A husband and wife, married many years, receive some bad news from their doctor.
The Old Couple
They were old in human terms. The years had been hard, and their bodies told many stories. Their faces were deeply lined, each groove a tale of worry or pain or loss or the wondrous joy that living can bring.
They had been together many years, each season one upon the next, bringing pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow never born alone, always together. Their babies had grown and moved on, each conceived and born in the same bed in which the old woman now lay.
She was dying. She would do this thing with dignity, her husband beside her as always he had been. She was dying and was ready to explore her next life-chapter, regretting only the numbing void her leaving would create for the man. They well knew how vital they were to the other, for their union was as granite, solid and heavy and immovable. She feared his aloneness to come, and her sadness at this was one of the few feelings she could not share with him, for she had not a word of comfort to give.
The doctor came and, in hushed concentration, had made his examination pushing, listening, thinking. He told them there was no hope of wellness again and, indeed, the end would come quickly. “You have cancer of the female parts, Mrs.”
he said. The pain in her back was not from work in the fields; the cancer had spread.
She would have more pain and suggested she go to the hospital in Austin, where she would be made comfortable. He knew they would not want this and did not insist when she said no to his offer to take her. He took the old man away and told him how to care for her. The man was given laudanum to mix with coffee when her pain became great. The doctor explained how the medicine was very strong, and he was not to give her too much for it would stop her breathing. In time, she would die in her sleep. There was nothing more he could do.
“Call me, the doctor said, when it is over. I will come for her and take her to town. She will be there where your family and your friends can pay their respects to her and you. Tell your children as they will want to come soon.”
The man took the bottle, placing it on the table beside the salt. He poured coffee for them and showed the doctor to a chair on the porch. As they sat, the man remarked that he felt the season’s first cold air. It was late November, the harvest put away, the days of blue ‘northers’ and early darkness upon the land. It seemed to hush, to have slipped into stillness. He felt a stillness inside, a completeness as though there was nothing left to do. He searched his mind for something forgotten, some task left undone. There was nothing.
The man watched as the doctor’s small, black car bounced and kicked up the dust along the road to the highway. He watched until the car had long disappeared, then turned his gaze to a hawk as it circled over the creek. The bird there seemed motionless against the leaden clouds.
It was hunting and would not come closer to the man. He wished, this once, it would fly to him for he would know its color and the sharpness of its talons. He wished for some intrusion, something that would pierce his numbness. The earth was dormant. There was a stillness in his core, and he felt everything move in slow motion. He clenched his fists, digging the fingernails into the palms. This did not cause him pain, for too thick was his skin.
He looked once more at the hawk then turned into the house. He lit the lamp for the kitchen and lit another for the bedroom. He looked in at his wife to see her awake before taking the lamp to her. She smiled softly and held up her arm, her hand open to him. “Come,” she said. “Sit beside me and tell me if it is getting chilly outside. I feel a ‘norther’ in my knees, and they never lie. Put the lamp down here, have you had your supper?”
The old man sat on the bed edge and took her hand in his. He again, as he had always, felt awe when touching her. She worked as hard as he, but her hands were soft and smelled of flour or soap or the flowers she grew on the porch. He wished he could feel her softness better and put her hand to his face, but that too, was rough with a stubble he could not seem to scrape away.
The sun-aged skin of the man was thick and, it’s color, earthy mahogany. He was work-tough and sun baked, yet there was a softness in his touch. He touched the woman gently as though he feared marking her and often cursed the roughness of his hands as he caressed her. He wanted to feel her, have her skin excite his mind as her body had, for so long, excited his. She never complained at his rough touch, for he was her man. Yet, he would wash and scrub and rub first coal oil then lard into his hands, wanting them to be soft for her, wanting the nerves to send clear signals of her woman-ness. The ache to feel this woman, to know her by touch, had been with him too long to remember. There was a time before, and there must have been a time when his hands had been soft, but he could not remember. She did not seem to mind, for she always shuddered a little when he touched her. He sometimes feared that her doing so was because his hands were so rough. But, no old man, her shudder is the anticipation. It is the memory of touches past and the electric tingling coursing through her body of the touches to come.
