The Tree's Wife
NOT only gods, but lesser spirits haunted the forests. Sometimes they are portrayed as nymphs who occasionally marry mortals, only to die when their tree form is cut down. Sometimes the wood spirit is particularly vindictive. To strike at it invites an attack of sudden weakness; to some who approach it with an ax it brings instant death.
These old legends come from very ancient agricultural customs when man and the plant and animal life around him were mutually interdependent. Today, when the despoilers of our land are cutting down our forests and ruining our environment, a story such as “The Tree's Wife’’ seems particularly pertinent in its portrayal of a primitive belief reawakened in modern times.
I smiled at my companion, Hettie Morrison, County Welfare investigator for the Bald Mountain district. When I dropped into her office that morning, mostly to dig up nostalgic old memories of our college days at the University of Virginia, I found her arguing over the telephone with a local mechanic. “But I have to make a field trip this morning!... WHY can’t you get the parts? Take them out of somebody else’s car!... Oh, the devil with what you think wouldn’t be right! This family may be starving... !”
Hettie had hung up, still sputtering, a gaunt severe-looking old maid with a heart as big as the Blue Ridge Mountains. She glanced up then, to see me grinning at her, jingling the car-keys of my new club-coupe by way of an invitation. We were such close friends, no words were needed—Hettie merely jerked a nod, slammed on her hat, and started out the door with me in tow.
“You’ll be sorry,” she warned me. “The road I have to take is an old Indian trail—and if they had to get back and forth on that, no wonder they’re called the Vanishing Americans! You’ll break a spring.”
I looked so dismayed, pausing to unlock my first new car in ten years, that she closed one eye in a craft)’ look I knew so well, from days at college when she was about to ask the loan of my best hose.
“It’s a dull trip, just routine field work. Of course you wouldn’t be interested,” she drawled casually, “in Florella Dabney—the girl who married a tree. We pass right by the Dabney place. No, no, dear; you’re liable to scratch up that nice blue paint. And Holy Creek crosses the road four times; we’d have to drive through it, hub-deep. I always get stuck and have to—”
I scowled at my old friend, familiar with all her clever tricks of getting her way, but still unable to cope with them.
“Tree?” I demanded. “Did you say—? Married a —?”
“That’s right,” Hettie nodded with a smug grin. “It’s a strange case—almost a legend up around Bald Mountain. Although,” she added, blatantly climbing into my car, “it’s not without precedent, in the old Greek legends. Zeus was forever turning some girl into a spring or a flower, or some inanimate object, so his wife Hera wouldn’t find out about his goings on. Even as late as the fifteenth century, there were proxy weddings, where some queen or other married her knight’s sword because he was off at war. Then, there’s an African tribe in which the men are married, at puberty, to some tree.”
I grimaced impatiently, climbed into the coupe, and started it with a jerk. Hettie had aroused my interest, and well she knew it. She would get her ride over the wild, bushy crest of Bald Mountain—or I would never find out about that girl who married a tree.
An hour later, bouncing over a rocky trail pressed closely on both sides by scrub pine and mountain laurel, she began to tell me about Florella Dabney—and the bloody feud that, a trained psychiatrist might explain, had left her a mental case with a strange delusion.
The Dabneys (Hettie related) had built their cabin and begun to wrest a living out of the side of Bald Mountain about the time of Daniel Boone. Six generations of underfed, overworked mountaineers had lived therein, planting a little, hunting a little, and raising a batch of children as wild as the foxes that made inroads on their chicken supply. Florella was the youngest daughter, a shy willowy child of fifteen, with flowing dark hair and big luminous dark eyes like a fawn. Barefoot, clad in the simple gingham shift that all mountain girls wore, she could be seen running down the steep side of Old Baldy, as nimbly as a city’ child might run along a sidewalk. Her older brothers and sisters married and moved away, her mother died, and Florella lived with her father now on the sparse farm.
On the other side of the mountains lived another such family of “old settlers,” the Jenningses. As far back as anyone could remember, there had been bad blood between the two, starting with a free-for-all over a load of cordwood, which had sent two Dabneys to the hospital and three Jenningses to jail. Both attended the little mountain church perched on the ridge that divided their farms, but no Jennings ever spoke to a Dabney, even at all-day singings, when everyone was pleasantly full of food and “home-brew.” No Dabnev would sit left of the aisle and any baptizing that was done in Holy Creek, after a rousing revival meeting, had to be arranged with Jenningses and Dabneys immersed on alternate days. Reverend Posy Adkins, the lay preacher, recognized this as a regrettable but inevitable condition. And that was the law on Bald Mountain—up until the spring evening when Joe Ed Jennings and Florella Dabney “run off together.”
