Harriet's Apple Tree
Craig W. Steele
HARRIET QUIRT, a woman who refuses to let her apple tree be cut down, in her early-90s.
SAM WISE, a County Planning Officer, late-20s/early-30s. Responsible for overseeing the cutting down of Harriet’s apple tree.
SYNOPSIS: The County Planning Officer confronts a woman sitting under an apple tree in a park. She is protecting the tree from being cut down as a public hazard. During the course of their conversation, she converts the Planning Officer to her side.
SETTING: The play takes place in the non-existent Creekside Park, in the imaginary borough of Sawyerstown, in real-life northwestern Pennsylvania.
TIME: The story takes place in the present, in the spring of the year.
[At Rise: Play opens in a park, with a large apple tree. A bench is set near the tree, stage center.]
[HARRIET QUIRT is sitting on the bench, knitting furiously.]
[Car door slams offstage. SAM WISE enters from stage right, stops, places his hands on his hips and looks at HARRIET QUIRT.]
SAM WISE [to audience]: There she is, Harriet Quirt. That crazy old woman has protested cutting down that old apple tree ever since she learned of the decision. She´s written and telephoned every County Commissioner and borough officer, as well as all the area newspapers, and radio and TV stations. She even swore she´d chain herself to the tree to prevent it being cut down tomorrow. And there she is.... Thank goodness, I don´t see any chains!
[SAM WISE walks slowly toward HARRIET QUIRT. Halfway to her, he stops.]
SAM WISE [to audience]: Why does that crazy old woman care so much about that stupid tree? It’s not like it’s the only tree in the park, not even the only apple tree. And it needs to come down: it’s diseased, dying, and was hit by lightning twice this past month! That´s why the borough got permission to cut it down and to build a bandstand in its place. As County Planning Officer, I have better things to do than explain all that to her, again. I don´t have time for strolling through parks, let alone wasting the day sitting under a tree! Why do I always have to handle the nutters? I need to push the Commissioners to increase my budget so I can hire an assistant to handle that crap. I hate dealing with the raggedy-assed masses.
[SAM WISE continues walking and stops near HARRIET QUIRT.]
[HARRIET QUIRT stops knitting, places her knitting on her lap, her hands resting upon her knitting, and looks at him.]
SAM WISE: Good morning, Miss Quirt. Let me explain again why...
HARRIET QUIRT [overlapping]: I’ve always loved sitting here, under this apple tree. It holds so many warm memories for me, unlike anywhere else on earth.
[SAM WISE acts flustered and looks around the park. Bird songs begin from offstage; a breeze rustles leaves in the tree. SAM WISE returns his gaze to HARRIET QUIRT. Nature sounds stop.]
SAM WISE [with false sincerity]: Yes, it is a peaceful place to sit on a spring morning. There’ll be a lot of tears shed when this tree comes down, tomorrow.
HARRIET QUIRT: You can´t fool me, Sam Wise. This tree is just that to you, another tree, not unlike all the others in the park. In the world, even. But it´s really a very special tree. See there, on the trunk, about five feet below that big branch?
[HARRIET QUIRT turns on bench and points toward the apple tree.]
Tell me what you see.
SAM WISE: It looks as if someone has carved their initials in the trunk.
HARRIET QUIRT: Yes, initials in the trunk, inside a lover´s heart.
[HARRIET QUIRT smiles. She slumps slightly on the bench.]
[SAM WISE steps closer to the tree and looks again.]
SAM WISE: Yes, I see the heart now. And it looks as if there might be an arrow carved through it. I can´t quite make out the letters from here.
[SAM WISE takes several more steps toward the tree, but HARRIET QUIRT reads the letters for him from where she sits.]
HARRIET QUIRT: It says LT loves HQ. Lionel Trane loves Harriet Quirt. Lionel was my high school sweetheart, and we were so in love. But it was time for him to return to his outfit. They were due to ship out overseas soon, you see. He was assigned to the 89th Cavalry Squadron, part of the 9th Armored Division.
[SAM WISE turns to HARRIET QUIRT, laughs, and then walks toward the bench.]
[HARRIET QUIRT glares at SAM WISE.]
HARRIET QUIRT [angry]: Don´t make fun of me like that, Mr. Wise. I´m not daft. It was mechanized cavalry, of course. I know we didn´t use horse cavalry in World War Two, better than you do ´cause I lived through it! Lionel was a tanker, a driver of a Stuart light tank. [smiles] But he had the dash, the élan ... the grit of a real horse soldier.
[HARRIET QUIRT leans slightly toward SAM WISE, who has now returned to the bench.]
