Jimmy Watson dreamt of retiring to a small farm in the country. After a lifetime of building a successful business, his dream becomes a reality. He has traded in the stress of meetings and deadlines for the calm of grazing cows in a noonday field.
So when he becomes plagued with a series of nightmares, he must decide between his peaceful life and a path he cannot understand. It’s a choice that will eventually lead to the most important question any man must face – which is greater, life or love? Will he choose tranquility or unimaginable pain? The answer is Beneath the Mulberry Tree.
Jimmy sipped his coffee as he watched the fog rolling over the fields. The rhythmic sway of the porch swing in sharp contrast to the herd of elephants stampeding through his stomach. He hadn’t slept in over a week. Not since he’d read ol’ man Johnson’s obituary Wednesday a week ago. And now those few simple paragraphs plagued him with insanity.
It wasn’t that he was particularly troubled by Johnson’s death. Truth be told, he’d only met the man face to face on two occasions and both instances had been less than positive. The old hermit held fast to a long engrained isolationist policy. He freely ostracized every member of the human race regardless of pedigree. Only his paid housekeeper was permitted to set foot on his hallowed grounds and she was frequently on the verge of exile herself.
So when the announcement of his death appeared, Jimmy read the news with little regard for the man who stood so resolutely against the world. Saying a quick prayer for the old man’s soul, he quickly turned the page to read about the improvements underway at the nearby Air Force Base.
That night Jimmy drifted off into a fitful sleep. After kissing his wife on the cheek, he rolled over only to find his eyes stubbornly remained open. They simply refused to close. He didn’t feel particularly anxious. Nothing he could put his finger on. Had something happened during the day that he should worry about? No. Not that he could remember. He went back over the events slowly just to make sure. He’d gone to the feed and seed store to get his supplies for his garden. He needed to get things planted within the next week if he had any hope of his corn making a decent crop. He came home and ate lunch with Myrna then repaired the fence around the pasture. After supper, he read the paper and slept through several pitiful examples of television excellence.
With the exception of going to the store, it was the same set of events that unfolded daily since his retirement. Busy but far from stressful.
He readjusted his pillow and drove his head further into it willing his eyes to close. It worked. As his eyelids closed, his mind’s eye sprang to life with full vigor. He saw himself walking through a dense patch of woods, down a hill that led to a house. He’d never seen these woods before, at least not that he could remember. As the house came into view, he was startled to see the somewhat neglected abode of ol’ man Johnson’s. These were his woods behind his house. As Jimmy continued around the home, he realized he was not alone. His friend Bill was with him discussing property values and mortgages.
Jimmy shook himself awake to clear his dreams once more. It made no sense to dream about a house he’d only driven by when he should be thinking about the work he needed to do on his tractor. That was far more essential to planting than some old dilapidated dwelling. That’s where his worries should be focused. On the busted fuel line on his Massey Ferguson.
He punched the pillow again in search of more relevant thoughts and drifted off. Once again he saw himself walking around the outside of Johnson’s home with Bill, his friend and real estate agent. They were talking about the sale of the home. Somehow Bill looked as dumbfounded as Jimmy felt. On and on the night went. Each dream a graphic detail of property that belonged to Johnson’s estate. Each fantasy stirring him further away from quiet rest.
He looked at the clock. 3:18. Almost three hours until the alarm went off. He decided to give sleep one more try. That’s when he heard it. A voice as clear as the noon day sky telling him to buy Johnson’s land. He turned to find the source, hoping that perhaps Myrna had read his mind and was playing a joke but she lay there lost in slumber.
The whole idea was absurd. The house looked bad from the outside. The lord only knew what it was like on the inside. And it was common knowledge that Johnson had twenty of the most worthless acres on God’s green earth. It was a swampy, wooded marshland jutting up to railroad tracks that ran between Byron and Fort Valley. Boxed in except for a small easement beside the old country store that had long since gone out of business. There was no way he would ever consider buying that.
He made a quick trip to the bathroom. He studied his reflection in the mirror for a moment. His dark brown hair had begun showing the signs of age with streaks of gray forming along the edges. Two small indentions on each temple a permanent reminder of the glasses he had worn most of his life. A squared, solid jaw and a small cleft on his chin. He looked more like his father every day, although his father had died more than thirty years ago. He was a sensible man. He always had been. He was never one to make a rash decision, especially where money was concerned. Climbing back in bed, he made a staunch resolution against the very notion of buying Johnson’s land.
