XVIII - The Moon
The Burning Rose
It happened overnight, one may say. She vanished on her eighteenth birthday to go out with some girl friends (was she telling the truth?), and, wham!, they found her lying unconscious, pale as her blouse, on the cold floor of a ladies' restroom, with a hypodermic needle sunken midway into the blue vein that surfaced on her lilywhite left elbow -- most of the liquid within that syringe had already entered her bloodstream and coursed all the way to her heart and head.
Now she lies still, prostrate on lilywhite covers, in the middle of a hedge of thorns of plastic and steel that pierce both her arms... Eyes so shut, the sparkle quenched and the pupils filling the irises within. Her chest is as white and still and cold as ice, the heartbeat within beginning to flatline. Not merely lolling. It even looks sinister.
"Put out the light, and then, put out the light."
An only child, a lonely child, a sheltered child; her face was the fairest, wit the sharpest, heart the most angelic... Shakespeare, bel canto, ballet, tai chi, the fingers of Ferenc Liszt on the ivories. Everyone, no matter their gender, age, or rank, who set eyes on her, fell in love at first sight; yet she remained innocent and unprepared for her coming of age.
Here she must doze and doze, and never quicken from repose, till they bring her a flower of Burning Rose!
The Burning Rose... one of the few memories she had of her childhood, the story her mum always told... Within the cloud above the sleeper's head, that covered the sleeper's crown --coloured with the red skies of dawn-- from the heat, was a dream, and in that dream grew the garden of Burning Roses, whose fire is unquenchable, and which the plucking of no man's hand can achieve. The nimbus cloud hung motionless between earth and sky like a great opal, like the one on mum's ring, if not like the UFOs in that sci-fi film which Aster and she had loved so much. Through the outer coverings of this mist, one could see balls of fire, and these were the Burning Roses.
"If I quench this flame... where should I find a way to light it?"
The dream was sweet, and it made him laugh and mutter in his sleep:
'O Rose,' he said, 'O sweet Rose, what end is there of thy sweetness? How innumerable is the dance of the Roses of my Rose garden!'Sweethearts, the two of them? At least that's what they say, what she denies. The stripling bedridden in his own hedge of thorns to her right, like a funeral pall of bride and groom nipped in the bud, doesn't say a word either at first. It's not by chance that Aster and Thornrose were both rushed to the emergency ward at the same time. For a decade and a half, these two had been the best of friends.
As the sun set, as he hurried to Thornrose's place to give her a simple box of chocolates for her birthday, and to explain to all of them what was wrong and what was right, and that both of them merely loved one another as friends or siblings... but, sadly, he could not. He could not foresee the heavy push on his back as the tram train charged against his prostrate form, struggling to get up. The box of chocolates fared far worse than the lad who carried it.
Aster is still, strangely pale, his spine broken, shards of backbone having torn the silver cord within. His breathing is shallow and painful, the piercing ends of ribs stabbing into his left lung. Still, life lingers within, young and strong and full of hope.
Neither he nor his childhood friend know that they are next to one another. Their adjacent pinky fingers tied together by the red string of fate, a tether unseen, yet as hard as steel, braving the hedge of thorns.
When should they awaken?
For they are close to one another at least within the dreamscape as well.
The crown of his head kissing the dawning twilight, the tips of his heels grazing the evening twilight, and over his midriff shone the midday sun... and, fitted upon that bruised head like somewhere in between a hat and a bandage, that ominous cloud hanging motionless like an opal or a great UFO worlds above earth. Casting a friendly shade upon the sleeper, who casts a friendly shade upon her.
Thornrose is not feeling weary at all, she is perfectly serene.
She gazes up into the cloud... space aliens? Through the outer covering, she sees mists, thick as those of London or Lützen, veiling what seem to be balls of fire: within lies the garden of the Burning Rose.
The vorpal blade flung across her back quivers at least slightly.
