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SANCHE DIDN’T WANT TO go to see the bear die. “Too sad, Ponytail. Too sad.”
“It’s a big moment,” Yunnan explained. “Lots of families are going together. Big stars are coming from Hollywood. Cave Bear will be there. We always loved her.”
“No, Ponytail, too sad. But Papi will be there.”
In the past whenever Yunnan got news of her papi being somewhere, she didn’t go. Like the time Sanche sang in the World Peace Chorus at Rockefeller Center. She’d watched it on the TV and told her sister that she was the loudest singer. Or last year when Sanche gave a workshop at the public library on tea ceremonies. Or last month when Sanche’s daughter, Lucy, turned ten and relatives she’d never seen before arrived from Guangxi.
“But he can’t go, Sanche. I’m going. Can you tell him?” She felt a juvenile impulse swell up in her, despite being forty-five. She wanted to tell Sanche that she called it first. Papi had no right showing up.
“You know Papi, no one can change his mind once it’s made.”
“Yeah,” said Yunnan, quietly. “I know.”
It was time to put the white bear to rest. Yunnan had been following Betty’s story for the past two years in The New Yorker. Betty was named after the actress Betty White who died the same year the bear was taken out of the wild and put into the zoo. The actress had lived to be a hundred and twelve, and animal activists thought if the white bear could live just as long then there might be a chance science could put things right.
But here it was two years later, and Betty was emaciated and ghostly, with black eyes that looked like potholes. Cancer will do that from the inside. A stomach full of plastic didn’t help, either. Of course, Yunnan, like the rest of the world, rooted for Betty’s survival. She hosted a weekly blog detailing the events of Betty’s life, how much fish she ate, when she swam, which celebrity donated money for genetic research. But as Betty’s vitality dwindled, Yunnan’s posts took on a more desperate tone. Betty needs our help. Betty can’t do it without us. Betty is our last hope.
But few commented on Yunnan’s posts. Instead they were on to the new fad science created, a temporary solution to extinction—the polar puff smart-bear™. Using the best parts of Betty’s genes, the scientists at NoEndanger Labs created a miniature version of Betty. Polar puffs were the same size as a pet rabbit, with fur as soft as a synthetic Russ toy. And it was believed that they could talk, although when Yunnan took her five-year-old son, Jinhai, to the pet shop, she couldn’t make out what the little puff was uttering.
Ho-ho-ho chi burp. Ho-ho-ho chi burp. Ho-ho-ho chi burp.
“It said hello, Mommie. Did you hear it?” Jinhai pressed his face to the metal cage, his tiny index-finger wiggling to touch the bear’s fur.
She bought one, took it home, and watched it die two days later. Workers from the pet shop came and bagged the polar-puff, which had turned a bright, splotchy red from all the blood that blossomed to the surface.
“Did I kill it?” Jinhai’s face was red from crying.
“No one killed it. It just died.” In her mind she heard her papi’s voice. She was transported to her childhood home, the one her parents still lived in. A starling had collided with the mini-windmill on the roof and broke its neck. Yunnan picked it up, straightened the beak and petted the iridescent feathers. “Papi, why do things die?”
“To force us to march straight into fear and suffering.”
“Did the bird suffer?”
“No, only you are experiencing suffering, Yunnan, because you cannot see that in the moment the bird died it was given freedom from life and reborn. See?” Papi pointed to a starling perched in the tree. Yunnan placed the dead bird in the grass, and weightlessly ran toward the tree calling to the bird. For many years she’d believed the dead bird had become the one in the tree.
Yunnan and Jinhai wore matching Betty shirts to the Goodbye, Betty Sendoff at the Bronx Zoo. Lots of money was raised on tickets and merchandise to support scientists who promised to prevent other animals from extinction.
“We couldn’t help Betty,” said the NoEndanger Lab spokesperson during the opening ceremony, “but we can help many other species. With your donations and support, we won’t ever have to have another Goodbye Sendoff.”
