19 Feb Painting the Roses Red
“Painting the Roses Red”Written by Tobias Wade Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 9 minutes
My neighbor Dr. Gregovich suffered both of life’s greatest calamities. The first was falling in love. This is a rebellious and generally discouraged affliction to which he accidentally exposed himself when he was just five years old. Elaine, age four at the time, had given him a snow-white rose (obtained unlawfully). If Gregovich’s account is to be trusted, then he was helplessly within her power ever since. The fact that his first instinct was to eat the rose apparently did nothing to lessen the potency of her gesture.
Fortunately for Gregovich, he thrived despite his adverse condition. By some miraculous trick which he swore he never anticipated, Elaine even came to love him back. It didn’t happen all at once, but rather as a cumulative study told by the years of his devotion.
He told me that he used to carry her school bag between classes, often finding himself on the wrong end of a rod after he absent-mindedly stayed to watch her rather than attending his own schedule. He had stolen his first kiss in second grade by convincing her that she was a flower while he was a visiting bee. By their junior year in high school, they were already engaged.
It’s hard to imagine promising your life to someone when you still don’t have the faintest concept of what life entails, but perhaps things were simpler in 1941 when they were married.
The world must have been jealous of their love, but two wars, seven children, and seventy-five shared years of illness, grief, and weariness which infiltrate even the happiest life proved insufficient to destroy their bliss.
It was last month of this year when Elaine finally slipped beyond the capacity of his care and into that great freedom where care is no longer required. I saw the old man tremble so violently as he wept that I anticipated a second grave before the first was excavated. It is the second of life’s great calamities of which forced his body to linger even after his soul had perished.
At 94 years old, Dr. Gregovich left his house for the first time in almost twenty years to follow her last black procession. Since then, however, I have seen him outside every day, kneeling upon the ground and mumbling through dried lips which have almost already returned to dust.
Rain or storm or howling wind, I would see him there without fail when I returned from work. It was obvious what he was doing, but I asked anyway because it had been too long since my heart felt the warmth I knew his reply would bring.
“I’m planting roses,” he told me. “One for every year I borrowed her for.”
“I’m sure you are making her very happy somewhere,” I told him.
“I don’t want her to be happy somewhere; I want her to be happy here. I want the smell to lead her back home to me.”
The roses flourished like nothing I had ever witnessed. Seeds the size of a corn kernel would begin sprouting the next day, and a week of growth conjured up a wild thorny expanse which I couldn’t have traversed with a ladder. And the roses! Magnificent white blossoms, pure as starlight, beamed through my bedroom window each night as though the whole wilderness of the heavens had fallen to settle in his garden.
“I’ve never seen a flower grow like that,” I told him. “What’s your secret?”
“I’m not planting flowers,” Dr. Gregovich replied. “I’m planting memories. The older the memory is, the deeper the roots, and the more precious the bloom.”
The next night I was woken by a terrible scream, which my weary mind struggled to comprehend existing outside of a nightmare. I rushed to the window and saw Gregovich kneeling once more in his garden. The moon cast a net of light which caught the blood covering his body. I rushed at once to his aid. What was he thinking gardening in the middle of the night? He must have cut himself with the shears. I more than half expected to discover one of his frail hands, skin thin as rice paper, clipped straight from the stump.
Down the stairs, out the door, breath coarse in my lungs, I stopped suddenly short. Gregovich sat calmly washing his hands with his gardening hose. Beside him lay a dead goat with a savage wound across its neck. No—there were three of the animals here. The first two were already hung up by their feet with buckets placed below them to collect the draining blood. The sticky sweet air from the flowers was tainted with the pungency of death, and I could see that two rows of his flowers were already dripping with a bloody varnish.
“Are you out of your mind? What on Earth are you doing?”
“It occurred to me,” the old man said, now washing congealed blood from his paintbrushes, “that white roses are a lie. I can’t entice Elaine to return by pretending all our memories are pure. I must show her the truth: the pain, the brutality, and the suffering of life, but remind her too that such sacrifices are still part of what makes life so beautiful.”
I was so bewildered by his explanation that I found myself at a loss for words. I even helped him string his third animal above the buckets before going back inside to take a shower. He promised me that he didn’t need to slaughter any more goats to finish his garden, and that he would later prepare the meat in a stew so that nothing was wasted.
It was certainly the most peculiar way of dealing with grief I had ever encountered, but besides the initial shock, I didn’t see anything more abhorrent about the situation than if the animals were killed by a butcher.
Perhaps I was only making excuses to get back to bed, though, because the next morning I was appalled by the sight outside my window. While the mask of night had subdued the color into subtle hues, the sun revealed the devastation of his sloppy work. Blood pooled upon the ground where it dripped from the flowers, leaving them unevenly streaked and stained like a field of open wounds. Bloody footprints invisible in the night crossed to and fro the expanse of his yard. The swarming buzz of flies and the stench of death made me feel as though I’d woken inside a battlefield.
I crossed his yard delicately to confront him, careful not to tread in any of the tributaries of blood which snaked through the irrigation to coalesce into a small river which flowed into a nearby ditch. As I passed through the garden, I noticed a staggering array of signs which punctured the sticky red soil around each plant.
Goat. Rat. Chicken. Cow. Dog.
I was covering my nose with my t-shirt when I pounded on his door. The flowers beside the house were stained much darker than the others, and the dry soil told me he had been doing this for far longer than I knew. We both lived on the outskirts of a small town where no visitors were likely to trespass without warning, and if it wasn’t for my intervention, he might have cut his way through an entire farm.
