The Lumber Town
2nd of Ortum Solis, Mordie, 221 AN
Coraleth Mae Albrynn lifts a hand to shield her eyes from the sudden burst of sunlight. It’s mid-morning. By now, the air in the plains below is getting warm, but for us mountains-folk, the weather is almost always mild. The summers are dry and warm, and the winters are bitterly cold. It’s been said that it’s always hot in the plains.
Beneath the shade of her hand, Coraleth sees Sawmill Cabin, the home she shares with Papa, come into view from around the bend. Perched on a pile of lumber, in the bed of a bumping, swaying wagon, she has to tightly grip the side to keep from falling over as they round the bend. This wagon is one of eight loaded with wood, stayed in the wagon beds by ropes or by the hands of eager young helper boys. Though she isn’t much help loading or unloading the heavy logs, she still tags along on these trips to help hold the lumber down during transport.
She hops off the wagon as it pulls up behind the sawmill. Lucas Kayde appears on the last wagon rounding the bend. When it, too, halts near the sawmill, he jumps out and waves a hand. “Happy birthday, Cora!” he calls.
She smiles. “Thanks,” she says with a wave. Cora steps out of the way of those unloading and focuses on the day’s work ahead of her.
The first cart backs up to the bare patch of dirt at the bottom of the steps from the sawmill, where the new lumber, freshly cut, bucked, and limbed, will be piled for debarking, decking, or sorting, and finally, cutting, until it travels down the length of the saw shaft and lands on the now empty space on the ground. Immediately after cutting, each end of the split wood receives a generous glob of tallow mixed with beeswax from the chandler in the plains-folk town of Dirstwich. This seals the wood for drying. Then, it will be loaded onto other carts and driven off to a huge, flat cliff down the mountain. There, they are stacked under a makeshift roof to dry over the summer months, then delivered to plains-folk towns like Bannerford, Hale, and Dirstwich. And since it’s the beginning of logging season, every able-bodied male of Atherton works at their individual jobs, whether they are sealing, loading, unloading, driving, or stacking. Every man has a task. Every man, and Coraleth.
Lucas approaches and stands next to her, breaking her mental analysis of this week’s workload.
“Where were you all morning?” she asks him.
“I helped some other men move a tree that had fallen into one of the streams. Why? Did you miss me?” He offers half an exaggerated grin.
“So much,” she replies sarcastically, then gives his shoulder a shove.
“So how does it feel to be seventeen?” he wonders.
“No different than being sixteen,” she returns, then sighs as she surveys the men working. “Quite a load today. Think we’ll get all of this done this week?”
He laughs. He always laughs when she says that. It’s better to laugh at it than to worry about it, though worrying is much easier. If they fall behind during logging season, the wood won’t have its required drying time, and all of the wood they process is for the plains-folk towns, in exchange for food and coal for the fireplace. If they fail to process enough or in good time, the families of Atherton will starve and freeze come next winter.
Lucas’ father, Bowen, calls to him from around the cart. “Lucas, let’s get some work done yet today.”
Lucas nods once to Cora, then obeys his father. With the help of the other men, they pile the raw lumber from the first wagon on the patch of bare ground.
Lucas looks at her after dropping a log onto the pile. “Your father is out at the springs?”
She nods. “Every Mordie when the wagons roll in, he’s out there. Didn’t you see him when you were out there?”
He shakes his head and hefts another log with the help of Gideon, another friend of Cora’s. They drop it on the pile. “When does he get back?”
“Not for another hour or so. Why?”
He shrugs and lifts another log. “Nothing.”
Cora leans against the railing of the raised wooden platform and visually traces the river that disappears up the side of the mountain and also flows behind Sawmill Cabin, running the waterwheel that powers the sawmill. Papa is up there somewhere, among the web of mountain springs for which Atherton is well-known. He cares for the streams that run around town, removing contaminants so the water stays pure for drinking and washing, and to keep the waterwheel from getting stuck. She wonders why he wasn’t around when the men were moving the log out of the stream.
Cora inhales deep and tastes the energy in the air around her. She wrings her hands in anticipation of the work ahead. This last winter was dreadful, as every winter is, being locked away in the cabin as a monstrous cold settles into the town, kept from doing anything really useful. With the food products of summer trading, gardening, and hunting carefully measured to last the season, she passed the time by maintaining the waterwheel with Papa or by fixing and upgrading her tools and weapons. However, even that got stale after a few weeks. By the end of the last month, she was looking outside every day to check if the snow had melted yet. When it finally had, she sang with joy.