Between you and me, I think a lot of it was just put on for my benefit — trying to impress his girl, you know.
SAM WISE: Yes, well, that´s all very nice, very [brief pause] interesting, but...
HARRIET QUIRT [overlapping; angry]: But what, young man? Am I boring you? Do you think I´m just a rambling, addle-headed, old biddy? Well, Sonny, this is my tree you want to cut down, and this is my story, about my life, and you´re going to listen to all of it. And you´ll listen politely, too!
[HARRIET QUIRT composes herself.]
That was our last day together, on his last leave before he shipped out. I can hardly believe it was over sixty-five years ago. It was a beautiful spring morning in ’44, much like it is today. I don´t know why the Army never gave him another leave. His division didn´t actually ship out until the end of August. That was what Lionel wrote about in his first letter to me. They all sailed to Europe on the Queen Mary — 15,000 soldiers and a thousand crewmen on one ship! I never got enough letters from Lionel. At the time, I thought I had quite a collection. But after he was gone, I realized just how few they were. Somebody should tell young soldiers of today that they can’t write too many letters home! Shouldn´t they, Mr. Wise?
SAM WISE: Huh? Oh, yes, of course.
HARRIET QUIRT: Lionel did most of the carving, of course, with his old, two-bladed pocketknife. It was nothing like the fancy ones they make nowadays, but it served us all right. He helped me carve my initials in the tree. After it was all done, he put away his pocketknife, and turned toward me so that we could hold each other close. He held me so tightly I thought I would break in two, but I didn´t mind. Then we kissed, and I can still remember thinking it was just like eating honey. That was the last day we ever spent together. He was killed during the German offensive through the Ardennes, in December, 1944, in what history calls the Battle of the Bulge. You´ve heard of it, at least, yes, Mr. Wise?
SAM WISE [stammering]: Why, yes, yes, of course.
HARRIET QUIRT: Lionel´s troop, Troop C, was part of a combat command from the 9th Armored Division that was attached to the 106th Infantry Division after the battle began.
[HARRIET QUIRT laughs suddenly, crazily.]
[SAM WISE jumps in alarm.]
HARRIET QUIRT: Lionel always laughed about being assigned to Troop C. He said that was a better grade than he ever got in high school. Not that he was stupid, mind you! He just decided, like so many other young men did in those days, that with a world war going on, and so many young soldiers dying, there was no point in worrying about getting good grades in school.
[HARRIET QUIRT stops talking and looks expectantly at SAM WISE.]
SAM WISE [stammering]: Oh, yes, I can see their point.
HARRIET QUIRT: In fact, Lionel quit school and joined up during our senior
year. I wish he hadn’t. We could have had a little more time together.
[HARRIET QUIRT stops and presses an index finger into the corner of each eye. She then drops her hands back onto her knitting.]
HARRIET QUIRT: Oh, those poor boys in the 106th. Did you know their average age was only twenty-two-years-old, the youngest average age of any division in the U.S. Army?
SAM WISE: No, no I didn´t.
HARRIET QUIRT: Of course you didn´t. And I know you don´t know that they´d only arrived in France fifteen days before that battle started. Why, they´d only been in their positions in the Ardennes five days before the Germans attacked! I didn´t know all that then, of course, what with wartime secrecy and all. I learned it later. But not from Uncle Sam, oh my no. I wasn´t his mother, or his fiancé, or a family member, so the War Department wouldn´t talk to me. Love counted for nothing — if you didn´t have some ´official´ connection to the deceased, then you weren´t the government´s problem. Some officer wrote to Lionel´s mother and told her how Lionel had died. And I got a few letters from some of Lionel´s buddies. All the guys talked about their girls back home, of course. Some of his surviving friends got my address from Lionel´s effects and wrote to me with more details of his death. Lionel´s platoon was assigned to the defense of St. Vith, a place of some of the heaviest fighting. They were all so young, so green. And so many died. His mother received the telegram from the War Department. She showed it to me, of course. [pause]
That was the coldest Christmas I ever experienced, even though I´ve lived right here in Erie County, Pennsylvania, in the lake´s snow belt, my entire life. [pause]
I never celebrated Christmas again. [pause]
Lionel was an only son, you know. ‘I had expected you and Lionel to get married some day,’ his mother told me. ‘You two would have had such lovely babies.’ What a wonderful mother-in-law Shirley would have been. What a wonderful mom she would have been to me. We were great company and great comfort to each other after his death. But Lionel´s mother died the next year. The doctor said it was pneumonia, but I know her broken heart really killed her.
