(published 13th May 2019)
The banana leaves were shredded by the storms that had torn through Florida in September, but new growth had already unfurled, and turgid green leaves clapped in the wind. Dana sat alone on her back terrace and sipped red wine that she couldn’t taste. She sucked on her cigarette, gazing at the smoke as it jetted from her mouth and dispersed into the blackness beyond her porch light.
It had only been a few months since Troy left her. He had a heart attack, which might not have even killed him if he hadn’t careened off the road into an alligator infested canal. Blunt trauma to the head, the coroner’s report said, from the impact of Troy’s skull against some part of their old Jeep.
Their marriage had been a pleasant one. Troy owned a print shop, and Dana had been content to fill a practical purpose in the household—keeping the drawers filled with neatly folded laundry, serving Troy his timely breakfast, lunch, and dinner, never leaving a dirty dish in the sink. She kept their large property neat and orderly, and found it strangely gratifying to stare at the oleanders she had chosen to match exactly with the pinkish trim of the house.
But the banana trees interfered with the vision Dana had for their garden. They shot from the ground, standing straight and silent like an army waiting for orders. Those on the front line collapsed as if they were the first to get shot. They lay on the soil like corpses in a mass grave, surrounding the new ones who were eager to sprout up and replace them. It was an endless cycle, and when she chopped up the fallen trees to put them out in the yard waste bin, the putrid smell of the sap would never completely wash out of her skin. The trees produced bananas that were gritty and nauseatingly sweet.
Dana wanted to rip the trees out, but Troy insisted on keeping them. They reminded him of his time in Indonesia. This was when he had backpacked Southeast Asia before they were married. He always spoke about it with a misty reverence that annoyed Dana—moonlight parties on the beach, beautiful submissive women, and mysterious lore—beloved memories she wasn’t a part of. His dream was to escape to one of those dark islands, but Florida was as far as they ever got to a tropical paradise.
Dana took another drag from her cigarette and laughed to herself. Troy had told her she would be cursed if she ripped out his banana trees. Indonesians believed that spirits took shelter in them. You couldn’t pee in the jungle without asking them for permission or an angry ghost would follow you home.
Dana wasn’t afraid of ghosts, but there was no evidence against them either. She had thought she’d find out after Grandpa died. She was a teenager standing in the doorway as her mom held his shrivelled hand. He wilted away without a fight. With his last exhalation he seemed to deflate and become part of his rumpled bedding. After the funeral, Dana thought Grandpa might be floating beside her, watching her, reading her mind. He’d know if she masturbated in the shower or lip synced in the mirror. Equal parts fantasy and suspicion, she censored her thoughts just in case. Could Troy be watching her now? She closed her eyes and tried to feel him.
Then Dana became aware of a sound that didn’t belong in her yard. Beneath the flapping of the banana leaves was a knocking, like the sound she heard when submerging her ears underwater at the beach, the crackling and popping of crustaceans on the ocean floor—otherworldly and primordial. When she looked toward the strange noise, she saw a silhouette she had never noticed in her yard before.
Her heart seemed to punch through her diaphragm. It now throbbed in her stomach as adrenaline crackled through her veins, quickly vaporising the stale wine that polluted her blood.
Stay still. Don’t overreact.
Maybe it would go away if she pretended it wasn’t there. Nursing her wine in anxious little sips, she lit another cigarette and waited for the shape to move. Ashes crumbled to the tile floor in one-minute intervals. The trill of the crickets rose in pitch. Surely it would move, but it did not.
Could it be a new shrub she had forgotten that she planted? She forgot a lot of things lately. Too much grief. Too much wine. Or maybe it was a stump that only looked peculiar because of the blue glow of the moonlight. But no, this shape emanated a presence, persistent and constant. She felt like it was communicating to her. A wordless messenger.
She stood up and walked to the edge of the terrace until her toes curled over the edge of the tile, trying to peer into the darkness beyond the light. She made out what could have been a round head and the slope of shoulders and was uneasy with the notion that the shadow might read her mind and use her thoughts against her. But as she gulped more wine, her fear acquired a bold curiosity. A home invasion. An alien abduction. A visitation from Troy’s ghost. She was ready to welcome anything. Something to shake things lose, to tell her what was really going on. Reckless anger had replaced dull resentment and now that Troy was dead, she felt she was entitled to an answer. The world just couldn’t keep going on as usual. She was always waiting for the jig to be up. What if this was it? She crept backward and sat back in her patio chair to observe. To wait for it. To dare it to move.
