(I wrote this story about a year ago. I hope you enjoy.)
THE CURSE OF JANICE BIRCH
‘Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’ Deuteronomy 32:35
Passing through the large dark tunnel, the clicking of train tracks panged against the dusty stone and reverberated through their seats in a tiny, subtle hum. They were the Miltons – tall, vibrant, light haired; always with an innocent, touristy smile; always touching one another; always looking out the windows for something, anything, to smile about. All of them extremely delightful, overjoyed – save for the snot nosed, bug eyed Janice who, for the time being, had attached herself to them at the previous station, some twenty miles east. Her clothes were tattered, ragged, hanging about her like algae, and her skin smelled of a festering swamp. All of this –the train, the Milton’s, the red velvet seats, and the cool blue of the train sweeping against the sky, had an impeccable delightful air of an American family vacation. All of this, though, was about to be ruined.
The tracks squeaked and steamed whistled against the darkening horizon. Mattie tugged at her mother’s white dress. Thomas and Samuel sat, staring out onto the station with a desperate glee about them.
“I call it first,” Samuel said, narrowing his eyes and shifting in his seat. His hands clutched the arm rest.
“Not if I beat you there. Whatta we make it, say, two-to-one?” Thomas grappled his belt and un-tucked his shirt. “How much do you want to lose this time, son?” he asked.
Samuel shook his head but didn’t remove his stare, which directed toward a tiny, wooded sign drifting above one swinging, wooded door, where boys and men scampered into hurriedly. Groups of people two cars ahead were frenzying about, taking luggage, screaming in broken tongues over and against the harrowing shuffle of people. The men waited impatiently.
The Milton’s, as they were, were a uniquely friendly family. The father, Thomas, was a large framed man; a barrel chest, his shoulders and neck tanned, with dark eyes and wheat shimmered hair, which glowed with speckles of amber and gold. His face was dignified, hairy, his nose a slight bump in its bridge, and a smile that greeted everyone kindly. His wife Anne shed a similar resemblance, her dark eyes and wavy, gleaming curls dawned on tan, freckled shoulders. Then there was his son Samuel, the older more ambitious brother, with light eyes and a crook of neck curiosity of the world, but also Mattie, the rambunxious little sister that played with flowers, squealed with glee at birds and bugs, and talked with a matter-of-fact educated rule, that came out in whines and a high-pitched laugh afterwards. It was as if the entire family had kindled together over the years, their embers of hair and flames of smiles grew into a pile of a burning fire; all of them lovely, happy, and affectionate, on the cool blue of a Mississippi train.
“Two to one it is,” Samuel said, eyeing his father, who looked impatiently at the metal doors that blocked his way.
Janice Birch had never attended school. Her lessons were held in a stuffy ballroom on the western end of an adoring, white stone, white pillared mansion. Her father was Eugene Birch, a wealthy landowner, her mother, Dolores, a communal bride offered by the former plantation owner Arthur Trimbald, who passed away last spring leaving Eugene, a newly inherited son-in-law, a wealth of millions. However, despite the servants, the dark, plucked hands that grassed the entire mansion, there were only three people who lived in the house. The family was a bend of sorts in opposing directions. Dolores often never spoke and barely moved from the living area. Eugene sipped hot milk every morning and demanded silence, only to retire to his library and count his money for hours. Then Janice, who took the drowning silence as a reason to rebel, stormed a tantrum to all ends, leaving sobering looks from the dark, heavy faces of servitude.
The mansion stood between a nestle of large dark trees. They draped green and grey moss which seemed to linger out with branches as fingers towards the house, making a tapestry that hung over the trees in a defining allure. White and purple azaleas garlanded dark green ivy, which spread amongst the house in a riot. On a walk past one could tell the actual stone of the mansion was old, even chipping, cracking the rough grey into little pebbles that guttered into a puddle behind small, piney bushes. But no one had walked past the mansion, or even outside of it, in eight years, save for the servants who muttered to themselves.
In front of the mansion was a large field where dark men and women plucked flowers, vegetables, and fruit. Some of the men headed to a small wooded hut, with branches and twigs defining the windows and entrance, which stood next to the stone in a bitter contrast to the delightful construction known as the Birch mansion. Despite the small huts, there were pens filled with pigs, cows, and even a white farmhouse, its wood chipping, that smelled of hay grass and straw, which was a little farther down the field. Janice was there almost every day, coddling herself in the straw and looking between the cracks to spy on the servants, who took her game lightly, rumbling amongst themselves and flashing eyes of certainty towards her. She’d giggle and pry herself between two boards, creating stories about them, and more often than not, she’d relay the stories as true to her father, who later reprimanded them in a coarse tone.
