She pressed her forehead against the cold kitchen window, looking though her own reflection into the back yard. The baby was finally quiet after she’d nursed him down for the third time. Although he’d begun sleeping longer stretches, she wasn’t able to sleep through the night anymore. The baby’s schedule—plus her husband’s wildly unpredictable comings and goings—had revived her childhood insomnia, and she’d been drifting numbly through the days, nights, weeks. Her mind was greyed, edges blurred with fatigue. As she stood in the silent kitchen she imagined herself adrift in a glass bubble where just she and the bear existed.
She’d been waiting for two weeks, and now here it was: the bear had returned, and this time it seemed to have a message. It had materialized nimbly out of the neighbor’s hillside. One moment she was looking at a shadowy hummock, the next it hulked magically out of the darkness and snuffed towards the lighted house. It was facing the back door and looking right at her. She stared into the bear’s small unreadable eyes, wondering what was about to happen.
It was the same bear as before, she was almost certain, but this time its cubs were nowhere to be seen. Last time she’d been waiting up in the wee hours for her husband to come home and had watched as the bear knocked over their large trash cans and tore open the plastic bags, rooting for food and dragging garbage across the driveway and lawn. Despite the mess, she’d been struck by the bear’s heavy beauty, its focused attention to the acquisition of their refuse. The cubs hung back in the shadows, waiting for their odorous food scraps. By the time her husband got home and crashed drunkenly up the stairs, the bears were gone. Her husband had wet the bed that night. She didn’t mention the bears to him.
Before her husband woke the next morning, she’d begun cleaning up the backyard with the baby strapped to her back. It had been then, while picking bits of their trash out of the lawn, that she’d found them: the empty painkiller bottle in the dirt by the lemon tree and something she abruptly recognized as a syringe, which was half hidden in a shallow gopher hole. Neither were hers. Certain realizations began to claw up from her subconscious.
Tonight, though, the bear wasn’t interested in garbage. Its stillness was transmitting something else through the sharp night air. Recognition and fear were flowing through her as she stood motionless in the kitchen, manifesting in her body as heightened awareness of her body—cold hands and feet, stinging nipples, aching lower back. The discordant harmonics of her bodily awareness were tugging her reluctant mind awake.
The sheer physical effort of mothering-love, which her husband willfully downplayed and had never fully experienced, was, she realized, tearing her to shreds. Her body had labored to bring her child into the world and had been laboring to keep him alive ever since. Exhaustion and its attendant emotional anesthetization was the price she paid for his comfort. The bear suddenly shook its head as if to shoo away an unwanted thought. A phrase from Wittgenstein that she’d read twenty years back came to her mind: If a lion could talk, we would not understand him. Something about context. The bear’s physical presence felt like context enough.
Slowly she reached for the doorknob and pulled open the back door. As she did, the bear suddenly lay down and put its head on its paws, like it was in a fairy tale and had been tamed. It was deep night, and the foothills were quiet but for crickets and the occasional coyote song. Wildfires in the far distance cast a chthonic glow above the mountain line. She eased past the door frame, down one concrete step and then another, until she was close enough to the bear to smell its hot ripe odor. She wondered if it could smell her milk.
Breathing quietly and rapidly she sat down on the rough ground, close enough to see the wet of the bear’s snout. She kept her eyes locked on its shining brown eyes, as though an unbroken gaze would maintain the tense and enigmatic connection between them. If it chose to attack her, there would be no way to save herself. Her body ached and throbbed. Things had to change; she knew it. Above them was a fingernail moon that cast no shadows. She was no longer able to turn away from it all. The truth was right in front of her.
CHLOE COVENTRY — Chloe is a writer and musician living in the hills above Los Angeles. She studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College before getting a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA. Her essays and poems have appeared in various places, including Bright Flash Literary Review, the Journal for Creative Communications, and The Whiskey Blot, among others.
Art by JACQUELINE STAIKOS — Jacqueline is a largely self taught contemporary artist living in Quinte West, Ontario. She has exhibited her work in several Ontario galleries including shows in Toronto, Kingston and in New York City. Her creative process involves working with inks, acrylics, oils and mixed media. She is currently working out of her home studio in Trenton, Ontario. More of her art can be viewed on her website, jstaikos.org or on Instagram as jstaikosart.