A Bier of Bloody Roses

“A Bier of Bloody Roses”
Kit Harding

The roses were in her throat again. She coughed, and they fell from her mouth to splatter against the white marble of the bathroom floor. Jackson Pollock in bloody flower petals; this was what she would leave behind her when she died.

The flowers were themselves the color of blood, though so stained with actual blood that it might not have mattered.

She hacked up yet another bloody rose. Her throat hurt; they always scraped it raw coming up. It was getting harder to dislodge them. Death would come for her soon, as it came for everyone who suffered Rose Syndrome. She thought it might be a relief given what she was currently enduring, but it was still an absurd way to die: a slow, bloody, awful death. Not that you’d know that from how such deaths were portrayed in the media. Those who died of Rose Syndrome were tragic waifs too good for the world. It was rather like tuberculosis that way. Tuberculosis patients had not delicately wasted away while garbed in white gowns, but you wouldn’t know it from your average Victorian novel. Similarly, no one discussing Rose Syndrome ever mentioned how inconvenient it was to suddenly find yourself coughing up roses.

Sarisa shoved herself off the bathroom floor and began to wash up. The frequency of the coughing fits meant things wouldn’t stay clean long, but for as long as possible she would make an effort.

No one knew what caused Rose Syndrome. The only commonality anyone had found among the ill was they’d all suffered unrequited love. The media had, predictably, run with this, but there had to be more to it than that. Not everyone with unrequited love got it, after all. Sure, it had to be magic of some kind, for all the attempts at explaining it via science. But Sarisa hadn’t been pining, or wasting away, or doing the sorts of things fairy-tale heroines normally got themselves stuck with curses over. Sure, she was in love with her best friend and he didn’t feel the same way, but they’d discussed it more or less calmly. The longing never left her, but she certainly wasn’t allowing it to dictate how she lived the rest of her life or stop them being friends.

Yet here she was, coughing up bloody flowers.

She finished cleaning the blood and headed back to her workshop. She had not yet accepted her death, and so she’d been researching old folklore for anything that seemed relevant. Science was getting nowhere fast, but she was pretty sure no one had started from the premise of “it’s magic” and gone from there. She was a hobby folklorist; she had the relevant background to at least try to figure it out. If fairy tales were going to kill her she was going to at least make them fight for it, and leave a record of her research so the next person to suffer this wasn’t starting from zero.

Her ringing phone interrupted her. Glancing at the ID, she saw it was James. It would be easier not to answer—he was beginning to wonder whether she was avoiding him—but she did love him. She didn’t want to make him worry about her. She could get away with concealing the problem on the phone for a while longer. (He would likely feel guilty after her death. She felt bad about that. It wasn’t like he could help that he didn’t feel for her what she did for him, and he did care about her.)

“Is everything all right?” he asked when she answered the phone.

“Is there some reason it shouldn’t be?” she asked.

“You’ve canceled three hangouts in a row,” he answered. “It’s not like you.”

“You know I care about you, right?”


“I’ve been unusually busy.”

“See, usually when you’re that busy you tell me what you’re doing and rope me into helping with it. You don’t drop off the face of the planet.”

She didn’t answer. There was nothing she could say to that; it was true.


“I’m sorry. I can’t explain it.”

“Is something else going on?”

There it was. A direct question. Sarisa had long ago promised to be honest with James. She didn’t want to lie to him. Their friendship was easier when she left her thoughts, desires, and feelings out in the open, no matter how difficult they were to confess. But James could do nothing about this, and the consequences of it were far more immediate than her usual problems. She didn’t want to mar their last time together with the tangled webs of guilt that would attach to her actually dying of unrequited love. A small selfishness, yet one she thought he would forgive her.

She had been silent too long. James was patient, but he knew that if she didn’t answer a question she was being evasive.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he said, “but past experience suggests you’ll feel better if you do.”

Normally that would be her cue to say whatever it was.

“I know,” she said softly. “I appreciate that.” She began to cough again. Just a light cough, for the moment; the roses would take some time to grow back.

“You all right?” asked James.

“I have a cough,” she said.

“Is that why you’ve been staying at home?”

“Somewhat, yes,” she said, “but I need to get back to work. I do miss you; I do care about you.”

“You can take what time you need,” said James, “but when whatever this is is over, I want to hear about it.”

“I’ll make sure you do.” By letter, posthumously, but she would.

She hung up the phone and moved back to her desk to continue picking through folklore books and making notes, at least until the next coughing fit overcame her.

