King of the Hill

I saw some stately old trees being cut down recently to make room for yet another house-building project in our already overly-dense community.  Their uprooting seemed such a shame, and it took me back to a much happier time.

My wife and I used to live in a house on top of a hill overlooking a valley with a river running through it.  It was a steep hill—so steep that, even when I was still able to run down it, I had long since stopped trying to run up.

The view was magnificent, stretching for miles across forest and field.  From my perch on the back-deck of the house, I commanded a vista of at least one-hundred-and-fifty degrees across the river-valley.  It was one of life’s rare pleasures to sit there of a summer evening, surveying the tranquil, pastoral scene.  It wasn’t a great stretch of imagination to pretend I was a sort of feudal lord, gazing out and down upon my kingdom.

Yet, in truth, I was never king of the hill.  That honour fell to another resident of the yard.  Down the sloping lawn from the house, almost at the edge of the property line by the river, stood a glorious weeping-willow tree.  Two smaller trees flanked him, seeming to pay homage as they curved up and away from the panoply at the centre.

The willow came to our yard almost by accident.  A neighbour casually mentioned to a group of us, assembled after a mid-summer night’s game of softball, that he was planning to cut out a tree in his yard to make room for a swimming pool.  A subsequent examination ‘neath the light of the moon revealed a tree not yet grown to the extent that it couldn’t be dug out and transplanted in a new location.

And so it was.  A day or two later, after much digging and tugging—punctuated by the occasional epithet—the tree was resurrected in my yard.  It did not flourish in the beginning, for it had to be pruned dramatically.  In fact, it gave scant notice of the glory that was to come.

The following spring, two saplings were planted on either side of the solitary sentinel, both smaller and slenderer.  In the several years following, they grew alongside the willow by the riverbank, two beautiful courtiers flanking a majestic, burgeoning king.

A visitor once remarked that the trees at the bottom of our yard should be cut down because they were blocking what would otherwise be a splendid view.  I merely nodded, as though in agreement; but secretly, I couldn’t help thinking she had missed the essence of what she was looking at.

That willow tree wasn’t blocking any view.  To the contrary, it was a significant part of the panorama.  It was magnificent.  Bursting skyward from its riverside foundation, fanning out in a wind-tossed cacophony of greens and yellows, the supple branches thrust themselves out and away from the main trunk, then bent earthward to caress the grassy slopes beneath.

I can remember when I’d go down on a warm summer’s afternoon to sit under the o’ervaulting limbs, virtually invisible inside the green vault.  The grass was sweet and soft, the sanctuary shaded and cool.  The only sounds were the leaves murmuring in the summer’s breeze, and the gentle gurgle of the river’s flow.  If I was alone, I’d often take a book with me, although I did not always read; it was merely a sham, a means of explaining my presence there to anyone who might have discovered me.

Best of all were the times my young daughters came to sit there with me.  In such a tranquil setting, encased in an emerald palace, we told each other our stories.  And they felt free to open up about their lives, to express their hopes and fears, to tell me of their triumphs and, sometimes, their failures.  Although I well remembered my own pre-teen years, I did not try to instruct them from that experience; rather, I listened and I learned.  Safe in our sylvan retreat, we fostered and strengthened the bonds that tie us together to this day.

The noble and aloof willow suffered us in majestic forbearance, of course, seemingly indifferent to our presence—at once apart and yet a part of us.  Although I shoved aside the thought, I understood even then that a time would come when my girls would no longer be eager to join me.  And I recognized, too, that the day would eventually arrive when even I would not be there. 

But I comforted myself in the knowledge that the resplendent willow would reign over the valley for years on end, unmindful of my absence—glorious and supreme, the once and future king of the hill.

And I gratefully rested at the foot of his throne while still I could.

The Thin, Dark Veil

My Florida writers’ group prompt for this week is to write about a thin veil or veneer, and this is what I have come up with…not wishful thinking, but a fanciful, funereal tale—

* * * * * * *

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…

I hear the mighty pipe organ, that King of instruments, pealing the melody I know so well—my favourite hymn, its words engraved on my heart—rolling majestically through the cavernous cathedral where so many times I have gathered with my family in this congregation.

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…

I see the people who have come to mourn or celebrate, to lament or rejoice, depending on their view of me, I suppose.  I know all of them, the well-meaning grievers and the disbelieving voyeurs—though they seem distant despite their disconcerting closeness as they lean over my casket.  I cannot see them clearly, for it is as if a thin, dark veil lies across my eyes. 

I hardly recognize long-ago colleagues, much-aged now, and almost-forgotten neighbours from homes I have lived in over the years.  There are acquaintances and friends from bygone times, most of whom I have not seen in many a day.  Some whisper a few words as they pause over me, but I cannot hear them on account of the glorious music enveloping me—

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed…

Some of these folks, I believe, have come in sadness, while others, less charitably, are here to assure themselves that I have, indeed, crossed the bar.  Some will miss me, of that I am sure; others, not so much.  But really, how could it be otherwise?  Are there any among us who will be universally mourned at their time of passing?

There are those who are genuinely saddened by my leaving, however, and I see them, too—dimly, darkly—as they linger over me.  I recognize the two old men whom I have loved since we were ragamuffin boys, and their wives, tears gracing their faces, hands lovingly touching my cheek, though I cannot feel them.  One of them crosses herself as she hovers there, an angelic apparition, an ephemeral chimera, and although I have never been one to embrace obvious signs of piety, I am comforted by her simple gesture as the mighty organ swells—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art…

And then at last there appear the people whom I love the most.  My vision is blurred and hazy through the veil, but I recognize my grandchildren—the adults they are now (strangely shape-shifting with the babies they were).  And I see my middle-aged daughters (inexplicably intermingling with the lovely little girls who graced my life once upon a time, and for all time).  Their eyes are smiling down at me, their grandpa, their daddy, even as their tears flow forth.

Coming at the very last, of course, is the stooped and wrinkled wife who has been there since the very beginning—mother and grandmother, boon companion—and she, too, is metamorphosing back and forth from the lissome lass she was to the weathered woman she has become.  And I understand, perhaps for the first time, the devotion expressed in Yeats’s poetic words: …one man…loved the sorrows of your changing face.

She stands above me for the longest time, my very life, yet not long enough before she is gone, leaving behind one final, sad smile.  And still I hear the magnificent music, its o’erarching crescendo anointing me, before fading to an other-worldly silence—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou ar-r-r-t, how grea-ea-t Thou art…

And when the music stops, the thin, dark veil is lifted.  And as the hoped-for, everlasting light bursts forth, I do as the old man in Yeats’s poem did before me—I hide my face amid a cloud of stars.