The Horse and the Bear
Sarah Norek

You knew it was today. As near as last night you knew. Your wife and her bag packed. She found you from the hall. You sat the bed in thumbnail spine. I guess, your wife said, then said nothing else. Your daughter was out with a boy and a girl and your trust was shot: the girl a cape on your offspring, a blister, and the boy's feline, gauging eyes, while your daughter performed in their presence with the puffery of an uncertain yet cocky colt. Everything forced. Your wife had a bath, you watched from the toilet. She asked for your help with the hard-to-reach so you went to your knees. Steam suffocated your face. Any cheeks unwet were false. In the morning you were smart again. You saw through the yard to the back fence and beyond, a clothesline emptily limp, cable and power lines breaking high shapes. To your right behind walls ran the river and at the horizon loomed a cottonwood and its crows against a gray sky whose high points glowed pinkly and whose lows looked as if the blue behind was cutting path. Sun came and every color and pattern magnified or deepened and you were cleansed, scoured, made new. Obedience astounds you. A song began down your ears and you hostaged sound. You felt selfish, but important and right. Your brain filled with chant, you were overcome by a one-two marching beat and took on a soldier's task of scouting and adoring freedom, keeping land and comrades safe.
For two years you've dissolved by morning, all your fluids a bath in tubes as clocks crush witching minutes. Before your darkness, you watch your daughter sleep as a ball and imagine her small in your palm. Your breast turns taught as if the people you've always believed inside you working are there battening hatches and ratcheting strings to hold countless sails in place so the wind of your need won't be smothered by night. You care for yours to care for. You make this home compact. Your rooms and yard and even the interior of your car and the bikes hung from garage hooks drip a kind of fringe, something unstoppably undone, but you hold arms as a circle and think: Gather, gather, step right up. Muscles purr, you expose your breast, you conjure strength and hold what comes.
A week ago you told your daughter. You chose a day her mother was gone for the evening at a meeting or gambling game, the movies, you couldn't flawlessly recall. She'd put a small lasagna in the oven, set the digital timer, made a pair of place settings on the kitchen island before the stools she and you and your daughter knew you'd use. Formalities dulled in her absence. Whole bags of chips were inhaled, caramel corn and cheese curls broken into. Your daughter worked a can of olives in the opener, dumped it in a bowl so black bodies clustered and hung like foul eggs. You both speared them with fingers until all sat your depths. This made you close like you hadn't been in years, these steady gestures, your molars' repetition. Your daughter took a forkful of hot dinner and you cried Whoa! in a pitch for the deaf. How quickly you ruin things. She's old enough to know. She shook her head and looked at you, hair swinging, horse-fluttered lips. Her food breathed your coddling. She said: I have a schedule. A brick fell. A peephole appeared. A tunnel. You at one end, your daughter the other. That night as she slept you tested distance from the base of her closed door. You said: Once upon a time I loved like broken wing. I flapped to save you. Pain came, a splitting planet. Inappropriate throats were stuffed to death with feathers. I did everything then because now I can't. I'm too old. I'm frail. I've lost my mindlessness. She hears you, she must. Even if hearing is an ear hidden in skin, marrow imprinted with vibrations, tears rippled from the wind of your mouth.
You met your wife against a wall. She wore a boxy white button-down and yellow bowtie. Yellow killed her cheeks and chin and forehead. She didn't smile but showed different colored eyes: left mothy blue, right redbrown like the horse's hide that lived the field beside your house. She prepared drinks, it was a party, you found a corner to wedge in and watch from. All of you were there for a mutual acquaintance who'd won an award and prize money enough to gather such attendees and provide flowing booze, endless platters of folded meats and sliced cheeses, vegetables and fruits arranged in fan patterns and several cantaloupe tops carved into open books, paper thin slices for leaves. This was about words. You went for a meal, to get a little trashed for free. You congratulated the hostess, a woman you'd liked better unsure of her talent. All of you there were better unsure. Kinder. More able to shape honest energy through the demolition of breath instead of what happened that night and which you saw as dash lines between mouths, bridges unable to bear weight. A toast was announced. Champagne came around. Your future wife appeared with a final flute, which you took, and she remained near, against the wall, where she leaned and closed her eyes, and you watched her and didn't raise your glass as the back of her skull cleaved neatly, without sound, through plaster. Everyone and everything else: gone. She was in up to her hairline and you thought No, to yourself, Impossible, and you wondered what you were on and the answer was nothing. No artificial curtains to cause such feat. Her collarbone disappeared too, her face flush with wall. Without that ugly yellow she was a pretty nightlight glowing. Your chest's valley deepened and like irrigation filled with ache. You reached and what elbow of hers you grasped dissolved into wall too; your hand went with it and felt fur and night. Later, in the hospital, watching your daughter's mewky, blooded head crest, you knew that back when your not-yet wife took you through her wall and you became immobile, knees locked so you fed the floor and were fanned and slapped, that that all was coordinates fighting for order, finding their Xs, paving the direction of right now, nowhere else.
