The Sugar Road

George has never spoken a word. He's not like other boys. What risk is there in trying to unlock the secrets of his silence?

Sugar maple trees (Photo by Devin Thurber)
Sugar maple trees (Photo by Devin Thurber)


This year there is more snow than they have ever seen. It teeters on the branches of the deciduous trees like small ballet dancers for the first time at the barre. On the evergreens it is less deep because the branches are so close together. Still, impressive amounts of snow are lodged in the spaces between those spreading limbs that have always seemed to Laura a fair representation of the arms of God beckoning to his flock. If you believe in God.

“Be careful on the Sugar Road—the snow topples down when you least expect it,” they were told in the ski shop. “It can feel like an avalanche if you’re unlucky enough to be right below it.” But it is their job to be cautious in this ski shop, and besides, the snow is fresh and light. Laura nods, not really paying much attention.

She is determined to take George out for a ski. It is cross-country, a lot easier than downhill, and his brother and cousins and their parents are halfway up the mountain heading for the cabin where they will have lunch. Then the grandchildren will whoosh down the Haul Road, as their parents loved to do when they were about their age. Today, however, the challenge is very different. She and Michael have been given the task of taking care of George. “The best thing would be to take him to the pool,” George’s father says. But Laura and Michael decide—since they are in charge—that it’s time to take George skiing.

He is a beautiful boy with blondish hair and blue eyes that look a little questioningly at the world. Because he doesn’t yet speak, although he is eight, he sometimes cries inappropriately. He did that while they were renting the boots and skis for him, and he is still whimpering a little as they cross the open plain—what the other kids call “the tundra”—that leads to the trail. But when he forgets he’s supposed to be unhappy, he looks around, quite proud of himself that he is on skis and out in the crisp cold air.

“You don’t need to cry anymore,” Laura says softly in one of the lulls. “You’re here, skiing, just like the rest of them.” She’s grateful that the conditions are good, although going up is never easy with so much snow. But the Sugar Road is pretty flat at the beginning. And he’s doing fine, picking his way with his skis, in and out of the track, as his fancy takes him. At the advice of one of the instructors in the shop, they have left his poles behind and as he gets a rhythm, George could almost be marching.

If you’re quiet you can hear the wind swirling and whistling in the trees, and if you know what to listen for, you can occasionally see and hear huge masses of accumulated snow slide to the ground with a thud. So after a while she says, as gently as she can, “If you stop crying, you can hear the wind singing. And if you listen really hard you can actually hear the snow falling off the trees.” At that George looks up, startled, and suddenly the tears stop. Laura signals to Michael that the three of them should pause, so she can wipe the tears away.

“And then you can concentrate better,” she adds, while Michael instructs George to move his right ski into the track. “Bend your knees,” his grandfather tells him. “Everything in sports is easier if you bend your knees.” Michael catches her eye when George follows his instructions to the letter, and smiles.

In the last year or two he has been more interested in other people’s approval. That’s why Laura was so insistent that they get him on skis. His favorite thing in the whole world is swimming, and he is a wonderful swimmer, actually their best swimmer, and has been hanging around in the deep water since he was a toddler. People used to ask them all the time if he was all right. “He’s fine,” his parents would reassure strangers. That should have been a clue, but lots of children love water. Still, they hadn’t paid enough attention when he didn’t turn around at the sound of his name. And then the times he cried so uncontrollably when he was small, agitated for no apparent reason. Yet he seems to understand everything, and smiles a lot, and is affectionate and wants to be part of the group when he and his brother, Teddy, and their girl cousins are together.

Laura sighs. “The hidden child,” someone has called him. The obstetrician had been sure there was only one baby, but then, during amniocentesis, there had been a surprisingly small amount of fluid and he had realized there was another baby directly behind the first one. When he was born George needed to be in a heated incubator for a while. “He’s just a little cold,” said the nurse in the small country hospital when she observed Laura’s concern. “Lots of babies are born cold.” But could that nurse have been wrong? No one seemed to know, and Laura still cannot figure out whom to ask. Besides, would anything they do make a difference?

Now they are at the Picnic Knoll, not Laura’s favorite place on this trail, though probably lovely in summer when people can eat their lunches on the crown of the hill while enjoying the view. But with two feet of snow on the Knoll, there is no way to get any purchase if you want to get up to the beginning of the next trail. This is a place where she often feels safer taking off her skis, and now she looks at Michael and shakes her head. George looks inquiringly at her. Laura loves it when he looks that way—whenever he is curious, her heart lifts, and he has become more and more curious as he gets older.

Michael would like to take him up the Owls’ Howl trail, but this is not a child who can be pushed to his limit. “Let him take you where he wants to go,” his father has told them more than once, so Laura observes George very carefully while he assesses the hill. “You can do it,” Michael says, but George isn’t sure, so he turns to Laura and starts back toward the Sugar Road. “Next time,” Laura says, and George looks up at her with what seems like relief. Or is she imagining it? That’s the problem. You never really know with George.

