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Off by Jadalyn Gubat

I Left my Heart in the Knot of a Weeping Willow Tree

by Peyton Pitts

Spanish Moss sways back and forth from the tired branches, the daffodils tickling her feet. Her white gown frolics in the hazed sunlight, a smile wetting her face. She wanders the trail near her little cabin, enjoying the air to herself. She lives alone with not much interaction; her job has her constantly exhausted. To have the weekends to herself was absolute freedom, and every Sunday she walks this hidden path. Ever since her father died of a heart attack, she’s trying to come to terms with her heartache; it didn’t know how to take its first steps again. She sits in the nook of a large weeping willow tree reading the latest of Hawthorne and a bit of Robert Frost. Her round glasses hugging the bump on her nose. She strokes the old wood, rusty valleys and canals carved by aging years of tolerance; she scans the poem, Birches.

“You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground.”

Placing the book in a nook of the tree, she slides to meet the grass. She enjoyed the peace, but she must be making her way back home now, she has a job to tend to the next day and isn't interested in insomnia.

She always had issues with sleeping, vivid dreams stretching her rest thin. Nightmares had gotten worse since the passing of her father; she hadn’t slept in over thirty hours. After the long walk, she steps into her home to greet the ash cat Sage and begins to cook dinner. A tomato soup is brewed, which she hastily consumes, and with that retires to a waiting full and woven quilt. Eyelids pressed over those bright blue pupils, she tries to sleep, but much to her avail, she sits awake in silence. Hours passed and unfortunately the young woman received not a drop of rest, images of a darling man squeezing her concentration. He had auburn hair with olive skin, brown eyes, and a charming birthmark stretched across the nape of his neck. Not much occurred between them, he only stood in front the large weeping willow, gazing with love. There was a tear striking his face, he seemed so dreadful. He reached to her and kissed her forehead, before slowly disappearing. She had to have known him, he was already registered in her mind as someone she knew, but she had never seen him before. She sketches his picture in charcoal before leaving for work, it sitting on her nightstand.

Arriving at the little bookstore, she sits and sorts some elder books with her hair in a messy bun; anxious curls pry from the hair tie, but she always slicks them back. A book had fallen off the top shelf and she reached to grab it, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. A tear sheds from her tired eyes as she collapses to her knees, trying to be as silent as she could. Her father loved that book dearly, even read it to her when she was little, she could hear his sweet voice reading the third stanza to her one more time.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

"There was a moment of silence between the two, a stare that was undecided in what it meant."

He was everywhere she went, always reminding her he loved her. Wallowing in agony, chest compressed and the rope against her heart tightened, her lungs tense in fruitless effort. Small, shallow breaths were soon replaced with gaping exasperation, and she fought for air. The room spins, and she feels as though she is about to faint. Just as her vision fades to faint patches, the bell to the door chimes, and she is reunited with this merciless world. Collecting herself from the carpet, she steadies her legs and attempts to stand, almost forgetting how to walk. Her desk waits for her while she smoothes the stray tears from her cheek and hairs from her bun, turning to see a new yet familiar customer. The man had auburn hair with olive skin, brown eyes, and a black turtleneck sweater on. There was a moment of silence between the two, a stare that was undecided in what it meant. After somewhat of an awkward moment, he spoke.

“Hello, may I please check this book out?” Startled, she began frantically snatching the book from his hands, shaking as she tried to ring him up.

“Oh my, of course! I’m sorry, you seem familiar is all. Have we ever met before?”

“Not from what I’m aware, I’m new here.”

“Is that so? Where are you coming from? You know, not many people travel through here.”

“I’m coming from outside the county, actually. Here to find something I lost.”

“And what is it that you lost?”

“Just a friend of mine, we always find our ways back to each other. It’s been some time since I’ve seen her, and I just know I needed to pass by here.”

“Well, is there any way I can help you find her?”

“No, my intuition is the only way I plan. We have a very strong connection after all. Thank you though.” His voice is raspy and deep, honey to her ears. He turns his black sweater to leave for the exit, the fading silhouette encasing her growing confidence. In a last-minute spur, she blunts,

“My name’s Amber.”

His neck turns as he pulls at his collar, a charming birthmark revealing itself.

