If there is anything the orchard business teaches one, it is pragmatism. Deal with the reality.
Being an accountant I thought I knew all about reality, and I was just starting an orchard that morning in late spring when my sister-in-law Laurel looked out the window and said, "There is a strange girl over at our neighbour's, and she's mad as hell."
The mad-as-hell we already knew; we could hear that from our breakfast table.
My wife Elizabeth rose and went to see for herself. She wasn't eating much breakfast anyway.
"He's cut down the last tree. The birch tree," said Laurel. "The bastard," she added as I joined them on the front porch.
Our house had been built for the oldest son of a farm family, close to the original house. The last of the family to actually farm had, on his retirement, sold us the house and the field behind it. The field was perfect for a small orchard, the house was solid, comfortable, attractive; the only drawback was that the trees shading it, albeit only a few yards away, were all on the original property.
The owner had assured us he had no intention of cutting them down. But he died soon after, and his grandson had already started cutting down the trees by the time we moved in.
"That lovely black walnut!" Liz had said to him. "Was it diseased?"
"Hell, no," he said. "That's money in the bank. A mature black walnut's worth a fortune in the high-end furniture business."
Grandfather had told us we'd be welcome to any nuts we cared to pick up, if we could get in ahead of the squirrels. Now even the squirrels were out of luck. The two other black walnuts were the next to go.
Next an old burled maple.
Finally the lovely birch was the only tree left, tall, pale and graceful, and providing at least a little shade in the morning.
It had never occurred to us that he would cut that one down; even the sound of the chain saw after he'd got home last night had not clued us in.
"The apple trees we ordered should arrive any day now," I said, trying to comfort. "And you and Laurel can drive over to the nursery and pick up two or three lilac bushes."
But Laurel and Liz were watching the stranger who wept over the pile of birch logs, the new green leaves on the sawn off branches already going limp. She was tall and slender, dishevelled blonde hair trailed down her back, and her nightgown was the kind that should have been covered by a housecoat for, um, decency's sake.
Our neighbour came out the door and down the steps. "Best place for a satellite dish!" he called to us cheerily, waving at the birch stump, and got into his car and drove away, leaving the distraught young woman standing in his exhaust.
She sank onto the pile of what was left of the birch tree and put her head in her hands.
Then she lifted her head and looked straight at us. But what could we do? It wasn't our tree. Only Laurel looked back, and her eyes went that particular bright green that was her going-to-war look. She leapt from the porch and strode across our yard to the neighbour's.
"Well, is it the end of all things, or what?" I said.
"It's the end of the birch tree," said Liz, sadly.
"Well, yes, I suppose that's what it would take to get Laurel to talk to a stranger when she doesn't have to."
"She has her priorities," said Liz.
"I guess for Laurel a tree heads that list. How long is she going to be here?" I asked, as we went back to the table.
"She has another job interview the day after tomorrow."
"Well, we can hope," I said.
"Avery!" said Liz. "She can stay until after the baby comes, as far as I'm concerned."
"That's not until January."
"She's been a big help."
"And with her attitude, she's not likely to find a job anywhere soon."
"Principles," said Liz.
"Principles sounds better than attitude, don't you think?"
"Look, Liz, you know I'm as fond of Laurel as if she were my own kid sister. But..."
Unlike most kid sisters and boyfriends, Laurel and I had got along since I'd first started dating Liz. I'd watched her grow from a little kid who was always grubbing around out in the woods, into a lissome young woman who ought to be finding her own young man instead of hanging around with her sister and brother-in-law. I'd been the one to encourage her to take up forestry at university. But now that she had graduated, she'd discovered that in forestry there was the planting trees part and the cutting down trees part, and guess where all the jobs were? Laurel had difficulty coming to terms with that.
Still, she paid her keep whenever she had temporary work, and when she didn't she was always busy with the various jobs that come with moving into a new house, from arranging furniture to painting to planting the vegetable garden, all the things our doctor had told Liz to avoid with her pregnancy. She helped me lay out the orchard and dig the holes for the trees, lecturing me on the care and feeding of trees while she carefully divided soil and subsoil in two piles for when the trees were planted.
And she was decorative, her normal dress of jeans and t-shirt setting off long limbs, sunburned skin and brown hair with red highlights. I loved my wife and did not need the distraction...
"But?" said Liz, calling me back from my own thoughts.
