Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


If you read his previous frightsome foray, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, you know Josh Reynolds doesn't fool around when it comes to tales of terror set in the sinister south.  This time "Jolly" Josh digs up a lethal lesson in horticultural horror -- or as we say here at P&D, a little "bone and gardening"?  I must admit, I had never heard of the Kudzu vine, but, after this, I don't think I'll ever forget it...



By Josh Reynolds
About the author

THERE'S AN OLD SOUTHERN FOLK DITTY that rattles around in my head as I write this -- something about the different trees and their personalities. Folk medicine, a hold over from pagan ancestors who still worshipped the tree-spirits and the old things in the land. I can't remember how it goes exactly -- something about pine, then a verse about elm, the harmless trees. Then comes oak -- Oak, he hate -- and then willow -- And willow, he walk -- Evidently the black sheep of the tree family, those two -- Oak and Willow, the one who hates and the one who walks.

Scary stuff, if you believe plants think.

I just wish the writer of that particular little piece of musical trivia had thought to include something about Kudzu. It might have saved me some time.

Kudzu, he creep. That sounds about right. Or, perhaps, kudzu, he strangle.

The last is more appropriate given my situation.

Kudzu, he strangle.

Much better -- more menacing. Perhaps whoever finds these hastily scrawled pages of mine will remember it because of that.

Or perhaps, by then, it'll be too late.

It grows fast, you know -- overnight they say. I believe that now. I believe because I've seen it stretching and throbbing down there in the darkness, those fleshy leaves folding and rippling like the lids of a blind man's eyes -- and they are blind indeed.

Otherwise, I wouldn't have the time to be writing this, now would I?

It began a month ago, when I and Adeline -- Addy, she liked to be called -- Addy moved to Jackapo County from Sumter. Addy liked to joke that we had traded up. I still don't get it. Both were poor counties -- Jackapo more so to be fair -- but I digress, we moved as I said. I was offered a teaching job at one of the local high schools and Addy could do her Horticulture studies for the University anywhere in South Carolina, so it wasn't that big a deal.

Addy. She was beautiful, you know. More than I deserved. Coffee-brown hair framed a delicate face that betrayed her mother's Italian nationality. Wide, expressive eyes that saw through every white lie I had told or ever would tell -- and full lips that quirked so easily into a smile that showed her ever so slightly crooked front teeth. She hated her mouth, but hated the thought of braces even more. For that I was glad.

She was perfect the way she was.

Enough -- I can hear the leaves pressing sloppily against the window -- back to the story. Time waits for no man. Especially this one it seems.

We found a moderately priced house in the boonies, a bit of a fixer-upper, but nothing we couldn't handle. A bit of paint -- some re-shingling.

And clearing the lot of the kudzu that had almost taken it over -- there was a veritable jungle in our backyard. Being a born Southerner, I detested the fleshy vine. It was innate, just like our desire for ice tea at every meal that took place after breakfast. Addy hated it for more professional reasons -- kudzu is parasitic. It feeds off of other plants the way vampire bats in South America feed on cattle -- weakening them over time, eventually killing them.

And like I've said before -- it grows quickly.

The house had only been vacant a month and the kudzu had gone from a few vines to a veritable ocean of green with only the trees visible over its leafy mass. Addy mentioned repeatedly that it wasn't natural in her best confused scientist voice. I could've told her that much.

Nothing about that plant is natural. It crawls at night, you know -- it doesn't grow, it crawls, using thin shoots to push itself along like some hideous snake.

I took a bush axe to the mess the very night we moved in. Three hours of swinging and chopping and uprooting. Pain in my shoulders and calves and arms, but all worth it -- I cleared the entire backyard, every shoot, every tendril. Addy was waiting with a massage and a bottle of Gatorade. Like I said, all worth it.

By the next morning, it was back.

Not all of it by any means, but enough to make me regret not burning the roots. By the weekend, it was thick enough to walk on. Out came the bush axe once more, and this time I tilled the ground with a rake to uproot anything I may have missed before. By the time I got finished, the yard was a sand pit in all but name. I sprinkled grass seed and wet everything down with the hose as a coup de grace and went back inside to grade papers, congratulating myself on beating the weed.

I tried a controlled burn when it came back the next week. That stopped it for a few days, but not totally. For every extermination method I tried, it grew back all the faster -- tougher -- longer. It took more effort to hack it away, more time.

I thought I was losing my mind. No weed could survive what this patch had. Addy wanted to move -- something about how, each time it grew back, it grew closer to the house -- as if advancing on us, like an enemy army. But I refused. We would have lost our deposit, and we just couldn't afford that, not on my salary.

Plus, who likes to admit a stringy weed beat them?

Chemicals came next, something that Addy was quite vocally opposed to. I ignored her objections with all the stubborn assurance I could muster and effectively mustard-gassed our yard. Addy was not pleased with the result.

Flowers and grass wilted and withered becoming sickly and yellow -- the bark on the trees peeled and curled like the flesh of a burn victim. And the Kudzu -- the Kudzu came back. Again and again, testing my patience, my strength. And always it spread closer to the house, as if new seeds were being brought to the surface by my efforts.

I had come to the conclusion that it was actively resisting my efforts to kill it. When I hazarded my suggestion to Addy in a moment of screaming frustration, she laughed in that quiet way of hers, a laugh she saved for when I was being especially thickheaded and mulish, and asked me what had I expected? For it to just lie there and die?

