by Jim Bates
From under the covers, I checked my phone for the outdoor temperature. The reading came up and I blinked twice to convince my disbelieving eyes. Oh, wow. I honestly didn’t expect it to be so cold out there, but, minus twenty-eight degrees? Man, that’s brutal.
The curtain on the window at the head of our bed had frozen onto the pane of glass. My wife Meg yanked it free and used her fingernail to scrape ice off the window to try and look outside.
I watched the ice shavings fall to the sill.
“Cold out, I guess,” I said, trying to strike a congenial tone.
It fell flat. “Geez,” Meg said. “You think? The ice is so thick I can’t see a thing.”
From the next room three-year-old Allie heard us talking and cried out. “Daddy, I’m freezing.”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s like the north pole in here.” Five-year-old Andy was not known to mince words.
From their muffled voices I could tell they were both huddled under their covers for warmth.
“Coming!” I yelled.
Meg gave me a shove to get me going. “You see to the kids. I’ll get breakfast started.”
“I’m on it.” I swung my feet out of the warm covers (flannel sheets, cotton blanket, wool blanket, thick quilt) and onto the floor. “God. It’s freezing in here.” I could see my breath. “Damn. The stove must have gone out.”
“Welcome to the Northwoods,” Meg said, standing up and pulling her thick robe tight. Then she grinned. “Are we having fun yet?”
I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. “No comment.”
“Good,” she said. To make her point, she blew out a cloud of vapor. “None needed.”
She went off to the kitchen while I hurried into the kid’s room. We were living in a tiny, four hundred square foot cabin, on edge of the small town of Esker, located on the shore of Lake Moraine in northcentral Minnesota. We were on the main highway between Bemidji thirty miles to the north and Park Rapids thirty miles to the south. Our plot of land was one-hundred feet by one-hundred and fifty feet and in a grove of about one-thousand dead or dying jack pine trees, average diameter four inches, average height eighty feet. At one time it might have been dense and lovely, but now it was, frankly, mildly depressing, if you thought about it, which I tried not to. You could see right past the bare trunks of the trees to the boarded-up building across the highway and the empty homes on either side of us. In other words, it was kind of a forest, kind of not.
It was January, 2021, and we’d moved up here to get away from the pandemic. So far so good. None of us had been infected, but that was beside the point. We hardly saw anyone, let alone interacted with them, so getting Covid wasn’t a huge concern. The pressing issue was that it was so cold the very real possibility of us freezing to death kept rearing its ugly, frozen head.
We’d been here a week, and it seemed like a year.
I helped the kids get dressed and got the fire going in the wood stove that provided our only source of heat. I’d done a crummy job banking it with logs when we’d gone to bed the night before and the fire has burned out. Lesson learned, hopefully. The kids helped with the re-starting process for about a minute, handing me a stick or two, before beginning a rambunctious sword fight.
By the time the fire was roaring and the little cabin was starting to heat up, Meg had put together a warm and filling breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes.
The kitchen was small, but we were all four able to squeeze around a table shoved against the wall across from the sink.
“What’s on the agenda today, Lee?” Meg asked.
“Firewood. I’m going to cut some more,” I told her, dumping maple syrup all over my pancakes before adding a dollop to my oatmeal. “We’re going through it pretty fast.”
The woman we’d rented the cabin from, Gladys Hawkinson, initially wanted to sell the one-hundred-year-old structure. She’d had no takers, but when we contacted her about renting, she’d agreed.
“You’ll have to cut your own wood, though,” she told Meg on the phone. “I’m done with that BS.”
Meg and I agreed to her terms. I mean, seriously, I was twenty-nine and in shape from working out at the health club and running. How hard could cutting wood be?
Well, I’ll tell you, if it were sixty degrees in the middle of October, it’d be fine. But way below zero in the first week of January, chain sawing firewood was another story.
“Okay,” Meg said, leaning over to Allie and wiping syrup from her chin. “Sounds like a good idea. Make sure you dress for it.”
No argument there.
