BUY THE BOOK
I’m behind the barn, splitting burn wood, when I see the bear coming for our daughter. It’s December, dusk. At my back: high piles of cut rounds. Out in the field: the bucked trees stacked, their drag marks dark in all the snow, the pines looking almost black beyond. And between their trunks: a patch of true black moving. Everything else is still—the stone wall, the glass green- house, the sledding hill behind our home, packed hard by the weight of my wife and daughter gone down run after run— except a spot of orange: Orly in her snowsuit. Rolling snow boulders. Down by the old stone wall at the edge of the woods. Beneath the splitter’s rumble, the shaking of the pine boughs is a silent ripple washing steadily towards her.
For a second I can feel her in my hands—the heft of her when I first pick her up, my arms strained with her struggling— and then it’s just the log again and Orly is out there, suddenly standing straight up, staring into the trees. Her hands are bare—she will not suffer gloves, shucks mittens as soon as she thinks she’s out of sight—her fingers stained so bright by markers I can see them slowly curling towards her palms. She takes a snowsuit-stiffened step. Another. The first time we zipped her into the hunter’s camouflage, I crouched down, winked. Hey bub, I said, get me a beer, eh? Bess laughed. But Orly only asked, Who’s Bub? And when I poked her bright orange belly with a wriggly finger, my wife said Ev, the way I knew meant stop.
I shout it now—Stop!—I must—Orly!—because she goes still at the wall, small hands on the stones, standing on tiptoe, peering over. But in my ears there is no echo of my voice, only the thudding from the hog stall, the chugging of the splitter waiting for me to load another round. Move, I tell myself, run, can feel her grabbed away into my hug, her warmth close as I shush her, Bess glancing up, seeing us through the kitchen window . . . And I am grateful for the near dark that hides me still standing here. Loading the log. Cranking down the handle. There is something hypnotic about watching hydraulics work, the steel ram pushing the round, the first touch of the wedge, the slow cracking open of such a solid thing, and, anyway, it’s only a black bear, probably already gone.
They show up every spring, shaggy from sleep, coats loose on shoulder bones. Our first year here in these New England hills, one night at the almost end of winter, we stood at the bed- room window, watching them. Two cubs digging at the compost pile, jerking back from pawed puffs of heat, shaking their heads, pouncing on the fleeting steam. I looked at Bess—just that fall we’d faced it: my surety that I didn’t want to threaten what we had by having kids; her struggle with what it meant then to stay in love with me—but she was smiling, her laugh its own puff on the window. Wrapped in the comforter, we watched them play and play, as if they’d discovered a game that could keep them happy indefinitely. By summer we’d built a better compost bin but there were the blueberry bushes, the beehives, the scent of Bess and me so fresh from sex the grass was still imprinted on our skin. Once, in the orchard, lying beneath last apples beneath a late October sky, I looked at Bess above me—her cloud of curly hair barely held back, the loosed strands swinging to her rocking hips, the lighter brown of a face impossible to look at without thinking of the sun, those breasts she mostly hid from its brightness, but not from me, paler still, still perfect—and saw, not more than twenty feet behind her, that unmistakable shuffling shape. We leapt up, ready with hand claps, shouts, but it was already wheeling, as if shocked into flight by the sight of our naked selves. Winter would find us naked again, out in the greenhouse, beneath our marriage lights. Nine years ago we’d strung them up, three thousand tiny bulbs glittering above us as our guests watched us exchange our vows. Now, each Yule season, we light them again. Each solstice night we step back in, spread out our sheepskins beneath a galaxy of our own stars. Then, sweaty, steaming, we burst back out, whooping at the wild- ness of running naked through thigh-high snow, at the nearing woodstove warmth, the feeling that we’ve escaped the darkness for another year. Of course, by then, the bears are gone, curled up in caves, safely away.
Except for this one: a large black bear standing in the twi- light, hardly ten feet from Orly. They stand so still, staring at each other, that when I move to lift away the log’s split halves it seems a breaking of some understanding. The pieces clatter onto the cordwood. The bear doesn’t inch. Orly doesn’t look at me. And I can feel it: the fear that she will. If I could see myself I would be shouting at me to do what anyone would do, what, as I reach for another round, I am aware I am not doing, am wondering, instead, what the bear will do, what Orly . . . For a moment, I think she’s singing to it. Which could be true. Kids like her can have a way with animals the rest of us won’t ever understand. I listen for her voice, a hum in my ears.
Orly. It was Bess who chose her name—Oralee, Hebrew for “my light”—but it was me who shortened it. And Bess? I don’t know what her name means. Nor Evan, not more than that it’s Welsh. Once, we considered renaming each other, trading in our parents’ choices for the language of this land where we’d become ourselves. I chose for her Wanee-mbee-shkwa: Good Water Woman. And she for me: Nawasnaneekan. It means “my light,” too.
All the seasons grown together, all the water, the sun, every- thing taken from the soil over all those years, all starting to rip apart: that is what a piece of wood sounds like when it splits.
Somehow through it I hear the screaming, see the lunge, the blackness blurred, the spot of orange scrambling backwards in a burst of snow exploding with the back door’s blast of yellow light, Bess flashing through it, the frantic form of my wife running. And before the hatchet is in my hand I know that hers are empty, know, as I start running, too, that this animal—which should not be here, which should be hibernating beneath the earth somewhere—will turn from its small prey to the larger threat, charge my wife instead.
Then I am there, our daughter screaming somewhere behind me, Bess holding her, and in front of me only the bear. The gleam of its lips, the wetness of its nose, the flecks of snow like spittle stuck in its muzzle hairs. I can see its breath, sense the nostrils flaring behind the steam, feel in its eyes—too dark, too small, too buried in the blackness of too huge a head for me to make them out—its fear. Its confusion. Or maybe that is my own. Because the world is coming back around the bear, the snow and the woods and the nearly nighttime sky, and I realize its shape is receding, though it takes me another second to understand that means it’s backing away. Another few steps and it turns—how huge its shoulders, how beautiful the rippling fur like water over a boulder in a creek—and leaps the stone wall, crashes into the pines, disappears.
It’s only then that I can look behind me. Already Bess is halfway up the hill. Orly in her arms. My wife’s back, her thin shirt: she hadn’t even put on a jacket. Above her shoulder there is the pale spot of our daughter’s face. Below, something I think at first must be a ash of snow kicked up by Bess’s boots. But it is her flesh, her feet. She’s barefoot. Something about that makes me want to cry.
What is it about a sick animal? What is it in us that can sense it? That knows when something has come uncoupled from its nature, gone somehow wrong? When I turn back to the woods, night is waiting beneath the trees, too dark to see what might be watching back. But I can feel it. I can feel its stare.
THE AGE OF PERPETUAL LIGHT
the opening of the short story
“The Point of Roughness”