The Magnolia Lock

by L. Philip Darrow


I met her shortly after I discovered that all of the trees of the Earth were at war. It was a war invisible to the rest of us, conducted entirely underground—roots strangling and cutting through other roots, severing the anchors, as they crashed choking dead onto driveways and motorcars and, with greater strategy and effect, into other arboreal enemies in a splintering domino cascade of wooden death. It was a rather slow war, as you could imagine. It had been going on for centuries, and as far as I could determine, none of the parties even remembered the initial cause of the conflict, nor the reasons for their varying allegiances—but it was real all the same, and onward they soldiered into the murderous business of murderous business. Now all of that is really a separate story, still under investigation, if you believe in that sort of thing. Personally, I pay no mind to such notions. This story, that story, who really gives a damn? All stories are the same bloody story, retold ad nauseam; variations of meter, rhyme, plot, and persona shuffled through time and the senses, a welcome trickery of mind set in place to beguile even the most unsanitized of thinkers. We’re made for it, as it were. Made to see new stars born in the same dying suns. But regardless, I mention it here so that you may understand why I was there beneath that magnolia tree in late May of 2012, an ear pressed to the dirt near the base of the trunk (listening for signals from the front), when Elana Spring shouted from the nearby patio, “Excuse me, sir, what are you doing on my lawn?!”

I looked up for a moment, and seeing that she posed no immediate threat, quickly resumed my work. As luck would have it, the signals I was listening for lasted only a few more seconds, and so I jotted down the remaining patterns in my notebook, one step closer to deciphering the Magnolia Code, and stood, her burning blue eyes two sharp arrowheads plunging into mine.

“Ah, is it your lawn now?” I replied, searching my pockets for a cigarette before recalling the crushing truth that I had quit seven months earlier. Nothing like the agony of human interaction to make you long for a cigarette, a sideways step out of time. “I apologize; I’ve been away for a bit. Out of circulation, if you will. My research, you see.”

Her eyes grew larger as I approached, no longer burning and pointed, but now two giant orbs of pristine sea—was it nervousness? curiosity?—impossible to say, but she made no effort to back away. I extended my hand, which she ignored, introduced myself, and proceeded to prattle on about the previous owner of the residence, an elderly Cherokee gentleman who was known around town as Buffalo Bill, and the arrangement we had, wherein he granted me access to the curtilage and the vast acreage behind his home, leaving me free to conduct my botanical inquiries (and pitch a tent when I was, rather embarrassingly, between dwellings), in exchange for my assistance with cultivating, harvesting, and preparing the various herbs, roots, and leaves he transformed into quasi-medicinal concoctions for sale online. I had been away for years, I told her, on a detour down into Mississippi, but now I was back and anxious to resume my work.

“Buffalo Bill?” she asked, punctuated with a perfunctory laugh, before muttering, “How perverse.” She was of the white race, undoubtedly, an Aryan dream of perfect porcelain skin, silken blonde hair and the bluest blue of eyes—except that she wasn’t, and in her pulsed a native blood that once drenched the fields of massacre.

Buffalo Bill was her grandfather, she explained, and I expressed my sincerest regrets when she informed me that he had passed away four months earlier. I was momentarily seized with a morbid excitement at the news of his death, thinking that perhaps she was about to reveal my inclusion in the will and the nature of my (one could only hope) grand inheritance. No such revelation ensued, and it seemed rather gauche to inquire, so instead we talked for a few minutes, or rather she talked and I listened, my professed acquaintance with her grandfather apparently forming, for her, a sense of kinship. Two months prior to our meeting she had returned from Boston to this house, where she periodically spent summers as a child. She was taking a “mental health sabbatical from the corporate world” (her terribly clichéd phrase, not mine), and was separated from her second husband, an “ombudsman” (such a stupid word!), who had somehow obtained sole legal and physical custody of their three-year-old daughter, Lana. It was an interesting enough monologue, I suppose, but I had grown weary from my endless toil in the unseasonably warm weather, and excused myself to retire for the afternoon. I walked away, toward my waiting tent hidden in the woods behind the house; she voiced no objection.

