Janet took a deep breath as she flipped the page and began to read the final section of the manuscript:
“The sharp rock ledge of the cave wall cut into Ashley’s back like a knife. She realized that the actual knife she held in her clenched fist would be little protection. The bear was suddenly on her, and there was no place to go. The snarling muzzle of the animal and its fetid breath would be the last earthly sensations she would experience. The she-bear loomed over her, claws raking her shoulder, shredding her shirt. Desperate, Ashley lunged, plunging the short handled knife into the animal’s chest and twisting it. The bear howled as blood gushed from the wound.
She felt the bear’s blood spill onto her arms, and chest, mingling with her own blood from fresh gashes. The huge ursine head began to fade in and out. The thick coat became fine gray human hair. The howling continued as human eyes peered out and the bear’s head morphed into that of an old woman.
“Ursa Mater” the crone whispered.
“Ashley slid to sit against the wall, stunned and drained. There was no movement on the cave floor. The woman’s corpse lay face down, splattered with blood…”
Janet gazed up as she turned another page. The women in the group, as usual, displayed a variety of responses, ranging from active interest to barely concealed contempt. Janet was used to it, but as she glanced around the room this time, she couldn’t remember why she had ever been intimidated by these women. She continued reading.
“As Ashley sat slumped against the wall of the cave, she felt the bear woman’s blood seep into the open gashes on her arms and chest. The wounds bubbled as the blood mingled. Buzzing sounded in her head, at first a tingling, that grew in intensity until her head vibrated and her teeth clenched. She knew then that she was Ursa Mater. She felt the knowledge of the powers the old woman had bestowed on her, and she knew that she had been chosen, led to the cave by the crone. Bear Mother… Ashley saw decades of life unfold in her mind as the body on the cave floor began to fade. She watched reel after reel of mental film. She saw violence and tenderness, she felt the fear and loneliness Bear Mother had endured. She followed along as Ursa Mater defended the weak, championed those in need. She understood that Bear Mother was a powerful force, nearly unstoppable. Bear Mother destroyed those who preyed on the weak; she annihilated bullies of all kinds.
Ashley wept as she came to see the burden that had been placed on her shoulders. Was she worthy? Could she be Ursa Mater? Why had she been chosen?
By the time the ancient body had crumbled into a dusty powder, the wounds on Ashley’s body had closed, leaving no sign of the carnage.
She walked out of the cave into the strong sunlight and to her destiny.”
Janet waited for the feedback that was predictably slow at first.
“The bear, of course, a clear, though clichéd symbol of patriarchy…” offered Stella, Assistant Professor of Contemporary American Literature, with a concentration in Southern women writers.
“It has to be more…” Kara’s habit of looking away when she talked, made it seem that she spoke from outside the group. “The bear has to symbolize something more insidious. Something we fear, yet desire. The sexuality of the images needs clarification.”
“It’s clearly a transformative systemic paradigm.” Elena had just completed her third year as a Ph.D. candidate in Semiotics. Janet seldom understood a word she said.
“So, Janet,” Cynthia, the Sociology undergrad lecturer and perennial peacemaker within the group asked the question. “What is it? What about this bear?”
Janet shrugged and smiled. “It’s just a bear.” She scanned the group, observing the agitation each woman expressed in her own way.
“No, it’s definitely not just a bear. As a linguist, I know everything is symbolic.” Kara shook her head as she spoke.
“Kara is right. Meaning is fluid. We’re meant to question the significance of the seemingly static.”
“So, Janet… what questions do we need to ask to deconstruct this work?”
Janet looked at the women with a smile before answering. “No questions. It’s just a story. The bear is just a bear. Written in ordinary everyday language.”
“But what language is that?” Elena asked. “As Derrida said, ‘I speak only one language, and it is not my own.’”
“Really, Janet, who is speaking here? What is this piece?”
Janet shook her head. “The bear is just… a bear.”
“The creative mind builds meaning by its very nature. It’s impossible to write without a multiple layers of significance.”
Sydney, newly appointed Chair of the Women’s Studies Department, unusually silent throughout the verbal crossfire, exploded. “What the fuck, Janet. Are you saying this is just a story about a woman who turns into a bear?”
The glare that accompanied the words was a slap, but this time, Janet didn’t cringe.
“That’s right. It’s a story about a woman who turns into a bear. Simple. Straightforward.”
“That is so lame. Work like this does not belong in this group. You do not belong in this group.”
The other women backed into their chairs, lifting freshly filled wine glasses. The energy between Sydney and Janet was a tempest no one wanted to approach.
“We are a feminist writing group, Janet. An academic, literary feminist group. You, with your pathetic little M.F.A. in English… You don’t get it. I don’t even know why you are here.”
“Really Syd, aren’t you being a little harsh? After all, we’re all here for the same reason – publish or perish.”
“Cynthia’s right. We have to get our work out there, and we need readers,” Kara added and the others nodded.
Emboldened, Cynthia added: “So it’s really not fair to attack Janet.”
Sydney’s words were like a spray of bullets deadly to anyone in the crossfire.
