Michel and the Rose-a Retelling.

Submitted into Contest #86 in response to: Write a story where flowers play a central role.... view prompt

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Fantasy Friendship

This would make a great once upon a time story, Michel thought. Except, I’m in it. 

Maybe the next time someone tells you a place is haunted you’ll believe it, said a voice inside him. If there was a next time which seemed doubtful, considering who was screaming at him right this very moment. All because he’d dared to ask why he’d been captured. 

“Why are you in this cell?” roared the monster. “Because you stole my flowers!” 

Michel was amazed he could look at him without screaming himself. Monsters weren’t supposed to exist. Everyone in England was too enlightened for that. Yet here was one. He, or so Michel assumed, was large, standing seven feet tall. He had the horns of a bull and a face like a bear. He stood upright, with paws instead of hands and a bull’s feet. He worn velvet blue pants ripped and patched. Michel rubbed his shoulder and winced. The damned monster had almost pulled it out of socket dragging him here. 

The pain was how he knew he wasn’t dreaming. 

 “It was just a flower, sir, for my daughter’s grave. In all honesty, you seem far too angry over this.”  

Good God almighty did you just say that? he thought, watching the monster’s jaw open, showing sharp fangs. 

Can you blame me? Michel asked himself. It didn’t help that the merchant ship he’d been expecting still wasn’t in port. With his luck, the damned thing probably sank and he'd have no wares to sell. Coming home in the pouring rain he had seen the castle and ran to take shelter in an archway. Then afterward, he’d seen the rose garden. So many Michel had figured it wouldn’t hurt to take just one. It had been so red, almost like blood, brilliant in the twilight, sweet-smelling as a spring breeze. But still, it wasn’t the only one. Now here he was imprisoned by a crazed monster-gardener. 

“How dare you talk to me this way!” it spoke in a furious growl. 

“What more can you do to me?” Michel looked around him. “I’m in this cell. I suppose you could kill me but I’m fine with that.” 

The monster stared at him. “What?” His eyes widened. Michel saw they were green.  

The things you notice at a time like this

 “You want to die?”  

“Not really,” Michel smiled. “But it wouldn’t be the worst thing. I’d see my wife and daughter again.” I hope. Given his past history that was also doubtful. But after all the priest said Jesus forgave a murderer on a cross so who knew? 

The monster frowned.” I don’t understand,” he said at last. "Most people are frightened of me.” 

“Oh, trust me, sir, I am. But also curious. Why all this over a flower?” 

The monster simply turned and left. 

Humph. Well, at least I’m alive.  

For now, Michel thought. He coughed and put his hand on the wall, Damp, cold stone. One barred window, and a barred door. A torch burned a few feet away, lighting a stone hallway leading to stairs. 

Do all prison cells have to be alike? 

Michel pulled his picks out of his pocket. He was struggling with the lock when the door swung open.  

 My Lord Jesus, help me. 

 He wasn’t a praying man, but this seemed a fitting occasion.  For a ghostly figure stood there. In life, he might have been handsome, if one liked men with ringlets and thick mustaches. 

 “Come with me,” he said. Oddly, his hollow voice had a French accent. 

“Ah,” said Michel, “I see. There is an enchantment here.”  

“Hush,” said the ghost. “The master doesn’t like too many questions.” 

“I noticed,” said Michel. “Look, I honestly meant no harm. How about you help a poor peasant and get me out of here, Sir…?” 

“Just call me Louis. And I can’t let you escape.” 

“I’ll take you with me if you’d like. Maybe you’ll become...um… more solid?”  

“I’m not leaving. Neither are you.” 

“Thanks a lot,” Michel said. 

“Do you want out of this cell, or not?” 

Michel pulled his coat tighter around him. “That would be nice.” 

“Then come and be silent.” Louis led him down some staircases and into the servant’s quarters. He took Michel to a bedroom that contained a small lumpy-looking bed and a dresser. It was dusty but it wasn’t a cell either. 

