It wasn’t my husband that wanted the bear, it was me. Erich has always been so generous, so optimistic about people. When we opened for business, the lodge was empty as a lost castle, but he just said, “People will come when they do.” He talked like this sometimes, which is one of the reasons I fell in love with him. He sounded like he’d given the world and its problems a good once over and made up his mind without regrets. I admired his peace, because I was always getting trapped in thinking one way about a thing and then the exact opposite. For instance, when we came up in ‘23 to this forsaken woods, I felt punished, first, then blessed. The snow, especially, was a blankness I craved, not a blotting out, but a nursery for us. That first winter we were here we were born. I can’t tell you how beautiful it was. We saw trees grow wooly as beasts with snow. Let me tell you what else: we saw a moose with a beard of ice drop through the lake’s crust and disappear altogether.
Funny, I don’t remember exactly what Erich looked like then–though that was only a few years back, no time at all. I can remember what I did to him, but not what I saw. I held the tea kettle with a damp cloth when I filled his cup. Sometimes, I broke ice from his moustache so he could talk, tiny corkscrews like claws, which melted in my fingers. He had a moustache, that much I know, though he was barely twenty–a boy still!–and now I remember what struck me then: his eyes were two different sizes. I used to wonder if he held one eye open wider than the other, if it was a matter of muscle rather than structure. I still don’t know. My husband was good at everything else, so what did I care if he wasn’t good looking? He’d learned English in two years flat, the way other people learn cards or knitting. You could hear his determination in the way he talked, how poised he was in everything. From the beginning he spoke in a way that made me ashamed to have spoken English all my life. He was elegant as a diplomat, but more sincere.
Of course, he has always been good with his hands as well. He built this place with a crew of three in just two summers. During that time, I stayed in Duluth and scrounged up nice linens. Also carpets, couches, drapes. The third summer he put on a blue suit and I put on silk stockings and a hat, and we sat down to wait for guests in the lobby. I remember how miserably we chatted through those hours, our legs neatly crossed, our fingernails white. We had never courted properly (we met as teenagers, ate chicken, got married), but those first days at the lodge had all the ceremony and panic of a long date. Was there no future at all? we wondered. No guests or children to verify our efforts at contentment? We said many foolish things in our wish to escape such awkward circumstances. We talked of Chiang Kai-shek, of butterfly migrations, of stew.
“There’s something in your hair,” I told him one lonely afternoon.
He lifted his hand cautiously.
“Here,” I said, rising. But I was lying, and he was already at the mirror in the hallway, turning his head. I remember his bow tie was crooked and looked something like a badly plucked flower. I couldn’t help smiling at him. Even then, I was always getting kindness and cruelty confused, so I can’t be exactly sure why his dishevelment made me so happy.
We had to coax our first guests to us. The locals were suspicious–you know how logging people are–so territorial and shifty. They couldn’t understand why we made such a show of everything, why we carted in candelabras and pickles. I admit we didn’t know why we did these things either. After mamma’s inheritance was gone, we spent a great deal of time washing things down, fluffing pillows, pressing napkins. We made an earnest effort to be as grand as possible. Can you imagine? We had ideas about hotels from Davenport and Redwing; we expected weekenders, not hunters and fishermen. But who rides the train to Duluth, then takes a steamer to Marais or a pontoon plane to Ely for the weekend? The longer the lodge sat empty, the harder we tried, until everything started seeming like an instance of decoration. In those first days, I floated lupine petals in the water basins, arranged butterscotches in bowls. I knew cosmos would die, but I planted them anyway, in a daze of hopeless opulence and inevitable waste.
We didn’t know the first thing about lake country. I grew up on cobbled streets, with sidewalks and gas lamps; my husband had escaped as a teenager from a nail factory in Bremen. I admit I thought of our lake primarily as transportation to town and scenery through our windows. I was bewildered to see Erich so charmed by it. I remember watching him sink an arm into the depths, splash up a bit of water into his mouth, flick his face dry. He took the boat out at night and rowed to the logging camp on the far side of the lake, where the rocks were as wide as automobiles. He learned to trap from the logging people there, who kept him some nights. He learned to bring down a pine without fuss and float it across the waves, slim ship bound for furniture.
