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Fiction by Matt Gillick

Paul, Standing by at Standing Rock

Tribesmen of brown, white, black, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Apache, and other persuasions meet the bulldozers and foaming hounds of Standing Rock, North Dakota while Paul Bunyan watches from a safe distance. He’s pulled the earth over him, draped like a quilt. Even lying down he’s able to see it all; upright he would stand 60-odd axe-handles-high with a churlish grin and head in the skies. His song goes something like that. But he’s in no mood for sing-a-longs today. A twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot orange bottle of Prozac stands uncapped like a watchtower in the brown-green field. The pills would make him functional, the Surgeon General had said, and America’s doctor would know; he has a specialty in psychiatry and conducts biweekly sessions with the lumberjack of all lumberjacks. Paul doesn’t want to take the pills anymore. They won’t help. Nothing would help after burying his longtime companion Babe, the giant blue ox, five days ago. He wants to blame the pills but knows he can’t.

He hears the bulldozers’ harsh metal blades digging into the sturdy earth like knives cutting through kale. The pipeline is on schedule to be up and running ten months from now. Their motors churn, easily moving the line of protestors back. The crowd can be seen chanting, Where’s our Bunyan Accord, Where’s our Bunyan Accord? (a reference to a piece of legislation that cut the lumber industry at its knees by decommissioning the sector’s most valuable asset, Paul). The opening line of the bill stated, Bunyan is a man with a thundering axe, nothing more. He cannot compete with the cogs and levers of modernity. Johnny Appleseed drafted it at the behest of the Wind Farmers Association, and it was passed with sweeping public support. The Standing Rock demonstrators are unaware it was a bill lobbied by a megacorporation to undo a competing industry. Yet they still chant, fighting against what they see as the next behemoth to topple: big oil. They shall not overcome the gears’ chortle propelling the machines forward. Paul knows he could stop them. He knows he could throw those rumbling contraptions all the way back to Lake Huron. But he won’t. The engines drown out the cries of, No—please—stop!

Above, a goofus bird dangles its turkey-like neck while flying upside-down toward a nearby lake. Traditionally, that’s an omen of tragedy to come. Too late, Paul thinks. If the damn thing only warned me a few days ago. He tries to avoid witnessing the carnage, from hearing those people’s guttural screams.

​He sits up on the base of the hill for lumbar support. That supportive hill is where Babe forever rests now. The cool ground relaxes Paul’s sore joints, allowing him to sink further into the earth and stay awhile. He can’t leave his friend yet. Tomorrow, he says. I’ll go tomorrow. ​ His plaid shirt is faded. Not the blotted red and black it used to be. It is frayed at the sleeves. Shopping at the Big and Tall would be a fool’s errand. He can’t fit into underwear, either, so he goes commando. Even his custom orthopedic boots are tearing at the edges. He remembers talking about these troubles with the Surgeon General during their sessions and almost laughs at himself now for thinking of such frivolous, material things.

The Surgeon General would sit in a tennis official’s high-chair and spoke into a megaphone while Paul lay outstretched as if on a posh leather couch. In this fashion, they would verbally volley about what ailed the mind of our dear hero. America’s doctor would begin with, How’re you feeling today, Paul?

With a wispy sigh and a booming voice that altered the jet stream, the lumberjack answered, Eh. I don’t know, doc. Some days I wake up and wonder why. You know?

So you’re unsure.

I’m sure of being unsure, yes.

My guess is you think you got short-changed by the Bunyan Accord…being shut down and all? Takes a long time to process.

Well, yeah. If you wanna go there. A bunch of kids in hemp necklaces told me I was obsolete. Like I was a machine or something. But what can I do about it? So yeah, I’m unsure.

And how does that…erm…make you feel?

You’re kidding me, right? Paul threw his hand down on the North Dakota earth, and a nest of jackalopes poked their heads out of a burrow and scurried away in fear.

