The Upside-Down Tree, by Alden Reimonenq, is a powerful look at the worst of racial hatred and violence during the early Jim Crow years, a time rarely addressed by historical-fiction authors.
The novel stems from the horrific Colfax massacre in Louisiana on April 13, 1873, but is primarily set between 1900-1908 in rural Louisiana. The plot twists through lynchings, cross-burnings, love between the races, gay love, religious intolerance, poverty, illness and death.
Full of African spirits, mystical images, magical trees and dynamic characters, The Upside Down Tree is a novel of enduring hope. Despite a storyline that can at times seem dark and disturbing, it remains positive, reaffirming the overarching goodness of most people.
Alden Reimonenq is a New Orleanian transplant who lives in Palm Springs. He writes reviews, poetry, short fiction, and has published the collection Hoodoo Headrag, Poems. The Upside-Down Tree is his first novel. Learn more at www.aldenreimonenq.com.
Here is an excerpt from The Upside-Down Tree.
April 13, 1873
Evil hurricaned its way through all the open spaces in Colfax, Louisiana. It burned houses and shook Black lives; it brutalized children, caused them to go missing. It lynched fathers and brothers, raped mothers and sisters, and emptied churches. Whites held runaway power that engaged Colfax in a long-standing battle that pinnacled in a bloody massacre that left only those few Black survivors who sheltered themselves in homes with barricaded windows and doors. This evil was slow and menacing; its fury lingered, careful and deliberate, disposing of Black bodies as if litter from the town’s square to the countryside. Evil is not a consort with peace; therefore, Colfax’s town history was marked forever with Black blood that dripped mercilessly from false white hands celebrating Christ’s resurrection that Sunday. But evil can be too good at being itself, and that massacre fueled its energy in a destruction that crossed generations that day and into the future. Two Colfax citizens participated in breeding and cultivating this evil.
Feverish Avery Barjone stumbled into an enormous pine silhouetted by weak moonlight. He heard the hammering of horse hooves, but that was not nearly the worry the bullet in his chest caused. He turned his back to the pine and sat buttressed by its strength. With raised arms, he cried, “Eshu. Eshu. Eshu. I need fire.” The tree, still dripping from an earlier rain, shook itself, enkindling energy in him. “Fire! And light, Eshu!”
At just 20 and already full of arrogance and contempt, Carl Keller found Avery. Sitting erect on his horse, he drew his gun, ready to riddle Avery’s skull with bullets. He hesitated. “Daddy would’ve killed you by now for destroying our peace. Ain’t enough we saved your Black ass before?”
“You too young to know yo’ daddy. He was too evil to ’bide the law.”
“Well, Sheriff Nash won’t be taking no surrenders at Grant Parish courthouse. They all burning. Because of you niggers, there’s fire everywhere.”
“Gonna be fire here. Ain’t nobody owning me no more. Eshu, fire! Eshu!”
“Call your spirits, n—–. They don’t scare me.”
The pine shuddered its reply, and a branch flamed over. Its force knocked Carl off his horse and threw his gun inches from Avery. The horse sprinted into the woods. The blaze lit the metal, and Avery grabbed the gun and pointed it at Carl.
“You, listen! I’ll die under this tree, but you gonna walk like death if you don’t do like I say. This fire’s my curse on you. Go to the church graveyard and look for my boy Kebbi. If he’s there, his mama’s dead. Care for him till he can care for hisself. Do good by him, and you’ll find some peace. You don’t, my curse will hang ’round your whole life like misery. If Kebbi ain’t in that graveyard, forget us.”
Carl eyed the burning pine branch, mystified that nothing had fallen. The fire was a fierce and cacophonous burst of orange and gold luminosity that transfixed him. Avery’s gasping and heaving broke his gaze. The gun’s weight pulled Avery’s arm to the ground, and a weak moon cast a pale, angry light on his corpse. Slowly, the branch extinguished itself. Carl picked up his gun and headed to the church, now ablaze in the Colfax town square.
