The chilly autumn day had slowly faded away. As an imposing twilight pressed forward, clearing the way for the haunting night, a cool breeze picked up. A full pale moon rose, its somber face pallid and ashen in horrified awe of the spectacle beneath it.
Outside of Birmingham, there was a small clearing in which a single oak tree stood. Knobbed, gnarled, and twisted, the bare giant reached towards the dappling of stars across the black canvas of night. At its feet lay the rotting remembrance of its summer’s cloak of vibrant green leaves; now they were shriveled and a dry, crackling brown.
At the edge of the clearing, a shadow shifted. From the concealed gloom beneath the canopy of trees stepped a delicate frame, robed in black. Head bowed, it stepped out into the pale moonlight. Slowly, the figure raised its face and threw back the black shawl.
The woman was striking. Her ebony hair was pinned up in a delicate twist, a few small strands escaping to frame her porcelain face. She had full lips and large, brown, doe eyes. The chill brought a rosy blush to her cheeks that put ordinary rouge to shame. Her breath escaped in even white puffs, as if she were a winter fairy depositing frost on the panes of glass before dawn.
In her arms she held a bundle to her chest as though it was the greatest wonder of the world. Taking a deep breath, she clutched the bundle even tighter, and crossed the clearing determinedly towards the imposing oak. The grassy expanse was speckled with wilting wild flowers, struck down by the cold snap. She walked confidently, the shawl and velvet coat trimmed in fur doing little to cut the cold. The gooseflesh on her arms, however, was the only evidence that the night chill had reached her. The burning cold she had battled within herself since the letter had come all those weeks ago had left her nearly immune to the frosty night; save for those involuntary goose bumps.
Her pale face contrasted with the black dress conforming to her slender, elegant body. The black lace shawl, royal purple velvet coat trimmed in black mink, and her midnight hair, combined with the bleaching effect of the moon, made her revealed skin seem nearly transparent. Like a ghost, she drifted nearer the oak and kneeled next to the glistening marble stone.
“Oh!” she gasped, then looked away in pain. She struggled for breath, taking them in a staggered rhythm. Slowly, she looked back at the immovable marble. She set down the bundle gently and pulled back the worn rag – corner by corner. The moonlight glinted on something small and silver. She gently picked up the locket and opened the clasp. The engraved silver egg split in two, revealing two black and white portraits. On the left was a fair girl, hardly over twenty. Her sweet dark eyes and dazzling smile were framed by tumbling black hair, silky and smooth. Opposite of her portrait was a young man, not much older than her.
He had light hair; it appeared to be a spool of golden thread unraveled in sweeping curls, like an angel’s own crown of hair. His blinding smile reached clear to his light eyes; the colorless photograph didn’t capture the endless blue depths to them, the way one could look into them and see heaven itself and lose all sense of direction. He had deep child-like dimples that gave him an aura of light-heartedness and innocence. His long lashes and darkened skin made him a prince charming in every way. He wore a green shade of khaki decorated with patches, chevrons, and ribbon signaling his rank in the army. Looking at the portrait of him, the woman felt a glistening tear slip down her cheek. The crystalline liquid shimmered on her chin as she fought the waver in her lip. Then it fell, a diamond of raw emotion, into her lap. She wiped away the trail it left, to no avail. The floodgates had been opened.
Tear upon tear escaped from her sorrowed eyes. She hesitantly slipped the silver locket over her head, letting the pendant fall on her chest near her heart. She reached down to the unwrapped bundle and picked up a single black iris. Long, elegant, and fragile, the dark flower scented the air with a tangible fragrance, so sweet it seemed bitter in this time of mourning. She laid it gently at the foot of the marble headstone. She then reached hesitantly out, and with a single finger traced the deep black lines carved into the marble.
Charles S. Parker
Aug. 14, 1923 – Sept. 4 1945
The cold face of the marble stung her like a hornet, and she withdrew her hand quickly. She looked up towards the endless abyss of night, through the branches of the sullen oak. She closed her eyes, still streaming with tears, and let her memories drift to a warmer memory, one full of light and happiness she no longer believed to exist.
The spring sunshine warmed her face as she lay in the thick grass. The air was fresh and sweet after the spring rains. Above her swayed the branches of a magnificent oak tree, green with the life of spring. Her knee-length, navy blue cotton dress fanned out around her. Birds chirped in the trees surrounding the clearing, and the breeze whispered in the fluttering of the leaves. Her long black hair was in two braids, tied with white ribbons at the ends. A strong, steady hand laced through hers, and she looked to her right. The sun hit his golden hair and lit it up, like a golden halo. The sparkle in his eyes brought a smile to her lips, and she sighed.
