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Flash Fiction Reprint: Jolene McIlwain’s “Seed to Full”

Seed to Full

Jolene McIl­wain


After you’ve felled the tree and dragged it from the site and hauled it to the mill, one of the first things you do is scale it, mea­sure to find out how many board foot it can yield.

Always mea­sure the small end.

Accord­ing to the Ver­mont Log Rule, a log with a diam­e­ter of 11 inches cut into a nine foot length offers up about forty-five board feet. One that’s 36 inches in diam­e­ter, same length, should yield 486 board feet.

Then you have to grade it.

Check for knots and branch stubs, seams with ingrown bark, ring shake, gum spots in black cherry.

I’ve started to teach our daugh­ter, Myra, how to grade and scale and she’s shown promise. She has a head for num­bers, for recall.

We’ve had this busi­ness for thirty-five years. My father sought out per­mis­sion from the Bishop to start up before I was born, and he’s been milling every sea­son since. Now I’m sawyer and he’s more known for his work as a ham­mer man or saw­smith, fix­ing our saws and those of nearby mills, Amish and Eng­lish.

Myra’s inter­est lies more in his job. By the time she was four, she knew the dif­fer­ence between a cross-peen, twist­face, and a dog­head. She knew how to mea­sure blade ten­sion and dish­ing when she was only eight. It comes nat­u­ral to her. To right things. She doesn’t even flinch when he pounds out the saws.

Then there’s the saw kerf, the width of cut made by the saw. That loss has to be fac­tored in, too. I can tell you exactly what each cut will do. I can tell you what type of cut is best for each kind of job: quar­ter sawn, rift sawn, flat sawn. I can tell you the type of wood or how wet it is by the sound it makes when it meets the blade.

What I can’t tell you is how much my wife Hannah’s been hurt by how I’ve cut her or how wide the kerf is that I’ve laid upon her heart.

When you marry, scrip­ture says you are joined together, but in truth, to do that you have to be cut away from your fam­ily, you cut away from your­self. These cuts are nec­es­sary.

But I’ve done more than that.

I’ve given her another seed that wouldn’t grow.


My wife Hannah’s like a quar­ter-sawn board, the kind that’s best for floor­ing or treads on stairs–it’s sta­ble, doesn’t eas­ily pro­duce sliv­ers or warp or cup, like flat-sawn wood. Flat-sawn’s best only for visual appeal, like my eldest brother’s wife. Rift-sawn’s the worst cut of all, like my mother-in-law.

That’s why it was so hard to take when Han­nah slammed the screen door on me after I showed her the cas­ket. I’d built it straight and true from wood I’d myself sanded and stained, rubbed with lin­seed until my hands were raw.

Too small,” she whis­pered. Only that.

But lit­tle Daniel fit into it eas­ily, despite the thick blan­ket she’d wrapped him in. Per­haps she thought her love for him might some­how expand his small body, might help him to con­tinue his growth, even under­ground.

It’s 31 ½ x 13 ¼ x 11 inches,” I said, as if to con­vince her.

Myra stood at my side. Han­nah just stared at us and shook her head, back and forth and back, again and again.

I used poplar, known for its straight-grain, uni­for­mity of tex­ture, its light weight — though that never mat­tered, for when I car­ried what I’d made to the grave, my boy inside my box, I could barely find strength.

I thought Han­nah would be pleased.

She’d been the one to find the small stand of poplars near Sidle Creek. She used to go there and lie on the ground beside the creek, the swell of our son part of her sil­hou­ette, and twirl their tulip-shaped leaves round her sec­ond fin­ger and search the tops of the trees to spot their blos­soms.

But she didn’t even touch the box. Turned her head when I told her it was cherry stain I’d used. She’d have none of it.


Note: Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Spring 2016, The Fourth River.


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