The photo below provided by Emilio Pasquale. The story I wrote inspired by the photo follows…
She thought she’d find an ally in her sister, but as they engaged in a stare-down, it became obvious to Elaine that she’d miscalculated. Her stiffened legs and a crick in her back warned she should quit. Clearly, more than a laminate table divided them. Yet, she refused to show signs of wearing down. I inherited Dad’s stubbornness.
“She’s getting older. I think the stress of the trip will be too much for her. Please, convince her not to go,” Elaine said, mindful to keep desperation out of her voice. Jackie would never admit it, but they both knew she had more sway with their mom. It’d been that way from the beginning, when Jackie almost died the day she entered the world fifty-eight years ago. It took adulthood and having kids of her own for Elaine to forgive her for that.
Jackie snorted. “We’re all getting older, Elaine. There’s no way she’d not go.” She dunked her tea bag several times with the back of her spoon. Her mouth pressed into a thin line and a frown creased her eyebrows.
Three soggy tea bags rested on the saucer beneath Jackie’s cup. All spent. That’s how Elaine felt. After two hours, neither had budged. If the conversation translated into chess, it would be a stalemate. In their defense, there wasn’t much room for compromise; it’s not like they could half-way go.
Elaine shook her head. “She gets so upset. Besides, the Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point she doesn’t understand much anymore.” She hesitated before adding the root of her concern. “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Jackie smirked. “Another premonition?” She crooked her fingers in air quotes as she said premonition.
“Nothing specific; just a feeling.”
“Look, you know as well as I do she hasn’t forgotten that house.” With the back of her hand, she brushed her graying bangs off her forehead. “I don’t know why, but she has to visit that place on Halloween every year.” Jackie sipped her tea and set her mug back on the paper coaster. “If you won’t go, I’ll take her by myself.”
Elaine recognized the determination in her younger sister’s eyes. Just like Mom’s. “You can’t drive until your seizures are controlled.” She sighed. “Fine. I’ll drive. We’ll leave at noon so we can get there before dark. That house is darn creepy at night.”
Jackie laughed. “That, I’d have to agree with.” She pulled out her wallet. “I got this.” She dropped a ten on the table to cover the muffins and beverages.
After she slid out of the booth, Elaine left another few dollars to compensate for monopolizing the table for so long.
*** *** ***
Elaine shifted the car into park on what she thought could’ve been the driveway. The once-worn dirt tracks had been overtaken by wild grass, thanks to a heavy rainy season. She looked over at her mom in the passenger seat; her expressionless face impossible to read.
She got out and rounded the car to open her door, but Jackie reached it first. Elaine’s eyes focused on how her mom leaned into Jackie and she felt a tinge of jealousy at the moment they shared. As quickly as it surfaced, it dissolved into shame for her childish resentments.
“Dear, can you get the bag?”
“Sure, Mom.” Elaine popped the trunk and retrieved the gallon-sized baggie. Every year, she brought a bag of white powder. Every year, she knelt at the base of a large tree, said a prayer, sprinkled the powder around, and then cried. She’d never had the nerve to interrupt the moment by asking her mom what it meant. Maybe this year, I will. Right after she thought it, she knew she wouldn’t. Her mom only shared on her terms; it’d always been that way.
Elaine fell in beside her mom and sister after they stopped under the canopy of a large tree. All three women gazed at the house that stood in disrepair. Elaine and Jackie urged their mom to sell when she inherited the house, but she remained firm. For fourteen years, she’d owned a house she couldn’t sell, but couldn’t live in either. The wood siding had weathered to the point no paint remained on the splitting boards. Shingles had been torn from the roof after years of winter storms. No telling what the inside looked like; no one ever crossed the threshold.
“Daddy was a preacher man,” Mom whispered. “He taught me about faith.”
Jackie and Elaine looked at each other. Their mom never spoke of her father.
“Everyone looked up to Reverend Richard Mason, but he was a wretched man.”
The bitterness in her voice caught Elaine by surprise. “We all have our demons, Mom.” As soon as the words passed her lips, she wanted them back. Jackie’s ‘What were you thinking?’ look didn’t help.
“Satan lurked beneath fervent sermons delivered with a forked tongue.” Tears slid down Mom’s wrinkled cheeks.
Jackie draped an arm around Mom’s shoulder and Elaine placed a hand on her arm. A glance exchanged between sisters confirmed they shared the same confusion.
Mom reached for the tree’s trunk, her fingertips caressing the bark as if reading braille.
The air seemed to cool a few degrees. Elaine and Jackie sensed their mom’s next words would bear weight, but they had no idea how shattering they would turn out to be.
