The Gentlemen of the Shade
By Richard D. Flavin

Beneath the fragrant boughs of arbor
She smiled and beckoned and bade
For men to hither and harbor
In her peaceful and refreshing shade...

     The pattern was familiar. All of his adult life he'd viewed the intricacy of the dream as it drew the weft of his unconsciousness into the warp of his heart's desire. Her face coalesced and appeared once more as the weave tightened her features and his mind's eye could again make out the high cheekbones and thin lips, the dark and disheveled hair which covered her soft, alabaster shoulders like a funeral shawl. And, to those portentous eyes of some inviting hue, he had imparted the name 'Marie', and not once in the years and years of his dreaming had she ever denied or refused the name. Her dour, yet gentle smile was directed towards him and it gave him a moment of peace before the weave began to unravel and the pattern was reduced to just so many threads of vague images.
     The delicate fabric of sleep was rendered and rent by the incessant cries of the cat as it sought release from the confines of the house. His troubled mind fought for control over his old and cadaverous body as the shroud of sleep was displaced and his eyes snapped open to take in the feline form next to him upon his pillow. With great difficulty and the name of that lost dream on his emaciated lips, he swung the back of his thin and gaunt hand and removed the howling cat from his bed.
     He tossed back the bed-coverings and carefully made his way out of bed. As he shakily stood, curses spilled forth as the cold floor announced to his arthritic feet that the cat had moved his house-slippers sometime during the night. He bent and reached under his bed and with a few precarious, but oft rehearsed attempts, he located one slipper and then with a daring and reckless swipe, he brought forth the other slipper. He fit his weary and gnarled feet into the well-worn leather slippers and when the cat began anew its litany of complaint once more, he was tempted to throw both slippers at the wretched complainer, but held back because his toes required and demanded attention and warmth and they wouldn't tolerate another bout with the cold, wooden floor.
     With the raw howls of the of cadging cat arising from between and at times from beneath his feet, he stumbled to the stairs and descended the dimly lighted and dangerously narrow way, all the while grasping the preserving tether of the finely polished oak handrail. Twice upon the stairs, the spectral visage of Marie appeared before him and he felt faint and nearly fell. His bony hand squeezed the handrail and he steadied himself as that wondrous likeness wafted away as if composed of incorporeal smoke and susceptible to the winds of waking. As the treacherous stairs were behind him and with the obnoxious tom before him, he took a sharp breath and mourned the Muse of Slumber who could enrich his night with great passion, yet would vanish with the simple nagging of a cat who wanted to relieve itself out of doors.
     When his hand turned the dull and yellowed crystal knob of the backdoor, the raucous and impatient cat began to bellow in lower and louder tones. He pulled on the door until a tiny opening appeared and he watched as the furry annoyance forced its nose into the opening, then its head, and finally with a push of urgency, squeezed itself past the door and frame and into the chill of the spring morning outside.
     The cat disappeared into the pale dawn and just as he was about to shut the front-door and leave the feline to frolic and excrete where it would, he noticed a large package on his doorstep. The icy, though sweetly redolent, air caressed his wrinkled face as he opened the door to its fullest and stepped outside. He picked up the package with a shallow groan and with as much speed as he could muster, the seventy-six year old man retreated indoors with his long awaited gift.
     He shut the door behind him and noticed his name in a fine lined and distinctly feminine script upon the package, a shiver seized him and the gift tumbled from his trembling hands and crashed to the floor. Tears welled up in his eyes as he sunk to his knees, tore open the package, and laid bare the long, white linen robe within. Focusing his eyes upon the enclosed note in the same script as the writing on the outside of the package as it rested atop the neatly folded robe, his tears came to an end. The time had come and as he read the note as it shook between his nervous fingers, his time was set forth and his limit stated plainly with the words, “At midday, in the shade. Marie.”
     Last spring Karl Vitas had worn the robe or rather one just like it. The year before the grim Swede had been chosen, it had been Ted Manning's turn. Before Ted, it had been Brian. And, before Brian, passed Jon Kondrun and Herb McMichaels and David and Ol' George and Charley and many, many others. The long list of names was lost to the passing of time and only the benefit of sacrifice remained. The ancient oak which grew alone in Abram's Field was tall, mighty, and its branches spread out in greeting to all passing travelers. In summer, when the sun's rays were hot and cruel, the full branches cast a protective, shadowy shade which was delightfully cool and all those who stopped beneath those boughs were refreshed and renewed in both body and spirit. And, now it was his turn to wear the white robe.
     Though with great difficulty, he stood, walked to the kitchen window, and lost himself in the spectacle of the rising sun. The world outside his window was still frozen in winter's embrace, but the warming sunshine of Father Sol was winning once more in the eternal battle of ice and fire. Spring had arrived again and he noticed tender and tiny buds pushing themselves to the surface of the old elm his great-grandfather had planted in the backyard such a long time ago. A myriad of birds sang out in salute as the sun raised itself over the horizon and the long night of winter was again thrust back. It was spring, the time for rebirth and lovers. He saw Marie's face in the glass of the window and was content just to gaze upon her until the Earth stopped its spinning or, at least, until the cat roused him from his meditations by scratching wildly on the backdoor.
     The wily feline ran into the kitchen as soon as the backdoor was pulled back a few inches. In its mouth, the cat carried a bright crimson cardinal and laid it at the old man's feet as if it were a great gift. Never one to show affection, he was very surprised as the tom rubbed against his legs and feet and uttered its rare and uniquely resounding purr. He looked down at the mangled bird and with his failing eyesight, he was hard-pressed to distinguish where the blood ceased its coloring and the natural red of its feathers began. The old man looked at the cat and for a precious instant it appeared the blue-gray feline was sitting back on its haunches and a slight smile was gracing its pointed and whiskered face.
