In Full: 'Root Bed', by Cassandra Rockwood-Rice

Cassandra Rockwood-Rice’s ‘Root Bed’ is an excerpt from her full-length collection on generational trauma and sexual assault. It was the runner up in the 2018  Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. Her full submission was originally published in the print version of The Lifted Brow #41, and you can now read it below.


Note: This piece engages extensively with domestic and sexual violence

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All art by Sapir Kesem Leary


I’ve learned to be wary of those who give flowers—torn from rosebush or stem-sliced at an angle wrapped in cellophane, either way—perhaps anyone who takes something so delicate, so thoughtlessly from its root-bed, without permission, is indeed capable of doing anything without consent, without showing gratitude,
                        even without remorse.


 *


She spoke of violets she was given
as a child, her voice tight, unhappy
—He violated me, she said
violets in her throat

years later she gave me The Color Purple
what “Mr.___” did in the book made me
think of the giver of her violets
I get the story, I thought

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When I was seventeen, I tasted
a violet for the first time
drank too much wine at a party
he followed me upstairs

I woke in a t-shirt, head-aching dizzy
salty violets in my mouth
wet lavender between my thighs
friends were watching a movie downstairs

they said the floorboards creaked
all night. I saw the sheets I woke
in dyed deep amethyst—sweet
violets fell from the ceiling

that was the morning blossoms
began to sound like bedpost, like wood

Six years later, my boss force-fed me
violets in exchange for a job

he kissed me with velvety flowers
as I cried, told me to drink dirty bouquets
for weeks I was drenched in fear
every shade of purple now I know how they taste, bitter
like baking soda, smell of sweat and dirt,
sound of wood and metal—soft petals
feel like a pressure that won’t let up

I feel it when someone walks behind
me to my car, violet sororia roots
violating me long after footsteps
disappear—I pluck them stem

and stamen, from my tender areolas, labia,

lips, I scratch tear at an embedded garden
sprung, heart-shaped, asymmetrical
blooming from violent times, johnny

jump-up, pansy frightened even
of the dappled shade, listening
to sounds outside my window
at night, shitting violets

tasting for metal, always
concerned someone might
arrive to visit me
with more flowers


 ** *

 
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—Don’t touch that! It’s a lady’s slipper. They’re endangered.

I stumble and look at where she’s holding me, then shift my gaze back to the plant.

—See, they look like shoes? Legend goes, there was a woman who lived here, a young maiden running barefoot in the snow. She was seeking medicines for her peoples, but she fell on her way back. Her feet froze, heavy and swollen, and the flowers grow to remind us of her bravery. Their roots soothe pains of birth and calm people when they’re nervous.

It’s my favorite place to go, fat kittens hide in barn-corners, large polished table tops and headstones litter the bumpy driveway, and horses roam in an open space between a small red Cape Cod style house and a quarry.

Vicky teaches me to ride bareback. My hands cling to the coarse mud-caked mane. I learn to dig my heels into the Appaloosa's sides, to tell him which way to go, or slow down, or stop.

Almost winter, I’m fascinated by strange plants that brighten the understory, and suddenly, when I learn of their fragility, an immense guilt washes over me. It turns a crank in the pit of my stomach.

I get the same feeling, later that year, when my mother first tells me about the rapes.


 **


 
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Pervasively creeping through our family dynamics, her trauma is this living thing—vine that twists her spine at night—catapults from her mouth without warning.

—Mom, that’s hurtful!
I gulp back tears.
—Hurtful?! You don’t know hurt like me.

Over the years she shares it, looking as if torn between falling at my feet or killing someone.
Some of her memories:

—One time he dragged me across the street by my hair. Then he stripped me, touched me, and beat me. I had nowhere to turn. They were all in cahoots—the police, the priests, the drug dealers.

—My mother used to throw us out windows—tell us to run. Sometimes she saved us. Sometimes she saved herself.

—I used to think I could fly. I used to fantasize he was my prince and adored me. It made abuse easier to handle. I stood on the ottoman and flapped my arms very fast. I really could fly. I truly flew around the whole living room.

