The Rule of Three
Jeanine saw four in the lower parking lot. Steve saw two on a hike in the woods. Sam saw two near his dorm. After Sam and before Steve, safe in my rental car, I saw one cross the road.
Most bears are born in January, the month of our MFA winter residency, and are out and about in July when we return in the summer—thick on the ground because they are hungry.
He ambled on all fours, sine curves rolling through his spine and rump. His paws knew the smooth dark road that sank into the hill between groves, knew the up-and-down land. The campus buildings were built into slopes, so you could enter a first, second, or third floor from the ground.
As I sank my foot on the brake, the bear stopped and swiveled his neck. His dog-like snout tilted up. A wow bloomed through my chest. Terror did not taint the wow, because in that millisecond my reptile brain knew I was protected by a metal shell.
I held his gaze for a dark infinity. Capture, said my brain. Shoot. But my phone-fumbling hand released him from our trance. Boulder-still to blur, he ran into the trees behind the faculty dorms. We took that path back and forth from early morning to after midnight. The alleged safer way, the road, is where I found the bear. There is no safe way, only stories we tell to make us brave.
I believed he was a man-child of bear, with paws that hit the ground soft like petals.
My 14-year-old man-child of a son is moving in three weeks. To Austria. We can’t afford to put him in a private school here, the public high schools are famously under-resourced, and he’s so heartbreakingly bright. My ex-husband married an Austrian woman, and they are resettling there, while I remain in Santa Fe with my wife and daughter.
I would have loved to go to high school someplace faraway and foreign. At age fourteen, I showed my mother an ad in the back of Seventeen magazine. “Boarding school?” she spat. “That’s for rich kids whose parents want to get rid of them. They’d look down on you. And how in the world could we afford it?” At the time, my mother had just left my dad. We were on welfare. I would have qualified for every scholarship, but I didn’t know that. And my mom wasn’t ready to let me go.
He wants to do it, and I am haltingly ready to let him go, chivvied along by my desire for him to receive a stellar education. I fret because he doesn’t know German. We have tried to help him learn as much as possible, but he’s dragged his feet, rolled his eyes. Everything has come easy for him so far, which gives him far too many hours for video games. The German language does not come easy. How do you respond when things don’t? This is what we hope he will learn in Austria, along with German.
My son is growing, his voice is cracking. He is still happy-go-lucky, but his teeth are netted with metal. He is a farm of smells that need sluicing. His cheeks are downy. His face may never be rough-suede if he takes after his father, which he does in many ways, except for my big bones and soft middle.
Mutterseelenallein Abandoned by everyone, and your mother, too.
The healthiest mother bears have a litter of three. After a year and a half together, mother bears and their bear cubs undergo the un-euphemistically named Family Breakup. Until the catalyst of dissolution, the bears are tenderly connected: they play, groom each other, and sleep in a pile. The catalyst is usually an adult male who wants to mate with the mother. After some dithering between his courting and her offspring, the mother bear turns her famous ferocity on her yearlings. In exchange for this banishment, they each get a patch of her territory.
Six years ago, a German acquaintance with a Druid vibe asked me if she could read my palm before dance class.
She looked at my hand, and said, “You have three children.”
“No, only two.”
“Oh. Another spirit wanted to come in.”
She was right. If I had remarried a man, I would have three children, so sudden and virile was my late-thirties womb-hunger—the kind that makes women poke holes in their diaphragms. But I remarried a woman, and we would have had to make special arrangements. She did not share my hunger, but I shamelessly campaigned. Eventually she relented, before mentioning that she would be close to seventy by the time the child became an adult.
I was wanting a child, in part, to deny I was getting older—to demonstrably stay in the childbearing phase of my life. Laura’s observation recast the idea in the context of aging. It changed my mind, but not my heart, my body. I would have a seven-year-old now, who would need me.
Every bear in the wild was once chased off by its mother until it learned to stop returning.
At residency, because the bears were big, and wild, still like dark water, not keen to be startled, we shook our keys and sang when alone, and talked when together.
When my friend Amelie said she didn’t know what she would do, because she needed to walk every morning but feared the bears, I agreed to walk with her. Then she asked Lily to join us. We talked to keep the bears away, but we would have talked anyway: about residency and our lives outside of residency.