The lake yielded up our tables and chairs in this way, and other surprises too. That first summer after we opened we found a floating broom, a fox pup under our canoe, and Noah Williams. Noah was our first real guest, and he just capsized his boat during a storm, so we didn’t charge him anything. We were nervous as new mothers around him. During the night, we argued over whether we should leave a lantern burning in the hallway for him, whether we should wake him for breakfast or let him sleep. Noah was a good sport, a middle-aged fisherman with a cabin out west, and we convinced him to stay a few nights after the storm dissipated into occasional columns of rain. With his pale blue eyes and black eyebrows, Noah had a shambling, uneasy, angelic look about him. He said his mother had died in an avalanche in the Rocky Mountains. After a few glasses of Canadian gin, he confessed he’d clawed his way out of the snow and left her buried beneath him. He kept saying, “I just wanted to survive, but now I can’t do nothing. I’m a napkin. I’m rust.”
We kept him for three nights. We gave him pies and towels, a boat ride to the falls, a kite. By the time he left, we were disconsolate and proud. We felt as if the very best of ourselves was rowing off towards Canada, the only useful thing we’d ever done.
Goldie came next, and she only came because I asked her. I sent her a simple but pleading letter, and she arrived at the logging camp across the lake with two trunks, a kitten in a cage, and a hammock from Mexico. The hammock was a gift for our porch. Goldie was my second cousin, tall and frizzy-haired, unmarried. The first thing she said to us was: “I’m so, so sorry!” She gripped my arm, almost painfully, explaining she was late, she was unkempt, she was tired. I told her “Nonsense!” but in truth her apologies were charming, inventive, almost intimate, like confessions. When I told her to stop apologizing, she apologized–warmly, enthusiastically–for that.
She settled into one of the rooms on the second floor, shyly, hanging her frocks on the bedpost, and stayed for a long time. When her kitten left stools like crusty larva behind the drapes, Erich swept them discreetly into a basket. I saw him do this, so I knew how much Goldie meant to him. I never told him that I asked her to come.
My husband wanted babies and I gave him guests instead. Should I be ashamed? By the time the lodge opened, we’d been together five years. I was the only married woman I knew without children. We didn’t sleep well at night–there were mosquitoes, heat waves, other lonelinesses–but it wasn’t that we didn’t, as they say, try. I should revise that a bit. I had nightmares in which I was sick, blistering with tumors, malignant as death: I was pregnant in every one. I woke up with my hands on my breasts, my arms crossed, my own fingers harassing my nipples like mouths. In my dreams, I lived in a pit of children. Their hands were the same size and texture as their gums, as their earlobes and faces. Everything could gnaw in a hideous, painless way without teeth.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t chastened and relieved to wake up empty, myself. Organized. I really thought I might be able to avoid that kind of grave forever, if I tried. Erich grew melancholy after a time, but I grew industrious. I made up for the vacant house by filling it with people.
“Her name is Sugar,” Goldie said of the kitten one night. I remember this specifically. We were feeding Goldie pike caught two lakes over, the gin Noah left us, and imported jelly. The kitten was on her lap, humming unremittingly. Goldie made a face, then put her hand on my husband’s arm when he stooped to retrieve her plate. “Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t that just the first thing you’d think of?”
I saw him sit down and put his head in his hand, as if thinking the matter over very seriously. Since Goldie had arrived, I’d seen something new in him, a tolerance and almost gift for inanity. It was like hearing him speak in German, seeing this ease with something so alien to me. I knew him only as hard-minded and grave; with her, he lifted his eyebrows. He grinned in a way that parted his moustache.
“Will the cat understand his name? Or is this name for you?”
“It’s how I feel about him, I guess.” She took a curl from her head and placed it absent-mindedly in her ear. “He’s stupid, of course. He won’t know Bob from Pumpkin.”
