The House on Cherry Tree Lane
By Kassandra Alvarado
Published by Kassandra Alvarado at Shakespir
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My mother rarely used to talk about her childhood growing up in different houses. The family paid rent, sometimes ran out during the lean times. In each photo album from the successive years, there were photos of the family’s chosen abode. Some were small cramped cottages, others ramshackle hovels on poor city streets. The photo album from my mother’s eleventh year, a year they spent in the Californian countryside, was bare. I hadn’t noticed the lack of photos until her sudden illness last year.
She had asked to be taken home, my house in the suburbs of Chicago where I’d lived most of my adult life. The attic was full of remnants of my childhood and part of her inheritance after my grandmother died. I still remember the day I climbed up the pull down staircase, ascending into the heights of the peaked roof dormer attic, musty with the scent of memories.
Mom had wanted to be surrounded by her memories, her pictures of growing up and others of her first marriage. I didn’t think much of it, at first, climbing up and down; hefting sagging boxes of cardboard to a small unused bedroom off the third wing. It was there that I’d begun sorting through the piles, going through them in chronological order. This was done on my days off from work, the process taking far longer than I expected.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was leafing through art assignments, smiling at the crayon drawings of flowers and trees when a smallish paper slid out from between two folios. I wasn’t surprised as many such photographs had been jumbled up in the initial packing. It turned out to be a photo, black and white with a border stained greenish one side as if something corrosive had leaked onto it. It was of a house I’d never seen before. One that dominated a small clearing surrounded on the left hand side by thick greenery with a small slice of lawn overtaken by longish grass. The house itself was a small two-story cottage, weathered white clapboarding, a peaked roof with a weathervane perched high.
Script ran across the top border in my grandmother’s sparsely elegant hand.
The house on Cherry Tree Lane.
I blinked at the name, dredging up a plethora of stories I’d been told throughout my years. I didn’t recall such a name. I recalled Leighton Street, San Diego Street, Elmco Ave and many other addresses that bore no resemblance to the one I held. “This place…,” something about the photo struck me as wholly innocuous.
Mom sat in a white wicker chair on the veranda overlooking the tree-lined street. On the table beside her, a pitcher of iced tea sweated in the summer heat. Her glass of ice and amber liquid created small staining rings on the pale green octagonal side table. “Mom,” I let myself out the sliding glass door from one of the bedrooms.
“Yes, dear?” My mom had a kindly, weathered face surrounded by snow white curls. She wore a green pantsuit and small patent leather Mary Janes. She looked up at my approach, affixing her glasses on the prominent bridge of her nose.
“Was this one of the places where you lived when you were younger?”
She sighed, peering intently at the photograph. They say the human eye has linear sensitivity, capturing one in fifty photons of light. Pupils contracted, the fold of her eyelid creased and lowered rapidly. Somewhere a footfall sounded, a baseball crashed into a neighbor’s car window splitting glass with an ear-shattering sound. I gasped and she fixated a hardened look on me.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was…. above in the attic.” I offered.
A box fell upstairs; I heard the noise as it struck the hardwood floor.
“In a child’s toy box along with other things. You never told me about this house before.”
“Rightly, I shouldn’t have.” She gestured to the seat opposite the table. “My mama destroyed the photos a long time ago. I don’t know how one survived the immolation.”
“That house…,” she seemed to collect herself from the depths of memory. “That house was built on a spread of land in the San Joaquin Valley. Thereabouts in California, a place known as the breadbasket of America. The land took its name from the acres of Cherry trees surrounding the house, let out in the picking season to field workers. My daddy was hired in the Spring of the year I turned eleven and as a family we moved in there, two girls to the room here,” she pointed to the second story window that gleamed a dark glassy reflection. “The downstairs had a back den that my daddy reckoned could be used as a Master bedroom on account of the upstairs having only small rooms. There was an outhouse down a tiny path,” her finger traced an imaginary arc through the dense undergrowth I’d noticed before.
She stopped speaking for a time, lapsing into silence. I decided to prompt her gently. “Seemed to me a nice place, mom.”
“It…It was, every day the foreman would come down the dirt road with another pickup full of workers from the town beyond the trees. They’d come and my father would join them, sometimes rising from dawn ‘til sundown. We were used to this, his being gone, mama kept a right good house and made sure all our chores were done ‘fore we were let out to play. Now, your Aunt Emmy, bless her heart, she was the one who found It.”
At the name, my memory conjured up the withered face of an elderly woman surrounded by the white bedclothes of a hospital. Aunt Emily had wasted away five years ago; my strongest memories of her remained those of a young girl and teenager in warped old photographs. “Found what?” The sentence struck me as odd.
“Why the body of course….it was lying out there in the soil of an old cherry tree. Old moldy bone fingers poking up through the dirt, ragged clothes half-eaten and torn. We yelled for mama and she came running out of the house, thinking we had hurt ourselves.”
I could picture her shock, disbelief.
“The corpse had straggly black hair still rooted to the scalp by a few jagged pieces of dry flesh. We could see the remnants of a suit. Recent rains had plagued the area and run off appeared to have loosened the soil. Mama warned us to stay away from it, taking our hands as she led us back to the house. She promised us she’d tell our father about it, he’d know what to do.”
“And did he?” To me, the most logical answer was the authorities.
“He did. He buried it on the southern edge, in a little plot where my mother had been allowed to set aside as a garden. He didn’t want the police sniffing around there, you must understand, things aren’t the way they are now.”
I could see it all in my mind; hastily spaded earth, the bones clanking against themselves as they were tossed in. My grandfather would’ve stamped the newly turned over dirt twice then grunted and spat brown streaked tobacco juice. He would’ve glanced up at the setting sun and wiped his large hands against the dusty blue coveralls.
“How could anyone rest in peace forgotten there?”
My mother folded her hands together like a prayer said but never heard. “Although silently it passed, we vowed never to speak to one another about the body Emmy and I’d found. Emmy was always a very imaginative sort of girl. I suppose it bothered her more than it should’ve. I certainly had no difficulty in playing with my doll and at other small children’s games. Emmy grew wan, thin. She took to long walks by herself when we were let out to play. Mama used to think we were playing hide and seek, I didn’t tell her at first…not when everything seemed to innocent, but Emmy used to go to the southern edge where a falling picket fence gave way to neatly tilled earth. I caught her there once, staring down at the ground where the dirt had been disturbed. I got the feeling she was talking to it. Now, that’s not so strange for children to develop morbid sensitivities. But, she had me, her sister and well, I was jealous.” My mother’s face screwed up tightly, wrinkling into a round, quivering surface of a thousand wrinkles. “Emmy was my sister. Even so, I was the one who took her doll.
Oh! It was bad of me, I know. Emmy went nearly crazy looking everywhere for the doll and I pretended to help and look for it. Mama knew it was me all the time. After supper, she cornered me in the tea rose patterned kitchen and made me confess to the whereabouts of the missing doll. I’d put it nowhere special…an old steamer trunk with a broken lock that served as the table in the den.”
I could see them the shadowed figure of my maternal grandmother, perhaps sighing, hands on hips swathed in a large homemade apron while my mother knelt down and sheepishly opened the trunk. Perhaps Aunt Emmy tugged on her Gingham skirts. Maybe she let out a cry and flew at my mother with upraised fists.
“It wasn’t there. The trunk was empty. I couldn’t explain it.”
“They thought you were lying.”
“Of course, I’d never been truthful as a little girl. I always got my own way, whatever Emmy had, I had to have better. When daddy heard about it, he took the switch to my backside. But, there wasn’t anything to confess. The doll was gone.”
“Was it ever found?”
I could see it now. The house was quiet. Sunlight warmed the western side as the sun traversed the cloudless sky overhead. The lazy drone of flies hummed against the screened porch. A small girl climbed the stairs into the shadowy recesses of the upper floor.
“They’d gone out picnicking beneath the blossoming cherry trees. I was left behind as punishment with a slice of cold ham and milk in the icebox. I’d gone upstairs to play a game of cards. Lying across my bed, fanning the red and black Queens, I thought I heard something…a slight sound, the creak of a knotted wood stair. Naturally, I thought mama had come back for something. She was moving about so quietly that I rose from the bed and went to the door. I went out into the hallway, to the top of the stair and looked down. I could still hear movement down there, uneven as the floor creaked under not two, but with four distinct thumps. The same instant, I was reminded of what it sounded like, goose pimples broke out on my bare arms. It was the sound of someone crawling on all fours!”
