My father was a rose rustler. The early seasons of my life were measured in the lifecycle of rose bushes, and I memorized David Austin’s catalogue of English roses the way other little boys memorize the makes of cars. My father prized the ability to identify a rose by sight and would quiz me as we walked through the garden that eventually overtook our entire backyard. Evelyn, Queen of Sweden, Scepter D’Isle—these are the aristocratic names that color my early memories of that otherwise utterly unremarkable house, the only home I would know for twenty-four years.
It was raining the night my father came home carrying a single stem of an ordinary Fantin-Latour. He deposited the battered pink cabbage rose in my hands and shucked off his windbreaker, as soaked as the rose.
I cradled the rose on instinct. My father handled roses with impartial expertise. I handled each like a broken butterfly. “Any luck?”
He grunted instead of answering and went upstairs. After a few minutes, I heard the shower running, and I knew he’d be up there for a while. Some people went for a run to de-stress. My father showered, running up a water bill we couldn’t afford.
My question had been semi-rhetorical in any case. My father had set out that afternoon to visit a property he happened upon while making a delivery of bouquets to a supermarket outside Indianapolis. Although he grew Austin English and hybrid tea roses as often as any rosarian, my father’s true love was the old garden roses. A rose rustler’s purpose was to find those hidden old garden gems, uncatalogued by the modern rose trade, grown wild and forgotten on somber old estates.
Rose rustling in Indiana is an odd business, if not an outright unlucky one, with gardens unlikely to sport roses older than the legal boundaries of our country. And old roses, the kind my father sought, bloomed but once a summer: catch them at the right time, or they were gone. If he had come home carrying a single stem of a rose variety I could name by sight, then the trip had clearly been a failure.
When my father came back down, I handed him a beer and turned on the White Sox game. He gave me a look of gratitude as he sank onto the cracked leather of the loveseat. The Sox were up one-nothing, top of the third.
“Want another?” I asked when the inning ended.
He shook his head, tucked the empty bottle into the cushions, and looked at me skeptically. “I know you’re not watching the game.”
I held out the Fantin-Latour. “What’s up with this?”
The TV blared a commercial for dishwasher pods—so clean your dishes will sparkle! My father switched it off. “I stole it.”
“You stole…a rose?” If I certainly hadn’t expected that answer. “You didn’t let them know you’d be looking in the gardens?”
“It was an abandoned estate,” he said shortly. “Or I thought it was. You know what, I will have another, thanks.”
I laid the Fantin-Latour on the coffee table and went to get another beer from the fridge.
My father was a rose rustler, but he was not a very successful one. He had never come across that Black Swan varietal that might make him sought-after in the rose world, that might allow him to quit his part-time job at the garden center and devote himself full time to his rose business. The rose that might have meant that we could stop living hand-to-mouth, worrying about water bills, and buying cheap beer.
“A damn Fantin-Latour. I don’t know what came over me.” My father took the bottle from me and rubbed his hand across his forehead.
The gesture was a sign of stress. I curled my fingers against my knee, fighting the urge to take his hand in mine like I did when I was still a little boy. “What happened?”
He dropped his hand into his lap and signed again. “The place was overgrown, run-down. No cars in the drive, no lights on in any windows. A few on the upper level were even boarded up, like the glass had been broken in. I knocked on the front door and hollered, just to be sure. No one answered. So I went around back, hoping there was still a garden.” His face creased, and his voice turned to wonder. “Roses—thousands of rose bushes, dozens of varietals, maybe hundreds. And they were almost all old garden roses, not a goddamn Austen in sight. But it was let run wild, hadn’t been pruned in ages. Shoots in all directions, lotsa dead wood hanging around. Nothing blooming. Not so much as a bud.”
“But…” I turned the bloom over in my lap.
My father shrugged helplessly. “A big plant in the middle of the garden, behind a stone bench. Clearly a centerpiece. I’d’ve sworn there wasn’t a bud on the damn thing when I first looked at it, but I turned around and—there it was.”
“And you took it.”