What I know of my own grandfather:

He smells of Old Spice and has a scruffy face.
He lives in a cottage a mile from the beach and plays cribbage.
He goes to AA meetings and has ships in bottles.
He’s often gone when we arrive at the cottage after a long hot summer drive, but when he’s around, he holds his jaw toward me before bed, so I can kiss him. —Say yoah prayahs, he says sweetly.
He drives us cross country, in a U-Haul to Alaska, in 1993.
He says wistfully, through fields of sunflowers in middle America, —Bettah embrace this Earth God gave us. Yah only live once.
He dies of a heart attack the following year, not quite sixty.


 *


Most of our large family is sitting around the table. Mom’s in Alaska. I’m fifteen. We’re sharing ‘a sauce’—family term for when Gram makes spaghetti with meatballs, from scratch. This time I help her, watching her worn hands tilt the pot, softening the garlic. The onions become translucent and vanish in a pit of bubbling red. As usual, I ask the most inappropriate questions at the worst possible times:

—Did the priest rape and molest Mom when she was little? She told me...

Gram clicks the tip of her tongue against the back of her front teeth and answers defensively.

—Did she tell you that?! She embellishes you know. Yoah muthah is always telling fibs. She is not quite right in the head yah know.

Aunt [ ], younger than my mother (never experienced sexual abuse—to my knowledge), chimes in.
—Yoah muthah didn’t get it half as bad as yah uncle.

My Grandmother concurs,
—You know, she’s right, they favahd the chwoiah boys.

My uncle, laughing, nodding, says,
—They had a thing for those chwoiah boys.

Aunt [ ] leaves the table shaking her head back-and-forth.
—I’m outta heah.

 
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What I know of the priest:

He wears stiff robes that rub my shoulder when he hugs me.

His voice surrounds us like thick curtains. He places a cardboard flavored disc on my tongue. It begins to melt as he says, —Body and blood of Christ, followed by a thimble-sized glass of grape juice.
He often stands in the street, dressed in black, with a white square on his collar—smoking cigarettes.
He sits in a small box, behind a wooden screen, listening to people confess. I want to sit in his place, opposite my mother, and tell her she did nothing wrong, does nothing wrong, is free.

The sun gashes

our nostalgia, ugly joy
Sunday crisp-cotton
pressed, ready for
gospel in a temple
missing god

our children ache like tomatoes
soft, unacquainted with their
messiness. Here, in a village
overrun with paradise
our bare children run
rocky paths, in shining eyes
a specific hunger

only here it is not so much a
shortage of food as it is a
shortage of fathers

 
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 *


A hot mirage of water rises from the hood. Dragonflies float by. We sit by the lake, summer break,
—She’s acting strange.
I tell my aunt that my mother’s drinking again and saying things,
—Mom said at parochial school you were both sexually molested.

—Oh yes, it’s true.

—She said he called your names on the intercom. She would plead from her desk, mouthing to the nuns, “No please, please don’t make me go”
But the nuns had to send you both.

—Yep, he picked on the girls already getting it at home.
—She said they would mouth the words back to her, “I’m sorry, I have to, there is nothing I can do”.

—They knew we lived in the projects—rough families. He made us wait outside the door in a line.

Eventually, I realized I could hold my pee, so I started holding it at school. One day he called us down there. When he pulled me on his lap I pissed all over him. (laughing) He never called me down to the office again after that. (long pause—silence) Your mother couldn't do it, she was too scared. She got it bad from him.


 *


Mom had a male teacher for the first time in fourth grade. She said that around the time the Nobel Peace Prize was presented to Martin Luther King Jr. in Oslo, her teacher pulled her aside—told her he knew what was going on.

She says she’ll never forget that day. They were studying geography—learning about Alaska. He told her,
—You’re allowed to say, No.

In a monomythic tale, there’s almost always a guide:
The Little Prince has a Fox.
Luke has Obi-wan.
Ofelia has a Faun.
The Velveteen Rabbit has a rocking horse.
Alice, a hatter.

My mother, certainly the heroine of her own lonely journey, thought about what the teacher said for months.

The following summer, her father tried to molest her again, during a family trip in Maine,
—No Dad, I don’t want to do this anymore.

The story goes that my grandfather looked at her blankly, and flatly said,
—Okay
She recalls this, choking back tears, as the most liberating moment of her life.


