It was an August gone wrong with rain when the bear discovered
Madeline. Her husband, Bill, had persuaded her to camp in Baxter State Park,
despite both the mosquito haze the wet summer had spawned and Madeline’s
distress, which was not traceable to any particular cause, but had settled on
her like a gritty skin of pollen since the spring.
“All right,” she’d cried one night late in
July, smacking the screen door closed. “I’ll go, I’ll
go.” Later, in the kitchen, she heard happy bangs and thumps from the
attic that meant he was unearthing packs, tarps, the dangerous stove. Bill, to
whom she’d been married twenty-nine years, believed that the tent and its
odor of mildew could make them simpler people. As if a stone knuckling the small
of your back and chili stewed in a blackened pot could reacquaint you with a
firmer version of yourself. Dried fruit. Dirty hair. Bites like pink rivets
dotting your ankles. Camping was meant to jar your thick, suburban blood. Make
you grimly happy.
Now, crouched by the fire, Madeline looked at a ripple in her
coffee. An earwig was paddling there; it took a bit of doing to fish him out.
“Bill, there was an earwig in my coffee,” she told him, but Bill was
not listening, buttoned as he was inside his camping self. It fit her husband
compactly, a role that reduced him to tight, literal gestures: the gathering of
brush, the sweeping of the tent. “Bill, there’s an earwig on your
neck,” she told him, which was true, but he didn’t hear that either.
He was nudging the fire to life again, even though the day would likely heat to
eighty. A branch glowed red then snapped and fell into the soft base of ash. He
gave one of his backwoods sighs, beleaguered but content. He was wearing his old
boots, worn smooth at the toes, the leather shiny from exposure. Talismanic,
they made him forget that he had a house outside Boston with knotty plumbing and
cracked patio tiles. That he had to live there with her, whom he’d been
finding frozen at the kitchen table, unable to stop staring at cooling,
mud-colored coffee, even on dewy April mornings. That he worried more than
strictly necessary about his bank’s allocation of offices, plum accounts.
Madeline understood this about him, the way she understood that he did not like
to be teased about his dimming vision and freckling skin. She understood him
with the blend of patience, boredom, and affection that can stand for love in
long marriages. The earwig crawled past the collar of his shirt. He did not
appear to sense it.
“Drink up, Madeline.” He stood and dusted his
palms on his khakis. They were supposed to climb the Sugar Bush Loop today. The
hike’s obstacles—boulders and sweat, insects and thirst—were
supposed to help her shake free of those bad mornings in the kitchen. Instead,
the dripping woods only made her want to crawl inside her sleeping bag.
“You go,” she told her husband. “I’m tired today.”
“Really?” he said, attempting, she knew, to mask
the relief in his voice. It was trying to live with a despondent person,
especially when sunny briskness was the usual mode of the house. Despondency sat
badly on her, Madeline knew. Like a slipcover of the wrong fabric, a slipcover
with crooked seams.
“Sure,” she answered, although she was wondering,
not for the first time, if her unhappiness had an organic cause. Against the
wishes of her stronger self, she heard herself saying, “Maybe I have
leukemia.” She knew as she made this comment, releasing her flat worry to
their vacation and the wide state of Maine, that he would not answer. She knew,
too, he was right not to. It was an unworthy thought and one that, until
recently, she never would have had the gall to speak aloud. How could she dare
when her life was so essentially blessed? “I’ll clean,” she
told him, to punish herself for morbid preoccupation. “Get your things
Bill peered at her through the veil of smoke.
“Really?” he said again, already edging toward his day pack.
