When you take the baby home to its father, salt its skin to sweaten and sweeten, to bring forth scent and character, texture and a fulsome cry. Pay special attention to the crooks and crevices that have yet gone unprobed: the armpits, the spaces between the fingers and buttocks and behind the knees. Slip a single grain beneath the retracted foreskin, for you have left him uncircumcised, though not for all the talk from all the white-wristed doctors and other mothers, blown cumbersome-comely and wider still with worry.
We live in an age of civilization, after all, said one, holding court for three others in a ring of taut mouths and swollen fingers.
But what about hygiene?
Well, that’s exactly my point. If you aren’t able to keep your baby clean and healthy in today’s world, you don’t deserve to keep it.
But what about religion?
The woman’s face went blank a moment, but she soon found her way back. Listen, she said. The baby’s first experience of the world should not be pain. Plain and simple. It is your job as a mother to protect him from such things. There are no excuses for that.
Oh, she is clean-looking, this one: like she takes her skin off every night and scours it with sand, outside and in. But you know what she wears has been there forever. No one could put it back on so perfectly, without one solitary blister of air, one frail gnat’s body writhing and wanting, one degree of heat not her own. She wears white shoes and a plain gold circle of a wedding ring, and as you doze in the waiting room you imagine stretching it with both hands, wide and wider, and fitting her body through it, then all the rest of them: birthing them in turn, and showing them there is nothing to be afraid of.
When the baby starts to make its way out a few months later you make your way along your own path, down the mountain, leaving your husband to wait. He does not like doctors, nor do they like him, but you must make concessions: if not to your wants then to this body, still yours. It has wants you never chose for it, never knew of until now, and they pull you down the mountain and past the mounds of sporing ferns and fir trunks, wet-black and dusted with deer velvet and musked with deer piss, and all the other things you would like to rest against—what is a forest, you think, but a place full of things to rest against, or on, or in, or under—but the body wants clean white hallways, wants sure hands, the kind of hands it remembers from long ago. You lost patience long ago with blaming your own skin.
At the hospital, lie back and let him out. You have watched enough animals—the struggle, the kick free, the child wandering close by its mother, mobility giving it the gift of confusion, a refusal to take for granted the birther even though she stands still, watchful, waiting to be found—to know this is not your work. When they hand you your son, he is pink as a blister, mucky and merciless weak: softer than deerlings’ velvet, that owlets’ catkin-plump nursery, than all the hairless prey. You are up the mountain by nightfall, as all the other mothers retreat to their holes and huddles and homes, and for once you are one of them. The hum of darkness reverses itself, and reveals to you you your husband’s humming sleep.
Take the last piece of light for preparing the baby, and rub him down with the salt you carry in your pocket to raise redding and welting and his own first raucous squall. Know this is not his first pain: he has withstood entrance. Now he is coming to understand what part he will be able to play.
Inside, your husband is darker than darkness, his breath hard enough to make you picture the leathery bellows of his lungs. Bite his back, the only way to wake him when his is under. Your teeth are growing sharper, and soon you will be able to reach into his fur and find the same constellation of scars that mark your body, sometimes another with each unbinding, or so it seems. Against your old skin they are smoother, stronger, moonly-white. If this flesh could cover you, you would no longer envy his.
He rolls over, eyes half-open and already hungry, want before watching. His arms wrap around you, and you rest against his cathedral chest and the debris of his wanderings, stuck in his fur: berry seeds in sugars and scats, burrs and bristling grass chaff and the sweet rot of winter-killed leaves, kindled into fragrance by his heat. You reach under his lips and rub at his gums, wrap your fingers around each canine—one-two-three-four, the way he likes—and probe the little caverns of his molars. He moans in pleasure, and you come away with a handful of well-worked gristle specked with fat. Kiss him with each bite, and let him remember the contours of your face with the tip of his tongue, so much nimbler than his paws, which are clumsy as man’s hunger. He knows how to keep his claws from cutting, but not how to make them feel.
When you have finished eating, kiss his teeth in turn, tongue lingering on their smooth length. His are not the first you have loved this way, but they are the first that connect to a body.
The town below—the town that made you—loves bears as it loves women: in parts more than all together, in teeth and pelts and grasps and grunts and sighs. Long before you saw a real bear, you could thrust your hand into the bins lining the souvenir shops that huddled alongside the highway, rub a tooth between two fingers, test its sharpness against the sharpest parts of yourself, and—when no one’s sight was resting on you—sharpen yourself against it.
