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Trading the Roses
If you had asked me how I felt about him on the day it happened, I would have told you that I utterly hated him. I would have said that I hated him without any remorse or guilt in my role in the unfortunate tale. But as I sit here, staring up at the castle that is now brilliantly lit, I feel content, peaceful about the way things panned out, just as I had planned a little over a year ago. Funny how such a short time can be packed with so many life-changing events.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My mother took the first ticket out that she could, which was apparently the day of my birth. She had come to realize that the man she had fallen in love with at the tender and worldly age of 18 was not the barely recognizable being she was married to. I don’t think I blame her for getting sick when I was less than a day old, but I do regret that she never got to see me shine, follow in her own steps, against my father’s better judgment, if he had any.
As a small girl, I was never afraid of being popular. I was popular because I had inherited physical attractiveness from both of my parents, which my older brother had inherited as well, a coy demeanor from Father and a gentle spirit from Mother. In fact, I was so much like my mother in temperament, visage, and talents that Father could hardly stand to see me. My father grew cold and callous and constantly berated any spot of imperfection that crossed his view, as my brother told me. These failures included, but were not limited to, any freckles that happened to flourish from an afternoon by the river, one auburn lock that didn’t contour to my heart-shaped face, one stitch out of place on an embroidered placemat. He would yell, rage and scream as though his voice had no end. He would lock me outside in the winter, sans coat and proper footwear. One day Father realized that he had the money to visit the pub in town more than once a month and took up a new habit: the rank liquid called whiskey. He would drink until his face turned red as roses, then come home and make mine purple and blue. Not once did he ever lay a finger on my brother and so my brother grew up taking my father’s example, placing his boots in the exact same prints my father had left behind him.
I never grew bitter; at least, I told myself I wasn’t bitter. My one companion throughout the entirety of my childhood was a boy named Derrick. Derrick was a sweet, shy boy, always bringing me the roses from the palatial grounds of his family’s home. Father was by no means poor, but Derrick and his clan made us look like church-mice. The difference in classes never seemed to touch us as we ran through the woods, playing pirates and gypsies.
Derrick never saw her coming, that vile woman who ripped out his heart and ground it as fine as flour. She had been a beautiful girl, almost more beautiful than I had been, that summer we turned 19, young and thinking we had the world in the palms of our outstretched hands. But in the end she did what fickle women do, and found someone she deemed ‘better’ than Derrick. He took it harshly and wouldn’t eat, or sleep, or see me for weeks. I grew tired of this very quickly. Town people got to see him storm through the square, snapping and snarling at anyone within his reach, but he wouldn’t see me. I may or may not have been to see that girl after she had left Derrick. No matter what really happened, she didn’t come back.
I took matters into my own slender-fingered hands, and marched to the great mansion that was his source of pride. Derrick’s parents had passed on when he was young also, another thread that we shared. He wouldn’t see me. Of the servants who worked for him, a vast majority of them had taken a fondness to me and I was able to actually get inside the house to seek him out myself. Determination rippled through me and I knew that I would not leave without getting a chance to speak to him.
He stalked around his dark room, a caged lion but with the keys in his own hands. Heartbreak was never an easy thing to handle, but by this time, it had been months since that vile woman had betrayed him. Derrick hardly seemed to notice my presence as I stood in the doorway, waiting for acknowledgement that I had never gotten from my father or brother. My fists clenched in a raw anger that I had not known I was capable of feeling. I cleared my throat to speak and his words engulfed mine:
“Get out! Get out before I have the guards escort you out.”
“Derrick, I do feel that that would be an unwise decision.” I found the ability to move and slowly walked around the gilt room, my fingers sliding over marble tables and golden treasures.
“I don’t want to see you anymore, Caroline. I thought I made that overly clear.”
“Of course you did, I just want to know the reason why. Wasn’t it I who comforted you after she hurt you so badly?” My voice was soothing, attempting to persuade him, another talent that I had apparently shared with Mother.
