Essence of Rose

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Essence of Rose  

by Poppy Z. Brite  

The city of Nashville straddles its polluted stretch of the Cumberland

River like a lover, nestles into its fertile patch of Tennessee land like

a cluster of rhinestones sewn onto rich cloth of earth brown and

malachite green. The streets of the downtown area are brick, dating from

the early days of the city. Above these cobbled paths, towers of glass

and chrome soar up and up, some for thirty stories or more, elegant

hotels and shopping centers and temples of commerce, catching the

southern sunlight by day, reflecting the million colored fairy lights of

the city by night. Many of the tallest buildings have glass elevators

that can be seen from the street after dark, ascending the sheer faces of

the buildings like shimmering insects climbing toward the moon.


Or spiders, thought Anthony, going up to spin their webs between the few

stars that were faintly visible through the haze of city light. Yes, he

could paint that: white and silver spiders, spinning gossamer threads

between points of light in velvety purple-blackness.


But he thought Rose might paint it better. The image was more suited to

her style.


He stood naked at a window on the thirty-first floor of a grand hotel,

pressing his body to the cool glass so that a foggy outline began to form

around him — his body heat made visible — and gazing out over the city.

Only the faintest shadow of his reflection was visible in the glass:

sharp- featured, big eyes staring, skin very pale and hair paler still.

He was backlit by the Christmas lights strung around the room, the

candles burning, the tiny orange eye of an incense stick smoldering here

and there. A room lit by juju.


From what Anthony had seen, the hotel staff consisted of impeccably

dressed black men with gleaming bald heads and big-haired white ladies

who wore their makeup like an extra face, so thickly applied that it

seemed to hover a fraction of an inch above their actual features. They

would certainly suspect juju or worse if they saw the room now. But they

never entered, nor did the housekeepers, not during this week. Anthony

met them at the door to receive towels and soap for the long, steaming

baths he and Rose took. The bed could not be changed because it was in

constant use, so that by the end of the week it would be a swirled,

jumbled confection of sheets and pillows and small creamy stains, rich

and ripe with the many scents of sex. And, this year, with the faintly

sour tang of spilled champagne.


He placed his hands flat against the glass — two perfect, long-fingered

handprints lined in a nearly phosphorescent mist — then pushed himself

away from the window and reached for the ice bucket. A half-full bottle

of champagne was chilling there. Magie Noir, the strange brand

Rose had brought with her. She said it came from a winery near New

Orleans, where she spent the rest of her year.


“Cajun champagne?” he’d asked, a little nervously, the first time she

had poured it for him.


“You’d really have to call it ‘sparkling wine,’ I guess,” she’d said.

“But that sounds as if it ought to be pink and served in Dixie cups.

Magie Noir is a potion.


All the rest of the year Anthony was a sherry drinker. He had never been

able to make himself like the taste of beer, and liquor mutated his

personality, made him a mad thing, unable to paint. Rose always drank

champagne. This year she’d begged him to drink it with her, and he had

given in. There was an underlying spiciness, a slight burn like the

essence of Tabasco without the garlic and vinegar, like oil of cinnamon,

a subtle heat stitching across the tongue. Still, he could not detect all

the flavors Rose said were in the bouquet; she knew the names and tastes

of herbs he’d never heard of. It produced a strange drunkenness he’d

never known before, balloon-headed, almost numb.


“You’re mine,” she had whispered the day before in drunken reverie,

standing over him in the empty bathtub as recycled champagne flowed out

of her, over Anthony’s chest and stomach in a pale yellow stream. “You’re

mine, no one else’s, not hers, only mine now.”


Her words, as much as her act, had given him a jolt. Rose never

referred, even so obliquely, to the uncomfortable fact of Anthony’s



Now he poured some more of the potion into a tall fluted glass and

sipped slowly. Bubbles exploded against the roof of his mouth as he

turned to look at the woman who shared this room and this week and this

city with him. The woman who slept the sleep of the sated, sprawled

across the white expanse of the enormous bed. Every year the beds seemed

to grow huger, softer, more enticing. Every year their bodies seemed to

fit together more precisely, their hearts seemed to bleed into each other

more willingly.