Every night since that day followed as a faithful twin. Doze off, dream of Johnson’s place, wake up, repeat. Listen to the phantom give real estate advice. Ignore. Go to the bathroom. Resolve never to consider buying the land. Lie back down and catnap for a couple of hours. The whole process had left him drained and more than a little disoriented.
The days were proving just as troublesome as the nights. Every project seemed to edge further off kilter. It started that first morning. Repairing the fuel line had been a disaster. Images of Johnson’s place kept creeping into his psyche. He almost stripped the fitting connecting the line to the carburetor. Once he calmed down and finally disconnected the line, he fumbled with the plug and doused himself with gasoline. By lunchtime, he reeked of fuel, sweat, and a fair amount of blood he managed to spill when he smashed his hand reattaching the hose. It had not been his finest morning.
And still the images haunted him.
It took him two whole days to get his seed in the ground. A project that should have taken less than a day lingered on into eternity. First, two of his tiller blades snapped and had to be replaced. Then, once he thought progress was being made, his seeder jammed and dumped half of his corn kernels in a pile. Thankfully, he finally finished seeding before the storm blew in and was able to enjoy a peaceful evening listening to the rain from his porch swing.
Things didn’t go much better the following day when he was awaken by the deputy sheriff informing him that half his cows were loose and roaming down Highway 49. They were causing quite a disturbance but fortunately traffic on an early Sunday morning was light and no one had gotten hurt. It took the better part of the morning to get them pinned back in, all without the aid of strong coffee. That afternoon, he found the culprit of the escape – a giant sweet gum tree had fallen during the night destroying a large section of fence. It took a day to repair.
But sleep refused to come.
Now, he sat gazing off into the horizon after the never ending sequence of catastrophes. Nothing had gone right and his patience was gone. Last night for the first time since the dreams started, he began to imagine possible uses for that worthless piece of property. Perhaps he could fix up the house and subdivide the rest of the land into lots. People were always looking to build their own places, especially nowadays. It wasn’t an exact plan but at least after he began to make preparations for the land, his fitful night seemed to subside a bit.
Honestly, he had to admit the whole thing didn’t make any sense at all. He’d worked hard all his life. His father taught him how to do masonry and lath work by the age of fourteen. When he was twenty, he followed his dad and uncles across the country looking for work anywhere they could find it. His journeys took him north to New York City, over to Chicago, and as far west as Oklahoma. Times had been tough, but he’d learned the value of a dollar and experience had taught him a dollar was far more valuable in his pocket than thrown away after some fool notion. He’d saved all his life, finally buying a small stonemason business and building it into one of the most successful construction firms in middle Georgia. He was so successful in fact that he was one of the few men he knew who fully retired by the age of 52. And while most other people spent the last night of the ‘80s with drink and celebration, he was home with Myrna, looking forward to finally spending some time with his family after too many years struggling for financial security. He couldn’t wait to start the new decade and enjoy the freedom of retirement.
He loved the life they’d built. They’d bought this place more than a decade ago, slowly making it into the home they’d always wanted. It wasn’t much by some people’s standards. Only 60 acres. About 40 of that was good grazing land for two dozen or so cows. It had plenty of woods to hunt in and a couple of acres to garden each spring. They had more than enough food each year and he had plenty of projects to keep him busy. And he could spend time doing whatever he enjoyed, not worrying about deadlines or new bids. Everything had been perfect for over four years until that damned obituary.
He sipped his coffee and listened to Myrna finishing the breakfast dishes in the kitchen. He didn’t exactly know how he was going to convince her that they needed twenty more acres and another house. After all, that wasn’t exactly like going to the store and buying an extra sack of flour. That was a pretty hefty investment. And one guaranteed never to fully pay off. Even if he could make things break even, it would be entirely too much aggravation to have to deal with.
Myrna slid the glass door open and joined him on the swing. “Looks like it’ll be a pretty day.”
“Yeah, should be real nice if it ain’t too hot.” He looked down at his cup.
“I think the TV said it was only going to get up to about 85 today. Shouldn’t be too bad.”
They each sipped their coffee, allowing the swing to move of its own accord. Finally, Jimmy broke the silence.
“There’s been something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”
“What?” Myrna looked over at him as he stared off into the distance.
“You saw that ol’ man Johnson died the other day.”
“Yeah, I saw that.”
“I’ve been thinking about buying his property.”
She wasn’t exactly sure what she expected to hear, but that wasn’t it. “You have?”
“Just seems like the right thing to do.” He took another sip of his coffee and continued looking out over the pasture.
“Oh, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.”
“I didn’t even know you wanted it.” She knew she didn’t want it. The fact that he did was news to her.
“Well, I didn’t really.”
