In the dream, it is early evening. Fall. All the shadows have melted into the ground and the sky is a sweet milky blue. Candace is lying in the grass, too tired to move, staring into the giant maple in Audrey’s front yard. A single star appears. The star is a dazzling pearl, a distant pinprick of fire in the clear night.
And then the marvel happens.
comes cascading out of the zenith, hurling itself toward earth with the speed that only light can have. It touches a leaf on the tree and the leaf catches fire and burns brilliant yellow. Miraculously, though, like Moses’ burning bush, the mother maple is not consumed in flame. Soon another star shows itself in the sky and it too is a grain.
And again, it flies down from the heavens and a second leaf explodes into red flame. The same thing happens, over and over again, stars falling like fireworks from the heavens, stars bursting into leaf, the light coming to life in orange, crimson and a host of glowing fall colors. Every star is a match to a leaf. As the tree billows up, Candace stands, because the scene is a miracle and it takes her breath away, the mother maple, incandescent in the yard, filling the night sky.
Later, when she is older, and the dream comes true, she wonders. Do dreams set fire to our worst fears? Or do they lead us like searing biblical visions into lands that we can only bear to see first with our eyes closed?
Start here, at the cusp of spring, as the snow is poised to begin melting in the forest. The March fog is lifting through the dark maples like a million delicate spirits. It is here, where on some winter nights, the moonlight throws the snow and the maple bark into blue and purple shadows, that Candace will bring her baby. It is here where the trees are already whispering, please don’t let the baby die, please don’t let the baby die.
Audrey hears something as she stops just a few yards short of the sugar house, beside the old tree, the one she and the other women call Frieda. She has fog all around her, and snow awkwardly cropping up beneath her grey coat, so that with each step she sinks deeper.
The powder crusts her coat in ice and reaches up her thighs until in some places, it is almost at her crotch.
She is breathing hard from fighting up the hill. A sound curls and presses inside her and at first she thinks it is her own heart beating in her ears. But as her breathing quiets, and the wind stills, she turns her gaze into the stark grey branches around her. Somewhere out there is a hum, a soft but persistent rhythm, almost like the thrumming made by fingers gently striking a drum.
What she hears in the absence of wind makes her uneasy.
The great granddaughter of a Yorkshire woman who healed with herbs, Audrey believes fervently in rooted angels, sanctified trees of mercy, and fabulous fairies in enchanted gardens. She knows the protective powers yielded by burning Juniper and dried holly. She knows the myths of every flower living in the fields. She has memorized the recipe for oaten cakes that, at moonrise on Midsummer’s Eve, will work a fairy spell: take vervain and yarrow, mistletoe and rue, thyme and bay, and sweeten the mixture with honey and the oil from a rose. She knows every ancient ritual and pagan tale linked to aspen and alder, silver birch and bramble, rowan, apple and ash.
She knows, too, since childhood, the wild Tree Dance. Charmed by jugs of wine and tight white rolls of marijuana, she has taught the whirling to the women who live with her, all of them still braless, all still faithful to their art and equally, to the maple sugaring.
Audrey knows too that if trees can heal, then certainly trees can warn. And so she is fearful of the sound. Soon, though, Candace will arrive to help with the sugaring and she will deliver her news, and Audrey will be relieved to hear it. She will take her granddaughter in her arms, and kiss the top of Candace’s orange hair. Tucking her fears aside, Audrey will decide that it wasn’t a warning she heard in the forest, but rather, a promise, an awakening of life and breath. She will tell Marjory, her partner of nearly twenty years, that the tree spirits once again were showing off, yearning to be the first to herald Candace’s announcement about the baby.
Much later, though, after the disaster, Audrey will recall this day, and that thrush of sound. And all that dark pressure pooled like grey fog inside her chest. Looking back, she will understand that she dismissed her fears too quickly. She was so happy to hear Candace’s news that she failed to listen closely enough to the winds whispering through the trees. Instead, Audrey turned away, refusing to hear, closing herself off to the undulating black gloom that was already circulating in the forest, already set in motion that day.
She reaches up to one of Frieda’s lower branches now, brings it closer to her eyes (no eyeglasses, as much a miracle as anything at Audrey’s age) and she inspects the swelling red bud. Frieda, whose name derives from Freya, goddess of wisdom and fecundity, has been around since Audrey’s great grandmother’s time. Local lore has it that Clara O’Malley came from Yorkshire and settled in Vermont in 1833 and planted this maple tree. Eventually, Clara began the sugaring that Audrey continues to this day.
Frieda should have long ago dropped over, as she is more rotten than not. But her sap was said to make the purest, sweetest maple syrup ever tasted on the mountain. And as history counts many miracles, here is just one other: that Frieda is believed to be approaching her third century of life.
Audrey’s frosty blue eyes lock onto the red bud, its tip tight and cold and as sharp as the point of a pen. Within the fragile tissues of that bud, wrapped and overlapping, is all kinds of potential. The lips of cherry-colored tissue, like all of those in the sugar bush, promise to swell, to open, to bloom into a lush of shady green leaves come May. But first, the trees will pause for sugaring, yielding sap to the women the way they, as mothers, yielded milk to their young.
Satisfied with the condition of the bud, Audrey lets the branch snap back into place. She bends to pick up a rusted pail and plows forward toward the sugar house. Tree shadows fall in grey and blue lines, quartering the snow. The light is spring light -- bright and strong. But the weather isn’t right. Not quite yet. Winter still has her bony grasp, choking each maple’s throat. Just before she reaches the door of the shack, a cloud of fine snow blows up. Ice powders Audrey’s face and she inhales the fine crystals and coughs. She smacks the red mitten over her mouth. Feels the wheeze left by last year’s pneumonia. If you move south with me, she hears Big Martha whispering, life will be so easy, you’ll live a century.
Ignoring the voice, she slides the skeleton key easily into the lock. She stops. She always dreads this moment, unlocking the sugar house door after a winter season’s long absence. She hates facing the dust, the cobwebs, the musty cold air. The door itself is a disgrace. Splintering, squawking on rusty hinges that are pulling out of rotted wood, the sugar house door is disintegrating just like the whole sugar farm around it. If that local boy, Jimmy Dryer, were still 14 years old, like he was when the women moved in, and not a grown man with a family as he’s been for ten years, things like this door would be rebuilt. Painted.
Audrey sighs. I need this like a hole in the head. I need this like a hole in the tree. She smiles. She leans into the sugar house door. It squeals its familiar rusty protest and she proceeds inside.