Rose of the Sea
by Kat Devitt
I smelled roses on the wind, blown through a sea of memory.
I shall come… I shall come…
I was standing there as if it was yesterday. Church bells rang in my ears, with the sweetness of spring in the air, as I held hands with my beloved. Warmth crept up my fingers and into my cheeks as he brushed his lips against my palm, sealing his promise with a kiss.
“I shall come for you,” he said, his blue eyes breaking my soul. “Once I have made my fortune in London, I shall come.”
We stood in the church garden amongst rose bushes of an assortment of colors: lavender, pink, yellow, and the majesty of all, red. He plucked one with a crimson blush and handed it to me. “A gift for you, Kitty, my darling flower.”
But this was only a remembrance of when we parted, but only for a little while.
Leaning against a pasture fence, I rested my chin on my folded hands. I kept my eyes closed as I held onto the drifting scent.
I recalled the might of Richard’s ambitions. He’d always yearned to live by penning his poetry. Only the city of London could promise his dreams, and he left for the chase many months ago. He’d promised to return for me once he launched his career, and I trusted in him.
But with the passage of time, his face was fading from my memory, like the scent of roses on the wind. I was forgetting him, and I wondered, and I worried, if he was forgetting me.
“Kitty!” Something rattled nearby. “Kitty, quit dawdling.”
I opened my eyes. I pushed against the fence, the roses and memories gone, and I saw my father’s hulking figure feet away. He held a rusty pail, his face screwed with exasperation.
“Kitty, you haven’t milked Daisy. I told you this morning to milk Daisy.”
“I’m sorry, Papa. I forgot.” I sprang towards him, melancholy chasing after me. I took the pail from him, the handle clacking against the tin body.
“Be quick about it. A storm’s a ‘coming.”
He trudged back to the cottage, his shoulders slumped, his back bent. He was worn. He was weary. And all from a life of hardness and hardship. I was to follow in his steps if Richard did not come to take me from this life.
Clouds swallowed the summer sun, casting shadows over the hills and pastures. Cow manure replaced the scent of roses. Drudgery in place of vibrancy, of the tingling excitement when I thought of Richard.
A raindrop plopped onto my brow. I brushed it away and made for the barn, set on milking Daisy before the rains came. I hurried across the field as the bucket handle clack, clack, clacked, but I slowed, overpowered by a sense of foreboding.
Someone watched me from afar. I saw no face, but I sensed it in the most hidden reaches of my soul. Amongst the grass and heather, I wasn’t alone.
My mind lightened.
Had Richard come? Did he watch me from afar, delighting in me as he approached? I yearned to shower his welcomed face with kisses, to hold him in my arms, and listen to his tales and adventures of London.
I swung around, to my left, to my right. I did not see him. I saw only the endless strands of grass jutting from the ground, waving in the steady breeze.
One more time, I turned. Towards the ocean, writhing just beyond the hills. And I saw her, watching. A woman, dressed in white.
She looked down on me from the top of a hill. Her white robes swayed, as the heather at her feet. And she watched me with a calm, as if she was the respite before a storm.
She did not.
My mouth shaped into an O, as I was about to shout out to her, but the skies above darkened. Mists engulfed her, and ocean waves, crashing onto the rocky shores, echoed through the slopes of the hill. She disappeared into the gloom, into the gray, like ashes on the wind.
I stumbled back a few steps, looking for her in the mists. I found nothing, no one. I stood alone with nothing but the remembrance of a figment, an illusion.
I dashed for the barn, clacking as I fled from the fields. I ducked inside to find Daisy standing in a corner heaped with hay. She chewed on a bit of straw, her eyes gentle as I neared.
“Hello there, girl.” I reached for her and stroked the large black spot on her forehead. I calmed as she leaned into my caresses.
“There we go, girl.”
I pulled out my stool and bent to my task. I squeezed at her utters, without fuss or mooing from Daisy. She was the gentlest lass, having been milked by me for years.
I finished quickly.
Daisy continued to chew on the straw, content, as I left to haul the half-filled pail back to the cottage. I hardly made it through the door when Papa called, “Kitty, that you, girl? You have a letter come from London.”
I nearly dropped the pail onto the stone steps. “London?”
He didn’t answer.
I hurried inside, setting the pail on a table by the door. I found Papa in the sitting room in his favorite chair, an old, overstuffed wingback. It was the only upholstered furnishing in our home.
“London.” He held the letter up towards the window, to the daylight weakened by the coming storm. “Only word I can read on here.”
“May I have it?”