That brought another strange look over the rims of her glasses. “You don’t? Then why are you thinking about buying it?”
“It’s kinda hard to explain.” He took a deep breath and let the story unfold before her. Even saying it aloud seemed crazy.
When he was finished, she nodded her head and pondered the situation for a moment. “But what are we going to do with it if we buy it?”
“I don’t know.” Jimmy shook his head.
“Well, I don’t want it.” She said firmly. “We’ve got just about all we can handle now. You already can’t get to everything you want to do and that old house is falling apart at the seams. It’d take forever to fix that up. Plus all the taxes. Each year the county commissioners keep adding on for every little thing.”
He couldn’t argue with her. Every point she made was correct and another reason why the very idea was sheer lunacy. “You’re right.” And he vowed to put the idea out of his mind.
As the day wore on, he replayed her words like a tattoo. Myrna always offered sound, sage advice. He couldn’t have asked for a better partner to walk through life with. He’d watched so many others who’d married weaker, less capable partners struggle through the hardships of life. He would have never said their life together had been easy, particularly when the babies were little and he had gone out of state to find work, but she’d always been there. His rock and partner. And now, she offered the advice he needed to hear to get these crazy ideas out of his head once and for all.
For over a week, he slept soundly without the first hint of plaguing voices or fractured dreams. His world once again found its solid footing. He went on about the business of running a small farm, tending to the garden, and feeding the cows. Then, as quickly as they had begun before, the intrusive thoughts began again with far more ferocity.
He was standing by the fence at the cow pasture waiting on the water trough to completely fill when he heard someone approach from behind. He turned expecting to find Myrna standing behind him yet he was complete alone except for Curly, his Black Angus bull and a flock of lady bovines. It was an unsettling feeling but probably just a figment of his imagination. The critters playing in the woods behind him could sometimes sound bigger than they were. It wasn’t until he heard the voice, the same voice he’d heard all those nights, that he truly felt unease.
“Buy Johnson’s place.”
He looked around once more to find he was still alone. He looked at Curly for some form of reassurance but the animal stared blankly back at him as if completely impervious to what had just transpired. Maybe it wasn’t an act. Maybe nothing had happened and Jimmy was the one who was going crazy.
He didn’t mention the encounter to Myrna at supper that evening. She asked if he had gotten the peas and okra in the ground. He told her the corn had started showing. It looked like that would do fine as long as they got enough rain. She asked what was wrong. After thirty-seven years together, she could tell by the tone of his voice that something was bothering him. It would have been the perfect time to tell her about the voice. To tell her what was happening. But he didn’t. It was crazy. Voices didn’t just appear out of thin air. And so, he brushed off the concern as being overly tired. There was nothing to worry about.
That night, the dreams began again. The same cycle as before. The same voice telling him to buy Johnson’ place. The same battle within to fight for his sanity. Myrna was right, of course. Buying that property made absolutely no sense. It was poorly positioned really only good for hunting. It had a small fishing pond in the back which Jimmy would have enjoyed visiting on a regular basis but that alone didn’t make it a good investment, especially since he was retired and they were now on a fixed income. He had budgeted their savings to see them both comfortably through their golden years together. A major purchase like that would greatly reduce that level of savings. Again he cast the idea off as foolishness.
But as the nights wore on, he noticed that if he concentrated on how to make the purchase happen instead of outright refusing the voice’s request, sleep would come much quicker. He could eventually drift off into a deep sleep barely hearing the alarm the next morning.
On several evenings he found himself sitting in his home office crunching numbers furiously on his calculator. A pencil scribbled on the notepad to his left. There might be a way to purchase the property without tapping too deeply into the retirement savings if he could sell some of the heifers off at a decent price. No. That wouldn’t work. It was still too early in the year and they were still nursing the calves they’d dropped a few months earlier. The calves wouldn’t be ready for market until the middle of fall. Perhaps if he sold a few acres of their farm to buy the new place? No. Myrna wouldn’t be too happy about that. She loved this place as much as he did. It was their home. It was their lifelong dream. Later on when he drifted off to sleep, his dreams would be filled with numbers and possibilities, each one as farfetched and fanciful as the one before. There simply was no way around it. To purchase Johnson’s place, they would either have to tap into their retirement savings or consider selling off some of their land.
He realized one afternoon as he picked the ears of Silver Queen that he had already made his decision. He was going to buy Johnson’s land. He still didn’t particularly want it. He had no idea what he would actually do with it other than go fishing on occasion, but he had to buy it. The mere notion had become an obsession for him. Now, his biggest obstacle sat shelling peas in the den.