When and how they had ever seen enough of each other to fall in love, neither family could imagine. Joe Ed was a stocky blond boy who could play a guitar and shoot the eye out of a possum at fifty yards—but not much else. What astonished everyone was Florella’s regard for such a do-little, since she was halfway promised to a boy from Owl’s Hollow. It was assumed, when a party of hunters saw them streaking through the woods one night, that Florella had been carried off by force, much against her will. She had gone out after one of the hogs, which had strayed. At midnight, when she had not returned, her pa, Lafe Dabney, went out to search for her, ran into the hunting party—and promptly stalked back to his cabin for his rifle.
He was starting out again, with murder in his close-set, mean little eyes, when a pair of frightened young people suddenly walked through the sagging front gate. With them was Preacher Adkins, dressed either for a buryin' or a marryin’, with the Good Book clutched in a hand that trembled. But he spoke steadily.
“Lafe, these two young’uns has sinned. But the Lord’s likely done forgave ’em already. Now they aim to marry, so don’t try an’ stop it!”
Without preamble, he motioned for Florella and Joe Ed to stand under a big whiteoak that grew in the front yard, towering over the rough cabin and silhouetted darkly against the moonlit sky. High up on the trunk, if Lafe had noticed, was cut a heart with the initials J.E.J. and F.D.
Solemnly, the old preacher began to intone the marriage ceremony, while Florella’s pa stood there staring at them, his lean face growing darker with fur)’, his tight mouth working. Hardly had the immortal words, “Do you take this man—?” been spoken, when he whipped the rifle to his shoulder and fired at Joe Ed, pointblank. The boy was dead as he crumpled up at his bride’s small bare feet.
“I’ll larn you to go sparkin’ our girl behind my back!” Lafe roared. “You triflin’ no-account!”
He never finished, for a second shot rang out in the quiet night. Lafe Dabney pitched forward on his face, crawled across the body of his prospective son-in-law, and fired twice toward the powder flash in the woods beyond the cabin. A moment later, all hell broke loose. It seems that Reverend Adkins had expected just such a blow-up. Someone had carried the news to Joe Ed’s pa. Clem Jennings had also hastened to the spot, to stop the wedding. The old preacher, fearing this, had notified “the law.” The sheriff, with a hastily gathered posse, had showed up at the moment when Lafc and Clem fired at each other, over the body of young Joe Ed and the prostrate sobbing form of his near-bride.
In a matter of minutes, the posse had both fathers handcuffed and hauled off to jail. But, behind them, they left a tragic tableau—little Florella weeping over the body of her lost lover, with old Reverend Adkins standing dumbly in the background. Two of the posse had stayed behind to help with Joe Ed’s body, which the weeping girl had begged the preacher to bury, then and there, “under our tree.” It was there Joe Ed had first caught her and kissed her, holding his hand over her mouth and laughing, with Lafe not ten yards away. It was there, in the night, that she had first told him she loved him—and promised to slip away with him, into the deep silent woods of Old Baldy, for a lover’s tryst forbidden by both their families. It was there, months later, terrified and ashamed, that she had sobbed out to him that she was with child. She knew there was nothing left but to kill herself. Her lover was a Jennings, and she had expected no more from him than a few moments of wild secret ecstasy.
But Joe Ed had surprised her. Fiercely protective and loyal, he had announced that, the following night, he would stand with her under the tree in the Dabneys’ yard, and have Preacher Adkins marry them—right in front of old Lafe. Ilis child must bear his name, the boy said proudly and tenderly, and he hoped it would be a fawn-eyed little girl exactly like Florella.
All this old Preacher Adkins related to the two members of the posse, while they took turns digging a grave for Joe Ed Jennings—at the foot of the big white oak under which he was to have been married. Florella stood numbly by, watching and no longer crying, like a trapped animal at last resigned to its bitter fate.
But, regarding her, the old lay-preacher suddenly remembered a story from his school days, a myth, a legend. Walking over to the girl, he took her hand quietly and led her over to the tree, where the two pitying neighbors were just patting the last spadeful of dirt over Joe Ed’s crude grave.
