This is the last of this year’s prompted writing. I’m going to have a heck of a time going back and stitching this story together. Like a patchwork quilt, or maybe Frankenstein’s Monster when it is done.
“Baby girl, come look at this.” The old woman stood slowly, shedding her blanket onto the back of the chair. She stayed bundled up in her layers of shawls and scarves.
Shelby, with a glance at Johns, who just raised his eyebrows silently and stayed seated, followed the woman out of the kitchen. The opened package still lay in the middle of the kitchen table, the stuffed rabbit standing up in the wrappings.
The hallway was dark, and Shelby hesitated, waiting for her eyes to adjust. There was a click, and a dim, warm light spilled from an ornate tasseled lampshade. Shelby looked at the long wall, covered with framed pictures.
“Here.” The little old lady picked up one of the framed photos that was standing on the narrow table by the lamp. She held it in the light. “That’s us.”
Shelby bent closer. The aged photo showed two gorgeous young women, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, laughing at the camera. One of them wore a slinky red dress, the other a black gown that flared at the knees and showed off an astounding amount of décolletage.
“That’s me.” A thin, knurled finger landed on the black dress. “Almira’s in red, of course. Elzbet’s the Black Queen, she’d say, I’m the Red Queen.”
“Queen of Hearts, Queen of Spades?” Shelby couldn’t help herself, it just popped out. Of course, the backdrop in the photo being one of the old riverboat gambling hells prompted it.
Elzbet, her face seamed with the passage of years, laughed in delight. “You guessed it! We were always together and oooh, boy, did we have them panting.” She sighed, and touched her sister’s image with a gentle fingertip. “Until King came along and carried off his Queen.”
“What about you?” Shelby asked, curious how the elegant performer had come here, to this farmhouse in the odd little pocket of the city that time had left behind.
“Oh, well, I got me a real man.” Elzbet smiled widely, showing her missing teeth. “Look here, now.” She turned to the wall of photos. “We were so in love.”
She pointed up at a framed photo of two people. She was tiny now, and looking at the picture Shelby realized that she’d never been a tall woman. The man she was cuddled up to in the photo loomed over her. But you could see in the curve of his body that he was protective of his tiny bit of a wife in her white dress.
“Tom was a good man.” Elzbet sounded a touch defensive, and Shelby wondered why. “He had it rough,” the old woman went on, her voice soft. “But he loved me no matter what they said. And we were safe, here. It’s a refuge.”
“Because…” Shelby prompted. She was wondering about the farm. How had they managed to keep this place unspoiled? Elzbet misunderstood.
“I was black and he was white. That simply wasn’t done, back then. Now, nobody turn a hair. Then?” She turned her palms up.
“He was brave.” Shelby said simply.
“He loved me mor’n ennything but this place. And this place loved me too, so it was all right.” Elzbet turned back to the wall. “Here, see.”
The photo was a snapshot of an older version of herself than the bride tucked under her husband’s wing. In it, Elzbet was curled up in the lee of a giant oak tree, so old it’s branches had arched down to touch the earth and grow clones of itself up from these junctures. It looked for all the world like a fairy’s bower, and Elzbet in it, her hair fluffed around her laughing face, the fairy.
“It’s a special place. Cain’t no one live here ain’t loved by that tree.”
“I see.” Shelby didn’t, and wasn’t sure what to say.
“This place. The city swallowed up all the land ’round it. But can’t see this place. They tried, once.” Elzbet cackled, a sound of mirth and malice. “Only onc’t.”
“You found a refuge.” Shelby tried to lead the woman back to what she wanted to know. “What about Almira?”
The Red Queen. The Queen of Hearts.
Leigh Kimmel prompted me with: “Warning that certain ground is sacred or accursed; that a house or city must not be built upon it—or must be abandoned or destroyed if built, under penalty of catastrophe.”