"You're as fond of Laurel as I am, but...?"
"But she needs to get out more. And a little compromise might be good for her principles."
I got home from work that evening just in time to see an SUV pull out of our driveway and disappear down the road.
"Who was that?" I asked Liz and Laurel.
"A friend of Laurel's from school," said Liz.
"He's not a friend," said Laurel.
"He helped plant the lilacs," said Liz. "Come see. He picked 'em up and carried 'em around the house as if they were potted geraniums. His name is Bill MacDonald."
"He's a pest," said Laurel, although as far as I could see the pest had done a quite good job of planting the lilacs.
"He's a rich pest," said Liz. "Even better, he's nice. And you have to admit, Laurel, that he has some interesting ideas on conservation and environment."
"Easy enough to talk, when the money's in the bank and there's no environment left to conserve."
"Oh," I said. "That MacDonald." MacDonald Plywood and Paper. Major, major cut-down-trees people.
"Really," said Liz, "I thought he was very nice. And helpful and hard-working. And very good-looking, you do have to admit that, Laurel."
"I don't have to admit anything," said Laurel, and changed the subject. "If you could have trees, Liz, I mean trees right now, what kind would you have, and where would you have them?"
Liz considered. "A sugar maple out front," she said. "Beside the front steps. Then a tree to shade the back porch. Maybe more than one -- a group of three, maybe."
"No. Birches, I think. That was such a lovely one that creep cut down. Or maybe a birch and an evergreen -- birches and evergreens look nice together -- and -- oh, I don't know, maybe something a little exotic, I'm not sure what." She sighed. "Whatever we plant, it will be for this one's kids." She patted her stomach, although she barely showed yet.
"There are fast-growing trees," I said. "A row of poplars, maybe. Willows. Russian olives. Of course all of those have spreading roots that tend to get into drains, we'd have to be careful where we plant them."
"Next to the neighbour's property line," said Laurel.
"Bill said something about poplars," said Liz, repressing a giggle.
Laurel ignored that. "You already have your first tree, Liz. Come look!"
She pulled us over and pointed to two small leaves sticking up from a small mound of wet dirt.
"Pardon me, but what is it?" I asked.
"This," she said, "is a baby betula. Otherwise known as a birch. I sneaked next door this morning and dug up a birch seedling. That girl showed me where it was."
"In other words," I said, "You stole it. It'll take years for that to get big enough to not be in danger from the lawn mower," I couldn't help adding.
"By the way, what happened to that young woman?" Liz asked.
"She'll be okay," said Laurel.
"As long as she isn't drooping around in her nightgown in our back yard," I said.
But Laurel had already gone into the house, and I could hear her setting the table for supper. I felt badly about giving her a hard time over the size of her baby betula. It had been well-meant.
"So," I said to Liz, "tell me about this rich, good-looking, and nice young man who came to see our Laurel."
"I felt a little sorry for him," she said. "He really was very nice. He asked Laurel if she wanted to go to a movie tonight. She was just short of rude to him, and he took it so cheerfully."
Cheerfully, I thought. Sounds like he doesn't give up easy. "Sorry I didn't get to meet him," I said. "He sounds like just what she needs."
"It's a blue spruce," said Liz.
"Has your little sister gone completely off her nut?" I asked.
"She says it will live," said Liz.
"Never mind that it's about the most bedraggled looking arboreal specimen I've seen in my life," I said. "The point is, she stole it."
"Rescued it," Liz said.
"Stole it! By her own admission! She blew an interview with a perfectly reputable company for a job for which she was eminently qualified, because they had a tree dying in a planter in front of their building. And then she stole the tree!"
"The baby betula has put out half-a-dozen leaves just overnight," said Liz.
"Don't change the subject. She as good as stole that one, too."
Liz opened her mouth to protest, but just then yesterday's SUV pulled into the driveway.
"This is Bill," said Liz, pulling me over to meet him. "Bill, this is my husband, Avery."
"Glad to meet you," I said, looking up at him as he crunched my hand in a definitely manly shake.
"Brought you a present," he said. indicating the leafy tops sticking out of the back of his vehicle. "Poplar trees -- they were growing on a vacant lot one of our subsidiaries is developing, would have been dug out anyway, pity just to let them die. Where do you want them?"