“I took it. I wasn’t thinking of taking a cutting; I just—it was so strange, the way it almost—appeared. It was like it was meant for me. We need new pruners, by the way. I dropped my No. 2s and forgot to grab them before I left.”
I said nothing. It was often said that the best rosarians had magic in their blood. My father’s magic was the quiet kind that allowed his roses to bloom softly through scorching heatwaves, helped the dormant canes survive frigid Midwest winters, and kept disease in check. He could even identify rose varietals without blooms. But I had never seen one bloom for him.
“As soon as I took it, I realized there was a carriage house out back, just off the gardens. I hadn’t seen that before either.” He paused, and a strange expression crawled over his face. “Spooky house, dark, covered in dead climbers. I thought, maybe I could find a tap and a rag to wrap the stem in. It was dark inside, and I went looking for a sink. That’s what I was doing when he found me.”
“Who found you?”
“The steward of the Kilbride Estate. That’s what he said he was. Accused me of stealing his roses. Well, I had stolen his roses.” The words settled into the space between us, floating slowly towards the coffee table until they lit upon the Latour. “I told him the truth about who I was, what I was doing there—that I was a rosarian, in business with my son. I had a card on me, so I gave it to him. I told him about the business, about you.”
He took a breath but then didn’t continue, staring once again down at his hands as though they held the answers. I bit my lip. “Did he threaten you?”
My father looked up at me. “He offered me a job. Said he wanted help in the garden. Looking for a full-time rosarian, someone to bring the garden back to a respectable state.”
There was a silence while the unspoken question hung between us. “How much?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “Enough.”
Enough meant enough to pay off the mortgage, enough to eliminate the debt that had hung over our lives ever since mom got sick. The debt that kept him trapped in a day job selling bland bouquets of hybrid teas to grocery stores. The debt over which I had quit college to help keep my father on his feet. His symptoms had been well-controlled for a while now, but I’d never gone back. There wasn’t any money.
“Dad, do it.”
My father shook his head. “No—I can’t. There’s the business to run, and—“
“The hell with the business.” I stood up, and my voice rose with me. “Do it. You could go back to rose rustling full time, quit the grocery bouquets.”
My father was still the tall, powerfully built man I had traipsed after in my childhood, the man who wrangled five-gallon buckets of water and spades of clay soil for a living. It was sometimes hard to remember that he was also a man with a chronic disease that had flared up late in life and which sometimes made everyday tasks difficult. Our own garden, from which we grew the commercially-appealing roses that we sold to grocery stores around the county, consisted only of what we could fit in our backyard, but it was already too much for him alone.
He couldn’t manage a garden that big, or he was worried that he couldn’t. But he wouldn’t—he couldn’t—say it. He looked small, suddenly, curled into the loveseat like a child or a broken butterfly.
“I can do it,” I said.
My father looked up. “No—I’m serious, Ethan. We’re talking about two acres of nothing but overrun garden. It would take one man all season.”
“Then I’ll be there all season,” I said. “Our own pruning is done; you can do without me well enough. Maybe I can come home some weekends to help out with the rest.”
My father shook his head. “It was dead. The roses—he said he wants them to bloom. It’s already June. There isn’t a chance.”
My father knew roses. If he thought a garden was doomed, it probably was. “What did you tell him?”
“That I’d be back in a week, give him an answer then. He—didn’t have a phone.”
“The Latour bloomed,” I said. “That must mean something.” I stood up and walked towards the stairs.
My father didn’t move from his heavy perch on the loveseat. “It’s for you.”
I paused with my hand on the banister. “What is?”
He nodded at the rose still lying on the coffee table. “The Fantin-Latour. He said to give it to you.”
After a week of unusually melancholy weather for June, the morning I left dawned without a single cloud and without so much as a hint of haze. We finished our morning chores in the garden and ate our lunch at the breakfast nook in silence.
