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On the day of our wedding, on some now-distant beach, my wife had sworn herself to me with ease and in faith, and I did likewise for her: Together we made the longest promises, vowed them tight, and it was so easy to do this then, to speak the provided words, when we did not know what other harder choices would necessarily follow as we made our first life together in a new city, and then again after we left that country and journeyed to the dirt, this plot stationed so far from the other side of the lake, from the mountains beyond the lake, on whose distant slopes we had once dwelled in the land of our parents, where perhaps there still perches that platform where we stood to speak our vows.

How terrible we must have seemed that day, when together we were made to believe our marriage would then and always be celebrated, by ceremony and by feasting, by the right applause of a hundred kith and kin. And then later how we were terrible again, upon this far lonelier shore, where when we came we came alone.

* * *

When we first arrived upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, then there was still sun and moon, only one moon, and stars too, all the intricacies of their intersections circumscribing the sky, their paths a tale to last every night, a waking dream to fill the hours of every day, and despite that bounty my wife was often flush with tears, because what world we had found was not enough for her, not enough for me, not without the children we desired, that I desired and that she desired for me, and despite her doubts she said that she would try, if that was what I assured her I wished.

In those days, there was no house, and until there was we required some place to sleep, to store the many objects we had been gifted at our wedding, the others we had carried forward from other years, those lived beneath the auspices of our mothers and fathers. And so we went into the woods to seek a cave, and in a cave we laid out our blankets and stacked our luggage, and there my wife waited amid that piled potential while each day I went out onto the dirt, while I raised a house with just my shovel and axe, my hammer and saw, my hands hardened by the same.

I froze, afraid the bear would charge, and in my fear I for a breath forgot my wife; and in the next breath I remembered, flushed with the shame of that forgetting.

In that cave I did not leave her alone, though I had meant to do so—and all this happened long ago, when I still thought meaning to do something was the same as doing it—and I too was lonely as I built the house, and then the first rough shapes inside. I built the table and chairs, fashioned the stove and the sink, crafted the bed where I would lay my wife the first night I brought her across the threshold: where as I watched the ink of her hair wrote one future after another across the pillows and sheets, and in that splay of black on white I smiled to see all the many possibilities of our family, formed out of her body, drawn into my arms.

* * *

But first another memory, the day before I carried my wife into our house, the other reason she was in my arms, the first time I spied the bear watching me from within its woods: And when I saw it I stilled my work upon the dirt, moved slowly to set down the tools with which I had not quite completed the house. At the tree line that marked the edge of the woods the giant bear’s back hackled, increased its size again, and the wedge of its head swayed huge and square from its massive shoulders, its mouth spilling yellowed teeth and lolling tongue, exhalations steaming the morning chill. In the face of its stare, I stared back, and the bear slavered in response, shook its thick fur as welcome or warning, and when it saw it had my attention it stood on its huge hind legs, its stamping body a dark tower opening, opening to push a roar up toward the heavens, toward the sun that in those days still ran full circle.

I froze, afraid the bear would charge, and in my fear I for a breath forgot my wife; and in the next breath I remembered, flushed with the shame of that forgetting.

The bear growled and raked the ground and paced the tree line. From my remove I noted the strangeness of its rankled movement and also how it was not exactly whole: where brown fur should have covered the expanse of its back that fur was in places ripped, and the skin below was torn so that an armor of bone poked through the wound, yellowed and slickly wet. Still the bear seemed hardly to know its hurt, its movements easy, unslowed, perhaps untinged with pain. It roared, roared again, then abruptly it returned to the pathless woods, its bounding passage wide but somehow also impossible to track, the bear tearing no new way, breaking no brambles despite the bulk of its body.

And then I too was running into and through the woods by my own path, across the avenues of pine straw, back to where I had left her, the cave where all our possessions were stored.

I arrived to find our crates and cargo shattered upon the cave’s floor, our clothes shredded, our clock broken, our wedding albums ripped from their bindings. With the passing of those photos went some memories of the old world across the lake, a place perhaps already doomed to fade soon after our arrival in this new one, but now lost before I had erected the structures necessary to withstand that loss, and still some more terrible fear welled large within me, because despite my many cries my wife did not make herself known, and so for some time I did not know if she was alive or dead.

* * *

When I finally found her, sequestered in the entranceway of some lower passage of the cave I had never before seen, then as I shook her awake I saw there was no recognition in her dazed eyes, not of who I was to her or who she was to me. She did not know even the single syllable of her name, nor the two of mine, not until I repeated those sounds for her—and then I made her to say them back, to name me her husband, herself again my wife.

Matt Bell’s debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods will be published by Soho Press in June 2013. He is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he edits the literary magazine The Collagist. He teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University. His story,”Quella, Querida, Quintessa” was published in this magazine in March, 2010.

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