by Erin Ashby
When I say I am a woman and also I am a leaf, I don’t mean it in some Zen way. I don’t mean we are all one, or we are all the trees and the sky and the spokes of a bicycle. I mean I’m a woman (though gender is pretty squishy these days) and I am also literally a leaf. I don’t believe the Taoists are onto this phenomenon yet.
I first felt the leafness when I was five-years-old. I was raised by Mona, my aunt. The rest of my family had scattered or died off by means of debt or alcohol. But Mona was okay. When I was little we lived in the San Fernando Valley in an ugly, blue stucco apartment building with curlicues of iron work along the stairway overlooking an over-bleached swimming pool freckled with palm fronds. There was no AC and the plumbing sucked, but the pool was functional in triple-digit summers and the pot-pushing ice cream truck never missed its rounds; two Flintstone Push-Ups for seventy-five cents. It might as well have been paradise for a kid. There was also the staircase where I spent much of my time to make my action figures and dollies stand up, one on each step from top to bottom. I don’t know what the aim was other than to get them all at least leaning on the railing, their faces stuck in insipid grins or stoic frowns as I gazed up at them from the ground. I think I expected them all to burst into a synchronized dance number.
Eventually though, my vision began to expand.
I imagined tipping over the doll on the top step. It would fall forward and push the next one down and the next all the way to the bottom. Descending dolly dominoes. It would be so impressive, I thought, that I would be asked to repeat the feat again and again. Kids from all over the neighborhood would come and see it.
I made some estimations as far as spatial relations, though the concept of physics was years away. I started with the tallest dolls, moving them closer or farther from the edge of the step depending on the height of the next one down. In my addled childhood mind I imagined each figure falling straight forward as if it were able to rehearse the choreography. I took more than an hour setting the dolls up for the first go. Three dolls fell down when I was done as people were walking up the stairs. I fixed them. Two fell down. One of them managed to fall perfectly forward to hit the next doll, but that one fell on its side. It took me a whole summer afternoon while other kids were playing in the pool before I got them all standing and climbed back to the top to knock over the first doll. It fell sideways and slipped through the railing, plunging to the pavement below. I went swimming to get my mind off my troubles and followed up with two tangerine Push-Ups.
The next attempt changed my life.
In order to get my Darth Vader action figure to stand properly, and being somewhat of a dare devil, I climbed over the iron railing to steady him from the other side. I had done this countless times. I was about twelve feet up from the pavement. It was July and my hands were sweaty from the Van Nuys sun. They slipped and I felt that chilling sting all through my body as I fell backwards.
That was when I became a leaf.
I didn’t transform into a leaf. I’m not a shapeshifter. But one instant I was a little girl and the next I was somewhere else. I was the small green bud of a leaf, shifted by the wind. I would find out much later that it was a Japanese Maple. I could feel it too; the tree. I could feel my connection to the other leaves and the consciousness of the thing. I felt my veins. I felt sun in a way I had never felt it as a human child; the overwhelming peace and comfort of it. I felt a beetle approaching from farther down my branch. I could not see or smell or feel the way a person does. But my human consciousness was present. I was aware of everything around me. I was in someone’s backyard. There were people near me. Their language was incomprehensible, though it might well have been English and I wouldn’t have known it. I felt the contrast between my seven-year-old humanity and the quiet solidity and fleeting existence of the leaf and it was overwhelming.
Then someone was slapping my face.
“He’s dazed,” a boy said.
Carl from next door stared down at me. He was the intimidating but nice enough teenager from next door. He smoked the ice cream man’s pot and listened to Nine Inch Nails a lot. His friends were crouched around me. They looked vaguely interested as they peeked out over their acne.
“She’s a girl,” Carl said then, sounding offended on my behalf.
That was the first time I shifted. I didn’t know what to make of the experience at such a young age. Three months later, it happened again. It was on the playground at school. The blacktop pavement was hot under the thin soles of my sneakers but I stood, arms akimbo, a band of elastic tight behind my sweaty knees as Jennifer Cruz jumped in and out, crossed over, in and out.
“You’re gonna make a quake,” I snarked.
