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The Willow Tree in the Garden | Karl Harshbarger

The Willow Tree in the Garden | Karl Harshbarger

Something’s bugging Ackerman this morning. But he doesn’t know what it is.

But it’s sure pulling at him.

So here’s the picture.

Ackerman’s sitting at his desk working on his novel. It’s morning and the sun’s shining in and it’s a beautiful day and his study on the second floor of his house is in one of those nineteenth century kind of cupolas – which means it’s got windows almost all the way around. And not only is the sun shining in but because his study’s in a cupola Ackerman can easily see into his backyard and the pond and the willow tree over to the right with its hanging branches touching the surface of the water.

But Ackerman’s not looking out the windows of the cupola. He’s not into that kind of thing. Because Ackerman’s one of those successful novelists. He’s already sold eighteen novels. Although some people wouldn’t say he’s successful because his novels are big sellers at airports.

Still, whatever you might think about the quality of his writing: Eighteen novels!  That’s a lot of work. A really, really lot of work. If you don’t think that’s a lot of work, well, maybe you should try writing eighteen novels.

And this morning he’s working on his nineteenth.

So you can see why he isn’t into looking into his garden.

And, by the way, don’t worry:  If he were to look out the windows he wouldn’t be distracted by seeing all those little jobs, and some big ones, that need to be done, the weeding of the flower beds, the mowing of the yard, the construction of that redwood fence at the rear of the yard before the fields begin, those kind of things. All that’s done by a firm he and his wife have hired. The men usually come once a week and take care of things.

That’s so Ackerman can attend to the more important matters in life. His novel writing, for example.

This morning’s Ackerman’s working on a segment of his novel set on the inside of a castle somewhere in Spain during the Middle Ages and there are lots of knights and squires around, not to mention well-dressed ladies and not to mention the beautiful daughter of the king.

Actually this scene is a love scene. Or a sex scene. Because, you see, one of the knights in attendance has somehow got it in his head to take the beautiful king’s daughter to bed. Secretly. Needless to say, he’s not supposed to. That is, even think about the princess in that kind of way. Even though he’s a knight and, therefore, has a pretty high rank, he doesn’t have a high enough rank to think those kind of thoughts.

But, you see, the thing is, how things are, this knight in question is so terribly handsome and so terribly manly and so terribly rich with all kinds of land and many fine houses that it’s not surprising that he might have his eye on the princess.

“Good morning, my honorable one,” says the knight to the princess on a bended knee.

“And good morning to you,” the princess replies taking his proffered hand.

“And how are we this morning?” he says.

“I am fine, thank you very much.”

But something has happened. It’s true. Because even though the knight’s hand is simply a proffered hand extended in curtesy, in fact, the knight gives the princess’s hand a little squeeze. Well, not exactly a squeeze. He touches, he even caresses, the palm of her hand from underneath with one of his fingers.

This knight is putting himself in some danger. What if the princess were to tell her father about that caressing of her hand?

But she won’t tell the king. Not most likely. Why? Well, you’ve already probably guessed it: This knight in question is so terribly handsome and so terribly manly and so terribly rich that the princess has been, how shall we say it, secretly observing him from afar.

Well, so that’s it, the picture. Up until now. And you will certainly agree that this plot has got loads and loads of potential. Will the knight or won’t he? Will the princess or won’t she? Will the king or won’t he? You know, that kind of thing.

And you can be sure that already with eighteen novels behind him Ackerman certainly has the skill and the talent and perhaps, most of all, the fortitude to milk this scene for all it’s worth.

“Sir!” says the princess startled, jerking her hand away.

“Yes?” answers the knight looking directly into her eyes.

“Did you, perhaps . . . ?” asks the princess.

“Did I what?” answers the knight.

“You know . . . ?”

The knight pauses.

Then he says, “I did.”

He continues looking directly into her eyes.

“I confess to it,” he says.

That’s where things stand now because that’s as far as Ackerman got yesterday at the close of his writing day. And even though, in theory, he should have no difficulty developing this scene, spinning it out this way and that way, the knight, the princess and the king, not to mention all the other knights and squires and ladies in attendance, on this morning he can’t take it further because something’s bugging him.

Well, so what is it, this thing that’s bugging Ackerman?

That’s it.  Ackerman doesn’t know.

He stands up and looks out the windows of his cupola.

He does!

Even though he never does!