I took the spare pickup and followed my father down US 31. The estate my father had stumbled upon was only about an hour our from our part of suburbia, but it was indeed in the middle of nowhere, which in this part of Indiana meant between one cornfield and another. A long drive was made longer by the many miles of unchanging landscape, finally broken by the large wind farm situated just north of Indianapolis, where the windmills turned steady and relentless through the clear blue morning.
My father took an exit onto a two-lane road that led deeper into the cornfields and then onto a small side road that barely registered as a thin line on Google maps. Finally, he turned onto a road that wasn’t on the GPS because it wasn’t a road at all. It was nothing more than a service path for tractors and other machinery, a slice of semi-packed dirt just wide enough for the truck and indistinguishable from all the other service paths we had passed, save for a red metal case that I recognized as my father’s toolbox.
My father kicked open his door and slammed it shut. I pulled up behind him and got out of the cab as he threw the toolbox into the bed. “This is it.”
I peered down the road-that-wasn’t-a-road. “How far?”
“Mile or so.” My father squinted at me through the sun. “I’ll come with you and explain.”
“No—I’m alright,” I said. The last thing I needed was my father there to explain away my existence, like I was still a child and not his business partner and a grown man. “No point in wasting both of our afternoons. I’ll text you when I’m all settled in.”
He opened his mouth as if he would have argued, but then he nodded. “Be good,” was all he said before he climbed back into his own truck. The Chevy bumbled off back down the main road, and I watched until it disappeared around a bend of a cornfield, a last glint of sunlight reflecting off the back of the cab.
It was almost exactly a mile of cornfield before I passed a split rail fence, which opened to what I thought at first was simply fallow farmland and then realized was a lawn. A wildly overgrown lawn, with grasses that came up nearly to the tops of the wheels of the truck. The grass rolled right up to the beginning of a pebbled drive, guarded by several gnarled oaks that might have once been stately, but had long since reclaimed their fey nature.
And beyond the drive was a house.
The facade was all crumbling stones and dead vines and French chimneys, and I loved it on sight: this was the sort of place that existed in the fairytales of my childhood, the imaginary places in which I would lose myself. The house made no concessions to proportion, winding itself upward unevenly with windows wherever it thought they would do and porticos overlooking the sentry oaks at odd angles.
I parked the truck in the drive and grabbed my duffel from the back seat. I hadn’t brought much with me, just a few changes of clothes, a bottle of all-in-one shampoo, and enough underwear to last a week. The gardening tools were all in the bed, and I figured they’d be fine there.
The gravel crunched beneath my feet as I wandered up to the house. My father had not entered the main house, but I wanted it. The front porch felt sturdy beneath my feet, although Virginia Creeper had grown up and over the railing, right up to the massive front door.
I dropped my duffel on the front porch and leaned my shoulder into the door, letting it take my weight. It came more easily than I would have expected, albeit with a loud creaking of hinges and popping of vines as it swung. The foyer was dark and cool, and faint light trickled in through a grisaille glass window a story above the door, glinting dully off an empty chandelier. A staircase wrapped around on itself, disappearing into a dark upper story.
To the left of the staircase was a kind of music room. A grand piano stood in the center, covered with a grey drop cloth. As a child, we had had a neighbor with a small spinet in her living room, and she let me come over after school to practice. My mother had always said that I would be better suited for guitar, with the callouses on my fingertips already built in. But I had loved the delicacy of the piano, its responsiveness. It had been years since I had touched a keyboard.
I walked through a series of rooms, most of them filled with cloth-covered furniture, one room opening up to another without hallways, like the house in the game of Clue. I found a formal living room, a library, two dining rooms, a billiard room, and finally, near the back of the house, an old-fashioned kitchen.
“Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the candlestick,” I muttered, dragging my finger across the curious clean marble top of the large chef’s table. Just off the kitchen was a butler’s pantry, lined with cabinets and a single French door that let in a subtle sunlight. A sideboard at one end held a spread of cold honeyed ham, several kinds of cheese, and a marvelous load of French bread, for which there were two different kinds of jam and honey. “Thank you,” I said, uncertain. Then my eyes fell on a watering can tucked into a small cubby by the door, a pair of gardening gloves folded neatly over the side. A pair of high-quality pruning shears sat next to the can: these were definitely for me.
