Momma always told us the Tree ain’t got a taste for our family’s blood. But it’s hard to keep my heart from hammering when I lay that blackbird, swaddled like a baby in one of Momma’s old blouses, against its roots. The Tree’s face is pinched and lurksome in the afternoon light. And those roots? They crawl out the river like spider legs, knots and whorls winking at me like we got secrets between us.
Maybe we do.
But I don’t rightly know how to share them, I don’t know how to Sing to that Tree. Hannah’s the one who got Momma’s voice, not me.
I try not to think about what that blackbird’ll look like all chewed up and wrung round the Tree’s branches like an old dish towel when I run back up the gully and through the woods. I think about my momma, even though she’s dead and gone under the earth. And I think about Hannah in the cellar where Aunt Marylou put her, tied up and gagged, all her magic silent.
I run faster.
I only stop when I reach the edge of the woods, my side stitching, my bare arms sweaty and bramble scratched. There, across the tangle of grass that used to be our tomato garden, is Aunt Marylou’s house, that shack with the old barn leaning against it, rotted planks slumped on busted gutters. The hayloft window gapes like it’s surprised to see me there, crouched in the chicory.
One of these days that barn’s gonna fall right over and smash Aunt Marylou’s shack. Maybe Aunt Marylou’ll be there when it happens, sitting like she is now on her back porch in that rocking chair of hers. There’s a half-gone jar of hooch in her hand. It’s the strong stuff she trades Pickle Nelson for, and the turpentine stink pulls tears out the corners of my eyes when the wind shifts. She takes a drink. The hooch sloshes. The jar clinks.
There’s an axe in Aunt Marylou’s lap, the handle long, the blade shining, and she touches it. She prays. “Show me what You want me to do,” she says over and over again. “Show me what You want me to do.”
Closing her eyes, she lights her cigarette.
I take my chance, gnats swarming all ‘round me, as I crawl into the tall grass, past her, across the lawn to that dark space between the shack and the barn where the cellar sets.
The paint on the cellar door is flakey. The hinges are rusty.
The padlock is new.
“Hannah?” I whisper, leaning down to try to see between the cracked planks.
It’s dark as tar down there, but I hear shuffling, bare feet on packed dirt and I imagine Hannah between all them cobwebs and last year’s canned tomatoes, her mouth stuffed with a dirty handkerchief, her hands tied up and clenched like she’s fixing to pound the whole world flat. She kicks a mason jar, and I wonder how many she broke since Aunt Marylou locked her down there last night.
“I done it,” I say. “I killed one of them birds that’s always on the Nelson’s fence. You know, the black ones? I don’t think Aunt Marylou saw.”
Hannah makes a frustrated sound. A scared sound. ‘Cause she’s been down there all day and time’s running out. I’m afraid to tell her about Aunt Marylou’s axe and how it looked fit for chopping through wood or bones or both. ‘Cause that blackbird, that tiny offering, it ain’t gonna do much unless somebody Sings to the Tree.
I ain’t got our momma’s gift.
I’m just stupid, slow, tone deaf Becky.
I shift closer to the door. “What else can I–?”
Maybe my voice is a little too loud, a little too croaky and rough, ‘cause Aunt Marylou’s praying snaps silent. There’s a creak, like she’s moving off the porch and a low schff, like she’s dragging that axe behind her.
Hannah makes a tight, muffled sound and I smell piss. Sweat. Fear.
Aunt Marylou’s footsteps, they shake the earth. Or maybe it’s the Tree I’m feeling, trembling to life in the gully by the river, opening its mouth, readying to feed, waiting for somebody to tell it what to do.
A shadow falls over me from behind.
“What you doing, Rebecca?” Aunt Marylou asks. “Where you been?”
I turn to look up at her. The low sun makes a halo of her white hair, like she’s fit for sainthood. Her face is the same brand of bright as when she belts one of us for “our own good.” Her cigarette flares between her teeth. Her axe glints.
I press my hand to the cellar door, and I imagine Hannah pressing her hand back.
Legs shaky, I stand.
Momma always told us the Tree ain’t got a taste for our family’s blood.
Momma always told us the Tree don’t hurt family.