He stopped pacing in front of a mirror hanging on the wall and touched his cheek, more calm than when I had entered the room. “I’m beautiful, Caroline. Why couldn’t she see that? I am everything that she could have ever wanted and more. Why didn’t she love me?”
With those words, I could see it; see the end to this tale. He would be just like him, just like the male members of my household and I could not stand to see that happen again. I left without a word and went home, pulling my mother’s books from the shelves and scanning them for insight into the early dawn hours.
I slept in the attic the rest of the day, once I had found what I was looking for, trying to block the sounds of Father’s and brother’s drunken rambles out. I would need every ounce of strength for what I planned to do.
After my family had been served their dinner and I had been the recipient of a careless fist, I left, my dirty riding cloak around me and a small basket in my hand. I chose to walk to the mansion, letting the chilly winter night seep into my skin and curl around my bones. When I reached the outer gate, one touch was all it took to push through it. The dead rose bushes looked like bones poking through the snow. I reached my fingertips out and a beautiful deep crimson rose sprouted, catching snowflakes on its silky petals to look like slivers of diamonds. It was perfect and would make a wonderful gift for the man in the mansion.
I realized on my cold walk up to the massive oak doors that I was angry. I hated everything that he had become; the selfish, angry, narcissistic man that so clearly resembled my father. I hated him and took pity on any being who would attempt to show him kindness or caring. So I steeled myself, pulling my cloak tighter around me and gripping the basket with white-knuckled fists.
The form I had chosen for this adventure was old, bent nearly double with the weight of its age. Greasy gray hair dripped past my shoulders and I raised a gnarled hand to knock on the great wooden door.
I was shocked that his face shone before me when the door opened, letting out a flood of warmth and the smell of something delicious being served. He was the vengeful god, standing there, gazing at me with hatred that I mentally returned in full.
“What do you want, hag?”
My lips almost couldn’t form the words, so hurt and angry was I at hearing him speak to me so. “I ask only for a space to sleep away from the snow for the night, please?” I knew by the set of his lips what his answer would be and I was happy when he said it.
“I would never open my home to someone like you! You wretched old woman!”
“I will gladly trade you this,” I held up the rose, and it shone with the reflection of a whole cart-full of rubies. The garish light played on the strong planes of his face; his lips curled in revulsion at the face he was viewing, his brow furrowed at the thought of letting someone like me set one mud-stained clog in his decadent hall.
Derrick laughed scornfully and, without saying another word, slammed the door. I stood there on the top step, shaking with anxiety and rage. My arthritic right hand banged soundly on the wooden door one more time…
He had no time to react. A pale blue light flashed faster than a hummingbird beat its wings and I no longer wore the form of a hag. In fact, I was even more beautiful than I had been that morning: my deep auburn hair streaked with golden light, my green eyes flashing, my skin smooth as river rocks. Even my dress was more radiant than anything I had ever worn in life. This façade was imaginary but I reveled in every second of his astonished eyes.
The voice that spoke was not my own, it was rich and full and I knew that it was my mother’s, though the words were mine: “You have been changed, Derrick. You have become bitter, vain, and conceited. You care nothing for those around you. If you had taken this solitary rose and invited me in, you would have escaped a punishment far worse than you could imagine.” Terror brought him to his knees before me and I greatly enjoyed this.
“Please, please, spare me! Caroline, please! I’m begging you! I’m sorry!” His words were empty. I could hear them clanging against each other like two pennies.
“Because you care so much for your outward appearance and have so little regard for your inward, I curse you, Derrick. Until you can learn to love someone, not for what they look like, but for who they are and that person can return those feelings, you will be what you are, outward and inward.”
The light that shone from me washed over him and I watched him turn. Derrick’s features fell away and were replaced by something wild, something dark and gruesome. I left the mansion that night with his snarls ringing in my ears, not in the least bit remorseful for giving him what he had deserved.
Now that the year has almost passed, I wonder how things have happened. I saw a girl there the other day, but I did not stop to talk. In the spring I married a man who took me away from my father, who caresses my cheek and tells me I am beautiful. Maybe someday I will stop at the mansion and check on my old friend. Maybe, maybe not.