"Next to the neighbour's property line. That's where they'll give us shade soonest," Liz said sweetly. Bill had hauled the first tree out and positioned it where Liz indicated, before I could protest, and there was nothing left for me to do except get the shovels.
"Laurel tells me you're planting an orchard," Bill said as we worked.
"Don't you mean Liz?" I said.
He grinned. "Okay, wishful thinking. Has Laurel always been so, um, prickly?"
"Ask Liz," I grunted as I stomped down on the shovel. "She's her sister."
"She's always been, I guess, sort of in a world of her own," said Liz, who had been standing by watching. "Always had a thing about trees. She'd sneak out into the woods behind our barn before she was old enough to really be allowed there by herself."
"You must have been in a lot of classes with her," I said to Bill. "What was she like in school?"
"The professors loved her -- picked up the science almost by osmosis. She seemed to have an instinct about how trees work, the same way some people just get along with animals. Employability? They had their doubts. You can't be sentimental in industry."
"It's not just sentiment," said Liz. "Even Dad recognized that, and farmers can't be sentimental. But once Laurel followed Dad out into the woods where he was cutting some trees for lumber, even though we'd been told strictly to stay away because it was dangerous. She gave herself away when Dad started to cut down one particular tree and she started screaming. We could hear her clear up at the house. She only calmed down when Dad promised to show her every tree he planned to cut, and not to do it if she said not to. He wouldn't have done that if he hadn't seen there was more to it than just sentiment and temper tantrums. But it turned out that was the only one."
"I don't remember that," I said. "I do remember he wasn't nearly so lenient when she beat up a neighbour's kid for swinging on a sapling until he broke it."
"Wow," said Bill.
"That wasn't what Dad said," Liz laughed, and went into the house to fix us drinks while we put the trees into the ground. Bill followed her, and was gone a rather long time, and looked thoughtful when he came back.
I suspect Laurel came out soon after only because Liz had asked her to tell us there were iced tea and cheese and crackers ready, but any reluctance disappeared when she saw the poplars.
"Sextuplets!" she exclaimed when she saw the six poplars all in the ground. "Oh, Bill, how did you know?" For a minute I think we both hoped she'd kiss him.
"Huh?" I said, finally, when she didn't.
"Poplar trees propagate by shoots, so if you see a grove of poplars, chances are it's really all one tree," Bill explained. "There was an old poplar, nearly dead, near the lot these came from; these are probably all shoots -- clones, if you will -- from that tree."
"Sextuplets," Laurel confirmed.
"What were you and Bill talking about while he was in the house with you?" I asked Liz as we got ready for bed that night.
"He wanted to know if Laurel was, um, into girls, was the way he put it."
"Huh? She's not, is she? You'd know, wouldn't you?"
"You told him so, I hope."
"Of course. But I also told him the story about the story about the princess on the glass hill. About how some young man from somewhere in Africa heard it and asked, well, why didn't the prince just find some other girl?"
"And what did he say?"
"He laughed and said if he did that, it would only be when he was really sure he couldn't make it up the glass hill."
"I wish him luck."
"By the way, he offered to come out and help you plant the orchard when the trees arrive next week."
"And I know he's not doing it for me, but I could use the help. Poor Bill. I assume," I said on a sudden thought, "that he really did come by those poplars honestly. Sextuplets! Baby Betula! Does the spruce have a name?"
"How about Sacajawea?" Liz giggled.
I took a week off work to get the orchard in, and Bill came to help every day. He and I and Laurel shovelled and watered and prepared the ground between the trees for an interim cover crop while Liz kept us all liberally supplied with iced tea and sandwiches.
Laurel seemed to have declared a truce during the planting of the orchard, and she actually went out to a movie or two with Bill. Liz and I crossed our fingers.
When I woke up one night and heard them laughing on the back porch I even started fantasizing about the day I'd be sharing the bathroom with only one woman.
"Want to see what we did last night?" Laurel asked at breakfast the next morning, and Liz and I followed her out to the back porch, where she showed us yet a third tree, like the birch, still only a seedling.
"It's a ginkgo," she said. "You said you wanted something slightly exotic, Liz."
"Is it legal?" I asked, and Liz said hastily, "I'm sure our grandchildren will enjoy it."
"Have faith!" Laurel said. "Look at the baby betula!"
