The Linden Tree stood hollow at the center of the village square. She had seen many generations of farmers and their families gather under the shade of her fluttering leaves. The village of Chamarandes was nestled along a portion the Marne River. Its few houses stood in the River’s valley. The land was green and lush, with cow pasture land and bordered on all sides by hilly temperate forests of deciduous trees, a few conifers thrown in at random.
The Linden Tree felt alone in her cobblestone square, longing for the company of other trees. It was a hollow feeling not to have other tree friends. She longed to intermingle her roots with others of her kind. She wished for more than squirrels and mice and birds for company! Oh, the humans played and danced around her on May Day, threading ribbons into her limbs, their blood hot with the immemorial pagan rites of Spring, not forgotten in spite of the Roman invasion and the arrival of Catholicism in all of France. She had seen many a couple born under the shade of her whispering leaves. A grey-stoned Catholic Church stood nearby, a bell tower ringing out the hour and reminding the Linden of how long the hours really were and of how many years, decades and centuries she had stood there alone. She recalled her childhood day.
She remembered how the builders had started building that tiny choir and transept stone building as the 15th century turned over a new leaf into the 16th century. She was but a seedling then, grown from a seed dropped into the village square by a busy magpie and unnoticed by the farmers at first. More than one such human had attempted to uproot her, but she had grown deep roots and shot up about a foot per year. Eventually, men had given up after one of them suggested that Linden trees were good shade in the hot summer. The villager had even named the square after her: Place du Tilleul or Linden Square, as the American soldiers lodging in the nearby Château des Escholiers had called it during the War to end all Wars. John J.Pershing had loved to sit under her shade and write letters home to his family. He looked so dashing in his uniform!
War years were always times of sadness for the villagers. May Day came and went without ribbons in her branches, without young blood dancing in her shade. The men, old and young, had gone to war against the German invaders. The Church building had grown bigger during the reign of Louis-Philippe during the second quarter of the 19th century when an architect named Antoine Chaussier who lived in nearby Chaumont had rebuilt the church in its current cross shape after a fire had gutted the original building. He was responsible for that clock tower that had damned the Linden Tree into always knowing what time it was, and how long she had stood there.
It was at the end of World War I that a mischievous spirit named Laurel decided to take residence in her trunk. The hole it bore inside the trunk was tiny… at first. As Laurel’s needs for space grew, so did the hollow in the tree. The Linden did not mind. She now had company. Laurel told her tale of Ancient Greece, of Rome. She had lived even longer than the Linden herself. She had brought Spring to faraway lands when Chamarandes was locked in icy winter. While the physical hollow grew, the Linden felt fuller than she had in centuries.
It was then that Jean, a farmer whose family had tilled the land for generations in Chamarandes carved a heart into the Linden’s bark. It bore his initials along with those of Nellie, his sweetheart from the nearby village of Choignes. Nellie’s father was a good-for-nothing drunk. Jean’s parents did not approve in the slightest of his union with a drunkard’s daughter. She must be a gold-digger! She had to be desperate to escape the abuse of her childhood home and to elevate herself by marrying rich! “Can you not see that you are marrying down?” his mother Madeleine bemoaned. “You have not survived this awful war only to come home and give your heart to the first strumpet that strikes your fancy!” his father shouted at him.
Rumors abounded that he was only planning to marry Nellie because she was already with child. Nellie could not stand this gossip-mongering crowd of farmers. As if her life were not already difficult enough at home, tending to every detail of the household and to her siblings while her mother did the work of two in the fields, stooped and aged prematurely by years of childbirth and marital abuse. She traced the heart shape on the Linden tree and her initials and Jean’s. She was not pregnant as the gossips claimed. She and Jean had chosen to wait until they were married. She was still a virgin. She knew that she was pure, so the gossip hurt twice as much as if she and Jean had given in to their impulses not to wait until they were married. Making a wish, she tied her best handkerchief, which she had embroidered with her monogram, to one of the Linden branches, near the hollow in the trunk.
Jean hated the gossip because it hurt his beloved Nellie. He wondered if he would ever get his parents to change their mind and consent to their union. He thought his absence from home and the fact that his mother had pined in worry while he served in the trenches would help her change her mind about Nellie. His folks were, more than ever, adamant that he needed to marry up, not down. They found every opportunity to invite single girls they thought more worthy of their boy to visit their home. How embarrassing it was to have them show off their rich land and farm, and to hear them point out how worthy a prospect he was!