Yunnan treated Jinhai to a vegan-patty shaped like the cartoon version of Betty that aired on the Nic-All-Day Network. She bought him an eco-balloon that turned into oatmeal when it popped. Together they took a ride through an interactive tunnel that gave the history of polar bears, explaining that Betty’s fate was inevitable—though early guesses blamed global warming or increased drilling when the ice melted, but all arrows pointed to the fact that all races die out eventually.
In the afternoon, they listened to a kid-aged lecture on ways to help other creatures like Betty. Yunnan had heard most of it before. The message used to be: get informed, get accountable, and get busy changing the way you live. Now it was: support science, support a critter who needs it, and support our new world.
A crowd gathered at the back of the room. Cave Bear had arrived. In the crowd she looked for her papi. She wondered if she’d recognize him, if he’d still have the same hollow eyes and cement chin with lips that stretched in an empty straight line.
Yunnan took Jinhai by the hand and led him toward the Arctic Trail. Thick lines of people stretched like tentacles from the white tunnels that led to Betty’s icy home at the center.
Jinhai tugged on her wrist. “That man’s staring.”
Papi stood taller than the rest, or so it felt to Yunnan, who had put him on a high shelf, out of reach and out of sight. He could’ve been smiling, but all she saw was disapproval.
It started twelve years ago when she decided to have a child on her own. Papi was still talking to her then, though it was fragmented, the way a haiku is, and often with a similar cryptic message.
Woman not have child
Family of two
Heartache will follow
Yunnan knows best
She will never learn
She thought Papi would relent when the baby came, but instead she received silence, a permanent rapture to a place far from reconciliation. She tried for the first year to bait him with pictures and cards signed in her handwriting with love, from Jinhai. But he believed science shouldn’t make a baby. Or was it that a child should be raised with two parents? Yunnan had given up trying to guess what Papi was thinking. In the morning when she sat zazen, she saw his unyielding face, past and present, never-changing—always there keeping her from centering on the quiet present.
There he was, a stranger among a crowd of other strangers. She kept his stare.
Yunnan knew the division between them had been there as far back as when she was a teenager, brave and fearless, a girl who didn’t need her papi’s philosophy on how to live her life.
Whoever knows does not speak. Whoever speaks does not know.
She fought him in every decision. If he said college, she said travel. If he said sit zazen, she said standing tai chi. In her twenties she did eventually go to college to become a teacher of Chinese literature, making clear to him that it was her decision not his wanting that prompted her. Sanche stayed neutral through all of it, as did her mother, who said, “You always push him and leave him no place to dwell in your life.”
Yunnan didn’t want to hear it. She saw in Papi what they couldn’t see, a jealous old man that didn’t like to see his daughter outdo him, especially on her own merits.
A cloud of anger clenched at her body making it tight and strained. Yunnan turned back to the line, now moving. She concentrated on her breath. Breathe in. Feel the cool air on the back of the throat. Center. Breathe out. She did this five times, then lost her drive toward ten, seeing only Papi behind her eyes. She looked back in the crowd, thinking maybe she’d say something, like, go away. But Papi was gone. She’d wondered if she’d seen him at all.
At the end of the Arctic Trail, Yunnan and Jinhai sat on the blue recycled-materials bleachers in the arena, facing Betty’s habitat, an artificial ice island, with a cutout cave and circular pool. Several gen-mod seals did tricks in the pool, while the trainer explained that the new breed of seals no longer needed ice, which increased their overall chance of survival.
Next up to entertain the crowd were the grolar bears—half grizzly, half polar, and looked more like big cows to Yunnan.
“When will we see Betty?” Jinhai’s eyes grew sleepy.
Yunnan tucked him close, allowing him to rest his head in her lap. “Soon, I promise.” She no longer watched the bear tricks, but scanned the rows of faces, most expressing joy at watching the show. But Papi wasn’t anywhere she could see, allowing her to drop her shoulders, and just be.
She started to focus on her breathing again, a technique she’d modified since learning it from Papi as a child. But no matter how she tried, she couldn’t shake him from her thoughts. She was about to give up, when a memory cascaded into her thoughts.
