was useless, sweating off immediately. Some loggers attempted to brazen their way through, competing with one another as to who could best absorb the torment without flinching. A handful insisted the bugs never bothered them, and those who pulled that fiction off were greatly admired.
I was not one of them.
I grasped the peeling iron with both hands, nestling the blunt end in my right palm. With stinging sweat-salt pouring down my forehead, I slipped the concave-shaped tool under the bark along the adze strip and curled it around the tree's juicy flesh. Stopping midway, I reversed the tool and worked the iron back the opposite direction until a two-foot chunk of bark popped off.
I made my way up the popple—rip-pop, rip-pop, rip-popping away the rolls. The gelatinous sap bled on my canvas gloves so profusely I couldn't hold onto the iron and, periodically, I had to strop the goo away on the grass. Yet the tree yielded to me with such abandon it was nearly pleasurable, and I almost didn't notice another peeler walk by.
It was the radio guy and he was acting peculiar. An inner voice told me to keep an eye on him.
The man was standing on his tiptoes, peering at the next felled tree as if he were looking over the rim of a canyon. He glanced burglar-like from side to side, not realizing I was watching. A fresh waterfall of perspiration tumbled into my eyes, momentarily blurring my vision. When I looked back up, he was gone.
I sat back on my heels, mouth open, not believing the fellow had just "jumped" a popple.
It was a white, a fat, dry brute with heavy limbs and knotty carbuncles its full length. The more loathsome of them took three times longer to peel than a yellow—if indeed the job could be cleanly done at all. Piecework loggers like me had been known to quit on the spot if the whites ran too heavy. Their presence was so significant, they were responsible for the one unbreakable rule of the woods: A peeler always takes the first tree encountered.
The full dimension of the transgression dawned on me. As the next in line, I would have to skin the rejected monster.
Enraged, I flung my iron to the ground and flew after the criminal, tackling him from behind. We sailed through a clump of alder and splashed into a marshy depression—cursing, punching, scratching, gouging, and biting. Soaked, muddied, bloodied, and sapped by the heat, the fight ended quickly. We were on our knees, panting and snarling like cornered wolverines, when the boss and crew came running up.
With much finger pointing and invective, we pleaded our cases. I was admonished for fighting, but the tree jumper proved as poor a liar as he was a man and was fired on the spot. I snickered in triumph, only to send fresh slivers of pain shooting through my already throbbing nose. I struggled mightily not to show the hurt, and was greatly relieved when the others tired of the fun and drifted back to work. I sleeved my sopping face, retrieved my gear, and shuffled off to the next tree.
I have no memory of how long I stood over that white popple, a specimen even uglier than the tree jumper's. My legs grew rubbery, my head felt light, I became nauseated. I staggered away from the hideous apparition, swaying and snuffling.
Pulling a swamp-smelly handkerchief from my back pocket, I dabbed at the cut on my trembling lower lip, then emptied my nose in the cloth. I heard a humming noise and looked up through a mist. Attracted by the smell of fresh blood, a black cloud of mosquitoes was forming above me.
Still clutching my peeling iron, I pulled back my shirt-sleeve and looked at my Timex. I stared hard at it, blinking rapidly, determined not to sob, not to act like a 15-year-old kid.
The two hands on the watch face destroyed my adolescent resolve; raindrop-size tears burst from my eyes. My head lolled on my breastbone, my arms flapped helplessly. The iron slipped from my grip and stuck in the muck with a soft thunk.
It was still six hours until walk-out.