The tree was old, but not as old as the soldier lying at its roots.
When the Armies of the Cumberland and Tennessee slaughtered each other in the forest by the river, the tree was only a sky-blue berry. Trampled under boots where it fell between limestone boulders, it grew up quickly, nourished into a sapling by the unrecovered body and blood of one Enoch Beauregard, far from his home in the Carolina mountains.
Enoch Beauregard took up arms in 1861, though he hated slavery and the plantation owners with their sugar and cotton crops. But he came from the hills and from people fierce for independence and so, having faced his share of boys in blue, he staggered back at last and dropped to the ground. Shot through the breast he marveled, with eyes grayer than the winter sky, at the dense branches of the cedar grove above.
And poor, neglected Essie Armin — who wandered foolishly onto the battlefield in the chancy days of late September — she was only sixteen. Head full of stories and glories, she leaned against the flaking trunk of the tree, while a slow mist crept across the fields, dampening the ground at her feet. How could she predict that to stop at the base of an old tree would be to fall sick with love at the coppery tang and sweet breath that was all that remained of the dead soldier below? As the sun set, desolation gripped her ankles and deepened — first to knee then waist then chest — grief cold as river water, filling her throat, leaving her aching with tears as any fresh-made widow.
Enoch Beauregard stirred.
He had drowsed peacefully a century and more, soothed by the creeping, caressing tendrils of the cedar tree. He did not know or care that it stole nourishment from him, for it hushed and murmured to him in incomprehensible tree speech. If Essie had not found him he might have succumbed to the tree’s insistent lullabies and slept on forever.
But, mad with longing, the girl went down on her knees, digging with red fingers in the needles for something — a thighbone, the bullet that ended his life — something, anything to fill her hands. She felt him stir again beneath the earth, and something akin to worship burst woundlike in her heart. She loved him with an unspeakable love. She knew she must find him, must take him, must in the end hold him, and be held.
Enoch Beauregard woke from his long slumber at last, reaching out for his mother or sweetheart or whatever woman had haunted him at the hour of his death. Instead he found a strange girl weeping for him. No one had wept on his grave, for no one — save the tree — knew where he lay all these years. Pity at her grief moved him; he thought to comfort her.
So he took his long fingers and ran them through her lank locks. Putting his mouth to her ear, he spoke of blue mountains, sunlight bursting over their crenellated heights — of a creek, so clear and bright, tumbling down between ferns — of a fiddle tune that once danced by the fire — and of a hollow with honeysuckle and an old tin dipper by the shady oak.
Essie bowed her head and listened, kneeling at the base of the old tree, so firm and tall, straight as a pole. And, though she was chilled, she lay down against the clay, pressed the length of her body against the ground. She begged to breathe the breath that was no longer in the soldier’s lungs, to warm his limbs that lay fleshless in the earth, to kiss to life the long dead man.
The tree above them shivered angrily deep in its heartwood. The essence it had long taken from the soldier now flowed to a human girl in a lopsided school skirt, wiping her face on her ragged sweater sleeves. And as the sun set, instead of being just tree and man they were suddenly tree and man and girl. The tree foresaw that it would be tree alone, and the other two lovers to one another. The ghost would abandon his white bones, the brass buttons, a scrap of yellow ribbon he carried in his pocket — and what could the cedar tree do then, being only a tree, and not possessing a soul with which to wander?
Terrified, the dark tree swayed in the evening breeze. Its whorled needle-leaves pattered down, and the long, peeling strips of red bark fluttered, to no avail. It felt the dwindling presence of its longtime beloved, but could not so much as lean down to the man it had hidden for so long. For now he was climbing the tap root, now pulling himself out of the woody trunk and pouring himself into a young girl.
Essie received him gratefully, thankful to be alone no longer. She tensed, inhaled and then went limp with one knee crooked beneath her. Her eyes wondered at the pastel sky as it drained of color behind the black branches.
In the silent autumn night the tree stood above the soldier’s abandoned bones and the girl’s cast-off body. With agony of effort, it dropped a single sky-blue berry down into the girl’s parted mouth, where she lay in the fissure between rocks.
Maybe, it thought, maybe they won’t find her. They didn’t find him. Maybe I can keep her as I did him, and so hold onto him.
But it knew that, in truth, the day was gone, and with it would go the lovers. The lonely tree watched them, the man and the girl, walking east together, hand in hand. Saw his head bent to hear her shy speech, her laugh. Saw his shoulders, his shining black hair. Saw him going away with the girl in braids, leaving it, an ancient cedar tree, alone on the battlefield in September.
Shelley K. Davenport lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.