When we was little, our momma told us our kinfolk used to gather round the Tree and pray like they was at church. By the time Momma was born, though, most everyone was interested in other things: Model T’s and the war in Europe and that fancy new chapel in the next holler with its stained glass and pearl white walls.
Only our great granny still practiced the old ways. Every Sunday, she put on her best dress and went down to the gully to Sing to the Tree. Most of our kin pretended not to notice, but our momma, she sat on her back porch and she listened. She felt that rumbling underground and when she heard Granny Sing, she started making them sounds too.
Granny, she said our momma had the gift.
She started taking Momma with her on Sundays. She taught her to bury her hands deep in the earth, to understand all them deep rumblings, to Sing the Tree using blood magic, to bring offerings, a young fawn or a turtle, laid down, gently like they was babies, between the Tree’s roots at night. Sometimes, if they Sang hard enough, the Tree would understand their blood magic and do them favors. A fox that done raided the coops? Gone. Locusts nipping holes in the new corn? Gone. A bear that killed one of Uncle Jim’s hounds? Gone.
Momma Sang to the Tree a whole year before her family moved to Lychfield. She begged to stay behind with Granny, with the Tree and the old magic, but her papa needed the work.
Lychfield was a dead town, Momma always told us, where the trees was silent and the people forgot the world shouldn’t sound like TNT and coal mines. She only stayed there ‘cause of her papa and then ‘cause she got pregnant, first with Hannah and then with me.
When Momma got the cancer, when she lost her job and all our money to medicine, the doctors told her she had to go to a big city, to a place where the earth was choked with concrete and metal, to a real hospital. Momma wasn’t having it.
She traded our trailer for an old pickup truck and we left to find our kinfolk, our land, our Tree.
Even though most of our family was moved away or dead, even though all that was left was an old barn and a shack and Aunt Marylou, standing there to meet us, all wrinkles and sternness on the front porch with a cigarette in one hand and a jar of hooch in the other, our momma, she was happy. ‘Cause the Tree, it was still alive and hungry and waiting for somebody to Sing to it again.
Every Sunday, Momma Sang.
She’d blow out the lanterns in the drafty corner of the hayloft Aunt Marylou fixed “special” for us and she tucked me and Hannah into our ratty little mattress and kissed us goodnight, ‘cause we was too young, she said, to go with her.
Me and Hannah always sneaked out of bed to watch from the hayloft window, though, as Momma, her back straight and tall, walked toward the woods.
Aunt Marylou charged after her, pink robe flying, curlers gripping her head like angry purple fingers. She stood there on her porch, thumping her Good Book on the railing, hollering about “witchcraft,” saying that if Momma didn’t stop, she was going straight to hell, that if we wasn’t family, she’d kick her right out. Right out!
Momma, she just kept walking.
Sometimes, after Aunt Marylou drank herself to sleep, if the night was quiet enough and the wind shifted just right, we could hear our Momma’s voice, burbling and cool, drifting up from the gully. We couldn’t make out the words, but Hannah, she’d find the melody and hum along in that sweet, perfect voice of hers. And the rotted timbers in that hayloft would shiver when the earth below shook.
I tried making them sweet sounds too, but nothing ever shivered for me.
“You got a toad voice,” Hannah said. “Now shush! You’re ruining it.”
I knew she was right. Hannah was always right. Always better. Always prettier. Always smarter.
Sometimes, after Hannah fell asleep, I’d pray that Hannah’s pretty voice would disappear, that she’d sound ugly, like me. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so alone.
Once, when me and Momma was weeding the tomatoes, I told her in my little toad voice, “I ain’t never gonna sound pretty like you and Hannah. I ain’t never gonna be special.”
Momma sat back on her heels and looked at me funny. When she hugged me, she smelled like tomato greens and earth. I could feel her ribs, her body already starting to go to bone.
“Real magic ain’t always pretty, little bug,” Momma said and kissed my hair. “You’ll grow into it.”
“What if I don’t?” I asked.
“Then I suppose I’ll teach you.”
Just then, Hannah came running into the tomato garden, breathless and saying she could feel rumbling in the ground near the gully and Momma lit up, bright as Christmas morning. She took Hannah’s hand in hers and told me she’d be right back like she always did.
They left me there, alone in the weeds.