“Elliot.” He walks from the store and continues down the street, not looking back. She’s so flushed that she dashes home to see the charcoal picture she had drawn. After slipping on her rug and nearly tripping over Sage, she finds the sketch and assures herself it was him. Ironic, the man of her dreams came to visit her, but he only paid her no mind. After little consideration, she decides she has to go find him. After over an hour of scouring the streets of this little town, she notices him at a nearby café enjoying some tea. It’s not long before she stumbles across him, panting from the sprint.

“I apologize, this is so random, but I need to speak with you.” He seems as though he was prepared for this sort of interaction, reorganizing himself and his thoughts.

“Was the book not up for rent? I’m sorry, I can return it at once-”

“No, nothing like that; I just wanted to get to know you. You’re horribly familiar, and to be frank, I need to know how I know you. I know this is abrupt, but please consider having tea together.”

“I unfortunately have to leave in a few, but perhaps we meet for dinner later tonight? Then you may ask whatever questions you’ve been needing to ask.”

“That works, perfectly! Thank you so much for considering. Where should I meet you?”

“Right here; same table in just a few hours. Does seven work?”

“Excellent, I will see you there Elliot.”

“I look forward to seeing you again, Amber.”

Surprise washes over her face; he had genuinely agreed to a random dinner with a random girl. Maybe he saw her in his dreams too? This hadn’t been the first time she had seen him in her dreams; ever since her father died, he had been appearing every now and then, greeting her as usual. This was, however, the first incident they had met in person. Either way, fact or fiction, she had to go home to get ready.

After the journey to her little cabin, she applies a light blush and some rose lipstick, just to add some subtle glow. A lovely floral dress and her father’s brown jacket he wore to the library every day, she was ready to leave. Anxiety tugs at her mind a little bit, she hoped he wouldn’t notice the dark rings around her eyes. Addressing herself in the mirror, convincing herself to go, she made her way to the café. Meeting him at that exact table, he sat there patiently, white wine already ordered for the two- pure luck he ordered white, red always gave her a headache. She sits down and fumbles with her napkin; he could see her nerves slowly fraying. He made a subtle joke about the night, trying to ease the tension.

“Have you always greeted strangers like this? I’m sure you make a sum of friends.”

She giggles, slowly floating down to reality. “No, I actually don’t socialize very well, anxiety doesn’t deal well with friendship.”

“Well, you should try greeting people more, you sure do make an impression.”

“I suppose I made quite the impression; I don’t typically act that way you know.” They both chuckle a bit, relieved with the casualty of the conversation. “What about you?”

“In a similar boat, I don’t necessarily socialize often, though I know I need to. Any hobbies you enjoy?”

“I used to write, but ever since I had to take over my father’s library, I haven’t the time nor the motivation. It was something I loved to do, but there are so many renovations I have to make for the bookstore that I simply don’t have time.”

“And what renovations have you made?”

“Nothing at the moment, I know it looks bad. Dad’s gone, and I hate changing his store. I don’t have motivation or incentive, so I’m just stuck.”

“Time management is a difficult thing, but I think writing some more may help you out of this loop, sometimes you have to force it.”

“I’ve thought about it, it’s just taking some time. I never have enough of it anyways. Well Mr., what about you? Have any idea where your mysterious girl is?”

He looks at her for a moment, a grin lingering across his face as he looks down to stare down at his food, “I believe I’m on the right path.”

The two chatted for the whole night, connecting beautifully. It was an ecstasy; she couldn’t remember a thing but the joyous laughter they shared. After the meal was shared and experiences exchanged, her heart fluttered. He takes her home and saw her to the door, where he plants a soft but simple kiss on her blushing lips. Her mind races as her lips chased his, his hand tucking that stray curl behind her ear, the other holding her cheek in adoration. She stood on the tip of her toes to try and reach him, falling into his warm embrace. After a few moments, he leaves her on the brink of excitement, her heart stumbling about.

