I was a child and already I could tell my dad was not paying attention the way he should. It was as if he had forgotten that living things grew. He forgot with my older brothers, lanky-limbed with pants that grew too short, leaving their bony ankles exposed. He forgot with me, my little girl body moving toward a brink of change that no one would explain to me. He just kept rubbing the top of my head as if I were still a small girl, toddling around at the height of his knees. He forgot with the long grasses in front of our house, the overrun flower beds and the snarled bushes that snagged trash out of the air like scrabbling fingers. He forgot with the bear cub he put in the metal pen behind our house where we used to keep the dogs. My dad told my brothers and me that he had stumbled upon the bear cub while he was out in the forest hunting. He said there hadn't been no mama bear around, that the cub had been alone, abandoned. He told us we were rescuing it. I didn't know much about bears, but I could see the lie in my dad's jaw. He thought we believed his story, but we just didn't have the energy to pick it apart.
“Now I know it looks real cute, but that is a wild fucking animal,” said my dad, gesturing toward the backyard where the bear cub was bounding around inside the chain-link fence. My dad had sat my two older brothers and me down at the kitchen table. He loomed over us, his size a thing he knew he could wield.
“I don't want any of you going near that bear, you understand?”
My brothers and I nodded furiously.
“I want to hear you say it,” said my dad.
“We won't go near the bear,” my brothers and I mumbled over the top of one another.
My dad shook his head. “One at a time.” He pointed at Adam, the oldest.
“I won't go near the bear, I swear,” said Adam, hands raised; a surrender and an oath at the same time. Michael repeated the same words.
“Lily?” My dad looked at me.
“I won't go near the bear.” My eyes were wide and woolen.
My house sat right on the border of Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. There wasn’t much around; a Dollar General, a restaurant someone was running out of their house, a gas station/tackle and bait shop that also sold fireworks. I have heard the place I live described as “remote.” I have heard it called “the boonies,” “the sticks.” Mostly I have heard it from my mom's sister when she visited from Charleston, South Carolina. I heard her say these words when she tried to convince my mom to move, to come live in Charleston. My mom had always refused, shaking her head and smiling, saying “you don't get it. I like it here.” My mom's sister doesn't come to visit anymore, not since my mom died and my dad insisted we cover her body in flowers and burn it in the field behind our house. My mom's sister had cried and cried and tried to take me away, grabbing things from the drawers in my bedroom and pulling me by the arm to her SUV. I had been old enough to understand what was happening, but my mind had been a solid lump, everything inside me blockish and beige. My dad had roared and smashed my Aunt's car window. She hasn't come to visit us since. I feel like a coward, for not having done anything that day, for missing the moment my mom's body was consumed and the dry grass in the field around her caught fire. My brothers had tried to drag the water hose from the back of our house out into the field, but it hadn't been able to reach. They had sprayed water as far as they could, a useless arc spitting water that came nowhere near the fire. They had danced over the flames, trying to stop the spread until, finally, the oldest of my two brothers came out of the house with the fire extinguisher we kept under the kitchen sink. He told me later he was surprised by how easy it was to use. When my dad saw what had become of my mom's funeral, he swung his hand like a rope, knocking my brother to the ground. I had never seen so much grief in one body.
It was several months later, when the spring air was starting to grow thick with summer heat, that my dad came home with the bear cub. I could see the bear in its cage from my bedroom window. I could watch it move in circles around its tiny enclosure. I could hear its pathetic cries, like the screeching of a bird. My dad reinforced the chain-link fence with metal bars that he sunk into the ground and secured with rebar. From my bedroom window I watched my dad feed the bear scraps of meat. He held his body near the bear cage. He looked at the bear as he if were trying to tell it something, like he was trying to make the bear understand that he was the man who had put the bear in the cage. My dad would hold the meat in his fist, ground beef from the Wal-Mart that was thirty-three miles away. He would hold the meat long enough to make the bear press against the side of the cage. Then my dad would toss the meat on the ground like it was something he hated. I knew something was going on between my dad and the bear, but I’ll admit I did not know what.
Despite the promise we had made to my dad, my brothers and I slipped into the backyard when my dad went to work. We glanced nervously at each other and at the bear. The bear was sitting back, watching us with pooling black eyes. He had tufted black ears that looked too big for his head and a light brown nose that twitched at us. We stood back, nervous despite the metal fence between us and the bear. Adam picked up a small stone and tossed it in the bear's direction. It bounced off the ground near the bear. The bear sniffed the air and pushed itself forward onto its paws. It moved toward us, stopping when it came against the metal cage. It sniffed again and made an aching cry, mewling like a baby.
