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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Woodsman
by Adrian Kalil

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Alan Braun awoke to the promise of another unpredictable adventure. Nestled in the comfort of his bed, the fresh sunrise of a thick and sweet summer morning urged him to begin another day. It was Saturday. Sometime during the night an unexpected and violent thunderstorm had passed and left in its wake the cleanest air he could remember. The nocturnal lightning had cleanly blended in with the powerful images of his stirring and sensuous dreams.

Now, as the heavens remained swollen with the threat of distant rain, Alan lay half-awake with the satisfaction of a new-found energy and spirit he felt inside his breast. His good friend Robert was soon to arrive. Some trees were down and they had a lot of work ahead. Alan eagerly awaited his friend's arrival with a new and visceral anticipation: a feeling he both enjoyed and feared. Perhaps it was the unknown, or the unexpected turn and tenor of their last phone call, he was not sure. He felt a new and intriguing murmur of his heart, and he took note.

Although he and Robert were speaking more regularly of late, their conversations had typically covered relatively light topics with the occasional mention of a few mutual interests and tame, circumspect adventure. Neither boasted, neither expected as much. They would banter about in a non-competitive, even courteous, manner and would always end with a sense of suspended unfinish. However, both knew they would continue in the same moment, at another time, and with genuine ease.

In the time they had known each other, the bulk of their relationship had comprised mostly subtle and inconsequential, but very masculine, manoeuvers. Yet, through this careful dance they had come to a level of understanding and comfort; the kind of tacit and articulate trust that is unique among men.

During their last call, Alan had noticed a peculiar nuance in Robert's final, calming few words, as if they had reached a higher and more clear, unspoken, covenant.

"I'll see you later," he had said warmly, softly.

The tone itself had no particular definition, yet carried with it a sense of understanding and insight: one of security and even remote affection.

Alan drifted awake.

"My God, what am I thinking?" he said aloud and, just as quickly, suppressed any and all curious thoughts that would have placed them outside their simple and present lines of custom and comfort.

He crawled out of bed. The soft, familiar groove his weight and form had created slowly became an illusion of the past. He showered and examined himself more thoroughly than the usual time would allow, explored each new wrinkle and, for a moment, imagined himself to be younger and more attractive than he was. He admired his body in a comfortable and confident manner and without arrogance or regard to the doubt that anyone might face in the continuum of their evolving self-image.

He was a healthy and rugged man, passionate and sincere and not without sensitivity to others. He cared for himself and deeply cared for others who came into his life, perhaps too much. Increasingly, he engaged in and enjoyed life out loud. However, circumstance had also caused him to be far more cautious than most people of his generation, and he had developed a fiber of profound independence at an early age, allowing few people into his affections. He was aware of this but did not flaunt it. To some, this was appealing; to others it was the knife that prevented communion. He remained strong in mind and body and it was with this sense of confidence he daily faced the world.

Suddenly distracted, and the water growing cooler, he again caught himself without the necessary focus to begin the day. Momentarily embarrassed, he collected his thoughts and finished, dressed, and then prepared some strong coffee and a little breakfast. Somewhere in the hills he heard a family of coyote finishing its night-hunt and calling to one another to come home and rest. One day ends and another begins, he thought, as he found himself curiously soothed by their distant howls and satisfying, fleeting cries.

The peace was shattered with a loud and unexpected knock on the door followed by a great and masculine voice:

"Hey! Anyone home?"

Robert had arrived earlier than expected and, although delighted to see his friend, Alan was caught a bit off guard.

"What on earth brings you here so blinkin' early?" he said, somewhat startled.

Robert smiled and replied, "It's a great morning, and I wanted to see my friend." He winked. "Hey, did you get a load of that incredible storm last night? The lightning was overwhelming!"

"Yeah, I felt it, though I slept through most of it," Alan said, reluctant to disclose the content or texture of his evocative dreams.

Robert sensed the hesitation and did not pursue.

"Looks like we have more work than we planned, but I think it's OK. Glad none of them came near the house, eh, buddy?"

His bravado softened a bit as he looked in Alan's direction and, reaching for some coffee, gently touched his shoulder.

