blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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Kate Swan was in the garden, digging up the last of the potatoes, when the bear came around the iron fence separating her yard from the Baptist cemetery.

“Well,” she thought, putting her rusty trowel down softly on the loosened earth. “Well, well.” The bear was black, probably a young one—about the size of a pony—but Kate, having no experience of bears in the wild, couldn’t be sure. It was alone, though, with no chaperone or sibling in sight, so she assumed it must be full grown.

Kate’s real name was Katya Lebed, which sounded pleasing enough in Russian, but she had grown tired of correcting people’s pronunciation (“That’s L’yebed, accent on the first syllable”), and, in her fiftieth year, in a moment of impulsive resolution, she went to court and had it changed to the English equivalent. Swan. She liked the simplicity of it, and the way the mouth and throat opened to say it, like singing.

It was the year everything changed for Kate. She bought the house with the proceeds from a modest but totally unexpected inheritance. With no one in the world left to answer to, she quit her corporate mid-level editorial job, sold her cramped suburban condo, and moved upstate to the historic Catskills. She had had enough of watching wave after wave of young assistants, with college degrees but little education, sweep past her to blossom into premature decision makers, taking the company ever deeper into the realm of baldly commercial and utterly forgettable acquisitions. Things might have gone differently if Kate had changed her name thirty years sooner; she might have tried to join the mainstream instead of bucking it, but she doubted it.

Money, even a little money, changes everything. “Indeed it does,” Kate admitted to herself, grasped her opportunity and ran with it. She had more than enough books to start a used-and-collectible internet business, did some occasional freelance editing, and paid her household expenses with a part-time job at Ed’s Dry Cleaning and Laundry Service. Gardening, begun as a hesitant pastime, had developed, within eight growing seasons, into a full-fledged avocation.

The property was pleasingly landscaped; Kate watched, the first year or two, as spring bulbs bloomed in succession then died away, making room for showy perennials whose names she looked up in her growing library of gardening books—poppies, peonies, coneflowers, several stunning varieties of lily. In her third year of country living, she dug up a sunny, grassy corner of the yard and plunged into vegetables.

Kate didn’t bother buying seed stock to grow potatoes. It was so much easier to cut up whatever was left at the bottom of her pantry bin in early spring, scattering the pieces at random on the cold soil, and raking last year’s compost over the patch. Soon, flanked with ragged rows of radishes and spring onions, the sturdy seedlings would unfurl their first deep green leaves.

Kate loved everything about potatoes. She loved the satisfying plainness of them and the gracious way they lent themselves to culinary embellishment. She loved the way they hid their essence underground—unlike flashy pick-me tomatoes or voluptuous, languid eggplants—the stocky stems and pine-green leaves the only markers for the richness concealed below. Most of all, she loved the treasure hunt of harvest, turning up smooth globes of red-skinned varieties, rough textured Russets, fleshy fingerlings of Yukon Gold, rubbing moist clumps of soil off the exposed tubers with her bare fingers, inhaling the earthy primeval aroma.

She cast a glance, now, at the bushel basket at the end of the row, some three yards away, half-filled with the day’s find. The bear was at the far end of the cemetery fence, a good fifty feet from the garden, snuffling among dead leaves for acorns under the golden canopy of oak, linden, and maple trees. It was the kind of landscape city folks traveled miles to experience—picture postcard foliage drenched in October sun, the trees alive with industrious squirrels, local folk selling home-grown pumpkins on the honor system. And now this bonus: a bear. Kate remembered the admonitions in the local paper, after another ten acres of woodland were cleared for a housing development, and bear sightings caused a ripple of panic in the country community. Keep pets indoors. Make some noise. Move away from anything edible. Don’t run. Back slowly toward your house or other shelter.

Kate was not afraid. This surprised her. Later, she would reason that, since she saw the bear before it became aware of her, she had some time to think of what to do. She knew she did not want to sacrifice her last potatoes to the beast’s omnivorous appetite, but also recognized that moving closer to the basket was probably unwise. And she was stunned by the magnificence of the animal, the way the afternoon sun made its impenetrable fur almost iridescent, playing across the bear’s broad back and ample sides while it moved ever closer, pausing under the solitary pear tree to sample its fallen fruit.


Mesmerized by the bear’s slow progress, she was only mildly amazed to find her mind wandering incongruously to the previous fall, hearing the mindless merry tinkle of the bell announce a customer’s entrance.

“Your name?” Kate flipped to a clean page on the receipt pad.

“Alex.” The man paused, then recited his telephone number without being asked.

Kate looked up, took in the pale eyes, the trim salt-and-pepper beard, the tan fedora. “When do you want these?” She rested her hand on the pile of dress shirts and withdrew it, suddenly conscious of her broken fingernails, her skin stained with a veneer of garden dirt from the morning’s weeding.

“Friday, please,” he said, his voice resonant with amiable authority. “On hangers, light starch.”

After that, he came every Friday afternoon, exchanged five soiled white shirts for five pressed ones. Before long, he started bringing things—leaf-shaped maple sugar candy from Vermont, or saltwater taffy from the Jersey shore, miniature filigreed waffle cookies from Pennsylvania Dutch country.

