Paul Bunyan has died. Paul Bunyan has died and Johnny Appleseed is heading north. Not for vengeance, like Paul would have wanted. Not to beat the hills red or divert a river over those responsible for killing the legend, but because it finally seems time to revisit old scars, old pains.
“We were the fire in the night,” Johnny remembers Paul saying one night, so long ago. “We were the hope when the savages and the elements and the Earth itself seemed against us. We drove it all out, made way for progress. For civilization.”
Johnny remembers nodding and running his hand through Paul’s beard. He’s never been into beards, before or after, but there was just something about Paul that made it work, jaw as sharp as an axe and not a single hair out of place, like the first thing he had done after springing from his mother was to grow a beard and then tame it.
He takes a bus north from Chicago, where he had been living, working. Green spaces. Planned communities. Beautification projects. As American as apple pie. They offered to send a car, a limo even, when they called to inform him Paul was dead and ask if Johnny could clear something up for them. He refused. Public transportation was more eco-friendly anyway. The bus coughs smoke into the air and ambles its way north, west, then north again. Johnny remembers.
“I can’t find Babe,” Paul had said the last time they talked, probably five years ago. Paul was working for an oil company. Fracking. He had always needed to be big, and what was bigger than Big Oil? What was more Paul than swinging an axe at the Earth and sucking liquid gold out of the wound?
Johnny hadn’t spoken at first. It wasn’t like they were close, not then, not for a long time. Occasionally they found themselves in the same place, the same town, and they’d meet, and they’d remember. Remember that what they shared was pain, was rough sex and the same old silences that had driven them apart.
“I went out to the farm and she was just . . .” His voice hitched and Johnny swallowed.
Gone. And whose fault was it, Johnny wanted to ask. Who had stuck her on a farm and expected her to play the dumb beast? All the old anger came welling up in him and he wanted, more than anything, to finally tell Paul what a bastard he was. How he was glad that she was gone, that she was free.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” he said instead, quietly, aware that he wasn’t alone in bed, that he hadn’t been alone for six months and yet still picked up for Paul on the second ring.
“No,” Paul said. “No.” His voice trembled and Johnny looked at the clock. Two in the morning.
“Paul, get some sleep. Like as not she’ll be there in the morning.” Beside him Derrick stirred and Johnny lowered his voice even further. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
Five years, even for an immortal, can be a lifetime. Johnny stares out the window of the bus as the fields of corn and soy give way to forest. It’s not a slow transition, just a wall of trees that lets you know you’ve arrived in the North Woods.
Paul was based out of Wausau at the end, though his prospecting took him far and wide. So it’s into Wausau that Johnny arrives to speak to Paul’s employers, which is how he learned that Paul is dead. There is a car to pick him up from the bus station, and he is driven to what must have been a strip mall at one point before it was converted into offices. He’s whisked inside where a group of suits sits around a table, matching grave expressions complementing their corporate gray.
“Mr. Appleseed?” the suit at their center asks, and Johnny nods. Been a while since someone used his real name, and it sounds almost ridiculous—an artifact from another age. He goes by other names now, aliases and identities that he plants and leaves behind when he’s used them up, a trail of old selves sprouting in his wake. But why else is he here, if not to revisit his roots, his origin?
“We’re sorry for your loss.”
Johnny nods again, annoyed now because he’s sure they don’t know or care about Paul and him. The history. The way they seemed to revolve each other like celestial bodies, passing close enough to touch only briefly, with a power that threatened them both, before drifting apart again.
“I doubt you called me here just to pass along your condolences,” Johnny says. They did enough of that on the phone, along with their not-so-subtle insistence that he come north with all possible speed. No, there’s something else, and he’s tired of waiting.
The suits pass a glance amongst themselves like it’s weed at a folk rock concert and Johnny wishes he had brought something to take the edge off. He remembers smoking with Paul and Babe, during a summer they spent in the northwest once. Bigfoot hunting, they said, though in the summer of 1944 draft dodging was probably more accurate.
“We should enlist,” Paul said for probably the fifth time in as many minutes. He blew out a lungful of smoke into the air and it was like he was creating overcast right then, like before that moment there had only ever been sunny days and in one errant action Paul had just doomed the world to gloomy weather. He was like that, always forgetting his size and his strength and his power. Or maybe Johnny was just high, letting his mind rise like that smoke and dissipate into nothing.
“And what, I’d plant some trees and you’d chop them down and they’d all just surrender?” Johnny asked.
