The Princess Tree – a short story by Madelon Smid
The elegant blue spruce posed, draped in its snowy finery and glittering with a million jewels of ice, like a Princess on display. Could it be more perfect? No, Rose didn’t think so. This is a moment I will keep forever she thought, this moment of wonderment. The tree stood aloof in the centre of a small glade, receiving as its due the maximum of sun and moisture. Clustered around it, the other trees and bushes bowed forward under their weight of snow. Rose decided they, too, knew the Princess was special and kept their distance, while standing vigil over her.
Rose loved the Princess tree; so perfectly formed, so simply joyous as it stretched higher each year celebrating sun and rain, and life itself. She came to the small clearing when things became just too much. Near the Princess, as if arranged by a giant with a purpose, stood a massive rock. Often she carried birdseed with her and sprinkled it across the flat rock for the wild birds. The cute chickadees and jaunty jays swooped down in greedy forays, company for the Princess. Rose wanted to join their impromptu picnic. She watched instead.
Three years back she had persuaded her new husband, Joshua, to walk to the tiny clearing with her. Like a proud mama she wanted to show off the Princess. Optimistically, she packed a lovers lunch, chilled wine and fresh baked bread, a wedge of Canadian cheddar and juicy peaches. She carried a blanket to spread on the ground, and dreamed of young love and joyful abandon expressed in the midst of such natural beauty.
Spring awoke in her some fecund yearning that hinted at beginnings – a time to grow a marriage, a child, a new tradition. She walked the wide path to the Princess with her heart singing. A teasing breeze wound its way past crisp white birch, and gnarled oak, wended through the straight poke of scarlet dogwood, and danced within the prickly boughs of wild plum. It flirted with the heavy bounty of leaves, until they fluttered like bashful schoolgirls. Flashes of blue, black and white signalled the darting play of the birds. Early flowers stretched to catch the sun flaunting their bonnets of yellow and purple, scarlet and blush pink. Rose absorbed it all, loved it all.
Josh didn’t. Rose heard him curse under his breath and swat at a mosquito. His toe hit a root and he grunted in disgust. His arms milled around him in a continual battle with dangling branches and inquisitive insects. He could not be still, absorb the peace let alone the beauty. He complained about the flies, the distance, the heat and the idiocy of not being at home. It was six o’clock. They should be sitting down to meat and potatoes. He was missing the news on CBC. He needed to hear the farm reports. She’d retreated back to the farmhouse, hiding her hurt, hiding the Princess from her husband’s insensitivity. She could not bear his disinterest, his inability to recognize the special quality of the tree. If he disparaged the Princess, something in Rose would break and never be mended.
The closest Josh had ever come to a picnic after that was eating the hot meals he insisted she bring out to the field twice a day. At harvest time, with seeds shrivelled on the stalks and dust hanging heavy in the air, he would fill his plate, climb into the cab of his truck and turn the air conditioning on full blast.
The contrast of sticky heat and iced conditioning always gave Rose a head cold. So, she sat in the front seat of her car, the door wide, and stared through the glass of the cab that separated her from Josh. At least she could still see him then; though the transparent wall between them clearly bared their different values, the contrasts in their character, and their inability to share their feelings with each other.
Three years of marriage hadn’t improved the situation. Feeling again the disillusionment of her first foray into romance, Rose came back to the reality of her cold nose and the brilliance of sunlight glancing off snow that bit tears from her eyes. Rose looked at the frost covered Princess and her throat tightened painfully. The tree, the whole scene, was so breathtaking, she told herself. It wasn’t that she felt so lonely, so empty. The farm had gone under the second year. Josh hated farming and had not been able to withstand the pressures of a recession. Inflated costs and poor prices made them just another statistic. They still owned the land, this land. But they rented it to farmers, who had kept their heads above water, by diversifying.
Rose loved the land. At the moment it was the only part of her life she could view without pain. Common sense kept them living in the old two-story house she continued to restore. It stood mortgage free, and that fact, not her need to live in the country, kept Josh from moving them into the city, where he worked as a computer analyst.
Now he had a job he excelled at, with first class pay and benefits. Along with the rent from their land they were financially secure. But Rose’s unhappiness grew with each hour of overtime Josh chose to work, each day he left for the city in the morning and didn’t return until late at night. There were no picnics together–no meals together period. Josh became one with the computer programs he designed with an obsessive voracity, she guessed had something to do with his sense of failing on the farm.
Rose was happy for Josh. He needed work that made him feel good about himself again. But as Josh spent more and more hours glued to his keyboard, it became impossible to overlook her unhappiness. Every time she tried to talk to Josh he brushed her concerns aside. Everything was fine. They were out from under the financial pressures. He could give her security. They weren’t fighting? What more could she want? Each time he pushed aside Rose’s attempts to express her feeling of being unimportant to him, her insecurity multiplied. She felt depressed and defeated, and only the spiritual uplift she felt wandering the land, looking at the Princess, gave her a reason to get out of bed in the mornings.
Rose scooped up snow and ground it between her mittened hands. It fell away, too cold to form a snowball. She brushed her bright red mittens together sending a shower of the crystals into the air. They blew against her face, melting from the warmth of her skin and forming a film of moisture. Rose felt a girlish pleasure and wished she had a child there with her to share the moment. She had quit her teaching job when she married Josh, because they both agreed they wanted to start a family right away. But the children they had planned, three, had no chance for conception. Josh climbed into bed at night long after Rose had fallen asleep worn down by depression and the mad whirl of housework she used to fill her day.