“Ya know, I’ve been meanin’ to ask ya somethin’ for a while,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows. She stared at him with a quizzical look. He flashed her a grin, then stood up. “Here, c’mon and stand up for a minute.” He pulled her to her feet gently. She stretched out, breathing a deep breath of the sweet April air.
“Just what do ya think yer up to, Charlie?” she asked in a voice like honey. He held a finger to his lips, then gently grabbed her shoulders.
“Turn ‘round, just for a sec. You’ll see.” She spun, playing with the hem of her dress. The grassy clearing was dotted here and there with whites, yellows, and lavenders; the first spring blooms of wildflowers. “Alright, you can look now.” She turned around and gasped. He kneeled on one knee, his right hand extended. Between his thumb and forefinger was a band of gold, delicate and simple. The light caught it and it glinted, bright and shining like the curls on his head.
“Oh!” she gasped, and the words were lost. She struggled to find something – anything! – to say. “Do ya mean…..” she trailed off.
“Marry me. I’ll never love you more than I do right now. Let’s do it tomorrow.” He looked at her solemnly, his eyes burning with the desire to have her, to call her his own.
“But our parents! We can’t just –“
“Fine. Next Sunday. We’ll get a real preacher ‘n everythin’. Right after Sunday services. What’d’ ya say?”He looked up at her hopefully.
“Yes,’ she whispered, almost inaudibly. “Yes, I will marry you!” she then shrieked, throwing herself into his arms.
Suddenly the memory shifted. The spring was replaced by the heat of summer, and though they were both beneath the oak tree, the mood was drastically different.
They stood beneath the oak, the shade from the thick branches doing little to shield them from the muggy heat of June. She wore her Sunday best, a starched white dress with a blue satin bow around her waist. On her left hand the golden band that he had given her just over a month ago. Her hair was curled and pinned up tightly against the nape of her neck. He stood quietly, looking at her gently.
“Why do ya have to go?” she whispered, staring at him with a somber face of stone. “Can’t ya just pretend to be sick or somethin’?” He smiled, but no light reached his eyes.
“If only. But a draft’s a draft. They need me to go and help them poor folks in Europe, ‘else this whole world might just fall apart under them Nazi’s.” He tenderly reached up to her neck and pulled out the pin in her hair. The long locks tumbled down to her waist, curled and gleaming in the summer sun. “There, now. That’s just the way I wanna remember ya.” He glanced down at his watch. “I better be going. Tran will be here soon. Don’t worry; I’ll be home safe ‘n sound ‘fore ya know it.” With that he bent down and brushed a kiss gently on her cheek, shouldered his pack, and walked across the clearing into the thicket of trees, towards the road. She watched him grow smaller, his khaki uniform and black boots disappearing into the thick trees. She fell to her knees and leaned against the tree.
“Goodbye,” she said aloud, but nobody but the tall oak heard her.
The girl opened her eyes. The tears were streaming down in a constant downpour. She leaned forward and softly kissed the headstone, her red lipstick leaving a mark right above the second date engraved on the marker. Then she stood up and grabbed the last two items that had been in the bundle. She threw one over the crook in her arm and tucked the other into the pocket of her velvet coat, then reached towards the lowest branch of the oak tree. She climbed up slowly, unsure of her footing at first. She climbed higher and higher, until she reached a thick branch that stretched out over the marble grave of her love below. She crawled slowly out, worried it might break. But the firm oak held firm and true, and she reached a spot right above the mound of soft earth that had been churned up violently weeks ago. From her pocket, she took the first of the two items. It was a letter, worn and tearstained. She unfolded it slowly and read it, over and over, until she though the words had been burned into the back of her skull.
Dear Mrs. Charles S. Parker,
We regretfully inform you that your husband, Private Charles S. Parker, was killed in action on the day of September 4, 1945, by members of Nazi Germany. His body will be sent home to….
The woman clutched the paper to her chest, feeling her heartbeat pound in longing; longing that the letter was not true, longing that her sweet Charlie was here beside her, longing that she could make all the pain just disappear….. and she could. She folded the letter quickly, depositing it inside her chest, against her bosom where her sorrowful heart beat so painfully. Next to it hung the silver locket, glinting in the light of the full moon. She grabbed the next item, draped across the branch next to her.
