I’m ravenous. It’s like this every year; I’m always so hungry toward the dark end of the season. The flaps of the tent flutter open to admit us, and I lift my nose to the waft of buttery corn, salty meat, and soft clouds of spun sugar.
I ignore the acid-hot gurgle in my stomach and follow Ivan into the ring. My tutu is crooked. I can feel the elastic digging into my hip and I wish someone would notice. It goes better if everything is exactly the same. It is in consistency that I find my ability to do extraordinary things.
These are my three tricks: (1) I do a wide circle of somersaults around the length of the huge ring, (2) I climb a set of reinforced steps and cross a balance beam on my hands, and (3) I ride a bike. We all ride bikes. That’s the big finale—all four of us orbiting Ivan on our bedazzled bikes like lumbering planets to his gold-sequinned sun.
If I do all three of them, I’ll get my dinner. I hope it’s leftover hot dogs, and not bread. Gluey, tasteless bread, that slides down my throat like liquid torture. The worst thing about it is how famished I still feel, even before I’ve finished eating it. Still, I devour it as if it is the pinnacle of my day.
Tonight, I’m dreaming of freedom. We are in a grey, windy sort of place, and there is something restless in the air: a musky smell, mingled with damp, peaty earth and a tang of pine. I feel it brush the tip of my wet nose, and I can see my escape. I see it as they would: the metal bleachers trembling with my heaving, quaking roar, and the stuttering growl of ripping canvas. My thundering back end, haloed by pink tulle like an enormous, misshapen flower, galumphing crookedly down the one dark street in this dilapidated town, this down-and-out place where the men smell of the deep blackness of caves, of something oily and dangerous.
I try to place myself inside this image. Can I smell the greasy dumpster behind the cafe? Feel the breeze riffling the delicate spot between my eyes? Can I even run as I was born to, now, or do my lopsided muscles clench and complain as I try to gain speed?
But I can’t even dream of it. My stomach heaves and quivers at the sight of the whip, even held limply in Ivan’s hand, an afterthought. A searing memory of pain clamps cold fingers around my neck, and I mount the bicycle, keep my head down, try to close my ears to the laughter of the crowd, the hands smashing together, the shrieks that pierce my thick skull.
I breathe. None of this is real. It’s only the hunger. I am a good bear. I am more than the rage that sears me from the inside out, leaving me charred and windswept and dusty as ash. I am more than my instincts, the instincts of a savage beast crashing through the twittering forest. I am beyond wrestling, beyond climbing, beyond the crude pleasure of rubbing my stinking pelt on the rough bark of trees. I have imagined, but never felt, the slippery shiver up the back of my neck as blood drips between my pointed teeth. Because I am a good bear.
Tell me I’m a good bear.
© Rachel O’Cleary
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Rachel’s interview]