I drove by the place three times before catching a glimpse of the overgrown path, barely visible through the tangles of honeysuckle. Perhaps it was my time in the city, but I was expecting a driveway, even though the parched mud flat I was driving on could hardly qualify as a road.
I pulled off into some tall grass and parked, still a little uncertain as to why I was here. I turned and got out only a wee bit slower than normally, my protruding belly no more than a minor hindrance at this point.
From the road, the old Washington place resembled the dozen or so other abandoned homes I saw on my drive out this morning. Apparently this faraway corner of the county had missed the economic boom of the nineties. A sagging roof was fighting gravity, windows were broken, and the rickety porch didn’t look like it could hold the weight of a healthy tick hound.
Closer, though, I could see that someone, probably teenagers, had painted nigger on the twisted, one-hinged door. At the base of the house, chunks of glass from broken beer bottles glimmered in the midafternoon sun. The left side of the top part of the house was missing, and black crust indicated where a fire long ago left its mark. I wondered who put it out. The newspaper clipping I read at the library said Mrs. Lenore Washington disappeared without a trace on the night of May 27, 1954. It was believed she took her two children with her, although the Gazette didn’t mention their names or ages, and I couldn’t find any follow-up articles in the collection of microfilm.
Then I saw the tree and froze. A towering Dutch elm bowed westward, as if leaning away from the heat and the hate of that night: A tree that was perhaps 150 years old, a survivor of a plague and a fire not twenty feet away. Across a strong, lower branch were the remnants of a rope. Tired, frayed edges barely managed to hold onto the limb it had encircled for so many years. I stared at that vestige that remained on long after the residents had been removed. I closed my eyes, but still saw the dark figure swinging in the night.
“There’s strange fruit,” I muttered, the voice of a ubiquitous blues singer playing in my thoughts, “hanging from the trees…”
In the thick weeds behind me a cricket chirped, slow and deliberate and unexpectedly near. The sound jerked me back to reality, and I made my way around to the other side of the house with one hand protectively on my belly. I didn’t walk by the elm.
I couldn’t walk by the elm. Towards the back of the house I was surprised to find a cherry tomato vine creeping out of the brush, a handful of ripe tomatoes waiting patiently to be harvested. This must have been the Washington’s garden at one time. Somehow the tomatoes had re-seeded and were still here many generations after human hands planted them. I plucked one of the bright red treats, popped it in my mouth, and was taken aback at the tartness. I kicked my foot into the thick overgrowth and found several small gourds and what looked to be a wild celery plant. I picked one of the gnarly gourds, a yellowish thing about the size of a baseball, and took it with me. I ran my fingers over the bumps like they were Braille and saw the headline again that brought me to this place. Murderous Mob Lynches Local Man.
I continued my loop around the house. The sweet smell of honeysuckle filled the air, and I breathed it in deep. I was close to the burned section now, and I wondered again how the fire was put out. Why didn’t the Washington place burn to the ground after the hoods and torches set it ablaze? This far in the country there were no fire hydrants. In the fifties, fire departments weren’t likely to put out a fire at a Negro residence anyway. Did the neighbors lend a hand? Did they help Lenore Washington escape with her kids? Did they see the Washington’s as people like themselves, regular folks doing the best they could, or were they a part of the mob that was so full of hate it could kill?
The old news clip stated Trevor Washington was believed to have been involved with an unnamed white woman. The article gave no proof or substantiation, but that was America in the fifties. How about today, I wondered as I came upon the tree again.
I looked down, half expecting to see blood stains or perhaps a worn out pair of work boots, but there was only thick, untamed grass. I rubbed my belly, that two-pound ball of life inside me, gently squeezed the gourd and remembered the razor wire words of my mother before I left. “No white man will ever touch you again.” I spit the residual bitterness of the wild tomato into the dirt.
At my car, I looked a last time at the old elm tree and watched as a huge black crow lit on one of the upper branches. It cawed out a warning in a single manic note and stared at me. A cold chill ran down my back and into my baby.
I put the gourd in the empty cup holder and rubbed my belly again for comfort.
‘Strange Fruit’ first appeared in Wordgathering, Volume 7, Issue 2, June 2013.
Chris Kuell is a blind writer, editor and advocate. His work has appeared in a number of literary-- and some decidedly unliterary--magazines and journals.