And indeed the young birch had produced a remarkable growth spurt, branching out the way you might expect from a third year seedling. The spruce tree, too, had a bright new shoot at the top. I expected the ginkgo to send up new leaves even as I watched, but it took a week to do that -- by which time the birch tree was close to half the size of our new apple trees, and the little blue spruce was completely recovered.
"That ginkgo," Bill told us later. "Darndest thing. We were walking through a park on the way back to the car, and this Chinese girl, must have come from some festival because she was in a long embroidered silk robe, stops us and starts talking to Laurel. In Chinese. But she got her point across enough to show Laurel where this little thing was growing."
"She did steal it," I muttered.
"Just helped it find a new home," said Bill. Fine attitude, I thought, for the scion of MacDonald Plywood and Paper. Guess they didn't call them lumber barons for nothing.
Laurel and Bill progressed from movies in town to a new play in the city.
And that's where things fell apart. We could hear them when he brought Laurel home, long after midnight, quarrelling quietly, so they wouldn't wake us. It may have been the tension in the air, rather than the volume, because we woke up anyway.
Laurel finally came into the house alone.
Bill stopped by the next day, ostensibly to check on how the new orchard was doing. He managed to get Laurel alone on the back porch, but it did no good. Impossible to tell what the argument was about, although I did overhear him saying something about the poplars, and her saying a few minutes later, "So you don't really understand after all."
And that, apparently, was the end of it.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I heard Liz ask Laurel later. Laurel only shook her head and left the house.
That evening I went out the front door and found Laurel just finishing digging a big hole.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I've found you a maple," she said.
"I absolutely refuse to be a receiver of stolen goods any longer," I said.
She didn't answer, but instead of putting the shovel back where it belonged, she put it in her car, before dragging out the hose to fill the hole with water.
Liz fell asleep right away that night, but I couldn't rest. I'd finally managed to doze, when I was brought awake again by a car door closing down in the driveway. I got out of bed and looked down; Laurel's car was gone.
Liz was gone too.
I slipped out of our bedroom and down the hall to Laurel's. Her door was open and her bed hadn't been slept in. Surely Liz wouldn't have.
The door of the back gable room, the one that would be the baby's, was ajar. Laurel had painted the walls a soft cream, and put up rods for the flowered curtains Liz was sewing, and she was helping Liz strip and paint their own childhood furniture for the room.
Liz was there, gazing out the still uncurtained window, dreamily, absorbed in whatever she saw.
I went over and put my arm around her. "What is it, love?"
"Hush," she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. "Look."
There was movement below. Rabbits? No, bigger than rabbits. Deer?
I leaned forward for a closer look. No deer. Amazing, I thought, how those two seedlings Laurel had planted had grown. They were saplings now, and the blue spruce had grown right along with them. Even the poplars, I thought, turning to look toward the boundary they marked, were displaying extraordinary growth...
Six young girls, so alike they might have been identical sextuplets, swinging out to circle around a tall young blonde woman (still in her night gown!) who spun slowly across the lawn, arms aloft, head thrown back, hair swinging, and another young woman -- only a girl, really, in a silk robe, piled up black hair -- dancing in a counterpoint of small and exact steps, and a taller girl in a brown kilt reaching out her hands to both -- graceful, soundless moves to unheard music...
Great, I thought. Other orchards have rabbits. Or deer. At least dryads don't gnaw the bark...
Liz poked me, and I jumped. "I didn't know people could snore standing up," she giggled. "Come on back to bed."
I wanted to ask her if she was kidding me. But of course I had been dreaming.
When I woke again it was only gradually, from a dream of dancing to rhythmically shaken maracas. As I slowly pulled myself up out of the dream the rattling gourds changed to... Liz, snoring quietly beside me.
No. Liz was breathing normally. The sound came from outside, not a shaking noise, but a scraping noise.
Once again I pulled myself out of bed and went to the window.
Laurel's car was back in the driveway, and Laurel herself was packing the last earth around a newly planted... newly planted, oh lord, this was no rusty half-dead little evergreen, this was a full and healthy sapling that someone must have paid good money --
I ran downstairs, reaching the front porch just as a police car pulled up behind Laurel's.
And behind the police came Bill.
And down the stairs, behind me, came Liz.
At that point things got just a little confused. Liz exclaimed, "Laurel!" and Bill called "Laurel!" and I yelled, "Laurel!" and one of the policemen stepped up to Laurel, took the shovel from her hand and said, "Young lady, you're under--"
Presumably the next word was going to be "arrest", but Bill sprang forward, grabbed the shovel and gave the policeman's arm a good whack with it, and yelled, "run!"
