So, I decided to do something this holiday season? Which is: I decided to post my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” which was my first published story, and doesn’t appear anywhere online. It’s my holiday gift to anyone who happens to want a story this season. It’s based on “Sleeping Beauty,” so it’s a fairy tale of sorts. The story was written in twelve sections, one for each of the characters. Here is the first one, “The Witch.” The other characters will be appearing day by day, so if you’re interested in reading more, check back here daily . . .
This rose has twelve petals. Let the first one fall: Madeleine taps the glass bottle, and out tumbles a bit of pink silk that clinks on the table—a chip of tinted glass—no, look closer, a crystallized rose petal. She lifts it into a saucer and crushes it with the back of a spoon until it is reduced to lumpy powder and a puff of fragrance.
She looks at the book again. “Petal of one rose crushed, dung of small bat soaked in vinegar.” Not enough light comes through the cottage’s small-paned windows, and besides she is growing nearsighted, although she is only thirty-two. She leans closer to the page. He should have given her spectacles rather than pearls. She wrinkles her forehead to focus her eyes, which makes her look prematurely old, as in a few years she no doubt will be. Bat dung has a dank, uncomfortable smell, like earth in caves that has never seen sunlight.
Can she trust it, this book? Two pounds ten shillings it cost her, including postage. She remembers the notice in The Gentlewoman’s Companion: “Every lady her own magician. Confound your enemies, astonish your friends! As simple as a cookery manual.” It looks magical enough, with Compendium Magicarum stamped on its spine and gilt pentagrams on its red leather cover. But the back pages advertise “a most miraculous lotion, that will make any lady’s skin as smooth as an infant’s bottom” and the collected works of Scott.
Not easy to spare ten shillings, not to mention two pounds, now that the King has cut off her income. Rather lucky, this cottage coming so cheap, although it has no proper plumbing, just a privy out back among the honeysuckle.
Madeleine crumbles a pair of dragonfly wings into the bowl, which is already half full: orris root; cat’s bones found on the village dust heap; oak gall from a branch fallen into a fairy ring; madder, presumably for its color; crushed rose petal; bat dung.
And the magical words, are they quite correct? She knows a little Latin, learned from her brother. After her mother’s death, when her father began spending days in his bedroom with a bottle of beer, she tended the shop, selling flour and printed cloth to the village women, scythes and tobacco to the men, sweets to children on their way to school. When her brother came home, he would sit at the counter beside her, saying his amo, amas. The silver cross he earned by taking a Hibernian bayonet in the throat is the only necklace she now wears.
She binds the mixture with water from a hollow stone and her own saliva. Not pleasant this, she was brought up not to spit, but she imagines she is spitting into the King’s face, that first time when he came into the shop, and leaned on the counter, and smiled through his golden beard. “If I had known there was such a pretty shopkeeper in this village, I would have done my own shopping long ago.”
She remembers: buttocks covered with golden hair among folds of white linen, like twin halves of a peach on a napkin. “Come here, Madeleine.” The sounds of the palace, horses clopping, pageboys shouting to one another in the early morning air. “You’ll never want for anything, haven’t I told you that?” A string of pearls, each as large as her smallest fingernail, with a clasp of gold filigree. “Like it? That’s Hibernian work, taken in the siege of London.” Only later does she notice that between two pearls, the knotted silk is stained with blood.
She leaves the mixture under cheesecloth, to dry overnight.
Madeleine walks into the other room, the only other room of the cottage, and sits at the table that serves as her writing desk. She picks up a tin of throat lozenges. How it rattles. She knows, without opening it, that there are five pearls left, and that after next month’s rent there will only be four.
Confound your enemies, she thinks, peering through the inadequate light, and the wrinkles on her forehead make her look prematurely old, as in a few years she certainly will be.
(The painting is Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne Jones.)