Momma never did teach me how to Sing.
July was pouring out the sky, hot and sticky, the day Momma died. We was picking blackberries, me and Hannah, so Momma could bake a pie, when Hannah got this queer look on her face, like she heard something far off and awful, like she might be sick.
“We gotta get back,” she said.
She grabbed my hand, but I squirmed and kicked her. I was tired of her bossing me. Tired of her always acting like she knew something I didn’t.
Hannah finally dropped her basket and ran, berries skittering onto the ground behind her.
I picked up all them blackberries. Every last one. Momma’d be so proud of me, I thought. I’d have a whole basket full and Hannah? For once, she’d have nothing at all.
For once, I’d be better.
I found Momma at the top of the hill near the edge of the woods. She was face down, her arms flung wide like she was trying to sink right down into that soil. A pair of flies was crawling up her waxy arm and the back of her bare neck. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing.
Hannah was there beside her, crying, her face covered in dirt, her hands pressed to her ears like the whole wide world was screaming and she couldn’t bear to hear it.
I sometimes wonder why Hannah was allowed to feel it when our momma died and not me. Why all I had was her dead body on top of a hill, gone and empty.
I still wonder, sometimes, why neither of us was good enough for Momma to want to stay above ground with us.
Hannah asked Aunt Marylou after the funeral if she thought the Tree would still Sing now that Momma was gone. Aunt Marylou, she hauled Hannah onto the back porch by the scruff, yanked down her dungarees and took a switch to her backside so hard she couldn’t sit for a whole day afterward.
Aunt Marylou told us we wasn’t to go anywhere near that Tree. We wasn’t to talk about it ever again.
Aunt Marylou was gonna raise us up proper now, she said. With morals. Discipline. Didn’t we know how much she done sacrificed so we could live with her? Didn’t we know what a blessing it was? We needed to forget all that “devil’s magic” and the Tree. We was going to church school and grow up into “real young ladies.”
I weren’t never gonna be a real lady. And I didn’t want to go to Aunt Marylou’s church school, neither. I just wanted Momma back.
I wanted somebody to love me.
I didn’t realize ‘til I heard Aunt Marylou try to sing along with one of the hymns at Momma’s funeral that she had a voice like mine. She chewed all them beautiful melodies up and spat them back out again, ugly as sin in that white walled chapel. Maybe that was why she started paying me so much attention. ‘Cause misery, it does love company and we was both mighty miserable singers.
“Rebecca,” she’d say. “Why’re you slouching? Straighten up! You been sucking your hair again? You been biting your nails?”
She never smiled like my momma did, but one day, she peeled back her lips, showed me her teeth and said, “I ain’t never thought I’d have a daughter.”
“How come?” I asked.
“I never found me a husband.”
“Momma didn’t need no husband.”
I got a switch for my sass.
Still, as the days stretched on after Momma’s death, Aunt Marylou starting bringing me into her house. It smelled like cigarettes and the underside of river rocks in there and Aunt Marylou set me to sewing and scrubbing. She made me clean skillets with lye. She said the way Momma taught me to cook was wrong and her knobby hands covered mine, shoving them through the motions of frying and baking ‘til my fingers ached.
Sometimes she’d give me her old hair ribbons and acted like that somehow made us best friends. I tried to like them even though they stank like smoke and mothballs. I tried to smile like she did, to make her happy. I sat with my back straight as a board on that old couch of hers, all covered in plastic, cigarette burns rising like tiny suns all along the edges. I said them prayers of hers over and over again.
I tried to be what she wanted, first to keep from getting whooped, and then so she would love me.
One day, me and Hannah was weeding when Aunt Marylou called for me to come in. Not Hannah. Never Hannah.
I got up, real fast with a “Yes, Ma’am!” all them smoky ribbons in my hair, wearing a dress instead of dungarees because that’s what Aunt Marylou said real ladies wore.
Hannah, she just sat there in the weeds, her eyes glassy and staring down toward the gully, the river, the Tree. One hand was buried in the dirt and her head, it was cocked like she was listening for something.
“Hannah!” Aunt Marylou snapped. “Don’t slouch!”
Hannah didn’t move.
Even though I told myself I should like the attention, I felt rotten when Aunt Marylou wrapped her arm around me and pulled me, just me, inside, and left Hannah there, slumped in the weeds.
