The proprietor and tour guide wears a leather jacket with a sheepskin collar and a green hunting hat with its flaps down. He leads the New York family through the sugar shack, or sap house, or syrup shanty, telling them any of those terms are correct and that they can choose their pick.
In the old wooden cabin, a vent smokes a sweet cotton steam with a strong flavor of smoke and sap and the clouds look so thick, a little boy on the tour thinks he could reach out and grasp it, lean on it, eat it, but the vapor swims between his fingers.
He keeps interrupting the proprietor’s hypothetical questions:
“And do you know which grade is the best?”
“I do,” says the boy, yanking the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and pulling at the drawstrings, so his face is framed by a pucker of blue cotton. He is visiting his grandmother, who clutches his hand because she doesn’t get to often enough.
The sugar farmer shows them a wooden tray with four vials. The blond liquid called “Grade A Light Amber” is considered the best, but the darkest and richest is called Grade B.
The boy’s mother prefers dark syrup. She thinks: You can categorize your reality into small portions based on translucence, you can memorize the distinctions perfectly, you can know all there is to know, and still know nothing.
The old man is explaining that sap flows through the maple trees like a bloodstream. In the winter, he tromps into the woods and nails spouts into the trunks. The juice drains into metal buckets with a tin flap that keeps the animals from gorging or drowning themselves.
Driving up along the winding forest roads, the family had seen a trove of maples, a red pan hanging around each tree neck like an ornament.
The maple farmer trudged through the woods at dawn with his English pointer, the white and speckled brown dog kicked up the frosted brown leaves on the forest floor, then would stop suddenly to sniff the air with an urgent rigidity. The farmer checked the tins, poured their contents into a big bucket, and, when that was full, he carried the heavy load to the cabin, and dumped the sugar water into the boiler. It takes forty buckets of sap to simmer into one bucket of syrup.
At night, sitting by the fireplace with the pointer in his lap, the maple farmer’s eyes will skip across the front page of The Union-Leader, but the words fall from his mind and clutter in the back of his throat, because he can’t shrug the idea that if he turned up the boiler just below the point of crystallization, if he let the sap age longer, if he kept the taps cleaner and never spilled any runoff on the ground, leaving a puddle for the deer to lap up—then he might be able to access a grade of syrup so pure and perfect, so light and sweet, that they’d have to come up with a new name for it, create a letter that came before A in the alphabet.
The little boy peers into the vat of rippling brown liquid, too dark and steaming to reveal his reflection. He would like to dip his hand in it, but that is not allowed. He would like to lap at it, like the doe in the woods, but that is not allowed. He would like to jump into the vat, let it warm his numb fingers and knees like a warm bath. He would like to submerge himself and search the murk at the bottom and breech with sticky nectar in his nostrils and his lips and his joints and between his toes and at the back of his throat. But that is not allowed either.
After the tour, the family goes to the adjoining restaurant which serves pancakes with Grade A. The boy peers through a hole in the wood grain of the rustic divider between the booths and makes cow noises at two women at the next table. They are from Providence, and are too busy laughing about the paper placemat’s advertisements for a “gun depot” to notice the child. He keeps bellowing at them until his father tells him that mooing at strangers is also not allowed.
After lunch, the family buys a half gallon of Grade A from the gift shop. It will come back to Manhattan with them, to fill the squares in the waffles they make on Sunday mornings. The boy will watch the syrup seep into the dough and wonder how many trees’ bloodstreams are contained in each box. Then he will lean in and touch his tongue to the stray droplets on his empty plate and wonder if there is anything more perfect than Grade A, until his mother scolds him, saying that licking his dish like a wild animal is not allowed.
Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.