In my regular life, in order to write, I have to shove other things aside, dart into pauses between my full-time job and making meals, deny loved ones and friends. I’ve grown adept at writing on my lunch hour, at 3 am, in waiting rooms, on the couch as my wife rubs my back and watches football. My writing process has been stripped of preciousness; it’s more like a Zombie Mud Run.
At residency, we pledge obeisance to the craft of writing, engulfed in a current with others who have taken the same vows: to attend all of the lectures, classes, readings, and workshops, and document our edification in an enormous report due at the end of the 10-day immersion. Everything else in our lives is shoved aside; we must chisel crannies into the day to phone home or send more than a text. Splat in the middle of residency, I spend a span of time speared on the binary I can’t wait till it’s over/I wish it would never end.
Within that whirl, our walks were soothing pulses of footfalls, birdsong, words, and mirth. We scaled hilly roads, spotted rabbits and red cardinals, passed modest houses, their lawns adorned with spangled, spinning ornaments. We paced the forest’s edge, skirted its lush, nodding, canopy, regretted we could not accept the shaded, winding trailhead invitations.
Mothers train baby bears to use trees as a refuge, climbing up to escape from danger. A big white pine is strong enough to hold an entire bear family.
As the dew of the ballfields’ grasses slowly drenched our walking shoes, we wandered around the college’s farm, past student laborers, rows of crops, threshing machines, and barns. Our route led us to the cafeteria door, where high on endorphins, we joined more somnolent students. My sneakers never dried out by the next morning, so I took to throwing them in the washing machine to get rid of clumps of grass and clots of dirt and bugs, and set them in the sun.
I thought of the three of us, out walking in the mists and talking back the bears, as Small, Medium, and Large. Lily was tiny. Amelie medium. I was large. We took snapshots, and if it was Lily and me, to soften the disparity, I stood behind her and put my hands on her shoulders. When I stood beside Amelie, I sucked everything in and angled myself forward, red carpet-style.
I was already a big-boned woman before the two children pushed my pelvis fore and aft, etched dimples under the wing-bones of my back. His father and I, when we were together, unwillingly belied the big man/little woman norm. Together, because of the contrast, I seemed bigger, he seemed slighter, than we did and do apart. My wife and I are the same height with similar builds.
When Amelie sent me the photos, I noticed later how everything about me was bigger, and next to me, they seemed smaller than in my memory. Each photo seemed to tell me this for the first time with a little shock, because I was hoping, each time, the photo would tell me something different.
Amelie and Lily often accidentally matched, with their chic oatmeals and blacks. “And I match Carmen Miranda,” I said, on our way to dinner, wearing yet another colorful dress I selected to show off my bust and waist and legs and mask the rest.
“You can do that. You have the looks for it,” said Lily. The compliment, when I recall it, feels like a gift trembling in iridescent red paper. I have the looks for it? I have the looks for it.
I notice that I can think our culture’s emphasis on big men and small women is wretched, and yet still be relieved my daughter inherited my ex-husband’s delicate frame, and my son inherited mine. And my own preteen transformation seemed less self-inflicted after I watched him morph from a wiry little boy who could eat half the fridge to a towering, solid sixth grader.
When I helped Amelie with her suitcase, she said, “You’re strong,” and I glowed. It pleases me to be strong, and that I kept up with and sometimes pushed Amelie and Lily to go up an extra hill. Before I train my eyes at myself in the mirror, I think-whisper a billowing cloud of prophylaxis against wince, against shame: iloveyouiloveyouiloveyouiloveyou. I peer at my jawline. Loveyouiloveyou. Is it softening? At my upper arms. Youiloveyou.
I’m writing a book with my client David about shame and body image, and in one of the chapters, we tell the true story of a woman who was strong, and broad, and joined the army. She could run as fast, and jump as high, and lift herself and weights, but still had to attend military fat camp because of her measurements. She told David her strong and capable body felt like a drag, “like a bear.”
Channeling her inner bear, he said, “Don’t try to shrink me down to something smaller. I won’t fit. You don’t tell a bear its ass is too big.”
“You mean I just have to love it. Love the bear.”
“Yes, then you can stop dragging it around.”
The North American Bear Association offers lessons plans on its website. One is titled, “A Fat Bear is a Healthy Bear.”
I wanted this essay to be about so much more than weight. I want to be about so much more than weight.
Goldilocks is what my fair father called me before my hair darkened. Modern parenting folklore asserts babies look most like their fathers, a way of securing fealty. As they grow, their mothers’ submerged genetic traits surface. Myth or not, my hair went from my father’s Irish-German strawberry blonde to my mother’s Cuban-Greek brown by puberty.
