Painted Words: Where Magnolias Grow

Boreas by John William Waterhouse

I’ve often wished I had died on a sunny day. Not out of some maudlin love of sunshine and a last desire to see a bit of blue before I passed, you understand (I’ve given up the dramatic habit). I saw plenty of blue slide between my fingertips at the poker tables. Plenty of blue gowns under my fingertips, too, though that was long ago. Blue gowns don’t seem nearly so popular these days, not half so much as blue jeans. I’m quite fond of those, you know. They do wonderful things for ladies and their legs, in that you can actually discern that they have a pair.

No, my desire for a sunny day to meet my demise comes down purely to practicality. One of the things they never bother to tell you about being a ghost (one of many things, as it turns out) is that you can only make an appearance to the living under conditions near to exact as the one you died under. The world, I’ve discovered, is rather full of ghosts, only the conditions have to be just right for viewing us and most of us are too caught up in our personal plights to take heed of one another. This is why you so seldom see the ghosts of sailors and pirates strolling pleasantly across the waves, but venture close to a staircase and you’re bound to see the spirit of a woman with perilously long, trailing skirts at some point or another. You know what’s cut back on these ghosts? Blue jeans. Wonderful, practical things for ladies.

My own conditions are rather scarce. You see, when I was alive I did fancy a good dash of drama now and again. When I met my end at the poker tables and my creditors came baying for my blood, I decided the more gentlemanly thing to do was hastily sign over all properties to my younger brother (damned if I was going to let the estate fall into the hands of ill-washed thugs) and then hang myself from the old magnolia tree out back in the midst of a rather terrific storm.

Well, and what’s so special about all that, you may wonder? Storms are a fairly frequent occurrence, how often does a fellow need to present himself to the living to be satisfied? My friends, if only it were so simple. You see, upon discovering my body, my family was so taken with grief that they hacked down the tree that had served as my gallows. I had not been able to reach out to my family, my friends, indeed not any soul, for well over a hundred years. I dwelt in sorrow, alone and quickly forgotten, on the crumbling and rapidly abandoned Mississippi estate my family had called home. Depending on the day I prayed that heaven or even hell would accept my soul, so maddened was I with the pain of being alone.

Until she came.

She arrived in a great white box of a vehicle, more rust than automobile. The smoke that poured forth from under the hood was as thick as molasses and just as dark, so much so that even in the storm which raged about us I could view it quite plainly. Her transportation became stuck in the mud between the flanking rows of magnolias, and this did not surprise me in the slightest, for it was a boggy mess even in my time, and certainly was never intended to support the weight of an automobile in its mud and muck.

I was surprised by her clothes. Not scandalized, you understand, for I had seen enough of the living since my suicide to know that fashions had changed a great deal. No, I was more so concerned at what they revealed, and that was a pregnancy that was rather far along. What sort of state was her life in, I wondered, that she should be out in a storm by herself, soon to be a mother, out on this forsaken patch of land?

When she kicked her car, cursing, I couldn’t help but laugh approvingly at the vigor and sheer defiance she showed. Such a spark she had! And when she raised her eyes to meet mine, I fell silent, consumed with awe that such a goddess should notice a shade such as myself.

Her eyes were dark as bayou wood, her hair as thick, brown, and lustrous as any painter’s model sitting for Artemis. Toned, blemish-free skin gleamed wetly in the dark, and had she beckoned me with one of her graceful hands I would have found some way to cast off the shackles of my otherworldly imprisonment that I might follow her across creation wherever she willed.

“Who the fuck are you?” she demanded.

She saw me? She saw me. Gods, how long had it been? How had this come to be? Alarmed, I cast my eyes about me…and saw, just to one side, the tiniest slip of a tree growing: magnolia.

“Hey!” she shouted, reaching into her automobile to honk the horn and startle me back to attention. “Do you know anything about cars?”

I shook my head, still too stunned to speak, and she heaved a mighty sigh. “Damn. Well, get in. No sense getting soaked.”

Without another word she disappeared into the white monstrosity she had lurched onto the property, and I, her meek and devoted servant, could only follow.

Inside the car, she took two great pulls from a long, vibrantly colored can before grimacing and depositing it back into a receptacle between our two seats. “Gone flat,” she muttered.

This was proving quite the day for me. Not only had I been seen, been spoken to, and by such a radiant creature as she, but for the first time I found myself in one of the curious contraptions I had so often seen pass by on the road which ran a little ways off from my home. I dared a peek from my hands, folded in my lap like a school boy.

She was staring at me, now, and I was suddenly keenly aware that, though my clothes appeared as damp as hers, they in no way, shape, or form were likely to be similar to current styles. A thousand, thousand thoughts raced through my head. How to prolong this encounter? How to avoid frightening her? How to explain to her that I meant her no harm, merely wished the pleasantness of her company for as long as she wished to grant it? If my heart could still beat it would have thundered, so desperate was I to remain near her a few moments longer. My eyes returned to my hands and I hoped, no, prayed, that she might mistake me for a costumed reveler.

“Are you dead or something?” There was no guile in her sonorous voice, and though I was grateful the matter at hand was approached so directly, still, I could not bring myself to meet her eyes.

“I…err…that is, yes. Quite dead. Since 1822, and it is now…some years past that, I gather. So, quite dead.” I squared my shoulders and, trying for my most charming smile, turned to face her and offer a short, cramped bow. “Jacob Tilling, at your service.”

“Holy fuck. Neat.” She busied her hands with binding her hair back, using something like a braided bracelet to keep it in place. “I’m Cassandra Otts. Cassie. Just bought the place.”

Casting a glance through the great glass front of her car, I took in the sight of the great house up ahead, utterly in disrepair and home to more squirrels and shrubs than it had ever been to people. “Why?” I asked, aghast.

She laughed, and rolled her bare shoulders easily in a shrug. “Some people fix them up, you know? Rent them to rich folks to marry each other in, make believe they’re Southern gentility. Maybe they don’t think about the people hurt to make all this. Maybe that’s part of the draw.” She rested one hand easily on her stomach, leaned back in her seat with a dreamy smile. “I’ve always wanted to tear one down. Grow a forest on it and live deep inside it, pretend people never existed.”

I tried to picture the estate as it must have been before my grandfather had cleared it, all old growth trees and great swaths of moss hanging from limbs. Full of the sounds of cicadas, the glow of fireflies, the throaty cries of frogs calling to their mates. “It sounds a very fine thing, Miss Otts. I hope you succeed.”

I knew, before she turned to face me again, that the rain had stopped. That I was gone, at least to her eyes, and that all that remained of me was the glow of moonlight spilling across her upholstery.

I cannot claim to know a blessed thing about automobiles, but I have always had a sturdy back, and there are some things a ghost may accomplish without necessitating being seen. When the car began to roll forward, engine still as dead as myself, Miss Otts…Cassie…had the good grace to remain in the car and allow me my attempt to assist her. With a gentle push, I sent the car forward, past the point that I might provide aid, and watched her stop the contraption just before it came upon the porch.

She stepped out of the car, and though she could not see me, she looked back for me. I prayed she knew I waited there for her still, and prayed yet more that she would come to seek me out again.

At last, as the night deepened, she took her things from the vehicle and ventured inside the house, and then, for the first time in so long, a steady glow was seen from one of the windows.

And I, alone once more, but now full of hope, leaned down low to the magnolia sapling which was my salvation, and whispered fervently, “Grow.

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]

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