BEFORE ROSES MEANT FIRE
by Kathryn Nuernberger
A rose means many things, and only some of it is love. Desdemona means innocence. Sir Galahad, humility. Give Dainty Bess to show appreciation. Silver Shadow for admiration. You Only Live Once for gratitude. Eleanor is the lavender of love at first sight. So too is the plum of Night Owls. The Middlesbrough Football Club is the cultivar for desire and enthusiastic passion. Its particular shade of orange is as ridiculous as a riot. Red as Satchmo, red as Happy Christmas, red as City of Leeds. Red means enduring passion. From the beginning a rose meant there was an old poet who thought himself unreasonably clever and was obsessed with the virginity of much younger women. From the same, but less quoted beginning, roses meant fire.
Before roses meant fire, Dorothea, according to this and that lying storyteller of a medieval historian, was taken before a judge and tortured for the witchcraft of refusing to marry a powerful man. And then tortured for the witchcraft of returning from the tub of boiling oil unharmed. And subsequently for surviving unmarked for nine days in a deep prison without food or drink. For saying she was fed on the succor of God’s angels. For being fairer and brighter to look upon than ever before. For the descent of a multitude of angels and the sound of the demon fiends in the air wailing, “O Dorothy why dost thou destroy us and torment us so sore?” She was hanged on the gibbet. And rent with hooks of iron. On and on it went, graphic and strangely erotic, as the martyrologia always are. What more proof could a judge possibly need? It is helpful to remember her crime was never that she displayed too little of her power. Near the end of her trial, which was also the beginning of her punishment, she gave a very long speech about faith in God that only a priest could love. The judge asked, “How long wilt thou drag us along with thy witchcraft?” She answered, “I am ready to suffer for my lord, my spouse, in whose gardeyne full delicious I have gaderd rosis and apples.” Then she bowed her head, and the man cut it off.
She bowed her head, and the man cut it off, but not before Theophilus, a notary of Rome, mocked her by asking for roses and apples from her spouse’s garden even though it was midwinter. Further along her path to the place of execution, a child with star-filled eyes came to her carrying a basket with three roses and three apples. She sent the boy to find Theophilus. To convert him and save his soul and set him on his own path to glorious martyrdom, the fifteenth-century account claims. But you could also say she was trolling him. In any event, by this miracle the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, which is in present-day Turkey, was converted and saved. A reassuring story Christians told themselves about a faraway place to which their soldiers set forth on crusades even as heretics at home began to burn in ever greater numbers. In this way it reminds me very much of our war, our president, our police beating batons against their shields as they chant through body armor and face masks, “Whose streets? Our streets.” It reminds me of every headline in the paper every morning of this year or that one. For preaching of Dorothy’s miracle in the streets, Theophilus was cut into small pieces and fed to the birds. For reasons that are unclear to me, considering she was decapitated, not burned, Dorothy was named a special protectress against fire, lightening, and thundering. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Church has decreed we take comfort in this tale. That we conclude there is nothing to fear on God’s green earth, everything is coming up roses.
Everything is coming up roses, Sir John Mandeville said, in another fifteenth-century collection of marvelous and chiefly untrue accounts of far travels. In Bethlehem, he wrote, a woman was sentenced to burn for consorting with demons. She professed her innocence with the fervency of a Desdemona in full bloom. She prayed to the lord as if she were offering a bouquet of Eleanors. When she entered her pyre, the branches that had been licking flames became boughs laden red with Happy Christmas, the branches not yet ignited became boughs of blossoms as white as the Sir Galahad. “And those were the first roses and rosers that any man saw, and thus was the mayden saved through the grace of God.” I love thinking of how those tongues of flame fell down sweet and lovely and harmless. I love thinking of how a mob could never be the same after seeing something like that. What could a crowd become after witnessing such a gentle miracle but a participatory democracy with socialist economic policies? Who could be anything other than patient with the eccentricities and shortcomings of their neighbors when their eyes and hearts had been so touched by divine mercy?
Who could be anything other when their hearts had been so touched? I am quite impatient these days with shortcomings and everything else, so I will pull the Band-Aid quickly. The Voyages of Sir John Mandeville, like the Martyrologium of the Catholic Church, are propaganda, sometimes for a crusade, sometimes for an inquisition, the colonization of a continent or the enslavement of a people. By Mandeville’s account, the place of this miracle is a great lake of rose bushes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Many crusaders clipped huge blossoms of the damask as their horses waded through. At the edge of the field you will find “the place where our Lord was born, that is full well dight of marble, and full richly painted with gold, silver, azure…” What a satisfying tale this is, some will say—God turned even that humble stable into a pile of money. The roses too are nothing more than a very old version of the prosperity gospel sermons that promise the world is already as God wishes it to be. If you are prosperous, the stories assure, it is not for you to worry. Because the Lord will know you by how your roses all turned into dollars that turned into that particular way of dressing and speaking and casting up or down your eyes that seems as holy as providence itself, and which turned then into additional roses. It is worth noting that Roman emperors all used rose water as a form of currency; sometimes it was as precious as gold, sometime more. But don’t despair, history is not all lies—the part about the fire is real.
The part about the fire is as real as the Persian legend told here and there throughout the archives: the rose is red because the nightingale so dearly loved a white rose. He embraced it with ardor. Thorns pierced the bird’s breast. The blood of his broken heart turned the white petals to a deep crimson. In another tale the foam that dripped from Aphrodite as she emerged from the sea turned into white roses. the tears she shed over the body of her beloved Adonis turned them red. In the Gulistan Saadi tells the story of a wise man who became “immersed in the ocean of divine presence.” When he returned to himself, a friend asked, “From the flower garden where thou wast, what miraculous gift has thou brought for us?” He answered that he meant to fill his lap with rose trees, but, “When I arrived there the fragrance of the roses so intoxicated me that the skirt of my robe slipped from my hand.” This is a reflection on the unreal world to which our souls have, it is said, determined to fly. Perhaps this is why roses that have been cultivated so hard look like they are trying to prove something. People point to them in stained glass windows and mystic poetry as sign posts toward a life more real than this one. But have you ever seen a rosebush withering away of witches’ broom? It is one of the ways I know I am entirely and really here.
One of the ways I know I am entirely and really here is to walk in the fall woods among the bare and fragile trees. Witches’ broom, the common name for a deformity in a woody plant, is a disease that changes the natural structure so that a mass of shoots grows from a single point. After the leaves fall, you might see some poor tree looking over-nested or, if it is very far gone, its crown looks like a heart pin-cushioned by arrows. In roses the foliage becomes distorted and frazzled. The leaves become so red they are almost purple. They refuse to open any farther than a tight rosette and become excessively thorny. A fungus carried from one bush to the next by wooly mites, the only solution is to tear out and destroy diseased plants. I have little interest in roses. They are ugly and too precious. I just like the way a dying girl flipped off an asshole and it got called a miracle. And then that asshole had a change of heart. I like the way people could imagine themselves making a mistake and God saving them from it, though that part worries me too. The wild rose of the Teutons symbolized battle, death, the underworld. Their adolescent soldiers charged into the fight garlanded with roses. They called the battlefields where they fell rose gardens.
Where they fell there were rose gardens. Rose—Hebrew for first blood spilled on the earth. Rose—Greek for the blood of Xerxes. Rose—Christian for Mary the Mother, for virtuous suffering and virtuous joy, for virgins devoted to God. Rose—French for prostitute. Rose—Roman for decadence. Rose—English for a certain kind of power and the exchange of sweet secrets. I have never been given roses by a man who wasn’t making me uncomfortable with how hard he was, it seemed, trying to earn, or maybe even buy, me. Rose—nineteenth-century apothecary for headache, hysteria, and other female complaints. In the Gulistan, the mole on her face is something else. Her face is something else. The ecstatic sensations between you and me are something else. The love of God, maybe, or knowledge of God, or union with God. If it has to be something other than what it is, I wish it were also something other than a rose.
I wish it were also something other than a rose. A popular opinion is that roses mean beauty. A popular opinion is that the pursuit of beauty will lead us to justice. Beauty means many things, of which truth and justice are the most rare. Roses, of any color, are the symbol of people telling themselves what they want to hear and then giving a bouquet of it to someone else, with a note on the card that says in fine calligraphy, “Believe me when I say…” Because language itself is impossible. It is nothing but signs and symbols for ideas that hover just beyond this reality. We drag the words in. Sometimes we drag in rose, crown, thorn, fire. Sometimes we try but fail in any meaningful way to drag in the bigger words, love, beauty, justice. This is the failure I believe in. Aphrodite emerged from the sea because that was where Ouranos’s testicles fell when his sun Chronos cut them off with a sickle. That we think anything means at all requires first a belief that the universe is organized enough for meaning to transmit from silence into words. Whether it is or isn’t or does or doesn’t is something else that every bloom of these roses means.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), as well as two poetry collections, The End of Pink (BOA, 2016) and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, and American Antiquarian Society, she is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. Recent essays appear in or are forthcoming from Brevity, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Paris Review, The Journal, and Tupelo Quarterly.