Last time she was here there had been roses – bushes and bushes of them! Late summer it had been then, and heat hung heavy in the sticky air, but not as heavy as the perfume of the flowers. She had smelled them before she had seen them, and literally followed her nose to the source. He had come behind her, laughing at her enthusiasm, and they had stood there, almost drunk with sweetness, and while the bees buzzed hypnotically, he had asked her to marry him. He had turned and picked a blood red rose and placed it in her hand. In the excitement of the moment she didn’t notice that the thorn had caught on her finger, beading blood that almost matched the flower.
But now she remembered, and winced. There were no roses here, and the bitter sky promised sleet to come. Their sunshine had lasted such a short time before war had over-clouded it. He had done the decent thing, the expected thing, and signed up, because he was the kind of man who would always try to do what he believed to be decent and expected. Her tears were useless against the massive, ponderous weight of his good intentions. And as she waved him goodbye – so short a time a wife! -- she had felt the first cold clutch of fear.
And, for once, fear had been a truth-teller, though not in the way she expected. He had not died, mangled and shredded in an explosion of shrapnel, or cruelly corroded within by the fumes of evil gas, but there were shameful moments when she thought that might have been easier to bear. No, he had come back to her, but no longer as himself. The strong, clean-limbed body that had delighted her was now twisted and fumbling, and dependent on a wheelchair to travel more than a few yards. That was bad enough, but not the worst. The worst was that he was no longer the same person. Gone was the huge, laughing patience that had enfolded her in its glad confidence and, instead, there was this tetchy man with frightened eyes who seemed to be always seeking an escape route from reality. “Shell-shock” the doctors called it, but seemed to have no idea whether or not he would get any better.
She sighed deeply and shut her eyes, trying to ignore the tears that squeezed out when she did. Why had she even come here today? Even if the weather held a little longer, she would be soaked and bitterly cold by the time she made it back home. Once, she had stood here when the wild, warm breeze smelled of roses, today it smelled only of the salt wrack of a rising sea, and a beach of dying seaweed. Dying? Yes, that was the real word, the apposite word. She had held out her arms, in trust, to receive roses, and instead they had been filled with filthy slime, and now her life would never be clean again. She had wanted so much, dreamed so big, and now here she was, shackled to a broken man .. Was everything fair and lovely in this world so fragile? Would she never have any hope again?
She dashed her angry tears away with an unseeing hand, and, as she did so, her sleeve snagged and caught on something. She looked down, and saw it was a thorn, a very familiar kind of thorn. What had she been thinking? Had she imagined some murderous emanation of this foul wart had rampaged through the countryside, uprooting all the rose bushes? She blushed at her folly. Just because it was winter didn’t mean that the roses had vanished from the earth. Pruned back for the season they simply waited their time. One day summer would return, and the very air would sing of them once more. Now was the season of waiting, the season of pruning, the season for faith to fasten itself to the certainty of glories yet to come.
She looked closer. There, barely hanging on, was a rosebud – dried, frost-bitten, but definitely a rosebud. Even as she reached towards it, it fell, straight into her outstretched hand. Last time it had been her husband-to-be who put the flower in her hand. This time, she believed, it was God.