“Cynthia, just stop with the false pathos. Everyone knows you don’t give a shit about anyone’s feelings. Constantly breastfeeding that brood of yours has drained you of all intelligence. You don’t belong in a feminist group either.”
Cynthia adjusted her sweater to cover the spreading moisture on her blouse. “I spent twelve years battling department politics before I gained tenure. Then there were three years of fertility treatments and miscarriages.” She rolled the water bottle between her palms as she spoke. “Yeah, so I had triplets, Sydney. It’s not uncommon for women taking fertility drugs.”
Elena swiveled her head, facing the two arguing women. “Mathematically, three children after three years, would be an average of one child per year.”
Kara spoke into the silence that followed Elena’s observation. “But that’s not the issue, and I don’t believe we gain anything by attacking each other. We have to go back to this story. No, I don’t care what Janet said. The writer loses control once the work is out there; Joyce showed us that. The artist sits back, like God after creation. The work begins the conversation, but the artist is only one of many voices.”
“But the bear is…”
The women had circled the wagons, snubbing Janet’s attempts to enter the dialog.
“Think of writing as Cixous does, as the dwelling place of the other in me. It makes the bear the other. Let’s delve into that.” Stella posited.
Sydney rolled her eyes. “Everything that can or should be said about this ridiculous story has been said. Delving isn’t necessary.”
““No,” Kara argued. “We are compelled to deal with the blood. This story has so much blood.” She leaned forward, punctuating each word with a side fist to the table. “It’s menstrual blood, blood of the innocent, the blood of Christ, the blood of guilt and treachery.”
“It’s bear blood that…” Janet tried to inject.
Sydney shook her head. “Really, Kara. That’s going way too far. Janet says it’s just a story about a woman who turns into a bear. Let’s leave it at that and get the hell out of here. I have things to do, important things to do.”
“Of course you do,” Cynthia sneered. “I’m sure you didn’t get to be department chair-”
“Don’t overlook the significance of the bear,” Elena interrupted. “The visceral, pre-rational, the constant struggle of the mind to suppress the darkest desires. The bear speaks to that transformation. The woman becomes that which she fears, she loses her womanhood as she gets that raw, elemental power. Actually, much like Sydney in her drive for power.”
“You’re saying I’ve lost my womanhood because I want to be on top? I sacrificed things for this position, yes, but nothing I consider valuable. Relationships? You mean enabling a weak-minded man? Family? Little humans grabbing at you and demanding all your time and energy? No thank you. I don’t miss any of that.”
“It’s not about that.” Stella twisted her hands as she spoke. “It’s about the woman and her need for expression. A need that isn’t filled by the male hierarchical structure. The woman seeks another woman, the crone. It’s her passage into womanhood. The cave, after all is the ultimate symbol of womanhood.”
“Ashley,” Janet spoke into the group. “Call her by her name, Ashley.”
“Not just about the woman,” Elena insisted. “That denies the universality of experience.” “You are minimizing the importance of the symbolic transformation,” Kara added.
“I’m not minimizing anything.” Stella leaned in, palms on the coffee table. “My experience is your experience, as my experience is everyone’s experience.”
“You’re all just full of shit. This story is nothing. It’s a waste of our time.” Sydney stood, shaking her head. “I’m out of here.”
Janet sat back in her chair, and drained her wine glass. “I guess it’s time to finish up.”
There were murmurs as the women gathered their belongings and made ready to escape the psychic carnage Sydney was still inflicting, even as she stuffed papers into her valise and walked to the door.
“We are about reality, Janet. We write about life, things that actually happen. We write about being a woman in a patriarchal society, about marginalization and the spiritual rape our culture promotes. We don’t write silly stores about women turning into bears.”
Once the door had slammed behind Sydney, the other women took their leave with embarrassed smiles and whispered apologies.
“Take care, Janet.” Cynthia pulled her into a hug. “You know how she is…”
“Yes,” Janet agreed. “I know exactly how she is.”
Kara patted Janet’s shoulder. “You should stand up for yourself more.”
Janet’s head began to throb as the women left, and the buzzing began, a tingling, that grew in intensity until her head vibrated and her teeth clenched. She took a deep breath as her body began to change. She knew now how to control the power, and she knew what she had to do.
It was dark as Janet straightened up the living room and put all the paperwork from the writing group away. She washed the glasses and plates and put them back in the china closet. Pouring herself a glass of wine, Janet settled into her faux fur recliner and clicked on the television news. A woman was being interviewed about a frightening encounter on the university campus. Wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by emergency personnel, she stared wildly into the camera. In answer to each question the reporter posed, the woman babbled, “A bear… a b-b-bear… a bear.” The reporter spoke into the camera. “That’s the story, as we have it so far. Professor Sydney Marshall, of the Women’s Studies Department of the university claims to have been threatened by an enormous bear.”
The video switched back to the studio. “A bear, in the center of an urban campus?” The blonde woman anchor fought against a giggle and lost.
“I don’t know,” The male anchor shook his head and shrugged. “Maybe Professor Marshall has been studying a little too much. Now to our next story.”
Janet clicked the television off and smiled.
Kate Franklin asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work