The Oak Tree

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The bells of a small country church rung solemnly to mourn the death of a wealthy duke. His duchess, though she threw him a lavish funeral and made a very public show of mourning, relished the opportunities what her widowhood afforded. Her husband had left her a vast and lucrative estate; in her opinion, rich widows were the most fortunate of women. She was still young and beautiful, with the possibility of another advantageous marriage, or at least a lover or two.

The Duchess, managing a few false tears, and a number of other black clad mourners carrying lit tapers processed towards the church, with a choir singing a requiem following them from behind. Their voices were accompanied at the church door by the crying coming from a wiggling bundle of rough cloth.

“Wait a moment,” the Duchess ordered, stopping the procession. She picked up the bundle and examined it. Inside was a maid child, only a month or two old, probably the offspring of peasants who could not afford to take care of her, “Poor little thing.”

This infant was baptized soon afterward, and given the christian name Elena; the Duchess stood as godmother at the baptism. Little Elena was given to the Duchess’s shepherd, called Pastore, to raise.  Pastore already had taken in another foundling, a strapping little lad of three named Marco, who he loved as much as if he were his own son, and gladly welcomed the infant.

Elena and Marco grew up herding the sheep under Pastore’s care, leading them into the fields after the harvest, into the hills during the spring, then back into the village for the summer shearing. The winters they spent in Pastore’s modest hunt and warmed by peat fires and the faithful sheep dog, Bess. In the spring, they camped out in the hills, sleeping on mats woven from rushes and eating nettles, hawthorne, dandelions, primroses, heartsease, linden leaves, violets, three cornered leeks, bittercress, cleavers, ground ivy and wild garlic. Fifteen years passed by in this way. Marco grew into a fine youth; Elena blossomed into a pretty maiden. Although they had been raised as brother and sister, Elena adored Marco as a lover.  He still thought of her as a child. In May, when they brought the sheep back into the village, Marco hoped to court the beautiful young daughter of a well off yeoman.

Before the flocks were returned, they were brought to a pound outside the village to have their fleece washed before it was sheared. After this task, Marco rested under a giant old oak tree, knobbly, rough, and twisted, perched upon a hill overlooking the pond, and dreamed of his lady love. It was very hot that day, and Elena stripped off all of her clothes and to cool herself in the water. She noticed Marco, asleep under the oak tree. Like a cat, she crept up to him and snuggled up by his side, She kissed him and enticed him into taking her maidenhead. Before he became sensible of what had happened, she had fled from him.

The summer months were spent in the village. Marco joined the men in shearing the sheep while Elena carded, spun, milked, and made cheese with the women. The women of the village began to notice changes in Elena and started to gossip: Marco was presumed responsible for her condition. The youth was shocked when he figured out what had happened and how he was to become a father.

He  searched out Elena and found her under the massive oak tree outside of the village, lying in the grass, staring up through the leaves and branches at the sky. Her long, dark hair, which framed her face like a nun’s veil when worn loose, was spread around her. The expression on her face was blank, her dark eyes darting and distracted.

The oak tree, ancient and gnarled, stood upon a hill which sloped down to the small pond. She turned her eyes to the pond and looked upon it with distant fondness.

“I’ve been looking for thee,” he said to her.

She turned and looked at him with the same distant fondness.

“People have been talking. I’m worried about thee”

“Don’t worry,” she finally said, “It was my mistake and I will deal with it as best I can.”

“The mistake wasn’t thine alone, thou shouldn’t have to deal with it alone.”

“I don’t want to be an obligation. I don’t want thee to grow to hate me.”

If I do feel obligated, it is only because I care about thee.”

“But dost thou love me?”

She rested one of her tiny hands on her stomach, which had already become soft and rounded. How young and vulnerable she looked; a child expecting a child.

“I want to protect and provide for the both of thee. If that is love, then yes.”

Her response to this declaration was other of her serene, madonna-like smiles. Where there had been distracted worry in her eyes before, there was now a feeling of relief.

“Wilst thou help me up?”  

He took her into his arms and helped her to her feet. His arms remained around her as they walked back into town.

In the late summer, the older sheep past their prime were slaughtered for mutton. Roast mutton, a rare treat which Marco and Elena only enjoyed once a year, was the crowning glory of their wedding feast, served alongside eel stew and a salad made from land cress and fat hen. The bells in the village church rang in celebration of the young couple. The Duchess, her godmother, kissed Elena as she entered the church.

In the autumn, after the harvest, the newly weds herded the sheep back into the fields. Early the next spring, their baby girl  was born and named Quercia, oak tree.

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