by Kat Meads
Even before she left her house, Cora felt anxious. But staying inside had begun to feel as if she were doubly enclosed: by the house and by dread, with its lower ceiling. At this rate, she’d soon be someone who walked around the house doubled over so as not to knock against lower-level dread. Which could lead to various…complications.
Complications of any sort made her anxious.
Between trimming the ivy and weeding the bricks on the back step and eating some measure of breakfast and lunch—had the second been tuna fish?—she hadn’t gotten out the door until the light was already shifting, that end-of-day queer blend of sharp and smeared. Still she set off. She set off.
When she made it as far as the sidewalk, she glanced back at the house fanned with fig leaves. It made going forward harder, that backward glance. She had to persuade herself that still ahead were azaleas, camellias, gardenias—maybe even the neighbor’s sleek, self-satisfied cat, lounging wherever it felt like lounging. Instead, she encountered a congregation of people, unhappily shaking their heads. The largest tree in the neighborhood had dropped a large branch, part of its trunk sheared and white. And there had been no wind, no wind. “Disease,” someone said, and another someone nixed. “Look at the rest of them healthy limbs.” Someone suggested the dry spring was responsible. A shock to the tree’s system. Another someone said the spring hadn’t been drier than most and maybe had been a tad wetter. Only the tree knew what had happened, and the tree wasn’t talking. It had been, and still was, the most resplendent tree in the neighborhood. The tree that kept its leaves longest, the tree that brought them back soonest. It was the neighborhood’s Super Tree—at least that’s what Cora called it. In her head. The severance had been so recent the leaves remained bright green, unwilted. Dropping the limb almost, almost looked like a choice, the downed limb granted some much needed rest. Anyone could convince her—it wouldn’t take a qualified botanist or arborist—that a lot went into limbs remaining limbs, attached but suspended. When she looked up into the Super Tree, she saw dozens upon dozens of branches and limbs behaving heroically. It was then she started to tremble.
“Dear girl, dear girl, dear girl,” she heard as she tried to suck back mortifying tears.
The women were a trio who must live nearby. They were dressed in near-home clothing. An apron with roosters. A gardening hat. The third carried a mixing spoon, as if pulled by the crashing limb from her stove. They created a protective half circle around her, but after the dear girl chorus shifted to mews and sighs. She would have liked to believe that it was the downed limb they were mourning but sensed she was the object of greater concern.
“Let’s get you on the porch.”
“With a glass of lemonade.”
“Before the fireflies come.”
Even if she left the house, she made it a point of being back inside before the fireflies flew. Beautiful as they were, she could not escape the impression that they stung the air, the air enduring the hurt because of the stingers’ beauty.
“I was just going for a…walk. Before dark.”
“Of course you were.”
“And then you saw the tree.”
“And the group gathered round it.”
They led her to a pale pink house. She, who lived in a pink house herself, could not believe she’d never noticed a second pink house in the neighborhood. Perhaps painters from the same company had painted both?
The back porch was rickety and humped in places as if swollen from dampness, all the corners dusty and heaped with the stray leaves porch corners accumulate, no matter how tidy the housekeeper. The women themselves looked marginally tidy—although one of the apron strings was unraveling, the gardening hat had a dent, the wooden spoon sported a black, burnt tip. At first the threesome stayed with her on the porch, smiling, motionless, as if expecting her to take the lead. Their fixed attentions made her anxious. She had never been smiled at so widely for so long. It hadn’t been one of her better ideas, following them home. But, she reminded herself, she wasn’t trapped. It wasn’t as if three elderly ladies had kidnapped her.
“Do you take extra sugar with your lemonade, dear?”
She felt her forehead crease. Her most ancient aunt had put extra sugar in her sugared lemonade. With so much sugar, sour didn’t stand a chance. As a little girl, forced to visit, she distinctly remembered being on the side of the overwhelmed sour and against Aunt Civvy for rigging the competition.
“No, thank you. I’m Cora, by the way.”
“Yes, dear. A lovely name. We were all so pleased.”
“Let’s get you that lemonade.”
As a threesome they headed off but on the threshold between out and in, the one wearing the dented garden hat turned and winked.
“With no extra sugar.”
Left alone on the porch, on the porch swing, she felt her right leg, without permission, begin to jiggle, which jiggled the porch swing.
On return they didn’t join her in drinking lemonade, but sat smiling while she sipped. The glass she drank from seemed distantly familiar, like something plucked from a long-ago cupboard. On it, an oversized green iris bloomed above white latticework.
“How much she looks like Civvy.”
“Anyone would see the resemblance.”
Her leg began again to jiggle. They were old but not as old as Aunt Civvy when Aunt Civvy was forever cut off from drinking lemonade.
“Don’t be shy.”
“No reason a-tall to be shy.”
“How do you know my Aunt Civvy?”
“We know just about everyone now.”
“And Civvy is very memorable.”
“Didn’t you think so?”
She nodded, then grew distracted. A firefly curlicued past the screen.
“Oh, dear. We’ve rushed her.”
“We didn’t mean to rush you.”
“Not a-tall, a-tall.”
They were no longer smiling. Their lips had puckered with concern.
“We thought it should have been Civvy.”
“We didn’t think it was our place.”
“But then, Civvy…”
Harmonically they mewed.
“You can say it,” Cora said, shocking herself with what she was about to say but saying it nonetheless. “Aunt Civvy is a pushy—“
“She does veer in that direction,” interrupted the woman with the burnt spoon, tapping her knee with the utensil as she spoke.
“Especially when she gets her back up.”
Cora hooted. She hadn’t hoot-laughed in a very long time. It felt simply marvelous.
The ladies nodded at one another, as if a hunch had played out.
“Try to smile more often, dear.”
“Such a pretty face when you smile.”
Cora didn’t know about that, but her smile lingered; theirs departed.
“Well, now. Shall we get down to business?”
Now her smile went missing. She’d been tricked.
“A question, dear.”
“Try to answer honestly.”
She made no promises. She was not in the habit of disclosing to strangers.
“The question is: What’s the worst that can happen to you?”
“In this world.
“In this life.”
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have an answer, answers. Lying in bed, an alarmed horizontal being, she added to the catalogue nightly. Disgrace, injury, failure, humiliations huge and tiny. The trepidations of yesterday, today, tomorrow. Waking up to find the walls of her tiny house had inched even closer while she dozed. Glancing one too many times out the window and never again being able to look away. Believing she was on the run when really she was standing still, waiting. And that was the short list.
“I prefer not to comment,” Cora said.
Her hostesses sighed but not in a punishing way. Sad sighs, as if, despite their efforts, she was too hard a case, impossible to improve. Then they rallied.
“That’s simply not true.”
“You mustn’t think that of yourself.”
They might be mind readers, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew for a fact how seldom people changed.
“I have to go now,” she announced, rising.
“Of course, dear.”
The dark had flown in and fully settled. She’d be walking home on a street without streetlights, past the severed tree limb. Between wherever she was and her destination, very likely she’d have to rely solely on the blinking light of stinger fireflies.
Out on the sidewalk, when she hesitated, six invisible hands shoved her forward.
It was all a little much, wasn’t it? The pink house? The lemonade? The emissary trio? The communal shove? And there was more to come: on her front step sat the self-satisfied cat, leisurely licking its paw. In the before and after, Aunt Civvy overdid.
Still: rather than rush inside, she took a seat next to the cat and its noisy ablutions, fully exposing herself to threatening night. If she turned her head too quickly, she saw things she shouldn’t have seen, growing, dying, inert. The cat paused its licking, stretched. Silence made its move. She was breathing rapidly, shallowly, but had not, as yet, graduated to panting.
North Carolina native Kat Meads is the author of more than 20 books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. Her most recent book publication, Dear DeeDee (Regal House, 2020), is a memoir-in-letters about growing up in a farming family in Currituck County, North Carolina. Her third essay collection, These Particular Women, forthcoming next year, features essays on Southerners Estelle Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell and Flannery O’Connor’s mother, Regina. Read her previous story in Deep South here.
Hannah Perdisci / March 11, 2023
What a lovely southern story. I read it through 3 times trying to figure out how to interpret it. I’d be delighted to hear some ideas from the author and/or others. I’m thinking the three women may have been ghosts? It could also be that the MC has dementia, or is hallucinating. To me, this story has a mystical quality – three strange southern women appear in front of a tree with a message for a woman who seems reclusive and confused. I loved the setting and southern charm.