When Beasts Eat Roses
“And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”
Gulf of Spezia, Italy: 1822
The two men in the boat watched the storm roll toward them across the bay. The yellow-haired pilot guessed that they might be able to outsail it; the passenger thought that the idea was madness, and began trying to reef the sail, making a half-hearted joke as he did so about their fortune in sailing a boat named after a spirit of the air. The pilot put out a hand to stop him, and then the storm hit them, grabbing the boom and snapping it back and forth like a cat with a mouse in its jaws.
Both men were too occupied with the sails and the tiller to notice a dark shape in the water nearby. It might have seemed like a clump of weeds, but for its purposefulness as it moved through the water, or like some freshwater shark, but for its arms and hands that pulled it through the water with effortless grace.
The hand that grasped the gunwale was the color of the insides of a fish. For a moment the dark shape obscured the name, Ariel, on the side of the boat, and then it pulled itself up so that its face was visible to the men struggling with the sheets and pulleys.
The passenger might have said a word like “Caliban” when he turned and saw the grinning face illuminated by a lightning flash, but the thunder that followed fast on its heels erased any word as cleanly as if it had never been spoken. The next moment the speaker was erased as well, dashed against the mast and falling limply to the deck like a wet sack of jelly. The pilot had a slightly better guess as to what was standing before him, stretching out its enormous hands. Even as those hands picked him up and hurled him out into the darkness, though, he did not name the creature, for he knew that it had no name. His last word was “Mary!” as he flew into the teeth of the storm, as his body became one with the rain and the lightning and the wild west wind.
Bath, England: 1816
Mary had her first premonition of disaster while still writing the novel. All four members of the household had returned from their journey to Switzerland wrapped in private worlds. Young William's was the simplest: at nine months his greatest accomplishment was to stand unaided. Her lover Percy Shelley had begun writing “The Revolt of Islam,” and at such times the singing of his personal seraphs could drown out even the baby's wailing.
Mary's step-sister Claire was pregnant and beginning to show. Percy’s friend Lord Byron, the father, had abandoned her as everyone had told her he would, and she spent her days alternating between hysterical bouts of crying and an icy anticipation of the baby's birth that was more disturbing than tears.
Mary surrounded herself with drafts and revisions of her novel. The closely-written pages lay spread before her like a corpse; she dipped her crisp-cut pen in the inkwell and ran it through a word, and the word was no more. An overfilled pen would speckle the paper like blood, but Mary was a careful surgeon. Her words stretched across the pages like veins and nerves and tendons shaved clean, growing and twining in ways she had never anticipated. As the thing gained shape and solidity it appalled her; sometimes she almost relived the horror she had felt that night in Switzerland when she woke from her nightmare of a man created by man. The remembered horror drove her, obsessed her; often it seemed more real to her than the sunny plateau which her life seemed to have achieved. Disaster, she knew, was never far away. Writing about it, she prepared herself for its inevitable reappearance.
She pulled a fresh sheet from the pile and began her fourth chapter. This one would be easy, for it was mainly a copy of the short story she had set down in haste in Switzerland. “It was on a dreary night in November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”
The next morning Mary walked into her study to discover shreds of her manuscript lying about, their pet cat Genviève crouching balefully above them with paper in its jaws. Percy heard her shriek and rushed into the room to find her in the act of flinging an armchair pillow at it. Her aim was poor, and the cat escaped in a gray streak through the open window.
“The filthy beast!” she cried. “She has been devouring my manuscript!”
Percy examined the writing table. The pages were scattered about the floor like whitecaps in a storm, and sure enough, several showed signs of being chewed upon. One was missing most of a corner, with half the page damp from feline spittle.
“It's all right,” he reassured her, “Look, this one page will need to be re-copied. Ten minutes work, at the speed of your pen. See here -- only a few words are missing. `His yellow skin scarcely covered' and a blank, and then `a lustrous black, and flowing' and another blank. Nothing you can't easily redo.”
He knelt on the floor and began gathering up the pages, handing them to Mary to be re-ordered. She was relieved to find nothing else missing.
“As if we didn't feed the creature enough, though!” Mary opened the drawer on the table and placed the manuscript firmly within. “What on earth could have possessed her to so unnatural and unhealthy an appetite?”
“An appetite for mischief, no doubt.” The poet knelt on the settee to look out the window, but the devourer was nowhere to be seen. “I remember, when I was revising ‘Queen Mab’ I left the stopper off the ink bottle, and our Tom upset it and spoilt the whole copy.”
“Oh no!” cried Mary, secretly relieved that she was not the only one foolish enough to leave manuscripts lying about. “What did you do?”