Certainly, Cora’s favourite nights of the year are long-awaited logging nights, where she can collapse exhausted into bed and know she’s done something productive. Then, she can rise early the next morning to do it over again. The diligent workers around her add to her enthusiasm, and the familiar scent of the freshly cut fir logs dances on the breeze like a welcome friend. She enjoys that scent much more than the smell of the tallow and beeswax used to seal the logs. She’s thankful that her days sealing the wood are long over. Usually, a younger worker is chosen for that job.
The first wagon finishes unloading and pulls away. Already, a log is propped up by the lip of the saw shaft. She clamps calipers around the log and hauls it up until it rests before her. Swiftly, she runs her handled blade across the bark to skin it off. Lucas jumps up beside her and she shifts over. He helps turn the log so she can debark the other side. Debarking doesn’t take her long, especially these narrow trunks. She’s done it for four years now, and she can finish a log in less than fifteen minutes. But Lucas is here now so he’ll debark the rest. The two of them are the fastest at debarking.
Once she’s got the bark off the first log, she tugs it to the saw and aligns it on the rack. Then she steps back and pulls an old iron lever. The familiar harsh, grating sound fills the air as the saw cranks to life, given power from the waterwheel that sings her to sleep every night. Little wheels beneath the log propel it forward, but she needs to press a firm hand on the opposite end of the log to keep it steady. Sawdust flies into the air from the splitting wood. She watches with satisfaction as the wood splits evenly, and pulls her hand away a second before it reaches the blade. When she began working at the saw, she cut her hand many times against the blade, but practice taught her what moment she had to take her hand away.
As the log lands with a satisfying thunk on the ground, Cora turns and Lucas already has a log nearly shaved of its bark and ready for the saw. She steps up and wordlessly takes it from him, quickly finishing the job as he starts the next one. They have to move fast. Approximately thirty logs are carried in each of the eight wagons, so they have to process about forty-eight logs a day to finish two-hundred and forty by Quindie. Sidie and Solisdie are spent felling, bucking, and limbing, and are the most gruelling and difficult days of the week. No matter how much she enjoys the hard labour, if she had to do it all year, Cora might drop dead from exhaustion.
About an hour later, Papa emerges from the forest and waves as he approaches the sawmill.
“How’re they doing today, Dale?” asks a man who stacks wood onto the wagon, referring to the streams Papa cares for.
“Good,” Papa says. He walks up and stands behind Cora, waiting until she finishes her current log. Finally, she turns to him and he hands her a single violet. Even with his thick, grey moustache hiding his lips, she can see his smile clearly in his silvery blue eyes. “Happy birthday, Cora-Mae. You left before I got to tell you this morning.”
He’s the only person who calls her that. She lifts the flower to her nose and inhales the sweet fragrance. The violet is a symbol of good luck and productivity in these parts, and its appearance means a better chance of a warm, dry season. “Thank you, Papa,” she whispers.
His warm eyes caress her face sweetly. “You ready to eat yet?”
“Not yet. We’ve only just started,” she replies with a little laugh, tucking the flower into the pocket of her trousers. Lucas pushes a log in front of her and she scrapes away the remaining slivers of bark before pushing it through the saw.
Papa nods and pats Lucas on the back, then disappears into the cabin. Off to prepare the meal, no matter how early it is. He’s responsible for feeding all of the workers, and after five hours of hard work, they all tend to eat a lot. A good portion of the year’s food is eaten up during logging season. Cora’s heart warms with love for him. At fifty-six, he’s still so hard-working, so faithful, to her, to this town, to his work. How steady he is, like the streams he so diligently cares for. He’s always been like a steadfast pillar in her life, even though his hasn’t been easy.
Mother was a rich woman from the plains, who was accustomed to the warmth of the sunshine and good food. Papa met her when he was driving a wagon, delivering wood to plains-folk towns. They fell in love in a mere two days, and were married before he left. She came with him to Atherton, though he warned her of its harsh winters and frequent diseases. She seemed immune to the illnesses until her sixth winter. That year, the workers had fallen behind, and Atherton ran almost completely out of food. Mother had just given birth to her fourth child, Coraleth, and it was a wonder she stayed alive when the rest of her siblings, including her mother, died.
Papa was absolutely devastated. Three of his children, his beloved wife, gone in one winter. He raised Cora alone, taught her to always work hard and love her work. She thinks now that he meant to attach her to this town, to logging, so that she wouldn’t leave when she came of age. She doesn’t think it ever occurred to him that she would always remain here, even if she had hated logging. She’d stay for him.