Featured Story • April 2014

design

 

Seedpaper

 

Rhonda Parrish

 

Photography by Rhonda Parrish

Illustration by Rhonda Parrish


 

Rosalie lived in a stone cottage at the edge of the woods. She had a little walled-in garden at the back of her house that was an immense source of mystery for the children of the nearby village, as was she. No one knew where she’d come from. Unlike everyone else, whose families had lived in the area since time immemorial, she had just shown up one day, asking about the little cottage, and then paying Old Mr. Boucher his asking price in cash.

She endeared herself to the villagers by hiring all the local craftsmen to furnish her new home. Carvers, the blacksmith, potters and weavers—she sought all their skills out and paid them very well.

She also arranged for an unusual contraption to be made for her. It was meant, she said, to help her create paper on which to record her stories because, when you got down to the marrow of it, she was a storyteller. She created her own paper, beautiful stuff that was strung through with coloured fibers and peppered with seeds and blossoms. She wrote on it, her hand as elaborate as the paper and reminiscent of medieval scribes. She would often sew the pages together, creating books that she lined up, spines out, along her mantle. Sometimes though, she’d bury them by moonlight in her garden—and what a garden it was!

It was a riotous place where squash shared space with tomatoes and daisies while morning glory threaded its way around everything and poppies painted random splashes of red among the greenery. Her vegetables were renowned in the towns nearby for their purity of flavor.

Being invited to dine at her home was an enviable privilege and the meal itself often compared to a religious experience. After dining with her the shopkeeper adjusted his scales to be more accurate and dear Mrs. Gagnon—who everyone knew to be an alcoholic—found the strength to give up the bottle.

One day Joseph, the blacksmith, was working in the forge attached to his house. The furnace had been put out, but the room had yet to let go of its heat, and sweat covered him like an extra layer between him and his clothes while he swept up and prepared to retire for the night.

“Mr. Roy,” Rosalie said. Her voice was as soft as dandelion fluff but still audible over the clink and clunk of his tools as he put them away.

“Ma’am,” he replied and tipped an imaginary hat in her direction.

“I was wondering if you’d like to join me for dinner tomorrow.”

“I—” the big man began, but was interrupted by his sons, Pierre and François, popping up like gophers from behind the half wall that divided the forge. There had been a fire last winter and he still hadn’t completed all the repairs. The boy’s impish faces, identical to any who didn’t know them, glowed with glee, and their flaxen curls bounced with each movement.

“Would we?” they cried in unison and then tumbled into the forge proper, flowing off one another in their excitement. Soon they arranged themselves, one on either side of their father. He looked down at them, and then ruffled their hair with his blackened hands. “Little scamps, what were you doing back there?”

“Playing spies!” Pierre answered.

François added, “We saw you scratch your—” and then, looking over at their visitor, he fell silent.

“I think,” the blacksmith said with a chuckle, “we would be honored to join you.”

The boys shouted their excitement.

“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Rosalie said, tucking a long strand of raven hair behind her ear and backing out the door into the purple twilight.

After she was gone, Joseph smacked the boys on their bottoms, “All right, go and tell Miss Marie we’ll be going out for dinner tomorrow and that I’ll be right in.”

Ever since the blacksmith’s wife had died, swept away by the river the spring before, Marie Leclerc had been taking care of the boys, the house and their meals. Joseph paid her as well as he could but everyone knew she did it for the children. She loved them as though they were her own, and they were the nearest she’d ever come to having any.

The next day Joseph finished his work early and scrubbed his hands as best he could though the valleys in the pads of his fingers and the palms of his hands were perpetually black. The boys were dressed in their Sunday best and Marie had washed them until they squeaked.

The blacksmith’s shop crouched at the edge of the village, so it was an easy walk to Rosalie’s. The boys burbled with excitement and kicked up grey dust on the road that clung to their trouser cuffs like lichen on a rock. Joseph, loathe to dampen their mood, didn’t try to restrain them.

Before they reached the cabin they could see Rosalie silhouetted in the doorway, clutching the fingers of one hand in the other. At the sight of her the boys picked up speed and, whooping and hollering, arrived at her home a tumble of limbs and curls. She welcomed the children in, and by the time Joseph arrived and doffed his cap, the boys were out in the back garden playing.