“Yes,” said Madeline. “Go.” She
wasn’t quite sure if she meant this, but they were in the blunt mood of
the forest. Words would not cast shadows today. As her husband filled his
canteen, Madeline poked the fire, chilled despite the rising heat. She listed,
as she often did, the ways in which good fortune had nudged her life. The list
started with Ben and Caroline, their children, both of them healthy, confident,
well-muscled. They had apartments that bristled with sports gear, fridges loaded
with blue bottles of spring water. Their rebellions had extended only to a
dainty tattoo of a bumblebee and a pierced nose. Now they lived in sleek,
prosperous cities on the West Coast where they held jobs that involved streams
of information and well-cut clothes. Stockings masked the bee; the nose hole had
healed. The kids had cheerfully unhooked themselves from home, too busy for more
than phone chats or rapid visits at Thanksgiving, all of which seemed to
indicate she’d been a successful mother.
There was the house—a Queen Anne that Madeline had
lovingly returned to burnished glory—whose value had recently quintupled:
a couple of years ago, their suburb started providing benefits to children with
special needs, and parents of the autistic, handicapped, and wheelchair-bound
flocked there. Scaffolding decorated malls and restaurants as doors were widened
and ramps attached to stores on Main Street. Signs regulating the range of dogs
and skateboards began to appear at curbs. The parents were people attuned to the
infringement of rights, as if strict applications of the law might balance out
their children’s misfortunes.
Madeline met these people at the library, the third item on
the list, the job she loved. She was on the staff at a small Catholic college
whose students were mostly thin girls studying to become veterinary technicians
and occupational therapists. She’d been a student there herself, returning
for library science when her daughter had gone to boarding school. It was good
work for her: the help she offered was cool in nature, the library’s
resources traceable and rather easily unearthed. Disturbance there meant someone
had stolen that month’s copy of Vanity Fair or tramped dirt into
Special Collections. But since the influx of special children, the mood and
temperature had shifted. It became common to see parents riffling through court
records; ordering obscure legal and medical journals; hogging the CD-ROMs. The
more desperate—their coats unbuttoned, their glasses smudged—came to
take notes about experimental treatments for epilepsy, cleft palates, cortexes
incorrectly wired. Hunched in carrels, they would often forget to feed the
meters where their minivans were parked. They paid no attention to the tickets
they collected: Madeline saw them ball the yellow slips in their fists and shove
them in their bags, eyes trained somewhere else entirely.
She thought now about these men and women, about her easy
life, and about Bill. He couldn’t help it, she thought, as she watched him
stow his supplies. He needed to believe that the sausage and water, the raisins
and knife nested in their proper spots would fill all his needs for the day and
Madeline envied him the crisp edges of his desires. His way of turning off a
tangled thought, as if it were no more than a leaky faucet. She had been so good
at that herself, but somewhere in the past six months, her brisk competence had
stopped pleasing her: her tidy purse, her calm job, the polishing of her living
room’s wide floorboards. Black spots drifted in ugly clumps in front of
her eyes, though the ophthalmologist told her she was fine. “But they look
like frog eggs, nests of frog eggs,” she said, sitting in the
uncomfortable chair and waving her hands. He sighed a little sharply and
switched on the light. “You’re fine,” he said again, as if
talking to someone a bit hard of hearing. But she knew she wasn’t.
Otherwise, she wouldn’t find herself bolt upright in bed after dreams
filled with car wrecks and burning forests, her nightgown twisted around her
body as Bill slept soundly on. Or searching through the refrigerator and pantry
for one food, anything, that didn’t sit stale on her tongue.
“I’ll be back around four,” her husband told
her, as the padded straps of the pack settled on his shoulders.
“Enjoy yourself,” Madeline said, suddenly
uncertain if she should stay. Ought she not push herself harder? There was still
the chance that if she moved, if she put down the mugs and went to fetch her own
pack, she could join him. But he was already on his way toward the trail, boots
crunching leaves and snapping branches. He walked around a bend, a stand of fir
hid him, and he was gone.
Madeline sat back down at the fire, which she would not feed
again. She knew then why she hadn’t gone with Bill. For all that his
settled ways bothered her these days, she knew she’d been using him to
stay moored in the daily: bulbs of garlic, quarts of milk, snow tires, and
taxes. At this phase of sadness, she was going to have to wrestle herself back
to the world without him to prompt her. It was that which pushed her upright
again. The sky was darkening. Bill would be pleased. He liked the mild adversity
of drizzle while hiking. The birds, brash at dawn, had stilled.