She managed to get a full hour of just researching before the cough escalated again to whole roses and she found herself back in the bathroom coughing up blood and flowers. All her research, all her fighting, and she was fast losing hope of finding an answer. No one had ever recovered from Rose Syndrome. Folklore was filled with unrequited love aplenty, but there were no references for coughing up flowers. This had started happening to people very suddenly, which implied something had caused it, and it had begun in Europe and spread outwards, implied something European, especially once you factored in this specific species of rose being native to Europe. But there were a number of European folklore traditions and most of them conflicted with each other. That line of research didn’t lead to any clear answers.

So she was going to die here, well before her time, of something profoundly stupid.

Just a painful, bloody mess.

The next day the doorbell rang. She was again on the bathroom floor, coughing up yet more roses. The time was coming when she was not going to be able to keep being fastidious about it; this disease seemed to kill quite messily. Already her breathing was impaired. She did not bother to drag herself up and out towards the door, as her coughing continued and the scraping, raw feeling in her throat worsened. Blood, and mess, and then eventually she coughed up another flower.

She heard a sharp gasp from the bathroom door. She rolled over and saw James standing in the doorway. She supposed she should have known he would turn up eventually if she didn’t do more to allay his worry. After all, he had a key. She didn’t move, not because she was so very controlled but because she was simply too exhausted to react. She spared a brief thought for how this must look to him—her lying there, on the bathroom floor, covered in blood and rose petals, enough for it to look like she had been butchering some sort of half-flower half-meat animal.

Never one to display his feelings, he simply knelt down beside her and set a hand against her hair.

“We should get you cleaned up,” he said.

“I’ve been trying to keep clean, but it’s messy.” Her voice was hoarse. “Most people who’ve progressed this far don’t leave their beds.”

“And you still do?”

“Looking like a Victorian death waif has never appealed.”

Despite himself, James laughed at that.

“I’ve been researching. Trying to find a cure. And recording the reality of this experience.”

“People do seem to write about this the way the Victorians wrote about tuberculosis,” James agreed.

“I wondered if those depictions were Rose Syndrome and not tuberculosis for a while, but the Victorians would have written about bloody flowers.”

“It would fit their sense of drama.”

“A pretty tragedy.”

“There’s no such thing as a pretty tragedy.” James rose and gently pulled Sarisa upright, depositing her on the end of the bathtub, before getting a wet towel and beginning to clean the blood off her. “And science eventually discovered a cause for tuberculosis; no one’s ever found out what causes Rose Syndrome beyond the correlation with unrequited love.”

“With my case we can add a very specific definition of both ‘love’ and ‘unrequited’,” Sarisa added. “You’ve said you love me and meant it; just not the way I mean it when I say it to you.”

“So you’re going to die because some universal force believes romantic love is the be-all and end-all.” James’s voice was bitter.

“I’ve started from the premise that it’s magic and deliberately imposed and gone from there.”

“Of course you have. It didn’t occur to you that I might help you with this?”

“Of course it did. I thought all the time about how much better this would be if you were here.”

“I’d have been here. You know I would have.”

“I know.” She leaned against him and started to cough again, though without blood this time. He held her steady until she finished. “I didn’t want you to feel guilty. You can’t help not returning my feelings. I thought you’d feel responsible.”

“You don’t think I’d feel guilty if you died and didn’t tell me?”

“I wouldn’t have to deal with it.”

James shot her an expressive look. “I wouldn’t have made you deal with it anyway.”

“You say that now.”

“I mean it. Then and now. You’re dying; that’s enough for you to be getting on with. You really haven’t found anything, when researching potential cures for this?”

“People have been researching potential cures for this for longer than I’ve been alive. What makes you think I would find anything in a few weeks?”

“Because people have been researching it for science, and you’ve just established that you don’t think it’s science.” He tossed the bloody towel towards the hamper, washed his hands, and then extended a hand to help her up. Sarisa let him walk her out towards the living room. In truth, the flowers in her lungs were starting to make walking about the house difficult and the assistance was welcome.

“I know a lot of folklore. I’ve been looking through folklore. There’s nothing in the folklore!” Sarisa settled onto the sofa with James beside her. “The things that befall people in those stories are very rarely a whole society. They’re individuals. And other than ‘diamonds and roses drop from your mouth whenever you talk’, there’s nothing that resembles this.”

“That one sounds promising, actually.”

“You’d think, but that one is meant to be a reward for doing a kindness to a fairy. I haven’t performed any random kindness for strangers recently and this is most definitely not a reward.” Sarisa started to cough again. When it subsided, she continued, “The one thing most common in folklore is an intense preoccupation with whatever the social mores were at the time. If you start from the premise that all these stories have some basis in truth, it implies that societal-level human thoughts shape them or influence their actions in some way.”