     He took his robe and slowly ambled into the sitting room, leaving the cat and its dead bird alone in the kitchen. In the sitting room, the old man took his favorite place in the comfort of the over-stuffed, high-backed chair which was positioned across from the fireplace and the mantle. On the mantle, in a small, oval frame, rested a curious piece of needlepoint which he had located some years back at a rural thrift-meet. The image, carefully stitched and tied, was of a young girl with long, black tresses which were unkempt, but nonetheless beautiful. The face bore a remarkable resemblance to his 'Marie' and for the next three hours he did naught but sit in his comfortable chair and stare at the lovely embroidered face. There was nothing left for him to do which he'd not already accomplished. He had had a full life and at midday he would complete his last task with the help of the gentlewoman, Marie.
     In his fond recollections, he recalled the first day he saw Marie beneath the ancient oak. He was no more than two-dozen years of age and she appeared much as she did now, a young maiden who had recently left the awkwardness of childhood behind, but had not quite taken upon herself the full trappings and airs of womanhood. She was lithe and ebullient, dancing in the morning mist, and as he passed close to the venerable old tree, she leaped high, ran to his side, and with one exquisitely tapered hand upon his shoulder, she balanced and raised herself on her toes, leaned toward him, gave a tender kiss to his left cheek, and said, “Welcome...” His cheeks still burned in flush as he remembered that brief and delightfulful kiss.
     She danced away into the mist as it covered Abram's Field and he was left alone with a deep longing in his heart which he still carried after more than five decades. When he returned home, his father was busying himself with various yardwork and smiled his usual and customary lop-sided half-smile. His father leaned on a rusty rake which had been a constant garden and lawn implement since his father's father's day. With a pale light of understanding in his eyes, his father talked of a mysterious meeting with a young girl in Abram's Field, the receiving of a gentle kiss and talked with such moving candor the young man believed his own father had debased himself and spied upon his only son. But, as his father's tale progressed, he realized his father wasn't speaking about his recent encounter with love, but a similar one of his father's own from many years ago. His father laid a heavy arm across his shoulders, his heart slowed somewhat, and his mind opened itself to the mysteries of love and time. In that moment, he became a man, a gentleman touched by love's light and endearing kiss. A gentleman of the shade.
     The auspiciousness of his memories spread a calming solace throughout his elderly frame and he was at peace with both the past and the future. After the vernal dedication, the town pharmacist and fellow “gentleman,” Bruce Kiefmor, a very dear and long time friend would settle his mundane affairs of home and property. And, with any judgment worthy of praise, he would place the irksome cat with some household who had the teeth to cope with its demanding peculiarities. He was at ease with himself in the secure and comfortable chair, taking in the face of lovely Marie, but roused himself at last, put on the clean, white robe, and bid an unemotional farewell to the cat, the house which was the home for the family he could never bring himself to have, and with a sigh, renounced the busy life which was only now becoming fulfilled.
     He walked without benefit of coat or cape, choosing instead to enjoy the singular honor of robe recipient for as long as was possible. Some “gentlemen” perished out of grace, succumbing to one ailment or another or falling prey to the greedy hands of the Fates who guise themselves as accidents, attacks of the heart, or some other demise which lacked the totality he was now about to enjoy. He would proudly wear the robe and give of himself to ensure a prosperous fall and harvest would follow the struggles of spring and summer. He would wear the robe with dignity, as was his gentlemanly right.
     As his unshod feet left the dirt road and trod upon the still frozen terrain of Abram's Field, he looked upon the faces of dozens and dozens of other “gentlemen” standing beneath and around the towering oak tree. During the following autumnal celebration, one would be chosen from the townsfolk who were of age to complete their number and to fill the void in the membership which his midday celebration would create. But, today was the first day of the resurgent spring and his honor was to give of himself to that giant guardian and protector of the Earth, the most holy tree.
     Others had given of themselves in the same fashion and it was a high and great honor to be so chosen. Yet, some shook as they lay down beneath the cool shade of the oak and showed fear in the face of she who serves the tree. And, he remembered the awful scream which tore itself from Karl's lips last spring, as the blade of the gleaming dagger pierced his side and those delicate fingers drew out the still quivering heart and laid it at the base of the old tree. He silently vowed to himself as he felt those smooth hands tear at his white robe to expose his gaunt and sunken chest, he would not scream when that wonderful moment came.
     But, he was wrong. He did scream.
     She carefully placed the votive organ at the base of the tree and gave the old oak a kiss and a hug. The Gentlemen of the Shade made their separate ways slowly toward the tree and did the same, kissing the mighty oak as passionately as they would a lover. One of the “gentlemen” of advanced years showed signs of severe difficulty approaching the tree and she smiled and took comfort in this. If the elderly “gentleman” could survive the coming year, then she would reward his years of service with a grand present. She had a nice linen robe which would fit him perfectly.

[Note: I'd thought of the title in 1983, but it wasn't until 1988 when the small press (or 'zines) were popular, when I answered a call for short stories from a new Chicago-based dark fantasy 'zine, Nocturne, and wrote “The Gentlemen of the Shade.” I was paid $35, the editor bought me a corned beef sandwich, and I received two copies of the 'zine. The above has been substantially revised and I hope it still holds up after all these years.]

The End.

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