Anne Anthony: Tulip Tree (short fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Anne Anthony lives in North Carolina though when she engages you in conversation it’s clear she was born above the Mason-Dixon Line. Still, if she’s reading you her stories, sometimes her voice slides into the gentle sway of her legitimate Southern neighbors. Her characters take her down that path. Their voices louder the further south she travels and she’ll swear to you that some part of herself lived here a lifetime or two ago.

Tulip Tree

Mona steps over broken chunks of pavement while hiking across the deserted grounds of the Dorothea Dix Park on this cool June evening. The City of Raleigh approved the purchase of the shutdown insane asylum this morning and challenged her architectural firm to propose the ‘best use’ for the property. Selection of her design guaranteed a promotion.

“Union troops once occupied these grounds while the hospital still operated,” Mr. Reynolds says with a twang revealing his southern roots. He points his flashlight to the building on their right. “By the ancient tulip tree.”

His beam flicks across the tree ahead on the path. When they reach it, Mona touches the rough bark covered in circular bumps and looks upwards. An amateur arborist, she expected the tree to be tall but didn’t expect its withered branches. The tree should be covered with pale yellow flowers dripping with the nectar of dark red honey, but not a single flower blooms.

“I read that when the Union soldiers arrived the patients believed they would be released,” she says, having researched how Dorothea Dix championed and shifted the public view of mental illness from criminal to compassion.

“But, they were mistaken,” Mr. Reynolds says, and stops to position the flashlight beneath his chin like a child at camp telling scary stories. “Some say their spirits still haunt these grounds seeking their revenge. BWAHAHAHAHA.”

“Guess we better hurry then,” Mona says laughing.

Like Dorothea, Mona was born in New England, a northerner indifferent to the rehashing of Civil War events. After several drinks one evening, her Durham-born friend grew impatient when Mona tried again to steer conversation away from the friction between the North and the South.

“You, of all people, should take an interest,” her friend said. Her remark confused Mona, and when she asked her to explain further, the woman shrugged her shoulders.

“Geez, Mona. For someone so smart, you can be so dense sometimes. Do I really have to spell it out?”

Sweat slides down her back between her shoulder blades. The past week was unseasonably warm. Temperatures rose to almost ninety degrees today.

“Are we almost there?”

“Almost.”

He sweeps the beam of light from his flashlight from left to right. His long legs move steadily up the steepening incline. Mona double-times her pace to match his but lags behind. Under the tulip tree, her foot tangles in a root and she stumbles falling face first into the grass. From the ground, Mona watches the beam of light continuing up the hill. She scrambles to her feet, brushes off her hands, her knees, and waits. He’ll realize I’m not following and return, she tells herself. She pulls out her phone to light her way but discovers the battery is dead, forgetting to charge it again. Mona notices a flicker of light behind the first-floor window in the building Mr. Reynolds’ pointed out minutes before. She hurries over.

“Hello? Mr. Reynolds?” she calls out before pushing on the unlocked door. After walking through the doorway, the light disappears. A sweet floral fragrance floods the room. She tries to leave but discovers the door locked behind her.

“Free me,” a young woman’s voice whispers.

“Justin?” Mona calls out. “Is that you?”

Her co-worker, the office prankster, rushed up to her before she left work this afternoon.

“I deserved the project,” he said, blocking her exit. “I have more seniority than you.”

She shrugged her shoulders, annoyed by his presumption that length of service trumped talent and brushed past him. He must have overheard her phone conversation to meet Mr. Reynolds tonight and set up this gag with a friend.

“Look. I know, it’s you, Justin. Knock it off.”

The room grows warm, hotter still until the heat singes the hairs on her arms and legs.

“Free me!” the voice shouts.

“Okay, okay. I’ll free you. I will,” Mona screams.

Sudden frigid air sweeps down from the ceiling and cools her. The dark room brightens. A willowy figure glides from the far corner. She wears a floor-length dress with a pleated skirt. The collar is white and unadorned. The design of the cloth details tiny leaves of pale amber and cream. Her hair is disheveled; the tight curls pinned to the back of her head have fallen loose.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Who, or whaaaat, are you?” Mona backs away as the figure approaches. She wonders if she’s hallucinating. Maybe her fall affected her more than she realized.

“My name is Emily. My father sent me to this horrid place. Before the war.”

The dress Emily wears looks similar to the photos in the article she read.

“The Civil War?”

“Is that what they call it? Nothing civil about the war.”

Mona inhales the same sweet fragrance from moments ago. Her rapid heart beat slows; her body relaxes while breathing in the familiar scent.

Emily’s spirit moves closer. Mona inhales a quick breath as Emily swoops into her body.

—Your mind’s lost, daughter! You’ll not marry that nigga.

A horrid word spoken with such hatred. The spirit flies out of Mona who falls to the floor. She pushes herself into a sitting position and leans against the wall. Her breathing is fast and shallow while she tries to recover.

“What? Who?”

“My father. He owned a plantation near the hospital.”

“So much rage.”

“I loved Jeremiah.” Emily’s spirit bends and curls into a ball on the floor beside Mona.

“Your father’s slave?” Mona asks, though somehow knowing the answer.

Emily rises from the floor and glides to the shuttered window. With one sweep of her hand she blows off the shutters. She points to the tulip tree.

“Daddy hung my Jeremiah. To punish us both. My love’s body twisted and rotted for days from that branch. Turkey vultures gathered within hours.”

“And your father left you in the asylum?”

“My heart gave out. I died in this very room.”

“But why are you still here?”

