The woods have always been thinning | Evan James Sheldon
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
I heard hammering and went out back to investigate. My father was building a wooden box, sloppily nailed together, like he hadn’t measured everything quite right.
Oh, I see. Come to mock your old man, he said. His thin, white hair wafted around his age-spotted pate like he was already drifting away.
He shook his head, turned back to his homemade coffin, and muttered something about how he should have sprung for black walnut. His palms were blistered and bleeding, skin too thin for this type of work.
Our house backed up to a copse of white ash and witch hazel and scrub. I spotted a few fresh stumps and an axe tossed carelessly among the wild grasses. He watched me put it all together.
You know when I was young, all this was wooded. It extended for miles and miles around, filled with grand trees and wildlife—noisy woodpeckers and red squirrels. When you were little, it was still better than it is now. I even once saw a lynx. No joke. I’ve always wanted to hang that cat’s head over my mantle.
We both stared at what was left of the woods for a minute, and I tried to imagine scraggly trees spread over the horizon. I couldn’t.
I went inside and got two guns, a shotgun and a .22. I gave the .22 to my father and gestured for him to follow me into the trees. He set his hammer down and we went in together. It took longer than it should have because of his knee and hip. I didn’t ask about the coffin, and he didn’t offer. We’d always been like that, moving on quickly, and letting things disappear behind us was a well-worn comfort.
After a little while of not seeing any animals, we split up. He attempted to sneak off but ended up making quite a bit of noise. As I wandered through the empty trees, to my shame, I thought, it won’t be long now. My mind elsewhere, the snap of a branch surprised me. I swung and shot. Maybe it was a wood pigeon, maybe it was a housecat hunting. Whatever it was, I hadn’t hit it.
My father rushed over as quick as he could, eyes alight. Did you get him? Was it the lynx?
It was, I said, but I missed. He got away.
His countenance shifted. Never was going to kill that huge lynx with a shotgun anyway. And there’s no use now. Anything with ears and a brain will have already left. I almost said something back, but I didn’t.
He turned and hobbled his way out, and I heard the hammering resume.
Eventually I collected myself and made my way out of the trees. I took the hammer from my father, flattening a couple bent nails. I found a sander and began to smooth the sides. My father wrapped his hands and got us both a beer. He oversaw my work, offering advice here and there. Cut that bit there so it doesn’t jab my ribs. Can we make the bottom wider? You know how crazy I get when my feet are cramped.
We stayed at it until my mother came outside. What do you think you are doing?
My father smiled sheepishly. Leave the boy alone. He’s just trying to help.
Help? This isn’t help. Just because you have some morbid fascination with your own passing doesn’t make this help, she said, hands flitting back and forth between the two of us.
No one spoke for a moment. I heard my own son break something inside. My mother turned to go check. Fine. But if you’re going to make him one, make me one too.
My dad shrugged and smirked, clearly willing to take this as far as we would allow. He went to find something to line the coffins. There are some random planks in the garage if you don’t feel like cutting down anymore of those trees, he said.
I grabbed some supplies and returned to find my father stapling the down comforter he and my mother shared into his coffin. Over half hung outside and drooped onto the grass.
I nailed a coffin together for my mother, taking care to use the nicest wood. I didn’t know what kind it was. Maybe cedar? It had a scent I felt like I should have known but couldn’t place, and I wondered what it would be like to be forever surrounded by something unknown like that. My father scooted her coffin close to his own and then stapled the rest of the comforter into hers as well, so the two were padded and connected.
The coffins looked so calm, so homey, so rough and ready. So very much my parents. I pictured them lying there together, peaceful. I pictured having to bury them.
I started making another coffin, but, when I finished, I found it wasn’t enough. I made another. I kept on, making another, then another. My father tried to question me, even put a bandaged hand on my shoulder to get me to stop, but I was in it now. I don’t know that I could have vocalized who they were all for, but I think even then I knew. They began to get smaller and smaller as my materials ran low, small enough to hold children.
Find me something soft, I said to my father. It was getting dark and had cooled, not enough to need a jacket yet, but enough to need to keep moving. My father didn’t say anything, he just looked sad and went inside. I stayed and kept working until I ran out of wood.
One of the boxes looked to be a great fit for me. It wasn’t lined but I climbed in anyway. I had misjudged and it was too big. I closed my eyes and let myself feel unmoored, drifting—only sensations the hardness of the wood on my back, the coolness settling onto and through my skin, and a vague recognition that, even though my eyes were closed, it was now fully dark. I ran through my life, small choices shifting who I was, leading me to this place where I was the kind of person who would make shitty coffins for my whole family. I could see each choice carving off a chunk of me, whittling me down until I small and hard, unwilling to say no, too angry to say yes. I tried to imagine what it would be like to get out of this box and move on, but I couldn’t. I could only see myself in it forever, just me and the increasing cold and darkness.
I think I would have remained there, but I felt something small wriggle in beside me—my son. He laid down next to me.
Your hands are hurt, he said. I opened my eyes. My hands were blistered and bloody from the work. I hadn’t noticed. He held out his palm so I could see the band-aid. I assumed he had gotten it when he had broken whatever had crashed inside. I wasn’t sure though. I didn’t like that I wasn’t sure. I tried to kiss the cut like I always had to make it better, but he pulled away, made a face.
Too old for kisses, I said. That’s okay. It wasn’t, but I couldn’t say it.
We laid next to each other for a while until the temperature dropped farther. If I was cold, I knew he was too.
Let’s go inside, I said.
I don’t want to get out.
You want to stay out here in this box? It’s not even that sturdy. I shook the sides around us like we were on a make-believe roller coaster.
I don’t want to get out, he said. I’m not ever getting out.
I laid back down.
You smell like Paps. You smell like beer, he said.
It was dark enough now, I couldn’t make out his features, but his tone hadn’t seemed judgmental. I didn’t say anything. I assumed he was right. I had always hated the way my father smelled when he was drinking. That is, unless I was too.
Hey. You want to tell me what’s going on? I asked.
He looked at me then. Do you?
We stared up at the same stars I had stared at when I was a kid. They were still just as far away.
Why don’t we get out of here? I said. Paps said there was a wild cat in the trees over there. A monster. Huge. We tried to hunt it but I missed. He said it’s just out there, that it’ll probably come after us if we don’t get it first.
That’s not real, he said.
Look at those trees. Anything could hide in there, I said.
He sat up, but didn’t agree.
Come on. Let’s go hunt it, I said.
I climbed out of the coffin I had made. We couldn’t use the real guns, he was just a kid, and it was too dark anyway. I put my hands together to make the shape of gun. Turned a different way it would have made a church and a steeple, open the doors and see all the people, but I realized I didn’t know if he’d ever played that game. I wasn’t entirely sure of the scope of the games he had played.
Ok, we have to be very quiet. And stick together. That’s the most important part.
He didn’t get up. He sat and watched me.
Maybe I should have pleaded, demanded, something. But I didn’t. I walked away toward the trees.
At the edge of the grove, I turned back. He hadn’t followed. I couldn’t tell if he had laid back down or gone inside. Either way couldn’t see him.
Just in case he was watching, I held out my gun-hands so if he happened to look he could see I was committed, that I would see this through. Pew. Pew. I shot back toward the house.
When no one came to join me, I went in, and then further in, until the trees were all around me, and they were all I could see. Evan James Sheldon’s work has appeared recently in the Cincinnati Review, Ghost Parachute, and Litro. He is a Senior Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at evanjamessheldon.com.