The lumberjack went on, You fly out here every other week to check up on the biggest, oldest man in the world, for what? To make sure I won’t take a few swings at an elementary school? Other than that, what do you care? I’m annoyed by this double-talk, so just be straight.

All right. Fine. You need to take an SSRI and find a new hobby.

Hobby?

Apologies, poor choice of words.

I bet you want me to improve my diet, too.

Sycamore bark and a tanker of Jim Beam doesn’t count as breakfast, Paul. Just try some of these low-dose samples for two weeks and see how you feel. Take a vacation, out to one of your lakes in Minnesota, possibly. ​ #

​See how you feel. Those words echo in him as he lies under the earth, trying to ignore the commotion happening a few miles away. Over a rare pocket of trees and hills lies a road cutting through the frontier with National Guard tanks approaching, straining the pavement on their way to stop a people from guarding their water supply. The motors hum, a far cry from the steam engine Paul’s friend John Henry defeated at the Big Bend Tunnel of West Virginia. ​ #

Henry laid the tracks faster than any machine could. But sadly, the mighty man died from exhaustion the following night after Big Bend. His heart gave out while lying in his wife’s arms. She lamented how he had something to prove, how everyone like Paul, John, even Davy Crockett had something to prove. The steel-driving man never heard his song about being born with the hammer in his hands. Bunyan told John’s widow, on that sad morning after, how it was so strange that in order to prove the true spirit of man, we had to lose such a man.

Paul, I’m gonna ask you to fuck off now, the hammerman’s wife said.

Another one gone, he thought. Paul attended the funeral, in a sense. He watched from a distance. His shadow would’ve split the beautiful spring day and Mrs. Henry would have none of that at the service. John deserved one more sunny day. The heroes of their time were falling, losing their mystery, their invincibility. Heroes of a Gilded Age, they were once called. His pickings for friends grew slim. Obviously, he had political differences with Johnny Appleseed, and no one wanted to roam the country with Casey Jones at the rails; the guy was coked up day and night. Soon enough, Paul was the last one standing. The rest had either died off or disappeared and no one went looking for them. Upon further reflection after his session with the Surgeon General, Paul thought a weekend in Minnesota would be nice. Get his mind off the uncertainty of his existence. When packing, he stuffed the Prozac in his pocket.

At Red Lake, one of the many lakes his footsteps had birthed, he looked at himself and saw crow’s feet as large as murders. Hair white and thinning, liver spots on his hands. He looked upon the big orange bottle and felt the harsh twine of reality seize itself around his heart. Paul Bunyan was a burdensome creature now, his utility lost. The former hero was now just an old man collecting a government pension. He wanted a new feeling, and maybe those pills would help. So, he popped one of them into his mouth and washed it down with whiskey.

A few hours later, he felt different. Accepting. Well, more willfully ignorant of the fact that he was an old, walking monument. The pills made him feel less present, but there was a relief in that. He might not have felt much while under their influence, but at least he wasn’t feeling what folks would call bad anymore. Heck, he half-felt like swinging around the old axe again. He was only a couple hundred years old. What would people care if he started up again? What’s a few oaks and redwoods? Babe lay on the still shore of Red Lake and recognized that look his master gave when the frontier would call.

Babe was an old boy. He wheezed and snorted in frustration at not being as nimble, fast, or far-sighted as he used to be. But he could still drag fifty tons of timber up and down the Mississippi in less than a week. He served their mission well into the forties, during the war effort, hauling timber used to manufacture the M-1 Garand.

Paul was getting old, too. His hips grew sore, his arms and legs snakelike rises in the plains. He had retired, fit to live out his days in North Dakota. He’d moved there for the flatness. At least that’s what he thought. For years, he insisted he wasn’t depressed but simply letting nature take its course. But he said so as if he himself wasn’t natural, that he was, in fact, a product. For years, his long axe lay flat and gathered rust while he pulled the quilted earth over him, sleeping through days, sometimes weeks. He was adamant this wasn’t depression, even when he was arguing with himself. But he could only think of the old days when there were more like him.

