Her pale, bare feet spoiled the immaculate fields of white. Night’s chill swept through her as she walked barefoot across the snow, dressed only in a nightgown, trembling like the aspen she loved to rest beneath. Her cheeks turned scarlet, lips chapped and nutty curls frosted, yet she kept on going.

She had sleepwalked in the same direction every night since one fateful spring. Her spirit didn’t mind the cold, but her body was too sensitive for such a dangerous trip. She travelled back and forth between two villages, vainly searching for her man and child. They seemed unreachable even though they lived so close at hand. Trauma and regret haunted her. Her heart couldn’t bear the burden. Her soul had no choice but to harden. How could I? That was all she could think of before she went to sleep each night.

Oh, how she loved the man who gave her the greatest gift! She knew well that he was too used to being on his own, that he should have only been admired from afar, but his presence was a magnetic lure to her hungry soul. They used to walk the snowy fields together, avoiding gossips, wandering through the unknown and contemplating its vastness. It suited them; they were both drifters, escaping the mundane world they were trapped in. When he went away, she remained alone in the snowy darkness, searching the far reaches of her underworld. “Remember me,” she said, “remember my story.”

I was around the same age as the woman from my dream when I first heard about her. It was during a meeting with my mum’s cousin, who told me that I reminded her of Aunt Rose. She later sent me her photograph, and although I did see some resemblance between us, I was mainly fascinated with the synchronicities that followed.

A few weeks later, I stumbled upon a small booklet that used to belong to my grandfather; it was a booklet of Rose’s drawings. I was told that she was his favourite aunt, so assumed that he’d saved it for that reason. However, there was also a letter attached to it. It was written by Aunt Rose and addressed to her friend who she wanted to meet in a village near her home. Its tone was melancholic, even desperate, and it was clear she needed to discuss something important.

I was curious to find out more about Aunt Rose from then on. Luckily, my mum’s cousin and my grandmother each had a copy of a family chronicle that my grandfather’s brother wrote. It followed our kin from the 19th century onwards. I borrowed the one from my grandmother and searched for some information about Aunt Rose. What struck me instantly was my grandmother’s handwritten note, which mentioned my name next to hers. I asked her about it, but she didn’t recall when or why she had written it. I assumed she had simply noticed our physical likeness, just like my mum’s cousin, and instead, I concentrated on reading more about Rose.

Mystery shrouded Rose’s life and death. From the bits and pieces of her story that were noted in the chronicle, I found out that she was the black sheep of the family, and the truth behind what really happened to her remained concealed. My grandfather and his brother were very fond of her and admired her artistic skills, which explained why we inherited her set of paints and some artwork. Like my grandfather, Aunt Rose studied painting and wanted to pursue her artistic talents, but eventually decided to become a teacher instead. For some reason, in those days, female teachers had to remain unmarried for as long as they were carrying out their teaching duties. It was surprising to me, and I wondered why Aunt Rose had made a sacrifice like that at such an early age. Moreover, she had also made a decision to move far away from her hometown and settled in a north Moravian village called White Water.

My grandmother said that nobody knew why Aunt Rose made such a decision, but they supposed it could have been because of the man she loved; a man who was actually a famous Czech poet. He lived near the White Water area at that time and found most of his inspiration from local stories. They shared a secret romance, but either couldn’t or didn’t want to settle down together. I wondered whether it was due to her loyal dedication to teaching. Rose loved the local children and didn’t want to abandon them, which she would have had to do in order to marry her lover. One could tell how strong her connection with the children was, as most of her drawings and woodcarvings depicted their portraits.

According to the chronicle, her life was hard. In those days, life was a true challenge for a sophisticated, single female artist who lived alone in a traditional village society and who took a famous man for a lover. Nevertheless, it didn’t explain her sudden death at the age of thirty-four in a local mental institution. Why she ended up diagnosed with a mental illness and what killed her was a long-buried, family secret. Nobody ever spoke of it. The only thing my grandfather’s brother knew was what his mother had told him – that the last time she went to visit her sister, she didn’t recognize anybody anymore. She was probably under strong sedatives, but who knows what other drastic treatment she had undergone before.

There was also an unresolved situation that involved a little boy, which the family spoke about in connection to Aunt Rose. It was possible that she had had a child whom she had to give up for adoption. I had found the name of that little boy on one of her drawings; it was a portrait of a four to five-year-old student of hers. Whether the fact that she had to give up her son was the reason why she ended up in a mental institution remained unclear, but was quite possible.

Besides the letter, the booklet of Rose’s drawings contained a paper with a printed memorial tribute written by a well-acclaimed Czech artist. After a beautiful description of Rose’s soulful, charismatic persona, the following sentence stood out to me: 

One shouldn’t judge such an ethereal, sensitive soul living in an environment of hard labour, where the majority of people consider artists a burden to society.

The lines reminded me of the haunting drawing where Rose depicted herself sitting under a stone-columned shrine, exhaustedly leaning on a cane with a note beneath that read: Long Road of Mine – Futile Calling.

Aunt Rose’s story touched me and has stayed with me ever since. I wondered how it must have been for her, having such a great talent, but not being able to fully express it. Although her love for the local children could have developed because of her unrealized motherhood, I couldn’t help but consider whether it was because her son was among them. I wondered whether she had to give him up for adoption to a local family but ended up teaching him just to have him near. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t give up her job and marry her poet. Had it become too much for her to bear over time? Did her fateful decision come back to haunt her? Or did the relationship with her poet end because of that? Whom did she lose first – her child or her lover? Did her child move away with his adopted family, or did her poet move on to another woman? Was she too frail to handle the repercussions? Of course, these were just speculations, I never found an explanation as to why she ended up in a mental institution besides the fact that she was extravagant, highly sensitive, and most likely a wrongly diagnosed woman. 

For years, I have been gripped by the need to find some conclusion to this heart-breaking story that I stumbled across, but at some point, I had to make peace with the fact that I would probably never know. The people who knew her personally were all dead, and we, the descendants, remained in the dark with few pieces of the mosaic.

The only conclusion I could cling to was a message from the dream where I had seen a woman similar to Aunt Rose, wandering through the night, searching for something or someone. Her body was fragile, but her spirit shone brightly in the darkness. She was like a torch that I was called to follow.

“Remember me,” she said, “remember my story. There will be time when a woman will be able to shine. So, shine on, dear child, shine into the night, no matter how dim or cold it becomes. This is my message to you, nothing more and nothing less. I shall be with you anytime you like but now lay my story to rest.”

I respected that wish no matter how unreal or accurate it was, but even though I did eventually let it be, I could never forget. I treasure her drawings and legacy to this day.