BLOOD OF THE ROSE
Karen E. Taylor
The first time Adam saw Marie she was seated by the side of her husband’s casket. She made an oddly composed widow, dressed all in black, complete with hat and gossamer veil that did not quite hide her somber smile and the predatory gleam in her eyes. Her hands rested, smooth and reassuring, along her gently expanded abdomen and she held court with visiting relatives and friends like a queen.
He knew all about her, of course, her age, her address, even her credit rating. But the neatly completed information form she had given the funeral director days before had not prepared him for the utter shock of her menacing beauty, the black eyes and perfect olive complexion that seemed to shine through her veil. The sharpness of her gaze was like the cold whisper of a scalpel against his skin and slashed him where he stood in his obsequious pose in the far doorway.
“Maintain the distance,” his boss, Louis Bowe, owner of the Bowe Funeral Home, always said. “Think of yourself as a highly paid and valued servant, because that is what you are. Comfort should be offered, but with dignity and grace. We are the detached, sympathetic voice of reason in an insane world.”
But Marie’s eyes beckoned him into her insanity and he fell, moving across the distance of the outer room, propelled through the inner room, almost as if dragged through the crowd of mourners and the overwhelming display of funeral roses to a suddenly vacated space at her side.
“Mrs. Zenos?” His ordinarily composed, detached voice cracked slightly to his embarrassment. “I’m Adam Rose. Allow me to express my sincerest condolences on your bereavement.”
She held her hand out and he touched it briefly. Her skin was smooth, hot. “Mr. Rose,” her voice was a rich deep contralto with a faint touch of a Greek accent, “thank you. I understand that you did the work on my Stephen.”
So much meaning was encompassed by her words, “my Stephen,” a love and devotion almost beyond his comprehension. But the eyes that considered him through the veil were dry and eager. He cleared his throat. “Yes, I hope you are satisfied with our results, Mrs. Zenos.” “Indeed, I am, most pleased,” she reached over and tenderly stroked the cold arm of her husband, “we have all been saying that he looks so well, so alive.” Her hand lingered caressingly on the corpse and Adam blushed, thinking suddenly and unavoidably of that hot skin pressed against his own. “You have done well.”
He nodded briefly. “I’ll be here for the remaining days of viewing, and of course for the funeral service. And if there’s any other way I can be of assistance, please ask for me.” Marie smiled at him, exposing perfect, tiny white teeth. “You may be sure I will do that, Adam.”
The next two days of viewing Stephen Zenos’ body seemed to Adam to fly by in a feverish rush. Surrounded by a throng of mourners, swathed in black and shrouded in the heavy scent of the flowers, Marie watched him as he tended to his duties. Her black eyes continually followed him, as he played escort to elderly women and men, steering them to vacant chairs and whispering dignified words of comfort; her eyes studied him as he pressed endless glasses of cool water into reaching hands and sought himout as he delivered and rearranged the continual onslaught of bouquets.
The flowers were all roses; he’d thought that a coincidence on the first day, but with each new arrangement an odd and ominous symmetry was being established. The other attendants laughed about “The Rose Funeral” in hushed, but irreverent tones, speculating on Marie’s apparent interest in Adam. “Maybe we should put you into a vase, too, Adam, and deliver you to her.”
And he would blush and they would laugh even harder. But he didn’t laugh, couldn’t laugh. Everywhere Adam went, she was there, her rich voice rising over the other voices, her hands either caressing the dead skin of the corpse, or clasped possessively over her stomach, where Stephen’s child rested. Over those two days, he grew to hate the corpse and then even the child, jealous for the touch of those hands.
The last night of viewing he lingered in the office, waiting for the mourners and family to depart. Mr. Bowe was present that night and Adam had made himself as unobtrusive as possible, fearing his fascination with the widow might be noticed. When Bowe finally entered the office, he smiled at Adam. “Good job, son. I’m going home, now. Close up for me, will you?”
Adam nodded, “Yes, sir.” The front door opened, then shut and the faint sound of Bowe’s car faded as it pulled out of the parking lot. Silence descended on the rooms; Adam shuffled some papers, then put them aside and stood up, stretching and yawning slightly. Turning out the light, he closed the office door and started down the hall to the viewing rooms, to put them in order before the morning.
