Before the sun went down Daddy became a bear and ran away over the ice floes.
I didn’t see him go. I stood in the doorway and I looked out at the sun hovering close to the horizon, the sky like a huge milky half-closed eye. I pulled the blanket closer around my shoulders and I tried to will myself to cry but nothing came. It seemed like something I should do, cry for a daddy who’s gone and who left us without saying any kind of goodbye, but instead I took a breath of air so cold it ached in my lungs, turned around and went back into the house, closed the door behind me and went to the kitchen and stared at the last of our powdered eggs.
In the next room, Carol stared crying. It was a weak little sound. It made me think of the wind trying to get in through the old weather stripping on the windows. I sat down at our tiny table and I looked down at my hands like they might make more sense than the eggs, the cracks in my knuckles, the backs all raw and red.
I have no hair on my hands. Never have. Isn’t that something?
You think you might be able to see signs that your daddy is becoming a bear. You live with him through a winter of night and a summer of day and another, and you think you know him, but you don’t know that he’ll be a bear one day and run away from you, big paws padding over the ice and snow. You watch him dine on seal meat, and maybe he likes it very, very rare, rare enough to be bleeding, but for some reason you don’t think there’s anything abnormal about that. You hold Carol on your knee and feed her hydrated dehydrated mashed potatoes and you tell her stories about Mama and her face and hair and eyes and the way she’d laugh until Daddy slams his fist against the table and tells you to stop.
You used to think about walking away, about running but you stayed, because someone had to, because someone had to be human, because you thought there might still be some love buried deep down with the rot, and finally because you hated, because hate binds tight and cold as chains.
I say you’d do these things because I did and I swear you would too. In my place. In my place you might do all sorts of things you’d never believe you were capable of. Never is not a real thing. You would. I’m telling you, you would.
Carol lies on her back and waves her fists, but she looks like she’s struggling against something instead of fighting it. Like she’s losing. The light comes in so thin, the way it will be for the next four months when it’s here at all. I look down at Carol in her tiny crib, and I think about what things were like before Daddy was a bear and Mama was still breathing and walking around. Carol used to be a fighter. She fought her way out of Mama’s belly is what Daddy always said. She was like a boxer from the moment she was born, her fists up, shielding her head. Little Carol came out swinging.
Little Carol is down for the count.
I lift her in my arms and she feels so light. I hold her against my shoulder and I carry her back to the kitchen. I lay her down on the table and I go to the hotplate with my powdered eggs, and I get some water and I stay here and I do what I have to do.
Daddy never claimed we could live on canned food and dry everything but I think he really did sort of believe it when he dragged us up here. Daddy never explained his logic, maybe because he thought it was self-evident. And it was, I guess. I mean, I could understand it, with my gut even if I couldn’t get it with my head.
I found Mama, her face all blue inside the plastic. There was vomit crusted on her lips. She pissed the bed. Death is so fucking ugly, I said later to no one in particular. I never really thought it could be so ugly. Something that ugly spreads like cancer, like the cancer that was eating her from the inside out. The ugly death that got her was already inside, her, or at least I think that’s how she felt, and all that happened was she picked the time and the way it showed up. But once it wasn’t inside her anymore, it spread out and infected the rest of the world. Mama gave the whole damn world a cancer.
Mama had her cancer when Carol was born but Carol came out the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Carol came out clean.
After, Daddy said he was tired of all the damn heat. Said he wanted a change.
Everything anyone does has a logic to it. That’s something I know. So I don’t ask why. It’s a pointless question. When and how are much better. Mama answered those. Daddy became a bear and he answered them too. I haven’t decided how I’m going to deal with them on my own.
Carol doesn’t eat the eggs. She cries, spits them up when I try to push them into her mouth with the spoon. A week ago we ran out of formula. A week and a half ago the gas in the snowmobile was gone. I don’t even know how—it was just gone. If there’s a logic to that I haven’t found it yet, but Daddy always said that sometimes shit just happens.
Daddy didn’t say it about the formula or the snowmobile, but I could tell he was thinking it. Daddy, Daddy, just tell me we’re going to be all right.
Daddy says I won’t lie to you, Susan.
Fuck you, Daddy. Just fuck you. Daddy, we can’t all be bears, can we?
I can’t do it anymore, said the note Mama left. That was all. She didn’t say what she couldn’t do. She didn’t say why she couldn’t do it. That was her logic, her reason. She did what she did because for her there weren’t any options left.
She left. She busted loose the chains, the cage, got free. I wanted to envy her, later. I didn’t know how. I still don’t.
The sun goes behind the horizon again and Carol is whimpering now, and I like that she’s quieter and I feel guilty for liking it because I know it’s because she doesn’t have the energy for those normal, full-voice cries. I put her in the basket Mama wove for her, sitting in the sun room all those spring afternoons, and I look at her and the painting on the wall that I did for eighth grade art class. I won an award. It’s ugly, too. Mama liked it and since she did what she did I’ve stayed up nights wondering why.
It’s a landscape. It’s wide and open and the sun is shining, and there are rolling hills and wide fields below the hills and a little bunch of trees on the right. The perspective is fucked up, but not as bad as you might think an eighth grader would do. The grass and the trees are green and cheerful. The clouds are done pretty well—I was always most proud of the clouds. I hung it up here in the little closet that passes for our living room because it was something that was a window to what we had before all the ice and the months of night. I always got the sense that it bothered Daddy but he was nice enough to not tell me to take it down.
But it’s ugly. It’s ugly because it’s impossible so it's a kind of taunt. I can't go there. I don’t think that place ever really existed.
I reach down and I lay a hand on Carol’s chest, feel it rise and fall. Feel the flutter of her heart, like the rapid-fire of a scared little hamster. I don’t take my eyes off the painting, and in the shadow thrown by the trees I’m suddenly sure I can see a bear crouched, looking out at me with black holes for eyes.
I could tell Mama didn’t want Carol. She never said it, but I could tell that she wasn’t happy along with her surprise. She spent weeks making that basket, but to me it felt like she was arguing with something. Like she was making it to prove a point. She would sit in the sun room and Daddy would sit in the den and they wouldn’t talk to each other.
Not talking to someone like that isn’t just not doing something. It’s doing the not-doing. There’s just as much behind it as there would be if they were screaming in each other’s faces. I didn’t get that while it was happening, but before Daddy became a bear that’s what we were doing to each other a lot of the time.
Daddy, maybe if you had just talked to her.
Daddy, I really tried to not resent you. But now you’re a fucking bear. How exactly am I supposed to feel about everything?
I could sing to Carol. I pull her into my lap and I do, soft and gentle, like I remember Mama doing for me. Thing is, I remember Daddy doing it too. They both sang, and sometimes it was a duet, and before I could even talk I remember it was so beautiful that I cried. A baby, crying not because she’s hungry or tired or because she’s shat herself but because something hurts in her heart.
We shouldn’t be able to feel those things before we have the words for them.
Hush little baby, I sing. Daddy’s here, Mama's here, Mama’s not dead and Daddy’s not a bear. The sun will come up and the ice will melt and we’ll have flowers again. And food. We’ll have so much food, you’ll eat until you’re sick and you’ll eat some more.
Carol shivers against me and closes her eyes. Her thumb finds its way between her lips.
Lies are the only things in the world that aren’t ugly.
You have to be strong, is what Daddy said after the funeral. He sat me down on the porch and he looked very serious, but all I could think was that I hadn’t seen him cry, and I didn’t believe anything he said at the funeral about love or losing it, and now I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was saying these things because they made sense to say but not because he really felt them.
I’m counting on you, Susan.
In the house, in the front room behind the screen door, Carol started crying. Daddy looked up and then I did see the tears in his eyes, and they weren’t fake, and I felt sorry. Just for a moment Daddy looked sadder than I had ever seen him. More than sad; Daddy looked lost, lost and like something was chasing him. Something with fur and claws and teeth.
She’s gone, Daddy whispered. Oh, God, she’s really gone, isn’t she? How does that even happen?
I said, Don’t you know? And as soon as I said it, I knew it was just about the least useful thing I could have said. But it was too late, and for a moment Daddy was twice as big in his black funeral suit, and fuzzy at the edges, like for a fraction of a fraction of a second he wasn’t quite real.
I got up and went in to Carol. Someone was counting on me. Maybe it was Daddy and maybe it wasn’t.
I don’t think Daddy is counting on me anymore.
I was so happy about Carol. I always wanted a sister. I was going to do sister things with her, and I was going to have someone to tell my secrets to. I was going to have an ally, someone to watch my back. I was going to watch hers. Her little fingers and toes and brown fuzz-hair and her red, scrunched-up face were so completely perfect.
I was the only one who was happy about Carol. It didn’t really bother me, not then. As long as someone was.
So Carol dies.
So that happens.
I think about Daddy as a bear. I think about him loping across the snow, across the moonlit ice. In my mind, Daddy isn’t a polar bear—which would make a lot of sense up here—but a grizzly, huge and shaggy and brown. Daddy has long, lethal claws that can scrape pits in the ice. Daddy can rear up on his hind legs and blot out the sky. Daddy has teeth and with them he gnaws at the world.
Daddy never sleeps.
I think about Daddy’s fur, how it might be soft, the only part of him that is anymore. I think about curling my hands into it, gripping big, thick tufts, climbing up onto his massive shoulders and letting him carry me into the dark. Just me, all alone. I think about Daddy roaring at the moon, everything that he came up here to freeze into silence bursting at last out of his hot, stinking throat.
How do I know Daddy is a bear? How do you know anything? I look back on everything that’s happened up until now and really it’s the only thing that makes sense.
Carol’s little body is getting cold. I hold it to my chest and I rock her gently, humming a song that I know I’m fucking up because I barely remember it anymore. Songs are for my dreams; music gives Daddy a headache. Or it did. Since we got here, no music at all, except low under my breath with Carol close to me, singing it in her little ear on just a whisper.
Carol is so small; somehow she feels smaller than when she was born. The thing that ate Mama followed us here and ate her too. Carol’s death is just as ugly in its way, but here in the dimness with her head on my arm, she looks like she’s sleeping. A little. I’ve heard people say that about dead people but it’s never true, is it? A dead person is just a thing. You can tell just by looking.
I can’t think of Carol as a thing. I just can’t do that.
I can't do it anymore.
I get up. I’m still wearing my parka—it’s got to be less than forty degrees in here by now. I pull up my hood with one hand, fumble for my gloves with Carol still held tight in my other arm. Somehow I get them on without laying her down, and I find a blanket to wrap her up in, keep her for a little while from the cold. I think, there are some things that are just completely pointless and you do them anyway. It’s not even a matter of habit. It’s a matter of doing the things you did when you were sure you were alive.
So I walk outside and the moon is rising. I’m walking away but I’m still not leaving. In my arms, Carol is a little bundle of carved ice. I sing to her and the wind, soft and mournful, sings back.
So at least someone is sorry.
Daddy, you were always a bear. You were always furry and wild and you never liked walls, so of course when you put us inside walls so close together you couldn’t stay inside yourself anymore, you burst out, you had to run. I don’t even really blame you for it. You’re just what you are, Daddy, and so is everyone. But I am what I am, and I don’t have your fur. You never gave that to me, and you sure as hell didn’t give it to Carol, who’s stiffer and stiffer in my arms as I walk, up to my knees in snow.
Daddy, I have a knife on my belt. I think about cutting your throat with it, skinning you to make a blanket that I can wrap around Carol and me. All stinking with blood and the sweat of a bear. All stinking with being kept inside a tight bare skin for way too long.
Daddy, before they took Mama away on the gurney I swear I saw claw marks under the scarf around her neck.
I stop when the moon is high. The wind is picking up now, not just those little whispers and sighs but a full-on scream, like Carol used to do when she was so hungry and no one was picking her up, like I used to do with my face pressed into my pillow, screaming until my face ached with it. Right now I’m quiet, and I let all that noise settle between my ears, and for some reason it actually calms everything down. Ahead of me there’s a little rise but there aren’t any trees that I can see, the wind kicking the loose snow up into a mist, giving the moon a halo with the faintest kind of rainbow shimmer.
Top of the world, Mama. I thought that over and over on the drive up here, running on a loop through my brain like a song. Top of the world to you, Mama, you pile of charcoal and ashes. Top of the world to you, Carol, you stiff little ice cube. I’d hold up your fist and declare you a winner anyway, except I have a feeling that your arm would snap off in my hand. Top of the fucking world to you, Daddy, you bear. You coward and you bear.
You just couldn’t keep it in, could you. You just couldn’t stay in your cage.
