Fredric Sinclair


Fredric Sinclair grew up in Connecticut and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jersey Devil Press, Chelsea Station, and Long River Review, among others. He also has written and produced plays in New York City, most recently at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. In 2015 he was awarded a spot at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference for work in fiction, and this fall he will be pursuing his MFA in fiction at Boston University.


Holy Water

My father took me to the barn and showed me the bit brace. He removed it from its rugged case and handed it over. It was one of the oldest things I'd ever held. It had a smooth wooden knob you put your weight on when you cranked the u-curve handle, sheathed with a rotating cylinder of the same smooth wood, darkened with use and sweat. My father spun the chuck and eased in one of the larger bits and closed the jaws. The bit was thick, the grooves sharp and gleaming. You wanted to run your finger on it, tempt a nick.

We had buckets and metal spiles and hooks for the buckets. We selected the trees. My father did the first one. He set the drill head on the bark, leaned on the knob and cranked, dispensing ribbons of pulp. He leaned in more, churning more guts out as he bore the hole. I was ready with the spile and hook. I bungled the first one, denting it. They had to be tapped in the direction the hole was drilled. When I got it in, it had a satisfying feeling when something sits just right.

We waited. When nothing came, he handed me the brace. “Your turn.”

I placed the tip on the bark, bore down, cranked the shaft. The head bumped on the bark. I leaned in, got a bite, cranked faster. Out came the pulp. My arm got shaky.

“Good enough.”

I removed the drill and tapped and we waited for that gleaming drop.

Sometimes nothing came. It took a few holes to get the sap. Just the way it was. We could remove a few of the spiles that didn't work and re-use them, but most couldn't be pried from the tree or had gotten too banged up in the process to be of any use. Years later, on summer days running around the yard with friends, I saw them there, rusting in the bark, slowly being consumed.


Andy lived with his mother and stepfather through the woods in a tall, modern house with a Cape Cod wash and a couple of small barns. They kept two goats in a pen in one of the barns. I never knew why, what they were for, but it was always something of a thrill to see them. Sometimes they would be in the outside pen. Sometimes they would be inside, sleeping I guess. If they were outside, I would feed them straw through the fence and those mechanical lips would pull it in. Mostly they'd dither about, bleating, pooping, with those slit eyes like a dash that made me think of something alien. Robotic.

I'd go to Andy's after school. We'd watch cartoons. Voltron. He-Man. The Smurfs. Shows on Nickelodeon, like Double Dare and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Andy had a younger brother, Mike, who was quiet and had a huge mop of brown hair and seemed to always be in the shadows. His mother was usually there too. She never seemed to do much. Her hair was big, black, and frizzy. She was in the shadows, too. I'd be having a great time with Andy, watching cartoons, drawing, playing GI Joe, eating Combos and drinking Capri Sun. Eventually his mother would call up. Hal's coming home. An hour. Half an hour. Too soon, anyway.

“Hal's coming,” Andy would say, as if I hadn’t just heard his mother. It wasn't the first time he would tell me what I could plainly hear, with that fatalistic shrug, like he was apologizing for it.

Hal. His mother's boyfriend. Or his stepfather. I honestly never knew which.

They would start their chores, Andy and Mike. Stacking hay and wood, hauling leaves, feeding the goats, shoveling manure. It was some kind of farm they lived on. Not even. The barns were like those classic red and white ones in children's books, Old MacDonald barns, not much larger than oversized sheds, one for the goats, another for god knows what. That was it. Goats and hay and barns and shit.

I never met Hal. I was always home when Hal was home.


The earth cracked overnight exposing its insides, needles of ice like miniature Fortresses of Solitude in the dirt. Its crunch underfoot was a singular sound. Ice and earth shattering under the weight of a giant.

I could tell before lifting the lid the sap was running. Plastic buckets sagged under the weight. I ferried them to the shed that had been used as an icehouse in the olden days. Now it kept lawn equipment—rakes, shovels, spades, bags of potting soil. I dumped the buckets into a plastic garbage can my father had lined with an oversized trash bag. He’d explained just how many gallons of sap it took to boil down one gallon of syrup. There was a formula for it. I emptied buckets full of the silvery stuff, two by two, every morning for a month. It was a stretch to believe so much would boil down to so little. A day’s worth. Two day’s worth. A week. Going to school. Coming home. Roughhousing with my older brother. Playing tea party with my younger sister, stuffed animals dementedly drooling old sugar crust. Time had an uncanny quality then, measurable by the light of day, subtle changes in the position of the sun. Sometimes I would go to the shed in the evening and take the top off the can and inhale. Barely a scent. It tugged at me, wouldn't let me go. There was portent in it. A downdraft gust on summer afternoons, divining storms.


