The Cottonwood Curse by John Beechem

I write these words as a man determined to die.  My life is one of pain, despair, addiction, and darkness. To extinguish the spark of my life would be to smother a doomed flame, a flickering wick of grief trapped inside a human being. Its cessation would be a mercy. Not only to me, but to those whose lives are intertwined by the thread of my own.

The doctors tell me I am a mortal case, and I believe them.  Three years ago, a sojourn to a drier clime would bring me a relief, if sometimes a stinging sunburn.  Now it brings me nothing but frightened stares and bloody handkerchiefs.  Consumption.  The bloody lunged blighter grants her scarlet kiss to the just and the unjust alike, but I am more deserving of her greedy lips than any other, I’d wager. 

In the grandstand, they situate themselves far from me now.  I tire of staining countless linen scraps; now I simply tie a piece of silk around my face, laced with a touch of parfum to ward off the smell of manure.  My family helped fund the construction of Churchill Downs, so even with my affliction, none dare turn me away. 

Howard accompanies me. He oft reminisces about his boyhood labors in my father’s stable, tells me which colt to place a bet on when my mind is too scattered to decide, and is quick to fetch bourbon and tobacco when the need arises.  I allow him to take off his servant’s coat on days that it is warm, and we roll up the sleeves of our shirts, and watch the races together.  Although he is a son of Ham, Howard has a keen mind, and a serpent’s tongue.  He tells me God has damned me for the deeds I’ve done, and my crimes are so wicked, my life has become a hell on earth. “Just a warm breath compared to what waits for you, Mr. Bingham,” he often taunts.  I am inclined to agree.  Howard Freeman is a bastard in every sense of the word, but I’ve grown fond of him.  He’s clever as far as bastards go, and in exchange for his care unto my death, I have written him the sum of $7,000 to be bequeathed from my will, one that will provide well for his wife and their brood, which now numbers nine if my memory serves.  Indeed, it is my cursed memory that torments me. 

The evil night that plagues my mind was almost half a decade ago.  It was in the final days of the Southern Exposition, illuminated by crackling electric lanterns swarmed by moths, a Saturday evening among the dozens of new mansions built in the past few years. Mine stands tall in Belgravia Court, built close to 4th Street for the convenience of our late cantankerous carriage driver, Howard’s father Philip.  God rest his soul, he is among the departed. 

I digress.  Please pardon the chaos of these scribbles; their meanderings are evidence of a scattered mind.  Lilian was with me that night, my golden haired wife, at the height of beauty in her twenty-first year as I was entering my twenty-sixth.  She was of Sanders stock, so her father and half her uncles were Kentucky Colonels.  My father suggested our courtship, hungry for a large dowry, I’ve no doubt.  He held me in contempt, the miserable old man, and knew the depths of my vices made me ill-suited for industrious work. My best hope, he always told me, was to charm a poor, little rich girl, one lonely and with a heart aching from loss.  I followed his advice, and caught the eye of the young widow, Lilian Sanders, at a Wednesday night picnic the summer before my consumption became evident.

In half a dozen months we were wed, and in a display of wealth worthy of Midas, Lilian’s father paid for the construction of our home as part of her dowry.  I also received a quarter of the home’s value in cash, in part to pay for our furnishings.  The remainder was put into an account, a little nest egg for the both of us, to use when we started producing heirs of our own.  This would provide for education at the university, finery to distinguish their level of birth, and other trappings of wealth in this so-called Gilded Age. 

This excess was evident that night at the Exposition.  We were newlyweds out for a night-time stroll.  Our ears were piqued by the sound of a melodious guitar, one plucked by skilled and nimble hands.  A young black man in a bright blue suit, his eyes twinkling with the mischief of a dandy, was playing “Oberon”. It was a song he played often and well.  His father had been one of Justin Holland’s apprentices. My wife stopped, and we turned to listen.  His gaze caught Lilian’s eye and he bowed his head.  The tune abruptly switched, and he strummed a song with lyrics sprung from cupid’s heart.  He had a mythical talent, that is to be sure, but all the pluck of the gods as well, to make such a bold display before my own wife. 

In a flash of hot anger, I pulled Lilian away from him, and we walked down Park Avenue to meet my bookie, Charles Dorsey.  He owed me money for a wager I’d made on a ball game between Louisville and Cincinnati; the local boys lost (as I knew they would–I had made specific arrangements) and I was about to collect a tidy sum.  Lilian was annoyed by my gambling habit, but it made her secret love of the poppy less damning, so in a tenuous truce, we had agreed to discuss neither.  However, she began to protest as we left the guitar player far behind. 

“Damn you, Robert!  That boy was splendid.  Why don’t you ever want to stop and listen to the world for a moment?” Her anger was palpable, if a bit silly. 

I sighed, and pulled a pocket watch from my black vest.  I flipped its gold lid, checked the time, and explained, “Dorsey said 9:00 P.M.  It’s a quarter to the hour, and I find it prudent to collect on my wager before his other debtors come calling.  Forget the darkie; I’ll get Howard to play his banjo for us tonight.”

