They squatted in an abandoned Pentecostal church high on the bluffs over a river and when the rain or snow was heavy the roof leaked and the church was loud with the dripping of water in metal buckets and when the land was dry beneath the floorboards of the church hundreds of rattlesnakes shook their maracas at the heat and only at night would the place fall into silence. And I had visited sometimes in the spring when the snakes were lethargic and hungry for the sunlight and we had stood around the church with machetes and rakes and turned the yellow grass red. It was a beautiful spot.
The church was derelict but their gardens covered acres of land in every direction away from the old house of worship and hitchhikers and wandering hippies knew of Bear and Luna and the church with holes in the roof and they came to work and camp on the grounds for free meals and camaraderie. But I knew Bear from high school. We always dated the same girls.
They threw parties on the winter solstice every year. They called the soirees chainsaw parties. Everyone brought a chainsaw and that was how they built up enough firewood to heat the drafty church through winter. We all went out into the woods early in the morning with flasks of brandy or whisky and cut up the deadfall or the widow-makers hung up in other living trees. We used sleds to bring the wood back to the church. There were stations around the church: those who split the deadfall into cordwood, those who transported the split wood to other piles, and those who stacked the wood into cords of tight walls. On the solstice the sun seemed too heavy an object to rise above the earth, but during those rare hours of light, we worked hard, sweating through our layers of garments, the noise of chainsaws everywhere. And afterward there was a pig roast and a keg of beer and a bonfire and always a guitar or a harmonica and the sad reedy voice of a skinny woman singing to the stars.
The last chainsaw party I attended was years ago, before Shelly and I were married and before Samuel came. I was dating a nurse then, Nancy. She worked in neo-natal at the hospital. She had thick blond hair that she kept in a braid behind her head and she smelled of baby powder and soap and I think that I was in love with her. I liked asking her about her work and she would tell me about the babies that had been born that day. The twins, the triplets, the rare hermaphrodite, the stillborn, the beautiful, and the already crippled. She rolled her own cigarettes and I remember her now, sitting in just a T-shirt at my kitchen table, her legs naked and well muscled and folded beneath her on a chair. Her fingers rolling out dozens of cigarettes and sometimes joints. In the morning before she left for work her hair was not braided and it held the light of the sun like fiber optic cables.
I drove a pickup truck then. An old Toyota with a rusting bed. I had jacked up the body during high school and removed the bumpers, replacing them with thick black pipes. We left that morning for the church before dawn, Nancy and I in the truck with a thermos of coffee and my old Husqvarna chainsaw in the back. We smoked cigarettes as we drove, the windows cracked open to the cold and the heater blasting out hot air.
She often went down on me while I drove, and her blond head would bob in my lap as I tried to keep my eyes open and the truck between the yellow lines. I remember that morning, the taste of her kiss later and the sun rising over the hills and draws. Nancy liked sex and my life with her was often an exhibition of love though I could never keep up with her and somewhere along the line I knew that would end us. We made love in the hospital freight elevators and on the helicopter pad on the top of the tall building and once in the basement morgue where we had stopped prematurely because I thought I had heard a sound in all the dead stillness.
She had moved back across the bench seat of the pickup truck and had unscrewed the top of the thermos, steam clouding the passenger side window.
“So what is Luna like?” she asked.
That hadn’t always been her name, and I had not told Nancy that once we were lovers when her name had been Shelly and that Bear had stolen her from me, though I knew that it wasn’t like that. That people were not just kidnapped for lovers. And I knew that when I knew Luna before, when she was Shelly, that I wasn’t wild enough for her and that we wouldn’t be together forever. I decided to tell Nancy the truth.
“Luna and I used to date,” I said, looking straight out at the road disappearing underneath us. “We dated for two years in high school. Her name back then was Shelly. She and Bear had a renaming ceremony or some such thing.” I paused, then, “We were kid stuff.”
“When were you going to tell me that?” Nancy asked, crossing her arms.
“I did just tell you,” I said.
“Why did you break up?” she asked, her voice sharp.
“She started in with Bear,” I said evenly. “I walked in on them one day,” I said.
Then she was quiet for a moment, sipping her coffee. Nancy had beautiful fingers and I never tired of holding her hands, or watching her fingers cradle a mug or a wine glass. Her perfect nails, the long strong fingers. “People can be terrible to one another,” she said finally. And then she leaned against me on the bench seat, her head on my shoulder and she passed me the coffee and we were still many miles from the church and it felt good to drive that way, her body drawn close against mine and the countryside clipping past us: the hawks on the telephone poles, the frozen rivers moving invisibly beneath their cloaks of ice, the horses in the fields standing somberly.
