At sunrise on a clear day in May, a silver-gray Explorer prowled the streets of Hapsburg, Virginia with the windows rolled down. A chorus of birds sang their hymn to dawn. The morning breeze wafted the scent of rose.
From a genuine damask, the driver thought.
He parked on a side street. Tall, gray-haired and bearded, heavier than his doctor would like, he emerged clad in khaki pants, fishing vest, and a porkpie hat. The fishing vest bristled with loops and pockets—for string, knives, clamps, pincers, small plastic bags, rolls of tape, vials, test tubes, and a spray water bottle. In a holster on his belt, he wore a pruning clipper.
He strode a shadowy lane, following his nose. He turned a corner to face a large, clapboard house, surely one of the best in town. A wrought-iron fence surrounded a magnificent garden. Lilac, hydrangea, pink cherry, snow-white crabapple, purple iris, red peony, blue columbine, and yellow daylily jostled for space.
Shrub roses climbed an arbor beyond. From the street, he suspected they were antique or heirloom roses, old stock from centuries ago, roses that scorned disease and drought to blossom year after year. They might blossom once or twice a season, but they were worth the wait and far more fragrant than modern hybrids. Some dedicated gardener had chosen them from a nursery catalog, paid dearly for them, and placed them in the right location. These roses were survivors.
Amid the multicolored splendor, a tall bush of dark green leaves foamed with white blooms. The flower looked to be double and cupped. Even from here, the perfume was strong. Could it be a rose he had only read about, the sensation of Paris in 1832? The superintendent of the Luxembourg Gardens named it for his wife, “Madame Hardy.” According to The Old Shrub Roses, by Graham Stuart Thomas:
This rose, one of the most superlatively beautiful of the old white varieties, and having few peers among the colored varieties, is not a pure damask, but probably owes some of its beauty and vigor to Rosa centifolia. The clusters of flowers do, however, show this affinity, while the perfect shape of the blooms is found again only in some of the gallica roses. There is just a suspicion of flesh pink in the half-open buds, emerging from their long calyces, and the flowers open cupped, rapidly becoming flat, the outer petals reflexing, leaving the center almost concave of pure white, with a small green eye.
He pushed the gate. The rusty hinges shrieked. He padded up the walk and peered at the house. No sign of life in the windows, no lights or movement. He crossed a patch of grass, mowed and immaculate. The lower stems of the white rose were gnarled and brown, as thick as a forearm, with fearsome thorns. The upper stems were green and springy.
The blossoms at close range were lovelier than he imagined and abundant beyond belief. He plunged his face into a cluster of white and inhaled. The effect was like a drug. His heart raced, and his head floated. For this, he woke in the dark. For this, he forsook his warm bed to drive for miles on deserted country roads.
He glanced right and left. In the grip of emotion, he saw nothing. He heard nothing as he reached behind for the pruning clipper at his hip. He slipped the catch on the tool. He positioned the curved blade just below the junction of two stems. He squeezed.
Instead of a gentle snip, he heard the click of a gun safety catch. He raised his eyes. A few feet away, a rifle rested in the arms of an old woman in slippers and dressing gown, a woman with wrinkled cheeks and wild, white hair. Steely, blue eyes sighted along the barrel. Somewhere overhead, a mockingbird chose that moment to warble.
“Hold it right there, mister. Reach for the sky.”
He complied, one hand holding the clipper and the other holding a rose.
“Caught you red-handed. Would you care to explain what you’re doing on my property at this ungodly hour?”
He lowered his arms. The rifle wagged. The arms returned to a vertical position.
“Or do you expect me to guess?” She glanced up at the evidence suspended in midair.
“I generally ask permission, unless the house is uninhabited, or the specimen is in a graveyard or some public place. Your beautiful garden—clearly private—got the better of my judgment.”
“Who are you?”
“Dr. Forest J. Blodgett, professor of botany.”
“I should warn you, Dr. Blodgett, my vision is twenty-twenty. I have won first place for marksmanship at the Quidnunc County Fair more times than I can count. My finger is on the trigger.”
“So it is, madam. Allow me to make amends.”
“No need.” She lowered the rifle and replaced the safety. “What’s your game?”
“I collect old roses and propagate them. I’m a rose rustler. Do you happen to know the name of this specimen?”
“No. Do you?”
“I will need to do additional research. Provisionally, I would identify it as a variety from the nineteenth century. I hesitate to pronounce the name for fear of jinxing the identification. One of my superstitions.”
“Hmph. Come inside and have breakfast.”
She turned abruptly. He followed her to the back door and into the kitchen, a large, bare room with a massive stove.
“My name is Ella Eulalia Finch. Unmarried, so in formal situations I am called Miss Finch. This is not one of those situations. I was born and grew up in this house. My father was Judge Stephen Finch. From him, I inherited considerable real estate in town, rental property. I am active in the historical society.”
She stood the rifle in a corner, next to a broom.
“Yes, please. Black.” Forest sat at a plain pine table.
“Excellent choice. There’s no milk in the house.” She set a steaming mug before him.
“And the roses?” He slipped the pruner in its holster and placed the white rose on the table.
“Planted by my grandmother, Sadie. She was a woman of taste, if not of wealth. Family lore says that she scorned fine food and elaborate clothes. What she didn’t spend on frippery she lavished on her home, including the garden. My mother helped tend it as a girl. To her it was a chore.”
“And to you?”
“I preserve what’s here. The roses are hardy. They tolerate wet and dry. A hard winter might freeze them back to the root. But those roots go deep. How do you like your eggs?”
