Sarah Bates
Pacing Leo
​That summer Virginia Woolf said though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes.

When you show me the bear, all I can say is maybe clouds get buried around the tops of known trees, and not a single thing about pulling weeds, curtain rods, the way in which mosquitos couple on our lashes.

It’s what I tell myself every time I come home to the world as mistake. When one of my branches collides with someone else’s sky.

It’s that death to feeling.

They’re killing all the deer.

That fire to floating.

They don’t even know what’s happening.

It’s like I’m taking a photograph of my feet without meaning to.

That summer I cried over peeled wallpaper and rotting walls. Gray slippers and every other sock with holes. Your only pair of reading glasses stuck to the stairs. What’s worse, butterflies fading or butterflies gone. I’d replace mold for Georgian Revival Blue and fix everything they tell me you broke.

Four months later, I come home to a bear in the fridge. You tell me it’s a sport. To let you have it. All I can see are long limbs like black rocks, the way they used to stretch out to Route 66, but maybe there’s something wrong with my eyes.

Woolf called intellectual liberty the right to say or write what you think in your own words.

To return to an old place and name the bee’s stinger. To stick it between clouds.

To stand at the mouth of the bear and explain myself.

People always want to know what “it” means. They imagine a dead deer on the side of M28 or a poem with fewer guns. No, no guns. I think this is supposed to be a poem without guns. I imagine that they imagine the world made of feathers.

Forty miles into the Seney Stretch I learned to walk instead of speak.

In ancient Egypt, the huntsmen constituted a social class. They hunted on both sides of the Nile for gazelles, antelopes, fox, hyenas, and occasionally, the bear. They used nooses, arrows, darts, and nets, and at times, the lion was trained to hunt.

It’s like I’m peeling ladybugs to peel that old summer, picking this medium shade of ocean blue to feel less dizzy about what’s coming.

When I finally open the fridge, I’m confused by Vienna Lager and Virginia Bold Rock. I notice the edge of one beer’s label peeling off, damp, and wonder if it’s leftover from summer or last year’s winter, or some other season I can’t quite make out even with the brightest of blues.

This past June, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed several trails and backcountry campsites after a black bear attacked a teenage boy. According to park officials, the bear pulled some 16-year-old Athens, Ohio boy from his hammock at about 10:30 p.m., 4.5 miles from the Fontana Lake shoreline near Hazel Creek in North Carolina. At that hour, the moon, waxing gibbous, poured its white light into Fontana. I imagine it blinded the boy, but to the bear, the world now pinkish and pulsing.

“Right now, it’s breeding season, so males are really roaming” said Daniel Powell, coordinator of the Alabama Black Bear Alliance and past president of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. “We’re seeing males looking for a mate. In the bear world, males roam and the females stay at home.”

In 1948, George Gurdjieff’s “The Work” placed great emphasis on self-remembering. Paying attention to the present moment instead of wandering to the past or future.

That summer I sat under the Mother of the Forest and carved into your trunk a prayer. To never love a man who loved like my father. Back home, an old carton of almond milk spoiling, and how sometimes seeing both means seeing less well.

He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder soon after he and my mom separated. I was standing in baggage claim at the Atlanta airport when my mom called to tell me how it had been coming for a while. They were just waiting for the right time. To do the right thing. I had just graduated from college and had spent a few weeks in Italy before starting my first job as a teacher. On the conveyor belt, an unclaimed Dora the Explorer suitcase for the third time.

I remember listening like you were the sound of hungry beetles across South Dakota.

And so everything became unloved. Every painting by the Duomo, every sun hitting our Japanese Cherry tree in spring. I wanted to go back to Florence and paint every bridge black.

And who cares? You can get a divorce for $149 at

For $149, you can cancel, reorganize, dissolve.

A few days before heading back to Michigan, you joke about having bear for dinner.

You know I’d been trying to eat vegan since August, but when I come home in December, I stop trying. I am afraid people will love me less without a cheeseburger on my plate. Without the same shade of hunger in my mouth.

In the morning, you head for the mountains. You take the dogs with you and lead them to the scent of the bear. You turn the dogs loose. You explain how each bear is different. Some run and run and run. Some go right up the tree, but others stay on the ground and fight. You tell me this year most are skinny, how one was blind.

What makes something the hunter and not the hunted? What makes something both?

That summer the walls of our hundred-year-old house felt like something I couldn’t mess up. One of my friends helps me pick a color for the bathroom, but after I start peeling wallpaper, I realize they already are. I can tell someone else has already attempted to fix these walls and now I was messing that up too. On the wallpaper, only wings. Behind it, the dawn and dusk of antennae.

I’d had Georgian Revival Blue picked out over a week and had spent a couple days spackling and filling in holes when you tell me you just aren’t ready for me to paint. I tell you the dust is made of wormy chestnut. You focus on the front yard’s dying dogwood and take the ladder with you.

For $149, I wanted someone to come and fix what I had started.

That summer I was a witness. He tells me it’s no big deal, all I’ll have to do is answer some really simple questions, sign something, and then leave. Into the parking lot I spill past a trunk flooded with Floating Blue and use both my hands to diagram the turbulence of time.

