|I was sitting at a table in an open cafe. The day was beautiful and the cafe was crowded and soon I found someone tugging at the sleeve of my shirt. I looked up to see this short, young woman who was dressed like she’d fallen into Stevie Nick’s wardrobe and had rolled around in it until she was covered. I’m not sure I would call it gypsy chic so much as rich material hobo. This is to say that she was dressed quite eclectically and stood out like a sore thumb among all of the pastel shirts and summer attire . I guess that’s why she choose to stop at my table; I was probably the only one there who looked like she knew all the words to any given Fleetwood Mac song.
The young woman asked if she could share my table as there were no free tables. I nodded my head and gestured to the empty seat across from me. She fell into the chair as though her legs were rabidly becoming rubber. A waitress came to the table and asked her if she’d like to order anything. The woman’s very small, yarn wrapped hands reached into a pocket and came back with only a few quarters. She shrugged her shoulders sadly and began to shake her head no. I told her to get something, that it would be on me. I didn’t have much either but I was doing better than a few quarters.
The woman ordered a sandwich and a cherry coke and thanked me profusely as these items were set in front of her. In-between sammichy mouth smacks and flying bread crumbs she managed to spit out enough words to say she was going to tell me a story to repay me for the meal. When she was done with her food she took a healthy swig of her soda and then tried very hard to fight back the ungraceful burp that was wanting to give the world back some of those carbonation bubbles. When she had it all under control she leaned back in her chair, smiling, and began her story.
“My great grandmother lived on this large bit of land that had always been an orchard. She promised her father she’d always look after the orchard and keep it from being bought and stripped. He always told her that if she didn’t keep that promise Widgit Sheevee would be… let’s just say really pissed. Her dad was getting a little wonky in his late years so grandma just smiled and nodded and never asked who Widgit Sheevee was.
“So skip ahead decades and grandma is still at that house and is about to turn seventy and she decides she wants one last vacation. She went to these botanical gardens and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the orchid gardens there. She said it was one of the single most heart-swelling events in all of her life. But when she got back home she was devastated as a small fire had started in the underbrush, which she’d neglected to get cleaned up before she left. The fire had quickly moved into the trees and spread from tree top to tree top until the entire orchard was burning to the ground. The only thing that was left was the large oak tree in the front yard and no one knew how that managed to happen. It was covered head to toe in the ashes of its kin but it hadn’t been burned anywhere.
“Now, Grandma didn’t like that oak. After the fire, she said she always felt something with pissed off eyes was staring at her from it. And for some reason it always made her think about that person Widgit Sheevee her father had warned her about. She didn’t know why -it was just a feeling she had. Eventually she stopped thinking about the tree and the world went back to world things, as worlds tend to do.
“It was a few summers later when the thunderstorm went through. It was a terribly bad bit of irritable nature that swept over that flat land and the lightning was constantly looking for something to smack around. Eventually it found that remaining oak tree. The lightning that hit was so fierce it tore the old oak in two and set its branches on fire. Grandma ran out of the house with a bucket of water in one hand and a box of baking soda in the other not really knowing how such small things were going to help her save the tree. She had to try something though, right? It was the last tree. Eventually the fire burned itself out and there was nothing but a charred up wound on the ground that represented everything the old oak tree had ever been. Grandma was nearly inconsolable when this happened.
“Now on my grandma’s front porch was this large metal lantern. It had been her father’s. He would fill it up with wood and use it to light his path through the orchard when he would take his late night walks. One of the last things he’d done before passing away was to fill it up with broken tree branches from the orchard. He always had it ready to go, he just never made it on his walk that night. Grandma could never bring herself to put a match to the lantern even when all the power had gone out and she really needed the light. She considered it more of a memento mori more than anything else. At first it was to remember her father and then it was to remember his orchard she had let burn down while she was off cooing over orchids. The lantern always stayed at the edge of the top porch stair.
“One day grandma was out on her porch in her rocking chair and having a bit of a cry over the things that had happened. That bit of scorched earth never stopped reminding her of her failures. Then her weeping was interrupted by the sound of tiny feet on the porch stairs. Grandma looked towards the source of this sound just in time to see the little door on the lantern standing open and then being slammed shut. She thought perhaps it was just the wind, or some critter had managed to knock the door open. Cautiously she approached it and knelt down to take a look inside. This is when she felt the eyes glaring back at her. The same eyes she always felt looking at her from the oak tree. She finally realized she had met this strange, unknown friend of her father’s: Widgit Sheevee. As it happened, Sheevee was a wood nymph. A really, seriously pissed off wood nymph.
“For years grandma tried to convince us that Sheevee was living in the lantern. She claimed that he was always glaring at her from it as he protected the last of his orchard bits. And sometimes he would open the small lantern door and give her little finger gestures she just knew were something rude in his nymph language. It drove her crazy to always have him there reminding her of her guilt and failure to keep her promise to her father. Sometimes she’d cry to the wee thing -which she said looked like a bunch of twigs all cobbled together with leaves and dirt. Other times she’d try to sooth its anger by reading it stories or poems that were all meant to express the beauty of the trees and forest. She promised that she would find a way to make amends so that she could be its friend as her father had been a friend to it. He just gave her more rude hand gestures. This went on for another decade.