Quiet that is not quiet, Madeline thought, holding the
breakfast dishes, readying herself for the trip to the water’s edge. In
the crook of her arm, she held the mugs and the cutlery, linked together on a
small loop of metal. It felt good to rise, to feel her knees unlock. She would
take a walk herself this morning, a bird book in hand. She even felt a blush of
appreciation for her husband spread through her. And then she smelled
Astonishing how distinct it was. Astonishing how she knew what
it was before she’d even seen it, just at a time when she had thought her
senses were dulling. Ripe. That was the word she found, later. Mashed berries.
Smoke. Sweat. Crushed pine. Leaf mold. And that was just the top layer of its
smell. Whole countries of odor lived inside it. She turned, dropping everything
in a clang, and faced the bear.
It stood across the fire from her, its coat a dark, spiked
black. Its nose could have belonged to a Lab, pebbled and lined in just the same
way. It was a nose in motion, too, gathering in her presence, size, degree of
menace. Madeline realized that it was absolutely calm. Nothing that the bear
saw, smelled, or heard caused it any consternation. The pod of their tent. Her
boots propped against the white pine. Certainly not the quivering, middle-aged
woman three feet away.
It also struck Madeline, whose ears pounded with blood, that
it was huge. A late-summer bear, dense with fat in preparation for its long
rest. Below the matted coat, that extra layer rippled as steadily as a pond
disturbed by a fish. Its eyes were wedged like large raisins in its wide brow,
and it swung its massive head like a censer in a church, as if it wanted
Madeline to smell it as well. As if it were giving her a chance to assess it,
too, for threat and trouble. It licked its lips. Later, Bill would say to her,
“Bears don’t have lips,” and Madeline would say, “You
weren’t there. You didn’t see them.” The fire’s smoke
had died. Embers flared in the pit. She saw that its tongue was like sandpaper,
barbed, and slightly coated. She saw the teeth, peaked like the mountains
children draw, perfectly triangular. As sharp as the ones in cartoons.
Years before, she and Bill had taken the children camping in
Glacier Park, where grizzlies had killed the occasional hiker. They’d
decided against taking a gun, but had learned a range of tricks to ward off
bears. Bells they’d fastened to their packs. Songs with loud choruses to
warn the animals that they were coming. Bill and Madeline had even schooled the
children in poses for various combinations of bears: a solo male, a sow with
cubs. There was an elaborate group of gestures they had practiced in parking
lots and restaurants between Massachusetts and Montana. But they saw no bears,
nor any other wildlife besides the distant cross of a hawk and a few marmots.
The weather had been pleasant, the wildflowers abundant. They had all been
“Why am I thinking of that now?” Madeline asked,
surprising herself by speaking aloud. The bear tipped its felted ears toward
her, as if it were about to answer back. There were different protocols for
black and brown bears, she remembered that. Sometimes you stood as tall as you
could and yelled. Sometimes you ran for the nearest tree and shinnied up it.
Sometimes you rolled in a ball and covered your face. Sometimes you turned your
back and walked slowly away. A whole language of bear. An entire code for
avoiding contact with that mouth, those claws.
Because they were huge. She glanced at the ones in front. Dull
and long. Curved as tightly as small bows. Nestled between tufts of fur.
“Bear,” Madeline said, “bear, I won’t hurt you.”
The bear took a step forward, craning its head. Its great fat traveled with it,
a fraction of a second later. She could not remember if speech soothed or
angered the animals.