The two spend nearly every day together, even Sage likes him. They take part in little dates, and he helps in the library. Renovations are done, she painted the walls, and he replaced some shelves. There are more customers than ever, and she’s genuinely laughed for the first time. The two hearts have grown as one throughout, and her heart is learning to walk again. He’s teaching her how to talk to people, she practices on him. And when she stutters and wants to abandon any hope, he holds her still and encourages her, praising her attempts. She’s making some new friends and not isolating herself; she made a new best friend named Autumn. They eat together during lunch break when Amber is pried away from Elliot. She would ramble all she could about Elliot, describing him to her; Autumn was always confused on who she was talking about. Amber started writing more and even became published. All her books detail her trials with grief, some fantasy, and she wrote a book dedicated to her father- those were a tough few months. She sleeps comfortably now; her mind lets her finally sleep. Her father’s jacket will always be fastened on her shoulders, but Elliot’s arm is draped over, holding her tall.

They spent the day in the nook of the weeping willow tree, reading Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and it was the first read she had where she didn’t erupt into tears.

“I'd like to get away from earth awhile,

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me,

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away,

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk,

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.”

She feels content with the book that she could appreciate it once more. Somewhere on the third stanza, her eyes doze off and she falls asleep in his arms. Elliot holds her as a tear leaps from his eye, his heart shaking with each passing moment. His arms close her even tighter as he tries to keep his crying silent so as not to disturb her. His breathing staggers, and his vision is shaking with pain as he kisses her forehead one last time refusing to let go. He is on the right path, he finally found her, and she found herself. His purpose is fulfilled, and his heart forgets how to walk. When she wakes up, Elliot is nowhere to be found.

She searches the little town everywhere she could, and he was gone. All their little date spots, he was gone; his belongings that were collected on the floor of her room, gone; his love that he vowed to her she swore was gone. It’s a difficult night, lying in her bed trying to sleep with tears stinging her eyes. But when she closes her eyes, he comes back to her. They are in the nook of the weeping willow tree; he strokes her hair. He told her she needs him, and that her heart learns how to walk again; he would always catch her if she fell, but she needed to take the first few steps. She grabbed his face, looking into those brown eyes crying. He did nothing but stare at her, and all the memories came rushing to her in a blur; the awkward first stare, her bliss from their first kiss, when Sage would finally let him pet her, when he told her he loved her, all of it. Her imagination was tight again, and the vision of him became strained, just like that, he was gone again. She went to ask Autumn if she remembered her with Elliot, but her along with the rest of the town, said they had never seen Amber with a man apart from her father, that she was always alone. Town records showed no evidence of an Elliot anywhere, and no traces of his belongings, or him for that matter, could be found.

When she get home that day, she takes the sketch she made and gone to the tree, tucking the sketch in the knot of the weeping willow. The breeze trying to hold her back, leaves whispering for her to turn around. Standing there, she has the rope in her hand, ready to tie it to the tired branch, trying to force herself to jump. Her foot dangles off the end, and she toys with the idea of falling, but she never could. She could feel him telling her no, the man in her dreams caressing her cheek and wiping her tears. The old canals of the wood holding her feet steady, begging her not to jump. The memories of her father rush back, he was behind her too. His brown jacket is wrapped around her, her holding it dearly. Time seems to continue for hours, her pushing herself around the branch. She finally fastens the noose around her neck and stares to the sky, hoping she’ll accidentally slip. The coursing thread of rope scratching her throat and she tries to swallow her fear. Eyes still swollen from all the tears she cried and fresh ones rolling, she rips the noose from her throat and throws it to the ground, falling back into defeat. Ontology was questionable in that moment, but Elliot said he’d always catch her if she fell. She looks around to see if he was near, but she knew he was watching. Her legs refuse to work as she collapses back into the grass, screams scrapes from the bottom of her stomach and rung into a cry. Daffodils cradling her like a lost child, and she waters them with fresh sobs. A few hours and the moon arrives, tickling her bruised skin. The grass indents with her cracking body and the flowers crane, understanding her torment. A hand begins caressing her hair, but she couldn’t bear to look. He takes her hand and tries to help her up, she refusing to move. He puts his hand on her lower back and urges her to a sitting position, leading the hair away from the tears. Just then, her legs shiver and they push her back into reality; she returns to an upright position. The sketch of him stares down from the elbow of the branch, and she fantasizes for just a moment, that maybe he’s still there. Turning back in shame, she heads for her cabin, leaving her heart in the knot of a weeping willow tree.

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