In a Chapel Built of Trees
Previously published in (b)OINK
Yes, we had a fight in the logging camp bunkhouse re-creation diorama. Yes, we did! You were looking at an old photographic print glued onto particle board — scratched, faded from greasy fingerprints — of a logging camp group shot. We had been fighting about your brother, I think. He wanted to homeschool, and you — Wait, hear me out! — were all for it, and I, yes, had some things to say about that. But, nevertheless, inside the cramped reconstruction while looking at the tiny bunks, wondering if I’d be able to fit on them myself — if, somehow, I’d found myself traveled back through time, how I’d ever get a good night’s rest on one of these beds, and that, surely, a good night’s rest is mandatory for the physically exhausting labor of being a logger, right? — we swallowed our pride and said we’d talk about it later on the drive home.
You waved me back over then. You said, “Come look at this old photograph.”
I said, “It’s not old. They probably printed that like ten years ago.”
“Print,” you said. “This old print. Whatever, you know what I mean. Quit being a shit.”
I was being a shit, and I was aware of it, too, so I joined you at your side. You pointed to the figures, waved your hands across the photograph — framed in cheesy orange-red glazed wood paneling — as if presenting a school project. I squinted: the photograph was taken in the winter. Two bunkhouses, a re-creation of which we were standing in, were encased in snow. Stacks of lumber stood in front (also covered in white), massive trunks of red and white pine felled and awaiting dissection.
Wasn’t there a term for stacks of logs like this, I thought? I had just read it on one of the other boards, I was sure. I almost asked you.
Back to the photo, then: About thirty people, men and women, a child, too, sitting on one of the felled trees, all staring at the photographer blankly. I said, “These photos always weird me out.”
“They’re always so serious, you know? It’s like they’re transfixed. Even the horses. Look.” I pointed to a team of horses off to the side that, yes, like the others, were staring impassively at the camera. “Had they never really seen a camera before?” I touched the print, ran my index finger along some of the faces — all white and impossibly unblemished like the snow. Behind them, deep in the background, the same red and white pine surrounding us and this logging village museum — yet many decades before this park, Hartwick Pines State Park, the third largest state park in the lower peninsula, was established.
And that’s what drew us there: the old growth forest, preserved pines estimated to be between 350 and 375 years old. Massive-trunked trees — some with girths of more than four feet, even! — a forest of them, untouched by man. You and I were always drawn to places like that, the serenity of those ancient landscapes. We had wandered in, gasped aloud to one another, “What was the world even like when these trees were saplings?” and stood in awe of them. The trails were quiet and we were alone. At one point, I wedged myself into the cavity of a dead jack pine, tried to make you laugh.
“Look!” I said. “I can barely fit! Want to take a picture?”
You smiled, you did — for a moment — but then you shook your head. “You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie.”
“You told me you always wanted a family.” You paused. “Two kids, you told me.”
“I’m not saying I don’t. I just…in this world? Really?”
“The world’s always been shitty,” you said. You took a deep breath. You said, “What makes us special to say no way?”
“I don’t want to make the mistakes of my parents. You know that. I dread that.”
“But you’re not them. And you have me by your side.”
“But people with kids drift apart. I like what we have now.”
“They don’t always.”
“My brother and his wife didn’t.”
And…we know where this went, right? How we got to talking about his homeschooling, how we changed topics, deflected — how we decided, in the interest of preserving the peace of the park, that we better just let it be. So we continued on in agonizing silence along the trail. There was no wind, no sounds of birds or squirrels or chipmunks. We felt miniaturized — well, at least I did — walking by these trees, spread out, standing at their bases, looking up to the sky, how they umbrellaed out and hid the sun from us, the land below some ghostly other plane.
You sighed, and we removed ourselves slowly from the bunkhouse, back to the trail. We walked another quarter mile — still in silence, although I wanted to talk to you, I wanted to make it right, but I didn’t know how. Around the bend we saw a structure, what we thought at first was a small A-frame log cabin, another reconstruction. But we realized, as we got closer, it was a chapel. The steeple was small, stunted. We wondered how long it had been here. Then, remember, we heard voices as we approached.
At the front door, two park rangers were sweeping up the entrance, mumbling to one another. “Sorry,” one of them said to us. “Let’s get out of your way here.”
Inside the chapel it was pitch-black, but at the far wall, we were marveled: a cross cut into the timbers — a chunky, massive cross, window-paned and looking out into the brush. Outside, beyond it, more of the virgin white and red pine, tamarack and jack pine. So when you looked at the cross-shaped window, all you saw was nature, this park.
You wandered up to the front to touch the glass. I took a seat in the back pew, watching. I remembered, then, back when I believed in churches, in that god. I remembered Sunday School and church dinners and all the people I spent years with who were no longer a part of my life. Except you. I remember meeting you there, our collective joy in asking our Sunday School teachers impossible questions about dinosaurs and ancient things, asking for timetables — why were there no exact timetables in the Bible? Oh, how we delighted in flustering them!
Then I snickered aloud, laughed.
You turned and said to me, “What?”
“It’s just funny to me, a chapel out here. Like these woods, this place, isn’t worthy itself to be praised.”
“People like their churches. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know.”
You put your hand back on the glass, and you started to hum — you do that, you know, when you’re inspired or anxious or when you don’t want silence when there should be words.
“What changed?” you said to me, but didn’t turn around.
I didn’t answer you. I still couldn’t, I don’t think. Or, how about this: Time changed. We met, what, junior year of high school? We escaped our families, those parts of our lives we had wanted altered and improved upon — escaped into one another. So, these trails and these hikes, these explorations of wild areas, it all made sense, you know? We made a list, we both had a copy with cute notes and doodles in the margins, and we scratched off these state and national parks as we visited them, as we questioned their formations, studied their flora.
And, yes, we talked about children all through the rest of high school because all couples do that, right? And in college, sure, we kept it up because that was the future. It was something to look toward. Another thing to cross off our list. We had names picked out and everything. At your cousin’s wedding, after we graduated, right after you took that job and were on such a high — at the reception when you zany danced with your nieces and nephews — you hugged me after and told me you couldn’t wait to have our own someday. If I could pinpoint it, I guess that was the first time I really think I felt something different. But you know what I did? I smiled and said, “Sure, of course. I love it. I love you.”
But all these years later, I remember this, the last road trip, the last state park (although we didn’t know it then). There, in the chapel darkness, the only light coming through the cross-shaped window, how I sat uncomfortably in that back wooden pew. I watched you. I wondered what our talk later on the hours-long drive home would be like. I studied your silhouette, your hair tied back, your long, slender legs. I touched my chest, balled my hand up in a fist there. Then I looked past you through the cross cut into the timbers, past you to the trees, the woods. It was all I could see.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.