Riven

The sun tumbles across the sky like the face of a log ready to be split. There is shade here, beneath the trees. Black shadows stretch like prison bars between the light shining on the mulch in our backyard. Sharp November air creeps under the sleeves of my navy-blue t-shirt. Goose bumps rise along my exposed forearms. Moisture gathers within my nose. I’m wearing these special gray-and-yellow wood-chopping gloves that my mom bought for me because I had been complaining about blisters. Where I’m standing is where the wooden playground used to stand, the one my father built with his own hands. He made it with wooden beams fastened together with metal screws and plates. There were swings and a climbing rope and trapeze rings and a ladder.

I’ve got my Sony noise-cancelling headphones around my neck, my iPod in my pocket. What I usually like to do is make a playlist with one or two albums and listen to it as I chop wood. This soothes me. It helps me relax. It helps to create the illusion that time is not passing—that time is still—that things are moving neither faster nor slower than they should be. I like this illusion. I encounter it when I write, when I read, when I listen to music, when I play guitar. It’s nice, that illusion. Sometimes I get so lost in it that I end up chopping wood for hours; sometimes three hours, sometimes five or six. This is where the blisters come in. But the gloves work. My mother chose well.

There’s a lonely stump in the middle of the clearing of trees where the fort used to be. It’s my chopping stump. I use it to support the logs I split. I tighten the Velcro on my gloves and go grab a fresh cylinder of oak, sliding it off the rack and rolling it back to the clearing. Strategically placed—by my mother—is a Jesus statue, with two plastic butterflies on sticks stuck into the ground on either side of it. To the left of that, where the climbing rope used to be, is a little butterfly tree whose leaves look like a hundred green hairstreak butterflies lifting into flight. It was planted for my grandfather—my father’s father—bought by the neighbors, for when he died. Several aged tree trunks stand with heavy feet over the ground beside me, roots stretching beneath me. The sun in little fragments through the trees.

I heave the wood cylinder atop the support log. I put my headphones over my ears; the outside world ceases to exist. I grab the axe, put my right hand beneath the head, lift it in the air, and slam it face-down into the wood. It gouges a deep incision in the center of the oak grain with a clunk. I swing again and the log breaks in two, each half tumbling off the support log to the ground. It is at this moment that I notice my father walk out from the other side of the screened-in porch with a hatchet in hand. He’s wearing a beige winter jacket and blue jeans and white sneakers and a pair of yard work gloves—the same gloves I used to use, before I got my new pair. The axe in my hand is new, with a yellow plastic handle and steel head. It’s pretty nice; my mother got it when she got me the gloves. The only annoying thing about it is that it has this rubber border around its neck which always slams against the wood, and so the rubber has already split, exposing the weak plastic beneath. I’ve duct-taped around it, to hold the rubber together.

“Hey Tommy, what’s up?” my father asks.

“Not much,” I say, trying to be brief.

He walks over to where there are two wooden racks aligned in a V, with thick unsplit logs stacked in rows atop them. My father’s had a new theory recently. He thinks that, if he cuts off the bark of each of these unsplit logs, that the wood is less likely to be eaten by the insects that live in the bark. I contend that chopping off the bark—which is meant to protect the wood from weather—actually makes the wood more likely to rot due to exposure. Like many of our prolonged discrepancies, this is something we have yet to solve.

He finds a log at the end of the row and flips it over and starts chipping away at the circular border with the hatchet. I lift the axe, swing it, hear the wood splinter—the two halves briefly hold onto each other with little wooden strands like arms—I drop the halves on the ground and slice between them, the axe sinking through mulch into soil. Little chunks of wood and dirt scatter and land on my blue jeans and in my cheap black Vans shoes. The sun is drifting like a ball of slow fire. The wind picks up and wiggles its way through my hair. My father chops at the bark.

Last night, a few of my friends got into an argument over religion. I hate these arguments. I have a vague suspicion God exists, but without evidence I can’t move the case forward. For instance, there’s the God paradox—because it’s impossible to prove whether or not God exists, arguing about it is pointless. Whether you believe or don’t believe, one argument, even if it lasts many unpleasant hours, is never going to be enough to really change someone’s mind about divine existence. Even so, the argument from last night was an especially annoying one: my friends Stephen and Isaac were arguing—Stephen, the atheist, started it—about a convent of nuns who wanted government funding for birth control. Stephen said by that logic he should get money for Viagra. Isaac—a Christian—said that’s not a fair comparison. It went on like that, fueled by bourbon and typical suburban boredom.

