At dusk he’d return, his hands would be cracked and blistered from the heat of the sun, glistening from the sweat of his work, and battered by the order he was laboring to create.
His ax, he’d return to its place with force, into the side of the stubborn old swamp maple just below my bedroom window. Each day, slicing though the air and chopping a new notch in the body of the tree. It was as if he was putting the day to rest with the last bit of strength he had left. Each day leaving a new chink in the armor.
I can still hear the - CCCRAACKK - of the ax. It was like the sound of a slap. A single note of applause. Try it .You can mimic it. I swear it is the same noise. Each morning he'd take the ax. Each night he’d return it - CRACK.
Today, when I think about it...when I try to really remember those hot summer days...I struggle to picture him coming home. I can’t visualize him walking up from the woods. Nor can I see him tired, or triumphant, or defeated from the day. And I certainly can’t see him replacing the ax. And maybe - the more I think about it - maybe it is because I never did see him come home? Maybe I couldn’t watch, maybe...he just looked too tired, too hunched, and too broken.
But I can feel it, the same way you can feel a rainstorm or the color of dusk, you know? I can still feel him coming home...and I can hear the sound of it. I remember the crack.
Every evening. Crrrr-Ack.
A little deeper. CRACK.
A little deeper still.
Then came that morning. The morning of 'the Chippening.' I ran to the window expecting to start the day, except, it was much later than usual. And when I looked out from the window, the ax and my father were already gone. The ritual was broken; all that laid behind was the tree. The old battered maple, no longer upright. No longer standing. Its top laid low around its base, its branches looking up at its trunk, roots and crown now level with each other. It must have splintered and fallen in the night.
The odd part was that I never heard it fall. When my father came home at dusk, I heard the CRACK, like I usually do, but I never heard the tree fall.
I saw the ax, I saw the deep cuts...I saw the Chippening.
Deep down, even then, I thought it would hold.
Deeper and deeper, I saw that ax make room in the trunk of that tree. Deeper and deeper, until there was not enough to hold the weight. And then that morning came, while I was in bed, while I wasn’t there, while I wasn’t watching - it toppled.
No one was there to see it.
I was only there to see what was left. The remainder. The Chippening.”
Patrick looked at the man, giving the man’s story a beat and time to linger. He considered everything he said, took a large gulp of suds, and responded thoughtfully, “I think it would make more sense if you called it ‘The Chipping.'”
The man finished his drink and let Patrick buy his next round.