Myrna was not keen on the idea in the slightest. She’d more than brought that point home the day he first mentioned it. He’d waited more than three weeks before bringing it up again, until the dreams and nightmares drove him once again to distraction. Again she firmly put her foot down. She didn’t want Johnson’s land. She had no need for that piece of property and she didn’t want to be stuck with a large tax bill from the county for property she didn’t want or need. They were all valid points but all completely irrelevant to his overwhelming and completely unexplainable need to purchase that land.
He loaded the buckets of corn into the trailer that was attached to his small riding lawn mower. Then he grabbed another bucket and went to pick the tomatoes and cucumbers. Maybe he could bring the topic up again while they shelled peas this evening. It wouldn’t be easy but he had to convince her that they needed to buy this property. It was the only way he could ever hope to have peace of mind again.
“Well, let’s see what exciting things we can find on TV tonight.” Jimmy picked up his latest copy of Orbit magazine and began to scan the local listings. “The African Queen is coming on. You want to watch that?”He peered to his left at Myrna who had just sat down with a fresh pan of peas to shell.
“That sounds good. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”
Jimmy went outside to adjust the satellite dish. The most prominent feature in their yard, many of his neighbors were more than a little puzzled when the Watson’s constructed what appeared to be a NASA satellite dish beside their carport. It was quite the monstrosity. Over twenty feet wide, it had been a worthwhile investment when they first moved out to the country in the early ‘80s and could only get two of the three local channels on TV. Even with the monthly subscription rate which limited the number of channels they once received, they got more channels than any of their relatives in the city who had cable. And some of the naysayers in the county had made similar investments after seeing the wide selection of programming that was actually available. Why, the movie they were going to watch tonight was coming in from one of the western feeds. Couldn’t do that with cable.
Back in his leather recliner, he punched the numbers into the receiver that sat on a small shelf centered behind his and Myrna’s chairs. Then, he went into the kitchen, grabbed a dishpan, and filled it with field peas that lay spread out on newspaper on the floor. He returned to the den in time to hear Bogie’s stomach growl in front of two rather dour protestant missionaries.
“I don’t think that cup of tea is going to do.” Jimmy said, willing Hepburn to throw a steak or pork chop into the mix.
“No. He needs a sandwich or something.” Myrna agreed.
They sat in silence from that point on, shelling peas, and watching the adventures of a mismatched couple on an old steam boat as it traveled through the depths of Africa. Only the occasional comment was made about the movie.
“She went and poured out all his gin.”
“He done messed up thinking he was going to talk her out of the rapids.”
“She broke the blade and wants him to fix it.”
All said with a laugh. All said a hundred times before. Jimmy loved this movie. In fact, it was one of his favorite Bogie films. Partly because of the scenery, partly because of the adventurous story, but mainly for the comical aggravation Hepburn put Bogie through. Hepburn was a force to be reckoned with much like his Myrna although Myrna had never caused him that much grief. Of course, she’d never taken on the German Navy either, which was probably a good thing for the Germans.
The brown paper sack between them was full of hulls by the time the movie was over. It was still more than an hour before the late night news came on so Jimmy switched channels to a Braves game. It wasn’t as entertaining as the movie. They were up 5-0 in the bottom of the fifth and looked to be playing a bunch of little leaguers. Jimmy went and reloaded his pan of peas and decided to once again broach the subject that was weighing heaviest on his mind.
“I know you don’t want to do it, but I feel like we need to buy Johnson’s old place.”
“No, I don’t.” She retorted.
“I have to buy it.”
“Jimmy, I thought we had already settled this. We don’t need that land.”
He nodded. “I know we don’t need. And I know we never wanted it, but I have to buy it. I can’t explain why, but it’s been worrying me to death ever since I saw Johnson’s obituary in the paper. I can’t sleep and I can’t think about anything else.”
She was not convinced. “Why do you have to have that property all of the sudden? Don’t you have enough to take care of here?”
“I don’t know why I have to buy it. I just do or won’t have a minute’s peace.”
She continued to shell the peas as she thought for a few more moments. “Can we afford it with you being retired now?”
“Yeah, it’ll make things a little tighter. But we should be okay.”
Myrna looked at him for a little while longer. After all this time together she knew him better than anyone else in the world, but this was a new one. She’d known him to have sleepless nights before, especially when business was particularly tough. But this? This was not like him at all.
“Well, if it’s worrying you that bad, then we better buy it. I don’t know why you want it so bad or what we’ll do with it but it ain’t worth cracking up over.”
He smiled when he heard the straightforward response he’d expected. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I thought too.”