The Path of the Rose
I stared at the carriage in front of me as it swayed and bounced from the uneven road and the burden it bore, and I took stock of myself. The only things I could feel were the uncomfortableness of my stiff mourning clothes, the uneven jaunt of the black horse rented especially for the occasion, and, disturbingly, an over-whelming sense of relief. Relief? How could I feel that way? How could I not? These questions rolled endlessly in my head with no answers to dam them up as I started ceaselessly at the back the dark carriage that held my mother.
My mother was dead.
My earliest memory was of her. I think I was about four or five. I had stumbled ... oh, who knows where. In the hall? My bedchamber? Doesn't matter ... and I fell, and I was crying. It was a horrible noise, sniffling and snorting and wailing. Then my mother came to me. I remember her skirts barely touching the floor, how they made the whispering sounds of velvet, how she seemed have to legs, how I decided she must float because she moved so perfectly. How beautiful I thought her! I started to smile, reach out my hands as she lowered down to my level – and then I was reeling backward, my hand to my cheek where I felt the mark of her hand like it burned me. She leaned over, picked me up by my arms, and I gave no resistance. Her voice pricked my skin like a chill from above.
"Never do that again. Tears are weak. No child of mine shall be weak."
I looked up into her face, the tears gone. Her dead black eyes gazed at me with little expression; the arch of her thin red lip set on that marble face suggested that something rather disgusting was stuck on her slipper and she wished to be rid of it, but she was not sure how.
"Yes, what?" She eyed me slowly, as if wondering what I could possibly say that could interest her.
"I will not cry anymore." My voice was completely even, and not a single tear crept down my cheek.
I never thought of her as beautiful again.
"... a doting mother, a kind wife, a good woman, generous with her money, always there for one in need ..."
I listened to the clergyman drone on about the virtues of my mother. The church was filled with friends and family, all in stiff, silent black. I couldn't help thinking my mother would approve. It surprised everyone to find out what her favorite color was, because she always wore bright dresses.
"There is just something so dreadfully interesting about it, don't you think?" she would quip with her blue eyes wide and innocent, should anyone question her on the subject. And they would laugh, because my mother always made people laugh. Then she would go on to explain that she loved the color because her favorite horse was black, or she thought it was the color in which she looked best, or, if she wished to trip someone up, she would say it was because her dear departed mother's hair was black. But no matter how many times they heard the story, no one ever questioned why her reason changed.
I looked sidelong at my sisters. They had their heads bowed, each thinking their own silent thoughts. I knew they were probably thinking of their own mother, and I felt a twinge of sadness for them. Their own mother had died two years before our father had married mine. I don't think they ever saw anything amiss with my mother ... they just preferred to stay out of her way.
I, however, did not.
Breathing heavily, I wiped the blood from my nose. Colors collided in my eyes as her foot collided with my side, and I stumbled into the marble wall, my head jerking back painfully into the rock.
"You are pathetic," she ranted, eyes wild. Normally, the blows were verbal, but tonight, she was drunk; a rare enough event. Her perfume of lilies mixed with the stench of spirits, as her black eyes stared into nothingness, full of malice and insanity. She shrieked, "You are nothing! You will always be nothing!" She swung, missed as I ducked, and howled with rage as she smacked against stone. She turned and grabbed a glass. The first missed. The second hit me on the collarbone. I closed my eyes and felt the shards brush my eyelids and cut my cheek. I opened my eyes to glare at her silently, feeling the blood slide down my neck and stain my dress. I something flit in her eyes. I couldn't describe it at the time. Looking back, I think it might've been fear. She spit on me, then turned on her heal and left. I brushed off the glass, making little cuts on my hand, then made my way wearily to my bed. I huddled there, feeling the blood dry, shaking a little, until my maid came to tell me it was time to get up.
That was the night of my tenth birthday.
My father couldn't stop crying. Tears ran from under his hands as he held his down his stubbly chin into his collar. He was sitting next to me, but I knew he wasn't there. He had been in shock ever since my mother had died. Every moment was like a dream. He cried and raved, or he sat in blind silence. All the ride to the church, he kept pace with the carriage that held her casket, staring at it as if he could see her through it. I wished this, too, but not for the same reasons.
I wanted to know if in death her eyes were blue or black.
She never hurt me in front of Father. In fact, she was at her most radiant whenever Father was around. Smiling, laughing; hers eyes literally twinkled. It made me disgusted in a way her easy charm around others couldn't. I didn't know my father well, but I loved him because he was my father, and much better than the only other parent I knew. He was the distant champion, because when he was around my mother had to pretend. Which opened millions of opportunities for me to expose her.
I took a chance one night when I was about thirteen. It was at a small dinner, with one or two of my father's friends. I smiled demurely, laughed like a bell chime, and blushed slightly; I was the perfect bridal piece. Only that wasn't what I wanted. Tonight, however, the disguise would suit my purpose.
As the dessert was set on the table, I turned to her. "Mother," I began with a small, sweet smile that made tiny dimples in my cheeks, "is it true that you intend for me to attend the Governor's Ball next Tuesday?"
"Why, of course, my dear," she replied with a sweet laugh. "Why, couldn't you tell by the tailor I sent to you for dress fittings not last week?"
"Well, Mother, I did wonder," I replied quietly, with a small blush tingeing my cheeks, "whether you believed me well enough to go anywhere by Tuesday."
"What is wrong with you?" This came from my father, his eyebrows diving to meet together between his intense green eyes, which were currently looking at me with an interesting intensity that seemed out of proportion to the question.
"Why, my accident."