While Rosalie put the finishing touches on dinner, Joseph watched her. She moved in a way that suggested if he were to make a loud noise she’d jump out of her skin. She was an attractive woman with fine features and long black hair. She was young enough for it to be unlikely she was a widow, yet old enough it would be odd for her to not have been married. She glanced over at him and half-smiled. He blushed at being caught and turned to look casually around the cottage.

It was small, one room with a ladder up to a loft bedroom. The kitchen took up half of it, and its table dominated it. The remainder of the room was a sitting area with a fireplace on the west wall. Out the window overlooking the famous garden, the blacksmith could see the peaked roof of the outhouse to the left of the garden’s stone wall.

Returning his attention indoors, Joseph’s gaze fell on the long line of books spanning the mantle, and he let his breath out through his teeth. “Did you write these, Miss Rosalie?”

“I did,” she said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“There looks to be as many books here as there are families in the village.”

“Very near,” she said, laughing nervously.

“I never learned to read,” Joseph said, taking a place at the table and watching her move about the stove and counter. “Learned my numbers, but always knew I’d take the forge over from my pa, so learning to read seemed a path to pride.”

“My stories aren’t meant to be prideful,” she said. After a thoughtful pause she continued, “They are meant to enlighten. Sometimes all people need to change things, to make them better, is a little enlightenment.”

Joseph smiled and muttered in agreement. Then he leaned over to inhale the scent of the paper-like poppies which sat, in a milk bottle vase, in the middle of the table. In a blink, instead of seeing the flower’s red petals he was kneeling beside the river looking down at his wife. Her cornflower eyes, wide open beneath the water, stared up at him while the current played with her blonde hair, caressing it like a lover.

Then he was back in the cottage.

His heart raced like a deer in his chest and, fearful of what look might be on his face, his eyes jumped toward Rosalie. She’d left the stove and was at the garden door with her back to him calling the boys in for dinner. He ran a callused hand down his face, from his forehead to his chin, and then forged a smile out of his features. That was what he presented to Rosalie and the boys as they bounded into the cabin, filling it with their exuberance.

“I grow them in my garden,” Rosalie said, gesturing toward the flowers. “Poppies are one of my favorites. Their seeds are small enough that they are easy to work into the paper, and their colors are nice too. Those ones grew from a story.”

“They are pretty exceptional,” Joseph said.

“I don’t plant all my stories,” Rosalie said, moving about the kitchen and dishing up dinner while the boys took their places at the table. “Only the special ones.”

Pierre leaned over to smell the flowers and Joseph very nearly put a hand out to stop him but was saved the risk of looking foolish when Rosalie swooped in, picked up the vase and replaced it with a bread bowl.

“Aw, I wanted to smell,” Pierre whined.

Rosalie set the vase on her windowsill beside a bunch of daisies. Picking out one of the white flowers with butter-yellow centers she handed it to Pierre. Her fingers shook slightly and the movement was amplified in the petals of the bloom. “Smell that one, it’s even nicer.”

“Mmm,” he said, grinning. “It smells like Mama’s perfume.”

“Lemme smell!” François said, nudging his brother and thrusting his face toward the blossom. Inhaling deeply he slumped back into his chair with a smile. “Nah, it smells like her sugar pie.”

“Does not!”

“Does too!”

“You know,” Rosalie said, “some people say poppies and daisies don’t have a scent, but I think they smell different for everyone.”

The boys looked at one another and nodded as though that had been their position the entire time, and Joseph breathed a sigh of relief.

“And that’s why—” Rosalie continued, setting a bowl in front of each of the boys. Pierre’s slopped a little gravy onto the table which she quickly wiped up with the corner of her apron. “—we will each get a dinner a little different from everyone else’s. We’ll each have one vegetable no one else does. Pierre and François, you get celery in your stew, I will have broccoli, and your father can have carrots.”

The boys frowned down at their bowls while Rosalie dished out dinner for herself and Joseph, but she laughed. She set the blacksmith’s bowl before him and took a seat at his side with her own dinner, then said, “Trust me. You’ll like it.”

The boys’ doubts about dinner evaporated like dew in sunshine as they swallowed the first mouthful. Their gazes turned inward and as they took another spoonful to their lips François began to hum V’là l’bon vent.