“So there’s a serious cultural preoccupation with unrequited love,” James said thoughtfully. “At least in American media. Now that I think about it, everywhere it appears both has a connection to European myths and gets a lot of American media. It’s skipped Native American reservations, for example, although I don’t think most people noticed that.”

“Which implies belonging to a culture that isn’t influenced by those specific cultural myths protects you. Which doesn’t actually help me…

“But it does give us hints about what’s causing it. And that suggests it’s conscious—that this is something someone did deliberately.”

“How do you figure? Enough belief might have the power to produce this on its own.”

“American media isn’t the only media obsessed with unrequited love, but it’s still only showing up in Western countries.”

“So having other supernatural manifestations protects you from this one.” Sarisa considered that. Most cultures considered their supernatural manifestations—whether gods, spirits, or folklore—to be arbitrary and capricious, and also to take a proprietary interest in “their” territory or people. If European spirits considered anywhere that was primarily populated by descendants of colonizing Europeans to be theirs to play with… the whole thing felt like some magical being had decided this would be a good art project or something, with the usual fairy-tale heedlessness about what effect that had on the humans.

“The next obvious question, then,” said James, “is how do we get in touch with our supernatural beings.”

“Ouija board?” Sarisa joked with a laugh which quickly turned into a coughing fit.

“It’s an idea,” said James after she’d finished.

“I refuse to be that cliched. Besides, those are strictly American, from the late 1800s. Spiritualist, not fairy tale.”

“Of course you’d just know that.”

“How you contact it depends on what you’re contacting.”

“You’re the folklorist,” James observed. “I’m just the logician. Take it as given that all folklore has a basis in fact, and then suggest which things would do this.”

Sarisa thought about that. “Old-style English Fair Folk,” she finally said. “Hollow hills, kidnapping babies and artists, cruel and terrifying.”

“How do you find them?”

“It’s… hard to do it deliberately.” Sarisa coughed again, bringing up a couple of bloody petals. “Step into a mushroom circle or a creepy door, but that generally loses you a few hundred years. Sometimes sitting out in the woods under a full moon playing an instrument works. Ideally by a river.”

“It’s worth a try?”

“What are you expecting me to do if I find something?”

There was a long pause. “I honestly have no idea. I’m just operating from the premise that doing something is better than doing nothing.”

“Well, the full moon’s in a week; if I can still breathe well enough to get out there we can go try sitting out with a harp, but remember this is a very long shot.”

“I know.” James ran his fingers lightly through Sarisa’s hair. “But it’s something.”

“I feel like I’m turning into one of those people I roll my eyes at.” Sarisa had scanned through satellite maps to find a wooded state park with a river, which she and James were now walking to. The river was enough of a walk from the parking area to be hidden but no farther. Sarisa needed that, as she kept having to drop to her knees by the side of the trail to cough up more bloody flowers. Breathing was also something of a struggle, and she wondered if she was going to be able to sing enough to draw the Fair Folk even if they were there.

“How do you mean?” James asked.

“Is this really any different from sticking a jade egg in my vagina?”

“Aside from the existing evidence of actual magic?”

“If there’s existing evidence of actual magic, how do we know the jade egg people aren’t on to something?” Sarisa’s bantering tone was undercut by another coughing fit, as she hacked up yet more bloody flowers. James waited for her to finish before responding.

“They’ve studied most of the fake-psychic metaphysics crap. Remember I said evidence. If nothing magical shows up, we’re not going to come out here and keep trying over and over again; we’re going to try something else.”

“Point taken.” She glanced down at the GPS unit in her hand. “We’re almost there.”

“Good.” James’s voice was tight. “Are you going to be able to sing well enough to attract them?”

“I don’t know?” So far she could talk well enough—another sign this was magical, honestly, that she could continue to speak so freely with so little breath—but this was a lot of exertion, and singing required rather more lung capacity than talking.

Finally they reached the stream, and James helped her into a seated position over the bank, then passed her the harp.

“Don’t stand here,” she whispered. “Go be someplace else. In most stories they only come when you’re alone.”

“And leave you here to face them on your own? You can barely breathe!”

“If you stay they might not come at all.”

“And what if they don’t and you’re stuck out here all night?”

“Remember the existence of the cell phone? I’ll text you once it’s done either way. And you don’t have to go far.”

James made an inarticulate growling sound and then lightly kissed the top of Sarisa’s head before he walked off into the woods, leaving Sarisa on the bank.