Emily points again to a branch high above the ground. “When my Jeremiah is free, I will be too.”

Mona struggles to stand but joins her by the window. She notices an ancient scar cut into the tree limb, shivers hard when she realizes its origin —the back-and-forth motion of rope.

“Do me a kindness. Cut the branch.”

The door swings open. A beam of light scans the room and settles on Mona’s face. She lifts her hand to protect her eyes.

“There you are. I wondered what happened to you,” Mr. Reynolds says.

Mona turns back to Emily, but she’s gone.

“Sorry I lost you. I talked the entire way up the hill,” he says and laughs. “I just thought you were quiet.”

“I fell over a tree root. When I saw a light in this building, I assumed you went inside.”

Mr. Reynolds takes her by the arm and escorts her out.

“The electricity has been off for years.” He again passes the beam of light across her face and frowns. Mona’s sure she’s lost the project. “You have a good-sized bump on your forehead. We should ice it.”

“No, no. Let’s look at the vista. I can wait until after I get home.” Mona gives Mr. Reynolds a reassuring smile. “I’m fine.”

***

Mona hurries home to her studio apartment to walk her puppy and finds him whining by the door.

“Thought I’d forgotten you, huh, sweetie?” she asks looking down at the Yorkshire terrier by her feet. She snaps on the leash to her dog’s collar and heads outside.

After returning home, she pours herself a generous glass of red wine to settle her nerves. She prepares a quick dinner of macaroni and cheese and leaves the dishes in the sink. She wants this night to end.

While brushing her teeth, she considers Emily’s plea, weighing the consequences of cutting the tree branch. If she gets caught, she’s certain to lose the assignment, likely her job, and she might get arrested. She leans into the sink to spit out her toothpaste, and when she rises, she sees her reflection in the mirror. The bump on her forehead has grown to the size of an egg, despite the bag of frozen peas she held against it during dinner. Her brown skin has already turned a dark hue of magenta.

“Good Lord, what am I thinking? The bump. I must have been hallucinating.”

Mona pulls on her Hello Kitty pajamas, crawls into bed and lifts her puppy onto the bundled blanket next to her. She falls to sleep quickly and though exhausted by the night’s exploits, she’s restless. She dreams about a throng of men chasing her through cornfield fields. The stalks of corn slap against her legs, cutting and slicing her skin. A stitch in her side stops her from running further. Hands thick with callouses grab her from behind and drag her across the grounds, forcing her to stand up below a tall tree. A man throws the rope across a branch, drops one end around her neck, ties it and tugs the other end to lift her into the air. She kicks her feet in a desperate dance as the rope tightens. Mona wakes to the loud yelp of her dog who she’s punted off the bed. Her heart feels wild inside her chest. Her breathing slows only after she unwraps the bed sheet twisted around her neck.

***

“Heard you took a tumble last night, Miss Edwards,” Mrs. Garson says without looking up from reading the Washington Post. That the woman spoke to Mona catches her by surprise. The owner of the architectural firm rarely speaks to new associates.

“I did. Guess I took one for the team,” Mona laughs. Hoping to shake off the impression that she might be a klutz, she adds. “But Mr. Reynolds and I hiked to the vista. He has a good eye for imagining what’s possible.”

Mona continues to describe to the older woman her design for the new development, taking advantage of the scenic view for the high-end condominiums to be built. Mrs. Garson nods a few times during the conversation. The woman never nods. People nod when she talks.

“I’d like to review your designs before you share them with our client,” the older woman says. “Mr. Reynolds isn’t the only one with a good eye.”

Lingering thoughts of Emily and Jeramiah distract Mona throughout the day, but she forces herself to focus. She works on her design the entire morning and most of the afternoon. Around four o’clock, her stomach growls reminding her she never ate lunch. She scrounges for food in the office kitchen and finds leftover pizza from yesterday’s staff party. When she returns to her desk, she decides to play a game of solitaire. Mindless computer games relax her after an intense day of work. When she clicks on a card to turn it over, the monitor flickers and switches to an internet search page. The name ‘Jeremiah Mayfield’ appears in the criteria textbox. Mona clicks on the search button and a webpage displays. It’s a free ancestry site that allows anyone to discover their family origins. Smack in the middle of the page is Jeremiah’s name next to an icon of a family tree. She clicks to enlarge the tree and reads upwards. Jeremiah’s great grandparents lived in the Dominican Republic. Two generations of his family were born and raised in North Carolina. Half the descendants died before the age of twelve. Four women died in childbirth. She reads more names down the branches of his family tree. One branch ends at Jeremiah, but two others branches—those of his sisters—bore fruit. Mona follows the line of Celia, his youngest sister born after his death, into present day. She leans forward as if a closer view would make sense of the two words she reads at the end of the branch. Mona Edwards.

***

Mona returns to the park after sunset. She scrapes the palms of her hands on the rough bark as she climbs the tree to the branch Emily pointed out. She balances herself, putting her back against the trunk and wraps her legs tightly to balance herself. Though the blade of the saw is sharp, Mona takes more than three hours to complete the cut through the thick wood. Bats fly back and forth overhead. An owl swoops down from a lower branch to scoop up a squirrel with his talons. The light in the building next to the tree burns brightly. When she’s a quarter of an inch away from cutting through the branch, she drops the saw to the ground. She climbs to the branch above, and after settling into a sitting position, she stretches her leg to push down. She covers both ears as the branch cracks and falls to the ground. Bolts of lightning reveal a sudden burst of tulip blooms. Mona inhales the sweet fragrance of freedom.

 

Author: Dead Mule Staff