The woman, stooped with the weight of her years and child bearing, had, all her life, been beside the man. In the fields for planting or harvesting, she was there. Sometimes great with child, she bent and stood, bent and stood, leaving her husband only to begin preparing their meal. Their babies, all born in the small, rock house were helped into life by the man who felt her pain and shared her joy with each strong new product of their bond. He tended her, nursing her tiredness as she nursed their young. The woman was grateful for her healthy babies, having feared with each the threat of loss, the loss of a child to be sure, yet she understood her man and feared the loss of herself from him even more.
Theirs had been a union begun in love, so long ago. They met in school; her parents having just moved into the town. They met on the playground in first grade and were never again to be separated in heart, never again until now to know what a day would be like without the other. The man inherited his farm and married the woman when they were both twenty-two. The babies came, as did the crops, as did the storms and the bad years. The boys went to war and came home. The girl went to the city and to a trade school and married a shopkeeper from Waco. The boys found mates and moved to Lubbock and to Kilgore, where they had their own babies carrying on the old couple’s genes and spirits, and who held hands by the lamp’s dark gold light.
“Take me to the tree,” the woman said.
“I cannot my dove, it is too far for you.”
“Take me there and show me our initials you carved in its bark sixty years ago,” her face was set and the eyes clear and determined. “Fix blankets in the rig and use both mules and make us coffee and biscuits. It is only ten miles. Take me in the morning before the ‘norther gets set. We can be back before dark. The doctor said I had some time yet and I want to see our tree. We have not been since spring. I need to see the tree and the little dam we built and the pond there.”
The man was torn, for he knew the wagon ride would be long and painful for her and wished he had an automobile; this once, he wished so hard he had one to take her in, to their place. They had found the tree while in high school on a field trip to gather the huge, fossil snails that were scattered right on the surface of the ground. They had separated from the group for a brief kiss and embrace, standing under the tree’s shading canopy, a coolness that contrasted with the heat of their young love. He had carved their initials there, and they vowed, as lovers vow, to return often and watch how the tree formed a scar of the carving in its skin. They would watch it age and, though they did not know then, the aging of the tree’s skin was in time to the aging of the couple.
They had taken their children to the tree many times and had returned on anniversaries and when their parents died and when their sons went to war. They brought their first grandchild, their daughter’s son, and showed him the old carving.
Last spring, they returned to picnic beside the tree surrounded by brilliant fields of wildflowers in their dappled colors. This was their only ritual. Every April, for over sixty years, they went to the tree when the wildflowers bloomed, painting the little hills with purples and oranges and patches of mixed pinks and whites and blues. The tree stood alone, seemingly proud of his home, for his carpet was luxuriously soft and fragrant. Bees and birds sang their busy spring songs. Nests were being made in his branches, the sites chosen for the strength of his many arms and the cooling shade he would provide the nestlings when the hot rays came later.
Yes. The man would take her to the tree. He lay with her the night as he had every night their long life together. They talked little and only napped, each alone with their thoughts yet joined in arms or curled one behind the other. The wind grew stronger. The old man rose and put wood in the stove using embers from his supper meal to kindle a hot fire. He spread a quilt over their bed, a quilt the woman had made forty years before. It was multi-colored as the wildflowers and, in the center, a large tree, their tree, their love tree.
He listened to her breathing as she slept, fearing he may not again feel her breath on his skin, afraid to sleep for she may call to him and he not hear. Twice during the night, her whimpers had sent him to the laudanum bottle on the table beside the salt. he draped an arm across his chest and remembered its strength, its fullness, and the feel of it on her breasts when they had made love, the glorious weight of him on her. She thought of his delivering their babies, bringing each to her arms wet and warm from her body, and how they would count toes while he washed them and her. She napped and felt only the pain of the loss to come.
Dawn was sluggish and a dull, steel gray, with heavy, menacing clouds. The wind had quieted; the little kitchen felt warm, heated by the stove. The old man went to the outhouse, taking the chamber pot with him. He had taken over all of her chores now and was glad she had not become sick during planting or harvest time, or had she been in pain then also? The coffee was ready, and he poured two cups but saw that she was asleep. He prepared biscuit dough and saucer-drank his coffee then, while the biscuits baked, went to the barn and fed the two mules. The wagon was readied with blankets and several sacks of feed to make a dam so the woman would not roll.
The hawk was hunting again. The man paused to watch it swoop between the cottonwoods to emerge with its prey and pumped its dark wings in the heavy air, climbing again to take its breakfast to the nest.
