short stories

 

 

The Wise One

(published in The Clothesline Review, 2001)


They were a family of four. Bill was a farmer with a second job at the foundry. Carol considered herself a homemaker but took an accounting job in the city to make ends meet. Brian was a genius, adored by all that came in contact with him—students and teachers, alike—because of the wisdom he possessed. Unable to communicate with her family, Lily spent many of her days with the palm of her right hand in her mouth and her left hand waving in the air. Together they lived on a five-acre homestead with lots of trees. Many of the trees were elms and it was the year of Dutch Elm Disease.

 

Bill and Carol didn’t always work away from home. It happened one summer when Bill spent long days pulling weeds from his bean fields so that his crop would look perfect from the road. Carol also spent plenty of time cultivating her garden in the front yard. Brian biked two miles to the ballpark every day where he played with friends from sunrise until sunset. Lily was nine that summer when she started banging her head on the seventh step of the wooden staircase for a reason unknown to the family. Carol tried holding Lily to keep her from banging but got hurt herself once by her daughter’s violent thrashing, so she gave up and let go. Carol strapped an old blue pillow to Lily’s head with a belt. But Lily banged her head even harder as she seemed to find satisfaction in the one sound she was able to make.

 

Carol took Lily to a specialist in the city who said all he could do was fit Lily with a helmet that was very expensive. Carol chose a lavender helmet for Lily as she recalled imagining long ago that she would one day have a little girl who loved various shades of violet. Carol said that they really could not afford this special helmet. So to be able to make the monthly payments on it she found an accounting job in a city forty miles away where she worked Monday through Saturday. Brian was needed at home to watch Lily and was no longer able to go to the ballpark. Lily wore her lavender helmet from sunrise until sunset and banged it on the step almost as long, breaking occasionally to chew on her right hand. Bill heard the banging when he came in for meals and at night. He didn’t care for the noise his daughter made, so he got the job at the foundry in town so he could have some peace. Brian hated Lily for taking away his summer at the ballpark. He sat in the house and watched the television instead of Lily until Carol returned at night from the city and relieved him of his duty. Brian did not know what Lily did with her days, and his parents did not bother to ask.

 

On one rare occasion, the family of four were all gathered at the table for a meal to celebrate Brian’s twelfth birthday. Bill informed them that he would soon be cutting down the old climbing tree on the corner of their property. While elm trees are not usually particularly good for climbing, this tree was different. The tree offered outstretched limbs to Brian and Lily when they were younger. Lily shimmied to the very top of the tree’s branches every day of the summer she was seven until the lower limbs began to fall off and the tree could no longer embrace her. The tree’s rot in the lower trunk had all the signs of Dutch Elm Disease, their father told them. He would have to cut it down so that it would not make their prized grove of trees sick. Bill had helped his father plant the trees when they were saplings, and he was determined to protect them. The tree was an eyesore anyway, Bill told them, and he would be removing it the following Sunday.

 

That Sunday morning as the family drove down the driveway while heading to church, they saw a long purple ribbon of paper fluttering across their lawn. All four got out of the car and followed the ribbon to the rotting elm tree on the edge of their lawn. The purple streamer was made of hand-colored strips of paper fastened together with clear tape. It wound through the hollow opening at the bottom of the tree, up to a little ledge inside the trunk about three feet off the ground. The purple streamer was tied to a small piece of paper that was rolled up. Brian pulled it out and unrolled the paper. It had a message that Brian read aloud, “God does not judge by external appearance, nor should you.” Bill told Brian he was very clever to pull such a prank and patted him on the back. He said that it was good entertainment, but now they were late for church and they must be going. Brian shrugged his shoulders and together, they got in the car.

 

After mass Bill and Carol visited with neighbors in front of the church. Brian ran off with the friends that he no longer played ball with during the week. Lily ran in circles around the family gravestones. When she grew tired, with her footsteps she outlined the plot purchased for the family by Bill’s father. She then sat down cross-legged on Grandfather’s grave and rested her lavender head on his stone. Bill and Carol excitedly told the neighbors about the note they found in the dying tree. They were all sharing a laugh over Brian’s clever antics when he and his friends approached their parents. Jim, who owned the little store across from the Church of the Immaculate Conception, slapped Brian on the back and praised him for the witty imagination that caused him to leave the message in the dying tree. Brian said he didn’t do it. The adults shared a laugh over Brian’s feigned modesty. Father O’Connell came over to the group to see what the laughter was all about. They shared the story with the priest and he, too, chuckled. Brian grew red in the face and shouted to Father that he didn’t do it. The crowd gasped and grew silent because they knew that Brian would not lie to a priest. Father O’Connell went into the church and came back out with the Bible that was on the altar. He held the Bible out toward Brian and asked him to place his right hand on it. Brian obediently did so as the priest asked him to swear by the blood of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that he was telling the truth. Brian swore that he was, and the crowd gasped once again and looked questioningly at one another.

