Stopping only to retrieve a shovel, David carried his wife’s body out to the circle of rosebushes she had tended so lovingly in life. The snow had fallen thick, coating the land, and even now flurries danced around them. He knelt in center of the bushes, laying his wife gently on the snow.
A tear froze to his cheeks as he considered her silent form before him, so peaceful, so still. He knew the ground would begrudge him every shovelful of dirt, but he would not leave her for the wolves.
It took him only a few scoops of his shovel to clear the snow, revealing the frozen ground. With an anguished cry, he stabbed the shovel into the earth and felt it yield only slightly. Time after time, the shovel rose and fell, tearing the soil with agonizing slowness.
After several minutes of hard labor, David rested on the shovel, his breath forming roiling clouds in front of his face. No tears came now, and he wondered if any water could escape into the frosty air.
Footsteps crunched in the snow behind him, and David whirled towards the sound, swinging his up in front of him. He lowered it a moment later as he recognized the robed figure.
“Father Praetorius,” he grumbled. “What brings you here?”
The priest approached, pulling back the hood of his robe slightly to reveal his weathered face and balding head. “A feeling. You and your wife have been in my thoughts for days and I thought to inquire as to your welfare.”
David rested again on the handle of his shovel, his face frozen with hard lines. “I will have to speak for both of us, then. My wife will not be speaking anymore.”
Father Praetorius lowered his head. “Then I am come too late. Was it the plague?”
David nodded. “She fought it for as long as she could. The remedies she made with these rose petals seemed to do some good, but in the end, her spirit slipped away. Heaven has angels enough. Why must they take mine?”
The priest cleared his throat and took the final steps to David’s side. He rested a hand on David’s arm. “I know you do not wish to hear about God’s mysterious ways now. I am here only to comfort and mourn with you. I can assure you, my son, that because of the boy who was born this day, your wife will rise again.”
Shaking off the priest’s hand, David turned away, letting his shovel fall. “But when, father? In some long-distant day when I too have taken my final breath? I need her now—the whole village does. Without her, many more will die.”
Father Praetorius and David waited in silence, letting the snow settle around them. Then, the old man stooped to retrieve the shovel. “Do you have another shovel?” he asked. “I could scrape with these old fingers, but I fear they would give out before the ground does.”
“Aye,” whispered David.
Together, they completed their task in silence as the clouds cleared, revealing a night replete with stars.
A week before the next Christmas Day, David rolled out of his bed onto his knees and found that he could not stand. When he pressed against the ground with both feet, he found both legs as unsteady as a new lamb. Coughing wracked his body, and when he glanced down at his hands, he found them speckled with blood.
David slumped back onto his bed, letting the terrible truth sink in. Though he had escaped the plague’s influence for so long, he could not run from it forever. In only days, he would wither away, and his own body would be tossed into the cold earth.
The days passed in a blur, in which he did not leave his hut, not caring about the fate of his sheep or of any in the outside world. Long hours he prayed as the sickness progressed, wishing that he could simply give in and soar from his body towards a reunion with his wife.
On Christmas Eve, the snows fell hard again, as they had the night of his wife’s departure. After lying bed for days, he had recovered a sliver of strength, and he knew what he would do with it. Steadying himself with his shepherd’s crook, David rose to his feet and stumbled towards the doorway.
Step by agonizing step, he made his way through the snow, traveling the familiar path towards his wife’s garden and final resting place. Reaching his destination, he fell on his knees, ignoring the cold and the pain. “Rose,” he whispered. “I am coming to be with you. I tire of this life, with its cold and lonely days. There is nothing left for me here.”
He lifted his eyes in an attempt to gaze into the heavens, but stopped halfway there, his eyes riveted on the strangest sight he had ever beheld.
A rose—scarlet and full, dusted with the diamonds of a thousand snowflakes. It burst from the center of the rest of the wilted bushes, like a piece of summer perfectly preserved for the middle of winter.
David blinked hard. Perhaps it was a trick of his tortured mind. He reached up and ran one finger across one of the smooth petals. It felt real enough. Many times, David had cursed his foolishness for not saving some of the rose petals for winter for himself to make his wife’s healing concoction. Instead he had given them all away. If he wished it, this rose could be his salvation.
But why would a rose bloom in the middle of winter? He knew he hadn’t seen any other roses, not even buds the last time he had checked. Why strange twist of fate had brought him a new rose on the anniversary of the night he had lost his Rose?