After high school I rarely saw Bear. Just those chainsaw parties, or sometimes in the spring when the maple syrup was running and he needed a hand boiling the sap down into golden oil. Things went better between us when there was work to be done and afterward over beers, or sharing a joint, we could talk about the labor and not old times, because I had no interest in the past anymore, or thought I didn’t, though we were still in each other’s lives, and Luna too. The gravity of childhood frequently impossible to escape.
The church was tall and white and atop the bluffs it seemed like an impossible outpost of God. There were dogs in the yard, barking at our approach, and in the air hung the smell of woodsmoke and I remember that Nancy closed her door and had closed her eyes too and said happily, “I feel happy already. I like this place.” We held hands and approached the great double doors of the church and just then Bear opened them in tandem and stood before us and his beard was long and black but his eyes sparkled blue and the color in his cheeks came from laboring outdoors and I felt Nancy’s grip on my hand slacken.
I introduced Bear and Nancy and we went into the church and it was warmer than I had ever remembered and inside was the smell of coffee, and of sweat, and of dogs, and woodsmoke and tobacco. Luna was at the sink and I could see her hands were washing a collection of beets and her hands looked older than her face and her nails were broken and short but she raised her head and said hello and by and by she came over and hugged us gingerly and it wasn’t until she walked back to the sink that I could see from her gait that she was pregnant.
Bear was smiling at me and he said, “Five months along? You believe that? Me, a father!” He slapped me on the shoulder and I shook his hand again and he said, “How about a morning toast? Something to keep us warm before we start cutting?”
“That sounds great, man.” I said, “Congratulations. Nancy works in the nursery at the hospital if that’s where you guys end up.”
“Wow,” said Bear, “that must be beautiful work.” He had a way of bringing people in to him, of making them feel big and important. He was a good listener. I could see Nancy’s eyes soften toward him; she liked talking about babies.
“It is the best work in the whole world,” she said firmly, warmly. “It makes me happy. Some days I get to be like a mother ten, twelve times. Yesterday we delivered four babies. Two sets of twins.”
Luna came over from the sink, wiping her hands on a ragged towel. “I want to have the baby here,” she said, putting an arm around Bear’s waist. “I hate hospitals. I’ve lost everyone that I was ever close to in a hospital.” Bear put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her into him tight, his face staring at the floorboards.
Nancy said, “How brave. Too many women are intimidated by birth. But it’s what we were designed to do.” She moved over to Luna and gently applied her hands to the other woman’s belly. Luna moved Nancy’s hands up, almost to her ribs.
“Do you feel that?” Luna asked.
“Little feet,” said Nancy, beaming.
Luna said, “Come here, I want to talk to you about my preparations.” The two women went toward the kitchen area and I could see that Luna was pouring out two mugs of tea.
“How about those shots?” I asked.
“Coming up,” said Bear, and he poured an inch of whisky in two juice glasses. We touched our cups and drank quickly.
“Work!” he said loudly.
“Fatherhood!” I said loudly.
We went out into the cold where three old pickup trucks were already pulling off the country road and toward the church.
Bear and I always worked together, each year, a team of two, taking turns with the chainsaws, tying off broken limbs with cable or chain, moving around the forest dissecting fallen trees and organizing the logs in pyramids for other teams to take away, back to the splitters. It was a good day to be in the forest, the sun clear and warm despite the date, and we had worked hard and silently until Bear wiped his brow and sat heavily on a wide ancient stump of a long-gone oak.
“I didn’t want to be a father,” he said, “and the truth is, I’m scared shitless.”
I shut the chainsaw off and for a moment we were engulfed in its blue smoke, the memory of its noise still in our ears. I sat down beside him and there was something inside me that hummed of satisfaction, because in all things Bear’s life had been his own without the briefest of consolations. He lived beautifully and effortlessly, and he was one of those people in life that is astonishing and that people shake their head at in wonder and envy. He was the kind of man who could get any woman at a party. Could sit down at a piano and play so truthfully that his audience might quietly weep in appreciation. Once I had seen him hit a baseball four hundred feet—the coach had stopped practice so that the team could measure his blast, all of us pacing off the distance past the outfield wall, the numbers adding up in our heads almost unfathomable. Later he would quit baseball because he claimed it bored him.
“I think everyone must be,” I said to him banally.
“I don’t want it,” he said. “Not at all. She puts my hand on her stomach and I feel it move but it just scares me. Like something is coming to get me.”
I stayed quiet.
“She said that it had to happen. That I hadn’t married her right. That she’d had to sacrifice her life to live the way we do and she said she deserved the baby and I owed it to her. She was talking about leaving,” he said. “She convinced me that I would like it, but I know I won’t because I don’t want to. Maybe you could talk to her?”