“That’s kind of you,” Kate said once, thanking him for the latest confection. “But you needn’t. . .”

“My wife died some years ago, my children are grown and scattered,” he replied. “My father, who also traveled on business, would always bring something for us on his return. I guess it’s become a habit.”

“My father, too,” Kate admitted with a nod. “We came to expect it. But everyone’s gone now, and I’m not accustomed to receiving gifts. Your treats are lovely, though. I enjoy them.”

So it continued. Mooncakes from Chinatown in midwinter, the first black cherries of spring, Turkish Delight from urban ethnic markets. When he learned of Kate’s love of gardening, Alex switched to fruit: sweet seckel pears nestled in tissue paper in a tiny crate; blackberries glowing like precious stones against a green cardboard tray; succulent fresh figs, their yielding flesh a testament to generations of ancient passions. Kate accepted them all with good grace, but found her appreciation tempered with a hint of trepidation, a growing uneasiness she found harder and harder to dismiss. Where was this going and what would be the cost?

It was again mid-October when Alex brought the figs. “I found these at a farmers’ market this morning,” he said. “Imagine that.” As if aware of having crossed into uncharted territory with this most sensual of fruits, he stood, hat in hand, his body turned sideways, while Kate filled out the shirt receipt. “Ah, The Three Sisters,” he read from a hand-lettered poster taped near the door. “Is this a local theater group?”

“The Ridgeway Players? Yes.” Kate bundled the shirts into a bag, stapled a numbered tag to the outside. “They’re not bad.”

“Chekhov should be left to the pros. He’s too complex for amateurs.” Alex frowned and reached for his clean shirts, the hangers banded together with a twist tie above the clear plastic cape.

“You mean he’s too good for the unanointed? I think just the opposite. The better the writing, the tighter the construction, the more likely our amateurs will truly learn something from their efforts at interpretation. Chekhov is like Mozart—subtle and complex, as you say, but supremely accessible, too. What good is genius, Alex, if nobody gets it? Don’t forget your receipt.” Kate stopped, surprised at the depth of her own anger.

“There is no ‘good’ in genius,” Alex retorted. “It just is. Anyway, my name is Alexei. I simplified it, years ago—Americans have so much trouble with unusual names, especially in business.” He smiled disarmingly, put his hat on his head, took the receipt from Kate’s hand. “And I know The Three Sisters. I’ve read the Russian and several translations and seen half a dozen productions. I’d like to see this one, too. Will you be there? We could have coffee.”

“Perhaps,” Kate said, and meant it. What she had planned for weeks, marked on her kitchen calendar in red ink, the play (in Russian) on her bedside table, suddenly seemed less than certain.

Coffee. It was code, she knew, but for what, exactly, at her age? More conversation, sure. She could handle that, enjoy it. Even this brief repartee had left her exhilarated. A little winded, too, as if she had exercised a dormant muscle too vigorously. And then? Alex—Alexei—was assertive, virile. Kate was excited by the cultural bond, hated to lose this gift that had fallen to her, against the odds, in this remote place, this time of dwindling expectations in her life. Could she rise, now, to his expectations? Could she repay the escalating succession of treats she had consumed with such private shameless pleasure, savoring the sweets alone, in bed, an open book propped against her knees? Could she undress and stand next to the memory of her own body and say, yes, my breasts were beautiful, once. Believe me.


The pear had grown wild, Kate guessed, for some years now. More slender than the nearby maples, too tall to prune, its topmost branches easily cleared the roof of her modest two-story Colonial. The fruit had grown hard, with a bitter aftertaste, and, anyway, formed on the ends of thin branches too far up the tree’s trunk for picking. Kate was content to enjoy its decorative abundance and leave the harvesting to grateful chipmunks and the occasional foraging skunk. The bear seemed to like the pears, the snap of acorns in its jaws now replaced by measured crunching, as pear after greenish pear disappeared into its mouth. “I should be thankful for the cleanup,” thought Kate, remembering how the fruit, concealed in clover-rich grass, clogged up the blades of her hand mower.

She watched the bear as if entranced, shifting her weight noiselessly back onto her heels, the earth’s autumnal coolness seeping through the worn twill of her yard pants, her knees surrendering to early echoes of arthritic pain. Closer now, she could plainly see the breeze lift the longer hair along the bear’s belly, the muscular ripple of its shoulder as it lifted a fur-mittened paw to spill the contents of her potato basket on the ground. “Oh,” Kate said. It came out like a loud sigh, but the bear heard and raised its head and looked at her. Their eyes locked, and for a moment neither moved. Then the bear thrust its head forward, its chestnut muzzle flecked with yellowed grass, its little black eyes glittering in a squinty, myopic stare.

Kate stood up. “You could leave those,” she said, and the bear grunted, then turned and loped away the way it had come, under the trees and around the fence, making its way gracefully among the dilapidated headstones into the woods beyond the cemetery. Only then, watching the disturbed leaves settle in the bear’s wake, did Kate become aware of the racing of her heart and the uncontrollable trembling of her hands and thighs.  end

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