The Heart of Oak

Sean McCollum November 24, 2018
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Long ago, but not very far away, there once lived a farm family by the name of Billington. They numbered seven in their cozy and crowded little house, including Opa, who had moved into the attic with the bats and pigeons.

The Billingtons loved their little farm as if it were a queen’s kingdom. They called it Emerald Hills because its fields were as green as a leprechaun’s eyes and its ponds as blue as his shoes. Its fields and woods and streams and hills had been in the family for lifetimes and longer, longer than any natural-born person could remember.

Each early morning—rain or shine, Saturday or Monday, happy or sad—the Billingtons would roll out of bed to do their chores. Mama milked the cows while Papa kneaded bread. Billy split wood while Marie fetched eggs. Ned fed the horses while Pluto the dog rounded up sheep. And little Jenny Billington set the table for breakfast, whispering to herself, “Fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right.” Opa’s job was to play happy music on the zither.

At Emerald Hills—as on any farm—there was always more work to be done. But every Sunday, after chores and prayers, the Billingtons would enjoy a day of rest. Mama and Papa would shoo the children out the door so they could discuss important matters. Billy, Marie, Ned, and Jenny would play checkers, or hide-and-seek in the hayloft, or climb the giant white pine, or do the million-and-one other things that their imaginations could imagine.

And every Sunday as the family’s life whirled around him, Opa would put on his old pair of leather boots he’d worn in a war, stuff his head in his hat, and take his weathered walking stick in hand. It had belonged to his father, and his father’s mother, and his father’s mother’s father, and so on and on, and their names were carved one below the other from the handle on down. Opa called the stick “Heart of Oak,” though he never explained why, and it rarely left his reach. Outfitted just so, Opa would shoo away anyone who wished to follow and disappeared.

One year, the farm did not do so well. The rain wouldn’t fall and the sun burned hot. The fields of Emerald Hills turned a weary yellow. “Almost as bad as the drought of ‘48,” Opa said, looking at the pale sky. “It was so dry, the fish walked upstream.”

Even so, the Billingtons found enough to smile and joke about, and held hands in a circle whenever they said table grace. And every Sunday was still set aside as a day of rest. At Sunday dinner, each Billington child would bring something that they had made or found or learned and that they wished to show the rest of the family—that was the family tradition.

On one such night during that dry summer, the Billingtons had a visitor. They had just sat down to a dinner of chicken, nettle salad, and roasted chestnuts, when there was a knock-knocking on the door. “Who could that be?” Mama asked, since the nearest farm was miles away. When Papa opened the door, the lantern light of the room spilled onto the face of a woman dressed in an olive green cloak. Her face did not seem old or young, but her gray eyes scurried about the room like a rat searching a cupboard.

“Good evening,” Papa said politely. “What can we do for you?”

The woman held out her long, bony fingers and said, “I am a foot-worn wayfarer journeying to join my rich husband who wears a wide black hat. Would you be so kind as to invite me in and share a meal with a weary woman?”

The Billingtons, as was their way, did so. Little Jenny jumped up and set another place across from Opa, whispering, “Fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right.”

“She looks like a bad witch,” Ned whispered to Marie so quietly no one could have overheard. But the woman’s eyes fell full on Ned and he said not another word.

As dinner was served, Mama started a polite conversation, chuckling, “My, my, my, it’s been a hard year for we farmers, hasn’t it?”

“Not for my rich husband who wears a wide black hat, it hasn’t,” the woman answered, giving herself a generous portion of nettle salad. “He works so hard, his hayloft is always full and he can’t close the door to the root cellar. If everyone worked as hard as we do, there’d be nothing to complain about.”

The table fell as silent as if a spell had been cast.

“How’s your dinner?” Papa Billington finally asked, for he was very proud of Mama’s cooking.

