Her, basket, bear
At dawn Lari’s head was in her hands, neatly contained. Out the window, in the clarity of the morning sunshine, her mother was returning from the edge of the village with a small cart of wood for the hearth. Her mother nodded at her when she entered and saw that Lari was awake. “Are you doing your sewing, Lari?”
“I will soon; I’m trying to do something.” She lifted her head and returned to the tangle of reeds on the window-side desk while her mother made busy noises behind her. On a whim she had collected the reeds when playing by the edge of the sea some evenings ago. It was very frustrating to have forgotten a skill she had once known, but she did not want to ask the man who lived on the nearby sloping ground to teach her again, ashamed of having forgotten his patient instructions from less than a year ago. So she took to knotting the reeds on her own with the vague hope that even if she could not remember her neighbor’s technique, that she might invent a type of basket of her own. But today’s labor, like yesterday’s, failed to yield anything of a shapely or useful character.
What delivered the young girl from her concentration was a shadow moving forth across the sunlit ground out the window, and upon looking up, she saw the shadow caster, her friend Kayen, coming for a visit. The boy smiled and placed a figurine of a bear on the windowsill in front of her.
“Another one!” Lari said. “Thank you very much; it’s very good!”
Kayen’s family were fishers, and when the sun shone brightly Kayen would go over the sea with them. “Sometimes,” he had explained several figurines ago, “on the way back, when the sun is going down, the adults would talk about whatever it is they talk about, and I would bring with me wood and a knife and see what I can carve.”
“See what you can carve?” she teased.
“See what I can carve, except it’s always a bear.” He grinned. “I can probably do other things, but I simply like bears.”
Though not good, the bears were much better than she would expect of a child their age, and she was impressed anew every time. It was also certainly very nice of him to give her most of the products of his hard work. When she went to his house to play sometimes, she saw he kept a mere two for himself, pieces of average quality relative to the ones he’d given her.
Lari’s mother came by the window and in a brisk motion handed him a piece of bread. She said firmly, “You should come back after fishing; it’s quite late already. I do hope you aren’t keeping your family waiting.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I always take this long.” This made Lari’s mother cock her head, but he simply thanked her and said good-bye to Lari and her mother and got on his way.
Lari took the little figure to the dusty shelf in the house on which she kept them all, displayed neatly in front of the dishes. There was a veritable variety of them in different poses. “A hunting bear, for the season,” he had said once; “I haven’t much time today—take this!” he had said another time before slamming a bear in a running posture on the sill and sprinting away himself. Today’s bear really was the best yet. Its hindquarters were shaped in a way she had never noticed was true of bears but felt correct—though as she was quite thankful for indeed, she had only seen a bear once, and from a considerable distance. The bear-figure’s eyes were closed, too, which gave it a very charming and tranquil appearance: the fearsome beast was at rest.
The number of bears was growing thus hence, and today they finally numbered too many for the girl to carry between her stubby fingers when she wanted to grab them all for an affectionate look. There were also more now than could be aligned as usual on the edge of the shelf; before, they looked almost like a natural congregation of bears, but with the new addition they looked rather too crowded. She looked over at the basket she had tried to make, which quite amounted to a flat and messy knot, and then her basket project was no longer a whim to her but a responsibility.
She could not help but think how nice it should be to have the best bears on display on the shelf, but to keep the others all neatly packed somewhere from whence she could uncover them sometime for fond reflection. She fancied she would remove the lid of a beautifully made basket and be reminded fondly of Kayen’s kind efforts, and if Kayen were around, he would be proud to see the increasing productivity of his art, the basket filling with his craft as though it were filling with crops or bread. This event she performed longingly in her mind—if only she should have the skills to accomplish it!
More diligent efforts at the basket fell short; her mother, who was working in the kitchen, gave her intermittent glances to encourage her to do her real work instead. Eventually Lari took to sewing the clothes as was her duty.
That evening she was sewing and was startled by a “Boo!”
She jumped in her seat and fumbled with the needle. “Oh, hello!”
Kayen had come around again to ask whether she wanted to go exploring in the woods or along the beach with him, or maybe invite some of the others of their generation and play tag or pretend.
She wished she could visit him by surprise more often rather than the other way around, but her mother and father would not let a little girl go out alone at dusk, and during the day there was usually saltwater between them.
When she had been even littler, she watched boats with her parents and fancied she could put things in the water for the fishers to uncover. She wished she could write symbols on bark as men and women of magic did, for example, and send off spells of good tidings to the people sailing. That was even before she had met Kayen, but her parents had known his. Of course now she wished there was time in the daytime to play with her friend, or maybe, if she was of a fantastical mind, wished secret messages could be sent between water to land.
“I think I shall stay home tonight and work on a craft,” she told him through the open window, though she much appreciated the offer.
“I want to, but if I try to play I will be upset with myself for not working instead.”
It was not an uncommon response from her, being quite an industrious child, but he tried to argue anyway. She knew better than to accept playing together when all the while she would be preoccupied with the pride with which she could be showing him her finished product. In spite of his persuasion she continued to refuse. He left and said good night.
