By Emily Belanger
Emily Belanger is a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA, where she lives with her husband. When she isn’t teaching, writing, or fending off Southern scorpions, she reads every fairy tale she can find. “And Thorns Will Grow There” took second place in the 2015 Sunstone Fiction Contest.
That was the year our gardens wilted in July. Petals tumbled into mulch; squash oozed, frothy and orange, across sagging leaves and brittle stems. Ruth’s marigolds drooped with milky seeds while Gayle’s peaches fell from the tree, still green and hard. Even the deer ignored them. Barbara’s okra succumbed to a soil-born disease we hadn’t seen in years. Even our cucumbers rotted. All this despite the fact that the summer had been acknowledged across the state as the best growing season in at least two decades.
It was also the summer after Ronnie Jones stabbed his wife, Alice, eighteen times with a kitchen knife.
Ruth was at the checkout counter buying tomato seedlings from Glen’s Greenhouse when the news broke. Glen kept a television on a table behind the counter next to some potted hydrangeas. The sound was too low to hear, but the moment the photo flashed onto the screen, Ruth heard Alice’s name as loud and clear as if someone had spoken it into the store’s speakers.
The fact that we went to church with Alice made us minor celebrities for a week afterward. If one of us walked outdoors, a neighbor who usually spoke of the weather or the next PTA meeting suddenly wanted to know what it was like to shake hands with a murderer. The mailman might lean against the mailbox and say, with a pitying expression, “That’s a real sad business.” And none of us could help wondering if the murder weapon was from a set of knives the ward had given Alice for a housewarming gift.
Alice Jones had been a quiet woman. Pretty, but with a braid that did nothing for her facial structure, and with mascara so thick it hid her eyes. Most weeks during Sunday School she sat toward the back of the room and smiled without comment. In the portrait by her casket she looked livelier than anyone could remember. At least that was the consensus from the eleven ward members who attended the service.
In the weeks following Alice’s death, we told ourselves that only God could have known the truth about her and Ronnie. None of us were her neighbors in the literal sense, since the ward members’ houses were scattered across town. We saw her and Ronnie only on Sunday, sitting together for the service, Alice’s hands folded in her lap.
She always dressed properly: blouses buttoned up to her throat, ankle-length skirts and sleeves down to the wrist, even in the summer heat. We didn’t worry if our husbands glanced at her. We suggested to our teenage girls that hers was an example to follow: married in the faith and modestly dressed. Not that it was wrong to wear short-sleeved blouses or knee-length skirts—we certainly did—but if she sacrificed a little extra comfort in the name of virtue, she deserved added respect.
She came to the ward book club, where every week we vented our frustration toward our husbands—the flawed men we loved. Gayle’s husband hounded her for drinking undiluted lemonade, asking how she expected to lose weight if she drank a meal’s worth of calories. Ruth was certain the children were no better off with Frank than they would be on their own. She had returned home once to find Tommy dancing naked on the lawn while Frank slept in front of the television. But if there was ever an edge in our tone, it revealed only the minutiae of contention in homes otherwise filled with home-cooked meals and quilting projects.
Usually Alice smiled while we laughed at the foibles of our men or shook her head when we groaned about their moments of insensitivity. “I thought I was the only one,” she said once.
“You have no idea,” Barbara said. “We’re not all lucky enough to find someone like Ronnie.”
Alice was holding a glass of punch that sloshed as she set it down, and we realized her hand was shaking.
Ruth observed that she’d been just as wobbly during her pregnancies, and we exchanged winks. But Alice shook her head and blushed. “I’m sure I’m just tired,” she said.
Weeks passed with no signs of a baby, and the moment slipped from our memory.
At the same time that our gardens wilted, the rosebushes outside the chapel began creeping over the wooden barrier that surrounded the flowerbeds, all without producing actual roses. They stretched their tendrils across the church lawn, and the grass grew inches overnight, obscuring the thorns. We might have been more aware of the infestation if the summer picnic hadn’t been behind us. But only the youth group used the lawn on a regular basis, and, to teenagers, hidden spikes in the grass were amusing. Most wore clunky sneakers with thick soles, and if someone slid while catching a Frisbee and pricked a finger, you would find them on Sunday, waving the bandaged appendage proudly through the halls. “Another casualty,” they might say, with a hand to the forehead in a false swoon. “No one’s safe out there.”
It was nearly August before we took real notice of the rosebushes as we ferried casseroles and toddlers between minivans and the chapel door. Though the sidewalk was straight and short, children had a way of wriggling out of their parents’ grasp and launching into the grass. Usually the worst damage was dirt-encrusted knees and ripped Sunday clothes. But as the thorns spread they also thickened and grew sharper.
So it happened that Ruth’s little boy Tommy summoned up his full squirming strength and broke loose from his sister’s grip. Within seconds his shrieks could be heard all the way into the kitchen, where many of us were shifting plates around, searching for a place to rest our potluck offering.