April 15, 1900
Carl walked slowly across his front porch, drawing heavily on his cigarette while spitting loose bits of tobacco. He scanned the bank of pines across the road and scrutinized the biggest. Several times, he had planned to raze them and plant pecans. His butler echoed his groundskeeper’s caution against this, claiming that too many young men played with their whores in those pines, which kept “that sinning” out of sight. “Pecans don’t grow dense enough to hide all that,” the groundskeeper pronounced. Carl, who never intended to marry, respected a man’s right to whore around unhindered—no matter the location.
Carl inherited his father’s height. Even in a sitting position, he resembled a column—capped with a face chiseled in a scowl. His aquiline nose elongated his face, slenderized his lips, and made his eyes squint into slits. This long head was covered with red hair, streaked with gray and perfectly parted down the middle—groomed against any attempt to muss it. There was, in his shoulders, a broadness that seemed unnatural: he was not a muscular man, but shoulders that resembled armor framed his chest. No matter the weather, he always wore a suit that fit like wet sheets on a clothesline. His constant grimace was perhaps caused by his belt’s tightness—despite which he was constantly tugging upward, fearing his pants would fall. This gesturing produced pinched pleats in his trousers and kept him in perpetual agitation against himself. Very little moved him to peace or contentment other than his satisfaction in making others feel small in his presence. Hence, the best company he kept was his own.
The evening’s coolness, the sky’s clearness, and the jasmine’s fragrance reminded him of longed-for peace. After 27 years, his fear was that he had allowed Kebbi too much latitude, trusted him too much, and defended him too often. Colfax whites had lost their patience. In worsening economic times, whites had no will to lose control and money. For most, these were the same. Avery’s curse spurred Carl’s adherence and threatened his standing.
As he stubbed out his cigarette on the porch railing, he watched the moon’s lazy rising—the same lazy moon that had accompanied him the previous night, when he had knocked on Kebbi’s front door. As if giving an order, he said, “I know it’s late, but we need to talk.”
Kebbi stepped onto the porch and closed the door. His body hardened at the sight of Carl, who always read this anger-ridden face as on the verge of rage. Carl heard voices inside the house.
Conversations with Kebbi were always short. He began, “They know what you’re planning for tomorrow night. Get out of Colfax before you get killed like your daddy. You fucking insist on making pigs squeal around here. Think of your boy. You can’t win, and people have had enough.”
“Maybe we can’t win, but we can fight. One day, we might win. Don’t know about no plans. Go now, Carl.”
Even standing below Kebbi, Carl was eye-to-eye with his enemy. Still, Kebbi felt his position on his porch gave him power. He peered into Carl’s eyes. Maybe for the first time, Carl noticed just how black Kebbi was, how perfect his white teeth were, and how brilliant his eyes. Although Carl would deny it, there was intelligence and beauty in this man that was unquestionable. His muscled body was an outward sign of the strength within. Even the fullness of his lips seemed formed by a power bent on creating perfection. Around Carl, such lips functioned not for smiles but for tightness ready to spew hatred when provoked. It could not be ignored that Kebbi possessed an astounding representation of Africa in color, strength, and hot energy. His masculinity diminished Carl’s, who appeared whimpering in Kebbi’s presence. Carl’s focus was how bull-like Kebbi appeared—this notion invigorated by Kebbi’s anger, always expressed in a loud air-filled snort.
With meekness subduing him and rage pushing him, Carl had walked away in an envelope of tension. Hearing Kebbi’s door slam signified an inevitability. He thought, N—–, you’ll die like your daddy. His curse will curse your stinking life. Your n—– son will pay for what you stole. Peace proved impossible if Kebbi would not leave Colfax. Carl determined that to release himself from the curse demanded Kebbi’s death. He also knew that recovering the stolen money was impossible in the current climate. He vowed to deal with that later and cautioned himself, One step at a time.
