Son of Paul Bunyan
by Robert James Russell
On an island in the darkest corners of Lake Superior, the old Axeman’s son lived in a perpetual drunk.
His father, the Famed Logger, the Mover of Great Industry and single-handed Champion of the North Woods Men, had died some time before, and now, on this island, where red and white pine flourished and black-necked geese flocked and brown bears foraged the endless supplies of wildflower honey, the son of Paul Bunyan brewed mead and slept all day. He wrestled the island bears and chided them, towering over them—he, tall as a basswood tree. He lumbered on the shores and sunned himself on the rare occurrences the sun shone through the pearly gray sky, and, too, he chided Babe, spat insults at him, his father’s Great Companion, now nearly-blind and hobbled, chained to a boulder at the center of the island and fed leftover porridge.
His mother, Helene, of normal height—of human stock—had fled shortly after his birth—perhaps regretting her tryst with the Lumberman, unable to conceive a life between them. Her love he never knew. He often thought that, perhaps, she would look upon his actions here on the island as unkind, as spiteful, but she had left him, so why would that matter? His father had retired to the island during his son’s budding adolescence, suddenly tired of the fame and expectations, and he, a hard man, took a stern approach to parenthood, so the boy was raised with fist and with scowl and learned the means and ways of the land.
After he buried his father in an enormous coffin made from towering cured pine logs, he thought often of leaving the island, of swimming the chopping inland sea, to proclaim his inheritance from man, proclaiming he was half them, half something else—to be worshipped, absolutely—but also to seek love, yes, to be held. Then the drink would take him, drag him down and, instead, he would wrestle the bears and hunt with the wolves and break the necks of the geese for sport and chide Babe until he felt sickly satisfied in his depravity.
Or the anger would overpower, and he’d run naked through the forest chopping down the old growth trees, ripping up stumps and roots and hurling the gargantuan masses of primordial wood into the sky, splashing down in the dark blue water where it met horizon.
What good was this power, this strength, he wondered, if he was alone?
Go on then, he’d hear the north wind whisper. Take a swim. Go to Man. Become legend, like your father.
One winter, in his thirtieth year, a particularly bad year, he miscalculated his mead supply, how much the island bees could produce, how much he should ration.
He bellowed, howled, and the animals scattered and storm clouds dropped rain that iced, turned to slush, covered the island in gray and white. He went on a tear, digging into the earth for imaginary caches of mead that, perhaps, he’d forgotten he’d squirreled away, but found none.
Feet of snow covered the island, and the winds whipped and gnawed at his hard-rock face. One day, he approached Babe, axe in hand. The beast lay low to the earth, legs buckled from the weather. Babe didn’t look up, but away. The Axeman’s Son shook, took his big red calloused hands and stroked the coarse blue fur of the ox’s neck, matted now, slick with sweat and sick.
He thought of saying a word, some prayer, but all he could imagine was his mother leaving, his father’s cruel hand, and so he chopped, and chopped, destroyed what was left of his father’s visage, butchered the blue ox until the snow drained red, steam rising from the pooled piles of the beast’s innards.
It did not sate that sourness inside him.
It was the hardest winter he’d ever seen, years long on that island. He grew emaciated, avaricious—dangerously mad. He made roaring bonfires of the trees on the island until only a small acreage of timber remained. He dug up all the roots and ate them in a single sitting. He gored the island bears, used their skins for blankets, grilled their flesh on long yellow cedar poles he fashioned with his axe. All the songbirds had flown away, yet the snow and cold remained, the waves on the shore lapping, taunting, scolding him.
He lost count of time entirely, measuring it in his beard growth, the dullness of the axe blade. Eventually the Axeman’s Son was without any food, left then with an island wasteland before him. A legacy brought to ruination.
One morning, he followed imagined shorebirds to the western edge of the island wrapped in Babe’s blue pelt, shivering beneath it. There was nothing but him there. He shook off the fur, raised his fist against the sky sky. He’d swim to the mainland. Yes. He would swim there and gorge on food and drink and wreak havoc. They would bow to him. They would fashion him their king.
As the Axeman’s Son entered the water, the cold screamed up his legs, his crotch, his sunken abdomen, until he grew accustomed. He dog-paddled out until the barren, ravaged island, the only home he’d ever known, was out of view. Around him was unending water, immense waves, dark swirling skies. A thundering storm followed him overhead. He was lost, he grew tired. He took great gulping breaths, filling his lungs with water. He waded there, gritting his teeth, until his body finally succumbed to cold and tire and ache and sank like a beach stone.
He drifted between life and death for decades, arrested, while the waves overhead, that dark water around him, kept violently moving, pulsating.
Every so often, he’d see the waters part above him, a ship cruising for other shores. The Axeman’s Son would reach up and grab hold of those great ships filled with men in uniform transporting goods from lake to river to lake, lake to river to lake, trying desperately to pull himself up from the cold dark depths of Lake Superior but instead dragging the ships down, all men aboard perishing, unwilling sailors and seamen trapped for eternity with that blathering half-giant in a cold world devoid of hope, hidden beneath the white-capped waves forever chopping, forever chopping.
This piece started as a dare to myself: I wanted to create a fairytale unique to Michigan. (Many of the Upper Great Lakes States lay claim to Paul, but the first recorded story of him was in the Detroit News-Tribune, July 24, 1910). I'm also enamored with Lake Superior, this inland sea. There are so many stories of ships going down, of sailors drowning, boats rusting along the bottom of the lake. I like when we're afraid of the natural world, when we're unsure of our footing.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at https://robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.