Michelle Donahue

Urisine Gods and Suburbia, a story by Michelle Donahue

I THINK WE ALL know that time passes differently these days. As if hours have become a seal-slick surface. They slip—weeks to days, months to mere seconds. The digital clock blinking blank after the electricity returns. I’ve always suspected time to be treacherous, but not like this.

There are rumors a bear is loose in suburbia. Wild animals in domestic spaces always cause such excitement. A few weeks ago (or was it months? days?) the news reported there were monkeys in the city. Three young and ecstatic adults saw these swinging creatures high in trees, as monkeys are wont to do. The people captured the swinging animals on a staticky smartphone video where these so-called primates became hazy, dark blobs. I thought: that could be a girthy squirrel, an ambitious raccoon. People talked of these monkeys for weeks (days? months?). In this timelessness, we need something to occupy our thoughts.
           Which is why the thought of a bear roaming our streets is so alluring. No one has seen the creature, but each morning every household on this or that street wakes with all of their trash bins upturned. Rubbish strewn and rummaged through. It could be raccoons, but I’m dreaming of bears. I so want an unusual beastie to be living among us.

It’s Wednesday. I wake up to The Kitten knocking over the small bathroom trashcan. A constant rustling as she pillages its contents to unearth our used Q-tips. I think of her as The Kitten when she’s in a particularly cute or naughty mood, which is, let’s face it, almost always.

No one has seen the creature, but each morning every household on this or that street wakes with all of their trash bins upturned.

Someone witnesses the bear. It’s a grizzly, and a family spotted it luxuriating in their hot tub. No, that was a story from my childhood. A tale 2,000 miles away from my present. A grizzly entering yards to swim in pools, relax in jacuzzies. I was in elementary school, and once the bear was captured, we held a fundraiser and donated all the money to the animal rescue. They built the bear a new home in captivity, complete with a hot tub. We went on a field trip to visit the bear, who looked content. But how can we know what a wild animal feels? I remember thinking how small the enclosure looked. How small anything would feel when compared to the unblinking expanse of the wide-open world.

The Kitten has a craving mouth. She seeks to taste her small world around her. First, it’s toes. Then, any and all food: stray garlic skins, a smear of peanut butter, a raspberry. I pull a yard of string from her mouth. The leaf of a Thai chili plant, which she only releases when we chase her. The severed leaf falls through the wood slats of our deck.
           And then, of course, the Q-tips, mangy with ear wax. The sort of gross neither I nor my husband can weather. We begin fully closing the bathroom door.

In this timelessness, this dark seal’s mouth, we are stuck. We are lucky. We look at our computers and each month money delivers itself to our accounts and we’re thankful we’re still safe. The time—or lack of it—has not yet corrupted us.

It’s still Wednesday. The Kitten has escaped into the bush. A carnivorous sort of bush that smells like pine and has thorns almost like roses. There’s a rosebush too, for good measure. We didn’t plant the roses. Flowers just appear here. In the spring: tulips everywhere. Our next-door neighbors have tulips more magnificent than ours. A thick patch, the color of a smoggy sunset—scarlet and amaranthine. What luck these neighbors have, who do nothing but light off fireworks and sit around bonfires in their driveway (how strange, I think, when they have a stretching backyard of grass—why sit on smoky cement, why firework the sky, scour the air with noise?). I imagine the bonfire and firework smoke condensing as clouds, one small piece of an ever-changing climate.

Someone witnesses the bear. A black bear, who vanishes before capture. I spend my days (minutes? months?) working at my desk. I spend my weeks (years? seconds?) gazing from my window. At any moment a bear might walk down the street of my subdivision.

My husband buys me a hammock for my birthday. It’s exquisite. We spend our lucky sunny days lounging on it, eyes pointed to the pond at the edge of our property. He also bought me a bird identification guide. We identify a great blue heron, green heron, evening grosbeak, eastern meadowlark, prairie warbler, Canada goose, wood duck.