As he stared on, barely comprehending, he noticed something else that defied comprehension: the rose bore no thorns. Though it held more petals than any rose he had seen, not a single thorn jutted out from its stock.
He was about to write the whole matter off and lie down in the snow to die, when a familiar voice spoke from behind him.
“David,” said Father Praetorius, “I thought I might find you here.”
David shook his head and then lowered himself onto the snow. “It is too late for me, father. You should leave here. I am riddled with the plague.”
The old priest coughed several times. “As am I, my son. But while the good Lord allows me to live, I shall serve on. There has been an outbreak in the village. There is barely a sole that does not lumber towards death’s door.”
“I stand at the door and knock,” rasped David. “But I guess death is busy as of late. I only pray that he will answer soon.”
David felt the pressure of the priest’s hand on his back. “David, the Lord sent me to bring you back from that door. You must consider the possibility that your work on earth is not yet finished.”
Coughing into the snow, David saw his vision darkening. Red flecks of blood stained the snow, so much like the color of the flower blooming bright before him. “You will have to produce a miracle, I fear. The doorknob is already turning.”
“A miracle?” said the priest in a light voice. “I believe we have one already. I have never seen such a perfect flower.” He reached out and plucked a single petal. “I would ask you back inside, but I fear that you do not have the strength. Fortunately for you, your wife shared the secret of her rose remedy, and today, that act of kindness will save you.”
The priest’s footsteps crunched away through the snow and David could not muster the strength to argue. The priest returned only minutes later, holding a wooden bowl with both hands, it contents letting out a continuous trail of steam into the frigid air.
Father Praetorius brought the bowl to David’s lips and tipped it gently, splashing some of the deep red liquid over David’s mouth. David’s cracked lips parted, accepting more and more of the liquid until he had drained the bowl.
“I feel…warm,” whispered David, managing a sitting position.
“As well you should,” said the priest. “Now I do not want to hear any more of this death nonsense from you tonight. There will be a time for you to be reunited with your wife. Come, I will help you inside.”
Leaning heavily on the smaller man, David made his way back to his cottage and into his bed. The pain in his limbs had subsided and even the storm of anxiety in his chest had given way to calm. The priest placed another blanket over David and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Rest now, my son. I will stay with you though the night.”
David nodded slightly and shut his eyes, finally slipping into a peaceful sleep.
When he opened his eyes again, the priest’s face hovered over him. “How do you feel, David?”
His eyelids drooped again, and he took stock of his body, limb by limb, section by section. For once, in the past week, his stomach did not churn and cramp, his head did not pound, and his muscles did not cry out for rest. On the whole, the answer was ‘remarkably good.’
Not daring to believe that he might have been cured, David slipped one foot over the side of the bed and then another. With a silent prayer in his heart, he shifted his weight onto his feet and attempted to stand. His trembling legs held and he managed to keep himself completely upright. His face broke into a broad grin and he let out a boisterous laugh. “I feel like a new man!”
The priest returned the smile and clasped David on the shoulder. “That is the perfect sentiment for Christmas morning. Renewal and healing.”
David nodded and ran a hand through his unkempt beard. “Was it the rose then? I cannot imagine what else it might be.”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Though I have prepared that remedy many times before and never have I seen it work so quickly or so well. That rose truly is a gift of heaven.”
David whirled towards the door, clutching his heart. “The rose! We must see if it survived the night. If it is a gift from heaven, then it is surely a gift from my angel, Rose. She has sent it to me to remember her by, and to preserve my life.”
He ran out the door, before the priest could respond, tramping through the snow towards the garden. Fearing that the wintry blasts had destroyed the rose during the night, he prepared himself for the worst. When he arrived, however, he saw that the rose still stood, as resplendent as ever. With a sudden feeling of reverence, he knelt before the flower and considered its pristine beauty.
Breathing hard, Father Praetorius joined David near the rose. “I have never seen a rose of such virtue,” whispered David. “I will preserve it in memory of my wife.”
The priest cleared his throat. “It is a fitting tribute, but it might serve a higher purpose. There are still many in the village who suffer who could also be healed.”
David turned and caught the priest’s gaze, furrowing his brow. “You mean, grind turn it into tea? How could you suggest that? It is all that I have left of her.”
Though David’s voice swelled, the priest remained calm, folding his hands in a prayerful gesture. “Please consider, David. Think of the day, which has just dawned and the child who was born on it. This is not the time to hold something precious to ourselves, but to give it to all, just as our Father in Heaven gave his precious Son for all of us.”