Sarisa had tuned the harp before they left the house. Now she sat and began to play. She began with pieces she knew well, but gradually she relaxed into it and let her fingers cross the strings of their own accord. She hadn’t touched her harp very much since she’d gotten sick and been absorbed in researching ways to survive and writing things to leave behind. Now she poured all of the feelings she’d been bottling up into the song. The heartache at dying before her time. The unfairness of being punished for having a feeling when she’d done everything, everything right in how she handled those feelings. The deep, abiding love for James that underpinned everything that had happened to her so far, a love that even now she clung to as a source of strength. Rose Syndrome had taken something that should have been the underpinning of a rich friendship and twisted it, using it to do her harm. It was a violation of the natural order.

She sat, and played, and poured every last bit of pain and sorrow and longing into the music.

She had no idea how long she’d been playing when she heard the wind-flute join her song. She forced herself to keep playing, to listen, and twine her music around it, to focus only on the music lest they vanish as the song did. Gradually the flute got stronger and stronger, until with a burst of chiming bells Sarisa found a Hunt of the Fair Folk arrayed around her.

“It has been long since we have taken one of you,” said the Lady at their lead. “So few of you come to sit by streams in fair moonlight in this time.”

Sarisa looked upon the splendid sight arrayed before her. They were indeed beautiful, as the stories painted them. Unearthly, not from this world, and made one want to gaze upon them forever. Yet she also saw the coldness in their bearing, as they held themselves high and apart. The stories, she knew, said you were meant to want to do anything for that beauty. Was it her anger that protected her? Or her art? It couldn’t be her exhaustive research; the stories were full of people who’d gone looking for fae thinking their research would protect them and finding out otherwise.

Whatever it was that she thought of them, it remained important to choose her words carefully and speak to them with respect. Not falling over their beauty would do nothing if they elected to turn her into a frog.

“So few of my kind believe enough to seek you, any longer,” said Sarisa.

“But you do,” said the Lady.

“There is a curse upon me. It follows that there is magic still in the world.”

“And you come to ask our aid, little mortal? Those of you who’ve bargained with us have not always fared well, in the past. Do you imagine you will fare better?”

“I cannot know until I make the attempt.” Bargaining was hopefully safer than wishing. It was necessary to be highly careful about exact words with a bargain, but the words would constrain the Fair Folk’s creativity in making her miserable.

To an extent.

“What would you ask of us?” asked the Lady.

“The removal of my curse, and to pay any price arising from that myself, without involving others.”

“I see no curse upon you.”

“The roses that reside within my lungs cannot have come from other than magic.”

The Lady’s tone grew harsh and cold. “That is no curse.”

“It will bring about my death.”

“The finest of deaths. To illustrate true beauty, exquisite emotion. We have elevated you, little mortal, by granting you this expression of your feelings.”

Sarisa had known they had a hand in this. She had known. She had said that this had to be caused by magic. She had said this fit their aesthetic. She knew that they were alien and terrifying and did not think like humans. But to hear it directly from their Lady, in that cool, calm tone—that suggestion that death was perfectly fine as long as it was a pretty death, coming from people who did not themselves die—sent waves of fury through her. Humans might kill each other, and they might lack that cold, inhuman beauty, but the majority of humans did not take pleasure in killing people. Did not see it as an art.

She could feel a cough coming, and let it. Blood came to her throat, and she let it. Let these cold judges see the falsehood. Let them see how very ugly her impending death was. Blood to the Fair Folk was a few drops on a ceremonial dagger, given to seal a bargain, not this terrible gore that stained and ruined. So she coughed, and let the bloody roses come, and let the blood fall at the feet of the Lady. The members of the Hunt backed away at the sight. Only the Lady stood her ground, even as Sarisa’s blood stained the hem of her gown.

“This is not beautiful,” Sarisa said. Her throat was raw, her voice soft, but her words echoed through the clearing. “This is not tragic. There are no choices here.”

“You choose to love someone who does not return those feelings.”

“Love is not a choice.”

“But it is. The flowers cannot take root where they are not nurtured. You nurture your feelings, and with them our roses.”

I nurture your roses? Shall I tell you, then, of my feelings?” Without waiting for answer, she played a chord on the harp. They were captivated by story and song, they had come… if she put enough music in the telling, it might anchor them enough to at least hear her.

“It begins like any other story. A girl, and a boy.” She played another chord. “The world dealt harshly the girl, and she mistrusted the world in turn. But the boy was patient, and kind. He was the first kindness she had felt. Of course she came to love him.” Now a slightly more dramatic chord. “But she knew he loved another. Because she did love him, and because he was patient, and kind, they talked about it.”

Sarisa’s voice seemed to be going stronger as she talked. That was decidedly odd, but she couldn’t stop to question it.

