When I was 11, my dad and I tried to make our own maple syrup. (I don’t know how he convinced a rebellious girl on the verge of tweenhood to embark on such a project, but somehow, he did.)
So one chilly, February morning, we woke up early and went out to the large maple tree in the backyard. Setting up the tap was easy – Dad drilled the hole, and we hammered the spile in together. Within minutes, clear sap was dripping into the soda bottle we attached underneath.
“Check the bottle each morning,” Dad said, with a smile, “and write down how much we collected.”
“It’s the coolest project ever,” I told my friend, Shelby, on the bus to school. It felt good to put her in her place – she was always bragging about how she lives on a farm. “Dad lets me feed the pigs and milk the cows,” she would say, flipping her hair. “And he pays me for it. I basically have a job, and I’m only twelve.”
But her dad was a total weirdo. Mine was cool, and gave me cool projects to work on.
On the morning of February 27th, I approached the tree as usual – skipping in the snow, humming Walkin’ on Sunshinethrough the heavy scarf around my face. I walked around to the tap, and peered in.
The bottle was halfway filled with dark, reddish liquid.
Not clear sap.
I ran back to the house. “Mom! Dad!” I yelled. “There’s something wrong!”
Dad followed me out into the backyard, not looking very concerned. I don’t blame him. Last time I pulled him out here, it was because I found “monster footprints” in the snow.
Also known as raccoon footprints.
“The syrup is dark now,” I said, pointing rapidly at the bottle. “What happened? Did we ruin it?”
To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen my dad so shocked. His face went white, matching the surrounding snow, and his mouth hung open. “It’s – it’s fine,” he stuttered, pulling the bottle from the tree. “But I’ll bring it in and take a look at it.”
He detached the bottle, and brought it inside. I followed. “Go get ready for school. I’ll take care of this.”
“I am ready.”
He sighed. “Go, uh, get me the encyclopedia from my study, will you?”
As I walked down the hall, Mom’s whispers to him echoed towards me.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” A sharp inhale. “It smells metallicy. What do you think?”
“I’m not sniffing that!”
“I knew this whole maple syrup thing was dumb. The tree is probably diseased or something. Don’t let her near it!”
“Okay, but –”
“And get the rest of it out of the basement! I don’t even have enough space for laundry anymore.”
I walked back into the kitchen with the encyclopedia, and they fell silent.
“I’ll drive you to school,” Mom said, grabbing her keys and shooting a glare at Dad.
When I got home, they seemed even more stressed.
“Michaela,” Dad said, sitting me down, “don’t go near the tree, okay?”
“We – uh – just don’t, okay?”
Apparently, my dad didn’t understand the concept of forbidden fruit. Now that he said it, I had to go back to the tree.
So after my parents went to bed that night, I snuck out of my room, grabbed a flashlight, and ran into the backyard. It was bitterly cold, and the icy wind blew through my pajamas as if they were made of tissue paper. But I soldiered forward, until I was standing underneath the maple.
As the beam of light fell over it, I saw a long red streak staining the bark, emanating from the spile.
As if it were bleeding.
I touched my fingers to it. They came away wet and red, and a chill coursed through my body.
Is that what that dark stuff was, earlier?
I walked around the tree, my flashlight bouncing off the bark. As I did, I realized – there was a deep crack that ran horizontally across it.
But it was too long, too perfect, to be a natural crack.
I poked and prodded the groove with my fingers. The bark shifted and jiggled. I jabbed my fingernails in it, and pulled, until a large panel of bark fell away.
It hit the snow with a dull thump.
And I screamed.
Stuffed into a cavity of the trunk, still and lifeless, was the carcass of a pig. And in its belly was a small hole –
Where the spile had been attached.
I leapt back from the tree, screaming. The beam of my flashlight caught on the snow. And in it, there was a fresh set of footprints, leading up to the tree…
But none leading away.
I sprinted across the snow. I locked the door behind me.
And then I glanced out the window.
In the darkness, I could make out a shadow, climbing down from the branches of the maple tree.