A young girl confides a secret to her favorite tree and returns years later to reveal it.
|“C’mon, Em, we’ve been driving around now, for, what, seventeen hours?”
“Jason, really! I know we’re close—really close. I thought I would be able to just close my eyes and feel us there. But things don’t seem to be where I remembered them being. It just has to be here. Surely no one would cut down that majestic, old tree. We practically lived in that tree every minute of every summer when we were at Nana’s and Papaw’s. Please, let’s look for another half hour, and then, if we haven’t found it…”
“Okay, but you’re paying for dinner and explaining why we missed the plane and didn’t make it home in time to…”
“Enough, already! I can’t concentrate while you’re griping and trying to make me feel guilty.”
Emily visited her grandparents in western New York every summer. As the family’s ugly, green grocery-getter pulled up the driveway, her hand was poised on the doorknob. Em was ready to jump out and beat her brother out across the fields and dirt roads behind the old farmhouse and up into Henrietta. Henrietta was a sprawling-branched tree with low-hanging limbs that served as ladders up into an invisible world—invisible to any adults, that is.
“Didn’t you have anyplace special when you were growing up where you could escape to when you needed to be alone?”
“Actually, Em, my great escape location was the ball diamond behind the high school. My buddies and I hung out there all the time. I would have gone crazy if I had to be all alone.”
“Well, I wasn’t completely alone,” Emily responded. “Kevin was mostly always there with me. It was the only time my brother and I got along with each other. We had a silent agreement to be nice to each other when we were swallowed up in Henrietta’s leafy bonnet.”
Still pondering Emily’s question, Jason spoke thoughtfully. “As an only child, I was lonely, so I sought out friends to be with. Plus, I’m into action and a tree is no place for a ballgame—unless it’s doubling as a base.”
Emily rolled her eyes. “Hang a right at the next road, J.D. I remember that ratty old sign for Dunkin’s Country Store. Once we turn, the road should dead-end at an old clapboard church with a cemetery next to it.”
Jason removed his baseball cap and scratched his sweaty mop of rusty curls as he maneuvered his Jeep around the corner. “I sure hope you’re right this time. I swear we’ve been right here twice before in the last hour.”
“See! There’s the cemetery! We’re close, really close, now.” Emily was sitting up straight, her hazel eyes misting up, and heart racing, as J.D. turned right. “There! Turn up that lane off to the left at the top of the hill.”
“You mean that lane that we’ve passed several times already?”
“Stop it, Jason. You’re being a real jerk. See if I do you a favor ever again in this life time.” Emily had been looking forward to sharing Henrietta with J.D. ever since they decided to make this trip. If he kept this up, she wasn’t going to let him climb the tree with her.
“Look, Em. There’s the round barn you told me about. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” Emily shrieked. “Henrietta’s meadow should be around the next curve.” Automatically she slipped out of her seat belt and reached for the door handle. “Pull over to the side of the road right before we crest the hill. I want to walk the rest of the way there. I remember running up this hill and seeing Henrietta come into view. I want you to see her that way for your first time, too.”
Jason eased the Jeep off the road, kicking up a cloud of dust from the cracked ground. August had been dryer than usual and the caked earth was fissured, an occasional withered Queen Anne’s Lace or Golden Rod drooping in the sun.
Emily hesitated before exiting the Jeep. Turning to Jason, she said softly, “You’re going to love her Jason, but if you don’t, act like you do, okay?”
“I’ll love her, Em.”
The hinges of the Jeep creaked as the doors swung open. They’d not seen another car for over an hour. This moment was theirs, and theirs alone, to be savored. Emily popped up out of the Jeep and grabbed Jason’s hand. They began to walk slowly up the rise. And suddenly, there she was. Henrietta.
“Whoa, Em. You told me she was big, but I never imagined she’d be this…huge.”
“Yeah, she’s grown even taller and wider than I remembered her being. I thought that things were supposed to look smaller in an adult’s eyes than they appeared in childhood. But I think she’s doubled in size.”
“Well, trees keep growing, replied Jason. “I remember the second time I saw Mt. Rushmore. I was sixteen and those faces looked puny compared to when I was seven.”
The two stood at the edge of the field, taking in the breadth of Henrietta’s size and beauty. Emily reached in her pocket and unfolded a piece of manila-colored paper, a wrinkled, faded picture of Henrietta that she colored when she was just a girl. “See, doesn’t she look just like this picture?”
