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Propagation

Hannah Ascough

Decorative Green Leaf with pink stem

     Jon is pulling on his socks and pushing ivy away from his face when he first thinks his tattoo has grown larger. He reaches down to touch three leaves he’s sure weren’t there before, but the black lines which twist down his calf and slide around his ankle seem placid now. He shakes his head - tries to move the ache growing there. 

 

     The tattoo had been his idea. He’d been sitting at the table, watching videos of couples kissing, wrists inscribed with each other’s names, when he’d said to Sheila, “We should get matching tattoos.” 

 

     Sheila had snorted from the sink where she was washing dishes. “Why?” 

 

     Jon had shrugged. “I don’t know — they’re cool. Shows everyone we’re together.” 

 

     For a moment, Sheila had looked almost sad. Then she’d turned away again. “Maybe,” she’d said. “But I’m not sure yet.”   

 

     At the time, Jon had been disappointed. He’d thought himself romantic, and he’d felt taunted when he walked into a fretful philodendron on his way out of the kitchen. 

 

     Now, Jon shows his tattoo off to his friends. It’s just stopped shedding skin, but in the dim yellowed lights, he squints because he thinks for a moment that the lines are moving, thrashing in some unseen wind. He shrugs it off. 

 

     “Stick and poke,” he says proudly. “Sheila did it herself. And they match.”

 

     His friends are impressed; they call him romantic and he agrees. They ask if she’s the one and he says yes. “She’s the greatest girl I’ve ever met,” he says.  

 

     They nod. She’s the greatest girl they’ve met as well, though they’ve only met her once. 

 

     Jon had thought Sheila pretty when he first saw her profile, and he’d said as much. Then he’d asked her out.She’d taken five days to reply, but Jon, in that time, had looked so much at the picture of her lips caught on a white lily and at the photo of her tattoos pressed up against the slender legs of pink oleander that he’d decided she was perfect. He’d asked her out twice more until she’d said yes. 

 

     When he’d first visited her, he’d been curious about all her plants — the black lines of stems and leaves curling around her ribs, the sweating, fretting pots hanging above her bed, the vines circling her neck and tangling down the walls. 

 

     “They’re living memories,” she’d said. “All the places and people I’ve met.” 

Jon had laughed, reaching out to touch a worried pothos next to the bed. “You’ve led a big life, then.” 

 

     Sheila had smiled. “Well, you can propagate them.” 

 

     Jon hadn’t known what that meant. 

 

     “It’s when you cut part of the stem of one plant and let it grow new roots to make another plant,” Sheila had explained. 

 

     “Seems violent.” 

 

     “It’s not,” Sheila had said, and she’d stopped smiling. “It’s new life. And only when you have to.” 

 

     She’d not spoken to him the rest of the night. 

 

     Now, Jon is putting dishes in the sink when he notices two more leaves on his tattoo. He trips in surprise and knocks over a large, arrowhead plant. He swallows hard, his throat burning, staring at the new leaves that snake past his ankle to pierce the veins in his foot.  

 

     Sheila swears at the dirt on the floor when she gets home. Jon wants to tell her, but she’s holding a dustpan and asking why he hadn’t cleaned it up himself, and besides, Jon’s worried she’ll think he’s losing his mind. 

 

     “Do you want help?” he asks, watching her sweep. He can’t tell if she’s angry, though her shoulders seem rigid before she exhales and points at the laundry on the floor. 

 

     “Throw that in,” she says shortly, “and then come dry the dishes.”

 

     Jon grins and salutes her. “What are we having for dinner?” he asks, batting at two anxious ivy plants swinging in his way. Sheila ignores him. 

 

     It had taken Jon a while to convince Sheila that they should move in together — longer than it had taken him to talk her into the tattoo — but she’d eventually agreed, and though he’d gotten used to living with the twitchy stares of the plants that filled her apartment, he hadn’t gotten used to living with Sheila. 

 

     “I wish I saw you more,” he’d said once, looking at the spinach she’d handed him to chop. Her back was to him, hunched over the stove, the long stems of her tattoos studding with sweat. “We never just sit and relax, you know?” 

 

     Sheila had turned around then, and for a moment in the yellowed kitchen light, she’d looked exhausted, almost vulnerable, like she was about to cry, before she’d closed her mouth. “I really need that chopped,” she’d said finally. 

 

     And Jon had sighed and left the kitchen because Sheila, he’d learned, was always closing down, waving wildly between moods he couldn’t understand, and the shifting made him dizzy. He’d told his friends she was the best girl he’d met, called her perfect, a dream girl, but privately he thought of her as overgrown. When he stared at the whispering vines climbing her walls, he wondered if he’d ever find anything underneath. 

 

     Jon is in the shower, letting water pool at his feet, and when he feels certain his tattoo has grown more leaves. He can see at least two more unfurling by his toes, and another one wrapping around the edge of his heel. 

 

     His throat swells with panic. He tries to lift his foot, but finds he can’t. He bends and pries and his nails cut into the black lines of the tattoo and blood pools by the drain. When he finally pulls his foot up, he splashes backwards with the force, and chokes up water. 