Dusk was growing darker. Her father had come home for the night with his tools and the family had eaten. Heeding the vanishing sunlight she put down her sewing, having done her share, in favor of the reeds; her mother generally let her do what she wanted in the hours before sleep. She had asked Kayen once what he dreamt at night and he had said it did not matter; he did not remember; dream was too far away to bring all the way back home.
“But it doesn’t work that way. Even if it’s a long way back, dream isn’t heavy to carry.”
“I fish, though, and I know that wherever you go, you can’t ignore the way back over the sea. It can be long and you have to plan for it. If you went fishing every day you would know that too. You would get used to the idea, and you would bring the idea with you as you went to bed.”
Bear, her, basket
During the night Lari would go to bed and take a brief ride out into some dark and liquid sea.
This evening in particular she knotted and unknotted the pile of reeds on the table until past her bedtime, without any success. She worked with increasing haste in dimming light, and it seemed her attempts were only getting worse, the memory of the correct technique growing even fainter in her mind than it had been. Again and again she reached a point at which she was unsatisfied with the result and took it apart. When she tried to make the base she felt she remembered the process for making the sides better, and when she tried to make the sides she felt she remembered the process for making the base better. Whichever was true mattered little at all when she remembered effectively neither. Behind her, her parents’ lighthearted chatter about relatives and neighbors seemed to mock her, and her father’s idle taps on the arm of his chair disturbed her with their uneven rhythms.
She stood up suddenly with a fistful of the reeds she had set aside for being too crinkled for further experimentation, and slammed them upon the floor. Her parents turned to face her heavily breathing form.
“Lari, you mustn’t rage like Grandfather when he hasn’t had his nap,” her mother said. “You should have made an effort to remember the weaving technique when Ontayn made an effort to teach you.”
“I know; I rather regret forgetting.” Lari looked at the floor.
“Though in the coming days, I shall ask if anyone else knows basket weaving. Great Aunt would have been able to teach you if she were still around—” Her face softened.
“In the meantime you should concentrate on the tasks you are able to contribute with ease, like your sewing, and do not show anger so. Please pick up those reeds, and mind that it is nearly bedtime.”
She composed a prayer to the gods about her mother and father and about Kayen’s family’s fishing success and lay down on her bed, pulling the covers over her.
Head firm on the pillow, she closed her eyes. The quiet voices of her parents in the other room became as fluids, less and less like themselves; they turned into the whispers of various other people Lari knew, and then some other state of matter in which they rose and curled away like the mist. She saw waves behind her closed eyes, which by degrees drew her in—
Lari was standing at an angle to the edge of the sea she knew, deep in the night. The shape of the bank was not quite as its real counterpart, but the discrepancy eluded her in sleep. There were other things bizarre, though beautifully so, about the seascape that she could not quite recognize either now or later. She turned her head, a little apprehensive, towards the waves and tried to find calmness in them like she often could. It occurred to her that the waves were overflowing their sea like the bears overflowing her fingers or the shelf. Annoyed at this idea she shook her head. She did not like that her failure to complement Kayen’s craft with something worthy was so thoroughly occupying her thoughts. If it were day she would go visit Kayen now—it was not a long walk from the sea—and ask to play a game and avoid talk about his carving. Now he would be asleep, like she should have been.
Instead she walked carefully towards the sea, careful not to stumble—the rocky ground was hard to see in the darkness. She tested the ground in front of her with her shoe before she stepped. The water, shimmering under the moonlight, was near; it would be soon that it came beneath her feet.
On the way she heard a most unsettling sound behind her. It froze her for a moment, for the ground was precarious, and in the space of seconds, whether she should stay in place or risk her footing on the uneven ground, keep still or run, became a near-impossible decision.
A cozy sort of warmth came about her that tempted her trust. It did not take long for her to resign to its comfort, until she saw, most oddly, that she was being embraced by a bear.
Lari jerked up in fear. The most dangerous bears were mother bears when protecting their children, she recalled, and she frantically tried to remember whether she was in danger of having accidentally hurt or threatened a baby bear. Lari tried to fling the bear off of her with all the strength she could invest, and surprisingly, the bear’s grip was gone; it had not been very tight.
In the dimness it seemed that the bear was drawing itself up again, and then it spoke in growls: “If you do not remember, I remember.” It was an astonishing sight: a bear’s faint silhouette lit from behind by village lights, its fur catching moonlight as it moved and spoke. Lari stood still, breathing heavily but intent on listening. “Begin with two reeds, crisscrossed—”
She followed along in her imagination, joyed and grateful, and at the same time there appeared actual luminous strips, more light than plant, between her fingers. The bear went on, thorough with its explanations despite sounding impatient, while she wove her imaginary reeds before her, spectacular and golden and nimble to the touch like no other material she had ever worked with.
