It was a bad situation. A crossroads of life. Peter had gone out that morning with good intentions, but things had not gone to plan. He’d found a beautiful Douglas Fir, thirty feet high with a full fat taper. Its green-blue needles gave a sweet, citrus-like smell when crushed. He was also pleased that this vibrant Fir sat among a group of dead ones, making it easier to pull out. Just perfect, he’d thought.

Peter had decided on a big tree this year so brought his chainsaw; his Nissan Frontier was ready to drag the tree to his cabin, 200 metres back along the trail. Imagine the tree hooked up to eight strings of fairy lights; it would look magical from the road.

But cutting it down proved tricky. A hidden knot sent his chainsaw astray, and as the tree came down unexpectedly, it also pulled down others. The dead trees around it were no longer a bonus; they were a burden, because they sat squarely across Peter’s body. This wasn’t the plan at all.

At least he hadn’t broken any limbs. He tried moving the trees sitting upon his body but they wouldn’t budge. They were way too tangled and heavy. He wondered if he could squeeze himself out. He wriggled about a fraction, but only succeeded in receiving sharp jabs to his ribs and thighs. Ah! Maybe he could make a few inches of crawl space. He scraped snow with his fingertips, but realized that the branches went right through it.

Feeling faint, he rested awhile. He must recover and think. He saw sky, trees, snow, and… animal tracks! He tried to look away but couldn’t. A wide paw, five round pads, and claw points – Grizzly bear. A triangular pad, four asymmetric pads and claw points – gray wolf. Smaller versions of the same – coyote. A little mountain and four widely-spaced, drop-shaped pads – cougar. Uh-oh.

Peter decided to focus. Like animals’ made snow prints, maybe his mind could imprint a solution. He should focus on something. What was the clearest symbol he knew? The first thing that came to mind was a cross. This surprised him, as he wasn’t religious, but it seemed to make sense.

First, the cross was an ancient symbol, a Pagan sign pre-dating Christianity – in the same way that a Christmas tree did. It represented the union of opposites – the horizontal earth, and vertical sky – at whose junction we existed. Second, it was a co-ordinate – a meeting point of longitude and latitude – at which he now lay helplessly. Third, it was his framework for decision-making. There were four people he thought of when faced with difficult choices – his Brother, his Friend, his Mother, and his Niece – each guiding him somehow. What would they do?

He realized there was an extreme choice. He could use the stalled chainsaw manually to saw off one of his own limbs, and slip out from beneath this tangle of dead trees. It was a grisly business, but he had heard such stories; sometimes the limbs were reattached successfully. Which limb should it be?

Peter thought, what would my Brother do? He was incredibly creative, and had one morning taken two scrap metal sheets and some plywood off-cuts, and built a working windmill. He had used this to power a small dynamo, which ran a vinyl turntable, playing dance music. That was how he had woken Peter on his sixteenth birthday. But his brother was at heart a practical person, and would lose the limb that he used least often – his left leg.

Peter thought, what would my Friend do? He hated to see others in pain, and had dropped out of university to care for a schizophrenic fellow student. He had spent that year never leaving her side; there to help her through every suicidal and psychotic delusion, till she reached the other side. To get back on his feet, the Friend would cut off his left arm, and walk out of here alive.

Peter thought, what would my Mother do? She was deeply religious, and believed that God would never burden any of his creatures with more than they could bear. Her solution to everything was ceaseless prayer. She had prayed for many people who had suffered from cancer, heart attacks, and strokes, and all had recovered. Her intercession for orphans, the poor, and the hungry, had resulted in miraculous occurrences. His Mother would cut off her right leg, so that her hands were still able to clasp together in prayer.

Peter thought, what would my Niece do? She was the most joyful being he had ever encountered – so full of fun. When Peter’s wife had left him, it was his niece that called him daily to play “I Spy” and “Carbuncle” – a game he never properly understood, which involved him – her uncle – visiting zoos in Rolls Royce cars and freeing the animals. She was an adorable creature, who always wanted to play. God forbid – but if she had to – she would use her right hand to cut itself off – with her wild imagination, maybe even convincing herself it was “fun”.

Peter realized that none of these were ideal choices, and they may not even work. He felt that one limb less may ease his passage, but there was no way to be sure. But it was better than doing nothing, awaiting grizzly bear, gray wolf, coyote, or cougar. Before he chose which limb to cut, he focussed again. He put himself at the centre of the cross and thought himself outwards – up to his Brother, down to his Friend, left to his Mother, and across to his Niece. Thank you for everything, he said. Then he reached, with his fingertips, for the chainsaw.

He heard people calling his name, and dogs barking close by. As Peter had thought himself outwards – along the arms of the cross – his loved ones had sensed his distress, and thought themselves inwards, towards its centre where he lay. They were with him here now. A dog ran up and licked his face: Up and Down, then Left and Across.


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