C’mon Babe, he said while straightening himself out, creaking at the sudden movement. One more time. Environmental protections be damned, he concluded. And they made their way back home to prepare for a journey west—to Washington State.

#

Now he is truly alone, his axe as his sole companion. The wooden handle feels splintered as he lifts his neck to see the protestors running up and down and away from streams of freezing firehose water. He pulls a layer of subsoil over his nose to avoid the peppery burn of the tear gas.

#

The Surgeon General expressed his concern at Paul’s desire to head west. He said maybe they should find another medication as this one might’ve done too good a job. Bunyan declined.

But doc, then I’ll have to take a pill for the side effects of that pill and so on. And besides, I really feel like I can do this. The whole lumberjack thing again.

I think you’re being unreasonable. You know the laws.

You’re selling pills of God-knows-what to make me feel…how? How do you want me to feel? I’m not the right me when I’m on them and I’m too much of a sad sack when I’m not. So what do you want me to do, feel numb?

The doctor retorted, And you helped turn the American wilderness into a vast open of nothing. But, all this time, did you hear me criticizing you?

The Surgeon General threw down the megaphone and climbed down from his tall chair. The lumberjack and the blue ox headed west shortly after the doctor flew away in a helicopter. No way he’d alert the authorities, doctor-patient confidentiality ensured that.

This was the Surgeon General’s last visit. There was no changing Paul’s mind. He was, after all, the giant of the open plains, the king of the wood, the one who crippled Mike Fink, the Keelboat King.

One fateful day, the Snapping Turtle Captain of the Keelboaters came upon the giant man with the giant axe while he and his giant ox were washing themselves in the Ohio River. It all started off as a joke. Fink scarfed down a mouthful of moonshine and shot the belt off Paul’s freshly cleaned denim, dropping trou, exposing him to the haw-hawing keelboat crew. He then challenged Fink to a wrestling match: if the King of the River could hold any part of Bunyan to the ground for five seconds or more, he would retain his title. If not, he’d have to surrender it.

It ended with Paul quickly breaking Fink’s leg. The man never boarded a keelboat ever again and drank himself to death as a bridge operator on the Hudson River. Died only two weeks before Babe was buried at Standing Rock. A journal found in his shanty read that he saw a goofus flying over the river and predicted he was not long for this earth.

#

The axe lies flat in the flatness, its wooden handle splintered, wet with blood. A few miles away, chuckling fat men drive burrowing drills into the earth and push the human barrier even farther back. The chants become scattered, less unified. It’s getting more violent. Paul knocks over the big bottle of Prozac and lets the pills roll and keep rolling. The old days are gone, and Babe’s dead because he thought he could get back to those days by heading into Washington State. For what? So he could chop down some damn trees?

​His legs twitch with the absence of mobility. His active body grows uncomfortable in this sedentary state. Blindly reaching around him, he finds a half-empty barrel of whiskey. Sliding the barrel close to him, the large container kicks up some dirt and out pops an augerino, a corkscrewed, squeaking wormlike creature no bigger than Paul’s pinky nail. Small to him but huge in comparison to regular-size folks. The curious critter looks around, disturbed by the activity. Paul sees this thing, so small and wondrously looking around at this upper world it’s been exposed to. It recoils when it smells the tear gas. ​ What a shame for it to bear witness to such hate and loss, he thinks to himself as the bulldozers knock down teepees, sending people back into the very river they are trying to defend. He finishes off the whiskey in one go but it doesn’t assuage his pain. In his other hand he plucks up the augerino. Its green skin prickles like soft porcupine needles. It squeaks, looking up at the lumberjack. How small it is in this great plain. Its absence would not even induce a ripple effect to its loss. Would his own absence mean as much, save for a blip on the Richter scale when his heart eventually stops? He squishes the worm in his palm and wipes its glowing slime on his cool earth blanket. He turns his body to face Babe’s hilly resting place and says, If only they’d taken me.