You’re sorry. You don’t know anyone else who would come. You didn’t know anyone that summer. And how could apology mean sight? I wonder how sorry can stay bent into place when every morning we stretch towards dirt. Maybe the heart is a thing realized with the eye’s ribs.

Three questions in, I remember a couple weeks before, a pair of baby bison on the side of the road. How I couldn’t find a way around traffic, so I stopped to see. I watched people taking pictures, some with their binoculars out. A friend texts me to ask if I’ve heard anything about the bear attack in West Yellowstone. She sends me a picture of the lean mother. Three cubs trailing behind in the corner.

In November of 1902, President Roosevelt took a train to Mississippi to hunt black bear. The second morning of the hunt, the dogs finally caught a scent of the bear, chasing it into swamps outside the camp. Roosevelt, who had watched the chase, was ready for lunch and headed back. His hunting guide, a yarn-spinning ex-slave named Holt Collier, known for ha
ving killed three thousand bears, was the one to finally corner the bear, as Roosevelt ate his grilled cheese with tomato.

That summer every morning in grief, every night thinking about grief. Is turning away the same thing as walking away? Every morning, in my room crying. Across pillows praying I don’t have what you have. Begging banana mania I’m not unlovable. I am afraid I am the smallest of every color.

Every morning I watch war on a bicycle.

Camus wrote that a leaping into the absurd occurs within a life of limitations.

Forty Miles into the Seney Stretch
I threw it in the back of a 57’ dump truck

The it being my heart. Sorry about that. The 57’ dump truck the same dump truck he brought to the house that summer for us to fill up and haul off. I don’t understand the 57’ here. And why a dump truck? Why not a Ford or a Chevy?

Beneath the Christmas tree is an unwrapped Rome. Dorothea Lasky’s fourth collection of poems. That summer I told you she was my favorite. That summer, you called cavities the eyes of nesting birds.

I tell you I remember my first bear. Winnie the Pooh in overalls with a storybook for a heart. I was five, and you had been staying at a place maybe ten minutes away on Hawthorne. How I would peel tickle-me-pink off my closet’s door every time you’d leave. I’d use my nails for putty knives and write about it later. I’d compare the bare wood beneath, to snow, then teeth rotting, then every lens clouding, then you. Sitting on the bathroom sink the first poem I open to is “Hunters.”

Their bloodlust is what made them different from me
I saw a man with an albino moose
Holding his antlers with pride
In the photo
By your bedside
And all I could think of
Was how scared the dead moose must have been

Under fading ceilings, chandeliers breaking, you tell me to go to hell.

Tonight I can’t tell the difference between thirst and hunger. Every time I come home there is another animal on the wall. Last year an elk. That summer a fallow deer. This time it’s a caribou from Montana. I can see its reflection in a plastic pickle hanging from the middle of the tree.

I think about telling you about the baby buffalos on the side of the road, but all I can say is it looks like something that would live in Narnia. And it does. I remind you how I’ve been eating. You’ve made bean dip with the caribou and call me coming home a special occasion. You call every dead animal a special occasion. A new dish. This reason to gather.

What does it mean to tell someone they’re wrong?

By the time Roosevelt made it to the 235-pound female bear, she was barely conscious, injured after killing one dog and hurting another. “Mangy-looking,” said Collier who had cracked the bear on the skull so hard it bent back his rifle. When Roosevelt saw her, he refused to shoot and asked a hunting companion to put her out of her misery with a knife.

Sometimes when you leave I look in the fridge. Sometimes I can barely see life without morning. One glimpse of the heart too much like an open field on fire. Sometimes a man drowns his roots just to see up the stairway.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex in adults with bipolar tends to be smaller and function less well compared to adults who don’t have it. This is what keeps you from solving problems, making decisions, or not. This structure matures during adolescence, suggesting that abnormal development of this brain circuit may account for why the disorder tends to emerge during a person’s teen years, when they should be cupping a sweat bee in their palm, wondering what it’s like to go through life with only one wing.

In two weeks I’ll visit the Bronx Zoo and when the grizzlies aren’t out, I’ll meet Leo from Pakistan. A snow leopard from Pakistan pacing. Ovid said all creatures look down toward the earth, but man was given a face so that he might see. And I see Leo looking up to grey clouds and if I’ve learned anything it makes you good to believe in someone.

It’s that in Miami someone asks, why animals? I want to tell you about the back and forth of his spotted body, everyone else away looking for bears. What it must be like to see Leo in the mountains of Pakistan. The sign reads he was abandoned. I imagine a Leo without fences. Without the clouds of someone else’s sky. I imagine him with an otter’s heart in his mouth, his head in Roosevelt’s noose.

I think of the picture of you chasing the bear. How when I saw it, I didn’t know if I was seeing myself for the first time or if I was seeing you. I think about coming home to Woolf, Camus, and Lasky, how this was my first time being with you without your meds, and for the first time in my life, I don’t know why I love visiting zoos. I think of coming home to Pooh.

Every morning gray clouds. Every morning Leo pacing inside the bear’s mouth. These days I watch you wake up with the sun, you’ve bought new socks and a new pair of glasses. Every morning you make a pot of coffee in case I come home.

Sometimes I agree when you say the bears need to die.

Sarah Bates is a Creative Writing MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University, where she is also an associate editor for the literary journal, Passages North. Her work has appeared or is f