Authors: A. G. Howard
A thorn defends the rose, harming only those who would steal the blossom.
A Chinese proverb
The moment Uncle and Coachman Goodings delivered us to the doorstep, Enya slipped inside.
I stalled upon the threshold to wave goodbye to Uncle, then turned and observed my bleak prosperity. Withered bushes curved from the courtyard out back as if hugging the house. By morning, the moisture weighing on them would pearl the leaves in autumn frost. Just as winter had swallowed up Mama, soon it would swallow my home.
Shutting the door, I removed my hat and coat and hung them on the brass hook. Enya rushed upstairs to shed her wet clothes, so I didn’t bother hiding the flower while I felt my way through the dark rooms and revived every available gas lamp. My palm curled around each glass globe to feel the vibrations through my glove as they buzzed and popped on.
I stepped into the dining room, and a waft of Mama’s scent settled on my nose—rosewater and vanilla. I could sense her there, though she never would be again. Misery rained in my heart.
During my youth, Mama would offer hot chocolate and a lemon crumpet to chase away storms. I would squeeze my eyes closed upon the first bite of the snack’s tartness, then snap them open as the chocolate’s sweet warmth coated my tongue.
She was a skilled emotional strategist. She taught me that taste affected moods, but even more persuasive was color. That’s why, even if it were just the two of us sharing tea, we would always don our brightest gowns and hats.
Now that I was in mourning, I’d not have the privilege of wearing anything other than mourning weeds for several months, and my mood would be as drab as the black fabric that imprisoned me.
As the room gradually lit, the porcelain dinnerware glistened along the cupboard’s velveteen lined shelves. Each platter had a story … each plate and bowl held a memory. Some had been used for grand meals with friends, others for cozy family suppers with Uncle, Mama, Enya and me.
Uncle had only been seventeen when Papa married Mama. When Papa died nine years later, he carried mama’s heart with him to heaven, leaving no other man a chance to claim it.
Mama had known Uncle loved her. She helplessly watched it happen as he stepped into Papa’s shoes to keep us afloat after his death. Mama tried to discourage his feelings tenderly. Out of respect, Uncle hid his affection away, tucked within his heart like a feather in a pocket—waiting to come out one day if the winds were favorable for flying.
He’d never married anyone because of that hope, yet still he took care of us, not holding a grudge, even giving us a healthy percentage of the monthly earnings from the family’s baronet service.
Because of him, we’d never had to auction any of our heirlooms. And now they were even more precious, yet at the same time, harbingers of change. For if I was forced to sell my home, they would all be boxed up and wrapped in cloaks of dust and grief.
I felt so deeply alone, until beside the bay windows, my pet nightingale fluttered to life and rocked her standing cage. Moonlight filtered through the mossy green curtains behind her, casting shadows of her performance across the Turkish rug.
Smiling at Aria’s antics, I set aside the stolen flower on the window seat’s cushion so I might remove my gloves. The petal from Mama’s rose fell out of my wristband and fluttered down beside my plunder.
I left it there and nudged my finger between the nightingale’s wire bars. Her beak nipped me in greeting.
Uncle discovered the bird three years ago, hidden beneath his cottage’s foundation. Her song gave her away. She was little more than a fledgling then—half of her left wing chewed off by some predator. Yet somehow, she’d escaped alive.
Knowing she would never fly again, Uncle brought her to me and Mama. She adjusted to the life of a captive, coming to love and trust us as we nursed her back to health.
She pecked my finger with vigor now, hungrily seeking a snack. She hadn’t any idea of the agony I faced today—no inkling that Mama wouldn’t be coming back, or that someone wished to take our home away. As long as she was fed and coddled, life assumed its natural slant for her.
I looked down at Mama’s fallen rose petal again. How I envied the bird’s singularly-minded outlook.
A chunk of stale bread waited upon the table, hidden among the ribbons, feathers, and dried flowers I’d strewn about in a vain attempt at work earlier this afternoon. I picked up the stolen flower to carry with me on my search for the bread. The prickled stem caught my bare finger, puncturing it.
