#2022 Short Story Challenge: Sweet Azalea #Folklore

This is the June entry (a little late) for the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. See the original post here. The theme this year is folklore, and I’m very excited about that. I’ve teamed up with my husband Doug to write 12 stories featuring folklore, and we’ve decided to focus on Appalachian folklore. This is story number six. Together we write as Bonnie Douglas. Thanks to Gail Meath for editing this for us!

WARNING: This includes a murder and mentions some other murders.

Sweet Azalea

by Bonnie Douglas

Sylvie Smith breathed deeply, taking in the scents of the holler.  You could learn a lot from the smells around you.  Spring was defined by the earthy scents of freshly turned soil as the family garden plots were readied to begin their task of feeding the household.  Summer brought with it the smells of cut hay and sawdust from the lumber mills preparing the logs cut and hauled in by the loggers. Autumn followed swift on the heels of summer with the smell of apples picked from the small orchards and the creeping damp collecting under the fallen leaves.  Winter inevitably brought with it the smell of woodsmoke filling the hollers and the crisp bitter cold smell that heralded a heavy snowfall.

As Sylvie walked on the hard-packed dirt that passed for a road here in the lowlands outside Bushnell, headed for her best friend Emma’s house, she breathed deep again, inhaling a scent she hadn’t encountered before.  “Mmmm, it smells flowery and very sweet” she said to herself.  “I’ve not smelled that before.  I wonder what it is?”

“Maybe Emma’s Momma found a new flower for her garden,” she thought to herself.   At the thought of seeing a new flower in her friend’s beautiful little garden, she walked a little faster.  Rounding the bend into the small clearing where Emma’s house stood she broke into a run as the sound of a shriek, echoing with the pain of horrific loss, rang from the clearing ahead.

Two Years Later

Sylvie walked out to the kitchen in the tiny cabin and then sighed in exasperation.  Half- filled coffee cups with cigarette butts floating in them cluttered the rickety wooden table.  The wood stove was dark and cold.  Her stepfather Hank had once again left a mess and hadn’t even bothered to keep the fire going. He’d had his scummy friends over for cards again and didn’t bother to clean up.  She poured the coffee into a pan and then dumped it outside.  After dragging in some wood and getting a small fire going in the wood stove, she put the cups and coffee pot in the washbasin and went outside to draw a pan of water from the pump.  She then impatiently waited for it to heat so she could wash dishes and start a new pot of coffee. 

“Useless,” she grumbled, impatiently pushing her blonde hair out of her eyes.  “Why my mother puts up with him is anyone’s guess.”

When the coffee was finally percolating on the stove and Sylvie was washing dishes with newly heated water, her mother, Hannah Haskins, appeared, wearing a thin robe and rubbing her red and tired eyes.

“Where’s Hank?” Sylvie asked, scowling. 

“He was playin’ cards last night,” she replied. 

“I know,” Sylvie said, gritting her teeth.  “He left me a mess to clean up. Is he still sleeping?”

“No,” she replied, puzzled. “I thought he was already up.”

“So he had his friends over, made a mess, and then left with them,” Sylvie said, slamming the dishes around as she washed them.  Perfect!

“Sylvie, don’t get all riled up.  He works hard.  He’s just lettin’ off some steam.”

“How?” Sylvie asked, throwing her hands up in the air.  “How is he lettin’ off steam?  And it was pretty hard work getting this fire going and cleaning up after his card party, by the way!”  She threw the dishrag into the now empty basin and picked up a towel to dry the coffee cups.  She handed one to Momma.  “There’s fresh coffee on the stove.” 

As Momma poured her coffee, she said softly, “He does pay the rent here, and he keeps us fed.” 

“He keeps us fed!” Sylvie scoffed.  He brings home meat, flour, and sugar once in a while, but you plant the garden and manage the chickens and the cow.  You give him more than he gives you.  And how does he even manage to bring that home when he’s gambling all the time?” she asked.  Momma said nothing, but looked away.  “And I know he’s come home drunk more than once,” Sylvie added.  “Where’s he getting’ the ‘shine?”

“Sylvie!” Momma was firmer this time.  “Enough!”

Sylvie softened her tone and reached out to grab her mother’s hand. “I just know you deserve better.”

Sylvie stepped outside and took in the mountain view all around their cabin.  The mountains always managed to calm her on days like this.  The blue and green rounded peaks were iced here and there with smoky white clouds which always seemed to Sylvie to be full of dreams. Anything was possible here in the mountains.  Even in the middle of the depression.