“I could see nothing, nothing at all, but could hear the sound as it moved stealthily across the floor and to the base of the staircase. It was the fear that held me there and fascination for though I couldn’t see anything, I could hear it. I’ve never known such palpable terror in all my life since that moment.” She finished with great effort, pausing to dab a napkin to her mouth.
“But, it was just a noise.” I mildly protested. “One that had a cause in the natural world.”
“Oh, certainly that’s what a skeptic would say.” She scoffed, “blame it on sunspots, on a country girl’s mind. I was rooted to the spot ever so long that when it stopped, I heard the sound of the key turning in the lock and my parents’ voices. I stood at the railing when they came in, laughing, cheerful. Only Emmy stopped at the foot of the stair and looked around. She knows, I thought helplessly, but didn’t know what she knew.”
“We stood side by side at the old kitchen sink, wiping our teeth with salt and baking soda. The white foam tasted awful, frothing unpleasantly at the edges of our lips. “There are things in this house, I hear them too.” Emmy said solemnly.
“You shut your mouth.” I hissed afraid mama would hear us.
Emmy looked at me, spat in the sink and went to our shared room. When I entered, she lied there unmoving, staring up at the ceiling. Her silence frightened me most because she hadn’t meant it as anything but, the truth. I was frightened of those things and the flat speech of my sister who said those things existed. Mama and daddy didn’t believe, being solid stock from Missouri.”
It was about that time that things started to go missing around the house. Little things, mama’s silver-handled hair brush from her wedding set; daddy’s pipe, my shoelaces.
“Daddy was returning one sunset, with the reddish light lowering in the west. The old ranch truck stirred dust obscuring the horizon. He’d been out inspecting a suspicious fire on the northern edge of the property. Mama had packed him off with an ample picnic lunch, serving us girls, baked beans and cold toast. I still remember his face when he walked in after the glow of dusk had faded. His face was as white as a sheet.
He’d been driving along the dirt track, the bed bounced over the ruts in the road. He’d stopped with the glow of sunset behind the dusty windows of the truck. He’d taken a sip of coffee from the thermos, lowering from his lips; it was then that he saw her walking along the side of the road. Almost level with the truck, visible in the rearview mirror. A woman…pale, her head down, her hair lank and her body clad in a shapeless white night dress.
He was startled because there wasn’t much out there at the time. Just fields and cherry trees. The houses were far and few between. What was she doing out there all by herself and dressed thusly? Daddy leaned over and rolled down the passenger window. “Hey!” He called, “hey, you there, this is private property! No tres—?”
But, she….she disappeared.
Likely into the copse of dying trees, maybe down another path.
Now something wasn’t right about her, he felt that right away. He kept sipping his coffee until the dregs touched his lip, then he switched on the ignition. The glow of dusk was fading fast, the darkness was settling in across the land. Daddy drove past her, keeping his eyes on the road. When he came level with her again, his eyes darted to the side where the girl walked and still no sign that she even heard the dull roar of the truck. Daddy said he’d driven on another quarter mile, leaving her far behind, he made a few turns, cutting through a work path.
He never said how he far he was from the house when he saw her again, walking ahead on the narrow lip of dirt and scattered branches. “What the…,” she was ahead, but how? He paled and his hands clenched the steering wheel. Something was horribly wrong about the figure. He tried driving past her, drawing level once more. In the second that he passed her, she stirred and in the mirror, he glimpsed her face as she lifted her head. He told my mother later, there was a desperate sort of hunger in her face and a terrible longing that frightened him. He gunned the engine and drove recklessly the rest of the way to the farmhouse.”
“Our mama listened to his story silently, then when he was finished, rose up and brewed him a strong cup of coffee. That night, he bolted and locked every window and door, parting mama’s wispy lace curtains to peer out into the gloom. Noticing us watching, he barked at us to go upstairs and bed. I’d never seen papa in such a state. I was frightened climbing into bed, pulling the covers over my face, shivering with the knowledge that whatever could frighten a grown, strong man like papa was still out there somewhere.
They’d talk about it over coffee some mornings, in hushed voices meant for us not to hear. Mama would tell him of the day she found all our missing items hidden in a barrel in the cellar. When she’d fall silent, he’d tell her of the sound of a man crawling on all fours, horrible murmuring noises and muffled screams that he’d awaken convinced were real. These were all things that we never knew, we were oblivious, innocent to them real or imagined.
