Nonni likes to cackle at that and say, “But you sure can get some exorcise!”
My grandmother’s puns are always the worst, even if they make me laugh.
Nonni lives in a little Cape Cod at the end of a long, dusty road. It’s pure white with pale blue shutters, hidden partially by the overgrown magnolia that drapes itself over her house. Da keeps asking her to trim its branches before they claw into her roof, but Nonni just waves him off.
“That tree ain’t gonna do me no harm.” The way she says it makes it sound almost true.
When I sleep over, I can hear it creak and moan above me, as if it’s trying to get my attention. On nights when it groans so loud it’s like dying, I whisper for it to hush. I won’t hear it again for the rest of the morning, and Nonni will give me a knowing look over her tar-black coffee.
“The thing about trees,” she tells me, “is that they got somethin’ to say. If you ain’t listenin’, you ain’t gonna hear it. And, where will you be then, Violet?”
“Not talking to trees like a nutso,” I mutter into my tea.
There’s a snapping above our heads, like the magnolia tree is clucking its tongue. I refuse to be scolded by a tree, so I cluck my tongue back. Nonni’s laughter rumbles from her gut.
“You’ll learn yourself yet, my lamb.”
On summer break, all my friends like to hang out at my Nonni’s house, far away from the picket fences and clipped yards of their own neighborhoods. We troll for minnows in the creek and make crowns from the dandelions that have claimed the backyard for their own. They’ll bundle themselves together at Nonni’s feet and listen to her tales of when the white men tried to take her Grandmammy from the property.
“She raised her arms an’ called down the rain,” she swears, her dark hands weaving the threads of the story. “An’, Lawd, did the rain come. It soaked through everythin’ and the river came up high as you please, sweeping through their streets like horses run loose. But, this house? Why, this house was dry as desert.”
She bends forward, smiling like a secret. We all lean in closer, even me.
“It’s that old magnolia tree,” she whispers. “It’s kept our family safe since we was nothin’ but slaves. There used to be a big old plantation here, right on the ground beneath us. An’ when our masters’ hands laid us low, it was our blood that soaked into the roots of that tree. Even if those days are gone, that tree still remembers.”
I had heard that story many times before, and every time I rolled my eyes. Nonni catches me with a pointed finger, mouth pursed and gaze boiling black.
“Don’ roll your eyes at my stories,” she warns me, ignoring my friends who suddenly aren’t smiling anymore. “You never know when you’ll have need of my words, and I hope to God you never do.”
The moment passes, and she’s smiling again.
“Now, who wants lemonade?”
I stay away from Nonni’s house for some time, but her words still follow me into my sleep. I dream of black bodies hanging from the magnolia tree, swaying in the honeysuckle breeze, and I wake up covered in sweat and screaming.
It’s a warm night in July, and I refuse to sleep. Ignoring it’s siren’s call, I creep out of my house, closing the door gently behind me. The air is sweet and muggy, sticking to my skin. Lightning bugs leave trails of light for me to follow as I wander through the grid-lined streets of my neighborhood. I barely notice when the road starts to wind, when the smooth asphalt starts to crack. It’s only when I start thinking about turning back that I realize I’m at Nonni’s.
The magnolia hulks over her house, like the devil crawling out of Bald Mountain. My pulse is quick as a rabbit’s with that rabbit’s urge to run. When I turn to do so, there are three boys from my high school standing there, smiling like wolves.
“Hey there, Miss Violet,” one of them calls out. His face is bright pale in the dark. “Whatcha doin’ out so late?”
“Yeah,” another agrees. His hands are curled into claws by his side. “It ain’t safe out here.”
The third says nothing, but his eyes are brighter than the others, almost yellow in the moonlight. He licks his lips and grins.
It takes me only a split second to turn and run, leaping like a deer at the sound of a gunshot. But, my legs aren’t so nimble and they already have my scent; seconds later, I’m pulled to the ground. I can barely see them, but their hands are gripping my shoulders, pulling at my wrists. Two bony knees dig into the insides of my thighs, shoving them open so hard my hips crack. The hand digging into my mouth muffles my screams, but I can still taste my tears as they burn my cheeks.
There’s a deep, groaning sound, and it takes me a second to realize it isn’t me.
An ear-splitting snap rings out just before a branch slams to the earth, crushing the one with the yellow eyes. The other two jerk away, staring at the split open pulp of it, thick as a man. They shout their friend’s name, but don’t move any closer to help him.
I lay underneath the cover of leaves, and I feel the rough bark pressed against my side. It missed me by almost nothing.
The tree is still groaning, but this time it’s accompanied by the thunder of a storm rolling in. Lightning sears the sky, bright enough to see the fear on their faces, just before a deafening crack and white so blinding I shove my fists into my eyes. When I’m able to see again, there’s a charred circle of earth and the magnolia tree is split apart. White splinters spear upward from the trunk, branches collapsed outward. Beside her lay the bodies of two high school boys, wolves no longer.
I push myself to my feet, staring at the shards of the tree. Heat crackles from it’s core, but I barely feel it as I move towards it, my feet crunching on charred ground. My hand shakes as I reach out and lay my palm flat against it’s broken bones, my skin dark against the white of its wood.
“Thank you,” I whispered, smelling honey still sweet on the wind. “Thank you.”
When I turn around, Nonni is standing on the porch. Even with all it’s shattered branches, not a single one has hit her house.
“Ah, my lamb.” She’s smiling, even if it’s sad. “The tree remembered.”
I’m often at Nonni’s house now, where I can ignore the whispers at school and the ugly stench of rumors. Her back is hurting her something fierce these days, and she still argues with me when I insist on cleaning the dishes and pouring the lemonade. “Better respect your elders,” she tells me, and I always tell her that I do.
She and I will then sit ourselves on the porch on the front of her house, the same one where her Grandmammy had stood and called for the rain. And there, right where it’s always been, new branches already pushing upward, is the magnolia tree.