On one unusual day, Janice found herself alone, prancing about a trail that ran parallel to the estate, singing and skipping, when she came upon a small swamp. The path drooped a small hill with branches and rocks protruding out, to which she navigated easily. The swamp itself was covered with a dark layer of lilies, where frogs and other life bloomed fertilely; insects buzzed around her ears; frogs seemed to hermit a lovely symphony of solitude; the trees echoed banter unlike the forced, heated silence of the air in the Birch mansion. Janice curled her dress upon her and inched closer to the shoreline. She leaned against a stump that came out a few yards into the swamp, the perimeter of the pond in the shape close to a heart, and listened intently.
Her ear’s ring in heavy wanes from the silence, but there is none. All the life of the Mississippi dwelled here, at a small swamp with overhanging branches, moss, lilies; giant mushroom heads attacked a verdant lush of green life on chipped logs. Everything seemed to connect the forest, making a cape of black, gray, and green hems blanketing her. She found herself very tired, looking upon the eerily but peaceful swamp.
It was after seven, and the light was fading against the horizon. The trees began to loom in odd and strange ways, casting frail shadows over her fair skin. Her eyes began to feel heavy, drooping lower and lower. Her dress wrapped warmly. She could feel the cool breath of wind sweeping over her. Her eyes loomed even lower. Again and again, the swamp voiced a melancholy tone. Janice, with parting, tiring eyes, slept.
Thomas Milton had not only volunteered for the military, rescued Tibetan dogs in Alaska, went headfirst into the village runoff, but had also performed many deliveries as the town’s only doctor, to which he says, brings him the most joy. Once, when Chinamen passed through building the train his family now rode in, he offered his entire house as a resting area for the small, gawking foreigners. He took their choppy, shorted chants as approval, and smiled when they rummaged through his stock, killed his pigs, and attempted to seduce his wife.
The Milton’s had finally decided to make their long awaited move to Jackson, Mississippi. Their children had spoken of this trip more than once, since both parents had coddled them with a visual escape to somewhere they’d never been, with new adventures lurking around every corner. Mattie was told of bugs with extraordinary colors that seemed to bring luck upon anyone. Samuel was told of creatures unlike anything he’d ever seen. Whenever Thomas and Anne spoke of Mississippi, the stories always fell on silent ears, as the Milton’s drew a world of a rich and lathering bath of treasure; an escape into the glorious and exciting unknown.
“Alright son, two-to-one,” Thomas said in a hurried voice. The metal doors clanked awkwardly, and scraped whilst opening. Both males struggled furiously to reach the entrance, falling over one another in a ghastly game of race. Samuel slipped under his father and narrowed through the doors, while Thomas shoved behind him, locking eyes with others in a friendly, genuine smile. “My son is running away, help!” he screamed.
When Samuel came out of the train, he was met with an unexpected applause. There were some fifty people in a line, cheering at him, as well as his fathers, mothers, and sisters. Children danced around in a circle which soon rushed him, but not before his father stumbled out, clicking his heels along the station platform. Again the crowd gleed- women gawked and swamped him with attention; men shook his hand and thanked him for coming. His wife Anne was met with lustrous lures of illustrious men, who were clean shaven and suave, who blessed her, creating a cross with their hands across her face. The daughter, Mattie, was soon taken up by an older woman, who cascaded her with kisses and little candies, squeezed her cheeks, clasping a silver cross amulet around her neck. The whole affair was rather outlandish, and the Milton’s met them with anxious eyes.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” a large man stated, moving through the crowd which parted at his voice. “Seems you’re the Milton’s.”
Thomas stared bewildered among the crowd as the large man made his way toward them. He was dressed eloquently; a flush black suit, bow tie, and a shimmering long penguin tail which dragged along the ground. He held his jacket in both hands, as if standing on a platform in a gentlemanly way, and his greying mustache quivered beneath the large top hat resting on a balding head. “Thank God you’ve come,” he said.
The family stood silently among the mass of people and quietly shuffled together, as Thomas rested his hands along his wife’s shoulders and Samuel and Mattie fastened to his legs.
“You are Thomas Milton, correct?” the large man asked, taking off his top hat and extending it towards the family. They nodded in approval.
