Old Woodsman and Critters by Janet Keyes

Semi-retired, the old woodsman sold firewood to folks who actually still burned real wood, not pellets. Of course he burned wood to heat his own home. On long winter days he sat for hours in an appropriately semi-retired and musty easy chair a few feet away from the wood stove in his cellar. The rest of the house was comfortably warm, but the cellar was warmly cozy, and with any luck he might not hear the phone from there.

Along the north wall of his cellar he had neatly stacked three or more cords of firewood each fall. Never the good stuff that he could sell – his own home got the tattered remnants of wood stacks that had wintered one too many times outside. Like grizzled old civil war soldiers some sticks of wood sported hoary white beards, fungal in origin. But as he liked to say, “It makes smoke,” or “Good enough for an old barn!”

The wood supported a few insects even though the woodsman was always careful to discard any hollow piece of wood containing ants, to avoid contaminating his home, or those of his customers. After the autumn wood was stacked, and after the chimney was cleaned and the wood stove fired up, the cellar would warm up and a few insects would emerge from the stack.

Occasionally there would also be a mouse in the cellar and the old man’s cat would chase uselessly, as the mice could quickly scoot under the woodpile. His backup plan was to have mousetraps, baited and carefully placed under old crates where mice could go, but where the cat could not be injured accidentally.

One winter afternoon the old man heard an unusual sound from under the stacked wood. It was not a cheerful cricket, which might have been welcome, but something else. This critter would make a raspy sort of clicking noise, repeating every few seconds for a while. This happened several times throughout the winter. The old man often wondered, was it some kind of bug? Or some odd relative of a salamander? Or, God forbid, some kind of small rattlesnake? And what did it live on?

As spring approached and the woodpile receded, the old man was increasingly careful whenever he picked up a stick to add to the wood stove. He was too old for surprises. The woodsman never did find that unknown critter. Probably that was just as well, as some mysteries are best left unsolved.

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