In 1850, Harald and Froelich emigrated to America. It was November when they landed at Fort Astoria, and damp. As they made their way across the Cascades, a torrent of rain doused their possessions, sweeping off the ocean like an enormous push broom. At higher altitudes, the precipitation turned to hail—even masquerading as snow for one eerie afternoon, flakes like dinner plates crashing on the ground.
The recent passage of the Donation Land Act had entitled any man of voting age to 320 agrees in Oregon Country, provided that he make improvements to the land. The brothers’ 640 acres (their parcels arranged end-to-end) were adjacent to Boxboro—less of a town, at the time, than the notion of a town. There was nobody to greet them when they arrived, nothing to signify their destination. As they inspected their plots, Froelich discovered The Very Big Tree. Its trunk was thrice as wide as he was tall—so massive that he initially mistook it for a rampart. Felled by some spectacular act of God, it extended for a full kilometer.
To Harald’s mind, he knew, the timber would represent a commercial opportunity; however, Froelich’s second discovery, made shortly after the first, would supersede any material gain.
“Love, Harald!” he gushed, with cheeks flushed and slightly out of breath. “I’m in love! She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Putting down his ax, Harald wiped the sweat from his brow. He’d been busy erecting a shelter, while his brother was traipsing through the woods. “What’s her name?” he said, trying to muster some enthusiasm.
“I’ll tell you,” Froelich grinned, “if you’ll forgive my pronunciation.”
Her name was Lotsee, and she was an outcast from the Siletz tribe. At sixteen, she’d entertained an awful premonition: misery and death for her people, to be nurtured in the confines of the Coast Reservation. Her only hope, she believed, was to seduce Death. To her mind, he would resemble a White-man, pale and hulking. If he were ruled by his baser instincts, surely he’d be in thrall to her charms.
Unfortunately, Froelich hadn’t met her specifications. A slight adolescent with outsize ambitions, there was no mistaking him for Death; as such, they’d exchanged a few polite words and had parted ways. He felt confident he could win Lotsee’s heart, but was embarrassed to return empty-handed. That, he explained to Harald, was where The Very Big Tree came in.
“Just look at this monster!” Froelich exclaimed, having convinced his brother to visit the timber. “It’ll make the perfect engagement gift!”
“Engagement gift? All I see’s an impediment.”
“That’s because you lack imagination.”
“You want to chop it up for firewood?”
Froelich shook his head. “Yes, Harald—I want to give firewood to my bride-to-be. Before, when I said that you lacked imagination, I was mistaken.”
Standing back to better appraise The Very Big Tree, Froelich tapped a finger against his nose. “I see … a ladder.”
“Yes, a ladder! It’ll be amazing, Harald—the tallest ladder you’ve ever seen! Not just the tallest ladder in Oregon Country—possibly the tallest ladder in the entire world! And not just a ladder—a piece of art! Can’t you picture it?”
“What I can picture,” Harald replied, “is finishing our shelter, so that we can spend the night in dry bedclothes.”
“But, Harald, we must!”
“No, Froelich,” Harald sighed, “we mustn’t. I’m sure she’s very pretty, and I appreciate your desire to court to her. But why go to all this effort?”
With a noticeable sag to his shoulders, Froelich answered, “Because anyone can court to her. I must woo her, Harald. Please, help me do this.”
And so he was duly persuaded. Early on, it was easy to exchange verses of song, or to speak to one another. But as the days turned into weeks, and the brothers could no longer see or hear each other, the forest grew up between them. During this time, they developed a vocabulary called TAP. Borrowing from Morse code, to which they’d been exposed on their transatlantic voyage, they used thumps and vibrations to form combinations of words. For instance, one knock immediately followed by a second knock meant, “Yes.” One knock gradually followed by a second knock meant, “No.” Two knocks in a row meant, “Good afternoon.” Three knocks in a row meant, “Rain.” Two knocks, followed by a pause, followed by a single knock meant, “Perhaps, but it depends on the weather.” Three knocks, followed by a pause, followed by six knocks, followed by a pause, followed by four knocks meant, “Just because it rained today doesn’t mean it will rain tomorrow—and should it rain tomorrow, you can’t claim to have predicted it, simply on the basis of saying, It feels like rain tomorrow.” And so on, and so forth.
For Froelich, progress guided him in the direction of Boxboro. Meanwhile, Harald was striving the other direction, driving himself deeper into the woods. Eventually, The Very Big Tree brought him to a sloping meadow, wherein Lotsee had fashioned her lean-to. When he emerged from a clutch of boysenberries, cursing and sweating, she was hanging her laundry out to dry—her back turned to him, and the branches sagging low. At the sound of his glottal invective, Lotsee spun around. Up until this point, Harald hadn’t seen her for himself, relying instead on Froelich’s description. Accordingly, he’d thought his brother had been exaggerating. But Lotsee was lovely. In fact, she was stunning. Cowed by her beauty, and mindful of his brother’s claim, he took a good, long look at her, then retreated into the woods.
