TWO JACKS IN THE WOODS
It was nearly Sunday. The one day where we weren’t woken up before dawn. Where we could stuff our faces full of cheese, sausages, and crisp bread until we were full, rather than just sated. A day of rest and relaxation, to wash the dirt from our hands and the sweat from our brows as the sun slipped away faster than we could have ever imagined.
Our axes laid dormant, as did our bodies. The twenty-or-so of us settled around the fire to share stories and desserts before the upcoming week of hard labour in the Swedish forest. I was quiet, as always—pilfering little bits of apple cake from Vilhelm’s leftovers as he sat beside me and chatted with one of the sawyers¹. Ville and I were young and spry, but deemed too green and stupid to do anything important, so we spent most of our days hacking useless limbs off of felled trees. Honest work, as they say, but we’d move up in rank eventually… As long as we made it to spring with all of our bones intact.
I licked the sugar from my fingers as I heard my father speak to us, rising to his feet and stretching his gargantuan arms. “You boys must be tired,” he said, smiling behind his overgrown beard. My face was barely stubbled, and I unconsciously rubbed my prickly cheek. “Don’t stay up too late, or you’ll miss breakfast.”
Ville elbowed me, and we both laughed. “I don’need an extra hour of sleep t’get me up in the mornin’ when I wake up with this guy's sweaty feet in my face—”
The other boy gasped, and we were tussling in an instant. Guffaws and hoots echoed through the trees as we rolled around in the dirt, but I had six inches on Ville—at least in height—and I always came out on top.
I pushed his face into the dirt and straddled him, grinning as I looked out at the small audience. Sören, a golden-haired boy a few years older than us, clapped and tossed his hat to me, which I caught and put on, holding it as I mimed riding Ville like a bucking bronco. There was more whistling and laughter, until Ville rolled over and I hopped off to beat the dirt off of my grimy pants. Nothing stayed clean out here, and you got used to it whether you liked it or not.
Ville got up as I took a seat next to Sören and he sat across from us, arms folded over his chest as he stared daggers at me. Besides us punks², there were two cant hook men³ on a log by themselves, snickering at us as they smoked from pipes and sipped on tea. I thought they were reminiscing about being our age, but I caught what they were actually saying when they spoke a little louder.
“That kinda roughhousing never leads to anything good…”
“I dunno, you always seemed like you enjoyed it.”
“Well, a’course… Gettin up t’no good is fun.”
Sören interrupted them, looking over with mischief in his eyes. “Stop talkin’ abouddit an’ get to it, wontcha?”
The more slender of the two men scoffed. “You’re really startin’ t’act like a jack⁴, arentya?”
“Maybe. Or maybe I jus want the resta’ your tea.” Sören gave them a sly smile, and I sat there with my brows furrowed, looking between the three of them. Tea was fine, but anyone could pick some up from the kitchen.
The slender man took another sip of his tea and offered it to his companion, who turned his nose up at it. He slid closer to the other and murmured something that none of us could hear before they both stood up and parted ways for a moment—one of them delivered the tea to Sören while the other lumbered off into the woods, presumably for a piss.
“Have fun,” he told the two of us, though Ville surely heard it as well. Sören held the tea in his lap, nodding as the man walked off into the forest too.
I stared into the darkness as it swallowed him up, only to be startled out of my boots as Ville sat down beside me, all three of us on the log together.
“Fuck you, man.” I held my hand over my heart as I caught my breath, and the others laughed. Anything that undermined a logger’s masculinity was something to make fun of, even going so far as to ridicule a man who had taken a wife. It was quite common for the older folks to have families back in the village, but time spent with wives and children would make a man ‘soft’, so the most romanticized loggers were the ones who lived and breathed the job year-round—but of course, even they couldn’t resist the spring break-up⁵.
Ville leaned over me to peer into Sören’s cup, feeling left out, like usual. He never knew when to mind his own business. “Do they make tea better than the cooks or somethin’?”
“Looks like it made them hafta piss really bad,” I scoffed, realizing there was no sign of the other men.
Sören swirled the liquid around in the cup. “Your dads didn’t tell you poor fucks anything, did they?” He took a sip, smacking his lips as we stared at him in confusion.
“I dunno why my dad would hide somethin…” I mumbled, and Sören was quick to reply.
“If he’d told ya dimwits… Ya’d know why he’d wanna hide it.” He shook his head and raised his free hand to the sky, where the stars were shining through the treetops. While making a sweeping gesture, he said, “Whaddaya think we do out here all season when we’re not workin’? We run outta stories to tell eventually, or get sicka’ hearin’ other people tell ‘em over’n’over. So, then what? Play hot ass⁶ for three months?”
Sören stared expectantly at Ville, who sputtered and made a fool of himself.
