Chapter 1: The Live Oak
Clara: August 1906
I was sitting outside writing in my diary for the first time in weeks when it started raining again. For days it plummeted down, flooding the grass and creating the rotten, putrid smell that I despised. I foolishly relaxed beneath the large oak tree in my grandma’s backyard with the belief that it had finally subdued. It was strange that the scent of a tree could provide such comfort, but I’d spent many early mornings beneath it, taking naps, reading, and writing down my thoughts. I often wished that it could speak to me and tell me its secrets.
Nearly two pages of thought were written down before I felt the rain approach. The breeze tilted the pages, sending them into the pen and smudging the ink. Soon, I was shrouded in heavy mist and raindrops surrounded me, but I was too immersed in my writing to care. It was only once I was unable to write any more that I decided to close the book and run to the house.
I ran as fast as I could through the humid summer air and pouring rain, glancing back for a moment to watch the tree drink in the moisture. My beloved grandma’s home was engulfed by a large white veranda and it took me ages to reach the back of the house. Instead of going inside, I embraced the rain from the safety and cover of the porch. Staring at the sky, my squinted eyes could hardly see through the dull sunlight as it struggled through the thick cloud cover and misty rainfall. It was both a curse and a blessing to love the rain as much as I did. As my hands rested on the rail the raindrops grew in size and intensified, and water pooled around my eloquently dressed feet. The wet sting of the mist on my ankles and fingertips was the only reason I moved away, pushing my back against the walls instead. I wanted to stand in it and let it cover my body, but I knew I looked questionable already, and I was hardly eager to face the wrath of my mother.
In less than ten minutes the rain subdued and the sun peeked through the clouds again. Louisiana’s weather always had an unpredictable temperament and the short rainstorm brought nothing but more humidity, wet grass, and a muddy road. The humidity stuck to my lungs and labored my breath. I held onto the side of the house for support but when my hands brushed the fragile sides, small chips of paint fell to the ground. The pieces scattered across the cypress wood and it sent a qualm of uneasiness in my chest. It wouldn’t be long before the house collapsed and every flake of paint disintegrated into nothing. I wanted to pick them up and put them back, to replace the damage I’d done, but it was useless.
Though the house was not old enough to be crumbling the way it was, it had faced years of neglect. An invasive feeling of dismal nostalgia invaded my thoughts, and I tried to ignore it by peering through the back window. The somber feeling I got didn’t help at all. A lit candle flickered gently by the piano, but there was no other movement. At least, none until my own body jumped in fright at my mother’s voice. I quickly moved away from the window to the door.
“Clara, come in here please!” she yelled less than five seconds later.
I don’t know why it was so important for me to catch that last glance at the live oak tree, but I allowed myself one more before entering the house. It reeked of aged wood, and the crippling foundation was proof of the neglect. Each step produced loud creaks and moans from the floorboards, and since childhood, I’d tiptoed through the house to avoid hearing the noises. The air was musty and old, and it was unpleasant to stay inside the house for too long. The front door entered into the parlor, and welcomed everyone with an overly large staircase, up to the mysterious second floor. Faded crimson carpet covered the steps, and the once soft, comfortable fabric had hardened, into something stiff and itchy. Again, the candle by the piano flickered, and my mother rushed to take it in her hands.
“Clara, please get your grandmother’s attention,” she ordered, blowing out the flame. She scurried off out the side entrance toward the kitchen, a lightless candle in hand.
I did as instructed but didn’t know what to do. My grandma sat motionless in a rocking chair, gazing blankly at the wall. Her deep stare was unnerving and I could hardly look her in the eye. It didn’t matter. Even if I could, her empty eyes probably wouldn’t meet mine anyway. She didn’t recognize anyone anymore, but despite her loss of memory she still smiled as I approached which made me feel slightly better about it. We’d shared many fond memories, and her lost, inert state twisted my stomach into knots. I absentmindedly looked around the parlor, awkward and unsure of what to say to her when my mother rushed back into the room in a huff. She replaced the candle on the piano and darted her eyes toward me, her quiet daughter.
“Clara, please do tell your grandmother goodbye. We should walk home before the rain comes again.” When I didn’t move, she persisted. “Now!”
Her tone of voice was paranoid and shaky, and I couldn’t stop but feel an invasive and uncomfortable apprehension. What was wrong now?
“I thought she was coming with us today?” I asked, directing my gaze back to my grandma. I took her hand and gave her a slight smile that she did not return. My mother responded to my question with a simple shake of her head before urging me to hurry again. The woman had no patience. I wrapped my arms around my grandmother’s shoulder and smiled when she returned the gesture.
“Bye, grandma. I will see you tomorrow.”