Though broken sometimes by coughs of blood, the dream was sweet, and it made him laugh and mutter in his sleep:
'O Rose,' he said, 'O sweet Rose, what end is there of thy sweetness? How innumerable is the dance of the Roses of my Rose garden!'Nimble as a free cat, gritting the pommel of her vorpal rapier between her teeth like she's seen so many times on screen, she takes a leap of faith up towards Aster's outer throat. It surprises her that she can leap as high and will surely land as deftly as any magical girl warrior of those she has always loved. The vocal folds vibrate with those words, "Rose garden," as she nails the landing.
The Larynx was known as the Philosophers' Walk. The river of Trachea divided it between the False Cord Quarters (ventricular ligament) on the left bank and the True Cord (vocal lig.) on the sophisticated right. Lush heavy shades of scarlet and pre-carious rebounding high-wire steps that created melodious echoes graced its sides. Here the light was a prickling glare.
On the True Cord bank, the sinuous laryngeal floor undulated in tympanitic waves that one found surprisingly arousing.She sticks, actually, to the right bank, following the right carotid artery as she feels the underground riverbed beneath lilywhite silk throbbing restlessly, at an erratic pace. Oh, if it were steady, she thinks, girding the blade to her right thigh. It feels like fording the Styx, the first rite of passage in the afterlife. But she's as broke as Orpheus... Still, there's no Charon or Urshanabi in sight, and, if there is one, he must dwell beneath the surface. What's it like there? she wonders, the hot Thermidor sun beating down upon her weary limbs as she hastens ahead.
The Realm of Hades... how many times had she fantasized that the underworld was actually the system of its ruler, who had for instance gulped down Persephone and kept her within? That chortle of her only true friend's when she exponded the theory for the first time. The way he choked and coughed after that chortle; to her left, Aster's laryngeal prominence rises like that island in the Seine where Nôtre Dame is... but the memory is only transient, very transient.
Thornrose actually looks ahead, up north; the shade of the Ymir-sized stripling's chin cast half-way down his outer throat. What could have been a lantern jaw within three or four years, and now was rife with cherry-red stitching threads criss-crossing the downy peach-fuzz, in which a few hardy dark blond strands had begun to peek. It all looms like the massive façade of an overlord's fortress, or the prow of his most relevant starship, as if Aster's head were the keep that had to be stormed by this one-maiden army. That erratic throbbing soon is a memory, as she has left the artery behind and prepares for the ascent up the stitching, to his right whiskers. Vorpal sword clenched in her mouth as usual.
In her waking life, she had never been fond of heights, always freezing up a ladder or a climbing gym like a fraidy kitten... but now it feels surprisingly light. Clinging to a few ropes of titian hair with split ends, like a pocket-sized prince up a tower, Thornrose begins the trickier part of the ascent. It's just merely slightly trickier, at least. Still it feels like an endless climb, until she finds herself snugly sitting in the hollow of his right ear; below her, the empty piercing hole that had been her last point of support.
Peering into the dark tunnel ahead, a passage to her as high as a railway tunnel, Thornrose buckles up her sword once more as she decides to advance a little more, a little deeper, where it's dark and foreboding... the sticky wax squishing beneath her feet, but it barely makes her wince. After making only half-way through, she clears her throat and begins to sing, the opening theme of one of those shows they had always watched together. Chaa-la, hecchala... and everything begins to shudder around her: he has heard her in his sleep, and is obviously reacting. The wax, fortunately, anchors her well to the ground. Chaa-la, hecchala... and the sweet singing mixes itself with the sweetness of the Rose in the brain, and he mutters to himself, saying: 'O bee, O sweet bee, O bee in my brain, what nectar wilt thou fetch for me out of the Roses of my Rose-garden?'
Thornrose can hear his self-talk, or whispered thoughts, out loud. When that opening theme is over, she begins to hum that of Doctor Who, followed by the Sailor Stars theme. Makenai! Ashitae, SAILOR YELL! More and more, she sweetens herself until her host passes her into his brain, and into the heart of the dream, even into the garden of the Burning Rose.
It's all a blur of dazzling light and tangles of nerves and throbbing, just like in that spacetime travel sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as if she were clutching a portkey. Far down below the folds of the cloud. 'When I have stolen the Rose, I may need swift heels for my flight.'
