The Sap’s Going Down


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The Sap’s Going Down
By Bobby Neal Winters
Steel ground against stone and a piece of granite flew off to the right. Cecil Gates pulled his riding lawnmower ahead until he was sure that he was clear of the stone, put it into neutral, and killed the engine. His knees shot lightening bolts of pain through his body as he lifted himself from the mower. He was used to it though, because Arthur Itus, as he termed arthritis, had been a companion of his for quite some years now.
He walked back to see what he had hit because he didn’t remember anybody being buried there, but sure enough there was a stone. Born 1920-Died 1937. The woman who was buried here would’ve been the same age as he was now—if she had lived.

“What was the old joke?” he asked himself. “Your born, you die, and there is a dash in the middle.” He smiled a weak smile to his own silent joke.

At least he thought that he’d been silent, but then he heard a woman’s voice answer him, “It sure seems like a dash, doesn’t it?”
He looked up from the marker, but there was no one ahead of him. The voice had been so close that he turned all the way around. No one was in sight. There was nothing but granite markers, sunburned plastic flowers, and the wind.

“You are losing it, Cecil, Old Boy,” he said, but this time he said it out loud and boldly, daring someone to answer, but no answer came. He paused where he was a moment, and then confident that old age and the wind were conspiring against him to make him look like a fool, he focused himself and looked at the corner of the marker that he had chipped. Seventeen years old forever.

How odd that he had forgotten about this stone. How very odd. He had been mowing the cemetery for years and must’ve mowed gone past it hundreds of times. Time passes and the mind becomes littered with memories like the ground with autumn leaves. He read the epitaph: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain….”

“No more crying or pain,” he thought as he huffed and puffed his way back to the mower. The doctors had told him to take it easy, but that was silly because there was no other way that he could take it. When his breath caught up with him, he eased down onto his aching knees and looked beneath the mower. There was no pool of oil or anything like that, which was a relief to him. It would be harder than hell to get the mower back to the shed if it was busted, and he didn’t want to have to ask some kid to help him push it.

He thought about the girl under the tombstone and the person he had been at seventeen. Getting to the age he was had been a process of gaining and losing. He had gained experience, but it had come at a cost. Things that he could have done at seventeen without thinking, now only came at the cost of pain. Seventeen year olds are immortal in their own minds. They think of death as the Grim Reaper, but it is a Grim Reaper that is so far in the distance as to be invisible.
He climbed back on the mower, restarted it, and began again. The smell of the cut grass told him that this would be the last mowing of the year. In the spring, the smell was almost poisonously sweet, but the summer sun baked the freshness out of it. The smell was different in July than in May and much different in mid-October than in July.
During this time of year, his mother used to say, “The sap’s a-goin’ down, the sap’s a-goin’ down. That’s why so many of the old folk dies in the fall, you know.”

Cecil had been working in the cemetery for years and never noticed that any more old people died in the fall than at any other time, but his mother had fallen a broke her hip in October and died in November. He had gone to visit her, she had said, “The sap’s a-goin’ down. That is the nature of things. Death comes to all of us soon enough.”
When death had come to her, it had been like an old friend stepping through the door. She had met it without fear.

He finished the last of the mowing for the day. Tomorrow he would come back for some more; today he was tired, very tired. The mower raised a cloud of dust as he drove it into the shed. There had been a rain in late September that had brought the grass out of its deathlike brown, but that rain was long gone. He parked, killed the engine, and then paused to scan the horizon as he came out from the shed. The sun was playing hide and seek among the cotton ball clouds that filled the sky. Not all of the sky was visible, but the part that was, was deep blue. He breathed in the air, listened to the wind as it played in the dried leaves; the sap had begun to descend from the limbs and be taken back into the safety of the roots, deep within the earth. He paused, soaked the moment in, and thought, “What a gift.”

“Yes, it is a gift,” said the female voice. It was from next to him, and while there was no one there, as he looked across the cemetery it now appeared that he was not alone.

The shed by which he was standing was in one corner of the cemetery. Diagonally across from him at a distance of about a quarter of a mile there was a lady. One moment he hadn’t seen her, and the next, the sun had shone from between the clouds and illumined her. She was dressed in a dress that was much too thin for the time of year, and the wind rippled it and pulled it tight to her body exposing her feminine form. He blinked his eyes, the sun went behind the clouds, and she was gone. He shook his head.

“Hearin’ damned voices, seein’ things, talkin’ to yourself,” he laughed. “They’ll send you to the loony bin before too long.”
Cecil shook his head and walked toward his truck. By the time he got there, he was short of breath, and his left shoulder felt like it was in a vise. As he reached with his right hand to open the door, he saw there was someone beside him. It was a young lady with long, golden hair, freckles, and a smile. Her smile was as sweet as spring. Her head was crowned with a wreath of flowers and she was dressed in a shear dress that danced in the wind.

“Hello, Cecil,” she said. It was the same voice he had been hearing.
“You know my name?” He was getting short of breath again, and the pain in his shoulder was unbearable. His skin felt clammy.
“I know more that your name,” she smiled as she said this. “I know you.”
“I am afraid… you have the…advantage of me, Miss…” he felt that he knew her now, that she was an old friend, but he drew a blank. The pain in his shoulder wouldn’t let him think.

“You will know everything soon enough,” she said as she took both of his hands into hers, pulled him toward her, and tenderly kissed him on the lips. She smelled like the roses that had so long ago burned away.
His lips felt a sweet warmness that spread to his face, neck, shoulders, and chest. The ache disappeared from his left shoulder. She held his hands tight as he bent at the knees painlessly now, and then kneeled on the ground. He continued on down until he lay gently on his side and stayed there silently.

He heard the wind, then her voice that said, “The sap’s going down,” and then there was silence.