“I’ve had better blackbird than this starved duck you call a chicken,” she answered with hardly a pause between bites. “Me and my rich husband in his wide black hat and would only serve a big, fat pheasant to a guest.” Color rose in Papa’s cheeks. Mama, though, gave him a look which warned him to hold his tongue.

“Look what I found,” Little Jenny chimed in after all were done eating, and pulled the shedded skin of a snake from beneath her chair. “It was wrapped around the trunk of a tree in the apple orchard.”

“How interesting,” the family said and passed the skin around. The guest acted too disgusted to touch it.

“Looks like a big ol’ bull snake,” added Opa. “That’s a good sign. He catches the rats and mice that take the grain.”

Marie brought out a robin’s nest. In it were three open sky-blue eggshells. “I found it in the mulberry bush by the pond.”

“That’s a good sign,” said Papa. “Means the robins know the earth is still rich with worms who make the soil right for planting.”

Ned brought our three acorns which he had painted to look like wee men in little caps, but he did not speak.

“That’s a good sign,” said Mama, handing them along. “Means old Mama Oak has faith that this dry time will pass.”

Then Billy showed a whip he’d made from old ox hide and three strands he had woven from dried hemp. On the tip of each strand was a dried thistle. “That’s good craft,” said Opa said, turning the whip over in his hands.

“What insipid little children,” the woman said with a twisted smile. “Who has time for such play when there is always work to be done. Me and my rich husband in his wide black hat have no time for such useless ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ I can see why your weary old farm is doing so poorly. If I were you, I’d sell it all and move to a life in town.”

All the Billingtons’ eyes were wide with surprise, except for Opa, who said, “Why, you’re downright rude!”

The woman looked at him in shock, then her eyes became all teary and she began to weep. Tears as large as egg yolks splashed on the table. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sometimes I have no control of my tongue. Please forgive me.” The Billingtons looked at Opa with reproach, and even Opa could not stand up to that. He offered her his handkerchief. She blew her bony nose on it and stuffed the kerchief in her pocket. “Now where am I too sleep in this stuffy little hut? My rich husband in his wide black hat has a mansion a hundred times this size and he sleeps in a different room each night.”

She ended up in Opa’s attic, while Opa—muttering to himself—made a bed in the barn. The next morning, the woman left after breakfast without thanking anyone and continued on her way.

A certain sadness, though, settled in on Emerald Hills that had not been there before. Before too many days had passed, worry lines criss-crossed Mama’s and Papa’s brows and their words became few. Those they said had a hard edge. The Billingtons worked harder to make the farm produce more and more. Even little Jenny pulled on the daisies to try to make them grow faster. Soon, Sundays seemed like any other day of toil. But even with all of the extra effort, they got little more from the land.

One night just before bed, Billy was sitting with Opa on the back porch listening to crickets while Opa smoked his pipe. Through the open door they heard Papa whisper to Mama, “What will we do? What will we do? I don’t see how her rich husband in the wide black hat could have filled his hayloft and root cellar in a summer like this. They must have better land . . . or be better farmers. Maybe we should sell the farm and move to town.”

“Harumph,” Opa said quietly to Billy, and again, “harumph.” He pointed his pipe stem at Billy and said, “This farm here’s as fine as the people on it, but that cruel woman has poisoned it sure as if she plowed salt into the fields.” Opa tilted his head back and sniffed the air.

“What is it, Opa?” Billy asked.

“When thee get my age, grandson, and thee’re down to your last two teeth,” Opa answered between sniffs, “thee can smell trouble coming from a ways off. And this trouble smells as bad as a sheep with an unbobbed tail.”

The next morning, young Ned spotted a plume of dust moving in the far distance—a horse was coming. The cloud came closer and closer until a tall black horse carrying a rider whose black hat’s brim was the size of a wagon wheel. The whole family gathered to meet him, Pluto barking at his stirrup.

“Are you the rich man in the wide black hat?” Marie blurted out.

“Why, yes I am, missy,” answered the stranger with eyes that sparkled like sun on green granite. He slid from the horse and landed on the ground with a jangle of his one spur. He was dressed in a black suit and a white shirt with a black collar that ringed his neck. He strode up to Papa and Mama and shook his hand and kissed hers.

“My name is Mr. Green,” the fellow said and doffed his hat. “My wife said your farm was in trouble and riding along your fields I could see that it was so. You’ve got trouble as sure as I am good. But sure as I am good, I can help, since you seem like good folks.” He smiled as wide as a bullfrog.

“Let me show you something.” Mr. Green drew a bright green apple as large as a musk melon from under his hat and handed it to Papa. “That’s from my orchard. Finest apple that you ever saw, don’t you think?”

“That’s a fine apple, all right,” Papa said, turning it round and round in his hands. He could see his reflection in its shiny green skin, and in it he looked happy and rich. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful thing,” he whispered, his face drooping like a cloak in the rain.

“Why don’t you take a bite,” Mr. Green whispered. “Then you’ll see how good your farm can be.”

Opa stepped forward and plucked the apple from Papa’s hands, saying, “Don’t look quite ripe. I’ll hold it till it’s ready. Mmm-mmm, I can taste it now.”
Mr. Green flashed a look at Opa as hateful as lightning, but it passed as fast as lightning, too. But “Let’s go look at your orchard,” was all that he said.

They walked up the hill to the dozen apple trees that Opa’s opa had planted long ago. Only a few apples of average size hung from their branches, but they were tiny when compared to the giant green fruit Mr. Green had brought.

“No rain at all this spring when the apple blossoms needed it,” Papa explained.
“Rain, shmain, my good man,” said Mr. Green. “Your problems are much bigger than that. Lookie here.” Mr. Green’s hand darted into the crook of one of the trees and pulled down a big snake. “You’ve got evil on your land, sure as I am good.”

“Why that’s just a bull snake,” Opa said. “He’s a farmer’s good friend if thee can keep him out of the chicken coop.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale, old man,” Mr. Green said and dashed the snake dead against the ground. “Evil is full of tricks and can even perform good deeds to its purpose. I have killed all of the snakes on our farm and it is like a paradise.”

“What should we do?” Mama asked, wrapping her hands in her apron.

“You seem like good folks,” Mr. Green said with a suspicious look.
“We are!” interrupted Marie with a shout.

“But you must have done something to bring such hardship on yourselves,” Mr. Green continued. “It’s against my better judgment, but as your neighbor I feel a duty to help.” He turned and swept his arm across the sky. “Give me all of your land from here to the horizon. I will build a great tall tower. In that tower I will put a bell that will ring like a thunderclap and drive all evil from the land.” Mr. Green reached up his sleeve and pulled out a blank piece of paper and a quill pen. “Just sign this.”

“And if we don’t?” Papa asked.

“My guess is you’ll go hungry this winter and move to town by spring. Sign this and you’ll be harvesting the finest wheat these parts have ever seen.”

Mama and Papa looked at each other. “Maybe we should,” Mama said quietly. “He seems to know what he is talking about.”

“We’ve tried everything else,” Papa said.

Opa stepped forward and plucked the quill pen from Mr. Green’s hand. “Hmm,” Opa said, “looks like it’s made from a peacock plume.” And with a flick of his thumb he broke off its tip. “I’m mighty sorry about that. Poor craft. Looks like thee’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Mr. Green’s face turned purple as a plum and he trembled like a dam about to burst, but “Fine,” was all that he said. He got on his horse and rode away in a great cloud of dust.

“We’ll save your apple till then!” Opa shouted after him.

“Get back to work!” Papa shouted at the children. He was still staring off after Mr. Green. The children hurried off to worry over what Mr. Green had said.

“May I have a word with thee?” he said to Mama and Papa and ushered them to the cushion of needles beneath the shade of the tall pine tree.