Church didn't go with much of anything I knew. The fonts at the entrance. What made the water so special? My mother tried to explain it to me once. A priest's blessing. I'm pretty sure I feigned understanding just to get her to stop. No matter how deep the explanation, or simple, my young mind refused it, made holy water a literal thing. I eyed those fonts suspiciously, the men and women who casually dipped their fingers in them, dabbed themselves with it. What did they know that I did not? They seemed different, then. They walked into church like they belonged. That must have been some pretty powerful stuff, that holy water. They must have kept it locked up pretty tight.

My brother spoke of the Corinthians and Romans and Galatians earnestly and forcefully from the pulpit. That he was up there at all was not unusual and yet I didn't understand it. He wasn't part of the clergy, barely twenty-years old, yet so devoted, so close they let him read scripture. I wondered if I would be a part of the Christian youth ministry some day too, go on trips to build houses in Appalachia. After mass as they processed down the aisle I'd try to get his eye. Maybe he would see me and smile, and when he did it was like I was in on something, like I had a connection to the top. Whatever was at the top. Those men in robes and the secrets of their spooky water.

Outside the priest did his rounds, his arms upraised in his great, multicolored robes. He swooped around like some lost, flightless bird. The wings enveloped me as he talked with my parents. I felt his great palm like a leather mitt on my head, his ring knocking my skull. It was both a sound and a feeling, in the middle of my head. It made me dizzy, lost in a confusion of color and fabric, blotted sunlight, muffled voices. This was a strange and bewildering place. It smelled musty in there. Despite the thrill, I'd get a little short of breath and would want to get out of those folds. Sunlight. Voices. He'd ruffle my hair. The cloak would pass over.

I’d feel oddly abandoned when he'd move on. I wondered what else I could do to get his attention. If anything was the right thing. Somehow, already, I felt nothing was the right thing, that I wasn't quite right in his eyes. That was a strange thing to feel, having done nothing wrong.


A single bead growing into a drop. Once touched, it transfers, like it can't escape fast enough, like it's terrified to be in the open and has to spread itself as thin as possible. Sap has the quality of something that exists on the periphery. The flash of fish under water. I put my finger in my mouth. There it was. That non-existent something. That riverbed flash.


Swirls of frost on storm windows like an artist spent countless hours etching a design. The lawn brushed thick with it. I went out before anyone was up and began my collection. We had tapped four trees, each tree with two, maybe three buckets. I lifted a cover. A thin layer of ice bobbed down, then back. Andy was standing at the edge of our property where a dirt path entered from the street. He was dressed for school in his signature tweed pea coat and newsboy cap with his backpack on. We waited for the bus together, but he was early.



“You're early.”

“Thought you might need some help.”

I had a full bucket in my hand and held it there for a moment, then lifted it towards him. He walked over and took it and we walked together and dumped them in the can. He peered over the top, then looked at me and grinned. “Sappy,” he said.

From that morning on he showed up and helped. Part of me was a little sore about it, like he was intruding on my thing. But another part looked forward to seeing him there in the morning, kicking around the corner of our property. First thing I saw in the morning, those little white puffs of breath.


I approached the shed with a saucepan, slipped inside, uncovered the can. Sap moved differently than water. It wanted to slip away, over the sides of the pan when I brought it up, carried it out. It had the quality of the little ball of mercury dashing about inside a clear plastic case my brother had shown me once. Frantic, like it didn't want to be in this world, madly repelled, trying to slip back into the unseen place it belonged.

There was already a fire going in the wood burning stove in my father’s workshop, extending off the main house. There was a hotplate for heating a kettle under an arch through the center of the stove. I put the saucepan there. Within seconds the sap was churning away, as if it knew this was its big chance, its great escape. I had to take the pan off with an oven mitt, it was so hot. I don't know what I expected, but certainly not this. A blackened film, barely worth noting, on the bottom and sides of the pan. A faint whiff of burnt marshmallow. I knew it was a failure, a stupid one at that, and was about to take the pan away and hide the evidence when the door connecting the workshop to the house opened.

