I should know by now that the guardian never sleeps. He emerges from the ground, almost silent, fur swishing against the fallen wood. He’s no more than an arm’s reach away. I can see the individual hairs of his coat, jet black and glistening. He heaves his body out of the den and swivels his snout toward me, searching for the source of this irksome intrusion. He does not yet see my father standing on the other side of the stump. My father does not yet see the bear.
My mother’s people were jewelers. This is almost the only thing I know about them. My grandfather died when I was an infant, and my grandmother, persevering until I was in my early teens, came into my life so infrequently that I can hardly recall her. All but one of my memories of her are fleeting and indistinct. The sole exception: her lying in a cot, at the far end of our living room, stretching out the last of her days. I don’t know how long she was there – a week, a month – before she negotiated the terms of her own end. But I recall that on every one of those days, a bottle of amber liquid lay on the floor within arm’s reach of her trembling hand. Now, in the light of my memory, the bottle glows with a russet sheen. By the color of steeped amber: this is how I remember those days (was it late autumn?). I recollect them as though looking through lenses tinted the hue of single malt whiskey.
The shank of wood is dry, and splintered at its base, and corrugated with rough grain where I have split it with an ax from the fallen log. A layer of bark, silvered and mottled, lies along one edge. A blush of darker color in the wood, speckled with a webbing of thin black lines, indicates where fungus entered the trunk after the tree fell. I press upon these marks, searching for soft and punky wood, but I find the structure still solid. Birch is a strong wood. It resists destruction. Perhaps the fungal areas will be stripped off as I turn the wood on the lathe. Or perhaps they persist to the core, and will become scalloped shapes in the finished bowl. I’m ambivalent about which outcome to hope for. Fungal decorations, called spalting by woodworkers, often yield remarkable patterns of beauty and intensity. Yet the process of revealing such patterns, the slicing and scraping and sanding, sometimes releases fungal spores into the air. These can find their way into human lungs and are capable of causing serious illness. I try not to worry about this.
I drive east, thinking about old stories. I meander through traffic, scanning alleys between the high towers, looking for people I know. Several of my counseling students will be out today, trying to secure housing for the homeless, providing medical care for the Dumpster divers, asking after those who have simply vanished. Too many of those, and more every year. As I pass over the sealed rail spur I glimpse two men hunched over the heat vent of a nearby office building – one of only a few warm vents in the city. Over the years I have heard many stories of ruthless fights over that small and comforting space. In winter, especially, that heat vent might be a scrap of survival snatched from the frozen streets.
Incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the child is diverted from security and safety. Later, the confused teenager unravels into a conflicted young adult who clings to a sole dependable ally: the substance that never breaks its promises. Small and unremarkable steps, spread across many years. All so natural, so easy, a salmon swimming downstream. Then one morning you awaken with blood on your cheek, a mournful aching in your bones. The sheets are fetid, your mouth tastes of bile, you look out the window and you don’t know if it’s morning or evening. The room is cold, and you cannot warm yourself. Outside, water drips steadily from the corner of the roof. If the ungovernable forces of change grant you a moment of clarity, you will move toward the breeze from the open window and your heart will crack open. Some smothering force will lift and allow you to fall into your lethargy, your sadness, your bewilderment. You will stagger beneath the weight of your regret. You might take that weight and fashion it into the ballast of a new sea change.