We weren't sure of his name. Hell, we didn't even think he was at some point.
Though Senor Steel seemed more than fitting for him, those boney limbs, that long frame, those hollow, sunken eyes that twirled around inside of his head like galaxies, searching for a heart, scrambling for a match stick in the dead of winter. Dear God, he would pray, pacing back and forth. What is it about you, Wisteria? And why did you go away?
Several times a week he would press his fingers to his door step, watching as snow fell across his knuckles, melting into the smallest river you'd ever see. "Find her for me," he'd say. "Find her for me, little one. You know where she is." And I did know. He knew I did.
Senor Steel also knew that I'd never bring her back to him, no matter how many times he told me so.
Tears blinked in his eyes and froze like mid December there, a token of inner fury and constant battles raged. No foot prints. No visitors. The doorstep was cold and empty and hadn't been crossed for such a long time, not even by him. The world was a dead thing – or sleeping, as he would later write. Dear journal: My comprehension is, at best, straying into delusional fantasies with the procession of my desire, and the world becomes a desolate, anemic creature that is neither passed nor sufficient in life, struggling to breathe, sleeping through what will prove to be the end of me...
See? Sleeping. Not dead. Though I think that was his downfall... I don't know. As children, we found it difficult to piece together everything when in the presence of those chilling, love-sick eyes.
But his screams were horrible.
She lay sleeping under her covers, legs curled, lips slightly parted as air rushed in and out of her lungs when Wisteria had first heard them, like the ringing of church bells in some distant nightmare, too ghastly to be real, but they were. The femme's face lit with all the sincerity in the world as she climbed from her bed and followed them, followed the scream, followed the church bells into a world where pain was ether to drift between each moment of life like dust.
December roses are the most beautiful...
Petals torn, strewn across the floorboards of his living room. She could smell their dying odor even from the outside, penetrating the walls, reaching into her chest and twisting her soul. This is a realm of winter, she thinks, yet all I see is the passion and thrill of a lifetime.
What thrill is better than despair?
"Senor Steel..." she whispered, lean fingers tickling the door knob. A strong breeze whipped around her legs and she shivered there, alone on the doorstep, that doorstep, his doorstep. One that no one had crossed in such a very, very long time, beholding a girl who awaited an answer that never came. When the door gave way without so much as a nudge, she knew that he was expecting her, and he'd never said a word.
She had not known, however, that this man was in love.
He trembles to remember this night. I know because I only asked him about it once. He said he remembered it being cold, very cold, and the air grew thicker once she was near because she allowed him to breathe, like she was giving it to him. I'd never heard such a thing before. Maybe he really was mad. I'd heard that love can drive a person insane and so can loneliness, but I had no idea just how high up a cliff it was, the way a diving board always looks higher than it really is when you're standing on the edge.
I'd believed him, though. Believed him when he said that she was everything to him, when his journals described her as - 'Impartial, something less than whole, someone who drifts from one plain to the next without ever emerging to the surface for breath.' - although I never quite understood what that meant. Interesting, but... Crazy. And I wanted it to end though I was quite aware that it never would. Even as a child, I saw that the prospect of him giving up was impossible, and I brushed a blonde lock behind my shoulder, so unlike his long, black ones. It would never end.
She'd come for him there, in the center of the floor. He told me so. December fell around them in pieces. I'd like to call it snow, but I had the vague suspicion that he meant something else. As silver crept through the windows and the night bloomed into the morning, she'd sat there for so long that he'd thought she was only a shadow. Then she touched his hand and it was over. Even through his black opera gloves, he could feel her warmth, the ember settling somewhere that even December could not reach, not a single piece of it. Touched him. She'd touched him, like he'd so craved for her to do, Wisteria had actually let their hands collide.
Then she left.
"Please bring her back to me..." he begged again, and I could see the desperation leaking out of his eyes in puddles. My usual reply was one without words, today being of no exception, the same way the moon follows her every course or how autumn leaves eventually grow, shrivel, fall and die. Silence seeped in. Darkness fell. I left him in that same forsaken heap I'd found him in, eyes cast to the floor as if it were a mirror into her deepest fantasies, praying that Wisteria saw him whenever she stopped for a gander, too.
