From the author: Lumberjill, the niece of a famous lumberjack, travels to the Great North Woods--or what's left of them. She is very clever, but the fauna of the forest is unlike anything she's ever known, with many quirky creatures living in the remnants of uncut timber, most of them inspired by Jorge Luís Borges' account of the creatures supposed to live there.
The Great North Woods stretched all around them. Or what was left of it, anyway, after Jill's uncle had harvested so many of the trees. But here the giant trees still stood, their crowns so thick that little underbrush grew between the trunks. Standing treasure, like a bank just waiting for Jill to withdraw the money. The lead wagon created the road that the other horses followed simply by rolling ahead between trees. Jill ran her fingers lovingly over the axe-head lying in her lap as she pictured the new house awaiting her up ahead.
Nestled in a fold of the forest should lie a clearing, growing around what for now would be a lumber camp. And in the center of that clearing, built of the very trees that had stood in the spot, her house, her own cabin, waiting only for her to arrive. And then...she planned to live in that cabin and harvest the trees all around and float them down the river and become wealthy. A true tree baroness. Perhaps even the inspiration for her own tall tales.
A piercing noise broke through her thoughts. First she thought a teakettle was whistling in the woods nearby, but then she realized how absurd that was. There was no kitchen nearby, and no wandering forester would carry a teakettle through the woods. Her woods. Her horses were getting skittish, but none of the men in the other wagons seemed concerned.
She called out to Hardroll Hal, the lead wagoner. "What is that?"
The noise stopped then, and his answer only had to compete with the creaks of the wagons themselves. "It's just one of the local animals, miss. Don't worry."
"But what is it?"
"A teakettler." He turned and flashed a smile back over his wagon to her. "Don't really know what it looks like, though. Few people've ever seen it."
Throughout the rest of that day, the noise pierced the calm of the forest many times, and once Jill thought she saw a cloud of steam behind one of the trees, but she never saw the teakettler itself.
What light had made it through the trees at noon disappeared long before Jill thought the sun should be setting. As they circled the wagons among the trees, Hal agreed.
"The trees to the west here are so big, they're like mountains. The sun sets behind their crowns hours before it sets on the plains."
In the early dusk, flies the size of bats swooped around Jill's head as she waited for supper. When Hal finally brought her a plate of food, she was surprised to see something besides the usual impossibly thin pancakes soaked in weak maple syrup. Instead it held a large fillet of some kind of fish, though still drowned in syrup. She took an eager bite and was carried back to the mighty waterway she had grown up on, the river that connected the lakes of the Great Woods to the ocean. She closed her eyes and savored two more bites before she paused.
"What is this? How'd you catch it?"
Hardroll Hal smiled in response. "It's upland trout. One of the men caught some after we stopped."
Jill took another bite. "Trout, huh? I didn't notice any river nearby."
"No, no river. They're upland trout. They swim in the air and nest in the trees. They're scared of water."
Jill looked up in alarm, expecting to see schools of fish swimming above the wagons. She could see nothing but the firelight reflecting off the leaves high overhead. With a shrug she finished her trout and prepared for bed, unsure if Hal had been serious or only making fun of her.
The next day they were to arrive at her lovely cabin in the woods, and she dreamed of it waiting there for her, as anxious to see her as she was to see it.
When the wagons rolled out of the woods into a tiny clearing, she was sure they couldn't be there yet. Where was her cabin? All that stood in the clearing was a small logging camp, in good repair despite how few of the surrounding trees had actually been logged.
Hardroll Hal's grin had disappeared, replaced by a look of sheepish perplexity. "This is the place, miss, but..." He swept his hands around and ended the motion with a shrug.
Jill felt anger boiling up within her. This was supposed to be her house, her own little place in the woods. But instead...nothing. Just a tiny lumber camp. Her famous uncle had sent these men into the Great Woods to prepare for her. What had gone wrong?
She stormed into the bunkhouse and stopped, not knowing what to say. Inside stretched the rows of cots for the lumberjacks, and on them sat the lumberjacks themselves, playing dice with the hard-boiled, square eggs of the gillygaloo. All heads were turned toward her. Jill just stood there with her mouth hanging open.
"Umm, err, can I help you, ma'am?"
Jill turned her head and saw the one man there that wasn't a lumberjack, couldn't be a lumberjack. He was small, shorter than Jill and skinnier than Hal, bespectacled and holding a fancy pen. Switching the pen to his other hand, he held out his ink-stained right hand.
"I'm Jimmy Inkslinger. And yes, before you ask, from the same family. The very same." He ended this with a nervous little laugh.
Jill ignored the hand. "What's going on here? Why aren't these men working? Where's my cabin?"
"Yes, umm, well you see...there's these monsters out there."
"What? What kind of monsters?"