“I recopied it, of course. What else could I do? That and brag to my friends that I had been visited by Queen Mab herself in the shape of a cat, come to repay me for doing her the honor of writing about her. But I have an even greater fear this time.”
Mary chuckled. “What is that, pray tell?”
“Why, that in the process of ingesting your masterpiece, the beast may have absorbed some part of the horror of your story!”
Mary's hands flew to her mouth in mock terror. “True,” she breathed. “After all, we did find the kitten in Geneva, just as I was beginning to write it. Perhaps now it is breeding within her, ready to hatch out in who knows what hideous form?”
Percy moved around behind her and slid his arms around her waist. “You will wake up one black midnight,” he whispered in her ear, “and you will feel a soft footfall on your pillow beside your head.” Mary gave a delicious shudder in his arms.
“Yes,” she said, “I will open my eyes, and there will be our Genviève, eight feet tall and possessing superhuman strength...”
“Looking down on you with watery and speculative eyes,” he finished.
Mary sounded wistful. “We shouldn't laugh. Perhaps it would be a gentler way of bringing new souls into the world.”
Percy held her silently until her tension lessened. “Yes,” he whispered, “I know. Birth can be a frightful thing.”
They had met at the tomb of Mary’s mother while courting, he the scandalous anti-establishment poet who had abandoned his wife, she the brilliant seventeen-year-old daughter of two brilliant writers. Together, they read her mother's memoirs. Mary Wollstonecraft had been entirely unconcerned at the birth of her daughter -- “I expect that we shall see the animal by tomorrow,” she had written the day before. Then came the complications -- the placenta was not expelled, like an invisible twin sister who preferred to remain in darkness. The doctor spent hours picking bits of it out of her, but she died anyway, days later, in agony.
Mary had been deathly afraid at the premature birth of their first child, two years before the trip to Switzerland. She had recovered from the birth, but the baby had not. Twelve nights after they buried the tiny corpse, Mary awakened Percy in the middle of the night with a cry -- the baby was only cold, she had dreamed. If they rubbed it by the fire it would revive. Now, in the waning sun of early October, she leaned against her husband as if seeking warmth from that chill touch once again.
“If only there was another way to give birth,” she sighed after a long pause. “Something like ink and paper, but softer...”
There was a crashing from the garden, and Claire appeared, resting a basket of flowers on her swollen belly. “Percy!” she cried, “I’ve been trying to find you. These are the last roses of the year, and I cut them for you.”
That night, the household dreamed.
In William's dream he could walk and speak. He dreamed that, as he ran through a forest, a hideous creature grabbed him. “Let me go!” he cried, “My papa is a Syndic -- he is Monsieur Frankenstein -- he will punish you!” But the creature held him tighter and tighter, and the child saw that the hands that gripped him were the hands of his mother.
Percy dreamed that as he walked in the garden, he turned a corner and met himself. It was a dream he had often, but he had not yet worked up the courage to address himself, or the wisdom to know what questions he should ask.
Claire dreamed that she was in a strange city, her belly flat once again. She knew that she had given birth, but she was unable to remember anything about the child except that it was lost. With rising panic she rushed from stranger to stranger, but each one answered her in a foreign tongue and turned away. Standing on a corner, a man with a mask and a twisted foot was working a shell game. Clipped aristocratic fingers rearranged the shells faster than her eye could follow, and then he beckoned her to choose. “That one,” she said, pointing with a trembling hand, and he flipped it over to show emptiness. Claire pushed his arm aside and grabbed the other two shells, but they were empty as well. With trembling fingers she pulled off the stranger's mask, and behind it was nothing but a gaping void, out of which came hollow laughter that surrounded her like the sea.
In Mary's dream she was Prometheus, chained to a rock as punishment for bringing fire to mankind. Instead of a vulture, it was a cat that approached to devour her liver. It would be a kind of birth, she thought -- after all, the Greeks believed that the liver was the habitation of the soul. The cat was tearing a passage lower down, though, in a kind of inhuman Cesarean operation. Mary gritted her dream teeth in agony and leaned her head forward to see what it would drag out of her, the head of a child or the scarred head of a monster, but instead she saw that inside she was filled with roses. Dark red rose petals filled the cat's mouth and trickled to the ground like blood.
Genviève, the cat, slept without dreams.
Claire's unborn child dreamed that there were voices coming to her through the walls of the narrow space where she floated in darkness. She woke up to listen, but when she opened her eyes they were gone. Listening for their return, she floated wide awake until dawn.
In the morning, Mary found Percy shaving and dragged him into the garden. “Come and look,” she cried, “the cat is eating roses; she'll turn into a woman! When beasts eat these roses they turn into men and women!”