They’d tucked into a barn-raising they could usually only recall as a collection of impressions. A hint of sawdust, an echo of a fiddle. Now, however, they were right there, reliving it as though it were happening for the first time. It was their first time out since the fire that had claimed half the forge and made the smoke which stole their sister’s breath and her life with it.

The air was heavy with the scent of fresh pine sawdust, and their mother, weeks away from her death, held François’s hand with her left and Pierre’s in her right. Holding onto each other, they formed a ring and skipped in wide circles along to the lively music, their heads thrown back in laughter. They whirled, faster and faster, until everyone else in the barn was a blur, leaving only the three of them, happy in a world of their own.

The blacksmith looked down at his stew. It looked and smelled fantastic. He could see potatoes, corn and carrots interspersed with generous chunks of lamb. Rosalie quietly said, “Eat up,” from her place by his elbow and she smiled at him, nervously it seemed. “It won’t bite you.”

He took a bite. It was fantastic. The gravy was thick, with just the right amount of spice, and the lamb flaked itself to bits at the pressure of his tongue against his teeth. He enjoyed another bite while Rosalie ate silently beside him. It wasn’t until his third spoonful, when he bit into the carrot, that his world tipped sideways.

Then, like a nightmare come to life, he was there. Reinhabiting his body but not controlling it, at the curve of the river halfway between his forge and Rosalie’s cottage. It was early spring and even earlier morning so the air was sharp enough to cut, as were his wife’s words.

“You set the fire? You can’t be serious,” he heard himself stammer and felt the familiar knot, like an anvil, wedge itself in his stomach.

“I didn’t mean to, it was an accident.”

Her tears had no effect on the molten emotions sweeping through him. The grief he’d struggled with after Bella’s death and the guilt he’d carried, certain his negligence had caused the fire, melted from him, making his limbs tremble. “I thought it was me. For weeks. I thought I’d killed her.”

She looked at her feet for a moment but then met his gaze and shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you, I was ashamed . . .”

All the anger and horror in his belly let go, like a spring attached to his arm. He felt his fist smash into her face. Her teeth scraped his knuckles and then her body fell backward and he heard the sound that haunted his dreams even now as her skull connected with a boulder, half-buried in the earth.

She didn’t move. She wasn’t breathing.

Tears coursed, unchecked, down his cheeks and each ragged breath he pulled into his lungs shook his body. “It was an accident,” he whispered, and the words clouded the air before him. “I can’t go to jail, the boys need me. It was an accident.”

Still muttering to himself, he scooped her up and laid her in the river. The water washed the blood from her hair as he held her beneath the surface, but it didn’t clean the accusations from her eyes.

Joseph choked on his dinner and tears coursed, like the creek, down his cheeks. Rosalie jumped to her feet, knocking her chair back and slapped him hard between his shoulder blades. Twice. Three times. Finally the food released its grip and he spat it into his hand and set it in his bowl where it remained, mangled and half-finished.

He’d relived the moments of his wife’s death over and over in the months since it happened, but never so vividly, never so painfully as now. His mind whirled, like rapids, sweeping him away with it. The scent of the poppies, the carrots, the planted stories. “You’re a witch,” he snapped at Rosalie who watched him, fear and sadness in her eyes.

The boys stared silently from across the table, eyes wide and jaws stilled.

“We’re going home,” Joseph said, and the boys knew better than to argue with his tone. Offering sheepish smiles to their hostess they followed their father to the door. They had just stepped out of it when Rosalie called, “Enlightenment can be a good thing. Depending on what you do with it.”

“Papa,” François ventured once they were almost home. “What’s wrong?”

“I choked is all,” he answered gruffly. “And it scared me. Men do stupid things when they’re scared.”

“We can apologise when we see her again?” Pierre proposed tentatively.

“Yes. When we see her again.”

Hours later, with the boys sleeping soundly in their beds, Joseph walked the road to Rosalie’s cottage for the third time that night. His steps were slow but determined. He had no choice. She’d enlightened him all right. She knew. She knew, so she must be stopped. The boys needed their father.

As he drew near he could see her through a window. She was at her table, head bent over a piece of paper, writing furiously. He opened her door, filling its mouth with his bulk. She looked up at him and swallowed audibly. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I do.” He answered. “I’m sorry, but I do. I can’t risk keeping you around. You or your cursed vegetables.”

