THE BOUGH OF A MAPLE By Jim Lounsbury **** The yellow space between the farmhouse and the setting sun

blurred the sticky movements of horses leading Abe into the barn. Earlier that day, the horses strained against him as he pulled them from their troughs. Now they pulled him from the fields. Once inside, he stooped to undo the harness that made an eight-legged workhorse of two mares, prompting the anticipatory shudder of horseflesh. Jared walked back along the driveway toward the barn, his disappointment weighing his gait to a droop. Having found the mailbox empty again, he was beginning to lose hope. Their mailbox was the last one of the day to be fed letters by John Wiggins, the overweight postman who moved too slow. Jared knew that if the postman picked up the pace of his delivery instead of stopping for donuts, the mail would arrive by early afternoon. Then the disappointment would come sooner and be gone by nightfall. As it was, he had to dream it away. He would rather save his dreams for adventure. Abe completed his end-of-day tasks, unaware that his son was watching him. Jared leaned against the grooved planking of the barn, careful not to touch the splintered surface with his hands. He was allergic to wood and every time he touched raw wood without wearing gloves, his hands would dry and crack open²first at the fingertips, then the fingers and palms²leaving a red-latticed map of oozing sores. The first time was the worst. Abe drove Jared to the doctor twice, just to make sure he hadn¶t dreamed up the affliction to avoid working (every tool on the farm had wooden handles). Later, when Abe held his son¶s hands, examining the raw skin, he wondered

what god would curse a boy like this. Abe secretly hoped that puberty would lay this childhood allergy to rest, but Jared was fifteen now and he still had to wear thick gloves to protect his hands. Jared continued to watch his father work. In the distance, a voice escaped from the house. Dinner was ready. From here, the voice sounded strained. A long time ago, his mother spoke in a soft Louisiana rhythm, but not now. Twenty years of large silent spaces had cured her of that. On the farm, there were too many thick shadows and noiseless fields that sucked weak voices right out of the air. So she yelled. She spoke loud and course now, even when she said things people usually whisper, like µI love you¶. Jared always thought his mother talked about love the way people talk about travelling to a place they had never been. Abe aired a heavy fence rail, easing it into place - the last bar to keep the animals in for the night - before glancing around the barn, verifying that every chore had been completed. If his father was anything, Jared thought, he was a product of the love his grandfather had with the earth. Jared could picture Grandpa Allen lying face down, naked body in a ploughed furrow, copulating with the earth. Mother earth. Abe was just like him ± more earth than human ± a plant, constantly reaching toward the soil. Abe looked up, noticed Jared, and sighed. Abe had been wondering about whether or not he should build a climate-controlled silo to house his grain until the markets were right. They were doing it back east, and it seemed to be the way of the future. He couldn¶t make a decision; not without knowing whether Jared would take over the farm. The farm was laid out like leftover bricks from a smokestack chimney. Odd shaped masonry, anchoring a quilt of patchwork fields that spread as far as the eye

could see. A small rippled pond hid near a rise of conifers to the North, and to the West, a dusty road arced away from the trodden thoroughfares of the farm, leading to the mailbox, which sat on Waverly Road. Abe and Jared walked from the barn to the house, passing the giant maple that was tethered to the front porch by a clothesline. Only a few five-pointed leaves hung from the tree now, the rest had fallen like most businessmen during the depression. Abe and Jared had tapped the maple in autumn, draining the sap into buckets. It was then that the leaves fell. The tree looked like a skeleton now, but every year it made a miraculous recovery, producing bigger leaves than the year before. When Jared was a child, he used to cry when they took sap from the tree, thinking that the tree would die from the trauma. As it turned out, the sap was a necessary transfusion for their table, providing maple syrup for their pancakes and sweetener for his mother¶s cooking. ³Did you check the mail today?´ Jared asked. ³No.´ Abe replied, ³Why?´ ³Nothing. I just wondered if you picked it up earlier«´ ³Your mother checks the mailbox. Why don¶t you ask her?´ ³Do you ever see what she does with the mail? Or when she gets it?´ Abe gave Jared a quizzical look. Placing a hand on Jared¶s shoulder, he chuckled, ³I don¶t know what she does with anything once she gets it. ´ Jared produced a thin smile. Inside, Jared opened his upstairs bedroom window, looking up past the eaves of the house. He often wondered what the farm looked like from the sky, but it was hard to imagine how high he would have to go before the farm disappeared and the sepia candlelight of his room faded away.

