Carrying Caises

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by Mike

I could sit all day in the branches of olive trees looking at the sky through silver-green leaves. In the afternoon a mountain casts shadows on our valley but the sky is still blue and through the silver-green leaves I see jets. When I rest that’s what I do… I sit on the top of the chopped-off trunk, my back against a branch and my feet against another and it feels like the palm of a hand.

If I carry the olive cases high enough then my legs don’t hit them when I walk. I think that’s why biceps are where they are and why some old men have muscles like steel, they work in this way their whole lives. The work can be heavy, and sometimes it’s hard and I’m always using my muscles to move something. I’ve learned to do controlled slides down muddy terraces and scramble up six-foot ledges. I say to Margarite, at lunch, “Je travaille bien pour manger bien,” (I work well to eat well) to which she responds, “Il faut!” (That’s the way it must be!). I’m finding I can put away three portions of each course at each meal and still look slimmer the next day.

On Friday I worked alone in the orchard for most of the day and I worked hard though nobody was watching and I’m not getting paid. Something in me wouldn’t let me work poorly, wouldn’t let me leave an assigned task undone. When I read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” I thought the weakest part of the plot (in an otherwise brilliant book) was the main character’s motivation: if he thought he was going to die while carrying out his orders – and he was working alone – then why follow through? I didn’t think it was true to life. With my own life at stake I wonder if I’d be as loyal, but after working Friday I can see that I have some of that in me. Now I understand that a soldier, well-treated, could be compelled to carry out a dangerous order.

I like using my body for labor. Muscles only work in present tense. One morning Claude and I were chopping logs for firewood. She held a wedge on top of a log and gave me a sledgehammer. This is a woman who pays for life with her hands – can you imagine how nervous I was swinging a sledgehammer at them? Anyway, I asked if she knew much about Buddhism. “I hate Buddhism,” she said. I, too, have a love-hate relationship with it, so I disagreed, then I agreed, then I explained that it’s hard to hate it because there isn’t really anything concrete to hate. She clarified that she hates how fashionable it’s become and how young people come to the farm preaching it. Interesting.

I went ahead with my point regardless: There’s a proverb that says, “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

Claude misses chopping wood since her shoulders got bad. I asked what she did to them and she answered that she worked her whole life. She said she still loves the sound of the wood so I listened to the sledgehammer hit the wedge with a dull ping, I heard the wedge hit the log with a hollow knock, I could hear the wood’s fibers tear and then once, between strikes, the wood continued to slowly split and it sounded like rain.

When the log fell open she held it up and smelled the core, “I love oak.” She savored it the same way she savors poetry. She held it out for me to smell.

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