That day, like many others in the teenager's life, had come to a merciful end. He had actually enjoyed the temporary reprieve during the recent quarantine, but now that life had resumed a somewhat normal schedule, he realized that little had changed. The constant noise and chaos of that school day had momentarily faded into the distance and the young man found himself once again surrounded by the familiar calm of the forest of his South Georgia home. There was homework yet to be done, but he left his textbooks in his room where they could certainly wait until he had taken a moment to clear his mind.
The toe of his shoe dug through the layer of leaves into the dark soil underneath. His hands slowly caressed the rough surface of the remains of the solid heart pine log upon which he sat. His lungs filled with the open forest air made even more pristine by the approaching nightfall. His ears heard no laughter upon the breeze. No scornful names were called. The trees did not judge his appearance or base his worth on unrealistic expectations. All was as it should be and, yet, he knew that it could not remain so. With a sigh, he rose to his feet and left the temporary calm of the forest to return to the world as he had come to know it.
He had been reassured on multiple occasions by multiple persons that high school was challenging for everyone, but there was little doubt in his mind that it was far more difficult for some than others. In that period of life when he searched desperately for his own identity, he grew weary of being told who he was by others who drew conclusions based only upon what they saw superficially. And their judgments had become quite persistent.
He retraced his earlier steps along the familiar path back home. Twilight had arrived by the time he noticed the warm lights of home through the trees. He plodded up the back steps and into the kitchen where his mother was just finishing with supper. She was drying her hands on a hand towel when she noticed his arrival.
"Getting your thoughts together?" she asked gently, for the most part concealing her concern..
"Yes," came the respectful response. "Seems to be my routine."
"And how was school?" she asked in more of a rhetorical sense.
"About like always," he replied honestly.
He then turned down the hall to wash up when he heard his mother call his name.
"You know," she began slowly. "I don't have to know everything to understand that you are much more than they think you are. I hope you understand that, too."
"I think so," came the even more honest response.
With his schoolwork done and another full day facing him the next morning, he wrapped himself in the comfort of his own bed and quickly drifted off to sleep. His dreams were unreliable in those days, but that night his wearied mind drifted back into the days of his childhood. He suddenly remembered a place, long forgotten, where the sunlight filtered down from a crystal blue sky through a canopy of long leaf pines. The ground was completely covered with a neat, thick carpet of the fallen brown needles which was almost knee-deep to the young boy. The breeze blowing in from the open field in front of the stand of pines made a soothing sound like no other as it whistled through the trees' outstretched arms and carried with it the unmistakable scent of turpentine. The entire scene had an almost heavenly feel to it, the kind of childhood sensation that one hopes to regain during the years of adulthood, but with rare, and then often only fleeting success.
The dream had brought a welcome change of pace but also left him with several questions that lingered until the breakfast table the next morning. His father, as usual, seated himself next to him and poured himself a bowl of cereal before he gave thanks and subsequently standing up to look for his reading glasses.
"Dad," he began with the dream still prominent in his thoughts. "Do you remember that stand of pine trees that we used to walk to?"
His father pondered the question briefly, having found his glasses.
"Oh, you must be talking about the old pine thicket. Well, at least that's what my daddy called it. He always told me that when he went to plow one spring, the entire corner of his field was sprouting these old Southern long-needled pine trees. You've seen these young pine trees, how they all go through this grass stage where they look like a clump of bear grass. I guess he didn't have the heart to plow them under, so he let them grow. We used to take you back there to get pine straw for our flower beds."
His father then again took his seat and poured milk on his cereal.
"What happened to it?"
"Well," his father responded with a hint of regret. "I had them cut several years ago when you were still very young to pay for a new roof for your grandmother's house. Her roof was leaking and, to be honest, neither us had the funds to cover the cost at the time. So, I sold those trees to cover the expenses."
The young man stared into his own bowl of cereal, his curiosity not yet satisfied.
"Where was it, exactly?"
"In the southwest corner of our property," his father responded between bites.
"What's it like now?"
His father shrugged his shoulders.