With the oven door half open, Becky Glendew was the first to worry. She was new to the ward and unfamiliar with the noise Tommy made on a regular basis—born of his habit of rocking backward in his chair during Primary until it tipped over.
It was Gayle and Barbara who finally left the kitchen, but with shaking heads, as if they could already see Tommy wailing on the floor in the Primary room. But as they followed the noise through the halls, it led them outdoors, where a small group huddled around the boy. Blood was smeared across his face and on his fists, making it difficult to see where he was actually hurt.
One emergency room visit later, a doctor extracted a thorn embedded in Tommy’s upper lip. The blood had spread when the little boy scratched at his face in a panic.
Tommy brought the thorn home where he displayed it in an empty baby food jar. The next Sunday, he snuck the jar into Primary and the children took turns peeking at it under his chair. After hearing his screams the week before, most were disappointed by how small the thorn was. His lip had mostly healed; only a red dot was visible when he pulled back the Band-Aid; but he was still hoping for a scar.
It was funny, really. That’s what we said to each other between sips of lemonade at our next book club. So much noise and blood, and in the end it was just a small thing. Even Tommy would forget soon, and in the meantime, did anyone want another raspberry cupcake? There were more in the kitchen.
We first met Ronnie and Alice while helping them move in. With his average height and light brown hair, Ronnie blended in with our husbands from the start. He was a bit pudgy, but with strength that showed each time he hefted a box, like a teddy bear with shoots of muscle woven into the stuffing.
That first day, Alice moved with energy—bouncing between stacks of boxes and directing us to the rooms where things belonged. Each time she knelt down to lift something heavy, Ronnie would rush to help her.
Barbara said she wished her Bruce had done that for her, and Gayle said she just hoped Alice knew how good she had it.
Over the next five years, Ronnie played basketball with our husbands every week. He was popular among the children for welcoming them into the game when their fathers normally shooed them away. Tommy probably remembered Ronnie only as the kind man who had lifted him up so that he could dunk the basketball in the hoop. If our husbands saw signs that something was off in Ronnie they didn’t tell us. But then, we didn’t ask.
Tommy was the one who saw the ghost gliding between the pews.
It was a Saturday and people were setting up for the Primary’s parent-child mingler: men unfolding the tables and chairs before finding excuses to disappear, women tiptoe-ing precariously on the chairs, taping streamers and balloons to the wall. When Tommy barreled shrieking through the doors, more than one woman had to step quickly off her chair to avoid being toppled.
Though everyone knew that Tommy catastrophized the tiniest nicks—the thorn in his lip confirming that—the story spread so quickly that the bishop had to clear his throat during sacrament meeting the next day and remind the congregation that angels in heaven were silent notes taking. Soon all the adults were laughingly wondering whether Tommy’s ghost had been carrying a notebook and pen.
According to Tommy, the ghost wore a long, white gown with a train that stretched out behind her. He didn’t call it a train at first—he said it was like a tail. To make matters worse, the woman had red flowers in her hair. “The kind that used to grow at the church,” Tommy said, “on the pricker bushes.”
We teased Ruth, saying she was letting Tommy watch too many scary movies, but when we filed from the building, Ruth stopped and insisted that the tallest bush had come to just below her hip that morning, though it was plain to see it now reached higher than her waistline. Surely they couldn’t grow a foot in just three hours’ time, not even in this heat and humidity. Maybe kudzu, but not roses. It was a trick of the eye, we told her, or maybe—and to our credit we still smiled and laughed—Tommy’s ghost had been growing them.
Perhaps things would have stayed mild—devolving into the type of event you could laugh about later—if Ruth hadn’t left a photo of Alice Jones out in the open. She would never say why she had left it somewhere Tommy could find it. There were few photos of Alice to begin with: mostly in group-shots from ward activities. But after her funeral we didn’t want her dark eyes springing out of a scrapbook and startling us, so we trimmed or cropped or hid the pictures.
But Tommy found one, Alice smiling—no, beaming—holding her secret so tightly that we might be excused for missing it. Only her eyes might have given it away, and even then only if we had looked closely and long enough: they might have wavered, we might have noticed something about the corners, how they creased up just a tad too much. Or not at all.
Tommy recognized his ghost, and nothing Ruth said to him would shake his conviction or stop him from telling the other children.
The next day when the teenage boys showed up to play basketball in the outdoor court, the bushes along the building reached their shoulders. The tendrils in the lawn had spread as well, creating a knee-high maze that the boys made a game of hopping through.
Two hours later, a vine was inching up the basketball hoop. The maze on the lawn tightened, and the boys’ huge sneakers wouldn’t fit between the walls of thorn. They tried stomping out, but after a thorn pierced someone’s shoe and stabbed his big toe, the boys called their fathers and waited for them to arrive with pruning shears to carve an escape.
Ruth and Gayle never said much about it, but there was one, single hint about Alice: the last book club before her death, too close for us to have done anything differently. It was a good showing that night, fifteen of us, so it was easy to overlook something so small.
It was already nine, and the conversation had long since drifted from the book none of us had read anyway to Tommy’s latest antics.
