“When White Roses Freeze”
by Amy Power Jansen
Her love turned cold when he left. I felt it as soon as I touched the handle of the door to her bedroom. Even as I pressed down, willed the door to be locked, the truth settled rock-hard into my heart. The door yielded and I swallowed my fear, my hope, all of it.
She stood staring out the window across my father’s garden. Long ago he had been buried in it, under the white roses so lovingly tended by my brother. Icicles formed at the edges of the glass, carving an uneven lace pattern to frame the doomed greenery.
My mother didn’t leave that spot, didn’t turn to me with those clear blue eyes that shot straight through me. She didn’t tell me about their last fight or the words that sank into her deepest wounds. She didn’t tell me about his sarcasm, or how he laughed when she begged him to stay. She didn’t tell me anything, not that day.
Later when I knew everything, I wondered whether it would have been better if she had torn my brother from his pedestal in one fell swoop rather than dripping information like acid into my ears. Would I have hated him more, or less?
Two cloudy hazel eyes gazed at me from the frozen mirror. Two cloudy hazel eyes determined not to cry, not today. My brother used to cry in heavy, jagged sobs as he loosened up the earth over my father’s grave. He would cry and the earth would boil, and my mother and I would stand behind him, shadows watching over his grief.
But he had been gone more than six months, and the ice had snaked down the tiled passage and filled every corner of the house, spilling over every threshold and turning the pool into a treacherous ice-rink under a burning sun. I never felt the heat anymore.
My mother sat in her faded blue armchair, each of its dangling threads encased in a pinion of ice. I almost heard her creak as she shifted her head towards me.
“Shayle.” She smiled, a tiny movement in a face that barely moved anymore.
I swallowed, pushing down the lump forming in my throat. “I thought– today– we’d go outside. Visit dad.”
“Your brother’s ritual,” she said, nodding slowly to herself. Then she shook her head, and the ice encasing her neck shattered. “No. I always hated it. The dead are dead and gone.”
She didn’t speak again that day, didn’t acknowledge my presence. But I couldn’t leave it at that. The ritual I’d dreaded became suddenly precious, and the brother whose name had become a curse, the one sane person in our crazy family. So I found his garden shears in the garage and fought my way out into the dying garden, choking with weeds in the few unfrozen spaces.
I didn’t find the white rose bush; it found me, its long, cruel thorns raking against my ankle. I stifled the cry that would have alarmed my mother and fought myself about to find a few buds about to open. The spiny stem clung to my hands, but I bit back the pain and cut the flowers free.
When I took a small vase of white roses through to her room, my mother didn’t look up. But the next day when I brought her breakfast, I found a few frozen tears lying around them. I gathered them up and put them in one of my mother’s empty perfume bottles. I never asked her who the tears were for: my father who slept under the roses, or my brother who’d grown them.
I found her frozen body one evening when I brought in her dinner. Hours before she had requested to be left alone to sleep; she must have known the end approached. When my father had died, the family had gathered around his bed, watching his last, anguished moments as his temperature rose and rose and he tipped over into delirium. His death had driven us apart.
She had slipped onto the next world, left me alone. I sat in her armchair, staring into the middle-distance, the last person left in the house of a family of four. The thaw set in the next morning, creeping in at the corners of the kitchen, the part of the house farthest from my mother’s room. She hadn’t set foot in her precious kitchen in months.
I tried to tell myself I didn’t mind, that the ice could recede and I would still remember her. But as it spread panic took root in my chest. I had grown up surrounded by the constant battle between my mother’s watery ways and my father’s burning intensity. I knew I had not inherited my father’s fiery passion, but I did have his hazel eyes and strange fascination with leather-bound books. Had I nothing of my mother?
Vayne found me in her room where the thaw had not yet taken hold. I had begun to hope that this sanctum at least would remain preserved, frozen for me. But as he stood there in her doorway, I watched the ice turn to carpet-ruining slush.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, standing up from her chair.
“I heard what happened.”
“You knew she was sick.”
He ignored my accusation. He picked up a vase, pulling out the white roses, frozen in mid-bloom. “She did this to everything she touched. Nothing could live with her.”
“Get out.” I felt very far away from that even and steady voice. Part of me wanted to break down, run to the one person who might understand. But I fought it back, held it in check. He didn’t deserve my tears.
He dropped the white roses, their stems bending as their icy support evaporated. “You’re just like her. The only thing she couldn’t kill.”
And he went. And I picked up the roses, watching as the ice reformed around their broken frames.
Amy Power Jansen is a recently-married South African twenty-something who has just made the move to Johannesburg and is about to embark into the world of high finance. Interested in everything and anything, up to and including what is, what could be and what never will.
Story © 2010 Amy Power Jansen. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish