The Christmas Rose
by George Mahoney
When I arrived at twilight on Christmas Eve, the crowd had already entered the courtyard of the Mission San Carlos. Hundreds of red and green lights lined the cloisters around the courtyard and circled the foundation in the middle. In one corner a mariachi band in green spangled suits and sombreros played and beside them stood five young women in long, loose red skirts and white embroidered blouses with balloon sleeves tightened above their elbows. Their high voices floated above the crowd’s in the final verse of the Posada:
Tonight is for joy
for pleasure and rejoicing
for tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God the Son
A flood of warm memories filled me and I wondered how I had stayed away for so long. I took the picture out of my shirt pocket and looked over at the five women. She was at the end nearest to me. Dark, wavy hair falling to her neck; a round, soft face and eyes alive with the music; a flower still pinned to one side of her hair. My memory brought up a spectrum of bright colors and fragrances tied to each flower. Then she turned towards me as if someone called her name. With eyes widened and mouth opened, she stood and stared as if not believing what she was seeing. At the end of the hymn, when the courtyard erupted in shouts and applause, she walked over and stared some more before finally speaking.
“Juan, how long has it been?”
“Over five years, Maria.” I stood smiling at her. Driving down to the mission, I wondered if she’d be there. I looked around the courtyard before continuing, “Everything is just as I remembered it on this beautiful evening.”
“We do the same thing each year, Juan. Singing the Posada, we travel with Joseph and Mary seeking a place to stay and hope that we open our hearts to them.” She stood back to examine me for anything she had missed in her first look. “The same confident eyes below all those sandy curls. You’re a little taller.” Her silky arms folded below her breasts as her head nodded. “Yes, I think so.”
“Maybe a bit.”
“Do you remember that first time?”
“Of course. I can still see you biting that pencil. You were shaking your head so much that the flower was lopsided. It was a yellow rose. ”
“It was. How did you remember that?”
“The picture’s in my mind. You had trouble pinning it back, and I held it for you.” Our fingers touched as she tightened the clasp around the rose.
“Yes, I was shaking. I was ready to drop out of school that day.” We sat at opposite ends of a long table in the school library. She battled with a trig equation. A prune-faced librarian had already asked her to lower her voice. I slid over to the seat beside her and whispered, “Can I help?” Her face glowed as if a guardian angel came to her rescue. With the librarian’s blessing, we met each Friday for hushed sessions in a small alcove off the main reading room. Maria thanked me profusely. Her smile was all the thanks I needed. We met till I graduated. She seemed to have a steady line of boyfriends while I dated a few girls in my own year. In between our sessions, in the school corridors, she shared how dates went and sometimes asked my advice. Soon I felt more like an understanding friend than a possible suitor.
“I’m glad you’re still here. I mean you could have taken off somewhere, and I never would have known.”
“Not a chance, Juan.” One slender arm with its balloon sleeve circled around to cover the whole courtyard with its revellers. “This is where I belong. These are my people. I’d be rootless anywhere else.” She shuddered as if the thought of living elsewhere were contagious. “When was the last time?”
“Here, before I went away.” She glanced back at the band members milling with the crowd and sipping sangrias. “Come, I have a few moments.” She took my hand and led me across the courtyard to a rounded portal of the mission church. We entered and walked down the nave, our footsteps echoing under the vaulted ceiling. Lights from side vigil candles shimmered on the sandstone walls. We sat in the front row. Before the main altar stood the statues of Mary and Joseph with the child, Jesus, in the manger. Three shepherds hovered to one side.
“I come here often to feel the peace and quiet, and this night is so special.” She stopped and we gazed at the figures in front of us. Her narrow lips tightened before she continued. “Why have you stayed away for so long?”
I sighed and shook my head. “Maybe now I wonder the same thing.”
“I knew you’d be going away to college but you just left. Suddenly there was a big, blank space in my life. I kept searching but couldn’t find you. And it was worse when I went back to school. I’d walk into the library and expect that you’d be waiting for me. I’d look over to the alcove to see your encouraging face again.”
“I’m sorry. I thought nobody would miss me.”
“How could you think that?”
“I’m not saying it was right. I feel it’s all a bad dream that I want to go away.”
“I remember seeing you here at the summer fiesta and then you just disappeared. I called your home and your mother said you had just left for college.”
“I just wanted to get out of the house. My parents told me they were divorcing. My father was moving to Los Angeles and my mother found someone else. They were selling the house. I decided to get as far away from here as I could and try to start over.” I rose and paced back and forth in front of the Nativity scene before sitting down again. “That’s why I stayed away. It’s painful to come back to a place where you were happy once, where your family was together and you thought that would always be. It’s odd to say, but I just didn’t feel that I belonged.”
“I’m happy that you came, even after all this time.”
For the few moments we sat in silence, the church felt dark and empty. I sighed again. “I’ve been away too long, too long.”
“Yes, you have. I’m surprised someone hasn’t whisked you off by now.”
“I’ve dated a few, nothing serious, but then I didn’t want to get serious.”
“I didn’t want to end up like my parents. And I still don’t.”
“Is that the way you’re going to live, always afraid you’re going to end up like them?”
