Under the Fire Tree
January 20, 2011
The woman approached so quietly through the tall grass that the boy didn’t see her until she was within a stone’s throw. He half-turned to swipe at his cheeks with a faded sleeve, then leaped to his feet the way he’d been raised to do in a woman’s presence. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his overalls and stared at the ground as she grew near.
He muttered, “Ma’m.” His voice sounded wet and stuffy, like a kid who’d been sitting under a Silver Maple and crying his eyes out for the better part of a day.
The woman stopped in front of the boy and he noticed she was wearing a pair of black cowboy boots – new ones, from the look of them – with fancy red embroidery woven around onyx roses tooled into the soft leather. The toe was sharply pointed, the shaft stopped at mid-calf just below the hem of her white dress.
He dragged his gaze upward, glancing quickly past her waist and bosom, and traveling up her long neck until he was tilting his head back. She was taller than him and he was tall for twelve. She was close to six foot, he figured, like his Aunt Meg who towered above most everyone, male and female, when his daddy’s side of the family got together for big dinners on Sunday.
He got up the courage to glance at her face, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was staring up at the maple.
“This is a beautiful tree,” she said. “I see why you like to sit under it.” She glanced at him then with wide gray eyes.
He stared at her. “Yes, Ma’m.”
“Can I sit here with you?”
“Yes, Ma’m.” The boy looked around helplessly. “I’m sorry I don’t have a blanket or nothing. Your dress is gonna be ruined.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. She swept her skirt under her and plopped down on the thick grass. Smiling up at him, she patted the ground beside her.
The boy eased himself down cautiously next to her. He waited for her to introduce herself. She looked too much like his mom and his aunts and his great-aunts on his momma’s side to be anything but a relation, but she was tall like his daddy’s people. Judging from her painted fingernails and lipstick, he figured her for an unknown city relative who’d come down to the country for a visit.
She didn’t say anything for a long time; she just kept glancing at him from time to time with eyes the color of an overcast day. Eyes just like his own.
“Are you a Morgan, Ma’m?” he asked finally.
“Sort of. We are related, if that’s what you’re asking.” Her smile was like his, too, as she offered her right hand. “My name is Beth. Short for Elizabeth.”
The boy shook her hand. “That’s my momma’s name. I’m Ben. Benjamin Van Zandt.”
“Yes, Ma’m. My daddy’s family.”
She held onto his hand longer than he was strictly comfortable with, then released it and gestured up at the maple. “Is this your favorite tree?”
“Why is it your favorite? I mean, what makes it so special?”
The boy shrugged. “No reason.”
“Now, come on,” she teased softly. “I don’t believe that for one minute. A smart guy like you wouldn’t waste his time hanging out under just any old tree.”
Ben ventured quick, timid glances at her face with the caution of a child who wasn’t accustomed to addressing adults casually. “Well, Ma’m, I’ve been sitting under this tree since I was knee-high to a calf. It gives the best shade in the pasture.” He gestured at some smaller maples that dotted the landscape. “But it’s not crowded like the trees in the timber.” He gestured in the other direction toward the timberline.
“Good point,” the woman mused. She chased some lazy flies away from her face with a long, white hand.
The thought rose unbidden to Ben’s mind that this woman had never done any real work. Not with hands like that; especially not with those long fingernails.
“Do you climb it?”
“I did used to,” he answered. “It was a great climbing tree. But it’s got the beetle now, and Daddy says it won’t last two more years. It looks strong, but it’s dangerous brittle. It’s not safe to go a-climbing.”
The woman – Elizabeth, she’d called herself – stared up at the late-summer leaves that shrouded the structure of the tree. Her mouth turned down in a slight bow and her brow furrowed just a touch. “That’s sad.” She turned and looked at him. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”
The boy stared at her. She was so familiar, her face, the angle of her jaw, her chestnut hair and, most particularly, her large eyes. He swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes’m, it does make me sad.” To his horror he felt his eyes fill with tears.