[HARRIET QUIRT dabs eyes with knitting, returns knitting and hands to lap.]
HARRIET QUIRT: If only we´d given in to our hearts that day. I wouldn´t have resisted him, if he´d wanted to. A child would have helped both Shirley and me to cope with his death. That German gunner killed three generations.
SAM WISE [softly]: How did you cope?
HARRIET QUIRT: I took the advice of Albert Camus.
SAM WISE: Camus? I don´t remember seeing any record of a Camus family ever living around here. Of, course that was many years ago.
HARRIET QUIRT [after gently laughing]: Oh, my, you are priceless, Mr. Wise! Albert Camus was a writer, a famous French writer. And I took to heart something he wrote: In the midst of winter I discovered that there was in me an invincible summer. That helped me heal, eventually.
[HARRIET QUIRT stands up and walks slowly to the trunk of the apple tree. She gently caresses the heart and initials.]
[HARRIET QUIRT then turns abruptly to face Wise.]
HARRIET QUIRT: And now, you, and the rest of them, want to take our tree away from me. Don´t you understand that this is all I have of Lionel? He was a tanker remember. Do you know what happens to the men inside a tank when a shell from a German eighty-eight hits it? [pause]
They could only identify what remained of his body from his melted dogtags. He’s buried somewhere in France. This tree … [pause]
[HARRIET QUIRT caresses apple tree once more, then turns back to face SAM WISE.]
This tree is his final resting place for me. It’s a living memorial to our undying love. This is where I come to be close to him. This is where I come to relive our last day together.
[Slowly and carefully, HARRIET QUIRT walks back to the bench.]
[SAM WISE waits until HARRIET QUIRT is seated, clears his throat.]
SAM WISE: Now, then, Miss Quirt...
HARRIET QUIRT [overlapping]: My parents and family hated Lionel, did you know that? Well, of course you wouldn’t. I should stop asking you that. [laughs softly]
Lionel was just not good enough for me. His family was not good enough. Father, naturally, spoke for the whole family.
[HARRIET QUIRT affects a pseudo-masculine voice, and then speaks her father´s words.]
‘Harriet,’ he said, ‘Lionel´s probably not really even dead. He probably just exchanged his dogtags with some poor dead soldier and ran off with some French girl. He´s probably hiding out, living with her in some picture-postcard French village right now.’ My mother and sisters agreed with him, naturally. [pause]
[normal voice] I never spoke to my family again. [pause]
I moved out of our house and got an apartment of my own. That wasn´t easy to do right out of high school, on my secretary´s salary! It wasn’t much of a place, but it was enough for Lionel and me. And I never sat under the apple tree with anyone else again. That´s not to say there weren´t other men in my life from time to time. Lots of men tried to spark me, especially when it got around that I was living alone. I guess respectable, single, young women didn´t do that sort of thing back then, at least not in Sawyerstown. But none of them could take Lionel´s place. None of them got me to sit under the apple tree. [pause]
So, do you understand now, Mr. Wise, why you can´t cut down this tree?
SAM WISE: I understand. But I can’t help you, Miss Quirt. There’s nothing I can do. The tree is a public safety hazard. It has to come down — tomorrow.
HARRIET QUIRT: Can’t help or won’t help?
SAM WISE: I’m sorry, Miss Quirt, really I am. There’s nothing I can do.
[HARRIET QUIRT´s droops her head.]
[SAM WISE turns and walks hurriedly back along the path.]
[Halfway to the exit, SAM WISE stops and grabs his chest.]
SAM WISE [to audience]: That German gunner just claimed his latest victim.
[SAM WISE turns and walks back to HARRIET QUIRT.]
[HARRIET QUIRT dries her eyes with the backs of her hands as SAM WISE nears her.]
HARRIET QUIRT: What do you want, Mr. Wise?
SAM WISE: Could I sit with you a little while, Harriet?
HARRIET QUIRT [voice and expression surprised]: Why, of course!
[HARRIET QUIRT moves over and gives SAM WISE room on the bench.]
[SAM WISE sits beside HARRIET QUIRT. There is an uncomfortable silence.]
[SAM WISE clears throat several times and fidgets on bench.]
SAM WISE: So, what exactly are you knitting, Harriet?
HARRIET QUIRT: A throw to wrap around my legs. It gets cold sitting on this bench in winter, especially at Christmas.
[HARRIET QUIRT carefully replaces her knitting on her lap, turns and looks at SAM WISE.]
HARRIET QUIRT: Now then, Sam, about our apple tree....
[CURTAIN; End of Play.]