He placed the red gingham tablecloth inside the wicker basket. The handles gave an old, reassuring squeak as he raised them to secure the lid. From the stretched, worn pocket of his tweed jacket, he took out a pair of leather gloves and placed them on his trembling hands. Taking a deep breath, he looked out the rectory window to a lone apple tree on a nearby hill. A tree he and his wife had planted when he first accepted his call to this church more than sixty years ago.
Through the years, the parishioners had observed this annual fall pilgrimage up the hill to his tree with some degree of doubt. His wife, his sole companion on this journey, would sit and watch from her hand-made quilt as he clambered the tree to fetch its fruit.
“God said this one is for you,” he would sing out from a limb and toss it into her outstretched hands.
“And one for yourself,” she would laugh back. “You’re not the only one who hears from God, you know.”
But always, the fruit in abundance, placed upon the church’s altar and given to those in need through-out the community. In the tree, arms uplifted and stretched outward his ritual was no longer met with doubt, but became a symbol of hope and encouragement to his growing church.
Fearful, but respectful, parishioners soon built a ladder for the tree to ease his climb and help the harvest. His wife, on their twenty-fifth anniversary with the church, gave him a stone bench encircling the tree, inscribed only with the words: Exodus 17 verse 12.
His growing congregants now spoke of it as the Pastor’s Tree. His tree, its branches gnarled and calloused like his own limbs. His tree, he mused on his trek, now full of early fall apples; ripe, red fruit – waiting the wind to fall, a hand to single out, gravity to pull.
Now a crimson morning light pushed at his back as he ambled up the hill with an unvanquised heaviness. The rising sun colored his thinning, white hair like silver tinsel. The air was crisp, fragrant with the fruit of the tree and he savored it as never before. Wavering from the walk, he placed the wicker basket on the bench and gently picked up his wife’s hand-made quilt suddenly left there days before. He sat, clutching it to his chest.
Across the dale, just to the right of the church’s steeple and circling the top of another hill, the light of a lantern caught his eye. It came from the church’s graveyard - hallowed land, fenced and set apart.
Squinting into the dim but waxing light he made out the dark, black hole of a freshly dug grave. His hand went to the quilt, his heart quickened and beneath the weathered boughs of the tree, his eyes blurred with tears. His voice rose to a moan, a prayer that only angels could give meaning to.
The wind caught his cry and carried it down to his growing church. Congregants gathering early, looked up to see him, his form a dark, lone, hunkered silhouette against the brightening sky. They watch, they waited, they prayed.
“I can’t,” he cried out in a whisper. “I can’t anymore.” He looked down upon his church, watching him. Tears ran down his cheek, spotting the quilt and his body shuddered with grief.
There was a rustle of wind in the leaves above him. In the stillness, he heard a familiar voice. “An apple, dearest, reach up and pull down an apple for me. And one for you. One last time.”
“But the ladder…”
Not the ladder alone, but the bench as well. Stand upon the stone and you shall not fall.”
He did as her voice bid. Releasing the quilt, he stood and reached up. He stood upon the bench and balanced his arms upon the ladder - loving gifts of support given years ago. Reaching up, reaching out into the Pastor's Tree.
From below, his flock followed his silent movements. Movements that were a tableau; a final sermon from a man who had faithfully lead them for over sixty years. A man able to serve them because he had been served as well.
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