Jimmy Inkslinger glanced around the room as if to find help from the wooden-faced lumberjacks. "Well, err, we don't know, you see. We call them, umm, hidebehinds because whatever you do, they're always hiding behind you. You think one's there, but you turn around and it's not there. Cuz it's, umm, hiding behind you, you know." His voice trailed off at the end as Jill's stare bored into him.
"You're telling me my house isn't ready because you're scared of some bogey man in the trees?"
"Bogey man, no. It's...one got Bill. And there's... missing..." He stopped talking and just stood there as if scared of Jill.
"Well then. I need someplace to sleep tonight, and I hope you don't expect me to sleep in here with all these men." She kept talking over Jimmy's protests and assurances. "And tomorrow morning we'll see about these hidebehinds. Be ready to chop down some trees and build me a house."
With Hardroll Hal's help, she cleared Jimmy's things from his small room at the back of the bunkhouse and moved her own things in. Hal tried to apologize for everything. "Your uncle sent good men, Jill. Why, Jimmy's grandfather Johnny..."
"Yes, Hal. I've heard my uncle's stories of him too. And don't worry. It wasn't your fault. Just...could you sleep right outside my room for tonight? I don't know any of these men my uncle chose."
At dawn the lumberjacks stepped awkwardly in pairs out of the bunkhouse and toward the giant trees that towered around the clearing. Each pair was tied back-to-back so one faced ahead and the other walked backwards to keep up.
"Don't try to both chop at the same time," Jill called after them. "When one of you gets tired, just flip around."
The sounds of axes chopping quickly filled the small clearing, and later the buzz of saws, zipping back and forth as two pairs of lumberjacks worked together on each tree. Pull, ease, pull, ease. Trees fell throughout the day. And no one was attacked by any hidebehinds that day or the days that followed. Some even claimed that the sight of men with no place to hide behind scared the hidebehinds so badly that they immediately became extinct throughout the Great North Woods. Or what remained of it.
The logging continued apace, the clearing growing steadily larger in the following weeks. The dropped trees piled up too, the mighty pines that would become Jill's cabin. It soon became clear that they were felling more trees than they would need for the one building, so Jill culled those that were too large or too bent or too full of pitch or too full of knots. These were the beginning, the start of her journey to wealth. And so many trees stood all around, just waiting for her to sell them downriver. When Hardroll Hal returned with his wagon-pulling horses, she enlisted him and his fellow wagoners to bring the extra logs down to the Rapid River.
As the horses plodded slowly through the woods pulling the fallen trees, Jill wished for her uncle's mighty ox, who could have taken all those trees at once and not broken a sweat. But horses were what they had, and with horses they made due. For three days they labored through low-lying and regularly flooded land until they reached the river.
Jill was ready to rename it the Swamp River. The land all around stank so badly she had to pinch her nose with every breath. The bat-sized, biting flies were so thick that Hal and his men built a bonfire with one of the logs so the smoke would drive them away. Jill watched the one part of her wealth disappear in flame and smoke, but she knew it was worth it to protect them from the flies.
Beneath the shield of smoke, Hal spoke of stories he'd heard. "Farther north, they have what they call 'horse-flies.' It's no wonder no one lives there. Flies the size of bats are bad enough. Imagine the fire we'd have to build to drive away flies the size of horses."
Jill didn't dare answer for fear she'd have to stop pinching her nose.
The next day as they rolled the logs into the Rapid River, Jill saw a sight that made her forget completely the smell of the swamp. A rabbit ran across the path before her, but suddenly it was gone. From the corner of her eye, she saw the rope that had snatched it disappearing into the brush. Her first thought was that one of the men had learned to lasso like the legendary—and probably exaggerated—heroes of the Wild West. Pecos Bill and impossible characters like him. Only, all the men were down by the river.
Jill stepped from the path in search of the answer. Beyond the thin line of brush she found it. Standing there, happily eating the rabbit it had caught, was a creature unlike anything she could have imagined. It was the height of a pony, and instead of a snout or muzzle or nose of any other kind, it had a rope, tightly coiled.
Hal came running and met her back on the path. When he peeked over the bushes, he returned, laughing. "It's only a roperite, miss. It does no harm, unless you're a rabbit anyway. They live all around the Great North Woods. Or what's left of it, anyway."
Jill's breathing had returned almost to normal, and now, her fear fading, she was curious.
"Why don't we ever see them at the camp then? We have plenty of rabbits."
Hardroll Hal pointed toward the river. "They seem to like to crouch by the rapids in the evenings and catch themselves some fish too. No rapids back at camp, so no roperites."
They began the journey back the next day—traveling much faster now the horses had no logs to pull—and arrived late the second morning to find a quiet camp, all sounds of axes and saws absent. Jill wondered if the hidebehinds had returned.
She hurried into the camp to the same scene she had witnessed at her first arrival—the men playing dice, and Jimmy Inkslinger cowering in a corner.