David’s fists clenched and he turned away. His cheeks burned with more than the cold. “What if I sicken again? If I give this away, I will surely die. We must preserve this rose so that it can continue to preserve my life, as my wife intended it to.”
The priest stepped forward and placed a hand on David’s shoulder. “My son, you must ask yourself what she had intended. Perhaps the rose is here to save all of us. Even if one man must lay down his life to save others, would not that also follow the example of our Savior?”
David fell silent, his emotions to full for speech.
“The wassail bowl,” continued the priest. “On Christmas night, all the town will drink from it. If we mixed the roses petals into the wassail, we could spread this gift of healing to all.”
“My son, I will give you some time to mull this over,” said Father Praetorius. “There are others who need my attention today. I will call on you again when the sun begins to sink. At sundown, we will pass the wassail bowl around.”
“Thank you, father,” muttered David, not able to meet the priest’s gaze. “You have given me much to ponder.” David sunk to his haunches and listened to the priest’s feet crunch in the snow. He likened this kind of food for thought to a royal feast, and he had only until sundown.
Instead of returning to the warmth of his hut, he remained in the snow. Sometimes he sat and stared at the rose, others he paced the garden. He remembered the nights lying in their bed alone, because Rose was still making her rounds in the village. He recalled the charming, lilting melodies she had hummed cultivating the roses, and the light dances she performed when she thought no one was looking.
Finally, he sunk to his knees and bowed his head, his thoughts lapsing into prayer.
David heard the priest before he saw him. The old man whistled a tune David did not recognize as he stamped through the snow. After drawing in a long breath, he rose, turning to face his old friend. “What is that tune, father?”
The priest smiled. “Oh, that? It does not yet have a name. It came into my head today as I thought about that rose of yours. It is just the thing to inspire art, wouldn’t you say?”
David nodded and crossed his arms. “I would wager that it is one of a kind. Much like my wife. How fitting that they should have shared a name.”
Father Praetorius managed a chuckle, tempered by deep sorrow. “Yes. That much is sure. What remains unsure is the flower’s fate. Have you decided what to do?”
Keeping his gaze steady, David smiled. “I have. In the past hours I have thought much about what she would have done. I can think of only one thing.” He turned and reached for the rose, his hands shaking. His fingers slipped around the thornless stem, pausing slightly before snapping it. The perfect rose in his hands, David turned and offered it to the priest.
The priest held up both hands. “No, you keep it for as long as you can. Follow me.”
David followed Father Praetorius through the snow, winding their way toward the village. They reached the town square in which the other monks and priests had already gathered around the massive, steaming wassail bowl. On a normal year, the entire square would be bustling with townspeople, though now only a handful accompanied the robed men.
The holy men parted as David approached, holding the rose aloft for everyone to see. All eyes tracked the perfect bloom, many bowing their heads in a silent gesture of respect. David and Father Praetorius reached the bowl, and David turned and handed the flower to the priest.
Offering a genuine smile, the priest took the rose and plucked the petals one by one, dropping them into the wassail bowl. Scarlet spread across the amber liquid, until it permeated the entire wassail. Plucking the last petal, the priest handed it to David, who let it fall into the center of the bowl.
The priests lowered the bowl and raised wooden goblets. Each in turn dipped his goblet into the main bowl and withdrew it full of scarlet liquid. As soon as he had filled his goblet, each priest or monk turned and hurried off in their pre-determined direction to share their life-giving offering to a stricken household.
Father Praetorius offered David a goblet and filled his own. Together, they made their way to a cottage on the outskirts of the village, entering to find a family on their sickbeds, languid and approaching death. Humming the tune that the priest had coined that evening, he and David stooped to each bedside, offering sips of the wassail. When they had finished with this family, they moved to the next, until they had drained their goblets.
They returned to the square, filling their goblets and dispensing them again, until all in the village had drunk and every goblet ran dry. Father Praetorius came to David, placing his arm around the larger man. “Now, David, your Rose lives on in all of us and not only in you. You have done a great thing this day.”
David shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I have not done anything. God has.”
That Christmas night turned into a string of snowy winter days, which gave way to Spring. The plague vanished from the village, never to return. David took his flocks and his wife’s garden and gave them to the monastery. Before the spring thaw, David took his vows as a monk, founding a new charitable order known as the Order of the Rose. The rosebushes flourished, and every Christmas night, they placed the brightest rose into the bowl, sharing with all the symbol of their salvation.