“Lord help me, she’s just like your momma,” Aunt Marylou said, snorting ‘round her cigarette. “It’ll take a firm hand with that one. But wicked is what wicked is and it can’t be helped. Now come over here, Rebecca, and we’ll pray. That’s a good girl.”
I’d never been nobody’s “good girl” before, so I took Aunt Marylou’s hand and I closed my eyes. I tugged all them words about damnation and hellfire apart in my head. I imagined rearranging them into sounds burbling and cool.
I imagined Aunt Marylou’s hand was Momma’s.
I pretended it didn’t hurt.
It was August, the night muggy and clammy and not fit for sleeping when I woke and saw Hannah climbing down the hayloft ladder.
I thought maybe she was going for a piss in the bucket we kept near the barn door, but I heard the latch and the door creaking open and, sure enough, out she went.
We wasn’t supposed to go out at night alone. Not ever. But Aunt Marylou’d been drinking and the thought of telling on Hannah and her getting the belt made everything in me go sour.
So I followed my sister instead. Across the yard and down into the gully I went, into the woods, through all them tarry nighttime shadows, crickets chattering all ‘round me. Quiet. Careful. Toward the river, toward the Tree.
I don’t know what horrors I expected to see down there, but it sure wasn’t a tumble of dark fur in one if the Tree’s hollows. It wasn’t tiny legs and ears spilling down the bark like half chewed food. It wasn’t a rabbit’s head, black eyes shining, spine still attached and dangling from a low branch like a mouse tail from a cat’s mouth.
It wasn’t Hannah, standing beneath it, one of Momma’s old nightgowns shimmering around her like a ghost, her pale arms bare for all the night time world to see.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and all ‘round me the air was buzzing, like a storm was coming on, even though the night was clear.
Under my feet, the earth rumbled.
And the Tree? It moved. Like it been shook by a wind, it moved, trunk shimmying in the moon glow, branches ticking to life one by one. There was a creak. A groan. The Tree’s hollows yawned wide like they was made of rubber. And then the Tree’s hollows, they wasn’t hollows no more. They was mouths. I smelled blood. Meat. Bits and pieces of rabbit slopped onto Hannah’s shoulders and into her hair.
Hannah took a deep breath and started to Sing.
The words wasn’t words I understood. They was vowels pulled long as taffy, consonants sharp as hail, purrs and clicks winding back and forth like a snake. Hannah kneeled, slow and shaky, and wrapped her naked arms round The Tree’s trunk. She opened her mouth wide.
Her voice was burbling and cool.
It was Momma’s voice.
It was the voices of all our dead kinfolk, singing like a choir into the deep, dark night.
It was beautiful.
The Tree’s trunk swelled, curved up and over Hannah. Its eyes rolled white. I saw jaggy teeth in those wooden mouths. And those mouths? They smiled.
I found my feet. I ran fast as I could. I skidded and slid. The Tree’s roots knuckled up and out the earth, shoving dirt aside and closing round Hannah. Like a fist? A hug? Was it trying to bite her? Love her? I didn’t rightly know.
I scrambled up and over them roots. I grabbed Hannah and shook her hard and screamed, “Get up, get up, get up!”
Hannah blinked at me, bleary and confused. I yanked her to her feet and dragged her back up the hill and through the woods.
I was cussing, crying and laughing, desperate and scared. The earth was rumbling all ‘round us and Momma’s voice was echoing through the air and Hannah, she was laughing too, bright with blood magic and wild and drunk on all that power she done Sang into the world.
“Did you hear it?” Hannah grabbed both my arms and she looked at me, for the first time ever, like maybe I was special too. Like I was her sister. “Did you hear it?!”
I nodded. I was going to tell her, yes, yes! I felt it! I heard it!
But when we ran out of the chicory and into the open grass between the woods and Aunt Marylou’s shack, Aunt Marylou was standing on her back porch, waiting.
My Aunt Marylou, she don’t know beauty. Not really. Her ears are so plugged up with fear and hate that she could never understand the songs our kinfolk make.
It was that fear that made her yank my sister’s hand out of mine. It was hate that made her beat Hannah with her belt and wrestle her into that dark cellar and tie her up and gag her so her pretty voice, that was so much like Momma’s, went silent.
