The Widow Mancini started her day like any other. She madeher espresso, black, strong, thick like the trunk of a tree. She ate her bread– never buttered – the widow was not one to put on airs with anything asextravagant as condiments.
She gathered herself and went outside. It was a beautifulday, a warm sun, a slight breeze, and the heavenly aroma from mix of herbs thatwould make any gardener (ahem) green with envy. She noticed none of this. Shepeered over into her neighbor’s yard, the Widow Montague. A beautiful, ages oldapple tree dominated the landscape. It was full of life and health. Ripe appleshung heavily from every branch. It was abounty from heaven. And it was not hers.
The Widow Mancini had a similar tree, but it was not nearlyas grand. She did not know why. Foryears, she had been trying to overtake the spectacle of her neighbor’s tree. Itate at her like a slow moving disease.
At first, she thought her neighbor’s tree flourished fromsuperior soil – even though the two houses sat only 10 feet apart. So the WidowMancini had soil carted in from a neighboring village that boasted the finestvineyards in all of France. Her tree remained the same. Nice, but notmagnificent.
Perhaps it was the amount of sunlight the tree received, shepondered. To test this theory, Widow Mancini butchered several of her own treesin an attempt to get more sunlight to her fruity princess. For a few months itgrew more apples, then the next season it bore none – as it baked listlessly inthe sun.
Widow Mancini was now convinced the Widow Montague wasreceiving a secret potion from the town’s infamous potion expert. She wouldfind out.
At midnight the next night she crept over to the house ofher nemesis. Widow Montague had fallen asleep on the couch, her glasses askewon her face with a very large book propped on her well-fed midsection.
On the table near the couch was a small vial. Widow Mancinicould not read the label, but the label was indeed from the potion maker, an old leering wretchthat she despised. The widow inhaled sharply. This must be it! The potion wasmaking the tree grow taller, stronger, finer – of course! It was the only thingshe did not have. And she would have it. She crept carefully through the openwindow into the living room where Widow Montague slept peacefully.
With trembling hands, she reached for the potion - but - merde!A tiny mouse scuttled across the floor over her feet! It was all the she coulddo not to scream outright. She threw her hands over her mouth as her old heartraced out of control. Meanwhile, the WidowMontague snored lightly on the couch.
Widow Mancini turned the corners of her mouth down indetermination. She crept back towards the couch. Just as she was nearing the potion an old catcame slithering around the corner. That was it. If there was one thing WidowMancini hated more than mice, it was cats. She made a hasty exit to thewindow. She would get the potion fromthe old wretch himself.
The next day, she collected her old bones and left for town.It wasn’t a long journey, but with a ninety-one year old woman and a burrowthat almost as old and blind in one eye, it took hours.
She finally reached the potion maker’s hut. The dimly litroom was soaked in incense. The old man sat smoking something that smelledslightly worse. The widow looked him over. The man was decidedly decrepit – stoopedover in a most unflattering manner. And he wheezed as he spoke. Well, she couldnot be choosy with whom she associated if she was to have the finest apple treein all of France.
The old man gave her a leer. “You have come for the potion,yes?”
Widow Mancini was shocked. She had told no one of her plans.She’d barely made the decision herself.
“Ah, but I know. I know you and your desires,” said thepotion maker. “I can see in your face the envy, the desire, the hatred of yourenemy. And there is only one other gardener in all of France with a finer appletree, yes?”
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth.
“And you will do anything for this potion, will you not?” Shegave a reluctant nod. He beckoned her toward him with a gnarled hand.
Several hours later, as the sun set over the tiny village,Widow Mancini emerged from the hut -- shaken, frazzled, and disgusted withherself. But she had gotten what she came for. She looked and talked to no oneon her journey home.
When she reached her home, although it was nearly midnight,she poured the potion on the roots of the tree as she had been instructed. Shefell into a dreamless sleep at the foot of the tree.
The next day she rose with the sun. She looked at the tree.Yes! It was bigger. Yes! It was grander. But was it??? No! It wasn’t! Shecouldn’t believe it. She was sure her tree would be as fine as Widow Montague’s’,but it wasn’t. It just wasn’t.
Widow Mancini was distraught. All she wanted was to bebetter than her neighbor, and she simply could not do it.
The old man was to blame. And he would pay. She began toformulate a plan.
She knew after their tryst he would come willingly to herhome. And he did. He arrived the next day, breathless and sweaty.
“You have had a taste and you wanted more, eh?” he sneered.The widow bit back a grimace.
“Yes, of course. Please come in.”
Pleasantries aside, they sat down to dinner. The potionmaker did not suspect for a minute that the delicious pie she had baked waspoisoned. When he started to sway and sweat profusely, the widow thought hisdeath would be a certainty. But his frail body did not seem to want to die. Hecoughed, sweated and shook through their conversation, which had taken abizarre turn.
“The widow next door, she has a beautiful tree, yes?”
Even though she knew he was dying, she was still incensed.
“Yes.” She acknowledged.
“You want to know her secret, yes?”
The widow gasped.
“Remember when her husband died at sea, and the body wasnever found?”
“He did not die at sea, mon frier. She killed him with herapples, and a potion, just as you are killing me. I know because I gave it toher.”
The widow was stunned. Widow Montague was such a sweetwoman, always kind and friendly. But when she thought back she realized thatshe became much friendlier after her husband’s passing.
The potion maker had one more bombshell to deliver. Hecoughed and gasped for breath.
“You wonder why her tree is so healthy? It has been fed with200 pounds of well-fed organic stock. Her husband is buried beneath the tree.”
The revelation made her feel a certain kinship with theWidow Montague. She was almost sorry she had wasted so much time with so muchenvy for so long.
But she soon came to her senses. She hadn’t worked this hardto have the second nicest tree in all of France.
The next day, she took her own secret potion and buried itbeneath the tree outside. The sky was cloudless and blue, and the widow tampeddown the dirt with satisfaction. She thought it was time she paid her neighbora visit.
And so it was that two women who were enemies becamefriends, and two apple trees grew side by side and flourished for all thedays to come.