She set her pen down and stepped slowly around the table, keeping it between the two of them. “You don’t have to do this,” she said again, her voice shaking. “Let me help you. You can explain—”

“How do you know?”

“I just . . . do. I get visions. I—you can explain. It was an accident—” tears spilled down her cheeks and clung to her eyelashes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

When it was done he ransacked the kitchen, gathered up all her vegetables and the remnants of the night’s stew, carried it out to the outhouse and tossed it down the hole. When he bent to pick up her body, his eyes fell on the paper upon the table. He squinted at it. Its words were messier than usual and written around and over bell pepper seeds, and though he couldn’t read what it said, he recognized his name.

He looked from the papers, their ink still wet, to the bound volumes on the fireplace. If he destroyed the books it would seem more likely Rosalie had gone of her own accord. Leaving them would be a giant arrow pointing to the fact something was wrong. He glanced at the fireplace, then shook his head. He couldn’t risk burning them. If he did, he’d have to stay there and make sure they were completely destroyed, and he didn’t have time to do that, dispense with Rosalie, and make it home before the boys woke.

Cursing, he gathered the books from the mantle, then grabbed the papers off the table and made one last trip to the outhouse. He fed the books, one by one, through the hole to join dinner, then tore up the pages from the table and let the pieces rain down from his fingertips into the darkness.

He carried Rosalie to the woods and left her for the wolves to find.

Her absence wasn’t noticed for a couple weeks. She’d never been overly social, so when she missed a church service folk raised their eyebrows but didn’t think much about it. It was only after the second time people became concerned enough to seek her out. They found the cottage empty, her beloved books missing. The weather had been exceptionally hot and without her hand to aid it, her garden had wilted, and everything that hadn’t died had gone to seed. Shaking their heads at the peculiarity of some people, the villagers went back to report that she’d obviously gone off somewhere as precipitously as she’d appeared in the first place.

Summer crept into autumn, and Marie and Nicole took to using the lonely cottage to meet. It was at the conclusion of one such tryst, that after kissing Nicole goodbye, Marie returned to the cottage to pass time. The two girls made a point of never leaving or arriving at the village at the same time. It was best the whispers about them remain speculative.

When nature beckoned with urgent fingers, Marie slipped out into the evening and headed in the direction of the outhouse. The heat was like a wall, even now as the sun neared the horizon, but need was need and she pressed forward, only to find, much to her surprise, a veritable jungle of plants around the outhouse. They climbed up the walls, tumbled over one another and stretched curious tendrils out to crawl along the ground. Flowers and vegetables wrestled and danced here as they’d once done throughout the whole of Rosalie’s garden. Marie had to work to open the door, but inside the outhouse was cool and dark, too dark for plants to grow and thus free of them. When she again emerged, however, she spent some time looking at the mangled foliage and tired blooms going to seed.

Her eye fell on an especially vibrant splash of green, and bending over she discovered a green pepper plant pressing itself up toward the sun, using the side of the privy for support. Three ripe peppers awaited harvest. She picked them, for surely Rosalie wouldn’t begrudge her the vegetables in her absence. Joseph had been withdrawn lately, but green peppers were one of his favorites. They would be the perfect addition to the chili she planned to take to the church’s potluck dinner this Sunday. Maybe, she thought as she made her way back toward town, vegetables in hand, that would help cheer him up.

 
 

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Rhonda ParrishRhonda Parrish is driven by a desire to do All The Things. She has been the publisher and editor-in-chief of Niteblade Magazine for over five years now (which is like 25 years in Internet time) and is the editor of the forthcoming World Weaver Press anthology, Fae.

In addition, Rhonda is a writer whose work has been included or is forthcoming in dozens of publications, including Tesseracts 17: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast and Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing.

Her website, updated weekly, is at http://www.rhondaparrish.com.

About “Seedpaper” she says, “My friend gave me a lovely notebook as a souvenir of her trip to India. The paper was handmade and had seeds, flowers and threads embedded in it. Looking at it I wondered what kind of magic you could work by writing a story on those seedpaper pages and then planting them. And so ‘Seedpaper’ was inspired, and I wrote the first draft in that notebook. Perhaps now I ought to plant the pages and see what happens.”

 

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