Our landlady had had ten chords of fifteen-foot logs delivered as part of the rental agreement. It was a mix of poplar, birch, oak and pine. “Here’s a chainsaw,” Gladys told us when we’d met in Park Rapids where she lived to finalize the agreement.
“Thanks,” I told her. I’d never run one before, so she gave me a quick lesson. Piece of cake, I thought to myself.
“Still want to rent?” she asked.
The pandemic was getting worse. Vaccines were on the way, but because of our age we’d have to wait a while. I looked at Meg and she nodded. We were all in. “Yep,” I said. “Bring it on.”
She shook hands with us. “It’s a deal.” And we signed the lease.
Later, I will swear on a bible with my frozen fingers that under her Covid mask she was smirking. Suckers, I’m sure she was thinking. You’re signing a year’s lease to live in that dump. It’s your funeral. Just make sure you pay me on time and we’ll be fine.
We waved good-bye and drove our Honda Fit north thirty miles to Esker. It was twenty-nine below. We had no idea what we were getting into.
That had been a week ago. The temperature had stayed way below zero and our days were spent with me cutting firewood and Meg running an at home preschool for the two kids. When she needed a break, she came out and cut wood, and I took over with the kids.
We shared cooking and cleaning and kept reminding ourselves we doing this for safety of our family from Covid. Especially for Andy and Allie. We hadn’t had our shots because the vaccines hadn’t been released yet. My parents had gotten Covid early on in 2020 and Mom and Dad had both died. All over the world, people were dying every day and it was scary, so not many begrudged us moving north, and the ones that did, too bad for them. For us, it was the right thing to do for our children.
That morning, I used the chain saw to cut a good supply of sixteen-inch-long logs. Then, after lunch, the next step was to use my axe and split them. Once that job was completed, I’d load up the wheel barrel and haul split wood to the back porch where I’d unload it and stack it inside, ready to be used in our stove. All of this while navigating through two feet of snow on the ground.
The one good thing? Cutting firewood was hard work but warm work. I actually worked up a sweat even though the day had warmed to no more than ten below. I’d even taken my insulated jacket off.
The bad thing? It was exhausting work and by late afternoon my arms were like two lead weights hanging from my stiff and sore shoulders. I’m sure that had something with what happened. I was coming down the home stretch on splitting the logs and not paying attention. (Another lesson learned, hopefully.) I took a might swing and managed to NOT hit the log exactly dead center like I should have. The axe deflected and hit me square in the shin bone. Oh. My. God. The pain was unimaginable. Not to mention the blood.
Later that night after we’d gotten the kids to bed, Meg and I sat on the couch in the living room which was the main room in the cabin. It was also where the wood-stove was located and the warmest room we had.
“How are you feeling?” Meg asked, sipping from her nightly glass of red wine.
I set my book aside, and, grimacing, tried to sit up straight. I had my leg stretched out, resting my foot on a stool. “Not too bad.” I’d opened a three-inch gash in my right leg. The doctor at the clinic in Park Rapids had stitched me up and said, “You’ve got a nasty bruise, but at least you didn’t break any bones. Go home, rest, and let it heal.”
I got the feeling he’d seen this kind of thing before.
Meg looked at me. “This is going to make cutting firewood difficult.”
She was quiet, thinking, then asked, “What do you think? Should we break the lease and go home?”
I didn’t have to think. “No. We made a commitment, remember?”
Meg smiled. “We did.”
“We’ll stay for the kids, even though,” I pointed to my bandaged leg, “it’ll be even harder.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
“I still think it’s the right thing to do.”
She stood up and kissed me and helped me stand. I put my arm around her and we headed to the bedroom. “Hold it,” I said.
“Let’s not forget the fire.”
We added more logs and went to bed.
Tomorrow was another day. There was wood to cut and bring in. We didn’t have any choice. Somehow, we’d figure out a way to make what we were doing work. We really didn’t have any other choice. We had a pandemic to try and beat. I just had to be more careful outside. Especially with that damn ax.
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