Because he’s making an effort to find out what’s bugging him this morning.

So what does he see out the windows?

Well, what he sees is very peaceful, the flower beds, the pond, the willow tree to the right of the pond and the sun shining down on the fields beyond. It certainly should be that way because Ackerman and his wife took a lot of time looking for this property, well over a year. They wanted to make sure that when, for example, Ackerman looked out of the windows on a morning when, maybe, he was having difficulty with his writing . . . you get the idea.

Of course, when they finally bought this property and before they moved in they paid an interior decoration firm a lot of money to bring it up to their standards and they also paid a gardening firm a lot of money to bring the garden up to their standards.

But Ackerman’s got money. Eighteen novels!

So: Ackerman’s standing looking out the windows of his cupola and he’s not at the moment working on the scene which takes place in a castle somewhere in Spain, a scene which everyone agrees has lots of potential for spinning out this way or that.

Suddenly Ackerman discovers what’s bugging him this morning.

Only, the thing is, he can’t believe this discovery.

The reason he can’t believe this discovery is as follows: The willow tree is on the wrong side of the pond. That is, it’s over there on the left side and not the right side. And, then, to add to the confusion, it’s an oak tree. Or a maple. Or some kind of tree like that. But not a willow tree with all those limbs hanging down and touching the surface of the water.

Whoa! thinks Ackerman.

He turns away, to reestablish himself, so to speak, then looks again.

But it’s the same! Sure as anything! The tree’s on the left side of the pond and not on the right side. And it’s an oak tree or a maple tree, some kind of tree like that, and not a willow tree.

Whoa! thinks Ackerman again.

Because this can’t be. The tree can’t be one kind of tree one day and another kind of tree the next day. And, come on, a tree can’t change from one side of the pond to the other. But it’s still there, this oak tree or maple tree, or whatever it is on the wrong side of the pond.

And, to further confuse things, another discovery: Out in the fields beyond his backyard he sees power lines marching across. These power lines weren’t there before. Were they? No! They weren’t there because he and his wife took a long time, over a year, searching for this property.

A gnawing feeling’s growing deep in the gut of Ackerman’s stomach. Somehow he knows, somehow he understands, that if he turns around to look at his study, the study where he has worked these last years, the study won’t be there.

That’s the reason he doesn’t want to turn around.

He whirls around.

     Stone walls! A huge fireplace! People in strange costumes!

“May I be so bold?” says the terribly handsome knight standing and turning to Ackerman from where he has been on bended knee engaging in conversation with the king’s beautiful daughter.

“I beg your pardon?” says Ackerman.

The terribly handsome knight approaches Ackerman, bends his knee and proffers his hand.

Ackerman takes the hand because he knows it is extended only in curtesy.

“Good morning, my honorable one,” says the knight.

“And good morning to you,” says Ackerman.

“And how are we this morning?” says the knight.

“I am fine, thank you very much,” says Ackerman.

But this can’t be happening. It can’t be happening because it can’t be happening.

So Ackerman whirls and sees that he is in some kind of nineteenth century kind of cupola with windows almost all the way around and out there is a garden with a willow tree on the right side of the pond, its branches hanging down to the surface of the water, and in the fields beyond, search as he will, he can’t discover any power lines.

Ackerman turns back around and isn’t surprised at all that the terribly handsome knight, the beautiful daughter of the king, all the well-dressed ladies and all the knights and squires, have disappeared, as have the stone walls of the castle.


So, what does he do? Well, it’s clear. No question. What he does. He does what he does every morning. For many long years now. He begins his morning’s work. He will spin things out this way and that. The man has written eighteen novels. He’s on his nineteenth.

And you can be sure, you can be absolutely sure, that he won’t be looking out the windows to his garden.


Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) and has had over 90 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of  “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

5 Questions for Karl Harshbarger:

TD: Tell us a little about this story?
KH: Where did the idea come from? I’m not sure. I think the playing with the style of the story attracted me first, and once I got into the story the rest of the ideas came fast.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
KH: Hemingway.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
KH: I work four times a week in my apartment in a special room and then go out to a crowded coffee shop for an hour.  Then I call it quits.
TD: Do you hand write your work or go directly to the keyboard?
KH: I have a netbook computer and work on it until I am ready and willing to transfer the story to the PC.
TD: How about a book you’d want to read if stranded on a desert island?
KH: I think a novel by William Faulkner should do it.