The Bleeding Roses
They were the flowers in her garden, Birch and Bracken, Holly and Thistle, stout and hardy, prickly and abrasive, their twisted stems firmly rooted in the earth. Lily and Hyacinth were prettier, sweeter, but not as sturdy, and there was Iris, her head straining to follow the light, so refined, like a lady wearing chiffon, so delicate that it would seem a sin to pluck her.
And now there would come the roses. Not as mature, not yet fragrant, but she would tend them and nurture them, prune them and train them, bend them to her will.
Three of them, brothers, up to no good as usual.
Scuttling along the dark lane quiet as mice, backs bent and heads bowed like penitents, they hugged the high hedge to stay out of sight. Half a mile behind them was the truck which would be their escape, parked in a lay-by on the main road, ahead of them the farmhouse which was their target, its lights glimpsed through gaps in the hedge.
In single file, in order of seniority, it was Den who brought up the rear, the youngest of the three, a scrawny sixteen year old scuffing along in heavy boots his skinny legs could barely lift. "You sure her husband's away, Bri?" he asked nervously. "He never goes away, hardly ever leaves the house even."
"He's away," the eldest brother assured him. "Saw him at the bus station this morning, an overnight bag big enough to mean he's away a couple of days at least."
"And she ain´t got any dogs, has she?"
"For Christ´s sake, Den! Don´t be such a fucking wimp!"
"But farmhouses always have dogs."
"No! She ain't got no fucking dogs! Now shut the fuck up! Your wheezing´s enough to give us away, let alone your big fat mouth! Come on! Quiet as-"
"Mice?" chipped in the middle brother, Kev.
"Is what I was going to say." Bri scowled at the interruption, stretched out an arm to bring them to a halt as the lane curved and the farmhouse came into full view. Squatting on his haunches, giving the place a quick once over, he saw that the ground floor was in darkness now, the upstairs window too. "Cool. This'll be as easy as....as..."
"Taking candy from a baby?" Kev suggested.
"Don't get fucking smart with me!" Bri said. "I'm warning you, Kev! Do that once more-"
"-and I'll smack you one, I swear!"
"Now come on."
In line, still according to seniority and the long-established hierarchy, the three brothers reached the farmhouse and flattened themselves against the wall. Peering cautiously into one window, confirming that the ground floor was indeed in darkness, Bri gestured silently to his brothers and led the way around the side of the house to the rear. At the kitchen window he checked again, reassured himself that there was no one downstairs, then moved to the door. Taking a roll of heavy tape from his pocket he began to press strip after strip to the glass pane nearest the lock until it was fully covered. A sharp crack of the elbow broke the glass with not too much noise, he pulled away the tape and with it the shattered fragments, then slipped his hand through to turn the lock.
"See?" he said, turning to grin at his brothers. "As easy as...."
Kev said nothing this time.
"....easy as pie."
Chloris had heard them coming minutes ago. Living in such a solitary location a person became attuned to the silence and their blundering along the lane could not be missed. Visitors at night, on foot, could not have anything sociable in mind, and though she had not heard them early enough to dress she did have time to get down the stairs barefoot in her nightgown and be waiting for them in the kitchen.
She waited until they closed the door after them -quietly, as they thought- then clicked on the light and leveled the shotgun at the temple of the largest one.
"I would suggest that you all remain still and silent," she said evenly, calmly, as they blinked their eyes in the harsh light. "Because if you don't then this one might lose more brain cells than he can afford."
"Sorry lady!" said the youngest one. "We just came to-"
"Be silent," Chloris repeated, with enough authority that his mouth hung slack and dumb. She waited, to make sure that none of them was going to make any rash moves, regarded the three of them line abreast before her, one obviously all brawn but little brain, another with a little more wit about his eyes, and the third a quivering wreck of a wimp. After moments considering them, she decided that they were there because they had somehow guessed that she was alone, her husband away. “Is that so?”
"It was Bri, saw him at the bus station."
"Shut the fuck up, Den!" said the eldest.
"Yes, best you shut the fuck up, Den," she agreed, and guessing this one to be the weakest of the three, told him to go across to the Welsh dresser, to open the center drawer, where he would find a few sets of handcuffs.
"Handcuffs? You've got us breaking into a policewoman's house, Bri!"
"A policewoman? Oh no!" Chloris laughed.
"Then what you doing with handcuffs, lady?"
"Why I would have thought that was obvious. It's the best way to keep my husband home of an evening. Now be a good boy and go across there to get them."
The dim-witted one went over to the drawer and slid it open. "For fuck's sake, Bri! She's got a scrap yard full of the things in here!"
