We had moved from the city into Ione Farmhouse in the dead of the first COVID summer, the pine trees already crisp with that other California fever. The house itself, painted a powdery blue and wrapped in twisted, browning ivy sat like a lick of freshness on top of a small brush-covered bluff, our nearest neighbors about a half a mile down to one side and out of sight. The heat pressed down in pulses, and everything moved with it; even the gold-dirt track leading to the place swayed like a rattlesnake during the hottest hours. Sometimes whisps of burn could be seen drifting up into the empty, cobalt sky; I guess we were lucky to have just missed the fires that year.
Now we are under a different kind of hard brightness; still, dank, foggy; frozen by walls of time. From a distance the property looks much like a snow globe you’d pick up in a holiday gift store with its glistening lane, the snow revolving round it in whispers, the only thing moving. Inside this world there is another vista.
Marybelle arrives halfway through the winter, pink and warm against the backdrop of freeze, a welcome disturbance to these silent wilds.
She cries a lot at first. We feed the furnace to keep her cozy as she sups milk for comfort, hour upon hour, but she is restless in sleep and wakes suddenly, my pulse and my breast quick to react. I sleep with her on the rug in the living room for the first month; Ben consigns himself to the couch. We live as if in some kind of deep-safe hibernation. Feed; sleep; cry; sing; cry; sleep; sing; we cycle through trying to find the magic spell to restful. But I never feel like we really get there; not until we find Bobbin, a female tabby kitten, abandoned and sleeping in an old Singer box in the derelict barn down the lane—her mother likely taken by a fox or coyote. She is drawn to Marybelle and seems to be able to calm her the most; more, even, than my lullabies and soothing motherly hushes. We live for months in this zoetrope.
At two-years-old, Mary-bee—the name she earns for the sound she makes in her sleep—is quieter. She doesn’t say much, though we know she can. Her doctor puts it down to shyness and an overactive imagination keeping her inside her mind often. She doesn’t see many people, aside from quick trips to the store or brief visits from busy family she can’t get to know well in such haste. She thinks most people live inside a computer screen because that’s how Ben and I work much of the time. The psychologist we were referred to says it’s mild anxiety; likely just a phase relating to age and isolation. I question whether we should have moved away from the city; from parks and play dates and family, during the height of a pandemic to raise our baby. Our attempt at an uncomplicated, quiet life has caused our child to move inward. She speaks to Bobbin, though, in soft purrs and mews, sometimes in full, cat-chatter-like sentences. They chitter back and forth in abstract conversation; it’s sweet, though increasingly, perhaps worryingly, constant. The cat is full grown now, sleek and majestic in her own way. I am glad we found her, despite the fact our daughter cannot detach; she seems to need more family than we can give.
Spring comes. She is three now. We work the tangled yard for the first time in a year; the roses need trimming from the windows and the ground tilling for large weeds; we like to keep the garden a little chaotic, knowing where we are, and let the smaller weeds grow if the butterflies like them. Bee seems ready to explore more freely within the bounds of the property. We don’t yet know this is the beginning of something.
As the days keep more light, we lose her to the woods and grasses for hours. This is not something that was agreed, but it starts to happen more, and we are powerless against it. I worry at first. Ben does not fully accept this amount of freedom for our girl at such a young age. But Bobbin attends to her, fierce as a lynx; we’ve seen how she wards off raccoons and I tell him this is a different life we have chosen; this life is good for our daughter’s soul; nature is nothing for her to fear. It is why we moved here, after all. The two always return home, and are ravenous for meat and water.
Bee speaks less, so I adopt a kind of body language that mirrors hers; a way of moving that lets her know I understand, and that gesture is enough. Meanwhile, I read on how to bring her back, if I can; she is acting more animal than human, and yet, she is still more human than many; I see no great strangeness in how she is and feel guilty for even thinking of betraying it with literature or medicine. One morning, she catches a House Martin and leaves it on the dinner table as an offering. I think it’s Bobbin’s at first till I see the blood on the corner of Bee’s mouth. I cannot not bring myself to be angry at such a gut-savvy and fiercely sweet gesture; I have never been inclined to perpetuate the idea that girls must be graceful, not this unique and wild creature of mine, so fiercely present in the world. Still, I treat her for the possibility of parasites just the same.
One night, close to summertime, Bobbin is killed by a fox and left with her slick entrails out in a corner of the garden. I am terrified for my Bee; for her body and her heart. I keep her inside at night from now on, but she yowls incessantly at the window, a strange song of human sobs and feline screams, grieving her furred sister. Her first real trauma. I try to comfort her with soft strokes and chin bumps, the way Bobbin would have. She is not wholly appeased.
Ben is sicker with worry than me. He feels she is moving too far into the unknown; he is losing his little girl. She’s like me, I say. I tell him she dreams of the trees and the goose grass and needs to feel their touch; rub her skin against the bark; it’s how she knows the world is real; it’s how she makes her mark. He cannot fathom it, and I understand. But after time, I begin to worry more, too. This state that was once playful now seems dangerous and primal, like it’s a place she will enter into too deeply and not return, not even to the most distinctive Bee parts that I cherish.
At four-years-old, she will no longer tolerate the forty-minute car ride to see the psychologist.
She mews loudly in the early hours; scuttles around the house after a spider or loose bead. I hear her scratch incessantly at doors she cannot open, and mew with a hopeless high-pitched whine, but Ben will no longer let her in our bedroom at night, not when she’s like this. He is frightened. Last time she frenzied, he cracked the door and in a flash of nail and tooth she drew blood from his index finger; he pulled it back, dripping red, and slammed the door shut. They both cried hard that night; his, a grown man’s whimper; hers, the bitter yowl of a cat. The next morning, she purred softly and rubbed her cheek against his until her guilt was relinquished by his embrace, and they let the vibrations of her incantation heal them both.
I am rooted to her, though I cannot say I do not fear her will.
By the next winter, Ben leaves us; he cannot accept the way we choose to live; it is too maddening. The grief is too hard, and he cannot not bear what he cannot fix; he cannot bear that she is no longer his soft, cherry-cheeked little girl; an innocent babe who does not know death. But I see now that that isn’t what she needs to be, so, when she decides it is time, I give her back to the forest, and leave offerings of food and toys and milk for her to claim when the day brightens, and sometimes I hear her crying in the night, which milks my heart from the deepest place of nurturing.
I will always be here for the creature I mothered into the wild.