Wood Chips

By Leonard Chang


Soft

Your father has a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in one hand and an axe in another. He looks at the bottle, shakes it, gulps down the rest of the whiskey and hurls the bottle across the lawn. It floats and bounces and slides over the crab grass, leaving a trail of light green. He’s eyeing the large maple, your favorite climbing tree. He’s yelling at your mother in Korean, spewing unintelligible phrases at her, unintelligible to you since you can’t understand Korean, but his words make her flinch. She replies in English, “Please come back inside.”

Shang,” your father says. “Stupid, dumb, idiot bitch.”

You try to keep perfectly still and blend into the bushes.

Your father lost another job two days ago, the one at the boat repair shop in Freeport, Long Island. He says they are all racists, that they discriminate against him because his English is bad and he has a graduate degree in Engineering. “They think they so smart,” he told you at dinner tonight, slurring his words. “They think they know everything. But I have a Master’s! I know electrical engineering!”

He has a Master’s degree in electrical engineering yet was fired from a rinky-dink boat repair shop? At the dinner table you glanced at your mother, wanting her to point this out, but she had that frozen, glassy look. You couldn’t expect anything from her in that state.

“No one gives me chance,” your father said. “No one!” He slammed his palm onto the table, shaking the glasses, and both you and your mother jumped.

Now he’s cursing in Korean and pointing to the Maple tree. Your mother is in the doorway, rigid. You are trying to disappear. He brought out the axe after he had searched for you throughout the house, yelling your name, and finally found you hiding up in the tree. You had broken his compression gauge by accident a few days ago but he hadn’t noticed it until this afternoon. When you heard him yell your name from the garage, you turned off the TV, hurried out into the front yard, and climbed the tree. It took him forty-five minutes to find you, and he ordered you to come down. You admitted you had broken his gauge while playing with it. Instead of punishing you on the spot he looked at the tree. He said, “You too soft. You hide up in tree and pretend you don’t hear and you don’t know how hard it is.”

That was when he went back into the garage and came out with the axe.

He repeats to you now, “You just don’t know how hard it is.”

“I know,” you say without thinking. Then you cringe. Shut up, you tell yourself. Shut your stupid, dumb, idiot mouth.

“Oh, you know? You know?” your father says, throwing his head back and laughing, then coughing. “Yuhbuh, did you hear him? He knows! He knows how hard it is out there!”

Your mother says something quietly in Korean.

Your father’s expression suddenly shifts, darkens. His eyes gleam. He says something low and gutteral in Korean to your mother, who steps back. He turns to you. You keep still. “You listen to me,” he says. “I try to make you tougher. I try to make you stronger. You have to be stronger because they hate you out there. You hear me? They hate you.”

No, you think. They hate drunks.

He flinches, as if he has read your mind. He turns to the tree.

 

The Tree

The Maple tree stands in the corner of the front yard, and during the summers is so dense with large leaves that high up among the smaller branches you can sit and sway and examine your skin tinted green. Small flickers of sunlight pierce the canopy above. The leaves smell of fresh rain. You have a perfect reclining branch, your legs hanging below, your back and neck supported. You have even fallen asleep up there, waking up startled and gripping a branch in panic. You felt small knobs along your spine, but they didn’t hurt; they instead fit, notched in the right places.

You once carved your initials next to the reclining branch and worried that the bleeding sap had hurt the tree, and did not do that again. You considered but quickly abandoned the idea of building a small tree house, since it would require nailing planks into the branches.

This is your tree. You remember when you first climbed it, the day after you moved into this house. You lived in a small apartment in New York City, but after your father got a new job at an airplane company, he bought a house. But he was fired a year later. Then he took another job at an engine factory. That one he supposedly quit, though you think he was asked to quit. There were a couple of other jobs that you are not sure about, and then there was the boat repair shop.

When you first moved here, though, you had never had a yard, and definitely never had a tree. There are plenty of trees in Central Park, and even in the smaller parks around your old neighborhood, but none of them are like this one. In the winters this tree looks old and tired, its scraggly branches naked and thin, but in the summers the tree is blanketed with a thick coat of green. The leaves block out the sounds of traffic. It’s hushed and calm.

Your mother was the one who suggested you try climbing the tree when you first moved in. She told you she used to climb trees as a girl in Taejon. She said the trick was always to have one firm grip on a branch at least the size of your wrist. The older and heavier you became, the larger the branch you needed, but a good test was the size of your wrist. Any branch thinner might break holding your weight. She even demonstrated for you on a low branch, hanging from one hand. “One hand is all you need,” she told you.

Your mother watched you climb up high, always having one firm grip on a branch at least the size of your wrist. She said, “Isn’t it nice to have your own nature?”

You thought, Yes, it’s nice to have my own nature.