Before she could ask, Jimmy was stuttering beside her. "Yes, well, the axes, you know. They eat the axehandles, and what good is an axe without a handle?"
"What are you talking about, Jimmy? Did the hidebehinds come back?"
"Hidebehinds? No. No." He twisted his pen nervously in his hands. "It's the axehandle hounds. They've come through and stolen all our handles. We can still saw, but what good is that if we can't chop too?"
Jimmy brought her outside and showed her the pile of axeheads.
"They've been coming at night. They'll even come into the, umm, bunkhouse and steal them from under the, err, beds."
Jill looked at the axeheads, looked at the place where her little cabin was supposed to be, looked at the clearing that still wasn't quite big enough to build in, and felt her shoulders slump.
"I'll figure something out," she heard herself say.
Back in her room, she took out her own beloved axehead and rubbed it with an oiled cloth. Her fingers moved in tiny circles over and over all across the head, tight spirals that she hoped would untwist her mind.
The repetitive motion finally served to relax her, freed her from frustration so she could think. Her uncle had once had seven giants who worked with him, the Seven Axemen who refused to even use axehandles. Instead they tied their axeheads with rope and spun them around in circles, chopping trees as fast as any saw could saw. She tried to picture the lumberjacks of the camp doing the same, but she knew the only result would be chopped limbs. None of them had the strength of a giant or the skill with rope.
Suddenly she sat up, her precious axehead nearly tumbling from her lap.
Jill rushed from her room and shouted for the men to gather around her.
"I need half of you to hunt the axehandle hounds."
The lumberjacks looked at each other and shrugged.
"We'll skin them," Jill continued, "and make leather from their hides. According to my uncle's stories, axehandle hound leather is as tough as wood. It'll take time, but that will give us new axehandles."
Now the lumberjacks were grinning at the plan. Half of them quickly left to grab their rifles and track down the creatures.
"The rest of you will just have to keep sawing what you can. Saw up the logs that are down and prepare them for making my cabin. You'll have more soon enough."
Next she turned to Jimmy Inkslinger. "Hardroll Hal and the rest of his wagoners and I need fishing poles and bait."
"Fishing? Umm, but I don't know..." He stopped, his eyes on her hard face. "Yes, ma'am. Fishing it is."
That evening, Jill and Hal and the other wagoners all climbed into the trees and looked for the upland trout runs. Did the air ripple there over those treetops? Did those rocks down below make the air rough like rapids? By the time the sun set, they had caught several dozen of the water-fearing fish.
"And tomorrow we'll set the trap," Jill said as she bid the men goodnight.
Jill traveled alone to the river, carrying only a basket of the upland trout. The swamp air again filled her nostrils, but this time she didn't care. As she neared the river, she kept alert for any sign of the pony-sized roperites.
Taming the animals took longer than she'd expected. But they slowly developed a taste for the upland trout, and Hal's men kept her supplied with plenty of fish as the days passed. Each evening she moved a little closer to the clearing, a little farther from the river, and tossed the trout to the roperites, and slowly they followed her, coming closer and closer until they would eat straight from her hand.
After a week and a half Jill returned, not with one roperite, but an entire razzle of seven roperites, each as tame as a house cat.
Then it was time to train them to swing an axehead.
The first results were not encouraging. Jill managed to pull the rope snout of one, carefully, until it was fully extended, but as she tried to tie it around an axehead, the roperite whipped it back, out of her hands. She quickly ran to the animal's head and caressed it to calm it down, then repeated the process.
After one full day, she had trained one to let her tie the axehead in place. She was too exhausted to attempt any further training.
Being herd animals, the entire razzle were soon permitting Jill to tie their snouts around the axeheads, but they were slow to understand what to do with them. While she worked diligently with the animals, the lumberjacks prepared the leather axehandles from the hounds and sawed what could be sawed. Finally, her house was beginning to take shape.
The breakthrough in training came one night as Jill sat exhausted in the bunkhouse and the lumberjacks played their dice. The gillygaloo eggs—square so they wouldn't roll down the steep sides of the mountain where the birds lived—were not favoring one man, a quiet lumberjack named Jake. When he'd lost all the money he had, or all the money he cared to lose anyway, Jake stepped away from the game and sat near the fireplace where Jill was also. Ignoring her, he pulled out a sheaf of paper and a large pencil and proceeded to draw a picture of the roperites in their makeshift corral outside the bunkhouse.
Jill looked away into the leaping flames of the fireplace. She could easily imagine that each flame was another of the strange and unbelievable creatures that inhabited the Great North Woods. Or what was left of it. She imagined the fire getting smaller and smaller and those wild animals crowded out until only a few remained.
She decided then that once her cabin was built, she would stop clearing trees. She didn't need a huge clearing around her cabin, just enough for a small garden and with how things were developing, maybe a pasture for the razzle of roperites.
