There is something wrong with Nettie, who lives at the edge of town. There is something wrong with Nettie who walks beside the trees. There is something wrong with Nettie whose dress once pure is coated with a dark liver colored stain. There is something wrong with Nettie, no one has seen her little dog in weeks. There is something wrong with Nettie, her hair has ratted. There is something wrong with Nettie, they say she walks in the woods naked at night. There is something wrong with Nettie, kids hear her scratching at their windows. There is something wrong with Nettie, someone found her in a tree, gripping the trunk of it in her thighs. There is something wrong with Nettie, when the moon is full, she walks beside the highway. There is something wrong with Nettie, some say she ate a man, homeless, her teeth, sharp and ruthless. There is something wrong with Nettie though she was once one of us. There is something wrong with Nettie, but her former husband and children turn as if embarrassed, aggrieved. There is something wrong with Nettie, and no one will say what, exactly, and no one will do anything. There is something wrong with Nettie, she climbs the sky every night riding a rough stick and wearing a red cap over hair matted with sticks and rocks she collects sleeping on the ground. There is something wrong with Nettie, and maybe, one day, she’ll die.
A coolish Friday late October days before children would traipse down our streets in costume, knocking on doors for candy, a Florida black bear scratched its back on a palm tree in front of the townhome adjacent to the townhome I share with my mother. As I sat by the window reading my morning paper I observed its black mass emerging from the green curtain of woods, stopping by the palm presumably before going on to look for unsecured garbage.
“Ma, come look,” I said as the bear bumped the tree first with its rear, then stood to full height, about a third of the height of the street light beside the palm. At this time of day, neighbors would begin to emerge with their dogs or get into their cars parked alongside the street and down the block to go to work, take their children to school, pursue morning workouts at the Y.
Ma was shuffling around in my kitchen, that reassuring sound of her slippers grazing the tile while she fixed a pot of oatmeal and fed the dog.
“Remember I told you, Ma, they should have left that magnolia tree and lamppost that at night looked like the meeting place of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus. And now, here we have a scratching post for wild creatures who would just as soon eat our children and dogs.” I hated the palms they used to replace the magnolias, the branches of the latter scattered down the street the day after they mowed them all down. The palms didn’t fit, were too stocky and awkward and obscured the light from the lampposts with their long finger-like fronds. And yet, I didn’t attend HOA meetings in which these things are most likely discussed. I paid my fees only to be unbored and unbothered.
“I will go and talk to the thing,” my mother said, standing over me as I sat at the window. In her fragile hands, she cupped a steaming mug of hazelnut cream coffee, her favorite in the morning.
“You will do no such thing, mother,” I said, using the fuller “mother” to express my firmness and authority. I know she was referencing her skill with animals but this was over the top, ridiculous.
“A bear is not a dog,” I sad.
She had once soothed a loose Rottweiler intent on attack on one of our morning walks. She grabbed my arm when she saw the dog coming and pulled me down to the ground with a strength that defied her diminutive stature. “Down!” she said “Roll up!” she said and I followed her orders and example and there we were, two women curled up on someone’s lawn, a dark creature licking our faces. Ma slowly uncurled, offering as she did so, a treat she always kept in her pocket, offering it underhanded with eyes averted singing a very low and tuneless song about the majesty of dogs and their protectiveness and power and love.
“What was that?” I had asked her afterwards.
“What?” she said.
“That song? Where did it come from?”
“The poor thing seemed happy with my treat,” she said, not answering my question. “We sure got out of a little pinch there didn’t we honey, the Lord be blessed.”
“I can go talk to this bear, so lost and turned around, you’ll see, the dear thing” she said, setting her hazelnut coffee carefully down on a coaster at the dining room table where I sat, a table we had arranged by the window with a light and a pair of comfortable chairs, perfectly suited for a spinster daughter and her aged mother.
“It will go away,” I sad.
But it didn’t. My mother sat for a while, but the thing didn’t move. It sat too, as a matter of fact, squashing the expensive groundcover under its enormous rear. I had only recently secured the phone numbers of my neighbors and started calling them, telling them what was happening. Someone said they would call animal control.
Until Mom moved in, I knew no one, life being what it is with computers and livestreaming movies and air conditioned environments and all of my excuses. Ma had met people hand delivering homemade butterscotch bars and introducing herself and inquiring about the inhabitants within and hence everyone loved her and by proxy, me too, but only because my mother was the one true human.
“I will sing to it now,” she said and brushed past me and opened the door to our second story living room, high up from the bear, and so, safe still. She began to sing a croaky tuneless melody about the sleepiness of bears under the stars of black Florida nights, the soft undergrowth of pine needles and loamy earth where the bear can nestle down and sleep, the nuts and seeds and ants and possums the bear can find for its meals which nourish its coat and fill its belly, the current unavailability of people food due to the new locked trash cans provided to the residents by Seminole County, the glory of a bear in the wild vs. its trapped status in civilization, the family of bears under the trees away from roads and men and their cars – a place to belong, a place to call home, a place to protect its offspring and see they are cared for. And then began song in an operative bent, tuneless still but somehow modern, a song about the treachery of mankind, the evil men do, the noble savage that has been abandoned for Machiavellian schemes, how mankind out of bitterness for itself has devised its own traps and aims that nothing should be truly free, not a blade of grass, or a bee in its comb, or a bear on an adventure.
This went on now for what felt like hours but it must have only lasted minutes for still we waited for animal control. Meanwhile, the bear occasionally reared up to its full height and sauntered over to our balcony, its balustrade just out of reach of its paws which didn’t swipe, only slow undulated as if the bear were stirring honey on a lazy, hot day, as Ma sang her truth, the bear’s truth, the neighborhood on lockdown. Every now and then it gave a little roar accompanying the solo.
I could only imagine what my neighbors thought, but I couldn’t at the same time. By now, they loved her unconditionally and she was the elder among them who cared for them and their children and parents. I pretended to look at my paper but in a way that afforded me a view of the street.
And then finally, my mother sang to a it a lullaby, a bear sleeping song of how wonderful the bear will feel after its delicious meal from the forest. With that, the bear sauntered off into the trees, a final bellow as if to say “You are a wise and good old woman.”
My mother stepped in from off the balcony and closed the door. She shuffled past me where I sat with my paper, pretending I hadn’t listened to her, and witnessed what happened, and been embarrassed among the neighbors whom I had not taken the time to know or care about.
“Now what’s your pleasure for your oatmeal, dear, the cinnamon, butter, and walnuts as always?”
I laid the paper on my lap and merely nodded.