The things I was looking forward to most were cold mornings with impossibly hot coffee, pinecones covered in sap thrown in the fire for extra crackle, and silence. My baby, my happy baby, was not yet six months, but there was no way she was missing this. She could play in the thick sand that surrounded the swim beach, and I had already bought her a bear costume for cold nights. Besides, there are many forms of knowledge for babies now, and I wasn’t going to keep her away from them on account of difficulty on my end. Maybe I was making up for not breastfeeding her, but it was a good kind of making up.
I worried for her on the drive, but she slept soundly in the back of the car. My parents were in the car in front of us, which relieved me. Finally, we would be getting some experienced help. We named her Maxine after the Lenape word for bear. William wanted it. I was big on middle names, so I chose hers.
We drove into Mono Village a few hours before dusk which gave us ample time to set up camp. William and I hurried the tent set up, while Maxine slept in the car with the door open. The air was dry and warm. The mosquitos hadn’t come out yet. He set up the air mattress and her portable crib while I whispered to wake Maxine up. I worried she might stay awake all through the night, a little too late. I was already exhausted. Half of us bought firewood along with our campground spots and the other half gathered pinecones for the fire. Maxine was strapped to my chest and kept rotating her head looking at all the newness. I tried to get her to see a squirrel, but I couldn’t see her face even if she saw it.
The sun dropped with the temperature as the mosquitos spread out from the slow parts of the creek. I threw over a hoodie, and fished out Maxine’s soft bear suit. She looked so cute. We took no less than 100 photos, and then started the fire. We passed around Maxine like she was a spooky story, and each one of us pointed at the fire for her to see it. She wasn’t afraid.
We settled in for bed early after using the communal showers. I had come to know to wear socks over my socks to keep the dirt out, especially after a shower. I was right eventually about Maxine not wanting to sleep. Late evening we were all standing in the tent, necks craned, bouncing her up and down taking shifts, so she’d stop crying. I was so worried about getting a noise complaint, but we took a spot far from everyone for this reason. Every light we saw through the tent’s bluish hue sent my heart racing. Each car passed us, never stopping. After midnight, she fell asleep in my arms. I sat still, hoping the spell wouldn’t break. I didn’t have to see my face to know there were dark bags under my eyes.
I woke up and William was gone, so was Maxine. I couldn’t hear anything, not even the creak, or the bats and crickets. Then I heard a noise outside. I calculated its walk as wide, and I heard the little tract of long grass pressed down as it huddled through it. I knew it was a bear, and it was gone as quick as it came. I unzipped the tent and whispered, “William. Mom, Dad.”
The sun hadn’t come out yet, and the ground was stiff. A ways down the hill, the bear ran rolling along like a giant ball, so I followed it. It headed to the open meadow that was still wet with dew. When we neared a spot that had been flattened in a circle like the bear had rolled through it, I crouched down. I saw her litter, and among them, Maxine.
I watched for some time while my thighs ached from the night before. The bear fed her cubs along with Maxine, and I grew powerfully angry. This was coupled with an intense fear for Maxine. If I charged, she might kill her. I breathed so loudly I thought she’d turn her head, but I was downwind. The bear would have to leave eventually. I started scooting across the meadow, as slow and quiet as possible. When her ears twitched, I slowly released the sound. I found a rock, and I threw it in the opposite direction of me as far as I could. She bound up toward it, and I made my move. As I approached the cubs, they all transformed somehow and looked just the same as each other. I picked the one that smelled like Maxine, and ran away hunching through the meadow before I made it to the open dirt and sprinted.
Everyone in the campground seemed to have woken up, and William and my dad were making breakfast. The fishing poles were leaning against the green picnic table with lake lures freshly tied on.
“Where were you?” My mom put her arms out for Maxine. I didn’t want to give her to her, but I didn’t want to look guilty either.
“Just at the restroom.” I said still panting.
“We looked there.” She smiled at Maxine, as I placed her in her arms.
“I went to one further because they were all being used.” I said, “Did you go fishing?”
“Yeah, we all woke up early and didn’t want to wake you both.”
“Figured you needed your sleep after that night.” My dad added.