 

Mrs. Halloran, who sold eggs at her farm down the road, broke the crowd’s silence as she shouted to Bill that someone in the neighborhood doesn’t want him to cut down that tree. Tommy, who lived by the ballpark, agreed and said that they have a real mystery on their hands. Don, who worked for the Soil and Water Conservation Office in the city, told Bill that he should sit tight for a while to see if he gets any more messages so that he can figure out who put the note in the tree.

 

Bill agreed with Don that he should wait to cut down the tree and told his family that it was time to be heading home. Carol went to collect Lily and found her drawing an “X” on the unbroken ground beside her grandfather. Carol scolded her simple daughter for soiling the gloves of her new white Sunday outfit as she ushered her into the car.

 

The next morning, on his way to work at the foundry, Bill looked for a message in the tree but there wasn’t one. He looked the following morning and, again, there was no note. He checked the hollow cavity of the tree every morning until Saturday when he declared that it was foolish behavior to visit a dying tree every day of the week---and that he would get rid of the tree just as soon as they returned from church the following day.

 

That Sunday, as they left for church, the family was saluted by another purple streamer. They got out of the car, and together, they followed the streamer to the tree. Bill reached into the tree and retrieved another rolled up message. He handed the note to Brian and told him that he should read it because he’s the wise and eloquent one in the family. Brian unrolled the piece of paper and read, “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of fools.” The family did not recognize the writing and puzzled over who the author could be. Brian suggested that maybe the dying tree itself was speaking to them and that the tree was “The Wise One.” Bill and Carol shared a laugh over Brian’s clever thoughts, and together, they got into the car to go to church.

 

After church Bill and Carol stood outside sharing the second note from The Wise One with their neighbors. They asked if anyone recognized the writing but no one did. The crowd convinced Bill once again to abandon his plans of destroying the tree until the mystery was solved.

 

The following morning the weather was blustery, and Bill planned on leaving early for the foundry. On his way down the driveway, Bill’s attention was commanded by a purple streamer that was waving frantically in the wind. Bill got out of his pickup and ran across the lawn and into the house to wake Carol and Brian so they could see the next message. Lily followed the family outside because she was already awake. Bill pulled the note out of the tree and handed it to Brian, who read, “If the root is holy so are the branches.” That day, while Bill and Carol were at work, Brian called and told his friends of The Wise One’s latest message.

The next morning, Bill woke up early again to visit The Wise One. As he approached the tree, he saw a purple streamer, some of the of the neighbors’ cars and trucks at the end of the driveway, and his neighbors standing in a line by the rotting tree. Bill also saw that Brian had already gotten up and that he was sitting in a lawn chair next to the tree in front of the line of his friends and their parents. Brian held an empty coffee can in his lap and his friends and their parents held dollars in their hands so that they could gain admittance to the sacred area Brian roped off around The Wise One. Bill ran back to the house to wake Carol, who came running out to greet her neighbors in her bathrobe. Lily followed behind.

 

Brian announced that his family would witness the message together first, and after that four at a time could enter the sacred area to see the words of The Wise One. Bill retrieved the scroll and handed it to Brian, who read, “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are so that no one may boast before Him.” After seeing the message and the increasing line of neighbors at their tree, Bill and Carol called into work and said that they had a family emergency.

 

As the day continued, Bill and Carol relieved Brian of his post at the coffee can, and they greeted the steady stream of curious neighbors. Brian played baseball on the lawn with his friends. Lily sat on the grass and watched her family. At the end of the day, Bill and Carol found the equivalent of their combined day’s wages in the coffee can. They went to bed smiling.

