(Entry – 2017 CBC Short Story Prize)
The air felt colder than the previous morning. He could feel it in his joints. It was a wintry cold – a now familiar sting. As though someone were scraping shards of ice along where his bone-ends met. Gingerly, he stepped down from the porch and took off across the way. The snow was hard beneath his rubber boots. It made a crunching sound as he walked. The morning was still.
Beyond the treeline, he made out the cabane à sucre – little more than a rudimentary shack he had cobbled together with sheet metal and spare timber three summers ago. He’d meant to put in a better one last August. He’d meant to. But then – of course – other things had ended those plans.
Rays of grey sunlight filtered between the maples. Halfway across the forest floor, he turned to look back at the house. The study light in the loft was turned on – he could see it glowing through the window.
An onlooker might think that someone was sitting up there. “Nice spot to sit and watch the forest,” they’d say.
Of course, he knew better – that there was no one up there, that it was he who had turned the light on that morning. Above the window, the chimneystack was smokeless. He sighed and his breath hung in the air like cooking fumes.
Again, he turned and traversed the last of the gap to the sugar shack, taking his glove off as he reached for the door handle. It felt cold in his hand and he winced slightly as the metallic chill needled around in the interstices of his digits. Even beside the fire at night, his knuckles were gnarled and swollen and with each successive winter he’d noticed that the aches intensified when the mercury dropped below zero.
Last night too, he’d been outside in the cold. For longer than he’d have liked. He’d chopped wood for an hour around midnight before the stiffness got too much and his joints locked up and he sidled off to bed. There was leftover soup on the stove when he passed by the kitchen on his way upstairs but he’d ignored it and crawled under the sheets instead.
When he entered the sugar shack, the chill followed him inside – like a tendril of wind-breath gusting off the St Lawrence. The ambient warmth from yesterday’s fire was all gone. It bothered him how poor the insulation was in here. He would do a better job next summer.
He walked towards the evaporator to check the dials before he began boiling. Like the arthritic fingers manipulating them, the knobs and handles creaked as he jostled with them.
Sure, it was a backyard hobby operation but he liked everything to be ready before he began.
“The finished syrup must have a Brix scale density of sixty-six degrees,” he remembered telling his daughter when she was little. “Any other value and it’s not maple syrup.”
It was an exact science this syrup business.
His own father, though, had not been so sure. “If we were in it to be efficient,” he remembered the old man saying. “We’d have a commercial extractor pump to hook up to the trees and an industrial evaporator that works via reverse osmosis. But we don’t have any of that. We’re about open pan evaporation here because syrup-making is an art, not a science.”
His father was there when they’d opened up the gates of Belsen – the first medical officer on scene to take in the enormity of it all. Once, he recounted going through some of the Nazis’ lab notes – recalling an experiment where they’d placed Jewish prisoners in interchangeable vats of increasingly hot and cold water until cardiac arrest. They’d recorded the time and temperature of death in a banal little table – five columns across, twenty-one columns down.
He’d had the story recounted to him on a university semester break – a week after he found out he’d aced his biology exams.
“Be careful son,” his father had said to him. “Because that’s science too.”
His attention returned to the apparatus in front of him. With everything ready, there was but one task left.
To build a fire. When the thought came to him, he smiled a little because he knew his father would’ve approved of the reference.
Leaving the door of the shack open behind him, he stepped out into the cold again and ambled towards the woodpile. He’d hoed into the hard work – the woodcutting – the night before so he had enough timber now to at least get things going.
As he pulled the loaded sled across the forest floor, he heard the phone ringing from inside the house. Half a dozen rings. Enough to pay lip-service to an attempt at a phone call but not enough to be patched through to an answering machine. He’d find no left message when he walked back inside.
His daughter led a busy life. Sometimes, it was hard enough just to keep up with her whereabouts, bouncing as she did between the various mountain towns and ski resorts out west.
Back in July of course – when it all happened – she’d called him everyday. But now she called less. Once a week maybe. Certainly no more than twice a week. He didn’t blame her though. She was young and life was meant to be lived. She had other things to worry about. The tinkerings of an old man in his sugar bush was only a cursory concern of hers. He understood. Still, a part of him wished she’d come out for a whole sugar season – start to finish. She was a good girl, and a hard worker when she wanted to be.
Re-entering, he closed the door behind him and began piling the morning’s wood against the wall. There were three chunks of timber, a bundle of sticks and a pile of kindling left on the sled when he was finished. Opening the stove-door with one hand, he arranged the remaining wood neatly inside.
Then he reached for the lighter.
The rapid oxidation of gases that accompanied the ignition of the firewood released an exothermic trifecta of heat and light and birch-smoke. He felt it immediately in his joints and lingered a little with his hands by the flames before closing the stove-door.
Half an hour went by and the boiler was running hot.
Content with it, he reached into a nearby cupboard and withdrew a chunk of maple candy. Something to gnaw on.
This is what happens when you heat the syrup past a Brix density of sixty-six degrees, he mused as he chewed. It crystallises.
He supposed it wasn’t all bad when you left it boiling for too long.
As the inside of the sugar shack began to warm, his thoughts flitted to the outside. It was nine o’clock now – the night was long gone.
“How are the buckets going?” His father’s usual reminder. Always there. Even from beyond the grave.
He opened the door and felt immediately the change that had taken place since he’d left the house two hours ago. It was warmer now. Inside and out. The grey rays from the early morning sun had turned to gold and the edges of the melting snowbanks were gilt by the russet hues of fallen leaves previously buried by the winter. There was a loud unannounced whumph in the air as the hollow patch of snow closest to him settled into the wet spring ground.
Où sont les neiges d’antan? Words from his schooldays.
Quite right, he thought to himself. Where was the snow of yesteryear? The icicles had all fallen from the eaves. The frost that glazed his wintry windows had disappeared.
He imagined his father’s response – speaking French with that thick Anglo accent of his. “Où sont les neiges d’antan? Fondues mon garçon.” He’d have offered it as an explanation of course – as though the question had been a scientific one.
“Those are the facts,” as the old man used to say. He could be a man of contradictions, his father.
The taste of maple sugar still sweet on his tongue, he stepped out into the open air. The ground was still cold and the air was still still but now everywhere you could hear it. The drips. The aluminum chime. The music of buckets filling.
It was April and the sap was running. The winter had been cold and the season had been late to start this year – but there it was. Bitter as mornings like these could be sometimes, the maples, with their sweetness, always came through in the end.