“So,” Michel asked, “What’s the story?” 

Louis shook his head as if annoyed. “Don’t ask questions I said. Boy!” he called out, startling Michel. A ghostly child brought in a cart. Obviously, their state didn’t stop them from handling objects. On it was indeed a bowl of stew. Michel ate and while it was plain it was hot and hearty. 

Now, let’s see about getting out. 

Michel went to the door which was unlocked. He looked out. Louis and Boy seemed to be gone. 

This might be a trap. They could be invisible. 

Only one way to find out. 

Michel crept out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, and back up the stairs. At the top was a wooden door that led into a great hallway. At one time the place must have been beautiful. Now it was cobwebby and smelled of dirty tapestries. But Michel barely noticed because there was the front door. He was just turning the knob when a growly voice spoke from the shadows. 

“I can smell you. Also, there are wolves. You’re better off with me.’ 

Michel rubbed his shoulder again. “I doubt that. No offense.” 

“Maybe I should kill you, as you wished.” The monster strode to Michel who did his best not to flinch. His breath really was overpowering.  But what he said next surprised both of them. “Why do you want to die, anyway?” 

Michel sighed. “I told you why. I’m old and weary. That last barber-surgeon I saw said judging by the sound my heart won’t last much longer. He bled me but I only got worse. I don’t particularly want to die but it wouldn’t be-“ 

“The worse thing,” the monster said. ‘So, it seems better to keep you alive. A greater punishment.” He sighed, which was more like a hot wind in Michel’s face. “I suppose Louis let you out. I’ll need to... talk to him.” 

The things I do for people, Michel thought, not knowing if Louis could be hurt. He showed his picks, which the monster snatched. “Should have known, you being a thief and all. Get back to the servant’s quarters. And consider that better than you deserve.” 

Michel did just that. He slept in the lumpy bed and awoke at dawn. Once again, he slipped past Louis and back up the stairs. Maybe I can find some other way out of here. 

But the castle was more like a fortress, ruined as it was. The windows were shuttered against the bright sunlight, the front doors locked. So was a few side doors Michel tried. Eventually, he found a door that wasn’t locked. This led to a library that smelled greatly of wet dog mixed with bear. 

Wonderful, Michel thought. The monster spent time here. He should leave. But something drew him to the middle of the room. For in a vase was a single rose. It was as white as snow with pink-edged petals, nothing like Michel ever saw before. Drops of water sparkled on the petals as if it had just been freshly watered. And the smell! It reminded him of his daughter’s cakes, sweet and nourishing. But yet it had a faint smell underneath. It was of something dying. 

This flower is at the center of this enchantment, Michel thought. And if I was smart, I’d get the hell out of here. 

A snarl told him it was too late for that. He spun and backed away from the flower, towards the far wall, and away from the monster. 

“M-My apologies, M-Milord,” he said. “I-I merely wished to find a book. To pass the time.” 

“I’m no longer any lord,” the monster growled. “But you’re a liar. You probably can’t even read.” 

 Actually, I can.” Michel shouted back. “Not all us peasants are unlearned. And while we’re at it I was more than a common thief. Throw in heretic, assassin, and thug for hire. All for a good cause though. We were fighting against the Inquisition,” he said. “So at least now you can kill me with a clear conscience.” 

“I have-a heretic in my house?” 

You imprisoned me,” Michel replied. He saw the monster’s eyes narrow. Then he growled. But his body also shook in such a way Michel wondered if he was...laughing. 

You have balls, I’ll give you that,” he said. “Bigger than is good for you.” 

“So I’ve been told,” Michel muttered to himself. 

The monster stared for a long moment while Michel wondered for the thousandth time if he was about to die. Finally, he said, “if you really can read, help yourself to the books. Touch the flower, and-” at this point, he drew a claw across his throat. Michel swallowed and nodded. 

***** 

“So,” Michel asked one night. ‘What should I call you, if you don’t like milord?” 

“Bestia will do.” 