“Daughter,” the old preacher said, “I’ve heard tell of queens in the old days marrvin’ a sword that belonged to some feller that’d been killt in battle. Now, Joe Ed, he’d want you should go ahead and take his name—so I’m goin’t’ make out like this-here tree is Joe Ed, him bein’ buried underneath it. I want you two men,” he faced the gravediggers solemnly, “to witness this-here marryin’—of Joe Ed Jennings and Florella Dabney.” He raised his eyes humbly. “If hit’s a wrong thing I’m doin’, punish me, Lord. If hit’s right, bless this-here ceremony!”
There in the moonlit night, the old preacher proceeded with that strange proxy wedding of a girl to a tree. The two members of the posse stood by, wide-eyed and amazed, as they heard Reverend Adkins repeat the familiar words of the marriage ceremony. Heard Florella’s sobbing replies. And then heard— was it only wind in the great tree towering above them? Or was it—? Both men later swore that what they heard sounded like a whispering voice. A man’s voice, Joe Ed’s, coming from the depths of those thick green branches. But (as Hettie remarked dryly) it had been a hysterical night, and hysteria can play weird tricks on the human senses numerous times.
“Well? That isn’t all?” I demanded as my car lurched madly into Holy Creek’s third crossing and plunged wetly out again. “What happened to the girl? With her father in prison, who looked after her while—? Was the child all right?”
“Slow down, you idiot!” Hettie snapped at me pleasantly, clinging to the car door on her side. “Yes, of course, the child was all right. A little girl. I had Welfare send a doctor out here, when we got the message that Florella was in labor. She had been living on in her father’s cabin, quite alone—for the simple reason that all her relatives and all of Joe Ed’s were afraid to come near the place!”
I frowned, puzzled. “Why?”
“Because of the tree,” Hettie said, blandly. “Word got around that it was haunted. That Joe Ed had ‘gone into that oak’ and —well, that it was alive. Sentient, that is. That it—didn’t behave like a tree any more. I must say—look out for that rock, you goose! Want to wreck this thing?—I must say some of the things that happened were—odd, to say the least!”
I slowed down obediently, picking my way over the rocky road. Anything to keep Hettie on the story that had so captured my imagination!
“What things?” I demanded. “Anybody can hear voices in the wind. Leaves rustling. Branches rubbing together.”
“But,” Hettie drawled, “just anybody can’t see a tree catch a live rabbit, or a dove that has lit on a branch of it. Just anybody can’t—”
“What?” I gaped at her. “I never heard of anything so ridiculous!” My attempted laugh sounded flat, however, even to my own ears. “How on earth could—?”
“Don’t ask me,” Hettie said cheerfully. “All I know' is, the lower branch of that big white oak kept Florella supplied with meat. Rabbits, doves, once a possum. They—they got choked, someway. Got their necks caught in the twigs. She’d find them there, all ready to be cooked and eaten. The way any good mountaineer might trap to feed his family. So she got to believing—that he caught them. Joe Ed had quite a reputation as a hunter and trapper.”
“Good Lord!” I tried to laugh again. “You’re not hinting—? The poor kid,” I broke off pityingly. “But an experience like that would naturally affect her mind. Living there all alone, too, with a baby!”
“Then,” Hettie went on pleasantly, “there was the fall day,
real cold, when a neighbor woman dropped in. Nosy old sister Just wanted to say something spiteful to Florella about the baby. When she was leaving, though—well,” Hettie chuckled, “it seems her coat got tangled in a tree branch that dipped down over the gate. It yanked the coat right off her back, the way she told it. She lit out of there, screaming bloody-murder, and told everybody that Joe Ed took her coat for Florella! When the girl tried to return it to her, she wouldn’t touch it. Said it wasn’t her best coat, anyhow, and she wasn’t going to argue with a tree!”
“Oh no!” I shook my head, laughing—but still trying to ignore a small shiver that kept running down my spine. “These mountain people are awfully superstitious, aren’t they? Naturally, it was just the woman’s fear that made her think—”
“Maybe,” Hettie said dryly, “but it wasn’t fear that snatched my new hat off last spring, when I happened to walk under that tree. Checking up on Florella—she’s a hardship case, of course. Yessir,” she said in a queer tone. “Big limb swooped down and snatched that bonnet right off my head. I couldn’t reach it, and Florella couldn’t climb up and get it. Too soon after the baby’s arrival; poor girl was still kind of weak. But the way she giggled, and started talking to that tree like it was a person! Honestly, it made my flesh crawl, she was so matter of fact about it! ‘Joe Ed, you rascal,’ she said, ‘give Miss Hettie back her bonnet, now! I don’t need no fancy clothes. Me and the baby’s doin’ just fine.’ ” Hettie peered at me, sheepishly. “Way she said it made me feel like—like a selfish old turkey-gobbler! Besides, a hat like that was too pretty' for an old hatchet-face like me. But it did give me a turn, I’ll have to admit! When— she gulped slightly, “when I told Florella she could have the hat, it—it immediately fell out of the tree. Plop! Right smack on that girl’s head! I must say,” she added crossly, “it was very becoming. Probably the first one she ever owned, poor little thing! Lafe was a stingy- old coot; Florella’s mother never had a rag she didn’t weave herself!”
I turned the steering wheel sharply to avoid a raccoon ambling across the trail. Then I peered at Hettie.
“Go on,” I said grimly. “Tell me how the tree shed its wood in stacks, so Florella wouldn’t have to chop any!”
Hettie chuckled. “Oh, no. Mountain men take it for granted that their wives must work like mules. All they do is feed ’em, shelter ’em, and protect ’em—with an occasional pretty thrown in when they feel in a generous mood. That’s what Florella expected from her tree-husband, and that’s what she got. Though I suppose a psychologist would say her delusion gave her a sense of security' that merely made her able to fend for herself. Lots of people need a crutch for their self-confidence—if it’s only a lucky coin they carry around. Coincidence and superstition, hm?”
“Well,” my friend smiled, “I am obliged to you for the lift. We had a message that Kirby Marsh, a farmer who lives near the Dabney place, got in a fight with somebody and crawled home, pretty' banged up. His wife is bedridden, so they’ll need help if he’s seriously injured. You were a life-saver to bring me. This is the turn”; she broke off abruptly, grinning at me with a sly twinkle in her eye. “The Dabney farm is just around this bend.”
I slowed down, feeling again that cold shiver run down my spine as we rounded the curve. An old cabin of square-hewn logs perched on the mountainside a few yards above the road, with the usual well in the yard and the usual small truck-garden in back. A huge white oak towered over the gate of a sagging rail fence. Its sturdy trunk leaned a bit toward the house in a curiously protective manner, shading the worn front stoop with its thick dark-green foliage.
I braked the car outside the gate, and Hettie grinned at my expression.
“There it is,” she announced dryly. “There’s where the girl lives who married a tree. And that’s the tree. That’s him."
I got out of the coupe and walked warily to the gate. Hettie climbed out stiffly, and called, in her pleasantly harsh voice:
“Hello? Hello the house?" in traditional mountain stvle.
There was no answer, but all at once I saw a quilt pallet spread under the oak Hettie had indicated as “lum." A fair haired baby girl was sprawled on the folded quilt, gurgling and cooing. She looked to be about two years old, with the sturdy good health of most mountain children, despite their skimpy diet and constant exposure to the elements.
I stood watching her for a moment, charmed by the picture she made. Then I frowned.
“She’s too young to be left alone,” I muttered. “Where’s her mother?”
“Oh, out picking blackberries, I guess.” Hettie shrugged. “Josie’s all right, though. Her father’s minding her,” she added with another impish grin at my expression. “Hello!” she called again. “Florella!”
At that moment a lovely slender girl came running around the house, her feet bare, her dark hair flying. There was a sprig of laurel over her ear, and blackberry' stains on her brown fingers. I stared at her, thinking how like a dryad she looked— wild, free, and happily unafraid.
“Oh! Howdy, Miss Hettie!” she greeted my friend warmly. “Come in and set. Who’s that with ye? Kinfolk?”
Hettie introduced me as a school chum, with no mention of the fact that I wrote stories of the supernatural for my bread and butter. We entered the gate, and Hettie stooped over to pat the baby, proffering a peppermint from the endless supply she always seems to carry around. I fidgeted beside her, at a loss for conversation with this pretty, normal-looking young mother who, from all Hettie had told me, was as crazy as a coot. Once, nervously, I started as a limb of the great tree under which we stood brushed my shoulder, plucking at my scarf. On impulse. I took it off and gave it to the girl, who beamed and thanked me shyly, then tied it proudly around her own neck. I caught Hettie's eye at that moment—and flushed as she grinned, winked, and glanced up at the giant tree.
Then she turned to Florella, lovelier than ever in my blue chiffon scarf—and with no more madness in her face than in mine.
“I got word that Kirby Marsh was hurt in a fight,” my friend said conversationally. “Anybody over there looking after his wife and kids? Heard the doctor came, and took Kirby to the hospital with concussion and a sprained shoulder. Must have been some fight, to have—”
Hettie broke off, noticing the girl’s sudden expression of regret beyond the politeness expected of a neighbor. Florella ducked her head suddenly, with a rueful little smile.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said simply. “He come over here to our place late last night, and went to pesterin’ me. Oh, not that Kirby ain’t a real nice feller,” she apologized for her neighbor gently, “exceptin’ when he’s likkered up. I told him to leave go o’ me,” she added with wifely dignity. “Told him Joe Ed wouldn’t like it. But he wouldn’t listen. So I run out to Joe Ed, with it a-stormin’ awful. He’d been a’bangin’ on the roof, to warn Kirby, but he likely thought ’twas only the wind.”
I gulped, racked with pity, and threw a glance at my friend.
“Then—?” Hettie prompted softly, in an odd tone. “You ran out into the yard? Kirby ran after you, and—?”
“And Joe Ed, he whanged him over the head,” the girl finished, half apologetic, half proud, as any other woman might speak of a husband who had stoutly defended her honor. “He like to busted Kirby’s skull wide open. But he hadn’t ought to ’ve tried to kiss me,” she defended primly. “Ought he, Miss Hettie? And me a married woman with a young’un!”
“No, dear,” Hettie answered, in the gentlest voice I have ever heard her use. ‘*No—Joe Ed did the right thing. I don’t think Kirby was badly injured, but somebody has to look after his folks while he’s in the hospital. Did you go over and see his wife today?”
“Yes ma’am,” the girl said quietly. “But they wouldn’t let me in. I reckon, on account they was scared. I mean, of Joe Ed. But he wouldn’t hurt nobody less’n they was botherin’ me or the baby! He’s real good-hearted.”
“Yes," my friend said softly. “I understand. Well—don’t worry about it, dear. Next time Kirby will know better! I rather imagine,” she chuckled, “that this experience will keep him sober for some time!”
The girl nodded shyly, and bent to pick up the child. But small Josie toddled away from her and ran around the great tree to where a low limb dipped almost to the ground.
“Pa!” she chirped suddenly, holding up her chubby arms to the giant oak. “Fing baby! Fing high, Pa!”
Florella laughed, shaking her head mildly and calling: “No! No, now, Joe Ed—you’re liable to drop that young’un! Don’t ye—”
But as I stared, that low limb dipped down as under unseen pressure. The child, Josie, seized it and, as I gasped at the spectacle, was tossed ten feet off the ground, as if a gust of wind had blown the branch skyward, it had scooped up the baby, swinging her high above us. Then, as gently, it let her down again, while the young mother shook her head again in laughing reproof. My scalp crawled at her matter-of-fact, unselfconscious manner.
“Joe Ed’s always a-doin’ that,” she said pleasantly. “She loves it. Why, Miss Hettic!” she broke off, pouting as I sidled pointedly back toward the gate, “I thought you-all would stay for dinner! Joe Ed caught me a rabbit, and I was just fixin' to fry it real nice and brown. Cain’t ye stay?”
But I was out the gate and climbing into my car by that time, shaking my head covertly and beckoning for flettie to come away. For some reason—which I will always firmly deny —my teeth were clicking like castanets. And I kept glancing up nervously at that tall spreading oak tree, brooding over the little mountain cabin, and the woman and child who lived there alone.
“Pitiful case, isn’t it?” Hettie murmured cheerfully, as she climbed into the car and waved goodbye to Florella Dabney— or “Mrs. Joe Edward Jennings,” as she was listed in the Welfare files. “I mean,” my friend expanded, “the way that poor girl lives, with her baby. From hand to mouth, and the prey of —well, men like Kirby. She’d be so lonely and frightened if it weren’t for that pathetic delusion of hers. And she’s got the child to believing it now! Guess you noticed her swinging on that tree—she called it ‘Pa!’ Stout branch, to pick up a child that heavy, wasn’t it?” She drawled carelessly. “Wind blew it, I guess—like the other night, when it whacked Kirby Marsh over the head. Awful windy up here on Old Baldv.” She peeked at me slyly, lips twitching.
I glared at her and stepped on the gas, aware of the cold perspiration that had sprung out on my forehead. Because it was not windy. It was close and very still—and beside me, Hettie was chuckling softly as I glanced back at the barren little farm. Except for one low limb of that giant oak tree—again tossing that happy child playfully into the air while its mother looked on; lifting it gently, like a man’s strong protective arms—not a leaf was stirring as far as we could see over the rugged mountainside.