When I was eight I was a bear. My skin sprouted fur, claws burst from expanding hands. I tumbled in the garden and climbed the apple tree out back and cried for my mother. Because bears care for each other as best they can, a young Grizzly came to answer my calls. I climbed on her back and together we shambled away. My mother, my human mother, stood at the back door watching me go and she tells me she cried. All I knew was bear thoughts so I didn’t see her sadness.
My bear mother took me to lakes and taught me how to swipe at fish in the water. She showed me how we don’t have to be afraid of bees because of the thickness of our coats. Their stingers were little defense against our massive paws leathered from walking on the rocks and mountains. She curled around me and I fell asleep breathing in her deep musky scent.
At age nine I awoke a girl, skin smooth and naked of all signs of previous bearness. My nose was no longer black and moist but buttoned and tan. My bear mother nudged me and sniffed, looking for the scent of her daughter. She mumbled in a language I no longer understood and walked away, looking back only once and shaking her giant bear head in confusion. I sat there in the woods, alone, and cried for my mother.
• • •
“When I was your age I was an Ostrich,” my mother says.
“Younger, even,” she says, her mind wandering.
She was an ostrich for almost three years, from seven through age nine, her head buried deep in the warm earth and her mind so far away. Her father was overpowering. Even though she knew what he did was wrong, she could only hide her head and dream.
“That’s why I was so glad you were a bear,” she says, stroking my hair. “I cried because I’d miss you, but also because I was happy you were so strong.”
My mother says after I left my grandfather called and asked how old I was. She told him simply, “She’s a bear with thick claws.”
I want there to be peace for my mother. I don’t like seeing her eyes sunken from the sadness. I wish I was still a bear and could defend her from her past. Even with my grandfather far away, he’s in her mind so many nights.
I asked grandma once why she didn’t leave him.
“Because I love him,” she said.
“But don’t you love mama?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s lovely,” was her response.
I still know how to get honey without getting stung. I bring it to my mother and tell her to put it on her wounds. She doesn’t understand how to listen to what I’m saying and I don’t understand how to speak in a language she can hear.
“Do you want more toast?” she asks.
I shake my head. I want to be a bear again and make my grandfather pay. I want my grandmother to listen to her daughter’s pain.
My twins become hummingbirds. My wife hangs a red tulip feeder from the awning, filled with real hummingbird food and vitamins. She thinks sugar water will rot their teeth.
“They’ll be fine,” I say. “Weren’t you a kid?”
“Not like this,” she says.
She was a cat true and pure, content in her home and lazing on the hearth. Her parents lit fires in the fireplace and fed her wet food and let her work out who she was. I envied that life.
“You know it’s because you’re such a good mother,” my mother tells me. “They don’t need to be strong because you are. They don’t need to hide. They just need to buzz around and drink nectar and be beautiful.”
My children’s feathers are vibrant green and blue, each one the eye of a peacock’s plumage.
My mother won’t live to see her grandchildren human again. The past consumed her. Her memories turned to tumors that invaded from soul to body. She stays in the hospital bed, graying skin matching the sheets. When I visit I can’t tell where the wrinkled linen ends and her hand begins. I follow the line of tubes and grasp at her fingers.
When my grandparents come calling I claim my second childhood. My grandfather has no right to ask about the woman, the girl, who was forced to live his desires. I drag him to the woods. My grandmother follows, her slippered feet shuffling against the ferns and tree roots.
Because bears care for each other the best they can, they come to my grief but leave me the space I need. My bear mother, grizzled now, holds my grandmother. My grandmother sighs into her embrace.
With bloodied claws, I cry for my mother.
Victorya Chase’s work has appeared in A Cappella Zoo, Lunch Ticket, The Mothman Files Anthology, and many other venues. She has a story forthcoming in Cemetery Dance. She currently resides in an impossibly suburban home with two roommates and an agoraphobic cat.