“One Thousand Under the Rosebush” By: Joe Baumann

When Cassie sleeps under the rosebush for the first time she dreams she is standing on a concrete bridge crossing a high canyon that is slowly filling with water.  She leans over the side of the bridge, also concrete, and stares down, a hard wind slapping her cheeks with her own long, tangled hair.  From there Cassie can see the water rise, gurgling up and swallowing rocks that jut out of the canyon’s narrow walls; a bird’s nest is floating on the rising tarp of blue, banking off the canyon like a toy boat smacking the side of a filling tub.


The bridge wall turns brittle with no warning and Cassie’s hands push through the concrete like it is putty.  The shock sends her body reeling and Cassie falls toward the rising water, a shimmering, pristine blanket.  She sees herself reflected back in the quiet sheet of blue and is surprised by the calm smile on her face.  Her arms shoot out in front of her and she reaches for the water.  She can hear it gurgle, the sound of soft sloshing as it crests against the canyon.  Cassie stretches out her fingers, ready to feel the clean water as her hands cut across the surface, and she shuts her eyes and waits to meet it in a cold, wet embrace.


Instead, she felt a soggy warmth on her face as Sisyphus sniffs, his nose rolling across her upper lip and flooding her nostrils with the damp smell of a dog who has just come in from the back yard.


Cassie’s eyes snap open and she sits up, head darting left and right as she looks around.  Her hair is limp and greasy with sleep.  Despite falling asleep in the back yard, curled up in the fetal position under her mother’s crimson roses, the stretchy, gossamer fabric of her teal nightgown curved over her bent knees, here she is in her room again, crumpled sheets twisted around her, body pillow bent from the weight of her slumberous head.


She acquiesced and let them name their first and only daughter—due to the emergency postpartum hysterectomy—after his favorite constellation.  She kept telling him how terrible it seemed, naming her after a vain queen who always boasted about her beauty, but he insisted, telling her how the synergy was perfect: Cassiopeia, opposite the Big Dipper, easiest to see during the clear nights of early November, hovering in the sky on their daughter’s birthday.


In return, she got to name the dog, so when they brought home the fuzzy Samoyed puppy, she chose her favorite story of retribution as inspiration.


“Sisyphus?” he’d said, scowling as though he smelled something foul.  “What kind of dog do you want him to be?”


He became a Sisyphus, it seemed.  Every time he was left out in the back yard he started digging.  Hole after hole he scrabbled in the ground, clawing out clumps of dirt one after the next.  When he had shoveled out a six or eight-inch hole the diameter of a basketball, he would sniff for a moment then move on to another patch of grass and begin again.  No matter how much he yelled at Sisyphus, while she rolled her eyes, no matter what he threw at the dog, or how often he dragged Sisyphus to the holes and shoved his face in them, Sisyphus just lolled his tongue and panted, waiting to be freed so he could return to his digging.


The dog caused the first bad fight that sent Cassie running up to her room, feet thumping across the floor as she cried and held her hands to her ears.  It was the first time her father stomped out of the house, slamming the front door and rattling the windows in his wake.  Cassie watched him from her bedroom window, staring through sloppy, tear-soaked eyelashes that blurred her vision.  She watched her father drive off, and he didn’t return until sometime after she’d fallen asleep by the window, curled up in a ball.  She could feel the hard subfloor beneath the shaggy carpet, unforgiving and painful on her bony hips, but she slept right through the sharp, cutting feeling, only hurting the next day when her body was bruised and sore.


Cassie runs out, her eyes red, but her cheeks are dry, the tears nothing but a sticky film on her skin.  Soil flung about the yard from Sisyphus’s endless digging is already clumped on the soles of her feet and dusted across her pale ankles, and when Cassie bends and rolls under the rosebush, dirt streaks across her back.


It asks her what has happened.


The same thing as always.  She doesn’t need to say a word; she needs only to look up toward its spiky thorns.  They remind her of tiny green sharks’ fins, sharp and pointy.


Her father threw a glass against a kitchen cabinet.  She speaks by thinking about it, by picturing the angry way her father’s fingers wrapped tight around the cylindrical glass, knuckles white, by remembering how she thought it would crumple in his hand, cutting through his flesh and weeping streams of blood across the dining room table.  She tells the rosebush how terrified she was of the snowfall of broken, jagged glass that shattered across the linoleum floor.  After she scampered through the kitchen on tip-toe to reach the door she had to check her feet for slivers.