An ache wound around my knuckles and joints. The strange pain lasted only an instant—yet long enough to remind me this delicate treasure needed to be planted. Carefully, I wrapped the stem and scraggly roots in a length of grosgrain ribbon. A small droplet of blood oozed from my finger and I sucked it away.
After feeding Aria, I took down my waist-length hair and stepped out of the dreadful crinoline which had caused so much trouble today, both tripping me in front of the viscount and nearly getting me kicked in the teeth by a horse.
I crinkled my nose, wishing I could shed the strictures of society just as easily … the mores and virtuous ignorance pressed upon us that influenced our clothes and every aspect of our lives.
Draping the excess length of my dress and petticoats around my arm, I ventured out the back door, lantern and flower in hand.
Mud flooded the path to the potting shed. Overhead, the birches shook their bare limbs as if to protect the shadowy gardens. For the first time in my life, I felt like an intruder. Yet the moment I stepped inside the shed, I belonged once more. Moonlight drifted through the green-tinged glass roof and walls. Thousands of dust motes swirled around the hooks where my flowers dried in bundles of twine—a glistening, mystical display.
I hung my lantern on the peg next to the door and stroked the petals of my stolen flower. I used to imagine this place was the realm of fairies. Even the scents were enchanting: overturned soil, flowers specked with water, and feathers stirring up dust.
This reconstructed greenhouse sheltered more than plants, pots, gardening tools and aprons; it was also a haven for Mama’s bluebirds, purple grackles, green herons, and other decorative fowl that lined the back wall in cages. They were not simply her pets, they were her livelihood. During their molting periods, they provided plumage for her signature caps and bonnets, along with feathers for women who couldn’t afford newer creations, so they might spruce up their old hats.
Now Mama’s legacy and charitable reputation were mine to preserve. Standing here, admiring the birds’ sleeping sweetness, I ached for one touch of her hand on my hair … for one wisp of her breath on my cheek as she leaned over to see them in the dim light.
Hot tears raced down my cheeks, blurring my vision to the point I nearly missed the glow upon my fingers. It reminded me of the time in my childhood when I had accidentally crushed a firefly between my palms. The strange residue seemed to be oozing from the flower.
I separated the petals to look closer at the luminescent pollen. Before I could make sense of it, a song burst through my ears.
My spine tingled with sensation—alert.
. I had to be mistaken. Eleven years without a sound; so much time gone by with only the roar of emptiness—more desolate than living within a seashell.
How could I suddenly
I jumped as the musical notes broke again as if to prove me wrong—hammering against my eardrums—a delicious itch I’d once taken for granted.
It was a lullaby in a masculine, affecting baritone, sung in a foreign tongue.
Two feet in front of me, a man came into view bit by bit, as if being painted in place by each lyrical pearl of sound, until there he was, seated upon Mama’s stool. He held white-gloved hands over his ears and his clean-shaved jaw moved with the song. And his skin … it glowed like the petals between my fingers.
The singing stopped as the man’s head snapped up. He stared at me, his expression a mirror of my own surprise and confusion. He was close to my age, his face regal and exotic—all elegant lines and sharp angles: high-boned cheeks and square chin, a defined nose with a sloping tip, sensuous lips, and heavy brows over almond-shaped eyes.
“H-how did you get in here?” he asked.
Shrieking, I picked up an empty bucket and slung it. It soared
him, hit a cage, and stirred the birds from their slumber. They flapped in a silent, drunken craze.
So shaken, I dropped the flower. Only then did the intruder vanish.
Shoulders braced against the wall, I whimpered. My throat stung, as if I had swallowed a wad of needles.
Was this my punishment for digging up a grave? Was I to lose my mind?
Scanning the shed, I found no signs—other than the overturned bucket and fluttering birds—that the incident had ever happened. Even on my fingertips, the glow was gone. Yet I couldn’t stop shaking.
There had to some explanation. The flower’s venom had hallucinatory qualities. The thorn’s prick from earlier had caused some sort of auditory apparition. My eyes would not betray me otherwise. I had trained them for over a decade to be astute and incontrovertible.
I seized a pot already filled with soil. Then, using the grosgrain ribbon again, I picked up the flower without touching it directly and trundled across the muddy path and back into my home, locking the door behind me.
