Sarah Jane Cody

What We Knew

The man complained that since his wife had returned she had a strange smell. A musk like animal fur and old forests. When he made love to her, when his skin brushed against her skin, his mind filled with a spiny darkness, leaves rustling, a sense of creatures moving invisibly therein––as if all this were transferred to him from her by touch. But if he asked her, “Is that what’s in your mind? Is that what you see?” she wouldn’t answer.

She hardly spoke now. Seemed to express something with her eyes and body instead, the way of an animal that has learned a kinship with man. Wouldn’t leave the house. Spent every day gazing out the window at the woods, eyes lit  in such a way he couldn’t tell if there was something out there she longed for or something she feared.

Ours was a small town. Any news was heard by everyone. This too: The woman had been missing for five days. She was found walking, dazed, along the mountain highway––high up, narrow strip cut into the granite, thin metal railing. She didn’t know where she was headed. Where she’d been. Or so she claimed: no memory.

What I heard, I heard mostly from the older girls. Out back of the school- house. In a clearing in the woods where they kept hollow trees stashed full of sweet-something bottles. The older girls pierced their ears with a fishhook, dipped each other’s hair into Kool-Aid colors. I was not allowed to join in. Me and the other smaller girls, they kept around to tease. “You think it was something in the woods that got that woman?” they asked us. “Think it’s going to get you too?” They cracked theirs lips with smiling so big. They wiggled the tips of their tongues.

The older girls knew what they knew.

Mothers, fathers, knew what they knew. They’d heard the man’s story first- hand. Came home from the town square: fathers––gripping mothers’ wrists; mothers––eyes tense.

There was nothing that my parents said, but my mother tied my braids tighter than usual in the days following. She put me in the tub herself––when I knew very well how to wash––and scrubbed my skin an extra layer raw. The ring of light expanding in her eyes, from pupil to iris––a net for catching me.

My sister, who was older, avoided this care. She was practicing her smirk.

Said things like, “Mother, do you really think?” Said, “Don’t you think?” My mother had enough to do with cleaning already.

The way it was in our town: dust could cover everything. A dirt-colored powder kicked up from the earth. Anyplace you stepped your feet churned clouds. Anything you touched had dust on it. That’s how dry our town was. Mountains and trees so rugged they hurt to look at. Pine forests grew without water, it seemed. There was dust in the sheets of your bed. Dust staining skin. Dust breathed.

Women spent hours every day sweeping. When the men came home from working the lumber mills, they were coated in dust. Sawdust and earth dust, both. One thing we had in plenty.

And rumors––rumors were cheap currency.

People would talk. And then nothing. Nothing for a whole month.

Then, two other women went missing. Same way: gone for several days and then found. Far from the town: one in the mountains, one in the forest. No memory. Just like the first.

One of them had a boy my age. The boy said that the mother who had come back wasn’t his mother. She looked like his mother, but also didn’t. He noticed the long dark hairs on her arms. The way her nose seemed perpetually wet. He noticed especially the scent, a feral reek that brought to mind a wild animal.

“Like this?” the older girls laughed. They rubbed their bodies with animal furs and commanded us, “Smell.” They hid among the trees and jumped out, flashing pointy teeth. The older girls could always make a game.

My mother scrubbed more diligently. She scrubbed the whole house, herself, me. Each night once she had toweled me dry, she put her nose to my hair and sniffed. Was satisfied I could be mistaken for a rose, I guess.

More women went missing. Over the next month, nearly a dozen of them. These women were never gone for long, never more than a week. They would reappear suddenly, usually someplace along the narrow mountain roads. They returned to us dirty and bewildered, often flecked with sap or pine needles, as if they had been deep within the forest. As if they had wandered long and aimlessly, until they stumbled upon the black length of pavement that was a road, and started following it, as if they dimly recognized that it had to lead someplace.

All of these women said the same thing: they didn’t remember what had happened. Sometimes, they could remember up to the moment right before they’d gone missing. But then, nothing. No who. No what. No where.

The rest of us, adults and children alike, were left wondering: Was it true?

Were they not lying or in conspiracy? Were they keeping some secret?

All of the affected women were of a certain age, or at least past the mark  of their womanhood. Some had children; others were childless. This made no difference. All were women of our town.

They returned changed. Most noticeably, there was the smell. A creatural smell, people agreed. Not of something clean like a cat, but brute and feral, what secreted foul glandular fluids or an acrid spray.

