Ursa Major

by Jubal Tiner Issue: Spring 2015

Being caught by any of his suburban neighbors holding his naked, screaming girl child up to the full moon and chanting anything, let alone her name and some secret of his own, would not exactly lend Richard credibility at the next meeting of the Neighborhood Association. He knew it was crazy, beyond crazy, into the zone where the borders of reality break down.

Still, Nita’s face haunted his dreams and superimposed itself over any object close to Claire, his daughter: Nita appeared in potted plants, on hamburger buns, in water stains on the wall in the seeping basement – she was worse than Jesus.

So, on Tuesday, the first night of the full moon, he took Claire and her unceasing crying to the one place where he could have some privacy, insuring he would be alone in his Kunte Kinte moment.

 

Two weeks earlier, at a quarter past midnight, after witnessing Claire’s continual operetta, the Kroger’s checkout girl said, “You need to talk to Nita. She can tell you about The Major.” Then she laughed. A snort really, echoed by the smiles and giggles of the girls at the other checkouts.

Despite their inside joke, Richard asked where to find Nita. Perhaps their humor would rub off on him, give him some levity, some reprieve for him and his continually wailing daughter.

“In the back,” said the blonde. “She’s the butcher.”

Great, thought Richard. A role model for Claire. She probably kills her own meat as well. And what is a woman butcher doing working the graveyard shift at a neighborhood grocery store, anyway?

Nita was short, black, and pretty in a butch sort of way. Richard could see she was tough. When Richard came to the meat counter, Claire was in full swing, blaring not like a lone police siren, but a whole squad zooming in on the secret hideout of a serial killer. This was murder, thought Richard. And ludicrous. The Major?

“Let me guess. You’re looking for the beef without steroids,” said Nita, whose name-tag actually read Callisto. He felt like an idiot, but he forced himself anyway. He bought beef, some fish, even a little Swiss and Muenster, then blurted it out.

“They told me up front. They told me to ask about The Major.”

Nita smiled. “Did I tell you I have a son?” she shouted over Claire’s keening.

“No,” said Richard, a little surprised.

“Here,” she said, taking out a little photo book and giving it to Richard. Tina had one of these albums. She called it a Brag Book. “I have taken a photo every week of his life. He’s 13-months. Have a look.”

Richard flipped through the photos. All were of a calm baby, until the five-month picture. From there to the nine-month mark, all the pictures were of a screaming wild-haired little boy. Then, on the first week after the nine-month photo, the serene child was back.

“He’s cute,” said Richard. “Why so many pictures of him crying?”

“Because that’s all he did for four months.” She gave Richard a look. They both glanced at Claire, who was suffering at low volume for a moment.

“What happened?” Richard asked, knowing full well what this woman’s answer would be.

“You are not ready for The Major,” said Nita. “Trust me.” She turned from Richard, picked up a butcher knife, and resumed work on her latest carcass.

“Look,” said Richard. “I don’t believe any Major Mumbo Jumbo that they were hinting at up front. In fact they were laughing. I should be, too. I mean I was crazy to ask. But my baby, this is Claire, has been screaming nearly non-stop for five weeks now. Nothing helps, short of a hammer, which I will never try, but have been tempted to lately. So, for the sake of exhausting all possible methods, tell me about this Major.”

“Testy, testy,” said Nita.

Richard crossed his arms as best he could with Claire strapped on his chest in a carrier, and nodded his head in smoldering resolve.

“You have to wait for the full moon,” Nita said. “The next one is in two weeks. The guy I heard it from said you’ve got to strip your kid down, take her outside so there is an unobstructed view of the moon, say your child’s name three times, and then tell a secret about yourself that no one knows.”

“Then . . .” said Richard.

“The Major comes, of course.”

“Does your boy cry any more?”

“Not a drop,” said Nita.

 

“Colic,” Tina had said. That diagnosis was corroborated by her mother, by Richard’s mother, and by Tina’s favorite Aunt, Edna, who had a brood of seven. Colic. Richard breathed a sigh of relief. “Penicillin,” he said triumphantly. His wife looked out at him through hollow eyes and said in her sleep-deprived voice, which Richard had found arousing as of late, “No, honey. That’s cholera.” On some level that required more sleep than he was getting, Richard knew cholera to be an infection, usually epidemic in proportion: scenes of late-night television’s starving children and the word malaria rang in Richard’s mind. Cramps. Dysentery. Death. Richard decided, feeling his own mortality stirring from lack of sleep, that colic and cholera were first cousins.