“So how was last night? You got in kind of late,” my father says.

“Yeah, I got a little drunk so I stayed until I was sober enough to drive.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Yeah. Though Stephen and Isaac and Patrick were being drunken idiots and arguing about religion and God again. It’s a futile argument. Nothing is going to be accomplished by having it.”

“Not every discussion has to be an argument. You can just have a conversation.”

“Well yeah but not when you have two opposing viewpoints that are immovable, like Isaac’s and Stephen’s. Pat and I contributed a little to the argument, Pat more than me.”

“But do you see how your friends were still able to have a civil discussion, despite their differing viewpoints?”

“Yeah. But it just ticks me off,” I say, swinging the axe.

“You know, if you use the log blaster, you’ll split the log faster.”

“Well, yeah, but then I get tired twice as fast.”

“It takes fewer swings, so it evens out.”

“I prefer this one.”

When I was younger, a tree fell in the backyard; I spent days trying to cut through its trunk with an axe. I never succeeded, but got more than halfway through. Later my parents would ask me to cut down a thin tree that had recently died and I would comply, leveling it with ease. Now, the wood that I chop gets used to fuel the fireplace flames in our family room—which I have enjoyed warming up near ever since I was a kid and would come back wet and cold after sledding, and which I now enjoy sitting by while I write—so my productivity often springs out of a desire to feel the warmth of the fire that these very logs I’m producing will emanate, just as how I write to read what I’ve written. My parents like to sit by the fire together, massaging each other’s aging shoulders to relax. My mother is 59 and my father 61. They like that I chop wood for them, and pay me $20 an hour to do it. My friends wonder why—with my parents paying me that much—I don’t head home every weekend. I tell them it’s because there isn’t enough wood for that, that soon enough the racks would fill and my parents would have enough for next winter—and trust me, they would, I’ve been chopping wood since I was kid, I know it well—but the real reason is that when I’m there I feel younger, like a child, insignificant, and sometimes I’ll even notice my behavior reverting to what I was like in high school, when my parents and I most butted heads. When I was rotten.

My father continues slicing the bark around the logs. I’ve gotten through maybe a fourth of what I’d get through if he weren’t out here. A couple days ago I had a pile three feet high. He told me next time I should stack the chopped wood on the rack, otherwise the woodpile would kill the grass beneath it. The Jesus statue is staring at me.

“See this is why I like writers. Guys like George Orwell and David Foster Wallace. They kept religion out of their writing, at least in terms of trying to shove it down people’s throats, unlike C.S. Lewis,” I say.

“You know C.S. Lewis was an atheist before he became a Christian?”

“Yeah but it’s not C.S. Lewis being a Christian that I have a problem with.”

“Then what is it?”

“Take J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance. He was a Christian. But, he didn’t try to worm that through his writing to manipulate people. Sure, the classic Christian good-evil themes are there, but they aren’t in-your-face like in Chronicles of Narnia, or even worse in Mere Christianity.”

“C.S. Lewis didn’t try to manipulate people. He was a Christian man and he wanted his work to reflect what he believed,” says my father. At this point he’s mostly stopped chopping the bark and is now more focused on the “conversation.” Little spirals of cloud roll slowly over the deep red evening sky. The sun is falling. The air grows cold and thin. My father’s face looks tan in the shade. He has deep wrinkles in his forehead. His glasses have rounded-rectangle transition lenses: right now they are dark from being outside. His mustache looks as if drawn with pencil, gray like graphite—or in his day, lead.

“Yeah, but don’t you see how his inserting explicitly Christian themes into his writing is kind of morally questionable?”

“No, not really.”