He gasped when he entered the room where Stephen Zenos’ body lay. Marie stared up at him from where she sat, cross-legged in the middle of the floor, her dress billowing around her, surrounded by a circle of flickering votive candles. She had removed her hat and veil and was reaching into the basket positioned next to her, pulling out several dark round objects and lining them up carefully in front of her. “Adam,” her smile sent an anticipatory thrill through him, “I know this is most likely a little unorthodox, but it is an old family tradition. Humor me. In fact,” she smiled deeper, her eyes boring into his, her small hands beckoning, “do more than that. Join me, Adam.”
“But,” he hesitated at the edge of the candles’ circle, “I shouldn’t, or you shouldn’t . . . be here, I mean.”
Marie laughed, “Ah, but it is only you and I and Stephen here, now, and he won’t tell a soul. Join me, Adam.”
He stepped into the circle and sat down, overwhelmed by the aroma of the roses, the candles and her. “It is a beautiful scent, isn’t it, Adam? Stephen loved my candles. I mold them myself, mixing the wax and the essences according to very old customs. My mother taught me when I was just a girl.” She picked up one of the objects in front of her, held it up to her face and inhaled, then handed it to him. It was a plum, the outer skin so dark it seemed black in the candlelight. “Stephen’s favorite fruit,” her eyes, no longer hidden by the veil, were beautiful and reflected the flicker of the flames. “Eat,” she urged him, selecting a plum for herself and biting into it. The juice ran over her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand, laughing.
Adam sat on the floor and stared at her, lightheaded from the scented air. The plum rested in his palm, forgotten and uneaten, until she gave another laugh and guided his hand to his mouth, pressing the cool skin of the fruit to his lips. “Eat, Adam.”
His teeth burst through the surface of the plum; the skin was tart and crisp, but the center so sweet it brought tears to his eyes. He rolled the fruit in his mouth, savoring its texture, its flavor. He saw as he pulled his hand away that the plum’s flesh was colored a deep red, as red as the roses, as red as blood, as red as Marie’s lips as she urged him to eat more. Adam finished, sucking the last shreds from the pit, embarrassed by the sticky juice that now coated his fingers and his lips.
Marie laughed again, and pulled his hand to her mouth, licking the fingertips, then leaned into Adam and kissed him. His head reeled with that kiss, with the heady scent of the candles, the roses and Marie, with the cloying taste of the plum and her tongue. And when the kiss was done, she held his head between her palms. “Ah, my dear, do you know how long I had to search for you? How many funeral homes I had to call to find a Rose like you?”
He shook his head, he felt drunk, drugged with her presence. She smiled, stood up within the circle of the candles and slowly began to unbutton her black widow’s dress. Adam could only stare as she slid it from her shoulders, as she shed her bra, her hose, her black satin panties. When she stood naked in front of him she reached her hands down to pull him up to her. He rose on unsteady legs, his eyes still fastened to her, admiring the swollen breasts, the soft curve of her stomach where the child rested. She was beautiful, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and she wanted him, she said, she’d been searching for him.
He opened his mouth to speak, to say that he loved her, but could only produce a strange garbled sound. “No, don’t try to talk,” she reached down into her basket again, pulling out something long and shiny, “it won’t help. Old family traditions, Adam, are so important. So very important. The candles, the roses, the plums, all prepared especially for you. My mother was a powerful woman, and bequeathed that power to me. Power over life and death,” Marie laughed as she brought the knife to his throat, “yes, even power enough to bring back the dead. All is ready now, but for the final step. To bathe my Stephen’s body in the blood of a rose.”
Louis Bowe was surprised early the next morning to discover Marie Zenos waiting for him by the locked doors. “Mr. Bowe,” she smiled sadly and touched his hand, “I have decided that I do not wish a final viewing this morning. All my goodbyes were said last night and I do not want the coffin open again. Let him rest now, safe from prying eyes.”
“Whatever you’d like, Mrs. Zenos, we are here to serve your needs.”
“And that you have, Mr. Bowe. I have been satisfied.” Marie’s voice dropped lower, “most satisfied.”
Bowe shook his head slightly when a man emerged from the Zenos car and came to stand next to Marie, gently cupping her elbow in his hand. Such an uncanny resemblance to her late husband, he thought briefly as he unlocked the doors and escorted them inside.
But he didn’t give it much consideration, thinking only how glad he’d be to see the end of this funeral; the smell of the roses was stronger this morning, made his eyes water and his head ache. He hoped that Adam would arrive soon. It was not like him to be late.
© Karen E. Taylor 1994