A cool breeze emerged. A gentle flow of sweet air penetrated the summer heat that hung heavy. Its presence was strange but soothing. It lifted the afternoon haze, broke the silence, and brought with it an energy that felt like ice and smelled clean and pure.
The breeze drifted along the sidewalk that ran through the center of town. It danced in circles around poles and cars and giant oak trees that lined the quiet street. It brushed against the old buildings as if to feel for the familiar.
There was no pause. The breeze flowed strong, following the cement path, passing the aged storefronts, to the Victorian houses, touching each one before continuing to the next.
The journey ended at the home of Reverend James. The breeze hovered in front of the house, floating, until the summer heat weakened and an unnatural chill took hold. The breeze contracted, began to twirl, taking with it sand and dust and discarded paper. It soared over the rooftop of the Reverend's house to the back where acres of beauty donned the landscape.
A sea of roses gathered and stretched their petals for the sun. They were nearly flawless; blood-red in color. They swallowed the Reverend’s backyard. They stood proud with tightly packaged and embracing petals.
From the upstairs window, the rose garden was a red blanket, soft, laid over the soil, soaking in the warmth of the sun, rippling with every gentle touch of the breeze.
The Reverend, the keeper of the garden, often sat by the upstairs window that overlooked the roses. He would imagine himself falling in slow motion before landing safely on the soft blanket, only to close his eyes and enjoy the sensation of warmth engulfing his body as the blanket wrapped him securely, protecting him from sin.
The roses came one spring morning; their seeds carried the night before on the back of the cool breeze. When the Reverend awoke, he found their beauty. The garden was a special gift given to a faithful man. The roses shimmered. They glowed through spring and summer until the fall chill wilted them and reduced the garden to dirt. And seeds would sleep, awaiting the next spring.
For many seasons, he tended the garden. The Reverend cherished his gift; a message from God. He was the worthy receiver.
In the center, hidden by the velvet petals, stems, and sharp thorns, was a clearing. It was a dark and cold place. The roses leaned inward and blocked the sun. They nurtured the aberrant spot. They concealed a mound of soil that grew with every passing night, swelling, expanding, until forming a large, oval shape. And one morning, the roses leaned outward, allowing the sun to reach the mound, which opened and sprouted life. A tiny bud blossomed. It spread its leaves, grasping at the moist earth. Life metamorphosed. Leaves turned to flesh. Life took the form of a young woman.
Her body, underneath the soil, began to rise. As she made the ascension, the young woman stretched and flexed her muscles. She wiped the soil from her body.
Tiny lines criss-crossed over her skin. The pattern was an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Thousands of pieces composed her body as if they had been cut away and pasted back onto the flesh. Each piece was perfectly aligned with the other.
The young woman ran her fingers across the lines. She felt for the grooves embedded in her skin. She caressed her body, tracing each line with her fingers. She was pale at first, but color consumed her when the sun touched the skin. Warm blood began to flow.
She pulled her feet from the earth. The roses parted. The breeze, waiting at the edge of the garden for the young woman’s ascension, touched the young woman's face and led her away.
She followed the breeze from the garden to the main street. It led her passed the empty houses to the church where the townsfolk gathered for Sunday service. She stood in the doorway and listened to Reverend James speak to the congregation.
The Reverend’s words carried. They echoed. His voice was immense and commanded the attention of his flock. The Reverend’s voice filled their ears with an ancient parable that offered guidance for the fallen, and the lost, and the confused.
He was animated. His hands sliced through the air. His head thrusted forward and to the side. The Reverend clenched his fists and stomped his feet. He paused several times to wipe the sweat from his brow before continuing with the parable. His pauses were dramatic. The congregation waited anxiously for the next line.
The Reverend spoke of a young woman missing from the flock, gone seven months to the day. He revisited that fall afternoon when the young woman disappeared. The town held on to hope. They prayed for her safe return, but now it was time to let go. The Reverend told the congregation they may never know what happened. Still, he reassured them that God knew and would be there for her.
As he spoke the words, the Reverend thought of the omniscience of God and that the almighty would bare witness to all mortal sins.
He thought about that fall day, when the young woman came to his house seeking guidance. They sat close. He could smell her hair. He watched her lips move as she confided in him, telling her inner most secrets. He was lost in the young woman’s innocence, moved by her guarded sensuality.
A weakness of the heart had overtaken him; a momentary digression from a righteous stride. She was so fragile, so soft.
He kissed her hard. She withdrew and looked at the Reverend in horror. He pressed harder, the weight of his body pinned against hers. She struggled. He pressed harder. She screamed.
The next few moments were not clear. Sin had blurred his thoughts and left the Reverend with a horrible remembrance. His will was not of murder, but the screaming would not stop. Sin came and went, leaving behind the remains of its evil.
The Reverend’s sermon ceased. The congregation waited quietly for him to begin again. Seconds passed. The Reverend thought about that fall afternoon. How he drove to Johnson’s farm to borrow the wood chipper, telling the old man he had to clear some trees. How he hauled it to the backyard of his house and waited until nightfall.
The Reverend felt sick thinking about pushing the young woman’s lifeless vessel into the machine. A river of blood and tiny fragments spewed from the blower. He thought about how he plowed the soil, pushing the evidence deep into the earth. How he washed the wood chipper clean, scrubbing every inch, before returning it to old man Johnson.
The memory burdened his entire being. It haunted him and remained as vivid as the day it took place. Her struggle, the weight of her corpse, the sound of crushing and grinding bone, the smell of flesh. The memory invaded his dreams. It was in the eyes of everyone in the congregation. Bringing closure to them meant he could finally forget.
The long pause had become unnerving for the congregation. The Reverend asked them to bow their heads in prayer. And when their heads lowered, the young woman entered the church and walked toward the Reverend. One by one, the congregation lifted their heads. They turned to the young woman. They gasped in disbelief.
The young woman’s mother, who sat in the front row of the church, began to cry. Rising from her seat, she stretched her hand out to her daughter, who reached back. Their hands met. A red aura surrounded their bodies. When she let go, her mother’s hands were filled with rose petals.
The thousands of pieces that embodied the young woman detached, exposing the smooth, moist flesh. One after the other, the pieces floated like feathers to the ground. As they landed, the pieces turned to blood-red rose petals. The flesh followed, turning to dust and scattering among the petals. The cool breeze entered the church. It lifted the debris into the air, spinning, before carrying what was left of the young woman from the church to the street.
The Reverend followed the breeze, the scent of roses filling his nostrils. He stood outside of the church and watched rose petals twist and turn before him as the breeze grew in ferocity. Cold air gnawed at his bones. He shivered violently as if it were the dead of winter.
The breeze, now a powerful wind, lashed out at the buildings and the trees. Branches fell to the ground. Shingles were ripped from rooftops. And in one sudden burst, the wind, the rose petals, the flesh dust, soared to clouds and were gone.
The Reverend turned back to the church doorway where the congregation stood, glaring in contempt for him. Their eyes penetrated his soul. He felt it. They could see everything.
He ran from the church. His pace was swift, but he could feel the congregation gaining on him. Down the street, through the center of town, to the backyard, the Reverend was in search of comfort and security. He wanted to find his red blanket, be wrapped snuggly and protected.
When he reached the backyard, the Reverend found no safe haven. The entire rose garden had wilted. Tears filled his eyes and he began to weep. The congregation gathered around and watched the man, their spiritual leader, collapse from the weight of his sin.
His body wilted like the roses. Skin shriveled. Flesh rotted, changing to a black liquid. It seeped into the soil, submerging deep into the earth. The congregation was silent. They walked from the barren land without turning back.
Warmth returned to the afternoon and the sun shined brightly upon the town. In the place where the rose garden once stood, the sounds of weeping could be heard underneath the soil.
© 2018 by Thomas R. Reilly
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