“Grandpa, you pulled your wood out of the river yet?”
“And hello to you, Granddaughter. No, the Yukon still has too much ice. I’m going to wait a bit longer. I’m like an old bear. If I throw the chains and fall in, the ice might be too strong for me. I’d float away, out to sea.” Curtis felt a bit ashamed before he’d finished speaking into the phone. What was he trying to do, get some sympathy from his little girl?
“Well, get those grappling hooks ready, because I’m coming into town on the noon plane tomorrow. I’ve got some good news.”
“I might have a little piece of moose left if you would care for some stew.”
“Thanks, Grandpa. I can spend two days with you!”
“I am a very lucky man.”
Curtis got the chains out of the shed and rubbed Tiger Balm into his shoulder. When the river ice broke in spring, trees were uprooted from the banks of the Yukon by the ice, and if you lived downriver and had your chains and a granddaughter to help you, you could pull a good bit of your firewood out of the river. He had seen some of the young men out already, dragging the heavy trees up on the bank, but he was not quite ready to give up the stiff sleepy days of winter in Alaska.
She bounced down the steps of the little prop plane in red sneakers and a new haircut. When she had been three, he had taken her into Fairbanks and bought her some little red sneakers. He could still feel her tired head asleep on his shoulder, exhausted after the excitement of a day of new shoes and ice cream. “Your haircut looks very nice, Granddaughter.”
“Thanks.” She was taller now, but her head still felt the same on his shoulder. She sniffed his neck. “You smell like Tiger Balm.”
“I am getting very old.”
“Me, too,” she said.
“Is that your exciting news? That you have reached eighteen years and found a new hairstyle?”
“I joined the Marine Corps.”
She was wearing his old rubber boots to step along the muddy river bank, and she handled her end of the chains with the strength of a man. He watched her throw the hook toward a big spruce floating by, and closed his eyes, suddenly dizzy. It had been different for him. It had been a different time. It was the draft, and he had come from the village, straight into a nightmare of screaming men of all colors, strange odors, unending noise, the noise of the weapons, the noise of the barracks at night, too many men crowded close in together, on their way to war. He never thought of it, or the years that followed, if he could help it.
“Hey, Gramps, I got it!”
They hauled the big tree up to the river bank, and he could hear the pops and clicks in his shoulder, feel the strain of ligaments that were getting too old. Approaching their failsafe point. Lovie was breathing hard from exertion and excitement. “Wow, would you look at this thing! It’s a beauty!”
Curtis picked up the chainsaw while Lovie unhooked the chains. She held out her hand. “Let me have it. I’ll do it, Grandpa.”
“What?” He laughed at her, remembering her little red sneakers. “This thing is as big as you are.”
She kept her hand out, her little chin stubborn and her face very serious. “I’ll be holding a rifle soon. Don’t you think I can handle a chainsaw? I know your shoulder is hurting you. Let me help. I can do it.”
She looked away when the tears filled his eyes.
“It’s not like your time, Grandpa.” She kept her eyes on the spruce, straddled the big tree, holding the chainsaw with both hands. “I’m ready for this.”
Sarah Black is a fiction writer.