“Looks can be deceiving.”
“What d’ya mean?”
Hugo shrugged his shoulders and lifted an over-sized mug of coffee to his lips. “Sheriff thinks I done killed her.”
Lars frowned. “It looks awful bad. Louise Stewart says she heard ya’ll argue in the market yesterday. An’ then Margaret disappears?”
“So, ya think I killed her?”
Lars stared at his friend before shifting his gaze out the dining nook window. “More believable than that crazy story ya told me.” He jerked his head toward the tree. “That thing’s nearly dead.”
“It’s not crazy! It’s true.” Hugo slammed his fist down on the table. The ceramic mugs shook and coffee sloshed onto the glazed wood. He didn’t move to clean the mess.
The sun sat on the western horizon, casting an orange glow across the grassy field. Hugo glared at the massive sycamore, noticing its thirty-foot wide canopy resembled a tangled web of snakes. It would be about two months before leaves grew back and he could pretend it was an average tree. For now, the red hue dancing up the trunk and into the bare branches flaunted the secret only Hugo could see.
“I better go. Becky’s waitin’ on me.” Lars stood and put his hand on Hugo’s shoulder. “Lemme know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Thanks,” Hugo muttered.
Lars let himself out. Even after Hugo heard the old Chevy’s motor turn and saw the taillights disappear in the cloud of kicked up dust, he didn’t move. He stared out the window until the sun retired and the half-moon began its watch over the darkening sky.
He didn’t blame Lars. To anyone outside the Mondrian family, it would seem outrageous that a tree could be anything other than a stoic guardian of the pasture. Hugo’s great-great grandfather, Piet, had planted that tree to honor his parents who died soon after their arrival in Alabama. The journey from Winterswijk had been too much for their aging bodies. Piet had no way of knowing his bizarre decision to plant the tree on his parents’ graves would produce a tree that would feed on future generations.
Several years after Piet planted the tree, he set out to prune the suckers and give it shape. His widow, Aya, tried to tell police how the tree wrapped its roots around his legs and pulled him under the ground- she’d watched, stunned, from the kitchen window. Authorities assumed grief had stolen her sanity, and her sister sent her to live in the asylum.
Some family members believed Aya, but feared admitting it. Aya’s sister didn’t believe until the moment her ankles were bound and the soil opened to devour her like a python swallowing a field mouse. With each sacrifice, the tree grew stronger and taller.
Hugo knew Margaret wanted the low-hanging branch removed, but thought he’d made the dangers clear. He returned from the hardware store to find the house empty. When Margaret didn’t answer his calls, a sick feeling crept over him. Sure enough, he’d found the chainsaw, still idling, beneath the tree. A nick in the bottom branch seeped red. He put the chainsaw away before he called the police to report her missing.
He wondered if the tree would be sluggish from its afternoon fill, much like Hugo felt after Thanksgiving dinner. There’s one way to find out.
He filled the sprayer with undiluted root killer. He walked back and forth under the tree, saturating the ground beneath him. When the ground shuddered, he dropped the sprayer and sprinted toward the house. He leapt for the back door, but something caught his foot and he lurched forward, landing on his chest. His fingers dug into the moist ground as he tried to stop the inevitable, but the house still slipped farther from reach.
He gasped for breath. Even though his brain told him he didn’t have a chance, he couldn’t override his instinct to survive. Minutes later, the eight claw marks stretching from the back porch to the sycamore’s trunk were the only signs of Hugo Mondrian’s existence.
The tree looked dead, but looks can be deceiving.
This is my response to Speakeasy’s weekly writing prompt, which is to write a piece in 750 words or less (mine is 685 words) (1) using “Looks can be deceiving.” as the first sentence, AND (2) make some sort of reference to the media prompt- a painting called Avond (Evening): The Red Tree by Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian.
The challenge is open to anyone, so if you’re curious, click the badge below to see the media prompt and the full guidelines. Have a great Monday!