A young girl stood on a beach, watching the water lick at and swirl around her bare feet. But instead of glimpsing her obscured reflection in the undulating ripples, she beheld visions of sorrows she had experienced and outcomes she wished had been different.

The sea foam receded as her thoughts deepened, and she didn’t notice the rectangular object that was wedged in the sand alongside her until she stumbled over it.

The object clanked open, revealing a small sack and a damp piece of parchment. She snatched up the items before the waves enveloped them again.

Weighing the rusty, dented box in her hand, she scanned the ocean and the bridge to the mainland for any sign of ships or travelers. The container was much too heavy to have floated, and she wondered how long it had lain there and who had lost it. She examined it for identifying markings, but couldn’t find any, so she tossed it back into the water. Then she untied the sack. Inside were some kind of pellets—perhaps seeds.

She unfolded the parchment, expecting whatever message it might have contained to have washed away. To her surprise, however, the ink was smeared but legible.

Plant these seeds in the soil,

And flowers will rise from your toil.

Roses of red, purple, and opalescent hue,

Possessing the power to heal a few.

Guard the blooms with your heart,

And lasting pain they will thwart.

Her gaze strayed to the willow—the only tree left on the island after a plague had swept through and extinguished all life. She had buried her family beneath its boughs.

Perhaps the flowers the note spoke of could save people and creatures from desolation.

Tucking the seed pouch under a stone, she decided she would ask the elders of the village about roses when she made her daily trek to the mainland. After the decease of her family, a community of people had built a bridge to her island and encouraged her to join them in their dedication to serving others. In return for her devotion, they had promised her love and support.

Yet, when she inquired about the nature of roses, she was met with incredulity. One elder declared that only two species of flowers existed in the world—both of which were frivolous and not worth cultivating. Another laughed at her question. A third rebuked her for fabricating outlandish tales about mystical flowers and assigned her extra duties around the community as penance.

That night she returned to the island with her ears ringing and her limbs weary. She reached into her hiding spot, intending to discard the seeds, but as she lifted her hand to toss the sack into the sea, a gust of wind tore it from her fingers. The pouch landed beneath the willow tree, spilling the seeds onto the ground.

She blinked and rubbed her eyes, unsure whether it was the moonlight or her mind playing tricks, but the seeds appeared to glow. She scooped one up and cupped her hands around it, but the seed still emitted a faint aura.

Kneeling, she carved a hole in the dirt and placed the seed in it. One by one, she planted all of the seeds, and it was well past midnight before she drifted off to sleep. When she awoke, she was surrounded by tiny sprouts.

Day by day, she tended the flowers with fervor, watering the shoots and shooing away pests. When the first bud bloomed, she couldn’t contain herself from caressing it, but she was rewarded with a stab to her thumb.

She leapt back, clutching at her hand. Yet, the longer she stared at the colorful blossom that stretched toward the sun, the less the scratch seemed to hurt—or matter. Such beauty had to be miraculous.

Gradually, the handful of bushes grew into a garden, and the girl into a young woman. She kept her garden a secret, until one day she received word that two of the children from the community had fallen ill.

With great haste, she delivered a pair of rosebuds to the little boy and girl. Not realizing that the blossoms required careful handling, the children began to play with the flowers, and the thorns made a deep gash on the little boy’s wrist. His sister ran to their mother in tears and worry and with lacerations on her own skin. The woman calmed her children, dressed their wounds, and disposed of the flowers. She dismissed the incident as mere poor judgment on the island girl’s part, but not without warning the rest of the community against her as a potential danger.

When the little boy’s condition worsened a few days later, the community members snuck onto the girl’s island after dark and destroyed her garden, leaving behind a sign that the island had been condemned because her heart was dark and her flowers toxic.

She discovered the damage the next morning under a sky swathed with clouds that emphasized the grayness of the island without the roses. The wind howled, but she didn’t hear it. Sharp stones cut into her feet as she ran to her garden, but she didn’t feel them. Frantically she searched through the shreds until she found two plants with roots still intact. She re-covered them with dirt and collapsed beside them, dampening the soil with the flood of her sadness. When she had sobbed herself dry, she set fire to the bridge leading to the mainland and dug up the sign, but not without puncturing her finger with a splinter, which left a scar after it healed.

All was quiet and peaceful for a time. Occasionally sailors would spot the girl wading along the shoreline, assume she was stranded, and offer her a lift. Instead of responding, she’d scurry to the rear of the island and absorb herself in her garden until the intruders moved on. Some days the sea was so busy with tourists and fishermen that she wouldn’t show herself until evening, when all that was visible of her form was the moon’s glint on her tear-stained cheeks.

