Authors: Audrey Shulman
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
I would like to acknowledge the kindness, community and criticism of my writing group: Lauren Slater, Elizabeth Graver and Pagan Kennedy; the patient instruction of my college writing teacher, Louise Rose; and the unending faith of my parents, without whom, for a variety of reasons, none of this would have been possible.
Beryl holds an ice cube in her hand as she sits in her closet. The air is humid with the slow heat of August. The water from the ice drips steadily down her arm. Her palm hurts from the cold. She holds the ice, trying to imagine herself in temperatures of thirty and forty below. She tries to see herself sitting outside in a metal cage, a cage too small to move around in to keep warm.
The wind blows. All sound echoes close and loud. Snow shivers across the ground. She sits, her legs crossed. The only warmth for miles around is contained in the heavy arms of the white bears that mill about her cage, curious, strong and hungry. The snow squeaks beneath their feet. Pale mist blows at her from their black mouths. The bears push their wide white faces forward, against the cage. They suck in her smell, snort out. Steam touches her skin. Her face, like their beards,
is covered with frostâit's moisture from their breath, from her breath.
She understands that if the cage fails in any way, they will kill her. They'll reach in, rip the biceps from her flailing arms, the bowels from her belly, the tendons from her neck. They'll bite and tear, swallow. Her body will jerk at first beneath their strength, then slowly slacken. Her neck will roll back for their touch as though for a kiss.
Her eyes watch, dark and small, like theirs.
The ice cube makes the bones of her hand ache.
Beryl was the only woman hired for the expedition.
Her father asked about the likelihood of danger on this trip. He liked to know the numbers of thingsâthe par on a hole in golf, the average income of a Saudi Arabian, the number of murders daily in New York City. He confidently repeated these numbers to others, nodding, as though that explained the whole situation.
She found it easy to laugh at his question. “Good lord,” she replied. “This expedition's run by
. They're professionals.”
She paused, and even though she saw her father nodding in agreement, she added, “They do this sort of thing all the time.”
Her mother said nothing when Beryl told her she was going. She simply nodded and touched her hand to the bottom of her belly as though the organs that had borne Beryl
had twitched at the news. Her mother was a quiet woman with small infrequent gestures. Each gesture meant something: danger, money worries, happiness. Her mother understood the world as a place much bigger than she was and accepted without a fight all events that she couldn't change. She lived her life with her hands by her sides, moving them only to express her feeling toward the inevitable when it appeared. Throughout her childhood Beryl had learned to watch for these gestures with the same fear that a person on a dark night feels when she peers at the handle of her door.
Beryl had always been close to her mother, perhaps because she was her only child. Her mother had been forty-one when she got pregnant. Because of her age, the doctors had told her there was some chance the child wouldn't be normal. After the birth she'd never gotten over her desperate gratitude that Beryl had all her limbs, could breathe on her own, had a normal face. She thought it wise not to ask for too much more and took great care with the child's safety. About the time Beryl was learning how to bike and skate, her mother's skin sometimes mysteriously darkened in red blotches, as though large fingers had pinched her hard. Late at night her mother began to sob fierce and angry, the whole house echoing with her cries. Even her walk changed, became more careful, as though she were bearing something immensely valuable between her hips, holding her hands out in front of her and tapping objects in her path to make sure of their distance. Each time Beryl went out to bike around the neighborhood, her mother would sit on the steps in front
of the house, turning stark white whenever Beryl took both hands off the handlebars.
Thus Beryl became the first one of her friends called in at night, the one not allowed to go to the skating party, the only one who had to phone home at sleepovers just before she went to bed. Even after she had grown up and moved out, her mother had had her phone in when Beryl took the subway back to her apartment after visiting. Beryl knew if she did somehow manage to kill herself on this trip, then, at the exact moment when her heart stopped shuddering, her mother's uterus would contract one last time.
Her father reacted to the news of the expedition by taking pictures. Pictures and more pictures, posing her, ten to fifteen rolls of film, painful flashes of light from the moment she'd announced the expedition to the moment she stepped on the plane. He worried in this way. He focused very carefully. He wanted the facts. He wanted to hold the facts in his hand like a flat package of Polaroids.
Her father missed the original image of Beryl's mother touching her belly because he had rushed off to get his camera. Instead he took posed photographs: pictures of Beryl in her heavy green parka on the lawn by the morning glories, pictures of her and her collection of cameras in her childhood room, pictures of her in front of the polar bear cage at the zoo.
Her father never did manage to get a picture of Beryl with the bear fully visible in its cage. The temperature that day hovered in the nineties, humid. Dogs panted on leads, a
young boy whined for ice cream. While her father parked the car, she went ahead to see the polar bear. The cement cage was molded in the shape of ice and snow; a few logs lay in the corner. The pond was thick with green algae. The bear lay on its side, the color of lime Jell-O. A sign in front of the cage explained that polar bears were not normally green, that their coats have no natural color at all. They appear white because of refraction, the same optical illusion that causes clouds to appear white.
The bear's fur had become infected with algae, the hollow shafts of its hairs filled. The green bear sprawled across the cool cement in the shade, panting, its chest heaving with effort. Beryl knew that its rib cage could encompass at least four torsos the size of her own. She weighed less than half of a typical seal it would've killed and eaten in the wild.
