The rosebushes are dying.
Brushing her hand against a fading branch, Claudia furrows her brow. It cannot be insects, nor are there the tell-tale signs of fungi. The weather has not been uncommonly dry. The rain fell heavily in May and the initial growing season did not seem to be affected. It is now well past the flowering season, but she doesn’t need to see the buds to know there is something wrong. Here are acres of rosebushes, deep-rooted and proud, the ancient harvest of her family, and they are all dying.
At her feet the cat meows inquisitively, weaving between her legs. Not even its tiny reassurances can lift the disquiet from Claudia’s heart.
In a land thousands of miles away, her brother sits beneath the sun, taking in only the feel of the wind against his skin.
When he came to see her for the last time, he came through the gardens. The scent of roses engulfed him and he stepped lighter than he could ever remember having done before. Even in the dark of the night, Klaus could see the full white blooms and he knew they had never been more wholly and perfectly formed.
When she came to the door, the first thought that struck him was that here was the one person who could know his heart and how he loved her for it. Normally he’d chide himself for being so sentimental, but his mood was effervescent, filled with childlike joy and only half-checked optimism. He knew she would understand, even as he could hardly believe his own intentions.
He was going to leave her behind—the very person who had saved his life only years before, drawing him out of his abyss of addiction and despair. This immeasurable loss was tempered by one thought alone: that he must go. After so many repetitions, the story told by their grandfather had become part of his nature. He must follow the rose, or be doomed to that chasm of unfulfilled longing, that craving for something more than could be grasped within his palms. He was called.
She let him go. He gave those ancient roses one final look as he left, imprinting their impossible beauty in his mind one last time, before turning his eyes to the eastern horizon.
The passing months have been unkind, and it seemed winter in his world long before the chill fell on them. He is losing, and perhaps cannot truly follow until he has lost everything. He has lost compassion, sympathy, connection. Warmth, breath, touch. And what more could go, but love, purpose, hope? But surely he could not lose all that. He knows what it is to be empty, and sought this path to end that emptiness, the one that consumes him even more deeply now that he’s had his fill, tasted the ambrosia and been incomprehensibly denied. He thinks of his sister, beyond all reach, and is sick with the ache of it as he deals cruelty for cruelty with the king of roses. His beseeching words do not reach the king of his heart and so he chooses others. “I will destroy you, as you have me. Let not the roses wither but I will bury us together.”
His destruction is very great, but he once more regains what he has lost. Compassion, sympathy, connection. Warmth, breath, touch. He feels he could now never lose love, purpose, or hope. But even the purity of the burning light within cannot cast out encroaching shadows without. He takes in the wind, recalls distant memories—untainted gems—and scratches out an impossible letter. He will walk into darkness not long after.
She cannot understand. Her husband reassures her that all will be well, even if they lose the garden, but the garden cannot be lost. These feeble branches she examines, ailing from a sickness that cannot be traced, strike her with sorrow and confusion. She avoids the thorns as she traces her fingers along one brittle limb. She wishes it were simply touch that could make them come alive again. A rose cannot tell you when it needs water, but this plight is much greater. Soon there will be nothing of these ancient boughs left.
He told the story long ago, on a night so very dark he wondered if it could not be the darkest. He has been proved wrong, again and again, never more than this night, but he has never spoken the story since, for who would have listened? What his words may have so stirred in the heart of Enrico he could not estimate, but no one would listen to that story here. There is only one man who would withstand the tales of the traitorous foreign dog among them, but Klaus will not tell him. A rose does not need to hear the story of its own image, and to his perpetual surprise these are things Taki seems to know more deeply than Klaus, as though such stories first passed through him before Klaus lived them.
He buried the rose. The one that existed only for his eyes. Fear seized him, for he had taken something that could now only wither. It would grow less beautiful, its petals droop and decay, its fragrance turn to stench, and its paleness darken into dirt, all defiled by his taking. So he buried it, to never let the beauty of the first white rose fade from his mind, the perfect, inimitable flower of dawn.
It is not long until his execution now. He has no one to tell that story to. Looking at the empty cells across from his own, he wonders if it is not a story worth telling. Hours later he is pierced with a grief he cannot express, and knows without knowing that the sword he’d sworn to serve has sheathed itself in its owner’s flesh.
No, that story was not worth telling. But he knows of another.
A letter arrives in the last days of December, inked in familiar writing, a letter that should not rightly exist. She unfolds it carefully and reads the prophetic words of a voice she knows so well. This is the last she will hear from her brother—even without his saying she would have known—but she is happy. For she had believed their last farewell was seven months ago, and that no words would ever pass between them again. Was once more not a gift? Her sorrows are not for this moment. She sets down the letter, and walks into the garden.
The rosebushes are on the brink of death.
But there is one rose left. Even in the dead of winter, later than any flower has right to bloom, somehow a single white rose had blossomed, wet with the dew of morning.
Taking this strange, last bloom from the dying branch she brings it to her lips and kisses it. It holds a scent that seemed to surpass the physical world, permeating her thoughts, silent pictures in her head enlivened by the scent of an ancient rose. It will wither and die, she knows.
“I’ll not bury it,” she vows. “I’ll not put it from sight to not watch it fade. I’ll not hide it nor turn it to another shape.” No, she will hold onto it, see its life for every last moment left to it, and cherish the reality she holds rather than the unspoiled memory of it—the perfect white bloom that was destined to fade. As it fades she will cherish it even more, the last of her family’s roses. She breathes it in deep and smiles. This will be its legacy.
“So the rose compels us,” Klaus whispers to himself in the darkness of that familiar forest, “and so even in our passing we are made whole.”