If you are familiar with E.A. Poe, you should know that every year on his birthday a mysterious person visits his grave leaving a rose. This tradition has been carried on for many years. This story is a fictional account of who this person is and how the tradition got started.
Three Red Roses
By Dave Benneman
Baltimore January 19, 2011
Nicole made her way from the cemetery with her coat pulled tightly around her neck. The cold rain blew under her umbrella in horizontal sheets. She stepped from the curb into a puddle of icy water that filled her sensible shoes.
“Damn it.” She crossed the street in the middle of the block. “What am I doing out here at my age.” A car came closer than necessary horn blowing as it passed. Nicole gave the driver the finger. “Go ahead asshole, run down an old lady?” Her breath came in short gulps.
The cognac she drank a few minutes ago had warmed her up and eased the pressure building in her chest. Standing in the three-sided shelter she wondered how long she’d have to wait for the bus tonight and why she kept up this tradition all these years.
Gazing out at the leafless trees in the park her mind traveled back sixty years to her first trip to Baltimore. The trip that started these annual pilgrimages to her great, great grandfather’s gravesite on his birthday.
She had been invited to study art history and restoration at John Hopkins University. A big deal for a young French girl with decent grades from a country school and a working class family. The opportunity to escape her war-ravaged home to live in America excited her.
The Dean met with her personally, as though she were a real catch for the prestigious university.
“With the help of The World Student Service Fund, the school will take care of your tuition, books, and housing. I’ve also managed a small stipend for meals.” Dean Fafara grinned at her. “You’ll have to be very frugal to make it last to the end of the month.”
“That is most generous sir, but…”
Dean Fafara held up a hand, cutting her off. “I’ve also taken the liberty of setting up a part time job for you. You can use some of your earnings to stay out of the soup line at Saint Mary’s.” He laughed at his own joke.
Not sure whether she should laugh with him or not. She waited.
“You will be assisting the head of our French Language Studies department. How does that sound to you?” he asked.
What could she say? “Yes. Of course yes.”
“You start February 5th, and you can move in anytime. That’ll give you an opportunity to settle in before classes begin.” He laughed, a loud, full-throated laugh.
Nicole joined his contagious joy.
“That’s only a couple of weeks I’m afraid?” he said.
“My mother and grandmother are with me, they will help me get settled in here at school. Thank you so much Dean Fafara.” Shaking his hand she backed out of his office, acting every bit the elegant lady. Exiting the building, she ran down the stairs into the common in front of his residence, yelling for her mama like a little girl who’d just skinned her knee.
“Mama, they want me to come! It’s too wonderful.”
“We must have dinner and celebrate Nicole’s future,” her grandmother Mateja announced.
At dinner, three generations toasted Nicole’s good fortune with a bottle of French champagne.
“There’s another thing we should toast while we’re here. Today is grandfather’s birthday. To Eddie! I hope he’s resting in peace,” Mateja said holding her glass out.
“Gran, he’s buried here in Baltimore, no?” Nicole asked clinking her glass with Mateja’s.
“Yes,” Mateja said, refilling her flute.
“We should go and visit him while we’re here,” Nicole suggested.
“Do you think that’s a good idea? We don’t know where he’s buried.” Nicole’s mother said, sipping her champagne.
“Mama, Gran knows all about Mr. Poe. You know where he’s buried don’t you Gran.”
“Yes dear, after dinner we’ll ask at the hotel how to find the cemetery. What do you think Lenore?”
“I think we should let sleeping dogs lie. That’s what I think.” Lenore answered bitterly.
“Come on Mama, what will it hurt to visit his grave?”
“The man never even knew we existed. He’s never done anything for me. We aren’t allowed to speak the truth because Mama.” She pointed an accusing fork at Mateja. “Made a promise to her dying mother.”
“Lenore please, try not to be so angry.”
“I’ve seen too many graves already.”
”We’re celebrating Nicole. Don’t spoil it by dredging up your memories of the war.”
“Yes, my memories of the war, fighting with the Resistance while you filled her head with a lot of romantic garbage about her great, great grandfather.”
“Mama, don’t get mad. Please,” Nicole pleaded.
“I’m going back to the hotel. I’ve lost my appetite.” Lenore pushed away from the table leaving a vacuum in her wake.
