In the Big Woods
By Erin Swan
Pa has been gone since dawn and now it is getting dark. I take two logs from the woodpile and poke them into the stove. I don’t want to take more, because if Pa is gone, then so is the axe and then how will I cut more. But after I choke down my cornmeal mush, burnt black by the fire, it gets truly dark and the logs burn too quickly, crumbling into embers that glow as they collapse. I thought the logs would be damp from the snow, but they are dry. When I trudge back out to the woodpile, I see fresh tracks in the white drifts by the pines. They are large and splayed. Pa taught me to tell prints made by animals. These belong to a bear.
Before Ma died, she spoke of bears, said she would like to turn into one. I said then how will you get inside the house, and she said I would find a way. And I said why do you want to be a bear so bad, and she said badly, not bad, shrugging like my question was a burden heavy on her shoulders, but I asked her again why and she said to sleep, all I want to do is sleep.
And then she did sleep, but spring did not wake her up again.
The third log burns quickly too, but I do not get more. I keep thinking about that axe, strapped against Pa’s back, how it gleams when he walks, flashing in the winter sun. This morning he went to check his traps, said it would take a few hours, no more. Said he needed the axe to cut more wood on the way home. I picture him in the forest, his big body wrapped in furs, looking like a bear himself. I picture the tracks his snowshoes will leave. If he is gone for longer, I can find him by following these tracks. I can strap on my own snowshoes and walk across the drifts, setting my small feet inside his bigger feet, one after the other, until I find my way to him and tell him to hurry home, the fire’s dying.
Before sleeping, I haul his blankets onto mine in the trundle bed. I take my fur boots off, but keep my dress on, and my petticoat and my leggings, because they are still warm from the stove, and I burrow under the blankets like an animal. I say groundhog not bear, because saying so makes it more likely I will wake up come morning.
When I was a baby, we lived back East, on a farm owned by Ma’s folks. I don’t remember this, but Ma said I would drink the cow’s milk straight from its teats, and that I would try to sleep in the barn with the newborn calves. That was when I was two and like a newborn myself. She’d say her mother made apple pies that made you forget the prospect of heaven, they were that good, but Pa always laughed and said Caroline your apple pie is more like paradise than those crumbly things and Ma would laugh too and the logs would never be so dry they’d go up a treat in the chimney and be gone.
Why did we leave I asked once, but this was when Ma was sick and so she shifted her eyes away like you would shift an object on a shelf. It was evening and we were around the stove with our knitting and Pa’s whittling and he heard my question and said the future lies out West. I was ten then, not twelve, but old enough to know my geography, so I said but we’re not out West, we’re in the Middle, and Pa said soon enough we’ll pick up and move, you’ll see. And at that, Ma started to cry.
The night Pa is gone I have a dream about apple pie. It is hot and steaming on a table and I am picking up my tin spoon to dig into it, and then I wake up. It is not dawn as it should be, but pitch black and something is snuffling around the cabin. It is the spoon and I am the apple pie and then I know it is the bear. But when I stand up and run quickly to the window, I see nothing is out there. I can’t see to the drifts by the pine trees, but something in me tells me the tracks are gone.
In the morning, I carry in more dry wood and make coffee left over from Christmas and one big fat hotcake in Ma’s cast-iron pan, because nobody is there to tell me not to. I eat it wrapped in Pa’s blankets in Ma’s rocking chair, and wait for the fire to die down again. When the woodpile is gone, I wonder what I will burn.
In late spring and summer and early autumn, when the weather is warm, I go to school in the town. The schoolhouse is red and has a bell on top that rings to let us know the morning session is soon to start. Inside we sit on hard benches but do not whine because then we get the strap. The teacher is a woman, like Ma was, like I will be soon, and when she lays the strap across our hands, her lip quivers like she is the one getting struck. The boys laugh at her for this and act bad to provoke her, but she doesn’t get mad, only asks them quietly to hold out their palms and then lets her own lip tremble when she strikes them. I have told myself I will never be a teacher, and once I told Ma. This was before she was sick and she laughed and said what will you be then, and I said a wild animal, and she said go on outside and play then, you wild animal, and when I came back in with my two brown braids untwisted, she simply wrapped them tight again and gave me Pa’s knife so I could practice whittling like he was teaching me.
In school we learn things from books, and so I know my human life is a single dot in the universe and our country the same on the map of history, but even so, I feel time stretch itself out sometimes, smooth and flat and black as the ice over the lake in winter when the wind blows the snow from it, and I can look into the center of a minute and see the layers of every second, every second within a second, and I know that each moment in time is infinite.
