I wouldn’t say I didn’t have a career choice growing up, more that I just was barely aware there were many other options.
Dad was a logger.
Grandpa was a logger.
And his father, and his father, et cetera, et cetera.
I was pretty much born with flannel on my back and an axe in my hand (because not all stereotypes are wrong). The first time I visited a logging camp, I was three. The first time I helped Dad fell a small tree in our backyard, I was six. By the time I was eleven, I could work a lot of the smaller machinery at the job sites. And when I turned 18 and graduated high school, I got my first full time job working for my grandpa’s company as a faller, one of the chainsaw wielding guys who cuts down the trees.
It wasn’t the easiest lifestyle out there, but it was familiar, honest work and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Probably the biggest drawback to logging was the time spent away from home. Sometimes jobs would last for weeks and we’d be out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a dozen other men with few comforts and only a single phone in the foreman’s trailer to reach out to civilization with. You get a bunch of guys together that long, even when they’re close as brothers (or maybe because of it) with 12 hour days of hard labor to keep them busy and tire them out, tempers have a way of flaring.
People talk, rumors start, fights break out. Helps break up any monotony, at least.
Grandpa always tried his best to cut it off before it got out of hand though.
“None of that lumber yard talk here,” he’d bark when voices started to rise.
Lumber yards, where the “softer” men went, the ones who couldn’t cut it out in the forests and instead opted to store and sell our wood, were, in Grandpa’s opinion, breeding grounds for gossip and troublemaking. They had too much time on their hands and it made them as bad as bored housewives.
Lumber yard talk covered everything from whispering behind one another’s backs to sharing superstitions, a favorite pastime especially among the older loggers. Anything that could be viewed as upsetting or distracting had no place in my grandpa’s camps.
“You let that kinda nonsense fester, your boys break down and you don’t gotta team anymore, Red,” Grandpa was fond of advising me. “Anybody that’s got time to run their mouth ain’t working hard enough.”
For the most part, it seemed a pretty good policy and kept a lot of the crew in check. At least, the usual ones. Every now and again, we’d get a guy who insisted on trying to stir something up, but he never lasted long. We had no place for lumber yard talkers in our ranks.
Not until Jeremy joined up.
We had won a bid to do a job way up north and one of our guys cut his contract to stay home with his wife and their new baby. We needed a bucker to help delimb and cut up logs and he came with both good recommendations and immediate availability, which helped Dad and Grandpa overlook his smaller stature and somewhat squirrelly air.
Since we were both on the younger side compared to the others, we were made to share a trailer, which didn’t bother me much. I figured I could always do worse than a quiet, awkward guy for a bunkmate.
The first few days were fine, pleasant even. We swapped stories about our high school sweethearts waiting for us back home and our similar experiences growing up in old logger families. He was a nice enough guy and I thought, given some time, he had the potential to become a regular with the company.
After about a week, though, my opinion began to change.
I woke up one night, probably around midnight or so, and rolled over to see a dark shape outlined against the trailer window. Quick as I ever moved, I snatched up the large, heavy flashlight I kept beside my pillow and flicked it on.
Jeremy was standing opposite my bed in his long underwear, his face pressed up against the window with his hands cupped around his eyes. He jumped when I shot upright and half turned towards me. He looked pale in the beam of my flashlight.
“Sorry, Red,” he whispered. “Did I wake you?”
“Something did,” I said with a grumpy edge to my voice.
“Maybe it was her.”
I frowned up at him. “Her?”
“The lady walking through camp. She was in this…this long dress, I think it was white, and she was humming or something. It woke me up. I didn’t know someone brought their wife.”
“Nobody did, nobody ever does,” I flipped the light back off and tucked it back into its place before lying down again. “You had a dream, man.”
“N-no,” Jeremy protested, but now he sounded more uncertain. “I saw her.”
“Had a dream,” I said again, finishing his sentence for him.
There was a moment of silence and then I heard him shuffle back over to his bed at the other end of the trailer.
Great, I thought while I tried to get comfortable again, my bunkmate’s a sleepwalker.
Jeremy wasn’t satisfied with my explanation, though, and the next day, he started asking around about whether anyone else had seen a woman in the camp during the night.
“Just the ones in my magazine,” Pedro, one of the tree climbers, said to a chorus of snickers.
“I’m serious,” Jeremy insisted and the guys waved him off.
“Don’t let the old man hear you saying stuff like that,” Pedro gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. “Sounds a bit like lumber yard talk to me.”
“Lumber yard talk?” Jeremy asked.
“Rumors. Bullshit. He doesn’t care for it.”
I felt almost bad for Jeremy as he floundered around in denial while the others joked about his “wishful thinking”. Still, Pedro was right; Grandpa wouldn’t be a fan of Jeremy trying to pass off his dreams as reality. If the guys started thinking Jeremy was hallucinating or, worse, that someone was sneaking around camp at night, it could lead to division and mistrust.
A crew that felt like it couldn’t rely on each other could be a dangerous thing.
After breakfast, while everyone else was getting their gear prepped, I pulled Jeremy aside and told him as much. He sullenly agreed and promised he wouldn’t bring it up again.
That lasted until the following night, when I again woke up in the middle of the night to find Jeremy with his face squashed against the window again.
“Seriously, man?” I groaned.
“She’s out there, Red! Come look, quick!”
He turned and pressed a finger to his lips for quiet and I sighed, but shut my mouth and listened. At first, I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, just the usual nighttime camp sounds, but after a moment of sitting in silence, I thought I caught the faintest hint of something…odd. I leaned forward, my ears straining to make sense of it. It was soft and distant, but when I recognized it, I couldn’t deny what I was hearing.