Rose LeBlanc. He knew so little about her, not even whether that was her

given name; the symmetry of its syllables seemed too perfect. But he

could imagine no name that would suit her better. And that was what it

said on her Louisiana driver’s license, next to a tiny snapshot, all

disarrayed hair and fierce, camera-hating eyes: Rose LeBlanc of New



They had met in Nashville, two up-and-coming young artists invited to

exhibit paintings in a museum show. Anthony’s wife wasn’t with him; his

career did not interest her. He’d been at some cocktail party sucking

down the free sherry, and suddenly there was Rose wrapped in black lace

and silk, hair in a wild purple cloud around her head, a glass of

champagne already in her graceful, gloved hand. When he saw her work,

Anthony knew he had to fuck her.


Rose’s paintings seemed ready to crawl off the canvas and twine tendrils

round your wrists, almost too beautiful and too morbid to bear.

Psychedelic washes of color twisted into intricate, mandala-like

patterns, seeming to swarm on the wall. Black-green swamp scenes so lush

and organic that you swore the leaning tree trunks could be made of bone,

the draping foliage and shadow a thin network of viscera, of stretched

flesh and trailing, looping vein. Her paintings glistened and seethed. It

was as if she mixed quicksilver into her tempera, LSD into her



They made Anthony think of creation and destruction, sex and voodoo,

broken skulls resting on candlelit altars, eye sockets blazing dead black

light. Of the thousand ghost stories that must pervade any block of her

native French Quarter, of the thousand deaths and pains inflicted there

daily. And of the sodden, decadent pleasures.


Looking at Rose’s work — even the Polaroids of new canvases she

occasionally sent him between visits — was like being in a hotel room

with her, her tongue working him over or her legs wrapped tight around

his hips, burying him deep inside her. Sometimes Anthony felt stupidly,

nigglingly jealous of the other people who must see her work, wondering

if it seduced them in just the same way.


But they didn’t get to hold the artist herself they way he did. They

didn’t get to bite her throat and lick her nipples, they didn’t get to

spread her thighs and consume the nectar of her cunt under a rainbow of

Christmas lights, thirty floors above the city. They didn’t get to drink

Magie Noir with her. At least, Anthony hoped they didn’t.


He approached the bed. The folds and ripples of the white sheet caught

all the colors in the room; they spread like a watercolor wash over the

hills and hollows of Rose’s body. A corner of the sheet was draped across

her face, trembling with each breath. He took hold of the sheet and

gently pulled it away.


Flawless skin paler than his, pale even against the white sheet. Mouth

raw from the days they had already spent together — from the kissing and

the sandpaper rasp of Anthony’s scruff, since he did not often leave the

bed long enough to shave — too dark in the pale face, like an overripe

plum. Lashes smudgy against cheeks, twin streaks of charcoal. Hair of a

curious purple-black, the color of a bruise, teased and tangled around

her head; there were a couple of patches at the back where it had begun

to knot into dreadlocks. The soft bush of hair between her thighs was the

same strange color; when wet with his saliva or sperm, it glistened

nearly violet.


Rose was thin and lithe, the upper part of her body almost boyish in the

hollowness of its shoulders and collarbones, its small, vivid nipples,

the subtle framework of ribs visible beneath skin white as parchment. But

her hips were wide and strong, and her ass was as round and heavy as

fruit, delectable. With the tips of his fingers Anthony brushed her

cheek, then ran his hand down the side of her neck and cupped the small

swell of her breast in his palm. The nipple puckered at his touch, and

Rose opened her eyes: all great black pupil and glittering purple iris,

hectic even at the moment of awakening. Huge, wild eyes, feral eyes.


“How long did I sleep?” she demanded.


“A couple of hours.”


