The Walnut Trees

“It was just there, beyond the meadow.” Old Jack pointed a long bony finger towards the darkening wood.

“Shall we go?” I asked. “I would like to see the place.” Jack smiled down at me.

“It’s getting towards supper time and growing dark. Your mother would not forgive me if she found I had taken you so close to the forest.”

“But I want to see!” I stamped my foot impatiently.

“That wood is no place for a young boy. And those walnut trees are long gone. There is nothing there anymore but a tangle of old roots. All dead and rotting away.”

Frowning, I reached up and tucked my small hand into Jacks large one. “Well then… let us go to supper.” We turned from the wood and walked through the autumn-dry meadow towards the house. Mother would have supper on the table. She, Jack and I would sit to eat. Then there would be washing up, both of the supper dishes and of me, equally vigorously for my mother did nothing by halves, and I would be read a bible story. Then I would climb the oak ladder to my single bed in the eaves, just above my mother’s bed.

Old Jack had a small, but very cozy at least to my mind, room in the barn. He had packed the walls of it with straw and mud, had an old brass bedstead, a table and chair and a small pot-bellied stove. I longed for a room of my own and spoke often of my wishes to both Jack and my mother. Mother would hush me saying that small boys did not sleep in barns unless they had to, and that I should be grateful that father had left us in an enviable position and that she didn’t want to hear anymore foolishness from me. Jack only said that I would have my own room all in good time and would say no more.

I lay in my bed under a feather quilt from our own geese thinking about the walnut trees and the secrets they had held. Next year I was to go away to school in Boston and I would have no time for stories and wild fancies – or so mother called them. She said that at school, I would acquire an orderly mind. I wanted to be a writer like Nathanial Hawthorne but not a surveyor. I wanted to write about the walnut trees and the wood and fields and our town. And I didn’t see that I needed school to accomplish that goal. But mother had other plans for me. Fretting upon these difficulties, I finally fell asleep.

“Phillip – Hurry!” My father, his long, golden hair blowing across his face, called to me – waving his arms, from midway across the meadow.  But he was so young. I stood frozen, watching him from the edge of the chicken yard, uncertain. And then I saw them; the walnut trees. Tall, and full, leaves and branches rustling in the summer wind, they towered above my father, beckoning. Beautiful.

I started across the field towards my father. This must be a dream – he was long gone, felled by influenza the same year the trees sickened and died. It was beetles that took the trees, mother insisted. Beetles. I started to run, but my legs were so short. The faster I ran, the farther away I seemed to be. My father laughed aloud.

“Wait! Wait for me!” I shouted with what little breath I had as I ran.

“Phillip, hurry! It’s time to harvest the walnuts. This year we shall make…” The wind rose and I could no longer hear him. I woke, thrashing and sweating, my mother by my side.

“Sit up dearest. You’re having a bad dream.” She slid an arm behind me and I sat. “Drink a bit of this.”

She tilted the cup towards my mouth. It held warm tea with a teaspoon of the walnut cordial my father had made from the harvest of the two trees, in the summer before the influenza took him. Golden, sweet, walnuts from the English Walnut tree, and dark, earthy, musky walnuts from the Black Walnut tree. I sipped and the memory of the dream slipped away. I lay down and mother wiped my brow with a soft cloth.

“I saw father…” I began haltingly before the memory was lost completely. “He called me to the walnut trees. I tried to run, but…”

“There, there. You were but a babe when we lost him. It’s not possible you would recognize him.“

“He was slender and tall and had golden brown hair, the color of walnuts, and he laughed and called me by name!” I protested. My mother leaned back and looked at me very intently.

“Tomorrow I’ll have Jack take you to the edge of the meadow to see where the trees stood. They were your father’s favorite. He would often sit beneath them to read at the end of the day in the summer. We picknicked beneath them when you were but a babe.” She sighed and a faraway look overcame her. I tugged at her shawl.

“But the tress died the same year he did. It wasn’t beetles, was it?” She was silent as the wood in the stove crackled and snapped. Shadows danced about the corners and eaves of our little house.

“No, I don’t think it was.” She had forgotten that she was talking to me, or so it seemed. Her voice was faint. “I believe those trees loved him as much as he loved them. They just didn’t want to live without him. Tomorrow. And I shall come with you. We will remember them together.”

I lay back down and closed my eyes. Mother sat beside me humming softly, and finally, finally, I fell asleep in my walnut wood bed.