A nighttime breeze wafts through the bush, rattling the stems against one another.  You know what to do, it whispers.  You will always know what to do.


Cassie opens her mouth, but the rosebush ruffles for silence before she can ask what the lifespan of a rose is.


Don’t worry, it tells her.


When did I start coming here, Cassie wonders.

The dirt should not be comfortable, and it is not, not really, but the silence of night is comforting.

The dirt should not be comfortable, and it is not, not really, but the silence of night is comforting.

She starts counting, staring into the bulbous belly of roses, her eyes tracing the twisted, knotted paths of vines.  One, two, three: she keeps going.

She starts counting, staring into the bulbous belly of roses, her eyes tracing the twisted, knotted paths of vines.  One, two, three: she keeps going.


Until you hit one thousand, the bush tells her: that’s how high you should count.


I’ll get there, she thinks.  Her eyes are wide.  She stares up and refuses to blink, tears pooling at the edges of her eyes.  She reaches the thirties, rushes through the forties.


I’ll get there, Cassie thinks, her arms slacking as she drifts into the cold realm of sleep.



He slinks out of bed after she’s tucked herself away in a cocoon of blankets they no longer share.  The third bedroom is down the hall, past the half-bath where Cassie brushes her small, porcelain teeth.  He remembers teaching her how dotting a pea-sized squirt of toothpaste onto his toothbrush then watching and laughing as she pushed out a stream of the mint green gel onto her own pink brush.  By the time she had the hang of it, he’d wiped off dozens of smudges from the ceramic vanity.


His own little constellation, he thinks, stopping to look into the bathroom.  The mirror reflects his slumped shoulders, the sallow look in his sleepless eyes, the belly that has grown soft and round.  The hair on his knuckles is starting to gray.  His whole reflection looks dull, a sorrowful impression of the happy man he’d once been.  He turns from the bathroom with a shake of his head and pads to the bedroom door, shut to keep the dog out.


Instead of containing the bed and bureau meant for the second child they never had, the bedroom is furnished with a dark mahogany roll-top desk and two telescopes, one at each of the windows on the wall opposite the door.  The floor is scattered with stacks of astronomy journals, a star mapping chart spread out on a small table with a reading lamp.  He walks toward the nearest window, stepping on a pencil as he does.  He feels it crack under his heel.  When he hoists open the window, the cool night air flutters the papers on the desk and rolls pens across the wooden surface.  A magazine’s cover flies open.


He repositions the telescope and looks at the stars; the sky is clear and bright, so the lights of Orion’s Belt shine with ease.  His one eye closed, his vision swims through the faraway galaxies and he imagines being up there, floating through the hot masses he has studied for years.  Cassiopeia, he knows, is in hiding, her five points blurry and tough to see even on the clear evenings of springtime.  After he dances around the sky, he sighs and shuts the window.  He is still wide awake, sleep still tucked away from him.


So he wanders down the hall, stopping in front of Cassie’s shut door.  It’s tragic, he thinks, resting his hand on the knob, knowing he won’t turn it; tragic that she’s still so young but already willing to close the door to keep things out.



As Cassie sleeps, it winds its way around her, stems crawling out from the bush, gently wrapping around the curve of her body.  The roses give off a crisp scent, filling the air with their sweet wintery aroma.  The bush calls to the earth and the worms respond, wriggling up from the ground with ease thanks to the endless digging of the dog.  They squirm up through the soil and trudge, bodies stretching and contracting, squirting along the grass and rock, toward the rosebush.


It drives itself into Cassie, feeding her dreams.  She likes the one with the bridge and its sparkling, clear water just waiting for her to fall into its depths and remain there forever.  As it wraps around her, cocooning her in its thorny tendrils, it sighs and grasps her.  The thorns graze her skin, tracing shallow cuts through her flesh.  They bleed out little drops that the earthworms, arriving now, gather up and marshal to the rosebush’s roots like little worker ants.


The dog whines from beyond the patio door.


She remembers he held her hand and the rail of her hospital bed.  The gown with its open back and loosely folded fabric and white color that she was convinced were see-through made her feel uncomfortable and bare.  His grip was too tight, she thought, his squeeze crushing the bones in her fingers.  Now she longs for that painful embrace.  When he gets up in the middle of the night she says nothing.  Just keeps staring at the wall, waiting for the clock to tell her that it’s time to get ready for work.


