The Axe Head – Helen Moat

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the axe. ~ Abraham Lincoln

 Jo stood in the entrance of the outhouse, a dark shape in the doorframe except for the thin wispy strands of yellow hair illuminated by the sun, a halo of light around her face.

She watched Brad as he bent over his axe head, moving the steel wool systematically over the metal to remove any rust. At last he looked up and saw her.

“Hi,” Brad said. “How long have you bin standing there?”

“A while.”

Brad replaced the steel wool with silicon carbide sandpaper, his forehead burrowed in concentration as he moved the sandpaper with even pressure across the head, always in the same direction away from himself.

Jo walked across the room and stood over him. She watched him with narrowed eyes, arms folded over her chest. Brad frowned. He hated it when she stood over him like that. He knew it was deliberate: it gave her the psychological advantage. She hadn’t studied psychology at college for nothing.

Brad took a finer grit sandpaper and went over the surface again. Getting it right now would make all the difference later. He wasn’t anything if he wasn’t patient.

He indicated the stool beside him. “Why don’t you sit down? Take the weight off your legs, ya know?”

Jo ignored him. “So, when are you going?”

“Jo, we’ve bin through all this before. What’s the point – you know the answer.”

Jo’s mobile rang and she disappeared outside with it.  Brad clamped the axe head into the vice. He filed towards the blade with broad strokes from his shoulder, careful not to make contact with the edge. By the time Jo returned, the sun had moved away from the doorway.

“I could understand it if you just went for the summer – but a whole year. How are you gonna survive the Yukon winter with temperatures as low as minus 50, maybe even 60? Food’s gonna be scarce too.”

Bent over his work, Brad could hear the tightness in her voice. He took a wire brush to remove any metal particles from the file.

“What are you going to do if you have an accident or if you get sick?”

Brad sighed. “That’s the whole point, you know that – findin’ out what it’s like to be totally self-sufficient, learnin’ how to treat myself if I get sick, learnin’ how to survive in the wilderness.”

They’d had the same conversation all winter. He loved her so much it hurt, but jeez, she was hard work. It was becoming a ritual, her mantra. He wondered why she did it. Did she think if she repeated the questions enough times, he’d change his mind and not go?

“But what if a bear attacked you – like from behind? What are you gonna do then? No time then to test your wits against nature.”

He let the question hang in the air for a while, working on the edge of the axe in circular motions.

Finally Brad spoke. “I’ll be staying clear of bear territory,” he lied.

Jo seemed to change tact.

“And what are you gonna eat? You can’t just live on berries. You’re not allowed to shoot game so no deer, no elk, no moose. What’s left – porcupine? vermin? Vile!”

He was hardly hearing her now. He created a v-shaped bevel gauge with a 25 degree angle and started filing. Getting the angle right was crucial for maximum penetration. Jo waited but the only sound was the scraping of the file. At last, Brad stopped working and took a deep breath.

“Jo. I’ve thought it all through. You know that. I’ve studied the maps and talked to people, ya know. I’m going to the best bit of wilderness in the Yukon. Silver Lake is teaming with fish and the river that flows into it is full of salmon.”

He spoke to her in a soft, slow deliberate voice; the kind of voice parents use with their children when the kids don’t understand something or won’t give in.

“Ah! And what do bears eat?” Jo cried triumphantly. “Salmon!”

Brad swore under his breath. She was too smart; smarter than him – but he was just as stubborn as her.  He knew the script. She’d make her point, stomp out and sulk for a few hours. Then they’d call a truce and make love – until the next time. But not this time: he’d had enough. He was sick of pussy-footing round her. This time he was going to lay his cards on the table.

“Why waste time with all these questions, kid,” he said softly. “Why don’t you just come right out with it and say you don’t want me to go. It would save a lot of time.”

“I don’t want you to go. What’s the point in having someone in your life who’s not in your life?”

Stale mate.

“Well then. You’ve gotta make a choice. I’m going. Ain’t no one going to stop me. I have to do this. It’s bin my dream since I was six”.  His voice was so low she had to strain to hear the words.

Brad held the axe head up for inspection. He scanned the axe edge to make sure there were no nicks; then ran the edge over a folded newspaper. It sliced through it with the smallest amount of pressure. Perfect.

Jo sat down on the stool at last. She drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. Brad felt a rush of tenderness. She looked so vulnerable – like a little girl in her size 8 jeans and thin t-shirt covering a tiny frame. He wanted to go over to her and hold her – but he knew if he did, she’d have won.

Jo looked up, a dirty streak snaking down her cheek. “It’s over, Brad,” she said bitterly. “Take the wilderness – but you can’t have us both.”

He watched her walk out the door, her small frame weaving though the yard until she disappeared behind the house. Brad returned to his axe. He ran his finger lovingly over the edge. Sharp. Real sharp. He was ready for the wilderness.



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