Issue 2, Summer 2007
Deep in the Northwoods
by Peter Anderson
He was drunk again, but so far he was only halfway gone.
He was still able to keep his wits about him, holding his liquor better and better each day. Which was a blessing, as the relentlessly punishing work was steadily taking its toll. The demand for lumber and paper seemed to know no slow season, and though it was the dead of winter the crews attacked the tree trunks and branches furiously with axes and saws, their physical toll being of minor importance compared to the volume of lumber harvested.
The alcohol got him through the pain of the pitch-dark nights without incapacitating him from working the next day. His body was still strong enough for the work, and the alcohol strong enough for the pain. But all the cheap whiskey in the Northwoods couldn't kill the incessant loneliness. He had no one here, no friends, not even acquaintances. He only had fellow workers, other solitary men who fled to this desolate outpost from even more desperate conditions elsewhere. But he had no one to share warm words, old jokes, bold lies. He had left his whole family, a wife and four children, back on the farm in North Dakota, defying the westward tide of thousands who were seeking redemption on the Pacific Coast.
He left behind his failing Dakota wheat fields, where yields were moderate but market prices lingered at historic lows, and came east to Minnesota on rumors that men were needed to harvest lumber. On foot, he crossed half of North Dakota and most of Minnesota, signing on with a lumberman on the freezing shores of Winnibigoshish and being hauled the rest of the way, deep into the shadowed woods, on the back of a flatbed truck. The wind sheared through his thin overcoat, chilling his bones but failing to dampen his rising spirit.
He now had work, he marveled, and only had to cross one state to find it. His room and board would be taken care of, the lumberman assured him with a shout through the rear window of the truck cab. He would have plenty of money left over, he figured, to send back home to his family. He would still be their provider, as it should be. It was a man’s duty on this earth, one which he assumed proudly with no hesitation.
All along he had fully expected overwhelmingly hard work, interminable hours and squalid living conditions, and he wasn't even particularly surprised nor upset when his paycheck came to considerably less than what he had been promised. That, he could live with.
But he hadn't counted on the loneliness. His family was so far away, and out of communication. His short letters, which he sent along with as much cash as he could save, went only one direction—west. Though he knew Emily couldn't read, he hoped his oldest would read them and take the time to write replies. He needed to hear their words, longed to hear the otherwise mundane minutiae of their lives and be reminded of what he was working for.
One night in late February he was again drinking heavily, partly to numb the pain which wracked his body, but mostly to obliterate the sadness from his heart. He stood at the bar alone, as he did every night, leaning forward on his elbows with his head cast downward. His thoughts were still flowing too freely. He was at least an hour's worth of drinking away from thinking or feeling nothing. It was only in such a deadened state that he could get to sleep at night.
He was still pursuing the deadening numbness, raising his head to order another, when a sudden movement to his left startled him. Turning slowly, he was surprised to see a young kitten, all white except for a few brown patches on its head, which had jumped onto the bar and was now staring curiously at him. He had never cared much for cats, but despite his inclinations he slowly, instinctively, reached out his hand. The cat cowered briefly, then raised up trustingly, its eyes narrowing into slits, and rubbed against his fingers.
Purring immediately reverberated through the kitten's tiny frame, and he found himself scratching behind its ears, under its chin and along its neck, the kitten responding to his every touch with affection. After a few minutes the kitten tired of the physical contact but was in no mood to leave, instead lying down to rest. He leaned forward with his elbows on the edge of the bar, with the kitten nestled protectively inside his arms.
The bartender came to take away the empty glass, asking if he wanted another, but the man said nothing. He didn't even look up, instead whispering quiet gentle words to the kitten which dozed peacefully, its twitching eyelids only occasionally acknowledging his presence. The two remained for nearly an hour, until the bartender irritatedly announced closed time and shooed the kitten away.
The man stared after the kitten as it jumped down and sauntered away, disappearing behind a pile of planks which rested opposite the bar. The barroom had opened long before the building was fully completed. The men needed the bar but not so much the building itself, so the bar opened for business almost immediately to serve the temporal needs of lonely men such as himself.
He left the building quietly and alone. But the lightless walk back to the bunkhouse somehow didn’t seem as dark as all of the other nights.
He had truly needed alcohol to get through his nights and days, but after that evening things were changed. Though he still came to the bar every evening, right after his return from the clearing, he drank little, simply nursing the one obligatory beer which was the price of being allowed to linger. He lingered solely for the kitten, which replaced alcohol as his nightly companion. Sometimes he spoke to it, sometimes scratched behind its ears, but for the most part they merely idled contentedly, the kitten on the bar encircled by his resting forearms.
He found that, despite drinking only a minimum amount of alcohol, his physical pain seemed much less severe than before, and his loneliness even less so. He was saddened by the inevitable arrival of closing time, though only because it meant separation from the kitten. But he always knew he would be back the following evening, drawing considerable comfort from the thought.
With spring and the planting season rapidly approaching, he would soon be leaving the logging camp. He gave his notice, looking forward with hopeful anticipation to returning home, and resolving to leave nothing of value behind at the camp. On his last day of work, he collected his meager belongings and his final wages from the paymaster. His last stop was the bar.
This bar might have once become his final destination; here he might very well have drank his way into oblivion, delaying his departure for a few months or perhaps forever. But on this day, rescued from his grim fate, he strode through the door and found the bar empty, which fit his intentions perfectly: no questions, no objections, no strong words. Just silence, which he gently broke with a low whistle.
The kitten emerged from behind the pile of planks, gazed at him with a friendly look of recognition, and made no resistance as the man reached down and gently scooped it up. He slipped the kitten inside his coat, supporting it with his left arm which he held pinned against his torso, and exited the bar as quietly as he had entered it.
The walk of several miles down the logging road to Winnibigoshish went quickly, the man thinking only of his journey's end and feeling only the warmth of the creature inside his coat. He regained the highway and, now moving with the tide, had little trouble hitching a westward ride which, along with several more along the way, would get him back home.
He had saved his family through the dark and desolate winter of the Northern Plains. Just as the warm creature, now sleeping peacefully inside his coat, had saved him.