By Sean Patrick Hazlett | February, 2020
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Oh, Jenny, I ain't seen you in years. You're so busy changing the world these days that the only reason you probably came all the way back to see me is I must be fixin' to die. I hear you been having marriage troubles. Your mamma's been telling me Harvey's been beating on you. Well I got a story I wanna tell ya that might help. I also wanna get it off my chest 'fore I pass on.
Now you never knew your nana-- my mamma-- 'cause she died well before you was born. We was going through some hard times back then. Great Depression. Half the time we didn't have nothing to eat. When we did, it hardly filled our aching bellies.
Now I never did know my true daddy. When mamma got with child, he bolted in a hurry. To be honest, I never cared to know someone who hightailed it the first sign things started getting tough. After he left, mamma invited a bunch of other men into our lives, but none of 'em was worth the dirt in a cemetery.
In those days, we was living in Oklahoma, and we had about the worst possible dust storms you can imagine. You probably heard of 'em. Nowadays they call it the Dust Bowl or some such. Back then we didn't know what the hell it was or how long it'd last. The black blizzards would just roll on in and cover everything in dirt and grime, making us near cough up a lung. For all we knew, the apocalypse was nigh.
Mamma jumped from job to job, working as a farmhand when she could. But when great big mounds of dust was piling up all around and killing all the crops, she couldn't find no work no how. So like everybody else, we up and headed west.
I ain't gonna whine about how bad it was. Hell, I can't remember it much no way; I was only six years old at the time. But one thing I did know was fear. It was everywhere, threatening to choke us when we wasn't looking.
Eventually we made it out to sunny California, where mamma was fixin' to work as a farmhand. Trouble was that after traveling all that way, jobs was as hard to get in California as Oklahoma.
After trying her luck up and down the coast, mamma finally got work as a fruit cutter and packer on an orchard in Contra Costa County east of San Francisco Bay. There, we pitched a tent along the creek with all the other migrants.
The days was long and the work, hard. We'd start picking at seven and quit at six. And the work was seasonal, starting with apricots in April, then moving on to peaches, then pears, then plums. But we got by. On a good day, me and mamma could cut as many as sixty boxes of apricots at three cents a box.
About a year after we started work, mamma met Billy Jones. Billy was the brother of Alcott Jones, the owner. It wasn't long 'fore we left the tents, settling in an abandoned cutting shed Alcott gave Billy.
For the first few days, Billy was kind and loving with mamma. But the honeymoon ended faster than a frog in a frying pan. Soon they was screaming and hollering at each other so bad they had to lock the door. When I tried to come home, they sent me away, telling me not to return till the sun come down.
So with nothing better to do, I hiked through the countryside, taking in the beauty of them hills. I wandered past oak, juniper, sycamore, birch, willow, and redwood under Mount Diablo's black shadow. The grove was so silent and peaceful. There was something different about it, something right powerful. A dirt path led between two rows of trees as old as Methuselah. Their branches curled into an arch high up above.
It didn't take long for mamma to decide I oughta get some learning at a nearby school. Most of them kids there was rich, so they welcomed me like a weevil in a wheat field.
I owned only two faded gray dresses, and the other kids didn't never let me forgot it. Also didn't help that I smelled a little bit strange. That scent was something I carried since I was born. Mamma said it made me special-- said it reminded her of my true daddy.
'Cause of all this stuff, the other kids was mean as hell to me, especially Margaret and Catherine Jones. As they always reminded me, they was Alcott's daughters and could throw me and mamma off the land. So I had no choice, I took all the abuse I could stand.
Whenever I got lonesome, I would wander back to that grove. There, I got religion. In darkness and in light, it comforted me more than Jesus on Sunday morning. And in that lane of oak, willow, and redwood, I found my church of solitude, my wilderness cathedral, where the soul of the forest was a power unto itself. The trees whispered of peace and sleep. So I went there whenever I was scared, to pray to them trees.
And sometimes the trees would answer.
One evening I returned home from one of my forest walks to hear tin plates banging and all sorts of other ruckus. Billy and mamma was scuffling again. When I tried opening the door to the old shack, it was unlocked. Billy was standing over mamma. He glanced over his left shoulder at me. His eyes widened big as saucers. He stepped back. My attention shifted to mamma. Her left eye was all red, purple, and puffy. Tears was streaming down her cheeks.
"Mamma, what happened?" I said in the innocent voice of an eight-year-old babe.
Clenching his fist, Billy glared at mamma. His eyes darted back at me. Mamma shivered, but said nothing.
