The red rose: A short story

Photo of a rose
Faye Mozingo/Creative Commons

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He ponders on a curious phenomenon: So much depends on the moment the jumbled blackness rises off the bleached ground in a sort of resurrection from Forgotten, a metamorphosis hardly less strange than the vision of a man-beetle born from a dream, or perhaps the creation of one of those painted porcelain dolls, strange caricatures as they are. It is a cruel kind of surgery that requires an anesthetization of life, encompassed by a head that cannot swallow the truth without exploding.

He watches the imposter artist create the image, beginning with a weight, a hypothesis disguised as some revolutionary theory. It is heavy on the blank canvas, heavy with the weight of possibility, but perhaps, he senses, a sort of fear — the same hypochondriac condition of every creator. He watches his hands move in a hunger foreign to the world, but the ghosts, the ones who were hungry before, peer over the artist’s shoulder, watchful. How shall you haunt their attention without us? A flash of red. Red rolling, down and over, inflating the brain like fresh water in a sponge. But he is scornful of the artist — red is a tool, it is only a color.

Of the strawberries from that first day, he only remembered what they looked like. The strawberries were in a wooden bowl, fresh from the garden in her backyard, but there were so many he hardly saw the bowl. He couldn’t remember what it looked like, only the strawberries. He picked one of the strawberries from the top — big, almost overripe, yet not quite bruised — but when his teeth clamped down, expecting the tender, sweet flesh of the fruit, there was nothing.

He watches the lying artist glaze the ancient foundation so that its rust does not show, creating something new out of the mundaneness of primary colors. Listening to the ghosts, he quenches their thirst with water. But then again, there is also something fascinating about imagining the pain of anything when one has, in actuality, never felt anything. Those fickle things called raw feelings are only imagined, so the pain then becomes measured by the word, as disturbing as a child who can somehow convince her eyes to cry at the precise moment she needs to persuade her old audience of skeptics. But the metal scraping against the canvas touches a nerve, somewhere in the mushroom cloud of a shared condemnation to exist. His head throbs. Rain pouring, down and over, soaking the eyes like the transparent white blood cells that pour from a puncture wound, desperate to calm the anger of their counterparts.

It is heavy on the blank canvas, heavy with the weight of possibility, but perhaps, he senses, a sort of fear — the same hypochondriac condition of every creator.

The storm had been the first since the end of summer. No one had expected it except for her, and he remembered seeing it outside his window, unsurprised that she was right again. What was surprising was its heaviness; it seemed to plunge straight through all the pollution, pulling down the darkened sky of rotting clouds with it. The window gradually started to blur with condensation, blinding him, so he opened it, like she sometimes did. Not when it was storming this bad, but he wanted to feel something else. He saw the drops clearly as they marked their territory all over the earth, yet he realized it was a dying wish, a fruitless quest. He knew the inevitable truth of the end, when the lightning would give way to a tired sun breathing the air that always had the peculiar smell she recognized, but he was always a stranger. He reached his hand out past the cracked windowsill, but when he saw the sharp daggers of water colliding with his skin, he felt nothing.

The artist is nearly finished; there is beauty, after all, in simplicity, in bluntness, in the measured recklessness of casting off the past in so short a time. He realizes the longer ones have a curious tendency to make the audience fall asleep, blinded by technicalities of sound or ancient spectacle — it really is a vain practice, he concludes. The ghosts are incensed, but they are also dead. This is not the time for them; familiarity really does breed contempt. He puts them to sleep, and all that’s left is the white paper underneath, unscathed, beside the scraps.

He knew the inevitable truth of the end, when the lightning would give way to a tired sun breathing the air that always had the peculiar smell she recognized, but he was always a stranger.

Her pale skin had a peculiar glow in the fading light. They were standing on the bridge, and he remembered his disdain for all the tourists taking photographs of the same sun setting over the same body of saltwater and freshwater and the ghosts of other bodies who had appointed it as the place they would finally rest. But she was there, and he felt ridiculous at the fact that she seemed to make him blind to all the other eyes glazed over — so much depends on capturing the perfect picture. He felt ridiculous that his vexations faded at the faint blush in her cheeks, a reflection of the massive bridge holding them together. He felt ridiculous that she seemed to belong there, he felt ridiculous that her skin seemed to only grow paler as the shadows lengthened into darkness, he felt ridiculous because he was afraid, because she looked like a ghost.

Maybe she was always a ghost, but he wanted to believe it wasn’t a dream (and that made him feel more ridiculous, if that was possible). He always thought when one’s hands touch a ghost, they simply pass through the body of the apparition. He thought he understood that children’s stereotype, but maybe he just didn’t know the difference between being awake and being asleep. So imagine his surprise, when he reached out and grasped her hand, and it was real. It was real and it was solid and the stony cold of it broke him like a needle tearing unforgivingly through skin that hasn’t seen the darkening burn of the sun.

Then it shattered, like the rest of her that exploded, a painted porcelain doll disintegrating into a thousand little pieces, or maybe it was an urn crashing on a wooden floor. Somewhere far away, or at least it was very faint, he thought he heard John Keats laughing, a haunting echo. Maybe that was just the sound of the breaking, or maybe it was just him unraveling in his own head when he realized he was a fool. He closed his eyes to avoid the shards.

All he feels are the tears breaking free, down and over his face, stinging his cheeks with the narrow anger of thorns, a clean wound, nearly invisible, yet the kind that is impossible to ignore, like a paper cut. When he finally opens his eyes, all he sees is red, rain, white, cloaked in black and heavy against the surface. Somewhere, there is a faint threat of drowning. In the back of his mind like an awakened phantom, he sees a single Rose, and he realizes the anesthesia has worn off.

Jordan Harris is the night editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jordxnhxrris.