“I’m afraid, George. The girls act as if nothing’s wrong, but it’s bound to affect them.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
She fell silent and their conversation remained unspoken.
Then, one morning, daddy didn’t leave to work and he announced we were moving. “Everybody pack up, we’re leaving!” With those words, in mass exodus, we scrambled top and bottom, piling crocks in blankets, gathering broom and dustpan. I pulled worn suitcases from the closet top, precariously balanced on a small three-legged table of my mother’s. In that suitcase, I piled our clothes, shoes and frayed ribbons from past county fairs. Emmy helped our mother downstairs, dusty as a ghost when she reappeared on the landing below. “Triny, daddy says to come down already!”
“But—, I looked around at our beds, neatly made, our wooden toys and my building blocks. The strength fled from my body and I sank onto the braided rug. It wasn’t fair at all. This had been our home; I’d loved the trees and the pale pinkish blossoms carrying a faint scent in the springtime. I’d loved the weathered rooftop that made little rat-a-tat-tat sounds in the rain. I didn’t want to leave this house.
Emmy climbed the stairs and stood a little ways behind me.
“Sissy, come on.”
“Must we?” My voice sounded far off.
When I made no move to get up off the floor, she strode over and grasped my arm, hauling me to my feet. We left that house, she and I, left our toys, my dreams and daddy’s job.”
“But, there is more…I can see it in your face.”
“…a postscript, if you were.”
We moved into my aunt’s townhouse some miles away. One day, Mama heard the sound of weeping upstairs while folding laundry in the washroom. She’d thought one of us girls had come back inside. Mama went to the foot of the stairs and listened intently; our aunt had loaned us the use of three rooms above with an attached bathroom. Oh, we’d thought we were living high on the hog with interior plumbing.
“Emily? Triny?” She called, concerned. We heard her calling over our noisy games outside and came in banging through the side door. “Mom, what’s wrong?” She was halfway up the stairs, her face tilted upward. At that same instant, the sound stopped. Mama looked startled, “wasn’t one of you upstairs just now?”
“No, we were outside,” I answered. “Why?”
Before mama could speak; Emmy looked up to the ceiling above us. “They’ve followed us…haven’t they?”
Mama and I turned to look at her.
“Who, sweetie? There’s no one here but us.”
“No, mom. They’re here, the dead ones.”
From then on, we moved into a succession of tenements, crumbling, rat infested places. Yet in all of them, the one pervasive factor remained…something, whether a noise that was unexplainable, voices in the night and the one day when I too, saw the woman with the hungry eyes, we were haunted.”
“How awful…but, how did you get it to stop?”
My mother lifted her withered shoulders, her mouth pursing in a way that I knew meant she would tell no more. She was a strange person, a secretive person, unwilling to share her childhood with anyone. Maybe she’d had a reason. I thought of something else.
“What about the corpse you found?”
“Dad told us that the corpse had been legless, severed at the knees…the victim, whoever it was, had been tortured to death.”
“Then, I suppose no one ever found out who the murderer was?”
“Who can say?” Mom shrugged, lifting her frail shoulders. “Around the kitchen table years ago, I overheard my dad telling mama that he’d heard in town that the rancher’s daughter had a suitor who’d gone missing. The couple was sweethearts long before her father found out. The young man was a hired hand who had a gift with trees. He’d tended to the young cherry saplings, coaxing them to grow in that particularly barren patch of California. They used to meet on the borders of the land.”
“Where that woman was seen from time to time….,”
“When he disappeared, no one was surprised. It was thought he’d skipped town to avoid the father’s wrath. The girl was sent with a distant aunt and was seen no more. The rancher who had owned the grove of cherry trees lost the land to a developer. He left town, a broken, embittered man. Most of the townspeople, that is, the ones that knew of his daughter, figured the poor thing had died of grief. But, that’s all heresy, no one really knows the truth.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt, chilled in the breeze blowing off the balcony. “And the picture? What should I…?”
“Burn it.” She said as she stared down at the faded photograph. “Sprinkle salt in the ashes.”-Finis
AN: This story contains some factual events that occurred in my grandmother’s time, thanks for reading:] Happy Halloween!