Unwilling to lie down in the face of colic, and before meeting Nita, Richard read on the internet that the key to calming children was to hold them and keep moving. Walk them through the house, drive them around the block in the car. The web site said that motion helped the child recall a sense of being in the womb. Richard laughed. He’d been on his feet with Claire for two weeks solid. Tina even walked her while she breastfed. The car was no better. Richard had gotten up several times in the middle of the night, put Claire in her car seat, and driven the twelve mile stretch of highway that led from their house to the ancient, condemned mill. He remembered drinking beer with his high school buddies under its shadow, brandishing their shotguns, unloading them on flying bottles, and kissing Tina for the first time as they sat on the tailgate of his Chevy. Claire screamed all the way to the old mill and back, a constant howling alarm.

Next, try a pacifier. Richard knew Tina had a drawer full in the bedroom, all different colors, shapes, and textures. She had tried them all multiple times, still did, in the hopes that they would placate. Claire was too smart to be soothed by a nipple made out of rubber that had no milk in it.

Richard had sung every tune he knew, from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” No song could mollify Claire. Even the recurrent shushing sound the website suggested didn’t help. Tina, who was a much better singer than he was, had no better luck.

Warm baths. Snuggle time with the family. They thought about leaving her screaming herself to sleep in her crib, alone, but couldn’t follow through. Burping, massage, flashy toys. Nothing helped except Claire’s intermittent and short-lived complete exhaustion. They tried baby acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and Mylicon drops. Claire just glared and showed them her bright pink tonsils. Richard tried all methods multiple times, even bought rival brands, considered a shot of Jack Daniels, tried all the duck calls he knew, each to no avail. After feeling more helpless than ever at his inability to appease his daughter, Richard began to tune her out, dialing down her volume in his mind. At home, she screamed if he held her or screamed if he put her down. She screamed if he took her to public places, causing him more than a little embarrassment. He constantly felt people eyeing him and Claire, thinking there is a man who cannot control his child. Or worse, there is a man who should not be a father.

Since there was no working solution on the internet, Richard began to look for precedents in his or Tina’s family lines. He inquired with parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides. No one remembered any child having cried like Claire. He thought he would look for more credible sources, some of the relatives’ memories a little foggy with age. He petitioned his mother for his baby book.  He found out he weighed 6 and ½ pounds when leaving the hospital, sat up by himself at six months, his first word was “key.” There was no section about crying any more than usual. He called Tina’s mother for Tina’s book, and she said she would send it along.

Finding no past, present, or future that made any sense of Claire’s wailing, Richard simply resorted to going to the hardware or gun sections of Wal-Mart, or the grocery store, in the middle of the night, hoping to avoid any excess attention, especially that of his neighbors and co-workers. He waited until midnight to shop, dragging his wailing daughter with him. He recalled when he and Tina were steadies, and he asked her to marry him. She had said yes and told him that having sex as fiancé’s was okay in her book. He was more than okay with that, and told her he would buy protection until she could get on the pill. She smiled. “Rubbers,” she said. “They look so dorky.”

He waited to go to an all-night pharmacy in an IGA all the way across town, hoping not to meet any of his friends. He bought some sugar, a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (he had always loved pirate stories), some razor blades and a small box of Trojans. With sweating hands, Richard approached the checkout, only to find a classmate of his, Kristy Henderson, working the checkout. She beamed when she rang up the condoms.

“Maybe I need a price check,” she said, reaching for the microphone.

“$12.75” Richard said quickly.

 

The full moon arrived on Tuesday as promised. Richard drove to the old mill at 1:15 in the morning, telling Tina he was going to the store. He drove through what once had been the clearance gate and onto the overgrown parking lot that fronted the structure. It was empty – there were no high school revelers tapping a keg of beer and getting down to business, the serious business he remembered, of partying on a school night. Richard parked the car as close to the mill as he could, so no passing police could spot it easily, and walked his crying daughter out to the middle of the moonlit parking lot.

As he stripped her down, diaper and all, Richard noticed how beautifully formed she was. Claire was certainly her mother’s child, and if he could survive until she quit crying, he was looking forward to seeing what she became – how she looked, what she said and did, and what she made of the world. If he could last.

Richard held his naked daughter up to the lunar landscape and said her name three times. Claire. Claire. Claire.

He waited a moment. Nothing happened. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to go to the second part of Nita’s instructions, even though he had spent time considering what secret he could get away with to produce The Major. He rolled his eyes to himself. It didn’t matter. This was a myth of monstrous desperation. Nobody was going to come. There was no Major, Army, Navy or otherwise, except the one who was sleeping in his plush bed with his wife back in town. So he picked the most harmless of his secrets, glancing back to the truck, his 30-06 and shotgun hanging forlornly in the rear-window rack.

