This happened on an island kingdom, a long time ago, although not so long ago that everyone has forgotten. I have not forgotten.
On this island stood a bright and flourishing city. Around the elegant palace flowed broad streets full of cheerful people buying and selling fish and shoes and toys and bread and other pleasant things. Near the western edge, the soil was rich, and farmers grew vegetables and herbs.
|Photo credit: Theen.|
And deep in this wood, among the bleeding-heart and monkeyflower, among the baneberry and sweet-after-death, grew a flower that needed no sun at all: a flower made of iron.
“Grew” isn’t quite the right word, of course. It had been planted there, long ago, an iron-gray rose in full blossom. Each of its hundred petals was carved in thin and curving metal, and its iron stem bent gracefully, and its thorns were sharp and precise as tiny daggers.
In spring, when the real flowers were just budding, the Iron Rose stood among them, tall and complete. In summer, when the real flowers blossomed out full, the Iron Rose stood unchanged. In autumn, when the real flowers bent low, faces crumpling into death, the Iron Rose stood strong.
And yet the Iron Rose had its own seasons. Spring rains brought the Season of Glistening Like Wet Black Ink Against the Last Snow; then came the Season of Rust, which flaked off in pretty patterns, and floated on the wind like pollen; and then the loveliest season, the Season of Jewels, when the ice made every leaf, petal and thorn into silver and diamond.
And like a real flower, the Iron Rose had its own perfume, or sort of perfume: a warm, metallic scent, like the taste of blood in your mouth.
One late summer day, a woman walked through the woods, swinging a stick in front of her to clear her path. She was a writer of stories, and writers like to walk. She wasn’t thinking about the flowers, and had murdered or maimed scores of them in her irritable passage.
But then her stick clanged against something metallic and hard.
That’s unexpected, deep in a forest. So the woman looked down, and saw it — the lron Rose, unchanging among the blooming and dying forest flowers. She knelt to look closer. The craftsmanship was flawless. The emperor would pay in splendid gold for this.
Careful of the thorns, she tugged at the rose, and it came up as easily as a piece of grass. Holding it gingerly, arm outstretched, she walked home, daydreaming what the gold might buy her— a voyage to Alexandria? a new roof?—and marveling at its extraordinary, intricate craftsmanship. Why, it was almost as if it had been made by magic.
In fact, the Iron Rose had been made by magic, the magic of a very great magician, and a very wicked one. He was so wicked that the emperor, who was a nice if unimaginative man, had many years before banished him from the island kingdom.
But banishment is not always the best weapon against badness. You are no sooner told that you may not have a cookie than a cookie is all you can think of, and it becomes the most gorgeous and desirable thing there is. Where you might have had one cookie, you find yourself sneaking off with seven.
Before he left the island, the wicked magician had made and planted the Iron Rose. It stood in the forest like a time bomb, slowly tick, tick, ticking off the years, until someone found it, as he knew they would, and took it to the emperor, as he knew they would, for he had made this flower the most gorgeous and desirable object ever seen on the island.
It certainly looked gorgeous and desirable to the emperor, who paid the writer all the gold she had imagined and quite a bit more, in order to possess that Iron Rose.
But I think the emperor must have had a cold that day, because he did not notice its faint perfume of blood.
For a while, that was that. The emperor displayed the Iron Rose in a silver vase in his treasure room, and he visited it often—though less often as the weeks went by, as something about its sharp iron petals and even sharper thorns unnerved him.
Then one day, a few months later, as a maid dusted the Iron Rose, a noise startled her. It was only one of the emperor’s cats, leaping off a suit of armor. Only a cat: but still the startled maid’s hand struck against an iron thorn, which pierced her finger—just as the magician had known would happen somehow, some way, to someone.
“Ah!” cried the maid, because it hurt surprisingly much. She held up her finger, saw it welling with red.
Three drops of blood fell onto the Iron Rose.
The dark gray metal softened. Its color deepened, first to something like black, then to something like red. The chief housekeeper, who had come running at the maid’s cry, watched with her. Yes, no question: the iron was reddening before her eyes. Imagine a black-and-white photo turning into color.