My father scanned the scene. He seemed perplexed, like he didn’t know what to do or say.

“I just wanted to try a little,” I said.

His hand went up to ruffle the hair at the back of his head, a sure sign of frustration. He wanted me to toss the pan, not do it again. I went to the shed and stuck it on a shelf and sat there next to the can of sap, my head in my hands. I felt very childish, then. Why did I do it? Excitement. Impatience. I felt I'd failed some test. Man enough to empty the buckets every morning, but still scurrying around doing childish things behind his back. He’d explained the impossible equation. I hadn’t listened.

Years later when the house went up for sale I was clearing everything out of the shed with my brother. Under a ruined deck chair I found the pan half buried in the dirt and rusted through, its distinct curved handle arching out at me.


The woods behind our house. There was a steep hill and a marsh at the base that was once watery enough we'd skate on it, dodging the marsh tufts. Andy's house was visible through the trees from the marsh, but there was enough cover we felt like we were miles away. The remnants of an old stone wall and a shorter stand of trees marked where there used to be a path in the olden days. Down from the path at the western edge of the marsh there was a spring with an old stone casement. It puzzles me still, the things that fascinated us as kids, but for some reason we always had to check out the spring. There was something satisfying about how the water materialized out of nowhere and trickled over the dark jumble of mossy rocks. It was one of the main attractions in those woods, like that giant, rotting oak, the whole top of it shorn clear off by lightning leaving its massive, blackened trunk rising dozens of feet in the air.

We were playing down there, jumping over the thin ice from tuft to tuft when we arrived at the spring. In summer one could walk by and not notice it, but in winter its gray stones were plainly visible and the trickle of water over rock made its own ancient sound.

“Ever drink from it?”

The question surprised me because I hadn't, and there had to be a good reason but I couldn't think of it. I shrugged. “Nah. It was used for cattle or horses, I think.”

“So what? It's spring water. It's clean.”

“I guess.”

“You wanna do it?”

“You brought it up. You do it.”

“You do it.”

“No, you.”

Andy shrugged.

It was tricky getting to it. The casement was tight, four by five or so and crumbling. He tried a few approaches and couldn't reach far enough from a crouching position.

“Gonna have to get in there,” he said.

He took off his coat, rolled up his pants, and gingerly lowered himself into the casement. He began to clear away some rocks in the small pool of icy water below. I kneeled by him to observe.

“What's that?”

He looked over his shoulder and saw where I was looking. A mottle of bruises on his calf, deep and shiny like rotten leaves under snow. “Oh. It's a condition. A blood condition. I bruise easily.” And that was that. A rapid-fire response. He kept working at the rocks and freed one and a little spout of water gurgled out. “Got it.” He cupped his hands, the water splashed in, he gulped it down.

“How is it?”

He drank and drank like he’d been thirsty all his life and didn’t know it.

Eventually he got up out of the spring. His face was wet, his cheeks bright red from the cold. He quietly rolled his pants back down and put on his coat. He didn't offer for me to try and neither did I and we walked silently out of the forest.


It wasn't hard to do, becoming an altar boy. Just asked and got that white robe. At least that’s how I remember it. There was the little room off the antechamber where the other boys and clergy changed. It was a tense little room. The other boys didn't speak much. They barely acknowledged me. We changed into our white frocks silently. We all had our duties. Some held candles, one led the procession with the gigantic, clothed Bible almost half the size of us, another held the incense chalice, whatever it was called, I forget the name. I held candles and the Bible once. There was the bell ringer. He rang the little set of bells at specific times after the priest spoke certain words. I suppose it was to signify the purity of the angels or something, although at the time it was the only thing I looked forward to in mass because it was bright and cheery.

I was about to graduate to ringing the bells when an older boy told me as we disrobed, “Better get it right.” I asked him what he meant. Something about if I didn't ring them at the right time, the priest would be angry. What did this mean? Angry how? “Just be sure you do it at the right time,” he said. “He'll let you know.”

At home after mass, I was walking to my bedroom, my tunic tucked under my arm. My brother stood in his door with an odd smirk.

“Do you know what he calls you?”


“Little Willy. He calls you little Willy. Do you know why?”

I stood mute.