#

Babe was as eager to venture into the Washington woods as Paul. The woods lay at the base of a mountain range practically untouched. It carried the color of seaweed glistening in the morning. There was still some wild out there. Babe snorted and pulled his master forward as Paul’s joints creaked like rust popping off a dormant tractor. His fingers got a tingly feeling when he gripped the axe, sending a shiver of hesitation. They traveled at night so as not to attract attention. They tried to tiptoe past Spokane, in the middle of the night, but there they came upon an insomniac wearing gauged earrings.

He wore a hemp necklace and hemp fleece and was smoking a joint on his front porch. He noticed the moon was casting a shadow. But looking up, he saw the Bunyan of all Bunyans in the flesh. He stared at his burning spliff confusedly and coughed while shaking his head.

Hey! he wheezed, and then Babe came into view. The kid let out a startled fart.

Oh, well hello young man! Paul’s voice shook the foundation of the rickety two-story.

The Spokanian wheezed, What the hell?

As if answering a question the young man hadn’t asked, the pilled-up lumberjack said, That’s me! Hero of the frontier.

Then he went off on a sing-songy schtick, When the land was wild and it all needed tamin’, in came a man, you know what his name is—

Yeah, yeah, I know who you are. Paul Bunyan…but what are you doing out here?

A man can go where he pleases.

Not you, law says you can’t get past Missoula.

This angered Paul, someone of such tiny stature dictating where this behemoth could come and go, as if the kid had power over him.

Great, Babe. We got ourselves a legal expert.

Nope, just a well-informed citizen who will be reporting you to the authorities. And if I might be so blunt, I think you’re just a sad old man. Cutting down our precious trees, our source for life? How dare you. As a vegan, I find your very presence disgusting.

The nerve of this little shit, Paul thought and before the Spokanian could dial 911, he was picked up like a flea and plopped on the roof of his own two-story. The young man soiled himself out of shock. Babe pawed his hooves at the hipster’s tomato garden, moving the young man to tears.

Continuing on his way, Paul tried to conceal any reservation he had from his companion. His thoughts. His mind. There, muted lectures in his head told him this was a fool’s errand, a dangerous ego trip. He tried not to pay them any mind as his body ached and eyes itched. That wasn’t his body telling him to turn back, they were just mild side effects. But what about the government, if they found out? Would they subdue him, put him in a cage like Daniel Boone? Would they capture him and parade him through DC like a trophy? A caged relic. He hid his concerns with a smile and determined gaze to the mountains and its rising green canopies. He popped another Prozac and became so distracted by these thoughts, that he nearly crushed a tin shack under his boot when the pair entered the Yakima reservation. Someone called out for him to halt.

Several elders came out to greet the old lumberjack: this huge, plaid white man wielding an axe was a welcome sight to the elders while the younger ones aimed their firearms through the windows. Paul had never been a government weapon, but he was nonetheless an embodiment of their displacement and the younger ones made sure his intentions were benign before clicking the rifle safeties back on. But what would those things do? The chief elder outstretched his arms and said, We, Paul, both of us. Are now forgotten.

He was only a boy the last time Paul had seen him. Children eventually came out and danced around Babe, sliding down the happy ox’s tail. He lay down and let kids use him as a breathing, snorting jungle gym. He rolled over on his back and had the kids scratch and bounce off his aquamarine belly. The Yakima chief asked what the two of them were doing so far away from North Dakota.

Doing what I do best, Paul said. Heading out to Wenatchee.

The chief warned, Times have changed. Where you are going is prohibited land now. Government said it’s inaccessible to the public. Everyone who ventures that far north never comes back, either. Anyways, you’ve been decommissioned.

Paul said he was fully aware of the Bunyan Accord. It was passed under the veil of conservation rhetoric, rendering him nothing more than a symbol or, as one Congresswoman said, Just a really big dude. The bill was a broad stroke, but the language was pointedly directed toward him and he knew it.