I couldn’t shake the melancholy upon seeing my grandma in such a fragile state. To distract myself on the walk home I considered speaking with my mother but such a thought was ridiculous. Although she wasn’t necessarily an intimidating woman, she was often very short with words and didn’t appreciate what she referred to as “mindless chatter.” Thinking again, I decided to stay quiet. It was always the best thing to do in most situations, and I will admit that being quiet was my strongest trait. Though she didn’t say it aloud, I knew my mother appreciated the silence. As we walked, the birds sang their melodic tunes, and the crunch of the gravel beneath my shoes became louder by the minute. Though being silent was usually the right course of action I wanted to talk with somebody. Anybody. Anything to distract me from the uneasy feeling that had been bothering me all day. However, at that moment, the discomfort was better than engaging my mother in any sort of conversation.
For half a mile we walked in awkward stillness until finally reaching our marvelous home, Deveaux Grove. Upon reaching the house, my younger sister ran to us, sweating and gasping for air.
My mother was appalled. “Emma, please go inside and clean up this ghastly mess.”
Emma winced at the two judgemental stares. Her pride was wounded, and she let us both know with the stomp of her foot and twirl of her dress. I didn’t care to defend her, she was a disgraceful sight.
I ignored them both and looked to the sky instead. During the walk home, it had turned an ominous shade of gray. As a small flicker of sun peeked through the clouds for just a moment, and the house cast a colossal shadow over the grass. It was gigantic, with whitewashed bricks, which usually turned it into a bright beacon. But without light to illuminate it, the house was just baleful and menacing. Four gargantuan columns at the front were a marvel to behold to anyone, even someone like me who knew absolutely nothing about architecture. I took a seat on the front steps, sitting on my dress, wrinkling the lush green silk and matting it with dirt all the while not caring how my mother felt about it. I heard another sigh of disappointment from her but instead of scolding me, she strolled into the house, defeated. I didn’t know if I wanted to annoy her or not but either way, she left me alone and that’s all I wanted. My solitude lasted less than a minute before Emma bolted out of the front door in new clothes. I wanted to be left alone, but she started talking to me anyway. I wanted to talk to someone….but not her. My younger sister was always the first person to give me exactly what I didn’t want.
She twirled the edges of her dress and asked with an arrogant tone, “Don’t you like my dress, Clara? Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” Her voice was so high-pitched I thought she’d pop. The dress in question, made of silk as well, was wide at the ankles. The dress looked perfect on her and I couldn’t control the jealousy that crept over me.
I weakly tried to hide the disinterest in my response but was unsuccessful. “Oh, yes it’s quite lovely.”
Emma waited for me to say more, but I stopped there. I didn’t have time to indulge her vanity. She impatiently waited for compliments to her hair or her ribbons but I refused. Perhaps I was bitter because of my envy, or maybe she was just irritating. Though I was undoubtedly resentful, Emma’s arrogance was tiresome, and while most of society embraced her gregarious personality, I certainly did not. At the tender age of seventeen, Emma beautifully carried long, blonde, curly hair and enchanted everyone with her deep emerald eyes. Although my eyes were the same green color, Emma’s had a sparkle in them that mine never had and probably never would.
Vexed with my blunt response, Emma walked back inside the house and as she closed the door I noticed how strongly the wind was blowing. The rain began to fall again, lightly at first but before long the wind was whipping my hair around my neck, unraveling the green ribbons, and releasing strands of my charcoal hair. It wasn’t a beautiful, encumbering ebony or mesmerizingly vibrant. It was just...dull. Quickly, to avoid more damage to my appearance, I scurried into the house. I snuck past my family in the parlor and crept upstairs to my bedroom. As I’d been wanting, I pulled the diary from my bag and, though the sun hid behind the clouds, there was still enough light creeping in through the window to see. Finally, I wrote again.
I listened to the rain thrash against the panes. It was oddly comforting, despite the raging storm outside. Being just out of reach of the danger. I didn’t want to go downstairs, but if I didn’t I knew my mother would have something to say about it. I’d been gone long enough. Reluctantly, I replaced my diary on the bookshelf and strolled to the parlor. I took a gracious seat beside my brother Henry who looked incredibly uncomfortable. Everybody in the room did. The silence made the storm louder.
We sat in cumbersome stillness for quite some time until I gathered the nerve to challenge Henry to a game of chess. Henry was much better at chess than me, but sitting in the parlor with nothing but the sound of the rain was stifling, regardless of how much I usually enjoyed the sound. I think I only enjoyed it when I was alone. He was arguably my favorite sibling, and it was always a pleasure to engage in a game or conversation with him. Whether he felt the same about me was a mystery. I doubted that anyone in the world considered me their favorite anything. We played several games before I again noticed the wind and rain pummelling against the glass, even more fiercely than before. I walked to the window and watched the branches and leaves blow across the lawn.
I looked out in awe. “I didn’t think that the storm was going to be this bad.”
Henry stood and walked to me, setting a gentle hand on my shoulder. He was inches taller than I was, and his body towered over mine. Though that was hardly unusual, everyone stood above me. He stared out of the window for several moments before saying, “Well, it is a hurricane, Clara.” His tone was almost sarcastic. I shot him a look.
“Were you not aware of that?” he innocently asked. “Why did you think I was here?”
