The Body Is A Black Bear
By: Valerie Hughes
As a boy, I attended the wake of my mother’s college friend. I’d never met him and can’t recall his name now but I still remember the image of his smiling face on the laminated card my mother received, his eyes as blue as marbles and only made brighter by the cut-off glimpse of the blue polo at his neck. In the car on the way home, I scraped the dirt from under my nails with the card’s laminated edges. I’d never know how tall he’d been or how broad his shoulders were, if he had the same paunch that my uncle did. My mother must’ve noticed what I’d been doing in the rearview because suddenly her hand appeared at my feet, scrabbling behind her seat as she drove. She left the card in a cup holder and for the next few months, every time I got into the car, the sight of the man’s polished and joyous face made me queasy.
The day of his wake, it didn’t stop raining. We stopped at 7-11 on the way so I could get a cherry slushie and I slurped it with an old beach towel in my lap. By the time we’d parked in the lot, my slushie was drained. My mother unbuckled and turned to explain what we would do, the light rain tapping the roof and blurring the windows. His family would be in a line at the front of the room, facing rows of chairs that would be mostly empty until the priest came in to lead the prayer. We would go up to each family member and say sorry for your loss, my condolences, or something like that. I memorized the two phrases she offered but when it came time for us to speak, I would only stand behind my mother’s hip with my face pressed into her dress.
My mother has always been good at preparation. Last month, as a wedding gift, she gave us holiday tableware—enamel plates with a watercolor scene of the nativity on them. Jesus was as large as my thumbnail, shrouded in a blue blanket. Privately, she gave us two huge flashlights and three packs of batteries. “I hear that the flash floods can be bad there and if you lose power, you’ll need these.” I didn’t remind her that we were only moving to the Hudson Valley. Last summer’s odd flash flood—that did, actually kill a woman—had dominated the news cycle for three days and my mother had been rapt. “Lord, don’t bring it to Massachusetts!” She texted me that multiple times and said it more than twice. I took the flashlights, smiled, and we laughed about them and the plates with Nina, who—my mother knew—was an atheist.
In the car, before we left its sealed silence, Mom added that everyone would be standing in clumps and talking. Catching up, really. Sometimes there can be nice conversation at wakes. And the casket wouldn’t be open. That was why I was coming.
She didn’t say that then but she did so many times in her retellings of the story, her eyes shiny with tears. “I only brought him along because I didn’t think he’d have to see a body. He was so young!”
As we raced to the doors, the top of my skull brightened from the cold rain, a sudden but welcome dampening. My body had been warm all day, no fever. I didn’t avoid any puddles. Water spiraled down my mother’s curls. My shirt was sealed tighter to my chest, already buttoned up to my neck and irritating the skin at the base of my throat, the same way that seatbelts did. My neck was rubbed raw after every car ride.
Inside of the funeral home, the ceilings were low and the air was motionless and cold. My mother clasped my hand and I whispered that I needed to use the bathroom. We were directed there by a man in a tie and walked upon a deep green carpet that had a thin row of gold metal at the place where the wall met the carpet.
“It’s really in here?” My mother murmured as we walked through a set of double doors. She made me take her other hand, placing her body between me and the rest of the room.
It was empty and had the same quiet carpet, our footsteps muted. I looked around her, dazzled by the vibrant flowers at the front of the room. There was a heart made out of red and white roses that leaned on a stand. I couldn’t read so I didn’t know what the white sash across the flowers said, the loops of gold cursive dancing across my vision.
The woman was the last thing my eye landed on and by then my mother was already knocking on the bathroom door in the corner of the room.
“Come on, sweetie, don’t look.”
My mother jostled us inside but I strained my neck so I could stare. Only one side of the woman’s face was visible and I couldn’t see her legs at all. Her face should’ve sagged like my grandmother’s but it didn’t. She had a puff of blond hair and wore a shirt the same light shade of green as our bathroom walls at home. And her hands; they were clasped on her chest and had the same brown dots and smudges as my grandparents. And, I realized with a start, the woman’s long red fingernails were the same shape and color as my mother’s. My shirt tightened around my throat and the pressure on my bladder increased. I stared at the dead woman the whole time that the bathroom’s entryway shrunk, the door closing with a cruel slowness. It finally shut and I pushed the lock before my mother could. I was suddenly thirsty but didn’t want any of the bathroom’s water. My hair was drying fast. What I wanted was the rain again.
“It’s okay, honey. Go potty,” my mother commanded. She looked at herself in the mirror. “Putting a bathroom in a viewing room is crazy.”