“Before ye decide anything,” Opa began, “ye need to do this which I tell thee. When the sun turns orange this afternoon, take the Heart of Oak and follow the path that begins behind the barn.” He held the walking stick out to Papa. “Follow that path over the fields and across the stream and up two hills till thee reach the old forest. There thee’ll find the largest oak thee’ll ever have seen—its branches tickle the clouds and roots reach near to the world’s ocean. In that tree ye’ll see a notch. Place the Heart of Oak in that notch and whisper thy worry to the leaves. Sooner or later thy answer will come.”

Papa and Mama looked at Opa with doubtful faces, but Papa took the walking stick.

That afternoon when the sun had just turned orange, Mama looked at Papa with a sigh and they both put down their work. “Where’s Opa?” Mama asked. Papa shrugged and they set out on their walk, following the worn path that began behind the barn. Papa’s powerful hand held the Heart of Oak.

They followed the trail up over the hill to where the chestnut tree spread its mighty branches. Then down the other side they went and through their field of wheat. They checked the grain and saw that there weren’t many kernels, but enough to make flour for the winter.

They hopped over the stream that was just a trickle. “Oh! Look!” Mama cried. And she knelt down along the bank. She pulled back the grasses and there, lo and behold, was a patch of wild strawberries. “There’s enough for shortcake!” she laughed, and the two of them proceeded to gather up as many of the red berries as they could find and put them in the pockets of Mama’s apron. They each ate one, then Mama gave Papa a kiss.

The path led them to the height of a tall hill. They paused and looked around—the forest down below with its tall maples and oaks and tulip trees just beginning to turn to the reds, golds, and purples of fall. The wheat fields and hay fields and corn fields stretched out like a quilt before them. In the distance, they smiled at the tall white pine whose layered branches marked their home.
Without speaking, Mama and Papa touched hands. They continued on the path that led into the forest.

After some time, they stood before the oak tree that was so big around if all the Billingtons held hands they could not have circled it. They looked up and were sure its highest branches could touch the lowest clouds, and wondered if its roots reached near to the world’s ocean. He found the notch and put the walking stick into it as Opa had said to do.

As if in answer, they heard something—or someone—say “Dagnabbit!” Then there was a crash in the branches above their heads.

Papa cupped his hands around his mouth and said, “Hello?”

“Yes, yes, hold your horses!” came an impatient voice from up in the tree, but neither Mama or Papa could see anyone through the thick branches and leaves. They heard some more thrashing, then all was still, except for the little titmice who flitted about, keeping one eye on their visitors. “There, now what can I do for thee?” the voice said.

“My father sent us to ask . . .” Papa shrugged, “. . . for advice.”

“Wise man, thy father,” said the voice.

“If I may ask: who are you?” Mama shouted.

“I’m the Tender of the Wood. I have been here for lifetimes and longer, longer than any natural born person can remember. I was here when thy father’s mother’s grandmother’s father and mother came to these parts to create thy family’s farm. We made a promise to one another: He vowed love the land and all that lived on it as if it were a member of his clan, and agreed never to cut down this stretch of forest. For my part, I promised to ensure Emerald Hills gave enough for his clan and the generations that came after.”

“Are you spirit or mortal?” Mama asked. But both she and Papa had to stifle a smile, for the voice from up above seemed rather familiar.

“Why, spirit, of course,” said the Tender of the Wood. “That’s why ye can’t see me. Now what is the nature of thy concern?”

“Well, if the truth be known, the farm has done poorly this year due to the drought and we have doubts of whether or not we’ll have enough to eat this winter,” said Papa.

“The year has been terribly dry,” agreed the Tender. “But I have walked thy fields and kissed the apples in thy orchard for lifetimes and longer . . . between what ye stored from last year, and what ye harvest this fall, thy family will not go hungry.”

“Will we have enough feed for the animals?” Papa asked.

