Magnolia Leaves

Magnolia Leaves

Jane M. Fleming

I have a superpower. I throw acrylic paint onto plywood board with my fingers and push. And push until my hands become part of the painting. The cadmium yellow is my skin, running underneath like spiny veins. I can convince myself that I am simply a brushstroke, pink and red and brown and green. And I can control my curves and grooves and make myself seen and unseen—

But I didn’t learn about this superpower until after nineteen.

The scabs on my feet caused from running barefoot through woods and roads would wake up and bleed, forcing me to wrap them in gauze and walk gingerly on my sandaled soles. The streets of Williamsburg, Virginia were colored golden by the leaves on oak trees and stinking late-summer magnolias. They reminded me of Easter Sunday with my grandparents and the magnolia tree reaching over the sidewalk outside of the old Episcopal church. Sometimes I can still feel the thin, waxy petal of those magnolia flowers against the skin of my thumb and forefinger. The magnolias are the only thing I miss, with their flowers that are larger than my hands and the leaves that crunch under your feet in October, and my faith-filled lungs in the swampy heat.

I thought they smelled like a corpse, those magnolias— like the byproduct of my rotten flesh on the bottoms of my toes. They didn’t bring joy like they did when I was six, feeling their leaves crunch under patent Mary Janes, just a flash of running past twisted tree branches under clouds pregnant with rain. When my feet healed, I threw off my shoes and would wander between those trees at four in the morning and shiver each time I caught a low slung male voice echoing from behind those deep green leaves.

Maybe if I had been Raphael, I would have painted the glossy photograph of us smiling, lying on top of one another, taken with a disposable camera that I purchased and developed at the last place in town that still did that. I thought it was kind of retro— the sort of thing we did as kids— rolls of birthday party and vacation photographs stored in cardboard envelopes with the pharmacy’s insignia all over them.

He loved the picture because of what you cannot see. Our smiles are wide, cheeks stacked on top of one another, his head covered by a red baseball cap, my neck dripping in hemp necklaces that I made myself. What you cannot see is that we are lying on a woven blanket in a thicket of trees next to a lake. You cannot see that we had just been making love and thought ourselves so clever. The things you cannot see—

He loved that photo because behind us there was the danger of getting caught. I was all his. His magnolia petal that smells like rot.

I held the photo in my hand, crying, when he called to tell me he’d taken all of his Xanax. He said would be in the hospital for a few days. I was confused— we had been arguing. I called his best friend who told me that he tried to kill himself. It was because I was making him upset, because I’d killed his baby, because I tore apart his family.

Call again. Tears rolling down my face. He said he was fine— it was a false alarm. He’d gone to urgent care, but they sent him home. He lied. “The doctor told me that you would choke on Xanax before it would kill you,” he said. I wasn’t sure that that was true.

When I relaxed, I assured him that I wasn’t changing my mind. We could not continue like this. He said he had no reason to live. I had killed his baby and he had no reason to live. I hung up the phone and I called a friend. I called his bluff.

My thumb and forefinger slid against the sheen of the glossy 4X6 photograph, increasing the pressure, remembering that what he could not see in that photo is that my feet were bleeding. He liked me better without shoes. I tore it to pieces. I wrapped my feet in titanium white gauze.

I didn’t know then that I was a paint thrower or I would have emptied my pthallo green to wash out the sheen of his liar’s smile. But I am now and can


Jane M. Fleming