The women who returned were quiet. Neglecting the housework and their families. They spent hours simply staring out of windows. Doing what? I wondered. Waiting?

At the pub every night, more men could be heard complaining. Dust was filling up the houses of those whose women would no longer sweep. Dust piled in the corners of rooms, made itself into mounds. Dust coated floors and discarded shoes and babies in cribs, and even, sometimes, the lips and eyelashes of women who stood still for too long, staring out of windows.

Men and boys began to carry guns. Women hooded their heads when they went out and layered clothing to make themselves look larger. My mother wore a coat in the summer heat. More and more, women avoided going out altogether. Young girls, it seemed, were safe. We girls were sent instead to do the shopping, mail the letters, borrow a mixing bowl from the neighbors.

Boys of all ages patrolled the streets.

Meanwhile, the older girls rhymed “scare” with “bear” and “shudder” with “mother.” “Shook-en” with “woman.” Out back of the schoolhouse, their camp had grown considerably. They had built tents out of stolen sheets and blankets strung on strings or over low-hanging branches. They took even the rugs out from our homes to make pallets on the dirt. When: who was going to claim all of these things back? Our mothers––in hiding. Our fathers––working the mills.

The older girls had built themselves a fortress. And they were not leaving.

Not even to sleep.

“Sweep dust?” they scoffed. “Hide indoors? No way.” The older girls were never going to be our mothers. They were never going to be any of our town’s women.

The weeks went on. Every day, it seemed, more women went missing, and more were found. Sometimes, it was the same women who went missing again, for a second time––but it wasn’t only them. It could affect any woman––none were safe––and the phenomenon was spreading, too, taking more, and more frequently. At the same time, it seemed that fewer and fewer women were being found. Then, a change occurred. Which was: the missing women stopped returning. By which I mean, women started going missing for good.

They are still missing.

By that point, my own mother had confined herself to our house. She swept all day just to keep busy. Hours of beating the broom against the floorboards. She’d stop only to prepare whatever I or my father brought home for dinner.

One day, I came upon her standing utterly immobile before the kitchen window, just standing, staring out. She didn’t look up until I was nearly touching her. “Mother,” I called her, that name no different from so many others. Finally, she turned to face me. Her eyes seemed bright with a depth that I felt was beyond me.

“Bring your sister home,” she begged, in a tone that did not permit denying. As I have said, my sister was older. Old enough then to cause worry.

So, I went to the older girls’ camp. I found my sister living in a ragged cloth tent near the center of the sprawl, with half a dozen other older girls crammed inside. Their skin had gone harsh and crackly. Their eyes wildish. Their hair was all tangles and fray.

I pleaded with my sister to, please, come home.

My sister had her smirk down by then. She could laugh and wiggle her tongue at the same time. “Better for you to join us,” she said. “You’re getting older too, you know. We’re taking on recruits now.”

I said that I had seen our mother sometimes staring out windows. That I did not know what to do for her.

“What did you expect?” my sister jeered. “Trap any animal. They go wild.

That’s what’s happening. They’re going wild.” “Trap who? They’re not animals,” I said.

“Everyone’s animals,” my sister said. “That’s what this is about. You should get out while you still can.”

I thought that my sister looked very dirty and did not smell very good. I told her this. I said that I would not abandon our mother.

“Whatever you want,” she said. But her smirk slackened, and for a moment she looked in earnest. “Look, I can’t promise we’ll still be here . . . If you come back . . .”

I told her I did not care.

The next day, my mother stepped out onto the porch to hang a wet sheet. When I looked up from the dress that I was mending, the porch was empty. A single white sheet draped over the railing. The fabric pulsed in the wind, as if someone were invisibly tugging.

When my father came home, what could I tell him? I picked up the broom and swept.

Were there any women left in our town?

I searched up and down the streets and found many houses half-abandoned. I returned to the older girls’ camp, but it was deserted just as my sister had predicted. The older girls had always said they were going places. But where to? Anyplace not here, I guessed. Next, I looked for my friends, girls I had known–– my age. A Rachel, a Nadia, a Blossom, a Della. And what time had passed that made them no longer known to me, but only known of?