He expected her to ask, “How many more days do we have?” It was the only

thing that disturbed the flow of their time together each year: halfway

through the week, Rose would start counting off the days until they had

to part, then the hours, and finally the last, excruciating minutes

before Anthony boarded a plane for the other side of the continent, back

to the wealthy wife he could not bring himself to leave, and she hopped a

southbound Greyhound. The diminishing time seemed to twist inside her, to

cause her actual physical anguish. At the end she could not even bear to

lose time to sleep. If Anthony slept, she would sit awake watching him,

studying the tightly drawn, compact lines of his face and body as if

memorizing them for another year.


But she didn’t ask the question, not this time; just pulled him down to



Her voice became thick with sex, clotted, like slow southern sap, like

sweet oil. Her pleading sobs and moans were curiously muted, as if her

strongest emotions burned pure and hot enough to drain the air of oxygen.

“Come into me,” Anthony heard her say faintly. “Come to me now. Come

into me now . . . ”


He descended into the moist, fragrant world of the bed and the body of

his lover. Nothing mattered but Rose’s tongue in his mouth, his hand

between her legs, sliding up and down the wet length of her cleft, then

sinking two fingers deep inside her, where it felt like the slow rippling

muscles of a snake. She groaned way down in her throat and moved hard

against his hand, forcing it deeper. For a moment his fingers found her

rhythm, heightened it.


When he pulled away, Rose caught at his hand. Anthony brought her

fingers to his mouth, kissed their small, sharp tips. Then he pulled her

legs wide. A passage more ancient than the river, with an ocean-tide

pull . . . He lowered his face to her, ran his tongue around the

swelling bud, then let it slide into her ruby depths. Her smell was like

flowers crushed in seawater, her taste like fruit ripened and slightly

fermented. Anthony thought he would die before he could drink enough of



“Inside me,” she hissed. He could not disobey. He tumbled Rose onto her

back and found the heart of her womb with one liquid thrust. Her scream

displaced sound, her movement, time. He might have spent minutes or hours

inside her before his orgasm finally brought him a sense of release,

however false.


They lay tangled together, too spent to speak. Anthony’s penis felt as

if it were melting inside her. In fact, his whole body felt ready to

melt. The slight, pleasant numbness he’d felt earlier had grown to vast

proportions. It weighed down his body, his thoughts. His brain buzzed

dully. He hadn’t drunk enough to feel this woozy, had never drunk

enough to feel like this.


Rose looked at him, her huge eyes shining, and smiled.


“I’m afraid you won’t be going back home to your wife this year. I get

so lonely, Anthony. I haven’t painted anything for months and months. I

spent all that time perfecting my recipe . . . my potion.”


Anthony tried to react, to question her; he wanted to get up and get

some distance between them, to get some air and clear his head. But he

could not twitch a finger or an eyelid, could scarcely remember his own

name. He was paralyzed.


She leaned over, held up a bottle of the champagne and whispered,

Magie Noir, darling. Black magic. Bufo marinus . . .

itching pea . . . children’s bones . . . and datura, the concombre



Zombie, he heard dumbly. The word ought to mean something to him,

but he couldn’t think what.


“I don’t have much money, but that’s all right. You can go out and work

while I paint. You can do anything I tell you to do . . . and not a

damned thing more, my love.


“Now come here and fuck me again,” she ordered.


He would not move. He would simply refuse to move, would exert every

ounce of his will to resist her. But even as he thought this, Anthony

felt himself take her gently in his arms. He strained against his own

treacherous musculature.


“Fuck me!” she commanded.


He looked on as if from a distance as his body propped itself up over

Rose’s. Unconsciously hard and ready again, he entered her and began

moving in her favorite ways, without a second thought. Soon the buzzing

filled his skull and eradicated all thought.


Perfect,” Rose sighed beneath him.

For more Poppy Z. Brite, read:

Essence of Rose
Wurtzel’s Outer Bitch
Would You?


Poppy Z. Brite