Plant No Trees In The Garden
By Howard Waldman
One November day, just after he'd bedded Emily, his wife timidly suggested planting a walnut tree. He was the one who planted, tended and knew.
He consulted his specialized books and explained, in simplified terms, the factors that ruled out the operation: inappropriate soil, early frosts, the voracity of squirrels, the walnut prone to 64 diseases. Anyhow the garden was too small for something that size. Marie-Louise, Albertine, Agnes, Madame Hardy and all his other precious sun-loving old roses (he called them "my ladies") would take umbrage at the intrusion. His final argument was that the walnut took 15 years to bear. He didn’t add that with his heart condition he'd never taste one of the walnuts, unlike her, ten years younger and never so much as a sniffle.
She listened respectfully as she'd done years back, a lovely C+ student in his English Literature of the Age of Reason class. Her argument was touchingly subjective: the sweetness of the fresh walnuts she'd savored as a child. She couldn't invoke the annual gift to future generations. To her despair, they were childless.
Each November she gently brought up the matter. Patiently he repeated his explanations and came up with another argument. His heart tolerated puttering—things like spraying, pruning and weeding—but not the backbreaking kind of effort necessary for planting a tree. Of course, he didn't add that the image of her, widowed (or, worse, remarried), savoring the fruit of the tree that had killed him was unbearable. She timidly countered his medical reason by suggesting that her husky brother Roger could do the digging. But every single shrub and bulb had been planted by his hand. Having to rely on someone else would estrange him from his garden, he felt, and confirm his decline.
One November dawn a clattering outside woke him to an empty bed. From the window he saw her pushing the wheelbarrow, the spade bouncing about. So finally he tackled the job, although she begged him to have Roger do it. With the last shovel heave of dirt in the hole his heart protested violently. "Think of me when you taste the first one," he thought angrily.
The tree grew relentlessly. In the fourth year its shadow encroached on his ladies. Nymph’s Thigh began developing Black Spot, Green Fly started tormenting Catherine Mermet, mildew disfigured Belle de Crécy.
While waiting for the tree to bear fruit, his wife often read in its skinny shadow. When she coughed he reminded her, as a joke, of the superstition that the shade of the walnut was fatal, not just to roses but to people as well. She smiled and went on reading and coughing.
Years after, his brother-in-law came over and picked the first nuts and husked them next to the bed of diseased and dying ladies. He brought them back to the veranda, the shells and his big hands black with the acrid liquor. He cracked them open and worked the nuts free. They looked like miniature brains. He patiently unpeeled the bitter yellow membrane and savored one.
"Sweet, as she always used to say," Roger said. "She'd have loved them. Go ahead, taste one."
"No," he replied, a bitter taste in his mouth, as if he'd already tasted the black acrid liquor and the bitter yellow membrane. “You can have them all.”
Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French university. He has published two novels, Time Travail (Jacobyte Books, 2001) and Back There (BeWrite, 2005) as well as a novella, Judge (Hachette). A third novel, The Seventh Candidate, will come out in late 2006.
Photo "Rose" courtesy of Lynne Lancaster, Knott End, United Kingdom.
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