I stood there panting, forehead pressed to the frame as the soggy hem of my dress formed brown puddles on the floor.
A tap on my shoulder shook a yelp from my lungs and I spun, coming face to face with Enya. Questions sparkled in her wide, green gaze.
“You startled me,” I mumbled.
Frowning, she lifted the hem of her bed gown out of the muddy water at my feet. Then her gaze trailed the pot I held at my chest.
“Mama’s favorite.” I flashed the flower with a shaky hand, ashamed of the lie but seeing no alternative.
“You went to the greenhouse? At this hour?” Enya had cleared most of the table and started a fire in the hearth. Orange light glazed her face as I watched her lips. “Are you all right? You look as if you’ve seen a—” She stopped herself and adjusted an auburn curl that had fallen from her nightcap. “I-I didn’t mean that.”
I nodded. But the implication stirred a quiver behind my sternum. I moved away from the wet puddles and settled the pot on the floor. Enya bent to help but I pushed her back. She squinted as if I’d gone raving mad.
Perhaps I had. I was trying to keep the same thing from happening to her.
Wearing gloves to prevent another prick from the venomous stem, I tucked the roots into the soft soil. The petals perked after being watered.
“We could set it by the window.” Enya crouched beside me again. “So when morning comes, it will be awash in sunlight.” Her finger lifted as if to stroke the silvery flower.
I blocked her. “Please never touch it. Its petals are very fragile.”
She drew back, her features folded to a mix of hurt and worry. At twenty-nine years of age, Enya was the closest thing to an older sister I had ever had. Mama had given her a position as our maid ten years ago, when Enya’s father abandoned her family, leaving them impoverished. Though Enya and I often disagreed on societal strictures, we held a deep affection for one another. I regretted being so harsh tonight of all nights, but until I found out how dangerous the flower might be, I had to guard her well-being.
. I studied the intricately downturned petals. What an odd descriptor for something so beautiful. It was a
. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Enya backed away from me. “Perhaps a bath will calm you.” Casting concerned sidelong glances my direction, she puttered about the room and set water to boil from our drawn reserve. She moved the empty tub next to the wood pile Uncle had gathered prior to the funeral.
As I pinned up my hair and shed my clothes, I wondered about Uncle, all alone in his stone cottage just over the hill, with nothing but a senile, arthritic spaniel and his regrets. I almost wished I had taken him up on his offer to stay tonight. Perhaps I wouldn’t be teetering on insanity, had he been here for me to care for, to distract me from my own loss. But I’d been determined to prove my independence, to show him I could manage with only Enya and a nightingale for company.
Enya left the room, promising to return with my bed gown and some towels.
I dragged the flower pot close before I eased my weary limbs into the tub. Warm water folded over me. To keep my locket dry, I draped the chain behind my nape so it hung over the tub’s edge.
Eyes half-closed, I peered at the flower.
Perhaps I imagined that man—that
—because I needed proof of the afterlife, to be closer to Mama and Papa somehow. Grief could stroke the heart strings to play convincing melodies, all in the want of seeing a loved one again.
Many times in my past, I would pick out a tune from my memories, dust it off, and bring it to life. Although I’d forgotten the sound of Mama’s voice, I had never misplaced the harmonies or lyrics she sang.
Yet the lullaby I’d heard was in a language I could not decipher. How could I have imagined a man’s voice so sensual, so filled with emotion and depth, singing a melody I’d never known?
The flower’s scent mingled with the charred wood. Overwhelmed by an urge to hear the music once more—on the chance it was even possible—I reached out, drizzling water across the floor to clasp a silvery petal between my fingers. I stiffened as the song was reborn, instantly.
The man—or mirage—emerged slowly in the corner, propped against the cupboard, his palms covering his ears again. He wasn’t fully substantive, had only a hint of color to his image. Even the wrinkles of the creamy wall hangings shone through him. Tall and broad-shouldered, he was dressed in a black waistcoat and striped trousers that draped strong thighs and long legs. A cravat was knotted above his muscular chest.
Though my arm weakened with curiosity and shock, I kept my contact with the flower. The moment he noticed me, the notes broke in his throat, hands dropping in one graceful motion from his ears.