“An axe can cut a man as easily as a tree,” Paul said, and the end of the joint was like a burning world as he took a long pull, blew it out into Babe’s face. The ox’s head was starting to loll a bit to side, a goofy look on her face, and Paul chuckled at her. Johnny took a drag, held it, the smoke in him like the truth fermenting. He released it.
“An axe won’t do much to a tank or a bomber,” he said. “And besides, we have no business fighting men.”
“I seem to remember fighting a few in my time.” Paul’s laugh was thunder and smoke.
“They were never the enemy,” Johnny said. “It was the land . . .” Images flashed in his mind, a bag of seeds and an axe, a dark forest that stretched on and on without end, filled with monsters, with disasters, with fires and a loneliness that seemed to pierce the soul. He remembered the dream of America, of man battling against the elements, the land itself. No, it was never the men they were really fighting. It was the Earth. And they had won, beaten it down until the forests were faint shadows. There were no more dark places in the world, no places man could not swing his axe, plant his seed.
Paul’s hands grabbed at Johnny’s hips, lifted him easily and deposited him on Paul’s lap. Paul’s cock was obvious through his jeans, hard and hot. Johnny was going to be sore come morning.
“There’s a problem that we were hoping you could help us wrap up,” the head suit says, dragging Johnny back to the present.
“This has to do with Paul’s death?” he asks. They’ve been damned vague about the whole thing since they called, but he knows they want something, that there was some reason for pulling him back to the North Woods.
“Mr. Bunyan was our top prospector,” the suit says like Paul could have ever been anything other than the top anything. “He found a massive shale gas deposit that stretches under most of Vilas County and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”
There’s a collective pause around the table as the suits confer in silence while looking different shades of uncomfortable. Something is wrong and wrong in a way that means they’ve called on an outsider to tell their secrets to because it’s too weird or dangerous or fucked to take care of on their own.
“You have to understand,” the suit says, “that we followed all state and federal guidelines concerning the use of fracking to test the viability of getting the gas out.”
Johnny doesn’t laugh, though he wants to. He just waits.
The suits start speaking, all at once.
“Mr. Bunyan used our latest equipment—”
“Which has passed all inspections by government agencies and is our sole intellectual property—”
“Unfortunately, government geological surveying failed to adequately predict seismic conditions—”
“The machinery worked beautifully. Paul was a true artist with the pump—”
“There was a collapse, an accident, and the equipment was lost, and Mr. Bunyan—”
“Our investigators suspect that gas fumes ignited due to contact with the combustion engine of the pumps—”
“There was a fireball that reached five hundred feet which we’ve manage to mostly keep out of the news cycles—”
“And here’s the thing—”
“It won’t stop burning.”
They stop as one, just as they started, leaving Johnny standing there, dazed. Slowly the information fits into place.
“And you want me to do . . .?” he asks. He imagines the look on Paul’s face when it happened, his triumph at piercing the Earth, digging for its last secrets and treasures, replaced by the quick terror of collapse, of fire. It’s a story fit for Paul Bunyan, for the death of legend.
“Traditional attempts to put out the resulting fire have proved . . . unsuccessful,” the head suit says. “We thought, given the . . . nature of Mr. Bunyan, that you might have some alternate means of resolving the situation.”
“I’m no firefighter,” Johnny says. “Unless you want me to plant a tree to honor his memory, I’m afraid you might be out of luck.”
“If you could just . . . look?” the head suit asks. A briefcase is produced and opened. Johnny wonders if he can be bought and sold, if it matters anyway. It’s a story, and it needs a proper ending. Not because Johnny still loves Paul. Not that. But because the story pulls at him. They’re all made of stories, people like Johnny, people like Paul. They’re drawn to them, can no more say no than can step on a flower without crushing it to oblivion.
They drive him to the site, just west of Rhinelander, and he remembers.
“They say Pecos Bill died,” Paul said. They were in a hotel in Plymouth, Minnesota. Johnny was sore. They watched the sun rise over the parking lot.
Johnny laughed. “What, flew off on a tornado straight into the afterlife?”
Paul snorted, shook his head. For a long time he didn’t speak, and when he did his voice was just a whisper.
“He hooked a lasso around the moon and hanged himself.” The remains of a case of beer littered the room and Johnny went to each empty can and shook it, hoping for just one more drop.
“He shot Widow Maker through the head first,” Paul added, just the ghost of a sound.
Johnny dressed in silence, grabbed his keys from the nightstand.
