Women Working in Trees
by Sarah Faulkner
I'm not bleeding anymore. It's been this way for almost three months now. I haven't told anyone, not even Jimmy. After all, who was I to do that? His wife, maybe, but I didn't make the rules for that sort of thing. I wasn't showing much; it looked like I put on a little bit of a beer belly, but that kind of thing could happen in our line of work anyway.Today, like every first Tuesday of the month before, was our union meeting for the month. I'd been up at five am, grabbing some early morning landscaping work, though truth be told, I was just getting sick in the bushes every half-hour. I'd been thinking about telling the other girls about it today. I hoped it wouldn't take but a minute for these women to see I never did want this child, never did want more than what I already had, didn't want nothing but to do the work we loved. What I did want was them anyways. I scanned their faces just like I do every time we convene. We were all kinds, our group, young and old, black and white and in between, but we are always proud. Jimmy said once to me, what are you, a lesbian? You wanna eat that?
My closest friend, D.B., sat to the side of me, taking long, gritty mouthfuls of coffee from her thermos. She was a giant of a woman: thick and unyielding. She wore her tightly-curled hair in a low bun, hidden underneath a baseball cap. Her hair was the one feature that betrayed her masculinity. She never spoke about her personal life, but rumor had it she had a man as big as Paul Bunyan. She leaned back in her chair and cracked her leathery knuckles. "Today, I want to talk about that site out by old Highway 78. The county has stiffed me twice already. I used my own equipment, too. I'm not running no pro-bono here."
"They should know better than to mess with the king," I said. D.B. smiled into her thermos.
Our meeting place was a small room at the local community college with walls the color of faded piss. Zephyr, our official leader, stood and made her way to the teacher's podium, her dull gray hair in two long braids swaying behind her. She was one of the founders of the union and the only one left in the union today of that rank. At sixty-five, she never missed a meeting, and although she didn't climb anymore, she got by with hauling jobs. At the podium, she shuffled her copies of our contracts, negotiations, and old pay stubs. She started the way she always starts—with announcements and unresolved issues from the last meeting. Then, it's onto industry reports, forest and plant conditions, employer outreach and networking, and finally, grievances and general announcements.
"Attention, this meeting is now in order. Let's begin with some noteworthy accomplishments. Congratulations to Madge for setting a record among us for most work orders completed in the month of September."
No one cared about Madge. I wasn't even sure who she is. She was newbie, which meant she was in some kind of quarantine. She's got to be tough, act tough, vie for a position within our group. We all had to do it. From the looks of it, she was well on her way to becoming a strong addition. It was better she didn't stand up and say thank you anyhow.
I was in my sixth year in the business of trees. My mother called me a lumberjill. I didn't much care for the term, didn't really care for lumberjack, either. I was twenty-eight and worked outdoors, up high in the sky, six days out of the week.
I said over at D.B. "What are you looking at?"
"Industry reports." She rolled them up and stuck them under her ass. "Ain't no news but bad news. State budget going to shut down work on national parks. Economy's got private clients pinching their wallets. The usual."
"We're all going to fry," I said.
D.B. laughed. "Yup. And keep getting older."
We used the phrase 'female lumberjack union' loosely. Some of us worked as loggers, some as trimmers and landscaping, some as haulers and shippers, and some as markers. Hell, we'd string Christmas lights for rich folk up county if asked. Too many times we'd been passed off, overlooked, cheated out of, and laughed at by vendors. The union was born in retaliation.
"It's too stuffy in here," I said, and D.B. nodded. The baby, this baby that sat unnoticed underneath my gut like a tumor, made me hot all the time. I, like all the other women there, came dressed in our unofficial uniform of long-sleeved button downs and jeans, but my skin felt swollen underneath; the seams cut into my skin. The smell of locked-in teenage sweat and overflowing trashcans sat on my lungs. "I could use a drink," I said, swallowing the stench.
Truth was, I was itching to be outside. D.B. knew the feeling. She's got the disease, too. We all did.
He was coming home from the Motel Six, and I couldn't deny it anymore because the hotel got our number off the credit card history, called our home, and let me know he left his cell phone in the room by accident. He showed up fifteen minutes later, a slow, honey-glazed look in his eyes that men get when they've just had a good screw. He settled onto the couch for a quick, nap, delicious-looking and serene. His jet black hair lay in sweaty pieces on his forehead. His complexion, a color my mother always called tangerine, something unhealthy with his pancreas or liver, she said, radiated. That heavy-jowled face I had become so used to seeing bloated with apathy and piss water beer was peacefully euphoric. His lips stood out like a dark bruise above his chin, swollen from kissing. He was sleeping there, so relaxed in those worn-in flannel shirts and Dickies, smelling like another woman's pussy, making this low, animal-like snore in his throat, I almost didn't care that he stepped out on me. I wanted to stand and stare at him like that forever. He was comfortable in the room, and the room and the house and the world outside seemed to just as comfortable to have him.