It appeared to attract this one, who stepped neatly to the
side of the fire and came straight toward her. Madeline backed away, her arms
pressed straight in front of her, palms up. In spite of herself, in spite of the
effect her voice had on the creature, she kept talking. “I know,”
she said, “I know I’m a spoiled woman. I’m sorry. I will
change my ways. I will be better.” The bear, as if wanting to hear more,
kept ambling toward her. No, it was lumbering, the word always used to describe
bears, but it was true, it did lumber, yet it was graceful in the way something
can be when it is not aware of itself. Shapely and smooth in a way the cameras
for the nature shows had flattened with their earnest narration, the cramped
range of their shots. Then the bear stood and it was the most beautiful and
awful thing that Madeline had ever seen.
It’s a she, Madeline thought, the tough nubs of the
bear’s nipples like tan buttons down her belly. Why Madeline didn’t
run then, why she paused to see that the bear was female, she would never
understand. Why, when her entire body thrummed with the most complete fear she
had ever known, did she stay rooted to the center of the campsite, facing the
bear and its waving paws?
But she did. She stood there as the bear swayed toward her,
its belly fur paler, softer-looking than the pelt on its back. She stood there
even as the great paws planted themselves on her shoulders and she began to
crumple under the creature’s generous weight. Even as the tongue came
toward her face and in a rasping sweep licked the skin that covered her temple
The bear pressed her to the earth and pinned her there against
a rock much like the one that had poked into her back the night before. Except
that this time, the rock was in her shoulder blade and the bear’s body
ground her into it. That was all she felt at first, apart from the rapid
clamping of her pulse. Then the bear shifted, almost as if it knew that Madeline
was uncomfortable, reapportioning its bulk so that her ribs weren’t
crushed. So that she could breathe. So her fear could spread more
The terror swept everything else from its path. Worry,
despair, gloom, all gone: just bright and raging fear that this animal would
take her head like an acorn in its wide, casual jaws and snap her skull to
pieces. She did not want to die. It surprised her to feel this.
“Bear,” she told it, “I do not want to die.” It looked
at her, the ears pivoting toward her again. It raised its head.
Then she felt it breathe—the slow pull of air into its
lungs. It licked her face again, the other side now, and she smelled its
fantastically terrible breath. Old meat, swamp, frogs, she did not want to know
the history of its hunger. A low sound rose from its broad throat and she felt
the vibration travel through her body. A sound humans never made. A feeling past
what humans knew. An expression of how things were in the world, how
they’d always been. A tired sound.
Then the bear lowered its head, one ear near Madeline’s
eye, its snout nuzzled nearly into her neck. The cold enamel of its teeth
pressed against the pleats and freckles of her skin. She sipped in air. She
heard her voice say “God” four times. She felt the steady drum of
the bear’s pulse deep in her own chest. She saw that the ear nearest her
was tattered like an old flag. A tick had swelled on an open patch. The bear
groaned again, more quietly, its heart still pounding in its slow and worldly
So they lay there, the bear thick and warm, shifting a bit
from moment to moment. Once again, it licked her face with the patience and care
of a cat tending its young. And then, slowly, it rose. She heard the creak of
its bones, the joints settling. She felt the ribs stretch and then release. One
paw at a time, it eased itself up and for a moment it stood, the low, furred
cathedral of its belly over her face, the leathery nipples barely visible in the
dimness, before it walked past her. It bent to sniff the cutlery she’d
dropped that sat inches from her outstretched hand. She saw, from the farthest
corner of her vision, that it nudged at her boots. Then, as suddenly as Bill had
traveled out of view, the bear, too, disappeared into the woods. But
Later, on the way home, Bill driving, Madeline tried to
explain. The hot pressure. The musk of the fur. The pressure of the teeth. The
unbelievable smell. The ranger to whom she’d told the story clearly
thought she was exaggerating, if not making it up. Bill stood rather
shamefacedly next to her, riffling through trail maps. “Bill,”
Madeline said to the windshield, listening to the creak of the wipers, “I
thought I was going to die. But I also didn’t want it to stop.” It
was unlike her to talk this way to her husband, to be quite so agitated and
fervent. When they were young, they’d adopted wryness as the defining tone
at home, skirting anything too intimate or windy. Lovemaking had always been a
quiet affair, accomplished in the dark—affectionate but slightly
Bill drove on, mouth tight and small. He would have been
doubly angry if she’d shifted the conversation to sex or marriage or other
famously inconvenient topics with which her mind was suddenly bubbling. She felt
penitent for a moment, remembering she’d cut their vacation short.