“Likely not,” answered the Tender. “So do as I say: A little further along this trail is a lovely stand of maple trees that make a lovely syrup during the winter. Tap their sap come the cold and cook it down. Then sell it in town for a cartload of hay and two barrels of oats. Then thee will have enough. But save enough syrup for thy children and thy father—they might like something sweet.”

Mama and Papa muffled their chuckles.

“Now, what’s this I hear about recent visitors to thy farm?” the Tender of the Wood asked.

“Ah, yes. Mrs. and Mr. Green,” Papa said. “They say evil has taken over the land.”

“They want us to give up all the fields from the barn to the horizon,” Mama continued. “They plan to use this tree to build a tall tower with a bell that will ring like a thunderclap to drive out bad spirits.”

There was a long moment of silence before the voice spoke again. “Did this Mr. Green bring thee an apple?”

“Yes, a giant apple—big as a melon,” answered Papa.

“Then do as I say: Prepare a feast for his return. Mama Billington—I hear ye make the best pie in these parts. Bake up this apple in the pie and serve it to him when he returns tomorrow.”

“I will do that, O—I mean Tender,” Mama answered.

“One last thing,” the Tender of the Wood said. “Take the walking stick from the notch.” Papa did as he was told. “The Heart of Oak is thy responsibility now, passed to thee from thy father and all that came before. When it is time, thee will pass it to thy children. It is a promise between thy family and the land. Return it to this tree now and again as a sign that ye remember. Carve thy name into the stick, carry it with thee. The land is a hard master, but it will love thee well if ye do likewise.”

“Thank you, Tender of the Wood,” Papa whispered. Nothing more was said. Mama and Papa returned home and for the first time in a while, there was laughter in the house. Opa came home from a walk as the last light of the day faded, but no one asked him where he had been.

The next day was Sunday, and tending to the animals the Billingtons prepared a feast. They set a long table in the yard. They baked and cooked and plucked and picked until that table was layered with food. Then they all got dressed in their best. Before too long Ned spotted dust coming down the road and soon a carriage appeared bearing Mr. and Mrs. Green. He was dressed all in white now and his wide black hat looked like a mushroom top.

To the Billingtons’ surprise, Mrs. Green now appeared as a fetching young woman with long brown hair and a face as smooth as a peach—not the pinch-a-face who had visited Emerald Hills before. She wore the same olive green cloak, however.

“Welcome to our humble farm, Mr. and Mrs. Green,” Papa said with a little bow.
“We are honored by your presence,” Mama added with a curtsy. All the children bowed and curtsied, too. Opa just nodded.

“You have prepared a feast in our honor. How fitting,” Mr. Green said, his eyes running up and down the plates and platters of food on the table. “Isn’t that delightful, darling?” he asked his wife.

She just shrugged, said “Hmpf—how wasteful,” and from the carriage looked down her button nose at everyone.

The Billingtons’ politeness, though, could not hide their curiosity about Mrs. Green’s sudden loss of years. “She IS a bad witch,” Ned whispered to Marie, so softly that no one could have overheard.

Mrs. Green’s squinted eyes came to rest on Ned, and again he froze speechless before her gaze.

“Mrs. Green, you look much rested from when we last met,” Mama Billington said, stepping between her children and the carriage.

“Our farm’s spring water does wonders for the complexion and makes one look and feel years younger,” Mrs. Green answered. “You should try it, dear.”

Mrs. Billington smiled sweetly. “I prefer the sun on my face, Ma’am.”

“Will you accept our offer to save your farm?” Mr. Green asked.

“Before we discuss such matters, let us dine and enjoy one another’s company,” Mama said.

After they all had eaten their fill, Mama went into the house to fetch desert.

“See here, Billington,” Mr. Green said, pulling a thin cigar from the band of his wide black hat. He set the blank sheet of paper and a new quill pen before Papa. “I’ll need wood to build that tower to help save your farm. So include that stand of forest across the hills where that giant oak stands. Agreed? It is time for that oak to fall for its wood will make a tower of great power.”

