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art by Melissa Mead

Migrating Bears

Helena Bell graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 2008 with an MFA in Poetry and now lives in St. Louis where she attends Washington University School of Law. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Strange Horizons, and Pedestal Magazine; this is her first fiction sale.

Joseph Godfrey believes himself to be the son of Bluebeard. How else can he explain the parade of women's bodies in his bedroom closet, hanging there like limp socks.
Only it is not many women, but one: his mother, who died weeks ago but keeps coming back. He has found her sitting on his bed every afternoon since the funeral, dressed in her long nutria fur coat and white kid gloves with the pinky of her left hand pinned down. At night he stands among his mothers in the closet, swishing them back and forth; he closes his eyes to languish in the brush of fur against his cheek. One evening his father catches him and the next day Godfrey returns from school to find the closet emptied of her and the coats. Godfrey pulls down all his old baby clothes and dumps them on the floor. He takes a stolen pair of scissors and begins disassembling all his old things. This, he thinks, will bring back his mother.
It doesn't.
Joseph Godfrey is the only twelve year old in Mrs. Moser's fifth grade class. He's the only one brave enough to sneak out during recess, climb the football Jesus statute and tell the tale at lunch. He repeats this stunt many times in one week and imagines Jesus counting down the moments between each encounter, the stone arms of Christ reaching for Godfrey beneath the clouds.
Mrs. Moser tells Godfrey she doesn't think he'll pass fifth grade this year either. That's okay by him. He hasn't grown an inch since he was six years old and doesn't think he'll ever be tall enough for middle school lockers.
Since his mother's death, Godfrey rides to and from school with Caroline and her mother. Caroline calls him the pied piper of Upperline because once he caught a winged termite in his fist and held it until a great swarm of Formosans had covered him from head to toe.
"What's your secret?" Caroline asked. "Are you made of wood? Of magnets? Do you possess the secret of cloning in your sweaty palms?"
Godfrey didn't know. He figured the other bugs only appeared to rescue their trapped companion.
In the mornings Godfrey walks the two blocks from his house to Caroline's and stands by the car until she and her mother appear. Caroline's mother is punctually unpredictable. This week she's distracted by the migratory patterns of bears; they're moving in groups now, Caroline says.
"Bears migrate?" Godfrey asks.
"Oh the things you don't know."
After school Godfrey and his father walk to the Uptown library. Godfrey hurls miniature Parisian gargoyles from the roof while his father reads old issues of Field and Stream downstairs. Godfrey's father doesn't fish, but sits in an orange tufted chair by the east window and waves his hand back and forth in an imitation of casting. Watching his father do this feels as if a fistful of fishhooks have snagged in Godfrey's liver and so Godfrey sneaks upstairs, past the teenaged guard who holds the door wide open. The guard slips the attic window's key into Godfrey's hand and whispers, "Maybe Joseph Godfrey should throw himself off the ledge this time."
He doesn't.
Godfrey's mother never went to Paris, but a six-acre imitation concrete park outside of Baton Rouge. Godfrey stole the gargoyle from her purse the evening they came back. He keeps it in the bottom drawer of his white wicker dresser. Every time he opens the drawer there are more of them, hiding among his shirts. He can't remember if the gargoyles appeared before or after his mother died, and he worries that one day his father will notice and take them all away. The gargoyles multiply as a punishment for his act of stealing, Godfrey thinks. They march relentlessly through the woods and over highways, slip through the air ducts and open his drawer when no one is looking. He begins to fear what his father may know about unnatural groupings of things. What would have happened if his mothers had became too many, all cloistered together in the closet? Will the same inevitable bad thing happen with the gargoyles? Will they grow teeth, become carnivorous? Godfrey began stuffing his backpack with the tiny statues and filling his drawer with bricks.
He left them in his desk at school, the backseat of Caroline's mother's car, and the crook of Jesus' elbow. They cannot plan nefariously thus separated. Always he intends to get rid of all of them, but when it comes down to the last one, standing on the ledge above the library, he cannot let go, and instead slips it deep into the pocket of his corduroy pants.