Billy started walking towards me, his arms outstretched as if he was ready to give me a hug. "Aw honey, me and your mamma were just having a nice quiet conversation. I'm gonna head out now, but your mamma's gonna be okay. She fell. Hit her face on a rock. I was trying to make her feel better." He turned toward mamma. "Right, Dora?"
Mamma looked away, then nodded. Satisfied, Billy left. I hugged mamma and said, "What happened?"
She sobbed, shook even. There was a deep silence like she was considering something. Then she said, "What Billy said. That's what happened."
Her answer didn't set right with me. But that's what mamma said, so I just took it as Gospel.
A few weeks later, mamma came home for the night holding Billy's hand, a smile stamped across her face wide as a truck. I grinned back. Couldn't help it. Her smile was infectious. She just beamed and beamed.
Her smile got even bigger when she saw me, if that's even possible. It was like heaven come down and was shining on her face. Even Billy was beaming. Never seen that before.
Something sparkled on her left hand-- a ring.
"Oh Ruth," she said, "I got some wonderful news. Billy and me are getting hitched."
I was shocked. "When's the wedding, mamma?"
"In three months. And you're gonna be a flower girl. Then you and me are gonna be a part of the Jones family."
It was kind of odd. I guess daddies was supposed to be stern. But I half smiled. Billy was gonna be my step-daddy, and I never really had any kind of daddy before. So I hugged mamma before we all went into the shack for the night.
When Margaret and Catherine heard the news the next day they wasn't so happy. You see, the marriage would make 'em my cousins. And they thought they was too good to be cousins with the likes of some dirty little girl who only had two sets o' clothes.
That day, their usual teasing was worse than ever. They spit at me. They called me a mongrel and a greaseball. Said I'd never be a proper cousin. I kept calm and didn't say nothing, suffering through it quietly to keep the family peace.
When school was out for the day, Margaret and Catherine followed me home, chanting, "Ruth's a dirty Okie, Ruth's a dirty Okie."
I tried to ignore them, but couldn't help but cry. Of course that only encouraged 'em like pouring gasoline on a fire.
When I got to within a hundred yards of the shack, I could hear hollering inside. So could the two girls. My palms got sweaty and I shivered. The door was gonna be locked, and the last thing I wanted was to disturb Billy when he was in one of his moods. But I prayed anyway, hoping the door was unlocked.
Sure enough, it was locked tight. There was nothing for me to do but turn around and run to my refuge, my lane of trees, where I would pray to the silent sentinels of the forest.
The girls howled and jeered as I rushed past them and into the woods.
As I tore through the oak and birch and juniper, the girls' voices faded until I finally felt safe.
I sat in my sacred wood for nearly an hour breathing in the beauty of them trees, their ancient power washing over me. A faint yapping beyond the grove grew louder as it come closer.
I stumbled to my feet and crept beyond the edge of my secret grove to see where the ruckus was coming from. Down the hill, I saw Margaret and Catherine laughing, their faces twisted by hate. Two giant German shepherds nearly as long as Margaret and Catherine were tall was in tow.
"There she is!" Margaret said, pointing at me like I was some kinda devil.
The dogs was straining against their leashes, wheezing as they strangled themselves, desperate to get at me.
Margaret unleashed the dogs. "Sic her, boys!"
Stunned, I watched as the two huge hounds bounded toward me, their fangs bared. Margaret and Catherine stood by, watching and snickering. I couldn't understand why they hated me so.
Seconds before the dogs reached me, I turned tail and ran back toward the grove. Moments before I reached the comforting embrace of my woodland cathedral, I felt a sharp pain in my calf. I swallowed a scream. There was no way I was gonna let them girls see me cry. As the dog tore into my leg, I crawled forward to the edge of the wood, desperate for help.
The other dog landed on my back, forcing my face into the dirt. A sharp pain stabbed my shoulder as its fangs sank into my flesh.
It took every ounce of strength to crawl forward. Only feet away from my salvation, I could hear the faint sounds of glee carry on the night wind.
Covered in my own blood, I reached across that hallowed woodland boundary. The dogs tore into me with a savagery that would make Billy proud. Then, I felt a sudden sense of peace until everything faded to black.
When I woke it was still dark, but the dogs was gone. I was bleeding badly. Yet I had enough strength to stumble back home. Mamma and Billy was quiet and the door was still locked. It was late enough that I'd risk a beating if I knocked and woke everyone up. So I curled up outside the door and slept.
When mamma found me on the doorstep the next morning, she screamed and took me to Doctor Paulson, who stitched me up nice and tight.
I told mamma about the dogs, but I ain't never told her about Margaret and Catherine siccing 'em on me-- I didn't wanna upset her and ruin her wedding. Sometimes you just had to let sleeping dogs lie.
