The Juniper Tree

The Juniper Tree by Charles Wyatt

Once a very long time ago, before all the words that mean what words mean today were thought of, there was a man who lived in a house with a wonderful garden abounding in flowers and ferns, almost all of which had different names, forever lost to us. But in the center of that garden in the front of the house was a juniper tree. What was a juniper tree in those days – we can only guess. The man loved the juniper tree, but even more than the juniper tree, he loved his wife. Man and wife were happy in the house with the wonderful garden, but they wished for a child to complete their happiness.

In wintertime, the garden was covered in snow, and the wife, who had begun to peel an apple she selected from the apple chest, was drawn into the garden where the sun shone brightly on the dazzling snow. The juniper tree was bare but it seemed to call to her. She continued to peel the apple until she cut her finger and blood dropped on the white snow.

“If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow,” she said, looking at the red blood and the white snow and feeling for the moment as if a bird had flown into her heart.

In a month the snow began to melt around the apple she had dropped and crocus flowers poked their small faces into the world. Two months went by and the ferns appeared, bringing an orchestra of fiddleheads. In three months all the leaves were the faintest, lightest green you can imagine, and robins began to sing and prowl about, although they were not called robins in those days. In four months the daffodils gave way to irises and many strange and wonderful flowers appeared in the garden, looking for all the world like a tapestry woven by the makers of the world, young girls imprisoned in another story. In five months the little house could scarcely be seen behind the canopy of green and rabbits nibbled quietly in the garden beneath the juniper tree. The woman sat in its shadow, breathing in its fragrance. When the sixth month had passed its fruit had grown large and firm. In the seventh month the woman craved the berries and gorged on them like a bear until she became miserable and ill. After the eighth month she told her husband, “When I die, bury me under the juniper tree.”

After that she began to feel better. Her heart was calm and she had the smile of an angel. When the ninth month had passed she gave birth to a child, a little boy whose lips were red as blood and whose skin was white as snow. She looked one time upon this perfect child and died of joy.

Her husband buried her at the foot of the juniper tree, and then he grieved for a year, pacing the garden, wearing a path as the seasons passed. But then, as it often does in stories, his grief passed and he took a wife. His second wife soon gave him a child, a daughter, whom they named Marlene.

But what of the little boy whose lips and skin were red and white as blood and snow? The new wife tried to care for him at first; but when she had a daughter of her own, he seemed always to be in her way. It was a task to treat him civilly. It was more than a task; it was a burden. He was always hurting himself and crying, always expecting her sympathy. She loved her own child, but this one was not hers. And this one would inherit the house and the garden and its juniper tree. And so the seasons and the years wore on.

One day her daughter asked her for an apple from the apple chest. She started to give the child an apple, but an idea dawned on her.

“You can’t have an apple before your brother. You must wait until he comes home from school.” And she tossed the apple back in the chest. It was a large chest made of oak with a lid so heavy the child could not lift it.

When the beautiful boy came home from school, his stepmother asked him if he would like an apple. But she could not help the look she gave him.

“Yes, Mother,” he said, holding out a trembling hand.

“Take it from the chest yourself,” his stepmother ordered, and she lifted the heavy lid. When the child looked in to find an apple, she slammed the lid down and knocked his head completely off.

“What have I done?” she said, but she felt a fierce joy. She took the child and seated him on a chair by the door. Then she put his head back on his shoulders and stepped back to give him a good look. This would never do. She went into her room and rummaged in dresser drawers until she found a white headscarf. This she wrapped around his neck. For the last touch, she put an apple in his outstretched hand.

Later, little Marlene came into the kitchen to find her mother madly stirring a pot of boiling water. Why does boiling water need stirring, thought Marlene, but she said something else.

“Mama, Brother is very pale and he won’t give me an apple.”

“If he doesn’t give you the apple, slap his face,” her mother told her, still furiously stirring.

A moment later Marlene came flying into the kitchen, her eyes as big and round as the saucepan of boiling waster.

“Mama, I’ve knocked Brother’s head off.”

Mother and daughter stared at each other in silence. The only sound in the kitchen was the ticking from the pan that had boiled dry.

“There’s only one thing to be done,” said the stepmother. “We’ll cook him up into a stew.”