“He told her there are many kinds of love. That he did love her, just not the way she loved him. He told her their friendship was strong and true. It was enough.” A gentle chord upon the harp. “They went forward. Because she did love him, so she wanted him near, and she wanted him to be happy. There was no anger, no recrimination. Just kindness, and care, and love—because love, true love, is gentle, not dramatic. They should have been quite happy.” She put an ominous chord there.

“One day she found herself ill. Just a little cough, an ordinary thing. But it didn’t go away. When the petals came from her throat, she knew what it was, and what caused it. She read, and researched, and she hid it from the boy, for he would feel guilt if he knew. Alone she coughed up petals until nothing could be kept clean and everything she ate tasted of blood. Alone she coughed until her throat was raw and could not be soothed. Alone she bore pain, far more pain than her love had ever caused her.” Another chord upon the harp. “Alone she struggled through blood that scattered everywhere and stained everything, and struggled to breathe knowing eventually she would drown in her own blood.”

Now, suddenly, Sarisa felt another cough rising in her throat. She let it come, and again spat bloody petals at the feet of the Lady.

“What beauty is there in that?” she demanded. “What tragedy is that? He helped me find this place. He helped me come to find answers. There is nothing perfect about any of this.”

“You are a singer, experiencing strong emotion,” said the Lady. “Art that moves and fascinates will come from this. Art that holds the exquisite measure of such strength and tragedy of feeling.”

“I am not your toy!” Sarisa snapped. “I am not a piece of art for you to play with! I am not pining! My friend is by my side! You define love poorly, and wrongly. I reject your definition! This is a curse. So tell me what price you will require me to pay to remove it!”

A lengthy, fraught silence followed her conclusion, and Sarisa remembered that she had intended to speak with respect. Before she could react to the dawning realization that she had likely gotten herself into more trouble, she began to cough again, worse than ever before. Her lungs were composed of raw, scraping pain, as was her throat. It was worse than anything she had felt before, and what was in her throat seemed much larger, to the point of making it difficult to breathe. She set the harp down and dropped to her hands and knees, where she began to cough up not petals or buds but entire, intact, fully-blooming roses—some with thorns. The scrapes of the thorns against her mouth and throat added a new kind of pain. She coughed up several flowers before it subsided. She took a couple of breaths and found that her breath came more easily than it had since near the beginning of the progression. She looked up to find the Fair Folk watching her coldly.

“You are answered,” said the Lady. “Not by our doing but by your own will.”

“My will has been the same since this began.”

“But your rejection of what we are, not so profound.”

Sarisa was skeptical of this statement. She had rejected it from the beginning. The Fair Folk lied with truth and exact words. There might be an element of her will involved, but it was likely there was something else as well.

“Am I freed, then?” she asked.

“Your music will die with mortality, never to be carried under the hill to play at our Court. And your breath will never again come easily to your body. You will not see us again, mortal. You have earned our displeasure this eve.”

There was a blur of light and further chiming, and then the Fair Folk were gone. Sarisa lay on the forest floor for several moments, attempting to assimilate what had just happened. She was free. She was alive. She had just seen proofs that myths were true and they hated her. After what she had just faced, the sheer normalcy of a cell phone seemed strange, but she pulled out her phone and texted James anyway.

He came rushing through the woods to kneel by her side.

“What happened?” he asked, taking in the sight of Sarisa prostrate on the ground with her harp beside her and bloody flowers everywhere.

“They came.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“I’m not sure. They refused to help me and I shouted at them.”

“…that sounds bad.”

“You’d think. They weren’t happy about it. But then I coughed up the roots. They said it was just about my mortal will, but… there’s no way it was that simple. I think they needed to be here for it to work, or something like that.”

“So there’s nothing we can do about other people having it.”

“I don’t think so, no. I’ll have to do some research, and experiment, and probably get in trouble for playing psychic because that’s how to get people willing to try curing it via emotional work. . . if it isn’t reliant on their presence, it’s reliant on some very specific combination of intent and words.”

“But you’re going to be okay.”

“They said I’d have permanent damage to my lungs, but in general, I think so.”

“Then worry about the rest of it tomorrow.”

“When have I ever put worry off for later?” But Sarisa laughed and let James help her to her feet. He again slung the harp on his back, and together they began the long walk back to the ordinary, beautiful, willful human world.


Kit Harding is a writer and occasional jewelry maker who belongs to the cities and wilds of New England. Her work has appeared in Cossmass Infinities and Soul Jar: Thirty-One Fantastical Tales by Disabled Authors. You can find her online at https://writerkit.dreamwidth.org


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