An Axe to Grind

I held no illusions about my place or function in this world. I relished routine because it was order and order was perfection. Repetition was perfection. Every day I got better and better at what I did. I took comfort in that steady swing—the to and fro in the day-to-day travel from home to the woods and back again. I was content. Perhaps I was too content.

I began most days sharp, with an edge so fine that any knife would envy me. A quick sojourn into the woods found me chopping down all manner of trees: sequoias, redwoods, oak, and ash if I was lucky, though there wasn’t much of that around these days, thanks to the man’s clear cutting. I welcomed a sapling or two to pick my teeth. The afternoon was spent hewing these fallen trunks, taking off branches and bark. I did what I could until the evening came. I rested on the grindstone, was polished, and then tucked into my corner to await the morning. I was ever steady, ever sharp, and ever ready for the calloused hand that passed me down from grandfather to father to son. The work was constant, and I was perfect for the job.

The work of cutting trees has always suited me. Trees are tough, but I’m much tougher. There is nothing quite like that first bite when the combined shock of two opposing forces connect –my energy against a tree’s inertia. Waves pulsate through my entire being and though my handle, a ripple of strength uniting me with the man’s flesh in the reverberation. I absorbed the impact; the hands gripped around me tightened. I could feel the latent throb of his pulse against my side; hear his teeth grinding together as I sliced through the bark into the heart of the tree. We struggled as one. I shaped his will and guided his purpose. It may have been a bit grand to consider, but I challenge anyone to argue the possibilities of what can be done when the right tool for the job is found. Maybe now you can begin to imagine my horror when this all changed—when the order of my existence splintered into chaos. Better to have been abandoned and left to rust into uselessness.

The light that day through the cabin windows was pale, scanty across the plank floor and hardwood table. The shadows arched away as my owner walked from his room. He made breakfast: black coffee, toast with butter, bacon and eggs, as usual. The smell of bacon grease teased around me as the cast-iron pan sizzled and steamed in its efforts. Show off. Most kitchen pans are. He packed a lunch of ham and cheese on wheat bread. I was lifted from my quiet nook, slung across his shoulder, and we picked our way across the trails on a particularly cloudy day. We had not gone far—about a hundred strides or so—when a shrill scream pierced through the copse of trees. It was a tortured, high-pitched wail that made the man halt in his tracks. He hurried from our intended destination, running along a new trail toward the other human settlements. He carried me away with him, despite my attempts to slip from his sweating fingers.

We sloughed through the mud and pushed through trees and bushes to an old woman’s house, his nearest neighbor for some miles. I’d seen her once or twice when the man saw fit for me to chop wood for her. She had tried several times to marry the man to her granddaughter. The man called out to her with no response. He tried the door of her log cabin, but it was locked. For a moment I was intrigued, and maybe even excited, as he lifted me. I’d never tried chopping down a house, but it looked to be made from sturdy enough wood. It wasn’t so different from a tree. The shape was a challenge, flat and tall; thin by comparison to what I usually fell into. It was too easy. One or two lunges and I was through. Not much of a meal. After the door, I wondered if we would start on the frame and walls—those looked to be more of a challenge.

I was sickened when we entered instead. Forged for the open woods and used to the sunlight bouncing off my silvery edges—I had nothing in sight to chop now. It was dank inside and smelled of sweat and old candy—like the kind crusted under someone’s boot. The wood underneath the blue paint was even rotted in some spots. My skills were already wasted on that door. Now what purpose could I serve? I could tell the man was distressed. He was breathing faster, swinging me around uselessly, and calling out to the old woman. The man walked through the upended furniture. I noticed the toppled table had some burl veneers. That could be interesting; but I was pulled away as he went into the back bedroom.

There was a big wolf with a distended belly writhing on the ground. He was dressed a little oddly for a wolf, wearing a printed dress. Honestly, I didn’t often care to socialize with the animate. I did once take an interest in a spatula, but it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, yellow is a trying color, but more so when up against gray fur and trimmed in lace like a doily. No one asked me what I thought of the situation. The man at my handle felt I was once again the right tool for the job, and with one great swing, my steel crossed the wolf’s stomach. I felt the immediate warmth of blood tarnish my face as I sliced through fur and skin, muscle to sinew and finally through bone, propelled by the strength of that one swing. I hit the floor, my entire body subsumed into the mass of oozing wolf. The creature’s limbs flopped away uselessly. As I was hefted once more, I could see the path of destruction I had wrought so effortlessly, severing the soft half of its lower body. Only one swing and I did all that destruction? It was so easy! In the midst of my cut was an exposed gelatinous bubble with hands pushing against it. I’m not going back in there! I protested. I was dirty enough but the man swung anyway, though not as hard as before and—splash. Digestive juices covered me and my polished wooden handle. It was abhorrent and interesting.

The man seemed well pleased, and helped the naked old woman and her equally naked granddaughter out of the stomach that had trapped them. I’m happy they’re alive—I’m an axe with some sensitivity, but frankly, at that moment, I would have much rather been cleaned. And I was, eventually, after some talk and muffins, sewing stones into the wolf, and rolling him into the pond. Events I had no part in. The man settled to sleep easily enough when we returned home, but I was fitful. Not even the grindstone had calmed my nerves. I was awake, retracing the events of the day, again and again. I thought I was powerful felling trees. It was a cleaner business by comparison, but there was something about that wolf. It may have been its softness. The man had those soft bits, too. I’d never plunged into something so quick, so readily. The wolf had pulsed and beat with life. I felt it when I cleaved its wet heart in two. There was no resistance to my edge. The same swing, to and fro; home and back again. I wasn’t so sure anymore. In the moment it had all been rather traumatic, but now it felt liberating. I wasn’t some one-trick tool! I could chop other things, and I could chop them well.

So you see, the next day, I had another problem.

I woke up and should have been ready for the forest and wood, but I found my tastes had changed. The man can’t understand, as my edges are as sharp as ever, if not sharper. I turned from the bark and the trunk. I turned from his hand, pulling him this time toward the village and his neighbors with new strength. I don’t want the heartwood of the trees. I’ve grown a taste for different hearts.

Jm HeadshotJ.M. Venturini received an MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design in 2006 and earned a BFA in Classics and Classical Civilizations in 2004 from Loyola Marymount University. Her book reviews have been published in the New Review of Literature. She currently teaches English and Semiotics in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department at Otis College of Art and Design.