Papa reached out his great paw of a hand, the letter a small scrap when held by him. “Must be from Mr. Dashworth. He’s the only gent we know from that great city.”
I took it from him with eager hands. I held my breath for want of my love’s words, but my ignorance created a barrier. I couldn’t read. I understood little of what was written in the address, but still, I tried.
Dipping my head, I sounded out the words scrawled out on the enfolded letter. “Lond-don. Mr. R-Rich…” I angled it. “Richar-ard D-Dashworth.”
I stared at his familiar handwriting. Loops and curves instead of kisses and embraces. I desired him in place of the letter, but I clung to this piece of him.
I pressed his letter to my thumping heart. “I’ll take it to Mr. Baker. He’ll read it to me.”
“I’ll be out bolting the doors shut, to protect our wares from this storm.” The springs in the wingback groaned as Papa raised himself to his feet. “Tell Mr. Baker I said hello.”
“I will, Papa.”
He stared at me, thoughts swirling behind his gaze. “He’s a genuine lad.”
“Yes.” I nodded, unsure.
“More so than that Mr. Dashworth.”
And there it was, his disapproval.
“Papa!” I held the letter tight. “He’s my beloved.”
“He’s a poet and a cad.” Papa sniffed. “I warn you, Kitty. No good comes from a man who writes sonnets and rhymes. Every woman will bat an eyelash at him, being the artistic sort, and he’s sure to falter.”
“He won’t. I know him more than you ever could.”
Papa shrugged his shoulders. “What of Mr. Baker?”
“He’s only a friend, as Mr. Dashworth is his friend, too. He’d never betray Richard, nor could I.” I paused. “Mr. Baker is my friend.”
He shook his head. “Come back before supper, Kitty.”
And we made for the door. He left me alone, as he always did. He was weary, I knew. And aged, I knew. But I wished I could hold his love, his presence, for more than a few moments.
I trailed behind my Papa, set on decoding Richard’s script. We parted at the steps; he for the barn, and I for the village.
He said nothing.
He glanced back, for nothing.
I hurried down the pathway from the cottage, keeping my eyes on the hills. Gray fogs veiled the landscapes, hiding the darkness of the coming storm. I saw nothing, not even the shape or outline of a woman, but I distrusted the stillness, the silence. Something lurked out there. Something beyond my reasoning.
I turned my back on it as I dashed towards the village. I reached a cluster of brick buildings with thatched rooves, slipping through the streets like a shadow. No one lifted a hand to wave as I passed by. I was nigh on invisible, a wisp passing through.
All my life, I’d kept to myself. I preferred the company of few to many. This cost me a feeling of belonging in my older years and all that entailed: greetings, smiles, friendship. I sought after it for so long, and for so long I hadn’t an inkling as to what it was called.
Until I met Richard.
All along, I wanted warmth, and he’d shown to me what few had before.
Memories of his tenderness filled me as I cut through the village square. I found Mr. Baker’s shop nestled behind the church and the smithy. Sweetness drifted from his bakery, filling the air with scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemons. I sniffed, hungrily, and my belly grumbled at the thought of the breads and pastries inside.
I stopped by the window, and I peeked inside. Through the glass, I saw Mr. Baker hard at work, sprinkling flour onto a ball of dough. He kneaded it with care. I admired him, this friend of mine, as I admired the tarts, cakes, and sweets displayed throughout the shop.
My stomach growled, again, in rebellion.
I stepped towards the bakery door, but a growing, clawing dread, almost as deep as my appetite, sank into me. I sensed I wasn’t alone in the village square. I sensed someone watched me, intently.
One sweep of my gaze, and I found her.
She stood in the small rose garden beside the church, where Richard and I had met many times before. She stayed far off, waiting, as her white garments swayed in the breeze. I couldn’t make out her face. I couldn’t see her eyes or hair. Only the white, the purity.
I swallowed, hard. “H-Hello?”
She said nothing.
Once more, I called, “Hello!”
She stayed in her stillness.
I shook all over. I placed a hand on the bakery window to steady myself. But I remained fixated on her, as if in a trance. She, this woman in white, followed me from my home. She’d become my shadow.
I heard a bell ring behind me as a door opened. “Why are you standing out here alone?”
I tore myself from the woman in white, and to Mr. Baker. “H-Hello.”
“Kitty?” He studied me with concern. “You look paler than flour.”
“I’m only startled.”
I peeked at the church garden, but saw the mists had lifted, along with her. “I thought I saw someone I recognized.”
“Come inside.” He held the door wide. “It looks like rain.”
