OLWG #21b: The Willow Tree

It’s a “buy one, get another free” prompt weekend at Online Writer’s Guild, and I am game!

The second set of prompts, with a couple bonus additions, are:

  1. They had one greedy son
  2. King of clubs
  3. I do
  4. tnkerr’s “just for practice” poetry preamble
  5. The prompt’s invitation to write whatever inspires (thankfully, because just the thought of writing poetry in any form scares the crap out of me).

“What is Love? I have met in the streets a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

When Nathan and Tori met, it was magical. To them, it seemed every day was bright summer sunshine, and every night was a clear firmament of sterling stars with a winking lover’s moon. Clouds and rain were never menacing. It was just another excuse to hold each other close, warming themselves against the coldness that surrounded.

Nathan had been on his own for some years by the time they met; a foster child that moved from one home to another, until he was of age and able to place the destiny of his life in his own hands. Tori’s mother ran off when Tori was very young, and Tori was adopted a year later by an aunt and uncle when her father drove his pick-up off a bridge. Tori’s cousins resented the addition to their family, and were bent on making her life a constant misery as a result. So, on her 18th birthday, Tori announced plans to move out. She never looked back.

Nathan and Tori had only each other, which was fine by them. With the parish priest as their sole witness, they said their “I do’s” beneath the Willow tree where they went as often as they could to be alone, and where they first promised to love each other forever and create the family neither ever knew. They welcomed their first child, a girl, shortly thereafter and named her for their Willow tree.

Three more children followed Willow: a boy they named Forrest, another girl they named Cherry, and then lastly, another boy they named Branch. But, no matter Nathan and Tori’s sunny skies and starry nights’ intention to create the wholesome, loving family they were denied as children, their home became an all-too-common sad story of misguided fantasies, personal shortcomings, lost opportunities, dashed hopes, and tragic endings.

Years later, after Nathan and Tori passed, Willow returned to the town where she was born. Vague childhood memories, more like scenes from a familiar movie not seen in decades, passed through Willow’s mind as she drove its streets. Their tiny, cramped house; the scene of so many battles. The school; the scene of bullies and unsympathetic teachers. The church; the scene of restless Sunday mornings and unforgiving adults. The grocers; the scene of Branch’s first arrest. The boarded-up King of Clubs tavern, its neon sign post still intact; the scene of too many frightening Friday nights spent huddled in the car with her siblings while their mother drank away their father’s weekly paycheck.

As Willow drove up and down the streets, she looked for the Willow tree she’d heard about so many times. She had no memory of the tree, and wondered if the story of the tree was just another one of her parents’ fabrications, another tall tale created to cover up the harsh reality of their lives.

When she checked out of the motel the next morning, Willow asked the front desk clerk if he knew of a giant Willow tree in town. The clerk started to apologize that he did not know of one, but then suddenly recalled a ranch a mile east of town with a large tree visible from the highway.

“Not sure, but I think it’s a Willow. At least, it looks like one. There’s a creek that runs by it. There’s a fishing hole in the spring nearby when the creek’s running. The fence line’s on the other side. That the one you talking about?”

Yes, she said. That would be the one. The clerk drew a map on the back of her receipt and wished her luck finding it.

As Willow cleared the crest of a hill, the giant tree was easy to spot: a lone figure set against miles of rolling hills, situated among the low brush hugging the creek bed and pond beyond. How many times had she heard about this place? It was a relief to discover it and know it was all true. She pulled off the highway and made her way to the tree on foot.

Standing in the spot she imagined as her parents’ special place, Willow took in the stunning view of the creek and the hills beyond. The canopy of branches seemed like a soft green quilt, sheltering her from the outside world. She wondered if the day her parents married was a day like this day: clear, warm, silent, and pulsating with the energy of life. If so, all those dreams her mother used to go on about seemed possible. Years of anger and resentment fell away, and Willow realized Nathan and Tori were just a couple of innocent, happy kids back then, without a single clue, a penny to their name, and crazy in love.

She took the jar of ashes out of her purse, opened it, and stretching her arm far out in front of her, slowly turned it over, ceremoniously watching the stream of grey powder fall to the ground. She knelt, and with both hands, spread the ashes all around. Tears dropped, one after the other, as she worked the ash into the dirt. Then she stood, and wiping her eyes, smiled. Looking up into the branches of the Willow, she touched the trunk of the tree and said, “You take care of them, OK?”

On the walk back to the car, Willow wondered: Was it too late for her to start reveling in the warmth of a sunny day, or notice the sparkle of a starry night? At age 60, had too many injuries and slights, failures and losses marred her life to be able to sit quietly under the shade of a tree, and simply dream? It wasn’t too late, of course. It’s never too late. She knew all she had to do is decide, from this moment on, to live the rest of her life as her parents had once imagined it, holding each other close under the Willow tree.