Mending Fence

You and I, dear neighbor, meet to fell the rotten tree stump that separates our yards. You and I, beloved neighbor, have converged to remove this mess that the previous owners of our houses built this fence around, incorporating all its gnarled bark down to pith. Its height is cut to match the six-foot fence, the size of you, sweet neighbor, so much taller and more dashing than five-foot-six me. Back when the neighbors before us built this fence, this tree straddling their property lines must have been too stubborn to remove. Build around it became the solution. Or maybe this was their joke on us, cursed to resolve their heirloom eyesore. Can you hear them laughing, neighbor, as we shove shoulders against mold-ridden wood? 

Our houses are a century old, built so close to the creek bed that our basements flood every spring. Edison neighborhood, Kalamazoo, Michigan—this was papermill land, houses built to convenience the mill workers, to tuck them close to their sulfur-reeking day jobs where they pulped every tree in sight. 

Except for this one, dear neighbor. They spared this chunk, this torso of tree, to form our good fence that has kept us good neighbors, though soon a missing-tooth gap will exist between our yards, where your children could spill onto my lawn, and my orange fox dog could sniff her way onto yours, urinate on your garden, where you’ve been growing vegetables, composting, feeding your children from the earth that once housed the papermills. We’ve been admiring your sustainability from our second-floor window that looks on your backyard. We’ve enjoyed your respectful parties, the folk music piped at a moderate volume, the yellow strings of light, the craft beers and local wines. We’d join you, but there has been this tree in the way, filling our fence where a gate could open. This tree and also the lack of invitation. 

We push harder, and the six-foot stump sways. Under our shoulders, we feel its heft, dense with pulp and mold and countless insects who’ve burrowed inside this wood for generations. We count and grunt in unison on the count of three. No need for the trappings of modern masculinity. No power tools. No chainsaw. No tools at all yet. Just two neighbors ramming and grunting and swaying and, finally, then, the give, the two-hundred-year-grown fibers answering our grunts with the tired sighs of wet cracking. We are cavemen, you and I, dear neighbor, sweating and twinned. We should touch each other to celebrate, clap backs, bump chests, kiss cheeks. 

The moment for celebration passes, when a green snake swivels out from the tree carcass turned black shards and crumbles. The snake churns toward your yard, and turns toward mine, then back toward your home. You thrust hedge shears into my hands and goad me: Kill it! 

I would say back to you, beloved neighbor, that this was your idea. This is, technically, your fence, though we both enjoy its privacy from your parties for which we lack invitations. This is Michigan, where the snakes are almost all gentle and good stewards for the gardens that feed our children. This is not my fence. This was not my tree, or, at least, only half so. 

But you chant, kill it, kill it, kill it, man! and my blood still pumps in sync to yours, our caveman victory of shoulder blade tree toppling. Though you are the kindest neighbor I’ve ever known, patient with your three children, teaching the neighborhood kids how to fix bikes, planting a tiny library in your front lawn, volunteering to fill sandbags when the spring floods return—here you are now with murder stuck in your throat. 

I widen the shears’ mouth. Thrust down. Squeeze. I’m more accurate than I would’ve dreamed. I usually miss in sports, strike out, overthrow, picked late or last for teams. I’ve never killed any animal, never even tried, in a state where every boy hunts bucks from boyhood. But I am terribly exact in my slaughterous aim. You and I, good-citizen neighbor, our ancestors have gifted the instincts to decapitate a snake to protect your homestead, to protect your children, the child my wife will have one year from now, when the snake might’ve continued existing inside this rotten stump without any child ever knowing. 

Using your shovel, you scoop the snake’s body into a black garbage bag. The head you lift last, and you suspend it, so we can both wonder at its removed head aspirating, jaws opening and clenching, fangs drawn, more ferocious in death than we could’ve imagined, this Medusan curse floating between us. Those golden-ring irises gaze past us, fixed on a world we can’t see, past the fence, our bodies, our houses, past the papermills and before the trees were felled to clear way for this neighborhood. 

Dearest neighbor, still quivering, you discard the head, too, into the black bag, where it will reunite with body, return to the pulpy remains of its home. And tomorrow, after you level the earth, you’ll erect five new slats of fencing. From my second-floor window, I’ll study the blond of fresh fencing contrasted by the weathered slats that have kept us good neighbors for these years. Soon the colors will blend. You’ll sell, then we’ll sell, and the new neighbors will never know the brutal wonders that could separate them. 


  • Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and his chapbook Secrets of the Wild were both published by Word West Press. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now teaches creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in Faultline, Wigleaf, DIAGRAM, Redivider, Fiddlehead, and Alaska Quarterly Review.

  • Bryan Buckley is a photographer and metal fabricator in Massachusetts.