During the final legislative arguments, a few senators asked him to address Congress, but he decided against it. The logistics would have been a nightmare, and he was enduring some pretty harsh back spasms at the time. While Paul simply saw it as a courteous invitation, the lumber unions believed it an insult to have a man speak on a bill that would effectively undo him. After the deciding vote, he went to the National Mall to protest the Accord with woodsmen of every walk of life in attendance. As he got ready to deliver a speech that would ring through the ages, he saw passersby on their phones, looking down, looking into themselves, unaware that a behemoth was about to deliver a reverberant speech on American values, speaking of the honest way, respect for tradition, reverence for the American worker, and the forgotten man. None of them would pay attention. He walked off in stomping silence. Either way, the hero of the frontier accepted his termination and collected a government pension. He kept telling himself this was totally fine, until he believed that he believed himself, for a while at least. So what if he got sad from time to time? Maybe he wanted to feel the weighted blanket of the earth and look at the stars and think back to a time when he wasn’t so lonely, when the country marveled at him. This journey to the Wenatchee wood was an excuse. He might not have been the apex of American exceptionalism anymore, but he was by no means a schmuck and he wanted to prove it to himself. He was Paul Fucking Bunyan.

That said, he knew this was probably his last hurrah before lying down under the stars, pulling the earth over him forever. To become a hill, a landmark, a site memorialized for the future. To then be forgotten, to then be repurposed as the hallowed grounds for the Battle of Standing Rock, commemorating the water warriors. His headstone replaced for another era’s lore. Lost to time. Just like John Henry, Mike Fink, even David Crockett, the ravenous drunk who went to the Alamo on a whim. No one spoke of them anymore. No movies, no Saturday morning cartoons, no more songs.

Back on the Yakima reservation, the towering lumberman spoke to the chief softly, so as to not disturb any wildlife dwelling peacefully in the early morning.

I am aware of the new laws, he said. Your grandfather was cautious, just like you.

The chief laid his hand on his chest in solidarity and replied, That isn’t all. There’s a reason the land up north is untouched.

He chuckled. I’ll be fine. Haven’t you heard the tunes about me?

All too often, old man. You think the last of the hidebehinds were pushed into the sea once you had your way with them in the great expansion, not soon after your government nearly wiped us clean? I remember hearing stories from my grandfather about his father wanting to join up with the hidebehinds for one last stand. But there was no reasoning with those creatures. About five years ago, a government convoy came by here to do research up there. They never came back, but a report implied they met a violent end. No one knows how many remain.

If it’s my end, then better that way, Paul said.

That night Paul and Babe ate with the Yakima chief and his family beside a great bonfire. It would be his last night in Washington State. Paul knew of these creatures.

Once in Montana, he and Babe had been overrun by a swarm and came back to their camp bloodied and beaten. The hidebehinds were small enough to handle if there weren’t too many of them. But now Paul was old, his axe dull. Babe was old, his horns blunted. But what would be the point if he were to turn back now?

They came upon the outer corners of Wenatchee, bordering the coast. It was the site of the hidebehinds’ last known hideout. Before the great taming of the American Wood, hidebehinds were lonesome creatures who wandered the forest, able to conceal their presence by making themselves slender behind tree trunks. They operated with great speed and would often walk on two legs. These animal-human hybrids had beaks and noses and snouts normally seen on bears, wolves, and birds. Hairy and patchy, they differed in appearance but looked to be no more than the size of a man, often smaller. Their one shared quality was a hissing screech, like a woman’s call for help, luring kindhearted woodsmen deep into the bush. As the Westward Expansion took its course, many hidebehinds banded together, forming communities, defending what was left of their land. Bands of vicious warriors hunting goofus birds, jackalopes, and mankind.

#

Paul looks out to Standing Rock, and he shakes his head at the protestors’ resistance. At his age, he knows drum circles do not keep the K-9 units away. Their rhythmic hum does not make the dogs’ bites less painful. Still, they sing a song of unity into the void.

