It is my pleasure to present to you the second place winner from the July 2018 Word Weaver Writing Contest, MD Walker’s “Where The Black Tree Grows.”
MD’s story was a blast to read. She hooked me from the opening and held me straight through to the end.
Have a good time reading this story. I’ll give you my reasons for why I liked it at the bottom of the post.
SECOND PLACE WINNER
“Where The Black Tree Grows”
My dress clung limply to my body, drenched in sweat, as I rushed through the pitch-black alleys and side roads. Trash littered the walkways and mysterious shadows lurked around every corner. Still I hurried on. Mama always said that New Orleans after dark was no place for proper young ladies, but proper young ladies don’t set out to do what I had planned.
I whipped around the final corner and scanned the alley for the entrance. Dark intentions rarely walk through the front door, and this was no exception. A candle flickered in a window to my left, and I knew this must be the house. Carefully, I crept to the back step. There was no turning back once I stepped over that threshold. I took a deep breath of balmy night air and knocked on the door.
The woman that answered the door was an ancient, wrinkled creature with twisted limbs and gnarled hands. Her stringy gray hair hung in tangled clumps about her neck and her bent broken figure filled the doorway.
“What do you want?”
“I’m here to see Marie.”
“She ain’t here.”
Before she could retreat, I shoved my foot between the door and the frame. “It’s important.”
She shook her head and gestured for me to enter, opening the door wider and grumbling, “Always is.”
I followed her into a kitchen overflowing with pots and pans, of course, but also herbs and spices. Strange relics hung from the ceiling and miniature statues lined the shelves. Dominating the middle of the room was a monstrous table covered with a brilliant blue cloth and a cavernous stone bowl situated in the center. Despite the heat outside, there was a large pot with some type of bubbling liquid boiling on the stove. It filled the room with an enticing smell and my stomach rumbled in response.
She gestured for me to sit down. “I ain’t lyin’. Missis ain’t here.”
Disappointment must have been written all over my face because she smiled, almost warmly, and asked if I would like a bowl of stew. I nodded as I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been nervously wondering what was in that pot and more than a bit relieved to know it was only supper.
She pointed toward the table and I sat on the sturdy bench tucked beneath it. The spicy aroma of onion and garlic filled my nose while she ladled the steaming soup into a bowl and placed it on the table before me.
A loud commotion outside the tiny kitchen caught my attention. Moments later a beautiful, mulatto woman entered the room. Her hair was plaited down the side and she was wearing a dress in vibrant hues of orange and yellow. Two small children hugged her skirt hem. She took one look at me and quickly scooted the children into the next room. The crone followed them, hobbling with her withered walking stick.
I swallowed hard, barely able to force words from my mouth. “Marie?”
She nodded. Her eyes were a striking blend of brown and gold and she stared at me like she was peering straight through to my soul. A chilly sense of foreboding flooded my senses, my pulse quickened and every nerve in my body crackled to life. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, sending a shiver through me. “I need your help.”
She raised her chin with an arrogant smirk, “And why would I help you?” Her voice was silky smooth but there was no denying the danger that lay beneath her words.
I pulled a worn velvet pouch from my pocket and sat it on the table. Eyeing it greedily, she moved closer and retrieved the pouch. She quickly looked inside before pulling the drawstring closed and slipping it into her pocket. “Humph. You don’t look like you need a love potion. So, then? Why did you sneak to my house in the dead of night to beg favors?”
“Do you know of Madame LaLaurie?”
Her body went rigid at the mention of LaLaurie and she moved to the table, bracing her hands on it before lowering herself onto the bench. “I have heard the name,” she replied.
I pushed the bowl away from me, suddenly losing my appetite. I focused on the purpose that had brought me here. “She is our neighbor. I work as a freed person for the Abellard family across the street from the LaLaurie mansion.”
