Black bear rouses from hibernation at the end of April when I summon her. She emerges from her den by the cedar grove behind my childhood home in Tower, Minnesota where as teenagers, Mac and I made love. Weary from the long winter, she heads south to the Twin Cities. She cuts through clusters of budding birches under silver moonlight and labors through swampy cattails in honeyed sunrises. She gobbles fronds, catkins, and shoots to feed her empty belly.
When black bear arrives, she dens in our attic. Before she loans me her animal body, and before I relinquish my woman body to her, she tells me to be gentle. Reminds me her claws could cut Mac so wide and deep he’d bleed to death. And we don’t want him dying. We only want him a little scared, startled enough to see me again.
In the first nights when I exchange bodies with black bear, my femininity surprises me—my musk, warm and nesting, and my hair, tended and washed, smell of moss and hollows. I admire my long blonde nose, my brunette hair. Strong in my bristly fur, I prizemy broad, flat row of molars, dainty canines.
My skin becomes fur, my nails become claws. On her advice, I start by waking him with a grunt, a snort. I pace on all fours by his dresser and stand on hind legs. He wakes, night after night, puts his hand behind his head, and watches me in black bear’s body. He looks over at black bear sleeping in woman body. Every once in a while, he seems to consider waking her, but instead closes his eyes again, not even sitting up to get a better look at my gorgeous coat.
Before I give black bear her body back each night, I let myself out the back door and sit on the lawn with my legs out in front of me. I smell the neighbor’s cat nearby and contemplate a den filled with crushed aspen leaves and birch bark. In her body, I ache for miles of empty lakeshore, white pines, and tamaracks.
I know black bear can’t go home, can’t go north again until I reach Mac. I check my claws. Look for flesh and blood under them. There is nothing, and I feel both pleased and saddened.
Many nights, after I lie in bed as a woman again and black bear sleeps in the attic, I study Mac. His lips, delicate folds—eyelids, moth wings—skin, eggshells and moonlight. I take his hand and send him what I remember of us, cross-country skiing under stars, walking amidst fireflies, fishing under a hatch of mayflies backlit by the setting sun. I pulse memories to win him back with palms instead of pads, fingers instead of claws.
Mac first tells me of his black bear dreams on a morning at the end of May. The previous night I pawed the items on top of his dresser. His watch, wallet, and Chapstick, a pen so worn from use the logo is illegible, his business card case suffering a similar fate, the silver worn to a kind of false mirror. So different from what he carried in high school and college—then his pockets held a Swiss army knife, a plastic 35 mm film case for anything breakable, a small hunk of wood for carving, and always a few bright pebbles of quartz and limestone.
After ticking my claws against the card case, I came to him in bed. I breathed hot bear breath on his shoulder and waited for him to open his eyes.
“You again,” he said and went back to sleep.
That night in the attic after I had given black bear her body back, I cried against her coarse fur. “He’s lost to me.”
She wrapped her wooly foreleg around my shoulder and patted my back with her paw.
I explained to her how years’ worth of miniature choices had led us here. How the friends we had maintained through college folded under baby pressure, and how we lost touch with couple after couple. Even with our families it became impossible to find long weekends to make the four-hour drive to Tower. Our parents came down, but we never returned the gesture. In the eleven years since we’d left, we’d easily cocooned ourselves. We hid away in our den, made a lair of our lives, and that was fine, once, because we had each other.
Black bear ran her claws through my hair, teasing out knots. I told her about the promotion. Regional Sales Director, the title I’d striven for since I closed my first deal with United Health. When I called Mac, he said he’d pick up a bottle of champagne after his dinner appointment. We’d gotten good at sharing drinks since we didn’t share meals. When he came home, he closed me in his arms, my head under his chin. We kissed long and low. We drank the champagne standing in the kitchen, filling each other in on clients and deals. Later, we made love.
I picked late buds off of thin branches I’d brought for black bear, and handed them to her. Without my own clients, I said, there was nothing left to work for. People bitched about their customers. I sent memos, set quotas, and established procedures. I wondered what the thawing lakes in Tower looked like. Wondered if robins fed on worms, if fiddleheads emerged from black, sweet muck. I cut back my hours and asked Mac to come home for dinner, but mostly he called and left messages—a design needed tweaking, a client needed soothing.
As she listened, black bear stripped bark off of branches and added it to her bedding. I admitted to her I’d considered the possibility of another woman, but there’d never been lipstick or perfume other than mine, no ticket stubs in his pockets, nothing at all but schematics and meetings and contracts. I thought of the children we didn’t have for our careers, and I wondered if they (Harry and Jean, I called them), could have saved their father.