“Stupid’s a good name.”
“Stupid?” Goldie asked. She lifted the cat up under the armpits and stuck out her tongue at it.
Erich was beaming. I was impressed by his ease with her and, at the same time, irritated. He grew up in a German factory town, worked like an Indian to stay alive during the war, snuck away on a boat when he was sixteen. He always seemed to me like a wizened old man under his young skin, his soul worn to the point of serenity. Who was I to forbid him whimsy?
Later that week, I told Goldie my husband needed help in the garden, and out she went, apologizing as she left for not helping sooner. I was half in love with Goldie myself for years, so I knew what it meant to be around her. She was five years younger than me and so thin she was always bent forwards or backwards at the waist, as if unable to fully support the upper half of her body. She believed she was ugly, which made her lovelier than she was. Even I liked to watch her in humid weather, pulling hair from her ear in a perfect coil, like the tendril of a newborn plant. She was superficial, an oddball with nice teeth, but we couldn’t get enough of her. We gave her meals we couldn’t afford, grew severe and nasty to each other in our guilt, came from our quarrels clean, as if they were a form of hygiene.
Goldie stayed so long, we went through all the pickles and scented soap in the pantry. With these amenities gone, we spent days on the dock, shoeless, Goldie and I playing cards, Erich reading about fishing lures in out-of-date magazines. It felt a little like I imagined university might feel if we’d gone, all that indolence and talk, all that lazy thinking. In July, we watched a hornet hive form high in a tree, bulbous and sound as a football. In August, the lake started to smell and dry up a little, leaving strangely punctured fish on the shoreline. When the muskrats came for the fish, I started to worry that Goldie had misunderstood my invitation. She had been with us for almost five weeks; she was kind, but not rich, and Erich knew it.
One morning around that time, he woke up and put on old trousers instead of his suit. I could only guess he’d picked up part-time work across the lake, chasing or climbing, whatever grunt jobs they gave foreigners. I watched him work a soft leather belt through the loops, cinch it without looking down in resignation. He was just about to leave the room, when I bolted up and yelled, “Wait!” He turned around.
“Why don’t we talk?”
“Sure,” he said.
“We don’t have to have everything work out,” I told him. But you know how people say things to convince themselves, how every word is part lie because it crosses out and denies one quadrant of truth. Of course everything had to work out.
“It won’t,” he assured me, coming back, putting his hand on my forehead. Forgiven as I felt, I disliked how he needed so little from me.
I started to cry. One half of my body was under sheets. The other half, like a figure on the prow of a ship, arched mutantly towards him. What was wrong with me? I kissed him, resentfully. I held my lips over my teeth and bit him until he came back for me. I wanted him to wear trousers–he was a clown in his suit, an imbecile–but I didn’t want him to want to, you know? We were far too young to stop pretending.
Later that day, I went into town and telephoned Grace Wilson, an old Chicago acquaintance who (I knew from rumors) had married well. I made her agree to come to the lodge by reminding her that she owed me. In high school, I’d covered for her when she accepted marriage proposals from two boys at once and needed an excuse for one when she saw the other. It was a sacrifice of my dignity to do this, but Goldie wasn’t going to pay our bills, and we had hornets in the pantry. My mother’s good silver was tarnishing, and I couldn’t get myself to polish anymore what no one used.
The Wilsons flew in from Duluth on a chartered float plane. The plane sent waves knocking against the shore, drenching the steely rocks, overturning Erich’s cedar rib canoe. When Grace stepped out onto our dock, I saw she was wearing white gloves and a funny type of moccasin. She held out a booted foot and said, “Look what I bought in Duluth! Indian shoes. What do you call them, Harold?” She touched my sleeve. “Good for creeping.”
She took a few tiptoeing, warrior steps across the wet planks.
Two nondescript boys in raincoats lumbered onto shore and commenced digging a hole beneath some pines. Harold (who was not one of the fiancés from high school) surveyed the lake, stepped gingerly over an invisible hazard on the rocks, and made his way towards the woods. Erich called after him, “Can I take your bag?”