It’s Wednesday. There’s been another bear sighting. This one, a mere mile from our house. That evening, as I wheel out our trash, I pray to the ursine gods. Let a bear visit us. I need a reminder of the wild, a break from the groomed green landscape. Some wedge to splinter this timelessness.
           I look up and down the street, empty except for trash bins. We’re the only house with an additional one for recycling. We once composted too, two long moves ago, and still that wasn’t enough. I can’t help but think the loose bear is sending us a message. Making us confront the never-ending piles of human trash. Look at it, the bear might think, I’ve scattered your garbage everywhere.

The Kitten scares easily. Her tail fluffs into a thick bottlebrush and then she hides under the bed. When she scrambles outside and gets stung by a bee, she runs inside, hides under the bed. Her paw swells, but then her paw returns to the right size, and she is fine.
           The Kitten hates fireworks as much as our neighbors love them. On any holiday, or sometimes a plain ‘ole Saturday, the sound shakes our house and we all cower. The next day, cardboard and spent fuses scatter our yard. Scattered trash from a bear, I would tolerate, perhaps revere. But from these balding, boyish men?
           I collect the spent fireworks, so if The Kitten escapes outside, she can’t consume them. Imagine what that would do to her.

In this timelessness, this dark seal’s mouth,
we are stuck. We are lucky.

It’s Wednesday. Overnight, the bear has visited us. Our trash covers the small street, multicolored confetti, soggy and crinkly. The bear must be nearby but isn’t seen or captured. I look out my window for week-long hours. Or perhaps a month passing in minutes? It is only when I finally grow hungry that I avert my gaze.

This is a temporary home for us. A last-minute rental after moving thousands of miles and finding ourselves unexpectedly without a home. We never craved tract housing, never could picture ourselves in this sort of space. But in this timelessness, something quiet and safe and less populated is a good refuge. And there is the pond and the hammock and the promise of bears.

The Kitten wakes us with her midnight howl. She’s seen a raccoon outside our house, eyes bright as beacons. Her tail is as thick as my arm. I try to comfort her, but she’s already beneath the bed, where she stays until some moment when her fear leaves.
           I think raccoons are exquisite creatures. My husband disagrees—he has a childhood full of conniving raccoon stories. They are sneaky and smart. He tells me about one study where researchers witnessed a raccoon learn how to open a certain sort of lock on a trashcan. Knowledge of the lock spread for miles. Raccoons miles and miles away learned how to best the contraption, even though they had never seen it.

The timelessness sweeps me up and overwhelms me. I’m sick with it. I must be contained. I sleep in the bedroom, my husband on the couch. He is marvelous and tender. He makes me soup and buys me painkillers. The Kitten, however, is unused to our closed bedroom door and pounds on the door all night. The unrelenting noise enters my dreams until I am no longer bedridden. Until I realize it wasn’t the timelessness at all, but a simple cold. Still, when I emerge from the bedroom, I have a voracious hunger, a craving mouth like The Kitten. I scour the kitchen and consume anything I can—dried mango, walnuts, cheese puffs, wasabi peas.

As I sit and stare out of my window, I ponder the secret language of raccoons. It’s Wednesday. How do raccoons convey their lock-picking secrets? A tilt of the head, a symbol made with their little hands? My husband and I sometimes watch lock-picking videos made by a man who is also a lawyer. You never see his face, only his hands.
           He makes every lock look so simple to pick. It’s comforting to hear the click, to watch the metal locks open.

The bear incidents stop for a while, and then start. Each day (week? year?) dredges by. I have problems sleeping. I toss and turn. I awake on the kitchen floor, the tile scattered with peanuts, the bag ripped open. My palms are stained green from the grass.

It’s Wednesday. The Kitten escapes, runs wildly into the street. Although my husband runs after her, she slips away. We search for her for hours (months? minutes?). She is a small thing and there are dangers everywhere. My heart is frantic.
           As I walk up and down the sidewalks of suburbia, I clench my hands, nails sharp and digging into my palms. Like claws. My body feels massive. I turn a corner. I sniff the air. I’m surrounded by upturned trashcans. The bear, I think. I scan the streets, frantic, blood pulsing, but I find only The Kitten, unharmed and yowling. Curled beneath a neighbor’s bush. I thank the ursine gods for saving her.

