Children were not allowed near the woods during syrup-tapping season. As the sugar white winter began to slush into the sheepish gray of spring, my father would order us to stuff our hats and mittens and socks and toothbrushes into the floral printed pillowcases from the guest bedroom and accompany a smattering of our schoolmates on a wagon ride up into town. There, we were handed off to Mrs. Ludlow, who would allow us space in the attic and basement of her bed and breakfast in exchange for completion of a daily list of chores.
This was a charity, and we were all to be grateful for it, though Mrs. Ludlow cooked her pancakes so thickly in butter that grease bubbled against the surface when I prodded them with my fork.
“Did you know that there are more than twenty different species of woodpecker on the continent?” Aspen asked, rather than take a bite of her breakfast. Her leather bound Encyclopedia of World Animals was wedged between her sternum and the side of the table, and scraped against the corner with every rise and fall of her chest.
Our father had watched in amusement as she cycled through each genus of animalsas the subject of her fascination, brushing fairy-light raven curls away from her forehead to clear the line of sight. My little naturalist. I looked back at my pancakes.
“No books at the breakfast table.”
It had been one of Mom’s rules that had fallen on the wayside since she’d gone. She’d have drummed her fingers against the table in neat threes until they were back on the shelf. Aspen pursed a wobbling lip and slid the book down from the edge of the table, letting it rest flat over her legs. She traced the ceramic edge of her plate with her eyes, searching for the small dents and cracks that Dad said made all our tableware look lived-about. Mrs. Ludlow’s china was pristine and dead.
“Tell me more about woodpeckers,” I said, nudging her shoulder.
“Most woodpeckers have special feet, with two toes going forwards and two going backwards.” She paused, testing the weight of the syllables on her tongue. “Zy-go-dac-tyl. It helps them hold on to the branches of trees. A group of them is called a descent.”
I nodded and closed my eyes as the dripping pancake squelched against my tongue. When I opened them, Aspen was watching me carefully.
“They’re good,” I said, as if she had not just seen me wince.
“Does Mrs. Ludlow have syrup?”
“No one has syrup,” I reminded her. “That’s why Dad and the others are in the woods.”
The cluster of tapping trees were a few miles beyond the string of cabins where we lived, but we were tucked in enough woods to make it dangerous. The adults had all goneo tap the trees, carrying silver buckets and heavy mallets. They’d abandon the buckets for wooden barrels before coming home, leaving them to rust next to the refining plant. It would be impossible to scrape the unevaporated sap from them completely.
We’d pour the syrup over ice into candy and chew until our gums hurt. It was harmless, Dad always said, leaning his mallet against the wall, and I would wonder if the red-gold glow around the head was sap or blood. It didn’t occur to me until later, elbowing space from Aspen by the sink to pick at my teeth that it must’ve been blood. If it had been sap, he never would’ve taken it into the house.
Sugar-sick, was what the kids at school called it. Sap-season madness.
“I want to go, Sylvie. I want to see him.”
“Well, you can’t,” I said. “Just eat, okay? We can check the gutters for bird’s nests when we’re emptying them.”
“Woodpeckers are cavity nesters,” she mumbled sullenly, but dutifully took a forkful, letting it hover in front of her face long enough for a droplet of grease to splat against the cover of her encyclopedia.
The hatch in the attic opened out onto the roof, and by mid-afternoon,I had bruised my knees against the rim several times over, easing down the edge of the slanted shingles to scoop up the leaves snow had congealed to the sides of the storm gutter. There were no bird’s nests, though the roof was covered with white smears indicating their presence. I flapped my wrist, attempting to disentangle a squirming black beetle from my mittens and looked out over the edge of the town.
The feeling of an insect crawling over wool clothing is a bit like this: impressions faint enough that with enough movement, they don’t even register. But without movement, if someone were, for example, perched tautly on the edge of a roof, the whisper of every sticking footfall would echo and reverberate through the nerves until the insect is much larger than seems literally possible and philosophically likely. It’s a kind of discomfort brought on all the more strongly by the lack of freedom to shiver and twitch out of it. The feeling of an insect crawling over wool clothing is a bit like seeing your sister meandering absently, curiously, near the edge of town during syrup-tapping season.
I knocked my knee against the edge of the hatch in the attic, and nearly tripped, leaf–slick boots losing traction on the ladder. They squeaked out of the treads against the carpet as I took the stairs two at a time and slammed the carved mahogany door the children were not supposed to be using behind me. I wanted to curse my sister, but decided to relegate that particular task until after I’d caught her and dragged her as far from the city limits as my purpling shins would take me.
I caught a snarl of brick-red sweater before I caught her.
“Aspen!” I held on tight as I paused to gasp for air. “What the hell were you thinking?”
She didn’t say anything in response. Dad’s cotton overcoat was too big for her, and the lower edges were soaked through by the melting snow. A squarish shape stuck out from the side, her encyclopedia. I looked at her face, doe-brown eyes never leaving the forest, which loomed far closer than I was comfortable with.