When Aunt Marylou turned to me then, bright and panting and smiling like we was best friends, like them smoky ribbons in my hair somehow made me hers, and told me to pray like she did, I knew.
She weren’t my family.
So I waited until morning. I gathered up my courage. I took my slingshot and I killed me a blackbird. I swaddled it in one of Momma’s old blouses like it was a baby, and I laid that offering against The Tree’s roots like Hannah done, like Momma and all our kinfolk had always done.
Now I’m standing over the cellar where my sister is, trapped and crying. And I’m looking up at Aunt Marylou and she’s looking down at me with that axe in her hand, like it’s fit for splitting wood or bone or both. And she’s smiling.
But Aunt Marylou, don’t know.
That Tree down there is hungry.
And that Tree stopped thinking of Aunt Marylou as family a long time ago, too.
So I run, fast as I can, past Aunt Marylou and toward the woods.
“Rebecca!” Aunt Marylou’s voice cracks after me like a whip. “You come back here!”
I don’t stop. I jump over logs. I scramble under bushes and leap jackrabbit fast over rocks, until I’m there, at the river, at that Tree. I fall onto its roots.
Above me, the blackbird I gifted it is half chewed and tangled in the Tree’s mouth, wet feathers spiked skywise, beak unhinged and split like a broken walnut shell. I wrap my arm ‘round the Tree. I cling so hard I shake. I taste blood. I smell death all over.
And this whole place? Our kinfolk’s land? It’s nothing but death. How could Momma not see that? How could she not know? She just brought us here so death could take her too. And now our whole world is nothing but switches and belts and prayers we don’t believe. And my sister? She’s trapped underground now, like our momma.
Everything I love keeps going to earth.
And I never been good enough to stop any of it.
Then, oh then, I cry. Loud and long, my ugly little toad voice crashing through the woods so loud I can’t even hear Aunt Marylou screaming my name. Just me wailing.
Just me Singing.
I feel it, that deep, deep rumble. Only this time, it ain’t coming from the Tree. It’s coming from low in my chest. My heart ain’t a heart no more. It’s a jackhammer under my ribs, pounding all the world awake. It rushes down my legs and arms, my toes and fingers and into that craggy bark I’m clinging to. Sounds pour out of me, my mouth making words I ain’t never heard before, wild and old. Everything is blood. Sap. Leaves. Limbs and roots and life and death filling me up ‘til I’m like to burst with it.
The Tree shudders.
The Tree moves.
Bark heaves under me and I look up to see branches rocketing into the sky and somehow, somehow, I’m moving too, even though I’m still clutching the Tree. I’m roaring underground, pounding through those roots when they shove all that soil aside, through burrows and rocks, tunnels, a wall of stones. A concrete slab. I’m there when those roots rip into the kitchen. I’m there when those branches tear the roof off. I’m worming into that chimney, I’m hurling shingles and floorboards, busting through plaster walls. I’m swallowing linoleum and plastic covered couches.
I’m wrapping myself ‘round that barn and I’m shoving it over.
And maybe my mouth is full of wooden teeth and blackbird feathers. And maybe there’s someone else screaming now, white hair flying, cigarette burning, hooch and axe dropping to the ground like a thunder clap. And maybe the whole world is howling for one beautiful minute and maybe my roots, they devour it all.
But I know for certain that when I reach out with one delicate branch and snap that padlock away from the cellar door, I’m smiling.
I’m smiling still when my sister finds me.
The sun is climbing over the river, warm and soft. The ground under me is dewy and the earth is quiet. The Tree? It’s still.
I look up and I see Hannah at the bottom of the gully, her eyes wide and shadow-punched.
I tug the gag from my sister’s mouth. I untie her hands. I hold them tight.
And when I speak, my voice, it ain’t pretty. It’s still rough and ugly as a toad.
But it’s powerful strong.
Lora Gray is a fiction writer and poet from Northeast Ohio. Their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in several publications including Pseudopod, Strange Horizons and Shimmer. When they aren’t writing, Lora works as an illustrator, dance instructor and wrangler of a very smart cat named Cecil. You can find them on twitter @LoraJGray