The man hitched the mules bringing the wagon porch-side. He took the biscuits out, setting the old cast iron pan on a skillet to cool. The woman was awake. She called to him to put the tree quilt in the wagon and that she was ready when he had eaten his breakfast. The old man sat at his table, drank his coffee, and ate two biscuits. He did not put the ribbon cane syrup on them as usual; it’s sweetness was not to his taste just now.
He lifted her gently, her weight easily born by the still strong arms. He carried her to the wagon and made her comfortable on the straw in the bed. The tree quilt was put over he, and she smiled, her eyes twinkling with love for his touch as he tucked the quilt snug.
He climbed to the seat and gee-hawed the mules to the road. He wished for an automobile, just for today, for her. His sons had automobiles, but they would not arrive for several days after he got into town to call them. He would do that when he had brought her back from the tree.
He stopped several times to let her rest from the noise and jarring of the wagon. Each time, he held her hand, and they talked of memories. Once, he put medicine in her drink, for he could see pain in her eyes. They recalled the time their daughter almost drowned in the Lampasas, the day the oldest son graduated from high school, the first in their family to gain such education.
They talked of the joy when both the sons returned from war whole and well in spirit. And they smiled, remembering their first grandchild and the pride with which he was presented by their girl, all grown up into a beautiful woman and fine mother.
When the wagon topped the final hill, and the tree could be seen in the distance, the man made the last stop before they arrived.
He got in the wagon bed and raised her up, kneeling behind her to support her tiny weight with his arms. She saw the tree and squeezed his arm and kissed his cheek, running her hand over his face stubble. She loved the man of him, his smell of mules, earth, wood smoke, and cotton plants. She loved the feel of him, his chin whiskers that he could not completely shave away, his rough hands that touched her soul with every caress. She urged him on now, to the tree, their tree.
The wagon was stopped outside the tree’s canopy, and the man cleared an area for them beside its trunk. He raked twigs and leaves using a cedar branch, smoothing until only the dark, rich humus was revealed. On this, he put straw and brought the feed sacks so they could lean on them as pillows. He went back for the woman bringing her to this bed, this nest he made for her. She whimpered a little as he laid her down, and he was grateful for the bottle of medicine. He mixed a portion in the tin cup, and she drank. The tree quilt covered her, and she was positioned just under their initials.
The mules were unhitched and hobbled. The man wanted to walk to the creek but did not want to leave the woman there. It was cold. He felt a chill and lay beside her, covering himself with the quilt. He hoped they would start home in an hour or so as he feared the woman could not stay warm even with the blankets and quilt. The wind has stilled.
They talked again of blessings, of loss, and of the good fortune they had enjoyed for so very long. “Go down to the creek,” she whispered. “You always do, and it is full now with that big rain last week. I am warm and happy and will be fine here under our tree. Leave me the little bottle, pleas in case I get uncomfortable again, go on now I want to know if our little dam is still there at the bend.”
The man got up, adjusting the tree quilt about her, and started toward the creek. It was only a hundred yards, but, with each step, he felt he was moving miles from both her and the tree. He hurried his strides, wanting to see the dam at the bend and return to the woman. He felt still inside, deep inside like the stillness of the fields as they lay dormant, resting, waiting awaiting the spring. He felt his age for the first time in many years, old. He felt old and cold and still.
The little, rock dam he and the woman had made the year before was no longer there. The wall had breached and been scattered by the rush of runoff water. He knelt, picking up one of the smooth, white limestone rocks. He was not happy here and wanted to return to the tree and the woman. The dam was gone; the tiny pond it had made was gone. The pleasure they had stacking those rocks then watching the clear pool form was dull in his mind now. It seemed all his memories were flowing out of him, his own memory dam had breached, and he could not stop the loss.
She was so still. She did not wave as he approached. Perhaps she was sleeping and did not hear his call. He hurried his steps, his pants sounding crisp against the dry, cold buffalo grass. His foot found an armadillo burrow, and he stumbled, almost falling. He was afraid now, the tree seeming to retreat as he tried to hurry. He could see her plainly, and it seemed her eyes were open, not sleeping, and he waved, trying to appear calm. He waved again, but she did not stir.