The man turned, sulkily, imperious, and then a shift went over his face, as if running into an old friend in a crowd of strangers, and he said, “I don’t believe in packing much, thank you. Look here, I have all I need in this hamper.” He opened one hinged lid and pointed out the contents, obviously delighted by his own thrift.
Grace put her arm in mine and whispered, “Harold’s writing a book, but he hasn’t actually written anything yet because he’s rich. Would you believe it, Midge?” She affected a pained expression. Behind her, the chartered plane gutted the lake and lifted over far trees. “I’m moneyed people.”
For the first time that summer, the lodge was nearly full. We put the boys in one room and their governess (a yellow woman with a Texan accent) in the room next door. We gave Grace and Harold the room over the porch, with a view of the lake at sunset. Unlike Goldie, the Wilsons were loud and busy guests, inexhaustible. The boys brought turtles to the bathtub, pebbles to the dinner table, an antler to bed. They had an idea about the physics of air and were determined to build a craft that could float them over the lake like a balloon. I talked with them about this at length and could never determine the extent to which they knew they were playing. Jasper was six, and he became furious with his little brother, Jake, at any suggestion that the venture was not possible. On the shore there were complicated arrangements of thistle and jars. For days, they claimed their failure was due to sabotage by locals: sometimes Indians, sometimes wolves. Then one morning they came to the dining room before breakfast almost sobbing, saying they had done it, they made it to the other side.
“Why are you crying, then?” their mother pointed out. She was mocking them because all of us were watching, and I think Grace knew she was better at winning a crowd than raising children. Jasper reddened at his mother’s words, clearly crushed. He explained, putting his face into his armpit and taking it out again, “Jake’s crying because he’s a baby!” Grace turned to scold the yellow governess for negligence, but the boys were sopping wet, breathless, and I believed they believed that they had done what they said.
I told them this. That night I went to their bedroom and touched their heads. I said “Good job, boys!” but they looked at me in a sickened way, barely tolerating my presence. I realized I’d made a mistake, but I had trouble sorting out what it was exactly.
I won’t say we became friends with Harold and Grace, but something else happened that was a little more complicated. A week after they arrived, I ran into Harold smoking a pipe and he asked me to help him out of his marriage. He was sitting in the woods under a line of laundry I was drying, and he spoke simply, his mouth around the neck of the pipe, so his words sounded lazy, offhand, almost unintentional. Then he took the pipe from his lips and put the warm mouthpiece against my ankle.
That night, I lay with my husband in our bed and gently stroked his throat. He liked that, and it frightened me a little how vulnerable he was with his chin thrust back–how bony and ridged it was there, like the spine of a small, extinct reptile. “We should think of ways to draw more people here,” I told him, fingering the hump of his Adam’s apple. “We should advertise in the paper. We should make signs for the road.”
That’s when he said for the second time, “People will come when they do.”
“But what for?” I felt a lurch of desperation. It was as if he refused to understand the basic machinery involved in being human, how one thing led to the next. He had a fixed notion that all lives were as pure as his own, borne of unqualified, disciplined intentions.
In the next weeks, I took pains to avoid face-to-face conversations with Harold and Grace. They were spoiled and self-involved, and though I didn’t approve of them at all, I found I enjoyed watching them from a distance. I grew interested in their diets, for instance, in Harold’s taste for slightly soured milk and the way Grace picked at her fish. She slid her fork between the bones as if performing surgery, totally absorbed, frightened whenever she took a bite. I kept serving fish so I could watch her at this task, which made her seem vulnerable like nothing else, which made her appear strangely animal and vital. I grew fascinated by the way Harold and Grace derided each other, rarely speaking to each other in public, but always lightly narrating the other’s faults for audiences. They seemed pleased rather than discomfited by the disorders they pointed out, announcing them like accomplishments: “Grace thinks books are for propping open windows,” or “Harold, bless his heart, never learned to leave his mosquito bites alone. Look! He’s like someone with pox.” I liked best to hear them in their room at night, shouting. “You’re unnecessary to my happiness,” I once heard Grace say, and though I didn’t hear the context, the phrase struck me as so poetic and ruthless, so wonderful, it ran through my head whenever Erich’s disappointment in me showed. I imagined him saying it to me, the clean shard I’d become when he hissed in my face, You’re unnecessary to my happiness. Of course, my husband was tender and formal most of the time. After the Wilsons came, he wore his suit every day again, like a man at an everlasting funeral. At night, he almost begged me to get pregnant; touching each other was like sitting in the empty lodge waiting for guests who never arrived; we were humiliated to find the other always present for our personal failures.
