Once Charlie was fourteen, he took charge of the operation, marshalling Peter and me while Dad went about his business. These are the times I remember, the cool fall Saturday mornings we'd eat our fried eggs and sausage together, and Dad'd hand Charlie the keys to the tractor, and tell us where to go. Under Grandma's supervision we'd put on layers of ragged flannels shirts from the chest in the hall. Also knit hats in the garish colors she (or the bargain bin) had chosen, if it was late enough in the year, and old pairs of work gloves, which were much too big to stay on my hands or Peter's.(Once I got to be twelve, which happened when Charlie was sixteen, Dad was a little wary about sending his daughter to haul wood, I think due to a advisory from Aunt Mary. So he would suggest without authority that I should stay and help Grandma with the canning and preserve-making and pickling and the other frenzied fall activities. But Charlie and Peter would have resented my absence, or at least I imagined they would.)
The first time Charlie took us into the woods by himself was an especially cold day - for me, a four-flannel morning. Peter and I sat on the rear of the trailer, watching the house get smaller as we rode through the cleared fields towards the woods, feeling every curve and furrow of the land, hearing nothing but the ungraceful constant noise of the motor. At first I spent the ride as usual, watching the ground slide past beneath my feet, seeing the tall grasses rebound, the rocks that caused my jostling. Peter was dragging a stick, producing a thin track between the thicker ones of the tires. But this day was so clear, and the sky screamed its late October blueness. When the tractor entered the wood, the newly bare trees surrounding us extended themselves as in a futile effort to scratch the unclouded glass that ceilinged them. I was shivering except for where my arm was warmed by the nearness of Peter's, but if I streched my face towards the sun I could feel its focused and gentle heat.
Before too long the noise sputtered then cut off and we slowed to a halt. Peter let the sudden stop of the tractor knock him off his seat beside me. I preferred to jump down. We were at the clearing, where Charlie and Dad with help from neighors had been chopping the wood when opportunity arose for months. Today our task was to bring trailer loads of the wood back to the house and stack it in the woodshed. Charlie had climbed from the tractor and was putting the gate up on the trailer where we'd been sitting, so the wood wouldn't fall out as it was loaded or driven back. I skipped over to the pile of wood and picked up a smaller log. Peter, actually small for a nine-year old, struggled to lift a bigger one. Charlie pulled him back by the shoulder. "Hey go for the smaller ones, man," he laughed. Peter stood still, watching a busy pair of squirrels dash up a tree. He picked up the stick he'd been dragging during the ride and scratched at the fallen leaves on the ground. I dropped the log into the trailer and went back for another.
"You could help, you know," I whispered at Peter as I passed him. He swiped my ankles with the stick and I spun around and grabbed it from his hands. "Hey!" he shouted and tried to get the stick back. It left my hands as Charlie yanked it from above and tossed it away. "Aw, quit it, botha ya." We did, and the trailer slowy filled with wood. I always picked up the logs gingerly, watching where I placed my fingers. More often than not, there were spiders and webs on the logs, or worse, damp patches on the undersides with mealworms, potato bugs, and bigger, nastier creatures. Peter knew but didn't share my aversion, and so insisted on sharing with me every specimen he discovered. I avoided the logs on the ground (at the bottom of the pile) as they were worst, and went to another pile where Charlie was removing the topmost piece. After he lifted it he put it down on the ground and stopped me from removing another.
"Hold on a minute, Syl, there's somethin' under there." Peter came over to us, but was to small to see the top of the pile. He tried to climb but I restrained him, for which he shoved me. Charlie was carefully removing logs, and handing them to us. I passed the first to Peter, who promptly dropped it at my feet. I ignored him and tried to look where Charlie was looking.
"Is it a snake? Baby snakes?" Peter was nearly jumping up and down. And then I heard it. It was the same sound we heard when our cat, Boo, had had her first litter underneath the cellar stairs. Charlie gingerly lifted one more smaller log and I saw the four tiny kittens, rolled up together, two awake crawling over two asleep. I think I must've squealed my delight.
"The cat's in the cradle..."