Five or six would do, Chloris told him patiently, and he did as ordered. A flick of her eyes, from one brother to the other, directed him, cuffing his their wrists behind their backs, the shotgun held steady while the first was fastened to the door of the kitchen range, then following the second as he was led to the sink and secured to the stout waste pipe beneath it.
Finally she leveled the shotgun at the one who had done her bidding. "And now you, little boy. Put some cuffs on yourself."
Den quickly slipped a bracelet on his wrist, fumbled clumsily behind his back to slip on the other, all the while looking anxiously at the barrel of the shotgun which was pointed at his chest. Chloris poked him with it to hurry him up, then again when she heard the cuffs snap shut, backing him up to the kitchen door. Reaching past him, holding the shotgun hard against his chest with one hand, she took down the collar and leash which hung from the coat hook on the door.
"See Bri!" said Den in dismay. "I told you she'd have fucking dogs! All farms do!"
"No, no dogs," Chloris smiled, looping the collar around his neck. "This? Like the handcuffs, it's one more way of keeping my husband in check."
Working the buckle with the fingers of one hand, she took a minute to fasten it snugly, then wound the leash around the coat hook, tugging it tight so that Den was lifted onto the tips of his toes. Finally satisfied that all three were secure, she went over to the kitchen table and sat there, the shotgun resting across her lap, to regard them with a mixture of mockery and disdain.
"What a sad bunch. So tell me, what did you come here to do? To rob me or to ravish me?"
"Shut it, Den!" said the eldest.
"Thank you Bri, he does tend to interrupt somewhat," Chloris smiled, remembering how the eldest had been addressed, and he glared back at her as if he resented her familiarity. "So, as to the reason you came. Well to judge by your dress you're in quite a state of penury, so I suppose robbing me was very much on the cards. Yes? And what about ravishing me?"
The eldest gave a low grunt, the youngest blushed and swallowed as best he could with the collar tight around his throat. The middle one, Chloris noticed, said nothing. No doubt he was already getting cramp in his legs through having to squat so uncomfortably beside the sink. She took the shotgun from her lap and set it on the table, then yawned, stretched, as if all they had done was disturb her rest, threw her arms out and wide, her long legs splayed, so that the cotton of the nightgown was pulled tight against her straining body. Then she relaxed, drew her legs up to plant her feet on the edge of the chair, wrapped her arms around them and rested her chin on her knees, smiling at each of them in turn.
Idly her fingers played with her nightgown, pinching at the fabric, and it seemed that it made a rustling sound, as if of leaves, the pattern of flowers appearing to shift at her touch, as if she was plucking the petals from them. The tips of her fingers were grubby, the nails broken, bitten, rimmed with dirt. She chewed at one, tore a sliver from it and spat it to one side.
"Like what you see, boys? Imagining what you might have done to me? I bet you've all got hard-ons. Wouldn't surprise me if the little one has come in his shorts already."
"You're mad, lady," said Bri with a sneer.
"Yes I am! Furious!" Suddenly she was on her feet and striding over to slap him hard across the face. "Fucking furious that you should have the nerve to break into my home!"
"You bitch!" said Bri, rocked by the blow.
"Oh yes, I can be! A real bitch at times!" she snarled, whirling like a dervish and sweeping over to the cutlery drawer, yanking it viciously open.
Den's eyes popped when he saw her take out the carving knife, even Bri looked alarmed, and not wholly relaxed when it seemed that her only purpose was to go across to the laundry basket and tear some bed linen to shreds. There was an audible sigh of relief from him when he saw her place the knife onto the table, next to the shotgun.
"No more feasting on me for a while," she said, coming slowly towards him, the long strips of cotton trailing from her hand. "Instead it will be me feasting on you boys."
Coming up beside Bri, she wound a length of the fabric twice around his eyes, knotted it so tight, with such a vicious tug, that it yanked his head back. Then sidling across to Den, suspended from the coat hook, she pressed her body against his as she reached up to blindfold him, beginning to sing softly as she did so: "Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run....if only they could!" She heard a whimper as the blindfold was knotted, as her sing-song words scorched his cheek, and she was grinning as she finally squatted before the third one. "And you, quiet one, you know what the farmer's wife did, don't you?" she asked, her voice a low purr. "She cut off their cocks with a carving knife."
She chuckled as she blindfolded him, then stood. She had decided to begin with the eldest, the strongest, picked up the shotgun and walked across to him. "Biggest first, I think.”
Three blindfolded heads searched out her voice, but only one felt the shotgun against it. Reaching behind Bri, Chloris released the cuffs which linked him to the oven door, left the ones in place which kept his hands fastened behind him.
"Come with me, big man," she said, nudging him, turning him, moving him forward with the barrel of the gun. "Careful now, mind how you go. This an old house, there are steep stairs to negotiate."
"Where are you taking him? What are you going to do with him?" asked Den in a blind panic.
"You don't want to know, little one," Chloris told him. "But be patient, don't go away. I'll be back for you."
The woman was like a specter, a wraith, silent as she circled Bri, moving with the grace of a dancer and the speed of a predator. He was blindfolded still and the only clue he had of her presence was the faint hint of her perfume, the earthy warmth of her body whenever it came near. A hand brushed his shoulder and he flinched, a nail scratched his cheek and he shuddered. The silence was intimidating, the anticipation intense. Her touch quickened now, coming from the left and from the right, from the front and from the back, sometimes softly caressing and sometimes cruelly abrasive. Unable to see, Bri became dizzy beneath her touch, as if he was being spun on a carousel of sensation. Not knowing where the next caress might come from, or if it would be gentle or painful, his body trembled, leaned first one way and then the other, as if he was searching out her body or trying to escape it.
She had led him stumbling, sometimes cursing, down the stairs and into the cellar. He heard the click of a switch, was aware of light behind his blindfold, a warm moist light, like that of the sun on a sultry day. The floor beneath his feet was soft and yielding, challenging his sense of balance, making him more disorientated, the atmosphere so thick and cloying that he felt he might suffocate. Her perfume, too, her breath on his face, was no longer a subtle feminine fragrance but something altogether more primitive, a fetid exhalation which had him reeling.
"Be still!" she said, striking him hard, and heard a threatening grumble escape him.
"I can take pain, lady," he hissed.
"Oh I'm sure you can, a big man like you," Chloris smiled.
"So if you're going to kick the shit out of me for breaking into your house get it over with."
"Tsk! So crude!" she tutted, and then he knew she was before him again, he could feel her noxious breath on his face, as heavy as a blanket drawn slowly over it. His other senses heightened, still unable to see, Bri heard a sound which was of her mounting excitement, a soft guttural noise which was followed by a low chuckle. “You call me a bitch, but it is you who will howl, howl like a dog.”
"What the fuck is she doing to him?" wondered Den, voice quaking with fear at what might be to come. The sobs, the yelps, the cries had mounted in intensity, sounds never before associated with their eldest brother, grown to such a pitch that each sent a shiver of terror through Den's body, as if the pain which must surely be their cause was something he shared. "What's she doing, Kev?"
"How the hell should I know?"
"What are we gonna do?"
"Shut the fuck up and-"
Kev's words were suddenly cut short as a soft hand clamped on his mouth, another caught him at the back of the head, and a length of duct tape was pressed to his lips. Chloris had returned unheard, was crouching before him, holding his head firmly to ensure that the tape stuck fast to his mouth. He struggled in her grip but she held him long enough for the tape to adhere, gluing his lips together, then released him, letting her fingers run lightly across his face as she took her hands away.
"Kev? Kev?" asked the younger brother, alarmed by the sudden silence.
"So the quiet one's name is Kev, is it?" Chloris whispered in his ear. "Well hush, Kev -as if you now had any option- and let's give the young one something to worry about."
"Kev? Where are you? What's happening? Kev! Come back to me!" pleaded Den, and began to softly sob.
"I hope you're braver than your brother," said Chloris, her voice still low so that only he could hear. "Are you, Kev? Braver than the wimp?"
He felt a stab of pain in his calf, it could have been cramp, and a stifled gasp escaped his gagged lips, as his brother called out -"You still there Kev?"- then sobbed once more to hear no answer.
“Now patience, I will be back."
Silently Chloris rose, tip-toed to the door she had entered by, glanced across at the other door where the youngest still hung, softly sobbing. He was still unaware of her presence, had heard none of her exchange with the gagged one. Taking firm hold of the door, she slammed it as hard as she could.
"Who's that?" Den cried out, starting so violently at the sudden noise that he almost throttled himself on the collar.
"Who do you think, bile for brains?" said Chloris, walking towards him.
"What've you done to Bri, lady? Where's Kev? What's happening?"
"My! What an inquisitive young fellow you are," Chloris remarked, stopping before him, and began to unbutton his shirt, peeling it back from his pale, scrawny chest.
"Please don't hurt me, lady!" he pleaded, flinching at her touch, twisting when he felt her fingers slip down to the waist of his jeans. "Please don't!"
