The Silver Poplar
In the hills of California there lived a second generation hippie family named Priestly. Flint and Chenille had their teenage daughter Jade when they were far beyond the normal years for starting a family, and were more accustomed to the company of goats, but they love Jade with all their heart.
They were originally named Fromm, but after a distant cousin attempted to assassinate the President some years back they decided to Anglicize their last name to stop folks from asking them questions. Not that they had a lot of interaction with people. They had lived off the grid since the late 1960s and only went into town every fall to sell handicrafts and preserves during the harvest festivals. In many ways they were no different from the Amish except that they weren’t farmers, and less social, and probably should have bathed more frequently.
One fall day, as so often happens in California, a Santa Ana wind caught hold of the embers from a homeless encampment nearby and set the hills on fire. The Priestlys had no advance warning of the fire from their non-existent phone or television and were unable to evacuate their rammed earth cabin until it was almost too late. Surrounded by smoke and flame Jade was separated from her parents and wandered for nearly a day before coming to a fire lane that lead to a town and safety. The fire raged for nearly a week before crews could bring it under control, and Jade staked out the command center in the hopes of hearing word from her parents. After five days without food or sleep Jade passed out and was taken to an infirmary where she received her first expose to Western medicine and starchy food.
A waitress named Bonnie who volunteered with the Red Cross heard about Jade and decided to take her in. Bonnie thought it best to keep the girl occupied so she convinced her boss to hire on Jade to help bus tables and run the dishwasher. Over time Jade came to accept that her parents had perished in the fire and resigned herself to a career at the diner. Bonnie and Jade grew close, like sisters, even going so far as to spend their free days off driving the next town over to shop the better thrift stores and catch the early bird special and Senior Pancho’s.
One day at the diner a mysterious stranger appeared. Actually he was a scruffy freelance photographer who still dressed like a college kid even though he was nearly 40 years old. He was kind to Jade and without her realizing it she found herself flirting with him. He said his name was Seamus but he went by the professional name Shame. Jade found herself spilling her life story to Shame, and by the time he’d finished his grilled cheese on whole wheat with a side of ketchup she would have walked out of the diner and followed him anywhere.
“I’ve got a job up north I need to do, maybe two day’s worth of work,” Shame said. “How ‘bout I pick you up on the way back. You could do some modeling in the Southland. I know some people…”
The words were barely out of Shame’s mouth before Jade began fantasizing about how many reusable shopping bags she would need to bring all her stuff. She decided it could all fit into two bags.
Shame drove several hours north to a tent city that had sprung up in the aftermath of the fires. Hundreds of displaced people and pets had converged on a small former mining town and taken it upon themselves to take their insurance money and start over fresh. A variety of aid organizations helped out with daily needs and the county agreed to help connect them with water and sewer lines. Shame had been hired to do a photo essay for a magazine and in seeking out an unusual angle came across a couple who were living in a log-lined dugout on the edge of town. The dugout had a small walkway lined with stones and in the front three saplings had been planted in a row. Shame had started taking pictures when the people who lived in the dugout emerged to investigate. They weren’t too keen to have their pictures taken but they became very animated when Shame asked them about the saplings.
“The trees on either side are local pines but the one in the middle is a silver poplar,” the man said. “We saved them from the fire and they have come to represent the life we left behind.”
“Once we settled here in town we meditated until the cosmic spirits confirmed that our daughter had not died in the fire,” said the woman.
“And we planted these trees to represent our family, and we know that as long as the poplar tree is thriving our Jade is still alive,” said the man, who happened to be named Flint Priestly. The woman was his wife, Chenille.
Shame looked at the two old people, looked at the pathetic saplings, and decided to say nothing about Jade. Instead, he gave them a hundred dollars from his wallet in exchange for permission to take some more pictures. Seeing as the Priestly’s were struggling in an otherwise thriving new town they happily took the money and sent Shame away with a small jar of mountain berry preserves.
After Shame left, the Priestly’s went into town and proceeded to spend all their money equally on canning supplies and fruit. They had hoped to return to living simply and trading as best they knew how. But while in town the shopkeeper found the Priestly’s to be suspicious and when the police were summoned Flint, who had grown up with fairy tales of police brutality against protestors during the Vietnam War, panicked and began assaulting the officers. In an attempt to flee Chenille destroyed a good deal of merchandise that she couldn’t afford beyond the money Shame had given them. Charged with disturbing the peace, assaulting an officer, property damage, and under suspicion of theft, The Priestly’s were the first occupants of town’s newly built jail cell. A county judge came to hear the case, gave the Priestly’s a warning, and let them return home as poor as they were when they went into town.
Shame arrived as promised to pick up Jade and they rode off to the Southland with a tearful farewell from Bonnie. True to his word, Shame hooked Jade up with a modeling agency and she quickly became the new “it” girl for her earthy looks. Her story of losing her parents in the fire, and a gallery show of tasteful nudes shot by Shame, guaranteed Jade would never have to worry about money. Known simply by her first name, she became a brand for natural beauty products, a clothing line made from natural fibers, and the face behind an international movement eliminate shoes.
“Shoes remove our only connection with Mother Earth,” she would say in the television ads, a line her mother had taught her as a child that would echo through her head late at night.
Shame and Jade remained together for years but never married.
Over time it began to eat away at Shame that he’d never reunited Jade with her family. When had the opportunity he knew he was merely being selfish. He’d wanted Jade all to himself, and seeing how successful and happy she had become he felt he’d made the right decision in not taking her back to the log dugout in the hills. He got out the photos he had taken that day and remembered the story about the three trees. Soon he became obsessed with wondering how the trees were doing. So one day he told Jade he was going on assignment and drove north to see what had happened to Jade’s parents.
The town of Hope, as that is what they had named it, had grown to look like a prosperous small town from another era. Buildings were simple and modest, streets were paved but relatively free of cars as most people walked, and it struck Shame that the town looked as if it had always been there. He had to search long and hard but eventually he found the three trees. They were no longer in front of a dugout home but instead stood in front of the windows of the town library. The pines on either side had barely grown ten feet but the poplar towered over them and sprung bright green. The tree had prospered alongside Jade’s success, just as her parents believed it would. But the sickly pines caused Shame some concern.
The town librarian was new to Hope but she had heard stories about the Priestlys. After their incident in jail, they returned home and became reclusive. They ventured out either in the early morning or late evenings and no one knew what they were doing. One day they found Flint sitting on a curb sobbing with a magazine in his hand mumbling something about his lost daughter. The librarian believed that Flint had seen a fashion model who looked like his daughter and it was too much for him to bear. After that they abandoned their home and disappeared, presumably into the woods, and were never heard from again.
Shame returned to the Southland, stopping at a nursery along the way to purchase a silver poplar sapling to give as a gift to Jade. When he arrived Jade eagerly greeted him.
“Were going to have a baby!” she said.
And the three of them grew happily together for for a while beneath the shade of the silver poplar tree they planted in front of their family home.
© 2010 david elzey
The New Grimmoire is a story project where I retell and reimagine tales from the Brothers Grimm. They appear here on Thursdays. Not every Thursday necessarily, but as they make themselves available to my muse.
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