In my late thirties, my clockwork period became irregular, and silver hairs sprang from my scalp with disquieting vigor. Through trial and error, I’ve found it’s easier and cheaper to blend gray with golden highlights than to cover it with dark dyes. It took me a while to give in to this, because it would obscure the fullness of my origins.
A little girl plays by the edge of the forest. She leaves the open space and its safety behind to join the trees. Soon, she comes upon a little house, and smells something delicious. Sometimes the door is open, and sometimes she knocks. She goes inside without permission. There are three bowls of porridge on the table. She tastes each one. One is too hot, one is too cold, and one is just right. She tries out three chairs. One is too big. One is still too big. The third is just right for her, but she is not just right for it. It breaks, dumping her on the floor, and she drops the bowl. She leaves behind the broken chair and crockery to go upstairs. She tries three beds. One is too hard, and one is too soft, and one is just right. She falls asleep.
The bears come home, notice her violations, but do not hurt her. She wakes up, sees them, jumps out of bed, and flees. But she does not escape. The bears let her go. They could have easily caught and mauled her. Transgression, hunger, mercy.
The Goldilocks tale is rife with threes: three bears, three sets of samplings of three. In literature, he rule of three decrees a trio is more interesting and pleasing than any other number. Two becoming three is the math of fertility, procreation. Three is also the first number you encounter after going beyond a binary, a harbinger of infinity. The Old Testament’s Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark’s animals two by two, evolve into the New Testament’s trinity, apostles, disciples. Possible stories expand exponentially when fiction’s characters exceed a dyad. When it’s not this or that, it can be anything. When we are not this or that, we can be anything.
The earliest version of the fairy tale was about an “impudent, bad old woman” with silver hair, not an (impudent) little girl. The little girl was an object lesson instead of a cautionary tale. You shouldn’t trespass, but if you do, you just might get away with it. Or, Look what bad old women do. Even bears don’t want to eat them.
Innerer Schweinehund The inner pig dog is the voice in your head telling you to stay in bed when you have made other commitments (to write, to run, to do).
I only missed one morning walk; it was after I drank too much at a party. At 5:45, I texted my regrets, walked to the bathroom to throw up the roil inside my belly, and brushed my teeth. If only all problems could be so easily solved, deeds reversed.
Before my MFA, I cultivated the opinion that if I only knew then what I knew now, I’d do college so differently. Less partying, more studying. In many ways, that’s true, but the first three residencies showed me I was, in fact, still the person who stayed up until 3 am, drank too much, overshared, and rushed through what could be rushed through. The fourth semester found me far more circumspect. It helped that I fell in with dawn-treading women.
After sleeping for almost three more hours, I dragged myself in pajama-soft clothes to a lecture, ironically, on avoidance. Every chair was taken and much of the floor was, too, but I found a tiny slice of wall facing nobody, at an angle where my hair shielded my face as I typed. I could not see the speaker, author Robin Romm, but that separation soothed me, like when you close your eyes as a kid because you think if you can’t see anyone, nobody can see you.
Romm talked about how when she was a child, her mother died of cancer, and while she was dying, turned away from Robin and her father to spend time with an eccentric, kitten-rescuing friend from work.
Romm also talked about novels with characters who avoided the dying people in their lives. She acknowledged that art reflects life, and avoidance is the most honest thing. Dying people can’t bear that they will be leaving their loved ones every available minute. Dying is tragic enough.
Tears gushed from out of my bloodshot eyes in my throbbing head as it hit me. I’d been avoiding my son. I bought him a cookbook for his birthday, told him I’d teach him to make lots of things. We’d cook and bake our way toward his sendoff. But we haven’t, not one recipe, making a crappy birthday gift for a fourteen-year-old boy even worse.
Across the room, Lily cried too, for her husband who died two years earlier. On our next walk, she admitted she felt so self-conscious. A lot of people cried that morning. But we didn’t notice because we were so busy trying not to be seen.
“I was just realizing I probably won’t be around to talk to you before you go on your first date,” I said to Nathaniel, as he sat in the easy chair I put in my office precisely for my teenagers. He is wearing big white and black pleather headphones that look like they fell off a Storm Trooper, intent on killing bad guys as Batman on his laptop. He pushes the headphones off one ear. I repeat myself. He raises his eyebrows a little, tips his head to the side.
