Einar had his trees, all three of them, choosing carefully and glad to find that one of the trio had so rotted at its base as to be fairly easily pushed down, instead of chopping. The other two he had to chop, brow furrowed in concentration—strengthen my arms, guide my hands—as he sought to send the ax true and avoid slipping, hitting a glancing blow and taking a slice out of his leg. Succeeded, felling first on and then the other of the dry-dead trees, one already grey-bleached in the sun, bits of inner bark hanging from it in shreds, but otherwise bare. A good, solid tree, Einar expected, for the ravages of sun and wind would have gone a long way towards preventing rot and keeping it sound inside. Inside that last tree though, he found something a bit unusual. Instead of the solid grey wood he had expected to find, the tree’s core was mottled with black, wood dry and seeming as sound as ever, but riddled with passages which were half filled with bits of chewed-up wood.
Chopping a piece of the end for further inspection he found that some of the passages were filled with the fast-asleep and very sluggish members of a large family of what looked like some sort of winged ants, though Einar could not immediately identify the species. In any case, the tree no longer seemed the best choice for a roof timber, but he did know what to do with the antlike creatures. Shaking three or four of the half-inch insects out onto his hand he inspected them briefly—not the first time he’d eaten such things, nor the first continent on which he had done so—and popped them into his mouth, chewing with satisfaction. Yes, definitely worth having!
Hauling the tree downed trees back to the shelter in succession, Einar last brought the one infested with what were over the following days to come to be known around camp as “snack ants,” little beasties all peacefully sleeping their winter sleep, unaware of the doom with which they were about to meet. “Got to go back for one more tree,” he shouted over his shoulder to Liz as he turned to go. “This one’s got extras…”
“Extra what?” she called after him, but he was already gone, anxious to finish his work before too much of the day could pass—still had to stack the things, after all, get some sort of a roof over their heads, even if the process wasn’t completed that day—or before his legs would choose to give out and stay that way, and he knew it was anyone’s guess which would come first. Ah, best not to give it too much thought, he told himself. Only slow you down. Now. One more tree. Wasn’t there one up there in that little grove of firs that looked promising when you passed it, before?
Seeming to remember such a tree he made the short climb, glancing amongst the dark forms of the dense, low-growing firs until he spotted the single resident aspen, long-dead, remnant, no doubt of a small group that had grown there at some time in the past. The tree was not terribly sound at its base, as Einar could tell by pushing on an area several feet above and seeing how the tree swayed up top, restless, moving a bit too far, possible, perhaps, to push over, given enough effort. Einar tried, slow, steady shove and then, when he could not take that far enough, tried rocking the tree, attempting to build up the momentum which would hopefully carry it a bit too far out of balance on one end of one of the swings, snap whatever rotten root still held it in place, and bring it down. But with no success. Well. That’s what the axe was for, and he used it, brought the little tree down in pretty short order. Not as short as he would have liked, but at least he hadn’t sliced off any extremities in the process. So that was something for which to be thankful, and he was, bracing himself against the fallen tree and struggling to slow his breathing, take measure of the job before him.
Not a terribly large tree, as aspens went, nor an especially heavy one, considering the number of years it had surely been sitting there in the harsh, high altitude sun losing moisture, but when he crouched down and attempted to lift it to one shoulder, Einar could see that none of these factors were to prove adequate when it came to his ability to carry the thing that way. Going nowhere. Tried again despite that knowledge, results the same, and he supposed he’d have to go about it a different way, drag the thing, chop it in half, something to slightly redistribute the load. Dragging the tree, he knew, though possible, would prove a slow and laborious process considering all the downed evergreens he’d have to work the thing up and over. Much as he might have liked such a challenge at times, he really just wanted to be done, get the tree home so he could start assembling that roof. Which meant chopping it roughly in half, and he positioned himself beneath one end of the fallen trunk, prepared to lift and prop it for chopping. But, he never got the chance.
Liz had followed him, had left him to himself for a while, sensing that he would appreciate some time alone, but was now beginning to grow concerned, as it seemed no sooner had he finished one task that he managed to set another for himself and go at it with equal enthusiasm and determination, leaving her to wonder where it would ever end. Perhaps he had no intention of allowing himself ever to be done, meant in one way or another to make up for the “extra” he’d finally allowed himself to begin eating, and keep working until he quite literally dropped. She wouldn’t put it past him to try some such design, even if not entirely consciously or with full intent, and she hoped somehow to be able to interrupt it, if that was indeed the course on which he found himself currently embarked. Will on her back, she stepped out of the firs.
“Looks like you’ve found the last tree, there.”
Einar had heard them coming, wearily looked up but allowed a slow grin to creep across his face at the sight of little Will, mittened hands peeking out from beneath the fur ruff on Liz’s parka hood and grasping the supple little twig of a nearby fir with such force that it had brought his mother up short. “Will seems to think we need that one, too. Look! He’s got it all picked out.”
She laughed, gently tried to free the branch from his hands and when she could not, broke it off and let him keep it. “When he’s old enough to drag them home, he gets to start picking out trees. I’m sure it won’t be long, the way he’s growing! In the meantime, he’ll simply have to make do with whatever we bring home, won’t he? And it looks like you’ve got the last one we needed to finish the leaning part of the roof. Can I help you carry it? Maybe if we each take one end, we won’t have to cut it in half or anything.
Einar gave a silent sigh, had wanted to do the job himself, and had just about finished forming a plan for doing so, too but now here she was and it would be slightly absurd not to let her help. Remembering something, he flashed a sudden grin, squirmed out from beneath the tree and got as hastily as he was able to his feet.
“Sure, let’s try that. It’s time to be getting on home, anyway. I’ve got a surprise waiting for you there!”