How to Bear It by Audrey Alt

Esme wakes to the slamming of the front door and panics. Each night, she goes to bed after Nathaniel and, each morning, tries to ensure she gets up before him—in case she needs to dispose of leftovers, though usually she doesn’t. But today, after she scrambles down the stairs and rounds the corner, tripping on a throw rug as she does, she finds, as expected, as feared, that Nathaniel has beaten her outside. Worse, he’s on the driveway poking at her piles with a stick. She watches from the window, and when he notices her, he goes back inside.

“Why is there food out there?” he asks gently while also assuming her guilt. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes, only partly in jest, as he goes down the hallway to get the broom and dustpan. “Let me guess. You’re feeding wild animals again.”

 “I’ll clean it up,” Esme volunteers.

“It’s fine; I’ve got it,” Nathaniel says as he heads outside again, where he sweeps up what’s left of the trail of food—raw meat, berries, apple slices, peanut butter oat balls—that Esme carefully laid out the night before. It began on the porch just outside their front door, traversed the driveway, and littered the slate stepping stones that head to their wooded backyard. From there it continued beyond the path, through the grass, and deep into the trees.

“Ess, we’ve talked about this. The animals are fine on their own. All you’re doing is making them less self-reliant; you’re actually harming them. And, as I’ve said before, you’re just asking for rats. And a whole array of other animals. You get that’s a problem, right?”

Nathaniel probably assumes she’s trying to make friends again, to get someone by her side, on her side, Esme thinks, even if that someone is chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, fox. And, she figures, he’s probably made the connection between the piles of food and the cat; that will make sense to him now: weeks earlier Nathaniel had wondered aloud, with perhaps a touch of accusation, why the neighbor’s cat had started meowing at their door after dark.

“Right? So weird,” she’d said.

“It’s really creeping me out,” he had admitted.

Nathaniel had never been an animal person. Five years earlier, when he and Esme first moved in together, Nathaniel hadn’t taken to Francis, Esme’s beloved mutt, and, probably as a result, Esme concluded, vice versa. As with all things, Esme advocated for patience: maybe they both needed more time.

“There’s fur everywhere, he’s dirty, and he stinks,” Nathaniel finally declared. Esme disagreed, cried, and argued and then, eventually, screamed, pleaded, and begged before reluctantly entrusting Francis’s care to her sister, who told Esme, “He’s not worth it, you know.” Esme drove home believing he was, that he had to be, especially now, her rearview mirror reflecting back at her the empty, fur-covered backseat, and she silently reaffirmed her promise to Francis that she’d visit every weekend.

Two years later, when Nathaniel decided they were leaving the city, Esme anticipated more sacrifices, including fewer visits to Francis, a heartbreak made only minimally more tolerable because she knew Francis was cared for, happy, “thriving,” as her sister had said. Despite this ache, Esme too thrived: That first year, she planted a garden, laid a brick patio, bought a bicycle, and took up bird calling, the latter reigniting her interest in crows. When Esme was a child, her father had told her stories, but Esme was never sure if she should believe them. Now she could find out for herself: she set up a platform feeder and kept it filled with a variety of unsalted nuts, which she had read were among crows’ favorite snacks.

Though it took a long while, the crows began thanking her by bringing gifts, which they’d leave on the edge of the feeder: a crinkle of tinfoil, a champagne bottle’s wire cage, a lone earring, an individually wrapped hard candy, a button, a small bone. And then, a few months ago, while refilling the stand, Esme was stunned to see the crows had brought her Francis’s old ID tag, the one attached to his collar the day she had dropped him off, the one she learned from her sister was almost immediately lost and quickly replaced, though with updated contact information. Esme picked up the metal tag in disbelief and ran her fingers over the engraving: Francis’s name first and then the landline number she no longer had. When she could breathe again, function again, she walked inside and displayed this rusty silver miracle next to the crows’ other offerings on the kitchen windowsill.

When she arrived home from work the next day, a day spent regaling her fellow librarians and patrons alike with this most unbelievable event, she saw her feeder dismantled, the windowsill bare.

“I threw everything out,” Nathaniel explained as Esme stood by silenced by shock, grief, horror, rage, countless emotions, none of them positive. “Hon, come on. The patio is covered in droppings, and those so-called gifts—and in the kitchen no less—they’re junk, not to mention disease vectors. It’s disgusting.”

“Where’s Francis’s tag?” Esme asked.

“Ess, please.”

“Where is it?” Esme screamed, the screeching of her voice scaring even herself.

“I just told you; I threw it out.” Esme plowed past Nathaniel and out to the garage, where she tipped over the garbage can and began rooting through it, in search of that once-shiny and still priceless piece of metal.

Following behind, Nathaniel stated firmly, “Esme. Seriously. Enough is enough.”

Esme, still sifting through the trash and now using the flashlight on her phone in the hopes of catching a glint from the tag, had to agree: enough is enough, and the next night she laid out her first trail.

So far, she’s seen a raccoon and an opossum on the driveway before dawn and a bobcat out back at dusk. With each new sighting she thinks, Getting there.

Esme hears her name and realizes Nathaniel, broom and dustpan still in hand, is standing in front of her, still questioning her, awaiting a reply.


“Sorry, right what?”

“Esme. Focus. Please tell me you get that feeding wild animals is a bad idea.”

“I’m probably mostly feeding that cat.”

“Maybe, but that’s not really the point. Why are you doing this?”

Nathaniel stares at Esme, and, initially, Esme holds his gaze. But then she begins to search his face for a sign, any sign, that this is the same man who, nearly a decade earlier, she had been elated to charm with her memorized poems and geology trivia, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, chocolate eclairs and shortbread cookies. Meanwhile, he wooed her with museums and Afghan food, music and hand-drawn maps, clock-fixing expertise and latte-making skills, and he picked up perfectly capped acorns and heart-shaped leaves for her to add to her collections.

She recognizes nothing about him. But then she scans his neck, and his neck convinces her. There it is, the scar, still clearly visible, maybe because she knows where to look, even among all the stubble she can pinpoint it: proof this is indeed the man she chose, the man who chose her, the very same one whose throat she’d had to cut one summer afternoon on a shoulder of I-76 only a year into their relationship.

She thinks back to those frantic minutes, how, with no hesitation, she pulled over, called 911, and retrieved from her glove compartment the pocketknife and Bic Cristal pen, ink cartridge long since removed, that she had stashed there. How she reclined his seat; poured hand sanitizer on his neck, the knife, the pen barrel; felt for his thyroid cartilage; and then, as in the countless YouTube videos she’d watched after learning of his condition—idiopathic anaphylaxis (so rare, she’d romanticized, like him)—sliced his skin and thrust that clear hexagonal barrel into his trachea to save his life, their life together.

“Hello? It’s not a hard question, Esme: why are you doing this?” His patience with her was running out—that day, every day.

Esme’s preparation, her belief in the possibility of the unlikely, had paid off with the crows. And it had paid off that day in the car; before that, Nathaniel hadn’t had an episode since childhood. “You never know,” she’d said afterward with a shrug.

Maybe it’ll pay off again, she thinks, though she knows she has months to go. And now she knows she’ll also need to be far more covert. Plus, she hasn’t even begun to bring the trail inside yet, and that will surely be the trickiest part. Patience.

Esme looks up into Nathaniel’s eyes and says nothing, keeping her own secret but thinking You’ll know why when a bear drags you away.

Audrey Alt is a copy editor by day and a writer at night, when her husband and three dogs are asleep and the volume of her white-noise machine is turned up unreasonably high.