“Over easy, thank you.”
“Ham and biscuits from yesterday’s baking. You know they’re better the second day.”
Ella Eulalia busied herself at the stove. Forest sipped his coffee. He knew better than to ask if he could help.
“Where are you from, family and so forth? In Virginia, we hardly know a person unless we know his ancestors, where they lived, and who they married. We may be cousins.”
“I’m afraid my background will be a disappointment. I was adopted as an infant by Dr. James Blodgett and his wife, Lorena. He was a medical doctor, whereas I am a doctor of philosophy. They lived in Leesburg, where he had a general practice. After me, they adopted a baby girl, Renata. My sister and I grew up there and attended public school. She married and lives in New York. I continue to reside in Leesburg. Our parents are deceased, I regret to say.”
Ella Eulalia set plates of ham and eggs on the table, a plate of biscuits warmed on the stove, a cut glass tray of butter, and a pot of jam.
“Put it up myself,” she said. “Peaches from an orchard in the county.”
“A woman of accomplishments.”
“You’re single, then? No children?”
“Adopted, you say. Any idea of your blood kin?”
“Back then, the information was secret. Agencies did not always keep good records, so it might be hard to trace today.”
“I am familiar with official records.”
“You said you were single?”
“Not quite. I said I was unmarried.”
Forest chewed a mouthful of ham. He reached for another biscuit. He split it in half, applied butter to one half and jam to the other. He reunited the biscuit, now a sandwich, bit into it, and groaned with pleasure.
“I like to watch a man eat.”
Forest raised his mug of coffee by way of a toast.
“After my mother died, I cooked for my father, here in this kitchen. Two older children had left home. I kept house, learned how to budget and how to shop. It was the dream of a certain strain of teenage girl to marry Father. In my case, the dream lasted until I was forty. That’s when he died. Along the way, he taught me some legal jargon, how to research a deed in the county courthouse, and how to manage property. He was the leading citizen of Hapsburg, a pillar of the church, and a sportsman. He hunted with the boys. Once a year, he took me duck hunting, just the two of us.”
“A remarkable man.”
Ella Eulalia finished what was on her plate, offered Forest more, and was pleased when he accepted another biscuit.
“Still,” he said, “I don’t see why you had to stay. If you had married and left home, your father could have hired a housekeeper.”
“Since I am telling you, a complete stranger, the story of my life, I see no reason to hold back. When I was sixteen, I had a baby. In the 1950s, an unwed mother was shameful and an abortion was unthinkable. It was whispered that my mother died of grief. I wanted to marry the young man, but Father forbade it. He would not have a shiftless, penniless, no-account, goddamned Yankee for a son-in-law. It was the one occasion on which I heard him curse. Immediately after I gave birth, the baby was whisked away and put up for adoption. That’s how it was in those days. Mother died of an enlarged thyroid, something that’s treatable today. We were in shock. My reputation was ruined. I skipped the last year of high school. Later, Father reconsidered. By then, we had settled into a routine.”
“A guilt offering.” Forest swallowed the last of his coffee. “Was your baby a boy or girl?”
“A boy. What year were you born?”
“1955. What year was your baby born?”
She studied her guest to see what he was thinking. She did not need to verify the face. She had made up her mind.
“Come with me.”
She led him from the kitchen through a serving pantry, to a large dining room furnished with a table for eight and a matching sideboard. Facing west, the room was dim. She switched on the chandelier. Over the fireplace mantel hung an oil painting, a full-size portrait of a man dressed in a dark suit. The man was fair and erect, clean-shaven, with one hand placed on a leather-bound book, a law text.
“Stephen Finch in his prime,” she said. “Except for the beard and the rustler getup, you could change places.”
Forest stared at the portrait. Used to seeing his reflection in a mirror and his photograph in college publications, he did not see a resemblance. Stephen Finch on the wall was in his forties, florid and confident, while Forest Blodgett, in the flesh, was touched by age and disillusionment. How could he be the grandson of this man? How could this withered old woman be the girl who gave birth?
“How can I be your mother?” she asked.
“The timing is right, and the circumstances. The adoption agency placed babies close to where they were born, or so I was told. But my coming here today is sheer coincidence.”
“Is it? When you search for antique roses, what are looking for?”
“Old rootstock, names, and lineage.”
“Of the roses or those who planted them?”
“I have met some wonderful people in my quest, gardeners and botanists and people who love roses. You have a point.”
“But no proof.”
“Unless we submit to a DNA test,” he said.
“I didn’t think of that.”
Forest fumbled with his vest, opened flaps, and dug into pockets. He produced a small object, a cheap signet ring. He held it between thumb and index finger. Ella Eulalia took it.
“Do you recognize it? It was given to my parents when they got me, passed on by the agency. They said it was a keepsake.”
Ella Eulalia gazed at the ring in the palm of her hand. The boss was engraved with a stylized rose. She spoke in a faraway voice.
“Howard bought it at Woolworth’s as a gift. It was all he could afford, my engagement ring. We had a few days of happiness. Then he was driven out of town, almost tarred and feathered. I was upset, angry with Father. His word was law. The world was against me. I entrusted the ring with the child. It was a desperate gesture.”
“But not impossible.”
“Because here I am.”
Under the impartial gaze of the dead judge, mother and son embraced.
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. in English, and Yale M. Arch. His stories, essays and book reviews appear in Atticus Review, The Bangalore Review, The Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Harvard Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Poydras Review and other magazines. Website boucheronarch.com