He’d also had to intervene to prevent an awkward moment with the ranger,
as Madeline hadn’t wanted to stop describing the nipples, the breath, the
moan. And at another level, she sensed that he was slightly jealous: he was the
exemplar of forest craft, he was the one who knew the Kabuki of bears, but
he’d missed it all. It was Madeline, fraught and cranky Madeline, who
found camping dirty and inconvenient, who’d had the grand moment. It was
hard to take. “I’m sorry,” she said, flicking a pine needle
from his thigh. “We can go to the beach the rest of the week. No bears.
I’ll make the reservations.” Bill looked pleased and stopped
frowning. They stopped briefly at home to exchange gear. They rented a room in
Wellfleet, where it rained three days in a row. They read mysteries, ate clams,
and did not talk of animals or woods. They talked, Madeline realized, about
little at all, which came less as a surprise than, suddenly, keenly, as a
In part, she wanted to keep describing the experience. She
could still excite a shiver in her chest with the memory of the teeth, the sigh.
Her daughter said, “Do a vision quest, Mom,” just before she told
her mother she had to catch another call. “Caroline?” Madeline asked
before she realized she was speaking into dead air, “aren’t vision
quests for Native Americans? What is one, exactly, anyway? And Caroline? Are you
seeing anyone? Anyone you really like?” Frieda, a fellow librarian, said
that women often made strange alliances with animals when they were just about
to enter menopause. “Oh for God’s sakes, Frieda,” Madeline
said, dropping a stack of freshly processed loans.
What no one understood or wanted to listen to was how the
encounter had chased away the despair. Not gradually, not in small, even paces,
nudged along by affirmations, exercise, and medication, but in a swoop. The
achingly open sky that came after hurricanes, stripping the air of moisture so
you could see just how complete the damage was. Then one September day at the
car wash, Madeline found herself telling the story to the attendant, a louche
young man named Karl. When she saw that Karl dove into his copy of Popular
Mechanics and flicked his cigarette butt hard into the ashtray, when she
realized he was embarrassed for her, that’s when she told herself to get
it together. Do what you do well, Madeline, she thought. She knuckled into
familiar industry: scrubbing floors, folding linen, responding to letters that
had sat for months on her desk. Bill was pleased with this development; he no
longer had to enter the kitchen to find her staring dully out the window, on the
brink of being late for work. She could cook her lovely soups. She played some
tennis. She acquired the right sort of middle-aged sheen again: plush,
well-read, sufficiently traveled.
Yet what Madeline couldn’t tell Bill, Caroline, or
Frieda was that not only had the bear chased off the despair, it had created
room for another unfamiliar emotion. Suddenly, she felt woken for a purpose,
though what it was remained clouded to her. It was just that there was something
that she needed to do. She could feel it, quivering in her gut. A yearning for
action that the waxing of parquet could no longer satisfy. One night in October,
after years of estrangement from what had always been a diluted Episcopalian
practice, she found herself saying tentative prayers to the Virgin Mary, of all
people. She even appeared with a few fluttery angels around her halo and then
she smiled. To Madeline’s relief, she left quickly, but it seemed enough
of a visitation to encourage looking for signs and information about what came
next. Several weeks into this vigil, Bill, as usual a large, dense wall of man,
was next to her in bed. He turned and said, “Madeline, are you
praying?” She hadn’t realized she was whispering audibly.
“Well, what if I am?” she said, propping herself
up on her pillow. Apart from the bear, there hadn’t been any signs since
August. They’d just put the storm windows in and she heard a passing flock
of geese, muffled through two layers of glass. Regular migrations, regular
chores. Nothing she could sift for import.
