FRONDS AND WISTERIA VINES
The white Jaguar
glided into the clearing as though the women had entered a sinister fairy tale.
The house shuddered before them in waves of sunlight, an ancient girl-woman
roused suddenly from sleep, a sphinx curled in on secrets.
I'm getting fanciful, Eva thought as she rose from her cousin's Jaguar to
face the wreck of all their dreams.
Staring at the house,
Eva felt that it stirred. Its unfocused gaze met her own. Light shimmered on
vines parted like braids on a head thrown back to peer drowsily at her, revealing
rotted planks, broken steps, and staggered bits of insect-bored wood. Willow
fronds and wisteria vines framed the wisdom and ignorance that softened the
house's unearthly facade.
Why do I feel I know you? The house seemed uncannily familiar to Eva,
painfully charming in its degenerated state. Cockeyed with skewed windows, wild
with tangled growth like sleep-matted locks, nursing unhealed wounds and
hurtful secrets, the house exuded welcome, hope, and hideousness in equal
measure. Clearly, it was still standing only because it was too far north to
get the full blast of Hurricanes Ike or Katrina.
But what was that
horrid stone growth, like a lumpy gray goiter, that met the wraparound porch on
one side and scuttled like a bug toward the back?
Mississippi," Charley said. Eva's cousin Charlotte had slipped out of the
idling car and come upon her like a wraith. Thin as a specter and silent as a
ghost, was Charley.
Suddenly upright in
the heavy air, Eva weaved and steadied herself against the car. When had she
last eaten? She had been in such a hurry to get here, to reach the site of both
their ancestry and their new beginnings, that she had worked herself into a frenzy
of map-reading, catnapping, and hours behind the wheel when Charley could drive
For three days, Eva, Charley,
and Eva's daughter Anastasia had trekked from Los Angeles into the Deep South.
First, the Southwestern deserts burned them dry of the salty waters of their
coastal birth. Then, they'd marveled all along the Atchafalaya highway at the
miles of dying swampland and lingered in Louisiana, determined to feed what
little revenue they could, in one day and night, into the oil-ravaged community.
Now, what was left of Mississippi's vine-canopied woods, logged to aridity
along the major highways, and its Blues and Civil Rights signposts the closer
they got to the plantation, all called up unfamiliar memories as if from
Perhaps Eva could do
her dissertation on ancestral memory in African American literature here, under
the ever-present weight of a history of people in chains, hung from trees,
blasted by rifles, gnawed by scavengers. Was this intuitive empathy what Eva's
beckoning Southern ancestry had given her? Could that be what she had just
thrown aside a lifetime of achievement to discover?
And how did Charley
feel now that hope had slammed into reality?
Time to turn around and head back to L.A., Eva fretted. But, "It can't really be
this bad," was what she said.
It was the heat, so
wet and heavy. The fistful of braids that tended to migrate from the nape of
her neck to a ballerina's topknot tugged at her scalp. Blood sucked empty of
oxygen struggled to reach her brain. I'm
going to faint, Eva thought.
"Girl, get a
grip," Charley quipped, stolid as always.
What have I led them into? Eva never would have imagined abandoning
everything she had worked for to chase the illusion of an ancestral home. It
was Charley who had said, "Let's just go do it, Eva. My treat." As if
it were a trip to the Santa Monica Pier.
So Eva had joyfully
dropped it all, the lecture hall of upturned student faces and the pen-tapping,
mumbling professors. She had even let go of that elusive dissertation that
vanished like a mirage each time she approached it, touched it, tried to reduce
it to black words on a white page. What did Eva know about ancestry? No more
than she knew about her lonely, lovely daughter, whom she had just hurt once
more by snatching her out of an excellent university to drag her to this
"Can we go back
to earlier, more hopeful times?" Eva had asked Anastasia and Charley when
she told them of her inheritance. She meant Los Angeles and its disemboweling
success. Exile from the old neighborhood. Swallowed fear. The desire to flee.
Which was what they'd
done. Having shot from poverty into that disillusioned class of the African
American elite, the three women had come away, escaped, so to speak, in search
of meaning. But what could this wreck of a plantation mansion, this disaster of
history long past, possibly mean?
What could the house
mean now, echoing her own questions back to Eva in its unstill repose? "Go
back. More hopeful?"
us," Eva babbled. "So why do I feel like this is our last chance to
get away from it?"