Marie said nothing but stared at me, her unblinking eyes holding my gaze. She leaned a bit closer as I continued, “My uncle Ezekiel is a slave in her household. I have been trying to save my money to buy him but have not earned enough yet.”
She nodded. “What does that have to do with me? I can’t spin straw into gold.”
My voice quivered, “It’s getting worse. Her slaves are scared, and I just don’t have any more time to wait. I… I came to you for a curse.”
“Why do you think that I can help you?”
I lowered my eyes unable to meet her steely gaze, “I just know that I need to save my uncle. I’m desperate.”
She stood up and moved to a row of shelves in the back of the room. There she pulled a small black bag from behind one of the statues. “You are not the first to come here about LaLaurie. What makes you think you have a better chance to get what you want?”
She didn’t wait for my reply as she walked back to the table and emptied the contents of the bag. Shreds of green and brown herbs drifted to the bottom of the bowl. She struck a match and tossed it in. A flame flared up, popping and hissing as the herbs smoldered. She snatched a knife from the table and held it to the fire before swiping it across her hand.
Then she gestured for me to do the same. I gasped in surprise but slowly moved my arm in her direction. She made a quick slice across my palm and then smashed our hands together, dripping our mixed blood into the bowl.
Marie bowed her head and began to chant in a language unknown to myself. When she once again lifted her eyes, they glowed with a sort of fire that did not seem wholly human.
My body trembled at the unnatural sight and yet I swallowed my fear. It was too late to be deterred. I watched as she scooped ashes from the dying flames and placed them into the little black bag.
“Here.” She handed me the bag and explained what I must do for the curse to work. “What’s done is done.”
I would have to hurry if I wanted to see my uncle before Madame LaLaurie returned. I needed to talk to him about the plans I had made. He would no doubt try to discourage me, but the wheels were already in motion. I could only hope he would go along with it. Madame Delphine LaLaurie had to die and Marie Laveau had helped me decide how.
A skinny slave-girl about 10 years old answered the door. She looked half-starved, wearing a dress at least two sizes too big. Her bones stuck out at strange angles and the dress did little to hide the grotesque thinness of her body.
“Yes, ma’am?” Her voice was barely more than a whisper and she refused to look me in the eye.
I smiled warmly at the child trying to put her at ease, although it didn’t seem to work. “Can I see Ezekiel for just a moment?”
The girl’s eyes widened in fright and she shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no, ma’am! What if missis comes home?” Her little body trembled so violently that she almost lost her balance.
I knelt and took her hand. “He is my uncle and I really need to talk to him. My mistress will not allow any harm to come to either of us.”
The little girl didn’t look convinced, but she pushed open the door to allow me access. She led me through the house, winding a path through room after room until we came to the kitchen. It was a massive area with an impressive cast-iron stove taking up most of the space. The cook was busy rolling out biscuits and paid little attention as we cut through her domain. As I passed by her, I noticed the chain cuffed around her right ankle. She was chained to the stove! I shook my head in disbelief but kept moving as the little girl led the way out back.
Ezekiel was repairing a damaged wheel for the LaLaurie’s prized carriage. He was bent over his work and never even looked up until I was practically standing over him.
“Eva! What you doing here? You know what the missus will do if she finds you here?”
I looked at Ezekiel. He should be a handsome man in the prime of his life. Yet, here he stood, starving, neglected and abused.
“I just wanted to see you and let you know that all of this will be over soon.”
“What will be over soon?”
“I have a plan to get you out of here.” He started to object but I continued talking. “Don’t worry. It’s all taken care of. I went to see Marie Laveau and she gave me this.” I pushed the black bag into his hands and detailed her instructions.
“And what if it doesn’t work?”
“What’s done is done. This’ll be over soon one way or the other.”
Ezekiel’s eyes grew as round as saucers and his mouth dropped open. He pointed over my shoulder as I heard a voice behind me.
“Yes, it will.”