“Out loud?” Bill asked. A pause followed. A lone
goose flew past, honking excitedly, trying, Madeline thought, to catch up.
“Do you feel all right?”
“Fine, Bill, I’m fine,” she said. The
goose’s voice faded. Bill went back to sleep, though she might have told
him, had he pressed, that, thanks to the bear, she now examined strange
formations of cirrus. Or that the number of crows in the oak tree excited a
desire to determine a pattern where there almost certainly was none. But he
hadn’t continued asking. He never had. Madeline turned on her side to face
the window and keep praying, but without moving her lips.
A few days before Thanksgiving, the delivery boy tossed The
New York Times on their stoop instead of The Globe. Not much as signs
went, Madeline thought, but she’d become so witchily alert for portent,
she decided to seize on it. She canceled their subscription to the Boston paper.
She began watching the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She wondered what had
happened to MacNeill. It had been that long since she’d let toxic spills
and viral plagues and the chaos they implied occupy so much of her mind.
Bill became less pleased with her, again. Her conversation was
so much spikier now. Was it too much to ask to contemplate only solvable
troubles like arranging repairs for the roof? He even complained openly, for
once. He stood in the twilit kitchen, in his snug suit, his sparse hair awry and
she heard him say, “Madeline, could we just have a quiet supper? Could you
just cook it for us?” Then he added, “Aren’t you only working
part-time?” and she thought, Good Lord, I have slept with this man for
twenty-nine years. After Thanksgiving—which the kids missed for the second
time in a row—she started spending more time at work.
She plunged into reorganizing the periodicals. As she did, she
watched the parents with the special children. She darted out now to insert
quarters in their meters to spare them tickets. It impressed her how bravely
they kept stepping as families into the diminishing sun. One afternoon near
Christmas, she helped a young mother snap up the snowsuit of her toddler, who
sat too still, too pale in his stroller.
“What’s his name?” asked Madeline. She had
seen the woman several times and found articles for her on rare genetic
“Jason,” the mother said. The library was about to
close. Rain was starting to fall. “It’s degenerative, what he has.
He’s going to die in a few months.” She spoke simply. She buttoned
her own coat.
Madeline knelt to hold the boy’s hand. His eyes were
blue and there was not much light inside them. She could not even tell if the
boy knew she was there. The mother joined her, taking Jason’s free hand.
“He’s been a gift,” she told Madeline, still looking at her
“I can see that,” said Madeline and helped the
woman and her son out of the library and into the storm.
She had to stop in the stacks to collect herself and right her
breathing. She noticed a book on the floor and as she reshelved Managing Your
Carbs, a woman came flying around the corner and knocked her over. It turned
out to be Penny Hartwick, a woman she knew slightly. They went to the same
dentist, had seen each other at holiday parties. Divorced and in charge now of a
successful chain of stores that sold cards, candles, and droopy earrings, Penny
was a woman with shaggy gray-brown hair and a penchant for hand-loomed scarves.
Since the end of her marriage, she spent part of each winter in Mexico working
at a center for orphans. After she apologized for creaming Madeline, she said
she was at the library to look into sources for grant money.
Then Penny peered at Madeline, placed strong hands on her
shoulders, and said, “Hey, are you all right? Did something just, you
know, happen?” In her state, both slightly addled and wearily sad,
Madeline told her about the toddler. They stayed in the nutrition stacks for
more than an hour, talking about the vagaries of luck and being pulled too deep
into a morass of domesticity. Avoiding the world’s dark news by getting
absorbed a touch past reason in the colors they might paint a dining room.
Madeline recalled Halloweens when she’d started the kids’ costumes
in August. And where had that all gotten her now? Then, abruptly trusting Penny
might understand the crushing import of that moment, she told her about the
“You lucky woman! Don’t you see, Madeline?”
