The tree, by all outward appearances, was completely normal. Gnarled olive branches intertwined with increasingly leafy foliage twisted up into the sky. The ancient and monumental trunk was engraved with the bark that told a hundred stories.
In the spring, the buds of life blossomed hundred-fold upon the myriad of branches eagerly awaiting the companionship of the leaves and flowers.
In the summer, its leafy branches would swish, inviting the weary passerby to sit beneath it and revel in the endless possibilities of life.
In fall, the hues of the leaves would leave an imprint of fire upon the viewer, the stately ancient tree invigorating people.
And in winter, the stark branches seemed barren, but the tree was always there. Always waiting for something to happen in its shadow.
“Can you believe it?” He asked his wife, discontent coloring his voice. She looked up from their swaddled child, rocking in the crib the two had painstakingly carved together.
“Believe what?” She asked quietly.
“The importation of slaves has ended. How am I supposed to make a living now?” He growled. She only shook her head, privately thanking the government for the act. She let her husband rant for some more time, rocking her baby back and forth until he quieted. Once her husband got over his impending bankruptcy, she placed their baby into the crib. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a bright yellow tulip pressed in between the stable doors. Her pulse quickened.
“I’m going to the market,” she told him, but he was so invested in the news that he barely looked up.
“Don’t forget the eggs,” he just muttered as she grabbed her shawl and the coin pouch and walked out the door. She closed her eyes to fight off a wave of anger at him and walked out toward the edge of the property. Once she was out of sight, she dropped the shawl and the pouch of coins in a pile on the ground. She headed not toward the market but the lone elm tree at the edge of the woods. She crept around the trunk.
“Boo!” Her lover surprised her from behind the trunk and she clutched her heart in fear.
“Goodness, you frightened me,” she whispered. He grinned and tugged her behind the tree. He caressed her flaxen hair and pressed a kiss to her lips.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured. She put her hand on his sandalwood-colored skin and closed her eyes as his hands caressed her. Her head fell back against the bark as he pressed kisses down her neck.
“The slave trade has ended. You’re free,” she told him, remembering her husband’s words. His amber eyes gleamed.
“That’s why I stole away. That’s why I’m here,” he said. He leaned in to kiss her again, but a rough voice interrupted them.
“You whore. You filthy rutting whore!” Her husband’s growl made them stiffen. She clutched her lover in fear as the man she had married rounded the tree and looked at the two of them locked in their passionate embrace.
“It’s not what you think,” she said desperately. Her lover stiffened and put himself in front of her.
“She doesn’t love you,” he told her husband. The man laughed cruelly.
“I don’t care. She shouldn’t be running around whoring herself with a Negro like you,” he spat. He took his pistol out of his vest pocket. She screamed.
“Stop. Don’t do anything!” She pleaded, but her husband was not to be placated. With a ‘boom’, he fired, and her lover fell to the ground, a red spot blooming over his white shirt. His amber eyes locked on hers before they dimmed, and his head slumped to the side. “NO!” She screamed, falling to the ground, tears spilling out of her eyes. She turned to her husband. “How could you?” She cried.
“You still love him?” He asked. She looked at him fiercely.
“More than I could ever love you,” she retorted. His eyes flashed, and without thinking, he raised his pistol and shot her three times.
Once in the head.
Blood and gore spurted out from the hole in her forehead.
Once in the chest.
Her blood turned the green a sickly mess.
Once in the stomach.
Her blood sprayed the trunk and her body collapsed near her former lover’s, decimated beyond recognition. The two were reunited in death. His chest heaving, the man stared down at the bodies. His face crumpled.
“What have I done?” He whispered, dropping to his knees near the two. Blood pooled around his trousers, soaking them in red. From the house, the baby began to cry.
“Will you marry me?” He whispered, clutching her hands. He was wearing his best clothes, the best he could afford. The normal horse-scent he wore from working in the stables all day was replaced with the smell of cheap cologne. His blond hair was brushed back and he clutched the ring he told her came from his grandmother.
She, in turn, was wearing a stylish dress, pale pink that reflected white in the moonlight. Her pale blue eyes widened and her heart thumped so loudly she thought he could hear it.
“Marry you?” She repeated. True, she did love him, but she was the daughter of an Earl. He, well, he was the stable hand. Her father would disown her.
“I know you love me and I love you more than life itself. We were destined to be together.” He said. She looked down at the face she loved so much. She thought of her father, without a male heir and who just wanted to marry her off to the man with the most money. She thought of her miserable life, cooped up without a care for her dignity or intellect. And then she looked back down into his green eyes.
“Yes.” She said. His eyes lit up and he slid the simple yet beautiful ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand.
He pulled her into him. “We’ll be dirt poor, but at least we’ll have each other.”
She closed her eyes and thought of their future. “We’ll be together. But not necessarily dirt-poor.”
He pulled back and searched her face. “What do you mean?”
She grinned. “I know where my father has hidden money.”
He blinked. “Really?” She nodded, grabbed his hand, and pulled him toward the lone tree at the edge of their property. The tree was old and towered over the house. She gathered her skirts in a bunch and climbed up the first branches.
He watched, open-mouthed from the ground. “Be careful!” He called up softly. She lost her footing as her slipper bounced off the branch and tumbled to the ground. She paused on the thickest branch closest to the ground and reached into a small knothole.
“Got it!” She announced triumphantly, but instantly hushed at a look from him. She climbed back down and handed him the water-proof skein. He unlaced the opening and reached inside, whistling in admiration. Rolls of banknotes were pressed together.
