Trial By Fire
I drew my woolen shawl closer as the sleigh bumped over the ice encrusted trail. The March weather hung around the freezing mark, below zero at night and above during the day…. ideal weather for sugaring.
The forest seemed surreal in the pre-dawn. The dim light from lanterns hung on the sleigh gave the bare limbs of the trees an evil look, their branches reaching out as if ready to grasp whatever came near. Over the clanking of the yoke’s harness chains I heard the distant cry of a lone Timber Wolf. Wolves were plentiful in southern Ontario and at this time of year they were gaunt and hungry.
I sat beside Jesse, my husband of three months, while Father and my brother Henry sat behind us leaning against the stone boat that would hold the sap collected from the sugar maple trees. Feeling me shiver Jesse pulled me close.
“You’re being quiet Ella. Are you okay? Warm enough?”
I didn’t want to admit I was trembling at the thought of having to spend the day alone at the camp with nothing but a small lopsided hut for protection. Jesse, Henry and Father would be gone all day. They’d pick me up when they brought today’s collected sap to the camp.
“I’m okay Jesse.” I answered softly. “I’m feeling the cold but I’ll be fine once I begin working.”
I was trying to sound brave. I wanted Jesse to believe he’d chosen a strong wife. I’d always known this day would come. I was nineteen and it was my turn to work in the sugar bush just as Mother had. I’d dressed warmly as she’d advised me. My flannel pantaloons felt soft against my skin but the heavy knitted socks itched inside my boots. On my head was a woolen bonnet. Yes, I’d be plenty warm.
The sun was beginning to rise as we came to the clearing in the forest. The men had been out working for the last two days checking the trees, inserting the cedar spiles and hanging buckets. Yesterday they brought the first batch of sap to the stone boat at the camp to sit overnight where the water would rise to the top and freeze. This saved a lot of boiling time since the sap was 90% water.
An iron pot was suspended over the fire pit. Chopped wood was stacked against the small wooden hut and several tree branches lay on the ground.
“Remember to poker the fire often.” Father told me as he climbed into the sleigh. “And keep a watch for cinders landing on the roof, we don’t want it catching fire. We’re off to northeast corner this morning and will work our way back.”
I nodded in assent then watched as the large black oxen pulled the sleigh down the trail and around a corner.
I was alone.
I chipped and removed the layer of ice from the boat and, mindful of my long skirts near the fire, transferred the sap into the pot to be boiled down to form sugar. It was arduous work but the muscles in my arms were strong. I’d been responsible for churning the butter since I was ten.
At what seemed to be mid day, judging from the location of the sun, I decided to take a break.
I was tired from working all morning, my legs ached and bits of my hair had come loose and were pasted to my face by sweat. I headed towards the hut where I’d left the bread, cheese and water that would be my noon meal. There was a bench inside where I could rest.
As I opened the door I heard shuffling at the side of the hut. Curious, I rounded the corner and came to an abrupt stop. Every muscle in my body tightened as my eyes fell upon a lone grey wolf pawing at the edge of the hut. Although the now molting winter coat covering the malnourished body was thick, I could see the tensed muscles of its shoulder. I slowly stepped back towards the front of the hut and the open door. But my presence hadn’t gone unnoticed. A pair of steely grey eyes stared me down. The fur on its neck bristled and it bared its teeth emitting a low snarl. I froze once again desperately trying to remember what Mother had told me to do when the wolves appeared. I glanced towards the fire then slowly stepped back again to within reach of the branches and set one ablaze. The wolf had followed me and was now crouching, muscles twitching, in attack position. I swung the flaming branch wildly in front of me. The wolf turned and ran, ears flattened against its head, tail between its legs. I dropped the branch in the snow and collapsed against the hut, heart pounding, mouth dry, gasping for breath.
I no longer felt hungry. I took a few moments to recover and went back to work.
Before long the wolf was back, this time with seven members of his pack. What if the fire didn’t work this time? I slowly picked up another branch, set it alight and began waving it in a large arc towards the wolves. Miraculously they all ran off, some whimpering with fear. I knew they’d be back but knowing that I had the power to stave them off gave me a new feeling of strength. I found myself humming at times as I continued my work.
As dusk fell it became difficult to see the wolves and I kept my ears strained so I could hear them approaching. They appeared once more but just as I was about to light another branch they suddenly dispersed. The sleigh was returning. The sound of the chains had driven them off.
As we began the long trek out of the forest I leaned against Jesse’s shoulder. It had been a tumultuous day and despite the bumpy ride I was soon fast asleep.
©Shirleymac February 2007