"You survived another," he said with a thoughtful smile. Both men paused briefly and their eyes met. During this suspended encounter they were momentarily and unequivocally lost to another and foreign world.

Standing there, Alan was warmed by his friend's concern and consideration. There was much to say, but it was too early for much depth or content. Something was on his mind and he would see how the day played out. Breakfast was almost ready, and they enjoyed their coffee and talked a bit before heading out into the fresh and auspicious morning.

A few weeks ago Alan had asked Robert to help cut up some trees, not expecting more to have fallen during the storm. The timing was ideal, then, for the day ahead. Although he could have easily disposed of the downed timber himself, it was safer to have company and, right now, Robert's was the best he could have imagined. Both had the time and freedom to share their labors, and both benefited from their growing friendship and the recent turn of events. As Robert talked about his life and his work, Alan reflected on the circumstances that had brought him to this point.

The open country had become a welcomed respite from the troubled existence he had found himself living in town. After a difficult divorce, having married far too young, he retreated into the hills to selectively and carefully remove himself from the encroaching artifice that had swiftly woven its way into his circle of friends. He had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the mountain of awkward obligations and superficial lives. Though he blamed no one, he knew he needed to move on.

His wife had not taken the change so well and had told her silly circle Alan had "gone off the deep end to commune with nature." Though not far from the truth, her punctuated laughter was painful to bear. After the separation, most of the disenfranchised stayed with his ex-wife anyway. No great loss, he would often remind himself.

During the entire divorce Robert, who had been through much the same, remained by his side, listened to his frustrations, helped him find direction, and was of great comfort. Alan wondered why anyone would be so kind, but openly welcomed his support. Now, enough time had passed, the healing had begun, and there was little need and far less desire to resurrect the past.

Alan had moved to the woods and the lush, green forest that surrounded his modest cabin daily revealed how fragile life might be and how small and inconsequential a man truly is. The soft, vital sounds and smells of his Arden were a constant reminder that he was surely the visitor; a guest among the creatures that had inhabited it long before him. Often, when the fog settled over the nearby fields and overlapped the grey river in the early morning hours, Alan felt a profound and spiritual satisfaction with the beauty of the land.

Appreciative of the unique stirrings and the serenity the foliage had provided, he found himself growing into a more humble and open man. He felt stronger and more independent and liked the change. Though he felt fortunate, there remained a palpable void.

"I gave you your life once; what you do with it is up to you," his mother would often say. "I am only asking for it back as many times."

The sharpened invective was her way of saying that only grandchildren would complete her sunset years. But the further from adolescence he grew, the less interest Alan had in procreation and continuing the lines of an unhappy youth, especially when it was ultimately for the satisfaction of someone else. He later realized that the pattern of dependency was repeated when he had married. The union was a social statement for her and a clear expectation of him, ultimately creating an impossible and doomed relationship. With this period of his life now a faded, dull memory, he was beginning to think more of himself and passionately wanted new direction.

Since his unhappy marriage had produced no children, he now found himself very much alone and forced to think about that which he had taken for granted for so many monotonous and unsatisfying years. Having had the emotional carpet suddenly yanked, he had learned to fend for himself on levels he did not imagine existed. Robert was one of these accidental friends who, by another route, by another clock, had come to the same tenuous moment, and understood. Both survived, were better for it, and both were now able to move ahead with a sense of encouraging freedom.

During this time of catharsis and restoration, the occasional solitude had also helped to weed out those who were less sincere, those capable of betrayal. His friends' substance and fidelity were tested and he found himself emotionally naked and profoundly disappointed on more than one occasion. Although he enjoyed the softness and memory of women, he chose now to invest in the company of himself and the genuine nature and essences of men. Robert, he believed, was a good man and was good for him.

The threatening clouds had begun to part allowing the brilliant morning sun to caress the eastern hillside. Robert cheerfully headed outside to unload his gear from the truck. Alan followed a moment later, his chainsaw and essentials already waiting on the porch. He yawned one final time, heralding the end of a restful night; his eyes open, his mind alert.

I am glad he feels so comfortable here, Alan thought. It's rare for someone to fit in so easily.

