Meet Me By The Old Yew Tree
Monika R. MartynThey had played there in winter. With their mittens dangling from knitted strings out the arms of their coats, and their woollen hats pushed high upon their heads; their cheeks glowing with snowburn. It was still a wonder that they had braved the cold for hours; to play in the snow and build snowqueens and legions of fabled creatures to defend them. But Jamie was like that, when they were children, he could conjure dreams from anything.
Jamie. Stella had not seen him for ten years. When the note came at breakfast, the single line, meet me by the yew, she knew--Jaime. He’d been her Jaime back then. Her friend in everything they did together: from gathering the eggs in the henhouse, of slinking like thieves along the high rafters in the barn, in church when their legs incessantly kicked at the pew, until one mother or the other silenced them with a shush.
Jamie. They had had a falling out. She wasn’t even sure now how she had allowed the whole episode to unfold. Her stomach still churned that she had let him slip through her fingers without a fight. But she could not bring herself to say sorry. She’d never apologize to that thief who stole her Jamie away.
Stella trailed her fingers over the knots in the bark. Someplace near the lowest branch, Jamie had carved their names, but time had erased the cuts and bled them into the wooden grain and had grown a thicker skin. Legend told of the story that the trunk split in a lightning storm. That at midnight on some nights, hell broke open and demons swarmed to steal the souls of unsuspecting children. Folklore whispered round the kitchen table. Others claimed it had sheltered a band of weary travellers back in the day of Lancelot and Guinevere. She and Jamie had weathered many storms in the hollow carefully treading so as to not open the gates of hell. But their giggles must have warded off the demons, for they never saw so much as a mouse. Most often they hid in the hollow to escape the monotony of farm chores. Though it was funny how guilt always made them concede to the hollers up the hill and any chore was always brighter with Jamie at her side.
Jamie. Ever since she was ten, she was so sure that one day she’d marry him. She shared all of her secrets and dreams with Jamie. Only now she could not remember what they might have been. In turn there wasn’t another person who could appease Jamie when his father sheared the curls off his head; the year everyone ended up with lice. Like two wandering monks, they had sought refuge by the tree. She yanked her cap off first. Her long red braids shorn to stubble. As the girl it should have made her weep, but it was Jaime who missed his hair, and his never did grow back into its angelic curls. She had tenderly pulled the cap from his head, and he had shyly looked to the dirt on the ground. It was the first time she truly saw Jamie’s soul. It floated in his startling wide eyes. The hazel she had missed for ten long years.
Stella hadn’t returned to the tree since their fight. Standing beneath its shaded canopy she remembered the night. She had been blinded by a fury lanced by hurt that still pierced her heart a little; like pulling the scab off a sore, a droplet of oozing blood. She’d forgotten since then how the vista fell in a gentle sweep down toward the village. The church spire winked out from behind the rustling trees that had grown tall and lofty in her absence.
This morning she had woken to the chime of the old bronze bell; the vicar still tugging the rope ceremoniously five times a day. Why had she come home? Was it the news that Jamie’s wife had left him? The shocking line in her mother’s letter in April that had so innocently exploded on the peony pink paper. All written within her mother’s single breath; followed by her news that this year’s hay harvest was plentiful, that they were running low on preserves, and that father was bound to buy a new sheepdog. Left him? Left him. Rachel’s gone and left Jamie for some city bloke. Thank God there were no children. How neatly mother stitched Jamie’s life onto the page.
A yellow buttercup quivered in the breeze. Stella wondered if her mother kept the books ruined with the stains of bleeding flowers that she had collected with the frenzy of a child one year and pressed. They’d be brittle now. She’d never known back then to use acid free paper, to blot the flowers and their dew. The fields surrounding her, those not planted with a neat patchwork of crops, were ripe with meadow flowers. Blue bells, daisies, buttercups, blue flax, vagrant poppies and baby blue eyes. Memories were cruel, and no one was spared from their harm.
Stella watched while Jamie climbed up the slope toward her and the yew. He’d always had a strong stride and within minutes he’d be next to her. She remembered his smile, and the many times since that she had envisioned it. What was there to say? Her life, thousands of miles away, had gone on and taken hold without him. There was Richard who had nervously consented to her coming home and who with puppy-sad eyes had fretted over her leaving. She had a job at the university she loved. Luckily it was summer, and she had had no other plans to spend her time. Maybe paint the fence, strip the antique sewing machine-stand and repurpose it for something else. And ever since moving into the Craftsman bungalow, she had wanted to sort through the crates the previous families had left abandoned in the attic crawlspace. Maybe this was the summer to tackle the chore.