“It is true then,” a voice stated, “you’re going up to Birch mansion.”
The crowd whispered amongst themselves immediately, pointing to the family, their white eyes a glowing spectacle of surprise and monition.
“Why don’t you come this way?” the man said, offering them to the parted crowd, “I will have someone grab your bags.” He nodded to three men standing anxiously to his right, who left for the train and struggled with burlap sacks of clothes and pleasantries.
The family moved together slowly, avoiding the stares and glances the town had thrown on them. Some voices hushed the others as the family moved off the platform and through the station, which stood quietly as every teller and on-goer watched on in amazement.
Anne whispered to her husband, and Thomas nodded accordingly. He turned to the gentleman, still clutching his wife, “What the hell is going on here?” he muttered through clenched teeth.
The large man smiled, his cheeks turning a rosy pink, and said “Oh, Mr. Milton, that is nothing,” he said. “Why don’t you let me grab you a carriage?”
They passed out of two large wood doors which opened up to stairs that ran into a dirty, muddy road. Carriages were pulled by large horses who, stuck with mud on their heels, trudged heavily through the thick slush. Red cobblestone stores with wood porches seemed to dim among a slight dew of the evening. “The weather has been terrible,” the gentleman remarked, “but we can still get you there.”
The family stopped before reaching the last step, the mud frothing up onto it. Thomas sighed and turned aggressively towards the gentleman.
“Oh, should have introduced myself,” the man exclaimed, taking off his top hat and bowing, “my name is Wesley Brown, and I am the mayor of Jackson.” The family narrowed their eyes at him.
“Don’t worry about a thing, the mansion is just how they left it, and it is all yours, I assure you,” he said frantically, pushing the hat about his balding head. He escorted them down into the muck and, with two great breaths, let out two long, nasally, whistles.
Two great horses, about ten feet high, ran furiously towards them and the family cowered together, shunned by their impressiveness. They were all black, with chains of metal cast between them which dangled and clanked noisily. Large spouts of warm white smoke huffed through their mouths and they kicked impatiently at the mud. The carriage itself was dark, black wood, outlined in gold, which lost a little of its gleam in the dewy evening. The door opened and waited. Soon they were carted off together in a carriage, led down an old trail towards an old swamp.
When Janice awoke she found herself in a very different place. It had begun raining, though she didn’t know when, and she huffed and curled into a ball. The noise had gone missing. All that was to be heard was the heavy drops and the water crashing about, the trees now screaming a reoccurring whir.
She looked around, but nothing. Darkness had befallen the swamp. The trail disappeared and creeks of mud slithered over her feet. She could not see, and her eyes slowly tried to imagine the heart shaped pond, the trees peacefully caressing the water, but nothing. Janice let out a small wail, but no one, not even the Birch servants who looked for her, heard anything.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she noticed the few rocks where she navigated earlier to her left. They were now frothily covered in mud, and rivers seemed to pour down the bank from a glass. She grabbed at the rocks and tried pulling herself up, but fell. She tried again, this time using a branch that rooted deeply, but slipped and saddled. Black mud soon splotched her dress. She tried once more, even gaining a few feet, pulling deeply and hard as she ever could, but slipped and rolled down the tiresome, greedy bank, into a puddle of cold grossity.
She cried. She didn’t stop crying for more than an hour, in deep, heavy wails; her chest heaved dangerously; her sobs spewed snot and sneeze; the tiny, adorable face of Janice birch, was menacingly upset. She screamed insults inaudibly, for there are no words that could describe the state of perpetual fire she was bellowing. Then she tried screaming help. Again and again, she yelled and stopped, peering around in a crook of neck way – nothing. She cursed insults and planted herself on the ground. The river of mud frolicked against her, pulling her ever more away from the bank.
She stood up, this time planting herself into the ground which sucked on her feet, but she couldn’t. Bracelets of mud clasped on her ankles, and she thrust towards a large branch fingering out of a black hole. The root held, but the swamp clasped tightly on her dress, making it harder and harder for her to move. Her hands were slimy, wet, and the root was slipping under her grasp. Soon she could hold no longer, and she wailed, flailing into the clumpy, lilied water that sank her in mud.
