In 2013, while dredging around Joe Leary Slough in Bow, Washington, two farmers discovered an abnormally large rootwad rising from the mud along their property. Near the stump, they unearthed a tree weighing over fourteen thousand pounds. Scientists estimated that a landslide, or some other dramatic geological event, knocked the tree down, sealing it in water and layered muck for twenty-three hundred years.
The same year the farmers discovered the pickled tree, I came out to my parents over a video call. My father stood quietly behind my sister and mother, drinking whiskey in the background. On the other side of my laptop, my partner, C, sat cross legged, smiling at me encouragingly. Early on in our relationship, they suggested that the secrecy of my identity made them feel unsafe. Telling my family, for them, was a way of asserting that my queerness—and our relationship—was not a phase. Studying my family’s faces, my stomach turning, I said loudly, I’m gay, with more certainty or confidence than I felt. The news disrupted the screen. Or I was the disruption, watching them. Nobody knew how to hold themselves.
Joe Leary Slough runs orange between neat fields of crops in Mount Vernon, Washington. People call it a manure canal because of its appearance, and because it absorbs cattle runoff. On the edge of my grandparents’ tulip farm where they hosted large yearly festivals, the slough was always bubbling but stagnant. Absent of animals. My sister and I tossed in rocks and sticks, watching the white of its clay spool up. Our grandparents ran the festival each April. When the crowds receded, my sister and I took turns hiding between thousands of flowers, quiet, running to find each other. Our knees and backs coated in cracked, bright mud.
At my age, my mother thought about becoming a nun. She tells me this shortly after I say I think I might be a lesbian. At her elementary school, Immaculate Conception, she was struck across the knuckles, shoulders, and legs with wooden rulers for making simple mistakes in math and spelling. All of her teachers were nuns.
J, my most serious girlfriend, was majoring in environmental science when we met. She came regularly to the coffee shop where I worked. Eventually, she knocked on the glass to get my number while I mopped dirt that always accumulated at the doorway. For two weeks, I thought of her constantly but rarely texted her back—a game I felt was necessary to keep her interested.
Once, she waited so long for me to write back that she missed the opportunity to monitor a lost seal pup in the bay. Frustrated, she wrote, I’m sorry, but you’re not worth the wait. I was still accustomed to the casual cruelty necessitated by dating men, or people who I conceived to have more power than I did.
After the tree was lifted from the slough, scientists cut into cross sections, “cookies,” to be studied by students at the university where J and I went to school. The tree came from 300 BC, around the time Alexander the Great passed away. Sawed open, the tree’s exposed wood oxidized. Within twenty minutes a staining fungus began to feed off the newly exposed proteins, starches, and fats stored in the ancient sapwood, turning it blue.
After the pup incident, J said she would forgive me if I pretended to be a biology student so I could accompany her to a seal necropsy. That way, she joked, you can make up for what I missed while I waited for you to stop pretending you weren’t interested in me. In a professor’s backyard, the seal carcass lay flat across a large plank of wood. Assuming I was trained in dissection, he instructed me to cut a line down the animal’s chest with a kitchen knife, exposing a thick layer of white blubber. He suspected it was murdered by fishermen, so we looked for lodged bullets, or signs that it had been clubbed. I pushed its brain through a strainer into a bowl of water, waiting for the clink of fallen metal. When all the meat pushed through and there was no bullet, I felt I had done something wrong. The stink—like garbage, body odor, and seaweed—coiled deeply into the fabric of my clothes.
Every summer, my sister and I were terrified by the sight of dead trees at the base of a lake in the Cascade Mountains. The logs hung under the surface, as if on a fishing line, with one side lifted towards the surface. Coated in loose slime, they reminded us of cartoon ghost pirate ships. We tried not looking down, creating a mental map of where to not to swim. But the trees, unless we kept our eyes on them, somehow always snagged our shins.
You’re not gay; you just had a bad experience that has temporarily changed your relationship to sex, my therapist said. I frowned. The statement felt implausible to me. I think I said no. I think I argued, but I was eighteen then, so familiar with being told that what I associated with identity might actually be imposed by social pressures and, as a result, not to be trusted. My feet folded up under my body. When I was in high school, a man fell more in love with himself through our interactions. Unfortunately, I actually loved him, which complicated the aftermath of him forcing himself on me.
