Bruno from LitFest Pasadena, inspired by Janet Fitch’s Russian toy, a wood carving of a lumberjack and a bear, each on the end of a seesaw that moved up and down
My husband brought me the cub, the small black bear, not much larger than my own baby. Found him out by Slew Creek, he said, orphaned, I don’t imagine it can make it but brought it back anyway. He said the sow had died. I did not ask him if he’d shot the sow, or inquire as to how she’d died, because I knew. I did, yes I knew. I took the thing from him, snuffling, weak–how long orphaned I wondered. Held it to my heart, cupping my hands beneath his tiny bony haunches: he was small, limp when I held him up, no struggle in him at all. Paws, legs, dangling quietly. Weak. Must have been carried home slung at the front of the saddle. I sat in the rocker and stroked him and he let me. Hardly moved though now and then his head wobbled side to side as if he were trying to lift it. I held him close to my breast for a time. After a while he raised up and looked at me, his face very near to mine. I knew then what I would do.
I named him Bruno. My own baby, born two months earlier, I had named Ursa, as if fate had planned this thing. He did not take my breast on the first try, nor the second but in time he did. The first time I felt the odd shape of his mouth as something new. The little snout nudging me earnestly, working up and down as he suckled with more strength. His tiny paws were sharp: I held the front ones in one hand while he fed so he could not push against and scratch me.
One time I had Ursa at one breast and Bruno at the other and my husband, amused, called out, We should have Mr. Feldman the photographer come by. He did come by one day and asked to take a picture. I let him do that. When he brought the picture back I wrote on the bottom, “Mr. Feldman took this picture of me with Bruno and Ursa with my permission.” I thought it chaste, beautiful.
Later I heard he made quite a bit of money off that picture selling it to a magazine that published curiosities and made them look freakish. That had not been my intention. Now, all these years later, a woman has found a copy of that magazine and contacted me. Says she’s writing about logging camps in the Selways in the 1920s and 30s. Could she talk to me? Could I tell her the story about the picture of the bear cub and a baby, me in the rocker, my dress tucked up around my breasts–You are nursing them, right? she asked, and I said yes. Where had she found that picture of me, I asked her, because I didn’t even have a copy for myself any more. I believe my ex-husband took it when he left. She told me she found it in a box in a thrift store in Wallace, Idaho. How long did Bruno stay with you she inquired before she hung up. Just a year, I said, or thereabouts. Then one day he was gone.
The woman hopes to visit me soon.
Judith Freeman is the author of four novels, including Red Water and The Chinchilla Farm, as well as a collection of stories and The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler. Her most recent book, The Latter Days: A Memoir, was published by Pantheon. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and the Erle Stanley Gardner fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, and has taught in the graduate writing program at USC and various writing workshops around the country.