 *


I think of her. How she must have felt on the beach that summer:

raw-legged dreaming of lobster
sand at the seam of her suit
where the burn starts
but no hands there

toes pinched by crab claws, stepping
on shark skins, slipping into sinkholes
starfish in her pruned hands

her hands becoming little stars drifting
in rank-rancid seaweed

sitting in fly-laden patches
freedom crisp under her hips

her cool Atlantic fingers
feeling everything

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but man

a weed wrapping itself around budding life, anything
she tries to cultivate—shakes the house
makes a bed under her bed.

when someone knocks on the door—when I wake her from sleep—she startles—sometimes hides—wide-eyed—

he curls her ankles and wrists, pulling her down, to a place where
she can’t breathe

or scream

or run.

My friend says, over coffee —Soldiers get PTSD when they come back—hard to blend in after a war. Can we say the same for survivors of sexual abuse?

Forced to conceal the effects of trauma, how does one relate to others, or manage recurring feelings about perpetrator(s)? Phobias so intense self-medicating is the only relief?

Repeatedly

destructive relationships that mirror earlier experiences, because there was no other presence—no other love.
relationships that mirror earlier experiences, because there was no other presence—no other love.
that mirror earlier experiences, because there was no other presence—no other love.
mirror earlier experiences, because there was no other presence—no other love.
because there was no other presence—no other love.
—no other love.
other love.
love.
.

In worst case scenarios, she ends her life.

[Someone], [took] my Mama when she was a teenager
(The story varies depending on who’s telling it.
I have retold it myself in various ways):
[—a criminal] took Mama when she was fifteen and held her hostage in an apartment in Boston for [three weeks].
[—drug-dealer boyfriend] kidnapped her when she was eighteen and kept her there for [three days].
[—father’s drinking buddy] kept her in an apartment in Boston and raped her repeatedly.
One day the window was left open
—Just a crack
—Help! Go to [] Street. Get my family!
She yelled to some maintenance men below.

Her voice, fierce lioness tendril, rising through the window toward light, [so fuckin' heroic]
desperate to stay alive.

Her voice, blossoming amidst urban sprawl, [creeping phlox] breaking through asphalt. The fault of that ass who broke her, forever encroaching—jungle of concrete.

Her voice, full of violets, fucking heroic, finding its way through walls, bricks, brick and mortar, sprouting amidst a history dense and silencing,

made its way.

And...

the only [family] she had arrived to [free] her.
They all agree it was [this] that damaged her.


 *


Mama baked sometimes—pulling out the red cookbook.

Soft, gooey with flour, brailed by sugar, drops of egg white, and a few stains of blood from the day she sliced herself down the vein—said it was an accident. But who cuts herself not crosswise on the wrist? Who slices three inches, vertical down the forearm on the vein, like the belly of the trout?


 *


Being in the center of a room makes it bigger. The lampshades are stained with watermarks and tobacco smoke. Yellow-brown light forms two hazy halos on either side of the couch. Slatted wooden window shades cover four windows. When cars pass, zebra stripes ripple across the back wall and ceiling. It smells like dust, Red Rose Tea, and faintly of urine. It smells like the gas stove burner just turned off. It smells like it recently rained in the house and the floor beneath me is becoming a long wet road. I’m waiting for my father.

[Someone] put me in a dress—said it’s important. Expectantly, I sit on the couch, my heels tapping upholstery. A holiday sensation fills my ribs. Waiting for an Easter egg hunt—waiting for recess—waiting to be saved from the foggy concern looming over my child-heart. Finally, after voices rise and fall from the kitchen, a huge man enters the room. He asks me to come, crouching on a knee. I go. A fuzzy shape five times my size reaches. His thigh is under my legs. He is holding my side. He hands me something. A bouquet of flowers. He leaves.

How do we stay in the body when traumatized? Do we map places where pain digs in roots? I feel the large indecipherable shape of a man who visited once. That [shape], there by violence or abandon, moves through my somatic form. My mother traces the shadows of her [father] (and all the others).