Two years later, he apologized for raping me. We were sitting at a diner outside town. I remember thinking it was weird that he ordered turkey. He said, I wanted the part of you only one person can have. I cherished this confession. It shielded me from panic, from self-deprecation. Whenever those memories resurfaced, I held them within a wrong, flattering context. I would think: what happened happened because he loved me beyond his moral limits.
I never asked my mother what parallels she drew between identifying as a lesbian and choosing to be a nun. When she said this to me, I thought the comparison was funny, and I regret that I left it there, never asking her about it. Maybe at my age she was queer herself and felt joining a covenant was her only option. More than that, I think, because of my mother’s strength, she was trying to say she had also considered how to take agency over her experiences with trauma. As if by becoming the thing that shattered and determined so much of her childhood, she could not experience the same pain.
But, as I assume would also have been the case for her if my mother had become a nun, my queerness has not protected me. If anything, it introduces me to other, complicated forms of sexual violence. I still try daily not to connect my sexual identity with rape. The joy I experience in my queerness has always felt like an expression of agency independent from but connected to all of the other parts of me.
In 2015, J and other students studied the rings and chemical components of their own cookie at the university. After, the bark was covered in resin and set in a lobby between labs and classrooms. At this point, she’d met every member of my extended family. For months, I heard many of them dodge the subject of our relationship, or reflexively refer to her as my friend. It always hurt, but I learned many ways of rationalizing and finding patience for this. When the local newspaper took a photo of her and another woman crouched beside this famous disk of wood, it gave my relatives local status. They began proudly calling her my partner, even when I wasn’t present. For the rural community they lived in, finding this preserved tree was a notable historic event.
In the last conversation I had with my grandfather, he said he hoped, before he passed, to see me walk down an aisle wearing a white dress. We were eating smoked salmon on crackers, leaned against a wall in their kitchen. I went home angry. I knew him meeting my partner at the time—a straight man—signaled that queerness had been a phase for me. Of course, he could have also been trying to say that he hoped to see me settled and happy, regardless of who I was with. Maybe he understood, even if he couldn’t articulate it, that my identity was fluid, not changing.
Every year after the successful bulbs are dug up, swans drop to tear the remaining roots and worms from each turned field in Mount Vernon. Their breasts coated in grey sludge, the birds honk like trombones, jogging awkwardly before taking off.
I don’t know who in my family knows that I am a survivor. That, weeks after it happened, he asked me to meet him at Taneum Creek. A place between our houses. The place where I got my name, where I was conceived. This is how I was raped twice by the same person: I pulled my car beside his in a parking lot, hoping he would say he loved me. The problem with a name is like the problem of metaphor. When subjects conflate, they can eclipse each other. He followed me home after I pushed him out of my car, his headlights filling the rearview mirror. I didn’t feel like a victim; I felt like a representation of rape. An insect coiled at the center of who I was, surrounding itself with a grassy webbing.
A friend calls and asks how I define queer memory. Not memories of queerness, she clarifies, I mean queer memory. The leaves of a houseplant like four fingers on her screen. I am skeptical of assigning the word “queer” to anything outside identity, but where do we categorize memory? At this point, on this day, my brain wants to conflate queerness and trauma, and does so while I scrape around for an answer to her question. When I think of traumatic memory, I think of events that are difficult to access or relive because of how attached they’ve become in my mind with other things. A nonsensical layering where objects, people, places become synonymous with assault. Like traumatic memory, queer memory is memory that resists linearity, building instead on interconnection that opposes a traditional view of time.
Queerness and surviving assault are both parts of myself I’ve felt forced to bury for the sake of the people in my life. I can chart where they’ve spilled into each other, like when J said she worried she was a stepping stone in my recovery process after assault, as if once I stopped having panic attacks I would revert back to dating men. Now, after I was so recently engaged to a man, my queerness feels concealed. I don’t know how to show it; it is still one of the most important parts of who I am.
In Bow, one slab of the pickled tree has been cut and sanded into a small table. It stands at the center of a gallery, collecting window light. The wood is soft and easily scratched. The rings run tiredly off its sides, like ridges in beach sand. A fossil. A body. A message from a recovered life. I cannot fathom that I am allowed to touch it with my bare hands, remembering how we ran out of napkins eating our breakfast at a busy restaurant down the street. I feel remorse in this proximity, as if being faced by my own perception of what it means to honor something.
Rumpus original art by Teresa M. Beatty.