“Aspen,” I tried, gentler. “Let’s head back, okay? I’m not mad. I was just worried. You can’t go near the woods alone.”
“What does it do to them?” She looked back at me, the faint beginnings of winter-hidden freckles ghosting against brown skin. She chewed her lip.“What did it do to her?”
This is not a conversation for me to have with her. I’m not supposed to be the one to tell her that the mallets aren’t just for hammering the drills into the trees, but for protection. That the sap clings to everything, and if inhaled too deeply, it’ll stick to the inside of a person’s mind. That it’ll catch and take root, turning sinew to xylem. That once that happens, there is nothing behind their eyes but the call of the forest.
“Dad’ll tell you,” I said. “When he gets back.”
“He will get back, right?”
She nodded once, solemnly.“Woodpeckers have thicker skulls so their heads don’t hurt from all the pecking.”
My hand curled around hers, reinforced by two layers of gloves. She reached forwards, and picked a beetle off my shoulder. Then, her eyes strayed past me to the forest and widened. I chased them. A bird with a long narrow beak perched itself on a branch hanging overhead, green, yellow, and white spotted against its stomach. Her breath caught. I tightened my grip.
“It’s just a bird.”
“It’s not,” she said, her voice weightless in the cold, smoke dissipating from her lips in whispered curls.
The insect on wool feeling returned, and I recognized what she meant to do before she did it. A sharp elbow to my side loosened my grip, and my sister half-tumbled, descending into the trees.
What happened to her? I had asked Dad, standing beneath the dripping icicles, the spring after Mom had gone. The question I did not want to be the one to answer. She drank in the forest, he said. We lost sight of her.
In her nine years on earth, Aspen had become well practiced in the art of pretending that she couldn’t hear me. I bent over and unclogged a palm-sized rock from the mud, sending the millipedes hiding beneath it scuttling in search of new shelter, before running in after her.
The trees at the periphery of the forest interlocked like fingers behind me, wooden palms cast in shadows urging me forward. My sister was a woolen overcoat in the mid-afternoon light, a patch peeling off one of the sleeves, flapping and threatening to catch on the brambles.
“Aspen,” I hissed.
She stopped, dropping to a crouch behind a lichen covered stone and watching. My boots snapped over the spindles of roots and sticks latticing across the ground, and she shot me a glare, pressing a gloved finger to her lips. The woodpecker had come to rest on a nearby tree, picking at the underside of its wings with its long narrow beak.
I squeezed the stone in my palm, rubbing dirt off with my thumb, and wondered if I could hit it, if that would teach her.
“Woodpeckers don’t sing,” Aspen said quietly, hugging her encyclopedia to her chest. “They chirp, but they don’t sing. They’ll drum their beaks against trees to communicate.”
I scanned the surrounding forest, tensing at the wavering of leaves in the wind. “We need to go. Now.”
“Mom used to drum her fingers on the table. Whenever she was mad, remember?”
“I remember.” My lips formed the words, but the sound did not follow.
“Dad said there’s a reason birds look like angels. Mom would be a woodpecker, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. But not this one, Aspen. Mom wouldn’t have wanted you here. It’s dangerous.”
I looked back behind us, at the narrow forest floor, where corkscrew branches skewered brown leaves and melted snow sunk into puddles, weaning slowly into mud through the foliage coating the ground. At the point where I recalled there having been a path, stretching thin as a spider web back to town, where there was now no such thing.
“There was a path,” I said. Aspen’s head swiveled.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Neither do I.” I bit my lip. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. We came that way.”
Aspen’s hand curled into mine. I took a step forward, inhaling what should have been the scent of pine, but was eclipsed by something sweeter. Something that smelled like my mother’s kitchen during the frost when we’d suck on the disintegrating undersides of marshmallows left too long in hot chocolate and on candies hardened by the incoming winter. I vaguely remembered a candy shop near the edge of town, and pulled at my sister’s arm, urging her to the side.
“That way,” I corrected, hoping she’d missed the initial error.
The woodpecker cried, a few sharp, high staccatos that dropped in pitch into nothing. Aspen watched it as we walked away, until I tugged at the end of one of her braids, redirecting her head forwards. There was a fluttering of wings behind us.
“Are you sure it’s this way?” my sister asked. The spindly arms of two oak trees met behind us, like the closing of a wrought iron gate.
“Of course I’m sure.”
I tugged her arm forward once, a bit too hard, and she stumbled over a root, falling to her knees.
“Sorry,” I stopped, and took her hand. Water soaked through the fabric at her shins, bringing with it a light dusting of grayish-brown dust. She shivered, and I tugged her close to me. We lost sight of her, my father had said. In the thin gaps between the patchwork of leaves above us, the sky had begun to dim. We had come no closer to town. If anything, we were further away.
I inhaled the sugar-sweet air and realized suddenly why it had seemed so familiar.
