The Florentina climbing rose is renowned for its hardiness in cold climates. Frost will not delay it at all; snow, sleet and wind will encourage it so that by the time spring arrives, the rose will be covered in a layer of sharp green leaves and red flowers.
Despite this, the Rose Man preferred the hot house. His favourite haunt was at the north end by the pool. The pool was the most popular spot in the entire gardens. It was wide and circular and constructed of old, crumbling concrete, with half a dozen lily pads across its surface. One of the first things you got told when you started work at the gardens was to keep an eye on the lily pads: children would stop at nothing to touch them, to run their hands over their fleshy surfaces, to put their toys on them, or even, apparently, a sibling.
That was where we found him, perched at the edge of the pool with his eyes closed. It was Tim who discovered him; I’d been weeding up at the high-country rockery. I can still remember the call over the radio, the request for assistance, the inability to explain what had happened. If it hadn’t been for the wavering in Tim’s voice I might’ve left it to someone else, but as it was I set off down the hill to help.
The first thing I remember seeing was the angle of the Rose Man’s neck. If you’ve ever seen an infant’s head flop back, that awkward, accidental snap, you’ll know how it felt to look at him. There was something precarious about it, the way the skin pulled taut across his throat revealing a knot of flesh and cartilage. Later, when I was home before the mirror, I tried to mimic him, tilting my head back until I could feel the stretch in my oesophagus and the pinch at the base of my skull. I couldn’t see my reflection; all I could do was gaze upward.
That was what the Rose Man was doing, too: staring up at the glass ceiling as if trying to catch sight of himself. The gardeners clustered about him. They squinted; they peered. But it wasn’t his neck they were looking at: it was his rose. It was a Florentina climbing rose, with a trunk extending to a height of about thirty centimetres. Its bark was the usual pale brown you’d expect from a Florentina, branching off into a matted nest of limbs. Delicate thorns bristled amongst them; bright green leaves were beginning to emerge, along with a pair of deep red, many-petalled flowers. And all of it, trunk, leaves, petals and thorns were growing directly from his mouth.
The first request for the Rose Man to leave the hot house came a few weeks later. During my time at the gardens we’d had three requests for specimens to be removed from the collection. The first was Dionaea muscipula, or the Venus flytrap. To be caught in a Venus flytrap is to have your body dissolved, processed and reborn as a pure white flower. While the end result is beautiful, watching it play out—even on a common house fly—can be a disturbing sight. The second specimen to draw criticism was the carrion flower. As the name suggests, the primary feature of the carrion flower is its smell. One visitor, on catching the scent at full strength, compared it to the time she’d discovered her great uncle after he’d died alone in his flat at the height of summer. Another had memories of his year as a private security guard in Iraq, but refused to give any details.
That made the Rose Man number three. The issue wasn’t dissimilar. It wasn’t that he smelt of death or rotting meat: his smell was different. The first time I noticed it was a couple of days after the initial meeting. I pushed through the hot house doors, the sticky air hanging about me, and my nose filled with a scent. It was hard to describe. It was sort of woody and spicy and floral all at once, but there was something else to it as well, something that seemed somehow inappropriate in a room full of strangers. Something that made people blush.
I walked across the room until he came into sight. He was standing by the ferns, peering up at the fronds as if lost in thought. There were damp patches under his arms; a slick of sweat on his neck. Drops of water fell from his hair and onto the ground below.
It takes time to get the hang of pruning. It’s not the risk of doing damage that’s the tricky bit: the truth is that roses—like most plants—are quite hardy. An ill-judged snip or injudicious tug of the hacksaw is hardly ever fatal; if you cut a plant close to the soil’s edge, more often than not it will re-emerge with more vigour than seems acceptable. Even so, there’s something that not all gardeners develop, a sense not just of where a plant needs to be cut, but where it wants to grow.
The Rose Man had been moved out of the hot house in October. There’d been a class visit; awkward questions; a formal complaint from the principal. Then there’d been confusion about everything else, from how to transport the Rose Man, to where he’d go, to whether the council even had a duty of care for him at all. Housing was in short supply across the city; queues stretched out doors at open homes and rows of cars held tired, anxious families. That was why they chose the zoo. There’d been a chimpanzee, a resident since the days of tea parties and fancy dresses who’d finally succumbed. With a few hasty additions her cage was turned into a small, well-ventilated apartment and, without word of accent or complaint or any feedback at all, the Rose Man was moved in.