Laurel ran, flying along the side of the house and cornering around to the back, pursued by the policeman with the sore arm.
The second policeman handcuffed Bill.
I followed Laurel.
She was nowhere in sight.
"Where is she?" said the policeman, still rubbing his arm.
I didn't know.
So they searched the outbuildings, they searched the house, they searched our neighbour's house and outbuildings, which he didn't appreciate.
Finally they left, taking poor Bill with them. They didn't bother to take the tree, which, I noted sourly, was a maple.
Liz walked around the house, calling "Laurel? Laurel! It's all right Laurel, they've gone. Laurel?" as if she were calling a recalcitrant cat. I finally persuaded her to give up and led her into the house and fixed tea and toast for her.
Laurel hadn't turned up at noon, but Bill turned up a couple hours later, in a taxi, to reclaim his SUV. Both of us walked the property, doing the recalcitrant cat thing. Still no Laurel.
"Does she have any money?" Bill asked.
"I doubt it. She hasn't had any temp work lately."
"She doesn't have to do this," Bill said. "I've taken care of it all, there'll be no charges. You can even keep the tree, I've arranged to compensate the owner, right up to having a new tree planted."
"You didn't have to do all that," I said.
"Heck, this particular tree seemed to mean a lot to her. She tried to get me to help her steal it, you know, and I wish now... Anyway, I offered to buy her one instead, I could have got you quite a big one, we have the machinery to move full-grown trees. But it had to be this one...."
"Of course it did," said Liz behind us. "It's Joan of Acre."
"Huh?" I said, at the same time as Bill asked, "What's Joan of Arc got to do with it?"
"Not Arc, Joan of Acre. Related to the Plantagenets, I think. That's a good name for this tree."
"Huh?" I said again. It seemed to be becoming my favourite word.
"It's a pun. Maples are the genus acer. Acre, Acer. Get it? How do you do, Joan?"
A breeze ruffled the leaves of the maple, and I could have sworn it laughed.
What did this maple really look like? Just what kind of wildlife sanctuary had Laurel started on our property? When she came back, I'd make her tell me.
We put in a missing person report. Bill paid for ads inquiring about her all across the country. He even used a company helicopter for an aerial search of the area around our property. Nothing.
We put her car in our garage.
Bill was sent out west, on business, by his father. We promised to let him know if we heard anything.
In September I cleaned up the lawn for the winter and mowed it one last time. Liz came out and found me sniffling over a little tree I'd almost mowed down, on the opposite side of the steps from the now well-grown trio Laurel had planted.
"A pear tree, I think," I said. " It probably won't be good for anything. But I remembered how Laurel asked you... do you think she sneaked back and planted it? It would be just like her." I sniffled again.
But Liz laughed, and then she hugged me tight despite her girth. The baby bumped up between us, and I could feel it move.
The baby, a little girl, Laurel Elizabeth, came right on schedule, January 28. For all the doctor's concern, or perhaps because of it, it was a safe delivery.
It had been a winter of heavy snow, and the day we brought Laurel Elizabeth home was no exception, big soft flakes floating down like the petals of the apple blossoms we were hoping for come May.
I'd laid a fire in the fireplace, and placed the antique nursing rocker, a present from Bill, in front of it.
But first, holding little Laurel, I led Liz to the window overlooking the back porch, with a view across to the new orchard in the snow, and also of the pear seedling beside the back steps.
It was now a small tree, white, not just with snow, but with blossoms. Clouds of blossoms, white on white, we could almost smell their fragrance, even through the closed window. A pear tree, blooming in the snow.
"It flowered the day little Laurel was born," I told Liz.
And suddenly, I could see our little girl, standing at her bedroom window, waving to midnight dancers in her back yard, and among them was a slender young woman with brilliant green eyes and a circlet of pear blossoms in her red-brown hair...
Poor Bill, I thought.
"Say hello to your auntie," Liz said to little Laurel.
x x x
Joyce Kilmer had nothing on our featured writer this month. Ms. Riedel (AKA Sandra K. (Kate) Riedel) seems to have a real “thing” for our arboreal friends. No worries here, as long as she keeps writing stories like this one. Thank you, Kate. Comments to our BBS. -GM