Finished with the branches, black bear opened her arms to me, and I leaned against her chest and thick coat. I listened to her heartbeat and whispered into her fur. At home, I said, Mac looked at me but didn’t see me. I could hardly blame him because before the promotion, I hadn’t seen him either: at the office I would hear a headline, One Dead in Wreck on 94 or Minneapolis Man Shot, and I would try to remember what Mac was wearing if I had to identify him. We’d brushed our lips by our cars that morning, but I had no idea if his eyes looked tired or if he still had tucked in his wallet the pebble of granite I gave him the day he decided he would propose to me. I needed black bear to help him see me again.
Black bear rocked me until just before daybreak when she woke me, and I climbed down the rickety attic steps.
The next night, I again huff my black bear breath on Mac. This time I lay a paw on his chest and make sure to keep my claws relaxed, disengaged. He wakes and stares at me. He turns his head to look at black bear sleeping in my woman body. Under the covers, he inches his hand toward her forearm. I think he might try to wake her. Instead he closes his eyes again.
When we get back to the attic, I tell black bear scaring him a little isn’t working. She sighs and agrees. I bring her armloads of grasses, and we plan nights to come.
As Mac and I rush out the door the next morning with our travel mugs and briefcases, he says, “I think we should get a dehumidifier. I’m having the craziest dreams.” I nod and we kiss at our cars. “See you after dinner,” he says.
There were steps before black bear. I met Mac at the door in lingerie, surprised him at the office, and took him to Stella’s for ceviche and martinis. I left out an article entitled “Men’s Depression: The Hidden Epidemic”, bought herbal supplements, and suggested a visit to a doctor. When he cancelled our anniversary trip, I called black bear.
In the bedroom, I set down my glass of Pinot and said, “We need to book our campsite.” I picked up the Boundary Waters book Mac gave me for high school graduation and settled my back against the headboard. The pages felt chamois soft. Inked notes from our annual trips smudged the margins. “Our anniversary falls on a Tuesday. Should we go before or after?”
Mac didn’t reach for his calendar or open his laptop. He sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. “Maybe this year we just stick around here.”
I studied his back. His shoulders huddled forward, his neck bent, as he swirled the wine in his glass.
I sat up waiting for him to look at me. He didn’t.
He turned his neck, but not his body and said, “We’ll go all we want when we retire.”
It was nothing. Little. He’d said it before. A million times. But it was what made me do it, what made me summon black bear.
By the end of June, I stalk him. I stand on hind legs and stare at him. His eyes show deep circles. One night, I place both front paws on his chest. I growl in his face, and slowly, unhinge my claws. Each point makes dents in his flesh. His skin goose pimples, and his eyelids flutter open. I engage my claws just a bit more and puncture his skin in ten tiny pinpricks.
Enough to leave marks.
In the morning, I catch him looking at his chest in the mirror. When he sees me watching, he brushes his hand over his chest as if to wipe something away and says, “Zits.”
That night I bring black bear garbage bags full of rotting stumps and logs, and she gobbles the ant pupae living among them. She shows me a section of the attic where she snacks on box elder bugs. Tufts of her molting fur hang from rafters she uses to scratch her back.
“I’m sorry you’re here in the attic,” I say. “I know you’d rather be outside, raising cubs and splashing in streams.”
She gives me her paw. I try not to think of her milking cubs.
In the heat of summer, black bear moves to the basement. In black bear’s body I visit Mac every night, but nothing changes.
Then it’s my birthday, and Mac brings me flowers. Not blue flag irises or lobelia, not lupine or joe pye weed he picks in a marsh or field, lavish, overflowing bouquets like every year before. Instead he buys a dozen sterile roses, bound in cellophane on his way home from a six o’clock meeting he cancels when he writes the date at the top of his notes. We go to dinner. When he yawns, I ask how he’s sleeping. I ask about his dreams. He says he can’t remember them.
At the farmer’s market I buy cases of cherries, blueberries, and raspberries. Mac doesn’t notice. Black bear gorges herself. Exhausted, I nap while she eats.
We sneak out for walks in the middle of the night, stalking sidewalks and skulking beyond the strip mall glow at the end of the road. I take her to the park four blocks away, and she rolls and cools herself in the small pond. In the back yard, I strip the mountain-ash tree of its emerging berries and try not to think about when we planted it. Ignore that it has widened and grown strong in its seven years here.
Days cool. On a few trees, a splotch of yellow, a tinge of rust. Green leaves fade, worn out, like black bear. I often have to wake her as stars brighten. We’re both spent, and she’s ready to hibernate. I bring buckets of acorns to her and she gulps them.
One night, black bear looks out the window at the moon and won’t turn to me.
I’ve known this was coming. The light wanes and nights turn sharp and crisp. Up north aspens wave saffron, puddles freeze, and she hasn’t yet made her nest for her den. Already it’s too late. She will not have cubs next year either.