Lousy name but so be it. “So. Who did you piss off?” 

“You dare to ask-” 

“Yeah, I know. I’d ask Louis but all he does is tell me to go away.”  

“If you must know, an old woman came to my door seeking shelter. I had Louis push her out. Before she left, she gave me that.” Bestia gestured to the rose. “An apology for disturbing us, she said. It was no apology.” 

“In fairy tales, you never turn away beggar women,” Michel said. 

“This isn’t a story,” Bestia answered. “Sometimes beggars are assassins. You know all about that, don’t you?” 

“I do,” Michel said very softly. 

Bestia nodded. “My father had already been killed by such. Besides,” he spat this out. “Don’t you think she could make her own shelter?” 

“And how do you break the curse? Perhaps I can help.” 

Bestia didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “What about you?” 

“The inquisition killed my brother,” Michel said. “Because he questioned if Galileo was right. No more than that.” 

“So,” Bestia said. “you wanted revenge.” 

“Yes. And I had it. Until...” 

“Until what?” In the darkness, Bestia could just see Michel’s face. His mouth was twisted as if haunted. He watched Michel walk to the flower. He almost cried out but all the man did was pick up a fallen, wilted petal. Then Michel spoke to the flower. 

 “One night, we captured a man. A boy really, studying with the wrong kind of holy menHe begged for our forgiveness, that he only did it because he was sickly and had to earn money somehow. And for that,” he looked back at Bestia. “We tortured and killed him. After that, I ran. Came here to start a new life.” 

“Why?” Bestia said. 

“I saw,” Michel swallowed, “we were becoming that we wished to destroy.” 

**** 

Michel opened the garden’s gate. Bestia turned, stared as if surprised by the man. “Why have you come back?” 

“You gave me money for bread and wine,” Michel said. “And bid me return at dusk.” 

“And anyone else would’ve stayed lost. What can I do? Hunt you down and kill you? The villagers would kill me this very night.” 

“I’m not anyone else,” Michel said with a smile. “Plus that cell of yours is better than a cold dark house full of ghosts.” 

Bestia nodded, thinking how far he’d fallen. His companion was a peasant. Worse, a heretic

He didn’t have to come back. 

 “Take that to the table,” he said. “Let’s eat.” 

That night, Bestia talked about his father punishing those who couldn’t pay taxes, his cruel ways. “If you had run across him,” he said, “you’d still be in the cell, if not dead. He felt he had to rule this way.” 

“But over a flower?” Michel asked, coughing. He glanced at the rose. It seemed as if mold was growing on it, blackness creeping up its petals. “This enchantment-” but he was interrupted. 

“Yes,” Bestia said. “He’d say today a rose, but tomorrow money or jewels.” 

“Not necessarily,” 

“I know, now,”  Bestia grunted. “When he died, I didn’t mourn. You see, it was too late for my mother. But me...I was finally free.” 

Michel held up the bottle. “A toast to that,” he said. 

Many times Michel went to town, bringing back wine, bread, and fruits. And nights they would talk in the library, often laughing. Sometimes they played chess, for Michel was a quick learner. Louis listened, wondering. 

“You should try to leave,” Bestia told him one day. “Before it’s too late. Take Boy with you.” 

“No,” Louis said. “It’s my fault too,” He thought about fairy tales and lonely men. And a dying rose. 

She never specified what kind it should be, Louis thought. Or who. 

*** 

The ghost pounded on the library door. “What is wrong, my friend?” Bestia said, opening it. 

“Michel’s back. And he’s sick.” 

“What? I told him to stay in town if the weather got bad” 

Louis looked at the flower. Only the faintest white remained upon it. So, he thought. It’s nearly the end. Almost a relief. “Michel isn’t good at listening,” he said. 

Bestia ran through the great hallway where Michel leaned against a wall, coughing hard and deep. Bestia caught him as he fell. He lifted the thin, small man and carried him into the library, the only room with a fire. He laid him on the couch. “Bring blankets and the brandy,” he said to Louis. When he returned, Bestia put the bottle to the man’s lips. He glanced at Louis, but he only shook his head. 