Once, when she was very young, just married, no children, she saw a drawing by Kandinsky, a vague swirl of pastel shapes that made sense to her then. But it was the title—Delicate Joy—that stuck in her memory. How could joy be delicate? Wasn’t joy something that came at you full force? Now, though, watching this child who is different, she has learned how delicate joy can really be, and she finds herself sometimes wondering about Kandinsky. How did he know? Or, perhaps more important, how had he learned?

Slowly, Laura becomes aware of a sound, and it takes her a few moments to realize that it is George, humming, then whistling. He’s a good whistler and isn’t at all shy about making sounds. When he was younger he sometimes made rather loud sounds when they were out to dinner, and the other grandchildren would look embarrassed. But now he knows “inside voice,” and it is much easier. Laura has read that sometimes children who can’t speak can sing, so she bends closer and says, “Let’s sing.” And before she knows it, she and Michael are singing “Row, row, row your boat.” George looks up and giggles at them. What could be funnier than them singing their hearts out? his eyes ask, but then, without warning, he looks worried and glances ahead, where the Sugar Road suddenly dips a little. He is not quite sure whether he should stay in the track or get out. And how am I going to get down this hill? he seems to be asking as their voices, now no longer lifted in song, echo through the trees.

As if the trees have understood all that is passing between George and his grandparents, a mound of snow slides off a branch and drops about a foot from George. It sounds more like a thump than the plop Laura was expecting.

“Well, aren’t we lucky that didn’t fall on your head?” she asks George, who looks at the hill of snow, then steps forward and takes a bunch into his mitten and starts to eat it. Smart kid. What could be more delicious than snow as fresh as this?

They all stop, and Michael takes out some chocolate and offers it to George. He shakes his head. He is too busy eating snow and now regards them for a moment, then offers Laura and Michael some snow, giggling again. At the sound of his happiness Laura feels deeply at peace. At the same time she realizes that standing here in the cold will only make it harder to start again, so she says, crisply, “Okay, George, you’ve eaten enough snow, let’s start skiing again.”

They decide to take a side track, which is quite flat but lined with sugar maple trees. Hanging on them are tin buckets to catch the sap. They stop at one of the buckets, which is about a third full of the clear liquid. “This comes from the maple trees, and it’s what they use to make the syrup for your pancakes,” Laura tells George. “It’s called sap, and it’s sugary—that’s why this trail is called the Sugar Road,” she adds as George touches the bucket and listens to it clink against the tree. He looks up at her. Can he make the leap from sap to sugar to maple syrup? She has no idea. And she may never have any idea. Is it possible that his brain might become occluded, like the rocks on the north side of their house, slowly, persistently covered by moss so thick that its existence can never be completely erased?

At first they thought he might be deaf, but Laura never put any stock in that. From the time he had been very small he had reacted to loud sounds as normally as his brother, Teddy, did. She remembered them playing with the radio once when she and Michael were taking care of them for an afternoon, and when one of them turned the volume up, George had jumped even higher than Teddy.

And he certainly knows how to modulate the sounds he makes. As they ski back to the main part of the Sugar Road, he hums lightly again, placing his skis very carefully into the track, possibly aware that if he doesn’t keep moving, the snow will clump on the bottoms of his skis and make it harder for him to slide. The significant word is: possibly.

One day, about four months ago, she was driving home alone from Vermont. Michael had to take the plane to get back to work in Manhattan on Monday, but it was such a beautiful autumn weekend, she decided to stay on and take her old, leisurely way along Route 7 and stop at their home in the Berkshires and perhaps spend a night there. She drove along a succession of main streets, alarmed to see so many empty stores, but then just a few houses outside one tiny town, her eye rested on a beautiful sign. One of those expensive wood signs that look like they’ve taken forever to carve.

PSYCHIC was all it said. Before she knew it, she had pulled into a neat driveway lined with blooming chrysanthemums and tiny French marigolds clumped among some very old and healthy peony plants. What a glorious show there must have been last June, she thought as she turned off her car and walked down the gravel driveway.

That was how she began when the woman opened the door: “You must have had some gorgeous peonies.” The woman, whose pretty face was framed by what Laura’s mother called a “snood,” smiled. For a second Laura wondered if perhaps she might be an Orthodox Jew, but Orthodox Jews don’t wear jeans and pretty cotton shirts. And they don’t usually live in rural Vermont. The woman was tall and had amazing blue eyes and must have been in her early 50s. Instead of answering, she suddenly pulled off the contraption she was wearing on her head.

“If you know about peonies, then I don’t have to hide my two-toned hair,” she said and beckoned Laura in. “I have finally decided to let Nature take its course, but no one told me how long it takes to grow out dyed hair.” Half of her chin length hair was a beautiful white and the other half was a faded red.

“It was flaming when I kept it up, but who has the energy, or the time? Or,” she looked at Laura, seemingly relieved to see her simple T-shirt, cotton pants, and sneakers, “the money. No, it wasn’t the money,” she stopped again. “It was the deception. Who are we kidding? On my 60th birthday I decided it was time to stop the deception.” But before Laura could register her surprise that this woman was already 60, she asked, “When did you grow gray?”

