I must have written “The Peach Tree” around 1987, after a year or so of thinking about how to write a short story. Still heavily influenced by medieval literature, especially by the twelfth-century narrative poetess, Marie de France, I had decided to “rework” some of her narratives as practice. But, by the time I got to “The Peach Tree,” I was ready to strike out on my own.
The story is based on Marie de France’s “Equitan,” to be sure, but it is a very different tale from Marie’s. For the poetess, her story was an exemplum of what happens when we do wrong to others. It comes back to us:
Ici purreit ensample prendre
Tels purcace le mal d’autrui
Dunt tuz le mals revert sur lui.
To be sure, my King, like Equitan, is overly fond of wenches and none too careful about guarding his friendship with his favorite vassal, the Seneschal. However, Equitan comes across as a weak, immoral, smart ass, whereas my King is a sociopath, who sees other people as useful, or not. Equitan’s excuse for seducing the young woman is that she’d have to take a lover anyway, to keep up her “curteisie” (the whole business of being a magnet for the young men at court because you are possibly beautiful, but more probably, the only woman at court). The Seneschal, he reasons, couldn’t hold her anyway, so he shouldn’t mind so much that he, Equitan takes her for his lover:
Si bele dame tant mar fust
` S’ele n’amast e dru n’eust!
Que devendreit sa curteisie,
S’ele n’amast de druerie?
Suz ciel n’ad humme, s’el l’amast,
Ki durement n’en amendast.
Li seneschals, si l’ot cunter,
Ne l’en deit mie trop peser:
Suls ne la peot il pas tenir!
When the young woman worries about what will become of her, he tells her she’s bargaining with him like a bourgeois:
“Dame, merci! Nel dites mes!
Cil ne sunt mie fin curteis,
Ainz est bargaine de burgeis, . . .
By contrast, my King is courtly (i.e., courteous, well-manered, charming, etc. on the surface, except when he doesn’t get his own way, in which case he falls upon the floor in a temper tantrum). He also has to win at everything, which is why he likes his poor Seneshal so much-he can always best him. When confronted with the beauty of his vassal’s young wife, he must have her! Selfish and immature, he doesn’t even think things through. He sends her husband off to war so he can enjoy the woman. At no time is he overly concerned about whether the man lives or dies! He is a full-blown sociopath in medieval garb, if you will.
In both Marie’s tale and mine, it is the woman’s idea to get rid of the husband. In “Equitan”, the king goes along with the plan with the same devil-may-care amorality he displays from the very beginning. In my story, the King has forgotten how much he liked his vassa,l because he has been sleeping with the guy’s wife for two years. He helps her to kill the husband, but in a way that removes him from the reality of the murder. It is her idea to poison the husband’s favorite fruit tree by feeding a magician’s potion to the roots. In “Equitan,” the wife heats up a bath tub, to be used by the husband after he has been bled. Equitan is supposed to dive into the tub with the cold water, whereas the unwitting husband will bleed out in the hot water. Of course, things backfire. The husband catches the wife in bed with Equitan, and Equitan dives into the hot bath by mistake. With a truly medieval flourish, the husband takes the wife, turns her upside down, and plunges her into the hot tub, head first, with her lover!
In “The Peach Tree,” the priest, Baudoin, warns the husband, returning from war, of the King’s treachery and the couples’ plan to murder him. The husband has a cake made out of peaches to honor the lovers. He has the cake decorated with the story of Mars and Venus, caught in the nets of Venus’ horrible husband, Vulcan. The King knows the story, and it makes him very uncomfortable. Unlike the Seneschal in “Equitan,” the husband in “The Peach Tree” is a brutish lover, probably not unlike Vulcan. So the wife’s treachery has some foundation in my story, whereas it is completely gratuitous in Marie’s tale. My “exemplum” is about being waylaid on one’s true path through life by appearances.
Because I was still learning, I was courageous enough to alter the original story completely, but the poisoning of the peach tree came to me from the I Claudius, where poor Augustus trusts in his figs because he figures they are the only thing in the house that are safe to eat. Still, this narrative of mine was original enough to publish, and so I did, with the understanding that it was a step on the way in learning to produce original works.