“See what I like about J.R.R. Tolkien is that he didn’t do that. He let the story tell itself. He let it come naturally. What I like so much about The Lord of the Rings is that it doesn’t alienate atheists or agnostics or whoever. There were all these hippies back in the ‘60s that worshipped Tolkien. And what’s funny is that Tolkien hated those people. He was an upright Christian and it annoyed him so much he once referred to them as ‘his deplorable cultus.’ I think what I’m saying is that it’s better to keep religion out of the whole thing, at least in terms of religious persuasion,” I say. With a swoop my axe cuts the final wedge of wood. I take the pieces and stack them on the rack and get a new log and roll it over to the clearing. My father continues to wage his futile anti-bark war, swinging the axe like an Iroquois warrior. His hair is puffy, silver-gray, flicked up to either end of the part like the grass swaying in the wind at my feet.

“You know Tommy, I wasn’t always Catholic. I was a socialist when I was your age.”

“So?”

“Well, it was around that time that I first heard about Mere Christianity. Writers like Lewis and G.K. Chesterton—”

“Oh don’t even get me started on Chesterton. That guy’s a chump.”

“How do you know that?”

“He wasn’t a writer. He was an Apologist. Just like Lewis. He devoted his life and work to Catholic propaganda, rather than to the art itself. And his writing suffers because of it. It’s now dated, irrelevant.”

“Have you even read any of Chesterton’s work?” says my father, a slight scoff in his voice.

“No. But I know what George Orwell thinks of him, and I trust Orwell over him,” I say.

“But you haven’t read any of his work?”

“No. I don’t need to.”

“Why not?”

“Because his work doesn’t matter anymore. It hasn’t aged well. Orwell’s work, on the other hand, has remained relevant long after his death. We still use the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe anything denoting totalitarianism.”

“And yet Orwell was a socialist.”

“No, he was a democratic socialist, there’s a difference,” I say, swinging harder than I was before.

“So does that mean he’s more trustworthy than Chesterton?”

“No. What I’m saying is that Orwell’s work is better because it doesn’t alienate anyone. Chesterton inherently appeals to Christians more so than non-Christians, so most of what his writing does is merely reinforce beliefs already held by the reader. This is the same with Lewis.”

“Well that’s not true. I read Mere Christianity when I wasn’t a Christian, and it helped me to realize the value of faith.”

“Yeah, that happens. But just as often that same attempt is made with a staunch atheist, and the exact opposite effect happens—the atheist gets mad and decides he won’t read any more Lewis; or the work of any apologist. Maybe the insertion of theology into artistic expression in an explicit way is what causes that atheist to hate Christianity even more.”

“So how is Orwell a better option?”

“Well, for one, he leaves theology out of his writing.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“It might not seem like it. But, in leaving out religion, he allows for the underlying moral values of his writing to show through universally, just like with Tolkien, or Wallace,” I say, wiping sweat from my forehead with my right glove.

“Wallace wasn’t a Christian was he?” he asks.

“Nope. But his writing didn’t try to alienate Christians. He still wanted to appeal to people with faith, even if he didn’t agree with them.”

“And what about Orwell?”

“He was a Christian. Anglican. But that was never something he let influence his writing. Maybe his moral compass, but not his work.”

“And that makes him better than Lewis and Chesterton?”

“Well obviously he’s better. But also, he’s more significant. More influential. Orwell’s work has lived on long beyond when he died, which was in 1950, a year after he published Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

“Really? I didn’t know. Even so, how does that make him better than Lewis? You haven’t even read their work, so how can you know?” he says. His tone of voice is condescending, parental.

By now I’m realizing that I’ve gotten very little work done with my father outside. It’s been a good while and normally by this time I would have a small pile going. I’m getting paid to do this and the money I make is going to be what I live off of once school starts back up. I’ve only split three logs.

“Dad can we do this some other time?”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s annoying me, to be honest.”

“Why does this annoy you?”

“Because I don’t feel like arguing right now.”

“We aren’t arguing.”

“Yes we are.”

“No, this is a conversation.”

“Well if this is your idea of a conversation I don’t want to have it.”

“Why can’t I talk to you?”

“Because I don’t like to talk while I chop wood.”