I looked at him. “What am I supposed to say?” I asked.
“Never mind,” he said, shaking his head. “Never mind. Christ, you’re right. I don’t know at all.”
We stayed that way awhile until the cold was in our wet garments, and then we stood slowly and went back to work, this time with less vigor. The sun looked silver in the sky and overhead there was the sound of a crow flying through cold air, its wings like paper. Here and there throughout the forest I could see other pairs of workers working, their chainsaws buzzing, yellow dust going into the snow and air from the guts of the downed trees.
“I’ve never been trapped before,” Bear said. “Not by anything. The other night her belly was against me in bed and I could feel the baby kicking my back. You imagine that?”
“You’ll be a great father,” I lied.
He looked up at me then, squinting against the reflected sunlight on the snow, and he said, “I got a surprise for you.” He began moving off deeper into the forest and I followed him, as I always did, the chainsaw heavy in my hand, a burden, and I watched as he moved quickly, himself a forest creature. We went past burr oaks, and maples and aspens, through cedars and white pines to the lip of the bluff where the world fell off into space and below us was the blue line of a river whose name I did not know.
The tree was gargantuan, a behemoth cottonwood and its roots seemed to hold the cliff in order, the subterranean fingers of the giant tree holding boulders like marbles. Bear began to climb the tree, leaving his chainsaw on the yellow rock below. I put my fingers in the gnarly bark of the tree and began working my way up, racing him, the two of us winding separate paths up the tree, following different networks of branches into the heights where a few dead leaves yet hung like strange laundry. We laughed out loud as we climbed, panting. The world beneath us white and forever unfurled. My lungs felt cold and huge.
In his roost, Bear said to me, “Nancy is beautiful,” though he was looking at the river below.
You have everything, I thought, nodding. “Everything will be OK,” I said to him, our comments like two planes passing in the heavens miles apart.
“I don’t think I’m meant to be with just one person,” he said to me and in his voice was a kind of mock sadness.
“Don’t you love her?” I asked. I had loved her many years ago. Love was my easiest emotion.
“Yes,” he said slowly, then, “I don’t know. I don’t think I can share people. I want them to be all mine.”
The sun was falling already, and the wind in the treetop made us shudder. I waited for Bear to begin his descent and then I did too. The climb down was terrifying and I hung close to the cottonwood, unable to see my path up the tree. I could see Bear on the ground, the chainsaw in his hand, already walking away.
“Bear!” I yelled.
He turned to me, “Get down already! I’m thirsty for beer!”
My face was hot, maybe sunburned despite the cold. I stammered, “I can’t!”
He set the chainsaw down and came back to the trunk of the tree and said, “Move your left foot down into that little hollow there.”
“I can’t do it, Ben,” I said, using the name he had abandoned long ago.
“Christ, man,” he said, “I can’t come up there and pull you down! I have to get back there and help Luna with dinner. You’ll figure it out.” He picked up the chainsaw and moved off into the forest, leaving me in the air, pressed against the sway of the tree which danced with the rising wind swirling up from the river bottom. The sun hovered over the western horizon and the bark of the tree was losing its warmth. I was thirty feet above the ground.
Just before night fell completely, in the last of the gloaming, I scurried down the tree, sometimes even falling between branches, afraid of losing all my light and being stranded over the cliff. I could hear the chainsaw party kick into gear as I moved through the forest, angry, cuts burning on my face and hands from the climb down. The chainsaw felt oddly light in my hands as I went toward the light of the bonfire and the sound of thick laughter.
They were blowing gasoline out of their mouths into the fire and the flames were booming up into the soft new night, sparks breaking up into the black and blue evening. A bearded man was sawing against his fiddle and the music sounded like something carnal and antique. In the shadows I saw the pit where the pig had been roasted, its carcass now a mess of flesh laid bare and people were picking at the rags of meat with their fingers, their faces greasy with work and hunger. I went to the barrel of beer which sat heavily in a snow bank like a fat man and I drank from the spigot until I felt warm with something more than anger. I could not see Nancy and I wanted very badly to leave the chainsaw party but I could see that my truck was parked in by other vehicles and I could not leave without her. I began searching the shadowy faces of the party and in the air hung tendrils of marijuana smoke and I could see that two women were laying in the snow, forming the imprints of angels with their outstretched legs and arms.
It was Luna that found me, wandering the woods, where I interrupted two lovers as they moved against the night: a woman bent over a pile of firewood and her lover entering her from behind, their asses glowing in the darkness. I had come at them quietly, at first not comprehending, then afraid that it might be Nancy, and at last I had run toward them and the man had turned and said, “You want a turn?” his dick in his hand like a skeleton key.
