Texas, in all her flatness, was now our new home. But there were surprises. The little pink rambler was squat and somewhat ugly due to its Mary Kay exterior, but the yard was amazing. A small stream running through the back of the property had been diverted to provide nourishment for the plants and garden.
The thick jungle growing out of what used to be a well-manicured garden, and a sea of different colored flowers now competing for attention sold my wife on this house. The elderly man who had owned it didn’t have the strength or the will to maintain the place after his wife died. His children put the house up for sale when he finally passed on himself. My wife saw the foliage as a challenge. Gardening was a favorite hobby she rarely got to practice in the little condo we’d lived in on the coast of California.
All the plants were perfect except for the huge maple tree in the front yard that served as a centerpiece. Its placement was ingenious. The long thick arching branches provided shade to every corner of the front yard and the porch. My wife hated to destroy it, but the old maple was dying, and she feared a strong wind might topple it onto the house.
She showed me the dried out trunk and where the roots were pushing through the arid soil searching for water. The tiny stream couldn’t provide enough water to sustain the giant tree anymore. I didn’t like removing our main source of shade, but the thought of losing part of the house to a freak windstorm convinced me to call the real estate agent about removing it.
Calling Clyde Johnson wasn’t something I looked forward too. He was friendly, but in that “pressed for time” nervous way that many people in real estate take when they are desperate for a sale. Clyde had told me the real estate market in Texas was slow, which meant it was a good time to buy.
Before signing the final papers though, I’d voiced my concerns about not knowing a thing about plumbing, electrical wiring, or any of the other mechanical things that could go wrong with a house. Clyde guaranteed me if anything went wrong in the first six months all I had to do was call him and the Century 21 would fix it free of charge. I hoped the dying maple fell into this category.
I was surprised how helpful Clyde actually was. He recommended a local company called McGee Tree Service nearby our house. Oddly though, instead of giving me a phone number he told me the address and said I would have to drive to their shop to make arrangements. Since it was only ten miles away, I agreed.
The next day I followed Clyde’s directions and took the freeway south to exit 175. I turned left onto a country road that cut through the middle of a cattle ranch. I drove down this road until the green cow pastures and the paved roadway ended. A dirt road paralleled by two bare strands of barbed wire supporting a sun-bleached white wooden sign that read “McGee” pointed to the left. This sparse entrance was occasionally broken by black wooden poles on which the rusted strands of barbed wire hung.
Beyond this only flat tan dirt and dried sagebrush provided scenery. I followed the corridor of posts and barbed wire down the dusty road for nearly four miles. I stopped briefly to look at a large white carving sitting in the middle of the barren pasture. It was fifteen feet tall and resembled what I imagined Moses must have looked like at his most fanatical while marching through the desert.
Instead of a staff he carried a huge two-headed ax slightly away from his body and tilted forward towards any unsuspecting heretic that crossed his path. His long thick electric-looking beard flowed down over part of the large book he held open in his left arm. His mouth was open wide in a terrible soul-condemning shout. But his eyes were the most shocking feature. They seemed to gaze directly at me, almost through me. I couldn’t escape his piercing inquiry.
I was transfixed by this work of religious art for several minutes before I yanked myself away and continued down the road. I rounded an easy corner and came to a small tar roofed house with white flaking paint. Behind the house, a long low brown building with barn doors severed as a sawmill. When I turned off the car the whine of some unseen heavy electric saw shrieked in the background.
The front yard was covered in a sea of yellow and orange sawdust with seven big black stumps creating islands. Thin black wrought iron twisted into a fence attached to an unstained pine porch made a compact front yard. On the center stump a three foot high carved version of the Last Supper provided the centerpiece, only Judas held a silver ax instead of a bag of coins.
“Hey up!” a nearly seven-foot-tall wraith almost as thin as the barbed wire fence startled me with his greeting from the porch. His faded Wranglers were half a foot short and ragged on the cuffs. His long ruddy, pockmarked face smiled down at me.
“You must be the feller from the old Carson place. I’m Jeb McGee,” he said extending his hand.
“Yes,” I said taking his long bony hand. “I’m Philip Head. Did my real-estate agent call you?”
“Got no phone. My brother Ezekiel prophesied your coming about a month ago,” he said matter of factly.
I thanked him for meeting with me, surprised my arrival had been foretold a month in the past.
“Let me whistle up my brother Jasper, he does all the figuring,” he said.
He put two long dirty fingers to his lips and blew three loud blasts. I had to force myself not to cover my ears. A rotund figure came out of the building and headed our direction.
“This here’s my brother Jasper, he’ll fix ya up,” Jeb said.
“Thanks,” I said to Jeb.