“I want to hunt the big game, you know, lions and tigers and bears.”

Richard looked around. No one appeared. So there it is. The whole story is fake. He waited for the lights to blaze on for Candid Camera or Pranked. Either that or his secret hadn’t been all it needed to be.

He looked up at Claire, who he was still holding towards the moon. He could see her contorted face as shadow. The man in the moon was laughing at him.

“Alright. Another one.” He returned to his mental list. He skipped a couple, landing on a sure winner. It was hard for him to say. “I’m afraid,” he began, stopped. “I’m afraid I’ll be a lousy father.”

The stars winked at him. Being out here in a parking lot, howling at the moon (Claire was taking care of the howling part), said something about the lengths he would go to in order to do right by his daughter, his wife, his family. When he prayed, this was his prayer – that he would stand one day in a sunny yard, or sit at the breakfast table, and look at his daughter, and she would be a unique, unrepeatable, well-adjusted human being, that he had helped, or at least not screwed up too badly.

This was it. Nothing else, he told himself. The moon knows all my secrets. With aching arms, he pulled Claire out of the sky, out of the moon’s grasp and onto a shoulder, and then into a cradle hold. Still she cried. He walked slowly back to the truck. A high-pitched scream. He knew that she knew.

“Okay.” He turned to the moon, beating its silent orbit around the earth. Richard looked hard at the last item on his mind’s list of secrets. “Okay,” he said again. “I’m afraid that I’ll be the 2% guy who knocks up his wife when a condom fails. We’ll have another one. And she, or he, will never stop crying.”

When he said it out loud, a bolt of fear shot through him. That was truly it. Tina had always talked about four kids, and he was barely able to care for one, badly. Somehow, he knew it was his fault. Claire could tell he was afraid, afraid of her a little, but afraid of her siblings, imagined and potentially real. He was afraid they would overwhelm him, and what little strength and resolve and love he had left would be sucked up by them. Richard reached for the handle of the truck door, the metal snapping him with static electricity. He saw the blue spark.

After the creak of the truck door opening, another sound greeted him. It was like a car rolling slowly on gravel, a dry sound, with tiny pebbles careening away to patter on other rocks. Richard turned, then slowly reached for the 30-06.

In the shadow of the broken-down door of the mill was the biggest black bear he’d ever seen. It had shuffled from some dark corner of the grain silos into the moonlight. It seemed to pause for a moment so Richard could see it.

The rifle moved smoothly out of the window rack, and Richard laid a wailing Claire on the bench seat in the truck, leveled the rifle barrel in the crook of the door and took aim. Suddenly it came to him. This was the big game he’d told Claire about earlier.

The bear noticed the gun. Slowly it sat on its hindquarters and arched its back, beating at its chest like a gorilla. Richard stopped. Then the bear clapped its hands. Claire screamed. The bear leaned over, rolled over, and resumed its stance on all fours. It walked toward the edge of the doorway, one hand seemingly swatting at an insect several times, although it looked a lot to Richard like the bear was beckoning to him. C’mon in. Let’s talk.

Richard grabbed his daughter. The bear had gone back into the depths of the mill. Had he been real? Richard had to be seeing things, but it seemed so tangible, and he felt a heightened sense of lucidity. Surely he had not been imagining or hallucinating. But a bear in the old mill? He could never tell anyone this. He knew he should leave now, but he couldn’t. He cocked the rifle, then hoisted it on one arm, his whimpering daughter in the other, and entered the darkness of the mill.

 

He rounded several bends in the main hallway before he saw the bear, twenty yards in front of him, sitting again in a shaft of moonlight coming through a section of roof that had collapsed. The bear was elevated somehow. Richard moved another ten yards, all the while watching for movement. The bear was still, sitting on a platform that had been abandoned in the hallway when the mill closed. Richard thought if the bear had a hat studded with jewels, he would look like a king seated on his throne. Obviously, Richard and his bawling daughter were the jesters.

Five more yards. Richard kept the rifle up, but had no intention of shooting, unless the bear charged his daughter.

The bear seemed to know this. He lounged on his throne, back against the inner wall of the hall, his front legs, like arms, lax against his stomach. He looked like he’d already eaten, was ready to sigh, take out a toothpick, and fall asleep. The bear lifted a paw, extracted a claw, and scraped between several of his teeth.

“I’ll be damned,” said Richard under his breath.

The bear’s arms moved up. He resembled a tall burly man under the bigtop. Let the show begin!

For the rest of his life, Richard would always check the paper for the announcement of a meteor shower, and without fail climb to the roof with his wife or daughter or both and smile to himself, remembering the bear’s up-thrust paws that summoned the balls of light.