Senor Steel was a strange, strange man. Beautiful in that haunting, somber way; but so pale that it was hard to meet his gaze and not feel like his pupils were dragging you down into some terrible chasm. A strong waif of a caretaker. You'd find more happiness in a cemetery than in his heart, where only one name resided: Wisteria, his one and only Wisteria. He cried it, over and over again, until his voice grew hoarse and his feet would refuse to move any longer, exhausted from pacing. Still, he would cry.
Love was a different matter. This woman did not adore him, though I'm not certain... Could she have? Yet another thing I don't truly know, no one really does, we don't dare to go back there. All we know is that in Spring his gardens bloom and encroach a little closer to his doorstep, in Summer the trees blossom to make the drab, gray tone of his house just a little more eldritch, in Fall the world fades and the oak trees stretch their boney fingers toward the sky – and when December comes, obscure vines of roses overcrowd his threshold and never, never wither from Winter's snow. But why?
Wisteria was only sixteen years old. At the time that seemed so grown up to me. It's amazing what a couple of years can mean.
Now the footprints were left upon the snow like traces of arsenic. He bleeds for her, somewhere locked in his confines. He makes himself believe in things that are not. Sees beauty, hope, greenery, where there is really only the stretching limits of his imagination. He knocks down these barriers as she continued on her way to his house - for the second time, no less! - to peer closer at the mystery of this man, and I watched from a far away perch, pretending I can hear just like he pretends she loves him, and she pretends not to be afraid.
We're all very good actors.
Neither had known I was there watching. That or he simply had not cared in his lunacy. I watched like a common voyeur from a short distance, the large, glass doors on the third story bedroom allowing me to see all; the white slip that Wisteria had worn on her way there, that she was still wearing as she fell asleep on his bed; the way the house didn't seem so deceased anymore, even though it looked very much the same; the way that Senor Steel finally didn't collapse on the floor from pacing for so long, or weep until his vocal chords tore.
He lit a candle and held it near her hair. "Wisteria," I saw his lips move, like the slight swaying of gardenia petals in a breeze. The woman hardly responded as she opened her eyes to regard him, still washed with sleep, chained to a world that was in between consciousness and reality. However the color of Wisteria's eyes, even when diluted, ripped whatever thoughts that weren't of her out by the roots, torrential hurricane winds of color spouting, and, eventually, leaving him behind in his own obsession.
"Would you believe me if I said that they grew for you?"
She blinked once, twice, sitting up as she shook the last bit of lackadaisical nonsense from her body, though her face was none but puzzled. He continued anyway.
"They aren't mine, Wisteria. They're yours. I simply care for them, but they are not mine."
The black haired dame finally understood what he was saying. "The roses…" she breathed, "How long have they been here?"
"Since before I could remember…" just a susurration now, I could feel it – "They have stayed asleep, waiting, needing you just as I do, and now that you're here, they can grow –" almost silently – "Don't shut them back into the cold that they've endured for so long. Stay with me."
I thought I saw a sheen of water form across her gaze, because his hand was so quickly upon her cheek that he could have slapped her, unable bare the cross of her sadness. When she did not flinch, I realized that I should have known better. He wouldn't hit her. He'd never harm this woman. As he'd tell me later on, she was the only creature in this world that allowed him anything, to even breathe. Sound familiar?
I had to squint to read his lips now. Senor Steel was speaking so softly that the words must have fallen as only a murmur. Something about… Artisans? No, that couldn't be right. I'll kill the person who claims that this is easy work. Perhaps he wasn't speaking of anything in particular, just the babbles of a lunatic that Wisteria somehow found endearing. That voice was fluid. I felt it. It hummed around my skin like something alive and aspersed my every wit with a strange sort of melancholy. Have you ever been to a funeral of someone you didn't know? So even though he may have very well been mad and speaking in an entirely different tongue, I could believe she was mesmerized by just the sounds alone, hovering in the air like the shed feathers of seraphim. Even my medical lack of hearing couldn't completely protect me from becoming entranced.