The broomstick glides, fast as lightning, in between her thighs as she makes the wish, making Thornrose gasp in amazement as the cruise breaks the barrier of light. Yes, she is a magical girl warrior. In this realm, she is no one's fool.
It came, cleaving the encirclement of clouds like a silver gleam of moonlight, and for a moment, where they parted, Thornrose saw a rift of blue sky, and the light of the outer world clear through their midst.
Right then, perchance enticed by the stabbing headache through his right temple that he feels the whizzing of the broomstick as, Aster turns uneasily in his sleep, and the garden of the Burning Rose rocks to its foundations as the edge of things real pierce into it.
'While I stay here there is danger. Surely I must make haste to possess myself of the Rose and to escape!'
All round is a garden set thick with rose-trees in myriads of blossom, rose behind rose as far as the eye can reach, and the fragrance of them lies like a heavy curtain of sleep upon the senses, so our shero is already beginning to feel drowsy, staggering as if intoxicated through a Cretan labyrinth of rose-bush hedges. Every now and then, a statue. The one at the entrance is Aster himself as a child, so supple that one cannot tell if it's a boy or a girl, in a jester's hat and a gender-fluid oversized Pink Floyd shirt, the first school knapsack, a Yoda-shaped plushie, strapped on narrow shoulders. On the pedestal, it is written THE FOOL.
Gradually overpowered by the intoxicating fragrance of the Burning Roses, her once bold strides turned to heavy steps, she arrives at a fork in the maze; a sculptoric group of Aster and Étienne both half-naked, kissing, locked in an embrace, presides the bifurcation. On the right, to which her friend, her host, her dreamer has his back turned, the roses burn brightly, even crackling, their scent far more reminiscent of gunsmoke. On the left, whereunto his significant other is leaning, there are but small buds with a sweet floral fragrance. Through the fire-coloured haze, Thornrose reads THE LOVERS upon the pedestal. After all, we are all free to love whom we please, some like it hot and some like it cold. Surely, Étienne would be worried about Aster's state right now. It's all right that he's queer and I'm straight: I want him to be happy, and I'm sure he feels the same about me. She thinks these words as her head turns slowly to the left, away from the overpowering heat on the right. Just like in Doctor Who. Turn left. She does so almost by reflex, out of what seems to be more of a whim than a thought.
Soon Thornrose finds herself on a small Japanese-style bridge by a fountain --amazing to find water in this fiery dream, isn't it?--, surrounded by wooden centaurs who feast upon marshmallow pies in the open plaza, or rotunda, at the centre (or is it?) of the rose-maze.
"As my childish straight lines were forced into curves, my mind began to writhe; it was as if some unseen hand was nudging me, magicking me into a shape that was not my own. Poisonous feelings rushed through me with no warning. Greed, when there was nothing I lacked. Anger, when I had nothing to resent. Despair, when I was the luckiest girl in the world.
Come here, said my mother, I'll tell you a story instead. She bent down and took me on her lap, though my feet almost touched the floor. The only stories were family stories, and they were all the one story. As my mother told it, I could see it unfolding like a dusty tapestry, silted up with memory. How my grandmother had deep blue eyes and married a researcher and had an only child and lived happily ever after. How my mother married my father and had me. I liked to consider this long story and how it led all the way to me, as a path winds all the way up to a peak. It soothed me for a while; it made me feel that I was in the right place, the only place to be.
But the ennui of discontent had got into my veins somehow.
There's nothing out there you need to see , said my mother; it's a cruel world full of evil men..."
Here, her eyelids droop and her knees give way at last, but fortunately the splash (the cool, the liquid, the sound, everything) startles her back to consciousness.
For just before her is the fountain, in her own likeness. Not a Versaillesque jet d'eau, and neither one of those deer-scarers that go doink, but a damsel the size of Thornrose herself, with Thornrose's own features, and in her late teens as well... but stark naked, her figure eight and nipples and navel and mons of Venus not even censored with fig or maple leaves. She pours rosy rosewater with the ewer in her right hand back into the pond; with the one in her left, upon the thirsty ground, to water the bushes all around.