 

Selling Apples

Your father now approaches the tree and says to you, “You can’t hide from world.” He raises the axe with his large arms and swings down at an angle, the blade cutting into the bark with a thunk. You picture the bleeding sap and yell out.

Your father stops and turns around. “When I was your age I sell apples to help my family. I steal blankets from G.I.’s and sell for money. What you do for this family? You watch TV and hide in tree.”

You heard this story before. He always mentions selling apples as a kid, though the story often changes. Sometimes he grew the apples himself. Other times he worked for a crazy old man who whipped him when he didn’t make enough money. Once he said his father sold apples too. You have trouble believing any of these stories. You can’t picture him as a kid.

The sun is setting, the street lamps flickering on. A car drives by and slows to watch your father. The driver’s pale face is framed in the window, his white skin glowing. He stares, then seems to register that this is not a happy scene, and drives on.

Your father raises the axe again, but the handle slips out of his grip. He lunges for it as it spins away. You turn to your mother, hoping she will call him back. The first cut into the bark doesn’t look that bad. You believe the tree can survive.

Your mother stares blankly at your father. She has a scarf over her head, one she wears all the time since your father got angry at her for spending $26 dollars at a hair salon. He grabbed her neck and cut off big locks of her long hair. He said in English, “Now you don’t need to go to fancy haircutter.” Your mother let out a low moan, but didn’t fight him. She doesn’t yell back anymore. She used to scream so loudly your neck grew cold. But now all she says is, “Neh, yuhbuh,” and “Ahniyo, yubuh.” Yes, dear. No, dear. Or something like that. Her voice is quiet, a whisper, but it carries down the hall and into your room.

You say now to your mother, “Mom, the tree.”

She looks at you, then shakes her head.

Your father reaches for the axe and stumbles to the ground, the heels of his hands digging into the grass. He coughs, spits. He pushes himself up slowly, and then stares at his grass-stained palms. He says, “You see my hand? You see how ugly it is? All the cut and bruise?” He holds them up to you, but it’s now too dark to see anything. He says, “I hurt my hand because of stupid boat engines. I hurt my hand to give you house and food and clothing! And all you do is hide in tree!”

He picks up the axe. He stops. He turns to you. “Go to bed! You have school!”

 

School

This is what happens at school. You walk two miles instead of taking the bus, because you hate waiting at the corner with kids you never talk to and never see outside of school. You also hate walking into that bus and looking for an empty space next to the losers. You walk two miles and get your books from your locker and then go to your classes. You never raise your hand. You never talk. At lunch you leave the school grounds without permission and go to McDonald’s, where you eat the leftovers your mother packed. You don’t eat in the lunch room, where you are the weird kid with no friends. Instead, you eat in the back table at McDonald’s where you open your greasy tin foil package with cold bulgogi and rice. Your mother doesn’t know not to give you cold Korean food leftovers. You once asked about roast beef sandwiches, maybe even bologna or salami, but she said it was better to eat leftovers. She saves money that way. After lunch you go back to school and never raise your hand and never talk. After classes are over you walk two miles back home. You watch TV. You climb your tree.

 

Night

Your mother holds open the door for you as you walk back into the house, hearing your father chopping away in the darkness. The chops aren’t rhythmic or paced. There’s a deep ka-thunk followed by a long pause and a lighter crack. As you walk by your mother you say, “I hope he chops himself to death.”

Your mother doesn’t reply, and closes the door quietly.

You walk across the creaky floors, and don’t bother washing up or brushing your teeth. Your parents don’t care. Your mother used to remind you every night to brush your teeth, but now you can go days, even a week without brushing. Sometimes your teeth feel so fuzzy that you want to brush them. Your mother doesn’t remind you to do anything anymore. She drifts around the house. Once, you wondered what she did all day while you were at school, so you walked the two miles back home during your lunch period and checked on her. She was in back, hanging clothes on the line that runs from the house to the fence post, and when she finished that she sat down on the concrete steps and read a Korean novel. You don’t know why you spied on her. You stood in your neighbor’s yard and just watched her. She would occasionally put the novel down and look out into nothing. The clothes swayed in the gentle breeze. She doesn’t have any friends here, although she had a few when you lived in the city. She once wanted to take the train to visit her friends, but your father wouldn’t let her. He told her that there were killers and rapists and muggers, and she couldn’t go alone. So now she seems to read a lot of Korean novels. When you watched her during that lunch break, though, she didn’t seem to be reading at all. She just stared for a long time. Eventually you had to get back to school.

Your mother now watches you from your bedroom doorway as you climb into bed and pull the sheets over your head. You prefer to sleep this way, coccooned. You hear the ka-thunks coming from the front yard. That’s too many chops for the tree to survive. You picture the deep, painful gashes in the trunk, the bleeding sap. He’s a murderer.

Your mother says, “Go to sleep.”

Another chop echoes from outside.