Now the air cringes, shakes, sweats. I feel dizzy because of her next act. I struggle to remember, not because of irrelevance, but because I'd never quite felt like my world had shifted gears in such a rough gesture. Shivering, shaking, sweating... She...
She took his face in her hands – those delicate, fragile fingers – and placed a kiss upon his forehead. The brush of satin and love. Up until that point, I don't think I'd seen anything so touching, so unbelievably sad, like a quarantined child spilling it's final tears onto a helpless mother's breast. Senor Steele lifted his gaze to hers, they locked, then the world was struck with an awkward silence that caused my insides to shudder. If she left, she would kill him.
And she did.
December stung my ears with cold and I walked down the pathway towards the road, feeling only partially real. The rest of me was lost in that one moment of contact, probably the only sentiment that poor creature, for he did not seem human, had ever felt in his life. Wisteria was a beautiful statue of a girl, with her deep blue eyes and long, midnight tresses. She could have had anyone she'd wanted and she chose him, a wraith who kept himself locked in doors or tending to his roses. Her roses, rather. What did he mean by that?
I had not noticed that a small, red bloom was poking out of the snow, it's leaves showered in frozen water but still very much alive.
By the time a week had passed, Senor Steele had completely lost his mind.
Solitude does that to you. Miles and miles of nothing. His house, dilapidated and crumbling in the bitter temperature, had rods of ice drooping off it's balconies in vast, sweeping floods, like eyelashes weighed down from cosmetics. I returned and I looked at the doorstep – the one that no one ever crossed, the place where he always knelt and pressed his fingers to try to feel the remnance of her warm footsteps – and I saw perfect hand prints melted into the ice. How long had he searched for the ember that no longer burned like the North Star, that never really existed in the first place except for in the burrows of his mind?
"Senor Steel?" I called his name as I shoved the door open. Petals scattered the floor boards of his living room, an oasis of antiques and sophistication in a fast paced, modern world. They were wilted, purple; I took note of that, but hardly thought anything obscure had happened. All flowers die once you tear them apart. Why that hadn't struck me as odd is still a mystery. Maybe I'd known that she'd already left.
"Bring her to me…" I heard that voice again, somewhere deep inside of my core. Whispering; beckoning; with desperation was so loud that I had the urge to cover my ears anyway, and I've been deaf since I was seven years old. "Bring her to me…"
I followed these unsettling shudders of my body like flares of intuition lead crime psychics to a body - not much difference. When I found him, he was collapsed on the tearoom floor, surrounded in a circle of petals and hair. Encompassed by it. He'd chopped off locks of the ebony silk at random, casting each strand carelessly to the side. What was left was a disheveled mane, reaching past his shoulders in some parts, almost cut to the scalp in others.
"Senor Steel!" I gasped. He did not turn, yet I knew the hollows of his eyes were filled with salt water and shadows, the sent of sadness suffocating me in this dungeon of emotion like something I'd never felt until then; crushing, insatiable grief.
"Bring her back to me…" I heard him whisper as he looked up. A mad man. When was the last time he'd eaten? "Bring her back. The roses…"
"Stop it! Stop it!" I found myself suddenly yelling, my tongue clumsy from lack of hearing. "The roses are not her, they are not hers either, she never belonged to you!"
I expected him to lash out and tear my face off for making the mistake of provoking a lunatic, but he didn't. The stone cold silence seeped in again. Then nothingness. Then out of nowhere, realization as brilliant, beaming and tumultuous as burning wreckage.
"They won't die with me," I heard him say – no, not heard. Felt. I felt the sound. "They are hers. They will live on with her. I mean nothing."
"The roses, they're…"
"Alive and well, yes."
"So Wisteria must be…"
"Also alive and…" he struggled with the last word, as if it pained him, "- well."
"How can this be? They're just flowers, they aren't her!"
"But they are."
I was growing both annoyed and fascinated by our exchange. I might as well speak to a machine, one where you can predict each and every answer as fluidly as the next, because it's preprogrammed to retrieve the same data for each combination of nouns and verbs. Stupid, insufferable git of a –
"I had realized this when spring came, the hour, I remember – I think I do…"
I stopped my internal flood of insults.