The source of keeping the dream alive.
As Thornrose approaches, she sees that her undressed likeness has kaleidoscope eyes of precious stones that refract the light of the flames into countless rainbows.
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes... didn't her mum lull her to sleep with a song about that?
But soon the heat dries up all the moisture that has soaked up her dress, and Thornrose, beginning to feel drowsy once more, stretches out a left hand in haste to the nearest flower, lest in a little while she should be no more than a part of the dream. "Starlight... Honeymoon... Therapy... Kiss!" she exclaims, crushing her fingers upon the stem.
The whole bough crackles and springs away at her touch, screaming and spouting fire; a noise like thunder or cannon fills all the air. Every rose in the garden turns and spits flame at where she stands. But her face and her hands are not blistered with the heat. Not even first-degree burns, like when she's red as a lobster thermidor from being too long in the sun in the middle of the day.
Straddling her broomstick, she has seized on a rose, and tugged, but the strong fibres held. Then, she locks herself to her mount with her legs, holding the scabbard of the vorpal blade sheathed at her right thigh and keeping the left hand locked around the thorny, red-hot stem, beseeching it to break free. And, giving but one plunge, the Rose comes away into Thornrose's hand, panting and a prisoner. All blushing it grows and radiant, with a soft inner glow, and an odour of incomparable sweetness. It seems to see a heart beating before her.
But is it her friend's heart... or her own?What matters is the quibble. No man could pick the Burning Rose, which meant that any maiden was free to pick it. Like Portia and Éowyn, subverting the binary of phallic ones and yonic zeroes.
But now there came a blast of fire from behind, like in one of those sell-out action films she has always sneered at! All is whirling and shaking before her eyes, just like in that spacetime travel sequence at the end of 2001 once more, even more so than when she entered the dream. Like... speeding desperately over earthquake and space and the storming of the Bastille and the exploding Death Star and Magdeburg and Gernika and Dark Side of the Moon and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite and the penguins at the Oceanogràfic and Qui-Gon falling off that height and the thrill of Étienne's first kiss immediately after that mutual confession... For the plucking of the Rose has awakened the sleeper from his sleep; and the dream has shrivelled and spun away in a whirl of flame-coloured vapours. Leaping into clear day out of the unravelment of its mists, launching over an edge of precipice for a downward dive into space.
This is not at all like the usual turbulence she has felt on a plane up north to Iceland or the British Isles.
Rumpled strawberry-blond hair, standing upright from his head in the fevered shock of his awakening, makes a forest ending in his forehead that bowers them to right and to left, at the end of the cape of Widow's Peak. Quitting it they slide ungovernably over the bulge of his brow, then at full spurt for the abyss.
Hi-ho, Silver! Thornrose shouts right before humming the William Tell Overture that will accompany her as the soundtrack of the whole plunge, her own platinum braided hair, cut short, fluttering like a halo around her lovely heart-shaped face. Dextrously the broomstick has steered its descent, catching on the bridge and furrowing the ridge of the fine aquiline nose; nine leagues are the duration of a second.
Thinking some venomous parasite was injuring his flesh, even though the sickbed was fully sterilised, the stripling had just aimed, and a moment too late had thumped his fist upon the place. But already the rider skirting the amazed opening of his mouth (which would sure have sucked a stunned Thornrose down that slippery throat and deep into the dark, pulsating Realm of Hades) has intrenched herself behind the holdfast of the laryngeal prominence. Thence, as it escaped the rummaging of his fingers, it had flown scouring his chest, in between his nipples (as the heart within pounded steadily underneath at last!), and inflicted a flying scratch over the regions of his abdomen, right above the navel. Then, still believing it to be the triumphal procession of a non-existent space flea, he had pursued it to his thigh, and mistaking the shadow for the substance allowed it yet again to escape. After all, he is paralysed from the waist downwards, and the shock of not feeling his feet (or anything between his feet and his waist) is what now overtakes all of his consciousness.