Papi had taken her and Sanche to their uncle’s farm located near the Connecticut border. Yunnan was fifteen at the time. Uncle Tato was experimenting with raising rice paddies and had asked Papi for advice. She had lingered behind them across the field indented with mud squares filled with goop. Uncle Tato called Yunnan over. “See, if we can grow rice here, we can feed so many people. These rice plants will yield one-hundred and fifty pounds of hearty rice. That’s one paddy. And look, see there are a dozen.”
Uncle Tato was so excited, youthful, and undeterred. But rather than share in the excitement Papi tore at Tato’s vision, saying it was a waste of time and energy.
Yunnan remembered the sad look in Uncle Tato’s eyes, sad like the dead starling, as if all his vital force had been sucked out of him. At that moment she and Tato shared something in common. Without giving it much thought, she took Tato’s arm, and said, “I want to help. Show me what I can do.” Uncle Tato came back a little, his spirit reincarnating a step at a time, until he was knee-high in mud showing her how to aerate the paddy. Behind them Papi scowled. They didn’t talk for a week, and when they did, it was something trivial.
Yunnan came back to the present when the audience clapped. She clapped along, smiling when Jinhai looked up at her. She had missed a moment. All her learning about the right way of living said be present. Don’t allow the future that hasn’t happened strangle you, nor the past that has already happened possess you. Instead appreciate the moment as it enfolds. It’s all she had. But her estrangement with Papi was keeping her in the past, in the unhappy place of what if.
She focused her breathing, raising her eyes to the platform that ascended from the fake-ice. On it, laying sideways on a bed of straw, was Betty. The local high school band played a song, as people stood cheering. Yunnan lifted Jinhai to her hip so he could see. “You will remember this your whole life, Jinhai. You can say you saw the last polar bear die.”
Through the crowd, a figure moved toward her. At first she saw Papi’s face, then she saw the reality of what was in front of her. It was Sanche and Lucy.
They hugged, as Sanche asked what she missed.
“It’s just getting started.”
Sanche sat next to Yunnan, while Lucy sat with Jinhai who showed off his balloon.
“Why did you come?”
“I realized I was trying to get even with you for not coming to Lucy’s birthday,” began Sanche, taking her sister’s hand. “This morning after zazen I came upon a flower that had started to wilt. Small and frail, and yet very beautiful. I remembered that time is being lost and nothing is permanent.”
Yunnan understood. Through the knowledge that all things are temporary, the present was all the more appreciated.
Sanche pulled her sister closer, reminiscing. “Do you remember when we were little girls, probably no more than Jinhai’s age, Papi took us to the circus?”
“We were much older.”
“Oh, no, you were so tiny. Papi had wanted us to see an elephant. Do you remember?”
Yunnan tried to recall, but only a partial memory of a carnival glimpsed her thoughts.
“The elephant was just a baby, but to us it was enormous. We watched the acrobats do all sorts of tricks with it. We were picked out of the crowd to go up to it and feed it a peanut.” Sanche started to laugh. “But you got up close and it raised its trunk, and you started to cry. Papi came and took you outside.”
“You’re making this up.”
“No, Yunnan. Don’t you recall? On the way home I tied your hair into a ponytail, like the elephant trunk, and we made noises until Papi yelled at us to stop. That’s when I started calling you Ponytail.”
“No, Sanche. It was when we were at Aunti Jinger’s and she wanted to braid my hair, but you told her I liked ponytails, and since then she starting calling me Ponytail girl.”
“Maybe you were too young to remember the elephant.” Sanche didn’t fight her. “You could ask Papi.”
“I’ll ask Momi.”
“No, she didn’t go with us. She went with Auntie Jinger to see Tourandot.”
Yunnan was quiet. She felt a stabbing pain in her head, amplified by the clapping, the band music, and the cool air blowing off the ice pond. She didn’t like feeling she didn’t know something. It made her vulnerable.
“I’m glad you came,” she said finally.
Yunnan and Sanche agreed that Cave Bear was the name they gave to their favorite American actress, Daryl Hannah, when she won a lifetime achievement award around the time Lucy was born. Cave Bear had become like Ayla, the character in her first movie role, who was cast out by her own tribe, only to become stronger, more fierce, and a savior in the tribe’s survival.
