ROSE AND ASH
Here there are always two. One who wears rose and another who wears ash. The ash is always orbiting the rose, clearly her center of gravity. The rose walks briskly, intently, following an invisible thread.
This week they make their way through a quiver of small villages. They knock on the door to a modest house in the early morning and a fox-faced old woman answers. The rose is a stoic young mother and the ash her quiet, wandering child. Rose introduces herself as a census taker, asks if she might get some information. Soon she is sitting with the old woman at her cluttered table asking a litany of mundane questions as Ash dutifully counts the cracks in the woman’s floor. The asking is a hypnotism, the questions designed to lull her into a state of surrender. Once the old woman has exhaled her inhibitions, the questions take on a different tone and character.
In her state the woman answers each honestly and without hesitation. Rose transcribes each carefully, never missing a word, at times comparing past answers before she asks her next question. She never smiles but there is a depth to her understanding that is satisfying to the old woman even in her embryonic state. Ash is now walking on her hands.
The interview lasts the afternoon and fills reams of paper. Once she is finished asking her questions, Rose smiles warmly for the first time and the woman regains consciousness, laughing at the joke that brought them into evening. Feeling a satiety she has never known, she implores that the two stay for supper. After a bit of polite argument, Rose accepts and the two talk idly as the old woman fixes the meal, Ash punctuating every cracked egg with a clap and a whelp.
As the meal ends the woman searches for an excuse to keep them the night, and her prayers are answered with thunder and sheets of rain. Rose protests politely but the woman can tell that Ash would love to stay and insists, Ash applauding and tracing the room with cartwheels. Rose thanks her sincerely as the two watch the rain come down and muddy the road ahead. Ash asks timidly if the woman can tell her a story, and soon they are in the woman’s room, Ash on her lap, and a very different type of interview is taking place. As the woman weaves her tale, Ash asks specific questions about the characters and the turns in the plot, delighting the woman, who answers earnestly. The story is followed by another and then two more once Ash is tucked in. The old woman calls her The Tiny Inquisition as she fondly wishes her good night.
Rose and Ash sleep in a separate room. Rose feigns sleep and then wanders back to the kitchen table, working through the night, studying her notes and transcribing the most important into a thick tome. Ash tiptoes into the darkest corner of their room and begins weaving a fine thread.
When Rose is finished with a specific portion of her transcription, she slinks into Ash’s room, which is almost completely inhabited by a coarse, glutinous web. At the center hangs a fat, wet cocoon, pulsating erratically. Rose touches her mouth to the cocoon and whispers almost inaudibly for some time, then returns to her own room and falls asleep.
Past midnight an impossibly old woman with a thousand eyes emerges from the cocoon. She is barely two feet tall and most of her sinewy body is blinking and gaping. She scuttles into the old woman’s room on all fours, her movement silent. Soon she has planted her tiny hands on the woman’s cheeks, her blinking fingers delicately opening the woman’s mouth until it is completely agape. She then rests her hand, palm raised, on the woman’s tongue, and her thousand eyes migrate from her body into her bedmate’s throat, where they are swallowed unconsciously.
The old woman remains soundly asleep, the ancient witch unmoving, her eyeless body deflated. This perfect stillness persists until dawn.
The old woman remembers being awoken in the night to Ash crawling into her bed, afraid of the relentless thunder. When she awakens in the morning both of Ash’s hands are firmly holding her face, fingers pressing almost painfully into her temples. The old woman laughs, presuming Ash asleep, frozen in fear. Ash pretends to awaken into peals of laughter at the sun and soon the three are eating a pleasant breakfast and marveling at how quickly the road has dried, as if the rain never came down.
Rose and Ash leave, promising to return when they find themselves in this town again. The woman aches more emphatically than she expected when they are gone. When they have turned a corner and are firmly out of view, they sit at the side of the road and Ash recites the woman’s dreams as Rose transcribes, drawing sometimes from her notes, sometimes from Ash’s dictation. By the time they are finished it is late afternoon. They pick up and begin their walk to the next village, which will take them till nightfall. As they walk, they gradually become the same age, both on the verge of womanhood. Rose assumes a friendliness and charisma while Ash a ripeness and forbidden allure. They will take a very different approach to extracting what they need from their next subject, and Ash will find a very different reason for sharing the subject’s bed and swallowing her dreams.
Illustrated by Lucie Salgado