I growled some snide answer at her and stormed out of the house.

As I look back on it now, I wish I hadn't said what I said.

I wish I had held her in my arms and told her I loved her.

But I didn't.

I went for a drink instead. And damn me to hell, I went for one, but stayed for three.

Make no mistake; I drink little as a rule. A shot of something at a social call now and then, but little else the rest of the time. But the frustration had gotten to me, worn down my nerves until they were raw and sore.

I couldn't figure it out. Neither could Addy, with all her accumulated plant lore. And so I sat at the dingy, chipped bar of the Rail's End Bar and Grill and slung back several shots of Wild Turkey, hoping the alcohol would release some hidden creativity for dealing with the demon seeds in my backyard.

It didn't.

And while I killed brain cells, the kudzu killed my wife.

I can see you now, whoever you are that finds this testament. Perhaps you wear a smirk, or maybe a frown as you read that last sentence. Let me reassure you then. I am neither joking nor insane. No matter how much it would please me to be either at this moment.

You see, evidently, Addy decided to obtain a clipping of the kudzu to study while I was gone. She had told me repeatedly that the weed shouldn't grow back as fast as it had. Obviously she had at last resolved to study it for herself.

This much I gathered from how her horticulture tools lay spread out on the monogrammed blanket my mother had given us as a wedding present. The blanket was unfolded on the back steps, and several clippings were already scattered about. When I got home, the back porch light glinted off the shiny surfaces of the tools, reminding me of animal eyes in the darkness. I shook off the feeling.

We had never had trouble with animals of any sort, even though we lived in possum country. Oh, occasionally we'd find bones. Mostly when I stripped the kudzu from the earth each weekend.

In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to what the land was telling us.
I called for her, hanging fuzzily from the porch banister, called for Addy in the night. Even as sloshed as I was, I could tell something was wrong.

She never answered me.

The only reply to my increasingly frantic calls was the sound of the kudzu leaves rustling in the wind.

A few seconds later, I realized that there was no wind to rustle those hideous leaves.
I remember screaming as the first leathery vine coiled cat-soft about my booted foot, the leaves unfurling up under the hem of my jeans, brushing across my socks, all sickly wet with a sweat too thick to be water. I fell backwards, the edges of the hardwood steps gouging into my back, splinters shoving through the fabric of my shirt in painful defiance of my weight. More vines crawled across the dead grass, dyed blue by the darkness, their feathery tips brushing my ankles, my knees, my crotch. They were the touches of a lover almost, or a friend.

Still screaming, I clawed my way up the steps, pulling loose of the tightening strands, and threw myself onto the porch. With what could've been a sigh, or perhaps just the hiss of a thousand, thousand leaves fluttering at once, a hulk of kudzu humped up over the edge of the top stair, its feelers whipping about in a hungry way. I got to my feet, my screams drying up in a throat that seemed to have ceased functioning, and I lurched through the backdoor, slamming it behind me. I shot the latch as multiple thumps resounded on the other side of the thick wood.

Through the windows, I could see vines crawling up the banister of the porch rail, turning it from white to green. Then, as several leafy strands slithered over the porch light, it burst in a scattering of sparks, and I could see no more.

I don't know how long I sat on the kitchen floor in the darkness listening to the sounds of the kudzu strangling our house. It seemed like years, squatting there like some ancient Neolithic ancestor, waiting for the night sounds to fade.

But they didn't.

By the time dawn crept over the horizon like a frightened old man, the kudzu had gotten beneath the house. I could hear it shifting down there, like rats in the walls. It crept through cracks in places. I tried in vain to find them all, to stuff them with books or knick-knacks. It slunk up through the sharp, downy insulation in the walls, bulging the wallpaper repulsively in places. The downstairs toilet trembled on its porcelain leg and began to wobble crazily as the vines pushed through the pipes. So too did the sink.

I came upstairs to our bedroom, where I now sit, only scant minutes ago.

The kudzu got in somehow. I heard glass shatter as I took the stairs two at a time, so the vines must have pushed through the living room windows.

Or perhaps the dining room windows.

It doesn't matter much, does it?

The few glances I have risked out the bedroom door have shown the entire first floor of our house is nothing but a living blanket of green.

The power just went out.

The phone is dead.

Just like Addy.

It is dusk now. The kudzu gathers at my windowpane, searching for a weak spot most likely, some minute crack to exploit. I cannot tell whether it is intelligence that drives this -- thing, or whether it is merely spreading according to its nature.

Perhaps it is of no importance.

Addy would have wanted to study it.

I, I think, will kill it. At least once more, before it takes me.

That is why I left the gas on downstairs before I came up here. My vision is already blurring from the smell, and waves of heat fill the room.

And now, as I end this, I will fold these pages up in a plastic bag and wrap it in several towels I have wetted in the water remaining in the bedroom toilet. Hopefully it will be enough.

Hopefully, someone, somewhere will read this.

Hopefully, whoever you are, you will believe my last testament.

It may be the only hope of stopping whatever this is.

The vines will soon crack the glass -- and they will pour through.

But not before I thumb this lighter in my hand to life.

The End


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Kudzu is copyright by Joshua Reynolds. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)