“HELP! HELP!” she screamed. She tried loosening the straps of her dress, the swamp already waist deep, but they were strewn so tightly that her shoulders and chest felt heavy and hot against the cold yuck of the swamp. She screamed again, in any and all directions, pleading for help, but nothing. Her cheeks became rosy and flustered, and the swamp inched closer and closer upon her, swallowing the tiny fragments of blue and white ribbons lining her dress. Soon Janice was neck deep, her face a tiny white dot which whirred back in forth in the darkness. She wailed one last time, writhing in fear and agony, pleading for someone, anyone to come.
The rain stopped whirring, the shadows moved back into hiding, and the twilight of the sky became piercingly blue, almost immediately.
The swamp burped a seemingly, effortless, “glup”.
When the Milton’s arrived the sky was already darkening, and tiny lights were being lit in the windows of the mansion. It had been a difficult journey; twice the horses had gotten stuck in the mud, and twice the mayor offered them money for no apparent reason, saying that it was his “civil duty”. But when asked of the Birch mansion, the mayor hesitantly sighed, and disregarded the question entirely.
The horses huffed, the doors to the carriage now opening. Dark men and women came out of the tiny huts and began grabbing luggage, taking it into the house. Thomas stood before the mansion, surveying the dying ivy and withered bushes of azaleas in the front. He turned to his wife who looked at him in a panicked stare. The kids clung to their mother, who then shuffled them into the house, looking about the walls in curiosity.
“Mr. Brown, what is really going on here?” Thomas said.
The Mayor looked away avoidingly, squinting his eyes at something in the distance. “Well, I guess I’ll have to tell you,” he muttered, reaching for something in his pocket. It was a silver cross, almost the size of his hand, and he caressed it on its edges. “There used to be a family that lived here,” he began, “and then something very terrible happened.”
Janice struggled against the sloshy goo. The dooming silenced slickened in her ears as mud and water squirmed around her body. Slowly and slowly she cascaded down, deeper and deeper into the swamp. She could not feel herself breathing as her mouth and eyes were closed in a tight, menacing squint. Farther and farther down, the swamp pulled at ears. Anklets of mud clasped on her legs and arms and soon she was resting against the bottom.
She swung her head back and forth, panicking and fighting the goo around her. Over and over again, she fought against the blackening doom of the swamp. Left, right; it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to help as Janice found herself dizzy without breath, and before she knew it, she fainted.
When Janice awoke she found herself on the edge of the swamp, her dress shining a spectacular blue against the hum of the trees, whose hushed voices seemed to peak and then go silent as Janice lifted herself up. She had no idea how she came of the place, everything was truly odd. Around her the swamp seemed beautiful, and bright; mushrooms swooned on the verdant green of algae on the chipping logs; trees swayed back and forth in an ominous but glorifying swivel; big, bellyful frogs croaked a familiar tone, but different; what was that noise she heard?
She brushed what little dirt she had on her, and made her way back towards the path. There was no rain, no mud, only bright green grass that shimmered when she walked by them, and they seemed to be caressing their heads against the soft skin of her toes.
“Oh,” she said, giggling. The grass stopped fast, a tiny needle point hole opening in the middle.
“You like that, do you Janice?” the grass said, his voice an eloquent tone of formal education, which came out in a lingering, drawing prowl.
“Oh,” she said stepping backwards, almost tripping on a tiny log that yelped with pain. “Excuse me,” she said, picking up her dress and sneezing. “I must be allergic to something out here.”
When she spoke, yellow flowers came out of the ground, bustling upwards in a swirling fashion. “I hope it’s not me,” one voiced in a nasally tone. The flower then sneezed; tan seeds flaked out as yellow powder erupted on her dress. “I’ve been so sick lately,” it said, “I hope it doesn’t ruin my petal-ry.”
“Excuse me,” she said as she leapt from one patch of grass to another, trying to avoid the whimpering logs and flowers that came up in groves.
Everything around her had transformed into living, breathing creatures; the mushrooms batted heads with each other and chanted Irish jigs; the flowers sneezed and spewed powder of pollen everywhere, apologizing for their lack of seeds; trees swayed back and forth and whispered to themselves, pulling moss over their branches.
“How did I get here?” Janice asked. The grass swooned below her, tickling her heels, and the flowers stared at her in revelation. The trees uncovered their hiding, as a blanket of moss fell between the branches, which lingered out and fingered Janice’s tiny, frail cheeks. “You have been sleeping a long time,” the tree voiced a grumbling tone, “maybe don’t sit so near the swamp next time.” He laughed a creaking, crackling laugh, and pushed his branches out which popped in the joints of twigs.