The sound of losing track of the forest around you is a bit like this: all at once, the thoughts in your head are quieter than they should be, and you can hear your own voice in them, cadence unflinchingly even in the quiet. The friction of the layers of fabric on your coat as you move and walk, and when you pause, the fluttering of leaves and melancholy cries of birds you can’t place, other than to say they are above you and out of sight. The sound of losing track of the forest around you can sometimes sound a bit like a thudding of metal against wood.
Aspen looked at me, eyes wide. I had stolen our father’s mallet once, in the summer after Mom had gone, and went as far as I could while still seeing the halo of light from the porch, and swung it at the trees. The leaves had shivered and snapped from the beating I’d bruised into the bark. Aspen had followed me. She always followed me. She hadn’t said a word, but we both recognized the sound now. The syrup-tappers were close.
“Dad?” Aspen asked.
I wanted to snap a hand over her mouth and drag her away. I’d promised our father I’d take care of her. Instead, I curled an arm around her stomach, easing her behind me. Her foot rustled against the roots and I could suddenly feel the cool forest-sheltered air over every inch of my body, the pinpricks that stuck through the holes and seams in my clothing, that ghosted underneath my hair against my neck.
“We need to go.”
“It’s just Dad.”
“It’s not,” I said, and we stumbled back. We could see them now, the lanterns blooming into light as dusk settled around us. Shadows of our neighbors cutting through the trees. Then a shout went up, one of them writhing against the other’s attempts to hold him back. He lunged forwards, the crack of the bucket being dislodged from the spigot.
My knees wobbled, and my hand grasped for balance on one of the nearby trees. When I pulled my mitten away, it stuck, flecks of amber catching on the loose fibers, fluff now caught in the gaping wound in the trunk that oozed on level with my breastbone. I bit my tongue, hard, and pulled off the mitten, throwing it across the ground. The shadows twitched at the sound, and I pulled my sister back, ducking into the space behind the tree, cloaked in roots.
Heavy boots moved through the forest, closer to us. The shadow had a human face as it approached us, carved from jagged lines in the lantern light. I recognized the pieces, assembled them into a familiar face, a neighbor who’d brought us a tin of peanut brittle the winter after Mom had gone, but saw nothing of him in it. There was a halo of amber sap clinging to the skin around his mouth. He stopped, freezing before plucking up my mitten from the grass, and sucking the sap from the palm before dropping it, the fibers flecking the skin.
Next to me, Aspen shifted, straining to look. I leaned to block her view. I didn’t want her imagining Mom that way, burnt orange glistening around her mouth, sticking in globs to the underside of her chin like clotting blood.
Our neighbor grabbed at the tree, fingers digging deep enough into the bark to pry it off in chunks as he curled his lips around the spigot, drinking like it was water spilling into the sink. He did not seem to hear us. I grabbed my sister’s shoulder and pulled her back, away. The veins around his neck had darkened, green as saplings; the forest had taken up residence beneath the skin.
Aspen was quiet, her knees pulled to her chest, situating the encyclopedia against her stomach like she was hugging a pillow in the dark. Our neighbor leaned back from the tree; I heard the roots snap beneath the heels of his boots, breathing thickly. For a moment we remained still, framing the tree with our bodies in the twilight. The air was a nauseous kind of sweet that turned my stomach to squirming beetles.
And then he moved, brushing past us to the next trees, or perhaps deeper into the forest, where he’d be swallowed by the foliage, never to be seen again. I did not move for several seconds, until I felt Aspen’s bony finger jam into the side of my ribcage.
“Ow,” I hissed. “What?”
She pointed. A few meters in front of us, a tree had been felled, the branches on the near side splintered against the ground. On the far side, they stretched up towards the sky, but failed to trace so much as the canopy. A woodpecker sat on one of those branches, green, yellow, white.
“It’s just a bird.”
“It lead us in, maybe it can lead us out.”
At our movement, the bird stopped preening and took off. Aspen shook her arm loose and started after it, balancing lightly as she walked across the coalition of roots and fallen branches. It was, loosely, the direction we had come from, though veering a bit to the right. I checked behind us, and followed, scraping bark off the collapsed tree with my boots as I straddled it to climb over. The ground on the other side was in a sharp decline, my sister stumbling through it behind the downward arc of the woodpecker. I pursed my lips, and swung my other leg over, trying to ease off.
I slipped, my boot catching on mud, and tumbled forwards, gracelessly joining them in their descent.
The dust at the base of the incline was packed hard, and I found myself catching my breath as I pushed myself up into a crouch, eyes tracing the bird, where it had come to rest on the arm of a nearby tree. The branch curved elegantly, offshoots stretching upwards in human fingers. I rolled to a sitting position, and blinked, my eyes tracing to the side.
There was a face in the trunk, and the curves of a body, human and familiar.
This section of trees had already been tapped. A spigot was crudely affixed to the wood, drummed in by a careless mallet just at the naval. It occurred to me, then, why the unevaporated sap looked so much like blood.
Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, my sister had said. The one we had followed into the forest flapped, and then came to rest in the hollow of our mother’s chest.