Jill shook her head and cleared the flames from her vision, and the first thing they fell on was a roperite. What was one of the animals doing here in the bunkhouse? She squeezed her eyes shut and snapped them open. Leaning forward, she finally realized that it was merely a picture of a roperite, a drawing on Jake's piece of paper.
At that moment she had her flash of genius. She grabbed another paper from Jake's stack.
"Draw me a rabbit."
His eyes were wide, as if she'd spoken in some native language. After a moment, she realized that her demand had come out of the blue in a way, with no warning. She decided to soften it.
"Please." She smiled, but that seemed to surprise the quiet lumberjack even more. So Jill just set the blank paper before him and sat back quietly, though she didn't take her eyes from him.
Jake turned the paper slowly in his hands for a moment, as if looking for the rabbit already there, and then he drew. In moments, she could have sworn a rabbit sat there on his lap.
Now he smiled at her.
"Some day they'll all tell tall tales of you and the creatures you brought to life just by drawing them." She paused to take a breath, worried that her gushing was too much for the quiet man. "Can I have more of these rabbit pictures? I'll take you off sawing duty tomorrow and you can draw all day."
"Hunting," he mumbled in response.
"Hunting. I'm on axehandle-hound hunting duty tomorrow."
"Fine. We'll take you off hunting duty."
"I like hunting duty."
Jill closed her eyes for a second. He was an amazing artist but not the brightest man, it seemed. "All right. Next time you're on sawing duty, you can help me with the roperites. All I need is for you to draw rabbits."
Jake only nodded as he took out another paper and drew something new, some other creature Jill had never seen. She went to bed hoping that he wouldn't forget.
The next morning, he was waiting for her in the corral, his paper under one arm.
When she approached, her question must have shown in her face. Before she could ask it, he said, "I traded with one of the men. I'll hunt tomorrow."
And so they set to work. While Jill got the lead roperite fitted with an axehead, Jake drew rabbits. Jill placed the first picture against a tree, and before she could even step back, the roperite's snout whipped out. The axe grazed the sleeve of her shirt and embedded deeply into the tree.
After examining the clean, straight cut in her shirt, Jill carefully worked the head out of the tree until the roperite could pull it back. Then she jumped out of the way as the axehead came flying back at what was left of the picture.
This time when the roperite drew back its snout, Jill tossed it a chunk of meat and went to examine the tree. The two strikes had hit in exactly the same place, just to the right of where the rabbit picture had been. Looking up at the tree and how it stood in relation to the trees around, she decided where the next picture had to go.
By the end of the day, the roperites had chopped through a gross of rabbit pictures, each one differently posed and completely lifelike. And they had chopped grooves for saws on the larger trees, had felled many smaller trees, and had trimmed the branches from logs already harvested.
Jake's hands could hardly hold his pencil. But Jill was ecstatic. "You were amazing!" She kissed his cheek, and he seemed to forget his sore hands and the pencil now lying at his feet. "By tomorrow we won't even need the pictures anymore. We'll just put a piece of paper where we want them to chop, and 'thunk!' it'll be done."
It wasn't quite so easy, and Jake drew many more rabbits in the days that followed—he'd found that he was willing to miss hunting duty to help Jill with the roperites—but by the week's end, the animals were chopping just as Jill had predicted.
By the time the axehandle hound leather had hardened, the lumberjacks barely had need of axes themselves. And when Hardroll Hal next rolled into the clearing, Jill's cabin was complete.
That was when she broke the news to Jimmy Inkslinger that he and his men were no longer needed.
"But...what do you mean? There's, umm, so many trees here for us to chop and, err, saw."
"Yes, and I want there to be trees here still, so I can have my cabin in the Great North Woods. Or what's left of it."
"But these trees could be worth a lot of money. We could just stay on for, umm, a year, and float them on down the Rapid River. Good money."
"No. My clearing's big enough. I have my cabin and a pasture for my roperites."
All Jimmy's blustering did nothing to change Jill's mind, even when he brought up her famous uncle.
"Sorry. You'll just have to go. I'm sure my uncle left other forests for you to clear. I have your payment here." She counted out money from the earnings Hardroll Hal had brought back upriver from the trees they had sold. Jimmy Inkslinger snatched it from her hands even as he kept up his argument that she needed them to stay. Finally Jill just turned away.
And so Jimmy Inkslinger and his lumberjacks joined Hardroll Hal's supply line as they left behind the Great North Woods. Or what was left of it.
But Jake stayed. He'd grown so attached to the razzle of roperites, and Jill needed someone to help her care for them. Or that's what she told Hal anyway. And for many years after, his lifelike drawings trickled east to the cities and amazed people everywhere with images of everyday life and the unbelievable animals in the Great North Woods. Or what was left of it.
This story originally appeared in FlagShip.