Devil Tree

by Ryan Lee King

Conrad Mercer, dressed in his starched white collared shirt and wool vest, picked up the ax that had been propped up against the stacked woodpile on the porch. His eyes were fixed on the Geechee woman who stood only a carriage length away from his plantation home. She wore a plain wrapper dress with a faded calico flower print and a yellow turban upon her head. Mercer pointed in the direction of the drive behind her, lined with white oaks dripping with Spanish moss. “Be gone with you!”

When the dark-skinned woman didn’t go, Mercer wiped the sweat from his graying temples and stepped off the front porch with every bit of malice in his step. The woman, probably twenty years his senior, lifted her arms in defense and screamed as he approached her with his ax clutched in both hands, as if ready to swing at her. As she retreated, her brown eyes were bright with fear. “Joo “Joo a devil Mister Mercer. Joo has no heart in joo.”

“Get out of here, woman. I told you and your kind to keep off my land. Now git!”

“Please, Mister Mercer.” She cried out, “Don’t be hurting me!”

The plantation owner came to a stop and sighed his weariness, letting the ax head lower to the ground.  “I told you, woman. I’m not selling you any of my lands. Especially not to your kind.”

“Joo got to understand. Dis here be a special place to ma kin. We wants it back. Can pay double, if joo want.”

Mercer looked back at the newly built plantation house and then to the lush grounds and fields just beyond. His attention returned to the Geechee woman and in a softer tone said, “This place is special to me too.” His voice hardened. “I don’t care if you’ll pay more than double what it’s worth. I ain’t selling. Not one inch of it. You hear?”

The dark-skinned woman’s features tightened, and her lips thinned. She pulled out a pale deerskin bag and began to sprinkle herbs on the ground in front of her, muttering words that Mercer couldn’t quite make out.

“I won’t warn you again, woman. Git!” The man raised his ax in the air, pointing it at her to underscore his point.

“Joo rotten at de root, Mister Mercer. Not’n but hardwood at de heart. Joo will be on the de outside what joo are in de inside. Joo will see!”

Mercer advanced on her, acting as if to take a swing. “Git!”

The Geechee woman cried out and retreated, leaving Mercer to his beloved plantation.

The next morning Conrad Mercer awoke to a particularly chilly house. On cold mornings such as these, the help would have kept the old house warm by tending a fire but none of the rooms, especially his own, had a fire going in the brick hearths. “Tanna!”

He reached over to the little bell he kept on the nightstand and rang it. “Tanna!” There was no reply to his summons, and his housekeeper never came. Mercer huffed his displeasure and threw back the covers of his four-post bed. “Tanna!” He called again, hoping she’d answer, but he heard nothing in response. “Where the devil is that woman?”

Perturbed, Mercer pushed himself out of bed and donned a pair of trousers and the same white shirt from the day before. He slid his suspenders over his shoulders and slipped on his shoes, getting madder by the moment.

Out in the hallway, he called for his housekeeper again to no avail. Mercer descended the curved staircase, letting his hand slide down the banister as he went. He marched himself straight past the empty kitchen and to her adjacent room. Mercer grabbed the doorknob and thrust the door wide open. “Tanna! Get yourself out-” He stopped his yell when he saw that her bed was empty. The man spun on his heels, not caring to close the door back, and marched out onto the front porch.

He stomped his way around the wrap-around porch, but she was nowhere to be found, nor was she out on the grounds that he saw. “Where on earth is that woman?” His temper and search had provided some measure of heat, but the outside air quickly sucked it from his bones. “Damn that woman.” He rubbed his arms. “Fine. I’ll make my own fire.” He returned to the woodpile to fetch some firewood, but there was none, only discarded bark and wood splinters where firewood once sat. He hadn’t noticed the missing firewood on his previous circuit of the porch.

“Maybe she went to cut more wood.” The thought appeased his senses for a moment, but then he remembered seeing the ax next to the front door, in the same place he left it after his encounter with the Geechee woman. “Tanna!” He called out again and listened for her reply or approach. There was still nothing.

He returned inside and took in the cold and silent house in confusion. Where could she be? His nose and cheeks began to sting. It was then that he made up his mind. He’d go and cut his own firewood. Mercer grabbed his coat, hat, and gloves and picked up the ax as he stepped out the front door. With quickness in his step, he marched out to the area behind the sheds. It was an open grass space that butted up against the tree line that ringed most of his usable land. There were several trees still laying where they had been recently felled for firewood, cut up into log length rings. He had wrangled a previously quartered chunk of the wood onto the cutting stump and began splitting wood when he heard the crack of twigs behind him. “Tanna, where the devil have you been?” But when he turned around, it wasn’t Tanna. The Geechee woman stood there with her deerskin bag.

“She be gone, Mister Mercer.”

“What did you do to her? So help me- “

“Joo did it, Mister Mercer. Joo and jour cold heart. She be one of us, and by refusing us, joo refuse her.” The man’s face flushed with anger as she continued to speak. “Keep jour house and fields, if joo must, but sell us back some. Just a little. Please, Mister. Mercer. Have a heart.”

Conrad Mercer would hear no more of her. He took his ax and swung. The Geechee woman screamed and threw the contents of her deerskin bag upon him as she jumped back. “Outside within, inside without. Joo a root of evil. Jour seeds of ill now take root!”

Mercer felt a sudden sharp pain shoot up both his legs before he could take a step toward her. The anger on his face transformed into panic as he threw down his ax and grasped at his legs. He couldn’t move from where he stood. He watched in horror as his legs transformed into a trunk of a tree. “Stop this! What are you doing to me, woman?”

“Joo did dis, Mister Mercer! Joo and jour cruelty! Dis is what joo are. A devil tree!”

The pain of transformation continued up his body. “Don’t do this. Please!”

“It be already done. Joo had your chance, Mister Mercer. Joo ignored my people’s plea, and den tried to kill me! Dis be jour reward.”

In a final scream, Conrad Mercer was gone, and only an oak tree remained where he once stood. She patted his bark. “Don’t worry Mister Mercer; we’ll take good care of de plantation.”

© 1994-2019 Ryan Lee King