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She stood between the willow trees in every season, gazing at animals and people as they came and went. Her gentle yet sophisticated compassion needed no words. She radiated peace by just being. Purity cloaked her, her head always covered, as if protecting her from the rain of tears that pewtered the sky. She never spoke to me but I knew she made me promises nonetheless; and she never rejected me.
I had only ever dared to touch the lady’s cool hand once and was struck by her calm.
Every day I visited her, drawn as inevitably as a leaf is into a whirlpool, even though it dances carefree.
When I arrived through the great iron gates, I walked the undulating paths amongst the flowers, seeing her at a distance, sometimes coming close to stare at her, reluctant to engage. But I watched her, wondering. Her serene gaze held a hardness, a steadfastness as she tended the gardens through all these years. From time to time she wept.
The Lady opened her arms to all without judgment. I wanted her to acknowledge me, wrap those arms about me, yet I dreaded it. Did she ever truly see me? But to speak to her catered madness and a loneliness I dared not admit.
I had killed in the name of justice and democracy. It had been a brutal, bloody time and my soul bore scars. For this reason, I had come to the gardens for solace, and she never questioned, never criticized. She stood in shadows, always watching.
She made it easy, her calm descending like a monk’s cowl to comfort me when the world grew too hectic in its new ways. As time crawled on, when no one else ventured into the gardens, I ranted to her as if she were my confessor.
I lie. My confessions never would have had such bare truth.
I wanted to believe that I had somehow thawed her firm resolve, that she favored me above others. Maybe she heard me, because of my resolute attendance, and then I worried that she had.
I walked to see her nearly every day. She offered me a relief from my pain, but I always refused her silent promises. Within her outstretched arms, I saw the blissful void, but I wondered if she gave the gift to anyone who acquiesced. I told myself not to fear, and proved it by attending her without ever committing.
Sometimes I lost myself in watching birds weave twigs into branches of trees, creating a nest, or the determined ants carrying away mysterious minutiae. At other times, I sat, pain throbbing through me like the thudding of mortar fire. At those times I wanted to beg her to hear me and give me something more, something like love.
I had known she could give, but I hadn’t known she could take at the same time.
* * *
The ice storms came that year and coated everything in a snow queen’s hell. My infirmaries kept me from navigating the silvery, slippery streets. Weeks later, muffled from the needles of cold air, I finally managed to totter with cane and a slow, but no longer stately pace, to where I knew the lady waited. I vowed to visit her no more after this. My infatuation did not bode well for my future.
In the white fog, I stood looking at her as my breath formed halos about my head. Isolated, we stood as if on an island untethered to any place or time. I may have said a few words as I stared at her sculpted beauty. Pale, vigilant, she lulled me as ever; the same calm gaze, the same offer. I bowed my head, trembling, knowing I would return yet again.
Months of daily visits and my denial grew even as my obsession strengthened. I began to truly fear what she offered and vowed again to stay away. I could feel her in my heart. I wanted her to step into my arms. The tombstones I passed began to resemble rows of hungry teeth. Each time, I swore never to return. The deadly attraction had rooted deep in me.
Then the day came, after an angry, thunder-cracking tempest. Hundred-year-old trees had toppled; tombstones and statuary in the cemetery shifted as if uneasy spirits woke. Leaves and branches lay like the wounded on the sidewalks. Cats skittered as if Hell chased them. The Lady of the Bleeding Heart waited, humble as ever. Someone had placed a blush of a rose upon her dark, marble shoulder.
I stood before her, looking for a clue, smelling the damp, raw earth. How could she draw me again and again? I had long come to dislike the company of others, except for the Lady. I still did not know if I wanted her compassion or her indifference. That she had never spoken to me in words had made it all easier. Yet I clung to life no matter the ills of my body, and she had never promised me health. Part of me loved her, had padded her in soft flesh and interest though she remained hard and immovable.
The wind scythed through me, and I didn’t notice the unstable base she stood upon as I reached to touch her cold stone hand one last time. Then she fell into my arms, as if life had finally fired her marble core, and she took what I had so long denied her.
Now we are more different than before, my substance thin and ethereal to her corporeal, black marble. She has given me death, as I gave her my life. While I may rest within these gardens, we will never be together.
Interview with Colleen Anderson, Author of “Lady of the Bleeding Heart”
What inspired your story?
A month after 9-11, I was in Montreal for the World Fantasy Convention. It was small and intimate, and many people had backed out due to the terror of flying. The convention continued with a tour of the cemetery conducted by Darrel Schweitzer. I stayed a few days after with an ex-prof and wandered the cemetery during the day or night. It might have been my first true experience in older graveyards where statuary and tombs depicted an era’s funereal beliefs; there was history but also the beauty of sculpture as well.
I took a series of pictures in high res black and white, which perfectly captured the gothic overtones. There were many statues and in fact one was a rendition of Mary, or an angel of mercy, where someone had placed a flower in the statue’s upraised palm.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
This will change as I read new stories and poems. In a way, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” is one of my favourite poems and I guess, has subtle undertones of gothic. The raging against darkness and death, of not leading a significant life—well, that’s very gothic.
Who can deny the beauty of the unending torment in the Victorian novel, and what greater tome of misery and human folly than Frankenstein? Dickens was also a master of gothic fiction (and he is the only one allowed to be Dickensian), as was Hans Christian Andersen, with one of my favourite tales being “The Little Match Girl.” Not only is there beauty and atmospheric depth, but there is the battle (whether successful or not) of the human spirit.
Anyone who writes dark fiction or horror is pretty much following in the gothic shadow. I find I cannot narrow this field down to a few modern poets and fiction authors, but if reading anything by writers in the Horror Writers Association (HWA) or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA).
How long have you been writing?
Probably since I was about 12 though I started getting more serious about it in my 20s. So, forever, and not very long at all.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Another writer asked this once, and I could never see a theme until my first short story collection, Embers Amongst the Fallen, was collated. My most popular theme seems to be moral dilemmas. I’m working on a dystopian SF collection and that theme will again be moral dilemmas in most of the stories, but tinged with varying degrees of hope. This is also a futuristic gothic view.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I have always been terrible at quoting phrases, lyrics or sayings. But let’s just say it’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
What are you working on now?
So many things. I want to write a series of poems on the telegraph, and I’m working on a collection of dystopia SF stories. I also did various challenges throughout the pandemic year, such as Rattle’s ekphrastic challenge, Kit Sora’s photo story contest, Black Hare’s drabble challenges. It’s great practice to keep writing or to write within a specific framework. Eventually, I’ll have a collection of flash/drabble fiction, stories under 2,000 words, as well.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?