The Black Rose

In Short Story by Anthony Raymond

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Photo by Tammy Kelly on Shutterstock

I turned the uncut stone three times over in my hand. It was rough and coarse, but he explained to me that it was imperative it wasn’t altered. He said the process stripped away at it, and if I wanted it to “harness the powers of the earth” as he said, I needed to keep it the way the earth made it. Or in this case, the moon.

“Can you see it?” he asked. “Really see it?”

He never spoke to me as passionately as when he thought he was teaching me something. It was equally patronizing and endearing. Sometimes I felt more like a student than a lover, or at the very least an audience. When we first started dating, I enjoyed the dynamic. I thought it was quite charming how badly he wanted to impress me. It wasn’t pedantic or pompous because he cared so deeply about what he was saying, his utter submersion in the topic made him totally self-unaware but completely genuine. He’d talk forever about the phases of the moon, the position of the stars, as if either of them actually affected him.

“I can see it,” I said. My eyes were closed.

I heard him walk through the beaded curtains and out of the room. When he returned, he sat next to me on the bed and placed something on the nightstand. “Keep your eyes closed.” There was the slight tang of his body odor. “It’s just a notepad.” Then, “It’s a symbol. A message from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind that you’re ready to listen.”

There was the flicker of a lighter and the smell of Nag Champa.

“The moonstone will absorb the energy,” he said, wafting the smoke around the room. I didn’t need to see this to know. He loved the idea of ceremony, the glorification of the mundane, the secular turned sacred. I once admired that as well. “Here.” He took the stone from me and placed it beneath the pillow like a child’s tooth. “When you wake up, write down what you remember.” I wanted to comment on how childish it all seemed, but we were getting along and I guess I valued that more.

...

I had the dream again that night. It was a giant orangutan sitting alone in a dark room. Its face was a large gray moon with human-like eyes. It held a small ceramic bowl, the contents of which I could not see. The orangutan stirred it with its human-like fingers. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, all my teeth fell out. I tried and tried but they kept coming and coming as if they had regenerated in my skull like shark teeth, an endless stream pouring out of my mouth in a silent scream.

When I woke up, I reached for the notepad and wrote these words: say something. Under the pillow, the moonstone lay there like a single tooth.

...

In the shower, I couldn’t escape those two words. Say something. So simple, so concise, so heavy.

When I first told him about the dream, he said it was me at war with my inner primitive self, fighting against some innate impulse. Which to him was most likely monogamy. I always felt a pang of resentment in him, that I was pulling him away from something. That polyamorous lifestyle all his friends in his meditation group lived, with their whining sound bowls, restrictive diets, and substance abuse. Living their truth as if truth was subjective. All of that selfish heightened western individualism masquerading as enlightenment. Perhaps I harbored my own resentment.

There was a bundle of eucalyptus still hanging from the shower head even though he knew I was allergic to it. He claimed it cleared his sinuses. His hypotheticals were always more important to him than my reality. Just like the salt lamp in the bedroom he claimed improved air quality that kept me up all night. Or the slab of amethyst in the kitchen he claimed was a natural tranquilizer that just took up counter space. “Everything is vibrations,” he’d say, pacing up and down the hall waving his burning stick of palo santo, “and vibrations are energy and energy needs to be absorbed.” There was always something to blame, always some way to feign responsibility; some unaligned chakra, some planet in retrograde.

I got out of the shower, nervous but prepared for him to ask me what I had written down, but the front door was already closing behind him. I stood naked in the hall, scratching my head like a dumb ape.

I threw the eucalyptus in the trash.

...

He was sound asleep and I watched him from the bay window. The rain fell delicately outside, and inside the salt lamp glowed. I was avoiding sleep, not ready to face the orangutan. I held the moonstone in my hand, wanting to believe that it could provide me with some kind of direction. In a way, though, it had. My struggle to comprehend his attempt to understand me magnified my inability to understand him. The moonstone, however indirectly, shed light on how much space had grown between us. But there was always a distance between us, I suppose. I think that was what attracted me to him in the first place. He was elusive, I guess. Mysterious, in a way. There was always this sense that I would never fully know him, and that intrigued me. My mind just sort of filled in the blanks. I could make him out to be whoever I wanted him to be, and I did.

Before we moved in together last fall, I filled in the gaps between us with my fantasies, but since giving up my bright, south-facing studio in Nob Hill and moving into his drafty two bedroom, I started filling in those gaps with something else. “Where are you going tonight?” I’d ask, “Just out,” he’d say, and that would be that. I said nothing. It wasn’t that I needed an explanation, it was that he didn’t want to share it with me. My imagination would reel.

What other parts of him did I fail to understand? What other parts of him did he keep concealed?

There were so many things we should’ve said to each other, and maybe if we had we wouldn’t be left with nothing to say to each other. Our fear of confrontation kept us from being vulnerable. We never wanted to hurt each other so we hurt ourselves.

Say something.

Was it the moonstone’s advice?

His cell phone was lying on the nightstand, his head rested on the pillow. I could go through it and he would be none the wiser, I thought to myself. It’s right there, go ahead, open it. Could I invade his privacy like that? How much did I still value his trust?

I let him sleep.

...

We were at the zoo. It was a warm and sunny day. People jovially licked at the ice-cream cones dripping down their fat-clenched fists. Children screamed and pointed while their parents yelled after them behind strollers strewn with balloons. Is this the goal, I wondered, weekends in packed amusement parks, waiting in line at gift shops? Is this what all our hostility was about? The promise of monogamy he feared? This quotidian prison.

The orangutan was anticlimactic. It just sat there. What else did I expect?

“Did you find what you’re looking for?” he asked smugly.

“I’m not quite sure I know what I’m looking for,” I said.

That was that.

“They seem lonely,” he said about the elephants.

“They have each other,” I said.

He said, “I’m not sure that’s enough.”

He walked ahead of me and into the damp, dark amphibian house.

“Do you think they know that they’re in a tank?” I ran my fingers across the glass, hoping the smiling salamander inside would follow but it didn’t. The walls chirruped and croaked like a Rainforest Cafe.

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know,” he said. “It's arrogant to say no but depressing to say yes.”

A couple of small children shoved their way in front of us and pressed themselves against the tank like starfish.

“Do you think they know?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, “it’s depressing to say no but arrogant to say yes,” and winked.

He could still make me laugh doing the bare minimum, which is a quality I think is worthwhile, but perhaps I’d grown tired of accepting the bare minimum.

His cellphone rang. “I have to take this,” he said, and left me there like a smiling salamander.

...

Later, after the fog rolled in and we retreated back to the warmth of the Mission, we rode Muni in silence.

“Who was on the phone?” I asked.

“Oh, you know...” he said, which was his way of saying he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

I resisted the urge to press the issue; I didn’t want to spoil a nice afternoon.

His hand was resting on his knee and I set my hand on top of it. The two of us rocked in the cradle of the train. He pulled it away to check his phone.

I looked out the window of the train, feeling not much different than the salamanders in the amphibian house of the lonesome, crowded zoo. All that pent-up aggression. Submissive and complacent, trapped and smiling. But there was something more about the salamanders that struck me; it was that they were being observed and had an audience pointing out what they were unaware of, mocked for their ignorance. What dramatic irony. And that made me think of the dramatic irony in my own life: who was watching me, pitying me for the realizations I had yet to make?

I looked over at him on his phone, next to me but so far away. The distance between us was palpable but it was also familiar. That’s what made it so comfortable. And that's what would only make it worse.

...

How do I leave? How do I stay?

...

By the time I had gotten into bed that night, he was fast asleep, dreaming of something I did not know. I was sitting in the bay window, staring up at the moon. The same moon above the amphibian house. I couldn’t shake the feeling of the salamanders in their small tanks, the halls vacant with no one watching. Were they still smiling? In my mind it seemed silent beyond comprehension. Maybe there was the neon glow of a night lamp but not much else. I felt the pull of an invisible tether, something tying them to me. To us. Were we stuck in some kind of domestic exhibit? I imagined them like electrons, when they are not being observed they take on a different state. Haven’t we been like that? When we were observed, we were one way, but when we were alone we were another. All those nights spent laughing around dinner tables with friends that ended with silent cab rides home, and it was either too arrogant to answer one way and too depressing to answer the other.

Back in bed he was snoring, his telephone blinking on the pillow. It looked like a pulsing night light, a strobing moon.

All the answers were right in front of me, a pulsing light even heralded me towards them. It was all right there, all I had to do was open it up.

So I got up from the bay window, picked up his phone and set it on the nightstand, then peeled back his scalp. The moon strobed. His skull split apart like a spaghetti squash. I held it in my palm like a ceramic bowl and read the contents like tea leaves.

Memories aimlessly wandered around like restless ghosts in an old hotel. The memory of the zoo appeared and then faded out of sight like a silently sinking ship. Into the unobtainable depths of his subconscious. I was happy to see the memory of our first kiss, and it shone on my smiling face.

Time slipped away from me.

Did you find what you’re looking for?

I’m not quite sure I know what I’m looking for.

Then there, in the corner, a stain bloomed before me like a black rose. I resisted the urge to reach out and touch it. A chill ran up my spine. There was no joy in that spot, nor was there any remorse or sorrow; it was a deep chasm of total isolation and numbing indifference.

What had I done?

...

“I had the strangest dream last night,” he said the following morning.

“Oh yeah?” I was rolling a joint in my lap. We hadn’t gotten out of bed yet.

“I dreamed I was a mouse.” He was scratching his head, his hair still matted from where he had slept on it. “I was in a big cage with all of these other mice.”

“Doesn’t sound strange.” I lit the joint, puffed it until a cherry burned.

“And all of the mice were part of this religion.” He took the joint. “They worshipped The Hands.”

