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For June, we begin with Chelsea Mueller’s evocative view of motherhood’s pressures and expectations. ~ Julian and Fran, June 4, 2023
by Chelsea Mueller
The sun rioted outside the kitchen window, announcing a new day. Cady ignored its demand for attention. Baby Emily was on her hip, happily mouthing the edge of her shirt, cooing in delight. She didn’t need to do the sleep math. Cady did all that for everyone.
Baby had snoozed on Mama and in her crib fourteen hours that day. Cady’s husband,Jack, stumbled into the kitchen, lamenting his fatigue after a solid nine hours of rest in a cozy bed. His offers to help had gone from persistent to nonexistent in the last few weeks. Cady had a collective three hours and fifteen minutes of shut-eye, if she counted the times she nodded off while nursing the babe.
Had Cady’s mother ever fallen asleep like this? The dropped connection clawed at her chest. Her mother had passed years ago, but fresh grief found her in recent weeks. That afternoon, while Baby napped for nearly an hour, Cady sought the scrap of bearskin her mother had left her. The cancer hadn’t been quick. So the placement in the hope chest—the one she insisted Cady take when hospice was imminent—was purposeful. Tucked behind photo albums and under the blanket Great-Aunt Gladys had crocheted was a hide no wider than her forearm. The fur was clean and soft. A small note in her mother’s looping handwriting was taped to the back: When your burden becomes too much, place this on your shoulders and let it bear the weight.
The rug beside Baby’s crib was soft against Cady’s knees. Her daughter swaddled and sleeping within. Salt tracks had dried on her cheek. She draped the stole over her shoulders and wished her mom could truly help.
When the bearskin began to grow, to caress her flesh, she didn’t fight it. Fur rippled across her shoulders, her breasts, her belly. The animal consumed her quickly, and she pulled her first unhindered breath in months.
* * *
She hadn’t meant to run, but the air was so clean. With each step forward, her breath came easier, her head cleared more. The moon speared through the dense pines, dappling her path with pools of white light. She leapt from one to another. No longer counting the minutes of sleep she was missing nor the last time she’d nursed. It was simply her, bare in her fur, and the wild growth around her.
The forest had beckoned Cady throughout the day. Once night fell and her husband was home with Baby, she was too desperate to resist. Too tired to care how flustered her husband might be alone with Baby. Too drained to wonder if he remembered the instructions for the bottle warmer.
Her body was lean. The muscles she had honed hefting the baby were there, but little more. Even the soft brown fur, glinting golden in the moonlight, wasn’t enough to warm her bones. Roots grasped the forest floor with knobby knuckles jutting up from the soil. The musky silt clung to her paws.
Fatigue licked her muscles. The canopy cleared and she found herself trampling a patch of wildflowers. The yellows and violets were sharper to her ursine eyes. The delicate petals kicked a sweetness atop mossy air. Her husband had handed her a sunflower bouquet the morning of their first ultrasound. Cady stared at the ocher petals for only a moment, before snapping her jaws at them, devouring the heads.
She wasn’t that woman anymore.
She wasn’t a woman anymore.
Bear Cady slunk across the clearing. A felled log nestled against a more stalwart tree. Pushing aside bramble and bugs, Cady burrowed beneath it. The space wasn’t large. She was emaciated, as though she’d been kept in a poorly funded roadside zoo. She was too exhausted to care.
She returned home as the sun rose. Baby gleefully stretched her arms out toward her mama—bearskin and all. Warmth rumbled in Cady’s chest as she cradled the girl. She nursed her without nodding off for the first time in weeks, able to let adoration for the tiny being in her arms rush beneath her skin. Her husband edged toward her, hand aloft as if he were to tame her. She snarled until he left the room. She’d left Baby with him alone overnight. Gone off to what? Sleep? Guilt ravaged her belly like her claws against an aged tree.
But her daughter was rested, fed, and happy. An empty bottle still wearing the film of breast milk inside lay in the kitchen sink. He had cared for their daughter while Bear Cady had rested.
* * *
Cady’s paws forced her to be careful with Baby, but tending to young was innate. Cady bathed and fed her daughter, and then she left for the forest. Her husband continued to keep a distance from her. Her growls were instinctive. Even when he neared Baby, she flashed canines at him. And yet now she was running to the woods, faster this time, knowing he would figure it out. Baby was safe with him. Safer than Bear Cady could be next to him now.
Cady ran until her legs ached. Smaller creatures scurried away from her. The cacophony of nocturnal songbirds, predatory warnings, and the steady hum of beetles and their kin dulled in her ears the faster she moved. Fingers raked across her back. Bear Cady whipped around with a ferocity that silenced the cries overhead. Her sharpened gaze narrowed on the wayward tree limb. The branch wasn’t beckoning her; it wasn’t tapping her for another task; it wasn’t trying to siphon her energy through pressing contact. She swiped at the offending bark anyway.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
This bear body was hers. Only hers. But once it had been her mother’s. The fur, the strength, the reprieve were gifts of the bearskin. Gifts from Mom.
