Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Old Woman and the Bear

The Old Woman and the Bear

The bear walked into the old woman’s kitchen. It nosed aside her screen and padded in. The click of its claws reminded her of her first dog, the big one, but then she’d been so small herself. Scamp? No, Rascal. With his wet grin and the droughty look to his fur. He was strong enough to pull her across the scrubbed boards of the kitchen. She’d grasp the root of his tail and he’d pull her. In her little cart with the metal wheels. Underfoot. She was surprised at the memory—more surprised than at the bear. At her age, meeting an unexpected memory was more surprising than encountering anything new. There was just so much you could take in. She was old. She was full up, as she often declared. There was just so much you could take in. Rascal. The big one. But then she’d been so small herself. Three or so. Or so. A lovely memory. Startling.
So at first she was unsurprised by a kitchen full of bear.
At first.

The woman loved her life fiercely, without knowing it, as people do. Then she saw the bear, and her blood bolted, and she knew. She dropped her vitamin pill on the table, she tried to push back her chair.

The bear loved its life fiercely, and didn’t have to know anything. It was a bear. It knew the woman, or would soon.

Drought in the hills. In the city below the mesa, people drank coffee beside latched screen doors and tutted comfortably at the bald patches on their lawns. Eventually more water always came from somewhere. In the meantime, the old animals emerged, you read about it in the papers, animals you didn’t quite believe in really, bears and mountain cats and other improbabilities of the staved-off wilderness, looking for water, coming down the mountainsides and surprising cyclists, hikers, backyard barbecuers. “Nature Encroaches”, the headline said. Not quite, thought the old woman, reading the headline through the damp coffee ring she’d left on the paper. Rather, we are like the mountain that comes to Mohammed. The animals aren’t encroaching on us. We are gobbling up the space between. We have eaten it all up.

Behind her, she heard the click of claws on her kitchen floor and was flooded by sense of herself at three or so, trundling behind her first dog. Rascal. The big one. In the cart with wheels. Crossing the vast space of the kitchen floor, board by board, and dust in the cracks and the click of claws. Gobbled all up, she thought, feeling both herself in a limp nightgown drinking coffee and the small legs itching from the starched dress in the seat of the wagon, pulled across the gaps in the boards, a lovely memory, instant and unreachable, hitching across the spaces that held her apart; her and the lives she’d led and the people she’d been, all the space between her and other people, between her and the things of the world, all the space between me and them and you and it, all the space between us, who has eaten it? Gobbled all up. The space between.

What space between? Says the nose of the bear, pressing a wet brand on her bare arm.

The facts are simple:
The woman was old.
The bear was hungry.

Her skin hung lean and spotted.
The bear’s skin sagged over its ribs.

The woman dropped her last vitamin capsule. Her blood bolted. She tried to push back her chair. An irrelevant beam of sunlight shafted through the fallen pill: a yellow eye on the tabletop. And the yellow eyes of the bear took in her nightgown, dotted swiss, pimpled with pink berries, her salmon bedroom slippers. The bear nuzzled her ear.
And hears her heart gasping like a fish.


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