The swamp around her moved flamboyantly. Everything that had been peaceful and calm now grew into a transformed being.
The swamp burped in front of Janice. It seemed to be gurgling bubbles and mentioning something – a name. Janice leaned closer to figure it out, but the only burps she could understand were of simple addition and subtraction. Every now and then a simple “glup” would say a name, and it was only until Janice was a few inches from the swamp, did it reach up and grab her.
She was pulled headfirst into the moshy pit. She clambered into the swamp and resisted, but then stopped almost immediately. Underneath the lilies and frogs, in the black murkiness of the swamp, was a peaceful underwater garden. Long strains of algae spun towards the top, and minnows squealed as they swam around her. In the middle of the swamp was a giant chest, which was opening and shutting again and again, with giant bubbles floating towards the surface. Janice felt herself floating towards the chest, near feet from the gold trim, when a bubble burst on her unexpectedly. “Milton’s,” it whispered. She was taken aback, and as bubbles seemed to swarm her, she popped another one. “Find,” it said. She popped another, this time, saying “the”.
As the bubbles swamped her, the chest pumping bubbles rapidly, a single hum grew: “Find the Milton’s” it chanted, over and over again as she felt herself being lifted, surfacing above the swamp and floating carefree towards the path. “Find the Milton’s,” the swamp burped, and as she headed down the path, she gave one last look to the eerily alive swamp.
The trail opened before her, as if it was waiting to be uncovered and happy that it was. The trees parted, showing the way towards her bright lit mansion, which daunted on her from a looming mountain.
She barreled down the strange alley of opposing oaks. Her dress fluttered as she ran and bits of pollen splashed on trees near her. Finally she saw the lit windows; candles burning behind soft sheets of white; ivy that rode the walls and blinked; trimmed bushes and shrubs that grounded her back to home.
She thrust herself on the door, and before long, a dark, shirtless man, opened the doors.
His eyes, dashingly white, grew in horror. His mouth and face contoured a terribly remarkable face; the shock echoing off his flagrant arms and wheeling scream. Janice tried to say something, but her words tunneled a horrific fear upon the man, who galloped away in heavy wails and simmering eyes.
The doors left standing open, and she rushed inside, rummaging down the halls, tracking dark footprints along the subtle, dark floors. She ran to her father’s library, but nothing. The scent of hot milk had vanished, and even her father’s usual whiff of ore or metal had dissipated; she couldn’t smell anything. She galloped towards the living area, expecting to see a host of servants ready to make bath; her mother crying in joy; her father slipping her two gold coins, but nothing. The darkness of the mansion left her bewildered, and the grey of the sky cast a luminescence on everything. Nothing seemed to move. She then ran to the ballroom to find someone, anyone to help her. Nothing had been left of the Birch’s, save for the terrified squealing of servants who talked in panicked, hushing tones around the house.
The Janice heard something, and as she quietly walked down the halls, a soft melodious voice drew on her. “And you see Samuel, Mattie, the little girl was now a part of the swamp,” Anne said. Her words came out in low, soothing tones, and she brushed Samuel’s wheat shimmered hair to the side. “And that swamp, is why we are here. Deep down inside of that swamp, is a chest.”
Samuel and Mattie strained their eyes at their mother. Janice quietly sat outside, looming in the arches of the door as a festering beast.
“The reason,” Anne said, pulling a blanket to their chins, “is a curse.”
The children widened their eyes, which slowly welled back into their faces.
“I curse you and your family, the little girl screamed” Thomas said, “and with that, a terrible cooing of words rang out from her mouth – a hymn of insects and frogs and lilies parading on water. A sense of rot and smell poured out from her mouth and filled the air.” The children again widened their eyes. “The family screamed!”
With that Anne let out a soft wail while Thomas pinched the sides of both children. “ Then, tiny maggots, fleas, and mosquitoes,” Anne stated with a gross expression, “came swarming out of the little girl’s mouth, which swirled in motion around and around in a tunnel, then dispersed among them in attacking formations, when a giant ball of frogs, branches, and insects came upon them in one terrible PLOP!”
That night when putting their children to sleep, Thomas and Anne spun an amazing adventure to sooth their children, full of talking frogs; families of rich, powerful trees, who only condemned little boys and girls; incredibly self-conscious flowers; mushrooms that butted each other like rams; and swamps that grumbled an all-knowing tone. The story fell on silent ears as Samuel and Mattie, with parting, tiring eyes, slept.