“The last time I was there my grandma made me promise to do something for her and then gave me her will. I gave her a hug and felt rather sad because of the topic being discussed. At the same time my grandma looked so happy, which had been a strange sight by that point in her life. This made me happy. I remember walking down the porch stairs and giving the lantern a gentle nudge to see if anything inside would snarl back at me. There was nothing. Just a bunch of really old twigs packed into it. I guess we all just thought she’d started to go senile and these stories of hers were a symptom of that. I mean, she was so very old by this point. She almost looked like an old tree growing out of that front porch rocking chair. Even the age lines etched through her face almost looked like bark, ironically enough. She was aging into her obsession… yay, that’s what the family quietly thought.
“Two days later grandma passed away. My brother found her when he went over to give her house pipes their annual flushing. Thankfully she lived so far away from the civilized world that we were able to honor her unique request for burial. She wanted to be put into the ground with a few special items and only be wrapped in linen. She didn’t want a coffin or be reduced to something that could fit into an urn. We had a small ceremony. The house was willed to my brother and he and his family took over the place. He replanted the orchard. That was quite some time ago, but the trees are all still babies. It’s more like a tree nursery than an orchard.
“Now my brother renovated that old house and brought it back up to modern times but he did honor the one request grandma made of him specifically: He kept the lantern on the top step of the porch. She said she wanted it to stay there and have a clear view of the place where she was buried. At some point I found myself at this newly remodeled home to house-sit for my brother. I’ll tell you; the nighttime sky out there in the middle of nowhere is incredible. It was the beginning of autumn and everything smelled like the apple pies and pumpkin mashes my sister-in-law had been making. And at night… man, at night you could smell all the burning leaves that would blow in from farms well up the road. It was really beautiful. So I liked to take walks there in the middle of the night like I was told my great great grandfather always did.
“I was coming out of the house with my flashlight and I had the impulse to shine it on the old lantern. The lantern wasn’t there though. At first it made me feel unsettled and upset but something told me to look up at the moon and just walk. I turned my flashlight off and used the brilliant moon to walk over the front yard till I came to that place that used to have the big black mark from the old oak tree’s scorch marks. The black ground was gone though because it had all been overturned for grandma’s burial space. In the middle of it sat the lantern and next to it was the thin sapling of the new oak growing there.
“This made me smile. You see my grandma had asked that we put a few oak seedlings in her hands when she was buried and to make sure that nothing would obstruct the earth from going through its natural phases that would lead her back into the soil. She wanted to use what was left of her to nurture the seeds so that maybe one day Sheevee wouldn’t have to live in that lantern anymore. I was very touched by this wish but I’m a child of the modern world – I really didn’t believe much of this. Just sentimental stuff, you know? But then, under that bright moonlight, the lantern door opened and this strange arm moved into view. It looked like a long branch with tiny leaves growing from its wrist and elbow. It reached over and gently touched the little tree. It gently wrapped its little wood-like fingers around the sapling and gently rubbed it like it was petting the young bark. I could just barely hear it talking to the tree.”
The woman became quiet for a moment before smiling. She drank down the last bits of her soda before turning her brilliant amber colored eyes at me. “You see, after all was said and done grandma and Sheevee had become friends to some strange degree and grandma didn’t want to leave him alone. So she let go of this life and let herself grow into a new one where her and Sheevee could finally talk and know one another. Even little Sheevee had long ago given up being upset over the trees and realized -as a wood nymph should- that nature had more of a hand in the demise of the orchard. Nature had chewed up his home. Grandma had done everything to appease him and really, had she been a cruel thing she could have always lit the branches in that lantern and been done with the whole business. This is how friendships develop sometimes.”
She stood up and brushed the sandwich crumbs from her clothes. “That was a long time ago, believe it or not. I really don’t look my age now and I was just a kid then. I couldn’t even drive to grandma’s. I always road my bike. The oak tree is still young but it’s big enough that it can support the weight of the lantern that’s hanging from its branches. When I can I still visit. I really enjoy listening to the conversations between Sheevee and Grandma Oak Tree. Thanks again for the lunch, it’s been awhile.” And with that she was gone.
I slowly came back to the world around me. I gave the waitress my debit card to cover the bill before making my way out into the parking lot and to my car. The sun was still reminding me that August was holding onto the heat, but there was the site of autumn in the distance. I smiled at this thought and drove home. I went out back to the old pear tree in my backyard that has been there since well before I was ever born. We had to prune it back last year but as a result this year it was filled to the top with fresh green pears. Up at the top branch sat a squirrel eating away at a pear before letting the core drop to the ground nearly dinging me in the head in the process. I had to wonder what other type of life was lurking in the tree…
is copyright 2015 Bethalynne Bajema. All Rights Reserved.