He was right. The thought had not crossed my mind at all. It was August and he was usually staying in his college dorm this time of the year. As a brilliant engineering student, he rarely spent any time at home anymore. How had I not noticed? The shutters creaked and the wind howled as a gale surrounded the house and it was as if his comment unlocked the beast within the storm. I briefly noticed my mother drop her needle and thread and scurry up the stairs.
Henry asked if I was alright but my heart was pounding and fear crept into every corner of my mind. The only thing I could think about was my grandma alone in that large, fragile house. She was unprotected, and we left her there alone. I followed my mother upstairs. Though it wasn’t unlike me to make a scene, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. There was no reason to overreact, right? I stood by the doorway and watched her, grateful that she hadn’t yet noticed me. I crept away from the doorway to the nearest window instead. There was a piece of wood missing from the outside shutter and I watched as the catastrophic storm occurred right outside, mere inches from me. Within a few hours, it had grown from a simple dark sky to a destructive force. I was frightened. Finally, I understood why everybody in the house was on edge and uneasy. I felt a flicker of fury at the fact that no one told me. As the storm ripped our trees apart my thoughts shifted to my oak tree. It was vulnerable. Just like my grandma. There was nothing I could do. I snuck back to the doorway of the study to find my mother writing a letter. The room was dark despite the many open curtains, but my mother’s attention was stuck to the paper, and I watched as her hand moved gracefully. She was the epitome of elegance, but her cold demeanor made her unapproachable and, to some, intimidating. She eventually heard me shuffling near the doorway and looked up from the paper, forcing her steady hand to a quick halt. I walked farther into the room, and our eyes locked.
“Mom, we need to go back for grandma.”
She cringed at my usage of ‘mom’ instead of the softer, ‘mama’ I usually called her.
With nothing but a melancholy voice, my mother replied, “There is nothing we can do, Clara.”
The hurricane was ravaging outside and my chest grew heavy as I imagined it ripping my grandmother’s house from its foundation.
There’s nothing we can do, Clara, I repeated in my head.
“But...you urged me to leave and you rushed me home. You must have known,” I dared to say. My tone was accusatory. I knew I was unfairly throwing allegations at her, but my anger rose steadily by the second. Sadness finally covered her face, and my breath stuck and hardened in my chest. Did she leave her in that house alone, aware of a coming storm?
“Clara,” she started. She stood from the desk and walked closer to me. “I didn’t know what else to do. …” as she paused to consider the rest of her sentence, her calmed expression twisted into one of confusion. “She’s lost. Please understand. She doesn’t remember us or herself, and I have been taking care of her for years. I can’t do it anymore!” Her shaky voice cracked and instead of feeling sympathy, I grew angry. “She can’t live like this anymore!” my mother said, reaching her hand out to me. The years were not kind to my grandma, and she’d slowly forgotten her grandchildren, her only daughter, and eventually herself. Even her basic daily routine was impossible without assistance. I recalled the many times my mother ventured to my grandma’s house, assisting her in the most basic activities... I knew it was difficult, but never expected anything of this magnitude. My mother was, after all, not without help having five children of her own. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I didn’t even try to understand her point of view or sympathize and my worry became disgust.
“You left her there on purpose?” I asked, revolted. I violently pulled my hand away from hers before letting her respond. I needed to get out of that house. I deliberately ran toward the front door but it was locked. My brother Benjamin hurried toward me but all I felt were the walls closing in on me. He grabbed my arms and kept me from reaching the lock.
“What are you doing?!” he asked, appalled at my actions. Even if I intended to answer his question, I wouldn’t have known how.
“I can’t be here. I need to leave right now!”
I tried to fight him off. I kicked and screamed like a toddler. It was embarrassing but I was so angry. I knew running out into the storm was ridiculous, but I couldn’t help myself.
“You can’t be out there either! What is wrong with you? Christ, Clara, you are the queen of dramatics!” He held my arms at my sides and his grasp prevented me from going outside but I eventually broke free and unlocked the door. I ran outside and the wind and rain immediately enveloped me in a mass of cold stings. I made it past the steps into the front of the yard, where small bits of branches, leaves, and moss blew in every direction. I looked up at our large house, fearful of its destruction but it remained resolute. I couldn’t help but think that my grandma’s home was not as lucky. The rain suffocated me. I was livid and frightened and when I looked back at the house Benjamin ran into the storm after me. When I refused to move he tugged my arm, glancing nervously at the commotion around us.
“Clara please, we need to get back into the house. This is dangerous!”
I conceded. What was I thinking, anyway?
When we arrived at the door my father and Henry were both gaping at me, unaware of the conversation I’d just had with my mother. I heard the twins, Emma and Harvey, giggling in the parlor at my outburst. I bolted up the stairs to my room and as my mother followed, I cursed her to stay away from me. I ripped off my dress in a fit of anger, throwing the dripping material to the wooden floor with a loud thump. I didn’t know which emotion I felt more: Contempt? Fear,? Or was it rage? It didn’t matter, the only thing I could do was cry. I curled up into the bedsheets in nothing but my damp underclothes and avoided everyone else in the house for the rest of the night. Lying in bed without lighting a fire, I waited for the storm to pass and anticipated the worst.