She awoke still in the dark of night. It had been the quaint sort of dream that ended like the end of a tale, bringing the audience back to their senses at its completion. Her mother and father were now asleep in the other bed. She blinked and rubbed her face with her hands and felt, like quiet swash, the memory of the sea and the bear break over her: what a curious fancy to have overtaken her in her sleep! And what was more, she realized with delight, she had learned to weave a basket.
It made her feel important to tiptoe along the floor barefoot, the only one in the household awake. She crept out to the main room, paying mind to the bears on the shelf, little and still as always, and sat down, crooked on the chair at first, and then properly. She would have enjoyed a drink of water in fact, but lest the dream-wisdom wash away from memory while she tarried, she set right to work.
On opening the shutters by the old wooden desk, the moonlight and nocturnal breeze reminded her of those in her dream. The sky was a similar indigo and the reeds, though of course not glowing, bore a semblance of brightness. She noticed only then that in her dream, when she had visualized herself weaving along with the bear’s instructions, behind the reeds seemed not to be the dark ground, but her wooden desk at home; how had she not noticed? Ignoring this curious fact, she began to retrace her dream-hands’ deft maneuvers. But with each subsequent piece of sea grass, she found the memory growing more and more distant. She could scarcely remember what came after the two crossed reeds in the beginning. Confusion grew within her—was it fit to give up? She refused to resign to doubt just yet. With one last effort she guided herself back to the brink of sleep, head drooped down towards the desk, back to that sea’s edge, and summoned as intensely as she could one final time the characteristic glow of the nearly finished basket from her dreams. As she tried with her hands to replicate the image in her memory, she concluded that the bear’s instructions had been false, and in fact nonsensical. That the shape of a basket could be formed by intertwining the reeds the way that bear indicated must have been but the work of a weary mind and nothing more.
From the common vessel on the other side of the room, she poured herself a drink of water. The little bears were on the shelf, quiet as usual. Their elegance clashed with how crowded they were, and while she was sure they would look lovely in a basket, Lari lacked the ability to amend that. It was time to give up.
The grandfather her mother had mentioned liked to speak of going to bed without burdens on his mind, and she was not about to do that.
Basket, bear, her
The blankets were still warm. Lari returned with ease, maybe a little too much ease, to the same shore. It pleased her more than not; what fitter place was there than the seaside after all the frustration with the basket? The bear was still around, though. It had waded into shallow water and, from the look of the shape of the shadow, was watching her closely. She was no less uneasy around it than before.
About her was a lucidity that could be said to, in its own character, perhaps surpass that of being wide awake and fumbling over a basket attempt. In fact she could recall with clarity what the bear taught her now. Thinking the method over, while she knew it would not work, it made perfect sense. For the first time since setting to work on those reeds at her real desk, she smiled and laughed quietly. She was merry at the absurdity: that she could find the method so senseless at one time and so perfect now.
Lari glanced around for reeds. Had her brain forgotten to station the sea grasses that would inevitably be growing by the real sea? It had not—there they were, though she was unsure whether or not they had been there before she’d thought of them.
To the pulsing rhythm of the water on the rocks, she with care harvested the suitable stems along the water. She tried to keep her gaze away from the bear that shared the landscape. Everything felt so strange as she went, as though her surroundings were themselves intertwined in some wrong way that should not have worked. And when enough reeds were gathered, she sat upon a smooth stone to work, her heart beating quicker as completion was nigh, fingers working faster and faster and keener in spirit. A few times, in the interest of avoiding disappointment, she reminded herself that finishing the basket would be meaningless when she awoke. For she was pleased with her work. She could nearly hear Kayen’s pleasant surprise and encouragement in her head. She was making a place for the bears—
—Was the bear nearby a teacher, eager for her to weave well? Was it waiting for her to finish for some malicious reason? Perhaps it was simply a bear?
Finished at last, Lari squatted by the sea with the basket in her hands, completed. Over the rim of the basket she could see the reflection of the nearly full moon, almost circular in the sky but irregular in the water. Balancing the basket on her knees she extended both hands, hands too small to hold all the little bears at once, wondering if she could spread the waves, distort the moon, to her own whims. The water was cold under her fingertips. It should not have worked, she knew, but it worked. In awed silence she spread out the moon over the surface of the sea like soft dough under a rolling pin when her mother made bread. It was still rippling with the water. O, the dream really was as wonderfully alien as the basket’s illogical weave.
But returning to the threat, she glanced back, uneasy, at the bear behind her, which was growling, maybe with hostility; but then, it spoke also in growls. She did not know what it wanted her to do—
When Lari was small she had once kept a berry with her after a meal, and at the water’s side, gave the berry a flick towards a boat in the distance. She left before she could see that it sank between the rocks in front of her and went no farther. This memory did not occur to her consciously now, but it must have been whence came her decision regarding her basket. What she did, whatever it meant, was thus: she set it on top of moonlit waves and sent it off towards whatever, whomever was out on the sea, maybe, probably, just the darkness.
She could feel the arms of the beast reach out around her again.
The basket went a long way.
Kimberly Y. Choi is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. Her favorite punctuation is the em dash—