The exhausted city
women escaping to a home they had never known were, Eva decided, the house's
destiny. They had not suspected what pulled them here. But the house had known
and waited. Like a lonely old lady caught unaware by visitors, the house
self-consciously gathered its frayed foliage and fragmented bits. It would be
rude to turn and leave just yet.
Charley had no more
patience. "Say what?"
Eva felt a light
touch. A hand slid around her waist. Eva turned. Of course, the embrace came
from gentle Anastasia.
Anastasia," her mother said. "I needed that."
Anastasia's voice was
a whisper. "Let's get you out of this heat. You don't look all
"You're dizzy as a betsy bug, Eva. You haven't eaten more than three bites
together in as many days. In this heat, that can't be healthy. Let's go get us
some grub. Everything'll look better on a full stomach. Even this
Eva sensed real rage
boiling up. Nonsense, Charley called it. Really, there was no answering Charley
sometimes. No dealing with her, either. "I'm not hungry. You go
"Oh, come on,
Eva. You know that gas station we passed at the turn-off from the main road to
come here? I bet they have some of that down home food out of somebody's
grandmama's kitchen that you've developed such a taste for." Charley's
tone took on the smile that Eva refused to turn and see. "Some of that
peach and rhubarb cobbler? Or maybe that fried okra dripping with green pepper
Anastasia laughed. It
was true that, the deeper South the women had ventured, the more their tastes
had leapt to embrace wildly regional foods their minds could not remember.
To lighten her
discouraged mood, Eva bantered back. "Or maybe some of that alligator
sausage you took such a liking to in Baton Rouge. I swear, Charley, I didn't
think we'd ever get you away from that Cajun fisherman. And don't tell me it
was money and a job he was looking for, from you."
The palpable pain
that shot across Charley's face and left it shut against her shocked Eva. What
had Charley heard in the meaningless tease?
Anastasia stepped in
to pacify aunt and mother. "I'll go with you, Aunt Charley." She slid
onto the Jaguar's back seat.
"She's going? What does
that mean? We're all going.
I know you don't think I'm leaving you here alone."
Eva shook her head.
"Charley, thank you for trying to save me from this moment. But you know
perfectly well I did this to us, and I'm going to have to assess the situation
on my own."
Charley snorted. The
sound was profoundly rude and jarred Eva out of her slump. "As-sess," Charley hissed. "You blew
it. What else is there to as-sess?"
Eva had to admit that
this was a down-to-earth, admirably healthy approach to the mess she had landed
them in. And she should be counting her blessings that Charley initiated it. As
the financial backer of this misadventure, Charley had arguably the most right
to be upset.
As an investment
broker, Charley not only understood money but had amassed a worth that
translated into what seemed a constant supply of cash and bargaining clout. It
was always Charley who made it seem they could do almost anything.
Maybe this was a
Hopeful? Charley was
going to tell Eva to give it up. She'd say Eva should have listened to that
attorney, the executor of their deceased relative's estate.
And why hadn't Eva
listened to him?
Because she hadn't
trusted him. It was clear that he and the real estate agent handling the
property hadn't expected her to take an interest in her windfall. Some city
woman out in California? They'd expected her to unload her inheritance on the
first buyer they could snag. They were floored when she wanted to know more
about the place.
They hadn't told her
anything more than, "We can sell it to developers for you. It's got a
fresh water source untouched by the Gulf oil spill and plenty of land for
Eva suspected she
knew what that meant. She'd read about the endemic poverty of the South
exploited by overnight plants and factory towns that left ecological
destruction and epidemic cancer in their wake.
She would not be part
of it. That she promised herself. But how to persuade Charley not to sell?
Like an irrelevant
flash in a daydream came the thought, Where
is that fresh running water they told me about? And why is this air so heavy
with unshed rain? And then Eva knew she had the answer.
Assess. Just like
she'd said a minute ago. Slow down, calm down, pick up her courage, and take a
look at the place.
worrying about Anastasia's future or Charley's investment. Or even her own
Confront the house
questioning only its own merit. And take it from there.
Now Eva turned to
Charley with a smile. "You're wasting gas. It might be okay to buy peach
and rhubarb cobbler from that gas station, but I'm not sure you want to trust
reconciled. "I know you ain't crazy enough to think I'm leaving your
big-city self out here in the swamp with snakes and alligators. Get in the car,
exasperation struck. Eva let go of the Jaguar's hood and sank to the weedy
pebbles that ran in a U before what used to be the house's verandah. She
reached gingerly from the safety of the low growth on the driveway across the
border into the thicker grasses.