But, preserved whole and alive, she speeds fast and far, bearing the Burning Rose to the heart of her own lifeless form, through the hedge of thorns of plastic and syringes, after having run the gauntlet of Aster's chakras and before heading towards her own frozen bosom.
'I knew what fortune was with you; for when you plucked off the Rose, and bore it out of the heart of the dream, the scent of it filled the world; and I felt the sweetness of youth once more in my blood.' Was it Thornrose's mum or dad who said that? It were both. And Étienne, across the hedge of needles, held Aster by the wrist in a reassuring gesture.
And there lies her own form, in eerie peace, as the astral Thornrose lays the rose in the middle of her own physical chest, in between both little lemons, that her heart might be won back into the world. Then, as the calyx finally rests where the movement of the heart should be; and presently under the white bosom rises the music of its beating, and the cold stillness within turns warm and steady, a series of regular zig-zags disrupting the flatline.
'Ah!' someone sheds tears of happiness, 'now her heart that loved me is come back, and I can listen all day to the sound of it! You have brought love... to her..."
It's not mum or dad or Aster or Étienne, but a deeper yet youthful heroic tenor voice.
Owen, tall dark and ominous Owen, the only one who found love with her because she saw for who he was (and not what he was), whom she had become attached to against her parents' wishes?
The same Owen who didn't know Aster's little secret and who had assumed that the two young blonds were something more than lovers? The same Owen who had more recently slapped her in the face, and made her acquainted with Mr. Wright-Hooke and Mr. Upper-Kutt in such a painful fashion, taking her breath away... only because she had lost the handmade bracelet he had given her, and Aster was wearing that same bracelet?
"She warmed and ripened in his embrace, opening upon him the light of her periwinkle eyes; and the greatness and beauty of the reward abashed him and bore him down to earth."
Right before he asked for forgiveness upon being startled by her awakening. Racked until then with storms of guilt and anxiety.
The damsel saw nothing but her lover's face and the happy feasting of his eyes. She bent her head nearer and nearer to his, and the story of what she had done, fending for herself, became a dream that she remembered, and that waking made true.
And then everything was finished, for she had kissed Owen!
(The same, actually, happened simultaneously to a hazel-eyed Aster with Étienne in the bed beside!)
And her parents dried up their tears before they took their leave, and Étienne pushed the wheelchair with Aster sitting in it a little closer to the straight lovebirds (because time stood still for the lovers as the world shifted around them for twenty minutes or half an hour), and then Étienne and Aster themselves exchanged a little peck...
"...and over the walls of their palace, where they had planted it, grew the flower of the Burning Rose." She shuts the storybook, having finally recovered and returned to class herself, having read the tale to her friend in rehab (he's still getting used to living in a wheelchair, but perfectly fine with that, and determined to give his all). A warm smile on her face and the recent events having faded like a painful dream: only Aster's disability betrays the fact that it has been reality.
Waving goodbye as Étienne enters the sickroom to visit and encourage his chouchou, she places the storybook in Aster's lap, for him to dwell upon those feelings during rehab; the illustration of a bush of Burning Roses on the cover glittering with the same kaleidoscope gleam in her periwinkle eyes.
Othello mashed up with the Burning Rose in The Bound Princess; basically, Aster is Cassio/the prince and Thornrose is Desdemona/Aurora. Aster is also the dreamer whose dream contains the Burning Rose. Also, it gets a bit esoteric... with a Tarot-themed labyrinth (absent from Housman's tale) and all that. But what matters is that she is a shero... the sleeping beauty saves herself, wakes herself up, she even takes up a vorpal sword, rides a broomstick straddling it, and exploits a quibble in true Portia or Éowyn style ("subverting the binary of phallic ones and yonic zeroes!"). The phallic poison needle (once a spinning spindle) becomes the sword, the means to lull herself to sleep the key to set herself free. One needs to lose oneself to find oneself, at the end of the day. Now the original Sleeping Beauty message is about an only child overprotected by her parents, and that children should be allowed to grow up and take risks. I know what all of this means from personal experience (except illegal drugs)... so I hope you have enjoyed this queered and feminist retelling!