I had the sense that the room was proud of itself to have been able to provide such service but also that it was largely guessing at what sort of tools a rosarian might need. “You did very well,” I reassured it. “A good butler knows his audience.”
I opened the French door and stepped out onto the back porch. Weather had rolled in in the short time I had been in the house, and the air smelled like rain. A gravel path stretched out into the gardens, and it beckoned. The smell of the garden rose up around me as I walked, wet soil and green growing things tinged with the sweet scent of decay and humus. At the entrance to the gardens was a large fountain at least twice my height. It wasn’t playing. Stone angels mimed pouring water into the large basin below, and water trails had left residue stains on the marble, streaks of purple and orange and green.
The gardens were in poor shape, every bit as bad as my father had said. He hadn’t exaggerated when he said it would take one man all summer. An astonishing amount of the canes were dead wood, and weeds threatened to overtake whatever was left. Not a single bush had a bud on it, and the box hedges were overgrown to the point of near unrecognizability. Even the gravel path was hard to distinguish in places.
My stomach twisted. I had prevented my father from coming on the basis that he might not be able to handle such a large task, but what if I could not? I was one gardener and not one in particularly good shape, either. And I hadn’t the advantage of my father’s magic. The garden might have defeated my father’s stamina; it would destroy me.
Most summers, there were at least a few weeks when my father’s symptoms prevented him from working in the garden. On those days, my mother and I would do the pruning and the watering and the harvesting, wrapping the thorny bouquets with bare fingers and an efficiency born of years of experience, not magic. My mother used to tell me that we were the horsepower behind the operation. I would tell her she was too beautiful to be a horse, and she would laugh and laugh.
Rose rustlers often claim that there is a magic innate to their practice. My father had the uncanny ability to identify a rose, even when not in bloom. Before she died, my mother loved to challenge him—blindfold him and pass him a cutting to identify by touch and scent alone. He was always right. As a child, I thrilled to watch them at what for them passed for romance.
I thought I would lose my father before I lost her.
My father hadn’t asked me to drop out of school, but after my mother had died, there wasn’t anyone else to take care of him. He applied for disability, and I went home to take care of the business. I hadn’t looked back in six years now. It was good enough for me. I wasn’t angry—I hadn’t fit in at IU Bloomington in any case, the quiet gay kid with dirt under his fingernails and a father with a career no one had ever heard of. People think they’re interested in roses, but they don’t actually want to hear about the details of it—the pruning and the weeding and the soil amendments. I’d watched enough people’s eyes glaze over back when I was still trying, a little, to make people think I was interesting. I’d long since learned better.
I felt a sharp pain in my hand and realized that I had caught hold of the bush nearest me, subconsciously gripping the cane and digging its vindictive thorns into the soft pad of my palm. My father largely worked without gloves, unusual even among rosarians. But thorns hurt. I let go quickly, but the unease did not uncoil from my stomach. This garden was out for blood.
The wind picked up, hurrying me along the path towards the little house. It was a clipped-gable bungalow, gone utterly wild, with eaves that hung heavy with ivy and thick-thorned briars that grew right up to the walls. What I could see of the paned windows gave a Jazz-age impression, much younger than the main building. But where the main house had beckoned, this one had turned in on itself, covered in its nettled layer of protection. I had the sense of a house asleep, dreaming through the decades, one hundred years without a sign of life.
And yet, from the chimney, there emanated a gentle stream of smoke.
The first fat drops fell from the sky, bruising my shoulders as I clambered up the covered porch, again cursing my failure to grab a jacket. I knocked at the door. The voice that responded was deadened by layers of wood and vine, little more than an affirmative hum.
I stepped into the gloomy hall. A light pulsed from the front room, lighting the entryway just enough to see by as my eyes adjusted. “Hello?”
“Come in,” the voice called from the next room.