"What are you
doing?" Charley screeched and bent to slap at her outstretched hand as if
Eva were a child. "Playing in the dirt. Or are you faint? Get up out of
Eva snatched her hand
from under her cousin's. "Charley, stop. I'm just trying to get a stick or
something to fend off snakes. You're the one worried about them."
"Well, no need
to go looking for them. Get up and come with me," Charley huffed. Eva rose
and followed her obediently, always the younger cousin trailing behind.
She was alarmed to
realize that she wobbled as she walked. She plastered herself against the car's
rear end as Charley opened the trunk and fished inside.
Charley pronounced, wielding an unfurled umbrella at the ground. "I think
I read somewhere about somebody opening an umbrella on a snake about to strike.
It hit the metal rods with its fangs and knocked itself out. You try it."
Eva took the weapon.
"Thank goodness we're isolated out here. You're not really going to make
me carry this thing, are you?"
"Open it up
fast, like this." Charley reached for it, to demonstrate.
Eva jerked the
umbrella away. "Charley, leave."
At last, Charley
smiled back. "Something sweet and something spicy?" she called as she
dipped into the driver's seat.
"You going for food or boyfriends?" she snapped and then, as always,
wondered if she'd been too saucy in front of Anastasia.
But as the dusty
white Jaguar, one of the original English makes-nothing parvenu for Charley-pulled forward
around the U and surged through the dangling green canopy, Anastasia waved
gaily at her mother from the front passenger seat. When had she shifted her
seat from the back?
"She must have
seen how the argument was going and figured I would be the winner," Eva
mumbled. "Got into the front just like that. How does she know these
things?" And when had Anastasia become such a silent reactor to all that
went on in her mother's life, shifting her own plans without a murmur as her
mother's circumstances made change necessary?
Absently, Eva shunted
the umbrella open and shut at the pebbled driveway, fussing a bit when the
button on the umbrella's handle stuck. "En
garde," she challenged, wandering toward the house.
Really. Could a human being possibly have reflexes fast enough to stun a
"Seems to me
that thing'll do you more good if you raise it over your head," a voice
Eva shrieked and
dropped the umbrella.
ma'am. I didn't mean to scare you." The baritone voice drifted from the
doorway of the sleepy, feminine house. Eva's first ridiculous thought was that
she expected the house to sound girlish and wise like Anastasia.
Her second thought
was that she was not alone out here, so far from everyone and anything. So far
from help. "You didn't scare me," she announced shakily. She bent to
retrieve the fallen umbrella.
screamed," the voice accused.
To her dismay, Eva
found herself unable to rise. Stunned by the weakness in her knees, she wobbled
to a sedately seated position on the pebbles.
Still the dizziness
would not pass. Eva looked beseechingly toward the shadows separating
themselves deep in the porch's interior. There, a man's broad shoulders tapered
to a slender waist as he moved like liquid through lightening darkness, coming
Eva thought, I must get up. I must get away. It's not safe to sit
here, waiting for him.
But she couldn't even
I'm not really going to faint, am I? Eva demanded of herself in her distress as
the blinding sunlight swam into green and then into black.
Eva roused to find
herself flying through shifting darkness in strong arms. Dreamily, she thought
that her father was alive again, and she must be a little girl, and those bulky
shapes that loomed and receded all around them in the glaring dark were like
monsters in a carnival spook house. But she was safe in a strong embrace and
would never fear again.
It seemed a long time
later that Eva came to fully enough to sit up. She gave a little cry of panic.
She could see nothing. But as soon as the humiliating sound escaped her, a
voice near her said, "It's all right. I'll get this lit in just a minute.
Where was she? With
what strange man that she didn't know?
Bright flashes of
scenes outside the house lit her mind and left her head throbbing. The intruder
had stepped gracefully, swiftly toward her as she sank under sunlight, his
worried face suddenly close to hers, his pillowy bronze lips whispering against
her cheeks something she could not understand. Up close, he was older than she
guessed when he said that boyish, countrified "ma'am," his walnut
skin finely traced across his forehead and down the sides of his mouth.
Eva realized she had
fainted. And he, this stranger, had picked her up and carried her into
someplace dark and dank. She could hear water far off, dripping.