Meanwhile, the girl received visits from a childhood companion, who at first sought to comfort her in her grief over being shunned by the community. Then something changed. Her companion’s visits became less frequent and one day her companion brought a man with her. Although the man’s demeanor made the girl uneasy, she thought his scowl might be the outward sign of an ailment and strove to befriend him by presenting him with one of her roses. Surely an adult would understand her intent and not mishandle the flower. But again her gesture was a mistake.

As he tucked the blossom into his shirt pocket, the fabric tore and thorns sliced into his shoulder.

“You wicked girl!” he spat. “Sequestering yourself on this forsaken island, never interacting with others or helping them, and selfishly wasting time on flowers that are harmful and have no purpose!”

The girl trembled. She looked toward her companion, but her companion turned away and headed for the boat.

The man strode to her garden and stomped on her flowers. She didn’t yell or try to stop him. She just backed away and fled in the opposite direction. She tripped in her flight, tumbling onto the gravel, which created wounds that turned into more scars on her hands and knees.

She curled herself into a cave and succumbed to the numbness of sleep, oblivious to the passage of day and night until hunger pains forced her to emerge. As she scavenged for food, she observed that some of the trampled flowers had re-bloomed, but she didn’t care. She resolved to never again nurture such atrocities.

***

One night when wind was churning the sea and battering the land, a stranger appeared on her island. He had no boat, but she assumed it had sunk in the waves. She hoped he would leave as soon as the tempest subsided. No one else seemed to like her island, so why should he desire to stay?

But when the sun rose, the stranger lingered. He followed her, always remaining at a distance, watching her. That unnerved her, because she couldn’t read his countenance.

On her way back from the stream with a flask of water, she passed her garden and paused, almost involuntarily. The stems were brown near the roots, and some of the blossoms drooped. Petals were scattered around the bushes.

She took another step, her heart straining as she recalled how the flowers had soothed and delighted her, while people had only caused her anguish. She glanced over her shoulder. The stranger was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he had finally built a raft and departed.

She couldn’t bear to see the flowers wilt after all she had endured to protect them, and now that she was alone, what harm could the roses do? Leaning over, she allowed some of the water she carried to dribble onto the plants. Then she pulled out a knife and gently pruned the dead stalks and blossoms. When she stood, she bumped into the stranger.

She staggered backwards, the flask slipping from her hands and shattering on the rocky ground.

Without a word, the stranger gathered the pieces and handed them to her. She cringed as he approached her garden and reached out to touch one of the blooms.

“Please, please go away,” she begged.

“Why do you tend these flowers?” he asked, plucking a single rose from the bush. As he retracted his hand, blood trickled from his fingers down to his wrist.

The girl stared at him for a long time. No one had ever asked her that question before. Was he mocking her as others had? Would he unleash a fit of fury?

The stranger let the blossom settle into the center of his palm and held it out to her. His hand was covered in more scars than she’d ever seen. She looked up to meet his eyes, and he held her gaze. A tear glistened on his cheek that matched the one sliding down her own.

“Why?” he coaxed.

“I wanted to help people, to stop suffering,” she murmured. “But—” Her voice cracked, and she couldn’t finish. Perhaps the message in the box had been a lie.

The stranger shook his head. “Child, give me your hand.”

She complied, her body shaking. He broke a thorn off the rose’s stem and began tracing the scars mottling her skin. She flinched, but didn’t attempt to wrench free, believing this was to be her retribution for raising poisonous flowers.

The stranger pulled a petal from the rose and ground it into a powder, which he sprinkled into her other hand. Then he guided her hand over the incisions. A burning sensation traveled up her arm as the marks glowed for a moment and disappeared.

She gasped, studying her now smooth and unmarred palm. Was it possible that healing could not be separated from hurt?

The stranger pointed to the horizon. “Someone is coming,” he whispered.

She squinted at the boat floating into view, unable to discern whether the passenger was man or woman, adult or child. The person was hunkered over as if in pain.

She turned back to the stranger, but only a beam of sunshine and footprints remained in the place where he had stood.

She snipped another rose from the bush and cradled it in her hands, waiting for the boat to come within earshot so she could call out to the sojourner. Maybe she would be rejected again, but she had to try, because someday she might encounter the few who would be cured by the flowers.

For the first time, her cheeks no longer felt damp, and a smile formed on her lips.