“Let’s eat dessert, first, good neighbor,” Papa said, reaching a lit match to Mr. Green’s cigar. And as he said that, Mama emerged from the house bearing an apple pie that steamed like an early morning pond. As the Tender of the Wood had told her, she had baked up the large apple that Mr. Green had brought the day before.

“Mama has baked up your remarkable apple into a luscious pie, Mr. and Mrs. Green,” Papa said. “I trust you’ll like it.” The Greens sat back and glanced at one another.

“It is our family’s tradition, Mr. Green, that the guest take the first bite,” Opa said. He nodded at the two pieces he had served on two plates and set before the guests. The other Billingtons gave Opa a strange glance since they had never heard of such a tradition before.

“We’re mighty full, thank you very much,” Mr. Green answered, patting his belly.

“Why don’t you all go ahead?”

“Oh, but we insist,” Opa said.

“No, we mustn’t,” Mrs. Green said. “We . . . we . . . meant that apple for you, you poor darlings. We meant it as a spot of joy in your miserable little lives. You go ahead.”

Papa scratched his beard and watched Mr. and Mrs. Green from beneath his bushy brows. “Is something wrong with my wife’s pie?”

“I never said that!” Mr. Green answered.

“Or with the apple?” Opa said.

Mr. Green smiled so wide his ears disappeared under the brim of his wide black hat. He picked up his fork and elbowed his wife in the side. She finally raised her fork, and they both winced as they put the hot forkfuls in their mouths. As they chewed, Mr. Green gazed around the table smiling at everyone. “Mmm-mmm,” he murmured. “Ma’am, that is a very good pie,” he said, nodding toward Mama.

Then they swallowed and their faces fell like a pile of cider apples that had been stacked too high. “In fact, it’s the best pie I’ve ever tasted,” Mr. Green continued. “My wife could never make a pie that good. Could you give her the recipe?”

“Why you feckless toadstool,” Mrs. Green said, her eyes blazing at her husband.
“That’s because most apples you grow are so full of worms.”

But he didn’t hear her insult because his eyes and thoughts were locked on Mama Billingon’s face. “What beautiful teeth you have, and a nose to match. Your eyes are like precious stones I once saw but could not afford to buy. Your husband is the luckiest man alive.” As he said that, a green smelly cloud began to rise from where he sat.

“At least you have a husband that can build a roof that doesn’t leak,” Mrs. Green said, nodding at the barn and house roofs. As she said it, her face began to twist. “Our house blew down the night my husband said it was finished. Now we live in a hole in a hill.”

“Well, if you weren’t always nagging me about buying you this, buying you that, maybe I’d have the time,” he growled as he stood.

“You couldn’t earn an honest living if silver grew in the garden,” she shouted back, and the smelly green cloud enveloped them both.

Without saying thank you or God Bless or anything of kindness about the meal they had just enjoyed, Mr. and Mrs. Green walked toward the carriage, their business forgotten. Her shape began to change into that of the woman the Billingtons had met on that first night.

Papa approached the two of them with Heart of Oak in hand, his squinting eyes watering in the green stink. “I can’t thank you enough, Mr. and Mrs. Green,” Papa said with a cough. He tore Mr. Green’s agreement in two and handed each of them a piece. “You helped us to see the value of what we have—and the poison that comes with wanting that of others. Now be on your way.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Green snarled. “You country bumpkins.”

“Indeed, you ungrateful work-a-days,” Mr. Green added, climbing into the carriage. “See if I try to help you again.”

The Billingtons lined up, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, and hand in hand. They watched as the Greens’ carriage turned onto the road. For quite some time, they could see a green cloud rising from that direction.

Mr. and Mrs. Green never returned to Emerald Hills. To this day, Billingtons live there. As often as they think of it, they carry the Heart of Oak to that giant tree. Its branches now reach higher to the clouds. Its roots have moved closer to the world’s ocean.

The End

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