Alright yes, I wasn’t always the kindest child. On the other hand, Jennifer was always calling me dikey (not that I knew what it meant at the time).
I wasn’t always the brightest either. Jennifer Cruz had three inches on me. She slapped me so hard my nose bled. That made me become the leaf again. I was more aware of my veins now. I felt the particles in the air. I felt the ground far beneath me and the people that walked on it. I felt birds in my tree, felt vibrations as they flapped and bickered at each other, felt the roots secure in the wet dark soil under me the way you feel a parent’s presence in another room.
I figured out quickly enough that leaf incidents coincided with some kind of shock to the system. I started keeping a diary and fancying myself a mad scientist cataloging her strange transformation like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (though I hoped to meet a happier fate). I turned into the leaf when I was eight and my aunt fainted from dehydration and I found her and thought she was dead. I had a few more run-ins with Jennifer Cruz that turned me into a leaf. I only realized later that I was antagonizing her on purpose, hoping to replicate more leaf incidents. I came home from school a few times with a bleeding nose and my aunt had a fight with my teacher about how I was terribly bullied. But in truth, I probably gave Jennifer Cruz an eating disorder. Sometimes joy brought it on too. I turned the first time the beautiful dark-haired sixth grader with the earrings all the way up her cartilage spoke to me. I had a terrible crush on her. She was our play-leader and her name was Espie. She told me I was good at dodge-ball while refreshing her Wild Cherry lip-gloss. I turned into a leaf which made me stand there like an idiot while the ball smacked me right in the head and rattled my brain. Espie laughed.
Fortunately, my leaf abilities advanced. I was able to turn at will and not just during moments of fear or anger or joy. Or rather, I was able to sum up these emotions and catch the sensation, riding into that other place, wherever that backyard was with the Japanese Maple. Sometimes it was raining there. I’d come back to the San Fernando Valley where it was ninety-five degrees, but I’d be shivering with the chill of cold raindrops sliding down the ridges of my lobes. I’d turn in the middle of conversations with kids. Everyone thought I was weird. Or weirder anyhow. I was always being mistaken for a boy, which bothered me about half the time. I didn’t completely grasp the importance of gender but my aunt had always made such a big deal about it when people got it wrong that I learned to feel bad too. She kept my hair long and it made no difference. Only later did I muddle through and find my sporadically shifting middle-ground.
As I got older I wondered if the leaf ability was due to my particular self or if my self was being shaped by the leaf ability. Early on I was both fascinated by and detached from other people. I wondered if everyone secretly had something like the leaf ability and collectively decided not to speak of it. I tried to search people’s eyes for this secret and silently communicate my own.
With puberty and the revelation of sex, the ability expanded beyond the leaf. After about the age of eleven the sight of certain naked women started making me go leafy. But when I was thirteen I watched Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Angelina Jolie turned me into a brilliant red silk scarf. Somehow I took the discovery of turning into something other than a leaf all in stride. But I was surprised that it was something not found in the natural world. I might have expected an animal or a rock or flower. But the fact of becoming a silk scarf--presumably because of budding Sapphic desires--opened up entirely new possibilities that led to other questions I might have asked myself in the first place.
What if I turned into a piece of cake and was eaten? Would that kill me? Would I be excreted? Why had I turned into a leaf and not the entire tree? And the biggest question of all: How did I know, as a scarf, that I was in the same place as the leaf? There was a consciousness beyond sight or touch, the same awareness I’d felt as the leaf. I knew that the scarf belonged to the person who owned the yard with the Japanese Maple. I learned new things too. I knew the person who owned the scarf and the yard with the Japanese Mable was an old lady, though she was spry and active. I became the scarf three times (thank you, Lara Croft). I became familiar with the soft, cool, crepe paper skin of the old woman’s neck. It got to be comforting, at least following the initial shock of lusting over Jolie only to be yanked into the possession of a scarf wrapped around the neck of an elderly woman.