"… Spring mornings are unusually bright in the cupola, I could see the expanses of my estate – the nonexistence of fecund soil, the birds, the sheer bleakness of everything that was. I had been bleeding. Thorns, you see," he turned his palm towards me and allowed me to see the small, white print of a scar on his forefinger, opera gloves also torn. "Everyone's soul, captured. Gone. Dead. If I could preserve her she could be mine forever."
"What on earth are you talking about?!" I had no idea what I was hearing – or feeling, ugh! - What was he trying to convey? I was so desperately scrambling for a pattern in his ramblings, some words too incoherent for me to read, the others nonsensical. Flowers had nothing to do with people, the way insects had no interest in classroom lessons unless it was to vex the students. And Wisteria had nothing to do with him, the way the sun never truly touches the shore."Upstairs and you'll see." He fell over, dazed, expressionless and wistful at the same time. Upstairs, upstairs, upstairs. Words that spun in endless rehearsal, dancing with death, blood loss, and – a thread of hope? It was more like a lifeline for the feral, splayed creature on the tea room floor. "… Spring mornings are unusually bright in the cupola…."
Feelings of exasperation. Panic. A rush to make things right but knowing that nothing would ever be the same. I dashed up the stairs to the place he'd indicated, the chamber of brightness that he'd promised, not quite knowing what I'd find. Something hidden. Dear God. A body, a key, a secret passage, stolen jewels, paintings....
Far worse than that.
The door sprang open. The air was pungent. Hold your breath and count to ten, loose count, begin again. One, two, three....
A million sensations struck my face like bullets, individual pieces, and I wonder if I'd been blasted with lead. My eyes watered. Imagine being caught in a sandstorm, so many shards hitting your body at once that you need to hide, to dig a hole in a sand dune, to dive under the water and hold your breath as your mind scrambles:
Four, five, six....
I'm sure it's not lead now. Ultra violet and a romance for the extreme. Four, five, six, or was it eight, nine, ten? Begin again. Breathe, loose count, so many petals, unusually bright in the cupola, and I'm falling down the stairs. Alice fell down the rabbit hole once. Found a little white creature at the bottom. I wondered what I'd find. Paper. There's paper landing on top of me. His hand writing was pretty, and the ergot smelled nice --
Ergot. The word itself makes you shoot to attention.
My world grew more twisted and surreal than the one of Vincent Van Gough's skies, petals falling through the doorway, landing on my young, childish body. They were crinkled, old, like pieces of parchment. I assumed that he'd tried to take advantage of the cupola's light to grow plants up there, but I knew better than that. His eyes wreaked of bereavement, his beautiful skin a mask for a grotesquely sharp face. He was so absorbed in lunacy where I sometimes wondered if even the world he lived in was shaped and molded without people.
I grabbed at the papers, stood up, and shook the carcasses of blooms off my feet. The stench was like old pipe tobacco and twelve centuries worth of perfume... I assumed that this is what Cinderella's ball must have radiated of, so very pungent that your eyes leaked out of your head. Like egg white. Spoiled egg white... What is wrong with me?
I'll tell you.
All of the herbs that Senor Steel kept up there were not harmless. Some were - lilies, petunias, sage - but some could make even the strongest of souls shrivel and weep in a plea for mercy, and melt the mind into nothing more than cannon fodder for strange hallucinogen skirmishes.
See? Who in their right mind would think of it that way? I'm fortunate that I only faced a few residual effects: a couple of strange outlooks, a little depression - nothing major. Senor Steel and his beloved were not nearly as lucky as I.
So they fell into a world of insanity so deep, even a shrink could not awaken them. Or ergot; the sound of those dreadful syllables. I slammed the door closed, the final breath of the door crack stirring the petals at my feet, clutching the parchment in my hands....
Let's see what Senor Steel had written. I like the curves of his "S"'s. Very unique. Like poetry. Silk, eSSence, SuSSeration.
Notes on genetics. Genus'. Flowers. I seemed to remember my older sister (SiSSSSSter, "s") scribbling similar words in spiral bound notebooks to turn into her teachers, ramblings of homozygous what nots and things too complicated for me to understand at the time. At 7 years old, what could I know of the topic? Mother had green eyes, so I did too. Father had blonde hair, so guess who followed? That was it. Kids take after their parents. Bingo.