Her thoughts turned to Hank Haskins, her useless stepfather.  This was not the first time he had been gone all night, and he would undoubtedly stumble in later, reeking of alcohol.  Sylvie wondered again about his whereabouts and his drinking.  Where was he getting the moonshine, how was he paying for it, and where was he spending all of his time?  It certainly didn’t look good.  She knew her mother thought so too, but wasn’t ready to face it yet.

“Momma, I’m going over to Emma’s for a while,” she said as she stepped back into the house.  Emma Carey lived about a mile down the road, and Sylvie had been making that trip as long as she could remember to visit her close childhood friend.  She still recalled the day two years ago when she walked down to Emma’s house just as Emma’s parents had been discovered dead, having passed away from a sudden illness.  It was a dark day, but even at 18, Emma had managed to hold onto her land and eke out a living.

As she walked, Sylvie could see the patches of wild Azalea dotting the landscape with vivid color.  From purple to pink to white, they added brilliant color to the rich green mountain landscape.

Emma was sweeping the porch when she arrived.  After her parents had passed, Emma had inherited their house.  She made her living by selling eggs, taking in sewing, and doing whatever other work came her way.   She managed to feed herself from a small garden and the egg money.  The sewing and other odd jobs paid the tax man once a year.

“Hey!” called out Sylvie as she walked up, grinning.  “How are you?”

“Fine as frog’s hair,” Emma replied.  “Just cleaning up a little.”

“You should have seen the mess lazy ole’ Hank left for me this morning,” replied Sylvie, sitting down in a rickety chair.  She huffed in disgust. “Never would have occurred to him to clean it up himself.”

Emma laughed.  “What did your Momma say about it?”

“Not much, as usual.”  Sylvie sighed. “She’ll never admit the truth about her husband.”

Emma looked concerned. “She may one day.  You never know.”

“I’m not gonna wait for that,” I said.  “I’m gonna find out where Hank is getting his drinkin’ and gamblin’ money.

Emma pursed her lips together, pushing her auburn hair away from her face.  “How you gonna do that?  Nothing dangerous, I hope?”

“I don’t know yet,” Sylvie replied, “But I’ll think of something.”

Emma set the broom aside.  “Well, I’ve got some eggs gathered that I have to deliver.  Want to come with me?”

As Sylvie and Emma walked to town, each with a basket of eggs, Sylvie thought again of ways she might be able to spy on Hank. He had worked at the sawmill, but didn’t make near the amount of money he seemed to be spending.

As they neared town, Sylvie saw Roger Crisp loading some bags into his old truck.  Roger was one of Hank’s buddies and had probably been at Sylvie’s house last night.  What if she tried to get close to Roger? 

“Hey, Roger!” she called.  “How you doin?” 

Roger looked up, a puzzled grin on his thin face. He was probably wondering why Sylvie was giving him the time of day.  “Hey Sylvie,” he replied with a curious smile. “Can’t complain.” 

Sylvie smiled and said, “No I can’t complain either.  See you at church?”

“Never miss it,” said Roger, who looked like he’d been run down by his very own truck.

Sylvie winked and headed towards the store with Emma.

Emma looked at Sylvie with narrowed eyes as they walked away. “What you up to?”

“Just lookin’ for answers,” Sylvie replied with a smile.

“Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” said Emma.  “You’ve heard all the rumors about Roger Crisp.  He likes the ladies.”

When Sunday came around, Sylvie dressed carefully for church.  Her Sunday dress was a plain brown, so she added a string of glass pearls that Mama had given her for her birthday last year, and placed a white flower in her mid-length, blonde hair.  Mama had made a fuss when she cut it, but after Sylvie had seen movie posters for Queen Christina starring Greta Garbo, she had to have that pageboy cut. She picked up the hand mirror and her clear blue eyes looked back at her.  She was no Garbo, but she would definitely have Roger Crisp smitten by the end of the day.

And that’s how it went.  Roger was at church, looking shy and uncomfortable in his suit, and she chatted with him prior to the service, fingers toying with her pearls as she talked. After the service, as she left the church and started to walk home, she found him at her side.

“May I walk you home, Miss Sylvie?” asked Roger, stumbling a bit on the gravel road. 

“That would be fine,” she replied, lowering her eyelashes and giving him a ghost of a smile.

As they walked, Sylvie tried to keep up the small talk, but soon switched the conversation to Hank, as she had planned.  “So haven’t I seen you with my stepfather a few times?”

“Yes.  I was even at your house last week for cards.”

“I’m sorry I missed you,” said Sylvie.  I must have been asleep.”

“It was pretty late.”

“I was wondering why you meet so late.  I’d like to see you in the daytime.”

“Well, we gamble for money and a lot of people don’t like to see that.  So we keep it quiet.”

“How can anyone afford to gamble for money during the depression!” Sylvie exclaimed.