"Not sure. Haven't been back there since the trees were cut."
His father stopped eating for a moment.
Anything in particular that's piqued your sudden interest? "
"Not really,' the young man responded. "Just a dream. I hadn't thought about it in years and I was just curious."
His father nodded in understanding as he finished his breakfast.
That school day was Friday and, as always, he was excited for the weekend to arrive with its associated reprieve from school. However, after his talk with his father, he was even more excited as he was now quite curious to find the old location of the pine thicket. He was surprised that he had not stumbled on it earlier during his frequent treks through the woods but, being a creature of habit, he tended to follow the same routes and so he had not usually passed in that particular direction. His thoughts during the day were preoccupied with the images from his dream and the peaceful sensation of that location. Was it possible that the place still existed, or was he only being deceived by a distant memory seen through the eyes of a child? The trees, according to his father's story, were gone but perhaps a new generation had taken their places. There were still too many unanswered questions and his persistent curiosity made it seem as if the end of the school day would never arrive.
Before the echoes of the final bell had faded away, he had already gathered his books and headed out to board his bus. After giving his standard greeting to the bus driver, he sat in his usual window seat. The bus drive home that day seemed endless and he was relieved when the bus finally lumbered to a stop in front of his home. After wading through the dust from the dirt roads, he entered the house and quickly greeted his mother before he darted to his room to change clothes and put on his work boots. Grabbing his .22 rifle to defend against the occasional Eastern Diamondback, he was out the back door in a flash after explaining to his mother that he was going "exploring." Her only request was that he be back by supper, which he agreed to.
On his journey, he deviated from his usual forest path and veered southwest according to his father's instructions. He crossed near the old collapsed log cabin belonging to his great-grandparents and he could still see the serpentine handle of the rusted well pump through the underbrush. He then crossed through a grove of pear trees before passing through a stand of planted pines. His family's land extended seventy-five acres and so it was only a few minutes before he approached a corner of the property, at most an acre in size, that he did not remember noticing before. The border directly in front of him was a semicircular stand of young trees consisting mostly of young red and laurel oaks. The border was nonetheless thick enough to prevent him from seeing what was on the other side. As he approached, he saw the glow of sunlight as it penetrated the far side of the border, but he was unable to see anything distinct. Shouldering his rifle, he lowered his head to pass through the leafy border. Having pushed through the last barrier of oak branches, he rose to his full height and surveyed the scene in front of him.
What he saw in front of him was as far away from paradise as was imaginable. The subtropical forest of South Georgia had completely engulfed the area which was now a thick tangle of wild blackberry briars, beggar's lice, wild grapes and cat briar vines with some of the most vicious looking thorns that he had ever seen. Everything growing there was completely hostile. The state of that patch of earth was in such poor condition that he began to question whether he was in the right place at all. Only the existence of two young, struggling long-needled pines and the sporadic stump of a long ago felled pine tree marked it as the correct spot. He took a few cautious steps forward but soon realized that his feet were completely hidden by the thick briar underbrush and his imagination regarding what might be hidden underneath began to get the best of him. Removing his pocket knife, he sliced through a few cat briar vines directly blocking his path but that seemed a completely futile effort against such a tangle. Defeated temporarily and realizing that he could push no further, he returned the way he had come, but not before glancing back over his shoulder at the chaos behind him.
The walk home was somber as he could not reconcile his memories of the beautiful place from his childhood with what he had just seen. Simultaneously, he was not surprised by it either as everything beautiful in life always seemed to be short-lived. King Solomon had been right. Everything under the sun was futile and passing away. This was merely his latest reminder of that.
But there was more to it than that. The story could not simply end there. From childhood he had been taught that one of the most beautiful and selfless acts was the sacrifice to make something new again. To buy something back, so to speak, by giving of yourself so that something, or someone, could live again. So, in that moment of realization an idea began to take shape in the young man's mind, but it would cost him more than he could have ever imagined at the time.
