In the Shade of the Black Walnut Tree

Later, as is always the case in these matters, there will be talk about both of them. Due to his longer life and larger number of accomplishments, he will have the better claim for being remembered.  (This is true of death: it reduces some, enlarges others.)  Thus she will fade, in time, while he will expand and clarify—and at the same time develop a curious opacity—in the light of subsequent comment.  Afterward, for instance, some of those who knew him will say that he was in love with her, that he was devastated by certain events transpiring during the period of their acquaintance.  It will also be stated—with vehemence, particularly by his wife—that he never loved her. Thus, predictably, goes gossip, speculation, and the inevitable sifting and embroidering of related incidents that sometimes occurs in such instances.

Portions of the following, likewise, are not completely factual.

*                      *                      *

It is an afternoon in August, 1835.  There is a moment, now, where all that exists for him is the ticking of the clock on the mantle.  It is a small, humble clock of roughly squarish proportions, fashioned by someone’s relatively inept hand. A narrow brass edging around the glass-covered face is its only embellishment. And yet, looking carefully at it from his chair, he sees that for all its homeliness of design it is made of sleek black walnut, with a rich grain.

He knows lumber well, knows the weight and quality of every kind of tree that grows locally.  When rubbed with linseed oil, a planed and sanded board of black walnut will display subtle shadings of honey and even violet in its dark interior.  It has always been his favorite wood, both for the luster of the finished product and the particular beauty of the living plant from which it comes.

Indeed, he had stopped beneath a towering black walnut tree on his way here today, to let his horse drink from someone’s trough, and perhaps to delay, a little, what he knew to be in store for him.  He had stood there for a moment, looking up into the tree’s yellow-green canopy, its graceful branches heavy with their treasure of unripe nuts.  It was a curious thing, he had reflected then, that very little grew in the shade of this tree: it was as if some strength of the walnut, emanating from the enclosed heart of its lovely wood, prevented other plants from flourishing in its vicinity.  That was always the way of the black walnut: one saw it standing in a clearing of hard dirt or surrounded by some sort of coarse, indifferent grass that seemed able to withstand its power.

And even so, he thinks to himself now, as he sits, it is amazing that inside the little box on the mantle—enclosed in the shadow of the wood—is just such a mechanism with the power to destroy life, to dispose of the seconds and minutes and hours of each day in perfect order, beautiful and ruthless in its function as it will never be in its design.  And this, he concludes, is all that matters: the reality, the loss of time.

What passes, he thinks then, is both lost and gained by us.  Aloud he murmurs absently, “In a curious way we own every opportunity that has evaded us, whether we grasp at it or not.”  He speaks the words to no one in particular, and indeed no one hears them.

The following sentence is fact: he is twenty-six years old, and his voice, which lacks fullness, could be called inauspicious to the communication of words and ideas.  And yet he cannot keep himself from speaking to people.  He appreciates a good—even an improper—joke.  He has ideas that pour forth, at times, with perplexing force, about everything from patents to poetry, and he relays these ideas indiscriminately to business acquaintances and storekeepers, to the woman who cleans his rented room and the man who once visited him for the purpose of reporting an abandoned horse in a livery stable.  He cannot keep from telling them stories he has heard.  He has theories about things, and these are woven into the stories, which can go on for some time and which are, for the most part, quite interesting.  People usually appear to enjoy hearing him speak.

In this moment, however, he is silent.  His palms rest briefly on the arms of the chair in which he sits, then move awkwardly to his primly bent knees, and moisture springs out upon his back in the heavy heat of the late summer afternoon.  The shades of the parlor in which he sits have been pulled down against the glare, and white-hot lines of sunlight are etched about their borders. And he waits for opportunity, for the allotted time to pass.

Opportunity and time.  The former will, in the years to come, be his ally; the latter, his foe.  There will be either too little of it, or too much, depending upon the circumstance.

Those who know him will, at the very least, agree upon this.

*                      *                      *

Fact: the black walnut tree contains an organic compound called juglone that acts as a toxin, inhibiting the growth of many species of plants in its vicinity, causing them to sicken and die.

