Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Of Mind or Matter, you’re in for a real treat:
Overcome by the weight of his own failure to live up to the world’s standard of success, to the point where he no longer cares about his own life, Ballard Davies decides that there is only one solution. He gets in his car and drives. He drives away from everything and everyone that he knows, in an effort to just start over. He doesn’t care where he’s headed; he just wants another chance to get it right. What he finds is beyond his imagination, as he befriends an exciting and eccentric cast of characters. From the divinely inspired to the rationalistic blowhards, everything is suddenly new for him. But there is one problem. He still cannot escape himself. What will it take for Ballard to overcome his own self-imposed limitations and live the adventure he feels he deserves? This is the journey he now travels, down a path where truth, love, desperation, honor, the forgiving and the righteous, the mystics and the scientists all battle for the chance to be given the foremost spot in the realm of his mind. Will the pain of loneliness and separation prevail, or will Ballard find something to live for?
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
As we were walking towards our cars, I noticed a small fire burning in the distance to the west. It seemed to envelop Blue Bells’ one tree in a dim halo. I suddenly remembered that I’d made a vow to visit this one spark of nature two months back and still hadn’t been out to see it. The halo around the tree grew brighter for a moment and I asked Ed if he knew what that was.
“Oh, that’s just the Tree Woman’s fire.”
“The Tree Woman?” I asked with a quizzical stare.
“Yeah, they keep that fire for her at night.”
“A fire? For what?”
“Well, to keep her warm I guess.”
I was completely confused. “Why do you want to keep the tree warm?” I asked, neglecting for now the obvious question of why the tree was a woman.
“Wait a second? Are you telling me you haven’t heard about the Tree Woman? My God, she’s like a local monument around here!” I just stared as he continued. “You haven’t really had the ‘Blue Bells’ experience until you’ve met her!” Ed was starting to get excited while I was just getting more confused.
“What are you talking about? You mean there’s someone who takes care of that tree? Like a crazy girl or something?”
“No, no, no! You’ve got it all wrong, my friend. Just shut up and listen for a second, because this is a really good story. This is like the story of Blue Bells. This is what makes us special as a town, you know. But we have to sit down for this so I can get fully into it.”
It was getting late, and I was feeling extremely tired, but I figured from Ed’s excitement that I would want to sit it out, so we huddled inside of Ed’s car to escape the night’s cold as he told me the story of the Tree Woman.
“Well, about forty-five years ago, as my dad tells it, this scrawny woman, with night-black skin and long matted hair, came stumbling, barely able to walk, into town. She looked as if she had been walking since the beginning of time…” Ed paused for a second. “Well, there are others who’ll tell you she was really beautiful when she first came to town, and I suppose she would have been young, maybe in her twenties then, but anyway this is my father’s version.”
Ed sat up straight, eager to properly convey the mood of the story. “She was filthy and covered only in blankets. And as she walked it was like she was not at all aware of her surroundings, like she was in some kind of trance. She was wailing too. My God, I mean that she was so covered in tears that she couldn’t have known where she was. She was simply moving and screaming. Some who remember tell that she was screaming about some dead children or something, but I think that no one really knows for sure. At any rate, this was the fifties and this town was as racist as any in those days, so the townspeople were not really concerned about what her problem was, they were just shocked at her trespass. It was a time when there were not many black folks around these parts, you know, and what few there were, were all grouped along the edge of town. They kept to themselves unless they had some work here and they always stayed quiet, trying basically to stay invisible. So this woman’s presence in this white-only district was like a sudden shock to the residents. As she walked, more and more angry townsfolk were gathering around her, following her and shouting obscenities. I’m sad to say that my father was one of them, but he was just a kid, you know. Anyway, she somehow wandered near the school and that’s when the people really started to freak out. Some were throwing stones at her and kicking her. But she didn’t even seem to notice. She just kept getting up and moving on in her own world. And then, it was like everything stopped for a second, as this woman’s eyes seemed to open up and she saw that tree over there in the distance. She was probably a good fifty yards from the tree but she saw it and a sudden peace fell over her. The townsfolk were confused, so they just waited to see what was going to happen. This woman just started walking towards the tree and eventually sat down right at the base of it. She again entered a trance-like state and simply stared at the sky. Well, the townsfolk wouldn’t be having this black woman sitting fifty yards from their children, as it was somehow shameful to them, so they again started yelling all kinds of obscenities at her. But she didn’t even notice; she just kept staring at the sky.