“But if you want to talk about it now…how you feel about that…”
His mouth turned up in a bashful arc, dimpling his cheek. Mom. I won’t be getting anything out of him.
“Or we can wait,” he says. “We can talk about it on Skype.”
I assent. I will not mourn it. He might not have told me anything, even if he never left. A lot of sons don’t; they are not daughters, who tend to stay closer, though I did not.
I am not sad, not terribly sad, all the time, but when I got into my narrow twin bed at residency, and when I get into my big bed at home, my breathing shallows. My lungs clench up, as if squeezed by a fist. This causes my eyes to tear. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are bound up with grief. My body forces me to cry.
A few days after I return to Santa Fe from residency, a coworker tells me a bear is on the loose on Siler Road, in a busy industrial patch half-barnacled with galleries and a brew pub. I call my wife to let her know. She immediately starts to feel bad for the bear.
“Maybe it’s curious,” I wishful-think aloud. “I just heard about a bear that took a bath in someone’s backyard fish pond in Los Alamos. And I saw a video on Facebook of a bear cub dancing around a golf hole flagpole.”
The bendy pole is like a tamarack sapling, something bears famously like to frolic on. They scramble-climb up its height until their weight turns the slim trunk into a branch-sprung arc, an echo of their humped silhouettes.
She does not see it that way.
“It’s because he’s hungry.”
In astrobiology, the Goldilocks zone is where the Earth orbits in relation to the sun: it’s not too hot and not too cold. But it’s getting warmer. Bears come out of the woods and dig through our dumpsters for cold cafeteria porridge, open car doors for scraps of fries and burgers in fragrant paper bags. Once a bear gets a taste for human food, it will seek it out instead of its natural diet of insect pupae, bark, and berries.
When my son was five, he told us that when he grew up, he would live alone, inside a tree, and hunt for all of his food. It worried me at the time. I left his father when my son was three, and one night, I was at the house we used to live in together, telling my husband what to donate and what to sell and what to keep, before he put it on the market. As I prepared to leave, my son launched into my arms, scream-crying with terror. His arms around my neck, his legs around my waist were so strong.
I had to go to the stupid bar. Because to not go to the bar would have been to stop leaving his father. I had to leave my children, a bit, to leave their father, even though we shared custody fifty-fifty. If I didn’t leave his father I would have died. I had been dying in dribs and drabs since he showed me that something inside him, something he would not deny, and would not acknowledge, rendered me unsafe.
I held my son, and I looked into his eyes, and said words I don’t recall, until he calmed. I was strong enough to say them and he was strong enough to calm. He let me peel his arms and legs off my body, and I put him in his crying father’s arms.
I told my children that when we were not together, our hearts were still connected, by a rainbow. To this day, we say “Heart rainbow,” shorthand for “I miss you” and “We are connected.”
At the bar, my eyes were dry. I drank pints and we hummed along to the band. On the way home, I accidentally knocked on my brights and couldn’t remember how to turn them off. Although I otherwise felt lucid, it showed me I drank too much. I sat in my car in the driveway and listened to a song, over and over, on the CD I bought from the band. I wanted to live inside that song instead of my old house, or the new house outside my car filled with yard sale furniture and so much unknown. But the song told me: And what it is/ that is not ending/ is a sweet mystery. I could not see what was not ending then. It all seemed to be ending. I see what was not ending now.
After other mothers got divorced, I noticed how they agonized when their children were with their fathers, how they ached, and cried, and counted the minutes until their reunion. I was not like those mothers. My heart is like an eel, slippery but tender.
I read, I wrote, I devoured time alone with the woman with whom I fell in a love both torrid and soft, and eventually married.
The first Mother’s Day after my divorce fell in their father’s time. I waved it away, said it didn’t matter. But from morning till night, an ambushing grief soaked and shook me. This is what it’s like to be that kind of mother. I did not choose to be unlike them, but it was the only time. I have spent Mother’s Day with my children ever since, but I did not know the last one was the last one with both children, perhaps for a while.
As a child, Nathaniel danced unselfconsciously. His body flowed with instinctual syncopations all his own. His body also takes after me that way. He has not danced for years, though, since he grew up and out, since he became aware of what is expected of his gender and dimensions. I believe he is a dancer still. I thought I would be there when that part him emerged from the cave. Perhaps in a summer, when he is back with me.
