BY KATE FELD
In the dream she is walking through some Mittel European village, leading a bear on a rope. The rope is fraying. The bear is not tame. It lumbers along after her, but it’s getting bored with this. Villagers watch from windows. Through the glass she feels the weight of their prayers. That her rope will hold. That she and her bear will pass through the town without stopping. That this obscene spectacle will soon be nothing more than an odd memory, a morsel to chew over in line at the butcher’s shop.
That dream she had only once. Mostly she is running through a forest. Running through rivers on four legs under pieces of moon, the night swollen fat with smells.
The dreams aren’t the only thing. Many of the moments in her day have taken on an unfamiliar taste, a flavour of something. Leah has become a problem. She needs attention.
‘How do you feel about bears?’ Her new therapist placed the words before her on a clean plate. 'What do you associate them with?'
She hadn’t wanted the zoo, of course she hadn’t. But it was half term and days had been booked off work, hard-won days to be filled with memories for Rob and Meg. The bird sanctuary was too far, Rob would get carsick, and they couldn’t go to the Science Museum again. There was a coupon for the zoo. Colin prided himself on his shrewdness in the matter of coupons and money saving offers; the fact that they didn’t need to save money seemed to add a certain spice. She would have lost that one. But the kids would love it! They’ve been asking when we can go. I know you don’t like them, but can’t you just grin and bear it, just this once?
She played the argument forward in her head while Colin overtook a lorry, knocking the indicator with a casual competence. His competence formed a tight seal around them, a Citroen C5 capsule of Radio 4, CBeebies magazine, Fruit Shoots and Pom-Bears. Outside, on parallel paths, other families were safety locked into their bubbles. How fragile they were, the walls of these bubbles! How fast the cars were speeding down the motorway! How close they were passing to each other! Once you saw the danger it was impossible to unsee.
Leah closed her eyes and reached for some words, and here--she’d woken up thinking of ‘soothing’ and ‘seething’. She dwelled on the crooning long oooh of the first so like the meaning of the thing, the shape of the mouth and the way it made you feel, rubbing it up against the high mosquito whine of the double ‘ee’ and its anxious wince. She moved her mouth to make the sounds. 'What are you doing?' Colin asked. 'Stretching my mouth,' she said quietly. He was not very interested in words. She told him at Christmas that the word present had resentment built right in, but he didn’t get it. He could not follow her down these paths. It was a game to amuse herself. It was something that helped a bit with the seething.
The circus was where it started--three years ago? No four, she’d been pushing a pram full of baby Meggie. Circus Mondao, it was called. They’d rolled up on a field between a slip road and a dual carriageway at the scrag end of summer. They made their way through the scatter of trucks and trailers to the flyspecked tent wherein the elephant, the camel, the dead-eyed zebra were trotted through their paces. And Leah so overtired herself--the baby was teething--so far removed to the edges of her functioning that she might have hallucinated it, the din of misery bleeding in above the generator hum, a noise only she could hear.
He hadn’t understood why she had to leave the tent in such a hurry. She cried about the zebra, stood next to the car parked on the grass, not even bothering to get in. Just lifting the slack weight of sleeping Meggie out of the pram and cuddling her like a teddy. On the way home she told him they could never take the children to a circus again. Hormones, she could see him thinking. A doctor understood these things. He was kind. Encouraged her to take it easy. Get out more. A film, a girls’ night out, another glass of wine, a vanilla slice, a long bath. ‘Be good to yourself,’ he urged her, rubbing her shoulders. ‘You’re such a wonderful mum.’
They proceeded around the zoo like the stations of the cross, the children giddy and Colin pleased about it. Leah was silent in the Reptile Hut, and she kept it together in The Amazing World of Bats. But as they were approaching the brown bear enclosure, tears seeped through some fault in the seal. She made a small sound low in her chest. Colin squeezed her arm, mouthed ‘You ok?’ She nodded, looking away, and swiped at her eye with the heel of her hand, felt her face redden. Bear. Bare. Bear, you can bear it. Rob picked up a swordstick from the verge at the side of the path and she copied him, picking up a shorter stick. It was the kind the bark peeled off in long, satisfying strips. She peeled hers down to the bone as she stood. Bare, she thought.
The children each carefully ticked the box next to the bear’s face on their ZooClues Scavenger Hunt sheets. Those clipboards gave them such an air of seriousness, like little inspectors. They inspected the bear. ‘Why isn’t it moving?’ Rob asked. ‘It’s just lying there.’
Meg peered through the Plexiglas, thinking, no doubt, of Bonnie Bear at home. She’d only recently been persuaded to leave her behind on these outings. ‘Is it sleeping?’
‘No, she’s not asleep,’ Leah said, wanting them to understand that this was a female bear, not an ‘it,’ not some object. A mother, like their mother. Beloved animal mother. ‘Look: her eyes are open.’ The bear’s small, piggy eyes, set high in her head, slowly opened and closed without fixing on anything. Flies landed, crawled, took off again.
Colin consulted the information panel. 'It says, Maia is one of our oldest residents. She’s old. She’s probably just having a rest.’
‘Hey. Hey bear!’ Maia the bear flicked an ear, but didn’t turn her head toward Robbie’s voice. The kids were already turning away, looking at Colin’s map, on to the next animal. This bear was not interesting. The first stone hit the wall above the bear, leaving a small pale mark on the paint. The second stone hit the bear’s flank, and her dusty sides shook.
‘What the fuck?’ Leah muttered. Her eyes followed the trajectory of the stone back to the opposite side of the enclosure. Above the low wall she saw a woman, dark hair spilling around her shoulders, arm raised to throw another stone at the bear. She knew her own face when she saw it. This was her face with more showing underneath, like her soft bits had been peeled back to some hard nut of an essence. Bare-faced.
The woman saw Leah recognise her, and there was a long moment of eye contact that felt radioactive: one of us shouldn’t be here. A wrongness about it that was almost erotic. Then the woman threw the stone at Leah. It hit her on the shoulder. The Leah-woman was shouting something at her, but the sound did not penetrate. Two urgent words. The first a mouth open wide, a big lapel-grabbing hey of a sound. The second closing abruptly like a shutter pulled down. Another stone hit the ground near Leah’s foot. The one after that grazed her thigh. She didn’t feel them. She watched the mouth, her mouth, make the word-shapes.
Wake up! The woman was shouting. Wake up! Wake up!
Leah picked up a stone from the ornamental border. It felt good in her hand. Almost too big to hold easily, but big enough to smash a windscreen. She hefted it at the bear, hard. Her arm was stronger than she remembered. She reached down for another stone.