“Well, eventually this huge ogre of a man tore a branch off the tree and just slammed it across this woman’s face. Blood starts pouring from her forehead into her eyes, and her eyes then refocused on the people. But she wasn’t mad. She didn’t cry. She simply looked at them in a kind of accepting way. And what could they do? One by one they left her, ashamed at themselves. My dad, though, says that some kind of presence came over them, because one second earlier they were ready to kill this woman and the next second all of their power was gone. All that they could do was simply walk away.
“That’s amazing,” I said in disbelief.
“No, I haven’t got to the amazing part yet.”
“What could be left?” I asked.
“After forty-five years,” he continued, “the Tree Woman still sits there under that tree. She hasn’t so much as moved to go the bathroom.”
“You’re kidding me?” I was completely shocked that such a thing was even possible.
“How does she survive?” I asked.
“Mostly now, people bring her food. But there were many years in the beginning that she never ate. Now people kind of go there out of ritual, seeking advice. She has a way of cutting through to the truth, and so when people have a problem they go and see her and offer her something to eat. But also, she’s not so alone anymore, as there’s that Elizabeth girl, who takes care of her.”
“Elizabeth?” I asked.
“Yeah, this girl from John’s Café. She goes out there every night to light the fire and clean her off. So at least she has some kind of regular attention, though that can hardly make up for the physical discomfort of it all. I can’t even begin to comprehend the situation, really.”
My focus was suddenly divided. I had just heard the most unbelievable and awe inspiring story that should have left me speechless, but the mention of Elizabeth’s name brought a whole new perspective to things.
“Elizabeth, the girl from the Café?” I asked again
“Yeah, she’s this girl from Costa Rica that works with Mr. Cheswick.”
“Yeah, right. I only met her once, but I know who she is.”
There was a moment’s silence. Ed just looked at me peculiarly and then started laughing.
“I see, I see,” he said with a laugh. “I just tell you the history of Blue Bell, and you couldn’t care less! Yeah, I know this look! This is a new look for you to be sure, but there’s no doubting the meaning of it. I cannot believe that you’ve fallen for Elizabeth.”
“Hey now!” I answered, “I haven’t fallen for anybody!” Unfortunately, fallen was indeed the correct word as I seemed to fall into the pit of hope and despair, mostly despair, every time I thought about her.
“She’s a good friend of mine, you know. I could hook you guys up if you want. Though I have to warn you she’s no ordinary girl. She’s very strong willed and doesn’t take any kind of crap from anybody. Still, she’s a sweetheart all the same.”
“No, no, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m not looking to get hooked up and wouldn’t want to impose on her with her studies and all.”
“Her studies?” Ed laughed. “How do you even know about her studies? Oh man! How could you keep this from me for so long.”
“You’re dead wrong, Ed. Mr. Cheswick told me one day that she’s in school, and that’s the only reason why I know about it. Besides, I’m more interested in this Tree Woman right now.” I tried hard to change the subject.
“Sure you are…Well you know you could visit both of them if you wanted. You could go tomorrow night while Elizabeth is there and that way you could say hi to her also, and she would take the attention away from you so that you needn’t be scared about your first visit with the Tree Woman.”
“What? I could go and visit them?” I was completely unsure about what Ed was getting me into and didn’t want to make any rash decisions. “Is there reason to be scared?” I asked.
“Not if you don’t mind someone reading your mind and knowing your every hope, desire and thought.”
“Um…” I stammered.
“Yeah, you can take off early tomorrow. Usually Elizabeth goes out to see the Tree Woman at around eight o’clock, so you can get off by then and go and visit them.” Ed seemed much more excited about this than me, which I figured was a bad sign. Especially if he was letting me get off work early to go and see them. I figured he was in it for the laughs, as real life provided the most entertainment in these parts.
“Um…” I continued.
“Great, it’s settled then,” Ed said with a slap on my shoulder to finalize the agreement.
