The rose was trying to get in again. She couldn’t blame it. Outside the wind was howling, a vicious, embittering thing, so ferocious it seemed animate. The plaintive scratch of the rose’s thin, narrow fingers against the window was difficult to ignore, even with the tv turned up so loud it was making the speakers fuzzy. Tonight, lying in bed, she was sure it would be even worse. If the rose kept this up, and she knew it would, the sound would get into her ribcage and squeeze hard on the soft flesh of her heart, as it had on so many nights before.
Why didn’t she let it in, anyway? She wondered to herself. The dog at her feet would sometimes get up and walk to the back of the house, his gaze wary as he stared at the windows, watchful and waiting.
She didn’t want a rose in the dining room, that was why. Especially not a rose so intent on living in a house. Some plants, the tamest ones, were content in their sunny corners, but a rose—that big, wild, thorny bush—would always have something to say. You could never forget a rose was in the house, the way you might walk past a jade or even a little cactus. A rose would prick you if you weren’t careful. They did outside, they would indoors too.
This rose begged, pleaded, pushed, cajoled. Let me in, it said, every night as she fell asleep. Sometimes in the day too.
But you won’t be happy, she said. I won’t be happy either.
But I won’t be cold, it seemed to say. I won’t be so afraid out here, alone.
She would almost give in, hearing that. But not quite.
Maybe she had never thought of a plant being afraid before then, but after she thought of it constantly. Footfalls in the forest making hearts of trees shudder, the sound of the lawnmower making the grass quake, the frost-bitten wind sending the rose into a tizzy. What else was out there, worried? She didn’t hear anything quite as clearly as she heard the rose, so she couldn’t be sure.
Oh, but that rose was never happy! It was always something. In summer, as she sat out on the porch, she could hear it rustle and whisper of its dryness in the midafternoon heat, even if she’d watered that morning. In fall, it complained of the aches and the thick clot of fallen leaves around its roots. But winter was the worst. If you would just let me in, I would be alright, the rose said. How could you keep me out this way? You, who I bloom for every summer. You, who waters me so dutifully. You, who I see look out at me every morning through the window, as if to see that I still stand. If you don’t care for me, who will?
Everyone loves roses, she would say. Your beauty is venerated. To the west of here the city keeps gardens full of roses, all different kinds, and millions of people—yes, she thinks, surely it’s millions—go visit them. Roses are the symbol of love, she tells the rose.
My dismembered body parts are the symbol of love? The rose scoffs. They will only ever have me in pieces. When can I be whole? When can I be welcomed in as a guest, rather than kept out like some kind of reverse prison? That’s all I want.
It occurs to the woman to read the rose Shakespeare—Sonnet 54 and that particular line from Romeo and Juliet—but the rose is not satisfied. Just words, the rose says, prickling. So she plays the rose “Kissed by a Rose”, Seal’s seminal classic, and though she detects the rose swaying a little in time to the music, the rose asserts they are still not impressed.
Finally she says to the rose, after another ceaseless day of complaining, I think you are lovely as you are. I never cut your flowers. I let you grow as wild out here as you want. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough that you are as you are, out here? The rose was quiet, saying nothing for a long time, so long that she almost forgot she was listening for a response at all. Instead, she heard the soft rustling of a summer breeze in the leaves of the walnut tree, the cheery chirp of birds hopping around the feeder, the high scold of a squirrel chiding the dog, who was sniffing around the fence.
Finally, the rose said, No. It isn’t enough. Would it be for you?
She stood up, knocking the chair out from beneath her. Yes! she said. It would be enough. It is enough!
The rose chuckled as she stormed into the house, slamming the back door shut. And stay out, she thought to herself, except the rose had never been inside.
It was the next winter, a full year, when she finally acquiesced. It had been a terrible year all around: wildfires in the summer leading to a smoke-choked sky, a wet autumn that left sudden knee-deep puddles drowning every inch of the yard, a cold winter that buried everything in inches of ice. This was not just a windstorm, this was the world’s vengeance. You poor things, she whispered to herself each season, watching the plants sit where they were planted, still in the smoke, still in the rain, still in the ice. Poor things. She paced her house, listening to the whir of the air purifier or the rain on the roof or the heat kick on, rattling the vents.
Finally, on a day that was neither warm nor cold nor wet nor dry, but a little of each, she went outside with a shovel. The rose was still and quiet. Not what she’d expected—the raucousness of summer had become a low murmur with the onslaught of the recent weather—but not unappreciated. This was, after all, one of her dearest friends. She started by digging a wide hole, three feet around the base of the rosebush. The research she’d done just a few minutes before, in a feverish search, suggested that the best course of action was to take out the rose roots and all. She’d found an old plastic tub out in the garage and hastily dragged it outside with her, garishly blue against the muted shades of her winter yard. As gently as she could, her hands thick and dumb in leather work gloves, she lifted the thick wooden canes out of the ground. Only once did she have to hack at a stubborn root, with the rose moaning softly but without real protest at what she thought must be pain. She settled the rose into the tub, shoveling dirt from the ground in around the roots, then
She worried a nail for days, chewing at the tender skin as she watched the rose anxiously, waiting for whatever it was that would come next. But the rose stayed quiet in its victory. With much effort, she moved the rose between rooms, hoping to provoke a reaction as to which room the rose liked best, all to no avail. Still the rose kept its own counsel. Unwilling—or unable, she fretted in the small hours of the morning, worried she’d killed it—to speak to her now that their wish had been granted.