Over the next two weeks, she and I would see each other daily as I continued to work on my earthen exegesis, and eventually a true dialogue developed. At first I would catch her out of the corner of my eye, standing at some distance, and slowly she would creep closer—a few steps then a pause, a few more, then the same—until she was right upon me, and even then she waited for several minutes before clearing her throat and sheepishly swallowing her “hello.” I was no stranger to awkwardness, having never been embraced by the brotherhood of man, and so I feigned surprise at her voice each time, the less said about the odd approach, the better. We would talk for a few moments, exchanging unimportant pleasantries about the weather and whatever else there is to say, until she slowly backed away in the same fashion, pausing at the same points in her retreat as she had in her advance. After a few days of this, her pace quickened—and one day she simply appeared right next to me, inviting me into the house for a drink. I was running perilously low on alcohol, having been forced to suffer the indignity of rationing the few remaining gulps of vodka I still had left, so I gladly accepted, following the thin form draped in a flowing sundress that billowed in the warm breeze.

Disappointment ensued, however, when I discovered that her idea of a “drink” was a glass of pink lemonade. I disguised my irritation with a plastic smile, scanning the kitchen for a bottle of liquor whose absence might not be noticed, finding nothing. She wanted to hear stories about her grandfather, so I obliged, relating a yarn or two about his irascible nature and his venomous shotgun battles with assorted vermin audacious enough to feed upon his gardens. She laughed and poured more lemonade into my glass, even though it was still two-thirds full.

“So why that tree?” she asked.

“Which tree?” I replied, knowing full well what she meant.

“The magnolia. You seem to spend more time there than anywhere else.” And as I sat in my chair the day bended and swirled, and to me it seemed that the arrowhead eyes were back, butchering their way through the centuries.

I explained to her that although most magnolias bloomed throughout the spring and summer in the South, this magnolia had a distinctly Northern sensibility, blooming just once a year in the mid-spring, and even after all that wait, the flowering bursts of pink lasted only slightly more than a week before the petals browned and fell, twirling like dead butterflies as they spun to the ground, and the sweet, fragrant aroma of vitality and repose was lost.

Of course, that had nothing to do with my interest in the tree, but I would not reveal my secrets until she had first revealed hers.

She listened, taking a long sip from her straw, staring at the liquid in her glass over dour, sunken lips, then related that when she was “but a girl” she suffered from seizures, epileptic fits of neural lightning short-circuiting the brain, sending her twisting wretchedly to the ground several times a day. The doctors prescribed this medication, then that medication, increasing and decreasing the dosages for a chemistry experiment made of bone and blood, to no avail. And then—

“My grandmother, my Elisi, was in the hospital most of the time. I don’t know why, but I don’t think it was really a hospital, either—I think it was probably some kind of mental place, a sanitarium, or whatever they called it then. My grandfather called her ‘the white Cherokee’—she had been adopted by a Cherokee family, and she certainly didn’t look Indian—she looked like me. But she was ‘more Cherokee’ than he was—she dressed in tribal clothing, always with some kind of fur, regardless of the heat. And she talked about ‘the old ways,’ and how so many things had been lost. That is, when she talked—which wasn’t often. When she was around I mostly remember her sitting here, at this kitchen table, chain-smoking, staring out of this window, emotionless, silent—as lost as those things from so long ago.”

She stood and floated a few feet over, pressing her waist against the frame of the window that overlooked the backyard, gazing out at truncated infinity. The magnolia tree was centered directly in the middle, its placement and the deepness of its greens, grays, and whites making it the focal point of the landscape. It would be blooming soon.

