Happy Death Trees
The sign on the door said “Paint Your Way To Peace.” All down the hallway, paintings were taped up like a kindergarten art walk. Amber Green. Dead. Susan Hearndon. Dead. Mark Kennedy. Dead. Alison Grant. Almost dead. Hester Smith. 180 to 270 days left.
“Don’t hang my painting,” Hester announced.
The instructor nearly dropped her pots of paint and water. She was far too perky and young, waif-ish with a Disney-bluebird-on-her-shoulder-voice and princess hair in an exuberant ponytail.
“I’m Dying like everyone else here.”
Hester rolled her eyes at Instructor Denise and refused her offered blue latex handshake.
“We are here today to find your axel-trees.” Denise chirped ignoring Hester’s death announcement.
“What kind of artsy mumbo-jumbo is that?” Hester asked.
Denise read from her lesson plan, “In Norse culture, an axle-tree is a sacred natural site joining Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.”
“Why aren’t we just painting skeletons instead of trees? I’ll be the class model,” Hester offered.
“Paint your tree like mine.” Denise sing-songed at a canvas of leafy, flower-laden trees. A blue horizon meeting a sherbet sunset. Bluebirds and ripe apples perched on the wrong trees.
Hester wanted to remind everyone those were Denise’s axle-trees, not theirs. And definitely not hers. Everyone had to realize it was just death-painting in the hospital art room.
The room smelled sulphuric like elementary school tempera paints. But every room at St. Joseph’s smelled like that. Like death. And the Underworld.
Hester looked up St. Joseph when her mom told her to say a novena to him. He died a “happy death” after suffering bodily infirmities for eight years. Eight years. Only in the Catholic Church would eight years be the requirement for a happy death. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, all they offered was eight weeks of chemo and kindergarten art classes taught by a Disney princess named Denise.
While her mom recommended novenas and candle-lighting, Dr. Palladin told her to paint. Paint what? A house? Interstate dividing lines? She had twisted his brochures along with the test results, dropping prescription paper scraps on sterile tile.
She dipped her paintbrush in Black Spinel and licked it to replace the ever-present chemo metallic mouth taste. No pink paint on her axle-tree.
“These aren’t even real trees. We are inside painting your fake trees.”
Denise hovered over Hester’s canvas pursing her Cherries in the Snow lips. The lipstick was so bright it showed through her surgical mask.
None of the other artists-in-hospital-waiting questioned Denise’s not-art-teacher methods. Hester’s tree was winter-black with Black Spinel branches. Stark against Eggshell canvas. A singular winter bald tree with one shadow bird.
Hester knew Denise (and all art teachers/oncology nurses/Catholic moms) liked pretty trees painted by pretty people. Pretty trees got bluebird voice gold stars.
“I don’t have time for this. I’m finding my real axel-tree.”
Hester grabbed her still-wet painting off the easel, hugged it to her chest, and bolted from room 128. The other painters stayed attached to their IVs and wheelchairs painting their own destined-for-the-hallway-gallery axel-trees. Denise watched in her preppy art instructor pink scrubs, one leg like a trapped zoo flamingo but not moving because she had students to teach.
Hester made it to the hospital’s Meditation Garden. Traces of her axle-tree painting tattooed her hospital gown. She dropped the canvas and hugged the tree at the garden’s center, ignoring the nearby smirking St. Joseph statue. Clumps of her hair fell on the grass. Black paint smeared the tree’s bark as she fell into prayer position.
Amy Barnes has words at a variety of sites including McSweeney’s, Parabola, The New Southern Fugitives, FlashBack Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Elephants Never, Detritus, Marias at Sampaguitas, Lucent Dreaming, Burning House Press, Lunate Fiction and others. She’s a reader for CRAFT and Narratively and Associate CNF Editor for Barren Magazine.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.