Hunger gnawed at her belly. Before, she’d put off eating until both her husband and the baby were fed. She’d eat the cold steak. She’d accept the cheese stick and the protein bar as a meal. Her bear body abided no such thing. This gift from her mother. A way to sustain Cady even after she’d passed. A predatory switch flipped and the sounds she’d ignored earlier were now all she could hear. The scruff of small prey in the grass. The scuttle of tiny nails against dead wood. Her mouth watered.
Rabbit meat was infinitely better than a makeshift Lunchable.
Cady nestled in the woods again that night. Her belly full for the first time in too long. She’d sated herself on rabbit once before. An anniversary dinner with her husband. They’d drunk the entire bottle of Argentinean Malbec, and then spent the next hour window-shopping items they could never afford through closed storefronts. A bright blue handbag and red-soled shoes were Cady’s wish list picks. Her husband had wanted a bearskin rug.
She lumbered back to her house when the sky lit with the blaze of morning. The backyard was quiet and greener than she’d realized. Her azaleas had blossomed, splashing pockets of red against the white slats of her ranch home. Cady had wanted brightness to make the space more welcoming when her friends visited. No one visited her now; #MomLife memes were the closest they came to conversing. Bear Cady liked the fierce line marking this house as hers.
Her husband had left the back door unlocked, and she maneuvered the handle with relative ease. Her paws were more malleable today than they had been before. The claws had receded after this last foray in the woods, and the teeth she’d used to rend her meal were blunted again for the first time in days. She ran a possessive paw over her fur. At least it was still a coarse and shimmering brown. Cady was still, blessedly, a bear.
The memory of her mother, beleaguered but sated, drinking black coffee at the kitchen table, swirled before her. Had she worn the bearskin the night before? Shed it before making breakfast? Cady’s mother had been particular about meat; had the nights she’d prowled as predator altered her appetite?
The kitchen was quiet. Clean bottles rested on the drying rack. Jack slumped in a chair with Emily tucked against his shoulder. His wan smile was genuine as he passed their daughter into her paws. She snuggled the girl, fed her, and remembered the first time her husband had taken her hiking. They’d climbed dusty trails in the Southwest. Her fingers had turned a burnished red from the silt and her own sweat. She’d left her prints all over her husband’s face. Why had she not wrapped Emily in a sling and taken her hiking yet?
* * *
Jack made dinner that night. Though she didn’t particularly care if her food was cooked, she ate the food while it still steamed on principle. As she finished her meal, he edged closer to her, hands open. His eyes, a soft hazel, the same as their daughter’s, remained on hers. There was an edge of fear constricting his pupils, but that hard set of his jaw cut only respect.
When had she last seen that look? He stroked the fur on her shoulder and she allowed it. He picked up Emily. The infant rasped her fingers against his stubble and giggled. Baby liked her mom’s fur, too. He nudged Cady toward the door, and though he didn’t speak, she heard the promise in the action. Take care of you. I will take care of her.
Bear Cady wanted to corral her cub—Before Cady had, too—but the taste of freedom, of health, was too tempting. The night was crisp and bright with potential.
She took a new path into the forest. She used to hike a new trail every month. That was a decade ago. The innate need to explore squeezed her skin. She crawled up weathered logs, relished in wet moss squishing beneath her toes, inhaled the clean pine and sharper warmth of freshly hewn wood. Cady ventured deeper into the woods to bigger secrets and better prey.
The stream rushed around smoothed stones. Cady didn’t hesitate. The cool water enveloped her and awakened every pore. This was no two-minute shower with her hair still in a topknot. The current pulled at her feet, at her heart. She let it take what it wanted, ducking beneath the surface with the hope of truly letting go. The full moon stretched at its apex, illuminating the clear water.
The milky light bathed her body. She was nourished and whole and somehow less alone. Thanks, Mom. Effervescence skated over her body, tiny bubbles rising beneath her fur. An overwhelm of love and relief and rightness swelled in Cady’s chest. Heat pricked her eyes. She exhaled, stepped from the pool, and watched her fur slide downstream. Her skin once again marred only with the marks of her life—the faded, jagged repair from a poor grasp while mountain climbing, the pricks of days in the sun, and the tugs of childbirth. The slip of her mother’s bearskin remained on her shoulders. It gently tapped her back as she walked on two feet back toward her home, her family, her life.
Nourished she could do this; be the woman again.
But she wasn’t so naïve as to release the skin to the stream.
Late that next night she returned her bearskin to the cedar chest. A hibernation heirloom. For her. For her daughter. For next time.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Chelsea Mueller (she/her) is a fantasy and horror author. Find her on social media @ChelseaVBC and learn more about her other works at ChelseaMueller.com.
“Hibernation Heirloom,” © Chelsea Mueller, 2023.
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