Five men on painted horses crest over Babe’s hill and stop to gaze at the breathing, shifting mass in front of them. The men riding the painted horses are tattooed head to toe. One of them rides down the hill toward the lumberjack and says, Is that who I think it is? It is! It’s really him.

Aware now that people were trotting over Babe’s grave, Paul sits himself up and gives a wild territorial stare and says, Get away. Get off of him!

He then takes his arms and moves them off the hill as if making waves in the ocean. Paul goes on and says, My friend’s buried here and I don’t want this land disturbed.

The horsemen notice Bunyan’s wounds. How they’d begun to scab over. Burns all over his face. The horses back away as he grows more upright.

One of the painted riders, presumably the leader, steps forward and says, So sorry for the disturbance, Mr. Bunyan. There were rumors you’d died, and we were unaware this is where you lived. We are on our way to defend the water; doubtless you’ve seen what’s been going on. For our land has been disturbed, too.

I can hear them, Paul says.

Why don’t you come with us? We could use you.

Can’t. I have to stay here with Babe.

Would you want your ox to wallow over you while the government is taking yet more of our land? Maybe you can redeem yourself.

I have nothing to redeem, nor do I want to. Move along and God be with you.

Their leader cackles and loses his sense of propriety and proclaims, The American Zeus, huh? No principle or sense of history. Just sitting here feeling sorry for himself. Get off my land, Paul says while cracking his massive knuckles which sound like thunderclaps, And let me be in peace.

Hmmm, so it is your land now, but has it always been?

The riders move on with parting taunts and Paul lies back down, stroking Babe’s hill.

#

The night before the ox died, Paul stared into the campfire. He thought of being lonely. For years he had envisioned waking up to a woman large and muscular like him, chopping wood, emerging from the tree line to wish him good morning with a den of skinned raccoons over her shoulder. For decades, he had hoped whatever brought him here would favor him with a partner that stood on two legs instead of four. But no. He was dropped onto the earth out of nowhere. A one-time deal. Paul loved his big blue ox, but if Babe had possessed an intellectual nature, he certainly would mourn there not being any similar cow to graze alongside him. On that last night, he watched his ox through the fire. As blue flames and red flames danced around, Babe’s soft breath blew the rising embers to the east.

#

Back at Standing Rock, more noise in the distance. The squad of First Peoples ride their painted horses, carrying a tribal banner. They now rally the protestors as the dogs snap at horse hooves. National Guard units shake up their Mace cans and pull down their visors, ready to approach the front line of men and women and children on their knees, singing, holding hands in the cold. All singing to the same tune, some in different languages, but the words ring in Paul’s ears. We shall overcome—Amazing—Tell me what democ—This is what dem—

His fingertips hurt, not in the arthritic way but with a weighted-down feeling. Now in his shoulders as well. It hurts to move and to lie still, not enough to scream or moan, but a sighing pain. Women cry yet hold their ground, college students grab at their faces. They feel how much the spray burns their eyes. The lumberjack turns his body over, as if that will shut out the cries and the grinding engines. He plays the situation in his head over and over as if he might come to a different result: a friend standing beside him at Standing Rock.

#

Crossing Wenatchee State Park and into uncharted territory, the woods were quiet enough for Paul and Babe to hear the mountains readjust themselves with the changing world. No sign of human life. Soon, after crossing the border, they came upon an abandoned cabin with a family, long dead. Their remains showed evidence of bones ripped apart, blackened blood splattered on the ceiling. Hidebehinds lurked in these parts, and he could not believe it, how vicious they’d become. But the two continued on; he needed to show he was still strong. For himself. A percussion of fear sweated his grip on the ax. Deeper into the woods, the old pair heard callings. Shouts, entreaties, hard to determine their authenticity. He did not notice the fear in Babe’s eyes or the snorting as he tried to get his master’s attention.

Coming upon a batch of western cedar, his numbing fingers shook and the sudden movement helped him forget how much the pain pricked away at him. When Babe licked at his hand, Paul gave him one last smile before raising the axe. Then came the harsh impact.