“Because he knows you'll grow into big Willy some day.”

I started laughing because it sounded funny. Little Willy. Big Willy. My brother's smirk vanished and his face darkened and I stopped laughing.

“That's not true,” he said. “I'm just fucking around with you.”

But I understood. I understood in the same way I understood sap coming out of a tree or water from a spring. Partly in the light, partly hidden in places unseen.

The day of the bells, I accompanied my parents and sister to the pews and sat with them. There were some uncomfortable looks from my parents, a few guarded questions. I greeted them with a demure complaint about not feeling well and sat dejected and miserable, unable to escape the horror of not being in the right place, of nowhere being the right place. I tried to hide, make myself small. The priest rushed up in those black slacks and shirt with the tiny white square at his Adam’s apple and leaned in, his face inches from mine – You better get yourself back there and get changed. Right now. Do you understand? That enormous face. Lined and folded and stark as those bored, well-fed faces trapped in portraits in museums they took us to as children, gazing out with those dull, rheumy eyes. He had such eyes, weary of a past. It happened so quickly, this outburst, this near infantile rage. A few seconds and he stormed off. I stayed where I was and slumped in the pew.

Church was awful after that. One day I curled up under the pews and held my stomach in my hands it ached so badly. My father had to remove me and take me home. I was never wrapped up in that cloak again, never felt the knock of that ring, never greeted mass with any sense of curiosity or wonder. He barely noticed me then. Dead to him. Little Willy.


There was a sense that nothing was going to happen at all, that we'd collect forever, get more and more garbage cans, fill those too, till we had a whole barn full of sap. I lay in bed at night and tried to imagine what was happening, sap rising up through roots, through hidden cracks and crevices, though I knew these things didn't exist, cracks or crevices in trees. I did know that I could never see it, this deeply internal process. I could never know what it meant, what it signified, how the tree existed and why, in what manner it related to me.

The can was getting full. When I opened the door to the ice shed to empty the pails, I was greeted with a heavier scent. Not only sap, but the plastic of the garbage bags that surrounded the sap. They have a sweet smell too. But heavier. Overwrought. The sweet smell of plastic and the sweet smell of sap. Alien worlds commingling, untouching.

There's no way to move a garbage can full of sap. The momentum of the stuff is too great. So my father and I offloaded most of it using the same buckets that collected it. Andy was supposed to be there to help on boiling day. He had been so excited about it. But he didn’t show. I ran in and called him but got no answer. I did this a few times before giving up.

The boiling pan was propped up by four cinderblocks with a wood fire in a pit beneath it. My father fashioned a smokestack of tubular metal with an elbow joint to funnel the smoke away. We boiled the sap in stages, adding more buckets as it boiled down. When the can got low enough, we were at last able to carry the sloshing dregs over and empty it.

It was one of those mild, milky days of early spring, the air light and translucent with moisture rising up from the thawing ground. The moldering leaves of autumn, crushed and blackened by the compression of snow, peeled back a little. The buds at the tips of branches made a green fuzz in the sky like an algae bloom in a pond. We sat out in plastic lawn chairs most of the day. My mother and sister drifted by at various times. I remember my brother looking on, mildly interested in the process, more as a curiosity, something he didn't quite get, why we were doing it, what for. The sap boiled in giant plumes of swirling white steam, returning to the air, to the rainwater that eventually burned rust holes in the pan itself as it sat in the barn for many years after, gradually released of its bonds of form and function, dissolving back into the earth, its various compounds, metals, minerals.

We poured the syrup through several filters of cheesecloth, catching bits of bark, twig, ash, and all the little winged insects that had managed to infiltrate the can as it sat in the shed. There was only so much that could be filtered out. This residue gave the syrup a distinct flavor. It was smoky, one might even say a bit ashy, but it was maple syrup all right. We jugged a pint and it went to the refrigerator for weeks of pancake, waffle, and French toast breakfasts.

Later that evening, I stood at the edge of our property by the woods where there was an electric fence. Why there was an electric fence I cannot recall. An extra perimeter for those goats, perhaps. Smoke was rising from the chimney of Andy’s house. I stood there and kicked around and it didn't really matter what I'd done, what I'd accomplished. The sap collection. The syruping. My father’s trust. Nothing really mattered when there was still so much I didn't understand, the ache growing deep inside me that sat there and pulsed, a blind and anxious fury.


