One November day, just after he’d bedded Emily, his wife timidly suggested
planting a walnut tree. He was the one who planted, tended and knew.
He consulted his specialized books and explained, in simplified terms, the factors
that ruled out the operation: inappropriate soil, early frosts, the voracity of
squirrels, the walnut prone to sixty-four diseases. Anyhow the garden was too
small for something that size. Marie-Louise, Albertine, Agnes, Madame Hardy and
all his other precious sun-loving old roses (he called them “my ladies”) would take
umbrage at the intrusion.
His final argument was that the walnut took fifteen years to bear. He didn’t add
that with his heart condition he’d never taste one of the walnuts, unlike her, ten
years younger and never so much as a sniffle.
She listened respectfully as she’d done years back, a lovely C+ student in his
English Literature of the Age of Reason class. Her argument was touchingly
subjective: the sweetness of the fresh walnuts she’d savoured as a child. She
couldn’t invoke the annual gift to future generations. To her despair, they were
Each November she gently brought up the matter. Patiently he repeated his
explanations and came up with another argument. His heart tolerated puttering–
things like spraying, pruning and weeding–but not the backbreaking kind of effort
necessary for planting a tree. Of course he didn’t add that the image of her,widowed
(or, worse, remarried), savouring the fruit of the tree that had killed him was
She timidly countered his medical reason by suggesting that her husky brother
Roger could do the digging. But every single shrub and bulb had been planted by
his hand. Having to rely on someone else would estrange him from his garden, he
felt, and confirm his decline.
One November dawn a clattering outside woke him to an empty bed. From the
window he saw her pushing the wheelbarrow, the spade bouncing about. So finally
he tackled the job, although she begged him to have Roger do it. With the last
shovel heave of dirt in the hole his heart protested violently.
“Think of me when you taste the first one,” he thought angrily.
The tree grew relentlessly. In the fourth year its shadow encroached on his ladies.
Nymph’s Thigh began developing Black Spot, Green Fly started tormenting
Catherine Mermet, mildew disfigured Belle de Crécy.
While waiting for the tree to bear fruit, his wife often read in its skinny shadow.
When she coughed he reminded her, as a joke, of the superstition that the shade of
the walnut was fatal, not just to roses but to people as well. She smiled and went
on reading and coughing.
Years after, his brother-in-law came over and picked the first nuts and husked
them next to the bed of diseased and dying ladies. He brought them back to the
veranda, the shells and his big hands black with the acrid liquor. He cracked them
open and worked the nuts free. They looked like miniature brains. He patiently
unpeeled the bitter yellow membrane and savoured one.
“Sweet, as she always used to say,” Roger said. “She’d have loved them. Go ahead,
“No,” he replied, a bitter taste in his mouth, as if he’d alr eady tasted the black
acrid liquor and the bitter yellow membrane. “You can have them all.”
Note: This piece originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Verb Sap