I propped myself up on my elbow. “What was so special about the hands?”

“They fed them and gave them water and changed their bedding.”

“Ah, the omnipotent being trope.” The cherry had gone out and I relit it.

“And they were wearing these gloves.” He showed me his hands as if he were wearing them. “White gloves.”

“Like a magician’s? Are you sure they were mice and not rabbits?”

“Doctor gloves.”

I nodded as if it was simple logic.

“Every day the mice would gather by the water bottle and they would take turns going up to and licking the little silver steel ball. I can still hear the clicking sound. It was like a sacrament. And then the sky would break apart and they knew The Hands were coming. So they all gathered in a large circle and waited and watched. Sure enough, there they were: big and white and splayed and descending.” He pressed his hands into the memory foam. Then he looked right at me and said, “And they took one of the mice. Right by the tail. Pulled and swallowed by the sky it was.”

With that he got out of bed, still naked even though we hadn’t slept together, and ran the bath.

From the toilet I asked, “And then what happened?”

“You know...” he said, so I let it be, only slightly nervous about what I had done.

...

I found myself in the pet store, steered by guilt, looking at the mice.

“Can I help you with anything?” the pimple-faced teenager asked me.

“Who takes care of the mice?”

“No one really,” they shrugged. “They’re feeder mice.”

In the cage they blindly climbed over one another, crinkling their little pink noses, their little pink feet pressed against the dirty glass. It was easy to see that they would need something to worship, something to help explain this agonizingly pointless existence.

“Do you wear gloves when you put your hands inside?”

“Um... It’s not a requirement if that's what you're asking. Do you have a snake?”

“I guess you could say that.”

Somewhere in the distance the tiny bubbles of fish tanks sang, a little treasure chest opened and closed. A parakeet whistled, a chihuahua pissed on the floor.

“Do you have any salamanders?”

“We have geckos and bearded dragons. I have a bearded dragon. It eats crickets. Do you like reptiles? Salamanders are amphibians but some people get them confused.”

“I’ll just take one of the mice. And can you use gloves to take it out?”

...

On the walk back to our apartment, underneath the 101 overpass, the mouse crawled up and down my arms. It had spent enough of its life in a cage. They called it a feeder mouse and I decided that it had more to offer than that.

It was not much different than the tents that lined the side of Duboce Ave. Feeder people, I thought as the mouse ran up and over the nape of my neck. Who have I been feeding? And what parts of me have been starved, for affection, attention, et cetera, et cetera? Time and persistence can chip away at a person, it can leave a mark, like a black abscess hung in the corner of your mind.

The mouse ran across my knuckles and I raised it eye level, its little whiskers brushed my cheeks. “What is he hiding?” I asked.

A man emerged from one of the tents, squinting his eyes despite there being little sun. He relieved himself on the pavement behind the tent and afterwards injected heroin in between his toes. A succession of Teslas rolled silently past and into the Whole Foods parking lot.

...

I took the train to Ocean Beach and then back again. I was having second thoughts about giving him the mouse; I’m not entirely sure if that’s what we needed. So I just kept it in my shirt pocket and fed it the craisins I bought from the bodega. It gobbled them up.

I checked my phone several times to see if he had texted me, but he hadn’t. I hesitate to say that he intimidated me, but I was always a little reluctant to pry, if that's the right word. I wanted him to come to me, to open up and share with me unprompted. Maybe I was standoffish, maybe my lack of initiative came across as disinterest.

But I did pry, didn't I? In the most intrusive way. He wasn’t giving me what I expected from him so I, unrightfully, took it. And what did I have to show for it? A stain on his mind and possibly elsewhere, that ugly flower of mistrust that I had watered and fed. Something broken that could never be mended, something stirred up inside his subconscious like...

...an orangutan in a dark room.

That realization, that simple adjustment of the prism shone a different light on me and I felt validated. Vindicated, even. How could he? How dare he? How long had he been in my head, how big was the stain he left on my mind?

I looked down at the mouse in my shirt pocket with a resentful, almost contemptuous glare. I brought my right hand to my shirt pocket, felt it wriggle and squeak beneath my palm.

An old woman across from me smiled behind her grocery bags. I smiled back.

I released the mouse. It would not be fed to us. Instead, I gave it a craisin.

...

In Buena Vista park I turned the stone three times over in my palm. Had I harnessed the power of the earth? I smiled to myself. By giving me the moonstone, it seemed he had finally done more than just the bare minimum.

Say something

I pulled my phone out and sent him a message. “We need to talk,” it said.

Off an overgrown trail, the mouse followed a trail of craisins I laid out in the dirt. Once all of them were gone, I walked away from it only half believing it was capable of acclimating itself into the wild.

About the Author

Anthony Raymond

Anthony Raymond is an emerging writer from San Francisco, California. His most recent publication was a short story for Czykmate Productions and he was a semi-finalist in the Ember Chasm Review novel excerpt contest. Anthony is currently a student at Stanford University in the novel writing certificate program.