She sighed as the world-weary do, as if breath itself was a burden. Then she continued her monologue, never ungluing her eyes from the window. “I think it happened the first time I was alone with her. I was never supposed to be left alone with her, my dad was clear about that, I remember—he said it wasn’t safe, that she was sick and couldn’t watch me properly. Well, something happened—some kind of miscommunication, but one day there was no one else there, and of course, another seizure. I remember I was trying to get her to play a game with me, and she wouldn’t even look over, just staring out through this window—and then I was on the floor, and she was standing over me, cradling my head and whispering that everything would be fine. There were old ways, she said, magics long forgotten, nearly eradicated by the white man’s treachery. I remember thinking it was funny, even then—her referring to the ‘white man’ as if it was some kind of ‘other’—she really didn’t know who she was. Or did she? And she just wasn’t what she appeared to be. I don’t know. The next thing I do know is that she was chasing me with scissors, and there was nowhere to go as she held me down and I screamed as she cut off a lock of my hair. Then she dragged me out into this yard. The magnolia had only been planted a short time before; it was just a few feet high, about the same height as I was. She had this kind of small metal thing, a drill thing, and as she turned the handle, it twisted a hole through the tree. She put the lock of my hair in the hole, then filled it in with crushed-up pieces of bark, and told me as the tree grows, it would take away my sickness, it would be absorbed into the earth and I would feed from the strength of the tree, healing as it grew. She took my hand and traced over my fingers with her own, telling me that the branches were the many fingers in my brain on which the lightning rode—and the trunk was the anchor, the palm and the hand that held the branches in place, that formed the lightning and channeled the lightning and set the world ablaze.” She stopped and walked over to the refrigerator, pulling a bottle of Tanqueray gin from the freezer. I could have kissed her, but instead sat calmly as she brought out two pint glasses and a bottle of warm tonic water. She was no longer truly there with me, anyway—her movements seemed autonomic, mechanical bends and twists of the legs, arms and wrists, devoid of her usual spectral grace.

“They went away,” she said, as she folded into her chair, “the seizures. If only that was all that changed.”

There was no more conversation on that day, as we sat in silence and she nursed her gin and tonic, staring out of the window, while I downed three of the same, and having run out of tonic water, pounded half a pint of gin. The world was slow and its seams were showing, and so I vanished, feeling buzzed and dry and unsteady, stumbling back to my tent.

And in the morning it was all the same, and the routine resumed, but without any appearance from her . . . and that night and the next morning, they were both the same, still nary a glimpse of her . . . and on again and on again for six more days, until the day that it wasn’t all the same, that day when the magnolia finally bloomed, flowering whites and pinks softening against the golden, purple swirl of the sky, cusping toward yet another dawn.

It was in this twilight that I saw her standing naked underneath the tree, her back arched with arms outstretched, the tips of her fingers delicately stroking two of the largest branches that crossed above her. She lunged forward and thrust her body against the trunk, pressing her face into the thick stem and wrapping her arms around it, her slender frame caught in some unknown act of eros. I knew that I should turn to leave but I was helpless in the moment, encased in time, and didn’t look away when she turned her eyes toward me and smiled—a wide smile of utter joy, eyes radiant with the bliss of harmony, a tranquility of being that I had never witnessed. Unashamed of her nakedness, she began leaping toward me, slight ripples in taut flesh, the smile still rounding her face. I had yet to move as she embraced me softly, the warmth of her body, of her being, burning into mine. She reached up behind my neck and guided my head down gently, kissing me on the forehead with a child’s tenderness, then skipped away toward the house, giggling. I stayed there motionless for several minutes, a complete foreigner to the world, unable to even name my feelings, until the rays of the now risen sun melted through my shadowed stupor. And with my heart pounding, and my nerves jangled and raw, I headed into town to steal some cigarettes from the pharmacy.

When I returned she was nowhere to be found, and so I helped myself to the remaining gin from the refrigerator and smoked the two packs of stolen cigarettes, spinning out into nothingness in the squalor of my tent as the sun faded and the earth fell away.

The earth was back in the morning as I coughed myself awake, spitting thick clumps of mucus onto the nylon floor. A truly abhorrent condition, and it pains me to revisit these moments, and describe them as I do—but accuracy must stand above all things, including pride, if there is to be any value assigned to these bludgeoned words. And so I tried to stand but gravity dragged me home, crashing me to the ground in a vile heap of sub-humanity. Dry-heaving, drenched in sickly, sour sweat, I crawled to the corner of the tent to relieve myself, then wheezed back to sleep with the stink of gin still on my tongue and my throat a clump of desiccated, cracking sores. Time ran in fits of sudden consciousness swallowed into long drags of nothingness, until the night was upon me once again, with soft hands and a soft voice guiding me out of the tent, and the night—“come inside, come inside” said the voice of the shadow in the dark; the voice that pulled me into the house and up the stairs, with no light to pierce its veil, stripping me of my soiled clothes and splashing me down gently into the warm caress of a waiting bath. I rested my head against where the porcelain rim met the wall and closed my eyes, unsure if I was sleeping still and being drawn toward oblivion. When my eyes opened next I was lying on a bed in the dark, and after fumbling against the walls for a light switch, found myself in what must have been a spare bedroom, given its modest dimensions and the dusty assortment of household clutter that had accumulated throughout. I was still naked, and my clothes were nowhere in sight, but at the foot of the bed was a faded, oversized flannel robe that I instantly recognized as belonging to her grandfather. I wrapped myself within it, pulling the fabric belt through the loops and around my waist, venturing forth into the blackness of the hallway, then cautiously navigating the stairs down to the first floor. The drapes were all drawn tightly, shutting out any stray glimmers of light that dared attempt intrusion. I heard a tapping like light rain on cardboard and followed.