“Pretty much so, Em. You definitely captured her spirit, all right.” Jason pushed down on the top row of the barbed wire fencing so Emily could climb over without catching and ripping her favorite faded jeans with the threadbare knees. Releasing the wire, Jason leapt over the fence, like a deer.
“Race you!” shouted Emily, as she took off in the direction of the tree. Jason let Em outrun him, until the last minute when he grabbed her around the waist and swung her round and round. They fell in a heap at the foot of Henrietta, dissolving into laughter. Lying on their backs, they stared up into the branches, saying nothing, listening to the silence of the countryside. The only sound was the buzzing of a few insects, and the soft lowing of a cow far off in the distance.
Emily loved the earthy fragrance of the meadow. “I wish they could bottle this smell and sell it.”
“I’m sure that Estee Lauder would jump at the chance to bottle Eau de Field, with essences of earthworms, bugs and ragweed.”
“Cute, J. D. Very cute.”
Jason leaned up on one arm so he could look at Emily. Her eyes were more alive than he’d ever seen them. Perspiration dotted her forehead and upper lip, and her cheeks were tinted a deep rose. The sunrays filtering through the boughs lit up her hair that fanned out on the grass. Jason brushed a tendril off Em’s brow, noticing how silky it felt. Emily closed her eyes as Jason leaned in to kiss her softly. “Show me your tree, Em,” he whispered into her ear. He kissed the tip of her nose and helped her to her feet.
Emily wrapped her arms around Henrietta’s massive trunk, sinking her fingers into the grooves of her bark. She sniffed the hundred-year-old bark, and sighed. “I’ve missed you, Henrietta. I’ve brought a friend to meet you.”
Jason rested his hands on Emily’s shoulders and leaned his chin on the top of her head, enjoying Em’s reunion with her childhood friend. He offered his knee for Emily so she could reach the lowest limb and pull herself up into the branches. “I used to be able to reach this branch all by myself,” she said, and then grunted as she swung her legs up and over. Henrietta responded with a swoosh of leaves as her bough bent.
As Emily began her ascent, Jason watched his fiancée disappear into the foliage. When she was no longer visible, Jason pulled himself into the tree, appreciating the sanctity permeating the space. He kept bumping his head and catching his feet in the tangled web of branches below. He found Emily perhaps one third of the way up the trunk, her right arm stuck in a knothole up to her elbow.
“Might I ask what you are doing, Em?”
“I have something for you. I put it here years ago.”
“What on earth? Something for me?”
“Yeah, when I was thirteen I…” Emily paused and grunted as she withdrew her arm. Clasped in her scratched hand was a plastic baggy, “…I wrote you a letter.”
“Well, I mean, I wrote it to the boy of my dreams.”
“Aww, that is so adorable, Em. If that isn’t just like you.”
Emily blushed as she opened the baggy and handed Jason a wrinkled, faded envelope. “Open it, silly.”
Slowly he coaxed the flap loose and removed the pastel rainbow stationary. It was folded funny, like some of the notes he remembered being passed back and forth between girls in his junior high classes. “I always wondered what you girls wrote in those ridiculous looking notes.”
Emily glared at J.D., and then smiled. “This is no note I ever wrote to a girlfriend! Give it a sniff. Does it still smell like strawberry?”
Jason took a whiff. “Na, it just smells old, like a library book that’s been on the shelf for decades.” As Jason began to read, his face widened into a huge grin, his dimples winking on and off. “Aww… ‘Dear Man of My Dreams,’” he read aloud. “’I just wanted to tell you that, even though I’m only thirteen, I think of you often and wonder what you will be like. I wonder, do you have blonde hair and blue eyes,’” Jason paused and peered up at Emily as he said, “Well, you got that part wrong!” ‘…or do you have curly, black hair?’”
“At least I got the curly part right, huh?”
“Spot on, Em.”
Jason continued reading silently. Emily studied his face, observing the emotions playing at the corners of his mouth and eyes. She’d dreamt of this day, fearing it would never come to be. The teeny-bopper Emily had been skinny with stringy hair and a mouth bulging with braces. She couldn’t imagine anyone ever loving her. Yet she didn’t give up hope.
And Henrietta guarded her secret well.
Emily imagined herself bringing her daughter here someday to show her the heart with her mama and daddy’s initials carved inside it. Just before getting out of the Jeep, Emily had picked up and pocketed Jason’s scouting knife from the console where he always kept it handy.
Emily grinned and murmured under her breath, “Jason will be needing this.”
Word Count: 1768