The day dwindles and still Pa does not come. When twilight falls I go out for more wood and see the pile is very small and then I look towards the pine trees and there are two lines of tracks now, pressed deep into the snow like Ma’s thumb into bread when she wanted to test if it was done.
Bear I say to the gathering darkness, but nothing responds. Bear I say again, and then I see it, a shadow behind the trees, with two eyes glistening in the lamplight from the cabin’s windows. I am here I say, and deep in my being, not in my ears, I hear it say so am I. I don’t need you to keep me warm I say, and then I run inside and pull the latch string in, though that means Pa will have to hammer to be let in.
That night I chew dried venison sticks and think about what it would be like to be a wild animal. I wouldn’t be a bear, I decide, or even a groundhog. I would be a deer and run fleet-footed through the woods to escape the hunters’ bullets. Pa shoots deer with his rifle and has to kill them right away or else he’ll have to stop to reload and then they’ll be gone. If I were a deer, I wouldn’t have to fear even the first bullet. I would run free before I heard the shot and never be caught.
When I sleep, I dream of snow and my tiny hooves breaking through it, and when I wake up, I see I have gotten up in the middle of the night and dragged out my snowshoes. They are leaning against the wall by the door, waiting for me. It is time to go look for Pa.
I don’t take much: a blanket, some dried venison, one of Ma’s knitting needles and the child’s knife Pa lets me use to whittle wood. On my feet are the snowshoes and in them I feel like a bear myself, splaying my tracks for all to see. It is not sunny, but gray and solemn, and in the distance I hear snow plopping from the tree branches, not because it is thawing, but because it is so heavy. I feel heavy too, laden with my woolen coat and one of Pa’s minks thrown over my shoulders and my hood strung tight under my chin like Ma taught me. I am wrapped up warm and tight as a caterpillar biding time in its cocoon, but even so the shivers run through me.
When I leave the cabin, the tracks by the pines are gone again, wiped clean by the wind maybe, though I remember no wind. Still I feel the bear out there, its body loping beside mine, parallel as the lines our timid teacher taught us to draw on our slates for math lessons. I imagine us like that, me and the bear: two lines running into infinity and I hope it is truly like math and we will never meet.
The bear tracks by the pines are gone, but Pa’s tracks remain, drifted over by pine needles. I do like I thought I would, nestle my small feet in his, and this is a comfort. He is out there somewhere in the big woods and if I keep stepping my feet in his, I will find him. I will track him down and bring him home.
Ma didn’t like being outside. She said it wasn’t like back East, with its clean farms and straight hedges. She said the air there was pure, civilized, said the air here was not, that something dark rode on the breeze. Even before she got sick, she’d stay inside by the fire, knitting needles flashing in the flame’s light. There are shadows out there, she’d say, I don’t know why you always want to go out. My wild animal, she called me, and truly I was, running between the maples in summer, leaping over brooks, getting my dress hem so muddy and ragged Ma would have to mend it clean again.
Then she got sick and said she’d never leave the cabin, but once I found her out there, in the night’s middle, on all fours by the pines like an animal herself. She was making a terrible sound, deep and lonely and torn-up, hacking into the earth under the first line of trees. Ma I called, cold in my bare feet, with the lantern held up high to cast its rays. Ma, you alright? But she didn’t answer, only kept retching her ragged self into the soil, and I stood there crying, Pa asleep inside, and when she finally did turn and see me, she said there’s a demon in me, Laura, it won’t come out. It’s no demon, Ma I made myself say, it’s just the sickness. And then she coughed once more and blood streamed out, blacker than the night. I saw it in the lamplight and I cried harder, but she would not come inside.
Go to bed, Laura she said and somehow I did, because she’d told me to, but I lay awake a long time, thinking of her out by the trees with her lonely sound. Finally I slept, but in the morning she wasn’t back in bed, her body humped and safe beside Pa’s. Your Ma’s gone said Pa, pulling on his boots, she can’t have gone far. And he was right. He found her not more than ten steps into the pines. She’d dragged herself back there to die alone, like a dog would. We buried her like a dog too, because it was just spring and the ground still frozen. Two feet down, with a scatter of leaves cast over the soil by our hands numb and raw from the spade.
I find Pa before dark, two hours’ walk from the cabin. I am startled to find him so close. His back is turned, a furred shadow against the snow, and though I am too far to see his face, I can hear him breathing. It is ragged and terrible, like Ma’s sound, but I force myself to say his name.