The look she gave me was measuring. I had long believed the beatings and sharp words to be my fault. Yet as I grew older, I grew wiser and braver. My fault or not, this was not going to be kept a secret. I think she was realizing that; physical abuse was at the lowest point it had ever been, perhaps once every two months. Last night had been the first incident in over three months. I wasn't going to let my chance slip away from me.
"I didn't hear of any accident," commented one of my father's friends politely, playing right into my hand. I smiled with a silent thanks to whoever had sent this little blessing my way.
"I believe my mother may be able to tell you more than I can." I looked at her. Her lovely mouth hadn't even twitched. She surveyed me with crystal blue eyes, without a trace of fear. I stared back, a slight smile of satisfaction playing around my lips.
"Yes, I can," my mother drawled, then placed a carefully worried look on her perfect face. "Why, dear Rose here fell down the stairs yesterday! Gave us such a fright, didn't you dear?"
"A fall down the stairs?" Suspicion and worry crept into my father's voice. He looked surprised at his own vehemence. Trying to smile, he added quietly, "Darling, why didn't you tell us?"
"Oh, it was nothing of course, Father, don't be upset," I tinkled away merrily. I saw the corner of my mother's eyebrow rise ever so slightly. I raised mine wickedly in return. I enjoyed playing with her. She might have power over me in a way I couldn't understand, but I could make her squirm.
I turned slowly to her, carefully arranging my face into innocent bewilderment, watching and memorizing every expression that played across her face. I couldn't expose her in one night, but I could start suspicion, right there and then. "It's simply that, I can't seem understand," and my face thoroughly expressed this, "and maybe I'm being silly, I don't know," a little laugh, the my brow furrowed to exactly the right degree, "but please, Mother, since you were there," ah!, eyebrows raised around the table; I kept my eyes locked with my mother's, "how did I get these marks here on my neck." I slipped my typical high collar down to show red half-moon scars and yellowed slender bruises. I blushed slightly, out of real embarrassment at the way my father was staring at me, as if he'd never seen me.
"I can't remember exactly what happened," I simpered, eyes wide, a simple maiden's confusion etched in every line of my face. "Perhaps you could explain it, Mother, you saw exactly how I fell."
She seemed off guard. That hadn't ever happened before, and I knew to take advantage of it.
"Well, surely, Mother, you saw. You stood right on the landing, saw me fall the whole while down, you must have seen how I could have gotten these marks. So?" I laughed with pure joy. "Come now, you must've ..."
"You don't remember correctly. I was at the bottom of the stairs and saw you fall on the landing." She was stiff, tense, and guilty for anyone to see. I wouldn't be the only one in the room to notice her eyes were a deep blue, instead of the ice chips that usually sparkled in those depths. Her hands gripped her chair so tightly her knuckles are white, and the long red nails dug into her palm. The blue gaze bore into me. "You are not correct."
I wanted to keep going, but I knew my plan of lingering suspicion was best. The look on Father's face was enough for me to know my job was done. I slowly released my collar, then bestowed a benevolent smile on her. "Of course. I am not ... correct."
I paid for that. But she paid worse.
Father had never really guessed what she was. I don't think I knew really. But as I watched her casket lower into the ground, I knew he hadn't trusted her for a long time. I wasn't sure if planting suspicion in his mind and those of her friends ever did any real good. Perhaps it would have, if she had lived. I would start my plan, than stop. Jerk and pull back. I was scared to go too far without someone realizing what I was implying, what what I was saying meant. So the church was full of friends, but they were nervous and suspicious ones. I had made them that way, for no reason at all. Or did this make them more aware? I wasn't sure, but I was certain it was going to give me more headaches in days to come.
Of course, it was nothing compared to remembering our last encounter.
She still swept around like a goddess. Rumors were beginning to grow, but she held her head over all of them. But she couldn't hold her head over me. She couldn't sweep past. I was winning, and I knew it, and I knew that she knew it, and I was glad. She still had those nights, but I was older, taller, stronger. I had been taking lessons secretly in fencing and hand-to-combat from a weapons master for the past four years. I was fifteen. She had an unnatural strength, and uncanny speed, but so, I was slowly discovering, did I. She couldn't hurt me anymore. My heart was closed and my body was out of reach.
I was winning and she was terrified. Every time she saw me she went the other direction; her eyes turned black as coal, and there was no denying that everyone noticed it now. She was being destroyed, and she couldn't understand it.
I, on the other hand, couldn't understand why it had started, but I was ready to finish it.
She had died a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday. As horrible as it was to me, that day my world had come crashing down. My whole life had been this war with her. Without her, I wasn't sure how to live my life. I had friends; I had family. I had stayed strong and come out above her. Yet she, my mother, had occupied all my thoughts since that earliest memory, and I wasn't sure how to move away from that. Still, I felt relief. This was both a comfort and a discomfort to know. I was both comforted and disgusted by the fact that I would rather have a normal life without my mother than to triumph in the old one I had been leading. I shook my head and decided it was too complicated to think about. I was going to just move on. It was all that I could do, really.
As guests floated by, they all made condolences. Some cried, some patted my shoulder and smiled, and others were completely awkward, ill-at-ease, confused at what, exactly, to do. Stories of my mother were passed around. Looks were directed at me, from pitying to accusatory. They didn't bother me any more than my thoughts, so I made no comments. They could think as they pleased; I wasn't about to stop them when my own memory was sloshing through my inactive brain with a chance of purchase. I found a place next to my father, and listened to the comments the guests tried to slide between his clenched fingers to bring him out so they could forcefully prove their grief to him. Though the words only registered on the outskirts of my mind, I began to distinguish a comment that was regulating itself in the stream of muttered sorrows. I finally started listening as one of my mother's friends looked at me with that pity I knew so well. "Still, you look so like her," she said pensively, "yes, so like her."
"Except for your eyes. You truly do have your father's eyes."