I love weather like the kind we had this morning. The sun had not yet risen, and last night’s rain had washed away the layer of film that sometimes settles on everything after an extended dry period. Everything seemed a little clearer, a little more real.
It reminded me of a few early mornings I experienced while working as the hiking instructor at Camp Friedlander near Cincinnati. I’d wake up early, grab a quick breakfast at the main hall before the crowds filed in, and then spend the rest of my morning sitting in the darkness, smelling the leftover wind and rain in the pines.
That was probably my favorite summer. I’d walk my requisite 8 miles each day, telling bored campers and tired parents all about the dumb trees in our vicinity. They were bored and I was bored, so rather than subject myself to so much boredom (and in the hopes that I would get a few extra points on my review), I made up a story which allegedly took place near the log cabin that sat deep in the woods, halfway through the normal trail.
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This log cabin was old and rundown, like all good cabins upon which old stores are based, and sitting on the edge of the lawn was the stump of what used to be a very large pine tree. The tree that used to stand there had long since passed. In its place, however, there grew yet another tree. It was a small tree, barely more than a sapling, and it grew right on top of the stump. I imagined that the person who had cut down the tree hadn’t quite got the all of it, and part of that sad, old tree wished to grow still.
A beautiful part.
I imagined a family of settlers living in the area, basking in the glow of the sun as it reflected off the hills and the rushing waters of the Little Miami River below. I imagined the majestic pines as tiny little things, only a few feet high. I imagined that this family consisted of a mother, a father, and seven girls. The girls’ beauty was unmatched and young men came from miles around to court them and ask for their hands in marriage.
The youngest girl, Clara, was the prettiest of them all and as soon as she came of age, her father received hundreds of requests from miles around: men who wished to have her hand. Her father refused to entertain such notions, for he preferred to marry his daughters in order by age. Oldest first. That meant all six of Clara’s elder sisters must first be married before her father would consider sending her off.
To some young women, this would have been a burden almost too large to bear. But for Clara it was a blessing, for she took no interested in such things. She preferred solitude. She spent her mornings running through the woods and swimming in the cool waters of the Little Miami, which at that time went by a different name. An Indian name. Some mornings, when the rain had washed away the summer haziness, leaving all else clear, she’d sit in the dark before the sun came up, close her eyes, and breathe in the sweet smell of the wind and the rain in the pines.
Her favorite activity was climbing the largest pine tree in the woods, which sat just at the edge of the family property and dominated the landscape in both its size and grandeur. Clara’s father constantly told his youngest daughter that such an activity was unladylike, but he could not stop his smile when he saw the great joy on Clara’s face as she descended to the ground, happy and covered in sap
One day, a wealthy banker from Cincinnati paid the family a visit. His reputation for ruthlessness and savagery, born of his years serving with Simon Kenton in the Ohio Indian Wars, preceded him. He told the family that he wished to marry their daughter Clara. The father refused, saying that he would first marry his elder daughters, Clara’s sisters. The banker balked. He offered a large sum of money, but Clara’s father was a good and honest man. He would not sell his youngest daughter to a man as ruthless as he.
The banker went away unsatisfied.
A week later, the eldest daughter Betthany ran away from home. Her note, which she left sitting on the family porch, stated that she had recently met a young frontiersman named Anthony Wayne and that the two of them had left for Oklahoma. Her parents were saddened at their daughter’s sudden departure, but they were happy she had found love at long last. They eagerly awaited future correspondence and they made plans to visit their daughter in Oklahoma if ever they could afford it.
A few days after Bethany’s disappearance, the next eldest daughter, Ruth Ann, took flight in much the same fashion. She had met a young circus performer named Roul and fled north to the banks of lake Erie. A day or so later and the next eldest daughter had gone as well.
Clara’s father became nervous. It was unlike his daughters to hide their interests from him, much less run off without a word. None were as popular as Clara, but each was beautiful in her own right. They had many suitors and they reveled in the attention, often arguing over who had the most marriage proposals and how attractive and how rich those suitors tended to be. He interrogated each of his daughters, begging them to share the happy news of new love or their plans to move away. He cried as he told them he did not want his last visions of them to be a note and the memory of their childhoods. Each daughter was insistent. They had met no one, and their intention was to stay on the family farm as long as possible.
The following morning, another daughter came up missing. Her note stated that she had met a man named Chauncey and they had moved to New York City to start their life as playwrights. Clara’s father was distraught. He only had three daughters left, and he feared the worst.
But the disappearances stopped for a while. The family was worried, but they still had hope. Perhaps the notes had been genuine, they thought. Maybe their daughters had really caught the fancy of new love and left for greener pastures. Still, the father was afraid. He told his remaining daughters to stay inside, and he made Clara promise not to spend her mornings climbing her favorite tree.
As the end of another summer fast approached, the banker again paid a visit to the family farm. He wished to express his joy at the father’s good fortune, and repeated his request for Clara’s hand in marriage.
The father flew into a rage. He claimed the banker had stolen his daughters and written the notes himself. He threatened the banker. He said if he ever set foot on his family’s property again, he would find that he was not long for this world. The banker smiled calmly and said that he understood his father’s pain, having seen so many of his daughters marry and leave in quick succession, and he promised to return when the man had learn to respect reason.
The following morning, the remaining two elder daughters went missing. There was no note this time, and the window next to their bedroom had been broken. The next day, the man’s wife disappeared. All who remained where the simple farmer and his beautiful daughter Clara.
Weeks passed. Summer deepened into late autumn. The banker paid his last visit when the first few breaths of cold winter had frosted the tips of the pines.
He again expressed great joy at his eldest daughters’ nuptials while at the same time expressing great sorrow at the loss of the man’s wife, Clara’s mother. He smiled. He repeated his wish to have Clara’s hand in marriage. The father refused. He said he would see his daughter hanging from the great pine, the largest tree for miles around, before he gave her over to this monster.
The banker smiled, and promised to return when the man was of sound mind.
The next morning, Clara’s father had his wish. He awoke to a silent house. It was a clear, cold morning. The previous night’s rain had washed away the hazy film, which had settled over everything after an extended dry spell. It was the kind of morning Clara would have loved.
He went outside and saw his youngest daughter’s body tied to the limbs halfway up the tree. She was dead. Distraught, the father attempted to climb the tree and retrieve his daughter’s broken body. Even in death she looked like an angel, he thought. But he was a large man and the branches grew too small the higher he went. So he spent all day chopping the tree down.
He thought he had got all of it.
The next morning, he buried his daughter next to where her favorite tree used to stand. He left no marker, for the markers that stood for each of his previous daughters, the happy letters that told of their new lives elsewhere, were too much for him to bear. A few days later, the man disappeared as well. He left no trace; save for the house where his family once lived and the large stump that sat a few yards away. After a year of emptiness, the house began to degrade and eventually fell to ruin.
Several years later, the old stump, now dwarfed by the massive pines that covered the land and blocked the view of the river, sprouted a few leaves. By the end of spring, those leaves began to reach skyward. There was form. Another tree had taken root. And even though this tree was small, many people remarked that it was the most beautiful in all of the forest. Each year people came from miles around to see the beautiful little tree and hear the sad story of a beautiful girl who liked to climb the pines on clear, cool mornings.
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A few of the families took offense to the death and sadness in the story. But anybody who sat amidst the pines on an early, clear morning would understand. Though it is beautiful, it is also sad. And on mornings like this, I often remember that story as if it actually happened.
You never know. It may have.