In the Wood Pile


The neighbour has had some wood delivered and Charlie is helping stack the pile.

The day is crisp. The sky, cobalt blue. (Let’s be honest here, it isn’t cobalt blue, since that is darker, more intense than the colour of the sky right now – but there isn’t a great word like cobalt to describe the colour of the sky today… perhaps cornflower blue?) The air is still enough that the tin roof can be heard creaking. The four-year-old runs off at the mouth. A constant stream of questions and observations, intermingled with a bit of out of tune singing. His father knows he is around without looking because of the sound of him. Silence spells trouble or disappearance.

Thwack thwack thwack goes the stacking of the wood pile….

I remember the wood pile. Skinks darting through the dark crevices of the superbly stacked pile. Jarrah wood; so dark and red and rich. Part of me feels bad to burn it, like it is wasteful. But then somehow the heat of a fire, the turning outward of palms, the endless staring into the white-hot centre, the flicker of the orange flame, the sharing of warmth, feels respectful and communing.

I remember my father backing the trailer all the way down the long drive. My mother is standing to the side of the Holden directing. We duck out of sight, as my father can no longer muffle his swearing as the trailer refuses to travel straight and once again jack-knifes and threatens the corrugated asbestos fence. My mother threatens too, “I’ll go in side if you do your block!” Wood analogies fly. Wooden-headed man – my father.

In a worn-at-the-elbow jumper the father is standing on the trailer, atop the wood, and is chucking it off. Some lands straight in the barrow. Notice, he wears gardening gloves. He does it quickly. He has no reverence for the sacrificial wood. A block nearly hits the dog as it bounces off the growing pile. Then he wheelbarrows it to a place behind the garage, near the chook shed. It must be out of the rain. Standing on the trailer on top of the wood looks fun. I remember the shaggy ends of the saw-milled blocks. Like the tattered ends of a fringed beach towel. But not soft. I remember the pungent earth aroma of the wood. Some blocks have moist centres like the trees have been recently felled. Its life blood has not fully drained away. It smells of rain and forest still. But playing in the higglety piggelty wood pile, before it was stacked, was sure to end in a splinter. Parents should have known this. But no one said Do Not Play. Parents ought to have known the dilemma to follow a splinter deep in soft pudgy hands. But parents, new to being parents, have not plucked a splinter from a little person’s hand, and they know not the tantrum to follow. They have forgotten, momentarily, how much it hurts to have someone else attempt to remove a splinter. You will sear it forever into their minds with your hollers.

“Let me see. I can get it out. Just stand still. Give me your foot, your hand.” Maybe a child will let the parent have a go, the very first time it happens, not knowing yet the torment a parent on the hunt for a splinter can cause. But not after. After the digging about and the No-I-can’t-get-it-I’ll-let-your-father-have-a-try-exasperation, the wooden-handed child learns; No. Don’t poke it. A big, clumsy-fisted man can really make a mess of it.

“I have to get it out,” answers the parent. “It will fester,” is a well-rehearsed reason to have another dig around. But no amount of festering, whatever that is, will be as bad as what the parent is inflicting now and so the response to a splinter is a flat-out, “No.” Tears now and hiding in the dark corner of the chook shed at the sight of the mother striding inside to get the needle, since the tweezers won’t suffice. I will live with that piece of wood embedded in my palm for the rest of my life, rather than have you come near me with the sharp end of a sewing needle which you have sterilised over a flame.

And so after a splinter or two you no longer play in the wood pile. Not without your shoes on. Not without your father’s over-sized gloves, making your fingers useless. You don’t put your hand just anywhere and climb. You look first and deeply, rightly assess the possibility of a splinter. That pile of yellow builders’ sand – that looks the business.

Later as a young adult, in a rental house away from home, a fire is our only heating. Dogs too. A warm dog on the couch or even in the bed. A little blow heater under the desk for study when the fire has gone out. As the sun sets, the wooden house loses its warmth quickly. Draughts are many. We get a trailer load; half jarrah, half mallee root. The guy dumps it on the verge. That won’t do; that’s where a Volkswagen needs to be parked. I carry the wood in armfuls to the verandah, where it will be protected from the weather. I wear pink washing up gloves. Chips of wood find their way through my jumper and into my hair. Later, as a lie back in the bath, I find red saw-dust as fine as paprika in the shell of my ear. I learn to split the wood, just as my father had done. After all I have his old axe. The handle is worn and smooth. It is the colour of animal hide. How many times has it swung over his head and come down on the wood? It knows what to do. He cared for the axe. Oiled its sharp blade. When I should be devising cattle rations, I am outside splitting blocks. Feet firm on the ground, legs slightly apart, letting the right hand slide down the handle of the axe to meet the left as it comes down on the end of the block. The great swinging arc of the axe and the solid crack of the wood as it splits along its seam. When it is going to split it makes that sound. Pissed off at the mounting study I should be doing, I pick up the axe from its place by the front door, and take to the diminishing wood pile. There is satisfaction in chopping wood for the cool nights ahead.

But a splinter-free childhood is not my suggestion. Still play in the fire wood pile. Still chop wood if you can. Still stare into the centre of a roaring fire. Do nothing but stare. Build make-believe houses and cities and castles and walls from kindling and cut offs. Just don’t let your mother or father near you with a sharp darning needle to gently ease a splinter out. Best advice – get many splinters and be good at getting them out. Get good at gritting your teeth. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. You are the best person to prize out your own splinter.