Roger suddenly looked a bit closed off, and she feared she had gone too far.

“We have our ways.” 

Sylvie looked at him curiously to see if he would continue, but instead he laughed and replied “It’s not much money anyway.  And if you want to see me in the daytime, that can be arranged.”  He boldly took her hand, and she let it rest in his for a moment before drawing it away.  “Very well,” she said, “Why don’t you come over for supper on Saturday?”

So began her courtship with Roger Crisp.  Hank was surprised to see him at dinner at first, but soon began to accept the fact that his buddy was courting his stepdaughter.  Most of their dates involved supper and walking home from church, but Roger sometimes surprised her with a trip to the movies in Asheville.

“How can you afford gas for the truck and trips to the movies?” she asked one day, as they left the latest show and were walking back to the truck.  “You’re a farmer, and farmers aren’t doing so well these days.”

“Well I found a sort of delivery job,” Roger replied.

“What are you delivering?”

“This and that. It doesn’t pay much, but it keeps the truck running.”

“Can I go on one of your deliveries with you sometime?” she said, looking innocently up into his dark eyes.

“No!” he exclaimed in surprise.  He wheeled to look at her and then seemed to realize the harshness of his reaction. “I mean, it would bore you.  And it’s a long drive.”

“I don’t mind that.”  She picked up his hand and stroked it softly.  “I would love to take a long drive with you.”  She saw his eyes widen and knew she had gone too far.  She was suddenly in his arms and was being kissed, whether she liked it or not.  She gently ended the kiss and backed away. “Think about it,” she said with a smile. She hoped her eyes held promises of more kisses, but nothing else.

It took a few weeks, but with gentle cajoling and strategic kisses, Sylvie found herself in Roger’s truck, late on a Saturday after supper.  After Roger had left, Sylvie had gone to bed and then slipped out, meeting him about a quarter-mile away from her house.  As they careened up a rough dirt road, Sylvie asked, “Where are we going?”

Roger looked tense.  “I’m going to a friend’s house.  You stay in the car.”

They pulled up to a battered cabin about a half-hour later.  A man came out on the porch, and Sylvie recognized him as Bert Piper, another one of Hank’s friends.

Roger seemed to be having a tense conversation with Bert, and then they loaded several boxes in the back of the truck.  Sylvie could hear whatever was in the boxes clinking gently as they were moved, and was sure that this was the moonshine she suspected.  Now she just needed to get eyes on it.  If she could do that, then she could go to the sheriff. 

“Let’s pull over,” she said playfully, stroking his thigh.

“I can’t.  I’m already in trouble for bringing you along.”

“Well if you’re already in trouble, a few more minutes won’t hurt,” she replied, pouting her lips at him.  She had retouched her lipstick while he was out of the truck. 

Despite a longing look from Roger, they didn’t stop. She noticed he was heading towards her house.

“You’re taking me home?”

“Yes.  This was a bad idea.”

“I thought we were going to finish your delivery,” she said, throwing up her hands in surprise.  “We hardly spent any time together.”

Roger said nothing until he pulled up to their meeting spot.  “Sylvie, believe me, I want to take a drive with you.  But not tonight.” 

Feigning anger, Sylvie slammed the door of the truck.  Racing to the back, she lifted the blanket that was covering the boxes and was just about to look inside when Roger reached her.

“Go home, Sylvie,” he said.  “I’ll see you later.”

As he drove off, Sylvie was disappointed that she hadn’t actually seen the moonshine, but began to wonder still if she had enough proof.

Sylvie sat on Emma’s couch the next afternoon, sharing the details of the previous night.  “And I know that was ‘shine in there,” she concluded. 

“What makes you so sure?” asked Emma.  “You didn’t see anything.”

“I could hear the jars when they were moved.”

“That doesn’t prove anything.”

“Well I can tell the sheriff about the nighttime pickups at Bert’s cabin!”

“I guess you could,” Emma acknowledged.  “Maybe he could follow Roger and find out what’s he’s up to.”

“That settles it.”  Sylvie grinned, satisfied.  “I’ll go to him tomorrow.”

“Ok.”  Emma threw up her hands.  “But today we’re gonna have some cookies.  Mrs. Abbot always brings me a couple of dozen on account of me being an orphan and alone.” 

Sylvie smiled.  Emma always tried to brighten her circumstances with humor.  She settled in to eat cookies and drink the cup of tea that Emma brought along with them.

They were still laughing and chatting when Sylvie’s heart began to race.  She felt herself begin to drool uncontrollably.  “Emma,” something’s wrong,” she said, with difficulty.  She could barely speak, and saliva was bubbling out of her mouth.

“Yes, something is,” Emma replied, in a harsh, cold voice Sylvie had never heard before. “You were messing with my business.”