The call came not long after. It was from the senior primate keeper, a man used to dealing with pack hierarchies and prehensile tails. Foliage, however, was posing more of a problem. The Rose Man’s Florentina had grown substantially since his arrival at the zoo, and he was struggling to enter or exit his new home.
‘We’re pretty sure there aren’t any veins in it,’ the keeper said. ‘Try to think of it as feathers. Or toenails.’
But some feathers do have veins. And so do some toenails.
The keeper led me to the Rose Man’s cage, knocking on the door then walking in without waiting for a reply. I hesitated, but the silence went on until the keeper came back and brought me through.
Sheets had been hung over the cage’s wire mesh. The concrete floor had been washed, rugs laid down. But already I could smell the familiar smell: the Rose Man’s odour, mixed with a hint of the cage’s former occupant. The Rose Man was sitting on a couch, a television in front of him.
‘Morning, buddy,’ said the keeper. ‘The gardener’s here, just like we promised. Going to give you a nice prune.’
He nodded at me and was gone before I could ask any questions.
I didn’t move for at least a minute. It was the first time I’d been alone with the Rose Man, the first time I’d been this close to him. I shuffled forward, keeping to one side as if I would somehow block his view of the television. Of course he wasn’t actually looking at the television: he was looking at the ceiling.
‘Hi,’ I said. The Rose Man didn’t move; didn’t fidget or dart his eyes about or do anything to show he’d heard me.
‘Hello?’ I tried again, but it sounded forced. So that was the last word I spoke to him. I took off my backpack and laid out my tools near his feet: the secateurs, the hacksaw, the hessian sack for the clippings. Then I picked up the hacksaw and walked around the couch until I was standing directly behind him.
Was it threatening, standing like that? I didn’t consider it at the time. For another few seconds I stared at the saw, its teeth, its curved orange handle, before finally getting up the nerve to look—to actually, properly look—at the Rose Man and his condition.
Specifically, his mouth.
I had assumed he had one trunk emerging from between his lips, but on closer inspection I realised there were three separate branches, each as thick as a finger, entwined together to resemble a single trunk. The Rose Man had to hold his mouth open to accommodate them, and when I squinted I could see how his lips had become callused where they rubbed against the wood. Was his throat callused, too? Could an oesophagus callus?
I leaned further forward, so my face was directly above his. I could see his eyes, the blue irises and small, black pupils. I scanned them for a glimpse of recognition. Was there a person looking up at me? I glanced back down at his mouth. The trunk disappeared into his throat, soft palette pressed against bark, uvula draped out of sight.
Did the trunk continue down into his stomach? His lungs? The roots of a rose bush run deep—how were they attached? I thought about asking him. If anyone would know he would. But I didn’t want to face the silence again, the possibility that there was nothing in there beyond wood and bark and sap.
After a quick scan of the plant I took hold of one of the inner branches and moved the saw across it. The teeth bit quickly. I held the branch as tightly as I could, wary of what might happen if the rose came loose within. But with each cut I become more aware of how well it was embedded, as stable as anything grown in the thick mulch of a garden.
And then the branch was off. I examined it for nerves or blood or marrow. But apart from a small blob of sap, I couldn’t see anything. I raised the branch to my nose, sniffed. There was a whiff of the same indecent smell I remembered from back at the hot house, before it was lost in the general chimpanzee funk.
I didn’t prick myself until the third pruning. It wasn’t that bad, just a tiny impalement at the end of my middle finger. If it had happened a few weeks ago, before I got out of the habit of wearing gloves, I wouldn’t have even bled. But I did. And it was seen. The keeper had taken to watching my progress, the angle of my cuts. Afterwards he’d backed away, was out the door before me. He was waiting in the staff room. I made my way to the sink and took down the first aid kit, fishing out the bandages.