He touched a hand to my back as I passed him by. Upon entering his shop, my nose was assaulted by a dizzy of aromas. Outside, the scents had been strong, but in here, I breathed in sweetness.
Mr. Baker closed the door behind us, trapping the aromas inside. “What can I do for you, Kitty?”
“I’ve come with a letter.”
His gaze fell to the floor. “Another from Richard?”
“He’s the only one to ever write to me.” I smiled. “You know this. You’ve read all his letters to me.”
Mr. Baker scratched the back of his neck as he crossed over to the counter in the center of his shop. He kept his back to me, his black hair dusted with flour. “Kitty, I’ve news to share with you.”
I approached the counter, clinging to the letter. “Can’t it wait?”
“It’s about a woman called Le Bijou.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s French for ‘The Jewel.’” He reached into a display and grabbed a tart.
“I’m glad someone’s at last caught your eye. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman, but tell me about her after you’ve read to me.” I thrust out the letter as he turned around, tart in hand.
He bit his lower lip. “Kitty, she’s not for me.”
I studied him.
He was a handsome man, if a woman forgave him his red, swollen nose. His hazel eyes held a kindness, while his whiskers framed a sensuous mouth. And his arms were strong from kneading and baking all day. Not a day past thirty, and still unmarried.
“Then why mention this jewel?”
“Richard is enamored by her.”
My heart slammed against my chest, and almost stopped.
“I don’t believe you.” I shook my head. “He wouldn’t abandon me.”
He set the tart on the counter before me. “Nibble on this.”
I pushed it aside, my appetite diminished. “I don’t believe you,” I repeated.
“He wrote to me a few days ago. He asked I not tell you before he had the chance, but I decided against his wishes. Kitty…” He blew out a breath. “Kitty, I care for you, and I thought you should know before reading that letter.”
“It can’t be.”
He brushed his fingers against mine. “He’s enamored with her, and he means to marry her, even if she’s a courtesan.”
I brushed the heel of my foot against the floor. Back and forth, back and forth. I lost myself in the sway of my limb, as I struggled to hold back my tears.
“Read it to me.” This time I shoved it to him.
“It’ll only hurt you.”
“Only if you eat.” He pushed the sweet towards me. A trade. “You look starved.”
I reached for it, gingerly. I sunk my teeth into the lemon filling, but it tasted bland. My stomach roiled in a fit, but I forced another bite. “Read.”
He cracked open the seal, and began:
Kitty, my darling rose,
How many petals have you plucked as you mused about our love? How often have you thought of me? Of my promises? I’ve thought of you often since coming to London, but distance has not made this heart grow fonder.
I’m sorry, my sweet rose, but I have found myself in the arms of a new Muse. All of London knows her as Le Bijou, a common courtesan, but I only know her as my Muse. She’s a wonder, an inspiration. She’s the reason for my recent outpouring of poetry, which will soon be published. My first book of poems. Can you imagine?
You know how long I have struggled to bring words to a page. You know how I’ve pulled lines from my head, but with a frustration. With her, with my Bijou, my quill sparks. She lights my pages with fire, and I can write without frustration or pain.
I have loved you, Kitty, for your plainness and innocence. I remember what I have promised, but I cannot come for you. I adore another.
Pick no more petals with my name on your lips. Find another, and be glad.
Pain—physical pain—hammered into my heart. A nail drove through my dreams, my hopes, my love.
I dropped the half-eaten tart onto the counter and lowered my head into my hands. I collapsed into acceptance, into the truth, as despair washed over me in waves.
For some French whore who spread her legs for the highest bidder. I was worth less than her. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks and into my palms.
“Don’t cry.” A soft, male utterance, not far away.
“I cannot stop my tears on command,” I said between sobs.
Mr. Baker stood mute. He’d few words to give, to spare, but he clamored around the counter. A hand fell onto my back, tracing out circles. “He’s not worth the salt of your tears.”
“He never cared for me, never loved me. If he ever did, he’d be here.”
I snapped my head up. “Mr. Baker, please.” And I sniffed. “Ironic, isn’t it? Usually, it is the jewel stolen by the thief, but it is The Jewel who stole my beloved’s heart.”
“You mustn’t be bitter.”
I glowered at him through blurry eyes. “Why not?”
“You are a beautiful woman too far above him, or any man for that matter.” Mr. Baker grasped my chin with brawny fingers. He stared at my mouth, suspended, as he finished, “Not even for one who admires you from afar.”
But I stopped myself.
