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Ms. Wellington's Oak Tree

By Adam Wasserman



The oak tree in Ms. Wellington's front lawn was far older than the town where she grew up. Schoolchildren would come from miles around to assault the thing, and - much to her chagrin - their visits were always heralded by a great deal of shouting. For the oak tree in Ms. Wellington's front yard was as famous in the surrounding communities as the battle of Lexington, which had taken place not very far away. At a distance the brown bark could be mistaken for fur, and the leaves hair, and there was also a great knot several feet above ground that had the features of a benevolent and animal-like face. The first things a child passing on the street might have noticed were the huge, sprawling branches and the gnarled, obstinate trunk that was clothed in bark as thick as your middle finger, resplendid with footholds. The lowest limbs of the tree swooped quite close to the ground, and they beckoned.

Ms. Wellington was not fond of the children who maliciously (or so she believed) disturbed her afternoon naps with their baying and their playing. When she was younger she would chase them away with a hickory stick, and when her eyes were still good she could even identify the perpetrators and notify the proper parents. But they never took her very seriously, and the children always came back. It was an endless battle that Ms. Wellington could never have won, but she kept the war going on matter of principle. Ms. Wellington was entirely a woman of principle.

After a time, though, and after her wits had begun to play tricks on her, Ms. Wellington lost track of the hickory stick. A deepening rheumatism, too, made running impossible, and the old woman was eventually consigned to spending her afternoons sipping tea on her porch and guarding her tree from the devices of small children. Of course they would pass on the road beyond the tidy, brown fence, and whenever one would appear she would remark very calmly to him (as if the intent were clear on his face) that the tree was certainly not meant for climbing, and that if one wanted trees to climb then there were plenty down by Mr. Donovan's house. Naturally, the child would frown, or run away, because there was no Mr. Donovan in the town, and if they were old enough and numerous they might even have presumed to talk back to her. 'It's not your tree, lady.' And that always infuriated her the most, because it certainly was her tree. At which point she would stand up and lecture them vigorously on the virtue of respect, and the children standing not far away would laugh until she had talked herself out.

'Watch out!' she could remember hearing them say. 'Watch out for the bitter old hag on Maple Street.' There were several old ladies on Maple Street, of course, but she knew they meant her.

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One fine day in the middle of summer, when the children were free of school, Ms. Wellington sat down for a warm cup of tea and noticed that her cat had escaped the porch. Her calls went unanswered, and so, with an irritated sigh, she put down her tea and went into the house. Of course, the cat wasn't there either, and leaning wearily upon the kitchen counter she wondered where she had seen it last.

Outside, the wind blew, and ruffled the leaves of her beloved oak. A small, plump child dressed far too warmly approached from the lane, looking carefully at the porch and its environs. The old hag seemed to have disappeared. A thin boy with a short stock of red hair peeked out from behind a bush across the lane and urged his friend onward. The plump child rambled quickly through the gate of the yard and, with scarcely concealed squeals of delight, approached the tree. Clasping the trunk with thick arms, he looked up. Much to the surprise of his friend a startled gasp escaped his throat, and he blanched. His tongue hung clumsily from his mouth. And then he was off, running back the way he had come, and now down the lane without waiting. The thin boy hesitated only a moment in his place of concealment before following.

Inside the house, Ms. Wellington came to the conclusion that she hadn't seen the cat since she had risen that morning. She wasn't exactly sure what time it had been, but most certainly near dawn, because the last time she had slept past six o'clock was nineteen seventy-eight. Which led her to the conclusion that the cat had been outside since six o'clock in the morning, running free and doing God only knows what (but certainly not that, because Ms. Wellington had taken liberties with her ovaries), and doing it God knows how far away.

Outside, now, and shuffling through the yard. The treetops on the horizon stroked the sky, and a light wind touched her face. She made a movement with her hand, as if to brush it away, and continued to scour the ground with her eyes. Leaden steps led her aimlessly through the yard, eyes tossing this way and that, and occasionally she would sternly call out the cat's name.

At one point she found herself in the shade of the oak tree, and stopped to spare herself a moment of the sun's heat. She wished she had something with which to fan herself.

'I think, miss, that this is your cat.'

The voice startled her because it seemed to have come from nowhere. But of course it had come from somewhere, and realizing that it had been from above she leaned back (which in itself was uncomfortable and caused her a little pain) and cocked her head.

A thin old man with wispy, white hair and wearing overalls was looking back at her from a higher branch, her cat sitting prettily in his lap and purring at the attention with which he lavished it. The look on his face was curious, like a small child's, and expectant.

Ms. Wellington was far from amused. She put her hands to her hips, and, twisting her body as if to gather stature, sent a riveting finger through the air, jabbing it in his direction, which was up. 'Mr. Edwards!' She pronounced the words like an accusation. 'The butcher!'

'So I am. And you are Ms. Edna Wellington. Every week two pounds of chicken and a ham.' The cat lifted its head lazily and looked down at its mistress.

'What are you doing with my cat?'

'He was in the tree -'

'Let it down from there at once!'

'If I could I would have, but it's why I'm up here in the first place -'

'Did you see the sign on the front?'

'Why, yes, but you -'

'What does it say?'

The old man smiled wanly, and he cocked his head. 'I don't believe I remember.'

Ms. Wellington opened her mouth as if to say something, but no words emerged.