“There must be over a thousand dollars in here!” He said excitedly.
“That’s enough to get us started on a comfortable life.” She agreed. He pulled her closer to him and pressed a kiss to her lips.
“I love you.” He said. She blushed.
“I love you too.” She replied. They moved off the property, intent on getting a head start before dawn broke. “Wait.” She stopped just before they disappeared into the tree line. He paused, certain she would leave him.
Instead, she pulled out a knife from her satchel and ran back to the tree. Painstakingly, she carved a heart into the bark and put L+N in it. “A mark to withstand the test of time.” She said, and then turned back to him. Together they walked off into the woods, their love shining brighter than the moonlight.
“Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want. I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want. I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha). I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah.”
“WILL YOU TURN THAT OFF?!” Her father screamed from the upstairs room. Scowling, she turned the radio dial down and let ‘Wannabe’ continue playing, albeit, a little quieter. No further sounds came from upstairs so she continued to jam on.
It was her 16th birthday, she was allowed to have fun. If only her father didn’t see her as a burden and as an actual human being, she’d be happier with him. But ever since her mother died, she was forced to live with her father.
She looked out the window at the tall elm tree standing stalwart near the end of the street. She turned down the radio and silently slipped on her shoes.
Outside, the warmth of the summer day was slowly fading to a cool temperature, the sun was setting behind a row of houses. She reached the tree and peered up at it. It was really big, but there was an easy way to climb it. She put her shoes against the bark and clambered up, almost falling off several times, but managed to get to a thick branch. A knothole was there in the trunk and a chipmunk chattered and ran out of it as she sat down. Sighing, she twisted her body to look out over the neighborhood.
Row upon row of houses was all that greeted her from the direction she’d come from. But in front of her, the woods reached up to the foothills from here. She closed her eyes and breathed in the cool air.
“Hey, get off my tree!” A voice yelled from below her. Startled, she almost fell off the branch but steadied herself. Peering down, she saw a guy, around her age, scowling up at her. “Get. Off. My. Tree.” He reiterated. She only shook her head at him. Muttering to himself, he clambered up the trunk and she watched as he climbed to the branch opposite her and glared at her. “What’s the matter with you? Are you mute?” He demanded. She nodded. His angry disposition immediately softened. “Wait, are you serious?” He asked.
Very. She signed with her hands. He looked at them, confused for a moment, but then his eyes cleared.
“I have a deaf grandma. I understand what you’re saying,” he said. Relieved, she sat back against the branch. “So where do you live? I’ve never seen you before,” he asked.
I just moved in with my father. She signed. My mother died and I had nowhere else to go.
It took him a moment, so she repeated the hand signals slowly until he nodded in understanding.
“I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose a parent,” he said. He didn’t ask anything more but was content to sit there with her in silence.
After about a half-hour of silence, a door banged open and her father’s voice floated up to them.
“Hey. Come back inside. Now.” Her father demanded, coming out of the house. He peered up at the two of them sitting in the tree. “And you. Get away from my daughter.” He added. She smiled apologetically at the boy, but he only shrugged. She clambered down the branch and walked toward her house. Her father grunted in approval and turned back inside.
Right before she climbed her porch steps, she turned to see the boy silhouetted on the tree branch, watching her as she walked away.
See you tomorrow? She slowly signed to him. Even from this distance, she could see the flash of white as he shot her a grin.
"You got it," he yelled back. Smiling, she slipped inside her front door.
When he was younger, he used to play in a park near his house. The playgrounds were better in his area than the rich ones because his parents and the parents of his friends and neighbors knew how to make stuff. They weren't the kids of the lawyers and the ultra-rich - more the builders and the plumbers.
Others ran for the bikes and the big-wheeled scooters as soon as playtime began, but he always ran for the tall tree standing proudly at the far edge of the woods. It held stories he’d always thought. A small heart was carved in the bark above the branch that he’d always climbed.
Even now the aroma of a garden transports him back to those days, to the laughter he shared, to the memories he’d made. On days he feels as if a flood might wash him away, these memories are his boat and his anchor all in one, bringing happiness in any weather.
On his last day in that home, he’d hidden a picture of himself tucked in the small knothole in the trunk. Something that would probably never be found, but it was a great thing for his childish, innocent brain to imagine.
He grew up. He got married. He had kids. His wife was amazing, she was always touched by light. They shared a love of trees and for each other.
One day, they were getting ready for a date, when she pulled out her wallet to grab her ID. A small well-worn picture fell out and he reached over to pick it up. He immediately gasped when he saw his younger self grinning up at himself.
“Where did you get this?” He asked her, shocked. She smiled and got a faraway look in her eyes.
“I was playing in my neighborhood playground when I decided to climb the tallest tree at the edge of the woods,” his wife’s words faded away as he stared at her in disbelief. “...and I reached into the knothole to find this small picture of the boy. I’ve had it with me ever since,” she finished, trailing off at the look in his eyes. “What?” She asked.
“I-I-I. T-the photo was mine. I left that photo in the knothole when I was a younger boy,” He stammered out. She blinked in surprise.
“Really?” She whispered. He nodded, running his fingers over the well-worn image.
“That tree brought us together even before we knew it,” he said. She looked at him with tears in her eyes.
“It sure did.”
The tree stood in the same spot it had for centuries, its branches gently swaying in the breeze. Though black heavens and sun-lit days, the tree was sentry to the landscape, the stoic guardian of so many souls.
And it would stay there, changing the lives of as many people as it could for all of eternity.