I turned to see Madame LaLaurie wielding a hammer. She flung the hammer at my head. I tried to dodge her aim, but it was too late. My vision swirled in blurry circles. I felt another blow hit my head. Then another. Then nothing but darkness all around me.
As I laid there, my body limp and twisted, I couldn’t help but question the choices that led to this. Marie had warned me that these spells could be unpredictable. I hadn’t cared.
I tried to move but it was no use. I tried to scream but no sound came out. I heard her coming, trudging along the garden path with heavy steps.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
The sound stopped and she was standing above me. She grabbed my arms and dragged me towards the garden. My arms felt like they were being ripped from my body but still I couldn’t move. When I once again opened my mouth to scream, a garbled choking sound was all that came out.
I watched her pick up a shovel and start digging, dumping shovelfuls of dirt in a pile.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
She kicked me, and I rolled into a shallow hole. Shock and horror filled my mind as I realized what she was doing. I tried to stand up, to kick, to scream. Anything. But, I still couldn’t move. The dirt landed on top of my broken body. It entered my mouth and my nostrils. I couldn’t breathe.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
Then all at once, the pain stopped. I couldn’t feel the weight of the dirt crushing against my chest any longer. My throat was no longer burning as it filled with soil.
Suddenly, I was outside of myself watching as LaLaurie buried me. She shoveled dirt on top of my corpse. She stamped down the earth. Then it was all so clear as I understood my fate.
The flames rose higher and higher in the night sky as the LaLaurie mansion burned. The frightened screams of slaves desperately trying to escape filled the air. There was nothing left that I could do for them, so I watched as that monstrosity of a home went up in flames.
Shouts of “Fire, Fire!” could be heard up and down the street as the neighborhood turned out to help douse the flames. Madame LaLaurie scurried in and out of the house carrying as many of her possessions as she could but none of her slaves were anywhere to be seen. The people began to grumble and ask questions. Where are the servants?
LaLaurie’s cook had carried out her part of the plan perfectly. Chained to the kitchen stove, she doused the kitchen in oil and struck a match. Then she tugged at her chains, trying to break free but the effort was futile, and the stove was too heavy to move. The flames grazed her skin and the heat of the fire took her breath away. Coughing and sputtering, she choked on the smoke filling the room. Her screams pierced the air but there was no one to hear, no one to help her and all I could do was watch as she writhed in pain.
Dr. LaLaurie was refusing any help. He was ordering everyone to stay out of his house. However, a large group of people paid him no mind as they rushed in to find the missing slaves. Some ran up the stairs to the sound of terrified screams and painful moaning, while others ran toward the now silent kitchen. As they discovered what the occupants of 1140 Royal Street wanted to hide, the LaLauries got into their newly repaired carriage. Amidst all the chaos, I was the only one that saw them drive away. The only one that noticed Ezekiel was driving. Everything was going as planned.
Ezekiel would take them to the swamp and leave their bodies hidden in the cypress stumps where the black trees grow. Maybe the gators would get them. Maybe not. But either way, the LaLauries would never leave Louisiana.
Marie sat at her table eating breakfast and reading the morning headlines: “House of Horrors Goes up in Flames.” She took a sip of coffee and smiled.
What did I like about this story?
What spoke to me?
DAN ALATORRE: For me, this story had terrific tension. It set the stage without overdoing it – I like to get hints at setting without being spoon fed. I loved the snarkiness in the main character, and her multifaceted personality. She dislikes some people and likes others, as one might expect, but she takes time for stray cats, too – as children will. She read as real. Three dimensional.
The suspense and tension were terrific, building as the story went, but the author didn’t just lay it out there. She had it go up and down in the way I believe great storytelling should.
I loved this story, and I can’t wait for more from this very talented writer.
This was a terrific story, as I’m sure you agree.
Join us Thursday for a profile on MD
Friday, it’ll be our next winning story
Saturday will feature our next winner
and much more! We’re just getting started!
Right now, please join me in congratulating our 2nd place winner, MD Walker!
See you tomorrow!