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A Heart of Roses

Once there lived a woman who might have been beautiful or might have not. These determinations always change, depending on who you ask. Certainly though she was quiet and shy. In her heart, she surrounded herself with a lovely garden, and the garden with a high stone wall. In reality, she lived alone in a simple cottage at the edge of a village, and her days were filled with neighbours and shopping and sweeping floors. She helped Old Kate with firewood. She talked politely to the lame tinker when he came to her open gate - buying this or that little thing from him so that he had pennies for food or new shoes. And she made pies for the summer fete every year.

Never did the woman imagine herself as beautiful. But she did imagine roses. She dreamed one day they would grow all over her cottage, wild and gentle, brambled with magic. She dreamed a wall to hide the village. And no more gate. Then the world would become small, fragrant, lovely. It would not matter how she looked, for she would be surrounded by a private beauty. It would not matter that no one helped her with firewood or understood that the noise of the fete was exhausting. And it would not matter that she was alone, because a woman in a secret garden was naturally alone.

What would you do with her story? Would you build a wall and grow a tangle of roses, softness and quiet, because that's what she wants and it sounds so beautiful? Maybe you'd add a few shelves of books, and throw away all mirrors as being irrelevant. Or does it seem to you that she has surrendered to unhappiness, and so you'd have Old Kate, the tinker, the villagers, celebrate her kindness, to make her smile and realise she is not alone after all ... or perhaps send a prince walking through her gate, holding a rose in return for her heart? Would you call her beautiful?

I think perhaps the fulfillment of her story might tell us something about ourselves.

illustration by john william waterhouse


  1. Well, that is a very interesting question. I am exactly like that woman, although I have gone a step further and do not attend the village fete for instance (yes, there is one every August for a weekend, with crass modern entertainment, nothing like you'd see in Midsomer!) I do prefer to some extent to do hard work myself rather than ask, to avoid the entanglement. I'd love to be able to PAY someone to do some of it, here, make my roof so and so as I tell you, here, money, goodbye.

    Many would probably like to tell me I have a social phobia, or that I'm sad and have made myself believe a lie, so if only I was healthy I'd immediately want to engange in their lives. If only I forced myself often enough I'd grow to like it, like we tell children who refuse to eat boiled cabbage.

    This is where I become ornery. Why the hey should we forever force unpleasant things on ourselves to change into what others claim is good? Who exactly has the right to say what is good and who doesn't? Why is that their right more than mine?

    And yet, in times of distress, I'm reminded that to have someone close and reliable is indeed a gift without which I might have broken.

    I wish it could be both way at the same time. That I could be a sociable recluse, useful and trusted by society when I choose to join in, without having to attend all the dreary functions all the time. I have a friend who I see very rarely, but when we do pick up the phone once or twice a year, or meet, we talk up a storm and it's like yesterday. No ill feelings for not conforming to the tribe, rules about fortnightly reversed dinner invitations or whatever it is people do out there, LOL.

    So here we have the woman in her soft, secluded garden. Books. Then what happens? Tea. Looking at roses. Not much of a story, really. I think this is why I have stopped writing, because I no longer have any people to draw them from. I don't know. So I don't know if you were simply musing or actually asking the question, but you know me by now, I tend to ramble and I do love the conversation, oddly enough! If it's interesting. I don't care what colour your new couch is and I plain refuse to go on shopping sprees and try on all the clothes at the mall.

    And now I have to press send to see what exactly I just wrote...

    1. Such a wonderful generous response, thank you! This is just the kind of thing I was thinking - that some people would embrace the vision of seclusion, and I hopefully left the story in such a way as to make that wholly acceptable - whereas other people would want differently (I haven't read the other responses yet).

      I agree with you by the way on so many of your points.

    2. Oh and I absolutely do think that roses, tea and books is a wonderful story, or could be made so - I know I would read it.

  2. "And it would not matter that she was alone, because a woman in a secret garden was naturally alone". . . but never lonely.