I peed quickly with a racing heart. What was going on behind the closed door? I was sure I could hear a scraping sound. Maybe it was the woman’s fingernails on the coffin’s wood so she could free her legs. She huffed and spat with rage and she loosed her bound hair so it could fall around her shoulders like a wild mane. My hands shook when I buttoned my pants. The faucet sink was already running, my mother waiting for me.
“Mommy,” I whimpered.
“It’s okay,” she said.
Maybe the scraping wasn’t the woman’s nails on the coffin but it was actually her nails ripping through the carpet as she raced to the bathroom door. Maggots would fall from her eyes and she would reek of Grandma and Grandpa’s coat closet, that cloying sooty scent, and of low tide at the beach. She’d lurch like an animal, on all fours and jaw swinging open and she’d speak a grunting seething sort of language, one of seething and baying and hunger.
With a bowed head, I slowly pressed the soap dispenser and a line of gelled pink soap limped onto my hand like a worm. I was used to not being tall enough to see my reflection so I startled at the hulk of black in the mirror but the bubble of panic popped when I realized it was my mother. Warm with gratitude, like urine tracing a pant leg. But then my mother traced her lips with gloss, like I'd seen her do hundreds of times before but this time, it made me sob.
The woman was waiting for us, nails clicking.
“Don’t,” I begged, tears streaming. I spun around and grabbed her wrists, holding them to my chest. “Don’t!”
“Oh, Davie,” she cooed. She kissed the top of my head. I wasn’t hurting her wrists, she let me keep holding on.
“Don’t open it.” I wiped snot on her dress.
She freed one of her hands, swiped a tissue, and crouched in front of me. She blotted my nose. “She’s okay,” she said, “She’s in a better place now. So is—” She said her dead friend’s name. She wiped my tears with the pad of her thumb, to avoid scratching me. “They’re with God and all the angels.”
The air was still too tight to re-enter my lungs.
My mother cupped my face. “Let’s pray.” She held both of my hands in one of hers and kept her other hand on my shoulder. “Dear God,” she began, “Please help my sweet boy feel your breath again. Give him breath and light. He’s a little afraid right now and needs some comfort. Please help me to soothe him in the way he needs it. Amen.” She did the sign of the cross and kissed her fingertips at the end like she always did.
“Amen,” I mumbled. I envisioned a swath of gold light and puffy clouds and was soothed enough that my visible anxiety abated. Hiccups went away, my breathing flattened, my shirt loosened.
My mother sat on the toilet seat. “You open the door when you’re ready,” she said.
I nodded but the body picked at me still, like a tick latched to the middle of a scalp or the back of the knee. I fidgeted, traced the lines of grout on the floor with my eyes. My mother’s lip gloss was losing its shine.
She didn’t have to force me out. Someone knocked on the door so we had to go. It was a man with a flat expression, unbothered by the dead stranger. The woman was still there. I was relieved and shattered by it. I looked at her hands again and then her face before we went out. She looked the same. She always would.
We stopped at 7-11 again on the way home, Mom got me another slushie and got herself a blue raspberry one. Walking back to the car, a few singles crumpled in her hand, she told me to sit next to her in the passenger seat, which I resisted until she said that we weren’t leaving yet. We drank with the car still running as the stereo played Celine Dion. My brain slowed, vision blotted from the piercing cold invading my head. I pressed my thumb to the roof of my mouth as she taught me. She kissed me with cobalt lips, and we showed each other our tongues. I looked at the cross on her neck and didn’t understand it or the happiness in her eyes. She hadn’t cried once at the wake. I was too young to wonder if she would later when she was alone. We couldn’t finish our slushies. I tried to combine them once we got home, slopping her blue into my red, but the colors wouldn’t mix. No pretty purple ice. No grape.
I stopped believing in God on a highway. I’d been driving east through Worcester County, my ex-girlfriend Liz in the passenger seat, and came upon a black bear with bits of pink innards smeared on the pavement. There was the bulk of its back, spine buried behind its thick fur, and my brain scrambled for recognition until I saw the defined slope of its ears, such an easy thing to draw: the perfect curves arching away from the furry skull. Panic darted through me. I’d drawn so many bears as a kid.
My lungs shrunk. I willed myself to ignore my car’s mirrors. I was the same as the bear: a fragile body and brain that would blink out of existence. The bear had no soul. How could I?
“Did you see that?” Liz exclaimed.
“No,” I lied. “What was it?” My voice was papery.
“A black bear! Oh my God! It was huge, baby. I can’t believe you missed it.”