For me it went/goes like this:

Upper left abdomen, indent, vacuum, a galaxy three inches wide.
Spine to atlas. Bow. Stem. Leverage to heart. Piercing.
Singe across the brow to right ear. Mist of pain. Wall of numb.
Hum at left eyebrow and eye socket bones. Verdant. Garden.
Den of light shimmer.
Pure chest plate. Breast bone. Contending firm.
Fern between the shoulders. Inflammatory. Spasmodic. Molten. Bend within the ribs. Planetary lake. Pre-eruption.
Cotton cake of stomach.
Sack soft and scissor proof.
Hoof-legs beastly strong. Mountain ready.
Desire to run.

I’m too small for all this.

***

We’re on a weekend drive

long winding road

my brother and I laugh in the back seat.

Trees so thick the sky only shines through in pinholes

like a colander. My brother leans into me hard

on the left turns. I fall

into the vinyl and plastic

of the car door. I lean

into him on the right

turns. His face pushes up

against window molding. We laugh

...

Pulling into the driveway

our laughter jolts.

They get out of the car.

We get out. Within seconds

they’re on the ground. We think

they’re wrestling. Mom gets on top

and places both of her hands

around his neck. His skin starts to change.

He pulls at her shirt sleeves. He’s making

sounds as if drowning. Grunting

he tugs at her arms. My brother and I

stand stunned

....

One of us starts crying.

The other joins.

In days that follow, I develop a phobia of planes. When I hear them, I feel them in my body. I think they’re crashing. When I look at the sky, long puffy tails indicate a downward spiral—I start hiding under tables.

Mom becomes a princess, learns to fly—am I hiding from her, hiding under tables? Or the fuzzy earthen floral shape? Father we fly away from—flight we farther ourselves from—fight we have forever.

Fire ants run a caramel river. A crumb floats by. A dead termite. Indian paintbrush. Buttercup. My hand, between two barbs on the wire fence, pushes down. With the other hand, I press up, sliding my leg through. Hip arches over. Head ducks past. One barb catches my hair. Some strands pull into a mountain where I had brushed it smooth, a bit of my cardigan is grabbed. I look back, from the other side, free. A wisp of wool singes the breeze.

Remnants.

If only it were as easy as stepping through barbed wires.


 ** *


 
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On the hutch part of her water bed frame are little round pot seeds.

I touch them, put them
in my mouth like popcorn
kernels, stare off at the unemployed
typewriter on the screen porch, and lie there
on my back, the plastic undulating
beneath me, considering what
to make my brother for dinner.

Some days her room is different. Blinds
rolled up and devoid of the strange sour after
smell of uncommon smoke.

Off the cuff, I find my pink Levi’s
— Christmas divulged premature
on a latch-key afternoon. MTV’s Madonna
in leather straddling a chair
in the slit of a door cracked on a living room.
I try them on. I dance like her—1989.

Eventually, through the cupboards
I establish her huge jug of Carlo
Rossi. I lick it from my pinky
bright and tart. Everything’s suddenly
copper and wet, rose like that wine
and sharp, about to bleed.

On the tail-end of ten, that November, I stick
my chilly fingers in holes
everywhere—the old brass
Massachusetts locks and into
the folds of her braided rug, the one great
grandmother made when I was born. It is ripping.


 ** *


—Why is your face so red then!?
She shouts, inches from my face, holding crumpled paper.

There’s saliva on my forehead and foam at her lips.
Her eyes split from their sockets.
—People blush when they lie!
—Mom, I met a boy at camp but didn’t kiss him.

I folded a false confession in an origami shape—hid it under my bed. She found it. True, I lied, but not to her. My friends were all having sex.
—You’re lying! A selfish liar!
—No
—I can’t trust you!

Her hands are claws,
                 are pricker-hands,
                                   are thorns.
                                                    They pull my shirt.
—Pick up your bag,
she shoves my body toward the lavender tote.

I lean down to get it, slouched.
She hurls me forward.

—Mom, why are you doing this? Don’t touch me anymore, please!
—You don’t respect me! You’re selfish. Get out!
—Mom, please listen.
—Get out!
The hazel of her eyes glows green against her reddening cheeks—familiar scene.
—Please stop yelling, Mom.
She follows the shove with a swipe. Through her clenched jaw and bared teeth, she hisses,
—Poor, poor, poor girl, poor little thing.
Her voice now strained from screaming becomes a violent whisper. I shelter my face with my hands.

(A knock on the door) She pauses.