“I’m tired of Howard’s songs,” she sighed, and looked behind us at the colored Casanova. 

I tugged harder, and he was soon lost from view. 

* * * * *

At the stroke of three, I awoke and felt my bed empty.  Lilian and I slept together every night. After I satisfied my masculine desires, with an empathic rapidity, I would roll onto my back and sleep.  If I woke to fill the chamber pot, Lilian would be asleep, curled away from me.  Tonight, she was absent. 

I pulled my robe on, and grabbed a pistol from my bureau.  Where had she gone? 

I found them in the billiard room.  The cries of their beastly coitus could be heard from the library.  The room had a lock, but as master of the house, I carry a skeleton key with me at all times.  In case a member of weaker sex is to find and recover this journal, I will spare your fragile heart the details, but let it be said, their debauchery would have made Bacchus and Venus proud. 

The pair stopped, their eyes turned toward me.  The young musician turned from my wife and faced me, pulling his blue breeches back on and tying his belt.  His arousal made this a difficult task, to say the least. 

My wife made no attempt at modesty, and laughed cruelly.  “Guitar ain’t the only thing he’s good at.  Is that pistol even loaded?”

I remember nothing but my vision flooding red.  In a moment, my ears were deafened by the crack of the pistol, and when I opened my eyes, Lilian’s blood and brains were spread upon the pool table.  I looked at the smoking gun in my hand, and felt a moment of dread.  Then the dark machinations of my mind began to turn, and I thought of a scheme. 

I struck the guitar player's face with the butt of my pistol.  Abraham Greene; I would learn his name when I read the newspaper the next morning.  The boy fell to the floor, and I picked him up by his ruffled collar.  “You’re coming with me, Orpheus.”

With the barrel of the pistol at his back, I directed Abraham to the door.  I kicked him down the steps, and looked at the bemused crowd of revelers gathering on the walkway in front of my home.  They were strolling by, revelers who had left the Exposition and were on their way home.  “This man slew my wife!” I roared.  “He came into my home, raped my darling Lilian, and with his lustful thirst slaked, put a bullet into her head.  What say ye, gentlemen, ye sons of the Confederacy?”  A few turned away, shaking their heads, and cursing. Half a dozen young men looked up at Abraham, their liquored eyes glazed with bloodlust.

A member of the local constabulary, soaked to the gills but with a yeoman’s constitution, came up to us both.  “This one’s not fit for the courtroom.  We’ll have our vengeance now.”

We formed a mob, and marched north to the Floral Terrace.  To the lynching tree.  Someone had grabbed a rope, and then the dandy’s face was wrought in a coward’s acceptance of death.  He cried and wailed, calling for his mother, staring at me with pleading eyes.  In minutes, we reached the tree, a tall cottonwood.  I grinned, poking him in the chest with the pistol’s barrel as the rope was tightened around his neck.  The constable threw it over one of the limbs, and a trio of brawny men pulled Abraham high into the air.

His death did not take long.  When it was over, when I was certain, I fired a pair of shots into the air, and returned home.  I told Howard to allow the magistrates to enter the estate, and arrange to have Lilian’s body taken away.  I made arrangements to contact her father. 

* * * * *

The following five years were spent in bleak misery.  After Lilian’s death, I spent much of her father’s fortune in the brothels.  I was intelligent enough to protect myself against Nature’s punishment for fornication, but tuberculosis came to me instead.  In the remaining years of my life, I vowed, I would have a lifetime’s worth of experiences.  I traveled down the Mississippi in an opulent steam-ship, sailed near Cuba and the Bahamas, drank absinthe by the crate, smoked hashish by the pound, and gambled my life’s fortune away.  It did nothing but numb the pain, which would inevitably return.

And so I waited for my life to end. 

Three days ago, I began to hear the tune of Oberon played from outside.  I would shut my bedroom’s window, but the song would not cease.  Even with the bellowing of a trumpet in my parlor or my ears plugged with wax, nothing could push the dreaded melody from my mind. 

But this night, I have found it.  I have traced its source, in the light of the full moon, to that tree in Floral Terrace.  I walked the blocks north in my bed-robe, my pistol to protect me from scoundrels, and my journal to record my observations.  As soon as I viewed the blonde leaved-tree, the sounds of Oberon ceased as suddenly as if a conductor had willed it. 

I stared up into the branches of the tall cottonwood.  Somewhere an owl hooted, and a bat flew from its arboreal perch, into a cloud of bugs basking in Luna’s glow.  I saw Abraham, hanging.  I see him now.  No longer corporeal, his spirit glows a dim blue.  Abraham’s clothes are tattered, but his face is no longer tear-streaked.  He looks down at me, impatiently. 

In front of the trunk, someone has placed a pile of black lilies.  For me, I realize. 

Tomorrow is the day of all Souls.  I will see Lilian in Hell, but I never want to see Abraham again.