Pine Martens and Jam
by Robin White
Nori heard the car before he saw it, sputtering down their slanted driveway and into the garage. He shuddered at the sound and retreated to the den he had built in his family’s enclosed porch. It was glass on two sides, floor to ceiling, the other two walls being made up of a doorway into the house and a doorway out.
Building a den in there was his favourite thing to do, and that day’s den was spectacular. A raft of sofa-cushions, deep blankets and a footstool for a seat. He wanted to take a picture of the den, but his cell phone, a hand-me-down from his father, didn’t have a camera. It was embarrassing.
The front door opened at the other side of the house, and Nori burrowed further into the confines of his hideaway. He was ashamed of his American parents and wished they hadn’t come home. Occasionally he fantasized about them going away — not dying, necessarily, but certainly leaving with an absoluteness which would make his life easier.
He ignored their greetings and shut the inner door with his foot, keeping them out. Not liking to be shut-in on four sides, he opened the outer door to the back yard and propped it open with a broom. The winter had been the coldest in Maine’s recorded history, and Nori was happier than most to see the sun and be able to once again live with the doors open. He smiled at the sun now, and gave it a little nod.
‘Welcome back,’ he said.
The sun said nothing at all in return, but Nori didn’t mind. Stars weren’t usually the most talkative of things.
‘Thank you for warming me up,’ Nori said. ‘I was very cold all winter. I had to wear two sweaters.’
He still had one of those sweaters on, and he shrugged it off as the morning flourished into afternoon and the day grew hot. His dark hair hung over his eyes and made his forehead warm. Flicking it out of the way was a constant distraction.
‘Nori, are you coming in for lunch?’
His den had been disturbed. It was his mother. He didn’t like the way her skin turned red in the heat, and he hated the spare flesh on her arms, which undulated like jello.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Have you eaten breakfast?’
‘What did you have? Their weren’t any dirty bowls.’
‘I washed the bowl.’
‘What did you have?’
‘And you washed the bowl?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And I washed the spoon, too, so don’t even think about it.’
His mother wrung her hands and wiped them absent-mindedly on her pants. They were the type of jeans that Nori hated, pale-blue denim, with flares at the bottom.
‘Are you sure you won’t come in for lunch? We’re having sandwiches. I’ll make your favourite.’
His favourite was jam, which his father made. It didn’t tempt him in.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No thank you. I like it here.’
‘It’s a very good den today.’
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘Really, very good.’
‘Yes,’ he said, and adopted a serious scowl. ‘But it’s not for two people.’
‘It isn’t?’ she asked.
‘No. This is a one-person den. And that person has to be Japanese. Not American. Sorry.’
‘Those are the rules?’
‘Those are the rules.’
‘Okay. Well I wouldn’t want to break the rules. Come in when you get hungry, okay? I’ll leave you a sandwich in the fridge.’
He nodded and watched her leave. Once the door had closed, he sighed and shook his head. That woman. He hated her treacle-coloured hair.
* * *
Nori dozed as the afternoon hit its peak. The windows amplified the warmth of the day, and he treated his den as if it were a cloud, floating over the ground below. He napped in its comfy embrace and only woke when he felt something nudge his forehead. He yawned and opened his eyes. There was a creature. Nori didn’t move.
‘What are you?’ he asked.
It looked mutely into his face and took a step back. Its fur was auburn, but lighter on the underside. Two black lines, like vertical eyebrows began at the top of its nose and made their way to each of its ears. It was a pine marten.
‘We read about you at school,’ said Nori. ‘Hello.’
It took another step back, keeping its unblinking gaze on Nori’s face. Nori decided not to sit up, but stayed on his side, one hand under his head and the other flung out to one side. He spoke gently and curled his free hand around until it was only an inch or two away from the marten’s side.
‘Would you like to join me in my den? It’s warm. The winter must have been boring for you, too. You can come closer. I won’t hurt you. And I won’t call my parents.’