    The next week it was decided, whether by the woman herself or by fate, no one is certain,--least of all the woman herself!--that her small dream was as good and true as the big dreams of fame and fortune that claimed other people's hearts. And so it was, that by small increments, the woman's small dream came true:

    The woman's Monday began with rain and a muddy splash from a lorry (no, the driver didn't stop or even call "sorry" out the window). Her sodden shoes and ruined skirts made her take a short cut home, down the lane that runs straight along the river. If she hadn't taken that path, she would not have found the soggy box at the river's edge with five tiny shivering kittens, one of them already dead. She didn't think (there is no thinking in such a moment). She put her macintosh over the box and carried it home. By Friday, when the chairwoman of the spring fete called and asked if she could bake five pies and run the duck pond booth, she had to admit that she didn't have time. She was very busy nursing kittens.

    As the days blossomed, the woman had much work to do in her little garden. She planned to grow vegetables for the first time, and it turned out that preparing the beds was hard work. At the end of each day, she was happily tired--and of course there were the kittens to tend--so, no, she wouldn't be able to attend the village meeting on Wednesday evening.

    One bright morning when she was out helping Old Kate with firewood, she saw a demolition crew inspecting the dilapidated house down the lane. The woman had long admired the overgrown hedge of roses that surrounded the old house like a fortress. When a man nailed a red sign on the gate, she knew what it meant, So when she returned home, she called the village council and asked about the demolition project. Summoning all of her courage, she asked if she might have permission to remove the roses before they tore everything down. "Do what you like," is what they said.

    The next day, the woman went to the dilapidated house with her wheel barrow, secateurs, spade, and leather gloves. She felt like a knight of old as she cut through the brambles to reveal each plant's tender heart. Then, she carefully dug out the roots and loaded the roses into her wheelbarrow. Three days later, she had removed six roses and re-planted them along her fence. Throughout summer and autumn she nurtured them with coffee grounds, egg shells, and banana peels and many buckets of water. It was a great deal of work. By October her small coterie of acquaintances had renamed her modest house Rose Cottage. But there were others in the village who thought her strange and aloof. They called it the Witch's House. (But to be perfectly honest, most people didn't think about the house or the woman at all. )

    And so it was that the woman went into the village less and less, yet her life became more and more. The only person she saw with any regularity was the tinker, who came by her cottage ringing his bell every third Friday. The tinker remarked about how well her roses were growing, and how big the kittens were getting, and how lush her vegetables looked. "All that is missing are some chickens," he remarked.

    "What was that you said?" asked the woman.

    "I said, your garden needs some chickens. And it just so happens I have four pullets here on my wagon." The man climbed inside and rummaged around before emerging a few moments later with a large wooden cage containing four small, fluffy hens. The woman gave the tinker her pennies. . . and the next year, those hen's fine eggs became a few pennies in the woman's purse--just enough for a small woman with a small dream.♥

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. So charming <3 I like how you have found a compromise between the vision of seclusion and the vision of community. I'm also interested that you added "but never lonely" to the last sentence. I sat with the half-finished nature of that sentence for quite a while before accepting that its unspoken part was the heart of the story. I instantly became curious as to how other women would interpret that heart - what words they would use to finish the unfinished, what feeling they would bring to "naturally alone."

      My initial feeling was that "a woman in a garden is naturally alone" is a sad statement, that she disliked her aloneness and was ashamed of it, and could hide from the pain of it in the "natural aloneness" of a secluded garden. So there you have my interpretation of the scenario ;-) But I do so very much like yours! It is clever and heartwarming and really just right. <3 It makes a reader smile and brings genuine hope not only to the character but to the reader also - hope that they can make their dreams come true one small step at a time.

      But then, I have always known what an excellent storyteller you are.