“My God.” If I hadn’t been lying and if I’d been on a smaller and slower road and if no realization had blown through my head, maybe I would’ve turned around to glimpse the dead.
Maybe I would’ve prayed. I’m embarrassed that I think of the prayer now, so so late, after knowing that it would’ve been my mother’s first instinct. “Carry him to you, Lord,” is what she would’ve said. I heard it for all creatures. Spiders underfoot, a squirrel on the road, a mouse caught in a trap behind the garage’s garbage cans. She had in her a sweetness that didn’t carry to me. The slushies after the wake; she’d gotten herself one too. She stared at her blue tongue—teeth, too, sealed with cobalt—in the mirror, more enamored with it than I was by my red one.
Prayer for him was useless. (There I go, adopting my mother’s habit: he, for all dead creatures). He was gone, wasted, ruined. I was doing seventy on the highway and there was no patch of gravel crossing the median that granted me backward passage. I pressed deeper into the pedal and began counting until our exit sign. Beach chairs jostled in the back seat. I remembered the can of Coke in the cooler. I was so thirsty. I realized I’d lost count of the exits and my phone was dead, my car charger lost.
I thought of my mother, crying at her mother’s funeral. I was twenty one and I held her as the coffin lowered into the plot. A red mark on my palm burned from the prick of a rose thorn. My neck was wet from Mom’s tears. I never held her like that before; had rarely seen her cry—only a handful of times before then and all due to movies or television, her eyes brimming and her hand pressed to the base of her throat in embarrassment and awe. The cemetery was shaded by huge oaks that made me wonder about their roots, how far they stretched and who they touched. I doubted that, by the time I died, there’d be any room for me here.
By the time I saw the bear, I was twenty-eight, my mother fifty-two. She still got her nails done every two weeks, fire truck red. I thought I’d marry Liz. My mother went to church every Sunday and years prior, she’d stopped asking me if I went too—all of this when we were only a few miles apart rather than states. I was grateful when she finally stopped asking because I always felt too guilty to lie and say yes but I hated the muted disappointment in her
That night on the phone, I told her about the bear. I did it on the front porch of our vacation rental in a soft voice. For some reason, I didn’t want Liz to overhear. I didn’t want her to think that I cared.
There was silence after I finished explaining. My throat was dry. Something muffled over the line, there was sniffling.
“Are you crying?” I asked.
Her voice was choked. “I’ve never seen a bear.”
A graceful black bear traversed across my mind on a grassy hill, sunlit and shiny, its snout upturned in the wind, searching.
I nodded. “I thought the same thing.”
“Was it big?”
“Huge,” I said.
A sound came from the back of her throat again. I imagined her standing in our kitchen, balanced on one foot.
“It made me think of your friend’s funeral when I was a kid,” I said, “Remember? In the bathroom, with the woman in the next room?”
Her laughter vibrated. “Of course, I remember. I felt so terrible.”
“I had that same feeling. The same dread.”
She was quiet for a moment. “He and I had sex a few times.”
I flinched but laughed. The older we got, the less self-conscious she was about sex. It repulsed and fascinated me. There were versions of my mother I would never know or only barely glimpse, like in photographs taken before I was born.
We talked more about things I can’t remember and said goodbye. I hung up, went back to the woman I’ll buy an engagement ring for, and then break up with five weeks later. She’ll never know about the ring and I’ll use it, instead, for Nina, and as I’m dropping to a knee in front of her, I’ll remember that the name of the woman who sold me the ring was Nina, too, and I’ll think to myself, of course. I will call my mother every few nights, and we’ll talk about nothing but be content. Both of us will forget the bear but it will all strike me when I’m sixty and teary-eyed and Nina and me are explaining how my mother’s wake will go to my two children as they look at me from the backseat of a car. Looking at their brown eyes, I’ll decide that maybe I’d been wrong about the bear. Maybe it did go somewhere after dying.
And months after that, hiking alone in some California woods, I will glimpse a lumbering bear through thick trees and won’t immediately bang on my thermos or raise my voice to scare it off; I will stare in a cold feared awe and realize that I don’t know anything except that the bear reminds me of my mother and I will wish that she’d been with me, just to see it.
About the Author
Valerie Hughes is a writer from New York, NY. She has been published the websites Breadcrumbs Mag and Paragraph Planet. She is currently working on a novel about re-exposure to trauma, desire itself and desire to gain control over the past through the present. She likes writing in coffee shops or the library. Find her on twitter and instagram @_valeriehughes.