.... Yet his obsession was becoming a poison.
He was laughing hysterically by the time I returned downstairs.
"You fool! Do you realize what you've done?"
My fingers shook and my mind ran circles around itself, tumbling from the cupola and hitting every shingle on the way down. "I am the fool? Don't you understand that you're killing yourself?!"
He laughed. How bitter it was. I'm surprised his lips didn't pucker. "Killing myself? My dear, she is gone. She is all gone."
"You will not find her."
I am a liar. From the moment he looked into my eyes, dripping with sorrow, the snow reflecting his face onto every pane, I knew that he'd see her again.
I would be the one to bring her there.
I did not think this would be his downfall. Did not think, for one moment, that this girl could have had this much power over him - but I was naive, see. I was a child. Even then, I knew that what I had done, granting the requests of a lunatic after so much time had passed, was a mistake.
I brought her to his doorstep all the same.
Wisteria was a small, delicate young woman, made from the shards of everything he thought he'd forgotten. Maybe at one point there was light in her eyes, but not anymore. This was the last time I'd ever seen her face glow with anything but distaste, giving winter a new chill -- the last time I'd see her at all, in fact. I watched her push the door open, giving way with the lightest of touches, as if the wood had been expecting her.
The living room was empty.
So was the kitchen.
Then as our footsteps carried onward, the soft, nostalgic hum of dulcet vocals chords brought us to the tea room, where all of the colors were faded and dead. Furniture that had lost it's hue, reds bleached to pink. Floors that had given up so much of their warm brown, frozen over with petulance, that gray overtook them. In the center of this menagerie, clutching his head with impossibly long fingers, sat Senor Steel, chops of black slithering in and out of his grasp.
"Your guest..." I presented, not having to hear my voice to know it carried scorn, but what did he care? I saw his gaze brim with sparkling felicity as she drifted into the room without a sound, more fitting than not, tying the furniture and the carpet and the pain together.
"Wisteria..." He whispered, and she dropped to her knees, condemning herself to the same level, gaping into his eyes. "You came. At last. I made something for you..."
She silenced him with the touch of her finger, pressing into the faint outline of his lips, as pale and suant as a wedding dress. "Why?"
He had never asked this question to himself before. The answer was always beyond words. "Why?... So many things, but please, don't delay..." He gathered her small, bird-like hands in his own, rivers slashing the surface of his skin like a map of Canada. "Spring mornings..."
The words flew from me. "Are unusually bright..."
But Wisteria finished the sentence, cutting us all into ice sculptures, the shock of spring just too much to bear. "... In the cupola."
He gripped Wisteria tighter, winding up the frigid stairway, breath condensing around him in a fog of false hope.
I prayed with every footfall that I was wrong. My nose must have misread something. Perhaps we weren't walking right into a box filled with poisonous fumes, eyes watering in agony. Yet Senor Steel did not flinch... He must have been immersed for far too long, tumbling into an insanity without end.
Wisteria didn't react either.
"They're a cross breed...." He murmured, his voice as subtle as black ice. "Roses, a classic symbol of adoration and beauty. And Wisteria, of course, for you..." He stroked a bud in his fingers, a single, claret frill in a group of many. The two types of flowers commonly grow together, my mother told me this, when her gardens did not lie in a death-like sleep. Entwining with one another but never becoming one. Meeting, caressing, and living in the same cluster, but just like all lovers, never to completely merge.
I saw him turn to the window pane, the room filling with an unnatural brightness, his body highlighted in white. Before him, a landscape of snow sprawled from horizon to horizon, glistening like a field of diamonds, the few, jagged arms of trees stretching their bodies from the ground like charred limbs, escaping from a wintery hell.
Her breath caught in her throat. Everything has been on mute for me, but I hear the world - just not as you hear it, slowly interpreting new things in my own way. His fingers stretched towards her face, reaching out as if he'd lost his sight, finding his way in a world of darkness. Somehow, I think he knew this feeling. And somehow, I'd like to pretend that he didn't.
