The Lovesong of Jubal Jacques
When I was young, I became so ill that everyone thought I would die. But being a child with a mind of my own, I decided to get better instead.
When I was halfway well, but still very weak, I was sent to a small green island to stay on my grandmother’s farm. It was only a small farm, but it was on a grassy hillside and sheltered from the wind. The cows gave us milk, the hens laid us eggs, the apples in the orchard were crisp and sweet and there was a hive full of honey bees. It was, they said, the perfect place for a sickly girl to grow strong.
Grandmother Jacques was a widow, but my youngest uncle still lived at home. His name was Jubal, which means ‘father of musicians’ and he had a lean, laughing, gipsy face.
It’s hard to say what kind of man he was, for he seemed to me to be all manner of men. He was youthful, healthy and strong, able to cut hay, ride a horse, mend a fence and shear a flock of sheep. At harvest time he could fill an apple bin twice as fast as anyone else and without bruising a single one.
He could also play the violin. In his fingers, the bow made love to the strings, caressing, coaxing and charming forth music that went deep into my soul. It was a wistful, blissful, happy-sad sound that often brought me to tears. He was a maker of music, a writer of songs and ever a dreamer of dreams; a happy, gifted, caring man who always had time for me.
There was a small parlour at the front of the house, and this was given to me. It delighted my grandmother to make it my room, for it was otherwise seldom used. The kitchen, of course, was the heart of the house, as country kitchens always are, but as I could only walk two or three steps, I needed a place of my own.
My bed was placed in the window so that I could see up and down the hill, and it was my privilege to have feather pillows and a quilt the colour of cream, one that my grandmother had sewn fifty years before when she was a nineteen-year-old bride. My long-dead grandfather beamed cheerfully down from a photograph on the wall and pink painted roses bloomed all over the basin and jug on the washstand beside my bed.
The parlour had its own smell, the lavender of a hundred summers and a hundred winters of wattle log fires. And it was a wattle log fire that warmed me in the first days of my stay, while spring tried to free herself from winter’s chilly grip.
I had my books, my puzzles, my crayons, plenty to pass the time. But these were known, familiar things from another life and place. There were promises here on the island, whispery as the mists that floated down from the forest above; half-sensed promises of things that I didn’t know. And the only way to know them was to watch and listen and wait. So, with my face always turned to the window, that is what I did.
There was another house further up the hill that had been empty for years and years. No one ever looked after it, yet it never seemed to decay. It was a wooden house, just ordinary wood, yet it stood there like a rock, squarely facing all weathers and refusing to totter or sag.
One morning a lady appeared at that house. Where she’d come from was anyone’s guess. But there she sat on the veranda, wrapped in a knitted shawl. She had hair the colour of honey and looked to be small and slim, but it was hard to be sure when she was sitting down, with her back half turned away.
My grandmother hadn’t had a neighbour since before Uncle Jubal was born, but she remembered how to be neighbourly and baked a loaf of bread. She filled a pot with her home-churned butter and poured some honey into a jar. Then, because they were so wildly, laughingly bright, she gathered some daffodils.
With her offerings in a basket, she plodded her way up the hill, and the honey-haired lady just sat where she sat and never once turned her head.
She was seated at a loom, so my grandmother said, and weaving some kind of rug. Her fingers darted like swallows among the coloured yarns and her pattern was sky blue, leaf green, cherry red and gold.
“Good morning to you!” my grandmother called, breathless from the climb. But the lady still sat as she always sat and she still didn’t turn her head.
My grandmother clomped up the wooden steps. “Good morning,” again she said.
Without a word and without glancing round, the honey-haired lady stood up. She pulled her shawl close round herself and slipped away into the house.
At first, my grandmother’s feelings were hurt, but then she understood. “Shy as a rabbit,” she told us when she’d walked back down the hill. “Timid as a wren. We must leave her alone to get settled and to feel at home in her nest.”
So we waited and we secretly watched the lady on the hill; me from my window, my grandmother from the garden and Uncle Jubal from wherever he happened to be. We watched and we waited, but nothing came to pass. The honey-haired lady sat at her loom hour after hour every day. Not once did she gaze down the hill at us, not once did she smile or wave. She just wove and wove and forever wove, sky blue, leaf green, cherry red and gold.
I began to think that she must be bewitched, trapped in some secret spell. What if mysterious forces had her bound to her loom? What if the kiss of a stranger was all that could set her free?
So I asked Uncle Jubal to kiss her and all he did was laugh. But all the same, next morning he went for a stroll up the hill. He walked close up to the lady’s house and he softly whistled a tune, a bight little tune, not to frighten her, but to let her know he was there. But the lady sat as she always sat and never once turned her head.
He could glimpse the curl of her hair in her neck, the curve of her cheek, the tilt of her nose. Her eyes remained lowered over her work, but he felt sure they were midsummer blue. And just as I thought might happen, Uncle Jubal got caught in the spell. The house was enchanted, she was enchanted and now he was enchanted, too.
He came down into his orchard and sat under a nectarine tree. And the pale pink blossom with its deep pink heart began lacing itself into a poem. It was a wordless poem, a soul-felt song, a love song that had to be played. He heard the music in his heart and he knew what he had to do. He would write this song, every note, and dedicate it to her.
A love song from Uncle Jubal, what kind of song would that be? For his love was total, it was everything, a love that enfolded all. He wanted to say: This I love … and this and this and this… and because I love you most of all, I give it all to you.
So he began to write his love song, there under the nectarine tree. He wrote of blossom and tipsy bees buzzing their dizzy delight, of tender young grass and spring sunshine, still pale, yet crystal bright. He wrote of the bleat of newborn lambs and the chirrup of baby birds, of the music of life all about him, that couldn’t be captured in words.
I opened my window and breathed in the air and watched him while he wrote. And the green resurrection spirit that was renewing all the earth, flowed into me and lifted me up to be out with him there in the sun.
“Is your love song finished?” I asked him and he smiled and shook his head.
“It’s hardly begun. There’s much, much more, and she must have it all,” he said.
Then, when the right time came, he took himself down to the lake. There he wrote of hazy heat-soaked days and the willows’ cool, leaf-walled tent, of a froth of white flowers on the hawthorn and the pines’ aromatic scent. He wrote of drifting thistledown and of plump cows heavy with cream, of mountains reflected in the lake and dappled trout in the stream.
I walked by his side at the water’s edge and listened to what he wrote. And the high summer skylark abundance, the wealth of a world in full bloom, flowered in me and bore me along a little bit further each day.
As it must, summer faded, but the song didn’t end, still my uncle wrote on. “We have only completed a part of it and she must have it all,” he said. And I, who could scarcely believe there was more, learned how much more there was.
Uncle Jubal wrote of a reckless earth, flamboyant, jubilant, bold, defiantly flying her banners of crimson, ochre and gold. He wrote of ragged violet clouds in a pale, purple-tinted sky, of harvest home and hunter’s moon and the plover’s midnight cry.
I climbed into the branches of apple trees, filled my mouth with sweet ripeness and juice. And the rush of the wind put a zing in my blood and warm colour into my cheeks.
“What a wonderful end to the song,” I cried. But again Uncle Jubal shook his head. “Almost, but not quite all, and she must have it all,” he said.
And he who so loved winter wrote the last verse of his song. He wrote of lemon-bright wattles and grass wearing hoarfrost lace, of fire-lit evenings and ticking clocks and moments of quiet grace. He wrote of sheep barrel-round with fleece and cattle chomping on hay, and of bare black branches intertwined against a backdrop of steely grey.
Curled in my chair by the kitchen hearth, I was sleek and content as a cat. Through the might of the storm and the still of the snow, I knew I was well at last.
Uncle Jubal lay down his pen and picked up his violin. “Listen,” he said, “I’ll play it for you and then I’ll play it for her.”
As he played and I listened, I knew that my uncle had done what he’d said he would do. He had written the most beautiful love song that anyone ever wrote. All the love in all the world was caught up in that one glorious tune. Oh, fortunate honey-haired lady, that it was written just for her!
The next morning, which was also the first day of another spring, Uncle Jubal walked up the hill. He walked right up to the enchanted house and stood below the steps. The honey-haired lady was still at her loom, weaving her patterned rug. By now it was trailing over her knees and along the wooden boards. It was a rich and lovely piece of work and still she wove on and on, in sky blue, leaf green, cherry red and gold.
My uncle didn’t speak to her, for his love song would say it all. He placed his violin beneath his chin and then he began to play. His love eddied out in the music, it soared between heaven and earth, much like the song the angels sang in the long-ago shepherd hills. And if any angels heard it, and one or two must have done, they were surely moved between joy and tears, which is just what happened to me.
When the final note had died, Uncle Jubal lowered his bow. He stood and gazed up at the lady and his heart was in his eyes. But the honey-haired lady just sat where she sat and never once turned her head.
Slowly my uncle walked down the hill. I ran and caught hold of his hand. “She’s wicked and cruel and heartless!” I cried. “How dare she do that to you?”
Uncle Jubal wouldn’t hear a word of it. “She’s exquisite and I love her,” he said. “My poor, untrained playing’s not good enough. She deserves much better than that.”
So he sat down beneath the nectarine tree, where he’d sat just a year before, and he wondered about his love song. How it could be played as it ought to be played? By late afternoon he had an idea. He knew exactly what he would do.
“A lovesong tree,” he told me. “That’s what I’ll give to her.”
Then he took a spade from the garden shed and strode away back up the hill. Fascinated, I followed him. What was a lovesong tree?
Halfway between the farm and her house and clear in the lady’s view, he started to dig a hole in the ground while I stood and held his coat.
When he was happy that the hole was big enough, he picked up his violin. Once again he played his love song, note after haunting note, and every note fell down like a seed into the welcoming earth. When every note was in the hole, he carefully covered them in. Then he patted the soil with the back of his spade.
“That should do it,” he said.
