Broad Hatchet
Type
Short Story Prize

Winner VU Short Story Prize: Broad Hatchet

She hunched under the vestibule of her tent in the hot, grey dawn. There was no breeze. Gums listless, flies already buzzing, the wet forest beckoning across the clearing. She pulled a water bladder from her pack and unscrewed the nozzle, pouring a generous amount into her canteen. Some spilled over her hands and it was a relief even at this early hour. She had not expected it to be so muggy this far south. She took a draught and wiped some water over her face, leaf rot steaming at her feet.

 

The mountain ash grew right to the edge of the clearing, straight as steel columns, tall and silhouetted against the glare. Others lay lengthways in the scrub, moss creeping off them plush as mouldy lime zest, pocked with fungus as soft and bright as pollen. During the night she thought she had heard scratching sounds and peeked from the tent opening in the hope of seeing a ringtail or even a sugar glider crawl from a hollow but all she could see was darkness, the moon wreathed in clouds and the wind between the black boughs the only sound that made her certain that the bush was there at all.

But here in the morning heat the wooded hills reared up about her.

After breakfast she fetched her saw and attended the trunks that had fallen of their own accord, cutting the branches that were small enough to be carried or dragged to the base of the small clearing. She stacked them one atop the other, the mound of branches growing like a shipment, or a payment, or a promise. ‘All good stories start with a tree,’ the local mayor had said recently, one gloved hand atop a sawlog, the other by a thick ribbon, soon to be sliced, townsfolk clapping and journalists milling about asking questions about jobs and old growth. She’d been there with her camera to cover the scandal taking place near her hometown – a chip mill being opened when a lumber mill had been pledged. All good stories. The sawlog silvering and soon cobwebbed, a poor and false symbol for the woodchip piles that bloomed behind it to be shipped overseas and pulped for novelisation.

She’d brought a maul and wedges to camp to split slabs, would forget the mayor, and use her own chips for kindling.

After a day and a half of sawing branches she wiped her brow and stared at the sky, slapping at the flies that hovered about her armpits and ears. Eventually she slumped in the shade and gulped a whole canteen of water and a tin of creamed corn. When her stomach had settled she pegged a tarpaulin over the newly gathered firewood, then considered the patch of earth before her. It was strewn with bidgee-widgee and already her socks were furred with buzzies that scratched at her ankles and shins. She ripped up as much as she could before using her toilet trowel to loosen the most deeply rooted tussocks. She shook the dirt off the roots and piled it all to the side of the clearing to dry. It was a strange plant, even the strongest bunches still scrawny and dead looking. She also hacked at a stand of purple-headed sedge that made her sneeze and tried to uproot it with the spade, but it was early evening before the space was reduced to dirt.

In the twilight she wandered down the embankment to the creek, checked for snakes and peeled off her singlet and rinsed it. She sat with ankles dangling in the water, thighs and back warm with the ache of labour. She felt good. Thrum of insects and fronds tickling her feet. As she lay back to gaze at the pinkening clouds she pictured the coming days and weeks, the cutting and squaring and stacking of wooden slabs. Deep breath and creek sounds, the soft sloshing and ribbit of frogs. And relief, not to see or to speak to another living soul. To hew a house from the land. When she finally rose she waded into the creek and pulled a yellow stick from a flotilla of leafy debris, which she guessed had travelled downstream since there were no pines on this stretch of water. She picked it up, about two feet long, and pressed it to her nostrils. Sharp rotless scent. In the last light she wrung out her singlet and walked back to her camp, jammed the Huon into the dirt by her tent so it stood upright and hung her shirt under the vestibule to dry.

A light drizzle descended and she made a small fire into which she tossed four large potatoes wrapped in foil and over which she slung her billy. She poked the potatoes about in the hot coals until the foil was blackened and crisp and rolled them out with a stick and tried to unwrap one but swore as the hot foil burned her thumb and forefinger. She tried again a minute later. They were cooler. She tipped the potatoes into her bowl, scattered them with salt and pepper and then ate them up. They didn’t taste very good. She wished she had some butter or had made time to catch some fish.

After eating the potatoes she reached into her pack until she felt the rim of a can. She pulled it and turned it gently in her hands, smiled at the purple foil wrapper upon which some storekeeper had written the expiration date by hand. With great care she removed the tin lid using her pocketknife and placed the opened tin with its special contents into the billy and let it bubble away. The label instructed half an hour but she’d left her watch in the ute and so she waited and waited till she felt the time had passed and then unhooked her billy with the stick. Then she prised the can from the billy with a smaller stick and tipped the pudding into an enamel bowl and blew on it till it cooled. The pudding oozed black and glistening around her bowl. It tasted good and she scraped the bowl with her spoon and licked the bowl clean after that.