It was unavoidable, the doctor said of the hysterectomy.  A necessity for your health and your life.  Yes, it means you won’t be able to have children again.


A cold, clinical apology, she remembers.


She wonders if that is where it began, if the derailing of their carefully-laid plans, the dreams they’d built their new home around, was the thing that put the first slab of icy separation between them.  It had grown, like freezing water expanding in a boggy lake, until there was no place left for them.  Now it was only yelling and dagger-filled silence smiles projected to keep their daughter happy and unaware.


He’s back now, the springy mattress bouncing and shifting as he plops back onto his side of the bed.  She listens to his deep sighs and can feel the shudder that rolls through the bed when he shrugs his shoulders and lays down on his back.  Attentive to her breathing, she feigns the regular, softly inhales of someone comfortably bathed in slumber as she keeps her gaze on the powder blue wall.  Life has become a series of feints.  She feels like an actress constantly on camera, pasting a veneer across her whole self as she walks through her days and nights.


A minute ticks by on the digital clock.  He starts pretending to snore.  She knows what his real snore sounds like, the deep sawing noise of his tongue vibrating against his throat.  This noise is higher in pitch, longer-lasting, too perfectly regular.


I should just tell him, she thinks.  I should just tell him I know he’s awake, staring at the wall just as I am.  But no good could come of it.



We learned about anchorites in school today, Cassie says, squeezing under the rosebush.  Its thorns catch on the fabric of the bloated t-shirt that hangs over her body like a trash bag.


Tell me about them.  The voice is soothing, a whisper, a waft of steam lifting off a cup of hot cocoa.


They were like hermits, Cassie says.  Religious hermits.  They would withdraw from other people and live alone.  Pray every day.  Just pray.  She shifts her weight, reaches down and itches a scab on her leg.


My teacher said they used to get bricked up in little rooms.  Cells, she called them.  They couldn’t leave.  They just prayed and prayed.  Can you believe that praying and praying and nothing else?


Cassie sighs, looking up into the maze of thorns above her.  She can see slivers of light filtering down through them; the moon is full, hanging straight above her in the sky, fat and cratered and shimmering.  Cassie knows she ought to be counting, should be shutting her eyes and seeing nothing but bulbous, fuzzy numbers cajoling her to sleep.  But whenever she shuts her eyes, she can only see the picture her teacher showed them, the old man, balding, with long swoops of stringy gray hair, his tan scalp bare like the surface of a baseball glove.  “The Anchorite,” her teacher had said, a painting by someone whose name she can’t remember; it began with an A or a V and had too many consonants on the end for her to spell right, Cassie’s tongue fumbling over the sounds as she tried to repeat the name enough times to cement it into her memory.  She saw the anchorite’s crooked, sinewy body, the taut lines of muscle in his lanky shoulders and back strained as he knelt, his torso bent over a book balanced on a messy bale of hay.


She had raised her hand, asked whether there were female anchorites.


“Yes,” her teacher had said.  “A woman anchorite was called an anchoress.”


She whispers the word as she stares up at the rosebush.  A chill wind is strumming through the bushes, and one of the roses bobs as though nodding toward her.  Cassie lets the last syllable dwell on her lips and stretch out, the noise escaping through the space between her tongue and the roof of her mouth: anchoress.  Like water spraying out of a leak in a hose, she thinks.


Go to sleep, the rosebush says, its voice clambering to suppress the hissing noise.



For the last three nights, Sisyphus has sat by the glass doors, head on his forepaws, a low whine emerging from his gut.  Staring out at the grass, toward the bloated rosebush that no one seems to notice growing like an inflating balloon.  Sisyphus whines and whines and the squeaking noise keeps them both awake even through their heavy door.  The room feels stagnant and oppressive to both of them, their pillows heavy with the lead filling their heads.  They each stare at their wall, glancing at their clocks and listen to the dog’s whinnying from downstairs.  She wants to tell him to go see what’s the matter, but she knows he’ll just tell her that he never wanted to get a god damn dog in the first place, so why should it suddenly be his job to deal with it?  And of course, you don’t care, he’ll say, about what the dog does until it bothers you.