Meet me by the yew. The message had come with the morning post. Tucked in with the flyer advertising eggs, loins and rumps, loaves of sliced bread, and butter. Her mother had slid it toward her while Stella sat in the sunshine enjoying her first breakfast in her childhood home. Bread and jam, black tea sweetened with fresh milk and honey. Stella. It hushed with fountain pen ink on the front of the envelope. A small card envelope that women send to women thanking them for the Sunday lunch, the remembered gift, the kind gestures, and thoughts. The envelope wasn’t white either. A soft vanilla rushed over the paper, and a watermarked pastoral scene stained the card. She had slipped the card out expecting one of her girlfriends, an elderly aunt, those who would have heard of her visit and arrival through mother’s telephone line, to welcome her home. Her visit had been a surprise after all.
She had driven up from London in a rented car. Afterall she could afford such luxuries, and Richard had said spend whatever it takes. There was always the train, but she wanted the freedom of the car in case the old roots of coming home suffocated her. The card made no mention of when. Was it a careless oversight? No. Stella knew exactly when. She set out just before lunch. No one would question her taking a long walk through the winding paths up and away from the village. Everyone who came wanted a view of the countryside from up Huxley Hill. But she’d not go so high; the yew would meet her in the middle.
He was wearing a hat and suspenders, just like his father had. A long line of family traditions and a smile that she could see even from two-hundred yards distance. He had picked a bunch of wildflowers for her on the way. He was waving them. Stella felt the heat of the day warm her pulse. She shouldn’t have come. Jamie had no right to assume she’d come running at his bidding.
“You came.” Jamie said from ten yards away.
“I did. You look well.”
Jamie reached and handed her the flowers. “For you. Welcome home.”
“Thanks. It’s just as I left it.”
“Ten years already. You’ve never been back since?”
“No.” Stella shook her head and dove her nose into the flowers to quench the pain.
“You haven’t changed a bit.”
Jamie took his hat off and stepped into the shade of the yew. He looked up at the wide reaching branches as if they were the arms of a welcoming friend. “They figure she’s at least seven-hundred years old. They’ve sent experts.”
“Amazing.” Stella joined him in looking up.
“Only that she left you. Some city bloke.”
“Rumours travel quickly.”
“Are you okay? It can’t be easy.”
“I’m fine. It wasn’t meant to be. Been broken for a long time.”
Stella nodded. She knew about broken. Before Richard, just after she’d moved to California, Stella found love. The broken kind. It was funny how she had zeroed in on Ian as the one. They shared a tributary of roots, and hoped it would work itself into something more. It never stood a chance. Ian’s problem was the same as hers. She was driven. Ian was driven. And neither was willing to move over for the other. It shamed her that they could not let it end amicably, but Ian had wanted none of her friendship. Of course, that she stole the job he wanted out from under him sealed the demise. It still stung that Ian had accused her of stealing.
Richard came along two years ago. Friends were desperate to set them on each other and they were right. They made a wonderful couple. Richard didn’t mind moving over though he was dogged by his own hectic agenda hoeing away at a small business empire. Richard was nothing like Ian; and definitely nothing like Jamie.
Ian was the kind of man people noticed. Loud, boisterous, funny, charming, and a face that made people remember a friend they might have had long ago. Only those close to him, as she had been, saw that other side beneath the grey glint in his eyes. Ian planned and calculated. His error: he underestimated her talents. When the university tenured her professorship, he blew.
“You underhanded bitch!” Were the first words rushing from his mouth, as if they’d been waiting at the tip of his tongue. Instead of: congratulations that is wonderful. She tried to appease him by saying it was a numbers game, and, with more women joining the workforce, they had to balance the scale. Stella understood the reason they chose her. She worked tirelessly to better herself. She volunteered. She took on kids and tutored them to bend the grade point averages of the school. And she never complained about any shortcomings. Ian always whinged for more.
“How long are you staying?” Jamie broke the silence that had sprung like a wide reaching chasm, and though she had wanted to breach the gap, she couldn’t.
“Not sure. I’ve all summer off if I want to. But it’s hard coming back.”
“Too many changes?”
