Briar Rose (Continued)

She remembered standing in the motel room, wondering why she was there. Her mother was dead. Too many sleeping pills. Her father was dead. Too many cigarettes. And she was alive. Her body ached. Her body that wasn’t hers. The tattoo itched. It had not brought her back from the edge. Something had pricked her, just as her father had feared: men, boys, life. She hurt, as if slivers of glass were tickling her insides.She had raised her fists in anger, wanted to pound on the windows that looked out onto the parking lot, when suddenly she knew how to have peace.

She ended up in the hospital eating shit and getting sponge baths from Nurse White.

She turned her arms around and pulled off the bandage over the little girl and her birthday cake. The scab came off with the bandage. The girl had tears in her eyes. She had heard the conversation, had known her life had changed.

Rose peeled off the other bandage. The snake shed his scab, and Rose was in the backyard of her home, eight years old, bent over a translucent snake skin, wondering where the snake had gone. What an easy life. If you don’t like it, just shed it and begin anew. She reached out a finger and touched the skin tentatively. Dry.

"If it’s from a poisonous snake you could die." She looked up. Uncle Bobbie. He smiled. All his smiles looked monstrous. She wasn’t sure why. He snatched up the snake skin and began running. She went after him, into the woods where the oaks and maples were shedding their leaves. Suddenly his footsteps stopped and she was alone in the woods.Then Bobbie jumped from behind a tree and threw her to the ground, laughing all the time, tossing the snake skin into the air, out of her reach. He pulled off her pants and then his. When it was over, he promised to get her a pony if she didn’t tell anyone.

Rose turned off the light. Now she had four memories.

She watched the man prick pictures into other people’s skins all day. She took care of his inks and needles and cleaned the floors. At night, she counted his money and gave it to him. He needled her when everyone was gone. A drop of blood tattooed on her right forearm brought Bobbie back to her, brought his smile as he zipped up his pants and she put her hands between her legs.She cried and he told her to shut up. Her parents were afraid to leave her with anyone else except family. Afraid of the outside world. Uncle Bobbie had been right, they would tell each other, there were millions of guys out there just waiting to hurt their child.

A willow tree brought her father back. She leaned her head against his knee. He stroked her hair while he read his newspaper. Her mother knelt in her garden and whispered to the flowers.

"I’ve never seen anyone heal as quickly as you do," the tattooist told her. He seemed tired, as if he felt it all, too.

She nodded and took the needle from him. "May I try?"

"Don’t hurt yourself," he said.

"Isn’t that what this is all about?" she asked, holding the needle like a writer holds a pen, poised to express herself.

"No," he said. And he went up the steps. She waited until she heard his heavy breathing, and then she began drawing.

She tried a flower, but it turned into a warped sun, bringing back a summer when she was four and Bobbie was pushing his fingers between her legs while he held onto something between his legs. Rose laughed at his face, funny Bobbie, until her hurt her and she started to cry and wondered where her mother was. The sun was too hot and the flowers were dying.

"Momma," she whispered.

She tried tattooing flowers again, this time on her thighs. First violets, then roses, gardenias, rhodies; a garden bloomed on her skin and she was next to her mother in the dirt. Her mother was crying, the tears making paths through the dust on her face. "What’s wrong? What’s wrong?" Rose asked. She was ten and her throat hurt from trying not to cry.Bobbie lurked in the bushes somewhere, always waiting, and Momma cried.

The tattooist came down the stairs when it was morning. He looked at her thighs.

"You’re an artist," he said.

"The agony and the ecstasy?" she said. "I’m my own Sistine Chapel." She held up the needle. "Will you do my back?"

"Why?"

"I have to remember," she said.

"But wasn’t it nice before?" he said. "When you knew nothing?"

She shook her head. "I knew nothing when I was two years old and look what happened."

"You hardly scab," he said.

"I go straight to scarring," she said.

She took off her shirt and camisole. She didn’t care if he saw her. He poked holes in her back and let the ink soak in, making the memories permanent. They could be wiped from her brain but not from her skin.

"What have you drawn?" she asked when he paused.

"Can’t you tell?" he said. "Don’t you remember being a kid in the bathtub with your brother or sister? You’d wipe the other guy’s back and then put soap on it and draw, usually words, and the other person would have to guess."

"I didn’t have any brothers and sisters," she said. "But I do remember a cousin, Mary, and we played together. Sometimes we took baths together when we were real little and we’d do that. Yes, I remember now." It had been nice to touch her and to be touched by her.They were each the other’s drawing boards. They got water and soap everywhere. "We floated little plastic ships in the water and pretended we were seeing the world."

