Laurel in Full Bloom

Chelsea Panameño

Into the Ether, Nicky Meaux

The bark appeared on the first day of spring, when the winds were starting to pick up, but the worst of the rain had not yet begun. It started as a small thing: a rough, brown patch on her wrist, hardened like a scab. Daphne frowned, but it didn’t hurt, and she was running late for work. She wore long sleeves that day, and no one questioned her. It wasn’t a problem.

Then, there were multiple patches, starting along her left arm then creeping up her shoulder until she woke up to a tension in her upper body that she couldn’t quite place and the unmistakable texture of tree bark on her shoulder. That was when she figured it might be a problem.

When she presented it to Luke over breakfast, he squinted over his coffee before setting down the mug, grabbing her arm to inspect it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, twisting it to get a better look. She winced, but he didn’t notice.

“You’ve been busy.” The eggs were starting to burn. She tried to pull away to turn off the heat, but his grip was firm, his nails digging into her skin.

“This isn’t normal,” he insisted. “You don’t have any skin conditions. Is it some kind of rash? Did you mess with something at work?”

Daphne shrugged. “I don’t think it was from work. We have all kinds of plants, sure, but nothing like that. I stay at the front desk, remember?”

Luke let go of her arm, and she turned off the heat, moving the pan to the side. He was still staring at her arm.

“You’re going to be late,” she said. “You said you had that meeting today, right?”

He held her gaze for a moment longer before turning away, grabbing his bag and jacket from the chair next to him.

“We can talk more about it tonight.” He leaned over and kissed her on the lips—soft and quick—and shut the door behind him. Daphne listened to the sputter of the car engine as he backed out of the driveway, waiting until long after the hum had faded before sitting down to eat.



It wasn’t like Daphne had much of a basis for what was “normal.” She was an only child of parents who, for most of her life, traveled more often than not, bouncing between hotels and airports while tugging her along. She was homeschooled until high school, and the few friends she’d made there had long moved on to brighter cities and better paychecks. Daphne was fine without them. She had a job at the local nature center where she spoke to a few coworkers but never interacted much beyond lunch. She had a small house and a working vehicle that didn’t make too much noise when she ran errands. She had a steady relationship that felt just solid enough not to slip away. It was good enough for her.

Luke was none of those things. He was the product of a CEO and an accountant whose marriage was more transaction than sensual from what Daphne heard over the years. She’d only spoken to them a handful of times: seven first at graduation, then on holidays and the occasional family dinner. Luke swore it was because they were busy, and not because they didn’t like her. He went to private schools his entire life until college – a public university, which was the closest to rebellion he ever came. They met in a general education ecology course and kept in contact afterwards. Their dates were quiet and simple, movies and dinners and stargazing in the park on weekends. It was easy to start a relationship, even easier to move in together after graduating. They built a slow life around each other, intertwining like the branches of a tree. Neither had anywhere else to be.

Things changed, of course; their relationship changed. It was seasonal. Sometimes Luke was distant and cold, buried under piles of work and events that he didn’t bother telling Daphne much about. Sometimes she drifted, too, wondering what it would be like if she faded away, like leaves in the wind. But they always went back to each other. Luke didn’t leave her because she was boring or not successful enough, and Daphne didn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps and drop everything to run off to another country for the thrill of it. That was what mattered.

“You’re not worried about it?” Luke asked that evening.

“Not really,” Daphne said. “It doesn’t hurt. If it gets any worse, I’ll go to a doctor next week. How’s that?”

He sighed. “You could have some kind of disease. It could be fatal. You’re not thinking about this, Daphne. Why aren’t you worried?”

She shrugged. “There’s no point in it. Maybe I’ll grow to like it. Get it, grow?”

Luke didn’t laugh. He booked a doctor’s appointment the next day, despite her telling him at least three separate times, “Let’s just wait and see.” One doctor turned to two, then three, each one just as cold and clinical as the last. They asked her if she was taking any vitamins. They asked if her cycle was normal. They asked Luke if he had noticed any changes in her personality. In their sex life. In anything. She answered each of the questions as best she could, and he added onto each response, until what was hers and what was his blurred the lines like a dream-state, and every questionnaire felt pointless and dull.

The first doctor took one look at Daphne’s skin, the dusky color shifting into rough brown stretches, and prescribed an eczema cream. They did not get a follow-up appointment.

The second doctor, after seeing how her knuckles turned white under her partner’s grip, suggested couples’ therapy. They didn’t go back to that clinic.

“We’re fine,” Luke repeated. “You’re the one with the problem.”

Daphne didn’t tell him about the way she woke up every morning feeling more and more stiff, spending up to half an hour rolling her shoulders back and stretching her joints until she felt like a person again. Soil spilled in the shower when she washed her hair, and she took to cleaning the bathroom far more often than she used to just to hide it. She used lavender-scented detergent when she washed the bedsheets to hide the smell of dirt. During the first storm of the season, she felt roots growing on her scalp, and she tied her hair up in a bun to hide it.