You don't live in the house by the field anymore, but you did for a while, as a lover to your almost wife and then a husband, and for a few months, a father. Once, when your wife wasn't quite yet so, and there was no daughter, you drove her home from a work site where she'd taken trays of cured meats and seafoods around and around. She told you: I'm a carousel. You turned down your road and saw that horse the color of your passenger's, your lover's, one dark eye. It dozed and the whole picture was sleep, the faintest, rapid ripples along hide like dreaming eyes. From behind, near the trees, a honey-colored bear erect on back feet, baring teeth. You could taste its pink gums, an unexpected melon. Terrible sweet. You took this to heart. You stopped the car to watch. Your lover leaned across your lap and hung her head over the door. You saw her as the bear did, which was a face squinting distance, skin and fat at her jaw bunched as chin-gathered bedding. That yellow bowtie unclipped to a path down her spine, the color of serum, a beading wound. She said: This can't end well. You let go the brake and the car rolled, that horse's ear flicked. The bear, last you found in your mirror or your lover told you, continued to stand as a totem. You hoped for the horse's sake that it wasn't real. That night you sat beneath your lover as a throne. She was a gown of dim blue. White like teeth curved her skull and your ears strained. The knobs of her spine moved with putty grace. They joined and bloated and carved into that bear again; your heart let itself out your chest, headed to work. It streamed back to you in the poor horse's tail, became the missing pieces of legs and neck and belly and rump, two pointed ears tick sized. It ran straight at her bear spine and when they met the long horse mouth took the grizzly head inside the way a garage will swallow car or a well a fallen child. Your brain turned like a ride, its creases blurred. You were astonished and tasted melon again, its sweetness and weight crushing your heart's empty scoop. Your molars hurt, their spit stung. You leaned back, sped, stole air until the fear adrift between your bodies was simple darkness and no one took your lover but you.
The city turns you weak. You live in a house along the river. You know too much about neighbors, one and orange peels, another fire. Bodies betray bodies behind curtains thin and lace. You tell your wife you've traded your daughter's freedom for a sentence in the zoo, a carnival, you've left her in the night beside a sleeping tent's stake to be absorbed into scruff and absurdity. Your wife reaches knuckles to your nipple until nothing's left of her hand, she's in you to wrist. She's gentle. You imagine the ways she could treat you with her fingers, the new growths of nails. You make a flipbook of fang shapes and stinger lengths and the edges of sharpened, honed spoons. But she rests as an egg. Her eyes eat yours. Your concoctions dull. It's as if you're looking through screen. She's no less beautiful. You're compartmentalized to flutters that distinguish themselves by depth, breadth, rapidity. Your wife repositions to the sign for door. Open and shut, open and shut. When she leaves it's as if something's taken residence in your lungs. You go for air but all that's left is what fits around the contours of the tent or shed or cottage built there. You feel very much a fish out of water and quit casting off the riverbank for the trout and cats and crappies you've been reeling in since you and your wife and daughter arrived. Your last score, you watch scales flash in sun over dirt and chickweed. You get so far as putting your knife to the tiny, red-rimmed anus. You've pressed the body still beneath your palm but its slight quivers have broken you down to vibrations, you're consumed by shakes. You need pliers to unbury the hook embedded in gills. You think to yourself: One of these things is not like the other, and your chest moves to chuckle but you cough and without enough air are overcome. The last you see of the trout is it suspended in shallows. Whatever's in your lungs crawls up your throat and the following fit brings you to tears. That late afternoon, composed again, concentrating, you tell your wife you're done with water bounty. We're eating paint thinners, bleaches, some battery's acid, you say. We'll end up pure tumor. Her eyes fall on either the shelf of your right shoulder or something beyond you, the house. There's a fuchsia there, its petals 80s red and purple and its body some thick enormous hair. I'll focus on the garden, you say, and the light finally crests the old oak's head. Your wife is shot with sun, winnowed to hips within a small shade of breasts. You grab her, she lets you, your daughter in the drive as your body, the space, punches you out.