“What did you do?….Why…,” Sylvie stammered.

“You were messing with my business!” she repeated, louder this time.  “I can’t have the sheriff following us.”

Sylvie began to sob.  “Us?” 

“Me. Hank.  Bert. Roger.  Some others.”  She glared at me.  “Look around you! Do you really think I kept my house and land by selling eggs!” 

Sylvie could no longer sit upright and fell off the couch, hitting her head on the floor.  “You were my best friend,” she managed to whisper, as she lay on the hard floor, her head and heart pounding.

“You were my best childhood friend, Sylvie,” Emma replied. “But I’m no longer a child. I tried to tell my parents that.  They found out about my business just as it was beginning, and they tried to stop me. That’s when I brewed my tea.  I brew a very strong tea with the sweet azalea that grows ‘round here. Strong enough to kill,” she said softly.   “I gave it to them over a couple of weeks, and they got very sick.  One day they were dead on the floor when I returned to the house.” 

It was harder and harder for Sylvie to breathe.  She was crying, but couldn’t catch her breath.  Her heart was hammering out of her chest.  As she lost consciousness, she was looking at Emma’s empty green eyes.

When Sylvie’s eyes opened again, she was in a meadow. The mountains rose above her.  She couldn’t move, but groaned. Hank stood over her, holding a shovel. 

“She’s awake,” he called.

“Damn,” said Emma.  “We need this taken care of.”

Sylvie couldn’t move her head, but tried to see to the side.  She thought she made out two holes in the ground. Two?  As she watched, Hank walked away and returned with a limp body slung over his shoulder.  He heaved it into one of the holes.  “Roger won’t be talkin no more.”

She watched as Emma walked to Hank, threw her arms around him, and kissed him hard on the mouth.  “One more thing to do and we’ll be safe,” she said, pointing at Sylvie.

As Hank lifted the shovel high over his head, Sylvie gazed at the mountain sky one last time.

2022

Jenna Roberts was an avid hiker, and she loved her life in the Smokies.  One of her favorite things to do was hike to the old towns that had been mostly flooded when they built the Fontana Dam back in the 1940s.  It was about a 10-mile hike, but the remnants of the towns could be reached by foot.  Once a year, families of those who had been buried there before the dam was built were taken to the cemeteries by boat to pay their respects.  But hikers like Jenna could go anytime, if they were willing to do the work.

Jenna had history in those old towns too.  Her great-grandmother, Hannah, was from Bushnell. She had married Kenneth Roberts, Jenna’s great grandfather, after her previous husband Hank was killed in a shootout while running moonshine in the mid-1930s.  Hannah and Kenneth Roberts had moved to Proctor, where Jenna’s grandfather Charles Roberts was born. They had to leave Proctor for Bryson City when the dam was built.  Bushnell had been completely submerged after the dam was built, but parts of Proctor were still accessible to Jenna if she was willing to hike ten miles.   Hannah had also had a daughter, Sylvie, when she was very young, but Sylvie disappeared at the age of 16.  Most thought she had run off with the boy she was seeing at the time.  Jenna had searched family tree websites, hoping for lost cousins who might have been descendants of Sylvie but could find nothing.

Jenna loved walking in the remnants of these ghost towns, thinking of family who had walked there before.  As she hiked along a new path she had never taken before, she began to smell a strong, flowery scent.  She stopped in surprise.  It was late fall.  There were no flowers around, but she felt as if she was holding a bloom right up to her nose.  The scent was so strong she could almost taste it.  She was surprised, but not alarmed, and felt a sense of peace.  She had heard that sometimes when the dead visited you, you could smell flowers, and this area was filled with ghosts.  She smiled and waved.  “Hello, family!” she called, as she hiked on.

Unseen to Jenna, a blonde girl holding a white azalea smiled and lifted her hand as she drifted by.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This is a tribute to the towns that were flooded and lost when Fontana Dam was built in the 1940s and to the folklore that these are now ghost towns.  It is also a nod to the myth that when the spirits of the dead are nearby, you can smell flowers.  Although most azalea have no scent, the Sweet Azalea is very pungent.  The flower is a pure white, but the long red stamen protruding from the flower like a whip gives it a more sinister look.  Azalea are poisonous, although a human would have to consume a lot before it killed them.

At this link is a great article about the Lost Town of Proctor and the famous Road to Nowhere. 

18 thoughts on “#2022 Short Story Challenge: Sweet Azalea #Folklore”

  1. This sure has some twists and turns! I really enjoyed it and never suspected Emma. My favorite line is ““Fine as frog’s hair,”! It made me LOL. Nice work, Bonnie!

    Liked by 1 person

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