When I was fourteen a saucy Guess Jeans ad turned me into a plain white envelope under a stack of bills on the old woman’s kitchen table. I was a spatula, a couch cushion, a bobby pin, a receipt from the grocery store, an empty shampoo bottle. I was always in this woman’s house. I got a feel for her. She was lonely, but it only made her the more joyful when she had unexpected guests. I felt this even as one of her possessions on the side lines. Some things I discovered and had no idea how I knew them. I didn’t know her name, but I knew that her children lived far away. I knew she was in a sewing club and she had a well-organized room full of brightly colored fabrics. Once I was the filter in her fish tank. That experience was a little gunky. I still came back as the leaf now and then. I have to think these turns into objects were somehow out of time; how long can one leaf last? Once, as a leaf, I fell from my tree. It was raining and I lay in the grass. The old woman was nearby gardening. I felt older than her. I felt years passing peacefully. Now I would join the soil. Then I came back and I was in sophomore algebra. My teacher was glaring at me.
It occurred to me when I graduated from high school that eventually the old woman was going to die. Likely I would sense it someday when I turned into something else again. Or what if it was a long slow illness that took her? How much of it would I have to see? Just the thought of my aunt’s death made my palms sweat.
Then, in college, I met Suzanne. Or rather, she met me. I was at Pierce, a passable junior college close to home, muddling through general ed courses, and doing just well enough to transfer to a state school. I’d never done well enough for scholarships, though it wasn’t for lack of ability. I just didn’t care. The world around me didn’t seem convincingly real--not when I could turn into other objects in another location (another reality?) and no amount of Googling could tell me what it meant. It was the first day of the spring semester in freshman year and I was in a writing lab, tapping my pen on my notebook and resisting the urge to try to turn in the middle of class.
I might not have noticed Suzanne at all if she hadn’t shot repeated glances at me. She walked into class in the middle of the instructor’s introduction. She was trying to add. She was pale with two long, white-blonde braids straight as sticks that hung down to her hips. She wore overalls over a tie-dye shirt. She was cute in a hippie commune out-of-time sort of way, and certainly not the type I might have gone for. But she kept looking at me. Apparently the teacher didn’t much go for hippies either. He was annoyed she’d walked in late with a demand to add the class, and sent her off. When she told me later she’d only tried to add the class to get close to me, I blushed.
She found me later in the quad. I was sitting under a tree, drawing the leaf. I wanted to get a tattoo of it, but I could never get the art quite right and I didn’t trust anyone else to draw it. I kept reaching up to play with my hair, forgetting that I’d cut it all off. This was in my camp shirt and shorts period.
“Hi, I’m Suzanne!” She spoke in a rush and I looked up at her as she squinted down at me. “You were just in that lab.”
“Yeah…” I imagined she wanted to know if I could drop and she could add. “Do you need-”
“I know you,” she said. She plopped down on the grass, holding her backpack in her lap. The tightness of her braids was distracting.
If this girl had gone to my high school, surely I would’ve remembered her. She looked like someone who hadn’t yet reinvented herself for college--had probably failed to reinvent herself since sixth grade.
“You went to Grant?” I said.
“Ah, n-no.” She stuttered. “I’ve just...seen you around, I mean.”
Suzanne had not gone to Grant. Suzanne was from a small town up the coast near San Luis Obispo where aging artisans sell their pottery and live in school buses they cover with seashells. She told me this when she dragged me off to drink boba and skip class. Suzanne was one of seven siblings from a family that made their own toothpaste and drank unpasteurized milk. She told me things about her life with an air of gravity, as if I were an assassin and she was giving me the dossier on my next target. The weirdest part was that when I responded with stories of my own childhood, she nodded as if it were all familiar, even though our lives were so different. Although we had apparently both grown up feeling isolated from other kids.
“You don’t usually talk so much,” she said to me, playing with her fat orange straw. She said it so definitively. It wasn’t even a question.
“People don’t talk to me much,” I said.
“Do you go to the beach very often?”
“Sometimes. In the summer, I s’pose.”
“We should go to the beach, you and I.” She touched my arm then, and that was it. I was hers. When she touched me I felt such a thrill that I started to shift. For a moment I was a shiny silver fork in a mahogany case. I felt the velvet lining on my back. I smelled silver polish and something musty. I sensed the china cabinet around me and I also felt Suzanne’s cool hand on my arm and saw the brilliance of her smile. She had no doubts about any of this, it appeared. She had announced herself. And why me? I didn’t know.
All these sensations combining at once gave me an overwhelming sensitivity to both worlds and neither was my real life and both were. The old woman’s whole house was like the tree around me when I had been a leaf. I felt the photographs on the walls as if the walls were my skin; the out-of-tune piano in the living room that needed dusting; the dreamcatcher hanging in a window; a milk bottle full of pennies; a calligraphy set never unwrapped; a Tupperware case for organizing medications; ugly and supportive underpants; meal replacement drinks; broken eyeglasses; pulpy mystery novels; piles of paperwork to ensure a more comfortable state of seniority. But simultaneously I saw every detail of Suzanne at once, though I couldn’t feel her as I could the house. It was like everything had slowed down and come into sharp focus, standard def to HD. There was the curve of her upper lip and three dots of freckles left of her nose; three long white-blonde hairs straying from her braid and fluttering in the breeze; four beaded rings worn on the hand resting on my arm. Her hand felt suddenly heavier, but comforting and solid.
“Yeah, let’s go to the beach sometime,” I said.
Suzanne worked at a coffee place off-campus but didn’t drink coffee. She was on financial aid like I was and she lived in an apartment with crap plumbing and a constantly fluctuating roommate situation. Her only furniture was a twin-sized futon and a bunch of stackable plastic crates. I knew this because she invited me over the day we met. We half-watched a documentary about whales that her roommates were watching with bleary eyes as they passed around a bong. I didn’t smoke. I never did drugs. I was always afraid they would mess with the shifting. The second-hand high and Suzanne’s body squished up next to mine on the crowded couch was intense enough. As it turned out, I didn’t need to smoke. I spent the whole time half-shifting. Everything around me was more real than real and deeply felt. I became several things, one after the other; a spider in the old lady’s front yard; a magnet on her refrigerator advertising an auto dealership; a particle of dust on that dusty piano. I felt the weight of all these objects and all the meaning this old woman had invested in them.
Or maybe that was just the pot. But it seemed awfully real.
Suzanne was very high when she leaned over and whispered, “Can you feel it? I feel it too.”
I didn’t know, at the time, if she was talking about the feeling between us or the weed or if she knew somehow about my shifting. All that was too much to think about when her lips brushed my ear as she spoke.
“I know you so well,” she said, and kissed my neck. I closed my eyes and it was all too much. For a few moments I shifted entirely and became a quilt on the old lady’s bed. I knew it was the woman’s favorite quilt and that her aunt had sewn it in the seventies. And even more: I now had the memory of the aunt giving the quilt to the old woman.
I knew now that the old woman lived somewhere in Washington state.
I didn’t realize then that it was Suzanne intensifying the shifts. But that weekend we went to Venice Beach and she told me that she could do it too.
“The first time it happened, I was four,” Suzanne said, as we walked along the sand, holding our shoes. “One second I was climbing a tree and then suddenly I wasn’t a kid, I was a...a floaty thing.”
“A floaty thing?”
“Yeah, you know, those inflatable cuff things that little kids wear when they swim? I was one of those. I was on the arm of a kid in a pool somewhere. And I could feel the kid. She was so happy and excited. Kids that young, you don’t really get other people’s emotions yet and here I was feeling this other girl’s feelings. I felt the water on her skin and the sun beating down on her head, the noise all around her. I even tasted the ice cream left in her mouth. Some older boy dunked her underwater and I felt how scared she was. Then I came out of it. That was the first time.”
I was awed just to meet someone with my ability, who had somehow sensed that I had it too. Then I was a little envious. Suzanne’s power to shift had kicked in a little sooner than mine for whatever reason. It also sounded a bit more advanced. I couldn’t feel the old lady’s emotions.
“It’s always the same kid’s life,” Suzanne said. “I watched them grow up. I was their toys and the posters on their wall and their books and a washcloth… I was the band-aid on their knee.” She laughed and it sounded like a wind chime. “Kinda gross.”
Suzanne could observe more of the girl whose life she was always shifting into. Sometimes she could even sense her thoughts.
“But that sucks,” I said. “I can’t even understand what my old lady’s saying. Though I am getting memories now. Since I met you.”
I told Suzanne most of everything, like how I felt the thick reality of the objects I inhabited, how possessing them was a sixth sense. Suzanne was pretty impressed that I could turn into things like leaves and spiders.
“But you became a whole insect,” she said. “Could you control what it did?”
“No. I was just in it. Feeling it all. Lots of eyes.” I shuddered.
“You can get closer to the person’s things than to the person.” She gazed down at the sand as she said so. We were in the water just up to our ankles. It was getting chilly.
“You make me sound shallow,” I said. The thought rankled me a little and I shook my head.” Everything around her has absorbed a little bit of her. So her things are her by extension. . It’s so intense. But I like it. I like being different things. I mean, isn’t it like being a god to know the experience of being both a person and an ant or a particle of dust or a paper clip?”
"I wonder why I can see inside my person’s mind and feel her feelings and you can’t" Suzanne said. She leaned down and picked up a shell, pressing it into my hand so that ridges started to cut into my palm. "Maybe I’m less afraid to get close than you are.”
"You just met me," I said quietly.
"I know you," she insisted.
This was when I started to catch on in the back of my mind; a small voice asked the question but I couldn't believe it yet. It was too strange and scary. She turned and stepped close to me. I'll remember the way she looked right then as long as I live. She'd let her braids loose and her waist-long hair was blowing back, the ocean behind her. Three freckles left of her nose. Her fingers danced up my arms.
"I'm gonna shift if you do that," I whispered.
"Don't," she said. "Don't shift right now. Hold it back."
"Yes, you can, I've done it..."
But then she kissed me. I did shift entirely, for just a few seconds. I was the bark of the Japanese Maple and it was so familiar it made me feel safe enough to come back and feel Suzanne's lips. I kissed her back.
"How'd you know about me?"?" I said later. After the beach we had hung out on the pier, not wanting to part yet.
"I think maybe I just sensed it about you. I saw you before I tried to add that class."
"How come I can't do that?"
She poked me in the ribs. "'Cause you're afraid of people," she sang out.
"Jerk." I laughed. I didn't usually smile so much.
Thankfully, Suzanne and I had more to talk about than just the shifting. She was a little more private about some of her own shifts anyway. She didn’t want to tell me too much about the little girl. Though I told her everything about being the leaf especially, and about feeling older than the old lady. At least I was good about not skipping any more classes. It quickly became apparent that if I started to ditch because of Suzanne, I might as well drop out. We started doing everything together. Suzanne was slow with the affection, because I was too damn nervous to ever make a move. Sometimes even thinking about it made me shift.
That was another thing. I was shifting more often since I met Suzanne, in the middle of class when nothing emotionally triggering had even happened, but especially on dates. If it upset her, she didn’t say too much about it. But I caught a sad smile or two sometimes. It was the thing that had brought us together but it was also between us. She wanted to be with me. She didn't want me running off to be a fucking leaf.
"You could control it if you wanted to," she finally said one day. We were in her apartment. It was empty for once.
"Maybe," I said, shrugging. "I don't know. I never wanted to control it before. I like it."
"I could teach you meditation exercises. I had a bad stretch of it in high school. I was shifting all the time. Everyone thought I was a total space cadet. I mean I know you like it but..."
"You don’t like it," I muttered.
I was on the couch, splayed out like a lazy cat, and Suzanne crawled over and straddled my lap. "I don't like you going away when we're close."
"Like now?" I said tightly.
"Close your eyes and breathe."
I did that. It helped, but I was just a tiny bit shifted still. I felt grass brushing against...something. I didn't even know what I was shifting into.
"I want to make love to you," she whispered in my ear. "And I want you to be there. So you better learn to meditate."
"Yeah okay." She kissed me and I held on tight.
Actually going forward with this plan was a different story. I was a half-assed mediator, but I did try for her, and Suzanne tried to be patient. I practiced all the meditations she gave me. I wanted things to work. I'm not a complete idiot. I was in love with her; but sometimes I got edgy and shifted on purpose.
"What are you afraid of!" We were making chili for the roommates, in exchange for their pot and booze. I had given up resisting weed. It helped calm me down even if it made me shift a little weirdly.
"I don't know," I said. I felt like people had been asking me that question since I was born. That and: Are you a girl or a boy?
"Yes, you do."
"I really really don't. I've thought about it. I don't know."
"It's not sex," she mumbled.
It wasn't. I'd hooked up with people. I'd told her that.
"Commitment?" She said, with a snort. "That's so trite."
"Intimacy. It's really just that?" She turned from the pot of bubbling chili. She was covered with a light sheen of sweat from cooking in the hot, tiny kitchen.
"I never said I was well-adjusted," I said.
"Good, ‘cause that would have been a lie."
We were in her room on the futon and I was talking about how I'd found some old show I'd liked as a kid on YouTube.
"Man...I remember it being much better," I said. The show was about a bunch of cartoon puppies and some evil cats. I think the toys had come before the entertainment. “It was probably my favorite show when I was eight.”
“But you had Spongebob shoelaces,” Suzanne said with a disbelieving snort.
I had been ignoring the small voice, but now panic surged up inside me. “How’d you know that?” I said.
“You know why,” she said. Her legs were in my lap and I shoved them away. “You knew all along.”
“No,” I muttered.
“I wasn’t ever a shoelace, but I was your shoe once.” She leaned forward and pushed a lock of hair behind my ear; my short boy-hair. “It wasn’t my favorite, being your shoe. I liked it better when I was something you were touching carefully or caring for. A few times I was your favorite book, when you were about twelve. The Outsiders. Once I was shifted for six hours. I had the flu is why. But when I shifted, you know, I didn’t feel sick. And I could pass for asleep. So I was that book. Mostly I was just jostling around in your backpack. I could feel you though. God, you hated school. You were so alone…”
I did start to cry, which was a terrible aggravation. But Suzanne kept talking, stroking my hair.
“I tried to let you know I was there,” Suzanne said. “I wanted to let you know someone cared about you. But you could never feel me. I sensed you were shifting too. I kept hoping you would find me somehow… I’d stare at a pen or a sock and wonder if it was you in there… But there was nothing. I still grew up with you though. I know you.”
I felt like I couldn’t breathe, but I managed to ask her if she’d ever shifted while we were together—because if she had, I didn’t know about it.
“When we were high,” she said, “I accidentally went back to when you were six. Saw you at school learning about dinosaurs. It was so cute…”
“Wait, you shifted back through time?” I sniffed through tears.
“Yeah, usually it’s linear. But you can shift through time. I thought we talked about that.”
Suzanne kept kissing my face. “I want to tell you all the ways I know you. All the things I’ve been that you’ve touched…”
“It’s too much.” It was taking all my willpower not to shift right then. “It’s too much, it’s too much… You can’t just...invade someone’s life—”
But I didn’t protest when she kissed me again and pushed me down on my back. I wanted it to work. I wanted us to understand each other. We were both half-shifting by the time we were naked, holding on tight to our reality. But when she whispered that she loved me and her fingers pressed up inside me, I let myself shift entirely and for the last time.
I don’t know what became of my body. Because I’m no longer there and I never will be again.
I became the leaf, but I take many forms. What Suzanne never got about me was that I’ve never been just one thing.
That day I fluttered down from the Japanese Maple and I knew just where I was— in the backyard of the old woman’s house. It was a place far in the future, but the woman who lived there had never been much for high technology. That’s why I had never caught on.
She must’ve known all along. It wouldn’t surprise me. She went out into her yard and picked me up from the ground, and her soft, wrinkled old fingers caressed me as if I were something precious. I had more awareness than ever before. I could see her now. Her hair was pure white in two long straight braids, and she had three freckles to the left of her nose.
“Can you feel it, my girl?” The old lady said to the leaf. “I feel it too. I know you so well.”
Erin Ashby experiences existential dread on a daily basis at her dull office job. When she's not pondering that crisis or re-watching The X-Files, she's working on YA speculative novels and short fiction. You can find her at various pubs in East Hollywood, California ankle-deep in the red ink of her writing group cohorts.
Her Twitter is, @spoonflipper
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