Margaret and Catherine avoided me after their dogs went missing. But when I ever did catch 'em watching me, I could see hatred burning in their eyes.
So in the months before the wedding, I knew a peace I ain't known in years. Even Billy was gentler with mamma, and I began to hope that we'd become a normal, happy family.
A few days before the wedding, mamma bought me and her brand new white dresses. Said she saved a year's wages to pay for 'em. My smile sparkled like starlight as I took in the glory of my new dress.
On the day of the wedding, Margaret and Catherine was dressed up in matching dresses all nice and pretty. For the first time, they both smiled nicely and waved at me. When Margaret saw me, she said, "You look very pretty today, Ruth. Welcome to the family."
I blushed and thanked her, telling her that her and Catherine looked beautiful too. She smiled back and said, "We have a family tradition for welcoming new cousins into the fold. We wanna share that tradition with you. If you're interested, meet me and Catherine inside the barn."
Excited about sharing a Jones family tradition, I grinned and told her that I was honored and that I'd be there. She winked. Catherine smiled, saying she'd see me soon.
When I entered the barn, it was quiet and dark. Something ain't right, I thought. Before I could begin to regret my decision, the flat end of a shovel knocked the wind clear out of me. I keeled over and rolled onto my back. When I looked up, a scowling Margaret and Catherine stood over me. They both wore overalls and gardening gloves. Their white dresses hung on spikes on the barn's far wall.
"You really thought you could kill Ranger and Rascal and get away with it, didn't you?" Margaret said.
Confused, I mumbled, "What?"
"You killed our dogs when we was only having fun with you!" Catherine scolded with righteous indignation.
"I didn't kill no dogs!" I yelled.
I made to get up, but Catherine shoved me back down. She pinned me to the ground, straddling my hips. She held the shovel across my chest. Margaret pulled out shears and chopped big hunks off my hair.
"No, please don't," I pleaded. "The wedding!"
Margaret sneered. "That's the point. We want to get you all dolled up."
I struggled not to cry, but tears still escaped my eyes, giving my soon-to-be cousins exactly what they wanted. They squealed in delight.
"And to top it all off, we're gonna add a little makeup and perfume," said Margaret.
Margaret brought over a bucket. The stench of manure hit me like a black blizzard. Catherine reached into it with her gloved hand and smeared warm doo-doo on my face and lily white dress. "Me and Catherine dropped a fresh batch of night soil in this bucket a few minutes ago just for you. You've never been prettier."
"Or smelled sweeter," Catherine added.
I choked, coughing up clumps of crap.
The girls giggled. Then they quickly removed their overalls and changed back into their dresses before leaving the barn. Margaret peeked her head back in and teased, "See you at the wedding, cousin."
Covered in crap and my head a wreck of shorn hair, I panicked. My mamma was counting on me to be her flower girl, but not dressed like this.
None of it was fair. I didn't kill no dogs. But I had no time. I had to make a decision.
Mamma needed me. So five minutes before the wedding, I grabbed some hay and wiped as much of the crap off my face and dress as I could. Then I went to church and took my station in the wedding party, stinking of human filth. When the wedding began, I strode down the aisle wearing my shit-stained dress like a badge of honor, ignoring the guests' horrified expressions.
No one said nothing or stopped me. Deep down, they all knew it wasn't my choice to be covered in crap. They all knew what happened and they knew the Jones sisters had had a hand in it. But my march down the aisle never let 'em forget it.
I could tell Mamma was ashamed by my appearance at the wedding, but she never said nothing 'bout it. I think she understood pretty damn well why I done it. My new step-daddy was mad too, but when he learned his nieces was responsible, he laid off the matter. I think he felt ashamed 'bout it too. Hell, he shoulda been.
Anyhow, things died down for the next few months. I think Margaret and Catherine's daddy beat 'em real good after he found out what they done. So they steered clear of me for a while.
In those calm days, I spent all my free time in my woodland cathedral, whispering to my silent sentinels.
Then Billy started beating on mamma again.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, a few hours after church. When I came back early from a walk in the woods, the door to the shack was shut tight, but I could still hear Billy yelling and beating on mamma. I almost turned to walk away, but I foolishly decided to open the door, expecting it to be locked. Sure enough it opened and I stumbled right into my step-daddy pounding his fists on mamma.
Just seeing him do it lit a fire in me. So I charged right up and slapped him across the face. I did it without thinking-- like it was the most natural thing in the world.
He didn't take kindly to it. He beat on me till I blacked out.
When I woke the next morning, my body was all black and blue. A few of my teeth was loose. Mamma cried and held me tight.