"I'm no use to you anymore," I said aloud. And it was the truth. I couldn't make him look that way anymore than God could have come and swept me out of there with his long, breezy hands.
Being a wife was the one thing that made me feel like a woman. Out there in our uniforms, our thighs and arms like heavy cement, our hair hidden beneath caps and breasts flattened under two or three sports bras, swinging axes and wielding clippers and ladders, we looked like men. And we felt like men. But after work, I'd say so long to the girls, who slugged off to Brucesters for Guinness tap and free pretzels, and drive home, pulling off my sweaty cap before joining my husband in our tiny kitchen for cube steaks and gravy. I called him my husband until the day I left him, and my mom always said, "Call him his name, silly girl. Call him his name."
And now there was no Jimmy except for what half of him was growing in me right then. I put my hands around my middle. The vomit in my belly was held down with sheer will. The fact remained: there were no pregnant lumberjacks out there on the line.
"I'm thinking we may be forced to picket this issue in the future, but we'll keep an eye on it for now," Zephyr said, finishing up unresolved issues at the podium. She began reports with the same subdued enthusiasm she displayed every month. Behind me, two women started in about the trees. I turned my head slightly to hear them better, knowing full well we weren't supposed to go on about this.
"It's the spot out by L.P National Park. The trees are so quiet over there. It's like, I know you're not going to believe this, but it's like they're waiting for me to direct them."
"Ah, come on now," the other said.
"No, listen. I was up on the picker, trying to get this sample of the moss off the top leaves for some lab company. Serious bucks. I was thinking how I needed to get off the picker and onto the tree because I couldn't reach the moss. Well, just then everything got real quiet and the trees stopped moving. I said, 'Imma coming on now.' And, I swear to God, the tree moved a branch for me, no wind, no wind at all.
"Crazy's got you. It had to be the wind."
Just in whispers, they went on. "My witness, no."
It's this joke that we're becoming the trees. Work long enough like we do and your legs resemble the strong trunks of trees. Your arms will move in the brittle way branches do. It seems we grow taller everyday; our voices deepen with the height. Our faces become more weathered with sun. There have been rumors of women walking on tree tops, jumping from tree to tree, some even flying. Nameless women contest to holding conversations with the trees. But I've also heard, no, it's the trees that're becoming like us. Some of the trees weep as they are cut; some fight branch to body in attempt for survival. One woman last year claims she was pushed off the tree by some unknown force and fell two stories down. One also claimed she was caught by a tree's extended branches as she fell by accident off her picker. It is believed by most of the women, including myself, that the trees mean us no harm, even when they push us off or prick us. You see, they have to fight back; it is the law of survival. We know the trees are benevolent.
Last month, I was out on a job, a "haul away" we like to call them. Some construction team came in up at the North Valley and cleared out an area of four football fields. Work stations with choppers, big rigs, trucks and giant removal bins were set up every hundred yards. Even so, it took us three days to clear out the area. Most of us were from the union, but I saw some independents walking around, tight-lipped and quick footed. The field resembled a battlefield: machines cut down logs into more transferable pieces, tiny matchsticks of splintered wood lay across the soil, and slow-moving, amber sap seeped in between any open space. The air tasted of metal.
I was out near the eastern end of the valley, double-checking our work. I saw that at the edge of the boundary, the ground sloped steeply down into a forest. Something strange was happening. An invading moss species had taken control of the area; the bright green plant weighed down the branches and consumed the roots and bark of the trees. Some of the trees were slumped over in defeat. In places, I couldn't even see the ground, just the dust of cocoa-colored soil strewn across the rising moss.
I made my way down the slope. As I stepped into the moss, my boots sank like a submerged sponge. I walked with knee-high steps until I reached a tree that was nearly three-quarters covered with the moss. Its trunk curved over like a hunchback, the branches touching the ground with its dewy tips. Touching the trunk, I found the base spongy. I scraped a little circle of the moss away with my nails, and it came off easily. A tiny circle of brown stared back at me. I moved my hands into the moss and down it fell in clumps. I began to claw my way down the base. Gobs of the doughy moss came off in my hands. Faster and faster I went, each moment more frenzied than before, as I slid my hands up and down viciously. When finally the bark was uncovered, moss lay like patches of cheese curd at my feet. The trunk, exposed like a moldy peach, was a light shade of grayish-brown; its once brittle and unyielding bark was now soft and slimy. The tree began to emit some kind of sickly sweet toxins previously pent up. Splinters of wood and green gore fell of my hands. And just like the two women had mentioned, everything became eerily silent and calm. There was an expectancy in the air as if lightening were about to strike. Just as I was about to turn away, the tree, with great effort, seemed to bow before my feet.
