- How I Learned the Gospel by Heart and Stopped Saying Damn
It is one of those rare Christmas Eves when snow is not only falling in Tennessee, but actually sticking. The blacktop of the roads has vanished, and in every corner of this city, people are sliding into ditches and telephone poles. Southerners get a little panicked in the snow. Like deer caught in headlights—but these deer are in the driver's seat, their white knuckles locked onto their steering wheels, and the whites of their eyes wide as they go careening off into yards and guardrails.
I yell this observation to my big brother, Aaron, who is suspended 60 feet off the ground by a rope, pruning his way through a tulip poplar tree. I am eye-level with him in a nearby maple, even though the falling snow is so thick that I can barely see him. He grunts acknowledgment and jumps to another limb.
We are on the clock. We are arborists, and it is our job to do all things trees, to prune and cut down and consult our way to our paychecks. We are working on Christmas Eve in the middle of a snowstorm because business has been slow, and our customer, who is framed in firelight and warmth in his living room below, wanted all his trees pruned before Christmas as a gift to his wife, whose soft silhouette I can also see in the room's crackling light.
My brother's body is a blur of motion. I can see his movement through the falling snow, just barely, and he is picking up speed. He is a human squirrel jumping from limb to limb, bobbing out on slippery branches to fine-prune the tips.
It is so cold. The temperature drops and we bleed. Human skin turns brittle in these conditions. The creases around our knuckles crack open, and [End Page 1] the rough ridges of tree bark puncture our hands. The snow sweeps over us in white waves and billows around us like down from a city-wide pillow fight, like all the pillows burst at once and the wind whipped up the feathers and hurled them around and around.
I'd like to relay this observation to my brother, but I know the most I'll get from him is another grunt or a string of curses about the cold. Instead I hang quietly in my maple, squinting to see his scratchy wool sweater through the flurry. I can hear his movements, and the biting of his serrated handsaw into the hard flesh of the tree. Every sound seems amplified by the snow--we're dangling in a cathedral of white.
Looking farther up into the canopy of my tree, I see the fresh wounds from my pruning, and the sap freezing instantly from the cuts into icicles, into tiny stalactites of sugar maple. "Sapcicles!" I yell to my brother, who is pulling on the cord of his chainsaw to ignite its engine. He severs a dead limb from his tree, clips the saw to his harness, and begins zipping to the ground, bouncing feet-first off the trunk in graceful arcs to the snowy yard. I throw a three-inch shard of frozen sap into the snow at his feet. "This can be the best job in the world, sometimes," I say. "Who else gets sapcicles on Christmas Eve in the middle of a snowstorm?"
I descend to the ground and begin unsnapping carabiners and untying knots. I watch as Aaron bends down to pick up the stalactite of sap, and I see the blood stain on the snow from his brittle, broken hands.
"It's fucking cold," he says.
"I know every cursing word in the world," he says. "I know how babies are made and how to say the poop word, and if you tell on me I'll paint you with black paint and tie you onto the road and a truck will come by and smash your brains out because he can't see you."
Seven-year-old Aaron is poised like a diver on the edge of his bed, preparing...