A woman’s humming.
I threw back my blanket and scrambled up to the window beside Jeremy, but, when I looked out, there was no one to be seen.
“She was standing right out there, looking at our trailer, but she went around behind the kitchen tent,” Jeremy said quietly. “Who do you think she is?”
“I dunno,” I replied.
We were miles away from any towns, out in the middle of nowhere. Unless there was some hermit lady living in the woods on her own, I didn’t know where she could even have come from. Jeremy suggested we go out and look for her, but I dissuaded him and instead suggested we go back to bed and bring it up with the rest of the crew in the morning.
It was unsafe enough to go wandering around outside at night without adding a stranger into the mix and I didn’t want to get the crew riled up without a really good, solid reason.
I didn’t need Dad and Grandpa getting on me for spreading lumber yard talk.
By the time I woke up, I’d decided two things: it was highly improbable, if not impossible, that there really was a woman wandering around the camp, we had a couple of guard dogs who slept outside that would have been going nuts if that were the case, and I was letting Jeremy get a little too far into my head. Suggestion was a powerful manipulator, especially when someone was half asleep, and the “humming” I’d thought I’d heard had probably been my own imagination swayed by Jeremy saying that that was what he had heard the night before.
When he tried to bring up the mysterious woman over breakfast, I was quick to shut him down.
“But you heard her!” He said with a hint of frustration.
“Look, man, you gotta stop. I get it, being out so far in the wilderness like this can mess with you, but there is no woman! There can’t be.”
“I saw her! She was looking right at me last night!”
“It was late and dark, you were probably tired. Your senses are playing tricks on you,” I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “This is lumber yard talk, ok? This kinda shit is just gonna bite you in the ass. Either the guys are gonna think you’re a loon or they’re gonna get suspicious that someone, one of us, is sneaking around. You see how that could lead to problems? Nobody wants to work this job with folks they don’t trust.”
He just stared sullenly down at his eggs and bacon and didn’t respond. I didn’t need him to, though; I just needed him to lay off the crazy talk.
My words must have struck a chord because I didn’t hear any more about the supposed nighttime visitor again for the rest of the day.
I threw myself completely into my work until, after a long thirteen hours, my limbs hung like lead and the warm weight of exhaustion clung to every part of my body. Dinner was eaten quickly and then I showered up and headed off to bed, certain that no amount of Jeremy walking around would wake me.
It turned out that I was right about that.
When my alarm went off at 5am, I rose to an empty trailer.
After a quick look around, my solo search turned into a multi-man one as I recruited the others to help me. It didn’t take long to realize that Jeremy wasn’t in the camp and we fanned slowly out into the surrounding forest, shouting his name.
“Why would he gave run off?” Grandpa was walking beside me with one of the dogs, Rex, and was alternating between concerned and annoyed. Losing even a single day’s work could be devastating for the company.
“I think he…he might have gone looking for someone. A woman he thought he’d been seeing.” I said after a moment’s hesitation.
“You telling me he hightailed it home for some girl and we’re out here looking for him like a bunch of jackasses?” Grandpa demanded.
“No, he thought he saw a woman walking through camp the last couple of nights-”
“And you didn’t tell me this why?”
“It just seemed like lumber yard talk. I thought he was just having really realistic dreams!”
Grandpa spat off the side. “Dumb kid,” he muttered.
I wasn’t sure if he meant me or Jeremy and I didn’t ask him to clarify.
By mid-morning, Grandpa called the search off and told us to get back to work. He was going to call the police and see how long it would take them to get out to us. In the meantime, he didn’t want to lose any more daylight. I was reluctant to give up so soon, but there was only so much ground we could cover. The cops would be better equipped, helicopters, actual tracking dogs, it made sense to let them take over.
We all returned to camp and got ourselves ready to head into the field.
Our progress was slowed a bit by being down a bucker and I was doing my best to fill in where I could, cutting off tree limbs and prepping them for transport back to the trucks. I was busy measuring out the appropropriate places to begin trimming the third tree of the day when I noticed something unusual about the trunk. It had a large, hollow knot about a third of the way up the tree, one that had been camouflaged by all the leaves and resin and forest debris that had collected in it over the years.
Something pale was poking through from within the hollow.
I crouched beside it, brushed away the top most layer, and started screaming for help.
Jeremy’s body was lodged deeply into the trunk’s hollow, one hand outstretched up towards the opening, his features twisted in silent terror. It had been his fingertips that I’d seen.
Wrapped around him, as if holding him tight in a loving embrace, was a skeleton wearing the remnants of what had once been a long, white dress.
Both were extracted by the police a few hours and laid out on the ground before us. Jeremy’s cause of death wasn’t immediately available, but the old, rusted axe head, the kind that lumberjacks would have used many decades before, that was buried in the skeleton’s skull told her tale readily enough.
Our job site became a crime scene.
How Jeremy had ended up in that tree trunk would forever be a mystery in the official records. There were no signs of foul play, the hollow had been undisturbed for a long time, all of us who were present swore that it had been solidly covered by naturally forming detritus.
A study on the skeleton proved it had belonged to a young woman between the ages of 18 and 25. The examiner estimated she’d been in the tree for about seventy years, murdered by a single blow from a lumberjack’s axe.
No one said aloud what I suspect we all thought had happened. No one was willing to say that it was anything more than a freak and unfortunate accident. No one wanted to be caught admitting that they thought the woman Jeremy had seen in the camp was somehow also the same one they’d found in the tree.
It was too unbelievable.
It was too impossible.
It was too much like lumber yard talk.