Now, it is true that this sounds crazy. But there are so many untruths about us, what is one more?
We have hair on our chests.
We take hormones to make our clits swell like tiny penises.
We are man-haters and pussy-eaters.
We are so misguided, so needy, we'll drop our pants for any male who looks in our direction.
We are socially crippled.
We say the things you wish you could.
We are desirable.
We are undesirable.
I'm not even sure I believe this is our history. Our lives, like the trees, have taken on some kind of fantastic shine.
Jimmy met me when I was a senior in high school. I was part of the women's lumberjack club. The club did what most people think lumberjacks do: compete. Truck pulling, bow sawing, the one or two women crosscut, axe throw, log rolling, tree climbing, and speed chopping. Girls in our club met for weekly practice and traveled across the region to participate in competitions and festivals. Jimmy was one of the truck drivers pulling in logs for our competition at All-State. He was standing next to the beer tent, slowly sipping a frothy, dark beer, watching me with eyes he probably shouldn't have been. I was seventeen to his thirty.
The women here at the union frown upon lumberjack competition. To them, it insults the work we do as professional tree-workers. Competitions are for stupid meat-heads, they say. When I told them I had done it in high school, they said, "Working in this industry isn't about running over spinning logs." Have respect for yourself, they say. Even my mother says it.
So I don't do it anymore, but I did let Jimmy take me in the back of his big-rig on a blanket made of coarse wool on that first day we met. He raised the back door just enough to let in a shard of light and the smell of barbecued meat and salty popcorn. Outside the door, I could hear the footsteps of the children running around and playing. I stood on the blanket in the almost-dark until Jimmy came behind me and turned me so that we were facing. He took off his clothes and then mine. His body was all musk and peppery sweat. I wasn't supposed to be in that truck. I wasn't supposed to let a man take away my respect, my integrity. I wasn't supposed to let him laugh at work, insult my ambitions, tear down my self-respect by possessing my body. Yet there I was, spread-eagled, his hands clutching my buttocks, lifting me up and down. And I'm not even going to say I didn't like it. I loved it. I never wanted him to stop.
"On to grievances, then open floor."
Multiple hands shot up from the audience. Zephyr ordered them numerically, and the first woman took the podium to talk about the financial inequality between union folk and independent freelancers on the job.
The next woman complained about healthcare benefits. The next, about a draft of the new hourly wage contract. D. B. said to me in a whisper, "It's our fault, isn't it? Should never have made the one thing we love our life's work."
It is true; it is our fault. It also might be true that I don't know shit about love. I thought I loved Jimmy, but I didn't love his baby. And I let him go, so maybe I never loved him at all.
Jimmy didn't need a reason to stick around anyway, I reasoned. Circumstances being what they were, he was just waiting around for my blessing to go anyhow. I guess that means something, but whatever it was, it wasn't enough. He took his boat paddle, his hunting rifle, a copy of the Bible, and his one piece of alligator-skinned luggage with his birth certificate sewn into the liner and left. I called to him at the door, "Jimmy."
He said, "Nothing changed wouldn't have mattered any."
So that's that.
We'd come a long way from those first years as man and wife. The more involved I became with the women and the union, the less Jimmy and I got on. One night, several months ago, I stood naked in the doorway of our bedroom, watching Jimmy watch the illegal cable on our television set. "I think I'll go out for some beer."
"That'd be good. Probably want to put some clothes on though."
I stood, motionless.
He said, "Pack of smokes, too? Thanks."
The last word thanks filled the room. "Today I took down a thirty-footer by myself," I said.
He looked at me. "That's precious."
He went back to his television, resting his head on the cushion behind him.
It wasn't nearly the beginning of the end. We'd been on that road for awhile. Cube steaks and sock feet massages were losing their magic. I couldn't remember all the ways my mother told me how to keep a man. In the end, if I hadn't made it ok for him to leave, he'd still have been there in the living room sleeping on the couch, in the kitchen eating, in the bathroom shitting. I kept him, but he didn't keep me.
It was only a matter of time before something like that makes a man stray.
I was the only one to stand up during open floor for announcements. "Does everyone remember that time D.B and I broke down on the side of the road and the ladies coming from the Home and Decorating Convention picked us up?"
The women stare at me, some nodding, some smiling. I was well-liked, after all.
"And there was this one lady, the driver, and she had this pink sweater on. She talked in that real sweet high-pitched kind of voice."
Someone in the back crushed a paper coffee cup in her hands.
"I don't know what we would have done if they hadn't stopped by that night. We'd been camping out in the rain, right? It was a cold night to, if I remember. Unseasonably so.
All of the women looked at me, now, confused.
"And I'm such an idiot I left my damned jacket in their car. Well, that woman tracked me down. She—Margo—showed up at our house, but I wasn't home. Jimmy was. She had dry-cleaned and pressed the thing for me."
"Some time today."
I wasn't sure who said it. I was staring at a spot on the floor, in between the aisles of women, in the middle of the classroom. I kept thinking if she were here, she'd take a sponge, get on her knees, and scrub scrub scrub away that spot in her perfect pink sweater before handing him a fresh beer and a pair of warm socks.
"And, anyways, I'm pregnant."
My announcement signaled the end of the meeting. Everyone was silent as I made my way back to my desk.
D.B. stood. "Anyone up for Brucesters?
"You owe me three drinks for beatin' your ass at pool," someone called out.
"Like hell I do."
Soon, the women crowded around D.B, pulling on jackets and fixing their caps.
"There's no way you can do the haul faster than me."
"I guess we'll see when the monthly totals are in who earned more, won't we?"
"Jealous I can lift more?"
"Looks like I had to hand you your ass on that one."
"This girl was all over my dick. She had to have this, you know?
No one looked me before heading out. Not even D.B.
I drove across rural highway 4 with the windows down. The cold air deadened my face. I pulled off near a thick patch of forest that rose up from the road like soldiers in salute. My legs were heavy to lift, but I got out of the car and made my way into the forest. The trees, united in their army front, made it hard for me. They stood, stiff branches like guns armed and raised, barely discernible against the brackish night sky, slowing me.
Is it so terrible I never wanted you?
I tried to picture the baby. In my mind, she was a girl. She's asking me to tell her stories. She wants to hear about the women who work in trees. But it's like a sickness, the more stories you tell, the further you get from the truth. Tell them long enough and you believe the myths yourself.
Nausea overtook me. The mist was getting thicker, heavier, filling my lungs with its heavy weight. I stopped to lean against the cracking flesh of a giant oak. The deeply-etched cracks like uncoordinated tributaries pressed into my skin. My throat felt engorged. I tried to breathe deeper, but each breathe was more difficult than the next. I pulled the skin away from my neck, hoping to help open the passageway.
I sat onto my knees and curled over to relieve the pressure in my lungs. I thought maybe that giant oak might reach down and lift me up high to the sky, find me some oxygen, but he didn't. I thought about the time Jimmy and I visited the ocean on a trip to South Carolina we took in the beginning of our marriage. We spent our first afternoon in the hotel casino, gambling on the bonus-room penny slots. Jimmy favored a game where mermaids with shells across their breasts flipped their tails at him seductively while the spinning reel made those magic numbers align. I drank a Johnny Walker over ice, watching Jimmy watch the flashing reels. We went into the ocean around dusk and stood with the water at our bellies. The tide was so clear I could see the hairs on Jimmy's legs. The current pulled us this way and that; I wasn't sure of my feet the same way I was when climbing and so Jimmy had to hold me up. When the water turned from cool to cold we stayed still, kneeling in the tide, our eyes on the slipping sun. Our lips puckered, and our skin turned soft and rotten from the salt water. We tried to name the thing we felt, but came up short of any words. Finally, Jimmy said, "Let's go in," but I wouldn't budge. A minute passed and then he tackled me, sinking me underwater, tickling me all the while. I swallowed so much salt water that, later, I had to use the bathroom in our hotel room for an hour straight. Jimmy was lying across the bed with his hands behind his head, laughing the whole time. He said, "Bet'cha you wish you could breathe underwater, huh?"
I wish I wish I wish.
Sarah Faulkner is a writer living in Santa Cruz, California. Her fiction has previously appeared in The Southeast Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Southwestern American Literature. She is currently a finalist for the Red Hen Press Short Story Award (2010). This story is from her short fiction collection, American Heartbreaker, which is currently seeking a publisher. You can find Sarah regularly micro-blogging at her twitter account @smfaulkner.