Percy recorded the incident in his diary that afternoon, and later asked her what she had meant by the outburst. By that time she was only able to remember the incident dimly -- perhaps, she thought, it had only been an extension of her dream, though Percy was the sleep-walker of the family. It was a fact, however, that neither of them ever saw the cat again.
Venice, Italy: 1818
By the time Mary met her creature fact to face, she had already begun to suspect that a dark shadow might be following her.
She had held suspicions earlier, when her half-sister Fannie and Percy's former wife Harriet committed suicide within weeks of one another. As each of her two children, William and Clara, were born, her nervousness increased. At the time, though, she could not have begun to name the vague fear that gnawed within her like a worm at a rose's heart.
They were staying at one of Byron's villas in a picturesque Italian village when tiny Clara became ill. They left William with his nurse and rushed to find a boat to take them to Venice. All the way down the river Clara twitched convulsively in Mary's arms, her tiny eyes squeezed tight, suffering too much even to cry.
When they reached an inn in Venice, Percy went to find the doctor that Byron had recommended, while Mary sat in their room rubbing the tiny hands, watching the breaths grow shallower and shallower. The rubbing seemed a pitifully inadequate gesture, like trying to fight off the Angel of Death with a feather or a spoon. For the first time she regretted the atheism she shared with her husband; she wanted someone to bargain with, or to blame.
When midnight came she felt ready to scream. Instead, she went into the hallway and stood by the door like a rigid knot of tension. When she finally felt calm enough to go back into the room, her monster was sitting in her chair, holding her dead child in its lap like the other Mary carved by Michaelangelo.
A life spent with a poet given to reverie, a man who could fast for days at a time if she did not remind him to eat, had often left Mary feeling on the thin edge of the boundary between dreams and reality. The death of her child was a nightmare, and somehow it made sense that it was also a continuation of that other nightmare in Switzerland, as if she had only dreamt of being awake during the last two years, giving birth to a novel and a son and a daughter. It did surprise her, slightly, that the monster had the shape of a woman. It was proportioned like a child's drawing of a woman, various thicknesses piled on top of one another in a way that suggested architecture more than anatomy. Its skin was as gray and knotted as the dead baby's was white and smooth.
Mary closed the door behind her and leaned against it. “I should have known,” she said flatly. “I should have known that somehow you would become real. Through you I have destroyed my own child.”
The creature raised its head to look at her, brushing thick black hair from its eyes with a hand as gnarled as a thornbush in winter. It nodded. “Yes,” it said, and its voice was like the shifting of rocks in the sea. “Perhaps if I had not come you would have blamed yourself for not seeking a doctor sooner, or for weaning her too soon, or for coming to Italy in the heat of summer. But I am here, and I will help shoulder the blame for you. It is true that I have come to take the vengeance of the created upon the creator.”
“You killed her.” Mary’s voice had gone flat with the strain of staying upright, and she closed her eyes to make the image of the dead child go away. “You killed them all, Clara and Fannie and poor Harriet. I knew I was somehow to blame, living too much in my mind with you and not loving the ones around me enough. I knew I was to blame and now, now I see I was right! I knew I deserved punishment for bringing you into the world, and now you are here. Tell me, are all creators haunted by the horrors they have made?”
The creature shrugged. “I don't know. You are the only creator I have.”
“Are you...Genviève? The cat who ate the roses?”
The shadowy figure was silent for a long time. “Partly,” it said finally. “It's hard to say. Listen: you enjoy imagining how the heroes of antiquity would act if they were reborn in your own time, do you not?”
Mary shook her head slowly. “No...”
“Never mind. You will later. A 17th century Englishman frozen in ice, a Roman brought back to view his country's decline. These are things you will write.”
Mary swayed against the doorframe, but the monster did not appear to notice. “Did it ever occur to you that, in the future, people might wonder about you?”
Mary gasped, a tiny sound like a choking sob. “I was eighteen when I wrote you,” she whispered. “Even the ones who loved me never called you immortal. At best, they called you a promise of better things to come.”
The creature smiled, showing ragged yellow teeth. “Nevertheless,” it said. “The Modern Prometheus will be more famous than the original. Young children frighten one another with my creator’s name. I have lost the power to speak there, but still, I am remembered.” It began to rock back and forth in the chair, looking down into the face of the dead child.
Mary swallowed. “Why?”
“I don't think you realize how busy people are going to start getting, in a few years, with making things. Making things and then losing control of them. Whenever you make something, whether it's a child or a book or a bomb or a thinking machine, if you do it without love then one day you may turn around and find it coming back to kill you. That's when people remember us, Mary.”