My father works for the United States government, in the Department of the Interior, in the Office of Surface Mining. He’s been there for decades, and is getting ready to retire soon. He’s conservative and votes Republican and tunes in to conservative talk radio almost every day, listening to Michael Savage and Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, among others. He hates big government and believes strongly in personal freedoms. Perhaps that’s why he often dumpster dives in the alley behind his office, snagging unopened stacks of computer paper that would otherwise be wastefully discarded. Or why he is a hound when it comes to yard sales, able to sniff one within a mile and track it down via fliers and signposts. Like me, he’s not cheap, but frugal. He is a careful man who often asks me important questions twice to ensure I’ll remember how I answered him. As I lay in bed when I was little he would tell me stories that he would make up on the spot about warriors traveling great distances to compete in fighting tournaments, or they would be carefully chosen fragments of the short stories he had written years back about a hedgehog, which had gotten denied by publishers due to their being too mild, restrained. When I was in grade school and the mornings were cold I would wait with him in his car with the heat on for the bus to come, flipping through the ZZ Top songs in his CD player, each of us singing along.

The red of the sky is drifting into blackness. Tree shadows seem to stretch all around us like spastic fingers. The clouds swallow themselves and fade.

“I think we should be able to have a discussion without arguing,” he says.

“You say that as you are arguing! You’re always trying to convince me of something.”

“No I’m not. I just want you to look at things with an open mind.”

“An open mind? You are one of the most close-minded people I know! It’s no wonder we are always arguing. You sound just like those asshole conservative talk show hosts you listen to all day. Like that scumbag Rush Limbaugh. I still can’t believe that you still listen to him—after the comment he made about the Abu Ghraib prison tortures? That the soldiers doing the torturing were just ‘having a good time.’ What? That’s insane!”

“Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer.”

“That’s what you always say. It doesn’t matter how you label him. He’s a hatemonger and what he said about Abu Ghraib was sadistic and horrible. I can’t believe you still listen to that shit.”

“Rush Limbaugh is supposed to be over the top. And I don’t just listen to him—there’s Michael Savage, Sean Hannity—”

“But you listen to it all day! How can that not have an effect on the way you talk to people? You’re so condescending about it. You don’t even consider the idea that maybe I hate the system as a whole, and just assume I’m a liberal. It’s bullshit and I’m sick of it.”

“Why can’t I talk to you? Why do we always have to yell?”

“Maybe, at this moment, I don’t want to talk to you. Did you ever think of that? That maybe I’d like some alone time, some peace and quiet so I can listen to music and relax? Talking to you about these things puts me on edge.” At this point, I’ve put down the axe and we are now facing each other, standing on the mulch, the wind swirling in little puffs and settling again.

“Well you need to be able to talk about these things without letting it get you upset.”

“I don’t let it get me upset. It just upsets me. Stop trying to apply logic to human emotion.”

“So what is it about Orwell that makes him so trustworthy?”

“The fact that, despite his having died at age 46, his works—his essays, his novels, his criticism—still hold up today, despite changing literary standards. His work is trustworthy because it touches on universal themes, and those themes are not selective in who they apply to. Unlike with Lewis or Chesterton, Orwell’s writing has stayed relevant—it has continued being significant. You know that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the two best-selling English language novels of the 20th century?”

“No, I didn’t.”

I honestly don’t know where I got that from. I looked it up later and found that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has sold 85 million copies since its release, and Nineteen Eighty-Four has only sold 25 million. And I also learned that Mere Christianity, though Apologetic, is a work of nonfiction and therefore is honest in its attempt to convince—rather than manipulate—the reader. Though what I said had swayed the argument, it wasn’t true. I guess that’s why my dad frustrates me sometimes. A lot of the time, he’s right.

