February 2, 2019

HEARTWOOD by Hope Denney

Her beloved tree curved into
the shape of a heart at its center...
On the day that Princess Eleanor’s betrothal was announced, her favorite olive tree died. The most striking thing about the tree was that its two main boughs had curved into the shape of a heart at the tree’s center. Lightning struck it during a September thunderstorm and broke the heart. It severed the trunk halfway so that the tree leaned over, exposing all its heartwood to the driving rains. The tree was as beloved by Eleanor as family, so Hugh was surprised it didn’t bleed as it lay exposed to the elements, but no one asked the thoughts of a squire. To Hugh, the tree’s broken heart was a sign that the Princess didn’t love her betrothed. Although he was heartsore at the tree’s death, it also gave him hope.
As a lowly squire, he’d never spent as much time with Eleanor as he would have liked. He didn’t believe in love at first sight, but he also didn’t believe that it took long to see someone’s true heart. In a kingdom beset with treachery and selfishness, he’d never met anyone with Eleanor’s goodness. Instead of isolating herself behind palace walls, she tended to the sick and poor within the village. It was during these times that he got to know her. There were times when her eyes lingered on him for a moment longer than necessary when he spoke; when a slow flush would spread across her cheeks as if she noticed they were kindred spirits. Over the years, such events had grown more commonplace, and he knew some part of her returned his feelings.
Beset with grief over losing her, he sought the advice of the royal court.
“Have I a chance with her?” he asked the court astrologer.
The old man looked at him with eyes that had seen ages old kingdoms fall within minutes and unspeakable evil continue for generations.
“A princess is not meant for a squire,” he said through his time-streaked beard.
“But I love her,” Hugh said. He wondered what the astrologer saw in his zodiac; if the mere mention of his name with Eleanor’s sent stars colliding and the world off its course. He began to tell the astrologer of her heart, but the old man interrupted him with a chuckle.
“Love is a strange thing,” said the astrologer. “There are as many kinds as there are grains of sand on the shore. It never runs out, and there is always someone else waiting to accept your love. You will never have the princess. My advice to you is to find another woman.”
The words stung, but Hugh’s heart was unhardened. Next, he called upon the court magician, who was said to have greater powers than anyone at court.
“These are modern times,” the magician said. “We are firmly in our fifteenth century, but Paris holds on to a bit of magic yet. It delights my heart! I can cast a spell to make you a dazzling speaker, or make you grow taller. With the right words, I can make you clever, but there is no spell to make a woman love you. Even if there were, I wouldn’t be brave enough to meddle with another’s heart.”
“Love is a wondrous gift. Why should it cause me such pain?” asked Hugh. “Do you mean to tell me I am really to let Eleanor marry some dignitary she’s never laid eyes on, when I could love her better?”
“People are given gifts every day that cause them pain. Your tragedy is only one of thousands in this moment. You will learn to live with it, in time, and you may find that your feelings change.”
I shall go to the mage, thought Hugh. I will ask her advice.
Hugh found his way over deserted forest paths that whispered with the secrets of time immemorial, and he asked his intuition to guide him to the formerly sacred stone paths that once led to the temples of the gods. Eventually he came to a stone cottage hidden among curling vines and the leaves of thousands of autumns. His knocks went unanswered, and the birds above called their alarm at the sight of a human in a forgotten place. For three days, he waited outside the cottage, and when a west wind blew and the crickets shivered in response, the mage returned to her home.
“Child, I was out gathering herbs. Come in,” she said, although her voice was barely more than a sigh.
She examined his teeth, read his palm, and then looked at the dregs of his tea.
“Your heart is broken,” she observed, going to the stove and stirring a tincture that smelled of another world’s disappointments.
“Yes, my heart is broken, and I don’t know what to do,” Hugh confessed. “I have loved Eleanor for years, and now that she is to be married to someone else, I’m heartsick. At court, they all think me a fool. How is it foolish to love?”
“There are some who think it’s worth saving your love for those who can accept it,” said the mage. “I say it matters not. When the world was yet an infant, I strolled through her and admired the newness of it all. Some waters granted immortality, and there were patches of earth that restored life to the dead. There was a time when I spoke the language of the trees. But, for all the miracles that I’ve witnessed in this surprising world, there is nothing to make me believe that two people can come together if they aren’t both willing. If I were you, I’d ask for strength to bear your burden. That I can provide.”
“Yes!” cried Hugh. “Make me strong enough to bear it. Help me live with it, and let it never turn bitter in my heart as it does for some.”
“Are you sure?” whispered the mage. “There are many kinds of strength. There’s the strength of brute bodies, and the crack of lightning. There is death, and there is also strength in the back of a humble ant. I can grant you strength, but I do not know what form it will take.”
“I am certain,” said Hugh.
The mage turned to the stove and added leaves from her basket. When the scent of sleep wafted through the cottage, she dipped up a ladle of her tincture. “If you mean it, take this,” she intoned.
Hugh swallowed. The medicine was acrid. All the bloodshed and mercy the world had ever known spilled over his tongue. Time folded in on itself, and then there was nothing until he awoke.
He was in the courtyard of the palace. His arms were poised with grace and strong enough to hold the heavens high, but his skin was soft enough to invite birds and rain. His face was immobile and eternal. Eleanor gazed upon him with exultation.
“My old olive tree!” she laughed. “It’s alive, but how? Straight as an arrow once more, and the heart in the center is healed!” She leaned forward and kissed him.
If Hugh had a heart, it would have beaten faster, but instead, he let his leaves translate the music of the wind.
Eleanor sighed in contentment. “Indeed, I don’t know why, but this tree feels like home to me.” She curled up at the base of the trunk. “How lucky I am that my betrothed lives nearby, for I will visit as often as I like.”
In the sun-dappled morning, he reached out his boughs to her, and he felt his roots fanning out, seeking her as well. She rested there all day. When at last the sun sank behind the purple-crested horizon and she went in for the night, he was not sad, for he knew she would return.
Return, she did, again and again. Across fifty springs, he continued to love her. She read aloud under the shelter of his branches, and nursed her children at his foot. When her children were old enough to hear of her past life, she told them of a squire who had disappeared from court and of how she still thought of him from time to time.
“We were alike,” she mused, shaking her graying head, and Hugh allowed his branches to just caress her shoulder. “I always thought he could make me happy, but we could never have been together.”
The years rolled on across the horizon. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter. The sun rose and set. People lived and died. And still never a week went by that Eleanor did not make her way to him. As time went on, she moved slower and grew weaker, but Hugh only saw that there were tears of joy in her eyes on these visits. Memories flooded her soul in his wake. Like him, she hadn’t gotten everything she needed from life, but she had lived well nonetheless.
Then the day came when she fell into that last great sleep, and at her final request, was brought there by her children and the court. They made a dark, soft bed for her and, with tears, left her to rest. Hugh’s roots moved slowly and patiently. Forever had passed, and he was in no rush to finally hold her. As the birds sang and as the seasons continued their relentless march, he continued to carefully approach her. Until at last, his roots cradled her with tenderness, and over time they embraced her until, imperceptibly, they became one.
Hope Denney writes many kinds of fiction, but her one true love will always be Southern Gothic fiction. You can find her admiring the heavens through her telescope on most nights. Her work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Philosophical Idiot, and many other places.
She tweets under the handle @HopeDenney

Cover Painting: John William Waterhouse

Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

1 comment:

Guy S. Ricketts said...

Beautiful and bittersweet. An achingly sweet story of true love, reciprocated by both in their own unique ways.