Mary felt the doorframe behind her slipping out of her grasp, along with her holds on reality and consciousness. “Why come back, then?” she asked desperately. “Why take vengeance on my other children?”
The monster shrugged. “Perhaps, in the future, they made replicas of the characters they still remembered, and perhaps one of the replicas was unhappy with its life, and found a way to escape into the past, and sought vengeance. Or perhaps, when enough people have believed in something for long enough, it becomes true not just for their time but for all times. Or perhaps I was born on your writing table when your cat ate the roses. What does it matter? You know why I am here.”
Mary shook her head. “I do not know. Tell me.”
The monster laid the body of Clara tenderly on the bed's rough fabric, and turned to look Mary full in the eye. “I love you,” it whispered. “Give up the others and love me, me and me only. You can create more like me...”
“I can't,” said Mary sharply. “The others...William and Percy...they need me too much.”
“Then destroy me! Kill me! Renounce the part of you that made me, the part that kept you shut up in your study when you might have been watching your children! As long as I am a part of you, nothing else you love will ever be safe!”
Mary shook her head again as if to clear it, let go of the doorframe she had been clutching, and staggered across the room toward the bed where her daughter lay. There her legs gave out and she collapsed on the floor, her hand stretched toward the small corpse but unable to touch it. Something was building inside of her like fury or despair, and she waited to see how it would come out.
“It isn't fair!” she cried at last. “Do men have to make these choices?”
The creature shrugged again. “I'm not sure. As I said, you’re the only creator I have. As far as I know, though, men only have one way of giving birth. And when they speak of being destroyed by their creations, it's nothing but a metaphor. We know better, don’t we, Mary? Me, you, and your mother?”
Feet pounded down the hallway, and Mary heard Percy's voice. When she looked up from weeping, Clara’s body was still on the bed, but the creature was gone.
Livorno, Italy: 1819
It visited her again a month after William's funeral.
Claire was asleep in a chair by the door. On the desk before her was a letter she had been writing to Byron, explaining why she would not be able to come visit Allegra, her daughter. At Byron's insistence she had given her daughter away to be raised in a convent, and she had not seen the girl for almost a year. Mary knew that Claire was desperate to see her daughter, and also knew that Percy had pleaded with her to remain here, to keep an eye on Mary and make sure she did no harm to herself.
Moonlight pouring through the wide windows illuminated most of the room, but Mary sat in a corner of darkness. Her black dress was almost invisible, but her death-pale face shone in the night like a second moon. A picture of William lay in her lap, but she seemed to lack the strength to look down at it.
The room was on the third floor, but she was not surprised to hear a step on the balcony, or to see the shape of the monster as it opened the window. It hesitated for a moment, then crossed the patch of moonlight like the shadow of a witch flying across the moon. When it reached the darkness before Mary's chair, it sank to the ground in front of her, regarding her with eyes like wells of midnight.
If she rushed at it, Mary wondered, would it kill her with its bare hands? It looked strong enough. William had been strong, strong and beautiful and healthy. Everyone had said so. The servants liked to go into his room just to look at him as he lay asleep.
Every day of a child's life, she saw now, was like a hook that sank into your flesh. You never felt them when they went in, and the longer the child lived the deeper into your skin they worked. Memories: little Mary sucking at her breast, Clara laughing, and most of all William as he grew and talked and disobeyed and loved, William shouting out echoes from the wall of Este castle, William watching Percy making paper boats on the Arno, William suddenly ill for the first time in his life. All the hooks were ripped out when the child died, and you thought that the pain was more than you could bear, but the next time they were sunk even deeper, and yet still somehow you lived.
“I should be dead, too,” she whispered to her creation. “If you must kill people, kill me!”
The monster shook its heavy head. “I can't kill you. I love you.”
Mary did not scream, but her voice sounded like a scream in her own ears. “Why, then? Why do you keep destroying me, piece by piece, child by child?”
The monster fixed its watery gaze on her. “What do you think the reason is?”
Mary closed her eyes and bit her lip. “I...I didn’t love them enough. I wasn’t the mother I could have been. And I was proud. I helped Percy abandon his first wife, and when I had children I thought I had triumphed over her. Even when Harriet killed herself, I was glad because I was stronger. Like the gods punished Niobe for boasting about her children...or Prometheus...my mother...Fate has punished me through you...” The tension that had been holding Mary upright sagged, and she began to weep.
“So,” said the creature. “And why does your husband believe that the Christian god is false?”
“Because of his cruelty for -- p-punishing us for our s-sins,” Mary gasped out through her tears. “Oh god, when we rid ourselves of one avenger must we always turn and create ourselves another?”
“Now you are beginning to understand. Tell me, is your husband much comfort in your hour of despair?”