Feeling both sick and excited by my coming adventure I made my way back to Mr. Landauer’s house completely lost in thought. But I could hardly prepare myself, as the story of the Tree Woman was just too unbelievable to comprehend. And if Elizabeth wouldn’t talk to me at the café, then what would she think of me showing up in the middle of a pasture in the dead of night? I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night, so I didn’t even bother going inside the house after arriving home. I instead paced up and down the walkway for the next four hours or so, as my mind spun around the stories of the day. Eventually, I passed out on the porch, not to awaken for some six hours when Mr. Landauer could no longer bear the sight of my spectacle.
“What’s wrong with you, Ballard?” Mr. Landauer was frantically asking as I came to my senses. I felt completely frozen after sleeping the night away on the porch. For a moment I couldn’t remember why I was there, and then with a flash the image of the strange Tree Woman and Elizabeth shot back into the forefront of my mind. I had been so possessed by the thought of them the previous night that I was physically unable to sit down until I had collapsed out of complete mental exhaustion. Though I had never met this Tree Woman the thought of her triggered something in me like a lost memory that I was just trying to recall, but couldn’t.
“I don’t know,” I told him. “I guess I was just too tired to make it to my bed.”
“Ballard?” repeated Mr. Landauer.
“No, I really had a long day yesterday.”
“Ballard.” Mr. Landauer was obviously aware that I was keeping something from him. But I didn’t want to talk about the Tree Woman until I had seen her for myself. I also didn’t want him to think I was crazy after spending the whole night outdoors, and figured that talking about some probably mythical woman, would only add to his worries.
“No, I just had a long day yesterday, and sat on the porch to clear my thoughts, but I guess I was so tired that I ended up falling asleep here.” It was at least partially true.
“Well you’re not kidding there!” he said almost angrily. “You were so fast asleep that I thought you were dead! You didn’t answer when I called out, and when I started to push and shake you, you felt completely hard and frozen. Only after I started yelling at you in disbelief did you eventually come back to normal. It’s too cold to be sleeping out here. At least take one of the sleeping bags if you feel in the mood again — this old heart can’t take the worry!”
I could only smile at Mr. Landauer’s concern. And for a moment it put my restless mind at ease, picturing him jumping around my sleeping body. But the rest of the day would pass in full anticipation of what I would find when I ventured out to see Elizabeth and her Tree Woman.
The more I thought about it, the less I believed it. Since I couldn’t fully wrap my mind around it I began to wonder if Ed had somehow discovered my affections for Elizabeth and had woven this elaborate story together to have a big laugh at my expense. I didn’t want him to know that I doubted him though, so I kept all of my thoughts that night to myself.
It was no problem getting off work early. Lester couldn’t care less when I clocked out so far as my work was finished, so I set out to complete my section in record time and was done by 8:00 p.m. Ed even helped with my side of the building, as he was even more eager than I was for me to meet the Tree Woman. But slowly what I was about to do began to settle in my mind and I realized that it was not going to be all fun and games. My excitement turned into nervousness, which turned into panic. It was pitch black and I didn’t have any idea what I was going to say or do once I got out there. And as Ed saw me off, there was no convincing him to join me.
“Please man, it’ll be so much better if you introduce me formally. It won’t be like I’m butting in or something.”
“But you are butting in,” answered Ed.
“Wow, you are so kind,” I shot back sarcastically. “You set this whole thing up for me, encouraged me to meet the ‘monument of Blue Bell,’ and you won’t even accompany me there! Whatever happened to friendship, camaraderie, being there for one another? Where’s the support?”
“Hey, if you really needed me, you know I’d be there.”
“No man, I really need you!” We both laughed — his joyous, mine nervous.
“But in all seriousness, I’ve been there enough and have no desire to return. There is no point in seeing the Tree Woman unless you want to see her. She will tell you as much herself. And this just isn’t my day for that, okay? I can’t wait to hear about your experience though. So… have fun,” he said, gesturing me on my way.
“Sure, I’ll have fun all right. Making a complete fool of myself.”
“Don’t worry, Ballard,” Ed said with a smile. “Everyone already knows you’re a fool!”
“Elizabeth doesn’t know.”
“Well, tonight she finds out!”
With that Ed sent me on my way, and I was left to wonder about what I was actually doing. If I wasn’t scared before, the mystery combined with the darkness was now starting to weigh on my nerves. As I made my way towards the fire, I realized that I was indeed setting myself up. There was no way for me to come out of this looking good. Would I pretend to be just passing by? Should I try to be funny and just say, “Well I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop in?” It really didn’t matter now because I was on my way. I just told myself that I was determined to find out what all this was about, though my determination was weakening with each passing step.
I walked through the field towards Blue Bells’ only tree, but all that I could see was the fire in the distance. Every time I hit a rock or a ditch, I stumbled a bit and waited a second to be sure that they didn’t hear me. I wondered if they would be less offended by me if I just ran up there loudly, making my presence clearly known. But my shyness kept me from any action that bold, and I instead went for the “Peeping Tom” method of introduction. As I got closer I saw that there were two figures both sitting on the ground. Soon I could identify Elizabeth’s outline and it was clear that she was talking. But it looked as if she were talking to a smaller tree in front of the larger forty-five foot tree. What kind of game was this? Was my love crazy? But as I got closer I couldn’t believe what I saw. The light shined clearly on the Tree Woman and I saw that she was indeed real.
Her skin appeared to be thick, like leather, and her hair was long and matted and seemed to be growing right into, or out of, the ground. There was no end to the bags under her eyes, while the rest of her face sagged so much I thought that it would just slip off. Her legs were stretched out straight in front of her and she was leaning against the tree, which I could now make out was a giant red oak. Her hands were folded in her lap but she would every so often lift her right hand to emphasize some point that she must have been making. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but she talked in a very slow and deliberate way. Her voice was broken; it almost crackled like the fire. She had a number of blankets wrapped around her but I could tell from her arms and legs that she was extremely thin, seeming to only have a tough layer of skin hanging over her bones with absolutely no muscle or fat between them. She looked exactly like a tree that had somehow come alive.
It would seem from these characteristics that she should be ugly, but on the contrary she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. If you can call her a woman even. She seemed beyond that distinction. There was something about her that was simply mesmerizing, unreal, or possibly more real, as Mr. Landauer might say. I just stood shaking my head, forgetting that I was even there and feeling as though I were watching a movie.
As I was totally engrossed in my thoughts, it was a complete surprise when all of a sudden the Tree Woman’s head turned towards me and I could clearly hear her say, “Why, Elizabeth, your admirer is here.” Her deep grainy voice sent numbness through my whole body.
I waited for a second, hoping that I had not actually heard what I thought I’d heard. But when Elizabeth’s head also turned in my direction there could be no doubting that I’d been discovered. For a moment I thought about turning around and running, as they probably hadn’t seen me clearly, and I really didn’t know Elizabeth well enough to care about the fact that I would never be able to show my face around her again. But I couldn’t move, as my brain was on ‘shut down’ mode and seemed not to be in control of my actions.
“Come here,” said the Tree Woman a little louder revealing an extremely horse and gravely voice. “No time for cowardice now, even if you’re comfortable in it, for I don’t have the time. Besides, you got this far so you might as well come the rest of the way.”
Humiliated, I slowly walked into the light of the fire. From a distance of about ten feet I said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. You see I work over–”
“Come here,” she interrupted. So I came closer.
“This is Issa’s friend Ballard Davies,” said Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s voice had a whole other kind of power. The nervous waves of a boy’s confusion came over me, as I was completely shocked to hear that Elizabeth knew my name. And further, how she was associating me with Issa, whom I hadn’t seen in months.
“Well, it took you long enough,” said the Tree Woman.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m sure you meant to come sooner but you got so wrapped up in things. It must be hard for you, trying to do everything that you want to do. So many ideas, yet so little resolve and conviction. One act to your record you do have, but it will take so much more.”
“I only have one question for you,” she continued. “How does it feel?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. My brain was overloaded and my tongue heavy as I struggled to put some words together.
“How does it feel?” she repeated in a slow and failing voice. “How does it feel to have come all this way and to find out that you’ve gone nowhere? For it hurts even me to see it, so for you who are experiencing it, it must be excruciatingly painful. Still, it’s necessary if you want to truly know, and even if you don’t, I want you to know.”
