“But I can give thee more:
For I will raise her statue in pure gold;
That while Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.”
In the streets of Verona, the mongrels still tussle over old scraps of meat with the street wretches. The market still teems with fat flies and reedy voices calling attention to their wares as goblets of fine silver and women clothed in cheap weeds slink in between the wooden stalls, and trespassing against all bounds of modesty, slink farther off with a nobleman or three into the dark alleys. Life has moved on.
The morning breeze sweeps across the street, beckoning the Captain of the Watch and his men from their sleep with jingling bags of gold, with increasingly rotund figures and glinting rapiers that hardly leave their scabbards since the Red Morning.
The year is 1322. It is two and twenty years since…
The sun saunters towards the Capels’ Monument. Two statues, incongruous in their splendor amidst the bustle and filth, grace the town square. One is of a girl of twelve, or could she be fifteen? She is diminutive next to the towering statue of a loose-limbed lad with drooping eyes and a petulant lower lip. The two hold hands appraising the red-faced, ruddy-fingered washer women carrying their cloth and lye every morning at dawn. They inspect the mundane town square unblinkingly. Perchance the sculptor hoped that the two figures would appear deep in thought; instead they look bored and impatient to hop down from the platform on which they stand year after year since the Red Morning.
The House of Montague still sprawls over the hill with its turrets and writhing vines. The house of the Capulets still juts towards the morning sky with neither balconies nor vines. Old Lady Capulet has been abed for two score years. She is yet to rest with her nephew Tybalt in Capels’ Monument. Lord Capulet succumbed to the Black Death six years after the Red Morning. The gentle-woman’s good Nurse Angelica, Juliet’s heart-broken wet nurse, has been with the Holy Virgin since 1301, one year after the Red Morning. Holding their hands, the two statues look forlornly at the sun as it cycles across the sky each dreary morning.
They died twenty-two years ago today on the Red Morning.
‘I have not seen Old Tiberio’s widow at a masked ball since 1299; one year after the Red Morning.’ There is only a time before, and a time after the Red Morning, nothing more. That is the only way the citizens of Verona remember the Red Morning.
Everybody thinks this way except Rosaline. She calls it the Red Week.
Rosaline has watched Verona change vastly from her balcony. Hers used to have creepers, too. Once upon a Monday morning, Romeo threw a pebble at her window and stubbornly declared that he would slowly expire for love of her.
Once upon a Romeo, there lived a Rosaline who wore black dresses, veiled her teenage body and turned indifferent grey eyes from titled, noble fools. Once upon a Romeo, this Rosaline stood on her balcony looking down her long nose at all men… especially at him. That was what her Lady Mother had taught her. That it was only when the tempest of a young lover’s emotions stilled that he knew his own heart. Like a man, he had misunderstood her when she had turned him away. Just like a man. Once upon a Red Sunday morning, Romeo Montague expired, without throwing a single pebble goodbye.
Romeo, Oh Romeo. If I had not loved you, why would I have gone to the ball? You knew how I hated to dance. I could not bear those loathsome eyes trained on my face with the torches burning so bright, with your insufferable friend Mercutio close at my heels, pulling at my veil, singing bawdy songs no gentlewoman should ever let stray into the hollow of her ear. I went, Romeo, in spite of him. I went, Romeo, in spite of Benvolio who lacked the gumption to tell you about the letters he sent to me—the horrid letters I burned before reading. I had hoped that when you saw my name on that invitation scroll, you would be hard pressed to stay away. How I schemed with my maid that night, Romeo! How I planned under my lover’s mask to forget all my Lady Mother had taught me about tempests and the inconstancy of young hearts…
Instead, as I made my way towards you at the masked ball that should have been home to our first kiss, I heard you uttering these words to another…
‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night…’
You broke my heart the same day it had vowed to learn how to do more than beating.
Rosaline walks noiselessly down her stairs, as noiselessly as she did twenty-two years ago, out of the ballroom, out of Romeo’s life. She is her own mistress. She answers to no Lord or Viscount.
What use had I for idle proclamations of love, Romeo? Of what worth were empty vows of eternity from a boy who was too lily livered, too womanish…if womanhood should suffer the slur… to live a day without love? And if all of us had souls too perishable to die from want of love, who would inhabit the streets of Verona today? And if all Christendom had perished from the loss of Love on the Red Morning when you chose HER, over your own purple blood, who would have remained to water your tomb with salt water Romeo Montague…
Rosaline stands on the street where once two warring families roused the cocks each morning with swishing blows, yelps of pain, sword wounds and hot curses. The last spurt of their purple blood intermingled in the Capulet’s Monument on the Red Morning, in atonement for the violent tantrum from two love struck infants’ parents.
Rosaline stands under the looming shadows of the remaining likeness of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo, stares defiantly into the distance, expecting the world itself to bend to his changeable will. Juliet’s lips are frozen in a sweet smile; hers is the death-darting eye of a cockatrice.
Is this the beauty, second to none?
Every morning since that scarlet morning when Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet jolted Verona from a fitful slumber, and Rosaline from another black-attired night spent mourning for her wasted love, Rosaline has never worn a black garment again. Instead, she carries a basket of white roses, incense and rosemary.
She kneels before Juliet’s eternally childlike regard and smokes the incense, whispering, ‘This is Beauty’s superlative, a torch so bright which could not but keep his feeble light from waning. This is the swan before whom all maidens turned to crows. This is she whose love’s gale blew so strong, that I, fair Rosaline now stand below and not beside him. This is the beauteous Juliet, the moon, for whose love you lost me. And yet I, fair Rosaline, live.’
Dressed in resplendent gowns, Rosaline comes here every morning to scoff at the travesty that is love.
Justin Teopista Nagundi