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That Damned Creak

by Charles C. Cole

My friend Banjo — his real name — was nice enough to lend me his family’s cabin in the White Mountains to recharge. No one ever experienced a domestic disturbance out there; it was Webster’s definition of quiet.

In fact, I didn’t sleep the first night because it was too quiet. I needed therapeutic static. Back home, my soon-to-be ex’s snoring was the white noise that routinely helped me doze. Remembering the good times.

Morning. Took. Forever. Surrounded by towering pines was not ideal for celebrating daylight. I was lost in acres of privacy. Not another house in sight. No sounds of cars or barking dogs. No phone service. Actually, it was perfect for a lovers’ brawl: the yelling would be absorbed by the immense expanse. The worst part of fighting, I discovered, was other people listening.

I had another sleepless night; more noises than expected. Nothing a city boy could identify. Untamed nocturnal nature was loud and restless. Note to self: careful what you wish for.

I played solitaire with a custom deck with photos of family members. Banjo was the joker. Interestingly, there was no photo for the king, the result of parents divorcing early and Mom never remarrying.

More squeaking followed. What’s the sound of two trees rubbing? That creak! I found a chainsaw under the sink. I planned to find the source, cut one down for firewood to give the other room to grow. A dark metaphor for relationship amputation. I swaggered around like a stealthy hunter stalking elusive prey... until the air went still.

The wind picked up in the evening as I dozed fitfully. I heard the amplified din of an acoustical maelstrom, the strident lamentations of a tortured tree! This was blatantly abnormal, a tree crying out for attention.

Another day passed. I was dragging. The cabin had no curtains. Who needed curtains when there was no one for miles? I heard the creaking but not with enough consistency to track it down.

Then a boisterous night, like the farewell concert of Itzhak Perlman on a broken violin. I memorized the general area to search. I would find it and end it, on my terms, but not at night.

Day. I traipsed around, crunching twigs indelicately. I was nearly there when the tree quieted, like crickets do when you get close. I was so weary, punchy, crashing.

After midnight again, the creak was right there, vividly, 150 feet up the hill. I listened patiently from the porch, having learned my lesson about getting too close.

I needed an activity. What if I decoded this nonsense, made it make sense? I was pretty good at unraveling cryptoquotes, where A=Y. Crazy, but there was some nuance, like a soliloquy: long, short, high, low, a series of fast shorts and a pause. A low, long creak followed by a short pause and another, low long creak. I transcribed a language I didn’t understand. It was therapeutic.

I sneezed loudly, convulsively like my father, resulting in silence, as if I had insulted it. I sat on the musty futon, worn but attentive, vowing to stay alert, but eventually fell asleep.

Late afternoon of the last day, I succumbed to drizzle and doubt. I was fresh out of curiosity. The fire blazing in the fireplace comforted me. It crackled with life. If last night’s utterances were part of a conversation, then what was this? Pop. Sizzle. Dried gurgle. The trapped sap in some pine I’d cut was boiling, violently forcing its way out.

I had been alone way too long. My time to leave was overdue.

Back in the city, my sleep habits improved.

I dialed and hung up on my ex-wife a few times because I heard she was suffering through our transition. Who better to commiserate? But I knew, or had been told, cutting cleanly was the best approach.

I met Banjo for lunch to thank him for the cabin, and I blurted out the twisted tree business. To my surprise, he smiled thoughtfully. There was regret as well. He had never been up there alone, only with his whole chatty family, when the ruckus in the house was always louder than nature outside.

“Sounds like my father,” he said. “We spread his ashes in that area.”

“I thought your parents divorced forever ago,” I said.

“They did. For the benefit of all. But they stayed in touch. They were good people, just not good together. And, though the camp belonged to Mom, he had some quality times up there. So — surprise — my Dad’s a talking tree.”

“Or maybe he was talking through the tree, like through a radio, because he knew he had a captive listener,” I offered.

“And you tried to make sense of this?”

“I actually brought notes to give you,” I said.

He opened my translation without any hesitation. “That’s funny,” he said quietly. “I get it.”

“It’s a joke?” I asked.

“It’s a song,” he corrected me. Then he hummed it. “Don’t you hear it?” Through his selective emphasis, the tune was familiar: the theme from The Bridge Over the River Kwai. “Dad’s favorite movie. He must have used you to send me a message. His birthday was last week.”

He paid the tab, and we went our separate ways. I should have been relieved that I hadn’t made the whole thing up. Instead, I walked away carrying a heavy burden.

One of my last days, the annoying creak was overly demonstrative. I snapped. Maybe Banjo’s Dad had decided to get my full attention before I left. At that point, I was worn out and determined to have the last say, something I didn’t feel I’d had in my marriage.

On that brisk and drizzly morning, I collected dry kindling and dead branches. Then I got carried away. I hiked up to the source of that creak and, forgive me, I used the chainsaw to cut the damn thing down into conveniently burnable bits.

Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole

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