Pa I call across the snow, why you don’t come home. Didn’t, he calls back and I hear the labor in his breathing, why didn’t you come home. Your Ma taught you to speak right, Laura, don’t be lazy with your words.
He is doing something with his arms, and I expect him to be checking his traps, but when I get closer, I see he has neither mink nor stoat, nothing whose fur he can strip from it and sell. He is holding something, but it is no animal.
That’s a child I say to him and he says yes Laura, I found her here. Come see.
In the drifts you found her I ask, moving closer.
Bundled up under the trees like she’d been laid down for a nap. Found her yesterday. There’s no milk, so I’ve been feeding her snow. I believe it suits her.
I sidle up beside Pa and he smells of pine and sorrow and bears, of the long and empty nights in which he cried for the woman he’d brought West only to die, and in his arms is an infant, a girl with blonde hair in wisps around her face and eyes so blue they could belong to a doll in Mr. Thomas’ town store. I always wanted to hold one of those dolls for my own, but looking at this child’s eyes makes me think no.
Look at her eyes Pa says, and I do and in them I see the world entire.
Each second layered on another, in each minute the infinity of time.
In those eyes waits no wild animal, no bear, no Ma. Only ice that stretches down and down and down, and I can feel myself falling into those depths, my body flickering through each layer of time, and somewhere I hear Pa’s voice, its rough rasp tuned to sharpness in the evening’s frost.
I can’t look away he says. I’ve tried and I can’t.
Let me try I say, and I do, straining my eyes until it feels like lifting Pa’s great bundle of furs he takes to town at the season’s end, and at first I too cannot turn away. I am locked in the infant’s stare like a mink in one of Pa’s traps, but then I force myself to think of the bear, imagining it behind the trees, running its big body parallel to mine, and I hear it again, deep in myself like before. I am here the bear says, and its voice sounds like Ma’s and I see her again, streaming her dark blood into the dark soil, and my throat fills with a lump that reminds me of hers, and I call out not Ma, but Bear, and I feel my body warm with blood and my heart beating in my ears and out beyond me the snow plopping from the trees, and then I can tear my eyes away.
Here are the drifts under my feet and the great gloomy sky gray through the trees and in the distance the heavy sad sound of snow dropping from boughs. And here before me is Pa, who cannot look away from his foundling, and here is the foundling herself, with each infinite layer of infinite time in her crystal blue eyes, which look nothing like my own, which look like mud puddles on a rainy day.
Pa I say, and hold my hand in front of his eyes to block the baby’s gaze.
Where is your mother he asks and blinks and starts to cry.
It is time to go home I tell him. The woodpile is running low.
We take the child back to the cabin, because we cannot bear to leave her in the snow to die. I cover her eyes with the mink from my back, telling myself it is to keep her warm, though I know it is to hide her gaze from Pa’s. Let me carry her I insist, though prying her from Pa’s arms feels like unsticking my tongue from the flagpole that November day Tommy Mallard dared me to lick it. Something rips when I wrestle her free and I think it is one of her wrappings, which are as white and clean as her face, but when I look closer, I see it is the skin on Pa’s hands, the fine top layer that has been stripped free.
You’re bleeding I tell him, but he shrugs it away. I’ve bled worse he says, which is not true, because he never gets hurt, but maybe he’s talking about a different kind of blood, the kind no one can see.
Lend me your axe I say, because I plan to cut more wood when we reach home and I don’t like the look of that blade gleaming against his back, and finally he lets me take it, and then drags his body behind mine like it has become a weight too great to carry.
I’ll make you a hotcake I say, in Ma’s cast-iron pan, thinking it’ll cheer him, but he only grunts and again I sense my bear, loping its way through the woods just out of sight.
At the cabin all tracks are gone, even mine, though there has been no new snow. The cabin looks smaller than I remember, hunched by itself in the scant clearing Pa made in the trees. Gazing at it, I see ourselves like that cabin, our tiny dots in the vast expanse of time and space, looking like the tiniest fleas on the tiniest dog’s back, and though once this would have made me cry, now it makes me strong thinking about it. I want to holler back at all that space. I want to say I am here, you cannot strip me away, but I don’t, simply shift the bundled infant in my arms. She has become a block of ice and I think when I uncover her face, she will be dead. But she is not. She is smiling.
I glance at her eyes, expecting the spell to take me again, but it does not. I am done with you I say, I have washed myself clean, and deep in the big woods, I hear my bear grunt, long and low, and I see us – myself and Pa and this child who is no child – packing up our things one day and loading them into a wagon and then I see that wagon striking off, to the West, where all wild things are destined someday to go.