“Who do you think it would eat first?” Adam asked.
Michael laughed. “He'd eat Lily for sure.”
“He would not,” I cried. “He wouldn't eat any of us.”
“He'd eat Dad,” said Adam, a thread in the tone of his voice pulling too tight.
Michael and I were silent. Between us there was a shared, shameful knowledge; a common instinct that something about this was not quite right, was in fact so wrong it made our guts wring.
“Should we give him a name?” I asked.
Adam and Michael remained silent. Adam was looking down at the ground, the toe of his shoe rolling a stone around in the dirt. Michael was rubbing the back of his neck, a familiar tick of unease.
“Come on,” said Adam. “Let's go back inside.”
My eyes remained trained on the bear. The bear was padding the perimeter of the small enclosure. I thought he probably wanted to get out. He didn’t know it wasn’t safe.
The bear grew, from a cub to almost full-grown size in just a couple months. The cage may have been strong enough to hold a cub, but as the bear grew, it pressed against the sides of the cage, bending the chain-link fence, knocking the metal bars loose from where they had been sunk into the ground. I watched the bear from my bedroom window. I watched the fence sagging and felt an understanding of something so deep in my veins I hadn’t considered it before. I sent my thoughts out my bedroom window, across the patchy backyard, through the bars of the cage. Me too, I thought.
I would speak to the bear sometimes, a whisper that fogged the window glass. “I think maybe I should have gone with my aunt,” I said. The bear paced the dirt of the cage and drank water from the bucket my dad had put in the cage. “I wish my mom was here,” I said. “I wish my dad had died instead.” The bear sat with his dark fur pressed against the sides of the cage, the linked metal of the fence pressing into the fur like a cookie cutter into dough.
As the summer moved toward autumn, I felt that the bear was a kind of friend, not quite a pet, but something like that. I was feeling a lot of things, emotions no one was willing to explain or listen to. My dad spent long days working construction. My brothers, thick as thieves, were caught up in their own adventures, and I would wake in the mornings to an empty house with dirty dishes stacked on the kitchen counter. I went out to the bear’s cage often. I had read in a book that bears liked berries, so when the blackberries ripened, I picked handfuls and passed them through the cage to the bear. Sometimes I sat and spoke to the bear, other times, I simply enjoyed the feeling of companionship. Near the end of August, I stepped into the backyard where the bear lolled on the ground. It was a hot day and there was no shade in the cage. The bear had already tripled in size since my dad had brought him home.
“Hello, Mr. bear,” I said. I took a couple steps closer and stopped. I had bought a carton of strawberries from a fruit stand that a woman down the road set up every summer in her front yard.
“I brought you strawberries,” I told the bear. I held up the carton of berries. “They look like good ones.” They did, rich and glistening red.
The bear recognized me and lifted his body up off the ground. He moved toward me, making a low grunting noise.
“I thought you might like something new,” I told the bear. The bear's nose twitch and sniffed. I stepped closer to the cage and tossed one of the strawberries up and over the top of the enclosure. The berry landed in the dirt. The bear ate the berry, like a pup eating food that has been dropped on a kitchen floor, desperately. I tossed another. Then another. Suddenly, with no warning, the bear pushed itself onto his hind legs, unfolding, doubling in size. He lifted his head, his paws reached forward, their curved claws ripping the air. He roared. It was a sound I had not heard before and I stumbled backward; strawberries dropped onto the ground. The bear barreled toward me, swiping at the cage, a rage in his black eyes. For a moment, I believed the bear would knock the fencing down, push the whole cage aside and eat me whole. I thought how angry my dad would be when he came home to find me dead by the bear cage. After I had promised him and everything. The bear bellowed a low cry and dropped back down to all fours. He stared at me with eyes that felt both dangerously wild and unbearably human. I felt like crying and I didn't know why. My heart was beating furiously, a shot of adrenaline coursing through me. I could not, in that moment, extricate my sorrow from my fear. I felt both, as an overwhelming pressure in the back of my throat, bubbling up from a deep hole I had not realized existed.
“I don't know why he put you in here,” I said to the bear. I stared at the bear. He had dropped back onto the ground, pressed against the dirt, tired. I knew if I wanted to, I could let him out. The cage was held closed by a padlock, but I knew if I looked around I could find the key. My eyes were blurred with tears as I gathered up the strawberries that had fallen in the dirt and took them inside. I struggled to breathe as I pushed the strawberries to the bottom of the trashcan in the kitchen.
When I came home from school, on one of the first days I had to wear jeans that fall, the bear was gone. I felt a cave in my stomach, hollowed and burrowing deeper. I hurried outside to the cage. The door was open, the lock undone and dropped in the dirt. I pulled at the cage door, letting it swing open with a metal rattle. I stepped into the pen. The ground inside was heavily trampled and packed hard. There were distinct claw marks marring the dirt near the edges of the cage. I heard the rattle of a truck pulling into the driveway of the house and I hurried out of the fenced area and through the backdoor into the house. I closed myself in my bedroom and pressed my face into my pillow. I could think of no words that could make sense of the pit in my gut. It seemed to have hit me then, so unexpectedly it was as though the thought had never occurred to me before, my mom was never coming back.
Three weeks later, a park ranger from Daniel Boone National Forest knocked on our door. When I pulled the door open, I felt immediate panic at the beige button-down shirt tucked into pressed slacks, the large brimmed hat, the pinned-on name badge, gold with the ranger's name etched in black.
“Hello, is your father home?” the ranger asked me. I could tell the ranger knew our family, knew my mom was dead, knew I only had my dad left. I could tell just by the way he was looking at me.
I shook my head. “He's working.” It was a lie and I didn't know why I told it.
“About what time will he back?” the ranger asked. I could see the ranger's eyes looking past me into the house. I became acutely aware of how messy the house was, how it must look to a stranger.
I shrugged at the ranger. “Most likely around dinner time.”
The ranger nodded. “Okay, okay. About what time you folks eat dinner?” He was smiling at me and I realized I did not like it.
“Yeah?” The ranger hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants, a move I believed he must have seen in a television show. “What's it depend on?”
“What time my dad gets home.” It took energy to keep my eyes on the ranger. I wanted to look away. I didn't.
The ranger took me in for a moment, then chuckled. “Alright, okay.” He nodded and smiled, amused. “Lemme ask you something else.” The ranger crossed his arms. “You know anything about a bear around in this area?”
I had not expected this question. It shocked me, and I knew the ranger could see all of this on my face. I pulled it in quickly, but not quickly enough. A small smile crept onto the ranger's face.
“We have bears in these parts all the time,” I said.
“Right,” said the ranger. “We sure do, but I'm talking about a black bear that's real friendly?”
The ranger watched me closely. “Might even beg for food, kinda like a dog.”
“I don't know about any bear like that. My dad says bears are dangerous and that I shouldn't go near them.” I was not sure why I was lying to the ranger. It was an instinct, an instinct I was not sure I understood, but that I was sure was right.
The ranger sucked the inside of his cheek. He was frustrated. “There's a bear in Daniel Boone that's been approaching picnickers, begging for food. Highly unusual behavior for a bear, ya know?”
I stared at the ranger. I did not speak.
“Bears only act like that when they've been fed by humans before,” continued the ranger. “They learn, they get trained.”
The ranger watched me. The silence was syrup-thick and blinding me with discomfort.
“I haven't fed any bears,” I said. “Like I said, I don't know about it.”
“Sure,” the ranger sighed. “Well, let your dad know I came by. I'll come by another time when he's here. Maybe I can talk to him then.”
I started to close the door.
“You know,” said the ranger, “we'll have to shoot the bear. Can't have a bear like that, coming up to people while they're picnicking and all. Like you said, bears are dangerous. Have a nice day.” The ranger turned and sauntered away from my house toward his park-issued vehicle. For a moment, I was frozen, then I slammed the door.
When my dad came home, I waited until he had finished one beer before I mentioned the ranger.
“He was asking about the bear, Dad,” I said.
“Why was he asking about the bear?” My dad was settled in a large brown chair, holding his second beer. He looked tired.
“The bear's been begging for food from people on picnics,” I explained. “The ranger's going to shoot him.”
“I don't understand what the big deal is,” said my dad. “I helped that bear. We rehabilitated it. It's the safest bear in Daniel Boone.”
“But is it illegal to – uh – rehabilitate a bear like that?” I asked.
“Illegal?” My dad let out a snorting sound of indignation. He didn't answer my question. My dad leaned his head back and drank his beer. I quietly left the room, knowing that I would doubt whatever my dad said; I did not trust him. I went to the backyard, to the sad sagging fence that had held the bear. I kicked at the padlock in the dirt and thought, maybe the cage was better.