He considers sliding through the sheets and opening the door, welcoming in a rush of fresh air to replace the boggy heat that has settled over the bed, as if they’re in a Louisiana swamp.  He thinks about going downstairs and sliding open the back door so the dog can continue digging its endless trail of holes through the torn-up yard.  But instead he shuts his eyes, lets the fuzzy lights that sparkle across the darkness behind his eyelids overtake him, and he feels his eyes move around under that minuscule layer of skin—thinner than a sheet of paper, he knows this from somewhere—and he imagines those little blurbs of light sharpening into dots, rearranging themselves into the constellations he knows so well, the W of Cassiopeia shining brightly in the middle.


She exhales, her shoulders shrugging and tugging at the sheets, so he lifts an arm and feels the light material slide just so across his side, dragging away from his bare, hairy leg.  He knows he ought to roll over to her, take her up into his wide berth and whisper to her.  But the words would just hang there, empty and wrinkled.



She loved the house the moment she saw it when he ran around the front of their beat up car and helped her maneuver her way out of the seat, body swollen and pregnant.  The brick exterior, not schoolhouse red but a mature, calm beige, the cream shutters, the crisp, shiny windows lining both floors with their white trim.  It all seemed so gorgeous and sleek, so suburban and perfect.  The bricks, when she ran her hand over them as she crossed through the front door, were rough and bumpy, hard and strong.


Her eyes snap open; she was nearly asleep when Sisyphus began moaning again.  The noise was loud and crisp, as though the dog was curled up by her head.  She almost sits up, drunk on the haze of sleep and forgetful of where she is, but when she feels her body rustle against the sheet covering her like a shroud she stops moving and listens.  His breathing is soft, the guttural verve of her husband’s snoring light and prickling.


The room is dense and dark, the only light coming from their out-of-sync alarm clocks; hers will go off thirty minutes before his, and she knows he will feign sleep while she scuttles through the room to gather up underwear and dress pants before shutting herself in the bathroom.  He’ll pretend not to listen to the shelling of hot water against the shower floor.


She slides out of the bed.  Looking back, she waits for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room and for his lumpy figure to come into clear view.  He’s rolled onto his side, right arm stuck out from under him and hanging off the bed like some limp plank on the side of a ship.  His left hand is tucked under his head.


Sisyphus’s howling continues to rise in her ears, and she gathers herself up, dragging through the suffocating air of the bedroom.  She pulls open the door, leaving it ajar behind her.  The long hallway is vague and soothing, and she almost feels a breeze pulsing from the air vents in the ceiling, but they are quiet.  She sees Cassie’s room, the blank canvas of her closed door.  She’d argued with him about letting her shut it without first stripping away the lock; what if something happened, someone broke in, or the house caught fire,  or the carbon monoxide alarm screamed, or, or, or.  She sees all the doorways, all of them pulled closed, even the bathroom.  Silent and oppressive.


The dog is still whining and she can hear the soft scrabbling of his claws against the laminate floor.  A dizziness hits her in the dark, and she can smell roses; they remind her of her own mother’s perfume.



Sixty-eight.  Sixty-nine.  Seventy.  Seventy-one.  Seventy—


She’s inside a small room, a layer of hay covering the dirty clay floor.  Cassie’s hands are folded neatly in her lap as she sits on a thin mattress, lumpy, through which she can feel the hard bottom of the bed.  A small table next to the bed is the only other thing in the room.  Cassie can hear a scraping sound, a trowel cutting across brick.  When she looks up, the room is fuzzy, the light—which comes from somewhere behind her—not reaching the source of the noise.  But darkness is trickling toward her, as though someone is slowly damping the light with a dimmer switch.  Crisp air blows from the darkness, but it, too, is ebbing away.


Who’s there, she cries out.  Her voice cracks as if she has laryngitis, and she clears her throat, trying to repeat herself.  But the sound is like sandpaper, a rough, hoarse crinkle.


As the room grows darker, her senses gumming up as the light drains away, Cassie feels a tumultuous comfort.  The flow of air coasting against her cheeks skitters to nothing and the room is silent.  A calm surrounds her and she shuts her eyes.  She feels a brief flash of discomfort against her spine, a blink of dirt against her lips.  Cassie groans and opens her eyes, the room still dim.  She wants to stay here.  Things are quiet.  The light has funneled away and this, she thinks, is fine.  She does not need a shining sun.  She is willing to spend her life in prayer if it means she can stay in this quiet.