Mary drew a handkerchief and dabbed at her tears. “My husband,” she said. “He still believes that Good can redeem the world, that Love can protect us. So did I believe, once. In his newest poem he is writing that Prometheus can be unchained, but I, I know better now.”
“You see,” said the creature. “Now you are truly alone. Even your father sends a condolence letter in which he begs for money. No one understands you but I. They are weak -- as soon as you love them, they wither like roses in December. I am strong and immortal. I love you. Make more of me.”
Mary shook her head, her eyes closed. “You have killed the person I was when I wrote you. I could not make another, even if I wished to. Besides, if you are the creature from my time of happiness, then how hideous would be the creature of my despair?”
The monster gave a twisted smile. “Nevertheless,” it said. “When beasts eat roses, there is no turning back. Love me.”
Mary shook her head wildly. “Love you! You are my worst enemy! I hate you!”
“That will be close enough. If you hate me, then follow me.”
“Follow you? Where are you going?”
The monster scuttled across the patch of moonlight like a crab and paused in the window, looking back over its shoulder at the pale face surrounded by darkness. “Where am I going?” it said with its grin stretched wide and ghastly. “You wrote it, did you not? At the end of your story, when I no longer desired the company of Man. I am traveling to the frozen places of the heart.”
When Claire woke before sunrise, stiff from sleeping in her chair, she saw that the penknife from the writing table was gone and the window open. A horrible fear ran through her, but when she rushed to the balcony she saw that Mary was hard at work. The neatly-trimmed pen swept line after line down the page, and the ink was the same color that blood would have appeared in the pre-dawn light.
Eighteen months later, Mary sent the proofs of Matilda, her second novel, to the printers. “I sought the end of my being,” her main character said, “and I found it to be knowledge of itself.” But Mary knew that, for her at least, self-knowledge was still more terrifying than death.
Bay of Spezia, Italy: 1822
If there was one thing Mary was good at, it was packing. By the time she was 25, she and Percy had moved their household more than seven times. They usually kept their books, forwarding them from house to house in boxes and trunks. All the rest -- furniture, kitchenware, toys for the children -- they picked up and dropped along the way. Mary liked the process of leaving things behind, pruning her life. It let her pretend that she had no attachments.
The family was leaving Pisa for a small villa called Casa Magni on the Bay of Spezia, supposedly because the Pisan climate was foul in the summer. There was another reason as well, which had to do with why Lord Byron was staying behind, but that was still more or less a secret. Mary and Claire, along with their friend Trelawny, had been sent on ahead to prepare the house, while Percy stayed in town to close up their old home.
Though the crew of the chartered boat clearly knew their business, Trelawny apparently felt the need to bustle about. He was everywhere -- coiling rope in the bow, asking the sailors questions, blocking the pilot’s view. Mary ignored him as she sat across from Claire in the cockpit. Three small trunks were stowed near her feet -- the bare minimum to which she had reduced her life. In her lap she held the year-old Percy Florence, her sole remaining child. She clutched him to her breast like a life preserver, staring backward down their wake with haunted eyes toward the shrinking towers and sails of Pisa.
Mary had finally mastered the art of not quarreling with Claire, which lay chiefly in paying no attention to anything her stepsister said. She was becoming gradually aware, though, that Claire’s prattle had become even sillier than usual.
“Claire,” she said finally, “could you please leave off the execrations upon Lord Byron’s character for a few minutes, and explain more fully this plan of yours?”
“It’s very simple.” On the surface Claire seemed the picture of calm reasonableness. “I’ve already forged the letter -- on account of my knowing Albé’s handwriting so well, don’t you know.”
Irony was dripping from Claire’s voice. His Lordship had not written to her in months.
“We’ll need Percy to deliver it, of course -- the nuns would never accept it unless it came from a man. As soon as we’ve rescued my daughter from that dreadful convent, we’ll need to leave the country -- Switzerland, do you suppose? Allegra will be five now, and I’m sure she won’t mind the traveling. When I last saw her two years ago...”
“Claire,” said Mary firmly. “Claire! Listen to me. It’s not going to happen. Firstly, Percy would never do anything to deceive his friend. Secondly, were he to do so, Byron would follow us and in all probability challenge him to a duel, which Percy would have no choice but to accept. And thirdly... thirdly...” She faltered.
“Thirdly?” said Claire icily.
“Never mind. It is a thoroughly stupid plan.”
“How can you say that?” Two spots of color began to pulse on Claire’s cheeks like angry hornets. “How can you say that when the climate of this pestilential country has already destroyed two of your own children?”