“Exactly. And what do you think your dads do when they’re bored, restless, and they miss their wives back at home, y’know?”
This wasn’t where I’d thought the conversation was headed, and I scrunched my nose at the thought of my parents fucking endlessly on the day before my dad left for the logging season… It was the only explanation as to why I was born in July, unlike all of the February babies. “I don’t wanna know about my dad’s masturbation habits—”
“Y’see?” Sören lowered his hand and laughed. He seemed all too amused that we had no idea what was going on. “Your dads must not trust you enough to tell ya.”
Ville, being the instigator he was, got up and stood in front of Sören with an accusatory finger pointed at him. “You’re just as bad as they are!” He yanked the cup out of the other man’s hands, and some of the liquid sloshed onto the ground. “Tell us this stupid secret, or I’ll pour this shit-water into the fire.”
Unamused, Sören looked up at Ville out of the corners of his eyes. “You’re not gonna like what you hear. It’s too late for you—blame your dad for not tellin’ you.”
Ville was furious, his lips tight as he searched for words, feeling utterly disrespected by the man that was only a few years older than us. As much as I liked to see a good brawl, I was too curious about this secret to let my friend ruin our chances with his fists. I stood up as well, grabbing the cup while Ville’s brain was churning, and I tried to mediate the situation.
“Alright, fuck off - I’m not wakin’ up my dad because you broke some guy’s slats⁷ over a Goddam joke,” I spat, pushing Ville out of the way so that I was standing in his place. He crossed his arms and sneered at me, but I’d seen enough of his pseudo-masculinity to know that he meant nothing of it. Ville was no more dangerous than a blind, old dog.
I turned to Sören, holding the cup of now-cold tea to my chest as I took a deep breath and let it out. “Alright. We’re all friends here, aren’t we? Now, what’s so bad about gettin’ bored in the woods, huh?”
He looked at me, then to Ville, then at me again as he tried to find the right words. “... Y’ever heard about… Two guys... Touchin’ each other?”
Sören didn’t get any further than that. Ville looked like he was about to rip the man’s head off, but he seemed to know that it was a bad idea to start an honest-to-God fight in the vicinity of twenty men with sharpened axes. “You’re—you’re disgusting!” He stumbled back a step. “Nobody does that! You’ll go to Hell!”
I too had thought that lying with a man would lead to eternal damnation… But I’d done much worse things than reaching my hand down someone else’s trousers, and I imagined that homosexual Hell wasn’t nearly as bad as tried-to-drown-my-sister Hell. I shoved the cup back into Sören’s hands and stepped towards Ville with my hand raised at chest-level. “Shut up. You’re the one who asked, why’re ya gettin’ so worked up?”
“Worked up? You think this is some kinda fuckin’ game?!” Ville kept stumbling backwards, looking between the two of us like we’d lost our minds. “He’s lying!”
“I’m not lying,” said Sören, sipping the tea again.
Ville bolted towards the logger, and I blocked him with my gangly body. A few years in the woods and I’d be the biggest guy around, but I was still packing meat on my abnormally-long frame. The boy punched me repeatedly in the chest, and I forced him backwards until he tripped over a root. I put my dirty boot on his cheek, and he smacked my foot away as he scrambled to his feet.
“Go t’bed if you’re too pussy t’hear about it.” I kicked some old ashes in his direction for good measure.
“He’s the pussy!” Ville pointed to Sören when he finally got up, taking several steps backwards as Sören just shrugged. “I bet he likes it,” Ville spat, his face contorting in conflicted horror.
“Maybe I do,” said Sören, amused rather than offended, and that was enough for Ville. He picked up a rock and threw it at the man, but Sören ducked and laughed.
Finally, Ville turned to me with his jaw locked tight. His narrowed eyes held more than just a betrayal of morals, or momentary frustration—if I’d had another moment to look before he turned and fled into the shadows, I swear I might’ve seen the beginnings of tears.
I stood there, staring at the footprints he’d made and letting my eyes unfocus, until Sören broke me from my trance. “Forget him,” he said, waving me over. I hesitated, but lumbered back to my seat next to him, feeling a bit down as the adrenaline left my body. Who was I supposed to side with when my so-called ‘best friend’ couldn’t handle a disagreement without resorting to violence? I was still curious, and you know what they say about curiosity…
It turns you gay. Or something like that, I dunno.
I was still staring into nothingness when Sören pushed the mug we’d been playing hot potato with into my chest. “... What, you want me to drink this?” I said as he forced me to hold it.
“It’s up to you…” he said while I gazed into the drink. Sören smiled at me as I sniffed it, though it didn’t smell of much… Musk, and maybe something sweet.
