The Rose Garden
There are roses everywhere and I am dizzy with their fragrance. The ground is dark, uneven, obscured by fallen petals. I constantly trip over little bumps and slip on loose rocks. Thorny branches surround me. I am trapped, bewildered, in a prison of sweetness and beauty.
After about an hour a flock of blue-winged butterflies swoops into my fragrant thorny cell. They land on the flowers, exactly one butterfly for each bloom. This is always when I realize it isn’t real. Not because of the impossible numerical perfection, that always strikes me as appropriate. It’s the butterflies themselves. In that place I don’t remember who I am, where I came from, how I got there. But somehow I remember that there are no butterflies with that brilliant indigo color where I’m from. It’s jarring, so I start to feel suspicious and wonder whether I could be dreaming. At that point it always kicks me out, I guess. Or maybe my brain rejects the program or whatever it is.
I would do anything to stay there. I don’t even know what it is, just something that started happening to me a while ago. Like I said, I can’t really remember anything when I’m there. But I feel like there’s something really important about that place, like everything that happens there matters in a way it never could anywhere else, if there is anywhere else.
I never know when it’ll happen. It just takes me, from sleep or work or the middle of a conversation. When I wake up and return to the real world no time has passed but I feel older. The scent of apricot roses and the sweet sting of my arms covered in thorn scratches linger for a few seconds. When they go and I am simply me again, the stolid unforgiving world seems to curl around me like the lead bibs dentists make you wear when they take x-rays of your teeth. A few folks have asked me in hushed voices if I’m okay. I guess I don’t look okay. I think maybe I never was, but I never really acknowledged it until I was brought to that place.
I don’t remember thinking it over or anything, but at some point I started to assume I was being brought there. I would ask myself what I’m supposed to do, what does she want me to do? I also assume whoever is taking me to that place is female. Maybe they’re aliens, testing me to see whether they should make contact, searching me out for some quality I can’t even imagine. Or maybe a ghost is following me, using my brain to re-live her most poignant memories. It’s all speculation. I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do there. But even if I did I’d forget as soon as I arrived.
Then I’m back. The sky here is smoky, a dull magenta. It looks like velvet. I’ve never noticed that before. The circle of space where I can walk is quite small, five steps across. I examine a few flowers. The apricot ones smell so strong I think I might drown if I take a deep breath of one. The reds glisten like blood when it first wells out of a cut, somehow both bright and dark. I wonder, idly, whether the red ones would stain my clothes. I know I’m wearing clothes but I don’t know what they look like. The purple flowers are my favorite. When I lean in close they have a faint tropical smell, like ripe mangoes. The petals look like they’re constructed of spider silk, layers and layers of woven glittering thread. I know just how they would feel brushing against my cheeks and over my eyelids. Their soft rasping makes me shiver so I crave extravagance, a bathtub full of purple rose petals to lie in, a river of petals to drown in, an ocean so I could fall and fall and disappear and never touch land again.
The butterflies are here. I swear they’re made of sapphires and onyx. I coax one onto my hand for a moment and its tiny feet leave pinpricks that bleed. I feel myself starting to wonder where I am, with butterflies like these. But the six tiny drops of welling blood distract me, and I remember that I am not supposed to wonder that. Instead, I fall into a purple blossom so dark it is nearly black. The butterflies go. I feel like I’ve done something important.
I notice an opening in the thorny branches, a tunnel really. I don’t really want to leave the garden but I’m curious. I start climbing through. Right away my clothes get caught on thorns. They tear away like tissue paper. The tunnel I crawl through has no end that I can see. Toothy green branches lined with bright blooms surround me, pressing in. The tunnel gets narrower and narrower. My skin falls away under the thorns like my clothes did. I have only one thought, one desire: Forward.
The perfume drowns me and the thorns cut and scratch so I am like a stone being tumbled, abraded until every shining inch of me is glass smooth and every lie and meanness and selfish act are jewels that can never be hidden. The multicolored webs and speckles of imperfection become beautiful on my burnished surface. I feel I might be close to understanding something important, but I’m not sure what.
Then I am out. I stand and start to turn, to see the garden and perhaps watch the butterflies come back, when movement catches my eye. A turtle is making its slow way somewhere. It travels away from the garden, so I follow it. I do not look back.
I walk alongside the turtle, wanting to pretend I have some control over where we are going. When I pull ahead a step, the turtle stops. Its dark green head swivels to regard me. I think it would stay there forever if I didn’t back up and let it lead. I am impatient, but I step back and it resumes its dripping-molasses pace.
The land here is grey and hilly, with spiky dark green plants growing here and there. The sky is the pale luminous grey of a clear sky in a black and white movie. Small black shapes sometimes circle high above. Occasional soft breezes pass over and through me, smelling of cinnamon and black pepper.
I have no idea how long we have walked. We reach a bridge spanning a deep ravine. The turtle stops in the middle and looks at me. I peer over the railing and see a snake of bright blue water far below. The river speaks to me, “Come to me, my love.”
I say, “I don’t deserve you. You know I don’t.” It is easy to be honest here. She answers, “Of course you don’t deserve me. No one ever deserves anyone, ever. But we do our best, don’t we? We choose the ones we’ll love. It has nothing to do with deserving.”
I want to look at the turtle. I want to finish crossing the bridge, or go back to that beautiful garden, or wake up to discover it was just a dream. But I don’t do any of those things. I jump.