"Hush, hush," she said, and sounded so soothing that perhaps he took some hope from this, complained feebly that his arms were aching. "And what do you expect me to do about that?" she wondered. "Release you?"
"Please? Will you?"
"Don't be absurd!" she scoffed, unzipping his jeans and letting them fall to his ankles. "Are you enjoying this? I bet you´ve head lots of ladies undress you, yes?”
"Sure! Lots!" he gasped, as her grubby fingers ran over his body.
She doubted this very much, hated liars, and if only he had been honest with her she might have been more forgiving, taken pity on him. A young man like him, he would have been so malleable, could have helped in her garden rather than become a part of it.
She unbuckled the leash which had held him to the door, dragged him from the room and down the stairs to the cellar.
“Now where did I put those secateurs?”
"The little one cried so beautifully! Did you hear, quiet one?" asked Chloris, sitting on the floor, legs stretched out, her back against the cabinet next to the sink, but of course there was no answer. "Oh dear! Cat got your tongue? But no, I forgot, it's the tape. How silly of me!"
Plucking at the edge of the tape, broken nails struggling for purchase, she eventually managed to peel away enough to take hold of between finger and thumb, took a firm grip and then tore it viciously from Kev's mouth. The sharp intake of breath was as much to do with pain as it was with the need for air, and his chest swelled as he inhaled deeply, and then with greedy gulps.
"So," she said, almost amicably, shuffled closer to him and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "You did enjoy the little one's cries?"
Kev turned his face silently towards her, and though sightless behind the blindfold Chloris could imagine hatred burning in his eyes.
"I'd much rather you answered me, quiet one," she said, her tone such that it would let him know she was pouting. "I took you to be the one who might have a modicum of wit and intelligence, thought you might have more than just your body to offer me, to share with me."
"Go to hell, lady.”
"What an adventurous suggestion! And would you care to come with me?" Chloris laughed, but he fell silent again, his head bowed, still taking deep breaths to savor the fresh air. "Okay then, tell me," she said, the patient tone of an adult who has to draw conversation from a recalcitrant child, "tell me how you are. It took me so long dealing with the others that you must have felt quite neglected. How have you been, quiet one? How do you feel?"
"My legs ache, I have cramp," he admitted reluctantly.
Chloris's hand slipped lower, to the back of his thighs, his calves. "Oh yes, I can feel how knotted they are. How brave of you to bear the pain so stoically." She craned her head to peer behind him, to where his cuffed wrists were linked to the waste pipe. "Perhaps if I moved the cuffs lower down you might be able to sit more comfortably, as I am? Yes?"
His legs trembled a little now, as if mention of the cramp had served to remind him of it, to make it worse, and she made soft cooing noises of sympathy. Moving her hand from his shoulders, her fingers trailing lightly down his arm to his cuffed wrists, then along the second pair of cuffs to where he was fastened to the waste pipe, she released these and pushed him gently forward, her hand in the small of his back turning him so that he fell on his side.
"Stretch now, ease those aches, such agonizing bliss it will be. And such agony and bliss we will share," she promised him, "though not in equal proportions."
He groaned out loud as he fought to stretch his legs, felt the locked knees protest, the knotted muscles resist. Impatiently, or perhaps simply maliciously, Chloris grasped one ankle and tugged it out, then the other, sending excruciating pain shooting through each. Hauling him to his feet, she steadied him on shaking legs, a crutch for a cripple, led him towards the stairs and on down to the cellar.
He could smell the scent of wet leaves in dark forests, orchards where fruit was rotting, rich loamy earth he could imagine alive with all manner of creatures.
Before he could question where they were Chloris removed his blindfold to show him the flowers in her garden, introduced him to them, Birch here, Bracken there, Holly and Thistle facing them, parodies of plants in varying degrees of cultivation. Arms were bound to bodies by garden ties, bodies bound to canes, thighs too,
“See how Holly strains towards Birch, Thistle towards Bracken,” she pointed out, and he saw them swaying unsteadily in the light, as if seeking its nourishment, but blindly, searching out its warmth but not seeing it, reaching out to each other but frustrated in their attempts. "Pity poor Lily and Hyacinth, though, poor Iris, they are have been so lonely, but now they will have the bleeding roses for company"
And he shuddered to see blind eyes with petals for lashes dripping tears which were golden like pollen, shuddered to see his two brothers, feet buried in the earth, their legs with the skin stripped from them, then rewrapped to fuse the two limbs into one.
Shuddered to feel a cold blade touch his own limbs, ready to pierce the flesh.
"So will you help me?" she asked. "Help me to tend them, to cultivate them, to prune them? Or will you join them?"