He left Kebbi’s house, and his contempt directed him headlong into the quarters to Ike Singleton’s. Two weeks earlier, after the bank had declined his mortgage application, Ike had begged Carl for a loan to buy the place he rented for his blacksmith shop. Carl refused to loan him the money then, knowing Ike remained allied to Kebbi. Fueled by Kebbi’s arrogance, he thought, Ike’s a desperate n—– with the right kind of collateral. He’ll talk. That very night, Ike Singleton had unwittingly signed for the loan with Kebbi’s blood.
On the moonlit porch, Carl recalled his history with Kebbi. He never believed him to be honest; it was hard for anyone like him to survive by honesty. He could suffer dishonesty if Kebbi had not made public his malicious and uppity ways. He had given him acres to farm, a small house, and a reasonable sharecropper’s rent that some thought too generous. Kebbi had, in Carl’s view, abused this generosity by denouncing the rent as equivalent to enslavement. If the argument had been kept between them, there might have been some reconciliation. Kebbi, however, used the rent as a cause to unite all Black tenant farmers to demand livable terms for the lands they farmed.
If that had been the only problem Kebbi caused, Carl might have been able to endure. Kebbi, however, renewed his appetite for resistance with any perceived gain. When Carl had had enough ridicule from his peers, he strategized that it would be best to send Kebbi away for a time. The family pecan business in southern Louisiana presented an opportunity. Hébert Bellocq had provided a contact who was interested in buying enough pecan trees to create a grove. The client was also willing to pay for the installation, for which Kebbi was perfect. Carl hired a lawyer to draft the contract that was agreed to by all sides. Even with his suspicions against Carl, Kebbi agreed to perform his part of the bargain, including collecting and returning cash payments to Carl. When he returned from the installation to Colfax, bloody and injured, without any money, Carl faced a barrier he could not cross. Kebbi claimed that he had almost lost his life, having been robbed of all the money he was carrying.
Carl was forced to lie to convince whites that Kebbi had not stolen his money. He also repeated what he knew to be Kebbi’s lie that white trash outlaws had robbed him. This only fueled the town’s anger. These lies bolstered Kebbi’s lust for power and money. Limits were dangerously tested and ignored because Carl’s fear gave continuous life to Avery’s curse. Carl tried to hide his trepidation, but Kebbi sniffed it and made it a weapon. White’s suspicion against Carl was fortified with Kebbi’s frequent and public agitation in the Black part of town.
Kebbi also pressed limits by organizing Blacks to demand higher wages, land ownership, and their right to vote. Black Colfax made Kebbi their leader, and whites depended on Carl to manage this because the Kellers had owned the Barjones as slaves. Yet, the present warred with the past, and peace was always on the brink of fracture. In fact, Kebbi was gaining control over Carl. Both knew that they had reached a line that only one winner could cross. Kebbi’s recent plotting against white farmers was the last test of their fictional trust. Carl, therefore, feigned protection for Kebbi whose banishment or death he wished for and planned.
Nagged by anticipation, Carl sat, equestrian-like, smoking till he heard a horse in a gallop approaching his house. He reached in his suit pocket for a fold of bills fastened with a rubber band. The henchman was winded and stood on the bottom step. Before he could report anything, Carl held up his hand to silence him, handed him the money, and turned away. The rider pocketed the money and faded into the night. He stared at the moonlit pines in a deep cast of yellow. The curse and Kebbi are dead. Too hungry to sit longer, he headed inside, ate leftover Easter capon, and went to bed. He hoped to sleep peacefully, something he craved since he pulled 12-year-old Kebbi from behind a tombstone 27 years earlier.
By midnight, all Black neighborhoods were swallowed up by a terrifying silence. Meffre, Kebbi’s son, hid in the crawl space under the house. He shivered with April’s chilly dampness and the prospect that his father had been killed. He waited there for over an hour until the slow thudding of an approaching horse startled him. He knew that the rider was Ossi, the Choctaw, who would bring dreaded news and carry him on a long journey to southern Louisiana.
Excerpted from the book The Upside-Down Tree, with permission. Copyright 2022, Alden Reimonenq.