*** *** ***
Just as it always had, coming back to my childhood home took a toll on me. A kaleidoscope of emotions tumbled inside. In the presence of my past, I smelled my mother’s powder scent like I had each night when she tucked me into bed. I felt the anticipation of sampling the food parishioners brought to our 4th of July picnics. I heard father humming as he cut the grass on Saturday mornings. And, just like that, a dark cloud blanketed my soul. I took a ragged breath, feeling every one of my eighty-five years, and then some. “Saturday nights, I’d awaken to the odor of musk, body odor and stale beer.” I bowed my head, unsure if I was ready to let the truth escape. Maybe I already said too much?
I sensed my daughters staring with silent expectations.
“I’d squeeze my eyes shut and fake sleep.” I closed my eyes, and could feel his breath on my ear again. My stomach lurched. “He’d whisper that I was his favorite and warn me that if I didn’t keep our secret, I’d be condemned to eternal damnation.” I flicked tree bark off with my thumb nail; something to focus on besides what I needed to say next.
“I-I don’t know what to say,” Jackie whispered.
“It all changed one Halloween. I’ve never spoken of it.” I looked at each of my daughters. “Until now.”
“Why now?” Elaine asked.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Leaning my head against the tree’s trunk, I recited the scripture that had been needling my subconscious for years.
A gust of wind sent leaves fluttering to the ground and an eerie sound echoed in the dusk air.
“Does anyone else hear wind chimes?” Jackie asked.
A shiver ran down my back and the hairs rose on my arms.
“Yes,” Elaine said. “We should go.”
I ignored the fear in their voices. I had to finish. Half-told secrets lead to partial liberation. “Halloween, 1942 was the last Saturday he ever crept into my room.” I closed my eyes and cycled through several deep breaths and exhales as I willed myself to speak the truth. “I killed him with a claw hammer.”
I paused to give them time to digest what I just revealed. I couldn’t bear to look at them. Their disappointment would be the one burden heavier than my sins.
“Mama helped me bury him under this tree.” I thumped the trunk twice with the palm of my hand.
“Sweet Jesus,” Jackie muttered. “You can’t be serious.”
The ground shifted, but I wrote it off as hyper-sensitivity to the truth beneath my feet. “I was barely a teen, but she found me a good man who married me and took me far away.”
“Every year, I fertilized this tree so it remained strong and kept our secret well. Your dad never asked why; he just drove.” I shook my head. “Mama’s been gone for years. I’ve repented my sins. There’s only one thing left to do.”
“W-what?” Elaine asked.
“Forgive.” I snatched the bag from Elaine’s grip and sprinkled the poison all around the base of the tree. I dropped to my knees and cried. My knees ached, but not as much as my insides.
Elaine and Jackie embraced each other.
That simple action told me all I needed to know: together, they’d be just fine.
“Heavenly Father, I ask that you work in my heart so that it will no longer be a safe haven for evil. Just as I have forgiven my father for his trespasses, please forgive mine. I release the burden of my sins to you and pray that my father’s spirit will be delivered to its final resting place.”
Leaves dropped and fluttered to the ground until, several minutes later, the branches were bare. The ground rumbled. Soft dirt twisted and split, revealing massive roots that spanned at least twenty feet. The wind picked up again, the metal melody of chimes grew louder. Through the noise, I could hear Elaine and Jackie screaming.
Evil rose from the broken earth in a fog-like vapor. The misty air squeezed my body like a vice, but still, I held my hands up to God. I pleaded for forgiveness, but prepared for His wrath. The wind… so strong, it forced breath from my lungs. I collapsed face-down onto the ground.
And then I winced from the pain of blinding light. I found this particularly confusing because the sun had begun to set when we arrived at Mason Manor.
“She’s in a coma.”
I didn’t recognize the man’s voice.
“She’s sustained more trauma than a fall would explain. If you don’t tell me what really happened, I have to report this to the police.”
“Do you believe in God?” Elaine asked.
“What’s faith got to do with this?” The man asked.
“Without it, you’d never believe what we saw.”
A monotone beep drowned out their conversation. I felt a peace I didn’t recognize, but somehow I knew my prayer had been answered.
I was finally free.
Inspiration: Besides the photo, the idea for the story came from the fact my grandma’s father was a preacher who had been abusive. In what ways, I don’t know- so those details of the story are completely fabricated. I do know Grandma was one of the most faithful people I’ve known. I wanted the story to convey her true faith, which was untainted by the hypocrisy of her father’s life.
I committed a short story no-no by switching point of views in the last part. The first two parts were from the eldest daughter’s view. I originally followed through with the last part in that POV but changed it because I felt the emotion could be better conveyed by the mother, rather than relayed by observation. I hope it worked- but if it didn’t, feel free to tell me that, too 🙂
By the way, this isn’t my first creepy tree story- in March I wrote one for Speakeasy (linked for anyone interested in reading it.)
A special thanks to Emilio for letting me use his photo to inspire this story! (This time around, he also helped by offering some editing suggestions, too.) If you have a minute, check out his photography blog for more inspiring photos. I should mention that the views expressed in this story do not necessary reflect the views of the photographer!