He raised his hand settled it softly on the marten’s hide as he spoke. He began to stroke it carefully with the palm of his hand, enjoying the warmth of its body and the contours of its back. The marten came forward until it was once again nuzzling Nori’s face. Nori smiled and tickled behind the marten’s ears.
‘Welcome to my den. You can nap with me, if you like.’ Nori half-closed his eyes and waited to see what the marten would do. Obediently, it curled up against Nori’s chest and settled with its tail around his shoulders. Nori left his hand on its back, giving it the occasional stroke as they both slept.
How the marten knew when Nori was there, Nori never figured out. He didn’t give it too much thought; the company was too enjoyable for that.
* * *
When he went back to school in the fall, he worried that the marten wouldn’t adjust to his schedule. Middle school times were awkward, and the marten would have to come after Nori had gotten home, but he needn’t have worried. He could climb out of his parent’s car, drop his bag by the stairs and be out into the porch in a minute or two. Once it was safe, the marten would come and the two spent time together.
Sometimes they sat, the marten on Nori’s lap as he read, or did homework. Other times they played games, rolling a tennis ball to one another, improvising hand-to-paw pattycake or singing, softly. Nori tried to teach the marten to sing in Japanese, though of course it couldn’t speak. It mewed along, as best it could.
‘You look cold,’ said Nori, as the year sank into December. The marten had arrived a little later that day, its fur frostily damp. Nori wrapped his arms around it and felt, for the first time, its ribcage through the skin. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked. ‘You must eat more. My mom leaves me a jam sandwich in the fridge, most days. Would you like it?’
Nori slipped quietly into the house and took the sandwich out into the porch, leaving the plate where it was. He sat cross-legged, the marten on his lap, and fed it the sandwich in chunks. He ate a bite or two himself, and enjoyed the taste. His father made nice jam, he thought, and his mother wasn’t bad at making sandwiches. The marten seemed to enjoy them, too and his eyes looked brighter as Nori said goodbye that evening.
‘You ate your sandwich early tonight, Nori,’ said his father.
‘I was hungry.’
‘I’m glad you ate it. Was it good? You still have a little jam on your lip. Just here.’
Nori coloured. ‘Yes. Thank you.’ He wiped his mouth with a sleeve. ‘It was good.’
‘Did you like the jam? Raspberry.’
‘A lot. How do you make it?’
Nori’s mother and father shared a look, stolen quickly before Nori could figure out what it meant. His father smiled. ‘I could show you. You could make some.’
‘I think I’d like to do that. I’m going to bed now.’
‘All right,’ said his father. ‘Brush your teeth. Good night.’
‘I will. Good night,’ he said to his mother.
‘Good night, Nori. Sleep tight.’
As he climbed the stairs to bed, he heard them talking behind him, but felt far too tired to listen.
* * *
His favourite part of making jam, he decided, was when he pushed his finger through it to see if it would wrinkle. If it wrinkled, his father said, and looked jam-like, then it was done. If it didn’t, it needed more cooking time. But it was delicious even when it wasn’t ready, and Nori would lick the jam off his finger with every appearance of delight.
He brought his first full jar to the porch with him after school, and shared it, and a little bread, with the marten.
‘It’s only my first go,’ he said. ‘So I’m sorry if it’s not so good. What do you think?’
He held out a finger of jam-smothered white bread and smiled as it was eaten with gusto.
It must be good, Nori thought.
‘Would you like any more? Here.’
The gelatinous redness went down incredibly easily, the sweetness of sugar and raspberries leaving both boy and animal contented and sleepy. Curling up as they sometimes did, they fell asleep, napping in the Saturday afternoon sunshine.
Nori dreamed of being outside. A worse winter than the one before, stinging blizzards and painful cold. It snapped at his fingertips and ran a cruel tongue across his cheeks. His ears ached.
Before him on the snow was the pine marten. It backed away, keeping Nori in its gaze, while the boy followed. They made their way, in this bizarre fashion, for some time, while Nori’s fingers froze and his teeth chattered.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
The marten turned and lolloped away, uncomfortable in the snow while Nori did his best to keep up. They came to the base of a tree, and the marten, shaking its fur clean of the worst of the snow, slipped into a hollow at its base. Cradled by the dirt, huddled against the tree and a blanket of snow, were three more martens.