It was almost suppertime when he arrived back home. The metal tool shed was just to his left as he exited the woods. Instead of passing it by as usual, he slid the rusty doors open instead and stepped inside. Looking specifically for two items, he gave his eyes time to adjust to the dim light. In the far right corner, his gaze rested on two tools, both covered in dust and several layers of cobwebs. He grasped the wooden handles of both and took them with him to the garage to borrow an additional item from his father's tool chest. Opening the top drawer he moved aside a hammer and several screwdrivers before removing a flat sawmill file. He then sat on the cool concrete floor and inspected the two tools that he had brought with him from the shed. One was an old axe whose wooden handle was weathered and faded but in which the hickory remained serviceable. The steel axe head was still solidly attached to the handle and there was some surface rust but otherwise there was no significant damage. The most concerning issue at hand was its incredibly dull blade.
"Wouldn't cut hot butter," he mumbled as he felt the edge.
The other tool was an L-shaped, heavy duty sling suitable for cutting through heavy brush. Its condition was almost identical to the axe with both of its edges dull to the point of being unusable.
"That's something we will have to remedy," he stated, reaching for the file.
For the remaining time before supper, he placed the blades on a firm surface and carefully used the file to grind away the years of disuse from the edges. As he did so, he could see the bright silver of the exposed steel as he restored the blades to their previous usefulness. He then cleaned the dust and webs from the handles and placed a light coat of oil on all the other metal areas.
"Good as new," he stated with satisfaction before placing both of the tools in the corner of the garage and heading inside for supper.
"So, what did you find on your journey today?" his father asked at the supper table later that evening. "Did you find it?"
He nodded in acknowledgement.
"I did. It was right where we left it."
"So, what's it like?"
"Well, it's a disaster if you want to know the truth."
"Really? Well, I guess I'm not surprised. It was left just as an open piece of land. The woods here tend to overtake land like that."
"The woods sure did a good job with that little acre."
"Well, that's to be expected."
The young man paused momentarily before responding.
"I've decided to do something about it."
"Really?" his father responded. "Like what?"
"I'm thinking about clearing it. You know, opening it back up and then maybe replanting it in pines when I'm done."
"Great idea, but that's quite a job you're talking about. I'll go back there with you and bring the chainsaw."
"That's ok, Dad. It's kind of something I want to do myself. It's not like I have to be in a hurry."
His father paused momentarily.
"I understand. Just be careful. You may have bitten off more than you can chew."
The young man nodded sheepishly.
"We'll find out tomorrow."
The next morning dawned to find the young man already awake and ready. He ate breakfast quickly so as to save time and get to work before the heat of the day became too overwhelming. Stepping out the back door, he could already feel the humidity clinging to him and adhering his thin short-sleeved shirt to his skin. Exiting through the garage, he found the axe and sling right where he had left them, the early morning sun shining off the bare metal of the newly sharpened blades.
The morning dew still clung to the ground as he retraced his steps from the previous day. The wet leaves made little noise as his boots pressed them into the soft, sandy soil. He again passed the rusted well pump and crossed the stand of pear trees. It was not long before he saw the barrier surrounding the little acre that had once been a part of his childhood. He then followed the zigzag path through the barrier oaks and stood in the thicket where he had stopped the previous day.
It was then that he heard it. Felt it, more than heard it, as there was certainly nothing audible. There he stood, a skinny and awkward teenager against the full fury of a subtropical beast. He was no one's hero. His name would never circulate in the crowds of the popular. His story would never be told to encourage future generations and his only two companions were an outdated axe and sling, both barely clinging to life after being snatched from the corners of a dusty shed. And for those reasons, he understood exactly what he was feeling.
The beast was laughing at him.
"You may have bitten off more than you can chew."
But instead of running, he propped his rifle and sling up against the closest barrier tree and gripped the handle of the axe. He then stepped closer to the first tree inside the thicket itself, the briars viciously tearing at his faded jeans as his legs passed through them. Firmly planting his boots in the sandy soil, he quickly glanced at the top of the tree before picking a spot on its trunk for his axe to strike. The axe then swung over his shoulder, the sunlight catching the gleaming edge once more before it sliced the air in its downward fall.