It was a surprise to her then when she walked into the dining room one morning, the pearly light of early day coming in through the blinds, to hear the soft hum of Seal emanating from the corner of the dining room in which she’d last left the rose. Hello, she said softly, taking a few steps closer. Are you there?
I never knew what was inside before, the rose said, all the acidity stripped from their voice. It’s so nice in here. I knew it would be, of course. But it’s all better than I could even imagine.
Oh, she said, embarrassed. You have nothing to compare this house to.
No house could be as fine as this, the rose said, and she smiled even though she knew it wasn’t true.
Before long a kind of ease had built between them, in ways that would have made her uncomfortable if she wasn’t so pleased: a light chat in the morning as she puttered in the kitchen making coffee (usually about her dreams, which the rose found endlessly fascinating), an afternoon in companionable silence while she worked on her computer in the dining room, a light brush of the hand along the edge of the rose’s petals as she walked by in the evening on her way to bed.
Her fears of the rose went unfounded. More timid than a pothos, she thought to herself, watching the rose out of the corner of her eye. Finally, truly, happy. At peace.
Of course, this did not last. How could it? In hindsight, she saw how foolish she had been to trust that the two of them could get along. Once the battle to be inside was won, and the rose began to trust that they were inside for good, they slowly began creeping: a few new shoots that thickened into hearty stalks, hearty stalks that became vines, vines that blossomed into buds. At first she dismissed it as a good thing—the rose was healthy, the rose was happy; the rose was at peace—and even when the growth became exponential, so ropy tendrils of the rose overtook that her dining room clinging to her walls, she tried to quell her unease. It was nice to have so many of the blooms in the house; she thought to herself. There was never any need to buy flowers now, the thing she used to do to cheer herself up during the dead of winter.
Only obliquely did she ever bring this up with the rose. You’ve really settled in, she’d say, and the rose would laugh and thank her for such lovely accommodations. Once she remarked that she didn’t realize they were a climbing rose, and the rose said, a little disgruntled, I can’t be put into a box—if I climb, I climb.
All through the long dark nights of December and January, she laid in bed and imagined she could hear the rustling of leaves as the rose grew, the sound infinitesimal but persistent, like a mosquito’s whine in her ear. The dog curled up near her feet but kept staring at the door, as if daring the rose to come through. When she slept she dreamed the rose’s thorns were pressing into the soft meat of her forearm, and when she woke, it always surprised her to see that her arms were bare, no blooms of blood pricked into her skin.
Cut back roses before Valentine’s Day. That was the rule. She had convinced herself of this, watching as the rose kept up its ceaseless growth, moving from the dining room into the kitchen and down the hall. For the plant to truly flourish, she thought, she would have to cut down to the sharp V of each cane and trim the stalks. The rose had never been trimmed before, but—and she repeated this to herself as she brought out her sharpest loppers from the garage into the house and waded through the flora towards the rose’s roots in the pot--imagine the heights it would grow to if she pruned it.
I’m doing this for you, she said, and made the first cut.
Only once she stood among the severed branches of the rose’s body did she realize that the rose had never made a peep: no shrill cry of horror, no grateful murmuring, no wry remark. The rose was completely silent, pruned down to its stump, four gray canes protruding awkwardly from the bare dirt in the pot. How strange, to see this plant—so present in her imagination—suddenly so diminished. So absent. She turned to the house full of vines behind her, beginning the long process of hauling the remnants of the rose to the compost bin tucked away at the side of the house.
But she could not bring herself to lug the rose’s pot back outside until March, when the weather had warmed, and the season turned toward spring. Each morning she checked anxiously to see whether any growth had appeared. Each morning she went back into the house disappointed. It was June before the rose greened, and July before she saw their first bud. She had stopped expecting to hear the rose speak when they finally made their first utterance.
A quiet hello, old friend, and she turned to the rose with a bloom of delight in her chest that made her unable to say anything back.
She opened her mouth to speak, reached out a hand to touch a leaf gently, as she had before. But she swallowed her words.
No, she said, quiet but firm. No more. She walked back into her house, freed from rose vines and wholly her own, while the rose swayed at the window.
Lauren Hobson is a writer and teacher who lives in a little blue house in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Riverteeth, Backcountry, Entropy, and elsewhere. If she isn’t writing or reading, she’s probably outside with her dog. You can find more from her at laurenhobson.com.