The great oak bent its crown against the oncoming weather. A late-autumn quarter moon, wearing a wisp of dark cloud around its waist cast a baleful glare on the old tree as the wind whistled through its nearly bare boughs. The leaves that were left were carelessly flung away to litter the ground below. The northwestern gale carried the promise of rain and a chilling hint of an early winter to come.
We were out alone, Mae and I. She was new in town but somehow knew her way around as easily as any other local. Her ebony eyes, silky raven hair and mocha skin had drawn my attention the first day I laid eyes on her. Her perfume fogged my mind and the music of her voice stole my heart. I wasted no time in introducing myself and asking her to the Harvest Moon dance. It never occurred to me that no one else ever spoke to her.
We had agreed to meet at the dance so I rushed home and got my best suit on. It had been my grandfather’s tuxedo which he had worn to his prom. When he had asked poor Maeven Potter to be his fiancé. What a sad night that had turned out to be. What a dark hour for my family. But, there was no time to dwell on that now. I had to hurry to meet my date.
I showed up ten minutes early, only to find her already there and waiting for me. We danced and talked and laughed and I knew I was a goner! Our conversation kept revolving around the town’s local history and only an hour into the evening, she asked about the old oak tree on Wicker Hill. She was almost breathless in anticipation of my answer.
“You mean, the haunted oak?” Her nodding head encouraged me to further detail. Her hand on my arm caused a stirring in me that drove me to distraction. This was not the kind of discourse I would choose for date talk, but her expectation was almost feverish in her desire to hear the story.
“Legend has it that the old oak was a hanging tree where many a guilty man or woman had died for their sins,” I began while taking her hand in mine and turning toward the park and the hill beyond. It was clear there would be no more dancing tonight.
“My great-grandfather had opened the mill in town when he was only twenty and his early success had made him a very rich and prominent figure in town before his thirtieth birthday. He had married well; the daughter of the Mercantile owner; and settled down in the old mansion on Wicker Hill. The house had been built by a railroad man many years before and though well built and regularly maintained, it was otherwise abandoned. Great-gramps had picked it up for a song. Are you sure you want to hear all of this?”
Her nod of encouragement spurred me on. Her perfume spun my head and blurred my senses and I found it hard to focus. The warmth of her hand in mine and the closeness of her body drove me mad with desire and it took all I had to keep my composure and carry on with the story.
“Great-gramps was a proud man who had risen to his status on shear will, hard work and the backs of those whom he employed. He ran his house with an iron hand and it wasn’t until his son, my grandfather was born, that he ever showed any tenderness.
Unlike his father, my grandfather, Papa, was a sweet and gentle soul with a loving heart, likely gifted from his mother. When Papa reached the age of eighteen, he fell in love with a beautiful girl from the lower side of town whose father worked at the mill and whose mother was a local seamstress and mid-wife. Joseph Potter was a good man, of Irish ancestry, solid and strongly built. Iris Freeman was a buxom and pretty girl whose great-grandparents had earned their name when they won their freedom from slavery many years before. Their daughter Maeven was a beautiful girl with a cream and mocha complexion, dark eyes and a smile that could light up a room.
Great-gramps was furious that his beloved son would want to marry a “low-born” girl, as he called her. Great-gramps was an asshole! At any rate, he concocted a story that she had employed some sort of witch-craft to create a love potion and then used it to ensnare his son. He claimed that she had put it in her perfume. So convincing was his argument that he was easily able to rally a lynch mob who went and captured young Maeven and hung her in the old oak at the top of the hill. The very oak under which we are standing now. Her only crime, loving my Papa.
Papa went mad with grief and anger for a long while after that. He never spoke to Great-gramps again. After a few years, he married a girl he had met in college. When she became pregnant with my father, they moved back home. By then, Great-gramps had had a stroke and died. But Papa never lost his sweet nature and taught me many things as a boy growing up.”
We stood beneath the oak for a long time staring up at the dried-up knot that still hung there. To my way of thinking, it was a gruesome sight. Tears welled in Mae’s eyes as she stared at the broken bough that held the rotten bit of rope which continued to cling to its anchor long after its remainder had decayed and fallen away. Gently, I turned her face toward mine and pulled her into my arms while she sobbed away her grief.
Her body, so soft, so warm melted into my own. I lifted her chin with my fingers and fell headlong into her gaze. The aroma of her perfume dulled my senses and drove me mad with desire. She moved closer, bringing her lips to mine. Wild berry and honey tingled on my tongue as we kissed. In moments we were on the ground. The leaf carpet covered by our clothes, made for the perfect lover’s bed.
Our passion rose and fell for hours as we rode the tides of love. At length, we lay in one another’s arms caressing and kissing in the wake of our intimacy. She looked at me and laid her hand on my face. Her dark eyes were so deep, I felt I could gaze into them forever.
“You look like him, you know.”
“Wha…what do you mean?” Shock must have registered all over my face. Of course it was true. I did look like my Papa. But how could this girl, this stranger, so new to town, know it?
“You must surely have guessed by now.”
And of course, I did. Same silky hair and creamy complexion. Same dark eyes. Same alluring perfume. Same everything. Improbably gorgeous. Impossibly alive.
“I must go now. But before I do, let me ask one thing of you.”
My mind was a whirl. Must go? Go where? How is any of this possible? Fortunately, my mouth was still working.
She looked up at the branch above with the hemp knot still grossly tied to it. “Remove that.”
I glanced up at the rotten knot and almost retched thinking of her in that god-awful noose twisting and jerking, struggling to breathe until at last, with eyes bulged, dying all alone atop this horrid hill. When I looked away, she was gone. No clothes. No Mae. No more love. Only a lingering memory of a perfect moment beneath an old tree. A creak from above brought me back to the present and I could see the remnant of the rope swinging back and forth.
I got up and dressed. Then, I climbed the tree and pulled myself into position on the old, blackened branch that held the knot. Taking my knife from my pocket, I began slicing the rope through to the wood. It cut readily enough, but was difficult to tear away from the bark. I slid out a little further to get a better grip. A loud crack split the silence of the dawn, shocking my senses. Twenty feet high in an old oak tree and the branch on which I lay just cracked through. As I turned to make my escape, the bough broke.
They’ll come to find my body soon. They’ll bury me near my Papa and his parents in the old graveyard behind the mansion. Until then, I’ll wait for my love to return. To fill my senses with her enchanting perfume. To carry me off to a heaven of love. Waiting, wondering. Will she ever come back for me? Will she come to find me beneath the haunted oak?
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Copyright 2017 Harvey L. Covey, Jr.
About the Author: Harvey Covey was born in the mountains of western Pennsylvania where he spent his childhood, the oldest son of six. When he was a teen, his family moved to the Midwest where he finished high school, got married and raised two lovely children. He has worked for nearly forty years for the same company.
Harvey has a great appreciation for the prairies and lakes of Minnesota and has found much inspiration there. His love for the outdoors is evident as he now lives in the cabin he and his family built on his property in the north woods. He writes music, poetry, and stories, plays several musical instruments and loves to hunt and fish.