"That’s what I put on your back," he said.

She got up and went into the bathroom where there was a full–length mirror and looked at herself. Two girls stood on a sailing ship. They held hands and waved to the mermaids in the water. The ship bobbed in the waves. A flag with a rose on it flapped in the breeze.

Rose smiled. Some of the memories were good.

She went back into the room where the tattooist sat.

"You understand that I have to do this," she said.

"Yes," he said. "It’s part of what I do. Transformations, remember. It’s difficult sometimes."

She nodded.

She drew a lady on her left calf. Her golden hair flowed away from her as she lay on the bed of skin. Her eyes were open but Rose knew she was dead. Her open eyes had surprised Rose. She had died of an overdose of pills. Eaten one at a time.

"Why?" Rose asked as her mother swallowed a little white pill.

"Because I ache," she said. "I’ve been stabbed in a million places."

Had Bobbie played with her, too?

"I need you to stay," Rose said. She started to cry. Where was her father? At work? The car was with him. Their closest neighbors, the Nelsons, were gone on vacation.She wasn’t sure she could reach anyone else. They lived too far from the city. Out in the country where nothing could hurt them. Her mother had ripped out the phone.

"Bobbie’s been playing with me," Rose said. She was twelve, desperate. She’d tell her mother, get her to stay.

"What do you mean?" Her mother swallowed four pills this time.

"You know, putting his thing in me," Rose said. Stop it, Mom. Stay with me.

"Tell your father," she said. "He’ll protect you."

That was it. That was all her mother had to say to her after all the agony she had been through.

"He promised me a pony," she said.

"I’m so tired," her mother said.

Rose ran downstairs and out the door. She ran into the dusty afternoon and through the woods toward the house Bobbie shared with his parents, farther and farther away from home. He worked in town at night. Maybe he’d be home now.She pounded and pounded on the door. After a while, she heard his voice from deep within the house. He came to the door, half–asleep.

"What are you doing here?" he said.

"It’s Momma," she said. "She’s taking too many sleeping pills. Please, you’ve got to do something."

He opened the screen door and she came in. He went to the phone and called the police and an ambulance. She hated him, despised him, hated herself. But he was going to save her mother.

He took her hand, and they went out to his car. He drove her back to her house and together they went upstairs. Her mother lay on the bed, her hair spread out around her, like a golden–haired Snow White waiting for her Prince Charming. Her eyes were open.

Bobbie started to cry. Rose went away. She wasn’t certain where she went. Her soul wandered for a time. She thought she had died when she was eight, but she had been wrong. Now she died. Pricked by her mother’s death.

She drew a garden on her other leg. Its weeds and thorns twisted around her calf and up her knee. A man stood among the weeds.

"He never let me near him after that," Rose said.

"Who? Your father?" the tattooist asked.

"No," Rose said. Tears stung her eyes. "Bobbie."

She felt like she was going to throw up. "I hated him, but he was all there was. I guess. Momma had left me a long time before she died. And my dad was . . . my dad."

The tattooist took the needle. Rose lay on her stomach, and he drew on her back. Her butt became a tangle of dark briar that went up her back, no way to get through.

She remembered leaving her bedroom window open. The boys knew where to come in and they did, one at a time. She didn’t care who they were. She just opened her legs to them. She had to fill the emptiness somehow.

The briars pricked her skin; the tattooist drew drops of blood down her legs.

She touched the blood and remembered being seventeen. Her father was drunk. She had never seen him drunk before. But he was blind with grief. He wept and started calling her Joanie. Her mother’s name. She went into the bathroom and curled her hair up and behind her, dabbed her cheeks with powder, put her mother’s pearl necklace around her neck, slipped into her mother’s blue flowered dress, the one her mother had worn often, especially when she was in the garden, and then she went out to her father.In the darkness, she opened herself to him, not understanding, and he pushed into her, sobbing, until in the middle of it, hard inside her, he opened his eyes and screamed with the horror of it, knowing it was Rose; knowing it, he kept going. When he was finished, he curled up on the floor and asked how she could have done it.

"Does it hurt?" the tattooist asked.

"Yes." Rose wiped her tears and sat up. "I want you to do my breasts."