He kept saying, like a man purchasing milk, “Thank you!”
“Don’t say that,” I scolded, annoyed because I didn’t want to be held accountable. I wanted his anger or forgiveness, but not his gratitude for this: the baby I refused to bear.
Once, the Wilsons wanted a picnic excursion, and when I went out to untie the canoes, I saw something beneath the dock. Not a broom or a fox pup, but Noah’s kite, the one Erich and I gave him. It was caught beneath the planks like a sea animal, a thing from school books, not from lakes: yellow, red, and green. I got down on my knees to fish it out. For just a moment with my hands in the water, I believed that Noah was down there with it, floating white beard and blind newt hands, but then there was a gulping sound and water streamed down my arms. The kite was a wet heap in my hands.
“What you got there?” Erich called from the bank.
What could I say about this? I suppose we could have laughed together–what had we been thinking, giving a grown man a kite?–but I still felt something of Noah in my arms, which was disconcerting, unbearable in fact, so I lowered the thing back into the water. I didn’t want Erich to see it, to worry about what had happened to our first brief guest.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just a shirt, someone’s lost laundry.”
He called, “Bring it up, we’ll dry it off,” because my husband had industry enough to cast on any object at hand, wayward guest or washed-up trash, any irrecoverable article.
But I said, scolding, guilty: “No, it’s ruined.”
I went to him myself. I climbed the rocky bank and smoothed his moustache with a finger still wet with lake water. He lifted his eyebrows but did not move his face an inch, his breath coming through his slightly parted lips, like the minute, barely discernable current through two logs in the lodge. Gently, I put my mouth over that fragile draft, kissed him. His lips were papery, desiccated. They didn’t seem like lips.
Was it then that possibilities began to dawn on me that hadn’t before?
I’d been so certain for so long that it was some failure in me that kept Erich from the family he wanted.
Of course that day’s suspicions were only confirmed much later, long after the Wilsons left, so it’s possible I’m rearranging the order of my feelings to justify what I did to him.
The circus in Duluth was Grace’s idea, and somehow she got us all to go with her. It was a long day’s trip–six hours in a hired car on the logging roads, and another six hours on the Superior steamer–and I’d grown restless, I suppose, weary of the barren lake, the immaculate order of pines. I craved some adventure and disorder. Goldie wore her hair in yellow ribbons, and the boys put on shoes again for the first time in a week. Even Erich went along with Grace’s plan, though he got carsick on the drive and had to sit with his head hanging out the window like someone’s forlorn dog. We all stayed two nights in a ramshackle Victorian hotel in a residential neighborhood. The place had running water and electric lights, but Erich and I could not help but feel a vague competitive dislike for the rumpled maid and diminutive door man. I’m not proud to say we colluded in disparaging the place whenever the Wilsons were around, affecting a businesslike scorn of every attempt at convenience. We took pleasure in pointing at a crusty orange formation beneath the porch and making Grace put her hand to her breast. “Yuck,” I lamented. “What on earth could that be?”
The circus was a few miles out of town at the county fairgrounds. We sat together in bleachers under the sun, balancing our hats on our heads and squinting like people who’d lived for a long time underground. I couldn’t tell if all that squinting and sweating behind the ears made me feel oppressed or ebullient. I remember Goldie spent the day with the boys, shunning the governess who was reading a book and eating a snow cone. Grace and Harold settled in next to each other on the bench, argued for a moment about whether the seats were any good, and didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the show. Erich and I sat on either side of them.