Without Cave Bear the world would still be getting their food shipped from around the world. Thanks to her leadership efforts, state-owned and operated gardens sprouted up in major cities, spreading like a pandemic, offering a ready supply of food to each town’s constituents. Soon came the vertical gardens, like the one near the Empire State Building, where Cave Bear held a hunger strike with half the residents of Manhattan. Her message was simple: we need to eat. Popularity won. Gardens were built. And slowly change occurred.
Now, here was their childhood idol, an older woman, still sleek like young Ayla, her hair no longer a crown of sunshine, but instead a tender field of gray. Cave Bear had fought hard for Betty to remain in the wild.
Yunnan squeezed Sanche’s hand, like they were watching a movie, and a sad scene was too much for her. Cave Bear spoke a few words to the crowd, mostly reminding everyone that Betty was one of many endangered animals. “Science is intentionally trying to make people feel the situation is hopeless. It is never hopeless, unless you give up.”
Yunnan stood clapping. Jinhai took it as an opportunity to scream. Lucy joined him, and soon Sanche was quieting them both.
The hour had come. Cave Bear knelt beside Betty, who had hardly moved. Cold eyes staring out. The doctors came out with a metal tray, and two injections. Cave Bear was asked to give the first one. But she said she wouldn’t, agreeing only to be there for Betty. She wrapped her arms around the thin shoulders, pressing her face into yellowed fur. The crowd turned to ice, and all movement suspended.
The last time Yunnan spoke to Papi they were sitting on the porch that looked out onto an urban street. They had argued for the better part of an hour about the struggles of raising a child alone, about the unnatural method of insemination, both accusing the other of always having to be right in every situation. As the cars zoomed passed, creating a border of noise, Yunnan heard her father slow his breathing. She recognized that he was attempting to ground himself. She wanted to do the same, but didn’t, not wanting him to think she was copying him. After a while, Papi spoke.
“Did I ever tell you about your Uncle Tato’s sheep?”
“No.” Her voice sounded defensive, despite his being tender. “I didn’t know he had any sheep.”
“It was a long time ago. One of the sheep got out of its pen and went into the woods. Tato went to look for it, but realized that there was far too much ground to cover by himself, so he called all his workers together, and split into groups. It was nightfall before everyone returned back to the farm. No one had found the sheep. Tato grew angry calling his workers lazy, and accused them of going into the woods to sleep, rather than look for the sheep. But one of his workers came forward and said, ‘No, Tato, we tried our best to find the sheep, but no matter what path we took, we always came to a fork. Eventually, we didn’t know where to go or where to turn, or even how to get back to the farm.’ Tato didn’t want to believe him, but many of his workers said the same thing, that the forks in the road kept them from finding the sheep.”
“Did he ever find out what happened to it?”
Papi didn’t answer her. The sun grew dim overhead and shadows pervaded the porch. Yunnan left and never returned. Oh, she had her moments of weakness, times when she saw a movie that made her homesick for her papi. Or when Sanche related how Lucy had such a good time with her grandpi, fueling a snarl of jealousy.
Watching Betty’s life release transported Yunnan back to the starling, up and down every road that led her to the porch, and all the forks that winded and twisted every which way, causing her to become the sheep, lost and forgetful of the way home.
The doctor pumped Betty with the second dose. A stranger’s hand took hers from the left, and Yunnan held onto Sanche’s with the right. Together, the audience formed a connected web of people, each praying, some singing or meditating, others like Yunnan were crying. Somewhere in the audience was Papi. She looked for him, wanting to go to him, as if after all the years of fighting against him, she had finally let go.
Then a great, painful cry broke the unity.
Ho-ho-ho chi-burp. Ho-ho-ho chi burp.
“It said goodbye, Mommie. Did you hear it?”
Betty seized and stilled.
“It’s over,” she said, hugging her son. Betty’s struggle had ended. Like the starling, the bear would follow the cycle of death, back to life, through rebirth. It was as her papi taught her—The Tao gives birth to the One, the One to the Two, the Two to the Three; from the three are born the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things, balance yin and yang, united in the primordial breath to bring about harmony.