I knocked on doors and was lucky if I received an answer. Sometimes, the person who answered was a grown man home from the mill, or else a boy off patrol duty. I looked in on their dusty kitchens, and I did not have to ask to know. Many doors went unopened. At some of these doors, I felt sure that there was someone inside, but someone who was hiding, too afraid to come out. Only once did a girl answer. This was Yulia, who I remembered for her sparkling laugh. As a child, she had made of us all jealous with her laugh, which sent mothers into pink-smiling adoration. But Yulia was not laughing on that day. She barely cracked the door open. Shadow-cast, her face was almost unrecognizable to me. “What are you doing?” she said quietly. “You shouldn’t be out like this. Go home.”

“Do you know? Is there anyone else?” I asked.

I would have said more, but she shook her head––not in answer, but so as to refuse me. With no further words, she shut the door.

In the town square, boys I had known marched with guns at their hips. These boys had grown into men I did not know, or else into boys who were acting like men I did not know. Many of them still had their childish voices and smooth chins, but they behaved as if years had passed. As if, with their mothers gone, there was nothing preventing them from growing up instantly. Looking at them, I felt a similar aging in myself.

I returned home. From then on, I began to keep house. I swept and did not go out.

One night I heard a rattling at the front door. I slept in a trundle bed in the front room. This was where I had always slept, and I continued to sleep there now that other beds in our house were empty. As I lay in the dark, I felt that the rattling was very near. It had come for me.

Of course: I imagined the things that all women imagine will come for them in the darkness. And I imagined that this was the thing. Whatever it was that had been snatching us up, taking us away.

Although terror clenched in my gut, I felt that I had to know. To see finally. I could be very quiet. This had always been one of my strengths. I moved with stealth toward the front door. The door had a window cut into its upper half. But the window was dark, and I could see nothing beyond it. I heard the rattling, intensified, as if a heavy claw were striking against the wood of the door, though I did not perceive the door to be moving. I felt the creature’s presence near. So very near to me. I switched on the porch light.

What faced me through that window was the largest, furriest head I have ever seen in my life. The bear was enormous. She had a thick black coat, a wide wet nose, and eyes filled with powerful intention. That look—I can only describe it as the quality that makes something human. Or else the quality that makes us know that something is human. And I knew her by it.

Mother.

She stood on her hind legs, looking inward through the glass that separated us, as if she had come to our house for this very purpose. To show me what she was. “Get back!” my father shouted. He had come out from his room, drawn by the noise.

“Monster,” he spat. “Demon.” He was talking at the bear. “Is that what you are? You’re the one that’s taking them. Devouring them. That’s what you’ve done. What you did to her.”

He had his pistol raised. He pointed the muzzle as if he planned to shoot straight through the glass.

“No,” I cried. “It’s Mother.”

My father did not immediately comprehend me.

I recall next that we struggled, my father and I. Though it is hard to say exactly how it was, because it was fast, and I was frightened. And it is often hard to say how things happen when one is in them. In my memory, the bear remained standing, watching, while I wrestled with my father and the gun. I could not have won wrestling him. So, he must have yielded, afraid of injuring one or both of us. But in my memory what makes us stop is the sudden shared awareness of the creature that has not moved but is watching us intently. We turned to look at her. Her gaze reached right into us.

The next thing that happened was: she dropped back down onto all fours.

She bounded off into the woods before either of us could get at the door.

I do not think my father was, exactly, angry with me.

In the days that followed, I would often look for her. Still, I was reluctant to leave the house. The house had become my place. I would spend hours gazing out of windows, waiting, hoping for another glimpse.

I never saw her again.

But I believe I will. It has been some months since, and I am growing older with each passing day. I think she is waiting until the time is right, until I’m old enough.

I have yet to bleed into my womanhood.

As for my father, he never admitted to believing that my mother was the bear we saw. But I know a secret about him: he has been searching the woods for her. These days, when he comes home his boots are sap-stained and coated with pine needles instead of sawdust.

This is what I imagine: that they are all together someplace, all of the women- turned-bears. I want to believe that they are happy. That they are a society, fierce and female . . . or something like that. Sometimes, I wonder if my sister might be with them, but it feels more likely that she and her friends found their own way elsewhere.

Oh, what is going to happen to me?

Can anyone say if I made the right choice?

I stayed. Now, there’s not much left for me to do but wait. I think it won’t be long. Lately, my father looks at me in this way––searchingly––and it’s as if he’s already, unavailingly started trying to find me too. And I think to myself, It won’t be long. Then, when I am ready, perhaps Mother will come back for me. Or else at that time, when I am grown, I’ll know somehow. I’ll feel it in a deep, instinctual place. I’ll go on my own to where they all go.

Soon.