Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: SEA CHANGE or TREE CHANGE (07/13/17)
TITLE: A Sanctum of Cedars
By Ann Grover
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It’s been six months since she moved to Willow Grove, population 59, and over a year since her love left her, suddenly, permanently. He was unrecognizable to her, disguised, it seemed, in a dark suit and silk tie, lying so still, his voice quietened forever. Her soul was shattered, her heart fragmented.
She’d arrived in Willow Grove with the snow, her footprints quickly concealed as she carried her possessions into the small house. The agent showed her how to turn on the water pump and light the wood stove, pointed out the snow shovel hanging in the shed, and left abruptly.
Willow Grove is her sanctuary. Away from prying and pitying platitudes. Away from insistent sirens and the drone of trucks and trains and jets. Away from his voice echoing in the apartment. The whisper of trees exhaling and the susurration of rustling leaves comfort her.
The winter passes. She writes, reads, ventures out occasionally to restock the tiny pantry. The tiny shop beside the post office provides everything she needs. Fruit. Cheese. Honey. Artisan bread, made by a local woman.
Spring is rivulets of melted snow, dripping from the branches of the cedars, the slender limbs of the birches, soaking into the ground. Buds swell, leaves shyly unfurl.
One day, a man in faded jeans and a sun-softened shirt stands at her gate. She’s piqued at the intrusion and a little wary.
“Can I help you?”
“I’ve got rotted sheep manure.”
“Sheep manure. I always brought a sack or two for Mrs. Good every spring. For the garden. Your garden now.”
“Where would you like me to put it?”
“I don’t know. Wherever you usually put it, I guess.”
He walks away, to a pickup truck parked on the road, obscured by pines, and then he’s back, a sack slung over his shoulder. She opens the gate. He unties the bag, pours out the almost-black, crumbly matter into a mound by the garden.
“Work it into the soil. Spread it around and rake it in. Especially around the rhubarb.”
“There.” He points to the rosy knobs bursting through the soil in the corner of the garden. “I’ll bring another sack of manure, if you want it.”
She doesn’t know if she wants it or needs it, but she thanks him. He nods and drives away.
She hadn’t considered the garden when she looked at the place the year before. The towering, aromatic cedars cocooning the small house seemed serendipitous enough, a shield between her and all else, a place to hide and heal, for her heart to mend. And besides, her experience with growing things had been limited to artfully placing ready-made planters from the nursery on the apartment balcony. But as she blends the manure into the soil, she’s energized by the touch of the moist loam on her fingers.
Rows of peas, spring onions, radishes soon fill the tiny plot, and she harvests the first sweet leaves of lettuce. At summer’s end, she has tomatoes, cucumbers, chard. She is exultant and inhales the fragrance of the lush foliage, the scent of the resinous cedars in the warm sun.
Then she sees the dried fronds on the cedar trees, rusty-brown and brittle. Almost every tree is afflicted, withering in their innermost boughs. Her men-at-arms, her valiant guardians. She despairs, feels the impending loss sharply.
The man stands at her gate again. She welcomes the interruption and pleads with him.
“The cedars! They’re dying.”
“They’re just flagging.”
“They need you to care for them, too, big trees though they are. It’s the hot, dry summer, you see. They just need water. They’ll be fine. They’ll be all right.”
She is grateful. She waters the trees and by spring, they show signs of recovering. And she, too, feels revival when the birches are re-cloaked in green and seedlings spring up from the rich ground after she readies the garden, using the sack of manure she finds by her gate one dewy morning.
And one day, when she is ready, she offers the man in the faded jeans and sun-softened shirt a glass of lemonade, and they sit together beneath the benevolent and stalwart cedars.
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