Four logs tied together suspended on rope leveled Paul in the chest, knocking him over. Babe howled at seeing his master fall. Soon another set of logs came in from the other side and knocked down the blue ox. Bunyan heard the ribs crack and puncture. Babe was as good as dead. Paul quickly sat up to lift himself but was covered with a flurry of ropes and arrows, pinning him to the ground like a petrified butterfly. The same was happening to the writhing blue ox. He broke free for a moment, splintering his horns. His struggle uprooted cedars and a collection of timber fell in between the pair. Not one second after, a cascade of screaming hidebehinds arrived carrying sharpened sticks, torches, rocks, teams carrying whole tree trunks sharpened at the ends. Bodies of human-bird, human-bear, human-deer, and any other renditions of Cain descended from the high trees the way a swarm of killer bees blots out the sun.

They ripped at his plaid shirt, poking, prodding, burning into his skin, wildly mangling. They carried a sharpened battering ram of a felled tree and inched toward him. Paul was looking for a flaw in their trap as the pain continued to wash over. There must’ve been at least five hundred of them scurrying and beating at his rock-hard flesh, looking for an opening themselves. Paul then saw his companion let out a cry that sent all the birds scattering. The ground became wet with blood. He swore he could hear Babe screaming out, Help me, help me! The hidebehinds flew off Babe and swung back onto him like gnats to sweaty flesh. His forelegs got free again and proceeded to stomp and flatten as many as he could. Their bodies ricocheted off timber. Paul saw the ox was bleeding, his breath growing labored. But was able to turn back and make eye contact with Paul and gave him a look saying he would get them out of this in no time, and they’d be able to carry on their merry way—when he got impaled. Babe cried out blood and went limp. He writhed when he could not fight and moaned when he could not writhe anymore, caked purple in his own blood.

Angry tears flooded down Paul’s face. And the lumberjack of all lumberjacks let out a scream that sent trees falling on top of the war party. In this anger, he found a strength beyond any curse of accumulated loneliness. The ropes pinning him down snapped, burning skin no longer burned. Paul Bunyan saw white and reached for his axe. Stomping, cutting, impaling, squashing. He used the ropes that were dug into his wrists like a whip, and with such a snap, recipients to the blows exploded in bloody gore. His injuries meant nothing, he sent the hidebehinds flying into the trees to be impaled themselves by sharp branches. Even as they fled deeper into the woods, knowing they were doomed, Paul chased after them, until every last one was dead. The trees rained red that day.

He returned to find his ox breathing slowly with the gaining knowledge that this was what death felt like. Yet Babe looked at his friend, his protector, and closed his eyes briefly. Paul held back the rest of his tears because he didn’t want Babe to see him cry. His now-purple body grew colder. Paul kept whispering, I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry I brought you into this. He didn’t have the heart to end it quick. So he laid a comforting hand on bloody Babe’s head and waited for the wheezing to stop.

He carried him back to North Dakota. Although he was heavy and Paul limped all the way, he carried the ox back to their home, and now he is the hill Paul rests his head on. Five days later, the lumberjack is still there, saying he will leave tomorrow.

#

As he faces the protest, the ground is cool. There are people running around, pouring water onto burning eyes, chanting out prayers to ancestors who aren’t listening. He can tell by the desperation in their cracked voices. Rubber bullets fire off. He hears their ricochets, but he does not move or startle. His insides hurt, he doesn’t have a home anymore, the ground is cool, and his fingers feel like they are on fire, pulsating heat through his body, making him want to remain still, under the cool ground. He can’t help them. If he could only stay under the ground and feel the earth, feel himself within the earth, become the earth moving beneath him, it would rock him into peace. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Two painted horsemen charge through the tear gas. Bounding over a barrier of riot shields, they’re answered by a quiver of rubber bullets followed by a hail of screams: Please stop. Please stop this.

Matt Gillick

mattgillick.com
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