Fiction 2013 / Volume 43

Hewn — Nick Bertelson

The Trans-Canada pipe-layers arrive to dig their trench. They will cut and pile the poplars on a tilled square of dirt where lazy heads of lettuce are purpling in the autumn sun. Their supervisor approaches my house, knocking on the front door. Sadie barks from her kennel outside as the trimmers chainsaw the poplars now one by one, but I do not stir. “Once it is buried, you’ll never know it’s there.”


These men have raided my dreams. First they came in orange jumpsuits that prisoners wear. They uprooted the poplars with monstrous balloons piloted by remote controls, the trees ascending into the sky’s forever. The pipeline was buried in a trench that dug itself, a festering wound. My husband supervised the men, his lip fat with the tobacco doctors blamed for his death.


The poplars’ age is planted in my memory. I know the exact date they began shadowing my purlieu. I do not need to see their insides to know that each poplar has twenty-five rings from the bole to the center, and from the outermost edge of the widest ring to the bole-bark: this signifies five months and twenty-four days—a space of matter no larger than a thumbnail. That’s how long ago my husband dug their holes.


The pipe-layers arrived in pristine Armanis. The trees were removed traditionally: harrowing chainsaws, nightmarish hooks. Their suits went unsoiled. I watched from my kitchen. My husband entered the room and spoke at my back. “I don’t care much for the suits,” he said. “They usually bury the dead in them, but rarely a pipeline.” I turned to see spittle cascading down his Armani.


An arbor stands near the poplars. The chainsaws cast hot mulch at its base. Two Trans-Canada men now move the arbor as though no sacred thing has ever occurred there. They’ve made way for the next felled poplar now descending to the ground, its shadow shortening until it is no more—the third of seven poplars now being picked up by a tiny tractor’s black claw.


My wedding day, twenty-five years ago, the poplars stood knee-high. The Trans-Canada priest gave us his blessing. “I now pronounce you pipe and line. You may tar her sands.” My husband put a plug of tobacco in my bottom lip. The pipe-layers removed everything, like stagehands striking a set. The chairs, the arbor, the poplars. “Once it’s buried, you’ll never know it’s there.”


I learned to cash the penchant checks after my husband’s wake, but J refused Trans-Canada’s stipend. Yet still there was a burial. The line of turned dirt through my demesne is like scar tissue. Piled poplars look vulgar. Crossing the yard, the supervisor addresses me. “Finally,” he says, reaching for my hand. But my hand passes his ungloved palm and rests upon his chest. He stares at it for a time, not feeling my roots wind through his ribcage. Not yet. Not yet.

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