I had turned away and, drunk, begun wandering away from the lights, mumbling Nancy’s name when Luna grabbed my shoulder with one hand, a lantern glowing in the other and swinging, its golden light tremulous and illuminating the detritus of the forest floor.
“NOAH!” she shouted. “NOAH!”
I fell down in the snow and sat that way, looking up at her, this woman I had known when we were two fumbling teenagers, kids, necking on a mattress that I set in the bed of my pickup truck as a drive-in movie lit the summer nights and I remembered then the fireflies I sometimes found in her red hair and the paleness of her white skin. “Shelly,” I said. “Shelly, I feel drunk.”
She knelt in the snow and touched my face with her gloved hands.
“Your face is a mess,” she said, laughing softly, her fingers under my chin. Her eyes were wet.
“I’m so happy for you,” I said. “You will make a great mother.” I was not lying, and the thought of her holding a baby made me want to weep with happiness and longing and then I did begin to cry, the tears on my face hot and painful on the new scabs that covered my cheeks and nose.
Shelly breathed in deeply and said, “I want to leave this place, will you take me?”
“Why?” I asked.
She erased the wetness of my face with her fingers.
“Let’s go,” she said, and she lifted me up.
“I have to get Nancy,” I insisted.
“Don’t do it,” Shelly said, “don’t go looking.”
“But I have to,” I said sadly. “She came with me. I love Nancy.”
The bonfire was out of control then, as we skirted the edge of the party, and there was a man juggling three chainsaws in the air and all of the machines were on and grumbling and when the chainsaws fell into his hands he revved their small engines and the teeth of the saws went round and round shining in the grimy light. The violinist was sweating against the fire and I could see that he wore no shirt and the bow he used to make the music that went out into the night moved furiously against the cold strings of that instrument. There was nothing left of the pig when we walked by the pit, just the face of a misbegotten animal and four still hooves.
Inside the church candles were swaying in the windowsills and there were many bodies laid out over the floor. A man was walking between the figures and in his hands were doses of acid. The supplicants extended their tongues as if in acceptance of a communion wafer. They were listening to an old vinyl album on an old hand-cranked Victrola and there was a man in the darkness, gearing the ancient machine up.
I found them in the loft. Nancy was sitting on his face, on a bed, and his beard billowed out around her crotch and her legs and that was the last time I ever saw her, her hands holding her head and hair and his fingers in her mouth, her breasts heavy and beautiful inside the church, where the light of the bonfire careened in through the tall windows and through the stained glass and made the building a kind of terrible hallucination that I will never forget.
Shelly was outside the church and she had a bag in her hand.
“I could burn the place down,” she said.
“Let’s go,” I said, and I took her bag and threw it into the bed of my truck.
“You’re parked in,” Shelly said.
“Wait beside the road,” I said.
She went off into the darkness and I climbed into the truck and revved the engines. I put the transmission into reverse and stepped down hard on the gas pedal. The big black pipes of the truck went back into the car behind me and pushed it several feet into the next vehicle. There was the sound of breaking glass and broken metal. I dropped the truck into drive and slammed the vehicle forward. I drove the vehicle in front of me ten feet ahead and sent it toward the bonfire where the music stopped and all three flying chainsaws fell into the snow. I put the truck in reverse once more, demolishing another vehicle before I pulled onto the road. Shelly moved into the truck gingerly, holding her belly.
We drove by the church once during a winter solstice. Shelly had said, “I’d like to have a look, one more time.” So the three of us piled into the pickup truck and drove that way, southwest toward the great river. But when we passed the church it looked abandoned, a great plank nailed to the two front doors. The white paint of the steeple and chapel were chipping badly and a few of the windowpanes had been broken and were spider-webbed with cracks.
“I wonder where they are,” I said.
“Who?” asked Samuel.
“Two old friends,” said Shelly, though there was no softness to her voice.
“Your mom used to live there,” I said.
Samuel quickly turned his head and stared at Shelly. “That place?” he asked.
“You were almost born there,” she said.
“I’m glad I wasn’t,” he said, fidgeting on the seat. “It looks haunted.”
Then we drove off, and many years later I would learn that the volunteer fire department had burned it down to the blackened earth. I had run into one of the volunteer firemen at a wedding and he had described the church in detail to me saying, “After we lit the fire, it went up quickly, and then you wouldn’t believe it, from underneath the place hundreds of snakes came out and half the department ran off. I never seen anything like it.”
“They used to have parties at that church,” I said, “chainsaw parties. That’s how I met my wife.”