Claire Younger Martin
If A Tree Falls
The dog was fast and feral. A huge goddamn dog. I thought it was gonna kill me, but I couldn’t run because my boss made me haul his new Minolta out there with me. If I had to choose between Chief Austin’s camera and my life, I would pick the camera. My palms would sweat and the first few lines of the Hail Mary might revisit me, but I wouldn’t move an inch if a piece of company equipment was in danger. This dog just ran closer and closer until–BAM. It stopped right in front of me, almost skidding a little and cocking its head to the side. Then, it started panting and wagging its tail and trying to lick my hands.
“Shame that didn’t kill me.” I thought.
‘LOCAL JOURNALIST MAULED BY BIG DOG; CAMERA STILL INTACT’ would’ve been a headliner I’d pay to see.
Since I’d nearly wet my pants before finding the guy I was supposed to interview, I figured there’d be no harm in exploring the place a little more. The front of the house was real pretty, covered in these old red bricks. The front porch I was standing on smelled like rotting wood in the open air, and the wooden floorboards were damp and full of small, fist-sized holes. I swear there couldn’t have been another house for miles. I started knocking on his door, lightly at first, then getting kinda loud, but I got nothing. Then I tried banging on it with both fists. So I was out there in the middle of the woods pounding on a stranger’s door, shouting about how I was there from the Edward Daily News to hear about the seasonal thaw, and this big brown dog’s just sitting on the porch watching me with its ears set back.
I moved to Edward, Michigan because it was tiny. I couldn’t afford to stay in Chicago after finishing college and my head needed some clearing, so I packed up my car a week after graduation and drove north. But I was quick to realize it might’ve been too small. It was so small that the fishermen got their morning coffee at the same place the local church held their pageants. Chief Austin was both the police chief and also the managing editor of the local newspaper. If you looked at an atlas from fifteen years previous, sometime in the sixties, it showed up as nothing but rolling sand dunes on the map. Every single resident attended the summer bonfires made for bringing the lumber to burn from all their oaks and evergreens that had fallen to the predictably brutal and extensive winters. They brought their firewood to the shores of Lake Michigan, told stories about the storms that uprooted the trees, and roasted hot dogs over their ashes. And it was so small that the two biggest events of each year involved the announcement of some stupid pond freezing and thawing.
The announcer and pond-keeper was a rosy old man named the Freeze-Thaw Man. Clever, right? I didn’t know his real name, but neither did anyone else. When autumn rolled around, the front page of the paper would wait until it could hold the headline ‘FREEZE REPORTED,’ then again in the spring for the thaw, or usually almost summer for these parts. I heard it was the same every time, with the exception of a couple years ago in ’74 when the word ‘freeze’ was accidentally spelled and printed with two ‘Zs.’ Not as appalling of a mistake as you’d think for Northwestern Michigan’s leading, and possibly only, news source. Since Chief Austin gave me a job collecting stories that winter, he was sending me on all the petty missions because I was new in town. ‘FERAL CATS HIDING UNDER PORCH’ and ‘SNOW CONTINUES’ were some of my most exciting reports. When he assigned me the Freeze-Thaw Man interview, he made it sound like a privilege.
“Kai, I’m putting you on the thaw.” He said. “Since it’s gotten a little warm, folks are starting to wonder why the guy hasn’t come out with anything yet. Think you can do it, boy?” The next day, I drove half an hour up the lake and down a gravel trail, walking another five minutes to get to his front door. It would be just my luck that he wasn’t home.
I decided to walk around back to take a look at the famous pond I was supposed to write about. I hopped over some sawed off stumps and took a look at the place, suddenly aware of how high the sun had gotten. The ash trees there towered over the sagging cottage and it was so warm that the mud had gotten soft and my boots were wet. Could melting ice have a smell? I thought it did. The pond rested at the far end of the yard, yellowing reeds circling it about half and acre’s length from the back deck. But that dog was still following me. My boss told me there’d be a ton of dogs but it was the strangest thing, I could only find this one. But I dropped that because it was starting to get real warm out there, which was a feeling I guess I’d forgotten about after months of getting snowed in. I took off my coat and sighed upward, thinking I’d never felt anything so sweet.