If you’ve been to a circus, you know how they manage to make preposterous things seem ordinary, even dispiriting. We saw three midget children riding hounds, for instance. They had shiny leather saddles and clown noses, and though everyone clapped, I kept expecting something more thrilling to happen. It was like a trail ride, the way those big-boned dogs lumbered their figure eights, the way the midget boys gripped their tiny pommels. Then a portly man in a wedding dress rummaged in his sleeve for a crumpled bouquet of daisies. After dancing about on his toes, he plucked the bouquet, petal by browning petal, and ate it. I felt like I was watching something I’d done myself–though in private, abashed–and I admired his shameless regurgitation. The bouquet came out of his mouth whole, reconstituted, wet. When he bowed and gave it to a woman in the audience, she held it far away from her body with two fat fingers.
Beside me, Harold offered me a piece of popcorn. I set the foamy, tasteless thing on my tongue and let it dissolve to its kernel. He positioned his knee so it lined up with mine.
“That’s disgusting,” I told him, stoutly, pointing out two scantily-clad obese women doing the polka. But it wasn’t at all. It wasn’t disgusting or even strange, but just one of the ways the universe worked. If you were very fat and a twin, you learned at a young age to dance for audiences.
During intermission, Goldie took the boys to look at the horses, and the governess stayed absorbed in her newspaper. The rest of us wandered over to the auction set up in a tent across a dusty field. Circling in silence the tables of linens and bicycles, I had a curious, nervous feeling, as if we were waiting for something to happen: as if we’d all set our marbles rolling down a ramp and we were now just watching to see how they’d collide. Grace and my husband were discussing the merits of putting a bid down for a painted wicker throne, which Grace thought would look good on the porch of the lodge. They were almost bickering over it, actually, the way Grace bickered with Harold, and I was about to join in when a man in suspenders distracted me. “What’s this?” he kept saying, a little too loudly. I followed his gaze until we were both looking into a cage of sorts, but what was inside perplexed me for a moment. I wanted to say, bear, but it wasn’t exactly. It was a couch, an old man, a wilderness. It was the first thing that had really surprised me in a long time, and before I even realized it was dead, I knew I could use it.
“Is that thing for sale?” the man asked.
Harold took my elbow and tugged it. “Do you want to take a walk outside?” He was not suave so much as needling. I looked at him impatiently and saw his hair was greasy. It was flat as a swimming cap over his eyebrows.
He started talking about his book. It was to be an exploration of the rift between loggers and conservationists, he said, a lesson on, no, a love letter to the wilderness. This was a new idea, something he’d discovered while sitting on a rock in our woods, and he’d already come up with many good metaphors for pine needles. Rodeo tassels, he said, shyly now, as if offering me a choice delicacy from his plate. The fringe of a lady’s dress. For Christ’s sake. Why was there no machine to lift boys over water, never any real artists, but always some fop of a husband dreaming his commonplace dreams of adultery? Rodeo tassels could not interest me, could interest no one.
I looked him square in the eye and said, “You’re unnecessary to my happiness.” I meant it to be kind, honestly. I meant it to release him from whatever responsibility he felt to impress me.
But it was only after I had said it–and felt its correct and appropriate violence–that I realized that the comment was neither original nor true. Of course, I needed him: it was childish to think otherwise. I needed his money before the end of the month; I needed him to tell his wealthy friends about the lodge and its comforts; I needed his wife to cheer my husband when I could not. I looked over at them assessing the wicker throne, Grace sitting in it like the queen she was, Erich rolling his eyes like a man who knew exactly what she was and was not bothered by it.
I pulled a strand of hair from Harold’s shirt, apologetic now for what I’d said. I knew how to flirt as well as anyone. I said of the strand of hair, holding it up and leaning in: “Hers or mine?”
