The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 2


by Charlotte Bacon


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 together.”
      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 it.
     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 rather disappointed.
     “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 and cheek.
     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 easily.
     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 way.
     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 softly.



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 shamed.
     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 disappointment.
     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 disorders.
     “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 child.
      “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 bear.
     “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 said.
     “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 brochure.
     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 plumbing?”
     “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.  Z