As Madeleine, took her seat on a bench under the Linden with the other village gossips, she argued with them that they had no proof her son’s marriage plans were due to his girlfriend’s being with child. She could see their eyebrows rising in disbelieving looks. The more she tried to convince them that her boy was undefiled and still pure, they chuckled, “We saw the way he held onto Nellie when the May Day dances resumed last year! And he tied a May pole to her window! Can you believe it? The Drunkard’s daughter, with a May pole, when my daughter’s window remained empty?” Madeleine got mad. Words were exchanged that she could not take back about Marguerite’s ugly daughter and how it would take a miracle for her to ever get married. Marguerite rose to her full height, harrumphed and stuck her knitting back into her basket, heading home without another word.
“Och…” thought Madeleine “Me and my fat mouth! I may just have lost my one true friend!” She debated chasing her down and apologizing, but held back. It would be better to let her cool off first. She would apologize the next day. She leaned backwards, her head against the Linden’s trunk. Was that a knocking sound inside? Startled, she looked around. Was someone on the other side of the tree trying to play a trick on her? Madeleine stood up, walked all the way around the trunk. She was alone. She studied the bark carefully, sighing when catching sight of the heart shape in the trunk with the initials J and N. Was that a firefly on the trunk? No… the glow seemed to emanate from inside the trunk… Madeline crossed herself quickly, but even though she felt a bit of apprehension, she stuck her eye against the hole in the tree and peered in.
A green figure appeared to be dancing inside the trunk and seemed quite oblivious to her observer until she twirled to face Madeleine and stared right at her. “Oh!” they both exclaimed at once. “Are you a fairy?” a disbelieving Madeleine asked. The mischievous spirit of Spring replied, “I am the Spirit of Springtime. Though some would call me a Fae in Ireland, I prefer to think of myself as a Goddess.” Madeline crossed herself again. She looked around, tightened her shawl around her shoulders, and declared, “Are you the wishing kind of Fairy? If so, I have but one wish! Not for gold or riches! I want my Jean to forget about Nellie and to marry someone even richer than he is!” Laurel seemed to consider that for a moment, then answered, “I will see what I can do for you. For the next two weeks, I will need you to place an offering of what you value most within the Linden Tree’s hollow, and I promise your son will marry a wealthy girl. Come every night at Midnight, with a sacrifice to me, and you will get your wish!”
Madeleine went home, shaken, but determined to save her son from this girl she despised. She told her husband Pierre about her encounter with the Linden Fairy. “Don’t be daft!” he replied, “Fairies don’t exist!” Madeleine dragged a bewildered Pierre to the tree to prove she was not imagining things. Laurel had started dancing again, a golden glow about her in the hollow of the tree. “Now, do you believe me?” Madeline triumphed. Pierre swallowed hard, nodded, and the two farmers returned home to gather an offering for the Linden Fairy. They promised to return at Midnight.
The Linden’s leaves chuckled and she asked Laurel how she meant to grant the Farmers’ wish. Laurel laughed outright, and said, “Just having a bit of harmless fun. I stirred Jean’s blood when he danced around the Maypole with Nellie. He WILL marry Nellie or my name is not Laurel”
Night after night, Pierre and Madeleine returned, clutching a gold Louis each, and depositing it deep down in the hollow, then covering the offering with twigs arranged to look like a bird’s nest so as to hide the fortune. Little by little, the life savings Pierre had carefully hidden in a wool sock under his mattress, wound up inside the hollow of the tree. He did have doubts, but feared voicing those out loud to Madeleine. By the 14th midnight, the couple had but two gold coins left in their woolen sock after their last delivery to the Linden Fairy.
Under the cover of darkness, Laurel gathered the offered coins into Nellie’s embroidered handkerchief. She lugged the coins all the way up to the crest of the hill that separated Chamarandes from Choignes. She was grateful when she reached the ridge. It was all downhill to Choignes from there! She paused near the stone calvary cross that overlooked the valley, halfway between the crest and the village of Choignes and buried the treasure a foot deep under that monument. To mark the spot, she placed tiny silex stones arranged in a circle, and placed a posy of violets inside the circle. To anyone passing by, this would look like someone had offered a prayer to Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, to whom the cross and the Church down in Chamarandes were dedicated. Laurel was not done with her nighttime mischief though. She made her way from byre to byre in Choignes and so scared the dairy cows with her antics that their milk dried up! Finally, tired beyond belief, she trekked back to her Linden hollow, and fell asleep as soon as her head landed on the feathers in her nest.