 

Late Night

Sometimes when it’s late and you are supposed to be asleep you’ll listen to your father yell at your mother in Korean. “Neh, yuhbuh,” she answers. “Ahniyo, yubuh.

But tonight you hear her shuffle to her bedroom as your father continues chopping the Maple tree in the dark. Thunk. Thunk. Crack. Then, a long pause. Your mother’s bed creaks. You and she both wait, and then your father continues. Ka-thunk.

Before you moved to this new house, when your father worked for a utility company in the city, you lived in a small apartment with dirty carpets. Your mother would sit on your bed at night and tell you stories. Even though you were getting too old for bedtime stories, you would ask her to tell you a good folk tale from her childhood. You liked the ones about the clever animals. You have forgotten most of the stories, and you are too embarrassed to ask her to tell them to you again.

You do remember one of them, however. You remember the one with the she-bear and tiger who prayed fervently to become humans. To test their resolve, their god told them to stay in their cave for one hundred days, eating only roots and garlic, and only then would they become human. So they did this. The tiger became more and more restless, however, while the she-bear sat quietly. After many days the tiger couldn’t stay in the cave any longer and ran away. The she-bear continued to wait without complaining. After the hundred days passed, the god turned her into a beautiful woman. The god then turned himself into a human and married her. They soon had a son who became king of Korea, and ruled the land for fifteen hundred peaceful years.

 

The Fall

When you hear the loud cracking sound, the wood-splitting groan and concussive thud that rocks the house, you jump out of bed and run into the living room. You see large green leaves plastered against the front window, a jagged pattern of green and brown lit up from the living room lights. You open the front door and a branch pops in and slaps the top of your head. You forget for a moment that this is your tree, shocked that there are large leaves and branches blocking the doorway. You feel the cool evening air filtering through. You smell the familiar rain smell.

You thread your way through the branches, climb down the steps, and see your father leaning on the axe, bent over, wheezing. The tree trunk isn’t cut cleanly through—a large shard of splintered wood still connects the stump to the fallen tree. He looks up. He yells, “Go to bed!” He pushes himself up and surveys the trunk. You remain still, staring at the split trunk.

He takes a step towards you, raising the back of his hand. You run back through the tree branches to the front door. A twig cuts your cheek.

 

Sleep

You fall asleep and dream of a pirate walking across your living room, his wooden peg leg clumping on your floor. Thunk, thunk, thunk.

The pirate changes into a tiger, and jumps out of the window, leaving your mother sitting on the sofa, reading a Korean novel.

 

Morning

When you wake up, you climb slowly out of bed and head to the bathroom, but then you remember the tree. You run to the living room and see the clear window. Looking out, you are startled by the open sky, the blues and whites. It seems much brighter in the yard now. Lying on the front lawn are large pieces of the trunk and branches, piled and stacked in neat rows.

You hurry out in your pajamas. Seeing the tree in pieces, seeing the empty space, you let out a startled breath. Your father must have spent all night chopping this up. You study the wood chips sprinkled across the gouged and rutted lawn, and without thinking, you begin collecting the larger chips, shoving them into your pockets. When your pockets are full, you hold your flannel pajama top out as a basket and continue gathering more chips.

The front door opens, and you look up. Your father, his hair sticking up, his eyes and cheeks puffy, squints. He surveys the yard in surprise, staring at the stacks of branches.

You hesitate, then continue collecting more wood chips. The morning dew has left a moist film over some of the chips, but you don’t care. Your pajamas are getting wet. Your toes squish in the thick crab grass.

You hear your father sigh painfully as he limps down the steps and towards the garage. You wonder if he’s getting the axe, though there doesn’t seem to be anything else to chop.

You continue collecting wood chips, thinking of what you will do with them. Maybe you will carve small figurines, small animals, like a she-bear. Maybe most of them will be lost in a fire three years from now when your father will leave a cigarette burning on the sofa. Maybe you will carve an oval pendant that you will give to your mother, and she will keep it for twenty-six years until her death from ovarian cancer. Maybe you will then hang it on your bureau mirror, where it will gather dust but remind you on occasion of your maple tree and how your mother taught you how to climb it.

 

Wood Chips

Your father reappears from the garage with a plastic bucket, glances at you, then looks away, his eyes embarrassed. He moves next to you and bends over with a quiet groan. He begins collecting wood chips, plunking them into the bucket. A car drives by, slows, then continues. As it turns the corner the only sounds around you and your father are faint early-morning bird chirpings, and the plunking of wood chips in the bucket.

 

Leonard Chang is the author of six novels, including CROSSINGS, published last year. He studied Philosophy at Dartmouth and Harvard, and received his MFA in Creative Writing from U.C. Irvine. He currently lives in Santa Monica and teaches at Antioch University's MFA program. For more information, visit  LeonardChang.com.

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