“Leave us,” Bestia said, then turned back to Michel. “Why? Why did you come back?” 

“Your hospitality,” Michel said, trying to laugh. 

“No!” said Bestia. “Even last week you were breathing harder than usual. I saw! You must have known! Why did you come in this snow?” For all his anger he was gentle as he lifted Michel’s head to put pillows underneath it. This, plus the brandy helped his breathing somewhat. “Why! Why did you come when you were so sick!” He rose and paced to the fire. The rose trembled but neither noticed. “You addled fool!” 

“I had to,” Michel spoke so softly Bestia had to walk back and bend over to hear him. His breath was still hot and smelled like a dog’s, but not as bad. Since Michel had been here Bestia had been taking better care of himself. 

Why?” 

To tell you...how much all this meant to me.”  

Bestia just stared at him. In his eyes, Michel saw utter disbelief. “It’s true.” 

“I was wrong,” Bestia whispered. 

“About?” 

“You're not addled. You’re insane!”  Bestia paced again. He stopped at glared at Michel “You wanted to spend time- with me! A monster! For that alone, I thought you were insane. Now I know it’s true!” 

Michel smiled and coughed. He laid back on the pillows. “Possibly...but listen.” 

“Rest. Don’t try to talk. Save your breath. I don’t want you dying this night.” 

“I’m going to try not to. But I can’t...make promises...” 

Bestia growled angrily. “When you first came here you said you wanted to die! That was also true?” He slammed his paw into a statue on a stand and sent it flying to shatter against a wall.  

“The flower,” Michel whispered. 

 Bestia turned back, breathing nearly as hard as Michel. “Who cares about it?” 

“I...do. I wanted...to break...your enchantment.” 

“I told you I gave up on the cure long ago,” Bestia said. He pointed at the black rose with its decaying smell. “Tonight it will die and so be it. But you...” he walked to the wall and drew his arm back as if to hit it. Instead, he rested his paw on brick. “Why did you not stay in town this night?” 

“To say...you alone...accepted me...knowing what I was. A heretic...a murderer...even though I couldn't… break your...curse.” 

“Who am I,” growled Bestia, “to do no less, my friend?” He walked back to Michel. The tears were beginning to fall now. “No, you didn't break my curse,” he said, turning towards the flower. As softly as his gravelly voice would allow him he said, “Instead, you did so much more. You were like the brother I never had. And you were the only one to come back.” 

 Michel’s reply was so soft, Bestia could barely hear. “Louis.”  

“Is only here out of guilt. He blames himself for my predicament. The servant-boy always stays with him. No, Michel, the curse never mattered. You alone came back, of your own free will. And I love you.” He turned, but wouldn’t meet the man’s eyes. Instead, he looked at the portrait above the couch. It was of some elderly aunt but he could never remember her name. “Whatever that means coming from the likes of me.” 

“The world,” Michel managed, before coughing long and hard again. Bestia walked swiftly to him. He knelt and laid his paw on Michel’s chest. Michel grasped it. Both were openly crying now. 

“No,’ he said. 

“Yes.” Michel closed his eyes. “You...had me...at your table....” The rose trembled and as it did, Michel managed to whisper, “For that...I love you.”  

What?” Bestia’s cry echoed in the library. Then there was the sweet smell of sunshine, the perfume that reminded Michel of his daughter’s food, of spring. He barely noticed for smelling Bestia’s breath on his cheek. It was no longer heavy and dog-like.  

And now he was grasping a hand. 

Michel opened his eyes and saw a man with long blond hair. Tears fell from green eyes. “Michel,” he said. 

Through blurred vision, Michel saw the rose was in living bloom. He gently touched the man’s cheek, saying, with his last breaths, “So, that was... how to...end the curse.” And he smiled. 


March 24, 2021 17:40

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