Jared used to have a reoccurring dream that he was high above the farm, the land curving away to a frowning horizon. He was holding something. An object pressed against his palm, urging him to let go. Slowly he would relax his hand, finger by finger, until he could feel the angle of fibres and tapered straw of a feather. Once his hand was open it was always the same. The feather caught the wind that was whipping up past his outstretched arm, and flew upwards. It seemed absurd. He remembered having the dream at least a dozen times, but in each instance it wasn¶t until he noticed the feather rising that he realised he was falling. After looking down to where the farm rushed towards him, he would look at the feather floating into the distance above him, wishing he had never let it go. Looking back toward the earth, he noticed how still the world was. Except for the slight rustle of wind in the maple, like a great ship gathering wind for a voyage. His eyes travelled the road that connected the soiled existence of farm people to the bustle of town, and yet further to the complexity of city life, and if you travelled far enough, to the open sea. Even though more people travelled along the main street of town, he couldn¶t imagine the ruts being as deep as they were here on the farm. As the dream progressed, he fell toward the rough timber that his father had fashioned into a house, feeling he was drawn to the farm by a force stronger than gravity. A taut familial tether seemed to pull him. Ten generations of men, gripping an invisible cord, pulling to the cadence of his fathers cry« ³Jared. Dinner¶s ready.´ His door opened as his mother spoke. ³Your father is waiting.´ Evelyn stood in the doorway to his room, wiping her hands on the stained apron hanging from her neck. The recipe of every dish she had ever served seemed to be displayed on the front of the apron, fighting for dominance with the lace at the

border - an adornment that had given up the battle to portray the domestic as dainty long ago. ³I love you,´ she said, tussling his hair. Jared looked at her backwards face in the mirror, thinking she looked better the right way around. Her lack of symmetry made her face look far different in mirrors than in pictures. ³He¶s getting impatient,´ She said. ³I¶m coming.´ Jared looked at his mother¶s apron. A menu, he thought, for the finest restaurant within forty miles« No, the only restaurant within forty miles. ³What are we having?´ Jared said as he followed his mother out the door. ³Nothing fancy. Just mince and vegetables.´ She waited at the top of the stairs as Jared quickly rinsed his hands in the upstairs bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror as he finished, noticing the dark circles beneath his eyes. To everyone else, I must look tired, he thought. Lifting a handful of water to his face, he remembered swimming with Rachael in the turquoise excitement of spring. Now it was winter and he had only seen her twice since then. ³Jared!´ The voice of his father boomed from the dining table, bolted through the hall, flew up the stairs past his mother and still had the audacity to startle him. Why does everyone have to yell around here? He looked back into the mirror for a moment, trying to see his father in the face that looked back at him. Unsatisfied, he walked downstairs to join his family at the dinner table. ³This smells good,´ Jared said, watching his mother¶s reaction. She always appreciated his gestures, valuing the sentimental gel of the comments more than the intuitive choice he had made in saying what he knew she would enjoy. His father

closed his eyes and bowed his head, but not before glancing quickly at Jared²a cue that it was his turn to bless the food. ³Dear God´ Jared began praying, ³bless this food and give us the strength to do your will«´ Jared was swept by the tow of his imagination, his mind drifting from the vacant prayer he had repeated so often to his vivid memories of Rachael. It was only two months ago that he pretended to listen to her while watching her uncertain hair in the wind. Breasts within reach, though they might have been a million miles away. The water must have been cold, ³Thank you, God, for the vegetables and for the meat«´ and for nipples. The prayer stumbled from one corridor of his brain to another through a gauntlet of silken thoughts, which he filtered out religiously. By the time the prayer reached his mouth, it sounded as interesting as corrugated tin. ³Amen.´ Jared concluded. ³Amen,´ the family repeated. ³Mom?´ Jared asked. ³Yes, honey?´ ³Did anything come for me today« In the mail?´ A long pause as his mother contemplated this. ³I don¶t think so, honey, but I can look through it again if you¶d like me to.´ ³It¶s okay.´ Jared spoke, looking at the mince on his plate. His imagination saw a face in his food. The mincemeat appeared to be smiling at his misfortune. He stabbed it in the eye. **** The next morning at 6 o¶clock, Jared woke to the sound of festive chickens. Today was Tuesday. The day they drove into town to pick up supplies. After pulling on a fresh shirt, he stood at the window, buttoning himself to go.

He looked out the window, watching his mother work beneath the boughs of the maple. She hung clothing on the line to dry, careful to hang the socks and smaller articles of clothing in the middle where the line sagged toward the ground. The clothesline used to be tight, as if the lonely maple once hoped to escape to the distant forest, straining and pulling at the thin leash that held it to the farm. Each year the clothesline had drooped further and further, the maple slowly giving up the struggle to go. Now the clothesline was barely four feet off the ground at it¶s lowest point and the maple looked old and bitter. Jared could hear the Ford complaining and sputtering in the cold. It was time to go. He¶d better not forget his gloves; there was work to be done. Before leaving his room, he opened the top drawer of his dresser, revealing a single envelope on top of the pink-marbled wallpaper lining the drawer. He pulled one glove onto his right hand and was careful not to bend or crease the envelope as he placed it into his coat pocket. Touching paper with his bare skin made his fingers dry and chap, and he had learned to be careful, even if he was only touching wood or paper for a second. Fortunately, toilet paper was one wood product he could use without consequence. Without more trips to the doctor. **** ³Who¶s the letter for?´ John Wiggins asked. ³No one.´ Jared replied. Posting a letter in a small town was excruciating. John Wiggins knew every letter that was sent in Spangle, and made it his business to keep up to date on everything in town. What he didn¶t know about the 450 people who lived in Spangle, Ralph the barber did« and they got together on Tuesdays to play poker, so if someone wanted to murder somone in Spangle, they would have to