And so, while little Marlene wept, the stepmother chopped up Brother with some onions, carrots, celery and a few potatoes. The stepmother ordered Marlene to the garden to fetch some basil and dill, but she could not stop weeping. Not so much salt was needed because of Marlene’s tears, but the stepmother liked a little more pepper than most.

When father came home, he seemed to sense that somehow, things were different. His wife was bustling in the kitchen and Marlene was quiet and red-eyed.

“Where’s my son?” he asked, not unreasonably.

“He’s gone of to the country to visit his mother’s great uncle,” said the stepmother.

“He didn’t say good-bye,” said the father. “He should have said good-bye. What is that I smell?”

“I’ve made a stew for you, my dear,” said his wife, and she set a big bowl before him.

The father began eating. He looked up once and muttered, “not even a good-bye,” but then he ate some more.

“This is delicious,” he said, and helped himself to more. “No one else can have any. This is all for me – I know it.” And he ate faster and faster. He ate like pigs eat, throwing the bones under the table.

Still weeping, little Marlene gathered up the bones in her best silk handkerchief and while her father belched contentedly, she took them outside and laid them in the grass under the juniper tree. Marlene was walking back to the house when she heard a stirring, a soughing sound. When she turned to look at the tree she saw its branches moving as if a great wind was passing through it. A mist rose up, darkest at its center – but from that darkness, a flame appeared, burning ever more brightly until it was too bright to look at directly. From the flame, a beautiful bird suddenly appeared, and singing as it flew, it rose up into the air and disappeared. Marlene felt as if a great burden had been lifted from her. In fact, she felt overjoyed when she walked back into the house.

Meanwhile the bird flew to a goldsmith’s house, perched on the roof, and began to sing:

Heaven, my mother killed me.
Earth, my father ate me.
Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,
gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

The goldsmith, who was making a golden chain, heard the bird’s song and ran outside to see what was making such miraculous music. He was in such haste, he lost a slipper.

“Bird, you sing so beautifully,” said the goldsmith. “Please sing that song again.”

“I never sing a second time for nothing,” said the bird. “Give me that golden chain.”

The goldsmith, still wearing his apron and with one foot unshod, held the chain aloft.

“Here, you may have it. Please sing,” said the goldsmith.

And the bird swooped down and caught up the golden chain in his right claw and perched again on the roof:

Heaven, my mother killed me.
Earth, my father ate me.
Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,
gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

Then the bird flew to a shoemaker’s house, perched on the roof and sang:

Heaven, my mother killed me.
Earth, my father ate me.
Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,
gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

Hearing the miraculous music, the shoemaker ran outside. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he called his daughter and her children, his apprentices, the hired hand and the maid. Everyone gathered around the shoemaker, their mouths gaping open. The bird had red and green feathers, a band of gold around its neck. Long iridescent feathers depended from its tail, shimmering and twisting. Its eyes sparkled as if they were full of stars. It lifted its wings as if to fly, then smoothed them down again.

Please sing that song again, cried the shoemaker.

“I never sing a second time for nothing,” said the bird – give me something.”

“Wife,” said the shoemaker. Get me that pair of red shoes on the top shelf.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the bird. When she returned with the shoes, he held them up over his head. “Here, take them, and please, I implore your, sing again.”

The bird swooped down and caught up the shoes in its left claw. Then it sang:

Heaven, my mother killed me.
Earth, my father ate me.
Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,
gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

Then the bird flew far away to the mill with the golden chain in its right claw and the red shoes in its left claw.

The mill was a noisy place with the mill wheel turning and creaking and the water burbling. Twenty men were hewing a stone with hammers and chisels. Chips of stone flew through the air and clattered on the ground.

The bird perched at the very top of a linden tree outside the mill and sang.

Heaven, my mother killed me.

One of the men stopped working.

Earth, my father ate me.

Now two more men stopped working and walked over to the linden tree.

Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,

Four more men stopped working.

gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,

Now only eight men were still working at the stone.

and put them under…

Now only five.

the juniper tree.

A single worker remained at the stone.

My song shall fill the world.

The last man walked out to the linden tree and looked up at the bird in wonder.

“Bird,” he said. “You sing so beautifully. Let me hear your song again.” There was complete silence. No other bird made a sound. Not even a crow, although crows had no name in those times. They might have been called “caws.”

The bird’s starry eyes lit up. “I never sing a second time for nothing – give me the millstone.”

“If it belonged to me alone, I would,” said the miller.

“If the bird sings again,” the others shouted, “it can have the millstone.”

Twenty strong men, grunting and heaving, righted the millstone. It took every one to accomplish the task. The bird fluttered down and thrust its neck through the hole in the center, making of the huge stone a collar. Then, as if it were weightless, it flew up in the air, circled the mill, and alit in the very top of the linden tree. The tree seemed to flutter and groan, then it steadied itself, and the bird began to sing:

Heaven, my mother killed me.
Earth, my father ate me.
Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,
gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

When the bird had finished its song, the workers filed silently back into the mill. No one had anything to say, but no sounds of the wheel turning or the hammers striking stone came out of the mill for the rest of the day.

The bird flew up from the linden tree with the golden chain in its right claw, the red shoes in its left claw, and the millstone around its neck. It circled the mill one more time and then flew far away to the house with the garden in front and the juniper tree.

And in the house with a garden and juniper tree, three people were sitting at the table in the parlor: the father, the stepmother, and little Marlene.

“I can tell this is going to be a fine day,” said the father. “Look at the sun shining in the window. The cat has already found that warm patch of sunlight to bask in.”

But his wife, the stepmother, did not agree. “The weather can change. There could be a storm brewing. I can feel it in my bones,” she said.

And poor little Marlene could not help weeping.

The bird circled the house once and landed on the roof.

“I feel as if I’m about to see an old friend,” said the father.

The stepmother’s teeth began chattering and she hugged herself. “I feel as if there’s fire running through my veins,” she said.

Little Marlene continued to weep into her apron, thoroughly soaking it.

The bird swooped down from the roof and landed in the juniper tree:

Heaven, my mother killed me.

The stepmother stopped up her ears. She could only hear a roaring sound, like a terrible storm.

Earth, my father ate me.

“What is that?” exclaimed the father. “What is that glorious singing?” He ran to the window to look out. “What a beautiful day! What a glorious day to be alive!”

Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,

When she heard her name, Marlene redoubled her weeping.

“I must go out and see what I am hearing,” said the father.

“No, no, don’t go,” cried the stepmother.

gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,
and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

When the bird had finished its song, it dropped the gold chain and it fell around the father’s neck. He went inside and said, “Look what the bird has given me. It is almost as beautiful as he is. Now I, too, have gold around my neck.

The stepmother turned white and fainted. She lay still and senseless – but in a moment she revived. She sat up and straightened her twisted cap.

Heaven, my mother killed me.

“Oh, if I were a thousand feet under the ground,” said the stepmother.

Earth, my father ate me.

This time the stepmother fainted again, and her head made a loud clunk against the floor.

Clouds, my sister, poor Marlene,

Ignoring her stepmother, Marlene went to the door. “I want to go outside and see if it will give me something, too.

gathered up my bones,
tied them in silk,

The bird dropped the red shoes down to little Marlene.

and put them under the juniper tree.
My song shall fill the world.

Little Marlene put on the shoes and skipped into the house. “I was so sad, but now I feel happy. My new red shoes make me want to dance.”

The stepmother came to herself and staggered out of the house. “The world is coming to an end,” she mumbled. Her eyes were vacant and her hair stood on end as if her head was in flames.

The bird dropped the millstone on her head and she was crushed so flat, they had to bury her between two doors. Smoke and flames arose from the millstone and when they subsided, Little Brother of the red and white of blood and snow hopped down from it, and took Father and Sister by the hand. They went back into the house, and sat at the table expectantly, as if they were waiting for the most wonderful meal that had ever been set before them. And somewhere, in a time so many years ago, they are still sitting at that table, waiting.

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About the Author

  1. Avatar Charles Wyatt (1 story )

    Website

    Charles Wyatt is the author of two collections of short fiction, a novella, and two poetry collections. A third fiction collection, Houses, is forthcoming from Hidden River Arts. He lives in Nashville, TN where he was principal flutist of the Nashville Symphony for 25 years.

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