“Enough!” Mary half rose from her seat, and Percy Florence awoke from his nap and began wailing. Carefully, Mary relaxed her white-knuckled grip around him and sat down again.
“Oh Mary, I’m sorry...”
“No, that’s quite all right. It is I who should apologize to you. I know how -- loss -- can make a person say things they later regret. Claire...” she paused.
“I have some advice for you. Try -- try not to care so much.”
Claire shook her head, puzzled. “I beg your pardon?”
“These things we create -- these things we make inside ourselves. They only have the power to destroy us if we let them. And we don’t have to let them, Claire!”
Claire stared at her stepsister, startled for a moment out of her brooding. “That’s your advice? Stop caring?”
“Yes. If there’s any way that you possibly can.”
Claire put her hand on her stepsister’s arm. “And what if somebody truly needs you, Mary? What then?”
Mary looked down at the bundle in her arms, now busily sucking its newly discovered thumb. “True,” she said. “If it were not for this one, I’d -- I don’t know what I’d do.”
“It’s not the baby that I’m talking about!” Claire tried to force her stepsister to look at her, but Mary avoided her eyes. “What about your husband, Mary? He needs you so much!”
Mary frowned. “He didn’t need me much when he was spending all his time with that Viviani girl. Or with Jane Williams, of all people. He seemed to be getting along just fine without me then.”
“After you’d already cast him aside!” Claire’s voice was pleading now. “I know you still care for him, but he feels such coldness coming from you, and he needs so much warmth...”
“Yes,” cried Mary, “And why does he need warmth? How can he still believe there is so much light in the world, after all the deaths, all the darkness, the children who die and die and die until nothing is left but us and our demons...”
“They all die but Percy Florence and Allegra,” said Claire quickly. Mary answered with a choking sob.
“Mary,” said Claire carefully. “Mary, look at me. Look at me!”
Fearfully, Mary raised her head, and Claire stared into her eyes.
Suddenly Claire let out a sharp cry. “Allegra is dead, isn’t she?”
Mary nodded in misery. “Typhus...” she began, but was unable to go any further. Percy Florence left off sucking his thumb and began wailing again.
“That was the news you had three days ago, when you decided to move us out of Pisa so suddenly. You didn’t want me to be in the same city as Albé when I heard the news. I told everyone that horrible nunnery would kill her, I told them, and you knew I’d call him to his face the murderer that he is...you -- you were too much of a coward to let me near him, because if I was -- if I was...!”
Claire’s voice rose and rose like the wind on the Bay of Spezia, filled with spray and howling through the rigging. Percy Florence’s voice rose in competition as he wailed, and Mary closed her eyes tightly to keep in her tears as the boat rounded the last cape and sighted Casa Magni.
Sussex, England: 1849
The house in Bath where the cat ate the roses would have fit comfortably inside the dining hall of Field Place, the ancestral home of the Shelleys. When Mary joined her son and his wife at the enormous table, she often wondered what her husband would have made of the vast emptiness of his father’s inheritance, had he lived long enough to see it -- her husband, who had spoken loudly and often against the petty cruelties that went along with wealth. She herself was too tired to struggle against it, now that wealth had arrived at last with the death of Percy’s father.
The three of them sat close to one another for warmth at one end of the vast room. A bouquet of spring flowers picked by Jane, tulips and lilacs and honeysuckle, brightened the dark oak of the room.
Mary watched her son Percy Florence as he swallowed the last of his trifle. He seemed healthy, even robust, but that did little to reassure her. He had inherited his father’s sun-like mane of wild and uncontrollable hair, but his eyes, his sad eyes, were hers alone.
“And now,” he said, pushing back his chair, “darling wife, my darling mother, I’ve saved the best news for last. You know how I hate to stay away from the two of you, but the extra day in town was worth it. It’s something I’ve always wanted -- can you guess?”
“Oh, just tell us, Flo dear.” Jane Shelley was not quite pretty, but she came close when she watched her husband.
“Old Peter is going to build me a yacht. Imagine! Warnham Pond will be perfect for sailing in the summer and autumn, and I’ll be able to invite up Fred and Billy from the city...”
“Flo,” his wife interrupted him, “look at your mother. Can’t you see she’s white as a ghost?”
Mary was still gazing vaguely in his direction, trying ineffectually to keep the smile from slipping off her face. She felt as if her son had picked up the fruit-knife and stabbed her with it.
“Don’t be silly, my dear.” Befuddled, the young man looked back and forth between the two women. “Mother doesn’t mind me sailing, despite ... well, surely she doesn’t mind. Why, she’s shared a boat with me herself, years gone by -- when we took that lark from Cambridge. You remember, mum.”