Three weeks before this it was the end of Thanksgiving break and I was getting ready to head back to JMU the next day. It was that day when my father and I got into an argument about politics, which is our worst subject of conversation. As per usual, some aspect of the conversation veered into political ideology and my father’s and my conflicting viewpoints crashed head-on into each other. He called me a liberal. I called him a jerk. I’ve told him before that I hate liberalism and conservatism equally—that they are both corrupt political ideologies; yet he always implies I’m a “Lib,” even though I’m a democratic socialist. For some reason that day as we yelled at each other in the kitchen he was more belligerent than usual, and I responded in turn. I ended up saying to him to at one point: “Yeah, well, you weren’t a very good father.” Looking back on this I regret it immensely, but not because I was worried I had hurt his feelings. I was pretty sure that he would be all right. But I was mad at myself. I said that to him and then left without saying goodbye to anyone. I went to my friend Patrick’s house and waited a little while before driving back to say goodbye to my sister, who was only visiting for a few more days before going back to her home and husband in London. I still left without saying goodbye to my father and mother. It’s kind of childish but I always have this vague sort of fear that when I do that, after an argument, when I hear in my head the words my grandma is always the first to say: “Don’t go to bed angry,” I worry; what if something happens and I never see them again? My father is in his 60s and soon my mother will be too.

My father has resumed shaving bark off the logs, this time using what looks like an iron mallet and chisel. The light fades to a shadow landscape—the motion sensor light attached to the corner of the screened-in porch turns on in response. Yellow rays cross the darkness in front of me and reflect softly off the supine face of the only chopped log still on the ground. The wood seems to light up, glow even. It reminds me of an empty doorway filled with morning sunlight.

Suddenly I hear my father—who had been shredding bark off a log in the dark—yell in pain as he hits his thumb with the mallet.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I hit my finger,” he says, groaning.

“With the hatchet?”

“No, with the mallet.”

“Oh, phew. Okay good. Is it bad?”

“Not too bad. But that’s definitely it for tonight.”

“You know Dad, when I said you weren’t a very good father, I didn’t mean that at all. You’re a great father. That was stupid of me to say.”

“You know what Tommy? That didn’t hurt my feelings, because I knew you didn’t mean it.”

“I had wanted to call you afterward, the whole time I was back at school I wanted to. I just figured it’d be better to address it in person when I got back.”

“It’s fine Tommy.”

“Cool. All right, you go inside and get some ice on that. I’m gonna finish up here.”

“Okay, don’t forget to put all the stuff away.”

“I won’t.”

I hesitate for a moment.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Wanna watch Jim Gaffigan’s new stand-up routine? It’s on Netflix.”

“A new one?” he asks. Jim Gaffigan is his favorite comedian. His food- and family-based jokes are just edgy enough to be consistently funny, but also not vulgar enough to offend my father’s conservative sensibilities. In particular my dad likes his bit about Hot Pockets, and quotes it quite often.

“Mmhmm,” I say.

“Sure. You want a beer?”

“Okay, yeah. Do you have any more Yuengling?”

“No, sorry, just Michelob Ultra,” he says. Michelob is his favorite beer. Up until this point, I didn’t like it.

“That’s fine,” I say. He goes inside.

This final log has a knot in it. Right in the middle. I swing the axe once; it just bounces off, as if made of rubber. I try putting the log on its back and doing it that way: same result. I stand it up and spin it around so the other side is facing me. I take one giant swing, pulling down with my triceps and shoulders as my arms straighten—the fulcrum motion stabs the axe head deep into the log. I pull on it to take another swing, but it’s wedged. It’s completely stuck. I try lifting the whole thing, log included, and slamming it down, but with little effect. I put the log on the ground and stand on it with one leg and try to pry the axe out. Nothing. I look over on the ground and see the log blaster in all its cumbersome glory. I reposition the knotted chunk of wood on the support log, and, using the log blaster, swing and hit the stuck axe head so that it clangs like a cowbell and dislodges. I notice the gleam of the axe and the maul as they lay on the ground in the light.

Tommy Sheffield was born in 1991, in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a graduate of James Madison University, where he studied poetry under Laurie Kutchins. He currently resides in Washington, DC. He is the poetry editor for Stillhouse Press and studies poetry in George Mason University’s MFA program. He was the Managing Editor for Megan Merchant’s poetry collection Before the Fevered Snow, and is currently the Managing Editor for two upcoming books of poetry: Baltimore Sons, a collection by Dean Smith, and How to Bury a Boy at Sea, the debut collection of poet Phil Goldstein. Sheffield’s poetry, stories, and essays have been featured in ucity review, Sanitarium, Cough Syrup Magazine, Virginia’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology in 2017 and 2019, Lexia, Gardy Loo, More than Medium, and Ming Magazine.

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