Penny breathed. “The bear has released you from all that sewing, all those
lists. The bear is about the end of fear. The return of love.” Penny was
almost shouting, she was so pleased with her reading of the encounter. A couple
of students turned to see where the noise was coming from.
“That’s possible,” said Madeline, wanting to
tell Penny to keep it down; they were in the library, after all. Even more, she
was cautious in the face of such exuberance and sorry to have exposed this
precious memory to such a predatory interpretation. Even when you wanted to
shear away some of your inhibitions, it was hard to forget all your old habits.
“Madeline,” Penny said, taking Madeline’s
hand in both of hers, “I think you need some space to think about all
this. I think it’s a good moment for some personal time,” and
suggested that Madeline come with her to the orphanage in January. Work with the
kids. Relax in the sun. Take stock, Penny said, and Madeline found herself
agreeing, even though one of the fibers from Penny’s scarf was tickling
her nose. She thought of Jason’s still eyes. The twist of fortune that had
put Penny in her path. Again, not much as far as signs went, but something at
least. It was what she had to go on, she told herself as she booked tickets and
arranged for vacation days.
It was a cold Sunday afternoon when she told Bill. He’d
been ready to head to his workshop to sort nails into mayo jars whose labels
he’d patiently soaked off. “You’re what?” he
“Going to Mexico. To do some volunteer work,” she
said. “Help children at this home.” She spoke quickly, describing
the orphanage, the day-care center, quoting directly from Penny’s
Bill squinted and pinched the bridge of his nose between his
thumb and forefinger, the way he did when he got a headache from eating ice too
fast. “Is there electricity?” he asked. “Indoor
“A little,” she said. “Accommodations are
rustic,” she said, quoting again.
“You hate outhouses, Madeline,” he said. He did
not say, though she sensed he was thinking it, “You don’t really
like other people’s kids that much, either.” Or that she
didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Or that she’d joked quite
mercilessly about Penny Hartwick and her purple shawls. She saw he wanted to say
something more. “Does this have to do with, you know...” he flapped
his hands a little, “the praying?”
“A bit, I guess,” Madeline said, noticing how
she’d left the dishes all weekend in the sink. Piled there carefully, it
was true, though still unwashed. “But not exactly. I’m sorry, I just
need to do something, Bill. Something different.” It sounded thin and
hasty to her ears, too. When he said, looking out the window at the bare yard,
“Madeline, I don’t understand you anymore at all. I really
don’t,” she had to agree with him.
When he dropped her at the airport, he said, not looking at
her, “Madeline, are you trying to leave me?” He had stocked up on
diet dinners, she’d noticed when she opened the freezer. The liquor store
had also made a substantial delivery. Small defenses, she realized now. Though
he was still staring out the window at the bustle near the skycap’s
station, she looked directly at him and said, as kindly as she could, “I
don’t exactly know.”
Not the best of notes on which to leave, and the trip
continued to offer opportunities for disappointment. In part, Penny was so
faithful in her annual visits because of her affair with the center’s
director, a man half her size and age named Dr. Gomez. No one but Penny spoke
English, but thanks to her dalliance with Dr. Gomez, she was hard to find.
Madeline found herself eating silent meals at the end of long tables. Staff
workers would smile, pass salsa, offer more food, but it got lonely nodding and
saying gracias all the time. The children were sweet, loud, and well
tended: there was almost nothing for Madeline to do. She made posters of the
alphabet, which the kids promptly tore down. She tried to weed the garden but
got bitten by a spider. She found herself wanting to talk to someone she knew
well about Penny’s drapy outfits and the shameless way she and Gomez
carried on. For some reason, it was also impossible to pray down here. Even the
Virgin Mary refused to make an appearance. Madeline spent nights listening to
giggles and moans as she tried to find a comfortable position below her mosquito
netting and read by the light of her smoky lantern. After a while, she just gave
up, and watched insects tangle their spiky legs in the mesh. She didn’t
try to make the black knots they created there mean anything at all. A bug, she
found herself thinking, is just a bug.