He drew flowers and restaurants and neon lights and cowboys. It hurt. He drew her trek across the country after her father told her to leave. She went to Bobbie’s house first. He had a wife and a child and he could not look at her. Rose turned away from the house and hoped he never touched his little girl the way he had touched her. She took a ride from a trucker. She let him have her at night, after they drove several hundred miles. She felt dry inside,and he told her she wasn’t much fun. "I don’t want nobody don’t want me," he said. He let her out in the darkness. The next one beat her up. The tattooist pricked the black and blue spot on her skin. She hadn’t minded the beatings so much. She deserved it. Touching was meant to hurt. She ended up working in a restaurant in Tucson, fifteen hundred miles from home. For some reason, she told Bobbie where she was.

She looked down at her breasts and saw the envelope, saw the writing on the letter. The tattooist bit his lip as he pushed the needle into her.

"It’s for my own good," she said.

"It’s for your death," he said.

She nodded.

The letter told her her father was dead. A year to the day she had left. Lung cancer. She didn’t go back for the funeral. She stayed in Tucson. A cactus grew from her navel. An old Indian woman tried to heal her insides. But she couldn’t let the woman touch her. Couldn’t let anyone touch her.

When she turned nineteen, she went north. She found the tattooist and had him etch a rose into her body. It was her body now.

He painted the house around her side. It wrapped her. She had never gone back to the house. She had heard they sold it. Another family lived in it now. After she got the rose, she thought it would be better. It was supposed to be better. A reason to go on: because she had reclaimed her body. Instead, she stood in the motel room and wanted to die.

The tattooist moved away from her. He was crying.

"There are scabs all over your body," he said.

She was naked except for the tattoos.

"Are you glad you remembered?" he asked.

"No," she said. "Thank you."

"Don’t go," he said. "You’re very good. An artist. You could transform people."

"I can’t even transform myself," she said. She put on her clothes. Her entire body hurt.

"I could help you get started," he said. She was quiet. "Stay until the scabs are gone then."

"All right," she said. "I’ll at least stay the night."

He started to touch her arm, but he stopped. "I’m going to bed," he said. He slowly walked up the steps to his loft.

Rose went to the office and sat on the couch. Her body was now covered with her memories. It ached with them. She took off her shirt; the throbbing lessened somewhat. She wanted to cry. The memories burned her skin. Hurt. Too much. She stood up and took off her pants. How could she live with it all? Stand it? She touched one of the faces on her body that was Bobbie.He peered at her from her right shoulder. She shook herself, like a dog shaking water from its fur, and the scabs fell away from her body, becoming flower petals, red, yellow, blue, floating slowly to rest on the carpet. Now she could clearly see all her memories. Her life was etched into her skin. She went into the bathroom and stared at her body in the mirror. Her ruined body.Bobbie had ruined her. Killed her. Doomed her to sleep until she died. Her mother had ruined her. Her father had ruined her. She had only been a child. They had all taken pieces of her and had forgotten to give them back.

She started to cry. She thought of those hours when she hadn’t remembered anything. When Nurse White had turned her over. A babe from the womb. Being cared for, loved, patted. She had known nothing. Now she knew everything.

Bobbie drank too much. His wife had left him. Her father was dead, never forgiving her. Never realizing it had been his responsibility, not his daughter’s. Her mother was dead. Never caring what she left behind.

"Time to wake up," Rose whispered to her reflection.

She reached down and pulled a briar away from the patch that circled the rose on her butt. Her skin itched. Crackled. She sat on the floor and pressed the thorn into the top of her head until she drew blood. It had been good to remember. Blood ran into her eyes. To realize she had only been a child. Her mother had chosen to die; Bobbie had chosen to hurt her; her father had chosen to blame her.It was past. Time for reclamation. Seeing it all had made it, somehow, understandable. She remembered touching the snake skin when she was a child, being amazed that it could just start fresh, shed its old life.

She stretched and creaked and rubbed herself along the carpet, and her past started to fall from her. She sat up and helped it: she peeled away the dead skin. It felt dry and cool, just as the snake skin had. Lifeless. No power. The flowers came away, Bobbie’s face, her mother’s eyes, the weeds, the ship on her back, the snake, the blood. All of it. She stood and dropped the past onto the carpet.She shook herself, causing the last pieces of skin to fly away. She looked down at her body. She was white and pink. New. Only the rose on her buttock remained, without the crown of thorns.

The tattooist stood in the doorway. He leaned over and picked up the skin.

Rose touched his arm. "Leave it," she said. "I don’t need it anymore." She reached down and smoothed her hand over her rose tattoo and smiled. "I am myself again."