Jill returned to our cabin in the woods with a bear cub in her arms, a purple flower behind her ear. She brought the cub inside, said he was mine to raise. But what do I know about bear cubs?
You know everything you need to know, she said. We made love in our low bed with the cub at our feet. Jill tasted of sand and salt and the earth and she gave me the earth, gave me herself, swallowed me with a primal desperation I’d never experienced before.
Afterward, she told me they’d found the mama bear dead, her three cubs sleeping against her belly. Jill poked her index finger above my right temple. Right here,she said, is where the bullet went in. Jill said this one came to her like it was her own child, someone she had not seen in years.
The cubslid in between us, on the bed, his mouth open, wanting, biting, needing something. We fed him milk and bread and peanut butter, bits of steak and blueberries, and heslept peacefully.
In the morning, Jill was gone. Her note said only: I’m going back for another, watch over him. What did I know of bears? Nothing. What did I know of love? Nothing. And what did I know of Jill’s need to go deeper? Not a damn thing.
I opened the door and heran out, wrestled in the small bushes around the cabin while I sat on the porch, in the rocking chair, waiting for Jill to return. The cub walked away into the thick forest. I considered going after it, but stayed put. It didn’t need to be raised by a man in a cabin in the woods.
I smoked three cigarettes, cut and stacked wood. After dinner, I heard something outside. I ran to the door and opened it. Thecub walked past me, sniffed around the refrigerator, hopped on the bed, and fell asleep.
I held the door open, waiting for Jill, but she didn’t return. The bear stayed inside with me for the first three days. After that, it slept on the porch, on one of Jill’s heavy black quilts. And soon it was winter, and one morning the bear left and didn’t return. I never saw Jill again either, though I heard of occasional sightings: a wild woman walking through the woods with a couple of bear cubs following her.
In the spring, I walked out of the mountains, never looked back. At night, now in this suburban house, I occasionally feel something warm, something animal, at my feet. I wake, but it’s not the bear or Jill; it’s one of my girls, Stephanie or Susannah, asking me to tell them their favorite bedtime fairy tale, the one about the time I lived in the mountains with a bear. I close my eyes and tell them everything I can remember.
Steve Cushman earned an MA from Hollins University and an MFA from UNC-Greensboro. He’s published three novels and the story collection Fracture City. His first full-length poetry collection, How Birds Fly, is the winner of the 2018 Lena Shull Book Award.Cushman lives with his family in Greensboro, North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter at @portisville.