The cat in Mr. Edward's lap was still looking at her. It irritated her to see the cat enjoying itself so much in this man's company. 'Come down here at once,' she demanded of the animal. The cat yawned. Mr. Edwards laughed gaily.

Ms. Wellington cooly returned her attention to the man in her tree. 'I fail, Mr. Edwards, to see what is so amusing. If you find that you are compelled by the sudden urge to climb trees, then I suggest you do it elsewhere. Rutherford Donovan has a fine place down the road, and a whole lot full of trees.'

'Perhaps I should remind you, miss, that Rutherford died four years ago, and his son sold the house to a young couple from Mystic.'

'Mr. Edwards.' Ms. Wellington's voice had attained a hint of steel, and she tried to impart her words with the firm sense of superiority and authority she had once used with her students. 'Get out of my tree immediately or I shall call the police.'

Mr. Edwards paused only a moment before he answered. 'But don't you that see I can't. It's much easier climbing into a tree than down from it. At least, it is when one is dizzied by height.'

Ms. Wellington stamped her foot. She was getting frustrated. 'Well I don't care how you get down, but do it, and bring me my cat safe and sound. I'll be sitting on the porch.'

'Drinking tea.'

Ms. Wellington did not answer. She walked away.

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For two days, Mr. Edwards sat up in Ms. Wellington's tree. Now, it is hardly possible to expect that the man slept up there, and considering the fact that he exhibited no signs of discomfort we can perhaps conjecture that he was not afraid of heights at all. As a matter of fact, Mr. Edwards climbed down from the tree every evening after Ms. Wellington retired and was back up in that lofty bow sometime around dawn. Ms. Wellington, for her part, was not a stupid woman, and we can also expect that after the first night she spotted Mr. Edwards descending, or that she rose a half-hour earlier simply to watch from some place of concealment as Mr. Edwards snuck into her yard and scuttled up the oak tree. There was something exhilirating in the trouble that he took in the climbing, for although he was a limber old man he was still an old man. But in a manner of speaking he was doing it for her, and as much as she disapproved of his manners she still enjoyed the company.

For two days, Ms. Wellington brought food and tea to Mr. Edwards and her cat. Those afternoons were spent not on the porch but sitting, rather, under the boughs of her great oak tree and its rusty captive. A tired lawn chair found its way by the trunk, and a small, fold-up table on which she could rest her tea, or her cookies. Occasionally, she'd ask Mr. Edwards if he wanted one. He'd always answer yes, and she'd always toss one to him, but never so that he could catch it.

They spoke together for long hours. No one knows exactly what they said, but it is true that children from towns in all directions were terribly disappointed by her vigil by the tree. They all must have thought she'd finally gone mad, and taken to conversing with plants, and inanimate objects.

It was the evening of the second day, after a particularly poignant recollection from her years as a young woman (she had been beautiful then), when Mr. Edwards finally threw in the towel. 'I must say, the conversation's been good, and I've had a wonderful time in your tree.' It was late evening, and the sun had already drowned beneathe the horizon. The sky was stained a rich purple, but it was fading quickly. 'But business is business, you know, and the shop must be open tomorrow.'

Ms. Wellington smiled ruefully. 'But how will you get down?'

Mr. Edwards shrugged. 'I think I'll try climbing. It's certainly better than spending my last days up here, helplessly withering away in the stratosphere.'

Ms. Wellington momentarily had no answer. In an instant, she was dumbfounded. She looked entirely as if someone had slapped her. It hadn't crossed her mind since yesterday that one day Mr. Edwards wouldn't be in her tree, and in an instant she realized that despite all the grumbling and mumbling to herself she didn't want to wake up tomorrow and have to pass the day on her porch squawking at small children.

'Should I drop you your cat?'

Ms. Wellington refused to answer. She wasn't even looking up at him.

'I say, miss, but your cat is up here, too, and I can't try climbing down with him in my lap.'

'Evil man.' Ms. Wellington's voice was strangely petulant. She wasn't looking up at him. 'Do you always climb people's trees? Just anyone's trees?'

'No, not anyone's. Now your cat -'

'Take it with you. It likes you better anyway.'

Mr. Edwards pursed his lips. 'No,' he answered after a short moment. 'He's your cat. Just attend to him.'

'Oh,' said Ms. Wellington, looking his way now, her eyes indignant, 'what do you know about cats? All you know about is foolishness -'

'And meat.'

' - and consorting with other people's trees. You know, I think I shall have to drive to Concord for meat now.' Ms. Wellington stood up brusquely and brushed off her dress.

'Where are you going?' Mr. Edwards demanded from his place in the tree, but Ms. Wellington would not look up at him. Now she was walking away, back towards the house, her steps slow and with each one angrier, as if she were waiting for something. 'But wait!' called Mr. Edwards, standing up on the branch. His leathery hands sought holds on the bark. 'You didn't let me finish! I was wondering if I could perhaps join you for tea!'

Ms. Wellington stopped. Her head turned slightly, but her back was still to him. 'Do you drink tea, Mr. Edwards?'

The old man smiled. 'Not with just anyone.'

Ms. Wellington considered that for a moment. Then she was moving away again.

'Wait!' called out Mr. Edwards. 'Where are you going?'

'To the garage,' she answered crisply. 'I've got a ladder.'



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