“Do you like it?”
I nearly added to the menagerie by jumping straight out of my own skin. Gregovich was standing behind me, grizzly shears in hand, still soaked from his perversion. There weren’t any footprints upon his doorstep, so he must have been attending to his macabre work all night long.
“It’s the vilest thing I’ve ever seen,” I told him honestly. “And I’m sure Elaine would think the same and turn straight around even if she was coming back. This has to end.”
“Do you see her? Elaine? Where are you?” The poor creature’s eyes bulged from their sockets with unrealized expectation.
“She’s not here, you dithering old bat.”
“Then how can you say this is the end?” he asked, swaying dangerously upon his feet as he pivoted to face me again.
The slick shears gleamed evilly in his hand, and though I discounted him for his age, the magnitude of destruction around me proved some fire still burned within him. For both of our safeties, I resolved to notify the police instead of handling the situation myself. I turned and marched swiftly away from Gregovitch. I held my breath for as long as I could, but released it with an involuntary gasp before I had cleared the garden.
A single white flower remained unsoiled at the edge of his garden. Planted in the soil beside it was a sign:
It was still white.
I had to act fast. If I called the police now—
I was already too late. I heard a loud pop like a firework going off, and then something sharp stung the back of my neck. At first I thought it was one of the biting flies drawn by the blood, but then I heard the sound again and a second needle pierced my thigh. Tranquilizer darts. I plucked them out and hurled them down, although the ground already seemed much closer than I remembered. My throat closed to a pinhole, and the field of red roses swam across my vision. The flowers danced like living things in a sordid parody of the animals which painted them red.
But he was so old…if I could just crawl into the road, I could get away and someone would find me. I plunged my hands into the bloody soil and dragged myself into the ditch. The thick liquid from the fields flooded over me, offering at least some concealment. I choked on air as thick as the river which flooded into my lungs. The red surrounding me was more than color. I felt it course over me, heard it pounding beneath my skin, feeling as though I was part of that stream that pounded through the veins of a giant.
I didn’t even hear the third pop when another needle pierced my back.
When I woke up, there was no longer any distinction between me and the blood pouring over my face. I tried to wipe my eyes, but the second my vision cleared, a fresh stream bubbled over them. I was disoriented, but I could vaguely sense that I was hanging upside-down. My throat burned like I was being choked with a red-hot wire. I struggled to reach my feet which were tied above me, but my feeble lurch only served to send a fresh wave of blood from the gash in my neck to splatter in the bucket beneath me.
I tried to scream, but all that came out was a wet splutter. I felt myself slipping out of consciousness again, but I held on and rubbed my eyes clear once more.
There! Something was moving beside me. The state of my overburdened senses and my reversed perspective made it almost impossible to distinguish the blurred shapes.
“You did all of this? For me?” A voice. A woman’s voice.
I squinted and rubbed my eyes again. There were definitely two sets of legs beside me. I recognized one as Gregovitch’s stained overalls, but the other in a black dress was unfamiliar.
“It’s my beacon,” Gregovitch said. “I didn’t want you to get lost.”
My vision slid away from me, and I must have blacked out for a moment. Then my body lurched, and I drifted through consciousness again. An old woman in a black dress was cradling me and easing me to the ground.
“Shhhh,” she whispered. “Don’t worry. When your time has come, someone will call you back home too.”
Blackness returned, so deep and peaceful that I seemed to have slipped out of time and space altogether. My pain was gone. My thoughts were smoke in the wind.
I had a vague conception that I was looking for something. Then a bright light pierced the abyss and forced my attention to focus on the spot. Gradually it grew brighter, until with a blinding flash I felt a gasp of cold wind penetrate my lungs.
I was lying on the red soil. My hands raced to my burning throat to feel a thick gauze wrapped around the jagged wound. It took me a full five minutes to stand, all the while unable to process any thought more rudimentary than an awareness of the light.
Finally, agonizingly, I brought myself to my feet. The night was thick around me, and all the lights from Gregovitch’s house were out. Gradually my eyes regained their focus, and the brilliant white light faded into the pale reflection of the surrounding roses. There was no sign of the blood upon their petals, and each blossom shining with incandescent splendor.
I managed to call an ambulance before slipping back into oblivion. I had suffered severe blood loss, and the doctor said that it was likely that my heart stopped beating for several minutes. If someone hadn’t taken me down and bandaged my wound, there is no chance I would have survived.
There has been no sign of Gregovitch since the police swept his house, although his car remained parked in the garage. I even checked the grave where his wife was buried, but this too remained undisturbed.
I tried to explain what happened, but the condescending explanation I received was that the bleeding and the tranquilizers caused me to hallucinate. That’s what I would have thought, too, if it wasn’t for the field of snow-white roses outside of my window.
I think that I really had been lost for a moment, until something had found me and called me home.
Of all the worrisome mystery of this situation, there is one thing that most prominently denies me sleep at night. One of Gregovitch’s sons stayed at the house last weekend to pack up the old man’s things. After he had gone, I took another walk through the garden out of a morbid curiosity to try to shed some light on this horrendous business.
All seventy-five white roses are as brilliant as ever, but the son must have still made some alterations in the garden. Instead of the myriad of sacrificial animals once depicted on the signs, there is now only a single word blazoned across every board that stands as stoically as headstones:
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableTobias Wade Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A