By Courtney Kleefeld (Rated G)
One tender morning in the fog, she climbs a steep hill to a strange tree. It is a mangled, slanted tree with low-hanging, curved branches. This tree shelters her and embraces her with its gentle, leaf-sleeved arms. It whispers sweet nothings to her in the wind. She strokes the rough bark as though it were sacred. Now she sits down on a weathered rock, bows her head, and folds her hands. She closes her eyes and moves her lips. I’m puzzled by her, but perhaps I don’t know the meaning of this tree.
She comes back almost every morning to pray aloud and silently beneath the tree. Sometimes, I hear a few words of The Lord’s Prayer carried by the wind to my ears. This must be her sacred space.
I realize she is a neighbor from the little French village nearby. Her sister is the residential baker, so I have heard of her before while waiting in line for bread. It is a mile-long walk for her.
One day, she comes during a gentle rain in a gray dress of mourning, holding a black umbrella. She doesn’t say a word. I wonder who has died.
One day, several months later, there’s an ugly storm.
The tree is struck by lightning.
The next day, under a frowning gray sky, the young woman weeps. She strokes the ashen black crack where the lightning hit. The entire head of the tree is fallen on its side, its limbs curved in the air as if to offer one last embrace. Tears fall from her face into the grass, and I whisper a prayer to the heavens that she be comforted.
The day after, she is back once again.
“Hello!” I call to her when she comes to the well.
“Oh!” she says, dropping her bucket. “Hello,” she says. She scrambles to pick it up before I can. She stares at my sheep.
“You can pet them if you like,” I say.
“Thank you.” She moves over and kneels down to stroke the youngest one.
“It was quite a storm,” I say to make conversation.
“Yes. Yes, it was,” she says. She is silent for a few moments, looking thoughtful. Then she asks, “How did you keep all of your sheep safe?”
I stuff my hands into my deep coat pockets. “I had to carry the one you’re petting now. She didn’t like it, and you would have heard her bleating if it wasn’t raining so hard. I’m pretty sure she was sulking in her pen with the others. She’s the adventurous one. It often gets her into trouble if I’m not careful.”
Worry comes into her eyes.
“Has she ever gotten lost before?”
“Once. It took me seven days to find her and by that time she was very weak. She had become quite attached to another sheep and thought it was her mother, but it abused and abandoned her.”
The fair lady is silent. I feel she wants to say something but is afraid to.
She says, “I know you watched me pray beneath the tree.” She laughs and says, “You must have thought me silly.”
“No, not at all!” I say. “I thought it strange at first, but I supposed it was your sacred space.”
Her smile fades softly.
“My mother introduced me to it when I was young. She had made it her friend when she was a little girl. It drew her closer to God.” She looks down. “I always knew it really was just a tree.”
I fold my hands over my staff, bouncing my knee up and down.
“Maybe he’ll send you to another tree, one that’s stronger and not as much in danger of being destroyed by lightning,” I say.
“Maybe. Maybe I have to find God by myself.” She gives a quiet laugh again. “Now I have no excuse for putting off my journey. The only thing holding me back was the mangled tree. And now it’s gone.” She looks out over the green hills of France.
Here, the wind meets us. It blows through her fair, waist-length waves of hair and stirs up orange leaves till it becomes a roar. It is almost as if the wind is trying to say something. Then it settles.
She looks my way finally with an unaffected, sober face. “It’s so hard to find God when he’s invisible.”
Long after she has left, I say a quiet prayer for her beneath the stars. Was it really just a tree? Was it wrong of her to find God in it? I shudder in the cold.
I don’t see her after that day. A year later, I hear from her sister, the baker, that she’s gone on a journey across the sea. The baker reads to me a letter. She now sees God in the ocean waves and in the sunrise-mirroring puddles on the ship’s deck. She hears God’s love in the wind and thunder of the storms. She mourned the stability she found in the mangled tree, but now her eyes are opened.