Nestled in under her goose feather quilt in the tiny cottage she shared with her father and mother and seven younger siblings, Nellie had a restless night. Her dreams were so vivid that night. They were peopled with a green fairy-like creature, and images of the Vallier Calvary and of bouquets of violets. The word, “Dig!” came back again and again in her dreams. She felt more tired when she woke up and cooked breakfast for her family than she had when she had gone to bed the previous night. When she went to the farm to pick up a barrel of milk for her hungry siblings, there was none to be had. She came home empty-handed to an already drunk father. “I don’t care if you have to walk all the way to Langres to get milk!” he shouted, “Now, go and get milk so this infernal baby brother of yours will shut up! And don’t come back empty handed, you hear?”
Nellie set out, milk barrel swinging on her arm, for the long trek to Chamarandes. Upon reaching the Saint Vallier Calvary, she pulled out her handkerchief and mopped her forehead. A playful wind snatched the cloth out of her hand, and it fluttered down to the ground. As she was bending to pick it up, she noticed the fairy circle, with its posy of violets inside it. The dream! “Dig!” She lifted the bouquet to her nose to smell the enticing fragrance and noticed that the ground beneath it looked freshly tilled. Feeling a bit foolish for doing so, she dug. From experience, she knew how hard the limestone riddled land was to dig, so she felt encouraged in her effort by the ease with which she was able to dig. “Cloth?” She tugged and pulled out a bundle that jingled. She recognized the handkerchief by the carefully embroidered monogram. When she opened it, 28 gold coins tumbled into her aproned lap. She could hardly breathe! She could not keep such a treasure, could she?
Upon arriving in Chamarandes, she made her way up the steps to the tiny City Hall above the elementary school. She placed her handkerchief on the mayor’s desk and explained how she had come by her discovery. The mayor’s eyes were as big as saucers. He examined the coins and the handkerchief. Pointing out the embroidered monogram on the dirty handkerchief, he asked, “Aren’t those your initials?” Nellie nodded and sheepishly explained that on May First, she had tied this self-same handkerchief on the Linden Tree and had made a wish. The mayor said, “Well, I have no idea who your benefactor is, but it looks like you just came into a fortune! Since this is your handkerchief, whatever it contains is also yours by rights!” Nellie stared in disbelief, “Mine?” She tucked her newfound wealth into the deep pocket in her apron, and immediately went to Jean’s farm to ask if she could buy milk for her siblings. Jean was delighted to see her, yet puzzled as to why she would travel all the way to Chamarandes to get milk when Choignes had more dairy farmers per capita than Chamarandes did. Her eyes glistening with tears, Nellie reached into her apron pocket and opened the bundle of coins for Jean to inspect. Jean laughed and laughed and laughed, and when he caught his breath, he exclaimed, “It looks like you are richer than I am now! I get to marry and heiress!”
Later that evening, Madeleine and Pierre headed out to the Linden Tree at Midnight. They asked the Linden Fairy for their boon. Laurel replied that their son had fallen in love with a rich heiress, and that he would be married three weeks later, after the banns had properly been posted on the doors of Saint Vallier Church in Chamarandes and Saint Martin Church in Choignes for three consecutive Sundays. When a suspicious Madeleine wondered out loud, “An Heiress? Choignes is full of peasants and farmers, like our village. What is the name of our son’s future bride?”, Laurel replied, “Her name is Nellie and your son has been in love with her for several years now!” Incensed, Madeleine and Pierre yelled at the Fairy that a deal was a deal, and that they wanted their money back. Laurel shrugged her arms and shoulders and told them that Nellie had come into a fortune. “You wished for your son to marry someone richer than you were, and he will! My part of the bargain is fulfilled!
Pierre reached into the Linden’s hollow, hoping to retrieve his coins below the nest, but they were not to be found. Angry, he scraped at the bottom of the hollow, thinking that maybe the coins had fallen in the crack. Meanwhile, Madeleine ran back home to get a digging tool for her husband. Most of the night, they tried to dig at the Linden’s hollow, making Laurel’s home a mess of wood shavings. They went home tired and empty handed by dawn, as the first villagers started opening their home’s shutters. Laurel apologized to her friend the Linden for the wound the angry couple had dug. The Linden chuckled, “Oh, it was SO worth it just to see their red sweaty faces!”
Jean and Nellie were married and moved to the top of the hill between teh villages, on a big patch of land. One of their their grandchildren was named Laurel, though no one in the family had ever born that first name. The child in question had golden hair the color of Linden seed pods. She loved the color green. Her favorite flower was the violet and she used to bring posies of violets to her grandmother Nellie when they were in season. Most of all, Laurel loved the hollow Linden tree on the main square of her village. She often played in the hollow of the Linden tree. She loved to have tea parties with empty acorn cups and water from the square’s fountain. It was then that the Spirit of Spring bid her goodbyes to the Linden Tree, knowing a new Laurel was now taking care of the tree and that it would never feel alone again.