“Split the log with a quick sharp blow,” my father said.
I felt the wooden handle of the axe in my hand, my toe tapped the steel point. My father took a step back, out of the sunlight that hit the back of the field. In the shade he seemed thinner, older.
I hefted the tool up, surprised by the weight of it, as if I were pulling in a great fish and propped it on my shoulder, the way they used to show loggers posed in magazines. I put one hand on my hip, being funny.
“What are you doing?” my father said, swinging his big paw hand around at the back of my head. “That’s how people get hurt. You think this is a game? This is work.”
I held the axe with two hands, brushing off his remark.
“One quick sharp blow,” he repeated setting the log upright.
I nodded. I lifted the tool over my shoulder and let it come down with just the force of gravity. I hit the log slightly off center and the axe stuck. I struggled to pull it out, but it refused to budge and then the whole mess fell over. My father put his foot on the log and with only one hand pried the axe out.
He lit a cigarette which he kept in his mouth as he flipped the log upright, lifted the axe and brought it down with a clean solid stroke that cleaved it in two. The sound of the axe in the wood echoed over the field, all the way back to the house.
“You see?” he said.
He handed me the axe. I watched him roll up his sleeve. The flesh there was still white, paler than the rest of his tan arms. I could see the scars on the inside of his arms, track marks.
He lifted another log back up on the post, exhaled a cloud of smoke over my head and nodded.
I hoisted the tool up and brought it down with a grunt. This time, I made contact but the log split unevenly, chipping the wood so that little flecks went everywhere. I covered my eyes fearful of anything getting into them. One section, like a piece cut from a pie, lay at my feet.
My father took the axe and cleaved the log in half. Mere seconds. He handed me his cigarette and told me to hold it. Then he cut another one. And another one. And another one. The sweat started to bead on his head.
“You see,” he grunted bringing the axe down, “this is how you do it. You need to know this. You need to know how to do this. Men need to know how to do this.”
His cigarette felt small and tender between my fingers. It was a damp where his lips had been. It felt like a little finger, like my baby sister's finger when she was still learning to walk. It felt breakable and I resisted the urge, watching my father lift and split log after log, grunting and sweating in the fading light, to snap it in half. Oh, but I wanted to. I pressed down on it with my forefinger and thumb, feeling the squish of the fibers in the filter. It was so tender, my fingers shook with need. My father continued to cut the log. He was speaking to me, I realized that, watching the sweat gather under his arms and around his neck. He was telling me about being a man.
When his head was down I brought the cigarette up to my lips, just to put them where his had been. Just for a moment.
“You hear me?” he said lifting his head and then seeing me there, “What the hell are you doing?”