The situation benefited both men, and they looked forward to getting lost in their hard and grinding labor. The undulating hum of the chainsaws created a growing symphony of sound as they began to trim and cut up the fallen logs, each about his own task; together a ballet of strength and fresh energy. Each was aware of the other, their form and their distance, and they worked well in harmony. With the lingering humidity, their sweat formed early and filled the air with a comfortable, attractive presence.

As the work progressed, the fragmented pieces became smaller and the morning grew. They methodically rolled up their sleeves, looked up into the brilliant sky, wiped arm and brow, and carefully moved in comfortable unison. As they worked one would occasionally stop to rest. At one point, Alan stepped back and saw, for the first time, a refined masculinity that Robert possessed, so poetic in his grace and skill. He admired this greatly and found himself exploring the man with his imagination, emulating his silken moves. He noticed the raw strength in Robert's arms and warm hands, the sharp brown line of his jaw and the intense focus of his dark eyes as he labored and sweated in the thick morning air. Robert worked smoothly and without flaw or hesitation. Alan found this surprisingly attractive.

It was clear that Alan admired Robert greatly and was beginning to feel a deep affection for his company and presence. Because of their marriage-wounds both men knew that they were vulnerable and dealing as best they could with their situation and circumstance of defeat, rejection, and misunderstanding.

Open, but cautious, they grew much closer in this misfit period of recovery and healing, and leaned on each other for support and the interplay of nascent thought and fresh emotion they would likely not share with anyone else. Hard work helped to ease the pain. Alan realized that, for the first time in his life, he truly felt comfortable and safe. He knew it deeply in his gut and heart and wondered if Robert sensed their growing bond.

When Robert was not around Alan often thought of him: the way he entered a room, the aura and unique scent of this other and comparable man. This was a new awareness for Alan, and it was beginning to weave its way into his life, his thoughts, and his heart.

A moderate morning breeze was beginning to blow and they labored on. As Alan stretched his arms, he looked up at the pregnant morning sky and reached to wipe his forehead. Eyes lifted toward the sun, he first heard, then immediately saw a large branch, hanging precariously from last night's storm, break loose and hurdle sharply to the ground. Alan attempted to shout a warning, but Robert was lost in the steady drone of his machine and, with the bright sunlight, he neither heard nor saw the oncoming fall.

It first hit Robert's left shoulder and then the side of his head. The force spun him around and, in a slow-moving pirouette, threw him down the nearby embankment with a loud thud. Robert winced as his chainsaw flew aside, then fell under the full weight of the branch. He did not move.

"Oh, God! Oh, God!" Alan shouted as he dropped his gear and climbed the hill to his friend's side.

In the aftermath of piercing dead-silence, he approached his fallen comrade in what seemed slow-motion and became suddenly aware of an eerie malignant darkness.

Robert groaned a little, and moved his right hand. Alan dropped onto the ground and slowly crawled under the jagged brush to be by his side. He noticed a large abrasion on Robert's head, and some blood trickling from his mouth and ear. With great caution he took Robert's hand and slid himself along side his friend's injured body. Robert was solidly trapped and, for the moment, still conscious and breathing, although with some difficulty. There was a soft hissing sound in his left chest. Alan moved closer and calmly said his name over and over, "Robert. Hey, Robert."

As he lay with him, Alan imagined himself in a peaceful earth-womb with a kind and kindred spirit, keenly aware of his scent, his heartbeat and sudden vulnerability. They were far from the house, far from anyone, far from all other thought. Holding at Robert's side, he imagined them as one.

"So this is what it's like," he whispered, as burning tears began to form.

Robert slowly opened his eyes, briefly found his place among the dimming light, the fallen brush and the dirt, and looked over at his friend.

"I do love you," he said quietly, "Never think of it as right or wrong."

With that he took a deep, wet sigh and was gone. It was over. There was nothing Alan could do. It all seemed to happen too fast, was rendered too unreal, too unfair.

Alan wept at his friend's shoulder, and found himself suddenly overwhelmed with a profound sadness and a promise of the unknown, the unexplored, with bitter tears and only the imagination of what might have been.

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