Beside her now, beside her, as he had been with her all his conscious life, he took the tiny, soft hand, reached down, and closed her eyes. The laudanum bottle was empty. She slept the last sleep. The man rested, sitting beside her for awhile, then raised the quilt and lay with her. He moved his body over hers feeling her last warmth as it faded into the ground under the tree, under their love initials.
Hours he laid over her, not moving nor sleeping nor dreaming, coming to the acceptance of her being gone. He was alone now. He must take her home and bring the doctor. He laid there, his arms and legs cramping with the effort to not put his full weight on her. She became colder, and he hugged her closer, determined to keep her warm, and he began to cry. His sobs were deep and silent. Only their tree could hear or feel them. It came to him then, that this is where she wanted to stay. Here, at their tree, is where he would put her to rest.
The old man returned to the wagon, retrieving the shovel he always kept there. He began to turn the soft earth under the tree. It gave easily, yet the work was tiring. He dug deep, turning the ground over, going through layer after rich layer of black earth, the product of 300 years of fallen leaves, decayed plants, and small animals. She would rest warm here, her body mixing with the earth, making it richer and warmer.
The man felt more at peace with his decision feeling it was what the woman had wanted for some time, knowing he would not have brought her here had she told him her plan. He needed to be here, to feel the pull of the tree and the creek. She had always known him so well.
The grave was dug. He rested awhile, then gently carried her to it and placed her in the earth. He left her covered with the blanket but did not put it in the ground. When she was covered, it was late afternoon, and he ate another biscuit and drank the last of the coffee. He sat beside the grave and looked at their initials carved so very long ago. The letters were almost illegible, for the tree had grown its thick skin covering much of each letter. He was very tired. He did not feel the cold for his body was warmed by his labor. Moving to sit in the place she had been, he leaned against the tree’s huge body. Its bark dug into his head, and he, at last, felt discomfort as the tree hide speared his neck. He welcomed the pain, for it cut through the numbness he had felt, or unfelt all day. The man slept.
His sleep was deep, for he had only napped the night before, and digging the grave had been strenuous. His breathing slowed. He did not feel himself becoming chilled, nor did his falling temperature awake him. The night crept silently across the dry buffalo grass. The cold followed the dark, and the man slept.
Leaves began to fall from the tree as though weeping or, with the coming of fall, as aspens shed theirs. Leaves above the old man fell on him as he slept. Green, living leaves fell by the thousands building and building until the man was covered in leaves. They did not fall elsewhere from the tree. And, into the night, the windless and frigid night, the man slept, and the leaves fell. When he moved in sleep, more leaves fell to cover him with an ever-thickening blanket of foliage both alive and not.
Dawn came on silent cat’s feet. The sun rose, and the man slept. The leaf blanket was large, the man was covered well under it’s insulating warmth. The sun rose still. A hawk flew into the largest arm of the tree and cried an alarm rivaling the best of the man’s several roosters. For a moment, he started and was disoriented, unable to see for the many thousand leaves that covered his sight. He jerked and scattered them opening his eyes to the strong and warm sun. Rays painted his face, lighting the small area that his leaf blanket occupied. Looking up, he saw first the hawk and knew its color. Then he saw the leafless branches over his head. Through those branches streamed the brilliant gold of the sun. He did not understand, for the live oak does not shed its leaves in winter, and there were many green leaves about him. Looking, he did not understand either, how leaves had fallen only upon him and the bed-nest he had made for the woman.
The man stood, shaking off the last of the leaf-blanket. He picked up the tree quilt and paused at the woman’s grave. A hawk feather had come to rest on the dirt mound. He kneeled, placing his hand on the earth of the woman’s grave, then picked up the feather. The mules were hitched. The old man left her there to be covered by the tree’s leaves and protected by it from the sun. He left her there in the tree’s steadfast solidity to guard her and to love her.
The old man wrapped the tree quilt around his shoulders and gee-hawed the mules home.
NOTE: While this story is fiction, the tree IS NOT! It is one of the main reasons I purchased the fifteen acre parcel of land in Central Texas back in 1996 when I retired from the Air Force. I estimate the tree is 300-350 years old
Walking under its huge branches one afternoon, I wondered what all the tree had witnessed such as cattle drives or range fires or tornados. I have several more stores that revolve around 'Sir Tree.'