James closed the door to the cabin with his foot. He carried an armful of carefully cut wood in his arms and went to the potbelly stove and opened its door, shoving in wood. He kept his eyes down, careful not to look at his mother Juliette. She shifted in her chair, itching. Her dirty corset strings strained across the voluminous rolls of pale exposed flesh on her back as she struggled to reach the offending spot.
"Help me, son," she said, her words slurring with drink.
"Ain't gonna, momma," said James. He shut the door to the stove with his sleeve covering his hand.
"Huh?!" exclaimed Juliette. "What you say boy?" She thumped her fist on the table. "You get over here now!" she screamed.
"Yes, momma," said James.
He crossed the small room over to her. She slapped him on the leg.
"You be a bad boy!" said Juliette. She pulled on his shirt and indicated the general direction of the itch. He started scratching between the lacings. "Nawh, further down...down I said! Yuh, there boy, that's good."
"Can I stop now? I got more chores."
"Hrmum...yuh. But don't you be talkin' back to me no more. I gave you life! You can't talk to your momma like you did. Ain't I taught you no manners?"
"Yes momma," said James. He pushed her half-filled jug closer to her hand. "Drink up momma so's you can sleep tonight."
She analyzed the jug, mesmerized by the shine of the glazing in the soft glow of the fire through the grates in the stove door, then she lifted it up to her lips and sucked the liquid from it. James sat on their shared bed on the opposite side of the room and watched her, while kneading his knuckles with his fingers.
"Thought you had chores..." she slurred.
"Yes momma. In a minute momma."
"You ain't never gonna get a woman with your lazy ways...yer a waste..."
Her gaze shifted to the stove as she took another long swig. She slumped slightly, eyelids and chins drooping, her large frame keeping her upright while unconscious. James stood, listened to Juliette's ragged breathing, then quietly crept to the door. He exited quickly, grateful for having the presence of mind to oil the hinges a month ago when he started his project.
The night was crisp and snow threatened. James wrapped his old patched coat tight about his body. He picked up a lit lantern he'd left on the sagging porch and carried it off on the path he'd made into the woods. After five minutes he stopped at his destination. He hung the lantern on a nearby tree and surveyed his handiwork.
The tree was nearly fully carved; a naked woman frozen in wood stood in front of him, gazing past him with opaque eyes. He had modeled her on the guesses he'd made about the shapes of the girls under their bustles and corsets and skirts that he spied in town on his infrequent visits to the general store with his mother. She stood tall, her arms skyward and ending in many bifurcated branches. Her face was carved from a knot and as a result, she had a crooked smile. He realized his work was only an approximation of the female form, but at least it didn't look like his mother.
James knelt in front of the carving. He kissed his fingers then touched the feet of the wooden woman. At the base of the tree was his axe. He had wreathed it with the colorful autumn leaves that had fallen from the woman's tree. He righted the axe, with the head in the roots of the tree and his hands on the base of the haft. He pressed his eyes closed tightly.
"Lord, I ain't asked for much in my life, but help me now. I got love to give. Give it to her. Please Lord."
He stood and pulled up the axe. He swung below the feet and chopped into the wood. Sap began to run freely. He swung again and the tree groaned. He swung again and again and again--the sap was pooling out over the roots of the tree and soaking into his worn boots.
"Come on Lord! Please!" he pleaded. He swung again and the tree keeled to the side, it's topmost branches scraping against the branches of the nearby trees, then the tree crashed...and moaned.
James dropped the axe, panting, his eyes bright and darting.
The woman moved her legs--she ripped apart her feet with a reverberating crack, separating them.
"Oooooh..." she moaned.
"Are you in pain?" said James loudly. He rubbed his face in disbelief, then shot a look heavenward, "Oh Lord, thank you! Thank you!"
She moaned again, and James scrambled and knelt next to her face. Sap was weeping out of all her surfaces, glistening in the lantern light. She pulled her hands down, the branches cutting across the clearing so that James had to duck.
"I can cut those off!" exclaimed James.
"Yes, do," said the woman, her voice creaking and low, like a chair scraping across a floor.
James took the axe and set about chopping off each of the long branches. She moaned and sapped oozed out with each chop, but she was patient and still until she had ten slender fingers.
"Thank you," she said, her voice acquiring a velvety tone.
She sat up and James laid the axe on the ground, away from her. The sap was solidifying around her form and turning milky. It wasn't quite skin, but was a reasonable facsimile in the dark of the night.
"You're real," whispered James.
"I've always been real. Locked away under the bark. And you came here often. I heard your prayers all these years--all your cares and worries, and yet you took the time to free me," she said. She smiled at him with her crooked mouth, and reached out and stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. "And I am grateful." He closed his eyes and started to cry. "No, hush," she purred.
"You freed me," he whispered. He wiped his face, then forcefully embraced her, and she hugged him tightly back, creaking.
The laughed together then he helped her up. She wobbled as she stood on her own for the first time. She leaned on him at first, then he let her stand with just his hand for support. She smiled at him, her unblinking eyes fixated on his face, and on his copiously returned face. They didn't hear the noise in the bush behind them until it was too late.
"What the hell you doin'?" screamed Juliette, stomping unsteadily into the clearing, the bed quilt covering her freshly soiled skirts.
"Momma?!" James wheeled around, his arms outstretched to protect the wooden woman.
"I looked for you to help, and you were--what heathen abomination is this?"
"You get away from her, momma! Ain't no concern of yours!"
"She ain't--what is it?" asked Juliette in horror.
"Get away momma, you go back to the house and I'll be there shortly."
Juliette let the quilt fall to the ground, her face not quite comprehending what was in front of her.
"Is that wood? An uncovered whore made of wood?"
"Yes," said the woman quietly.
"You did the old magic, the darkness, didn't you boy?"
"NO! I asked God, and he provided--"
"God don't do nothing like that," said Juliette, her voice braying. "You have nothin' but badness on your mind to make that."
"No--that's not...I just wanted someone to love me, and I asked God, I swear I asked God!" James fell to his knees, begging. "Momma, I swear!"
Juliette spied the axe and quickly picked it up.
"No!" screamed James. He lunged at his mother and ripped the axe from her hands she fell back into the tree with the lantern and it fell to her feet. She kicked it towards the woman, and it rolled into the sap, igniting it into a fast wall of blue flame. The woman screamed. James jumped back. "Momma! What'd you do? Why?" he sobbed.
Flames licked up the woman's body. Her crooked mouth drooped down. She held out her hands towards James.
"I'm sorry," she said with difficulty.
James dropped the axe to the ground, and walked into the woman's arms. She wrapped them around him as he screamed and writhed in the heat. She pressed her head to his as he trembled. He clothes flamed up and started to drip off his body. His skin burned orange and yellow, sending up thick smoke. Juliette ran, screaming deliriously.
James died first, then the wooden woman went still, and in the morning there was nothing but a charred hump covered in new fallen snow to mark their love.