Syrup, by Patrick Zac


Syrup




My wife and I were gathering up the first buckets of sap for the year, which we use to make and sell our homemade maple syrup, when we noticed the throbbing.
We own a bean farm in Perth County, and we have six black maples in the backyard that just happen to be old enough to collect sap from. They’re all over half a century old, and that means they contain the starch levels required to produce the good stuff. It’s not our primary source of income, but last year we tapped them and each one yielded six full fifteen-litre buckets. After we boiled all that down and added in the extra sugar, the result was a good fifty litres of ’Ed ’n’ Edna’s’ A-grade Canadian maple syrup. All natural. And organic, I might add.
Well — that’s not all entirely accurate. I should mention that one of the trees refused to produce anything. It had been dry for about six years, but we always drilled a tap into every year just in case. And this year, in a very disturbing way, it produced fluids indeed. And that’s not even the half of it.
So there we were, the wife and I, outside collecting the buckets of sap which hung off of taps drilled into the trunks. It was a cold day, but clear, and having the January sun should have made the work enjoyable. What ruined it was the constant, pulsing throbbing sound.
Edna noticed it first. She cocked her head and asked me if I heard it, and after standing still for a moment I have to admit I sure as hell did. It was a lot like a bass beat of some sort. Rhythmic, but toneless. And each pulse was drawn out.
We sort of ignored it, I suppose. For a little, anyway. But it seemed that as we worked our way to each tree, it got louder and louder. To the point that I could feel my eardrums tingling. As I brought a few buckets of sap back the barn, the noise would fade away. Only to come forth again when I got back to the yard.
Eventually, we’d hauled most of the buckets to the barn, and we just had one more tree to check; the tree which refused to drip. I was on my way back and I could see that Edna was already on it. She shouted something over her shoulder (I couldn’t quite hear, something about the noise at first, and then I think she said, “It’s full!”) and then lifted the bucket off the spout and that’s when she screamed louder than I’ve ever knew that woman was capable of. The bucket toppled down onto the ground. Edna stumbled backwards and collapsed, bracing her impact with her hands and then leaning back on her elbows.
I of course knew then that something was horribly wrong and I ran as fast as my old legs would allow. As I went, the thumping throb grew. Louder, louder, louder. When I reached Edna it was now so intense that the very ground I stood upon trembled with each resonation.
I helped my wife to her feet, and as she rose I saw the strained contours in her expression that relayed a feeling of both dread and disbelief. She didn’t say anything. She just pointed. Then put one hand to her mouth. I genuinely thought she was going to cry.
When I saw it, a feeling rose inside me like a spreading shadow.
There was the bucket, tilted over with its lid off, which had spilled dark red liquid all over the pure white snow. I looked at the tap in the tree. It was dripping with the same. Each drop came with the pulse of the thump.
I couldn’t believe it. I reached out to the lever on the tap. Edna said “Don’t!” but I had to see for myself. I wrapped my fingers around it and cranked.
A constant, steady stream of the stuff oozed out of the nozzle. It emanated a distinct, coppery odour.
My wife and I are fairly religious people, and we took it as one very ill omen. So after I calmed Edna down and got her inside, I went back out to that tree with an axe. On the way over, I remember wishing to myself I owned a chainsaw.
I’m not sure, now, if that would have made things better or worse.
I swung the axe head into the bark a few times, and it chipped away well enough. But the pulsating sound picked up, very rapid. I continued chopping and it was about a minute later that I noticed the trunk seemed flexible. The axe wasn’t giving me that firmness — that instant halt you feel on the end of a good swing. It was loose-feeling, like striking into rubber.
Then came a spurt of the red. It spattered onto my hands and face.
Eager to get the thing off of my property and out of my life, I wiped it onto my coat sleeve and continued with the cutting.
Each chop yielded more spurts of red and soon there were gobs of it just glugging out of the thing. It flowed onto the snow, filling the area under and around my feet. It was then I noticed the stained snow faintly shrivel; this liquid — this blood — was warm.
My arms were soaked now and the trunk was drenched, and there was just a little more to go. I furiously hacked and waited for the sound: that beautiful, merciful sound of wood splitting apart, that kau-crack! Except that wasn’t the sound I heard. What I heard was far more revolting, a sickening kind of thing, a sort of sliminess about it. Perhaps like the tearing of paper combined with the sound of squashing a watermelon. But the leafless old thing finally tilted. I got well out of the way and watched it careen over like some kind of great monster dying, holding its spindly arms up and shivering mad.
And then it hit the ground. It was still. The throbbing ceased.
For a long time I stood there, thinking, wondering just what the hell I’d experienced. Its blood continued draining and by the time I came out of my reverie it seemed the thing had run dry. I carefully inspected its wound, almost admiring the absurdity of it. The interior beyond the bark was pink, stringy and all ragged from the chopping.
Sinew.
Suddenly the trunk shifted, gently, but apparent. A swelling glided down from somewhere in its midsection, and slowly came towards its opening. After a moment, something squeezed out. Something smooth, wet, and fleshy.
Something that peered up at me through a mask of blood, with glossy, solid onyx eyes.
I ran. I ran to the house and Edna in what felt like ten seconds and then drove us out of town.
We both reported what we saw. The police thought I was thoroughly insane until they went over there. What they came back with at first wasn’t anything terribly surprising. Tests showed that the fluid was indeed blood, and the inner-tree was comprised out of organic tissue, but they claimed not to have seen any such creature — only a wobbly line of childlike footprints leading away from the site.
They did find something, though, something they’d observed which I hadn’t. A rendition of it was drawn in pen and given to me on a small sheet of paper.
When I looked at it, cold terror finger-tipped up along my spine. The only thing I could think to do was put my hands together and pray. And for the first time in my life, I wondered what good it could do, because I felt my hope for Earth abandon me.
This had been found carved into one side of the tree.




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