With the bear a few feet in front of him, Richard was standing in the hall of the mill, clutching his daughter and his rifle when the first ball of light soared past him. It was like a meteor, but like something else too, something Richard knew, but couldn’t name. It sped through the bear’s out-stretched arms and into a cavern beyond. Two more came, and in their light, Richard could see that there was some kind of barrier in front of the cavern, which the lights tore though, hissing as they let off steam, a long trail behind them, twisting like the tail of a corkscrew comet. Then there was a storm of them. The cavern lit up, revealing its shape, the hollow between the bottom of the cleft foot of a deer as it fled, or a dark and wonderful flower painted by Georgia O’Keefe. Inside was a huge pulsing orb of light, consuming the comets like a star  consumes asteroids.

He saw the bear motion, and the scene slowed. He could hear sound. It was Claire, of course, but she was laughing. Richard looked up, the balls of light and their twisting tails were in slow motion – in each ball, a new face reached out to him. He knew the faces. They resembled Tina. They looked like Claire. They loosely mirrored his own reflection.

The balls soared to their destination through the barrier and into the cavern, hitting the glorious globe, and in their light, Richard saw young men and women line up at the side of the bear, standing tall, confident, and good. Just before he passed out, Richard realized he was witnessing a cosmic consummation with a connection in his real world: the globe Tina’s egg, the corkscrew-tailed meteors his offering, the barrier with its 2% fallibility, and finally the faces – children he could have but might never, and they were perfect as they were. Somewhere behind them he felt himself, his figure, bent but unbroken, before he was greeted by darkness.

 

He found himself sitting in the cab of his truck, rifle drooping between his legs, his daughter on the seat beside him, curled into his lap, asleep. She wasn’t crying.

Richard remembered everything: the bear, the rifle, the comets, the faces, the young. He guessed he had fallen asleep and had a wild dream. He did not go back into the mill. He imagined he would see the throne the bear sat on, but the bear, the lights, the egg, for lack of a better word, wouldn’t be there – having never existed, or as he felt, simply moved on.

 

The twelve mile stretch back home was the quietest ride of his life. All the buildings, even the gas stations, were dark. There was no one on the streets. The truck thrummed under his shifting, his daughter’s head rocking slightly against his leg each time he hit the clutch and moved the column. It was like rocking a cradle.

Claire slept all the way home. He carried her out of the truck and she woke briefly, but instead of screaming out, she only yawned. Richard slipped her into bed with a sleeping Tina, then went to the refrigerator, took out a beer, popped the top, and drained half of it, leaning into the faint light until the refrigerator’s condenser tripped on. He scanned the room. His home. His family.

He sat at the table. Splayed before him was the day’s mail: several bills, a letter from his sister, and a package, which when opened revealed a book. Tina’s baby book.

He scanned the pages. Six pounds and two ounces. Eighteen and a half inches. Sat up at five months, walked at ten. First word was “ball.” Favorite foods: Applesauce and mushrooms, separately, not together. Loved bath time. Hated bedtime. Favorite book was Goodnight Moon. Favorite story (told by grandfather): The Major. Liked to stargaze. First constellation – the Big Dipper.

Richard blinked. He had assumed The Major was a man, or even a woman, and that they had not appeared as promised in the moonlight. But as he read the notations in the margins, he found the story Tina’s grandfather told was of a bear in a traveling circus. A large bear, which did tricks, rolling over, picking his teeth, riding the proverbial unicycle.

Richard laughed. It was truly ridiculous and incredible. But he’d seen a bear, stood within a meteor shower, spared the big game, and somewhere in all that his daughter had ceased her crying. The faces and young people? He knew some of them were to come, and he embraced it. Birth control or not, nature would find her way.

He sat silently at the table for a moment, then slipped into the bedroom, traded his jeans for pajama bottoms and crept as carefully as he could into bed. He realized under the covers that it was unnecessary. Claire didn’t stir, didn’t cry, and would laugh, Richard imagined, upon waking.



Jubal Tiner’s short story collection,The Waterhouse, was published by Press 53 in 2012 and won an IPPY award for best regional fiction representing the Midwest. Considering the book, Steve Almond (God Bless America and My Life in Heavy Metal) writes, “In The Waterhouse, Jubal Tiner traces the intersecting fate of three boyhood friends as they navigate the world of masculinity and its discontents. These are stories bristling with a fierce wisdom, masterfully written, and emotionally fearless. Tiner is a writer to watch.” Tiner is also the founder and editor of Pisgah Review and teaches at Brevard College.