Cave Bear gave a nod to the doctors, wiping her eyes, standing, covering her face, as cameras fought to get the exclusive. The crowd was complacent only for a few minutes, until a trainer announced a special 3-D movie of Betty’s cartoon look-a-like in the North Pole Center, and an exclusive chance to win the latest version of the polar puff smart-bear™.
“Will you stay with Jinhai?” she asked Sanche.
“Where are you going, Ponytail?”
Yunnan had already cut through the bleachers, on her way through the crowded tunnels, where the lines broke off in different directions. She lingered by a penguin signpost, searching for Papi. When she didn’t find him, she changed sides, and stood on a chair, the faces of the people expressing, what is this crazy lady doing?
The moment passed. The doubt rushed back in. Yunnan sat in the chair, shoulders slumped. When she glanced up, Papi was standing over her. She was surprised to see him—not in her memory tough and durable, but aged and tired, frail like Betty.
She knew she only had the moment. “Papi,” she cried, wrapping her arms around his neck, pressing her face into his shoulder, breathing in the familiar smell of childhood found in his shirt.
“You are no longer lost, little sheep?”
Yunnan felt her temper flare. It wasn’t his words, but merely his voice, the voice of a hundred moments across time when she’d always challenged him. She took a deep breath smiling. “I am no longer lost,” she said, remembering something she’d learned from her Zen teacher: the path is the goal. All her pushing Papi away, all her desire to show him she could take care of herself led to the moment of letting go. But as much as she wanted to stay in the present, she needed to rectify the past. “Why did you stop talking to me?”
“Why did you stop needing me?”
They were almost the same, but different. Yunnan smiled. She wanted to say more, she wanted to resume the old shell of who she’d been with Papi, to fight him and say something clever. But the feeling subsided. Around her kids paraded with stuffed polar bears. Time was fleeting. Her own papi would pass on soon. All the time she’d wasted, she couldn’t regain.
“Tomorrow, can I see you? Will you let me bring Jinhai over to meet you?”
“Tomorrow? Years go by, and just like that you want to have your papi back in your life? Maybe you need to give this much thought. Maybe sit zazen and see where it leads you.”
She didn’t back down. “I have sat zazen everyday, well, almost everyday for all these years, and the message is the same.”
“Then why did you wait so long?”
The flow of people broke up their isolation, forcing them to drift apart. Sanche was there with Lucy, who greeted her grandpi. Jinhai, sleepily leaned into Yunnan. Sanche treated them like she always had, divided, not realizing that they were talking, and pulled Papi along, waving goodbye to Yunnan.
This moment was passing. They would drift apart and maybe be taken down another thousand roads before finding one another again. That was the lesson of the ten thousand things. Only in forgetting the self, could she be united with all things. All things. Papi.
“Papi.” Her voice wasn’t loud enough over the crowd. “Papi,” she called again, lifting Jinhai to her waist. “Papi,” she called again, her sister’s head moving out of view, until she couldn’t see them anymore.
Then with a terrible cry Jinhai let rip, “Ho-ho-ho chi-burp! Ho-ho-ho chi burp!”
The crowd around them seemed to suspend, causing a gap straight to Papi. He turned, facing Yunnan, meeting eyes with Jinhai.
“Goodbye,” howled Jinhai, waving.
Papi’s always-straight lips curled. He lifted his hand and waved.
“You see that tall man, Jinhai? That is your grandpi.” She wondered if Jinhai would remember, or if his memory would distort over time, like her own. “You can say you saw your grandpi for the first time here.” She wanted to tell him that he’d get to meet grandpi tomorrow, but her way of life taught her tomorrow was not a guarantee. What they had was now, and that too was fleeting.
As they followed the line of people out to the parking lot, Yunnan noticed the sky had turned crimson as the sun started its descent. She looked again, noticing that everywhere her eyes fell things were a little brighter, a little less mysterious, a little bit reflective of the happiness in her heart.
About the Author
HUNTER LIGUORE earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her work, nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in The Irish Times, Empirical magazine, DESCANT, and more. She is the editor of the print journal American Athenaeum. Hunter revels in old legends, swords, and heroes. — www.skytalewriter.com