Immediately, Harald regretted his decision. He couldn’t casually return to the meadow, which meant he’d lost half a day’s work. Worse yet, he’d failed to introduce himself! Some days had passed since he’d last corresponded with Froelich (Do they sell awls at the general store? Mine is getting blunt. Monkey penis awl fail. Froelich, I think you may have used too many taps—that came out as gibberish. No, monkey—I said use your penis, if your awl doesn’t work!) and what his brother didn’t know, Harald decided, couldn’t hurt him. Additionally, he resolved never to utter another word to Lotsee—not the next time he saw her, nor ever. With any luck, she’d mistake him for a deaf mute.
The very next day, when he returned to the meadow, The Very Big Tree was awaiting him … and so was Lotsee. While conducting her chores the previous afternoon, she’d been attired in sensible clothing—but now she was wearing a skirt and a blouse, and her hair was arranged in a fastidious plait. Harald studiously avoided eye contact, busying himself with the rung at hand; meanwhile, Lotsee cleared her throat to speak.
“Do not pretend you cannot see me, when you are standing in my shadow.”
Harald froze, his shoulders tensed. But still he wouldn’t face her.
“Fine, then,” she shrugged. “Pretend.”
Moving to stand beside him, she watched as he coaxed a shape from the wood. “I know who you are,” she said. “You look as I expected, but it didn’t stop me from being afraid. Had you beckoned me, yesterday, I would have gone with you willingly. I would have greeted my ancestors and endured their chiding. What, child, I can hear them say—did you really expect to be his bride? When the sun shines down from the sky, is that for you, too?”
Harald made no indication that he was able to understand her, nor that he’d even heard her. She was standing so close, he could the smell lilac water on her skin. He was terrified he’d miss the awl with his hammer and smash one of his fingers instead.
“When you left,” Lotsee continued, “I was relieved. I was grateful to be alive! But soon I became irritated. Why did you not beckon to me? Was I not good enough for you? Then I looked down at my clothes—pants, like a man. My face and hands covered in dirt. That night, I talked to my ancestors again. I told them, Death thinks he can ignore me, just because he walks between the raindrops? You tell Death I would rather kiss a toad! And here you are. So I ask you, Death—do I look better, now?”
Cupping his chin with her palm, she turned Harald’s face to her own. Thus compelled, he looked at her—truly looked at her. It was all he could do to wrench his head free.
Grunting, Lotsee walked behind his back and addressed his profile—the long expanse of The Very Big Tree laid out before them. “You are making a ladder?” she said. “Where will you take it, when you are finished?”
“It’s not for me,” he answered, grateful to find his voice. “It’s for you.”
Frowning, Harald reached for the appropriate word. “It’s … art.”
Her questions (and his inability to answer them) were making him feel stupid. With a scowl, he continued to work—chiseling twice as hard and twice as fast. Shavings floated on the breeze, coating his chest and shoulders. Though he was facing straight ahead, what he could see were Lotsee’s eyes—not brown, as he might’ve expected, but gray, like the deepest ice on a winter pond.
“It’s a wedding present,” he abruptly informed her. He didn’t mean to ruin Froelich’s surprise, but there it was. Lotsee’s response was curious: at first, she stiffened, but then she made a resigned sound, as if it were something she had been expecting. Lightly, she placed her hands over his.
Harald didn’t know how to behave. He looked everywhere but directly at her—waiting for his heart to stop racing, or for the roar of cicadas to quell his thoughts. Sawdust clung where it had alighted on his beard, making his neck itch. When she urged him to his feet and dragged him, step by step, in the direction of her lean-to, he was unable to resist.
For the next week, Harald tried to contact Froelich, while also searching in vain. When all else had failed, he extricated the ladder from The Very Big Tree. Using a system of ropes and pulleys, he dragged the stiles to the edge of the clearing, whereupon he erected a fulcrum. At Harald’s best estimate, the ladder was 70 meters tall, wobbling slightly in the breeze. It was breathtaking to behold—but that’s not what Froelich saw, when he finally resurfaced. What he saw was Harald and Lotsee, standing with their hands entwined. Before Harald could speak, Froelich had fled back to the woods—all the way to Boxboro, where he got terrifically drunk. Harald knew better than to pursue him. He expected Froelich to return when he was good and ready, not thinking it would be later that night. Who could say what Froelich had conceived—whether a violent confrontation or a tearful plea. What he did do (as Harald and Lotsee slept in their marital bed), was to blunder up the rungs.
In a fit of rage and despair, he climbed the ladder. And that would determine everything else.
Jamie Duclos-Yourdon received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 2001, and currently lives in Portland, Ore. His fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Either/Or.