Part of me knew that I was about to get into trouble, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’d gotten this far down the rabbit hole, and I was more than impulsive enough to tumble all the way to the bottom. Besides—I figured I could taunt Ville with tales of a night that he had quite literally run away from.
I took a tentative sip that tasted like old dirt and berries, not the bitter earthiness of black tea. My lips curled, and I tried to hand the cup back to Sören as I said, “This is horrible, what is it?”
Sören turned to me, eyes dreamy and glistening. He leaned in and pushed the cup towards me again. “You have to finish it to find out.”
My mouth seemed to fill with saliva. I swallowed, and then my gaze drifted back to the cup. I’d drank worse things… The wine at communion was easily worse than this stale water, and that nagging voice in the back of my mind kept whispering do it, do it, do it.
I tipped my head back and drained the cup, nearly choking as I got to the bottom and the flavour worsened into something definitely rotten. I was barely able to swallow before I started gagging, leaning over to the side and bracing myself on the log as I coughed and fought to keep it down. The only person that would be upset if I vomited was me.
I felt movement beside myself and turned back around, clearing my throat and blinking water out of my eyes to see Sören stand up and gesture for me to follow him. I hesitated, but I had known the decision I was going to make from the very beginning—still, the façade of uncertainty could help my case if this bit me in the ass later.
Sören faded into the same blackness that had enveloped the other men, and I shook my head to bring myself back to reality. After putting the fire out, I looked over my shoulder before following the trail of footsteps into the thick forest. The trees were oppressive, and I wondered if that was why we were cutting so many down. During the day, the light filtered through the dense canopy, but at night, you could barely see your feet beneath you.
I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to find Sören, either. Without the fire to keep me warm, I dug my fingers into my pockets and held them close to my body, where I could feel my heart beat beneath my skin. A flicker of dull yellow caught my eye and I turned, pulse rising as I stepped into the undergrowth. I followed his shadowy outline into a small clearing, and he did a thorough inspection of the area before returning to me and staring up at my oversized frame with half-lidded blue eyes.
“Y’know why you’re here, right?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“Course.” That was a lie. I knew what I was doing, but I wasn't sure why I felt so compelled to go through with it in the first place. “I thought I was the only one. Even Ville thought—”
“I don’t wanna talk about him.” Sören took a few steps forward, and I instinctively walked backwards into a tree. He slid my suspenders off and started on my trouser buttons.
“Whaddaya want me t’do?” Was I supposed to touch him? I didn’t know what to do with my hands, let alone the rest of my body.
“Well, you don’t hafta do anything. Lucky dog. Next time, it can be your turn.”
His head dipped below my waist. My nails dug into tree bark, and then his hair. The clearing around me was misty, or maybe I just felt misty—I seemed to melt into the tree, leaning my head back and closing my eyes as my body did what it knew best.
In a cloud of muddled pleasure, I peered down again. I was afloat in a sea of golden ringlets, just barely above the surface. I felt heavy, and my toes sunk into the warmth before my whole body went with it, surrounded by soft curls. A face materialized before me, and I felt hands on my hips as I settled into my own little nest of heaven.
My eyes were unfocused, but I didn’t need to look at her to know who it was. She kissed down my stomach just like I remembered it, and I ran my hands along her soft thighs as she climbed on top of me. I was filled with pure bliss, cupping her breasts and moving together in a lazy rhythm, the sound of our own moans and whimpers filling our ears. She leaned down to kiss me, obscuring the world around us with her curtain of hair, and I had to fight to catch my breath in the moments when our lips parted.
The edge came like a tsunami. She held onto me for dear life, our skin slick with sweat as we reached the peak and let ourselves come crashing down into the seafoam. I closed my eyes tightly, shivering through the descent, until the warmth faded and the prickly feeling of bark beneath my calloused hands returned.
My legs were unsteady, and when I opened my blurry eyes to take a step, a hand pressed into my chest to stop me from falling. Instead, I sunk to the ground and let my head loll backwards as I felt Sören button my trousers back up.
I looked into the forest, focusing my eyes on something glistening in the bushes. Sören stepped away to get his own clothes back on and I squinted at the tiny, floating orbs before rubbing my eyes.
I blinked them open again.
The eerie glow flickered and disappeared.
¹ A logger whose job is strictly to cut down trees.
² New loggers, often young, who are assigned less-important jobs.
³ A logger who uses a cant hook (a large tool with an adjustable hook) to maneuver logs.
⁴ A lumberjack.
⁵ A period in the springtime when the ice melts, and the logs can be driven down streams.
⁶ A game where one player gets on their hands and knees, and the other participants make a circle around them. While the player has their eyes closed, one person will slap their ass, and then the player must guess who did it. If they guess correctly, the ‘loser’ switches with the player.