I ducked into a modest sitting room. A fire burnt low in the chimney hearth, illuminating the dark outlines of large, hulking furniture and heavy drapery. The floor was covered in a thick carpet that absorbed the sound of my boots, pinned down with a coffee table and several upholstered chairs that pointed towards the fire. And in front of the hearth was a wing-backed armchair, and in the chair was a man.
He wore, of all things, a smoking jacket of some deep, indeterminate color. His hair appeared black in the firelight, but his skin was colorless and his face was gaunt, though he couldn’t have been much more than thirty. He slouched in the chair like it was an unwanted throne, one hand under his chin, elbow propped up on a knee, and a heavy book in his lap. He was angled just slightly towards the hearth, and the firelight highlighted the sharp hollows in his face. He was an aggressively unhealthy-looking person. Maybe, I thought as I came closer, even an ugly person.
His eyes narrowed as I approached, taking in my rain-splattered shift and dirty work boots. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ethan Mendoza-Keating.”
“Keating.” His voice was different to the rest of him, smooth and even. It ought to have been a handsome voice. His eyes flickered to my face, searching for the resemblance. “Your father sent you.”
“Yes. I’m his son and business partner. I’m here to take the rosarian job in his place. Who are you?”
The fingers under his chin flexed minutely. “You can call me Kim. I’m the steward of the Kilbride estate.” The wind picked up again, rattling at the windows, which I realized were shuttered behind all those briars. His eyes flickered towards the ceiling.
“It’s raining,” I said. Something about him made me feel that I ought to explain myself. “It was a beautiful day, and then this weather came out of nowhere.”
“It would,” he said. There was a beat in which his lips twisted unhappily. “I asked for your father.”
I shrugged. “I can manage a garden of this size more easily.”
“I’ve worked with my father since I was a kid. He taught me everything he knows.”
“And did you inherit any of his abilities?”
He knew my father had magic, I realized, because of the Fantin-Latour. My own magic was completely nonexistent. But abilities could refer to more than one thing.
“Sure,” I said.
He let the hand fall from his chin, revealing a weak jawline. He was, I decided, a very ugly person. “I should have preferred your father. Or, perhaps, the both of you. Tell him to return, and I will reconsider.”
He turned back towards the fire and returned his attention to the book on his lap. I was dismissed.
“He’s sick,” I said shortly. I moved in front of his chair, and he couldn’t ignore me. The heat from the fireplace pressed up against my shoulder. “He can’t manage a garden of this size, so—it’s me or no one.”
He looked up from his book, and I watched as his face changed, distorting like a snake that had been poked with a stick. I half-expected a forked tongue to slip out between his lips. “And you’ll tell me how to manage the estate, will you?”
“I’m perfectly capable of hiring my own people.”
“I realize that. That isn’t what—”
“Isn’t it?” His voice was clipped with anger. “You presume to take over for your father and now for me.”
“I—” I broke off. I supposed it was true, in some sense. “Listen. A garden in this state will take an immense amount of work. I can handle the physical aspects better than he can. If you’re looking to hire a rosarian,” I spread out my arms, “I’m already here. And willing.”
His eyes considered. Then he jutted his chin towards the window. “Make it bloom.”
I frowned. “What?”
“Do what your father did. You said you inherited his abilities. Show me. Bring me a bloom from the garden.”
“I can’t—It doesn’t work like that.” I rubbed a hand over my hair, frustrated, and his eyes tracked the movement. “I can’t just make a rose bloom.”
“Your father did.” He laid his book on the coffee table and rose to his feet in one fluid motion that emphasized his resemblance to a garden snake.
We were no more than three feet apart, though still separated by the coffee table. His head cocked to one side, and he licked the corner of his mouth. “What magic do you have?”
My hands had gone clenched at my side, and the pricks from the rose bush burned. I forced my fingers to relax. There was no point in lying, not when I couldn’t back it up. “The rose,” I said, feeling the desperation rise inside me. “The one my father took. You told him to give it to me.”
With the fire behind his back, his black eyes were unreadable. Then he turned away. “You can stay the night, wait out the weather. Then go home.”
“I said,” he said, without looking back, “get out.”