"We don't like to talk 'bout it, y'hear?"
The well-dressed visitor pressed stop on his digital recorder. His host, a ninety-five year old man with a mind and tongue as sharp as a razor, glared beneath bushy white eyebrows.
"Mr. Akins, sir. On the phone, you said you'd be willing to give me your story."
"Yeah, well. That was a'fore th' milk curdled in my coffee as soon as you knocked on my door. And look at the kitchen winda!" He gestured with one gnarled hand, indicating the window over the chipped and scarred enameled steel sink.
Bright sunshine was mottled by dozens of black flies crawling over the outside of dingy, yellowed glass. After over a century, the bottoms of the panes had grown thick and wavy, but the sight of so many insects seemingly trying to get in was unmistakable.
"I'm sorry Mr. Feld, he's having an ornery day." The elder Akins was assisted by his granddaughter, and she was sitting across the small Formica table from the curious American History professor. "I think he's just looking for reasons to not be cooperative today. He gets in these moods." She looked over at the old man, lovingly, and a with a touch of disapproval.
"Girly, don't you talk fer me. I kin do jussfine. It aint natural, it aint."
Now that he'd seen the flies on the window, he couldn't unsee them. They kept drawing his attention, and the houseguest shifted in his seat, fiddling with his pen and legal pad.
"It's alright, sir." Trying to soothe the old man and still get his story, Feld continued. "I understand if things aren't comfortable for you to discuss. But we're talking about something from eighty-five years ago. Don't you want the truth to be known?"
"Seems t'me you just want to put this story in your book, Doc."
Professor Feld nodded, smiling. "Yes, Mr. Akins. I do. But this story needs to be told. It's the greatest American tragedy that no one even knows exists."
Hands shaking, Akins lifted his coffee cup. He sipped tentatively, pulling a face. "Goddammit. I hate black coffee. Even with sugar."
Chiming in, the granddaughter spoke. "Grampa insists it's some kind of omen that I haven't been to the store in a week. The milk was off." She laughed.
"It was fine yestiddy."
Feld decided to try a different approach. Turning towards the twenty-something woman, he commented, "I can tell he's from Taliaferro. You, though. You don't sound like you grew up here."
She smiled. "I'm not. My mom couldn't wait to get away. She raised my brother and me up in Maryland, near Burkittsville. I've always loved this part of the deep South, though. This old house, the family farm. I couldn't stay away, especially after my grandmother died last year. I've been helping out ever since."
Old man Akins spoke up. "She was killed, girl. Tell the truth."
Cindy rolled her eyes. "She died in her sleep, Gramps. She was eighty-four."
Feld interjected, "So she was born after the trial?"
"Yessir. She missed all that mess." Akins sipped his bitter brew again.
Choosing to ignore the old man, Abraham Feld, PhD and professor of American History at the University of Georgia, turned his attention towards Cindy. "Did she ever tell you stories of what happened?"
"Oh, I've heard things here and there. I'd come and visit when I was a kid, and she'd whisper tales. Ghost stories to keep me tucked in bed at night, so I wouldn't go wander in the woods or fields. I used to do that sometimes, when I got a little older. The starlight out here is magical. It's almost as bright as if there are streetlights, once your eyes adjust. It's amazing, especially out near the creek."
"The creek?" He made a note on his notepad.
Cindy smiled. "Yes. The creek, and the tree."
"Is it as big an oak as I've heard?"
"The goddamned creepiest, blackest, knobbiest goddamned tree ever seen. I woulda cut the fool thing down, if I weren't so feeble."
"Oh, grampa. Admit it. You're scared of the thing, that's why you never did plant within a hundred yards of the creek, even though it used to be cleared." She admonished him teasingly, but warmly.
"Girl, you damned right I'm scared. You should be, too." He finished his coffee in a gulp, and the clink of the mug hitting the table was an exclamation point to his statement.
The teacher turned back to Akins. "After eighty-five years, you're still afraid?"
Rheumy eyes darted back to the still-darkened window. "I thought I was over it, son. The things I saw, no boy should haveta see. The things I done, no boy should haveta do. I thought, gettin closer to seein' God and all, I figure I'm due any day now to just keel over, I thought I could finally work past it. But I gotta wonder. Is it God waitin' fer me?"
Silence filled the kitchen.
"Tell me about the Pacific."
In stark contrast to the loathing that filled the room, Hartley Akins spent the next two hours discussing his involvement with the SeaBees during the Island Hopping of the Pacific. The digital recorder silently glowed, and the guest and the granddaughter listened, fascinated, as one of Taliaferro's last living members of the Greatest Generation told most of his story.
It was halfway through lunch that Akins surprised everyone in the room.
"Cats. Black ones. They git a bad wrap. E'rrywhere is this crazy superstition 'bout em. How they b'long to the darkness. It aint true, see. They's always warning us. They's in all them Halloween decorations, showin' em as hissin' and carryin' on. Like they's the pets o' the' devil hisself. They aint, tho. They aint. They're hissin on account of they want to warn us of evil, boy. Tellin us it's near. It's all a trick by Old Scratch, it is. Makin' us think they the bad 'uns, them cats. They's just cats, but they know. Animals know."
There was a pause. Two heartbeats, maybe three, and the old man continued in a flood.