She was flitting around the kitchen, enraptured, graceful sweeps of the arms and legs, bounding delicately from corner to corner of the room; naked in body and spirit, gentle laughter flowering into sound. The yellowed kitchen curtains were parted, and the full moon that hung in the window glazed her skin in a shifting, silvery sheen of impenetrable strength that belied her willowy beauty. She noticed me and took my hand, and suddenly I was dancing too, inaudible music piped in straight from the moon and the stars guiding our slender movements, as we circled the kitchen in a twisting, dashing waltz. In a fluid blur she turned and kicked the screen from the window, leaping into the night, still clasping my hand, dragging me out after her—tumbling onto wet grass, then vaulting toward the sky, we raced for the magnolia tree, never missing a step in the dance.

And this misting dream went on for five more days; never sleeping, never tiring, spirits traveling on the breeze and rising from the ground encircling us invisibly as we danced to the rhythms of the sky and of the earth, awash in the forces that formed the lightning and channeled the lighting and set the world ablaze. And then the petals began to brown, and to fall, all within a day. Our movements slowed. Her laughter ceased. The ground underneath the tree became littered with the soiled dead. In an instant the dizzy delirium ended, the music stopped mid-note, and Elana began to cry—a light whimper at first, then violent tremors of tears. She fell to the ground screaming, unintelligible bursts of primal agony that morphed into a searing refrain—“I will not go back! I will never go back again!” It blistered through me as the mechanics of my body abruptly seized, and I crashed to the earth from exhaustion, spun out from the world and devoured whole by the void.

I felt the sun on my face as I opened my eyes again, back in that bedroom upstairs, still wearing her grandfather’s robe. The belt was missing, leaving me rather immodestly on display, so I drew the robe in close around me, clutching it in place with folded arms, and leapt from the bed. The drapes in that room and all the others were opened wide, and I made my way downstairs in the stinging brightness, trailing through silence.

I saw her from the kitchen window. Hanging there. Lifeless. She was dressed in a tribal skirt and leggings, a sash of thick fur running across her blouse. As I approached the magnolia, I saw the fabric belt from the robe wrapped around her neck, fastened at the other end to one of the thickest branches that jutted off wildly from the trunk. And I felt nothing. No sorrow, no loss. I was empty inside. As empty as the heavens were, sick with the plague of age. And so was she. Whatever bargain her grandmother had struck with the great unknown to cure those seizures had inevitably led her back here, to this place, to this tree, from which she now dangled in the wind. Maybe better to be brought low by sickness, to suffer and know every nuance of pain, yes—but to still feel those moments of true love and joy, naturally interspersed with the anguish. Yes, yes, yes—maybe better that than to be like her, to only truly feel, to only truly LIVE, while this magnolia bloomed. Just as she was buried under an avalanche of emotion and yearning, I buried her there, underneath the magnolia tree, covering her gray face in dead clumps of shriveled petals. At least now I had a man on the inside, as it were. Someone stationed underground, at the front. In this life, one must seize upon any advantage, even in the midst of tragedy. There was no time for sentimentality then, and there is no time for it now. Valuable messages had been lost while I indulged in the frail business of human frailty. Perhaps it was all a ploy, a distraction. Perhaps this was when they first learned of my investigation, and feared any further discovery. Regardless, I was undaunted. For there is a war on, you see. There is a war on, and it will be the death of you all.


After fronting several bands that degenerated into abject failure, and writing numerous and un-filmed screenplays, L. Philip Darrow has of late been focusing on short stories. Under his psuedonym Louis Philip DelGiacco, Mr. Darrow currently resides in upstate New York, where he practcies law, to his constant dismay. He is plagued by recurring dreams about dying, about consciousness tricked into being.

Back to Vol. I: “IX Lives”