There was something soft and heavy in the plastic bag.
“It’s for your project,” said my father. “I got it at a yard sale.” The way in front was lit by our headlights, blinking tree, tree, road. A flash of forest eyes. I upended the bag and a puddle of fur slid out, like a scrap of old coat.
“For your project. At school. The bear project. It was bears, wasn’t it?”
I nodded, picking the thing up. It was slightly oily, strangely live.
“Do you think it’ll be useful?” my father asked, as we swung down the hill to my mother’s house.
“Yes,” I said, and in the dark my father smiled.
In the final year of elementary school, everyone did an Animal Study. The best won a prize. I already had three lever-arched files of double-sided pages, much of it copied—no, transcribed, as painstakingly as any monk’s illuminated manuscript—from library books. This was okay; we were eleven and not expected to be original. My contents page started solidly, sensibly: BEAR types, BEAR food, BEAR
“This is very good,” said my mother, helping me with the spelling.
Then the list wandered off somewhat, rummaging into whatever tangential sub-topics had lately caught my interest. Bear-hunting, bear-baiting, sun bears’ bile. How the Kodiak bear might look in our classroom, eating children (very big, and I’d cracked open a red ink cartridge to show the blood).
“I’m not so sure about this,” said my mother.
And now: the bear.
Or what was left of a bear. Its vacant eye sockets looked though me. It was a bear’s face, but flat, empty, like a bear mask. I held it up by its ragged ears, and the mouth-hole gaped—a terrible bear mask, for serial-killers and shamen and lunatics running naked through the night communing with Ursa Major.
“Did you have a proper dinner?” asked my mother, after dad had driven off. “What’s that?”
“It’s for my Animal Study,” I said, running upstairs with a belly full of strawberry ice-cream and the bear safely wadded in its bag.
My father always had a talent for wrong presents, and my mother a gift for discovering them: cut-price Walkmans that knitted tape ribbons, wonk-wheeled roller-boots, jewelry that left green stains. The next time I saw him, when he asked, I made sure to emphasize the bear’s great contribution to my project. And I debated for weeks how to include it. Bagged and labeled, like evidence? A carpet-sample swatch, nicely mounted on card? A grisly book-cover?
In the end I hid it in the cellar, because I could see it wasn’t right. At eleven, I knew there was a difference between well-intentioned and useful. My father went traveling that summer, when we handed in our Animal Studies, and he was still away when they gave me the prize, and by the time he got back the whole thing was long forgotten. I stuffed the bear in a box of bead-eyed pastel animals headed for the attic. One day soon I’ll bring it down to scare the children, and tell them what their grandfather was like, and how I wish they’d met him.
Emma Ozeren is thirty and lives in Los Angeles.