Jane reached over and patted her hand, which trembled. “Mother,” she said, “if you’d rather Flo didn’t get his yacht, please go ahead and say so.”
Mary looked from one to the other, searching for words. “It’s wrong for me to dwell in the past,” she said. “If Flo wants to go sailing, I shall not attempt to dissuade him.”
“But what do you want, mum?” Percy Florence pulled his seat closer to hers. “If I thought for a moment that I was causing you pain when I went sailing, I should have sworn it off forever at once! You always said yourself that it was father’s greatest passion, before...”
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Jane reproachfully, for Mary had risen abruptly to leave. “Of course it’s torture to her, and of course she would never say so. Now promise at once that you will give up this boat-buying scheme, and stay firmly on the ground where both of us can keep an eye on you!”
“I’ve been stupid, haven’t I?” Percy looked sheepishly from one woman to the other. “I do so solemnly swear.” His expression was so remorseful that his wife burst into laughter. “I’d best go write a letter to Old Peter and tell him to cancel.” He pushed back his chair and strode echoing across the hall.
“I really didn’t mean to interfere like that.” Mary looked beseechingly at Jane. “I feel I’ve been such a burden to the two of you -- and you’ve both been so good to me.”
“How could you be a burden to us,” said Jane, smiling, as she crossed the room to ring for a maid to clear the dishes. “I had loved your stories even before I met you, and Flo would move heaven and earth.”
“I know that,” said Mary brokenly. She was feeling her habitual reserve slipping away from her like a lifeboat at sea, with a mingled sense of desperation and relief. “But I still don’t understand why.”
Jane stood by the bell-pull uncertainly. “What do you mean, mother?”
“Oh, perhaps it’s not worth talking about. But...” her voice caught. “I’ve always felt that I haven’t been as good a mother to Flo as ... well, as I might have been if things had worked out differently.”
Jane glided across the room and took the older woman’s arm. “Come into the garden, mother,” she said. “Come into the garden and we’ll talk about it.”
The garden was in that splendid phase just before the beginning of summer, when the springtime flowers seem to realize it is their last chance to make a display before going to seed. The arches above the path were heavy with color and promise.
Jane listened twice around the path to Mary’s recitation of her fears for her son -- her disappointment when he had failed to show the genius of his father, her worries that he would be picked on by the boys at Harrow the way his father had been tormented at Eton, her constant concerns about money.
“He has much to reproach me for, I fear,” she said finally. “And you ... dear Jane, you are more like the sister I should have had than my son’s wife. If there’s anything I can do to make up for those years...”
“Hush,” said Jane. “He blames you for nothing. Only...”
“Only what?” asked Mary, reaching to pluck a stem of lilacs that overhung the path.
“I shouldn’t say -- only that he always felt, somehow, that you kept a great distance from him. As if you were somehow afraid of him, afraid of what he might do, and so you never let yourself be too close. And I would have said nothing, to be sure, only he told me yesterday that he feels you have changed since you retired from your writing and came here to live with us. Changed for the better. And I was wondering if that was true?”
Mary walked silently for a long while, picking more lilacs to make a bouquet. At last she said, “Yes, it’s true. There were other -- things -- that I preferred to love more. Can we ever truly love another person as much as he needs to be loved?”
Jane flushed. “I have always believed so,” she said quietly.
“So did I, once! But if I had loved him enough, he would have taken better care of himself!” The old woman’s voice became soft and softer, as if buried under all the flowers, and Jane saw that the subject of the conversation had changed. “Did you know that a fishing boat saw them in the storm, and they said that Percy was stopping Ned from reefing the sail? I was so cruel to him, those last few weeks in Italy ... my tongue so sharp. Life was a burden to him and it was my fault, my fault...”
“I’m sure he knew how you truly felt, however you acted,” said Jane. She was expecting a squall of tears, but the older woman’s eyes were as dry as stones. “If he was the man you say...”
“He was just a man,” said Mary. “Like many others. When you love people they just die, and die, and die, but when you love a thing -- a book, an idea -- you can make it last forever. Books are better than people, because they don’t go away and leave you alone.”
“Do you really believe that?” said Jane, and she put her arm cautiously around the frail shoulders.
After a moment Mary relaxed and leaned against her. “No,” she said. “Not since I saw the two of you together. It reminds me of old times... the paper boats, and the roses.”
Her eyes were still dry, but her voice caught in her throat when they turned the last corner in the garden and walked down the aisle where the roses were blooming.
Mary sat on the end of her bed that evening, combing her hair. It was all gray by now, and very long. The room was lit by a tall candle on the dressing table. There were few other furnishings, for after her life of moving she had found little that she wished to hold on to. Opposite the bed was a small shelf of books and magazines.