“I tell you,” Ruth said, “I don’t know what to do with him.”
Gayle patted her on the knee. “You’ll survive it, just like I survived my Joey. I’ll never forget the time he took off his diaper in the middle of the service and ran between the pews.”
Barbara snickered around her fist. “How long did it take you to catch him?”
“As I recall, Barbara,” Sharon said from across the room, “You deliberately stepped out of the way to let him run past you.”
“All I know,” Barbara said, “is that it’s time for another tray of Ruth’s lemon bars.” Alice volunteered to fetch it from the kitchen.
When Gayle and Ruth followed a moment later to refill the punchbowl, Alice was on her knees, arms buried deep in the refrigerator, apparently pulling the tray from the back of the shelf. Her blouse and undershirt had ridden up, revealing several inches of blue and yellow lower back. At Ruth’s gasp, Alice sat up and tugged the fabric down.
Ruth turned to Gayle, but Gayle only shook her head uncertainly. There was no point in stirring up trouble over nothing, and even if it was a bruise—who was to say Alice hadn’t slipped? They left the room without a word.
While she dressed for Alice’s funeral two weeks later, Gayle reminded herself that one of the lights in the kitchen had been burnt out, making it too dim for her to see clearly anyway.
After the incident with the basketball game, we organized a pruning committee. Armed with boots and thick gloves, we chopped and slashed until we had filled the beds of two pickup trucks. But by the end of the week, the growth was worse than before. We organized another pruning, and this time chopped the rosebushes down to the ground. Two days later they were taller than anyone in the congregation.
When word about the roses spread through town, our neighbors joked about our gardening problem and asked when we would call the professionals in. But nobody, not even Becky, who was still new and might have been excused, dared suggest we actually call in a landscaping crew. The rosebushes were our responsibility.
We organized daily rotations, each family taking a turn chopping at the vines and digging up roots. We poured weed killer on the lawn and in the gardens, until there was no trace of dandelions or violets. But every day we returned to find more vines. They crawled up the storm drains and wrapped around trees till they left marks in the bark.
On her first rotation, Becky pulled a vine off a window and saw streaks of red embedded in the windowsill and wall. “They look like scratches from someone’s nails,” Becky said as she scrubbed away the stains. But we soon decided that they looked no redder than the mud on the ground.
A few days later, we heard a scream in the chapel and found Gayle, who had been following a tendril of thorns that had pushed through the weather-stripping between the doors and wound its way to the foot of a pew in the back of the chapel. As she bent over to cut the vine, a long thorn pierced her ankle.
“I must have leaned against it without looking,” she said.
By the last week of summer, the roses covered every inch of lawn. The bishop talked about cancelling the next service, but we persuaded him to proceed. Nothing would scare the darkness from our midst like the Word of God. A few families whispered that they expected to be ill that morning, but we put that disunity to rest with a few phone calls.
It’s true that we balked when we saw the chapel the next morning. The thorns had not only reached the top of the roof but had piled and twisted in on each other like barbed wire until not even a shingle was visible. On every inch of property surrounding the building, nothing could be seen but thorn bushes. Not an inch of bark, not a leaf on a tree, not a blade of grass. Nothing but thorns inches—and even feet—deep. Only the parking lot and the sidewalk leading to the front door remained clear, and even that space was flanked by a border of thorn bushes that reached above the men’s heads.
We huddled together at the edge of the sidewalk and stared. The bishop eventually walked up to the front door and started reading passages from Isaiah and Revelation—anything that mentioned thorns. He didn’t interpret the verses or provide any reasons for the order he read them in—just verse after verse about thorns. We suspected he had run a search on his phone and was reading the passages as they appeared.
It was Barbara who finally interrupted him. “Nothing is going to scare me away from my own chapel,” she said, and the bishop stepped aside as she marched past him and through the doors. As soon as the door swung shut, a red bud the size of a fist unfolded above the doorframe.
“Do you smell that?” we murmured, because already the fragrance was wafting through the crowd. Sweet and perfect.
The bishop was the next to walk into the building, his gaze remaining on the rose until the door closed behind him.
“Look!” we said. “Another one!” For already another bud was opening, this one along the wall of thorns that bordered the sidewalk. This time it was Becky who walked through, then Ruth and Tommy.
One by one, each member of the congregation stepped through the doors, and the roses bloomed until they covered the building. From the outside you could see nothing but red.
Gayle was the last to step through the doors, and for her the air was filled with not just the scent of roses, but of lemon bars and raspberry cupcakes.
In the chapel, every pew was full of slumbering heads: the bishop bent over the podium, whole families slumped on each other’s shoulders. Tommy, contrary as ever, was sprawled in the middle of the aisle.
One seat was empty, and Gayle knew that they were waiting for her.
As a blanket of petals fell from the ceiling, she looked back at the door toward the outside world. But already the pathway had closed. Not even sunlight could make its way through.
The chapel stood like a hill of poppies, already fading from the town’s memory.