Sixth Annual Wild Violet Writing Contest Winners (2008)

Fiction — First Place

Gay Ingram's work has appeared in national magazines such as The Writer, Cross & Quill, and The Secret Place. She has two novels, 'Til Death Do Us Part and Troubled Times, to her credit. Her latest release, Living With A Depressed Spouse, a non-fiction book based on personal experience. You can contact her at her AuthorDen page.

A Tree Fell
By Gay Ingram

Family picnic, blurry and filled with light

Tom Weathered was dying. He lay in the massive walnut bed that had embraced his birth, lost amongst the mounds of bed coverings swallowing his worn-out body. Plump pillows supported a wizened head grown weary with age. His crown of fine gray hair spread like a fine etching against a white background. Deep creases marked his face, recording the heavy footprints of experience. Each shallow breath he took struggled upward from the depths of heaving lungs and escaped with a whistle through a mouth’s slight left droop. Corded muscles on now-idle hands bore witness to a lifetime of physically wrestling with life's challenges. Now they rested on top of the covers as if to record each rise and fall of his chest.

From across the darkened room, the sing-song, tick-tock of an ancient clock echoed the measured breathing as it escaped the frail form on the bed. Mrs. Goodwoman rose noiselessly from her chair in the corner and moved cautiously to the window; the whisper of her crisp uniform tracked each step. She used both hands to curb the window blind’s tendency to snap wildly as she raised it. The mid-morning sun had won in its struggle to pierce an overcast sky and now flooded the darkened room with bright light.

Fingertips of sunlight walked across the man's face unfelt. Motion-filled images that played across his consciousness continued uninterrupted. Only brief lapses into deeper sleep brought intermissions. A century of living could provide a storehouse of memories. Jumbled together, long-ago events competed with now nameless faces and shuffled across the stage of his inner vision, repeating themselves in a continuous review of his sojourn on this earth.

Pushing its way to the forefront came the image of the long-legged boy he had been on their family farm in Kansas. A rebellious hank of hair still stubbornly drooped across one eye. The vitality of his youth seemed to burst through the never-quite-large-enough cotton shirt. Tom experienced once more the sense of heat and dust beating against his body, as he recalled standing, legs spread-eagled, in a cornfield that stretched as far as the eye could see. Once more it seemed as though his body ached with the dirty, itching tiredness resulting from long, summer days of hard labor.

He recalled how his body would throb with exhaustion by the time night's blackness forced an end to the drudgery. Threatening thunder-heads roiling in the distance that day had driven them to complete the harvest. Ah, but the pure ecstasy as ice-cold water jetting from a dangling hose pounded him with its cleansing spray. It felt so good to be alive and young and healthy. That sense of aliveness lingered in the old dreamer long after the image faded into nothingness.

The rustle of turning pages across the room brought Tom back to the present. It reminded him of the nurse's existence and why she had become an ever-vigilant presence. His undiminished sense of smell picked up the musty odor hanging in the still air of the room. But maintaining that level of alertness for long tired him. The weariness came like a familiar white mist, drifting into his mind to slowly replace reality. Eyes closed, he saw on his inner screen a scene taking shape; vague features gradually clarifying against a background that took on form and substance.

It was one of those infrequent occasions when the whole family had managed to be home for a holiday weekend. Sprawled on blankets scattered about, adults and children of various sizes and gender enjoyed a July day. It was a soft day, warm with a slight breeze to cool the temperatures that tended to soar at this time of year. A swift summer shower had passed through the previous night to wash away all the dust and pollen and leave a world that looked bright and clean as white sheets flapping on a line. Shouted jests and hearty laughter bounced among the spreading arms of the giant oaks that sheltered the gregarious group. A frenzied border collie scurried from one reclining body to the another as if confused by so many demands for his attention at one time.

He and Dorothy had produced quite a clan. All had come for this particular gathering, even Jimmy had been able to extricate himself. None of his clients would recognize their high-powered lawyer today, Mr. James Weathered of the prestigious firm of Weathered, Black and Associates, as he rolled about in the grass, wrestling with Sarah's teenager who seemed to be winning the match. John, the eldest, followed by three sweet replicas of Dorothy and little Jimmy, completed the family. Pride mixed with a little awe raised his body temperature as his gaze wandered over the scene his mind had recreated.

In the shallows of the pond, John's boys were taking turns lunging for the darting minnows tickling their toes, their rolled-up pant-legs dripping from missteps in the shallow waters. On her stomach in a world of her own, Marjorie's eldest remained mesmerized with the orderly movements of a colony of bustling ants. Jennie's twins were concentrating on their task at the water's edge. They busily scooped up pails of wet sand, piling and patting it into a castle slowly taking shape.

He caught Dorothy's look as she mentally photographed each face. Her quiet smile of satisfaction reflected the one on his own face. Across the pond, a fog appeared to be gathering, rising from the still waters. It stole swiftly toward the picnic party, its swirling white tendrils reaching out, filling the spaces between isolated bodies, thickening until all details were blotted out as he drifted deeper into unconsciousness.

The creaking of the rocking chair startled him into alertness. But Mrs. Goodwoman was just adjusting her seating. From the kitchen below, Tom could hear the clatter Dorothy was creating. She was probably mixing up a batch of that gruel mess for all those cats she fed, he suspected. Dorothy, just her name gave him a warm feeling. He realized for the umpteenth time what a wise decision that had been — to marry her.

Not that there hadn't been surprises along the way. The biggest of all was discovering that streak of stubbornness hidden behind all that gentleness. When Dorothy knew she was right, she wouldn't let go. Like when she decided all those cows were too much work for him once the boys had left home. The argument simmered for a couple years; the undone chores piling up as his strength and energy seemed to dissipate before things got finished. He wished now that he hadn't fought so long and hard. Once the cows were gone and the barn became a shell of echoes and memories, the drudgery vanished and his joy in the farm had returned.

On every occasion when he introduced Mrs. Dorothy Louise Weathered as his wife, the wonder of his good fortune once again overwhelmed him. The passing years had left a mere suggestion of that quiet beauty that had hypnotized him from the beginning. Busy, work-filled days of raising their large brood and later the intense demands of building a successful real estate agency had taken their toll. But Dorothy never lost her cheerfulness; its presence tested only a few times in their lifetime together.

Just as he had promised on that long-ago night, they had grown old together. Lost to him forever was the name of the drive-in movie they sat through that momentous evening. All he could remember was his overwhelming excitement and anxiety. Wondering what her answer would be to the question he was working up the nerve to ask. Through all the twists and turns of a sometimes turbulent, sometimes placid life together, a companionship had evolved, comforting and supportive. Life's trappings seem to lose their importance as time passes. But that solid constancy of Dorothy's "just being there", filled all the wishes and wants of his existence.

Briefly, he considered how she would manage without him. But, his mind soon became at ease. Dorothy had a way of reaching out, finding some person, some place, some situation whose needs her unique qualities could meet. She would go on living life to its fullest, just as she had all her life.

A slight tremor shivered through Tom’s wasted body. A little more heat from the electric blanket would be welcomed. He debated calling out for the nurse. The chillness crept upwards from his distant toes. It seemed that tendrils of mist curled about him, blocking out immediate surroundings. The mist shifted and drifted, thickening into a dense white cloud. Relaxation came as a gentle wave of peacefulness oozed through his body and caused everything else to fade into nothingness. A smile played about Tom’s face, knowing he had done his best and God would be pleased with the labors of his life.


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