The bear incidents escalate. Whole neighborhoods disrupted overnight. Trash strewn everywhere, gardens rummaged through and destroyed, fruit half eaten off trees, car windows smashed, upholstery ripped. This is no normal bear, the local news says. No one in suburbia has heard of a bear smashing car windows.
           There are more rumors, rustled whispers. Fear builds in the neighborhood. Those with garages packed with clutter clear out the mess and park their cars within. But still, they wonder. If the bear can get through car windows, what’s next?

It happens. It’s Wednesday. I see the bear settled high in the tree outside my window. Where there was once a hornet nest the size of a basketball, there is now a black bear.
           The Kitten and I watch. The Kitten’s tail doesn’t puff, she doesn’t hide under the bed. We are silent, in reverence. My skin tingles, my heart as buzzy as a bee. Full of sweet honey. When my husband is done with his online meeting, I call for him. The three of us watch the bear, who is also silent, who looks peaceful.
           Then, I do what the news has been telling us to do if we see this bear. I call the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

We search for her for hours (months? minutes?). She is a small thing and there are dangers everywhere.

It’s Wednesday. I awake in the hammock, sun streaming on my face. Spent firework detritus are scattered around me. There is a spent fuse in my mouth. It tastes like sharp as metal, gritty as charcoal. The back door is locked. The house is dark. I wonder where my husband is. I enter through the garage, the door mercifully unlocked. The house is silent. The Kitten must be underneath the bed, hiding.
           My body aches. Dirt forms crescents beneath my nails.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife comes. It’s quite an ordeal. They explain they’ll need to capture the bear and safely re-home it to minimize risk to the bear and humans. I don’t like the pronoun it.
           A news truck comes. My husband, The Kitten, and I hide inside. We don’t want to be recorded, for our faces to appear on the news. Other neighbors, the firework neighbors for instance, flock outside. Perhaps they want a taste of this suburban bear fame, or perhaps their windows don’t provide the clean view of the action that ours do.
           The three of us watch. Two women set up soft, trampoline-like pads at the base of our tree beneath the bear. Another employee readies a tranquilizer gun. My heart skips. My skin furls. I hadn’t thought of how they would capture a 300-pound bear. I hold my husband’s hand. The Kitten perches on the windowsill.
           The employee shoots. The air inside feels like the air outside—muggy and stagnant. The wet heat fills my lungs. The dart must’ve found flesh, because the bear stiffens. My skin stings. The cicadas chatter.

It’s Wednesday. I awake beneath the bed, on the basement floor, on the front porch. The front door is locked. I knock on the door, turn the doorknob. Raccoons prowl the street, their masked eyes so bright in the sun. The light is so bright it melts the cement.

It’s Wednesday. My body is alone on the street at night, asphalt scattered with trash. The taste of sweet, half-decay invades my tongue.

The bear teeters, limbs stiff and outstretched like a zombie. The bear falls slowly from the branch. I hold my breath. The leaves rustle and then stop. My own limbs lock. I’m hot and I cannot move. The bear falls through the air as if each second is an eon, as if sinking through molasses.
           The bear doesn’t look real like this. I don’t feel real. This falling, limbs splayed, neck tight, face empty in unconsciousness. The bear looks stuffed, looks comic. I’m struck by horror and humor. The Kitten chirps from the windowsill. Outside, gray catbirds and robins call.
           Within me, something deep and ancient stirs. It’s awful and incredible, seeing a wild animal tranquilized, brought down to the earth. Vertigo sweeps through me like a whisper turning into a shout.

Fireworks light the sky. Metallic red and royal blue bright as bombs. The Kitten’s tail puffs up. I’m starving, my mouth craving more than air.
           The bear is falling. The bear’s face is vacant as if dead already. The tranquilizer dart is locked tightly in the flesh of my arm. I’m frozen. The ground is close, half-seconds away (years? months?) and there’s nothing I can do to stop my fall.

MICHELLE DONAHUE is an assistant professor of creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. She holds a PhD in creative writing & literature from the University of Utah where she was a Steffensen Cannon fellow and prose editor for Quarterly West. Her prose has appeared in Porter House Review, Sycamore Review, CutBank, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. You can find her online at: http://michelle-donahue.com.