He was relieved and smiled, almost winningly. It was then that I let him grope for and take my hand. Of course, I didn’t outline any plan for him, nor promise right then to be his mistress, but you how the human mind works. What is logic, anyway, but the way the mind takes control of facts and arranges them to suit its own interests? I wanted some measure of control over my husband’s and my circumstances. I wanted that most of all. And Harold? He wanted to be flattered.
We got the bear carcass for almost nothing. I thought we should stuff it right there in Duluth, as the thing had been dead a full day already, but Erich said he knew a good taxidermist outside Grand Marais. We found an empty logging truck that was going up north that afternoon and paid six dollars for the bear to go with it. It took three men to sling the thing onto the palate, wearing leather gloves and cloths around their noses. Flies were already distorting its face, nursing its rear end. Grace was horrified, but the boys were ecstatic, absolutely jittery with love for the thing. Both these reactions pleased me very much. Before it drove off, the boys kept skipping around the truck, stroking the bear with sticks and touching its clipped, coral claws.
I could not stop talking at dinner that night, working out the details of my idea for the bear’s new life as a feature in our lobby. I thought we could hire a photographer to take a picture of it, put ads in papers in Minneapolis and Chicago, draw rich, outdoorsy people with the very spectacle their unexceptional imaginations desired. I drank a lot of coffee, and found my hands were shaking when I lifted my mug, as if my body had been starved and was finally being fed again. Everything was so pleasant and unnerving. I wanted Erich to feel this as well, wanted him to see how things were going to work out for us now, but he was too worried about how much dinner would cost. I saw him peering at the bill over his spectacles, ever innocent. Very tenderly, I corrected his math.
Our guests that summer were our children, I raised every one of them myself: Noah Williams, Goldie, the Wilsons–though the boys were always just beyond me a little. By fall, we had other types of people, drunk fishermen who were stand-offish and strangers to me, but that summer the guests were mine. On the last leg of our journey home from Duluth, paddling across the lake, we sang impolite logging songs the boys had picked up over their weeks in our woods. Fellows at the grand-‘ole gates, say hello to your bosomed fates! We pitched in our canoes, but I don’t think I was alone that day in feeling vouchsafed against danger. Even the moose in our garden was hard to take seriously. We stood with our bags on the dock, a little uneasy, yes, but then Jasper and Jake went up so close they could have touched its black muzzle. They raised sticks to prod its hindquarters.
“Stay back,” Erich warned them, but the moose was docile as a donkey, knock-kneed, a circus pet. For an instant, I confused him with the bear we bought and felt sorry for what we had done to him. His obdurate gentleness made my heart sink, because I knew there was something sick in him we couldn’t see, a malignancy that softened and destroyed his nature. A wobble of mucus moved in each eye. He walked in a nice circle, very aimless and staged, and then everybody clapped when he took a step back and shambled into the woods. My pounding heart grew too loud, and I had put my hands on my knees, prevent a spinning sensation from pulling me down, and then pretend it didn’t happen, pretend I was fine, and the moose was just another entertainment, and the bear–a thing that walked on a leash and balanced a ball–was once a vicious beast. And who was to say they were not.
All that winter Erich split wood till dusk. Nights, he held onto my strange, new body out of practical necessity, for warmth, teeth chattering in my ear. I could feel his worry going through me in shudders. But under that worry, I sensed how pleased he was, I swear to God. He must have been happy in his way, grateful to have the future coming so uneventfully, or else why did he fall asleep before I did, giving me up to the cold, forgetting everything? I lay awake night after night, waiting. Waiting for the ice to pull away from the shore, for mallards to return, waiting for our guests to come back for walleye.
I felt I just needed to get to spring. The doctor promised I’d be fine by then, but he was country people and didn’t even bother to shave properly, so it was hard to trust what he said. Whenever he bent over me, I could see the stubble on his face like dirt. I didn’t tell that doctor that I barely felt any kicks. I felt I understood the baby’s quietness. I had prepared my own silence for her, after all. She would have her life and her father, her future with its fine logic, ah, maybe even my good skin, my small, dark eyes. But her secrets, those were mine.