His gaze softened as his hand fell from my chin, but to fall onto my shoulder. He grasped both, turning me towards him, stepping nearer, until his legs brushed against my skirts.
My mouth gaped, stupidly, as I found nothing to say.
He took it as an invitation. His eyelids lowered with languor, and he drew closer as he dipped his head. He approached my lips.
But I turned away.
He brushed a kiss against my tear-stained cheeks.
“No.” I broke from him. “Not you, Edward. Not my friend.”
I pushed around him and fled the bakery, abandoning Richard’s letter on his counter.
He called an apology after me, but his words were lost on stubborn ears.
Everything was gone: my beloved Richard, my friendship with Edward, my will to move towards a future. I stumbled through the village’s dusty streets as I thought on all that I had lost, and within one afternoon. With the words of one letter, of one man turned away from love.
I wandered onto the beach beside the village. I sank into the sand, my sobs drowned out by the crashes upon the shore. I wept and wept until my throat hurt and my eyes dried.
Overlooking the waves, I grasped how small I was between the seams of the sea and sky. Vastness stretched before and above, with me as a speck for a spectator, watching as the heavens darkened and mists hung over the ocean’s froth.
I gathered my legs against my chest, huddled in the sand, my chin resting on my knees. Numbness brimmed inside my lonely heart as I lingered and as Richard’s lies echoed in the waves crashing against the rocks.
I shall come… I shall come…
I blew out a sigh. My breath mingled with the mists. I closed my eyes and wondered if I could sleep on this beach nestled between emerald cliffs. And I remembered… I remembered a fairytale told to me by Mr. Baker.
He’d read more than Richard’s letters to me. He read all sorts of stories to me from his study. Those shelves, and his mind, brimmed with novels, myths, and lore. One such tale came from the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. A beauty sleeping as she waited for the lips of her divine love.
Maybe if I rested my head, my mistakes might fade as my breath in the fog. Or I might sleep forevermore, another grain in the sands.
I stiffened at the call of my name.
Distant though the voice rang, it drifted over the sands to where I sat. Light in lilt, drawn in its diction. Calm wrapped around me at its familiar tone, while the mists closed in.
“Look to the cliffs,” she said.
I unfolded from my place on the shore and glanced about. I sought, until I found the outline of a woman standing at the foot of a narrow path leading down the cliffside and to the beach. White robes danced about her bare feet. Her arms dangled at her side, her ebony hair whipping in the building breeze.
It was her. It was my shadow; the woman in white.
But I could not see her face as she turned away.
She started for the path, and I obeyed. Across the beaches I walked, spellbound by the sway of her tresses and silks. Mists swallowed her as she led, but I caught glimpses of her here and there as we walked through the gray.
“Wait,” I called. “I feel as if I know you.”
She didn’t answer.
Up the narrow path, I pursued her, grass edging onto the dirt. She glided over the trivial dips and falls, as if this landscape was natural to her. She was at home in this setting, with her hair in dishabille.
“What is your name?” I shouted after her.
She heard nothing, creature that she was, strange in her silence. While I watched her, mesmerized, I realized the mists opened for her as she walked, before veiling her once more. I saw her when I was near, but the mists swallowed her, whole, when I was far.
Steps behind her, she disappeared again as we reached the peak of the cliff. I stumbled through the thickening gray, searching for her. I recognized her, I knew, but from where I could not recall.
Yet I was calm with her guidance, as if she was a piece of me, or the whole.
“Who are you?” I asked.
Waves crashed and rumbled close by. I shall come… I shall come…
His lies echoed in the seas.
I came closer. Her apparition waited a few strides away, near enough for me to see her. She stood on raised ground, as if ascending into the skies. Mists swirled around her, lifting, and in their absence, I saw her close to the edge of the sea cliff.
“Kitty.” She lifted a hand, her fingers curling as if she held a rope. “Come with me.”
She took a few steps backwards, her bare feet touching the slick emerald. She drew nearer to the edge, and as she went with the serenity of a seraph, I recognized her face. She smiled, as if knowing.
“Come.” And she stumbled over the edge.
White robes billowed as she vanished from the cliff’s face. I dashed to where she endured moments before. She was gone, gone into the ocean’s froth and mists.
My heart beat, like the hooves of Poseidon’s horses.
I glanced down into the gray, where the waves clashed and taunted. I saw her floating between the rocks below, her body limp and pale. Her ebony hair flowed about her head, as if she was a Medusa. Her sheer robes clung to her, revealing all she offered to the greed of men.
She was a beauty sleeping in the waters.
A rose, plucked and cast aside.
And I recognized her as myself. She was made in my image.
Her dead eyes, staring back, were mine. Her pink mouth, mine. Her crooked nose and sallow cheeks, mine. Her head bobbing in the waters, mine.
She was, in fact, me.
Peace filled me, as steam does a kettle. It flowed through me, but pushed through a pipe, out into the air. And it swirled above, in tendrils, until it disappeared, leaving me with a hollowness.
I wondered at my ghost. I wondered at her strength to fall into the seas with all the grace of a nymph, as if she belonged nowhere else in the world. Between the seams of the seas and skies, those beaten rocks were her home.
“Kitty,” I whispered to her.
I stepped closer, until my toes hung over the edge. Around me, the winds picked up, my skirts lashing. Storm clouds surged overhead with encouragement, and I waited for my sinking heart to carry me over.
No one would notice if I fell into Poseidon’s arms. No one would care.
I braced myself. “I’m coming, Kitty.”
Those were the words I always longed to cross another’s lips. I had wanted for years, even before Richard, someone to love and hold for a lifetime. Someone to come for me, always. I thought Richard was that someone, but I’d suffered from a delusion. I saw that now as I stared into the waters below.
“Come away from there!” Behind me, feet pounded against the ground.
I pulled from my trance. I glanced over my shoulders to see Mr. Baker racing towards me. His eyes were wide with horror at seeing me so close to death, his dark hair whipping in the rising winds.
“Kitty!” he called.
I looked back at the waters. I could jump before he reached me. I could plummet into the deep and join my ghost in her peaceful sleep. I searched for her, my comfort in the gray, but disbelief embraced me, as I saw she was gone.
Strong arms wrapped around my waist. Mr. Baker yanked me from the edge, his breath ragged as he led me away. Overhead, the skies darkened as the mists clung to the dusk.
Mr. Baker held me apart from him, his eyes boring into me with concern. He teetered between love and anger as the vein at his temple throbbed. “What were you thinking?”
I shook as the cold prickled my flesh. “Of broken promises.”
“He’s not worth your thoughts, Kitty.”
“I’m not loved, not by him.”
“Not loved?” His grip on my shoulders tightened. “After you left my bakery, I came to your cottage to apologize. When I told your father what had happened, he began to fret. He’s searching for you now, as I have. What would you call our worry, if not love?”
I stared down at the tips of my walking boots, mud and sand caked to the leather. “Who might miss me if I was gone tomorrow morning?”
“Goodness, Kitty.” Mr. Baker took me into his arms, his worry winning over his temper. “Your father would miss you, for one. And I would miss you. I might not be much in place of Mr. Dashworth, but I could not go on knowing you weren’t close by.”
“Edward.” I clung to him, as the mists to the cliff, and I said nothing more on the matter. I couldn’t. Not when shame became my shadow.
“Come, your father will want to know you’re safe.” Mr. Baker started for the cottage, his one arm wrapped around my waist, pulling me close. He glanced back at the cliff. “Never have I trusted the seas during a storm. It tricks us into seeing our darkness.”
I leaned my head against Mr. Baker’s shoulder. In him, my yearning for the waters faded. Falling, flailing; I wanted nothing to do with the edge or what followed. I found myself again, without need for Richard and his promises.
I looked to Mr. Baker, and he looked to me. In his eyes, I recognized what I once saw in Richard’s. Love, strong and true. It had always been there, but I had been blind to it by my infatuation for another. Maybe one day I might look upon him the same.
In that hope, I grew a little, but I peeked back in weakness.
Through the mists, I saw my ghost standing at the ledge. She smiled at me, her sweetness touching me across the emerald green. She reached out to me once more, her hand curling as if she held onto a secret.
I shook my head at her, but she lifted a finger to her lips.
“Look forward, Kitty.” Mr. Baker tucked me closer under his arm. “I cannot walk straight when you look back so.”
I took one last glance and saw the gray claim my ghost. Gone, but the calmness from her glided into me. Stole me away, as Mr. Baker led me back to my cottage, my father, and my home.
About the Author:
Kat Devitt lives somewhere between 19th century England and the present. Her work has appeared in TWJ Magazine, Squawk Back, The Blotter Magazine, Ariel Chart, and other venues. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. When Kat isn’t writing a new short story or laboring on the first draft of her novel, she enjoys tripping over her feet in a Zumba class, searching the web for GoT fan theories, and perusing the wares of used bookstores. In cyberspace, Kat can be found on Facebook (@KatDevittRomance), Twitter (@kat_devitt), and her website (https://katdevitt.com/).