The bear lumbered to its feet and stared directly at her for a moment, thirty feet away, the black skin beneath the fur visible in patches on its elbows and sides. The bear's haunches stood higher than its front legs, giving the animal the appearance of crouching, preparing to leap. Without the blubber it developed in the cold to survive, it looked bony and desperate, but huge even at this distance. On all fours it was taller at the shoulder than Beryl. The bear's eyes blinked small, black, calculating. Beryl moved her hand slowly up and down the outer bars of the cage. She watched it, her head tilted.
The bear looked at her for another moment. Then it turned and tottered over to the swimming pool, slid in on its forelegs
with a speed that threw half the water out of the pool. The water dribbled slowly across the cement, wetting Beryl's toes.
The bear sighed.
Her father arrived soon afterward. For the rest of their visit the bear lay in its pool, only the top of its nose and temples showing, still as a waiting alligator, green as AstroTurf. Each time it moved she heard the
of water on cement.
Her father settled for a picture of Beryl and the green forehead in the swimming pool behind her. As her father focused the camera, the bear's breathing echoed down to her, as heavy and methodical as the breath of a person making love.
Beryl looked through all the photographs with her father the night before she left, five stacks of them the height of her coffee mug. Should they be unable to find her body, she imagined that her father would bury a life-size glossy of her instead.
A single photograph showed Beryl posed with her mother. A moment before the camera went off Beryl had looked away from those small white hands, from that flat tired face. She looked into the camera instead. She smiled. Her mother looked at Beryl, her hands once again against her belly.
In spite of all his care, her father wasn't a good photographer. Things got cut off. Perspectives were wrong. Many pictures in the family albums had to be explained: “That's Beryl's foot in the foreground”; “Aunt Addie's in the taxi to the left.” Beryl had taken up photography because it had looked like such a difficult art. She had continued it because through
the camera's lens, things changed, especially animals. They became bigger, more magical. She liked them better through the eye of her camera. She liked the world better.
The first pictures she managed to sell were of Minsie, her small black pregnant cat. Minsie grew as Beryl stared through the tunnel of the lens at this animal who curled up with her each night. Viewed at her own level, without Beryl's own hand on her back or head to keep her in perspective, Minsie became the size of a jungle creature. Her wide pregnant belly pushing forward from between her ribs and hips wasn't a clumsy line or burden. The stomach, covered in black fur, stretched tight as a drum, became magical, secretive and strong. Minsie bowed her head, her neck curved, glimmering as a smooth rock on a beach. She began to clean her chest with the quiet rhythm of the pink tongue, the milky sharp teeth, the half-closed eyes. The black hair gleamed, matted down with self-possession and power. Beryl had focused and shot quickly, filled with awe.
She would be the still photographer for the expedition.
All the other photographers who had made it to the final round of interviews had been men: tall, strong and confidentâthe ones who regularly went on these trips. They leaned out of a speeding jeep to capture the astonished face of a fleeing rhino. They focused methodically on a charging gorilla, certain of the power of the darts littering its chest. In the interviews each man had crossed his legs, tossed his arm across the backs of two other seats and jiggled his ankle as he talked. At parties this kind of man knocked over other
people's drinks with his wide gestures and stepped backward onto other people's toes. He thought of manners as things involving forks and knives.
The male applicants had looked at the cage with dismay. Each had backed in awkwardly, crumpling his legs to his chest, bending his head down hopefully.
Beryl stood five foot one in her sneakers, and sitting down in the cage, she would almost have room to stretch out her legs safely. Even allowing for the space necessary for camera equipment, her parka and radio, she wouldn't need more than three feet square to sit in the lotus position. That gave her a foot at both the front and back. On the sides she had only five inches.
Though she was a successful professional photographer, she'd gotten the job because of her size. The coordinator of the project had told her so. He was a round busy man with the long tapered fingers of a small monkey. He moved these fingers as he talked, tapping them on the table, pulling on his beard, rolling them in the air to gesture. Beryl found herself watching the unlikely grace of these hands with her photographer's eye. She would set up the lighting to the left, focus in close. She wanted the fingers open against space. She didn't want his weighty clever face in the picture at all.
Professionally, Beryl took pictures only of animals. Animals expanded on the film so much more than humans. Humans didn't look like they might move suddenly. They understood they were having their picture taken. They smoothed back their hair, looked into the camera, smiled.
The coordinator said, “We were a little umm â¦ overambitious in creating an inconspicuous cage. We forgot the amount of space that clothing and cameras would take up.” The whole time he talked to her, he kept his brown alert eyes trained on her face as though consciously thinking about the importance of eye contact. Beryl found herself blinking more than she normally did from trying to look as alert.
“The cage,” he said, “looked so roomy in the design drawings.” He reached forward to touch her sleeve. “Artist's renderings can be so misleading.” He leaned back in his chair, sighed and shrugged with his long spidery fingers spread out against the air. She read the gesture as an acceptance of design flaws and of fate. Later, she would wonder if his movement had instead been an apology to her for this journey.