Seated in the snow, I watch Daddy come over the ice floes.
He pads along on all fours like he weighs nothing. Even far away I see his fur ripple as he moves, its gloss in the moonlight, the snow on the wind making him look like the idea of a bear rather than the real thing. Daddy comes back, and I hope for some kind of apology, holding my dead sister in my arms, but I don’t really expect to get one, because when have bears ever apologized for anything?
Bears are bears. And I’m me. And Mama and Carol are still dead, and it’s just us now, according to this big hard logic that carves lines through the world and divides you up like a fifth grader dissecting a frog. Cuts you up and catalogs.
Daddy ran out of options and then he ran away.
But now he comes back.
I stand just before he reaches me. His eyes are pits in his head and he snorts, shakes his muzzle, lets out a growl that sounds a lot more like a groan. Like he’s in pain. I stand and I stare back at him, and I hold Carol out to him like a present. Take her, you bastard, I say. Take her like you never could, not you or Mama. Take her and let this be over.
He snuffles at her. Curls back his lips. Moving so carefully, teeth shining yellow, he closes his jaws around her tiny body, tips his head back, swallows her without chewing. Swallows her whole, undamaged. Gentle. I watch this happen and at last I feel like I can cry, like it’s my choice.
But I still choose not to. I could have walked away. I choose not to do that, either. I've been making that choice, over and over. It's become my logic. Maybe I never could have chosen anything else.
Daddy shakes himself again and looks at me. His eyes should shine like his teeth, but they don’t. When Daddy wore his human skin, his eyes shone, because it was all the bear packed into him and looking out of the world. But now the bear is all there is. There’s nothing to shine. He’s all stretched out, inflated, empty inside like a balloon.
Daddy rears up onto his hind legs. I raise my head, but I don’t turn. I don’t run. Whatever else happened or didn’t happened, no one ever hurt me with hands, and I don’t think anyone will hurt me with claws now. Daddy, I know why you came up here, but why did you bring us? You got rid of Carol in the end. Did that feel good? Are you relieved? What were your plans for me?
Did you have any?
I still think maybe I could have left. Instead I’m here. Just you and me, finally a chance for some quality time. It’s become a matter of some kind of principle because that’s literally the only thing I’ve got left.
Daddy sways, growls again, and drops back to his forepaws with a hard whuff. He noses at me, and his nose is cold and wet and vaguely silky and it feels like the hide of a seal.
You didn’t even give me a way home, I say, clenching my hands in the fur of his face. Curling my fingers around his teeth, pulling his jaw open. Even if I tried to go, you didn’t even let me have a road. What the hell do I do with all this snow?
He tosses his head back. I have to look at him for a few minutes before I understand.
Daddy, you drained the snowmobile. You broke through yourself, ran away, but you made yourself come back. You took away the roads, the light, but you made yourself come back. I don’t know if you meant for Carol to die and I don’t think it matters because either way I don’t think I could ever forgive you. I don’t know if you meant for Mama to die but I almost don’t care anymore. Daddy, you’ve always been a bear, and you’ve always been too big for your skin, singing things you hated in the end, looking at children too small and weak to be yours. But bears can love, even if it’s a love with teeth and claws, and even if you’re a coward you’re still something to ride.
Bears can’t feel mercy. That’s not what this is, and you can’t fix anything. So carry me back down, Daddy, now that we're done. Take me back to the lights, back to heat and life, leave me there and be what you are. Be a bear. Let me not be.
Daddy’s coat is warm and soft under my cheek. He bobs up and down as he walks, and it’s like being rocked to sleep. I remember Carol in my arms, so warm and safe, and even more than that, I remember Daddy holding me, singing his growling bear-songs, trying to love me in the terrible way an animal can.
We never knew how to love each other, Daddy. Maybe someday we learn how to let each other go.
Carol is warm in his belly as he carries me—carries both of us—toward the horizon. Toward what's left of the road. To our left the sun is inching up, giving us a little light for a few hours. It’s precious. For the moment it’s the three of us again, moving out of the night.
Daddy, we can’t all be bears, and I have no fur to cover me. But there’s a logic in why it's okay to leave at last. Death is so ugly and beauty is a lie, but the dawn is beautiful, and this is a lie I can tell myself for now.