*                      *                      *

The woman who lies on the other side of the door is twenty-one years old.  Not long from now, various qualities will be attributed to her: a sweet nature, a bright intellect.  If there are vague mentions of a high-strung temperament, or references to an unevenness of mood, they will be quelled.

He waits, now, to see her.  Pictures shift and fall behind his eyes as he stares at the door that divides her presence from him.

*                      *                      *

He recalls a night last winter when she asked him a question as they walked in the darkness beneath a sky heavy with its sheer whiteness of stars.  Honey, I wish to make an inquiry of you, she had said.  The endearment caught him off guard, for she seldom even approached the intimacy of addressing him by name, despite their substantial friendship.

He smiled with satisfaction as she walked a little ahead of him on the curving road near Sand Ridge, a small figure in a heavy woolen cape and homemade ankle-length gown.  She owned only two dresses.  He had seen them so many times that he knew them both in detail: a brown calico with puffed sleeves, faded at the seams and bearing a long irregular stain down one side of the full skirt, for everyday use.  And the gray woolen gown she wore that evening, with its matching sash and wide shawl of lace that she had tatted rather clumsily herself.

The shawl was new, which surprised him, for she was not one of those women who seemed to care much for clothes.  She often, for instance, forgot to remove her apron when he came to call, and she wore shoes only when it was very cold, as it was tonight.  When had they set out earlier for the quilting bee, he had admired the lace, referring to it as a collar, and she had replied that it was not a collar but something called a pelerine, which he understood to signify some sort of useless feminine garment meant to drape ornamentally about the neck and shoulders.

In all, she was neither striking in appearance nor scintillating in conversation when surrounded by other people.  When they were alone together, however, she sometimes made odd, engaging remarks about the nature of things, displaying a subtle sense of irony and humor that often took him by surprise.  It was this that drew him to her, this and her vulnerability, which seemed extreme to him then and ever afterward, even for a young woman.  When she spoke to him that winter evening, thus, he had said with no small tenderness in his voice, Go on, then, and make it.

She waited for a moment.  Then she said, Is it possible that we just might live forever?

Amused, he had answered with a question of his own: What are the odds of such a thing happening?

I do not know, she called back, and began to run.  The words, That is why I asked you, came drifting back as she slipped suddenly through a length of fence railing on their left and darted across a frozen field of corn stubble.   He lengthened his steps to keep up with her, feeling sudden concern.  There was a quality to her voice that he had heard before: a vague flirtatiousness, which he knew she could not really mean, and something approaching defiance.  He recalled that she had been rather unusually lively at the quilting bee this evening, speaking rapidly and casting glances here and there, laughing a great deal.  This had not gone unnoticed by others at the gathering.  Someone there had commented upon the irregularity and length of the stitches in the eight pointed green star upon which she was sewing, suggesting an uncharacteristic lack of attentiveness to her work.

And now, this brittle gaiety to her tone, and the strange manner in which she was hurrying away from him in the darkness.  Made uneasy, he had climbed over the fence railing and followed her.  The husks of the dead stalks, encased with granulated ice, snapped and broke beneath his feet.  Already she was far ahead of him, at the edge of the woods that bordered the field.  There she paused, peering at him through the falling darkness.  Come with me, she called, her voice high and excited.  Without waiting for him, she turned and disappeared into the woods.

He had broken, then, into a shambling run.

*                      *                      *

Now, in the still room, he wishes desperately that he need not view her as she is today.  Various members of his family over the years have, unfortunately, given him ample idea of what her appearance may now be.  His own mother, long ago, sickened and died suddenly and horribly; his older sister perished in childbirth, producing a stillborn son.  He does not want to regard another woman’s face grown sightless with pain, transfigured by the inroads of disease.  He was not allowed to see his sister until after her death, and even then the sight of the agonized mask of her face left him sleepless for days.