But that wasn’t all: the iron was softening, becoming more delicate, more vulnerable, more alive. It was no longer an Iron Rose, but a real flower, red and glorious, at the height of its beauty. It was a real rose now, in every way but one: it retained its faint, metallic, bloody perfume.
Word made its way to the emperor, who soon stood before the flower with the maid and chief housekeeper and all his counsellors, marveling and exclaiming, and having the maid tell the story of how it had happened again and again.
Then the emperor and his counselors and servants all went to bed
The next morning, there were two roses.
The morning maid called the chief housekeeper, who called the chief counselor, who called the chief gardener, but no one had an explanation. They decided not to mention it to the emperor.
The next morning, four roses crowded the silver vase. The maid laughed out loud. This time they did tell the emperor, who wondered in astonishment whether someone was playing a practical joke. A watch was set up, which watched all night, and saw nothing.
But the guards must have fallen asleep, though they swore they had not, for the next morning, there were eight roses. These new roses spilled on the table and floor. The emperor said sharply, “Take them outside.”
You can perhaps guess what happened. The next morning, on the scrap of lawn where the eight roses had been tossed, were sixteen roses. The morning after that, there were 32.
“Well, I like roses,” said the emperor, defiantly.
The next morning, there were 64 roses.
As a boy, the emperor had never paid close attention to his geometry lessons, but his chief counselor had. He understood that a daily doubling of the roses might have quite serious consequences. “We must destroy those roses,” he told the emperor.
The emperor shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t like them anymore. Whatever you think.”
The counselor ordered the chief gardener to poison the roses with the strongest weed killers he had.
The next morning, there were 128 roses.
The counselor ordered the gardener to dig a deep hole and bury the evil red flowers.
The next morning, there were 256 roses.
The counselor ordered the gardener to build a bonfire and burn the roses until nothing remained but ashes.
The next morning, there were 512 roses. The scrap of lawn where they had been thrown was now ankle-deep in thorny, blood-red flowers.
I will allow you to imagine for yourself how it went over the next two weeks. Despite all their efforts, the roses doubled and redoubled, like the fury of a banished magician. By the 25th day, over 167,000 roses filled the palace. The people of the island, who had at first been charmed by the sight of red roses spilling from the palace windows—it must be a sign of favor from the gods!—were less pleased to see roses scattered through the streets as well. Besides, they were growling slightly ill from that strange, sickening perfume.
Three days later, over a million roses choked the city streets. People stayed in the their houses, because to wade outside was to have your legs torn open by thorns.
The next day, roses carpeted the crops on the western side of the island, smothering them.
The emperor now sat miserably in his palace’s highest tower, crowded among his counselors and servants. People began to panic, to discuss abandoning their island. But it was trading season, and the fish were running, and most of the ships were gone. The few small pleasure-crafts left on the island were now buried under tons of thorny flower.
From the emperor’s high tower, with frantic semaphore, they tried to call back the last big ship to leave—a passenger ship on its way to Alexandria. No one on the ship noticed the tiny, distant flag—except one passenger, a writer of stories. But she could’t read semaphore, and turned back to her guidebook.
It was lucky—by which I mean, our world was lucky—that the sea was there to stop the roses. They spilled out onto the beaches, and filled the shallows, and great rafts of them floated out hundreds of yards. But eventually the salt water poisoned and discouraged them enough that they stopped doubling, and began to die.
Or perhaps the magician’s anger was finally sated.
When the trading vessels and fishing boats returned, they found an island buried under a mound of dead and dying roses. The forests, grasses, and people underneath were crushed, and smothered, and dead.
Bodies were discovered bound down by thorns, mouths stuffed with fat red blossoms.
The boats left quickly, and no one visited the island again for many years. The kingdom was abandoned. Even today, it is rarely visited. When travelers do stop there, they find a ghost island, populated only by skeletons wrapped in thorns. The broad streets and narrow forest paths alike are piled with dry, dusty petals. And everywhere lingers a faint perfume of blood.