AT FIRST LIGHT

By John Thomas Tuft

The ancient oak hunkers atop the hill, a perch that surveys a rumpled carpet of green meadows and distant smudges of patient orchards. It is twisted and gnarled, a testament to endurance and perseverance. It’s been battered by storms, shaped by drought and sculpted by the wind. Rain beats down upon it without mercy, yet it is nourished by a taproot that seeks out the lifeblood. It’s been bowed but never broken. As have the two who approach it, she with a hand-stitched quilt over one arm, he with a laden picnic basket on his. They come here, in just this same way once every year, spanning the decades of hopes and dreams, faults and failures. The old tree offers them shelter, companionship, and certitude. And the presence of a serene listener.

She spreads the well-worn quilt on the ground and reaches out with a hand which wears a well-worn wedding band, touches him on the arm. “We made it,” she murmurs. “We can rest a while.” The man pats her hand, sets the basket down and turns to face her. “Our spot. Some things never get old,” he says, with a gleam in his eye. “Just like you, my dear.” She pokes him in the ribs. “You old fool!” she scoffs, as her cheeks are tinged with pink, that only adds to her beauty in his eyes. They settle into their feast of non-prolixity, for this is their season of joy.

“Did you bring it?” he asks. She gives him a sidelong glance. “Oh Tommy, in all these years have I ever forgotten?” she gently chides. “Tommy, is it?” he winks at her, feeling the warmth of her presence flowing through him. “Irena, you only call me Tommy when you’re trying to butter me up for somethin’! Like preparing me for when your mother was coming to visit.” He casually leans away from her pretend slap at his cheek and they both laugh. “You’re terrible!” Irena exclaims as she hands him a sandwich. Tommy leans against the old tree, silent witness to this ritual of restoration. He takes a huge bite of the egg salad on homemade bread, smacks his lips mischievously hoping for a reaction. He’s rewarded with a “You’re never going to grow up, old man!” and a sigh.  “Nope, I’m always dancin’ at first light, Reenie!” He pauses. “And I always will, Lord willin’.”

There is a moment of contented silence between them as they savor the combination of egg, Duke’s mayonnaise, pickle and just a hint of mustard (no onion) as the birds in the distant orchards serenade with their treble instruments. “It’s so peaceful here,” sighs Irena. “Wish I could stay here forever.” There’s a catch in Tommy’s throat as he tries to change the subject. “We never brought the kids here, did we?”  She smooths invisible wrinkles from her dress. “This is our place, Tommy.” She gets up, steps to the old tree, leans against it. Folds her arms around herself, as though seeking sheltering protection beneath the wizened oak.

“Read to me?” It’s a question, a plea, a hopeful longing. Tommy drinks the last of his sweet tea and pulls her down beside him to the comfort of the quilt. He takes a dog-eared volume from the basket. “See, I told you I don’t forget!” Irena says, with some satisfaction. He gives her cheek a tender kiss, opens the book and reads: “Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun/Conspiring with him how to load and bless/With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run…”

…Tommy blinks back his tears, trying to clear the image of the tired man he sees reflected in the window. That day seems so far away now. He prays for the strength of the old tree as he turns back to the room as the nurses finish their ministrations to the tiny figure in the bed. “Tommy? Are you there?” He swallows hard. “I’m here Reenie. I’m here.” He pulls himself together and comes to sit on the side of the bed. God, she looks so frail. And yet, she’s still the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Always will be, he tells himself as her fingers, one with the well-worn band seek out his. “Do you remember the old tree, Tommy?” she says as her hand tightens around his. “Of course. It’s our place,” he answers.

Her breathing slows and his heart jumps. “Yes,” she whispers. “Don’t forget. You need to go back there.” Tommy struggles for words. “It wouldn’t be the same. Not without you, Reenie.” Her hand slips from his and she tries to playfully slap at his face. He doesn’t move and it becomes a sweet caress. “Hey, Tommy, don’t forget. You’re always dancing at first light. So dance under our tree. Promise?” Tommy holds her hand fast against his cheek. “I promise.” She smiles. “Good. Now read to me, you old fool. Read me some Keats.”

And in the distance, the ancient oak hunkers atop the hill…

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.