Time to get control of this situation. "I'll decide that," Eva said with
authority. "I asked you where I am."
She could feel more
than see that he had turned sharply toward her, taking into consideration her
mistrust. He was too close. She must have thrust her face up near his when she
sat up. And he had not honored a stranger's need for space and backed away.
What could she do to
get some distance, some sense of safety? Surely not lie down again, vulnerable.
Eva pressed her palms
behind her into the floor to get her bearings and scoot away from the man's intrusive
warmth. Her hands sank into something thick beneath her. A sleeping bag? Yes,
buoyed up from the floor on a mattress and what felt like the height of a box
Eva gasped. Had some
strange, strong man picked her up bodily and taken her to the place where he
slept? Her sudden, unwanted attraction toward this man whose strength reminded
her of the safety she'd felt in her father's arms was attacked by a sense of
His behavior was
inexcusably intimate. What was going on here?
A scratching sound,
and a sliver of light flared beneath the man's pensive face. Up so close, alone
together in sudden fiery light, his beauty, still and sculpted, was
astonishing. Chiseled edges sharpened the curve of his lips and rounded
nostrils. That little dip plummeting from nose to upper lip was a river flowing
from breath to speech. Too private, too promising, to be exposed.
He pursed his lips,
thinking. He turned to her, parting those lips to speak. For no reason that Eva
could imagine, it occurred to her that his full lips must feel like cushions of
dry warmth, his breath moist between them.
Eva slapped herself
mentally and snapped out of this uncalled-for reverie. Lightheaded and
fantasizing in the midst of obvious peril! She had been kidnapped by some nut,
and it would do her no good that he was handsome if he. . . .
What was he planning
to do with her?
"Where have you
brought me?" she said sharply at precisely the same time that he said,
"I've brought you into your own house. Don't worry."
Firelight in his glass-domed
kerosene lamp-she had only seen such rustic things in supermarkets and thought
they were curios, but he was using his-burned
in his smoky irises. Was he thinking what his eyes seemed to say that he was
Did he really have
trouble fixing his gaze on her eyes instead of letting it drop to the sunburned
skin exposed from neck to bra, freed by the thinnest, skimpiest shirt she
owned? Would her expanses of thin limbs, bronzed by travel through desert and
swamp, appeal to him? Or did he share many African American men's disdain for
skinniness and dark skin?
What did he think of
her? What would he think if. . . . Eva wailed at herself, What's wrong with me?
But was the same
thing wrong with him? Why had he whispered with his lips to her skin?
Eva's mind reeled in
the face of her battling feelings. She must get control of her wild thoughts.
Could he tell what she was thinking? If the humiliating passion that had
overcome her was not normal, was not even shared, what could this stranger
possibly make of her trembling?
Angry with herself,
Eva yanked her attention back to her predicament. "Into my house?"
She looked around.
The dark beyond the
stranger's slender, shapely silhouette was too thick to be penetrated by his
lantern's scraggly wick. "A special part of your house. It's the coolest
place I could think of, to get you out of that heat. I'll have to tell you
about it." He smiled. The slow spread of his lips over his even teeth sent
warmth and shame radiating from Eva's insides throughout her body.
Eva didn't believe in
instant passion. "You'll tell me about my house? I think you'd better tell
me about yourself, instead. Who are you?"
Eva demanded with genuine outrage.
How dare he come into
her ordered emotional existence and shatter it with careless gestures. Who did
he think he was, breaking into her house, carrying her in like a fainting
bride, and taking advantage of her lightheadedness to make her feel smitten?
listening," Eva said. Her tone was tough, but her heart slammed. Weren't
mass murderers often charmers?
As proof of the
stranger's dishonesty, now that the lantern was lit, she was sure this couldn't
be a house. The dark was black and as thick as fog. Barely at the edges of it,
the lantern cast hints of light upon the outthrust edges of mossy stones
protruding all around them.
Eva had heard of such
things. Weirdos stalked women and trapped them in subterranean rooms and did
sadistic things to them. Internet lovers met and tortured each other before
burying each other's dismembered corpses in gardens.
Now Eva pictured this
man lurking in the shadows of the verandah waiting to pick off her little
family, all three of them one by one, extracting cries of pain and revelations
about where to find their traveler's checks as he took his sweet time killing
them. Why hadn't they brought guns in their backpacks?
And where was a door
out of this stony chamber of horrors?