They kissed in the freezing cold, the cupola turning brighter than it ever had in Spring, outshining the glittering landscape, making them blind to all else.
"They're for you..." He whispered, a soft pattern of breath falling across her lips, warm and sweeping. "All of them. For so long I tried. If I could not have you, I could have them..." He cleared a strand of black hair from her face, dried petals crunching under their feet like moth wings. The first time he'd ever touched her skin, the satin of her lips, the warmth of her body... The first time he'd ever come closer than a fleeting, romantic fantasy.
She was his obsession.
I could tell by the way she inhaled, emotions colliding with the toxins of the room, that everything was too much. The fragrance of lonely years, dust, ergot.... The toxins released by plants, reaching through her system, in turn letting her reach out to him.
The main window was as large as their bodies, framing them, capturing the tragedy in ancient glass. Their hands linked together, and even if just for a moment, touched the face of something different, out of this world.
I saw her eyes drift. Her legs give out. Her breath exhaling gently into winter, sliding against the frames of the window, the hues of sepia, gray, and brown. Over the flowers that lie wilted and dead.
And down, down through the courtyard, where the Wisteria and Roses would bloom forever, dispersing against the concrete from four stories above.
Senor Steel could not react quick enough. The pestilent, horrible herbs had clouded his sense of reality, just as they had for so long. He saw her fall towards the window, overcome by the fumes, finally succumbing to the consequences of his devotion -- my own head was dizzy. Her knees buckled, pale, blue dress pooling towards the ground, hands hurtling towards the glass, slamming it with the weight of her body.
And tumbled from his grasp, raven hair spreading around her like wings, as if Wisteria could save her own life.
A scream tore from him as he watched everything he'd ever loved fall away, tearing from a place deeper than his lungs, right through his heart. Four stories up, glass spreading around her like snow. And her skin never looked so fragile, in those moments that she grew smaller, fading into the harsh decline of her own extinction.
I suppose she was a snow angel of sorts, but I know that Senor Steel must have seen her as so much more, even as she passed from this world and into the next. Had he not toiled for so long on these flowers, she would have never died. The toxin would have never filled her. She would still have been there, with him.
Behold: a heart broken man, betrayed by his own ardor.
"Do you still weep?" I ask, and the flowers are red. I remember that they were lavender once, filling his court yard with ageless mauve, making his skin a vampiric shade. Now they are damask, casting a look of soreness all over his body, as if his skin were as parched as the whites of his eyes. That alone should have answered my question.
I fought away a chill that bloomed from the inside out, finding that winter was somehow warmer than the middle of May. His hands wrought around themselves like an iron fence. "One day it will stop hurting so much."
How can I be so certain when he'd lived with no one else, even if it was just in a place he created in the back of his mind? The flowers climb across his home in hopes of entering, the final invasion, and I know that he'd never try to stop them, inhaling their sweet fragrance deeply. I try not to. I know what it does. He will deteriorate. I would have too, had I not tried to resist.
"You can cut them down, it's over now. She's gone."
He shook his head, biting his lip. "No, she is not. I could have never touched her to begin with, she could have never been mine, she never was...." He paused, looking towards me, slicing me to pieces with gray eyes. "Not here. But otherwise..."
I knew what he would say before he did, the exposure to those flowers allowing me a basic insight into his mind, but the judgment to think otherwise. He would not leave. He would not set that crossbreed alight, saving his own life, but annihilating the last shred of hers. The only place he'd truly found her was within a certain darkness, some where beyond this world...
And that's exactly where he was headed, spending his last breaths there, inhaling the sweet crux of her poison.
I turned from Senor Steel and closed the gate, listening as the hinges creaked closed, the words, "Spring mornings are unusually bright..." etched away by the harsh grating of metal, wafting from the courtyard.
... In the cupola
A/N: Sometimes I do variations on a theme. This story has it's similarities to "An Endless Winter," but there was something about the time period of winterthat gripped me and refused to let go. I had begun this story months before, and only recently decidedthat I would finish it, perhaps as an exercise for writing in 1st person... But it turned out as so much more than that to me.
Thank you for reading.