It is quite possible, despite the reported severity of her illness, that she may yet recover.  Such things are not unheard of.  He reminds himself of this, and the fingers that rest upon his knees relax a little, loosening their grip.  With deliberation, staring down, he forces them to remain loose and open.  One hand bears a scar from an accident some years before, when he was cutting sycamore logs.  On that occasion, the lumber being fresh and pliable, he had begun to work too quickly, and the axe he was using glanced off a log and struck his flesh.  He looks down at it, at the white mark of the tool upon his skin, and cannot remember any pain associated with the injury, although of course it must have hurt.  He does remember the blood, spurting down the front of his shirt, the scarlet drops falling upon the raw sycamore wood.

*          *          *

His mind has wandered, but now it returns to the reality of the sweltering room, the sweat that runs freely over him.  Doggedly he focuses on images of coolness: the alluring shade of the black walnut tree.  The petals of dogtooth violets, unfurling in the spring above a crust of dead leaves and old snow.  Ice-cold metal implements: the iron wedge that forces the log apart, breaking it beneath the force of the hammer.  In his days of manual labor he carried his own wedge, carefully carved with his initials.  It was a particularly satisfying tool, and he remembers enjoying the solid weight of it, the unexpected, chill smoothness in his hand.

He is still perspiring copiously.  He gives in and laments, with deep irritation, the confounded misery of the weather: it has been an unusually fierce summer, and a wet one.  He has been away somewhat, but he has heard incessantly of the extraordinary heat and humidity, and now he feels the violence of its nature in his slick palms, and in his very lungs as he draws the close air in and out of them.

He saw ample evidence of the heat wave’s length and tenacity on his ride here this morning: saw the stagnant pools of water along the road, their surfaces brackish with insect life.  There was a verdant appearance to the cornfields and the occasional small patches of flax whose plants were covered, he noticed, with a thick, pale fur which revealed itself upon examination to be a dense layer of aphids, busily devouring the plants themselves. The kitchen gardens of farmhouses along the way were filled with wilting tomato plants and heavy pumpkin vines. At one point, turning a corner bordered by woods, he saw a sleek, pregnant deer slip through a falling curtain of gray-green branches.

So much abundance, he thinks now, of good and evil: of blossom and seed and contamination, of the black walnut tree with its burden of fruit he saw earlier, and the mosquitoes that hovered in venomous clouds everywhere.  It is known that where there is heat and standing water and insect life, disease follows—hence the outbreak of fever in the surrounding area this year, and the illness of the woman who lies in the other room.  He is now pursuing business elsewhere, and has thus avoided the contagion; in any event, despite an appearance of relative frailty, he has always been possessed of excellent health. For this reason he has no terror of catching sick from the woman in the room next to his.  However, even if he had feared such a thing, he would be here; he would have to be here.

Sitting carefully upright, he thinks once more of the deer with its graceful, agitated gait, of various notes he must write, and papers he must sign this month, most of them pertaining to the war some small time ago, in which he comported himself adequately although he did not see active service.  Some of the notes he will sign Respectfully, occasionally omitting the comma if he is preoccupied, or Your Obedient Servant, abbreviated Your Obt. Srvt.   He thinks of how, back in the city, he had planned—upon reaching the countryside—on gathering an armful of flame-colored butterfly weed to bring along with him today, until he remembered that the blooms were finished before mid-August.

But then, not being a sweetheart of the woman who lies ill, why would he give her flowers?  She is, in fact, engaged to another man, a man who has for some time now been absent on business.  She and I are…but he does not know what they are.  Perhaps they are what might be called the most intimate of friends.  Which is no less a form of love, though this will later be overlooked.

And anyway, he thinks, flowers would have perished rapidly in this heat.

*                      *                      *

The black walnut clock ticks.  His eyes are closed, and behind them he sees the deep interior of the forest on that night last winter as he moved through it, knowing what he must do.  On the few past occasions when she had become overly excited, she had run from him and hidden until he found her, laughing and weeping at the same time.  I can’t calm down, she would say.  I’m so uncertain of everything.  I don’t know if I wish to marry John anymore.  It makes me frantic.

He thought of this tendency of hers as he moved clumsily beneath the vaulted ceiling of hickory and maple branches, trying to listen for her footsteps.  His progress was impeded by a dense tangle of dormant vines, and by the ice upon the hard ground.  He slid a little, on the worn soles of his only pair of shoes, then stumbled and fell, turning his ankle, feeling his right pant leg catch on something, most likely a heavily-thorned blackberry bramble.  Stumbling to his feet, he jerked the pant leg loose, swearing softly in spite of himself at the damage done to his woolen trousers.

The ankle throbbed sharply, but he knew that given the intractability of his abnormally healthy body, it would heal in no time.  Pausing that night, listening for her, he pushed a lank strand of hair back from his forehead.  He had oiled it this evening, before the quilting bee, and combed it carefully into place—trying always, despite his physical shortcomings, to groom himself as well as possible given his limited means.  What did she think, anyway, of the way he looked?  She had never told him.  A curious, half-admiring pity washed over him as he thought of her, of her round, eager face, with its chin that trembled a little when she was very earnest, or when she had fallen under one of her strange spells.

Honey, he called boldly, half-jokingly, taking a cue from her previous words, Where have you gotten yourself to?

In the distance, faint words floated back to him.

Come and see.

*                      *                      *

The door opens, startling him awake.  A middle-aged woman from one of the neighboring farms stands there, hands perched indignantly on hips, as if he has done something wrong.  Obligingly he feels a stab of guilt.  I done everything I could, she says, her lips parting to show a scattering of decayed teeth, a not uncommon sight in a woman her age.  Feverfew tea, and I tried slippery elm.  The doctor been here and he said to put on another mustard plaster but all it done was blister the skin.  I took it off her, poor thing.

He stands, the chair creaking as he releases it from his weight.  Mrs. Abernathy, he says, for suddenly he remembers her name.  As always, the words come easily when he looks fully at someone and speaks to them.  How much your kind efforts must have meant to the family during this difficult and trying time.

Well, she replies, looking mollified.  Then he sees that she is weeping, that her lips over the blackened teeth are quivering in an effort to control herself.  A sweet girl, she says.  You’re a nice young man.  I always liked you.  You go in now.

*                      *                      *

He pushed that night through a wall of cascading willow branches and saw, in the starlight, that she had broken through the thin ice of a stream and was standing in thigh-deep water.  Her skirts were soaked nearly to the waist, and she had taken off her hooded cape and mittens and even the lace pelerine.  The pelerine had been fastened with a small gold bar pin that had belonged to her dead mother; it was, as far as he knew, her only piece of jewelry. It might well be—with the exception of a wedding ring—the only piece of jewelry she would ever own.  Now the scrap of lace lay pathetically in a heap at the water’s edge.  He wondered in alarm where the bar pin had gone.  Her family’s modest income could not possibly stretch to replace it.

Will we live forever, do you think? She called.  You and I?

Come out of there, he said.

Sometimes I hurt so bad I have to do something, have to make myself think what’s real.  This cold is so good.  The pain helps me know I’m alive.

He waded in and pulled her out, and she laughed merrily as she clung to him.  As he carried her home, he tried to calm both of them by relating a story he had once thought humorous, of a one-legged man he knew who had made himself six artificial legs out of wood from willows like the ones back at the stream.  The man liked the wood so much, said it was so light and useful and easy to work with, that he just kept on making more legs.  He said he would go on making them indefinitely just for pleasure.  Perhaps one day he would start a leg store.

What will your father think? He ended abruptly, in a panic.  You will catch your death of cold and he will blame me.

She was shaking so hard that speech was difficult.  No, she said, He knows meJust like you do, honey.   She reached up, turned her face to his, and laid her cold lips, open, upon his.  It reminded him of an infant he had seen once, who did the same thing to its mother, its soft mouth covering hers with blind need.

Later he would return to the stream to search unsuccessfully for the bar pin.  He would tell her this, and she would reply seriously that it was all right: the pin belonged to the water or the earth, wherever it was lodged.  He would think to himself that the comment was typical of her, and wonder if she would say such a thing to anyone but him.