Jasper had a thick red beard and hair. He wore a black baseball cap with white letters stenciled on the front that read “McGee Tree Service”. He was shorter than his lanky brother, probably six two and weighing around three fifty, I guessed. I stood in front of him not sure what to do next. He had a small green notepad and pencil poised waiting for my explanation.
“Go on; tell him about the Maple,” Jeb said.
“Uh, well it’s tall and thick and dying I guess.”
Jasper stared at me hard with his tiny blue flinty eyes. His bulk and intensity intimidated me. My description of the Maple tree seemed childish and stupid. There was a long quiet pause as we looked at each other.
“Tell him in detail, you know size, height, width and all,” Jeb coaxed from the porch.
I nervously told him the Maple was about forty feet tall, six feet around, dying, and in my front yard. Jasper jotted down the information as I dictated. He tore off a sheet of paper that read, “5:00 A.M. Saturday.” I took the note from Jasper’s huge hand muttering “Thank you.” He smiled and headed back to the sawmill. I said goodbye to Jeb and got into my car. As I drove home I thought about the strange people I had just met. I assumed I’d learn more about them Saturday morning.
They arrived early. Just as the sun rose. I knew they were coming, but somehow I expected them to be late. The rumble of their long flatbed diesel truck served as an alarm clock for my wife and me. I heard the windows rattle and the bed shook, then they were parked in my driveway. I opened the curtains and saw the great white elephant of a truck contrasted against my fresh black asphalt driveway. Someone was banging on my front door before I had my slippers and bathrobe on. Jeb stood in the doorway smirking at the clothes I was wearing.
“We’re gonna start now Phil. Things will probably be pretty noisy around here for an hour or two,” Jeb said.
“Okay Jeb, would you and your brothers like some coffee? I’m making some now,” I asked.
Jeb looked around nervously, “Much obliged, but my brother Ezekiel doesn’t allow us no drinks with the spirits,” Jeb said jerking his thumb in the direction of a short intense looking man standing by the truck.
“Drinks that change your brain,” Jeb said.
“Is it alright if my wife Carol and I watch you cut down the Maple?”
“Sure, but mind you stay clear of the drop area. We lost my eldest brother Jared two winters ago to a Maple like this one. But Ezekiel don’t let him get out of any of the work. He calls for Jared’s help from the other side.”
I went back into the house for coffee, thinking how strange the conversation I just had with Jeb was. I filled my mug up and met Carol on the front porch to watch the show. Ezekiel, short and skinny with a long heavy white beard was wearing a brown robe with a shawl made of sticks and tattered black fur. He was circling the maple tree scattering seeds on the ground and chanting in a strange guttural tone.
Three other heavyset men, who were near duplicates of Jeb, were spreading big rolls of clear plastic from the trunk of the maple out into the front yard. After the three brothers finished rolling and spreading the plastic sheets one of the brothers and Jasper started chopping the maple from each side with small red-headed axes. Ezekiel stopped chanting and rummaged through the cab of the truck for several minutes. He crawled down carrying a silver hatchet and an over-sized ancient leather Bible. He swung the silver hatchet at an invisible tree in time with his brothers chopping. The cadence of his chanting altered to keep time with the chopping also.
In less than an hour, a large white notch had been carved in the trunk of the maple. Carol and I breathed in the pleasant scent of sawdust. Ezekiel suddenly cried out and the brothers stopped chopping. They stepped to the right of the maple and out of the drop area. Ezekiel waved the silver hatch in the direction of the maple. The old maple popped and crackled loudly, then fell slowly towards the sheets of plastic. A wave of dust rushed from the plastic sheets as the maple crashed to the ground. Before the dust settled Jeb, Jasper and the three other brothers attacked the thick branches off the maple with stout hatchets. After the branches were removed Jasper used a large multi-toothed saw to clear the bark off the trunk. He straddled the maple and pushed the saw along removing the bark in long brown peels.
After Jasper finished shearing the maple, its white trunk lay naked on the clear plastic sheets. The three brothers and Jeb used axes to cut the trunk into four ten-foot lengths. One by one they lifted each of the heavy logs onto the bed of the truck and secured them with ropes. Then they rolled the sheets of plastic and branches into a large bundle. Jasper tied a rope around the bundle and tossed the other end up to Jeb.
He pulled the bundle onto the truck bed next to the big logs. Jasper climbed in the cab and started the truck. I felt the vibration of the big diesel engine through the porch steps. Jeb walked over and yelled over the engine that they were finished. I shook his hand, paid him in cash, and thanked him for a job well done.
He walked back to the truck and climbed in the cab with Jasper and Ezekiel. Jasper ground into first gear and drove slowly off towards the rising sun. Three months later my wife and I were surprised and delighted to see a ring of white daisies growing around the stump of the maple.
About the Creator
Steve Howard's self-published collection of short stories Satori in the Slip Stream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and others were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019.