A Sign Photo of Barbara and her grandmother.

Barbara Herrick

Photo of Barbara and her grandmother.
Copyright 1998 by Barabara Herrick
                                              1998 First Prize Fiction

This story is loosely based on a true incident. My grandmother would have said every word the character in the story uttered had she felt the need.

God told her to do it; "I got a sign," she said. The old woman planned to have two sugar maple trees hewn from her lawn.

On a blistering summer morning in the summer of 1992, she sought respite from the sun on her wide back porch in the shade of the cherished trees. Enveloped by her sagging straw garden hat, she sat, not swaying, in a cane-backed rocking chair, work-gloved hands held loose in her lap, and waited for a wind. As was her habit, she listened. She heard The Lord whisper words of warning when the summer breeze did play with the broad, many-pointed leaves of the doomed maples.

She informed her family of the "sign" when they were gathered around her table in celebration of her eightieth birthday in July. "I might get Mr. Mackey's boy to take down them two trees in the back this fall," she lisped through loose, false teeth and laughing lips reddened by the roses on her store-bought cake provided by her kinfolk for the ceremony. No one at the table acknowledged her remark, but three or four of the octogenarian's assembled offspring exchanged patronizing glances over her wispy, white hair, permed especially for the event. The old woman laughed again.

The two youngest great-grandchildren played under the maple trees that summer and autumn. Children had cavorted beneath the ceiling of the ancient branches since the old woman and her husband had moved to the little house twelve years ago, and most probably other families' children had played under the trees for generations before that. The maples considered for chain saw culmination stood sentinel at the bottom of a short, steep hill leading up to a rusty, though strong, chain-link fence screening climbing children from a rusty, though much-used, railroad track. The trees shaded a safe playground.

The young boys imagined the twirley seed pods on the green trees were weapons bombarding them in the summer winds. When the leaves turned orange and yellow and red, the great-grandchildren pretended the seeds were helicopters whirring downward. The great-grandmother sat on the back porch rocking in the shade of the summer trees dreading how bare the landscape would be when she executed her plan. In the autumn, she pretended to dislike the task of raking the leaves into a fragrant, flaming pile.

The old woman loved the trees and all work involved with the trees. She adored all growing things. Her lilies, hostas, hydrangeas, peonies, azaleas, irises, pansies and vast clusters of un-named explosions of color held tribute to her green thumb throughout the year. Her husband helped her move the flowers from the old place when the family re-located to another part of the state. Their only son moved away and shortly after found the little green house nearby for his parents. The old man and the old woman would have brought the trees from the old home if they could have, but they soon bonded with the maple trees in their new lot.

Until the great-grandfather became too ill to ride his lawnmower, he and the great-grandmother did all of the yardwork. She employed the same young men to mow her yard her husband hired before he went to heaven, but she still tended to her flowers and her raking and such on her own. Yardwork made her feel closer to the husband, who had departed in the spring of 1991 after more than sixty years of marriage with her.

Her family knew she loved the trees, so were surprised when in the winter she began to actively and vigorously campaign to have the two trees in the back destroyed. First she grumbled to anyone who would listen about how horribly the previous autumn's raking had hurt her. Her son, her daughter-in-law, two granddaughters who lived not so far away, and at least three great-granchildren reminded her they each had offered to rake the leaves. Each person volunteered to rake the next year, and the matter was considered closed for a while.

Then the old woman tried a new strategy. She vowed to her kin that she had recently been having dreams about Great-Granddaddy in which spectral settings he begged his wife to have the two trees in back cut down. He was afraid, she told his living loved ones, one or both of the giant old trees "was gonna blow over on the house and smash it all to smithereens." Her story spooked several of the younger children, so she stopped telling it.

She next employed logic in quest of her aim. Her son and his wife explained to the old woman how costly might be the removal of the trees by reputable tree surgeons, and she countered, "I have money set back to do what I please --and I please to have those trees cut." The daughter-in-law pointed out what splendid shade the trees provided in summer, and the old woman reminded her there would still be four such trees left on the west side where the sun shone brightest. The son argued the great old trees deserved respect, and his mother just looked at him through eyes slightly squinted with a "great?, old?, deserving of respect?" look on her face.

The oldest granddaughter, the two oldest great-grandsons, and one of the great-granddaughters were enlisted to try to talk some sense into the matriarch. The teenagers came away in turn shaking their heads, and the old woman's granddaughter came away in tears. No imminent environmental crisis, sin against nature, or waste-of-money warning could sway the old woman.

She held fast to her resolve and made arrangements, without aide from her disapproving family members, to have the trees chopped down in the early summer of 1993. Wisely, she hired a licensed, insured company from the next county so as to ward off insurance woes. The old woman sat on the back porch admiring the trees every sunny day for a week or more while she waited for the tree-cutters.

During the last few days before the murders, family members confronted her singly and in groups in an attempt to have the trees pardoned at the eleventh hour. The old woman became impatient with her silly offspring.

"I got a sign from God," she told them, "and I don't aim to go against it. It's not every time I go against all of you, but this time I got to. Them trees is coming down, and there's not a blessed thing any one of you can do to stop it."

The trees came down.

It didn't look as bad as some of the great-granchildren had predicted. The grass on that side of the house got more sun and grew lush and lovely, and the yard appeared to be bigger and friendlier. It was possible to get in and clean out the weeds and trash around the garage and the toolshed with the offending trees out of the way, and the old woman grew some lovely tomatoes in a patch she cleared that summer. Now when the trains went by, the two youngest great-grandboys could wave at the conductors, and the conductors waved back.

The old woman was very proud of herself.

On February 10, 1994, when the big ice storm hit, the old woman slept warm in her house with her new gas heater. She had not argued with her loved ones when they insisted she trade in her old wood-burning stove the previous autumn. She rarely argued with anyone, ever, on any subject.

The sounds of the storm woke her. Tree branches weighted down by ice crashed to the frozen ground. The roars and cracks and reports of echoes sounded to her like the gunfire in the WWII movies she had watched with her veteran husband. When she was brave enough to look out a window, she saw the storm's wake also looked war-torn.

She was not a bit surprised to see the devastating swath laid out of the countryside along the railroad tracks. Every living, breathing bit of organic material in that path had fallen over towards her yard. The wretched path ran just where the two maple trees had once lived and breathed so tall, quite tall enough to reach and cover her entire home if they had been felled by the storm.

When the electric power went out, the old woman's son and daughter-in-law made their way to her house to share her new gas heat. The couple were literally astounded at the apparent, averted disaster they viewed in the old woman's yard. Later, the daughter-in-law told one of her daughters, "You just wouldn't beleive it. I have no doubt that house would be gone if the trees were still standing when the storm came -- and probably her in it! It's incredible!"

The old woman never said, "Ha, ha, I told you so," but she wore a satisfied smile on her wrinkled face for weeks. Every single member of her family, some to her face and some in confidence to friends and family members, vowed never again to argue with the old woman.

Shortly after I entered first grade in 1956, I became aware that I adored two of the three "R"s. ( I'm not overly fond of arithmetic.) In college I majored in English with the intent of attempting to add something Photo of Barbara. of worth to the English language during my lifetime. After college I decided to see the world first, and proceeded to move around said world with my career soldier husband. Then I made a yet another detour in my plans to upbring the most wonderful son and daughter ever imagined. The husband retired, the children grew up, and we all live happily where I started, in the best place in the world, Tennessee. Now I sit in front of the computer screen and try to explain what I learned.

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