Nicole started after her, but Mateja held her wrist. “Let her go child. She needs to deal with her grief in her own way. She’ll feel better if we give her some time on her own.”
“She misses Papa still, Gran. It hurts me, to see her in so much pain.”
“The war did terrible things to your mother’s spirit. Taking your father is only one small part of what she carries on her heart these days. We must be patient and love her no matter what.”
“I do love her Gran, but she never talks about Papa or the war. It would be better if she let it out. That’s what I think.”
“I’d forgotten how simple life is when you are 18.” Mateja eyes glistened above her smile.
“Gran, tell me the story of Eddie and Abigail again.”
“You know it as well as I do.”
“Very well. Your beautiful, great great, grandmother Abigail met Eddie, shortly after his wife died. Abigail said, Eddie was a sensitive man and his wife’s death made him so sad, it broke her heart. She fell in love with the sad eyed poet. She often made him laugh regaling him with stories about her father, and how he would go on about the Lee name. Here a Lee, there a Lee, everywhere you look a Lee.
“She saw Eddie whenever he traveled to Baltimore. Abigail’s father became furious when he found out. He forbade Abigail from meeting with Eddie as he ranked beneath her station. Eddie resided in New York when she learned of her pregnancy. She told no one. She concealed her condition from everyone, especially her father.
Abigail wrote to Eddie and told him she had to see him, but she never told him why. The night her labor started she still hadn’t heard from him. On October the sixth, eighteen forty-nine she walked into Washington College Hospital, right here in Baltimore. Her labor lasted most of the night in the drafty room. The church bell rung out each hour as the darkness gave way to dawn. Finally, the baby came. The midwife fussed over your great grandmother. A nurse came into the room brandishing a sheaf of papers, and told the midwife that the famous writer Edgar Allen Poe had just died. Abigail burst into tears, what kind of future would her daughter Annabelle face, born fatherless of an unmarried mother. She knew her own father would not let her raise her daughter, so broken-hearted she fled to Philadelphia to start a new life. That’s where she met Tom Morton. He loved Annabelle, so when his business called him to France he asked Abigail to marry him.”
Nicole used her napkin to wipe away her tears then lifted her glass. “To Abigail.”
Mateja joined her. “The first in a long line of strong women.”
They walked arm and arm back to the hotel talking about the secret romance of Abigail Lee and Edgar Allen Poe.
“We’re back, Lenore. How are you feeling dear?” Mateja asked.
Lenore looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. “Better, thank you.”
“Do you want to come to the cemetery with us? We bought a rose for you leave.” Mateja pulled three long stem red roses from her voluminous bag.
“If you really want to do this, I’ll go.”
“That’s wonderful Mama. It will do you good to get out of the hotel room. It’s cold and crisp outside. It feels clean somehow, not like being in Paris at all,” Nicole said.
“The concierge said we can take a taxi cab, but it’s close enough to walk.” Mateja tucked the roses back into her bag.
They set out in search of Edgar Allan Poe’s resting place. They found the cemetery with no problem. Locating the gravesite took much longer than they had expected. The sun set rapidly and before long, they found themselves stumbling around, the only light coming from a distant street light leaking through the bare branches. The night air bit at their faces and clouds of steam escaped their mouths as they tromped through the cemetery.
“Its here! Over here! I’ve found it,” Nicole exclaimed.
“Stop shouting girl. You’ll wake the dead with all that carrying on,” her mother groused. “Show some respect for the sacred ground you’re walking on.”
“Yes, mama. I’m sorry, but here he is.”
Mateja came over noticeably limping. “I had all, but given up. God bless you child. Here he lies indeed.” She rooted in her bag. She extracted the three red roses wrapped in green paper from the florist. Next she pulled out a bottle of French cognac and three glasses from the hotel bathroom. She lined up the glasses on the head stone and poured.
Hoisting her glass into the air, Mateja said in a solemn voice. “We are here tonight Eddie to toast you; the patriarch of our family. It took us a long time to get here, but we wanted to tell you we are well. Abigail sends you her love from wherever beautiful, strong women go when they leave this world. Happy Birthday.” She clinked her glass with the others and took a long drink.
