Little bits of crumbling mortar from the red brick outhouse lay sprinkled on the floor inside. No artificial light flooded the small square room; only a dirty shadow fell in through the tiny side window, making the atmosphere low and shadowy. The half-eaten-away 4 plank door creaked slowly as it swung on its rusty hinges, it’s lead paint old and weather beaten, causing it to decorate the outside pathway with a flurry of black flakes. Cobwebs filled the corners, and the concrete floor gently rustled with every placement of my small feet. This was not a place of conventional beauty, but to me, it was beautiful no less… it held its own against the pristine guttering of the house who’s garden it stood in, and the perfectly manicured hedge and driveway that ran alongside it.
Pale pink roses flanked the side of the garden, their soft, gentle petals falling to the floor with grace when it was their time. Darker pink dog roses weaved their way through the privet hedge, finding what escape they could to burst into life. Their dark yellow stamens reaching out as if grasping for more air, and their smaller, but more intensely coloured petals falling to rest with their velvety cousins, forming the prettiest of blankets.
I always waited until it had rained; somehow the freshness in the air, and the puddles that formed in the cup-like petals seemed just right.
The empty glass jars I’d been collecting for two weeks stood waiting for me. Their labels and contents now removed, and the thick glass sides, and metal lids bare; empty vessels waiting for their next purpose.
“Put your shoes on” she’d say firmly, all the while knowing her request was futile. It was a mantra she knew all too well, and one that fell on deaf ears and a stubborn heart.
“Ok” I’d say, as I picked up my shiny clear collection and an old wooden spoon, and step outside onto the cool, damp floor. My naked feet feeling every inch of the ground beneath me, almost sighing as I placed them in the fresh rainwater puddles I purposefully sought out. Toes wriggling for a second…just enough to feel the splash of the water between them and make my mouth reach wide across my face in the happiest of smiles.
The latch on the door clunked it’s familiar and pleasing clunk as I pressed it and stepped inside. On other days I would stand and raise it up and down, my thumb pressing against it’s round metal pad over and over, examining its workings and listening to it’s sound like it was the most mystical of things, but not today. The air was thicker due to the rain, it laid heavy like a cloak but was comforting in a way I didn’t understand. More dislodged mortar was falling from inside the small chimney, and the sound of it hitting the floor echoed slightly. Sometimes the tiny fragments would bounce in my direction and I’d feel them tickle the tops of my feet. As I moved around I’d find them once again, but this time with my bare soles, and I’d have to adjust my weight so as to avoid the “I told you to put your shoes on” sentence that would be administered with love and a fresh plaster. The glass jars were now lined up in a row on the Victorian cold shelf that ran adjacent to the four-pane tiny window, with its wafer thin glass and rotten wooden frame, their lids placed neatly behind them.
“Why is it called a cold shelf?” I used to ask myself as I felt the shiny black bricks emit their wintery temperature through my thin skirt onto the tops of my thighs. The thought never stayed long enough to be considered properly, and I carried on preparing; my excitement building with every next step of the ritual completed.
The thick black downpipe ended its journey in the mouth of a greedy rain collector. The huge wooden barrel with its cast iron stripes, stood full to the brim with the liquid that fell from the skies. I took off it’s thick, rough, rubber lid, and plunged in my watering can, and as I did so, the surface rippled, it’s tranquil moment ruined by an external force it wasn’t expecting. As my lily white hand grew cold from being submerged in nature’s nectar, I’d watch tiny wriggling creatures flitting around in the deep darkness as if searching for something, and yet seemingly never reaching their unknown destination. With a full can, I’d cross the pathway back to the old outhouse, and place it on the hard, crumb covered floor underneath the sturdy shelf.
My heart would start beating like a butterfly’s wings. I’d feel it so clearly in my chest as I’d hurriedly skip outside again to the opposite side of the garden. The beautiful blanket of rose petals laid silently in front of me, some older than others, but all still wonderous to me. I’d crouch down, sitting my bottom on my now dirt sprinkled ankles, and gently start picking them up, choosing carefully which ones held the most frangrance, or had the perfect colour for my needs. As my hands filled, the teardrops of water that lay in their bowl-like shapes made them heavier than they were used to, and some of them stuck to my skin. It was hard to see where they stopped and I began, their colour almost matching the youthful tone of my arm, and the transparency from the wet making them more like skin than my own. Satisfied, and with my arms full of fluffy pink clouds, I’d carefully make my way to the open door of the outhouse. Unlike the first time I did it, I’d left space for the roses so that they didn’t spill onto the dirty floor and get tainted by dust.
With my practice perfected, I’d pour nature’s magic water into the awaiting glass jars, eventually filling them all half full so that I’d have room to add the petals effectively, but before that, filling them all at different levels so I could run my fingertip around the top of each one, or hit it gently with the spoon, and see what noise they would emit. It rarely worked well, but I did it anyway.
With each clear jar half filled with water (that had a strange yet enchanting shade of natural about it), I’d pick up the soft rounds of the roses and lovingly sink them into their new homes. Every now and then I’d find a particularly beautiful one and would stop to repeatedly roll my thumb over its perfect surface, feeling it under my skin and taking a breath so deep my now cold toes would tingle. As the jar’s bellies grew full, I’d use the handle of the old wooden spoon (always the same one; the thinnest one that looked like it belonged in the same era as the outhouse itself, and the only one that it ever crossed my mind to use) and push the fleshy contents under the water, taking away their air, but giving them the opportunity of a beautiful rebirth. Watching them closely, I’d notice crease lines turning a mild ochre colour, like the petals themselves suddenly developed new veins to help them breathe in their new liquid filled houses. Once full, I’d whisper a little poem into the top of the jar, consuming the heady yet subtle scent of roses and rain before tenderly screwing the metal lid on, and labelling the jar with a pen whose residence was with the dust, and the silent weavers of the cobwebs. And all of a sudden, it was done, and there would be a line of jars all neatly lidded and marked in my big, bouncy hand writing;
Jars filled, and time passed, and yet it seemed to stand still for me. Every second I was there I’d feel myself more consumed by this wild practice that came from deep within my bones, loving every moment, taking consummate care of my ingredients, and paying such attention to my craft and yet not even knowing the magic I was creating in that little shed.
I don’t know why I ever decided to make potions, or when exactly the first time was, but I was very young, and I do know that it wasn’t just something I did for fun like most children. There was always something so magical about the whole process that made my small heart race and my eyes sparkle and widen. It was more than “a thing children do”, it made my soul soar and I felt a deep and ancient wisdom coming to life within me that I couldn’t have possibly comprehended back then.
With my feet cold and wet from the constant tooing and froing between the garden and the shed, my heart so happy it felt like it could burst, and my soul replenished, I’d go through the back door into the house with the wooden spoon from a bygone era in my hand, and whilst I dried off and tried to cover up any minor injuries to my bare soles, I’d work out what I was going to do with my stockpile of Rose Water when it was ready; steeped in a magic that, back then, I didn’t even know I’d created.