By Alex Wallace
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 44th contest was Crisis Summit
It seemed as if the trees on the road to Athens sprouted as many corpses as acorns.
The small convoy of dignitaries zipped over the highway. If any of them had misgivings about the macabre spectacle, they didn’t say it. After the Revolution, it was all too common.
Commissary Luther McDaniel stayed in the back of the truck with his staff. He wouldn’t tell anyone, but he took pleasure from these assignments, perhaps too much pleasure.
There were the standard checks at the entry to Athens. There were stiff-armed salutes and proclamations of loyalty to the new regime. Behind them was a battalion of the Athens People’s Militia. The officers knew all too well what the coming of Luther McDaniel meant.
They all wanted to avoid what happened in Valdosta.
The trucks pulled into the lot that had been cleared at the University of Georgia. Like all universities, it had been seized by the state.
As per his dossier, McDaniel entered the Old College building, where the Athens Committee had established itself.
The Chairman of the Athens Revolutionary Committee, Edward Crothers, a man in a gaudy revolutionary uniform, walked out and extended his hand to McDaniel. The Commissary took his hand and nodded.
“It is such a relief to see you here! The tree issue has paralyzed the entire council!”
“That’s exactly why Atlanta sent me.”
. . .
The whole council had walked the streets to the tree that had been giving them a headache.
The whole town was abuzz with energy. The Revolution had won! The robber barons had been overthrown! It warmed McDaniel’s icy heart.
The streets peeled with song, like:
“The wagon, the wagon, the Revolution wagon…”
“Oh Lord, I want to be in that number/When the Revolution comes…”
There were many corpses hanging from places in Athens. They hung from porches and streetlamps. There were white corpses with signs that said “LEECH” and black corpses with signs that said “SCAB.”
Rotting corpses were just part of the scenery nowadays, and rot part of the natural scent.
There, in front of them, stood the tree.
This damned tree.
McDaniel looked at this sturdy white oak. Its canopy provided a pleasant shade and cool in the scorching Georgia sun.
“So this is the problem that Atlanta thought was so important a tree? What are y’all going to do, put a statue of Debs there? Y’all have the right to do that!”
“No, sir,” replied Chairman Crothers. “It’s much more of a mess than that. You see, sometime in the 1820s, the man who owned this land deeded to the tree the land upon which it sits.”
“And this is a problem, why?”
“Because we can’t figure out if it’s a landlord or a worker.”
. . .
McDaniel just stared at Crothers, and then at the rest of the Committee.
“In the Year of Our Lord 1936, this cockamamie is what’s holding back the Revolution? I honestly cannot believe it.”
The members of the Committee looked at each other nervously. They all knew what McDaniel had the legal right to do.
Crothers was visibly sweating. “So, to see to it that Commissary McDaniel can make a decision, could the two leaders of the factions explain their positions?”
Two men walked up from the group.
“Comrade Milton has been the advocate for the proletarian faction. Comrade Sutherland advocates the landlord faction.”
The two stepped forward. “Comrade Milton,” grumbled McDaniel, “you may speak.”
“Thank you, Comrade McDaniel. You see, this tree is a craftsman. It has its own home, as all in America do. It produces oxygen for the American people to breathe. It has obtained self-ownership, as all in this country seek to do.” Milton inhaled deeply. For the moment, he was doing well.
“And you, Comrade Sutherland?”
“The tree is a squatter, to put it bluntly. As the old song goes - God gave the land to the people, and this landlord is occupying land that should be taken for public use. It’s what we did all throughout Georgia, and it’s what we must do here. Its oxygen production likewise should be seized as a public resource.”
“Lunacy!” cried out Milton. “By owning its own living space, it is contributing to the public good! The public’s ability to breathe is the public good!”
“Then there should be no issue with putting it under public control!”
The two descended into squabbling. So did the rest of the Committee.
“Lord have mercy,” muttered Commissary McDaniel under his breath.
. . .
Deliberations were long and pointless. McDaniel lay in his bed as provided by the Athens Committee, a comfortable resting place for a powerful man.
He welcomed sleep as it came to take him. He loathed the idea of having to deal with more bloviating delegates.
He was about to doze off when he heard a loud knock rappelling on his door. “Comrade McDaniel? I hate to wake you, but you’re needed at the tree.”
“The tree? What in hell could be happening at the tree at this accursed hour?
. . .
McDaniel had seen the mansions of rich men after the revolution. He had seen all sorts of bizarre art and sexual deviancy and other perplexing obsessions. He had learned the sheer perversity of mankind.
None of that, however, was quite so befuddling as what was playing out at the tree.
A ring of armed men stood in a line defending the tree. Their rifles were cocked. He heard gunfire.
They were led by Comrade Milton.
Opposite from them, lumbering towards the tree, was a massive tractor with a bulldozer blade. It was marked with the insignia of the Georgia People’s Revolutionary Guard. It was flanked by armed men exchanging shots with the defenders of the tree.
It was driven by Comrade Sutherland.
McDaniel took one breath. He mustered the most stentorian voice he could, and bellowed “so I see negotiations have failed.”
The shooting stopped. The tractor stopped.
It was as if some force had sucked the air out of all their lungs.
. . .
The People’s Militia of Athens woke up the townsfolk bright and early, earlier than most of them usually did for work. The radio broadcast what the militiamen told them verbally: that they were to report to the intersection of Finley and Dearing streets.
They were told this was an important demonstration of Revolutionary discipline. They were told that there was an important message from the Chairman of the Socialist State of Georgia.
The crowd beheld the sight of the members of the Athens Revolutionary Committee, with ropes tied around their necks, dangling from the branches of the Tree that Owns Itself.
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".