Now her face moved against his.  He felt her breath, miraculously warm, upon his ear.

I have decided we will live forever, she whispered.

*                      *                      *

The following may or may not be true: he will see her, in a moment, lying in a bed made of straight-cut red oak planks.  Red oak wood is durable, though somewhat porous.  The boards will make a faint noise of protest when he leans over and adjusts her pillows, lifting her so that she can rest more easily on the sweat-soaked linen.  Though Mrs. Abernathy has strewn a mixture of dried medicinal herbs upon the floor to purify the air, there is a terrible scent in the room, and he glimpses the stained edge of the porcelain pan beneath the mattress.

In the future, it will be suggested that her illness was part of the typhoid epidemic that swept the Sand Ridge area during the summer of 1835.  If this theory is accurate, she will on the day of this visit very likely be in the latter stages of the disease, exhibiting a high fever and symptoms of severe dehydration and possibly restless delirium, unable to recognize or talk with visitors.  On the other hand, there will be sincere testimony to the effect that the two of them spoke meaningfully and at some length.  Perhaps his words alone hang in the air.  If so, his eloquence will in all probability be fitting to the gravity of the hour.

Either way, it is as if the clock stops, and he does not tell anyone, ever, of the ultimately insufficient words that are spoken during this interval.

*                      *                      *

Her coffin, like the bed, will be built of oak, white rather than red.  There is all the difference between the two.  Remarkably watertight, white oak is often used in the construction of wine caskets, carriages and ships.  And, of course, coffins, where the material is expected to withstand, for as long as possible, the diligent onslaught of mildew and decay.

It is perhaps worth noting this piece of factual information: his mother’s burial box was made of green pine wood, which rots rapidly if not protected after cutting.  Depending upon one’s point of view, this can be a disadvantage: the burial container returns itself and its contents to the earth without delay.  He will recall to himself that his father, who built the casket with little attention to detail and buried it hastily and without the benefit of a formal ceremony, was never one to be stayed by sentiment.

Later, he talks of having whittled the pegs for the coffin himself, his nine-year-old hands quite capable of the task: an unexpected advantage of working with poor quality lumber.

*                      *                      *

Years will pass.  He will in the course of his days meet and marry a highly educated woman who simultaneously wearies and challenges him.  This woman will frequently wear flowers in her hair and thick strands of pearls upon her throat and arms, and will indulge a taste for luxury and acquisition by engaging a personal dressmaker to create gown after elaborate gown for her to wear at public events. Her shopping bills will mount into the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands of dollars during the course of their marriage.  This will be the cause of considerable controversy.  Intelligent, headstrong, inclined to nervous emotion, she will argue with and torment those around her, including her husband.

In all her manifest vagaries and complications she will resemble, in a poignant way, the woman from San Ridge.  He may be the only person who realizes this.

Approximately twenty-nine years and four months from that hot day in August, late on a spring evening, his own life will end suddenly and brutally at the hands of another.  It will be said that in the last, harried weeks of his existence, he expressed a fear of being murdered.  It will also be reported that, prior to the event, he described dreaming in vivid detail of the events surrounding his death.

The weapon used in the event will be a single-shot Deringer pistol, misspelled Derringer so frequently that in the course of history the secondary spelling becomes widely accepted.  The Deringer lists among its attributes the following: it is small, light and graceful, as well as being easy to handle and conceal.

Fact: the stock of this gun will be made of black walnut, which has the deepest, darkest heart of any hardwood in North America.

*                      *                      *

Historical record will show that black walnut is also selected as the most appropriate material for the building of his coffin.  The precise grain of its polished surface will be covered formally in black wool and imbedded with silver studs in fanciful shapes. This coffin, and the train it rides upon, will be woven into the fabric of speculation that surrounds him.

Fact: time as he knew it will become—in his case, at least—a fluid thing, allowing itself to be rearranged, assimilated, set free.  The perimeters of shortened lives and ticking clocks will no longer contain it.  Hope, grief, even stilled memory will move forward and upward, unimpeded, beyond the absolute shadow of the wood.

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