Standing before the Princess she felt a rare sense of peace and openness. She spread her arms wide, eagerly soaking up the sense of well-being along with the warmth of the sun. “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” The words leapt into her mind, and echoed in the still clearing as she offered them aloud to the tree. Bowed branches of white and frosted spears of grass whispered them back. Prisms, formed by sunshine, leapt from the ice crystals on the Princess. The very ground around the tree seemed to quiver beneath its blanket of diamante, imbuing Rose with a spirit of life and hope. She would try again to talk with Josh.
It was time to take action, make changes, tell Josh just how useless and rudderless she felt. Maybe she could go back to teaching. Maybe he would put her and a family first if she showed him how far apart they had grown; how “vacant” was their relationship. She had no other options. This perfect moment with the Princess, forced the realization life would not stand still, while she wasted more and more precious minutes. She wanted to grow straight, and tall and beautiful like the Princess, nourished by Josh’s love and understanding. She felt the chill of the air on her teeth as she smiled wide, soaking up a last bit of courage from the Princess, before starting back buoyant with hope. She would talk to Josh tonight, no matter how late he straggled in. She warned herself not to pour her troubles over him, while he was hungry and tired. She would just arrange a time when they could sit down together. She stuck her chin in the air and her hands in her pocket and as her steps accelerated, so did the squeak of the snow under her boots; the cheering on of nature. Christmas was coming. She refused to face another holiday without some resolution to their problems. Maybe she would ask for counselling sessions for the two of them for Christmas. That would get his attention. She tried to imagine which Josh would hate worse, baring his soul to a stranger, or paying a stranger to listen.
Rose did get Josh’s attention. All sorts of attention. First he patronized her, brushing her request for an appointment aside. When she insisted they sit down and talk, at a time when he was prepared, he grew impatient and arrogant. “Prepared for what?” he wanted to know. “Was she threatening him?” He grew angry and insisted they talk right now. Fully aware they were off to another bad start, Rose stuck to her guns and voiced her concerns. He scoffed at her suggestion for counselling, appeared shocked when she suggested a separation might be one of their options. After all, Josh didn’t appear to need her for anything. His face froze in confusion. “He didn’t understand! When had all this happened? Why was she saying all this now, for the first time?” He accused, as again he tried to mount an offensive against words he didn’t want to hear.
But gently Rose persisted. It wasn’t for the first time. She had been expressing the same feelings aloud for three years. He had just never bothered to listen. Exhausted by the emotion of the scene, the intensity of their discussion, she held back a thousand tears. Josh hated crying. He called it an act women used to gain advantage, so they could win.
Rose used all her strength to remain calm, in control, and still find a solution. She wanted to save her marriage, but she didn’t think Josh cared. She would not bind him if he wanted to be free. But when he realized she might not be waiting there forever, he crumbled. It was Josh that cried. And when he had given her the precious gift of his tears, he gave her his understanding. They talked for hours, purging themselves of old hurts and fears, laying new groundwork and goals. As the first blush of dawn tipped the barren, reaching branches outside their bedroom window with gold, Josh carried Rose to their bed. They affirmed their love, discovering it stronger, brighter, because of a new sense of security.
Over the next weeks, Josh limited his working hours. They ate dinner together and talked. They made love at night, entwined beneath a crimson quilt. Rose came alive again. Filled with peace, she prepared for Christmas, hoping for a child conceived at this special time of love. She took her dreams to the Princess and poured them out in the pristine beauty of those Advent days.
Josh seemed to be making some plans of his own. There was much tiptoeing and rushing past open doorways. On December 22 he stayed home from work. He made pancakes and bacon and carried it up to Rose on a tray. Chilled grapefruit, with cherry centres and a sprig of mistletoe, crowded alongside squat mugs and chequered napkins. The smell of coffee prickled her nose. The look in his eyes curled her toes. Rose felt delicious. When Josh handed her the book she had marked and suggested she stay in bed, she knew he was up to something. She teased him, enjoying his attempts to withstand her curiosity. He swept up the tray and left the room, whistling as only a happy man can. Rose hugged herself beneath the downy quilt and turned her face into the pillow. It smelled of Aramis and Josh.
She woke to the slamming of the back door. “Don’t come down yet,” Josh warned from the bottom of the stairs, “you’ll wreck your surprise.” Rose darted into the bathroom for a quick shower, brushed her hair into a high pony-tail and stepped into a snugly sweat suit in forest green and burgundy. She felt womanly, satiated. She walked with a new sway, smiled with a mysterious languor.
More minutes of scraping and banging ended in silence below. Josh called for her to come down. He waited at the bottom of the steps. The kiss he gave her was sweet, then steamy, the mistletoe nowhere in sight. Rose sighed with deep contentment as he curled one arm around her and clamped a hand over her eyes. Rose stumbled and Josh found a ticklish spot as he tried to support her. They laughed their way across the hall and into the living room. Tangled together he brought them to a halt in the centre of the room.
“I wanted to give you something to show you I really understand what you need from me. I wanted to give you my time, not money.” He whispered against her ear. She felt the dampness in the palm pressed across her eyes. His voice held the huskiness of strain and his lean body backing hers was rigid. Rose’s heart seemed to throw out a little extra heat. Josh really cared. He loved her enough to make changes and work hard to keep their marriage. She didn’t need anything else. “I remembered how you always said you wanted to have a real tree for Christmas and how I always insisted we put up that old fake one. Ta da!” He pulled his hand away. “Surprise! I thought we could finish it together.”
Rose stared a moment, then closed her eyes. The Princess tree stood, draped in lights and tinsel, in the corner of the room.