We decided to spend the day at the lake as we packed up diapers, an umbrella, folding chairs and an ice chest filled with snacks. We loaded it all onto a wagon, that Maxine rode while I pulled her along. My mom walked alongside the wagon, and pointed to a blue jay while William and my dad walked ahead carrying two fishing poles on either side of them.
I turned my neck to glance at Maxine, and as the wagon would bounce along the ground her image would flicker between humanhood and bearhood. My mom would stare ahead when this happened. A deer with two spotted fawns bobbed through some of the campsites a few yards away.
Soon William had caught a fish that was flopping itself in and out on the surface of the water. We decided to keep it since it was sizable. He leaned the fish toward Maxine, and she pawed at it pulling it in for a bite.
“Woah,” we all stepped in. I grew worried.
As the day wore on, we walked back to see a little crowd around the base of a thick tree. We went to see the commotion. In the tree was the bear, and I knew it was that particular bear because on one of the branches above the bear I saw Maxine with her new bear sister. I looked down toward who was in the wagon, and it was a small bear cub looking up towards the branches. I looked fiercely around, and no one else seemed to notice. I picked up Maxine, the Maxine in the wagon, and ran away from the tree. I heard the rest of my family calling my name out from behind me, but rushing along.
Maxine napped in the car where I felt she was safer. We started a fire around the time she woke up, and night was falling quickly. She was ravenous drinking milk bottle by bottle, and trying to grab our hot dogs after eating her apple mush. She seemed more awake tonight. When I tried to put her to sleep in the tent, she grabbed at the netting around the easy-up and scratched a few holes right through it.
I tossed and turned all night waiting to hear the bear. I knew she would come. I waited to hear her low heavy movements like a boulder rolling softly through the forest. When I had run from her while she was suspended in the tree, I sensed her following me with her eyes. I sensed she told me to meet her in the same space, and we would be able to baby swap.
When the sun was around the corner, I woke fully up, and noticed William was gone. I scooped up a sleeping Maxine, and journeyed toward the meadow. The lair was easy enough to find, and the bear was sitting upright swatting away bugs with her enormous paw. I searched each of the bear cub’s faces as they crawled up her body. Both of them looked unlike Maxine, and glancing down toward the bundle in my arms, Maxine’s furless face presented itself.
Mornings continued just so. I would wake up sometimes in a cold sweat to find my baby gone and rush to the meadow to outsmart the bear. Sometimes I would come home with a bear cub, sometimes a human. No one, but I knew what was happening. Perhaps the bear knew.
It was our last night at the campground, and we built an everlasting fire to get rid of the excess firewood. I worried this would keep the bear away for the night, and not be able to swap our babies for the right one if necessary. I could not leave Mono Village without Maxine.
Instead of waiting for the bear to cross my path, I went to the showers a little late, but bounded toward the lair. I would not wait for the bear to come to me. As I approached the meadow, a few bats flew by in the dark purple sky, and the birds were all gone to bed. Maxine or the bear cub was in my bjorn. The other two were in the clearing. I stepped into the dim moonlight thankful for its sliver shape. I creaked my ear toward a nearby rustling, but nothing came of it. The air filled in with a slight fog coming from the sweet water of the creek, and gave everything a tinted scent. I crept toward the den and saw the other two cubs laying still except their rhythmic breathing. I didn’t know what I was planning on doing, but as I scooped them both on either side of Maxine, I felt an intense pain in my spine.
The bear had come back. I did not get a chance to turn around. I ran away with whatever baby was in my bjorn, and I screamed for William and my parents as I approached. They came to my side, as I told them that the bear had attacked me, and we rushed inside the car.
The car was quiet. Not a sound of the forest penetrated the inside of the car.
“What’s in your arms, Mary?” My mom’s voice quivered.
“My baby,” I smiled, and said as I turned her around, “My baby, Maxine.”
They sucked in all the air from the vehicle.
“That’s a bear.” William said.
Hally Winters lives in Sunland, California. She is currently an MFA candidate for creative writing at California Institute of the Arts. Her work can also be found at Two Sisters Writing and Publishing, and An Elephant Never. Her Twitter handle is @HallyWinters.