When that dew started sticking to my skin, I had to give myself a minute to take it all in. I set the camera and my notes down on the back porch of the place and sat to pet the dog. He was so friendly, panting with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth, but felt like he hadn’t been bathed in years. I figured that old guy just couldn’t care for that many dogs at once, if the rumors were true about his pack. The noon sun was so high that I had to squint at everything, so the whole place looked like a glimmering dream in the only way an early springtime like this could. Like it was blinking back to life. Sure enough, off in the corner of the property I could see that pond I was supposed to ask him about. Something started pounding in my throat when I saw that the thing had thawed already. The Freeze-Thaw Man hadn’t announced the Thaw. But next thing I knew, a breeze started knocking his wind chimes together and the sound just carried me right over to the trees.
I hadn’t seen a Forget-Me-Not in months, maybe in almost a year. But they were starting to bloom a little there. And the milkweed too. Not a lot, just enough to start looking familiar, fuzz growing on the stalks while they sprouted up on the edge of the tree line near the side of the house I’d just walked around. That winter softened everything, I thought. It had to have been so harsh, tearing everything away, that it was all coming back cautious. Everything I stepped on, even the pine needles, were soft under my boots. Austin had said just weeks earlier that we’d never see the light of day again. I believed him at the time, but I know he’s usually wrong. The dog rolled onto its back for me to rub its belly, rising and falling quickly with its breath. Right about then, I looked up into the sun and saw those downy bits of pollen swaying between the branches. They stayed up in the treetops. I saw them all floating in that light and I remembered just how wrong he could be. The place was so far out in the woods that I couldn’t hear the highway anymore. Just the dripping and patting sound of snow melting. The place was so pristine, I began to feel for the first time that year that moving to Edward had been a good decision. I stopped stroking the dog for a moment, lost in thought. It yipped softly, and I went back to petting it.
And that’s what brought me back to my senses. I was out there all alone with this dog, thinking pretty hard about how pristine things felt. Just about in a trance with how untouched the place was. No one had gotten their hands on it yet. But then I realized that someone did live there and I was supposed to be speaking with him right that minute on the job. Not only that, but this man was rumored to have a load of guard dogs, and I’d just trespassed. I got to thinking that maybe the guy picked up and moved without telling anyone, maybe leaving all of his things behind. He could’ve packed up and taken his dogs out east, maybe toward Lake Huron. I heard they were warming up faster on that side of the state anyways. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame him for not waiting the thaw out for once.
I walked up to the end of the pond nearest to the porch and the dog followed. It was a sizable pond, stretching into the woods like a small lake. The water by the cattails was real murky after sitting stagnant all winter. I thought of all the frogs and the fish cooped up under that mud, getting tired of each other. The dog left my side and ran over to a willow on the bank and got quiet for a minute, just staring at me. Then it whined a bit, pawing at the ground and waving its rust-colored snout back and fourth. I remembered my old family hound then, thinking about how her own anxiety would make her paw dirt the same way when she’d buried a dead fish or felt thunder coming. That churning in my stomach came back and my heart was thumping. I nearly tripped over myself running to the dog. But then, I slowed down for a moment and collected my thoughts. I imagined Lake Huron and saw the Freeze-Thaw Man on its shores with a mass of happy canines at his feet. The dog whined again, but louder this time. Its tail stopped wagging when I reached it.
My knees buckled. Right there under the first and nearest whisp of a willow branch was an outstretched arm. The Freeze-Thaw Man’s arm, curled into a beckon.
I followed it, creeping until I was hovering over his body. His eyes were closed lightly as if they were going to flutter open and I was afraid I’d wake him if I moved too suddenly. His face was angular and especially hollow with age. But something about his form seemed forced, if not twisted. His beard was whiter than I’d seen in pictures and he struck me as an awfully short man. That’s when I realized that his lower half was resting in the reeds, partially submerged in the water. Gone. I was sure of it. All the way dead.
I felt a wave of nausea and noticed my coffee from earlier burning it’s way back up my throat, making me heave. I caught myself before I vomited on the willow tree. I’d seen dead people before, but they’d always be dressed up, hair combed back, resting in a rigid catnap. Those people felt only halfway dead. But this was different. The Freeze-Thaw Man, a local celebrity, had frozen and thawed with the pond itself. His dogs probably ran away when they got hungry with the exception of the one standing behind me, nudging my calves with its narrow head and whining. I scratched it behind the ears and bent my neck up to anchor myself in the treetops again before looking back down. After a moment of staring at the guy, I decided I’d better pull him up closer to the tree, then head into town for help. Perhaps an unnecessary thing to do, but some strange sympathy was telling me to. I was gonna get Austin’s headline. Front-pager, no doubt.