 

The next morning she trod carefully through the scrub in the rain, the wet undergrowth a vibrant green, the mountain ash russet and slippery. Her eyes toward the dirty sink of a sky. She stared up the length of tree after tree and after some time she stopped at the base of a towering stringy gum to stalk its circumference and to check its girth and lines. No visible knots, no branches for at least ten metres. Silvered strips hanging from its lower lengths like old paint. It would need to fall to the south-east to land amidst the treeferns and blackberries rather than against other trees, so she positioned herself, hefted her axe, and let swing. With a great thwock the first notch was cut, sheafs of bark flying. The inner trunk was perfect. A butter sponge finger. Smooth as creamed honey. She swung and chopped until the telltale creak split the air like the opening of some ancient cellar door and she backed away and let the tree fall with an astonishing crash. Avian shriek and flurry of wings. Then the steady drip of rain and an irregular stillness. Soon the forest sounds returned as if nothing had passed at all.

She notched a halfway mark in the trunk and then quartermarks and then ran to retrieve her saw and cant hook from the camp. She began to slice through the first notch. Sawdust gathered around her boots and caught in her fingernails, gritty pyramids forming where the trunk met the ground litter. She lost track of time as her shoulders spliced back and forth. Sawdust in her eyebrows. Arms slick with sweat and rain. She pulled off her singlet and flung it into the grass behind her. A monotone afternoon as the forest faded and she squinted against the dust and rain and pulled her saw against the hardwood, the rough grainy rush of each stroke like shearing through fresh bone. As the rain softened and the westering sun glowed red through the clouds she stood up, faint with hunger. She left her cant hook against the freshly quartered trunk and walked slowly back to camp with her saw and axe on wobbly legs.

The firewood supply was too damp to use, so she lit a fire with firelighters in the easing rain and cooked some risotto from a packet. She sat in the mud and started to eat it straight from the billy but burned the roof of her mouth and so mixed in a can of tomatoes. Then she rinsed out the billy and put some tea on to brew and ate a packet of dry instant noodles and two oranges. Once she’d poured a mug of tea she retrieved her maul and wedges from under the vestibule and laid them out beside one another on the ground. She sat down before her tools and rested the hot mug on her sore thighs, occasionally leaning forward to tap or lay a hand on haft or head. The aged steel edges lit up in the firelight. She looked up the ridge to where her ute was parked on the old track then back to her splitters. She smiled into the night as the sparks flew over her tools and into that endless dark.

 

With an incredible yell she levered the first quarter log into place just after sunup. Once she’d caught her breath she jammed the log firmly between some chocks she fashioned from her firewood and started at the wood’s surface with her hatchet. The bark peeled off with a soft splintery sound, her blade catching under its stringy surface and lifting it like dead skin. The naked trunk as blonde as straw and a smell so good it nearly overcame her. She suddenly jumped atop the log and began to square it off in a type of frenzy, no lines measured and the offcuts catapulting dangerously about the clearing. A breathless grinning miscreant in a sea of cream coloured woodchips, hatchet as bright and sharp as a brand new combine cutter. She hacked the log down into a neat prism and she stood back for some time to admire her own handiwork. She split her first slab that afternoon and celebrated by drinking beer which she fetched from her truck and cooled in the creek.

Up in the Hilux she had food for six weeks, at least. Plenty of non-perishables sprawled throughout the truck’s interior. A tray of potatoes that smelled like the earth under the seat, and bags upon bags of fresh oranges, already threatening to grow spongy and sour. A few wrinkly apples left over from a story she’d done during picking season. The local paper, too poor to afford freelancers, had paid her in fruit. After it all ran out she hoped to have a vegetable garden going, a regular fishing spot, lazy days by her hut in the sun and later, during winter, harder days in ice and possibly snow. The back tray was full with water containers, beer and camping equipment, blankets and industrial water proofing fabric for when it really got wet, her winter sleeping bag, even an ice pick, just in case. Packets of seeds, her fishing gear, bags of extra soil. On the drive down, along the old and overgrown four-wheel drive track, she had to keep checking that the cover hadn’t popped off and left her belongings strewn through the bush. She had made it intact, though, with all her possessions, ready.