"I tied the rope. I always was good at knots. Deddy, he gived me the hemp & told me to noose it. So I did. He threw it up over a low branch in that damned tree. Told me to git back home after my fifth knot, after that fifth rope was strung." Sweet tea had replaced black coffee. His hand, steady during his warstory, was shaking again. He looked at the window, and back at the professor. "It was a strong limb."
The window had cleared as the morning moved on to lunchtime.
Suddenly, a black fly slowly crawled across a pane, and the kitchen itself seemed to hold its breath as the occupants also stopped breathing.
Three more flies landed on the viscous glass.
Three became nine. Nine became twelve. Twelve became a hundred. Stunned silence was broken as Akins spilled his tea.
Feld couldn't help himself. He tried to push the old man into finishing, even really starting, his story. "Tell me, dammit! The biggest trials and executions since Salem, and it happened in the twentieth century! Unbelievably, no one has ever really heard of it. Tell the world, sir. History needs the truth!"
The old man was terrified. The granddaughter sat, watching, quiet.
Akins shouted, "The truth, goddammit? The truth is the Devil is real, the truth is I seen him in them women, and the truth is he don't want me to tell you nothin. GET OUT!" He punctuated his last by throwing a fork, complete with crumbs, at the professor.
The absurdity of an old man throwing a tantrum would almost have made him laugh, if the words hadn't been so terrifying.
Afternoon sunshine had stopped coming through the kitchen window. It couldn't penetrate the mass of flies trying to gain entry.
Finding her voice, Cindy finally spoke to Feld. "I think you should leave, professor."
In the ensuing silence, Feld gathered his belongings and thanked Akins for his time. The old man just stared at the window.
Following him outside, Cindy put her hand on his elbow, stopping him from getting into the car.
"Doctor, wait. I'm sorry for my grandfather."
Feld smiled. "Don't be. He's obviously scared. I guess we'll never really know what happened here."
Gathering herself, she asked. "Do you want to see the tree?"
"You seem nervous about it. I thought you weren't afraid of the old stories."
"I'm not afraid. I've been there dozens of times. But you have to admit that Grampa...he's terrified. Panic is contagious, even if he is a bit off in his old age."
It didn't take Feld long to decide. "Yes, show me."
"It'll be faster if we take the Mule."
"We're riding mules?" He seemed incredulous.
She laughed, and her face finally relaxed. "No, no. It's an ATV. Come on."
She led him to the barn, where he was happy to find a four-seater gas powered golf cart, complete with knobby tires. The drive across overgrown fields took several minutes, and the forest deepened around them.
"How long as it been since any of this was planted?"
"Oh, I'd say the farm stopped actually farming sometime around Grampa's seventieth birthday. He had enough to retire and pay the bills, so he called it done. Sold all the big equipment. Split off a few acres here and there to sell to homesteaders. But most of it is all still intact. Especially the creek."
The sky darkened noticeably as wooded canopy shrouded Feld and his host. Seemingly at random, Cindy stopped the Mule.
"We have to park and walk from here. It's just a couple of hundred yards through the brush, there."
Feld saw a worn footpath through briars.
"You come here a lot?" He asked as he grabbed his digital camera from the seat and began to follow her.
"We never really seem to be able to stay away. By the way, that won't work back here. That's why we have to park so far away. Electric things...they just, stop."
The professor chuckled, and slipped the small camera into his pocket. He didn't notice how she answered his question, and he never registered the significance of a lone black cat crossing in front of the Mule as it came to a stop in this lonely corner of farm property.
The almost jungle-like trek lasted longer than he felt it should have, and just as he was about to ask where they were headed, the path opened into a clearing. So perfect was the clearing, in fact, that absolutely nothing living surrounded the hanging tree for at least a dozen yards in a perfect circle.
A rocky creek burbled behind the largest, darkest, oddest looking Live Oak Feld had ever seen. The bark was almost black, and even though it had been nearly a century, the "very strong limb" in the Akins story was obvious.
Speechless, Feld retrieved his camera and tried to photograph the sight before him. It refused to power on. Slipping his iPhone from a pocket, it was nothing more than a black mirror, completely unresponsive.
A lump formed in the professor's throat.
"I told you nothing would work, Doc. He doesn't want you to tell the story." Cindy's voice had become husky, almost seductive.
Eyes beginning to widen in panic and confusion, Feld darted his gaze between the tree and Cindy. His face was a burning question, but his voice was a choked, airless thing stuck in his throat.
Suddenly before him, impossibly, hung the bodies of four women. A fifth rope swung in a nonexistent breeze; the air was perfectly still, yet, back and forth, to and fro, the bodies swayed in time with the empty rope.
Cindy changed before his eyes. Her blonde hair went brittle and dark gray, her twenty-something year old skin bloomed with rot and liverspots. Teeth became long, yellowed, decayed splinters displayed in a horrific grin
(oh god she has fangs she has fangs oh god what's going on here)
and her voice was impossibly seductive.
(oh how can that be how can she speak she's dead she's dead she's a fucking corpse)
as she spoke in a bedroom whisper "Don't run, Abraham. We want you to meet someone."
(I have to run I have to go this is not happening)
So of course he ran.
Laughter of five women followed him as he crashed through the underbrush of a path that wasn't there anymore, as he tried to run back to a world he'd never know again.