Every time she opened her mouth to tell him something, she tasted metal in the back of her throat, and felt it was better to keep her mouth shut unless it was serious.

The bark spread. When it reached her thighs, they stopped being intimate, not that Daphne minded too much. What she did mind was that he wouldn’t look at her. He didn’t want her to go out in public without covering her body like they were going to church. He started taking on extra shifts at work, and he took any chance to leave the house for some errand or another. Whenever she would try to touch him, lay her hands on his shoulders or wrap her arms around him at breakfast, he shrugged her off.

“I’m tired,” he would say.

She didn’t push him.

Flower buds began to sprout from her hair. The leaves poked out from the curls, a dark green amidst the red. The hair ties twisted the stems and made her head burn, but Luke would glare at her if she left the house with them showing.

“It’ll draw attention,” he said.

Her breasts began to shrink and flatten, more ridges than round. She wore shirts a size too big and higher collars to hide the moss that began growing on her neck. Her coworkers gave her side-eyes and once-overs, inspecting her, but no one asked if anything was wrong.

The beds of her fingernails were caked in dirt. It didn’t feel dirty, but she cleaned them every morning and night anyway. Just to keep Luke happy. To try to keep what they still had, if there was anything left at all.

One night, she dragged her things into the living room and slept on the couch. He didn’t tell her to come to bed. She was slipping. He was slipping. She didn’t know how to make it stop.

The third doctor gave in to Luke’s demands for further testing. It had become more and more difficult for her to move; her joints had gone stiff, like when she found her old dolls years later. It was harder and harder to get up every morning. Daphne didn’t feel the needle as it pricked her skin. The nerves were long dead. But the blood was still red, at least. They scheduled an x-ray for later that week at an imaging center an hour away, and a follow-up a week after that.

In the dim light of the bathroom, Daphne looked in the mirror and saw the dark bruises blooming under her eyes. If she tried hard enough, they almost looked like flower petals.

It was more than enough of a reason to stop trying.

“What are you doing?” Luke asked. He was sitting at the table, book open, staring as she grabbed the kitchen scissors from the junk drawer.

“I’m cutting my hair,” she replied. “The leaves keep getting tangled up in them. It’s annoying. I’m sick of it.”

Luke frowned. “You’ll just make it more obvious.”

She let her hair down. A single leaf drifted downwards, a bright green against the beige tile.

His brows furrowed. “Daphne, I’m serious. You’re just making things worse. You should cut the stems or whatever it is instead to make it look more normal. You looked fine. Can you stop and listen to me for one second?”

“Why does it matter?” She slammed the drawer, then flinched at the sound. “I just…I don’t see the reason. It’s not going away. It’s not going to just disappear if we ignore it long enough or if I try to hide it. Maybe I want to change things. Maybe it would be better for both of us if I did.”

“You’re not thinking this through,” he snapped back. “You’re not trying hard enough, you never do. You think everything’s going fine and never care about the consequences.”

“Why do you care so much about the consequences? Are you ashamed of me? Being seen with me?”

“I’m not ashamed of you, I’m just worried about what people will think if they see what you are –”

“Do you love me?” She needed this. She just needed to know. “Do you?”

Luke was quiet.

Daphne dropped the scissors. They clattered to the floor. “Answer the fucking question, Luke.”

His voice was lower this time, softer, like she was a baby bird with a broken wing and not someone he’d known and loved for years. “I used to,” he said. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t know you anymore.” He paused. “I can’t do this.”

“I’m going on a walk,” she said, and turned around before he could get another word in.

The door shut behind her with a sharp click. She hadn’t even bothered to grab her keys.

Daphne walked barefoot all the way out to the park where they once sat on a blanket and stargazed, pointing out the few constellations they knew, her making up stories and him trying to remember the ones that already existed. The grass was still wet from the day’s rain, moist between her toes, the blades brushing her ankle with each step. The air smelled the same way the shower did, of wet earth and the faint scent of wildflowers. The wind caressed what was left of her bare skin, the small patches that remained on her arms and calves.

It wouldn’t take him long to find her, she thought. He might ask to cut her down, to try to pull out what was left of her after she was gone, as if they could extract her still-beating heart from the depths of pine and sap. But the city would say no. She would be public property now. All she had to do was stand still and let the world watch from afar. She would change like leaves in spring.

She had never felt more alive.

About the Author

Chelsea Panameño · Christian Brothers University

Chelsea Panameño is a first-generation Salvadoran-American writer. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she is studying English and creative writing. She enjoys writing about magic, mythology, queerness, and everything in between. Her short story “The Water Rebirths” won third place in the 2022 Southern Literary Festival, and her stories “Laurel in Full Bloom” and “We Have Nothing If Not Time” were originally published in Castings. Her first short story collection is forthcoming.

About the Artist

Nicky Meaux · Rice University

“Into the Ether” first appeared in R2:The Rice Review. This piece was first featured in plain china in 2018.

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