 
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—Hello? I hear his familiar voice.
She opens the door.
He walks in with the bike.
—Hey there, thought you might need this, he says casually, then taking a closer look, peers at me.

I push my hands flat into the mattress and force my shoulders to my ears.

—What’s going on here? he asks with careful accusation.
I open my mouth.
She starts before me.
—She won’t take the bus.
I interrupt,
—I am scared of the kids there, Dad, I told you that.

My words are drowned and when she finally pauses I say,
—But you don’t have to hit me.

He moves past her slowly and sits down. His hand slides toward mine and encircles it—presses it deeper into the mattress. Quietly he requests,
—Don’t say anything. Just let’er yell. Don’t say another word.

I sit there watching. It’s as if we’re camping in the woods. A bear has come.
He tells me, “Play dead and let her paw you.”
He tells me, “Let her eat everything and tear the tent apart.”

I sink into the bed, the bed becomes a garden, I become a root system, spanning.

—I will drive her to school this time, he says with a centered voice.

Dirt tendrils and plant life follow me to the car. The sky is made of bottle glass, too bright. Dandelions on the drive edge upset me.
—It’s probably best if you don’t tell anyone.
—Okay, but what if she does it again?
His face drops. He fondles the gold wedding ring on the keychain.
—I always loved her, you know. 
Tears ride his throat.
Rush of grief.
—Dad, I know. I wish she didn’t leave you.

I grab his hand and press the root system into it. Down we both go, into the ground.
heave
breathe
heavy                     breathing
hiccup
breath—with each inhalation: dirt, pollen, the dust of old flowers, dried blood, salt of my mother’s tears on my tongue
(heave heave heave)
contraction
ingaasp
moon        body (               )
sacrum                        shudder
backwings
heave shoulders
breathe                    breathe breathe
bigger (                                                  )
(soft        breath                                      now — catch it            catch        
breath —               calm                                                        breathe)

—Breathe, he says, breathe, take a breath

I breathe in—and burst out begging, Please,
—I want to save her—save my mother—mama Ooooohhhhhh mother. No no no (               ) please save her.

body                      breath
lungs                                    sail
fetal                                      position
snot                      oozing
sleeves wet—his shoulder lake—damp (            )
shudder              pop breath                    heavy
face cringe

—I can’t mama (        ) save you mama (        ) from the men mama (        ) who took you away ( ) ( )( )( )( )( )( )( )( )( )( ) before I even got to know you!

Gasp gasp gasp gasp

—Where are they?
                  Where are they?
                                   Let them give it to me!

***

At school, the girls wait on the steps. I’m ten minutes late. They ask me,
—What’s wrong?
—Why are you so upset?

                His warning escapes me.

I tell them,
—My mom lost it. She was hitting me this morning.

At lunch the nurse calls me down to the office—asks me a series of questions—makes a phone call—tells me to remove my clothes (except my underwear) in the dark room where sick kids rest on a cot.

[Someone] takes pictures of me—[someone] marks places on my body where the violets grow. Every purple tenderness is documented with a pen. The stamp of generations now pansy-faced develops on my bare body.
              too many soft spots,
               too many times dropped.

               First, I’m kept in a cold colorless rectangular room with a bright overhead light.
               Then I stay with him.

During those weeks, we have weekly counseling by a licensed therapist. Mom mocks her—calls her Hazelnut.

Hazel teaches us to make paper stop signs and I hold them up when Mom rages. Hazel tells us to write our feelings on butcher paper and tape them up around the house using “I” statements.

I write the letters out of order:
I AM SACRED

Then:


I AM SORRY
I MEANT 
SCARED

Then:

I AM SORRY
I AM SORRY
I AM SORRY

 
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Cassandra Rockwood-Rice is a California-based artist and writer. She holds a BA from California Institute of Integral Studies and an MFA from California College of the Arts. In recent years she has been awarded the Red Savina Review's William Carlos Williams Prize for Poetry, was a finalist for the Palette Poetry Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Cassandra would like to honor the literary bravery and triumph of Alice Walker whose work is referred to in this text.  

Many poems in the manuscript have been published or are forthcoming in various reviews and literary journals – to name a few,  Hawaii Review,  Riprap Journal, and 580 Split.