For weeks after boiling day I’d wake up at the same time. Emptying those buckets had programmed me. One morning I awoke and sat on the side of my bed and looked out my window. Distinct against the gray, those little white puffs. I got dressed and went downstairs and put on my coat and boots and went out.

He was sitting by the maple tree.


I knelt down.

He had a black eye. His bottom lip was cracked and bleeding. He was shivering, wearing nothing but his pajamas, looking at me but not at me. I was terrified. “C'mon.” I took his hand and he flinched a little. “C'mon.” I gave his hand a little tug and he stood up with me and we walked back to the house together.

Inside, I sat him down on top of the closed toilet and ran some hot water over a washcloth. I dabbed his lip with it. He barely flinched. I only noticed now how filthy his face was. Tears had cleared away great circles and rivulets of white down his soiled cheeks. I dabbed his face with the washcloth till he was as clean as I could get him. Then I led him upstairs to my room. I closed the door and took off my coat and boots. I took his hand and led him to my bed and he lay down and I with him and I pulled the covers over us and he curled up next to me and fell asleep.


In memory it was nighttime, or at least dark. I have no recollection if I changed out of my pajamas after everyone had gone to sleep, or woke up early and snuck out before they awoke. I did sneak, though. I ended up exactly where I intended.

They stood silently in the dark. I scaled the fence and cornered one and straddled it easily. It didn't buck or give much resistance. They were such small, wobbly creatures, their legs like twigs ready to snap, always about to give way. I put my right arm under its throat and pulled up and held it there. After a few seconds it made a grotesque rattling sound in its throat. Its robot eyes stared out at nothing, comprehended nothing. The rattling continued. It made a few jerky motions. I let go. The animal gave a little heave, dazed for a moment, then trotted away as if nothing had happened, as if distancing itself from a momentary nuisance. I circled round to the other and cornered it. It gave an anxious bleat. I held my arm under its throat, pulled up, trying to cut off its esophagus. Again, that rattling sound, those robot eyes. I tried again, and again, holding longer each time, and each time the animals just stared with those glassy eyes and rattled and wheezed. No bucking or biting. No fighting back. Why didn't they? Why didn't they fight back? What purpose did they serve? They didn't feel a thing. And I saw nothing in their eyes that I hadn’t seen every time I'd fed them straw. That same dumb, alien stare. “Fight back,” I yelled. “Fight back you little shits!” I made to kick one, aimed right for its fleshy gut to inflict the most pain but missed my mark and only caught its flank. The animal scuttled off. I chased it and caught it by its nubby horns and mashed its head into the wooden railings of the pen. “Fight back!” I mashed it again, hard. “Fight back!” Again. And again. Its head kept bouncing off. Exhausted, I let go, the animal darted away, and I lost my balance and fell into the railing where my arm scraped against the rough wood. Slouched over in the dust and dirt and shit, my arm mottled with blood, the goats bleated frantically now. This was a dark, terrible place, cold and smelling of urine and must. It was a hopeless place and I hated it. I hated it for being there. For my being there. I wanted to get away from it, as far away as I possibly could and never come back. So I scrambled and fled and ran through the woods back home, the whole time thinking someone, something was behind me, watching, knowing.

This is how I want it to end. I want to make it a clear spring morning with a cooling fog hovering over the earth. I want to say I approached the house at the first light of day, that I fell to the ground, my knees digging into the soft earth, and bawled my eyes out, mourning everything that was and was yet to come, what I knew and what I did not, the wonders and horrors that were at work underground. Surging. Cinematic. Soaring.

But it was nothing like that. When I got home I crawled into bed. And once a reasonable amount of time had passed and no grim faces came to report that someone had witnessed it all, I got on with life. And I imagine in time I felt I had gotten away with something secret and dastardly and it made me feel big.

Not too long after that, Andy moved away. I never knew what happened to him. Never saw or heard from him again. I'd visit the spring in the forest all through my childhood, and those maple trees grew up side-by-side with me, the bark swallowing up those busted old spiles. And countless times I'd take the trash out to the garbage can in the shed where we'd kept the sap. And every now and then I'd step over the rusting boiling pan in the barn as I'd play with friends. And many times I'd think about that morning I found a boy crumpled up under a maple tree. And how I loved him. And how I never needed anyone to explain to me what is holy and what is not again.