Last night he showed me a video someone took of the bear on Siler Road. The bear was a blurry, furry, upside-down V, a hinge with a head who vectored through cars and trucks. He was not my nonchalant campus bear. He was in frantic flight.
We like to think bears are not around us all the time, food-foraging, peering down from branches, passing for shadows, letting us go. The Siler bear fell out of just-out-of-sight. They caught and shot that blur with tranquilizer darts and brought him back to where we feel he belongs. Their paths predate us. Concrete and pavement do not erase them.
Goldilocks trespassed, tasted all the porridges, sat in all the chairs, broke the one she liked best, got away, got away with it. Goldilocks evokes white women who voted for Trump, or didn’t vote, because emails, because likability. What do we inflict and unleash in our search for just right? We’re living the daily, mounting answers with the roving bears.
I told David, Maybe my body is stuck at this weight because it’s the way I looked when I was three months pregnant. Hysterical pregnancy is when a woman believes she is pregnant, and her body mimics the state. My stomach is a 3-month-pregnant shape. Does my body believe it although my mind does not? I am not pregnant with a human. I have been gestating a novel that wants to be a trilogy. I could not have had borne a third child and also bear these novels. Other mothers could, but not me.
I was married twice, I have two children. As much as I feel the spirit of the third child, as much I chafe at the letdowns and limitations of my luscious, sustaining marriage, as much as I notice the places where the golden shine is gone, I do not have a right to more. Goldilocks girls become gray-haired old women, if they dodge enough asserters of mortality. If they are lucky.
Nathaniel has never been a dog person before, the way the rest of us are, but as his departure date approaches, he pets our dogs, sprawls with them. His suddenly long legs bisect the kitchen floor as he tenderly teases them. He told me he wants to get a German Shepherd puppy in Austria. Once they settle in. He shows me dogs with bear snouts, eyes. His voice softens as he describes them. Loyal, intelligent, protective. He wants to take it on long walks. He wants to train it to be well-behaved, to do tricks. He wants to snuggle with it and let it sleep on his bed. He calculates that the dog will be alive until he is about 26. Like me, he is avoiding feeling sad about leaving, but is also planning and planting loving connections within a mysterious unknown, one all his own.
On the kitchen floor last night, as he and I comforted his sister, whose first boyfriend just broke up with her, he admitted months ago, the beautiful girl from the play he was in had been his girlfriend. They broke up because they were each moving away.
What I feared missing, I’d already missed, but also regained.
Fernweh The pain of wanting to be someplace far from home. The opposite of homesickness.
My trip home from residency involved long lines, a missed plane, receiving a photo Laura took from our front yard of a rainbow, an added leg, standby, and a rough landing close to midnight. I drove home from the airport, sad and glad, tired and wired. As I turned on to our quiet street, a creamy, streaking blur within the darkness crossed the road. I hit the brakes. A little lion cub? It leapt into my neighbor’s yard. I glimpsed its spotted haunches, ring-striped tail.
Bobcats are all around, yet seldom let themselves be seen. Sixteen years after moving to their habitat, I saw my first one while exhausted, mourning the loss of writer’s camp and soon, my son. The flash of it a semaphore for something yet unknown.
For days, I yearned for morning walks with Amelie and Lily along the forest’s edge and turned my nose up at replacing them with desert walks among cholla blooms and piñon. I loved being home, I missed being at residency. I was lucky to have been at residency; it was my next to last one. I missed the person I was there, who got up at 5:45 to walk for an hour before anything else defined the shape of my days. And when I was there, I had missed being home, as the limited time I could have been spending with my son unspooled. I missed my wife, her body beside me, the way her touch pulses with ten years of knowing our love.
“Just right” is the sum of both places, both selves, in some other dimension, where they beget a third state. I come closest to inhabiting that state when I write.
In the mornings, the dogs slowly learn to leave me alone as I dance along to videos in the living room.
Candace Walsh holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and is the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family and Identity (Seal Press), a NM-AZ Book Award Winner. Her short story "The Sandbox Story" is forthcoming in Akashic Books' Santa Fe Noir. Her craft essays have been published/are forthcoming from Craft Literary*and Fiction Writers Review. You can read some of her published work at candacewalsh.contently.com. She wrote the above essay right after her MFA summer 2018 residency, six months before she applied to Ohio University's Creative Writing PhD program. Their mascot: the bobcat. She'll begin her studies there this fall.