It was several years ago I learned the tale I am about to tell. The song, "Bitter Green," comes to mind whenever I think on what I learned that day. This is a true tale, a tale gleaned from one of my many journeys in distant lands. I am in the habit of occasionally making my way to a land far away, and taking a walking tour of the rural lands there abouts.
On this day I happened into a little country tavern in the late afternoon. Time for some refreshment, but enough day left for my strong legs to cover some more miles before finding a bed. This was an old land, a land that remembers the times when men made their way from place to place on their own two legs. Villages and taverns and hostels abound in that land, and it is one of my favorites for walking tours.
Besides the barkeeper there was but one man in the place. He had been in his cups for a bit, I could tell, and I thought he might be open to talking. I liked to learn something of the lands through which I traveled. I purchased two pints of whatever he was drinking, carried them to the table, and asked if I might sit down. He eyed me with an obvious distrust of strangers, not uncommon in rural lands. He eyed the pint I offered with considerable warmth, however, and welcomed us to join him.
His previous pints and the one I added didn't open him up much. I learned something about the local apple industry. Growing apples and making apple related products is apparently just a way to stay mere inches above abject poverty. I was about finished with my own refreshment and contemplating departure when another local gentleman entered the tavern.
As he entered he walked slowly by an old coat hanging on a peg on the wall. I had noticed this coat when I came in. It was heavy, dark blue in color, and of an old military cut. The man passed a hand along one sleeve, then stepped up to the bar and ordered a pint. He stood at the bar, sipping contemplatively at his brew and glancing occasionally at the old coat.
My reticent rural friend sat in his usual silence, watching me glancing at the coat and the man at the bar. I turned to him and drew a breath to speak. He waved me to silence. "I will tell you about it, later." he said in a low voice, and took a pull from his pint. I remained silent, and did the same with my own pint.
Soon the man at the bar finished his pint. He turned to the old coat, took it down and put it on. As he turned toward the door he noticed me and my silent host. He nodded to the man with whom I was sitting, gave me a puzzled look, and exited the tavern.
My host drained his glass and said, "Follow me." I finished my own pint quickly and followed. He turned to the left as we exited the tavern, no question as to which direction to travel. The man in the old coat was far ahead, walking toward the edge of the small town and the orchards in the distance. Apple orchards.
I attempted a few questions directed at my companion. He waved them off, and continued to walk in silence. His eyes were on the other man. I could not read the emotion there. His feelings seemed to be complex and jumbled. I continued to walk by his side, growing more and more intrigued by the mystery of the coat.
As we rounded the corner I saw a young woman sitting on a stone fence. She was staring down the lane, gazing off into the distance. The man in the coat drew along side her and said something. My host halted, and so did I. The young woman jumped up and embraced the man in the coat as if he were long missing and only now returned. He kissed her, gently, and taking her on his arm walked her down a path into one of the orchards.
My host gazed at them as they walked, watching until they vanished into the trees. He then sighed, and turned to me. He glanced around, making sure we were alone.
"I must tell someone." he said, as much to himself as to me. "You are a stranger, and soon gone. I shall tell you. The coat is shared among several of us farmers and merchants here abouts. Along with the coat we share a small cottage, it's contents and the responsibilities associated."
He sighed again. "We also share the young lady." he whispered. In a louder voice he continued. "She was to marry a rich man from a neighboring community. He had pledge his troth, and then been called away to some military duty. She last saw him in a coat like ours. The news of his death overwhelmed her, and broke her mind. Day and night she sat where you saw her sitting, awaiting his return."
"Several of us recognized her madness, and came up with a plan to aid her. Her health was suffering, and she did not respond to the attempts of the women folk to care for her. She was wasting away. I don't recall who came up with the old coat, but one of the men donned the garment and approached her where she sat. She responded warmly, and he took advantage of the situation."
I was appalled. It must have showed on my face. The man shrugged and appeared to have a sense of guilt. Well he should, to my way of thinking.
"Aye, he took advantage of her." he went on. "The sense of guilt was heavy, and he shared it with a friend. So arose the plan we continue with today. He brought in other men. Men who loved their wives, but found the spark of old passion had grown cold. Men who could appreciate the opportunity."
"Yes, we took advantage of her and her madness. We also provided her with a cottage, and food, and clothing. She wants for nothing. None of us could have afforded this, alone. Together we can provide for her in her disabling madness, as none of us could have done alone. The shared cost goes unnoticed by our wives and their friends."
"Your wives do not know?" I asked.
"They do and they do not, if you take my meaning." he replied.
"This arrangement troubles you, or you would not have felt compelled to share it." I said. "Even with a stranger. Why continue to take advantage? Why not simply take care of her, as a charity?"
"It occurs to each of us, from time to time." he replied. His gaze was again directed through the trees. I presumed the cottage was in that direction. "But you know not what it is like. My wife has been loving and devoted, and I cherish her. Still, never has she displayed the passion that I find in those arms of madness. It is not a thing easy to give up. I don't know that I can."
I looked at him, first in judgement, then in pity. I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the human heart, and the things it drives humans to do. I, too, stared through the trees toward the infamous cottage of stolen love, madness and assumed responsibility. Complex, indeed.
I clasped the man on the shoulder for a moment, then turned from him and continued on my journey through the country. I did not look back as I walked away, but I have looked back often at the memory of that time.
Especially whenever I hear the song, "Bitter Green."