“Damned horse would have been miserable without him,” Johnny said as he left. It was the last time he had seen Paul in person.
Whatever the fucking suits called it, it’s a damned lake of fire. Maybe a mile in diameter and slowly growing, the crumbling edges cutting farther and farther into the forest that surrounds it. There’s a small army there, too, all wearing corporate colors and just standing around watching. It’s burning. Not really on fire, except where trees and dirt and rocks spill in around the edges, but it’s burning all the same, red with heat.
Johnny walks right to edge. It’s hot but not unbearable, the air like a sauna. Good thing there’s been a lot of rain or else the forest would go up. As it is, there’s enough to worry about. It’s deep, a pit pitched down to a point in the center where Johnny sees the remains of a corporate rig dwarfed by the remains of a man.
He’s just bones now, just the memory of the force he was. Even so, he seems to be growing at the same rate as the pit, his bones stretching larger and larger like death wants to make true all the stories of him. Johnny remembers.
“They say you made the Grand Canyon when you dragged your axe behind you,” Johnny said, taking a step back, trying to keep his distance from the man advancing on him. He’d heard of Paul Bunyan, of course. Who hadn’t? But the man himself was different than he expected. Tall, certainly, but no giant. Burly and wide with a neat beard on his chin and blue eyes that twinkled like stars.
“They say a lot about me,” Paul said. He followed Johnny’s every move, gaze hungry. There was no doubt what he wanted.
“They say when you piss, you fill rivers, and when you eat, you beggar entire camps of their flapjacks.” Johnny bumped his back against a tree, his retreat thwarted. Paul didn’t miss his opportunity, stepped in smoothly, face just inches away from Johnny’s.
“You should see what happens when I get off,” Paul said.
The bones aren’t the only things in the pit. Shapes are moving, lumbering, the size of oxen. The bodies are scaled, though, with long, reptilian tails and heads like frogs, with claws as long as sabers. Hodags. And there, some are more like moose with batwings for ears and long, drooping mouths lined with razor-like teeth. Hugags. There are more, rock-slide bolters and splinter cats and a dozen other creatures just as deadly. Johnny swallows.
“Get your people back,” Johnny tells the foreman standing next to him.
“We’ve been told to keep the area secure,” she says, though in her eyes Johnny can see that she knows how impossible that task is. He understands why the suits called him in. Not because of Paul and not because of the fire. He’s a sacrifice. An offering. Not an apology. No, they would never even think of that, and it wouldn’t mean a thing anyway. He is a sacrifice, a hope and a prayer that feeding him to the pit will somehow appease what’s growing there.
“There’s no securing this,” Johnny says. He remembers.
Paul laughed as he cleaved the hodag in half. He laughed as, with another stroke of his axe, he took off its head. Johnny watched on, body rigid, repulsed and excited. He hated hurting animals, but this was a monster, something that had been stalking a nearby logging camp. It couldn’t really be wrong, could it? It’s what Paul did, really, just as Johnny planted trees. Neither of them were native, neither welcomed. It was all violence, of a sort, but still Johnny felt strange, seeing the blood.
Babe came tearing through the trees, a hugag gored on her horns. She, too, was laughing.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this,” Paul said, giving Babe a pat on the flank.
“It’ll end someday,” Johnny said. “You can’t clear an entire territory of trees and expect there to be forests forever. Just like you can’t keep killing hodags and expect them to always be around. That’s the way of the dodo, after all.”
Paul paused, smile slipping on his face, but for a moment only before the laugh was back.
“There’ll always be something to clear,” he said. “Always something . . .”
Somewhere behind him Johnny can hear a truck pulling up. Maybe a van. He doesn’t turn to check. He knows that they’ll be here to make sure he goes in. His eyes are glued on the bones. Paul’s bones. Beneath them he thinks he can see movement. Something in the embers. Just the subtle poke of a horn, the hint of blue hide.
It’s all apocrypha. There is no story of the death of Paul Bunyan. In the stories, he’s still out there, sleeping, maybe, or gone to a world beneath the world. Pecos Bill is still lassoing tornadoes and Johnny Appleseed is still planting trees. But the meanings change. Cracks show through. What seemed so simple becomes anything but.
Johnny stands and watches the pit draw closer. The hodags are waiting, watching, and under them something is starting to take shape, and it looks like an ending—of what, Johnny can’t be certain. Of heroes, maybe. Or the need for them. Or maybe it’s not a death at all. Maybe it’s the birth of something new. The ground around him is beginning to crumble.