She could have allowed herself to fall in love with Jamie again. His face, beneath the soft down that he missed shaving the night before, still held onto the edges of youth. But it was funny, that in some ways it was as if he was slowly becoming his father. The same gait, the same way he fanned the hat in his hand, the wide shoulders his father had farmed with. His hair never grew curls again, and its colour streaked with sun kissed highlights from working the fields. A tan that ceased fading in winter and lines winked out from his eyes. They had both gotten older, and she no longer fit into the quaint house her parents owned, or the meandering paths she had run on as a child. She had outgrown them.
“Not enough actually.”
Could she come back? Stella already knew the answer. It dawned when she drove along the lane with the hedgerows winding her into the village. A farmer’s wife? She had grasped the steering wheel of the Land Rover tightly. No. She could not live on the meager wages and make due. Would she miss the luxurious leather of the red Audi she had left parked in the driveway under the California sun? The shopping mall four blocks from home where she met her girlfriends for lunches on the trendy veranda while they watched the surf crash on Malibu beach. They’d giggle when the fruity drinks they suckled from went to their heads. What about the walk-in closet they had renovated into one of the small bedrooms upstairs? The clothing she had draping in colour co-ordinating meticulousness on her side of the wall. Here she’d have no place to wear the frilly summer shifts, the silk blouses and pencil skirts she wore to work. Worse, she’d have nothing to say to the people she had know in childhood. The common thread had snapped because she didn’t milk cows, or shear lambs with bleating faces, or tame foals roaming on pastoral pastures, and her worst sin: she didn’t want babies. Yes, she’d miss her California life, and here, nothing was on trade.
“That bad?” Jamie smiled.
“No, it’s fine. I’m glad it hasn’t changed. I know where everything is.”
“You ever think of me out there in California?”
“I’d be lying if I said you’ve never crossed my mind. I’m sorry we left it as we did. You were my best friend until, you know.”
“It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. You and I would always have felt uncomfortable in the company of our respective spouses.”
“True. Though I wished we could at least have been civil.”
“We can now.”
“Why did you send me the note? I’m sure I would have run into you sooner or later.”
“For old times sake. I wanted to see how you turned out.” That familiar grin, the mischievous one, that had been lurking since they met, took over his face.
“And?” Stella laughed.
“You’re alright as far as foreigners go.”
“Thanks. You’re not bad for a lowly farmer either.”
“I could never leave here. And I see now that you were always meant to go.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“You married? I don’t see a ring, but I do see a tan line”
Stella felt for the dent. The ring was in the jewelry box on her dresser. She had plans of digging in the garden after lunch, and the brilliant diamond would only get in the way.
“Engaged. Richard’s in software. Owns his own company.”
Richard was not the type of man Jamie would envision her with. Richard was by Jamie’s definition a nerd and even so by Richard’s definition. It was also what she had learned to love about Richard. He wasn’t the sort you fell in love with on sight, but on their first date, they had found a common thread and talked. They closed the restaurant down that night, emptied a couple of bottles of Chardonnay and giggled all the way home. Richard had kissed her, though he admitted later that if it hadn’t have been for all the wine, he’d never have braved kissing a beautiful woman like her.
They took it slow. Holding hands and walking the dark sandy strip at Malibu beach on weekends. Then three months in, under a full moon, Richard had proposed.
“I’m not the kind of guy,” he had started his proposal when she stopped him.
“Yes. But not yet.”
They bought the bungalow together and ripped its guts out without ruining the character it was born with. Richard loved to entertain, cook, and mostly please her. On weekends their house often buzzed with company. Together, or on either salary alone, they could easily have bought a grander place, but they both liked the bones of the house they bought.
“100%. He’s very good to me.”
She shook her head with a quick shake. Kids were always a tender subject. Her mother wanted more grandchildren and believed it a woman’s duty.
“Not yet. If it happens.” She shrugged her shoulder.
Jamie nodded. “I guess I should let you go. I just wanted this first meeting between us to be private. I know it can be awkward, and these small towns as you know whisper stuff.”
“No, I’m glad. Jamie, I am sorry we missed out on our friendship. I’ve often missed you.”
“Me too. Look, there’s one more thing. You’ll hear about it soon enough. I’m getting married again.”
“So soon?” Stella nearly choked on Jamie’s news. Rachel hadn’t even been gone more than two months. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
“Someone I met online. The thing is, Rachel and I were done before she left. I was lonely.”
“You don’t have to explain to me.”
Stella waved the wilting bunch of meadow flowers and watched Jamie descend the slope. She had never really known him at all. The boy whom she played under the yew with had needed her, as much as he had needed Rachel and this new love of his. Meet me by the yew, she mouthed, was never a declaration at all. Only truth.
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