Twenty-Four: When the Sap Rises

It was a cold night. The elevation, that was part of it. The Great Eighty Road had sloped upwards all day, gently but steadily, and Laura supposed that they were camped higher up than they had been for some time. Even so, no one seemed prepared for the sudden chill. Ever since Badger Creek, the nights had been unseasonably warm, so warm that Laura had found herself kicking aside the last of her blankets and sleeping uncovered beneath the night air.

That night, even beneath her blankets, she shivered. In the morning, she could see her breath, and, on the tips of the cedar branches that hung down low beside her bedroll, she saw that a thin dusting of frost had turned their needles pale. In the dawn twilight, as Mr. Chavez prepared a breakfast porridge and everyone readied their cargo for the day’s journey, gloves and long-folded coats came back out from wherever they’d been tucked away.

Yet, once the sun was well and up, staring down at the convoy as they resumed their journey westward, the spring warmth returned. Soon, coats were shed once more and stowed again right back where they came from.

“I ain’t ever seen weather so fickle,” Bill Keo complained, as he stopped by the side of the road to stuff his outer garment into his carrysack. “Reminds me of a girl I knew back in New Hewston. Engaged to be married, we were. Then one day out of the blue she tells me, ‘Bill I can’t be with you. I aim to take vows and devote my life to Jesus.’ Then, not six months later, I find out she and her roommate from sem’nary have run off together. I told you that story yet, Ingalls?”

Pa had stopped nearby to shrug off his own coat. He regarded the cloudless sky thoughtfully.

“’The sap is rising.’ That’s what my Uncle Freddie used to say when we’d get weather like this up in the Wisconsin. When the days get warm but the nights are still cold. That’s the time to tap the sugar maples. Barely have to drive your spile in past the bark on a morning like this, and out she comes like a canoe that’s sprung a leak. Golden brown and sweet as any cane sugar.”

Pa folded his coat across his arm and walked to the back of the handcar to find a place to tuck it inside the cargo box. Laura watched him and thought of last spring, when she had helped Pa tap the sugar maples that grew in the Big Woods. Suddenly, she was homesick.

Pa had showed her how to hammer the hollow iron tapper into the tree trunk. She remembered sitting and watching the brown sap rise up out of the tree as if by magic. The liquid would gather along the tapper and then come drip-dripping down into their waiting bucket. Pa explained that the maples had been storing their sap down in their roots all winter. Now the tree could feel the seasons changing, and it was pushing the sweet lifeblood upwards, up through its tall trunk, all the way up into its branches to help make new leaves and buds and start a brand new cycle of rebirth and decline.

Ma made syrup from the sap and hard maple candy. Laura scanned the Yowa countryside that rolled along beside the Eighty Road. Looking back in the direction from which they’d come, the hillside was spotted with the prickly shapes of cedars. In the distance ahead, she saw a grove of squat and spindly trees that she did not recognize. The taste of maple candy was on her tongue now, as real and immediate as if she had just popped a piece into her mouth. The flavor was unmistakable, sweet but also burnt and earthy, the flavor of the Big Woods. She wondered if she would ever taste that taste again.

***

The weather grew even warmer as the day wore on and the convoy continued westward.

At one point, Laura heard Devonte quarreling again with his mother. Laura looked back and saw with surprise that the boy had stripped off his tunic. He stalked down the road bare-chested, the ink cross beneath his collarbone on prominent display. Ms. Aguilar walked beside him, quietly berating him to put his clothes back on, but Devonte exploded at her, yelling that the tunic was too hot and itchy.

Recently, Devonte’s quarrels with his parents had grown increasingly heated. Everyone’s spirits had darkened after the fiend attack and what had happened to poor Bucky Malla, but the change in Devonte was particularly sudden and striking. He seemed to always be angry about one thing or another, growing more irritable by the day. When he wasn’t fighting with his parents, he glowered sullenly from beneath the shadow of the wide straw hat he had lately taken to wearing from sun up to sun down.

There was much she didn’t understand about teenage boys and their moods, Laura supposed. She turned back around and tried to pretend not to have noticed the scene.

It was a long, tiring day of travel for everyone. Laura walked the whole while. Ma said that she did not need to go back in the bisox wagon as long as she kept up. Laura did, but by the end of the day her feet were aching and her legs felt like they were made of jelly.

That night, they camped in a clearing up in some wooded bluffs overlooking the Eighty Road. Down in the lowland on the other side of the camp, there was a pond surrounded by a gnarled thicket of swamp oak. There, Pa managed to shoot a duck with a mottled green head, and Caleb and Bill Keo caught a whole sack full of plump frogs.

Mr. Chavez cooked those frogs and Pa’s duck together, along with the last of the turnip chips and some soymeal for thickening, in a hot greasy stew. Everyone was glad of the fresh meat. With their destination nearly in reach, the convoy was coming upon the ends of their provisions, and suppers of late had been constrained by whatever ingredients happened to lie uneaten at the bottoms of their barrels.

Gratefully, the travelers set down their loads and rested their weary muscles. As the stew bubbled and its rich scent wafted over the camp, Laura heard the sounds of laughter for the first time since the incident outside the Ruins of Damoyne. The atmosphere was not merry exactly, not like it had once been, but a sense of tranquility, perhaps even hopefulness, seemed to be returning to the convoy.

It was not just the smell of meat and the pleasure of a well-earned rest, Laura knew. Their journey was nearly at an end. Another day and then another, according to Captain Syed, and they would be in Lildaka. There, Ma and Pa could trade for fresh provisions and they would begin scouting the Wastes for their homestead.

Everyone seemed to to feel the closeness of their destination. The road had been long. They had endured its trials and nearly made it through to the other side. Not unscathed, but they had survived. It was impossible now to look backwards.

Only Devonte seemed to be in a foul mood. He and his mother continued to raise their voices as the convoy made camp. Finally, Devonte stormed off, down towards the frog pond. The others watched him go, and, later, Laura saw Captain Syed speaking in private with Mr. Aguilar, a sober expression on her face.

Finally, Mr. Chavez took a careful slurp from his spoon and gave a nod of approval to the duck-frog stew.

Laura brought a bowl over to Pa. He was helping the Khan cousins repair their handcar, replacing some of the boards that were rotting away. He ate his supper standing up, in between swings of his hatchet. Mindful that the last gray traces of daylight were slipping away, he worked quickly. Every now and again, he paused to take a short swig from his stew, then went back to his work, hewing away the rough edges of a log from a young swamp oak that he and Bill Keo had felled from the thicket beside the pond.

Ma sat beside him on her stool, nursing Baby Grace and handing Pa his bowl whenever he set the hatchet down. That left Mary and Laura, sitting cross-legged across from one another, eating their greasy stew as dusk settled around them.

Laura was scraping her bowl clean when Mary began scanning the camp for Devonte. Apparently, the boy was still off somewhere sulking, and Mary worried that he would miss supper entirely.

“We should bring him a bowl of stew,” she told Laura.

Laura said that he could get his own stew if he wanted it, but Mary wouldn’t let it go.

“He barely touched his breakfast this morning. I watched him. What if he starves, Laura?”

Laura thought that if Devonte starved, then it was his own fault for being a picky eater and a grouch. But then she saw the concern swimming in Mary’s eyes, and Laura felt ashamed. Mary had a kind heart. As she had so many times before, Laura resolved to try and be good and caring like her sister. When they had both emptied their bowls, the girls approached Mr. Chavez together to ask for more stew.

Laura knew Mr. Chavez wouldn’t refuse them another helping. The bisox driver was always trying to sneak Mary and Laura extra portions, usually over Ma and Pa’s objections. He raised his eyebrows a little in surprise when Mary held up her bowl to him, but then he lifted the lid from his big iron pot to peer inside. He reckoned there was plenty enough to spare for growing girls, he said as steam rose past his face. After checking to see if Ma and Pa were watching, he dipped Mary’s bowl back into the pot and brought it out full of hot stew.

With a wink, Mr. Chavez handed them the bowl. Mary and Laura both thanked him. Then they turned and began walking down the hill towards the pond, careful to step over the lines of hemp twine that guarded the camp.

They could still hear the thwack of Pa’s hatchet. Mary stole a nervous glance backwards. They both knew that Ma and Pa would not like them wandering away from camp, especially when it was almost dark. But Laura wasn’t particularly worried about getting in trouble. The pond wasn’t far, and they would come right back as soon as they’d given dumb Devonte his dumb stew.

At the edge of camp, they passed Bill Keo, resting flat on his back with his head propped up on his carrysack. Dog lay curled up at his feet. He regarded the girls curiously as they walked by but said nothing.

Soon, they reached the thicket of trees where Devonte had retreated. They stood there for a moment, looking around and listening as a chorus of frogs called out to one another, back and forth, like a creaky car wheel spinning round and round. Reet reet. Reet reet. Reet reet.

Finally, they saw him. Devonte was sitting on a tree stump down near the edge of the pond, hunched over and half-hidden in shadow. He was naked from the waist up. Laura imagined she could feel Mary blushing beside her.

As they drew closer, Laura saw that his boots were off too, and he seemed to be scratching beneath his pant legs while he rocked slowly back and forth.

“Devonte?” Mary said as she and Laura approached. “We brought you some supper. Aren’t you hungry?”

Devonte’s head jerked up suddenly and whipped around towards them. His face was masked in shadow, but something about his posture made Laura stop in her tracks. Mary continued towards him, but her steps slowed to an uncertain crawl.

Devonte seemed to roll off the tree stump, collapsing into a crouch amid the marsh grass.

“Who?… Get out! I … Let me be!”

His voice was hoarse, his words so guttural and garbled that Laura could barely understand them. He sounded like another person entirely. Mary stared at him mouth agape. Her chin beginning to quiver, she held up her bowl.

“It’s … it’s stew?” she said.

Devonte took a step towards them. His movements were stiff, his shoulders hunched. Laura looked down and saw that his hands were balled into tight fists by his sides. They seemed to be shaking in fury.

“Mary,” Laura whispered. “Mary, let’s go.”

But Mary seemed unable to move. She just stood there, still holding up her stew bowl, as Devonte came closer, into the light. He was muttering something to himself.

“…spying on me day and night always spying spying…” Laura heard him hiss under his breath.

Laura could see the ink cross now on his chest, stark against his pale skin, pale skin that seemed to take on a yellower and yellower tinge the longer that Laura stared. It must be a trick of the light, she told herself, the dying sunset reflected off the pond, painting them all in unnatural hues. But then she saw his face. She saw his eyes. And she knew. With a terrible certainty she knew.

“Mary!” she screamed.

It was too late. Devonte sprang towards Mary. He shoved her to the ground.

Instinctively, Laura ran towards her sister. Immediately, Devonte’s flailing elbow caught Laura in the ribs, sending her stumbling. Her foot snagged on a tree root, and she tripped, crashing violently into the pond’s muddy shallows.

Sputtering, she sat up and tried to wipe the mud from her eyes. Mary was screaming. Laura blinked and blinked, ignoring the sting, trying desperately to regain her vision. Two blurry shapes wrestled on the ground beside her. As they drifted in and out of focus, Laura saw Devonte looming over Mary as she tried to crawl away. Squinting through her single unobstructed eye, she saw him grab her sister by the ankle.

And then, with a horror that would haunt her forever and always, she saw the boy sink his teeth into Mary’s leg.

Somehow, a stone had found its way into Laura’s hand. Still half-blind, she lurched towards Mary and Devonte. She smashed the stone as hard as she could down on Devonte’s back. The boy snarled in pain. Dropping Mary’s leg, he turned on Laura. He pushed her. Laura was back on the ground, back in the mud. She curled into a terrified ball, shielding her face with her hands, waiting for the teeth and the fingernails to come.

But they didn’t come.

Instead, there was a growl. It did not come from Devonte. This was the sound of an animal, not the sound of a person acting like an animal. Laura lifted her head. A black shape was standing between her and Devonte. Its shaggy hair bristled.

There was a great commotion as Bill Keo burst from the bushes. Devonte screamed something at him, his voice a hoarse wail. Laura saw Bill Keo swing his poleax. It looked as if the flat of the ax caught Devonte in the side. A moment later the boy was writhing on the ground, Bill Keo pinning him down with his boot.

Others arrived. There was shouting all around her. She heard Pa’s voice. She tried to look for him, but by then her eyes were clouded with tears.

“Mary,” she sobbed. “Oh Mary.”

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