 

     He hears Sheila slam the front door. Jon wants to call out to her, but he’s not sure what to say. He doesn’t want to worry her. 

 

     She’s frowning and dusting the shelves in the bedroom. Jon’s throat is still thick, and his head hurts, so he sits on the bed and watches. The petals and leaves twist around her shoulders in dark lines like his own tattoo, and he wonders suddenly if they’ve ever grown as well. 

 

     He opens his mouth to ask, but Sheila turns and says, “I’m going away for the weekend.” 

 

     Jon nods. 

 

     “Don’t forget to water the ivy,” she adds.  

 

     “No,” Jon says, “of course not.” She smiles at him, and he can see all her teeth. His skin aches. 

 

     Their worst fight had been about the ivy. Sheila had gone away for a week, and when she’d come home, Jon had been on the couch, flipping through his phone. 

 

     “How was the trip?” he’d called out, watching her pick her way through the shoes strewn across the hall. 

 

     Sheila had not said anything. She’d reached up instead to touch the shrivelled brown leaves flaking from a hanging pot. 

 

     “I thought I asked you to water this,” she’d said quietly. 

 

     Jon had sat up then and grimaced. “I’m so sorry,” he’d said. “I forgot.” 

 

     “How?” she’d asked. Her eyes were damp and fogged.  

 

     “What?” he’d said, leaning forward. 

 

     Sheila had fisted the dead leaves, dusting the carpet with their bones. “What, were you distracted by all the laundry and the dishes you didn’t clean?” 

 

     Jon had stared at her, not sure what to say. She’d started pacing then, pulling more dead stalks from hanging pots, letting them trail a path behind her. “Every timeI think it’ll be different,” she’d said, almost to herself. “And they’re never different.” 

 

     “What?” Jon had asked again.

 

      “Be fucking useful,” she’d cursed suddenly. 

 

     Jon had stood up. “Look, I’m really sorry,” he’d said again. His heart had been pounding; he’d felt bad but bemused, thought privately that she was overreacting, but worried, too, that she would break up with him. “It’s just that you have so many plants.” 

 

     “And yet, here I am — keeping them and me and you alive,” Sheila had hissed. She’d left the room, and Jon had slept on the couch that night. She’d shaken him awake the next morning, and her eyes were no longer wet. 

 

     “I’m sorry,” she’d said, not blinking. “I want to do the matching tattoos.” 

 

     Jon had sat up quickly. He’d shed the weight of the fight with the blankets, and he’d hugged her. That was how — after weeks of persistently wearing her down — Jon had found himself seated across from Sheila, getting his tattoo.  

 

     She’d done it at night, leaving only one yellowing lamp on, her arms cradling a wooden bowl that Jon had never seen before, filled with needles and ink and plastic and soap. She’d surrounded him with ivy and when he’d asked why, she’d said it was for reference. Then she’d dipped the needle into the black ink and throughout the evening, she’d slowly laced a creeping vine down and around his calf, knotting it with heart-shaped leaves. It had burned, but Jon had embraced it, watching her whisper to herself as she wiped away the excess ink. 

 

     “This is perfect,” he’d breathed afterwards. “You’re perfect,” he’d added. 

 

     She’d smiled, and said, “You’re going to love it,” and she’d left to put her bowl away.Jon had not thought the comment odd until three days later, when he’d peeled back the plastic and wondered if the tattoo had grown bigger. 

 

     When Sheila leaves that weekend, Jon thinks about water. His throat is swollen and dry and he withers in patches of hot sunlight, and every time he looks down with his head spinning and his stomach roiling, the black vines of his tattoo have snarled together even more. He falls asleep, his foot burning, surrounded by anxious plants. 

 

     When he wakes up, his feet are too heavy. He tries to move, and is startled by pain and the noise of a distant ripping. He tries to turn his head, but his neck is too stiff, and so he glances instead at the floor. There he sees black lines spreading underneath him, untangling and unfurling, reaching further and farther out. 

 

     Jon realizes that the lines are not black but wooded browns and spindled greens and they have spread not just below him but around him, and he sees now that they are branching out of him, sprouting from his chest; feels them writhing across his back, and breathing up his spine. 

 

     He starts to panic but he can’t cry out, and he can’t move his arms to pull at his feet, and his head aches, and his mouth swells closed, and as the yellowed light fades,, he knows that the plants around him have grown much bigger. He tries again to shout, but all he feels is pain and fear, a dry thirst and the crackling sun. He thinks about Sheila and the tattoo, and he starts to wonder, and then he does nothing at all.  

 

     When Sheila arrives home, she pulls the scattered ivy off the ground, its roots dragging on the floor, its leaves clenching and ducking and twisting away, and she smiles. She puts it in a pot, settles it in dirt, and then she hangs it with the oleanders and the lilies and the philodendrons and the arrowheads and all the anxious ivy, and it is still there, anguished and grieving and watching when, three days later, a new man enters and wonders at the many plants in Sheila’s home. 

 

     “Propagation,” she explains. “And only when I have to.” 

 

     And when he bumps into a pot of ivy, the man wonders, for a moment, if it is shouting at him. 

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