He was cheerful again as we walked back down, but I was deep in thought. How long would it take for the seeds to grow? Time was something I didn’t have. My father and mother wanted me home, now I was well and strong. I wanted to go, yet I wanted to stay and see Uncle Jubal’s lovesong tree.
Again we watched and waited, Uncle Jubal, my grandmother and me. The sun shone often and sometimes it rained, but not a hint of a tiny shoot appeared where we’d planted the lovesong tree.
I wished, I hoped, I fervently prayed, “Please let it be today.” And on the day before I was due to go home, the miracle occurred.
I looked out of the parlour window before I got out of bed, and there, halfway up the hill, exactly where it should be, was the prettiest, leafiest, open-armed little tree.
“Uncle Jubal! Your lovesong tree!”
The three of us ran laughing out of the house. “Can we go up there, please?” I asked.
“No,” said my uncle. “We mustn’t do that. We’ll stay here and watch and wait. Nothing at all may happen today. What we need is a fairly strong breeze.”
A breeze? But this was the most unruffled of days and the last one, too, of my stay. What if nothing happened? What if I missed it all?”
So again I wished and hoped and prayed; this time that a breeze might blow. And all day I watched the lovesong tree and the lady up on the hill. But she just sat as she always sat, weaving away at her loom, in sky blue, leaf green, cherry red and gold.
Late in the afternoon, our orchard leaves started to stir. The smoke from our chimney flurried and I heard whisperings through the grass.
“A breeze! A breeze!” I shouted, “There’s a breeze now, so what happens next?”
“Watch and wait and listen,” Uncle Jubal whispered. And she’ll be listening, too.”
The breeze blew the leaves of the lovesong tree and every leaf was a musical note. And the breath of the breeze played the love song in perfect harmony.
A tree that played a love song! It was breathtaking in my ears. Was there no end to the enchantment in this more than enchanted place?
I wrapped my arms around my uncle. “It’s magic, just magic!” I cried. But he was gazing up at the house where the honey-haired lady sat.
And the honey-haired lady just sat where she sat and never once turned her head.
Uncle Jubal didn’t say a word, he just walked away into the house. When I turned to run in after him, my grandmother caught my arm.
“Leave him,” she said. “Let him be by himself. For by himself he’ll always be. If that honey-haired lady won’t have him, I doubt he’ll love anyone else.”
Poor Uncle Jubal, he tried so hard to be kind and not let his hurting hurt me. In an hour or so he came to me with the best he could do for a smile. He said he how much he would miss me and that he was so sorry to see me go. But I knew that a deeper sorrow would be with him all his life.
“I gave what I could,” he told me when at last we talked about that. “But my best simply wasn’t good enough and I have nothing else I can give.”
I hated that honey-haired lady and her heart that must have been ice. How could she ignore Uncle Jubal and his beautiful lovesong tree? I lay in bed that last night at the farm, but I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept hearing my uncle’s love song singing in my head. Why, oh why wouldn’t she listen? Couldn’t she hear all that love?
As I cried into my pillows, like a light the answer came. I knew the lady’s secret and it was all so suddenly clear. I dried my tears and got out of bed. I knew what I had to do.
The night was windy and very cold, as it could be even in spring. I pulled on my boots and my jacket and climbed out over the window sill. With my long white nightgown flapping around my legs, I started off up the hill. Pitch dark it was, but I knew the way. I could find the lovesong tree.
When I found it, I huddled down and sheltered under its leaves. I clasped the trunk with both my arms and pressed my cheek against the bark.
“Please,” I whispered. “Please understand. The honey-haired lady can’t hear. She’s timid and shy and lonely … she doesn’t know how much she is loved. She’s never heard Uncle Jubal’s love song … never heard it because she is deaf.”
I wanted another miracle, though I’d no idea what kind it could be. Having said what I’d said, I could only go home and leave it all to the lovesong tree.
I slept very well for the rest of the night and woke shortly after dawn to a coral-skied, pink and gold morning; something else that happens in spring. Hardly daring to hope, yet hoping still, I knelt up on my bed and looked out. I looked up to where the lovesong tree stood and I gave a shivering sigh.
Oh, glory of glories, a miracle, right there before my eyes. The tree was transformed, it was singing its song, but a song that was seen and not heard.
Every leaf had become a jewel and every jewel shone bright; dew-bright, frost-bright, rain-bright and bright as the sun, sky blue, leaf green, cherry red and gold. And the song that they sang was my uncle’s song, every note was a note that he wrote. It was his gift to the honey-haired lady – a song she could hear with her eyes.
Uncle Jubal walked into the garden and I knew he had seen the tree. I saw him stand and gaze at it and saw the look on his face.
I saw the honey-haired lady lean over her veranda rail, saw her tilt her head and stretch out her hands. I watched her run down the wooden steps…watched her run down the hill… watched my uncle run towards her … watched them meet at the lovesong tree.
All of that happened a long time ago. But the lovesong tree is still there. It sings to me in the island farmstead that my grandmother left to me. And it sings to my uncle and honey-haired aunt in their enchanted house on the hill.