You were without fur or claws or good teeth or meat, but as you grew older it became clear that you, too, had things to parcel off and sell: hours. Nights. Years, if you were lucky—the lucky ones got years. Divided up this way, a lifetime began to seem mean and bloodless, and easy to forget. So you went up the mountain, because cold and hunger left no space for forgetting, because you could not see the passage of hours, or slice the day up into parts, or yourself into parts for each day.
Here you met your husband, who found you when you had lost parts of yourself even time could not steal, and huffed hot air into your mouth, breathed you into bloody being and let you lick the water from his tongue. You knew the parts of him, but here was the whole.
Your husband is impatient: he snorts and growls and rumbles, makes himself into many animals, then back into one. In the massing dark, you let yourself cast one last look on your son’s face. His eyes are still closed, lost in the folds you know best from old men’s faces. His hands, with their strong little fingers—they can already hold and let go—are clenched. You uncurl one of his fists, and press his palm for a moment between yours.
Then you nod to your husband, and he takes the baby up in his vast embrace. He makes new shadows with every second, and soon the boy is swallowed whole. Then your husband lifts his head and the light makes its way in again, and you see him again: softer even than in the light, his pinks wasting their prettiness on the long blind night, and the hunger of the mountain wrapping him close. Your husband lowers his head again, and as sight leaves you, you listen to his tongue’s probing, gentle at first, just to know the lay of things—what else could he know of such a body? He has never been a father before.
Close your eyes—no use to try seeing—and listen. You know all these sounds well enough to know the feelings that accompany them, to feel the warmth at your eyelids, the testing grip of teeth on the soft skin at your neck, the greater body rocked by the jostling of your pulse. Teeth assay the shoulders, then the arms, and then the tongue cuts in broad strokes across the chest and legs, tasting the miniature of all other men, their hungers and heavens in breaking bud—then breaks it.
The salt dissolves skin savory beneath, but this is not a job for gashing jaws. The tongue works its own softness against the skin’s, and finds the skin’s to be lacking, and like something meant to be forgotten, the skin works itself away.
If he wanted to finish all in one, he could draw the tip of one claw along the boy’s throat, slice the old open to make a clean entrance for the new. But unlike today’s first entrance, this one is not about cleanliness. He works a long time, head bent, until each part—the tips of those small fingers, the hot inside of that speechless mouth—is cleansed. Then he hands you your son.
If he was asleep when you gave him to his father, his eyes are open now, and you remember the words of the hospital woman: The baby’s first experience of the world should not be pain.
How much pain is there in being born, a first or a second time? There is pain, you know, in letting go even of the great, heavy things, whose weight you cannot capably bear, let alone desire. There were things worth missing in your old life: a good hour, some morning, with a sister’s protectionless arms around your neck. The hiss of fat in a pan, sweet as rain. The ribbons a girl could win in Sunday school if she knew a Bible verse, and could recite it in front of everyone—a pretty white ribbon to tie in her hair and wear all day, until the heat of her skin left it wilted and grayed. But now you have lost all the ribbons, and you don’t remember the words.
Your son reaches up and paws at your face to make you pay attention. He is awake now, and outside the air is thick with the maunching mulch of spring. Where his five fingers once grasped and abandoned, there are now five claws, dirtlessly shining, fine as hairs. It is your husband’s turn to watch you now.
Who is he, this furred and frightened changeling, black eyes opened fresh and shining, breath brewing, dark skin showing through his darker coat? He burrows his face against your chest, his voice the squeak of clean things, wordless now and always, and instead of answering by calling something he isn’t—hey baby, baby, baby boy—you make your body speak the words he knows.
He has lost interest in your face now. His paws swipe at your breasts, and his breath grows heavy. In the dark, his teeth shine like the brand-new things they are. If you hesitate, you will not recall it later. You pull your dress off one shoulder, and when it catches on the other you use the strength in your own hands to tear it in two. It falls at your feet, and you stand bared before him, waiting for his hunger to teach him what to do.
Sarah Marshall lives and writes in Oregon. Her stories, poems, and essays have most recently appeared in or are forthcoming from The Believer, Saw Palm, Harpur Palate, The Collagist, and Hobart, and she is currently at work on a collection of fiction whose genre is somewhere between fairy tale and dirty realism. This is not the first story she has written about a woman who marries a bear.