“Oh, in my 30s,” Laura answered. “Much too early. And I never did dye it, which was totally silly. I should have listened to my mother, who was always pained when she saw the gray. She was right, and now I agree with her when she used to say no one needed to have gray hair until they were 70. But it depends on the way you go gray. The white is beautiful on you. You did the right thing,” Laura said, even though she hadn’t been asked, and followed the woman into a darkened room behind a beaded curtain.

After that the woman was all business. She told Laura what she charged for a half hour, and after Laura agreed, they began to talk. Laura wasn’t sure why she was here but she knew it had to do with why George wasn’t talking. To this day, Laura isn’t sure how that woman knew so much about George and Teddy and her son and the boys’ mother (from whom her son was divorced) or even about her new daughter-in-law, who was a true mother to the boys. But she seemed to be privy to all kinds of information Laura had not even touched upon.

She knew that one of them was talkative and one was very quiet; she knew that they had been born by C-section. And then she stopped, gazing into the middle distance, and she said, “I see a woman with wild hair who looks very angry. She is driving a wagon being pulled too fast by two horses, and there are two boys in the wagon and they look scared. My guess is that they need to be rescued.”

She could have been referring to the boys’ mother, but Laura didn’t say anything. She just waited, and soon the woman said, “There seems to be a shadow hovering above you. This month is hard for you, it seems.” With a start, Laura realized it had been 10 years since her mother died, almost to the day. Now she gave in and told the psychic about her mother, about how sensible and practical and reassuring she was, about how Laura missed her so badly these days because she wanted so desperately to talk to her about George.

Her time was up. But how did that woman know all those things? Laura wondered for more than a week.

“That’s why they’re called psychics, Mom,” Laura’s eldest daughter, Jessica, said when Laura finally described the encounter to her. “They have special gifts. Somehow they know things, and they’re very adept at elaborating from the facts that you’ve told them.”

“So you don’t think they’re fakes?”

“No, I don’t think they’re fakes. What did she tell you?”

“Not much about the future. She seemed to know a lot more about the past, but she told me that it was quite possible that George would scream before he spoke.”

Jess frowned. “That doesn’t seem very helpful.” Then she looked down at Laura, and her face brightened. “Did it help you, to talk to her?”

Laura considered. “Yes, I think it did. She basically said, it wasn’t over till it’s over. So there is always hope.”

“Yes, there is. And he’s so easy to love,” Jessica said. Laura looked gratefully at her daughter, who seemed to grow wiser with each year, then remembered what a mother of a Down syndrome baby had told her many years ago. “God gives us these children so we learn more profoundly the meaning of the word love.”

Now they are back on the main part of the Sugar Road, and soon they will reach the spot where the trail slopes down quite sharply. The trail is quite empty now—people are heading back to the hotel and timeshares—but this has always been Laura’s favorite time of day in this resort where they have come every February for more than 20 years. When the sky lights up, as if to say: now it’s my time, time to look at me and admire all the colors I can paint myself. Time to take your eyes off the trees and the mountaintops and the breathtaking expanses of snow and see how I stretch into heaven. Time to understand that I am bigger and more mysterious than anything on earth, and because I am, I will show a sunset unlike anything you have seen before. Time to understand that I can do this evening after evening, into eternity.

When they get to the top of the slope, George stops and looks up at her, and Laura sees that his beautiful blue eyes are beginning to fill. How am I going to get down that? he seems to be asking. Of course. But before she has a chance to ask him what they should do, Michael has positioned himself behind George and placed his skis outside the track and put his poles parallel, like a gate in front of George.

“Now push,” he whispers to his grandson, and before Laura can utter a word of caution, George has bent his knees and they have started down. With his grandfather’s arms around him, he is very serious and concentrating very hard, but he doesn’t seem scared. His body spoons into Michael’s torso as relaxed as she has ever seen it, and Laura starts out behind them, but she knows she can’t catch up. The two of them are yards ahead of her, skiing at quite a clip, and now George is wheeing with glee, and when they reach the bottom and turn around to signal to her, Michael looks as if he’s conquered Everest. So does George.

They wait patiently for her to catch up to them. While she is approaching, she sees Michael take George’s head very gently into his cupped hands and guide it so the child looks upward at the fingernail moon just appearing in the purplish sky. “That’s a new moon,” Michael is telling George as she draws closer. “And tomorrow it will be a little bigger and in about half a month it will be a big circle, what they call a full moon,” he says. George listens and then turns to look at her.

“What a good downhill that was!” she tells him. “And you didn’t fall, not once!” she says, but instead of responding to her, his face suddenly shines with a new kind of joy, and before she can praise him anymore, they are surrounded. The rest of the family has come down from the cabin in record time, and now they are all exclaiming with surprise that George is out on the trail where they never expected to find him.

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Roberta Silmanis the author of the story collection Blood Relations and of four novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, Beginning the World Again, and Secrets and Shadows. A new novel, Summer Lightning, will be published in 2022. She writes regularly for the online magazine The Arts Fuse.


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