One afternoon, when she saw Penny saunter into Gomez’s
room she decided to head to the nearest town. She couldn’t stand the
thought of imagining their mismatched proportions one more time and she wanted,
unexpectedly, to phone Bill. To tell him what, she wasn’t sure. She
smacked a hat on her head, which had been a fine Panama until she’d left
it on a bench and a goat had tried to eat the brim. But it was all she had to
protect her from the sun, so she clamped it on and set off fuming down the road.
She marched along in the heat, becoming grimy with the dust stirred up by
passing trucks, and slowly grew calmer. She knew she must look strange—a
gringo woman wearing a beat-up hat and a sour expression on her face, refusing
rides in the cars and pickups that kindly stopped to offer assistance.
Even though no one at the center quite knew what to do with
her, they’d been terribly nice. She loved the saturated colors and light
of the dry landscape. The children were lovely. It was good to be away. She
realized then that the quivering sense of purpose had left her, the need to
grasp signs, too. In place of these sensations, she noticed, she was quite
tired. Emptied out. No more desire to plead with gods and the black specks had
faded. She slackened her pace even further as she came into town and readied
herself for the pantomime that would be involved in placing a call to the
States. She was abruptly too spent to continue, however, and stopped in the
shadow of a church whose bell tower flaked paint down to the cobbled street. It
was there below the bell that she first saw him. The honey man.
The legs of his worktable were cuffed in dust. At first,
Madeline was aware only that jars were arranged on the table—tall, clear
jars, some filled with a pale yellow, some still empty. To his left sat a barrel
of the sort used to store oil, and she saw the firm cord of his arm leaning past
its lip. He bent to dip a pitcher into the vat in a swift, easy motion and when
he stood, she saw his wrist and forearm were coated in gold, as was the pitcher
he’d plunged into the barrel. He did not see Madeline, the way people
don’t see women past a certain age, and so she watched him, unnoticed. He
tilted the full pitcher toward one of the open jars and the honey began its
short, smooth trip from one glass vessel to the other. Inside the jar, as it
rose up the sides, the honey started to pleat, to fold in on itself before
gravity tugged it smooth again. The man topped it off, let a bubble from the
golden center rise and burst. Then, while he took a lid with his clean hand to
seal the jar, he held the pitcher and his arm over the barrel, as the honey slid
in tawny drops along his fingers.
The memory of the bear returned in a vivid, unexpected rush.
She’d diluted it by telling the story over and over, but all of a sudden,
the animal came back to her in its fullness. Its weight, its odor of old leaves
and rotten deer and berries. She remembered there’d been a smell of
something in its fur she’d not been able to name. Inside the meat and
swamp of its breath, there’d been the scent of honey, of wild, powerful
sugar. The magic of grainy pollen distilled to an adhesive gold. The young man
kept filling his jars. He was so beautiful, she thought, his arm gleaming in its
translucent, flowing armor. She knew that many women would want to kiss that
full mouth and handle the curve of that hip. He projected a kind of ripe
availability that she could sense, even tired, even in her funny hat. How odd,
she thought. I see it, feel it even, but what a silly picture: me, my mashed
hat, my skinny old bottom pressed up against that handsome, sticky man. She
knew, then, a bit more what it was the bear had hoped to press from her. A bit
more tolerance for the mind’s ability to bloom in unexpectedly sweet
directions. Nothing more portentous than that. Simple really, though people
weren’t at all.
In a strange burst, Madeline envisioned something that did
make her quicken with a sort of blowsy warmth. In her mind’s eye,
imagination stirring deep at the root of her brain, an old part, devoted for a
small, fiery moment wholly to enjoyment, she imagined another scene in the
bear’s life. It was moaning in a restless sleep, dreaming of its murderous
paw ripping through a cloud of bees to grab a mound of twigged and
clover-scented heaven. Oh that’s it, yes, she thought. That’s just
it, as she straightened her disfigured hat and stepped halfway into the sun,
purely for the pleasure of the heat.