HARRISBURG MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 2023

Page 16

Short Story/Colby Galliher

A Proving Story by Colby Galliher; Illustration by Allison Juliana

W

hen the head of his father’s axe rose into the sky and then plunged from its zenith, it seemed to cleave the dusky air as a lightning bolt lashes at the summer earth. His back foot lunged forward, his shoulders pivoting ahead, as the axe dove down and halved the mid-section of trunk so surgically that James often blinked and missed the cut, hearing only the cracking monosyllable of a clean blow. What remained when his eyes jumped open were two halfmoon mirrors of log, the striations of grain

16 HARRISBURG MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 2023

awed at their disunion. His father drew back his axe and laid it in the darkening grass. He bent and bear-hugged one of the halves of pine and heaved it onto James’ splitting stump. James eyed it suspiciously. “Think about it like a pie. Half a pie,” his father told him as he centered the half on the stump. “Start at the edge and aim for small pieces. Like you’re cutting logs to go directly into the fire.” “When will I be able to start in the middle?” “When you’ve cut your teeth on the smaller

pieces. In time. Do as I say for now.” “Okay.” The cold autumn sun had dropped beneath the horizon. The woods behind James and his father brooded with shadow, the trees still reconciling themselves to their nudity and the forest floor springy with a foot of maple and oak leaves. James’ nostrils stuck together as he inhaled. A freeze was coming. “Like I showed you.” James planted his brown boots on the hardening shell of the earth and set a slight bend in his knees. He looked down at the smooth-grained handle of the starter axe gripped crosswise before his chest. His left hand clutched the butt of the handle and his right the axe’s neck, its head upturned to the smoldering orange sky. He sucked in the grainy dusk and pushed the axe away from his chest, then pulled it back across his torso. His right foot pulled behind his left. He brought the axe up behind him, his shoulders rotating as turrets, then lifted it over his head like an offering. His hands joined as he pulled the axe down with all his available strength, his arms extending and his right foot and body both lurching forward in correction. His eyes closed at the exertion of force. The primed blade plummeted to earth and nicked his target, launching a shim into the grass. The blade stuck into a well-worn gash in the splitting stump. James looked disconsolately at his miss. His father bent down into the grass and grabbed the shearing, inspecting it with deepwelled brown eyes. “Kindling,” he decreed and tossed the shim into the uneven pile of logs next to them. “Try again. Keep your eye on where you want to strike. No different than batting.” “I always close my eyes at the last second.” “Again. Keep your eyes open.” James stared into his cold-reddened face with deference and hot loathing. Long trails of gossamer breath streamed dragon-like but silent from his father’s nostrils. James puffed temperamentally from his lips. His father pried the axe from the splitting stump and held it out to James. The falling dark tightened its grip on the landscape as the first stars shattered crystalline into the east. James took the proffered axe. The cold stung his eyes and bit at his tender cheeks exposed between his cap and his woolen collar. He assumed his stance before the stump, the axe held before his chest like a flag he would raise even if it meant his death. His feet fidgeted into place directly below his shoulders. The sweep toward twilight had silenced the field and the woods. His entrained breath boomed


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