The rope was thick and course; where bristles escaped scratched at her smooth, uncallused hands. The prickling sensation felt like dozens of small ants biting her repeatedly, yet she did not stop the methodic pattern of looping and twisting and tightening. She wove the rope in a well-practiced pattern, memorized many a night ago by the flickering light of the fireplace’s dying embers. When she had finished her masterpiece, the thick, gaudy necklace dangled from her hands. She lifted it over and slipped it over her head. The noose rested heavily across her collarbone, stiff and scratching against her tender throat. She tried to imagine it was the briefest of tender kisses, planted by her true love so soothingly in those early nights of their marriage, but failed to convince herself.
As she sat on the branch, she noticed the foul taste in her mouth. The after taste of whiskey, mixed with the stale breath of her last cigarette; a habit which she had only recently acquired, using it as a means to cope through the enduring torture of funeral arrangements she thought would surely kill her.
“Ironically, they did not,” she trilled in a near hysterical laugh. She grabbed the trailing end of the rope and looped it around the hefty branch upon which she sat, swaying in the night breeze. She secured it firmly, in the manner in which she had learned to hitch horses to posts when she was much younger and visiting her wealthy cousins up North. She had thought being in the stables, surrounded by gentle giants and the scent of sweet, stuffy hay, had been happiness. It wasn’t until she had met Charlie that she had known happiness; made ever the more bittersweet by the loss of him.
Abruptly she stood, her weight precariously balanced on the narrow branch. The breeze pushed and tugged at her, making her sway slightly. Yet her own determination to end her misery herself kept her from succumbing to its coercive measures. She reached upwards and unpinned her hair, letting the long, weaving locks fall untamed down to her waist, a deeper black than even night itself. She smiled briefly, knowing this is how he had liked seeing her best; with her hair like a flowing waterfall. As she stood, the rope scraping at her delicate neck and the pale moonlight drowning her in her misery, she felt the slightest tinge of fear.
“How long will it be until someone finds me, d’ya ‘spose?” she asked the night, looking over the sea of trees that Charlie had walked into and disappeared from her life in. The clearing had an eerie solitude to it at night, completely void of any movement at all. “Not a critter here to witness it, even,” she sighed, disappointed. “What if I’m nothin’ but a hanging skeleton when they find me? Just bones and sinews, swinging here like a decoration on a Christmas tree.” She laughed bitterly then, realizing that nobody would mourn for her like they did Charlie.
Suddenly, she was apprehensive. Thoughts raced through her mind like a flickering reel of pictures, moving to fast to dwell on. I loved him. I am dying trying to live without him. He wouldn’t want this for me. He would want me to be happy. I ought to try for him. If he loved me though, wouldn’t he of stayed? Of course he would’ve stayed, given the choice. Wouldn’t he? They say to love somebody and then die is all life really is; doesn’t that mean I am halfway done? That I have nothing more to live for? She shuddered, suddenly chilled. How certain she had been that she could take her life in her sorrow for her lost Charlie… now doubt clouded her mind.
As she stood, something snapped inside her. The overwhelming grief that had plagued her every waking moment suddenly eased. There seemed to be a great release of pressure, as though she had been holding her breath, suffocating, ever since the letter had came. She breathed out, and peace filled her. I can make I through this. It won’t be easy, but it will be right. I can move past this and be free. I can fall in love with someone else. I will always love him, but in time, I can move on.
“I can –“ the eerie silence of the night was broken suddenly. Roosted behind her had been a large horned owl, contently watching for prey in the clearing below. The widow’s dramatic performance had disturbed it, and with a great rustle and a loud screech, it darted forth from the branch it was perched and soared off into the night, not wishing to be the timekeeper to the young woman’s self-imposed eternal sleep. Startled, the woman gasped; her hands at her throat where she had been loosening the noose to take it off in a hasty decision to live for him rather than die for him.
Her full red lips were a puckered “O” from shock. She had not been expecting such a rude audience, and the disturbance of the silence spooked her badly. She took a startled, unconscious step to turn and identify the obnoxious intruder, and fell into black oblivion.
The ghastly moon slowly sank away. The sky grew lighter and less ominous, and from the top of the canopy of trees the bright sun stretched upwards into the sky. In a small clearing stood a tall oak, proud and mighty though devoid of its leaves. The grass was stained with intricate patterns of frost, painted on in the chill of the autumn nights. Beneath the oak was a marble headstone, the marker of a hero who had given up everything in the name of his country. A single black iris lay on his grave. Above the mound of dirt, suspended in the branches of the oak, gently swung the body of a fair young woman. Her long black hair flowed down to her waist, her porcelain skin flawless. One might think she was merely asleep, suspended in the air like some force of magic, save for the thick rope around her neck. There was tucked against her left breast a letter, regarding the untimely death of a Private Charles S. Parker. Hanging from her neck was a locket, containing two portraits of a beautiful young couple, so very full of life yet left to live.
“Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet)