Escape Pod 786: The Steel Magnolia Metaphor


The Steel Magnolia Metaphor

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Each petal was carefully shaped from the finest iron-carbon alloy, curved delicately while still hot and meticulously positioned to overlap with its neighbors just so to form a blossom. Astrid gazed lovingly at the way each petal’s razor-sharp edge glinted in the light of the setting sun, at the way her creation cast a shadow indistinguishable from the other ornamental trees in Mama’s garden.

Mama didn’t look too pleased, though.

She had her fake smile on, the one she used when she knew she had to be proud of Astrid but couldn’t quite figure out how. Astrid was used to adults using that smile around her machines. And around her in general.

“It’s very pretty,” Mama said finally, swatting at a mosquito that had flown near her face. “But I’m not sure I understand what it is.”

“It’s a steel magnolia,” Astrid said, devastated. How could Mama not recognize the main character of her favorite movie?

A sadness came over Mama’s face, which was entirely the wrong emotion. There’d been too much sadness around the house already. “Oh, honey.” She made to put her arm around Astrid, like she’d do with the boys, but stopped herself. “Honey, Steel Magnolias isn’t about a magnolia made of steel. It’s about friendship and strong Southern women.”

Astrid frowned. That didn’t sound right.

“It’s a metaphor,” Mama explained gently.

Metaphors. Astrid’s greatest nemesis. Well, one of them. Lace collars and forced eye contact were up there, too. But mostly metaphors. Her brain ran on logic and mechanics; she could put together a technically perfect sonnet that rhymed in all the right places, but her teachers always said they lacked depth.

Where is the emotion, they asked, the lush wordplay that brings the lines to life and evokes emotion in the reader? Astrid wrote about robots–if rhyming couplets about a robot butler didn’t make someone happy, symbolism wasn’t going to help that.

“The movie calls the women steel magnolias because they’re strong and delicate at the same time,” Mama said.

“Like a bodybuilder in high heels.”

Mama faltered for a moment at this apparent non-sequitur, but she’d known Astrid for all thirteen years of her life and had long ago learned to accept the way her mind worked. “Okay. Sure.” She paused. “We could watch it together sometime, if you like.”

Astrid considered this. “No robot trees?”

“No. It’s about a woman with a disease—”

“Pass.”

Mama made a face that Astrid figured was disappointment, but quickly replaced it with curiosity. “So, what’s it do?”

Astrid flipped a switch on the magnolia’s steel trunk, and the flowers began slowly swiveling like miniature satellite dishes. One near the top froze, having locked onto its target. A buzzing sound filled the air, not unlike the droning of cicadas on a hot summer day, and then zap!

A tiny beam of light shot out from the center, and a mosquito dropped to the ground, a plume of smoke curling up from its corpse.

“It does that,” Astrid said proudly.


That spring was absolutely lousy with mosquitoes, with summer looking to be even worse, but the steel magnolia kept them all off the property. Now Mama could rest in the fresh air when she felt nauseous, and not be scratching bites all the next day.

Astrid’s brothers sat out with her most evenings, playing board games or just sitting quietly until the sun set and they could hear the stars twinkle. That’s what they thought crickets were: the sound of twinkling stars. But Ingrid knew better.

She also knew the only reason Tim and Leo were being so good and spending time with Mama was that they thought they needed to collect as many memories of her as they could before she died. But Mama wouldn’t die. She had the best doctors in all of Louisiana, and they were putting medicine in her to make her better. That’s how it worked, how it had to work.

So Astrid stayed in her shop, because Mama would be better soon and everyone would laugh at how much time they’d wasted being sad about something that hadn’t even happened yet.

She started making more steel magnolias, figuring that all the neighbors would want one when they saw how well the first one worked. Maybe she’d make them smaller. Little ones you could put in your hair or in a buttonhole to keep bugs away when you were out and about.

Maybe she would make one so small that doctors could put it in someone’s body to zap all the cancer.


When Mama’s hair started falling out, Astrid’s Auntie Clara moved in with them. She wore too much perfume and made sandwiches all wrong, but worst of all were the hugs.

“I’m autistic,” Astrid said, pulling away again as they walked through the garden with her new flower-planting bot.

“I still love you, though.”

Astrid couldn’t take this anymore. A week’s worth of frustration bubbled to the surface, and she snapped, “If you loved me, you would stop hugging me when I ask you to.”

The air grew deathly still and thick in the wake of this declaration, owing nothing to the stifling humidity and everything to the waves of tension radiating from Auntie Clara. Logically, Astrid knew such a phenomenon was impossible, but that didn’t stop her from feeling it.

Maybe she shouldn’t have said that, she thought, watching her little machine roll through the dirt, poking holes of uniform depth and depositing a seed in each one. The house was already full of tension. Too quiet, too fearful.

But sometimes words just came out, and she couldn’t always stop them. Should she apologize? She wasn’t sorry, not really. Only for how she’d said it, not what she’d said. If Auntie Clara loved her, then shouldn’t she show that love in a way that didn’t make Astrid all itchy inside?

Still, Astrid had been raised by good Southern women, and they’d taught her to value politeness over everything else. Politeness and sweet tea. Even if it didn’t come naturally to her, even if it felt insincere, she had to apologize.

“I’m sorry.” Her words came out softer than she’d intended, more air than voice, and she stooped to tinker with the robot for no reason other than to fiddle with something.

Auntie Clara was silent for a long moment. Astrid couldn’t see her, but imagined her crossing and uncrossing her arms in that restless way she had. Finally, she said, “It doesn’t just hurt the person who’s dying, does it?”

“She’s not dying.”

“Okay,” Auntie Clara said. She was using the tone of voice people used when they thought Astrid was being difficult but they didn’t want to deal with her anymore. Astrid didn’t particularly feel like arguing, either, and the hot afternoon fell into silence once again.
Utter silence, Astrid realized. Not so much as a single cicada buzzing.

When they got to the steel magnolia, she saw the reason.

Insect carcasses littered the ground. Not just mosquitoes, but beetles and moths, cicadas and honeybees.

***

The family sat on the porch the evening Mama decided to stop treatment. Astrid, too, right next to Mama.

The stars didn’t make their twinkle sounds, because the steel magnolia had killed all the crickets.

Astrid couldn’t wrap her mind around it. There were no more mosquitoes near the house, just like she’d intended, but in her attempt to do good she’d inadvertently done so much bad.

The world needed bees. The real magnolias would wither and die without bees around to pollinate. But mosquitoes carried diseases that killed people. Maybe in Louisiana they were just a nuisance, but in some parts of the world Astrid’s magnolias could save lives.

At what cost, though?

She looked at her Mama, so sick from the medicine that should have been saving her life. The chemo was supposed to get rid of the cancer, but it couldn’t tell the cancer from her immune system any better than the steel magnolia could tell mosquitoes from honeybees.

“Mama,” Astrid said quietly, “I think I accidentally built a metaphor.”

Mama looked up, frowned in concern, and patted the loveseat next to her. Astrid went over, sitting as close as she could without feeling icky inside. She knew Mama wanted snuggles, and she knew she should be a good daughter and give her snuggles, but right now that would overstimulate her already stressed brain.

“Tell me?” Mama asked.

“My tree. The steel magnolia. I wanted to get rid of the mosquitoes, but I’m killing good bugs, too, bugs the world needs to survive. Like how your chemo was doing more harm than good.” Astrid usually struggled with putting her emotions into words, but tonight they spilled out. “It’s hopeless. Either we have mosquitoes and disease, or we have none of the good bugs. Either you have cancer, or chemo wipes out your immune system and you die anyway! There’s no good option and there’s nothing I can do!”

She launched herself out of the loveseat and charged into the garden. She’d destroy the magnolia. It might not solve anything, but it couldn’t very well make things worse.

She regretted ever building the tree.

Without her tools handy, Astrid had no elegant way to dismantle the creation she had spent so much time perfecting. So she kicked it, and she tore the metal leaves from the branches they’d been soldered to. But when she tried to take the blossoms, the steel magnolia fought back.

Until the pain lanced through her palm, she had forgotten about the petals’ razor edges. They served no real purpose; she’d just thought they would look cool, but now she hated them, too.
Astrid cried out in agony as big drops of blood splashed on the soil, dark and colorless in the twilight.

Auntie Clara was off the porch in a flash, her arms extended in anticipation of a hug.

“Clara, don’t.” Mama’s voice rang out like a shot as she followed her sister more slowly, and Auntie Clara stopped in her tracks as if she’d been zapped by the magnolia. “Astrid doesn’t want hugs.”

Oh, bless her. What was Astrid ever going to do without Mama?

Her cheeks felt cold as the gentle evening breeze hit her tears. She pretended they were from the pain.

“Tell me what just happened,” Mama said softly, holding out her hand. No accusation, no grabbing.

Astrid laid her hand in Mama’s, wincing as she dabbed at the blood with her sleeve. “I was mad at my tree for killing the good bugs.”

“Is that all you’re mad at?”

“Yes.”

Mama looked up at her, mouth quirked in something that wasn’t quite a smile. “Well, I’m mad at a lot of things. Is it okay if I tell you about them?”

Astrid nodded, a bit uncertainly.

“I’m mad that I have cancer,” Mama said. “I’m mad that the treatment made me sicker. I’m mad that I’m not going see you and your brothers grow up, or all the good your machines are going to bring into the world. But do you know what I’m the most mad about? More than any of that?”

How could she talk so calmly about something as scary as this?

“I’m mad that I can’t do anything about any of it. I am completely at the mercy of my body.”

“Is this a metaphor?” Astrid asked quietly.

Mama shook her head. “Only if you want it to be.”

“What happens at the end?” Astrid asked. “You know, of the movie. Does the lady survive?”

Mama pressed her lips together for a moment. “No, baby. She doesn’t.”

It took all of Astrid’s strength to keep from breaking down into sobs.

“But that isn’t what the movie is about,” Mama insisted. “Shelby dies. But she dies because she makes decisions that bring her joy in her final years, and her community comes together to remember her, and to remember all the good she did in the world.”

Astrid wasn’t convinced.

“Watch the movie with me?”

“What’s the point?” She gestured. At the trees, at the magnolia, at everything. “Why should I bother watching a movie when I know she’s gonna die at the end?”

Mama was crying now, too. “Because if you really love a movie, it never ends. It stays with you, in your heart, for the rest of your life. It becomes part of you, teaches you how to be good, how to love. A really good movie changes you forever, no matter how short it is.”


The mosquitoes came back after Astrid took the lasers out of the magnolia. The good bugs came back, too, but not soon enough for Mama to see them. Astrid wondered if she would ever stop feeling bad about that.

On warm summer nights, the family would sit out on the porch, swat away the mosquitoes, and listen to the stars twinkle. The whole family–Auntie Clara, Tim, Leo, and even Astrid. She’d moved her workshop bench out front, so she could look at the steel magnolia shining in the moonlight.

It was pretty, even if it didn’t work the way it was supposed to, even if everything went wrong and it didn’t last nearly long enough. She was still mad she’d had to turn it off, real mad. But she had good memories of it, and even though she hated to admit it, she had made the right decision.

There was always gonna be mosquitoes, and maybe someone could change that someday, but she couldn’t take on that big of a responsibility, not right now. She had brothers to take care of, so she had to give the twinkle back to the stars.

Astrid was pretty sure that was a metaphor, but she didn’t really care.


Host Commentary

by Mur Lafferty

While I don’t share the neurodiverse status of our protagonist, this story hit me unexpectedly because I was a child of the US South. When you’re a kid in the south, the desires of adults to get hugs, or kisses, or “sugar” (ugh) far outweighed the desire of the kid to touch or not touch the person in question.

In my younger days I was aways told that my feelings were secondary. I had to suffer an uncomfortable hug and kiss and swat on the backside or else I would hurt my relatives’ feelings. When I had the courage to tell a friend why I was angry, she’d point out something in the past that I had done that was worse.

And people wonder why I’m so terrible at confrontation.

Sorry. Got a little real there. Told you this story hit me hard.

I loved that Mom understood her daughter, or at least respected her needs, and she had the courage to tell people what she wanted.

The metaphor here hits anyone whose life has been affected by an illness that’s impossible to fight, which I am guessing is about all of us. It’s even worse when children try to understand what is happening to their parents, you don’t want to hear that your strong anchor will be torn away from you. You depend on that.

Also I love stories about inventors, the younger the better. THere’s nothing with more wide eyed hope than a child with a tool who tries to make the world better. Even as adults we know that nothing can fix everything, the important thing is to let them try.

And teach your kid that their body is their own and they don’t have to hug anyone if they don’t want to. Please. Do it for young Mur.

About the Author

Jennifer Lee Rossman

Jennifer Lee Rossman

Jennifer Lee Rossman is an autistic, queer, and disabled author from Binghamton, New York. She enjoys live tweeting movies, purchasing craft supplies she will never realistically use, and teaching people about dinosaurs whether they like it or not. She has never seen Steel Magnolias.

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About the Narrator

Ellora Sen-Gupta

Ellora Sen-Gupta is a voice over artist, photographer, and biomedical engineer, among other roles, and follows the definitely real motto “work hard, relax hard”. She loves performing character voices and accents and has done voice work for commercials, games, podcasts, as well as continuing to record as an audiobook narrator. Outside of work, Ellora has a great love of animals, miniatures, miniature animals, adventuring, singing, books, comics, movies, etc, and spends some of her free time volunteering at Wolf Hollow (Ipswich, MA). She is happiest when she is exploring the planet with her loved ones but is also delighted to binge watch tv at home with her pets and some arts and crafts. You can find her photography and see more of her life on Instagram @hellorainyday.

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