In a Bear's Eye
Artwork by Tom Thomson
She heard the bear. It hooted like an owl, only lower, sounding like an owl far down in a well or in a cave. She looked out the window. There it was, in the field above the pond on its hind legs. It shook the apples from the apple tree. Her boy did not look up at the bear in the field. He was by the pond. The bear was not so close but neither was he far away. If the bear had wanted to, the bear could run to the boy and the bear could be on her boy in no time at all, in the time it took an apple to fall from the branch and onto the field.
She ran outside with her gun.
Her boy had brown hair that over summer had turned almost blond. In the light of the setting sun she imagined how her boy’s hair would look golden, how when he moved about, as he never kept still, how the color of his hair would surely catch anyone’s eye, even a bear’s.
When she was a girl she wanted her hair to turn that color. She cut lemon wedges and folded them around the strands of hair and pulled down on the lemon wedges, all the way to the ends. She would then lie down and bathe in the sun. She spread her hair out behind her on the towel. The strands were sticky. There was lemon pulp clinging to them in places. Bees flew close to her hair. The color stayed a light brown.
The gun was heavier than she had remembered. There was probably some muscle in her arm that was once stronger when she had carried the gun with her husband through the woods. They had hunted grouse every season. Now the muscle was weak. To get to her boy she knew that she would have to first crouch behind the rock wall and then, like a soldier, she would have to run and hide behind trees. She would have to be in some way like a snake. Serpentine, her pattern. Isn’t that what a soldier would say? Serpentine, she would have to run down the line of trees that bordered the field for a few hundred feet. She did not think she could do it. She would eventually be seen. The bear would stop shaking the apple tree and look around, sniffing the air. The bear might come at her.
Her husband was the one who always shot the grouse. He was a good shot. She always aimed too high. Her husband, while she was aiming, would put his hand on top of her gun, to lower it down, but still she never shot a grouse.
The boy took some small rocks from the pond’s shoreline. He stood up and threw them into the water.
“Sit down,” she said out loud in a whisper that didn’t sound to her like her own voice.
The boy was not doing well in school. He liked to read during class. Beneath the desk he would hold an open book. A book about beavers or silk moths or spiders. The teacher sent him home with notes for his mother. The notes said the boy must pay attention. Her boy would sometimes read to her from his books while they ate dinner. There were things she had never learned as a girl. A silkworm female moth is born without a mouth. It does not live long enough to eat. It only lives long enough to mate and lay its eggs before it dies. Her boy would stop and show her the pictures. She would shake her head. She was amazed at how much she had never learned as a girl her boy’s age. Was she just too busy squeezing lemon wedges onto her hair? Her boy never said he was sad that his father, her husband, had died. But she knew he was sad. Her husband was like a book that could talk. At the dinner table he would tell their boy about science and math. He talked about zero. “Zero scared the ancients,” her husband said. “No one wanted to believe that there could be nothing.”
He walked into the ocean one day and he did not stop walking. She liked to think he was still walking under the water. Skates stirred up sand and rose to the surface as he walked by them. Water entered his shirt cuffs and his shirt back ballooned. She and her boy sometimes talked about it. Her boy said how the hair on his head must be floating up and wavering like the long leaves of sea plants. Her boy said how his father must be reaching out to the puffer fish, wanting to see them change into prickly balls. His father must be touching everything as he walks, the craggy sides of mouths of caves where groupers lurk and roll their eyes, the white gilled undersides of manta rays casting shadow clouds above him. “My father must be in China by now,” the boy said to his mother.
China because after he had died and the boy and the mother cleared out the father’s drawers, they found a travel brochure for China. They had no idea the father was interested in going to China, but the worlds “See the wall” were written on the outside of the brochure.
The mother now saw how the sun was going behind the hillside. Its last rays hit the black steel of her gun and it hit the very top of her boy’s hair before it sunk down. The bear was finished. It had knocked almost all the apples to the ground. He began to eat them. The mother thought how the boy would be safe now, the bear would eat and then leave and she would not have to run closer to the bear, going from tree to tree, looking for a shot she would probably miss because her husband was not there to put his hand on her gun, pushing down, keeping her from aiming too high.