Every day a new part of your wife hides. You focus on a shed's renovation into acceptable office space. Your brain acts like a capsule placed in water to grow. It fills the house when you're in it, the yard, is too huge for the shed and hangs out the door, the windows, presses through drafty slats you don't mind enough to fix. Your daughter watches after school, fitting fingers where spiders slip. She says: Something poisonous will get through, and you tell her poison was here long before you, or her, or her mother. Everything needs a home. A month ago, before school, she flickered in her seat. You were at the stove working oatmeal in the pot, it was nearly thick. Where was her mother? You heard shower drain, repositioning of parts in stream. Everything music. Your eyes hung half open. Your daughter's neck became nothing, then her tabled arm and spooned hand. She stared at you and said your name, not your title. You didn't know she knew your name, which is ridiculous, how would she not, but it was new in her mouth, her tongue and teeth made it foreign, and you half expected someone else to be at the door or window, approach from the hall brandishing an elephant's unwieldy tusk in a steady roar along the floor. Your wife and her suitcase appear. She offs the burner and gets the pot somewhere else. Her forearm in your stomach. You ask your hand to find her but it's limp at your side, a slug without dreams. What else of her hides: a nostril, an earlobe, the back of her skull, her left waist, a tremendous hamstring carved with the crest of a boat's underbelly. Her two fine ankles. A big and pinky toe. You whip your muscles to her jaw, your hands move as cymbals. I'll miss you, you tell her. You've missed her for months. She dresses enough times and passes enough trays and fills enough flutes and carries them enough without spilling that she's offered a promotion and though you don't say it you believe she takes it because of all the enoughs she's accrued that line and fill her like a plaque. They were soft as tartar once -- when she dreamed of trapeze strings, scalpels, industrial ovens packed with pies, coolers of bright, crisp flowers -- but have gone unattended and so hardened. She lets you squeeze her face for a long, long time. The oatmeal cools. Your daughter jockeys for attention with heaps of brown sugar that won't melt in her bowl. A piece of your eye sees her flicker again, she's transparent a minute. But you're too busy with your wife, your hands on and then in her cheeks and though these moments never cease to frighten you, you find yourself more and more looking for a reason to summon them. To feel her speed your blood, tread your heart. You murmur: Let's be honest. In her dark eye you see the neighbor horse again, the golden bear, and remember that day, that evening, the mauling you never foresaw. You grope her gums, her teeths' tender roots. She scrambles the prints of your fingers so when you reemerge from her you won't be you. She brands you with: I'm late. My plane. The car. Be good.
Today's a one and only. You freshen your body with this mantra. You run as you never have, hardly needing air. Today. The house is empty, its windows skinned in white residue that should mean ocean, salt and wind and the remnants of crabs, gulls, flea ridden porpoise, but in the end just means dirt. Since the morning and cottonwood and sky you've found the office to sit a desk. You've cramped the already small floorplan with three different bodies of drawers and tops and pencil and pen canisters, three different staplers, three different glasses for drinks. You've done your best to create a complete set in each instance, and now, as you watch a wall stabbed with light, you imagine you're the first one to show and others will soon arrive, two to be exact, and you'll each sing with productivity. The last time you were productive you burned it and when you wished you hadn't been so rash all you could do was catch the ash in your arm hairs and smear it through your oils in hopes it would route your pores and you'd remember just what it was you'd done, perhaps do it better, win. Mathematics have become easy for you, which you take as a bad sign. That a number with another number and even its pet x or v or t make more sense than anything the alphabet holds. You wallow. This becomes a canyon and a river another two hundred feet deep. You make rapids from nothing but the water's immensity, a whorling pool of insurmountable current. Whatever falls inside you will be held and decomposed to teeth and bones, a gear, a hasp. Your daughter's grown taller and lumpier. Somewhere your wife wears a suit and the heels she spent a week walking the house in, practicing. She portrayed the weight of a boar. Each step shook the shelves, stacked dishware chittered. You heard her swear quietly and it sounded of breeze and moth bopping light. Her nails wore navy blue and glitter as if she'd nabbed ten pieces of space; the stars are out, the moon hunts. She stopped and found you watching and her mouth mimicked pared rind. You wanted to surprise her, perform a trick, and grabbed three eggs from the fridge to toss for juggling but you didn't know juggling so they fell at your feet into sunset pieces. Her face didn't shift. You took the finally ripe tomato, a stinking peach, the mini watermelon, and threw them all up so each exploded into the eggs, the sun's set prettier and prettier. You waited for her to get inside you as she always had, to plug you with herself so your parts gummed and the floor stilled. She didn't. She said: There's too much to do. She drew her face to its center. You feared she'd rocket off to prove a point, then realized she already had, so had you.
Out the hazy window you find your daughter in grass. Her hair's a black bolt drying incrementally and streaming behind in dashing wind. Her head should be pale. It's been pale. Roots sit in stain that bullies her delicate, dry skin. Something grows in you unlike a baby or cancerous blob. You've caught a bug and don't know its origin or species but it crosses your signals so you're troubled by up and down, left and right, yes and no, here and there. You rely on: This. You get outside. The light is mean in your eyes when you grab your daughter as if you're all jaw, press her to your chest with a force meaning now, mine, careful, run. She shakes like weeping but it's thrill. She chokes: I killed the bathtub. There's some down my ear. Next stop the clippers. She's glass, light uncompromised, an artifact you frame with love.