First came finding the trees. We had tagged them that summer—loops of red twine, tied tightly around craggy trunks—when Fitz had been home, when the chill of winter had seemed distant and unthinkable. The twine would help us find the right maples, he explained—the hard ones, the thick ones, the ones that would yield the sweetest sap—even in the snow.
That year, though, the flurries of January had given way only to wayward morning frosts. In place of the solemn silence of fresh-fallen snow, we would have only the indolence of ice. The thick soles of Fitz’s boots crunched the stray sticks beneath them, stomping a path that would be soon be un-pathed by the lushness of spring. He squinted as he scoured the distance for narrow strips of red. He had glasses back home; Carol had insisted. They remained folded, neatly, in a corner of his bedstand drawer. It was too soon for glasses, he said, in the joking way that made clear how deeply he believed it.
Fitz heaved and huffed as he plodded through the forest’s crunching carpet, breath meeting air in a frenzy of human steam. He had not planned to be maple-tapping this morning. He had not planned to work at all, let alone to spend these early hours doing the bland work required of coaxing the sweetness from trees. He had planned instead to have breakfast in bed—pancakes, he told me with a glare, oozing with butter and flooded with syrup. It was best, I told myself, not to point out the irony.
The buckets, hooked to his thick belt, jangled as Fitz walked—cliiiiiiiiing, claaaaaaaaang, like the ancient bells whose peals called the people to their gods. The clatter broke the air. We were strangers here, in this flash-frozen forest, human hunter-gatherers in that most foreign of lands: one not of our own making. The still-chilled air stung my face and pierced my lungs. I found myself, gradually and then suddenly, wishing for a cigarette to warm the walk—something to heat and soothe. Something toasted. There are few things as smooth, I couldn’t help but remember, as a Lucky Strike.
“Got one!” Fitz called, the triumph in his voice shaking the silence. He wove his way toward the twine-marked maple, buckets jangling. He examined the tree’s trunk, the ripples and runs of the bark. He tugged at a loose strip, examining how stubbornly it clung. Fitz nodded, satisfied. He took a measuring tape from his pocket, its free end unfurling. He anchored it against the rough surface, right hand grabbing the free end, running it along the bark until his hands met in the middle. “Exactly 18 inches around,” he murmured, still hugging the tree. “That’ll work.”
“Could you hand me the compass?”
The south side of the tree, Fitz had once explained, gets the most direct light from the sun. The heat, day after day, would warm and soften the sap, making it more pliant, more easily yielding to our desires—as if, I thought with a chuckle, it had availed itself of Secor laxatives. Fitz held the compass in an outstretched arm, eyes narrowed toward the hovering needle. It shook like a Relax-a-cizor. He moved slowly around the narrow perimeter of the tree trunk, circling, slowly, until, with the strength of Right Guard deodorant and the confidence of Richard Nixon—
“Here,” he said.
He had found the spot for the tap. He drilled; he hammered the spile. The trunk shook with each impact. I imagined the sap—soon, the sap—slow and sweet, its trickle as voluptuous as a siren wearing both a red dress and an even redder shade of Belle Jolie lipstick.
What would happen, I wondered, if we did not come back, one day soon, to collect it? What if the sap hardened? What if it became frozen—not just in the frigid air, but in time, sealing its secrets in a golden egg of amber? What if it outlasted the little towns of Bethlehem Steel, the cities constructed with Cartwright Aluminum, the future built on the sandy foundations of Liberty Capital? What if, some day in the distance, a man ventures through this same, tree-studded forest, along the long-covered path Fitz and I had carved for ourselves? What would he think of us—of what we did, of who we loved, of what we wanted to be? What would he want? Could he buy it at Mencken’s Department Store?
Will Dr. Scholl’s cushion your path? Will Vicks silence your cough? Will Kodak save your memories? Will Clearasil save your soul? Who’s Peggy going out with? How did Pete get such a swell wife? And, God, what is Don’s deal? Why won’t he ever have a drink with me after work? He likes me, right? He thinks I’m an okay guy? Don, if you’re reading this, I would really love to have a drink with you after work.
The sugar seeped from inside the maple tree. It was yielding to us, slowly, inevitably. There would be syrup for our pancakes—for everyone’s pancakes.