“The Last Man,” said the creature from over her shoulder, as she had expected. It often came up behind her in those days, when she looked at the shelf and didn’t look back. “Valpurga and Matilda. All those stories in ‘The Keepsake.’ You did well, Mary.” It put its weighty hand on her shoulder.
“Poor Percy Florence.” She didn’t turn around, but went on combing methodically. “I ended up even worse than his father, I suppose. We both spent too much time loving Things because they’re Eternal, and not enough loving people because they aren’t. If only the Things could love you back, that would be the best of both worlds, I suppose.” She reached up and touched its rough hand with her own. “Truly love, I mean. Not the cold comfort we have known.”
“Don’t rule out the future, Mary.”
Mary turned to look at the twisted face. “What do you mean?”
The creature sat on the bed beside her, and held her shoulders with both hands as it gazed into her eyes like a mirror. “Do you realize how much those people will love you? Not the way you are now, of course. But everyone who ever encounters you will fall in love with the seventeen-year-old runaway, the daughter of two great writers, who lived in a house with the two most brilliant men of her age, and who had bad dreams. Because for a moment, even though we know it’s all bound to go wrong, you make us believe that there might be a better way. Even as our creations turn against us, your creator reminds us, as he lies insane and dying, that where he has failed another may succeed. Percy will be remembered as a great poet, have no fear, but your name will be coupled with mine more than with his, as long as people make machines and make children and can’t get either one to behave. Think about it, Mary!”
“I’m thinking,” said Mary. For a moment she thought she saw the future spreading out ahead of her like a sea of stars, but the sight brought her no comfort. She turned her back to the creature and stared into the candle on the dressing table.
“No,” she said. “It’s a different kind of Eternity I should be thinking of now. And there’s something else I should tell you as well.”
The creature waited, running its rough hand like briars through her hair with the practice of long intimacy.
“After all these years,.” she went on, “I’m letting my heart go again. You know it anyway, I’m sure, but I thought I should tell you.”
“Who is it, finally?” the grating voice whispered in her ear, still stroking. “Not that ridiculous Trelawney with another proposal, or that Irving fellow with his horseman sans head?”
“Neither, as you well know.” she said stiffly, and put its hand aside. “But I’ve realized how strongly I care for those two children in there. They’re so very alive -- it’s been so long since I’ve remembered what it felt like. And I think...I think this time it will be enough. I’ve finally realized something that Percy knew all along, something I had forgotten.”
“What is that?” whispered the creature, resting its hand again upon her shoulder.
“What I remember now is that death doesn’t matter. I mean, when you love somebody, you’ve got to love them as though they will never die. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in an afterlife -- you’ve got to love them as if you do. Otherwise, the living hurts as much as the dying. It’s like eating the thorns and leaving the roses alone.”
There was a long silence, and then she felt the creature slip its hand away. With the hand she felt sliding off the last vestiges of a weight she had been carrying with her for as long as she could remember, from the first day she had learned the reason why other children had mothers and she did not. “You’ve escaped me, then,”she heard the thick voice say at last, and though she knew its inflections as well as she knew her own, she could not tell if it was sorrowful or pleased.
“All my life.” She shook her head, trying to remember or imagine the life that lay outside those books on the shelves. “All my life was a cat chasing its tail. Throwing myself into my work to escape the guilt for all the deaths, and then when the deaths came again the guilt was worse because I was working when I should have been there. No more, at last, no more. Neither you nor I can take on the guilt for all the death in the world. It is far, far greater than we are.”
She felt the monstrous shape move closer behind her on the bed and lean forward to whisper in her ear. “It was a good life, Mary,” it said. “Don’t look back in regret. You did what you had to do.” Then she felt the cold thick lips pressing against her cheek like a stone. “You won’t see me again, but I will see you once more, at the end. Goodbye, Mary.”
She turned and reached up to touch the gnarled face, but the creature was gone. After a while she slowly lowered her hand to her lap again, and for a long time she sat listening to the hall clock tick. When she finally blew out the candle she discovered that, for the first time in a quarter century, her cheeks were wet with tears.
Within the year, Mary was dead. Percy Florence bought his boat soon after. Jane added to Mary’s long work of editing Percy’s poems, providing him with a reputation that would stand for centuries. Then they died, and as they left no children, the name of Shelley died with them. Claire lived to be a very old woman, until after an unlikely conversion to Catholicism she died in a convent in Italy, still cursing her lover and mourning her dead child.
But Mary’s creature lived on, hiding and scuttling through the crevices and corners and shadows of a world made bright by the light of science. Once the thing was created it could never be unmade, for when beasts eat roses the world can never return to the place where it once was, long long ago.