“One more night?” I ask with my eyes cast down to the buckets of acorns. I pick one up and finger the smooth skin. I prick it easily with my thumbnail, and I pop the cap off. I nibble the acorn, nutty and bitter.
She nods and falls asleep with a handful of nuts still in her paw. I place the acorns back into the bucket and think of nights I’ll have no one to talk to.
For the first time since spring, I see my breath. At work, I attend meetings and imagine boulders and caves, respond to emails and smell fall rain coming.
All the months of bear dreams have done nothing to change Mac, and I will leave him. Unless.
I have to shake black bear for a full five minutes before she wakes. When I get her to come to, she is groggy, her clear eyes, lost. She looks around, dazed.
“Tonight’s the last night. I promise.” I hold her claw in my hand. For the last time fur springs from my skin, my nose elongates, and my teeth extend.
In our bedroom, black bear in woman body climbs into bed next to Mac and sleeps immediately. I pace back and forth on four legs, echoing little grunts. When the nearly full moon rises high enough so pearl light bleeds into the bedroom, I move to Mac. I stare down at him and inhale his breath, still of the linguine clam sauce he had with a client, and the too sweet smell of a glass of port once he finally came home. Too, there is the smell of his groin, dark and mushroomy, and his scalp, warm and baked. When he exhales I catch the scent of his blood, iron, granite, and charcoal.
Underneath that smell, I can taste his heart on my tongue, opulent red, muscled chambers, thick and strong.
I leap onto the bed and pounce on him. My forelegs pin his shoulders, my back legs clasp his thighs. His eyes fly open and he yells. I feel his tendons clench, his muscles become stone. He flails his forearms and tries to kick his legs.
I engage my claws, and this time, on his left shoulder, I do not leave pinpricks. Thin trails of blood spring from his skin, and he shouts my name. “Robyn! Wake up!” He thrashes and manages to shove black bear sleeping in my woman body. She doesn’t move. His lashing arm strikes her, and he yells again. She lies perfectly still.
When she doesn’t respond, he fights harder. “What did you do to her?” he demands. He scrapes at my face with his nails and nicks my eye. I reach my right front paw to it. As soon as I do, I am off balance. I dig my claws into his left shoulder harder. He winces, kicks, and throws me off the bed. I tumble backwards, and hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of me. I expect him to come for me and gasp to regain my breath.
But he grabs black bear in woman body, sleeping soundlessly in my nightgown, thin straps loose around her shoulders. He clenches her arms and shakes her. “Rob! Please wake up!” The walls bounce my name back to me. He gulps air. He crushes her to him, smears his blood on her. He pulls her away and sees blood covering her arms, nightgown, and hair. She never wakes.
He rocks her back and forth, their bodies a single curve. Moonlight smolders. I want to be her, want to be in my own body, want to feel him pressed against me.
He lies down, places her head under his chin, wraps his arm around her back, holds her, and cries himself to sleep.
When the moon passes to the other side of the house, the bedroom darkens enough to begin my work. I lift Mac’s arm from around her shoulder and back, tuck my paws under her body, lift her to my furry chest, and carry her to the backyard. I shake her, tickle her feet, and place berries I bought at the closing of the farmer’s market last weekend on her tongue to wake her. I pinch the back of her neck and finally turn the hose on her. She yawns.
She wants her body back right away. When she is black bear and I am woman again, she gobbles the berries and looks at the moon. “I know,” I say. We stand, and I hug her hard. She saunters down the driveway and doesn’t look back. I shiver in my nightgown in the cold, clear air.
I shower and then wash Mac’s shoulder clean. He mumbles in his sleep but does not wake. Only one of the holes looks bad at all, where I clawed him in a vein. Other claw marks show only diminutive points, fading. I burn my nightgown in the fireplace as my hair dries. The moon sets, and the sky blooms a gentle lilac.
I climb into bed with Mac just before his alarm rings. He hasn’t moved since I pulled black bear from the bed. His tear stains left little salt trails, and I get back up and wipe them away with a clean washcloth. In the few minutes before his alarm signals, I fall into a crushing sleep.
I dream inside rocks, breathing dry leaves and sweet bark.
When Mac smacks the alarm, I wake. We lie there without moving and suddenly, he shakes me. My eyes fly open. “Mac!” He lets go. Then he grabs my arms again. He blinks and works his jaw, but says nothing. His eyes case the room, dressers, windows, and floor where I tumbled last night. With his fingertips, he touches his shoulder, feels the four points and one bigger hole, small circular lacerations. He says, “I thought I lost you.”
I close my eyes and see black bear standing on a ridge watching the sunrise, pausing to stare at leaves turning to gold.