‘Put that down,’ the keeper said, but it was too late. I made to leave, but he held out a thick arm. I didn’t say anything. I watched the stern expression on his face, the way he kept wiping his hands on his shorts. The zoo manager arrived about five minutes later. She wore a tidy suit, a lapel pin shaped like a tiger.
‘Heard there was a bit of an incident,’ she said. ‘You’re not to blame yourself. We should have foreseen it—should have taken precautions.’
They took me to the hospital in a car, seated in the back even though there was no one in the front except the driver. He didn’t speak the entire time. He cringed when I moved. The nurses met me at the carpark. I was led through a side-door, into a goods lift and up to the seventh floor. It was warm in the way all hospitals are warm, with drowsy light and an odour of instant coffee and bleach. Everyone apart from me used the hand sanitiser.
The room they had ready was actually four rooms, the curtain partitions pulled back to create one larger space. There was a walk-in toilet and shower; a single bed; a lock on the outside of the door.
‘A little scratch like that, it’s probably nothing,’ the doctor told me later. ‘We just want to be sure.’
Up until that moment, I hadn’t realised why I was there.
They thought I might have caught it. The Florentina. As if it was some kind of contagion, a bacteria or virus that could make the leap from thorn to bloodstream and nestle itself inside my body.
‘Roses don’t work like that,’ I explained. ‘They grow from seeds—from rose hips. And even if I did have a seed in me, it would never be able to germinate, it’s too hot. Roses need cold weather before they’ll do anything.’
‘Of course, of course,’ the doctor said. He left not long after, and locked the door. A few hours later I felt them tinker with the air conditioning.
And so I remained in hospital. At first I spent my time reading: books, magazines, whatever the nurses slid under the door. I spent hours looking out the window, memorising street names and counting cars. Eventually I managed to get my phone, and the hospital’s Wi-Fi password. I read news, watched movies and TV shows. But then I gave up on that, too. I let the phone’s battery go flat and spent my days lying on the bed. I began to wonder: what if, somehow, I had been infected? I tried to picture a seed in my lungs, because that, surely, is where it would aim for. It would be easy to survive there. It was warm, but there’d be plenty of crevices, and it wouldn’t take much for a sprout to wheedle its way up towards daylight. It would be my own Florentina climbing rose, like the Rose Man’s. I thought of him, too, alone in his cage. Would he have spoken to me if he didn’t have the rose growing out his mouth? I didn’t know for sure, but my guess was not. The silence had come before the rose; the rose had taken up the space where the words had been.
With that, I felt a shift. I realised that far from being afraid of having caught the Florentina, I wanted it. I wanted to have a rose nestled inside me. I wanted to smell right. I sniffed my skin, but couldn’t tell if I did. I found a stethoscope and spent my time listening to my chest. I could hear my heartbeat clear enough, but was there another sound in there, the vegetative expansion I longed for?
There was not. Because, as the doctors and botanists and haematologists concluded after two months of observation, roses cannot be transferred to the human body via the bloodstream. And so I was allowed to go, my lungs empty except for the ebb and flow of air, my blood devoid of plant matter. The Rose Man’s cage was empty as well. I went to see as soon as I got out. The sheets had been taken down, the television and couch were gone. I pressed my head against the bars and sniffed, but there was nothing.
Most people get their roses from nurseries and garden centres. They come pre-prepared in little tubs and black plastic wrappings, and all you have to do is slide them into freshly turned soil, give them some water and, more often than not, they’ll thrive. If you want a rose that’s a little more rare, or you just want a change, you can also buy them without soil or container or any other hindrance. You need to get them into the ground quickly if you do this, otherwise they’ll die.
There’s another way you can grow a rose, though. You can use a cutting. A cutting is a branch you’ve removed from another rose, maybe one you didn’t even consider before, one you tossed in a sack and forgot about. There are some cuttings that are better than others: you want one that’s not too old, with a few growth buds on it. You don’t want your cutting to be too dry, either, but then, cuttings were transported halfway round the world on sailing ships and still grew at the end of it. The hardest part of using cuttings is the planting of them. They’re sharp, which can be difficult. They require you to hold yourself just right. Lungs are not designed for this sort of thing, and the gag reflex is strong. Still, with enough cuttings, with enough practice, one is bound to find a home, to take root and grow and thrive.