I heard the planes go over With shuttle and with roar The moon looked down on Dover And lit the winding shore. It filled the night with beauty, Our tired world’s release: Old wardens at their duty Invoked a prayer for peace. –T. A. Agius, O.S.B., “Wartime Christmas,”
A sprig of mistletoe was all Pam Ashford wanted for Christmas, 1941. It surely would’ve livened up the office of the Glasgow coal-shipping firm for which the 38-year-old worked — an office she described at one point as “death heated up.” And it would’ve marked a welcome addition to the tin of shortbread biscuits and tiny cash bonus given to her by the firm’s honchos. At the very least, the bit of seasonal greenery would’ve leavened dull routine with a dash of the aleatory. Pam Ashford wanted it “just to see what would happen,” as she confided to a colleague. Later in private she walked back this wish. “But certainly I could never rise to that level of audacity,” she wrote in her diary.
Such was the statement made to police by 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni when asked why he had just stabbed Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie, the Empress Consort of Franz Joseph I of Austria. He intended the act as a “great deed” to redeem the ignominy of his hard life. Born an orphan, he had gone from foster home to foster home, and then, as he grew older, from job to job. Shortly before his crime, he had lost his position as a servant in the home of an Italian duke. Homeless and half-starved, with little prospect of getting another job, he avenged himself on someone he thought knew no such suffering.
At eighty feet high and close to two feet thick, the black birch dwarfs its fellow trees. It’s solitary, preferring to make its home on craggy, mountain precipices, where its branches can reach over deep chasms and it roots can burrow between rocks into moist, rich soil. But it’s also handsome, having large oval leaves laced with fine veins that turn yellow in autumn and bark that in youth is a seamless near-black and in maturity becomes cracked and furrowed.