“I can’t believe you carried a bottle of cognac and three glasses all over this graveyard. You know mother, there are times I wonder about you.”
“You must admit it feels good going down.” Mateja laughed.
“It does, but what will the local gendarme think if they catch us here?” Lenore asked.
“What could be more fun than three drunken French women, lost in a graveyard?” Mateja asked.
“May I say a toast Gran?”
“Of course child. Don’t let your dreary mother spoil our fun.” Mateja poured a little more cognac in everyone’s glass.
“Thank you for the love you shared with Abigail and the memories she shared with me through Gran.” Again the glasses clinked and they all drank.
“If we are through now, it is getting late and I, for one, am cold,” Lenore said.
“Yes, these old bones are creaking in spite of the cognac.” Mateja set the rest of the bottle and one rose at the base of the stone. “For you Eddie. To your health.”
Nicole followed with her rose and her mother placed the third.
The cold spray of icy water from a passing car brought her back to the present with a jolt. Her neck ached and the pressure in her chest persisted.
“You bastard! Son—of—a—bitch!” She bobbed her head to punctuate each syllable. Her normal French accent disappeared completely when she swore. She sounded like a native Baltimorean dockworker. For the second time that night, she used the international symbol of love, holding up her middle finger high enough for the driver to see.
“If it gets any colder I’ll be giving the mitten.” She laughed at the image as her bus pulled to the curb. The door opened with a whoosh of air. She smiled absently presenting her pass to the driver.
“Try to find a seat ma’am.” The driver displayed a gold tooth from his broad grin.
Nicole glanced up to see no one else on the bus. “I’ll do my best.” She took the first seat behind him. The steady beat of the rain and the warm stale air made Nicole drowsy. The next time she glanced up in time to recognize her stop approaching. Reaching up she pulled the cord signaling the driver. She stood as he braked and steered toward the curb.
“Y’all leaving me alone on this nasty night?”
“I am afraid I must, this is my stop and it is way past my bed time.”
“You was so quiet, I’s afraid you were sleepin’ already.”
“Sorry, I’m usually better company. Lost in my own thoughts I’m afraid.”
“That’s okay, quiet is good sometimes. This weather makes me turn inside myself too.”
“I would invite you in for a drink, but I’m afraid there may be one more old lady looking for you tonight and I wouldn’t want you to keep her waiting in this weather.”
“Thank you much, but the city frowns on parking the bus at the curb and visiting with folks. I do appreciate the thought though. Y’all be careful walking home now.”
“Thank you.” Nicole stepped into the gusting wind, opening her umbrella, she walked the two short blocks home.
The black wrought-iron gate squeaked in protest when she opened it and took the last few steps up the red brick walk toward warmth and comfort. Soft light issued through the stained glass in the heavy door and sidelights. Her wet coat fell over the elegant baluster, and she paused to catch her breath.
Changing into warm pajamas and a plush robe, she left her wet clothes on the floor at the foot of an antique four-poster bed. In the kitchen she selected a bottle of Cabernet from a wine keeper. Her cousin, who still operated the family winery in France, kept her well stocked. She poured herself a glass and placed it next to her favorite chair in the library. Walking past the bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, she lit the kindling she had set up in the hearth. The fire crackled and popped into life, while she searched the bookshelves for a well-worn leather bound volume. Pulling it from the shelf, something brushed up against her ankle.
“Dupin! Where have you been hiding? Come, keep me warm, I’ll read to you.” Nicole kicked off her slippers and curled both feet onto the seat of the chair. The large tabby did not wait for another invitation, it jumped onto her legs, stretched out both front paws and kneaded Nicole’s thigh. Once Dupin deemed his place adequately tenderized, he curled into the crook of her knee and purred loudly. Nicole opened the book to the marked passage, sipping from her glass she read The Raven aloud. The rain turned to sleet and tapped at her windows.
Closing the book Nicole’s thoughts again drifted to the first time she visited Edgar Allen Poe’s grave.
Suddenly an elephant sat on her chest. The book fell from her hand and thumped on the floor. Sweat beaded on her forehead and the room spun slowly. The smell of Juniper burning in the fireplace became very intense. The library brightened up and the tapping of the sleet got louder.
Nicole stroked Dupin and closed her eyes, for evermore.