 

For weeks she split slabs until the entire felled ash had been cut and stacked. The timber had begun to grey in the weather and the rain had stopped. Already the leaves about her campsite were bleached as bone and powdered beneath her boots. The creek became a trickle so she dragged two containers of water from her truck down to camp, enough to survive on but not enough to grow beans or carrots or tomatoes, like she had planned. She had waking dreams of coffee pouring down her throat and of warm water to rinse her stiff hair but she knew it was too hot to build a fire, the clearing as crispy as a tinderbox. She ate cans of cold beans and sausage and tubs of fruit in syrup and tried making cold tea by soaking the dried buzzies in water but threw it back up when the burrs caught in her throat. Her thoughts wandered from coffee to timber to sleep, the heat and her sunburn worsening each day. Her arms and back numb with the lifting, the rest afterwards deep and profound. She had long since abandoned her swag and slept swaddled on a tarp beneath the stars, as heavy as the logs she herself had cut, and awoke amidst the trees and spiders and kookaburras each morning to wonder if isolation could be more pure than this that she had made.

 

By the sixth week she had assembled her slabs vertically into two walls of a hut that would lie about four metres by four when finished and by the seventh week she had begun to consider the roof. She would need to chop younger, suppler trees and she deliberated, exhausted, her mallet in one hand and canteen in the other. Her food stores had lasted, but she was desperate for something green, a handful of silverbeet or spinach.

When she had first told people of her plan to move to the bush, no-one had believed she could do it. But she had misunderstood their doubt, assuming it concerned her workmanship, her ability to build, her knowledge of the trees and her tools. Now she was beginning to see. Over her time in the clearing, something had crept in slowly, imperceptibly, like a file slotted between two rocks, a leaky tap that floods the sink by nightfall. Something she could not bear for others to recognise. She began speaking to the trees. Other days she gestured at them, words themselves too much for her to manage. When she found herself in the midst of these arboreal exchanges she glanced about in alarm as though the wilderness itself could somehow bear witness to her lapses in self-awareness. Below the moon each night in her sleeping bag she began listing other hut dwellers like a mantra to ward off the sense of impending dread. People who had wanted what she wanted, to live on the land, to work, and who had persevered and done it. Steele Rudd, Rachel Henning, even Douglas Mawson, though his was no slab hut. Had they too admitted loneliness? She called to mind their old missives, but all she could remember were details about earthen dung floors and mud-caulked walls. The drover’s wife in that Henry Lawson story felt her seclusion but was too busy killing snakes and raising children to become weighed down by it. Thoreau rejoiced in his solitude but he also lived only a mile out of town, and was a man and an American, taught from the outset that he embodied self-sufficiency. She ground her fists into her face and groaned.

She arose each morning muttering the names of the dead or the fictional and poking about the cold ashes where her fire once lay. In moments of clarity she thought: it was not supposed to feel like this.

One morning she walked into the bush in a daze and instead of continuing her search for suitable roof saplings she tramped up the ridge to her truck and pulled a flat-packed chair still in its packaging from the tray. Without blinking she dragged the parcel back to camp like a pull-toy, swooshing through the brush and drawing smaller sticks and loose grass in its wake. With her short knife she slashed open the plastic and cardboard and spent a few minutes putting the chair together, a solitary chair which she placed in the centre of her room where it sat like a trophy for some arcane and perhaps impossible task. She looked at the chair and at the walls which were not yet even half complete, and then again at the chair, the small chair with its bendy legs, and seat which was really too small for her to sit on, or for anyone to sit on, and she wanted to laugh at it but sadness soaked through her like ink.

She fell crosslegged to the ground, the mountain ash towering before her solemn and still. Alone in her makeshift and desolate lumberyard. Dustblown and mozzie bitten. She rolled her gaze across the ferns and the vines and the ash, a jagged gap in the forest where her tree and its surrounding understory used to stand. A flash of red caught her eye and for a moment she thought it was her truck rolled down the ridge, a moment in which hope fluttered like sedge in the wind. A smashed ute, a call for help, doctors, her family – maybe even a helicopter. She looked down properly and saw the fattened leech clinging to her knee, bright red blood coursing down her shin. She lowered her face and rested it beside the swollen bug, wondering how long it had been there, and shut her eyes. Overcome with shame at her own need. Wattle tails hovered in the canopy and a kookaburra called. The bush as wide and endless as the nighttime dark.
Artwork by Jacob Rolfe.

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Julia Tulloh Harper is a writer in Melbourne. She has been a pop culture columnist for Kill Your Darlings, and is currently working on a PhD about gender in Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. She tweets at @jtul and blogs at juliatulloh.com.

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