THE FIELD GUIDE PROJECT: Cleveland Heights, OH
TEXT & IMAGES: Saja Chodosh
A Rose Tale
My brother, Caleb, and I had made our way into our parents’ bed in the early morning. We nestled with them among soft, caramel-colored covers, awoke with the sun leaning in through the window. Light filled the blue glass bottles lining the windowsill, and the smell of roasting espresso meandered up the spiral stairs. NPR and my mother’s footsteps gently hummed from the kitchen. Caleb was still asleep—breathe and eyelids heavy, rested against my small palm.
My dad’s call broke Caleb’s soft breath rhythm: his voice travelled from the backyard, through the hallway’s open window alongside a biting Cleveland breeze, under the unhinged bedroom door, to us—warm under soft sheets. Caleb’s eyelids flickered from the noise. I sat up suddenly—couldn’t understand dad’s words exactly, only the excitement of his tone, the delight in his incantation. Caleb, I whispered harshly, shaking his still shoulders.
We ran outside—scampered down the stairs, small palms sliding down the smooth oak bannister, turning sharply at the bottom to make sure Caleb was still behind me (his eyes still slightly closed, adjusting to the light of the day), rushed through the kitchen (toasted salt bagel smell), past the round oak table, bounded through the screen back door, onto the soft grass—newly cut, moist from the morning dew.
My dad stood next to the rose bush that ran along the backyard fence, red bikes strewn on the lawn, the yellow slide scattered with damp leaves. I could see his eyes glistening in the morning light—lake blue eyes. “The bush bloomed!” dad shouted. “The marshmallow bush bloomed!” Caleb’s eyes opened—wide open, hazel pupils expanding in enchantment, a huge smile fanning across his flushed face.
We had waited so long for this. Dad had showed us the marshmallow bush weeks before— a barren rose bush, thorns jetting through wooden fence planks, the added promise of spongy, white, sugary goodness lurking amidst the thorns. I remember it almost like a dream: the braided rose bush, two white, fluffy marshmallows perched, waiting for us amidst the morning sun. We reached with small fingers—slowly plucked the soft marshmallows from the sharp stems, feet sinking in the dirt, Caleb in too much awe to even eat at first. I remember looking at my dad—his subtle, small smile, his knowing blue eyes glimmering—the taste of sweet, soft sugar on my white, young lips.
Tell me about the time when we crushed our small
bodies against the back of the couch in the basement
and I held your ears with my small palms and whispered
small breaths into your soft drums. How it was dark
and all the cloth animals had been tossed
astray and the twine swing hooked
to the ceiling swung slow shadows.
How his car had been broken into—radio stolen, window
crushed with knuckles and she was mad and yelling
and we felt small.
Bought the car from an unshaven man,
once in prison, on impulse—how love can
unhinge us so. He would sell all the cloths on his back
to repay her. Rip them off me. Tear them off my back. Off me. Off my back.
This is what I remember.
Tell me you were there, my warm back crushed against the black
basement couch in the morning—so early, it was the night. I imagined us
then in the apple orchard we went each year on my birthday—
branches sinking in the noon sun, low enough
for us to reach our arms above our heads, shirts rising to our belly
buttons, grasp a leaning apple, squeeze it in our hands,
break the skin, juice on lips’ crease, dangled between rows of trees,
maze of branches, earth heavy, apples shadows leaning towards it.
Everything falls small in the morning light—it’s like being
someplace and knowing you are someplace else,
when you know you are dreaming, lights dimmed in the orchard,
fruit crushed in dirty morning moist like two kids crushed against
a couch—crushed between words too old to dangle
here. Tell me you were there.
I waited at the edge of the orchard store, a few shelves away from where a man and woman stood. She had dark circles under her amber eyes. She skimmed her hands through the shelves aimlessly. He placed his hand palm-up on the shelf a foot away, an empty stance. She rubbed her dark seeded eyes, setting her large bag of apples inches from his feet. The Ohio wind crunched with each step she took away from him.
It is the empty space between them I remember the best—the way it chilled me like the Lake Eerie October breeze. I thought about them all the way home, at each slanted curve, bites of apples shaking in my stomach. I wonder why I still remember them now—his open palm, the sticking honey on my tongue.
I would like to write this house
wide as a page with no words—
a sand swept steppe,
and dusty lungs where poems
snag in the flat ridge
expanse. We soot
our eyes and weep home.
But this house is parched miles
from desert. The lake is not salt
but goose grit, and I can’t now hold
the bone bite of lake snow,
heart deep cold.
We move closer to the lake for a new glass school.
We park our blue Volvo in the black tar drive.
We backyard swim on Labor Day, and in February
we break apart our kitchen and eat lo mein
in grandma’s clay bowls,
stack our dishes in the upstairs bathtub.
We are raw and sinkless.
The squirrels have edged their way into our walls.
We are swinging on oak trees, sidewalk slanted, Shaker Lake circle-bound.
We tandem bike for raisin bread.
We paint the house a milk coffee
color, deep rhubarb shutters. We plant tulips
in front. We camp the backyard in fall.
We dance the living room. We play house in the attic.
We crash in the blue Volvo and ghost home
with a broken wrist along the lake trail.
This Midwest brick is canal chained.
This city is dream color fragment.
This house is January icicles.
It all melts.
Some homes are caught beneath the wet roof
of mouth words, wake in the room we page make.
It has been ten years. This is all I have to house.