Wellington's Oak Tree
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
think, miss, that this is your cat.'
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.
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.
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!'
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
are you doing with my cat?'
was in the tree -'
it down from there at once!'
I could I would have, but it's why I'm up here in the first place -'
you see the sign on the front?'
yes, but you -'
does it say?'
old man smiled wanly, and he cocked his head. 'I don't believe I
Wellington opened her mouth as if to say something, but no words
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.
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.'
I should remind you, miss, that Rutherford died four years ago, and
his son sold the house to a young couple from Mystic.'
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.'
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.'
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.'
Wellington did not answer. She walked away.
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.
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.
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.
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
Wellington smiled ruefully. 'But how will you get down?'
Edwards shrugged. 'I think I'll try climbing. It's certainly better
than spending my last days up here, helplessly withering away in the
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
I drop you your cat?'
Wellington refused to answer. She wasn't even looking up at him.
say, miss, but your cat is up here, too, and I can't try climbing
down with him in my lap.'
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
not anyone's. Now your cat -'
it with you. It likes you better anyway.'
Edwards pursed his lips. 'No,' he answered after a short moment.
'He's your cat. Just attend to him.'
said Ms. Wellington, looking his way now, her eyes indignant, 'what
do you know about cats? All you know about is foolishness -'
- 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.
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!'
Wellington stopped. Her head turned slightly, but her back was still
to him. 'Do you drink tea, Mr. Edwards?'
old man smiled. 'Not with just anyone.'
Wellington considered that for a moment. Then she was moving away
called out Mr. Edwards. 'Where are you going?'
the garage,' she answered crisply. 'I've got a ladder.'
site and all its contents are the result of the tumultuous workings
of the mind of one Adam Wasserman.