Godfrey suspects that by holding onto one, he holds onto all of them. He wonders if somewhere in the universe there is a gargoyle making factory solely for his own personal use. He imagines that his mothers line the conveyor belt, inspecting each gargoyle so that it is a perfect replica. He wonders if they are comparing them to the first gargoyle, or merely the one before it such that each statue could modify itself just a tiny bit until they become something else altogether. He pictures the gargoyles slowly turning into his mother, and his mothers slowly turning into the gargoyle.
He taps the side of his pants and decides that if his mothers create them, they cannot be evil.
On the way home, Godfrey's father unfolds a glossy magazine page with a ragged edge. A man in green waders holds up a long silver fish for the camera.
"How's that for dinner?" he says.
"The man or the fish?" Godfrey asks.
After they eat Godfrey sits in his father's lap and listens to stories from the newspaper. New construction, expected delays, some city council measures have passed. Some haven't. An old woman believes the best way to remember her travels is to bring back a ceramic bunny from every country she visits. Godfrey sees her standing in her kitchen, poring over phone books from different continents, dialing at random until she finds a store that sells bunnies.
She will never visit Antarctica, Godfrey realizes, and this makes him sad.
Godfrey waits until his father falls asleep to the muted glow of CSPAN before tiptoing into his parents' bedroom. It has been several days since he has seen his mother and he wonders if he ever saw at her all. He walks to her dresser, still covered with her jewelry and photographs. There, he sees, is a picture of him sitting in his mother's lap at the insectarium. It was not entirely a dream, he thinks. She did exist and she loved him.
He wants to pull open her closet and take out all her old dresses and coats and see if they still smell like her perfume, but his father has placed a padlock and chain on the doors to keep them closed. Perhaps this is the entrance to his gargoyle making factory. He thinks of the termites and pictures the slats of white cedar like the closed fingers of his fist. This is real magic, he thinks. Godfrey and his father's closet have a gift and when they hold onto something very tightly, the thing keeps coming for them.
He tells this to Caroline on the ride to school the next day. She thinks for a very long moment.
"I find it very hard to believe that both you and the closet would have the same ability," she says.
At school Mrs. Moser follows him during recess and lunch to prevent him from slipping away. He asks her to open her hands and when she does, he drops a few superfluous gargoyles in her palms.
"Thank you," she says.
She asks him to stay after school and they discuss personal hygiene. By the time she excuses him, Caroline and her mother have left. Mrs. Moser offers to drive him home and he wants to say no.
"Thank you," he says.
Mrs. Moser buys him a strawberry flavored Icee and lets him pick the radio station. Her car smells like peppermint and stale coffee so he rolls down the window and cradles his head against the seatbelt. He doesn't know when he falls asleep, but when he awakes it is dark and the termites have swarmed the street lamps. He can see his father and Mrs. Moser sitting on the front porch and talking. Godfrey slips out of the car, slamming the door shut behind him so they will know that he is awake to hear them now. As he reaches the steps, Mrs. Moser stands and extends her hand to Godfrey's father. He doesn't take it.
"Well," she says. "I'll see you in school tomorrow, Godfrey. Goodnight."
Standing there, Godfrey feels that his father expects him to make a choice, or perhaps his father believes Godfrey has already made a choice: Mrs. Moser or him. In the heat and the dark with the formosans crawling over his neck and down his shirt collar, Godfrey knows that he has made some calculable error. He replays every moment from the car to school to home again, but the harder he tries, the more he remembers his mother's lips and voice telling him about the virtues of cypress. He fills this memory with a table and chairs and drafting paper, plans for renovating a house, but all his details fit in sideways as if they should not be there at all.
"See," his mother said, "look here." And Godfrey surrounds it with the right kinds of details: strips of wood beneath thick, museum-exhibit plastic. He remembers them black and rotting, beside tiny black letters: Oak, Pine, Maple, Fica, Spruce. Above them, dry aquariums crawled with beetles and centipedes. He remembers a wall of roaches, a room of butterflies and his father pinching his arm with the warning, "Don't put anything in your pockets."
"I will build myself a closet of Cypress," his mother said. "A most formidable tree."
But she died.