"It's okay, mamma," I said. "I'm just glad he beat me instead of you. I love ya, mamma."
She cried and cried. Back then I didn't understand why. I thought she was upset with me for putting myself between her and her new husband. Now I know better. Either way, I was gonna get that sombitch back for hurting me and mamma. So when he was out working the fields, I put all his clothes in front of the shack and set 'em on fire. Then I went out to the woods to pray and relax, proud of what I done.
That afternoon, my step-daddy was so mad, he come all the way out to the woods to find and whup me. When I seen him, I ran to my sacred space among the oaks and redwoods.
He was yelling and cussing something fierce. I stood at the edge of the grove and warned him not to follow. He just laughed and took off his belt. "You thought yesterday was bad," he said. "Today, you're gonna get a real whupping." He raised his belt high above his head and cracked it like a whip against a nearby redwood.
"You come in here," I warned, "you ain't never coming out."
"We'll see 'bout that," he said. Then he stomped forward like a farmer about to butcher a pig. He stepped into my church of solitude, unharmed. Then he whupped me till I passed out.
When I woke, it was pitch black. Owls was hooting. Grasshoppers chirped all 'round. I was covered in blood. My body throbbed with pain. I could hardly move, but willed myself up anyway.
I limped back to our shack. Opening the door, I found mamma waiting on the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks. She rushed up to me and said, "Where you been all afternoon, sweetie pie? I was worried about you. What happened?"
Her last words rang hollow. She damn well knew what happened. When I didn't answer, her next question made me see red. "Have you seen your step-daddy?"
"You mean after he whupped me out in the woods?" I said with venom.
She sobbed at that. I put my arm around her and told her everything was gonna be okay even though I knew it wasn't true. Even though I knew my step-daddy wasn't never coming home.
Alcott Jones demanded to know his brother's whereabouts. But me and mamma didn't have no answers. I told him Billy chased me into the woods and beat me there, but that's all I knew. I never said one word about my church of solitude. Who knows what he would do to it if he found out about it. I also didn't want anyone else to get hurt.
The lawmen came and searched the woods, but come up with nothing. And to my great relief, they didn't lose no one in the process. Maybe them trees only worked to protect me.
But from then on, old man Alcott looked at me and mamma suspiciously, like we had something to do with his brother's absence. I knew the trees done it, but no one would ever believe that, so I kept my mouth shut.
Irregardless, Alcott gave mamma an ultimatum: if Billy didn't return in a month, we had to leave. Me and mamma knew my step-daddy wasn't never coming back, but we planned to stay until our time run out.
The lawmen gave up on my step-daddy's search, calling his disappearance an unsolved case, but Margaret and Catherine Jones didn't never let it go. And with Billy gone, there was no one left to protect me from them.
One afternoon, Margaret and Catherine blocked my way home and threw rocks at me. Not dime-sized pebbles, but the biblical kind-- heavy stones big as baseballs. One hit me square in the temple, knocking me to the ground. Margaret forced me on my stomach, holding me down with her knee in the small of my back. She twisted my arm, while Catherine slapped and punched and kicked me.
"Where's my uncle, you bitch?" Margaret shouted.
The agony was so intense, I was willing to do near anything to make it stop. "Let me go, and I'll show you," I pleaded.
So I took them to my church of solitude. When I crossed the threshold, the girls hesitated, probably haunted by the memory of their dogs' disappearances. With my head throbbing, I said, "Follow me. Your uncle's in here."
They looked at each other, expressions of doubt on their faces. I stepped further into the forest. "If you ever wanna see your uncle again, you need to follow me."
"No way we're going in there," said Margaret.
"Then I guess you'll never find your uncle," I replied.
They stood as still as stone statues. I could smell their fear. My body ached. I was feeling light-headed. But I thought very carefully about what I said next. "C'mon. You'll be fine. I promise."
The lie was enough. I lured them into my church of solitude, my temple of trees. I walked deeper and deeper in their dark and protective embrace until the gnarled branches of the great oak at the end of the lane reached out for the two girls. Its limbs wriggled like snakes. The branches coiled around the girls' delicate necks.
I watched in fascination as the blood slowly drained from their faces, the oak's branches choking the lives from their tiny bodies. Then I stood witness as the oak buried them beneath its roots.
After the girls vanished into earth, we had no choice but to flee. To this day, I miss those trees, always faithful, always watching over me.
Before I die, I have but one final request. In my purse is an old map that will lead you into those foothills. There, you'll find that hallowed grove. Go there and bury my ashes beneath the tallest oak at the end of the lane.
I'm certain you'll find peace there too, because I can smell it on you, the scent that'll protect you.
And bring your husband, for it will be hungry.