“I’m still angry that they would pull that on me, divorcing just as I was heading off on my own.”
“That’s so sad.”
“No, you. I’m sure they didn’t do it to get you angry. And to be still angry does you no good.”
“Believe me, I’m not here to be angry with you. I want to show you something.” I pulled out the snapshot from my shirt pocket and handed it to her. It was a picture of the two of us taken in the library. I was writing down the steps of an equation. With her chin cupped in one hand and her elbow on the table, she gazed at me.
She studied it for a few moments. The tips of her fingers touched its surface. “I remember this. It was in the yearbook. We had no idea it was being taken. Where did you get this?”
“The photographer was a friend of mine. He gave me this copy.”
“And you kept it all these years?”
“Well, it was in a stack of pictures I had. In the last few weeks, I started going through them and stopped at this one and kept looking at it and remembering.” I paused. “And it made me feel good that I had done that with you, and I liked looking at the picture. And soon I began to wonder how you were doing.”
Her fingers kept stroking the picture. “I can’t believe this.”
“I’d always look for the girl with the shining eyes and the flower in her hair. Sometimes there’d be a few bunched together, like daisies.”
She touched the deep red rose pinned to the left side of her hair. “It’s for this special feast.” She laughed. “People at work always notice if I forget. They’ll say ‘Where is your flower, Maria?’ It’s a joke, but I still feel bad that I rushed out of the house without remembering.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to do. And sometimes I recall the lovely fragrance, and I’d ask you what kind of flower was it. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I do.” She placed the picture in her lap. Her nimble fingers went up to the rose and unpinned it. “Here, I want you to have it.” She held the palm of my right hand and placed the rose in it. The outer petals opened onto my fingers.
“That’s not right. It looks better on you.” I pushed my hand towards her but she resisted.
“No, there are many more flowers in bloom in our garden now. I want you to have it, but you must promise something.”
“This rose will fade shortly.”
“It’s sad that something so pretty will.”
“Maybe not, if it a sign of something else. As it fades, you will let your anger towards your parents fade also and finally disappear into the air.” Her fingers playfully floated into the space above us. “It does you no good.”
The rose had many circles of petals close together that appeared to spin like a pin-wheel in the wind. It filled my palm and felt soft and soothing. Breathing in its fragrance, I realized why I came here this evening.
Then she took the picture from her lap and looked at it again. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through all that stuff without your help.”
“It was nothing.”
“Don’t say that.” She shook her head. “I’m working as an accounting assistant now at a law firm in Monterey. I think of that time so often.”
“I needed to hear something like that.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“You can have the picture.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.” She handed it back to me.
“But you gave me the flower. I want you to have this. I have another. When we look at this picture, we can remember that special time.”
“You’ve already given me something special. You came here this evening, back to where you belong.”
We sat gazing at the flower and the picture. Then I turned towards the sanctuary and looked at the serene statues in front the small marble altar surrounded by red and white poinsettias.
“What is it?”
“I remember one time I was here, just after Christmas. My parents were still married. We sat there.” I pointed to the row behind where we were sitting. “A cousin was getting married on an evening like this one. Afterwards we had the reception in the courtyard, and there was music and dancing.”
“It must have been beautiful.”
“It was, it really was, and I pictured at that moment…” I stopped. Her fingers touched my hand. “Well, I just hoped that I could have mine here and have it just as beautiful.”
Fading light streamed through the small window of the western transept and a rose-colored glow fell like a halo around her face.
Then heavy footsteps echoed down the side aisle and stopped at the end of our pew. He was taller than me with broad shoulders under the spangled suit. A crop of thick brown hair above a square face with high cheekbones and deep-set, dark eyes that looked puzzled.
“Maria, I’ve wondered where you disappeared.”
“Carlos, please forgive me.” She blushed. “I just lost track of time. Here’s a dear friend from high school just returning after many years away. We were just catching up.” She looked at me and then back to him. “Carlos, this is Juan. He helped me so much in high school. I can’t tell you how much he helped me.”
Carlos stared at me as if inspecting a specimen under a microscope. “It’s always good to meet an old friend.” He marched towards me and held out a large, swarthy hand.
“Carlos and I just became engaged last week.”
I gulped and then smiled, “That’s wonderful. My congratulations to you both.”
“Maria, they need us for the next songs.” He looked at me. “I’m sorry to break up the reunion.”
“Understandable,” I said. Maria and I rose and followed Carlos out through a side portal into the cloister. Throughout the courtyard, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant resounded under a starless sky.
“Nice to meet you, Juan.” The broad shoulders slightly stooped towards me but he did not smile.
I nodded. “Likewise, Carlos.” When he took her soft hand, for the first time I noticed the thin band with a small jewel. They walked across the cloister and before they entered the courtyard, Maria turned and looked back at me.
“Juan, you will come to our wedding, won’t you? It will be here.”
“I will, Maria.” My jaw quivered as I added, “I definitely will.” Then I watched them disappear into the joyful crowd.
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George Mahoney has enjoyed multiple careers as teacher, priest, and consultant. His sort stories have been published in The Storyteller, The Iconoclast, and Flash Fiction Press. He facilitates two literary groups at his local library in Englewood, FL.