Dana dreamed of Troy every night. She wanted to believe his nocturnal visitations were a communication from him, but she knew they weren’t. At some point, there would be a flaw in his appearance or a glitch in his personality. Her brain couldn’t re-create him perfectly. In this morning’s dream, she was able to lift his bulky body effortlessly, and she carried him around with her wherever she went, trying to make sure he still felt part of the world, that he still participated in her life. He was limp, as if paralysed, except for his frightened eyes that darted from her face to the ground and back. “I won’t drop you,” Dana told him. For some reason he couldn’t speak, but he was awake, alert and asking her with those frantic eyes. What is going to happen? Will you abandon me? Where will I go?
They’d never talked about what they would do with their remains. They weren’t young, but death had seemed far way. He was buried in the small cemetery a mile down the road where an ancient oak tree hunched over his grave. Thinking of his body kept her awake at night. How long did it take for the flesh to rot off? What did he look like during the different stages of decomposition? Dana fought the compulsion to dig up his bones just to confirm that the death really happened. To smell the rot. To make sure it wasn’t a prank and he hadn’t re-emerged to live a secret life on some island like he’d fantasised, drinking out of coconuts, surrounded by compliant girls with soft, brown skin and black eyes full of guile. But she never pushed her fingers into the cold soil beneath that hulking oak. Instead, she caressed the tree’s leaves, pressed them between her palms, ripped off the tips and inhaled, thinking some particle of Troy was being slowly sucked up through the roots, through the green veins, into her hand.
If only they’d had a child. But she and Troy were too busy. Or maybe they were afraid of disrupting their convivial comfort. Or maybe she didn’t feel like nine months of sharing her body (of giving up wine and cigarettes either). They had each other, and that was enough, but Troy was gone as if he never walked on Earth, and who would love her now?
Dana was a little drunker than she liked to be. She wiped tears from beneath her eyes and lit another cigarette. Her eyes rested on the tree line, unfocused. How she loved the waxy smell of Troy’s ears, would she forget it? He always spoke twice as loudly on the phone as he did in person. How that irritated her. Would she always be able to recall his booming voice? Troy. Where are you? Where did you go?
She watched that program on TV every Wednesday night, the one about quantum physics. Everything was a combination of the same minuscule particles that had existed since the birth of the universe. We were all nothing more than temporary shapes, as flimsy and transient as the white clouds passing above her.
Dana lifted the wine bottle, estimating that there was a cup or so of Cabernet left, but the murky green glass deceived her. There was nothing but a drop in the bottom, but she couldn’t go back into the house with the thing out there. She’d never be able to fall asleep knowing it was hiding among the army of trees, stalking, taunting. The wine was an hourglass that had run out. It was time to call the bluff.
She stubbed out her cigarette and gripped the empty bottle by the neck. Pressing her eyes closed, she cracked it on the step and approached the silhouette, pointing the broken bottle in front of her as she stalked through the moist grass. Cold soil pushed up between her toes.
Dana yelled into the trees. “Hey! I’ve called the police.” The moonlight slid down the glass, glinting off the pointed shards. She clenched her muscles, bracing herself to jab whoever or whatever was hiding there. But she hoped that within the dark form was the answer she always sought.
She heard a loud crack. The shape juddered in the wind. It had been trapped between limbs where it only could rattle. Now it was dislodged and free to slap against its neighbours, just another banana leaf being blown with the others.
That explained it. Everything was explainable, yet the answer was never enough. The particles formerly known as Troy had been dispersed, transmuted by millions of bacteria into organic matter, into atoms, into the subatomic. She would never know if his soul was floating next to her in some other dimension, if he screamed her name against some invisible barrier, or if his consciousness was erased, his body dismantled to become building material for the next in line.
Dana wasn’t going to wait for a ghost or an accident. She wasn’t going to linger on until she vanished into her deathbed. She would find the answer herself right now. Sinking to her knees in bitter determination, she plunged the jagged edges of the bottle into her wrist. Her hot blood seeped into the earth, into the roots of the trees. Blackness blanketed her, and the banana leaves applauded.
Christa (Wojo) Wojciechowski is the author of The Wrong David, The Sick Series, and Conviction, which was published in the 13Dark Anthology’s second issue, Cursed Crossings. Greatly influenced by Russian and Gothic literature, her characters explore existential turmoil, mental illness, taboos, and the complexity of romantic love.
Christa currently resides in the cloud forests of Panama with her husband and a house full of pets. She works as a freelance digital marketer and loves to help fellow authors build their platforms. Christa thrives on foreign movies, travel, wine, and the outdoors. Most of all, she’s passionate about books and writers, and loves discussing them with people all over the world.