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The Crack


Edd B. Jennings is a farmer in the Appalachian Mountains.  This year he has stories appearing in Trigger Warnings, Scarlet Leaf Literary Review, and Flash Fiction magazine.  He has a series of books placed with an agent on seasons spent canoeing in the Arctic along with a historical novel set in the Southern Highlands of a hundred years ago.

Edd can be contacted through



I had misjudged the curve in the old dead hickory’s trunk.  Instead of falling, the weight of the tree pinched my chainsaw blade, locking it.


Sometimes I believe it’s the odd premonition that keeps me alive.  I had avoided this tree for two years.  Other times, I see my penchant for premonition as the symbol of the smallness of my life, the thing separating me from the richness of risk.  I needed this hickory.  High quality dry wood I can reach in the rough weather of late winter is precious.  A man couldn’t cover every corner of this farm in a day’s walk, but I picture the individual trees out of the thousands.  I mourn their passing.  When some of the old ones go, I do the closest thing I understand to praying.  Everything has its season, and in the way of things, their season should be longer than mine.  Some of them I have marked, and I don’t mean to live past their time.


When I have the luxury, I avoid standing dead trees.  The fall is tricky to predict, and they’re rich with hidden life.  Even on this snowy day, brown spiders crawled across the dead bark.  I try to get most of my wood from deadfalls on the ground.  It’s safer, and they don’t mean as much to the birds and the squirrels.


No man lives without mistakes.  It’s what he does after the mistake that defines him.  My weight against the tree, I will it to fall.  If it had dropped with my body against the bole, the sudden splintering and likely kickback could have killed me.  Nothing happened.  My puny strength meant nothing against hundreds of pounds of hickory.


However the tree went down, the force risked my saw.  I detached the body of the saw from the blade.  The most I could lose was the blade.  The most I could lose?--hardly, I didn’t want to die like this, if even such a death was a common enough ending. 


A cable around the trunk and pressure from the tractor might gain the tiny shift necessary to slip the saw blade out.  The cable snapped.


Some urge had caused me to freshen the edge of my Swedish tool steel axe that morning.  I hadn’t dropped a tree of this size in my life with an axe.  I live with an axe close, but I was never as good with it as my grandfather, as he wasn’t as good as his father. 

Ages pass. 

Men diminish.


Wrong before about the direction of the dead hickory’s fall, I could be wrong again.  I formed a wide notch in the tree to guide the fall, and the flurry of hard strokes confirmed what I didn’t want to acknowledge.  I wasn’t the man to work like this all day.  Men who spent their days working this way died young or invalided out long before the years I had reached.


The notched formed; I went to the other side of the tree to form the wide cut that would drop the tree.  Power is not as important as accuracy.  Accuracy is not as important as reading the cracks.   Chips of hardened dried hickory flew out with velocity at every good blow. 


Old time Shakespearean scholars read the cracks in a man’s character.  They looked for that first tiny crack near the opening action, barely detectable, the crack that would widen into the tragic flaw.  What flaw had reduced me to this?  Alone in the snow, scrambling for wood, aware I could die here, leaving the people who cared about me with nothing.


A thin wall of heartwood remained between the notch and the main cut.  I slowed.  The smaller the wall of heartwood holding the tree the more sudden and unpredictable the fall would be.  I needed to hear that crack, that pop, feel that shudder, that might not come warning me the tree was going down.  Bark fluttered to the snow from a high limb.


Reading the cracks, men before me lived and died by the sound and the feel.  The axe took another bite out of the heartwood.


I poised the axe for another blow, and the faint crack of splintering wood sounded so faint, I could have almost mistaken it for something out of my imagination.  I dropped the axe and ran to a place I had already picked out behind a massive red oak wider than my body.  The hickory went down with a crash so violent the rotten top half of the bole broke away and bounced.

The wealth of the wood was mine.





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