Babies, Nori thought.
He knelt down and crawled into the hollow, cuddling each of the martens against his chest. They shivered together, with the wind at Nori’s back, and one-by-one, Nori felt the babies die.
Nori awoke, uncomfortable and sweating. He was alone in the porch and the inner door was open. His mother and father were there, were speaking.
‘What?’ Nori asked.
‘Are you okay? You were shouting.’ His mother looked worried.
‘Yes. I’m okay.’
‘Were you asleep?’
‘Bad dream, son?’
‘Yes. I think so. Do we have any jam in the fridge?’
‘Jam?’ asked his mother.
‘I think so,’ said his father. ‘There’s a jar that you made. Would you like a sandwich?’
Nori shook his head, sat up. ‘No. But I need it. Could you get it for me?’
His father did so, while Nori gathered the blankets from his den, slinging them over his arms and his shoulders as he worked. His mother watched on, looking unsure.
‘Could you help me?’ asked Nori.
‘Help you with what?’
‘I need to carry all this, but it’s all heavy and I,’ he said, ‘I am not so big.’
‘Of course. Of course I’ll help you carry it. Where to?’
His father reappeared, holding the jar, and another besides. Nori took one.
‘I’ll show you,’ he said. ‘Come on. You’ll need shoes.’
The family trudged outside and into the back garden. Their house backed onto a section of woods which Nori had barely explored. His father spent afternoons among the trees, snow-shoeing, working up a sweat, and Nori asked for his advice.
‘I need to find a tree,’ he said. ‘A big tree, with a hollow at its base. The biggest in the woods.’
‘The biggest tree in the woods? Nori, what’s going on?’
‘Do you know where it is?’ he insisted.
‘The biggest tree?’ his father said. ‘I think so.’
‘With a hollow at its base,’ said Nori.
‘All right. I think so. Come on. Let me take a blanket or two, those look heavy.’
His father led the way into the forest. The snow on the ground was thin; it hadn’t had time to settle into anything more than a film of delicate frost and they walked easily enough. They walked in silence, but for the occasional laboured huff, each expulsion of air amplified by the quiet in the trees.
There was no wind, no chill, no animal call, not the chirping of a bird or the rustle of a squirrel. It was a pronounced silence, prepared in anticipation of the family, who walked towards the hollow at the bottom of a tree.
‘Here,’ said his father. ‘This is the one.’ He stopped a yard or two from a huge Eastern White Pine, the biggest Nori had even seen.
‘We need to be quiet,’ Nori said. ‘Let me go first.’
His parents nodded, and stayed quite still. Facing them, Nori backed towards the tree; first one foot and then the other. He held up his hands, showing his parents his palms. Before he turned he raised a finger to his lips and smiled behind it.
‘Sshhh,’ he said. ‘They’ll be sleeping.’
He knelt down and crawled into the hollow. Hidden by the earth, he knew his parents couldn’t see. He wrapped a blanket around the sleepers in the snow, opened a pot of jam and touched it to the mouth of each of the slumbering creatures. The marten, curled against the base of the tree, nuzzled each of its children in turn.
‘Nori,’ said his mother. ‘What is it?’
‘Bring the blankets down, please. I’ll need your help to carry them to the house.’
Nori stood, the smallest marten in his arms and handed it to his father. He looked at it in alarm and for a moment, Nori thought he might drop it.
‘What is this?’
‘It’s a pine marten. It needs our help. Its den is too cold. There are two more. Wait.’
His father began to speak, but his mother cut him off with a hand on his forearm. She took her own pine marten in silence, swaddled it in one of the blankets she carried and waited for Nori. When he came back, he had the biggest infant in his arms.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Take us all home.’
And the family walked back, single file, through the woods.
Copyright © 2015 by Robin White