 

The next morning, the family of four went outside at the first gleam of dawn to greet another purple streamer and an even longer line of people than the morning before. The family of four gathered for the message and Brian read, “There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to uproot.” Bill and Carol visited with neighbors and strangers from around the county as they deposited dollar bills into the coffee can. Brian played baseball on the lawn with his friends. Lily sat on the grass and watched her family.

 

Jim brought several cases of beer and pop from the store for the family and their visitors. Mrs. Halloran and other neighbors left egg salad sandwiches, hot dishes, and all kinds of goodies so that the family of four could eat together while attending to The Wise One.

 

When the day and the long line had ended, Bill and Carol counted the money in the pillowcases that had been filled hourly with the contents of the coffee can. They found a week’s worth of wages. When they went to bed that night, they discussed quitting their additional jobs so that they could stay at home on the farm to attend to The Wise One full-time. They agreed that they would both call in the morning and quit their jobs.

 

The next morning, the message that was read to the family of four and to many from the tri-county area said, “The wise heart will know the proper time.” The morning after that, the message read, “Let the dying die and the perishing perish.” Neighbors and strangers wondered aloud if the author of the messages was giving permission to let The Wise One be removed. The message on the following morning read, “The Wise One came from the earth, to the earth we shall all return.”

 

The next day was Sunday and there was a stream of purple across the lawn, but no people out of respect for the neighborhood church services. It was understood by everyone that business would happen after church. The family hurried to get ready for church. When Carol went to get Lily, she found her lying on her bed, dead. Bill immediately phoned Father O’Connell, and word spread quickly through the area about the family’s predicament and that all visits to The Wise One would cease, at least temporarily.

 

Lily was believed to have died from banging her head on the seventh step. But the family of three was unaware that Lily’s banging stopped when The Wise One began to speak. Lily was buried in the family plot next to her grandfather. Carol placed purple lilacs on her grave and said goodbye to her daughter. Bill and Carol decided to leave Lily’s bedroom as it was when she died to honor her memory.

 

The day after Lily’s burial, Bill and Carol told Brian to call his friends and spread the word that the family of three was planning on reading the previous Sunday’s message from The Wise One if the neighbors would like to gather at their tree once again. The next day greeted them with the familiar line. Brian unrolled the message and read, “The time has come. Blessed are the dead who die with Me.” Everyone took their turn at seeing the note and venturing a guess about it’s meaning. The consensus early in the afternoon was that the author of the messages had resigned and was indeed giving permission to remove the tree from its home. Bill and Carol collected the dollar bills in a milk can. Brian played ball on the lawn with his friends.

 

A tree specialist from the city stopped by and examined the tree. He told Bill that the tree did not have Dutch Elm Disease and that he would not have to dispose of the tree if he did not want to. Bill said that the tree had brought wealth to the family and that he did not want to get rid of it, no matter how disfigured it was. The news spread quickly among the neighbors.

 

The next day, the family awoke to a line of people streaming across the lawn to the tree, but there was no purple. Bill and Carol stayed by the tree all day turning people away, telling them that there was no message. The next day, only a few neighbors stopped by after church to see the tree. Again, there was no message. The next morning there was no message and no line of people.

 

As time passed there were no more messages from The Wise One and no more income collected from admission fees. But when they collected on Lily’s life insurance policy, Carol said that it was more than enough to make ends meet. Bill and Carol consoled each other over the end of The Wise One and their family of four. Brian returned to school where he could share his wisdom with his teachers and friends. Carol harvested her vegetables. Bill returned to his fields to harvest his crops. As fall and winter came and went, the family of three ate together every night at the supper table. They talked excitedly because spring would be bringing with it a new baby to once again make them a family of four.

 

Winter ended and it was time to prepare for the baby. Lily’s memorial room was needed. Bill, Carol, and Brian packed Lily’s few belongings into a box and placed her lavender helmet at the top and closed it. They began to dismantle her bed to make room for the crib. When they moved the bed frame, they found a shoebox from Lily’s summer sandals. Bill kicked it out of the way and something in the box rattled. Carol picked up the box and lifted off the lid. Inside the box were: pieces of paper; clear tape; a purple marker; seven Crayola crayons in the shades of violet, red-violet, blue-violet, periwinkle, plum, lilac, and lavender; and a half-rolled note that read, “The Wise One who has died has been freed. And now you are free.”

 

 

 

© 2001 – 2021 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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