"Come on, Joseph," his father says, and his mother and the insectarium walk away, leaving Godfrey and his father alone on the porch.
Godfrey follows his father through the darkened rooms of their house. They don't turn on the lights because of bugs, his father says. It'll be better in a few weeks. His father opens the door to the basement, grabbing a flashlight off the wall.
"Keep up," he says.
Godfrey almost expects to find his mother at the bottom of the steps, sitting on the washing machine and painting her toe nails. Instead it is his father, mallet in hand, by the workbench.
"Empty your pockets," he says.
Godfrey takes out his last gargoyle and places it on the sawhorse. It looks small and alone but altogether unafraid. The gargoyle has enjoyed its time with Godfrey, and on a quantum level has appreciated the feeling of wind against its wings with each fantastic leap off the library roof.
"We've had some good times, haven't we Godfrey," the gargoyle seems to say. "Remember me always."
Godfrey steps back, ready for his father to smash it, but instead his father places the mallet in Godfrey's hand.
"Destroy it," his father says.
The mallet pulls Godfrey's hand towards the floor and he thinks he could just let go. He could stand there quietly, like he did when Mrs. Moser passed him on the porch.
"You need to destroy it," his father says.
He could sit in the backseat and let Caroline and her mother discuss the behaviors of animals, and then sit in his chair all during History and Science and the review of the multiplication tables.
"It will keep coming back," his father says. "And that... can hurt."
Godfrey looks up at his father but in the cavernous basement, with the flashlight beam trained on Godfrey and the gargoyle, he can't see whether his father is angry or sad or just disappointed that Godfrey has stolen something that belonged to Godfrey's mother.
Looking at the gargoyle, staring into its eyes and imagining he and it can talk together, mind to mind, he apologizes. The gargoyle accepts his apology and encourages Godfrey to smash it quickly before it leaps off the table and does something nefarious.
Godfrey does.
"Good," his father says. "Time for bed."
"What about dinner?" Godfrey asks.
"Didn't we already eat?"
"Oh," Godfrey says. "I forgot."
When he gets to his room, Godfrey checks the bottom drawer of the dresser. He pulls out all his clothes from each drawer, checks under the bed and the boxes in the closet, but he can find no more gargoyles.
Caroline and her mother are waiting in front of his house the next morning, That afternoon, Caroline stays to play. Godfrey's father sets up the monopoly board on the back deck and doesn't say anything when Caroline cheats. They eat grilled burgers with mustard and pickle relish. Caroline doesn't say anything even though she's supposed to be a vegetarian. Godfrey's father re-enacts stories from the newspaper including one about a cat burglar, recently arrested. The burglar credited his heretofore success to his lucky phalanges which could never pass a jewel or money clip without snatching it up and sliding it into his pocket. Godfrey and his father crabwalk from one side of the deck to the other sticking jars of pickle relish in their pockets while Caroline laughs.
After dinner Godfrey and his father walk Caroline back to her house. Caroline says she's glad Mrs. Moser called her mother and Godfrey's father smiles and nods.
On the way back Godfrey rides on his father's shoulders and they practice the multiplication tables. Tucking him into bed, Godfrey's father asks him if he has anything of Caroline's.
"No," Godfrey says.
"Keep it that way."
The next day, Godfrey's father drives him to school and speaks to the Headmaster. They move Godfrey into the other fifth grade class for reasons they do not specify to Godfrey. He sees Caroline at lunch and tells her he doesn't think they're supposed to be friends anymore.
She nods and takes off her necklace.
"Something to remember me by," she says.
Godfrey doesn't want his father to make him smash this too and so he leaves it sitting on the table.
Caroline comes by Godfrey's house that night, and when they don't let her in, she sits on the porch swing, her legs pumping it higher and higher until it bumps the iron railing behind it. Godfrey's father tells her to go home, but she doesn't listen. He tells Godfrey to destroy whatever it is he's taken from her, but Godfrey doesn't know what it could be.
"Figure it out so she can go home," his father says.
Godfrey thinks maybe he doesn't want her to go home.