A prickliness against her stomach: it feels like some crawling, wriggly bug.  Her breath stops, her muscles twitch as if she’s been electrified.  The bed slips away from under her, and before she hits the floor before the jarring sense of falling weightlessness can end, she opens her eyes.  Sisyphus stares at her, paws angling at the blankets suffocating her.



Through Cassie’s door, these screams sound final, white hot powder spewing from their mouths.  Everything is melting between them, she knows, a gaping hole expanding into a canyon.  She doesn’t dare open the door.  Sisyphus has curled himself up in a furry circle, tail tapping at his nose, flickering in agitation.  She tells him everything will be okay and clumsily drags a hand down his back, rubbing between his ribs with her outstretched fingers.


Entombed in her room, she listens to their muffled, squawking voices, and can hear when something heavy goes thumping down the stairs, a sharp crash following as the something smashes against the front door, crumbling into debris.  Their shouting grows, gargantuan, and she can hear the cracking stress in her father’s voice.  Her mother releases a wordless screech.  Then they are competing with one another, their voices crashing together, waves of sound that wash over her.


Cassie crawls over to Sisyphus, who lifts his head and stares at her when she curls herself around him, shaping her body into a half-moon, throwing an arm around his.  He smells of wet grass and perspiration.  She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to count, tries to follow the rosebush’s instructions, but the sounds of her parents’ clashing rage keep interrupting her, pulling away from her attention, and she forgets which number she’s on.  She must start again, aggravated Sisyphus shifting his weight and brushing against the scabs on her skin.



Sometimes she remembers the surgery, that frenzy following Cassie’s birth, the weightlessness that filled her sweat-slicked body, the way she clamped his hand in her own, her grip loosening as she grew dizzy and fell into a woozy darkness.  She wonders if she had dreams while in that black watery place her mind went to for what felt like only a moment, a finger-snap of time, after which she woke up in a brightly-lit, sterile room that was filled with the blended scents of two bursting bouquets of flowers that nauseated her after a few minutes.  He was sitting in an uncomfortable-looking chair next to her, holding Cassie—Cassie, not Cassiopeia; she’d drawn the line there—a little pink lump swaddled up in layers of folded white blankets.


She wonders what the hollowed out spot inside her womb is now filled with.  Her stomach grumbles, hungry.



He stands at the patio door in the dark and stares at his shadowy reflection.  The large, waning moon casts a halo around his shoulders and knees.  Its light has stanched the twinkle of stars.  When the sky is sparse and polluted with black it feels more like a lid than an endless expanse of air.  He wants to spring up and out.


The dog is outside, running back and forth in front of the overgrown rosebush.  He wants to cut it back, but it feels like the final ghost, the last little thing left.  They’d planted it together when they moved in; the back yard was a wasteland, dirt and rocks and clay.  They’d done the landscaping after Cassie was born, laying the rosebush into the earth together, each holding one side and lowering it into the ground.


The house feels empty and grim.  She’s sleeping upstairs, where he knows he is no longer welcome.  He knows he should leave, but he cannot picture himself leaving the driveway and really, truly, never coming back.



In her dark room, the walls are getting damp and Cassie can smell water in the air, salty and fragrant.  The hay itches against her feet.  She remains sitting with her hands folded in her lap, a little dome of woven fingers, knuckle bones protruding up like shaved-down spikes.  Water starts leaking in through the little slot where she expects to find food, cascading down in a waterfall that soaks into the clay floor.  It spreads toward her feet, the water cool and radiant on her toes.  Pieces of hay dribble by, carried by the rising liquid.


She takes a deep breath, realizing as the water rises along the brick wall that she has nowhere to go now.  Cassie does not know how she has found herself here, and she does not know how to escape.  There is no escape, she thinks.  The water grips at her, sloughing her down into the murky, muddy room and all she wants is to dream.



Oh anchoress, the rosebush murmurs in pleasure, its tendrils drawing her up and in.  My anchoress.


Sisyphus growls from behind the patio door and the rosebush’s unfurled blooms curl and wave at him, a beckoning, wiggling a finger.  And you, it hisses, my marionette.


Its roots sigh deep, stretching like tight muscles, and it relaxes as it bloats out, its stems growing, thorns sharpening, cutting into the fleshy girl awash in slumber.  Cassie becomes tangled in the mass of green that is pulsing into the yard, pushing against the yielding wooden fence.  It is ready to expand and engulf, driven on by the girl who rests inside it, protected and symbiotic, the child trapped inside a dark, quixotic sleep.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *