Mother said if you were too slow, if you were late to school, it’d swallow you whole, like a big snake. It wasn’t from here, brought over as a cheap import to shade Southern porches and be sculpted into topiaries on plantation lawns. It didn’t fit in, so it revolted, growing inches a day over whatever was in its path.
The boys said that if you swallowed a watermelon seed, it’d grow in your belly and you’d look like a pregnant lady until you popped it out through your belly button. But if you ate this, they said, it’d choke you from the inside, twisting and twirling around your organs and crawling through your veins until you fell over dead. When they cut you open, there’d be nothing but green. The boys chased you around, tried to make you eat it, your sweaty bodies clashing against each other and then bouncing away, your frenzy knocking down the honeysuckle behind the baseball field until the ground was speckled in white and yellow.
Paw-Paw said it’d eat you if you got more than ten feet away from him while you were out fishing. He pointed to the trees and abandoned barns, even the rusty old car gathered on the other edge of the lake. “They’re suffocating,” he said. They were blanketed in green, like the forts you made as a child and slept in, safe, until your brother knocked them down.
A girl at school said her sister’s boyfriend’s cousin used it in her sloppy shotgun wedding after she ran away from home, pregnant and scared. She wrapped the vines around her head like a crown. By the time she made it down the aisle, it’d grown down to her feet, a veil of green, and when the groom pulled it back to kiss her the vines reached out to cover him too. The couple lay bound and dying at the altar, like a spider’s prey wrapped in silk.
But that’s not how it happened to you.
You were alone in bed, the sheets sticky with your sweat. You opened the window, begged the Southern summer for a breeze, for a hurricane, for anything cooler than this. With the lights out, the house came alive with creaks and critters. You ignored the noise so like footsteps, explained away the hushed sound like whispers. You shut your eyes against the shadows on the wall. Just the shapes of branches outside. Just the hoot of the barn owl.
But when you opened your eyes, she was standing there. Mother Nature—Monster Nature—was a verdant and sinister reaper. She smiled, picked you up, cradled you like a child in her arms. The leaves were scratchy; their tiny stems poked like needles. When she climbed out the window, the night air held your eyes open. The stars were a hundred thousand headlights, and you the trapped deer. You don’t remember how you got there, to the tops of the trees. All you remember are the vines, creeping in under your fingernails, wrapping themselves around your waist, weaving through your hair, until they were coursing through you.
“Shhh,” she whispered.
“Shhh,” the vines echoed.
You tried to move your lips, to wiggle your fingers, but there was nothing. Only the “shhh” of the leaves. You need to know why; you need to know what you did.
The moral of the story was not to walk too slowly. The moral of the story was not to talk to boys. The moral of the story was to listen to your mother. The moral of the story was to listen to your father, though he is gone now and you strain your ears to hear his voice on the other line as your mother whisper-screams on the phone outside. The moral of the story is a lesson that is supposed to keep you safe, supposed to make it so this never happens to you. The moral of the story is that stories like this are supposed to be stories with morals. The moral of the story is that morals are stories.
The moral of the story is “shhhh.”