Not long ago the boy’s teacher had come to see her. She held open the screen door for the teacher and told her to come in. They sat in the kitchen and the teacher asked the boy if she could speak with his mother alone. The boy nodded and slid a book off the kitchen table and left the room. The mother could hear the boy walk up the stairs and close the door to his room.
“Your boy is a smart boy,” the teacher said. “The death of his father must have come as a shock. But still,” the teacher said, “there is school.”
She looked into her refrigerator to offer the teacher something. There wasn’t much. She hadn’t been to the store in days. She opened the bottom bin and found two lemons. She took them out and put them on the table where they rolled for a moment. The mother got her wooden chopping board and placed the lemons on it and cut each lemon in four. She pushed the chopping board toward the teacher. “Please, have some.”
The teacher did not say anything. After a while the teacher said, “I’m sorry. I’ll come back another day to talk about your son.” When the teacher left, the mother went upstairs to her boy. He was reading a book about spiders. Together they lay on his bed and looked at the pictures.
She would take her boy on a trip. They would go to China. They would see the wall. They would look for signs of him. She had yet to tell the teacher how her boy would miss days of school, even weeks.
Now, at the pond, the boy thought he would try it. He walked in slowly. The brown water filled his tennis shoes. It was cold. The boy knew from his books that beavers had flaps of skin behind their front teeth. They could shut the flaps when underwater, sealing the water out of their mouths and lungs. When the water came above the boy’s eyes and finally over his head, the boy imagined he had these flaps. He opened his eyes underwater. The darkness was like four walls all around him. Maybe he could reach out and touch them.
The bear stopped eating. It sniffed the air and lifted its head. It went toward the pond. When it walked it looked like a man who was sauntering. She did not know before how bears hooted like owls, how they sauntered like men. She followed it. She did not run from tree to tree. She ran in a straight line. “No, no, you’ll never shoot anything running at it like that,” she could hear her husband say. Where was her boy? Where was her husband?
She saw ripples in the pond where her boy had gone in and then she noticed that the bear was looking at her. Its upper lip was curled. It had white on its chest, the shape of a diamond, but not perfect, a diamond being stretched, a diamond melting. She let the gun drop. She ran fast through the milkweed. The butterflies flew ahead of her. She ran past the bear. She dove into the water on top of the ripples made by her boy. She wanted to save him. She wanted to tell him he did not have to drown. She swam down, wishing she could call to him underwater, wishing she could see through the black silt. She had not taken a breath before she went down and she could not believe she did not need one. She thought for a moment how everyone must be wrong, there was no need to hold your breath underwater. She now knew it. She thought her boy knew it too. They had both found out a secret. She could stop thrashing about in the water now, looking for her boy. He would come up and out when he was ready. When she came to the surface she realized the pond was shallow. She was standing with the water only coming to her hip.
Her boy was on the other side of the pond. He was sitting on a large flat rock on the shore. He was holding something in his hand. The bear was watching them, his lip no longer curled. She walked to her boy while still in the water. It dragged her shirt sleeves and her pant legs behind her. She moved her hair away from her eyes.
The boy had mud in his hand that he had scooped from the bottom of the pond.
“What’s that?” she said.
“Maybe some gold,” the boy said, moving the mud around and poking at it in his palm.
“Look over there,” the mother said, pointing to the bear. The bear turned and sauntered away.
“Yes,” said her boy. “I saw him ages ago. He likes the apples from our apple tree.”
That night she told the boy that maybe they had better not go on their trip to China after all. There was school to think about. The boy nodded. “All right,” he said.
She thought how she missed her husband. She thought how she would now miss him the way other women must miss their dead husbands. She would wear his shirts. Isn’t that what other women did? They took long walks and thought about their husbands and when they sweat the smell that came up to them was not the smell of themselves but the smell of their dead men?
Yannick Murphy is the author of the novels The Sea of Trees, Here They Come, and Signed, Mata Hari, the collections Stories in Another Language and In A Bear’s Eye, and three children’s picture books. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in The Quarterly, Epoch, The Antioch Review, AGNI, one story, Conjunctions, McSweeney’s and the New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and three children in Vermont. This story was originally published in McSweeny’s No.18 in 2007 and reprinted with the permission of the author.