The woman looked away and pretended not to notice. When she spoke, her voice sounded thick, like she was trying not to cry herself. “It’s a very sad thing, Ben,” she whispered. “Trees that were so big and strong and tall all the time we were growing up eventually get old and sick. Then they die.” She glanced at him and he saw that he was right, that her eyes were wet. “People, too.”
They sat silently for a moment, both of them looking up at the tree or out at the pasture or anywhere except at each other. From the lower pasture came the lowing of the Van Zandt heifers, anxious for their afternoon milking.
Finally, the woman sighed. “Well, this isn’t getting it done,” she said quietly, as if to herself. In a heartier voice, she said, “Ben, I’ve come here to give you something. A present.” She pulled off the cowboy boots, revealing snowy white feet tipped with red nails.
The boy watched her. “Ma’m?”
She set the boots down next to him. “I want to tell you a story I heard a long, long time ago. It’s about a boy who worked all summer at his own family farm, then rode a little bay mule named Millie down the road in the evenings to work for a neighbor. He didn’t get to play all summer. All he did was work and work, and do you know why?”
Ben stared at the boots. “No, Ma’m.”
“Sure you do. He was working to buy a pair of boots like the ones he saw cowboys wearing in the movies. A pair of black boots with roses. But when he had his money all saved up, his momma told him there was no money for school clothes for his little brothers and his sister. And do you know what that young man did?”
They looked at each other with identical eyes.
“He gave his momma the boot money, then he came here, under this tree, and cried his eyes out.”
She got up, barefoot now, and tried to smile but the tears were running down her cheeks faster than she could wipe them away.
Ben stared at the boots in wonder. “Ma’m, I can’t take your shoes. What’ll you wear on your feet? You can’t go a-walking through the timber barefoot.”
She held out a hand to stop him. “Benjamin Van Zandt, you have no idea how far I’ve come to bring you those boots. If you don’t take them, well – I think my heart just might break. But in exchange you have to do something for me. It’s a small thing, but it’s hard, just the same.”
He ran his hand gently over the polished black surface of one boot. “What would that be, Ma’m?”
“Tell me why you call this the ‘Fire Tree’.”
The boy stared at her. “I never told no one – “
“Yes, you did,” she interrupted. “Or rather, you will. Someday you’ll tell someone you called this the ‘Fire Tree’, but you never said why you called it that.”
He swallowed. His heart was racing and he wasn’t sure why. “It’s because in the autumn, this tree turns red and orange and yellow. It turns colors like you an’t never seen. Why, it looks like Moses’ Burning Bush from Sunday school, Ma’m! Like God Himself is gonna start talking out of it straight at me.” He looked at her. “The painters in those books at the library can’t paint nothing like it.”
The woman studied him for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ve always wanted to know why this was your Fire Tree. Our Fire Tree, I guess. Can I call it ‘ours’?”
“Yes’m,” the boy said. He scrambled to his feet as she started to walk away. “Ma’m, “ he called, “will I see you again?”
She stopped and looked back at him. “Yes, Benjamin, you will. And you know what else?”
“Someday you’re going to be a soldier. And you’re going to be a writer. And you’re going to fall in love with a woman whose hair is on fire like this tree in autumn. And maybe someday you’ll have a little girl that you’ll name Elizabeth after your mom.”
She held up a hand to shade her eyes from the setting sun. She looked like she was on fire herself with the gold of the sunset wrapped around her tall frame.
“And Ben, I don’t want you to ever doubt that one day when you’re an old, old man and God comes to take you to that bright place where all the trees are on fire, that daughter of yours will sit under her own special tree and cry like her heart was fit to break. And she’ll promise God anything, anything at all to have the chance to tell you how dearly she loved you.”
She pointed at the boots and he saw her wink. “Your momma is never going to believe how you got those, but you just tell her the truth and stick to it. It doesn’t matter if no one else believes you. And just think, it’ll make a great story to tell your daughter someday.”
And with that, she turned and disappeared into the timberline.