All I could do was stare. Though the rest of her body seemed dead, her eyes were amazingly alive; they seemed brighter than even the fire. Looking into those eyes of hers, I could hardly concentrate on what she was saying. But she went on, continuing to make the fool out of me.
“You tried in vain to leave it behind, that which is the source of all your problems, yet you hold on to it and let it be what defines you. You are such a funny boy, yet so typically inept in this way that I won’t hold it against you.” I was clueless as to what she was referring to, and the more I thought about it the more my head began to ache till it reached a point where I felt it would explode.
“Your mind is like a wild lion. If you don’t tame it, how will you ever find peace?”
A few moments of silence passed, finally to be broken by the sound of the bells signaling that it was 9 o’clock. “Do you hear those bells?” she continued. “They are counting down the hours that you have to overcome yourself. No amount of hiding will allow you to escape this time. Time is your enemy, and if you don’t use it, then it will absolutely use you.”
I had no words to answer what I couldn’t understand, so we sat in silence. Eventually, Elizabeth looked at me and said, “It’s time for us to go.” At first I didn’t hear her, though I was aware that something had been said. Then she gently pushed my shoulder and repeated more forcefully, “Ballard, it’s time for us to go.”
“What about the fire?” I stammered.
“It will burn itself out by morning.”
We got up and walked away. The Tree Woman seemed to be sleeping, although she was still sitting up against the tree, and her eyes were wide open.
As we neared the school I realized that I still hadn’t said anything meaningful to Elizabeth. I wondered if she were angry with me for disturbing their peace. She seemed in no mood to talk but I couldn’t help myself.
“The Tree Woman is truly remarkable,” I said.
“You mean Grandma Daisy.”
“The ‘Tree Woman’ is not a nice name at all. Only the gossips use it. Those who love her, call her Grandma Daisy, because there are always daisies growing around her. You’ll see them if you ever come back in the daytime.”
“I’m sorry to have interrupted you both.”
“It’s not a problem. You’re welcome to come anytime. She’s there for all of us.”
With that we made it back to our cars. I had the rest of the night off and so made my way home, more confused than ever. When I arrived I immediately went to Mr. Landauer’s room where I found him reading one of his philosophical texts. I still couldn’t believe what I’d seen and asked him if he knew Grandma Daisy.
“Oh. So that’s what you’ve been up to.” Mr. Landauer had obviously still been concerned about finding me asleep outside in the morning. “I met her a number of times years ago, but haven’t seen her in at least twenty years. I always found her very inspirational but at the same time very intimidating. How can you relate to someone who understands you better than you understand yourself? And how do you think I felt in realizing that I didn’t understand myself at all? Certainly not the ideal for an old man! And I was old even then! But the way that she can seemingly have nothing, but be even more content than someone who has everything, can’t help but make you feel as if you’re taking life for granted, you know.”
“It’s true,” I said. “Seeing her in that most wretched condition, I still couldn’t feel as if she were lacking anything. It was like she was filled up by some unearthly spirit or power. She was completely contented in her poverty and it gave her some kind of peace.”
“Ah, Ballard, you too might become a philosopher yet!”
“Well, I don’t know about philosophy but I know I can’t wrap my brain around what happened tonight.”
“She opens our minds to the possibilities.”
“And there’s this girl, Elizabeth who takes care of her…”
“Oh yes. Elizabeth of the Café. I’ve heard about her.”
“Have you?” I inquired.
“Nothing much. Just that she attends to the Tree Woman. That she came from some foreign land, and that she had a hard life.”
“A hard life?” I asked.
“Well I don’t know the specifics but when you find out you can tell me, okay?”
I went to bed that night and dreamed constantly about the Tree Woman and about Elizabeth. I saw myself at that campfire under the stars and I remembered clearly those brilliant eyes of Grandma Daisy smiling at me. When I awoke the next morning I was a little scared at how she seemed to have taken over my thoughts. I resolved not to go and see her again until I’d talked to Elizabeth separately about her. But in fighting to free my mind of her image it seemed that her image only became stronger and stronger within me.
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