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Heartwood

When we boiled sap in the sugarhouse, I couldn’t breathe. I stood next to my father while heat billowed from the stainless steel evaporator, sap moving through the flues. It frothed with leaves and slowly became syrup. The maple smell, intoxicating and sweet, reminded me of Violet.

I shoved logs in the firebox, then pulled off my gloves. It was the morning of Valentine’s Day. Six months ago, I had planned to meet Violet on Route 7, to head far from Vermont.

My father cracked the joints in his neck. Scruff grew like moss on his sharp cheeks.

“Tend the fire?” I asked. He nodded.

I pushed out of the door and stood on the ice, rough with our boot prints. Buckets hung on the nearby maple trees.

“Teddy.”

At the sound of my name, I stopped.

“Don’t go too far.”

* * *

The prior autumn, I had left Vermont and went to college in West Chester, a town outside of Philadelphia. It was the furthest place from home I could imagine. A chance to strike out on my own. I paid for my textbooks with half the semester’s food money. I fell in love.

It was at a coffeehouse’s open mic, and she balanced a black Gibson acoustic on her thigh. Violet. Smile like the Cheshire Cat. Her name the color of her corduroy dress. Her silver ankh flashing like an electrical storm in the spotlight. Her soprano conjuring melody.

She went to order a drink, and I followed. “Great song,” I stammered. “I’m Teddy.”

Violet tilted her head toward me. “I was getting this coffee to go.” She paused. “Want to tag along?”

Everyone knows a couple like we became. All wrong together. If only to one another, we made perfect sense. I told her about my family’s maple farm, how when the sap is running you get two drops every heartbeat. She told me stories about her friends — a tumble of hippies and beatniks. Her parents had happily divorced ten years ago and settled in separate McMansions near New Hope.

“You should camp with us this summer at the folk festival.” Violet ran her fingers along my hand’s calluses. “Melt our worlds together.”

My dad and mom needed help preparing the farm for the long New England winter. There was always more work than time. Always. I sighed, inhaling her sweet fragrance, and my excuses fell away. “I promise.”

Together, we dreamed of that weekend., how it should have happened. We would trace the spine of the Green Mountains and follow tangles of unmarked back roads until the memory of Rutland faded and became weary, frost heaved turnpikes of New Jersey then Pennsylvania.

After the almost-syrup boiling in the evaporator had reached 220 degrees, my father and I filtered it through cheesecloth, then a sheep wool sieve—sugar sand and twigs clogging the material.

My father and I trudged down the snowy ridge to collect fresh sap. I stopped near one of the old trees on the farm. “The drill marks are still there,” I said.

He kneeled and ran his fingers over the gray bark. “Seven generations of tap holes. That’s why you only drill a couple inches deep,” he said. “Heartwood doesn’t heal.”

“He can hire someone.” Violet shook her head. It was the day before spring semester finals, but I couldn’t concentrate.

“Lousy winters make for lousy syrup,” I said once more. “They can’t afford it.”

The night my father had telephoned repeated in my memory. I had argued for three solid hours when he told me that I couldn’t return to college.

“Find work down here. Be with me.” She pushed her textbook away and took my hand. “But,” she said, “you’ve already decided to move back.” Her lip trembled.

I nodded.

“You’ll still come with us? This summer?”

I memorized the feeling of her fingers on mine, the heat of her touch. “Of course,” I said and held my breath until it burned in my chest and I had to let go.


Originally published in Anthology Philly. Reprinted with author's permission.

Shawn Proctor

Shawn Proctor’s prose has been nominated for Best New American Voices and published in several literary journals and anthologies, including Storyglossia, Think Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal and Our Haunted World: Ghost Stories from Around the Globe. His story “Sugar” is forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and is working on his debut novel.

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