A Rose Against the Snow
(copyright 2008 Ruth Keyes)
late in autumn when the Girl first came upon the grave, covered with a brittle brown scatter of leaves and dusted with hoary
frost around the edges of the stone. It was a simple grave, the marker small and carved from rough granite, it's epitaph simple
and yearning, plain letters cut into the cold gray surface.
stranger far from home.
The Girl did not know who had placed the stone, or the history of the
young man that lay beneath it, but that cold dark Autumn, with Winter winging forward on the ice tipped winds of years end,
found her a stranger far from home herself, and her heart was touched by the forgotten little monument to a soldier who was
a long time dead and gone. Reaching out with careful black gloved hands, the
Girl brushed leaves from the hallowed little piece of ground, the only grave in the tiny little clearing in the woods. This
was no cemetery, with sculptured angels and towering monoliths, carved marble witnesses to the wealthy and prominent deceased. This was a forgotten
place, a hushed and lonely place, and as an eerily keening cold October wind ushered in the winter with a muted shroud of
snowfall, the Girl hugged her coat tighter around her shoulders and smiled sadly, wondering who in life he had been.
hundred years that had passed since his death were merely a whisper against the sands of time, but to the Girl they stretched
endlessly back into history, to her mind a long, cold and lonely time to have
lain there forgotten. When the light at last began to abandon the sky to the twilight, the Girl pulled from her hair a red
rose, and placed it on the grave, as bright as a single drop of blood against the snow.
She came often to the grave that winter. Alone in the Northern mountains, far from family and home, the Girl felt a
purpose in tending the little grave plot, as if by caring for someone else's place of rest she could somehow ensure that she
herself would not someday be forgotten. She was not silent at the graveside. Slow halting whispers carried on the winter wind,
soon gave way to musing and then to speaking, an outpouring of thoughts and feelings and sorrows from a lonely Girl to her
only friend, the bones of one of the Southern Confederate dead.
Montgomery felt real to her, someone as lost and lonely as herself, and she vowed that come spring she would plant on his
grave vines and roses, green and growing, to stave off the memory of this winters sadness and desolation. The Girl returned
daily to the clearing, her beauty a brushstroke of flame against the snow, her hands tender and reverent as she tended the
resting place of a stranger. Never once did she realize that she was not alone.
The Man stood at
the edge of the clearing, his figure lurking behind snow shrouded tree trunks, watched over by forest Ravens and the ice cold
winter sky. He was gray as a winding sheet against the twilight, his hair shot
with silver, his clothes of indeterminate color, and his eyes as cold as the frost that covered the mountain. He had seen
the Girl come down the hill from old stone house on the summit, watched her tend the silent grave, and heard her weep and
speak and whisper as if someone could hear her.
recognized her sentiment, but belittled it even as he dreamt of violence and beauty, and even the ice on the bare ruined branches
of the great Oak trees could tell that he meant to do her harm. One night in late December he ceased to watch her, and stepped
from the shadows, phantom like and evil, the knife blade in his hand very sharp and very real.
The snow muffled his footsteps and the wind muted his approach, and the Girl did not hear or heed him until he had
grasped her by the shoulder, torn away her reverie and thrown her to the snow. Towering, he gloated over her, preparing who
knew what wicked endeavor, and the Girl cried out, alone, her trembling body and wildly pounding heart lying across the little
grave plot where nothing alive would grow. As the Man stood above her, evil burning in his heart and painted on his features,
there came a sudden commingled cry from the watching murder of crows biding in the Oak tree, as from the deepest part of the
forest there came a sound that gave the evil Man pause. It was a thudding and
pounding, rhythmic and measured, solid and steady like the resolute heartbeat of some true and loyal soul. As the Girl lay terrified in the snow, there came from the edge of the clearing an apparition astride a
gallant horse, gray and silver in the winterlight, insubstantial yet somehow as real and as solid as loyalty. The gray eyes,
gray uniform and gray features of the phantom belonged to the soul of one Jonathan Montgomery, son of Southern climates, one
hundred years dead and forgotten under Northern soil until touched by the kindness of a stranger. A ghostly saber flashing
in the twilight, the spirit bore down on the evil man with fury and determination, a keening wail echoing around the icy clearing
like the cry of a soul lost and frozen forever. In the breathless moment between
twilight and nightfall Death had no chains on Jonathan Montgomery, and for that one night the grave could hold him no longer.
The Evil stranger screamed, the knife falling from his nerveless hand into the ice topped snow. Turning, he fled into the
forest, as the gray steed reared against the shadows, and its phantom rider looked down at the Girl. She never once had feared
him, and she did not fear him now. Wheeling
the horse on hooves like flint against a gravestone, Jonathan Montgomery pursued the evil Man into the forest, not relinquishing
the chase until the Man lay sprawled against the frozen forest track, his heart bursting with terror and with exhaustion.
The soldier watched as the darkest shadows of the forest rose up to take the screaming figure to the place reserved for the
souls of wicked men, and then, in a swirl of winter wind and snow eddies against the cold air, Jonathan Montgomery disappeared.
In the morning, the people of the town found the evil Man's body lying on the mountain, his features frozen
in such a mask of horror that he was unrecognizable. Not long after, the Girl
left the house on the summit of the mountain and made her way South, determined
in her heart to find the descendants of Jonathan Montgomery and let them know that he had, not only in life, but after death,
proved himself a Hero. In time winter began to lose its hold upon the mountain,
and when the morning sun sent its tentative rays toward the little clearing in the trees, it was met with a curious cacophony
of life, as the little grave on the mountain, once but no longer forgotten, bloomed with ivy vines and holly. And at the headstone,
wrapped at the roots in a young woman’s shawl to stave off the ravages of winter, bloomed a tiny tender rosebush, the
color of love and loyalty, bright as a drop of blood against the snow.