    3. Lonely to me is an emotional state that rarely has to do with the number of bodies in my vicinity. 98% of the time I enjoy the time I have alone and would not give it up. (which is not 98% of my total time, so it might feel different if I had not chosen it)

  3. i am quite sure that you are right to say our endings reveal something about ourselves...

    in my ending, old kate would observe how tenderly the woman touched the petals of roses, and others in the village would notice her carefully removing the spent flowers from roses overspilling various fences or walls and stroking away any dead leaves, gathering fallen but still fresh petals in her apron, maybe even laying her cheek briefly to some blooms when she thought no one was about... then one winter day, when all is bare and sere, she notices a pile of burlap-folded knobbly bundles at her gate, bundles which, as she tentatively folds back the lapping cloth, reveal themselves to be dormant rosebushes. surprised, elated, she hurries out back for a spade and spend the cold afternoon digging them into her garden. the next morning, more burlap bundles, more happy digging. and so it goes on for a week, until her little garden positively bristles with thorny, stumpy, sleeping rosebushes. she tucks each one in with straw to keep the chill from the roots, and her eyes are shiny with wondering tears. in spring, she rakes away the straw and tucks crushed eggshell and good compost amongst the soil. as the days warm and lengthen, reddish-green shoots appear on the rose canes. climbing tendrils unfurl and creep along the fence in places, and the bushes are covered in green leaves and fattening buds. she touches them several times a day, waiting excitedly for a hint of color. on her daily round, as she continues to check on the other roses about the village, she also notes similarities of leaf form and growth to her own roses here and there. the day her first roses open from bud to bloom fills her with a wild yet tender joy that only increases day by day as her garden is filled with fragrance and color from her beloved, magical roses. there can be no doubt now; she can match her blooms to others all through the village street. old kate's observances and hints to others led them all to shower her with these beautiful gifts from their own gardens. finally she realized that she was not alone, really, and that everything she had done was enough---more than enough---to make her a place in the village. the roses had their own sweet magic and glory, as roses do, but they were also a summer-long reminder of acceptance, of love, of the generosity that waits to be called forth from every decent heart. some of their petals would find their way into soothing syrups for babies, and others into sweet sachets offered gratefully to the folk who had made the magic happen. old kate benefitted from the rich cordial of rosehips next winter, and perhaps a few of the most wanton red petals found their way into love philters for shy village lads and lasses. the tinker came and went away feeling very smart with a golden rose in his buttonhole and another in his ragged hatband. and her rose-petal jam tarts became a favorite at the fete each year...

    so, presumably, my story ending comes from my secret and abiding wish to see kindness in the world, to see tenderness and love of beauty rewarded with increase of beauty, and for a woman at the edge of things to find a way of being accepted and cherished for what/who she is... i could as easily have made a darker ending, or merely sadder one, a lonelier one. i wrote what i wish to see, instead.

    1. This is beautiful. I am so interested that you had the villagers provide the woman with her happiness, rather than her finding it for herself. So often these days heroines must work and fight to make their own fulfillment and joy, but there is nothing more beautiful than being seen, being acknowledged, and being gifted happiness by others. I think the self-sufficient heroism of modern literature reflects (or influences) the lack of community so many of us suffer these days. I love it when a heroine is rescued (by a handsome prince or a village of neighbours) because it shows that it's actually ok to let other people help you, let them into your life and your heart.

    2. I had to comment on this too, sorry. "everything she had done was enough---more than enough---to make her a place in the village"

      This is an important point. What we all need, even those of us who are not overly gregarious, is to feel useful somehow. I don't expect rewards of equal measure or at all if I decide to help someone, but I think that perhaps often a lonely person imagines they have nothing to offer that is of value to anyone, so they feel they don't have the right to receive. And shy to offer what they do have for fear of rejection.

      Like in Sarah's story of the village witch who wasn't one - humans spend too much time evaluating each other.

  4. A lovely story! I would have the village celebrate her kindness and then plant her a beautiful rose garden (without a wall) that she could enjoy when she wanted or needed to.


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