Now, where I may have laid eyes on corpses, I’ve never laid hands. But I reached under his arms and dragged him up with one swift grunt. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the stiffest thing I’d ever felt. I stopped to look at how far I’d gotten him. I was breathing hard and getting light in the head. His face and shoulders were tight, his torso a bit compact too. He was still dressed in an old overcoat, one that reminded me of my Great Uncle’s old sailor uniform. The big, embossed buttons that surely once glinted in the sun the same way as his were now crusty and dark. My eyes moved down a bit farther, finally meeting his torn black trousers where they cut off at the knee.
“Well, I’ll be.” I thought to myself. “It looks like his legs end where his pants do.” I leaned in to take a closer look. The pants weren’t torn cleanly, they’d been shredded at the base. I looked again, feeling something cold work down my spine. My stomach dropped. His legs ended at his knees.
Two bony stumps stuck out through the bottom of his trousers, right where the tears began. Flesh and fabric had been torn together and frozen. Black fabric and striated pieces of collapsing muscle wove together, now gleaming in the first sun of springtime. A kingfisher rustled on a branch overhead, sending willow leaves raining over us. I blinked a few times, double-checking to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. My vision started to blur then and I thought of the time my cat brought me a chipmunk when I was eleven. The thing would’ve fit in the palm of my hand and it had been ripped in two, sinewy guts hanging out. I rubbed my eyes, looked back down at the Freeze-Thaw Man’s legs, and threw up right next to that dog. It jumped back and yipped again, then both of us just stared at one another for a while.
Of course, I got back to town eventually. I drove myself slowly; I had to stop every few minutes to empty my stomach. I’d pull over, retch into the grass while truckers honked at me, and keep going. When Chief Austin saw me, he threw me his pack of cigarettes and asked me if I’d seen a ghost. He laughed at himself until he started choking and I told him to call up his police.
“I got Kai standing here mumbling something about the Freeze-Thaw Man dying in the pond. He’s saying something about man-eating dogs but I can’t understand him. Send the guys out there today if ya can?”
For the record, it was a front-page story.
‘FREEZE-THAW MAN FOUND DEAD AFTER THAW’
Chief Austin moved me to more demanding stories after that, some personal favorites being ‘ESCAPED CONVICT FOUND LIVING IN SELF-DUG HOLE IN FOREST’ and ‘LIGHTHOUSE TOURS BRING OUT SPIDER SWARMS.’
Come August, all the spring softness had been baked and hardened in the sun. The mud was dryer and the leaves turned redder, sooner. The shores of Lake Michigan receded several feet revealing an old, rusting break wall that even the Edward historians forgot existed. All the townspeople repeated the same small talk by the time the second bonfire in July had come and passed.
“Did ya hear? They say it’s gonna be another nasty winter.”
I didn’t stick around to find out. I lived in Edward until the end of summer. After Labor Day, I packed up my car and drove east, just a year after moving there. Not Lake Huron East, but New York East. I got a job offer reporting for a bigger publication. Austin told me I was going to report for most uppity, useless damn people in the country, then gave me his Minolta as a gift and told me to get the hell out of his office.
A week before I left, I decided to go through some old police reports to see what had been written about the day I found the man thawing in his yard. It was a small file, the body had been buried and the house was supposed to be torn down whenever the city got around to it. The dog had been taken to the local pound. The next day, I found myself at the front desk of the county animal control in front of a sleepy-eyed receptionist.
“Sorry, mister. Our records say that the dog was dangerous. We had to put it down immediately. It’s just protocol.” I wound back, preparing to storm out. But instead I stuffed five dollars in their donation jar and walked out the door.
If a tree falls in a forest, if a man dies in a pond. One would hope that both could be silent and swift. People don’t ever care about the stuff that comes after the summer storms that tear down trunks, anyways. Small town mythology can’t do justice to every fallen evergreen, but they’ll gladly let them be chopped into firewood and smoldered into the sand they rose from.
But never mind. I’ve got no more business counting the rings on a tree stump than I do staring into the guts of a dead chipmunk. The cycle of winter and summer is the only thing I’ll give any credit to anymore. Winter starves until it is starved, summer warms until it burns itself up. Frost and defrost, whitecold and whitehot, Freeze and Thaw. Just like that.