They go into the den and watch CSPAN. It's all his father watches anymore. Caroline doesn't move from the porch and her mother doesn't come looking for her, maybe too engrossed in the bears and their paw prints crisscrossing Wyoming and into Montana. Godfrey's mother used to say that some people live their lives through muscle memory and some muscles were just stronger than others.
Godfrey wraps his father's arms around him and talks quietly about his day at school. Sometimes his father grunts, but mostly it is a conversation between Godfrey and the US Congressmen. They each fall asleep, one by one. Godfrey's father, his eyes open and staring like a glass doll, the Congressmen whose mouths pause mid-sentence, and Godfrey who hovers at the edge of his dreams until remembering Caroline.
She pumps her legs vigorously, the white paint chips swirling around her and the swing like snow.
"Hi," she says.
He sits beside her and she puts her hand in his. "My mother says global warming is too easy an answer. She wants the bears to be moving towards something they want more than their own solitude."
"Oh," Godfrey says.
"That's all," she says, and gets up to go.
"Wait," he says. "You can't walk home alone at night."
"Walk with me," she says.
"Then who will walk back with me?"
He opens the door and leads her up to his room. She gets in the bed and he curls up on the shaggy carpet.
"Your house smells," she says.
"You get used to it," he says. "It's the heat. It'll be better in a few weeks."
"Or worse," she says. Her arm reaches over the edge of the bed and her necklace dangles from her fingers. "I gave this to you. It's a present."
"Thank you," he says as heat fills his cheeks. "What is it?"
"Bones from a bear cub."
Godfrey thinks of all of Yellowstone's grizzlies lumbering south to live in his bedroom and he shudders. He wonders if he is the cause of Caroline's mother's migratory problem, if effect can precede cause, if the gargoyles arrived before his mother's death or after.
"I've been thinking about you and that closet," she says. "It would make more sense if it's a genetic trait. Like brown eyes or left handedness."
Godfrey thinks of his mother: her blue eyes and his. Her nose and his. Was this your gift too?
He feels the conveyor belt start up again. His mothers have changed into their blue denim frocks and pulled their hair back from their faces. If this is true, they will send him whatever he wants, for as long as he wants it.
But this realization fits sidways and he can't make it all fit, so he tiptoes downstairs, past his father and into his parents' bedroom. He presses his ear against the closet door and breathes deeply, past paint and cedar and rot to the faint hint of his mother's perfume. He goes to his father's dresser and pulls out all the drawers, rifling through pants and shirts and socks until he finds a small silver key. When he unlocks the closet, he is not surprised that his mothers come pouring out. They caress his cheek and mess about the room. One unmakes the bed, the other remakes it. He asks if they have been bored, locked in the closet all this time. Yes, they nod. Yes.
They fill the room and Godfrey does not begin to understand how they all had fit among his father's wool suits. He thinks they are all out now, but they keep glancing from him to the closet.
He inches closer until he can see the small hunched shape of a woman. He cannot tell the consistency of her flesh, or color. He cannot tell if the skin of her forehead has been split by windshield and tree branches and cannot get much past the smell of death to examine it further.
"I don't think I can find a mallet big enough," he says.
His mothers pat his head and hand him a small leather box the surface of which has been carved with his father's initials. Inside sits a necklace with small bones hanging from a silver ring. He thinks they do not quite look like the bones of a bear.
Joseph Godfrey can imagine a dozen ways his father could possess his mother's pinky finger but the ones he pictures best are accidental. He does not want to ask his mothers if they ever loved his father or if she circled him constantly like an encephalitic dog. He does not ask if she never wore a seatbelt on purpose, if that was the means of her escape.
I love you, his mothers seem to whisper and that is enough for him.
Your father loves you, and that is enough for him too.
He drops the necklace on the floor and crushes it underfoot like the head of a snake. When he looks up his mothers, all his mothers, are gone.
He walks back upstairs and lies down on the floor beside Caroline.
"How do the bears know where to go?" he asks.
Caroline doesn't respond, and Godfrey can hear her breathing deeply. He believes she is giving his question great consideration. He counts slowly, each second giving more weight to her response. He counts higher and higher and when she speaks, he knows that he will cling to her answer for a very long time.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 8th, 2010

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- Helena Leigh Bell
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