commit the crime on a Wednesday, be gone by the following Monday, and keep from getting a haircut or sending a postcard to their mother while in town. ³Ah, Rachael Scott.´ John said, beaming. ³Yeah, I guess.´ Jared replied. ³I never would have put you two together.´ ³We¶re not together«´ ³I think I saw a letter come through here from her recently«´ John said. ³«so there must be something going on.´ ³Really?´ Jared tried not to smile, ³When?´ ³I can¶t remember. Might have been awhile ago, but« if it¶s just nothing«´ John waved the letter, knowing he had caught something with the lure he¶d cast. ³When?´ Jared said, glaring at John. He may be sixteen, but he didn¶t have to put up with this. ³Maybe four days ago, maybe«´ John conceded. Jared left before John could continue. He wondered where the letter had gone. Had someone else gotten it? In high school last year, he had read somewhere that the postal service could deliver a letter to anyplace in the country in two or three days. Then there was a story in the paper a few months ago about a letter that took fortyfive years to be delivered. No one knew where it was during that time, but it was delivered, unopened, to the address it had been trying to reach for four decades. Perfect. Forty five years to find out whether Rachael felt the same. Jared helped his father lift supplies onto the back of the Ford, but his thoughts were crooked and bent. He was confusing himself with hundreds of twisting hypotheses, and no amount of physical exertion seemed to ease the knot of consternation. He worked hard, sweating profusely, but the thoughts kept coming.

Finally, after an hour of toil, he was able to catch one image and hold onto it - an image of Rachael smiling. Vivid. **** The mailbox for the farm was out on Waverly Road, about one mile from the farm itself. Someone hit it with a car once. Now it sat at an oblique angle to the dirt surface of the road with a crescent shaped dent on one side. By the time Jared was able to check the mail, a lonely shadow fell away from the mailbox, tortured and stretched by the setting sun. Jared convinced the rusty hinges to open, revealing an envelope begging to be grasped. He looked at it, not sure whether to pick it up or close the mailbox and keep dreaming of what the letter might say. He had spent two weeks writing his letter, hoping he would get a sign first. Correspondence by which he could gauge and mould his own letter. It was always easier to write a letter in reply than to create something from thin air. Jared picked up the letter. It was for his mother. **** Sunday morning. Jared stood beneath the maple tree, looking up at the blue through the bare branches of the behemoth. His breath made a conspicuous escape, visible in winter air. Around him, mother earth was brittle and bright, glistening in a half-melted overcoat of frost. Jared slung his Bauer ice skates over his shoulder and began the half-mile walk north. It was where he always went to think. In winter, the pond froze over and there was something about skating to the smell of pine, the wind whistling past his ear like a symphony, that made him forget everything else.

The path to the pond was covered in pine needles from Tamarac trees, deciduous conifers that dried to a golden brown in fall and shed their needles like the maple shed her leaves. This made the path a vivid brown and yellow, a soft runway that entered the trees, curved right and followed the east shore of the pond to a clearing where Jared had crafted a bench out of the stump of a fallen tree. He built the bench when he was eleven, a year before he discovered the warm, secret rhythm of relief beneath the blankets of his bed. From the bench, Jared could look over the pond, watching the fish jump for mosquitos in the summer, or enjoy the occasional deer and fawn that watered at the pond during spring. If he sat still, he was rarely noticed, and because the pond was small, he could scan almost every inch of shoreline for movement and activity. Jared sat at the bench, lacing up his skates as he remembered where he and Rachael had swum beneath the leaves on the opposite shore. Anxious to exert himself into oblivion, he didn¶t check the thickness of the ice. Normally, he would throw a rock into the thinner centre of the iced pond to make sure it held up without cracking, or stop to notice the dark patches around the twigs at the edge of the pond. Today, he finished lacing up his skates and immediately stepped onto the pond, pushing off from the shore and gliding toward the centre, where the cold water beneath was deepest. Lifting his head, he closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. The pine air whipped by his face, making music as it passed. The high-pitched whistle of wind past his ears, masking the deep bass rumble of ice cracking beneath him. The ice at the shore was the thickest, where the water was shallow and most affected by the temperature of the air. Out in the middle, the water was deeper. At

least twenty feet. Which meant the ice there was emaciated and thin. The instant Jared¶s full weight was over the thinnest patch of ice, cracks began to radiate out toward the shore, popping and bifurcating outward in a unique and intricate pattern, like a snowflake. If a thousand people fall through the ice, you would probably never find a pattern of cracked ice the same. By the time Jared realised what was happening, there was no stopping it. Jared¶s legs plunged into the black water. He instinctively raised his arms to break his fall, managing to hold his torso above the surface. The bitter, icy water took his breath away. Numbness crawled up his legs - a dark void of feeling - moving toward his waist, his arms, his heart«

to be continued

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