"You coming?' she called out.
"I'm right here," I replied from a dozen feet behind.
The sun had gone down and the tall grass made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, even by the light of a flashlight. She stopped and waited for me to catch up as I moved in the darkness. When I reached her, she took my hand and said, "We're almost there," and we walked on. As we walked, we heard the faint sound of a band practicing in an abandoned barn a quarter mile away. Vermont was like that at night - an amphitheater for whatever dared cut through the darkness. On this night it was a Grateful Dead cover band, crickets, and the sound of our Sorels cracking through dry mud.
After a minute or two the tall grass gave way to a clearing where cattle had recently grazed.
"There," she said, training the flashlight beam on a lone maple about 15 feet away. It was a big, full tree. I imagined the cattle must meet in clusters under it on sunny days, as it would have provided the only shade to be had. We walked on and, when we reached it, she gave the trunk a pat with her hand.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"You were right. It's perfect," I said, taking off my backpack and digging around in the front pocket, "How did you ever find this spot?"
"Just taking a long walk, one day." she answered, shining the flashlight into my bag to help me in my search, "No one knows I come here. Except you. We share a secret, now."
I found what I'd been looking for, and pulled it out of my backpack. The day before, we'd gone to the general store and chosen the one that felt right. An old-fashioned canoe knife, with two blades. Having never done this before, we'd agreed that having two blades to choose from would be an advantage. The knife had just felt right when we'd taken turns holding it in our hands. There'd been that, too.
I handed the knife to her.
"You go first. I'll hold the flashlight," I said.
"You sure?" she asked, "This was your idea - you should go first.."
"Yeah, but it's your secret spot. You go first."
She handed me the flashlight and opened the pocket knife, looking at both blades.
"Which do you think?" she asked.
"The shorter one," I answered, "better leverage."
"That's what I was thinking, too."
She tucked the longer of the two blades back into the handle, and chose a spot on the maple's trunk.
She leaned in and pressed her cheek against the tree, closing her eyes.
"Sorry if this hurts," she whispered. Then, opening her eyes, she looked at me and we smiled at each other.
Even though the bark is thin, maple is a hard wood. It took a few tries before she figured out how to hold the knife and get the blade to cut, and cut deeply enough. Mere scratches, after all, heal. For our purposes, what she needed to do was carve deeply, not just scratch the surface.
The first letter took a while but, in the end, it was a clean carving, and a deep one. It wouldn't disappear over time. She stepped back and looked at her progress, brushing away bits of bark. She moved back in and got to work on the second letter, which went more quickly. She'd worked out a rhythm, figured out how much pressure to use. In another minute she was done. We silently swapped knife for flashlight, and she lit the way as I went to work on my portion of our masterpiece. My process was much the same as hers had been - scratching away the thin, easy bark, and then carving into and scooping away the hard wood underneath. It took elbow grease.
When I was done, we both stepped back and admired our handiwork. I reached out and traced the deep grooves of my initials and hers.
"How old do you reckon this tree is?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said, "Pretty old, though," she answered.
"And how long does a maple tree live?"
"A long, long time," she said, "Longer than people. We'll probably be long gone and our initials will still be here for someone to find."
"That's sort of a comfort," I said.
"Could you find this place, again, if you had to?" she asked.
I shrugged, "I guess. I don't know. Yeah, sure."
"Let's make a promise, then," she whispered, putting her arm through mine, "Whichever one of us dies first, the other will come to this spot. This is where we'll visit one another."
I thought about that for a moment. "What if we die together? You know you're a speed demon on the road." I asked.
She laughed and, after pulling me in close and kissing me on the cheek, said, "In that case, we won't have to visit, because we'll really be together once and for all, won't we? Did you remember to bring the hot chocolate?"
We sat down on the ground. She propped the flashlight up against the tree trunk so that the beam of light shot straight up, illuminating the branches and spring leaves above us. I pulled the thermos out of my backpack and poured a cup of cocoa for her. As she drank, I took her free hand, playing with it, examining it. I wanted to commit to memory how it looked, how it felt. I was fascinated by how different we were. Her hands were bony, with long, slender fingers and neatly cut nails. My own hands, small and fleshy, my nails bitten down low. After a few sips, she put down her cup of cocoa and leaned back against the tree. I lay my head down on her lap, and she gently stroked her fingers through my hair.
"I don't think I've ever told you about the house my parents used to have in Bermuda," she said, "We spent summers there. I had a best friend who was from the island. Gina and I would spend just about every day together. Every August, when it was time for my family to leave, Gina and I would cry and hug each other. My father would roll his eyes and say we were being tragic, but I hated to leave her and she hated to see me go. When we were 10, we decided to become blood sisters. We cut each others hands with a razor, rubbed palms together, mingling our blood, and took an oath to always be best friends."
I looked up. Her eyes were closed. She was in Bermuda.
"Did you keep that oath?" I asked.
"When I was 14, my parents had money troubles, and decided to sell the house in Bermuda. It was our last summer there. Gina and I were inconsolable. Before, even though it had been hard to leave, we'd always known I'd be back. This was different. I would be leaving and not coming back. My father didn't have much time for the whole thing, and said we were just creating drama, but Mum felt bad for me. She arranged for Gina to stay at our house for the whole last week we were there. We were together all the time. At night, we'd lie on mats in the screened-in porch, listening to tree frogs until we fell sleep. And then my parents took me back to London, and I haven't been back to Bermuda, since."
"I never saw her, again." she said. Then she opened her eyes, leaned down, and kissed my forehead, "But that's really ok."
© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves