Bear and His Daughter

Bear and His Daughter

by Robert Stone

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Overview

The stories collected in Bear and His Daughter span nearly thirty years - 1969 to the present - and they explore, acutely and powerfully, the humanity that unites us. In "Miserere," a widowed librarian with an unspeakable secret undertakes an unusual and grisly role in the anti-abortion crusade. "Under the Pitons" is the harrowing story of a reluctant participant in a drug-running scheme and the grim and unexpected consequences of his involvement. The title story is a riveting account of the tangled lines that weave together the relationship of a father and his grown daughter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395636527
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/01/1997
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 5.94(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

ROBERT STONE (1937–2015) was the acclaimed author of eight novels and two story collections, including Dog Soldiers, winner of the National Book Award, and Bear and His Daughter, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His memoir, Prime Green, was published in 2007.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

MISERERE

MARY URQUHART had just finished story hour at the library when the muted phone rang at the circulation desk. She had been reading the children Prince Caspian.

Camille Innaurato was on the line and as usual she was beside herself.

"Mary, Mary, so listen ..." Camille began. It sounded almost prayerful. Then Camille began to hyperventilate.

"Oh, Camille," Mrs. Urquhart said. "Try to be calm. Are you all right, dear? Do you have your inhaler?"

"I have more!" Camille croaked fiercely at last. The force of the words in her constricted throat made her sound, Mary Urquhart thought, like her counterpart in Traviata.

"More?" Although Mary knew at once what Camille meant, she needed the extra moment of freedom.

"More babies!" Camille shouted. She spoke so loudly that even with the receiver as close to her ear as she could bear, Mary Urquhart thought that everyone around the circulation desk must be able to hear her voice on the phone, its unsound passion.

"My brother, he found them!" cried Camille. "And he took them here. So I got them now."

"I see," said Mary Urquhart.

Outside, Mrs. Carter; the African-American head librarian, was supervising the reuniting of the story-hour children with their mothers. The children were, without exception, black and Hispanic. The mothers of the black children were mostly West Indian domestics; they were the most scrupulous of the story-hour mothers and they loved their children to have English stories, British stories.

"Mary ..." Camille gasped over the phone. "Mary?"

Outside the library windows, in the darkening winter afternoon, the children looked lively and happy and well behaved and Mary was proud of them. The mothers were smiling, and Mrs. Carter too.

"Easy does it," said Mary Urquhart to her friend Camille. For years after Mary had stopped drinking, she had driven around with a bumper sticker to that effect. Embarrassing to consider now.

"You'll come, Mary? You could come today? Soon? And we could do it?"

The previous year Mrs. Urquhart had bought little books of C. S. Lewis tales with her own money for the children to take home. That way at least some might learn to read them. She liked to meet the mothers herself and talk with them. Looking on wistfully, she wished herself out on the sidewalk too, if only to say hello and remind herself of everyone's name. But Mrs. Carter was the chief librarian and preempted the privilege of overseeing the dismissal of story hour.

"Yes, dear," Mary said to Camille. "I'll come as soon as we close."

They closed within the hour because the New Jersey city in which Mary worked had scant funds to spare for libraries. It was largely a city of racial minorities, in the late stages of passing from the control of a corrupt white political machine to that of a corrupt black one. Its schools were warrens of pathology and patronage. Its police, still mainly white, were frequently criminals.

Mary Urquhart looked carefully about her as she went out the door into the library parking lot for the walk to her old station wagon. It was nearly night, though a faint stain of the day persisted. At the western horizon, across the river and over the stacks and gables of the former mills, hung a brilliant patch of clear night sky where Venus blazed. Some of the newer street lights around the library's block were broken, their fixtures torn away by junkies for sale to scrap dealers. There were patchy reefs and banks of soiled frozen snow on the ground. Not much had fallen for a week, but the weather was bitter and the north-facing curbs and margins were still partly covered.

"Thou fair-haired angel of the evening," Mary recited silently to the first star. She could not keep the line from her mind.

Temple Street, the road Mary drove toward the strip that led her home, was one of crumbling wooden houses. In some of them, bare lights glowed behind gypsy-colored bedspreads tacked over the taped windows. About every fifth house was derelict and inside some of these candlelight was already flickering. They were crack houses. Mary had worked as an enumerator in the neighborhood during the last census and, for all its transience, she knew it fairly well. Many of the houses were in worse condition inside than out. The official census description for all of them was "Dilapidated." A few of her story children lived on the street.

The odd corner had a bodega in a cinderblock building with a faint neon beer sign in its window. The cold had driven the brown-bagging drinkers away from the little strip mall that housed Mashona's Beauty Shoppe, a cheap lamp store and a takeout ribs joint called Floyd's, which kept erratic hours. All the shops closed at dusk and God knew, she thought, where the alcoholics had gone. Maybe out of the bitter wind into the crack houses. Mary knew a lot of the older alcoholics who hung out there by sight and sometimes, in daytime, she stopped for Floyd's ribs, which were not at all bad. Floyd, who always had a smile for her, kept a sign over his register that read CHRIST IS THE ANSWER.

She had an ongoing dialogue with a few of the men. Those who would speak to a middle-aged white woman like herself called her "Mary" and sometimes, in the case of the beat old-timers from down home, "Miss Mary." She had begun by addressing them all as "sir," but she had soon perceived that this offended them as patronizing and was not appropriate to street banter. So, if she did not know them by name, she addressed them as "guy," which amused them. It was how her upper-class Southern husband had addressed his social equals. He had used it long before one heard it commonly; he had been dead for thirteen years.

"I know your story, guy," she would say to a brown-bagging acquaintance as she carried her paper container of ribs to the car. "I'm a juicehead. I'm a boozer."

"But you gotta enjoy your life, Mary," an old man had said to her once. "You ain't got but one, chere?"

And that had stopped her cold.

"But that's it," she had told the man. "You're so right."

He had shaken his head, telling her really, well, she'd never understand. Her life and his? But she'd persisted.

"That's why I don't have my bottle today as you do. Because there was a time, guy. Yes, you best believe it."

Then he'd heard her vestigial Southernness and cocked his head and said, in a distinctly sarcastic but not altogether unfriendly way, "Do it right, Mary. You say so."

"God bless, guy."

"Be right, Mary."

Poor fellow, she'd thought. Who was he? Who might he have become? She wished him grace.

A short distance before Temple Street doglegged into the strip of Route 4, it passed the dangerous side of a city park in which there was a large lake. The cold weather had frozen the lake to a depth that Mary knew must be many feet. After the cold weeks they'd had, it must be safe for skating. In some towns there would be lights by the lakeside and skating children; not in this one. And for that she could only be grateful, because she did not think she could bear the sight of children skating or lights on the icy surface of a frozen lake. Even after the thirteen years.

Along its last quarter mile, Temple Street acquired an aluminum guardrail and some halogen overhead lights, though on these, too, the metal was torn up, unscrewed, pried loose by the locust-junkies.

At the light that marked the intersection with Route 4 stood a large gas station. It was one of a number owned by an immigrant from India. Once the immigrant himself had worked in it, then he'd bought it, then bought others and real estate to go with them. Now he employed other Indian immigrants who worked long shifts, day and night. In the previous twelve months, according to the county newspaper, no fewer than four of the immigrants had been shot dead in holdups and another four wounded.

Mary waited at the light, and it was really easier to think about the poor slaughtered Gujaratis than about the frozen lake. She prayed for them, in her way, eyes focused on the turn signal. It did not suit her to utter repetitions. Rather the words came to her on all the music she had heard, so many settings, that prayer sung over and over since the beginning of music itself.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, Miserere nobis.

Then there was Route 4, the American Strip. And this was New Jersey, where she had ended up, its original home and place of incubation, whence it had been nourished to creep out and girdle the world. It had come in time to her own stately corner of North Carolina, looking absolutely the same.

Since her widowhood and recovery, Mary Urquhart had lived in a modest house in what had once been a suburb of this New Jersey city, only a few blocks beyond its formal border. At the suburban end of her street was a hill from which the towers of Manhattan were visible on the clearer mornings. All day and most of the night, planes on a southward descent for Newark passed overhead and, even after so many years, often woke her.

But Mary was not, that afternoon, on her way home. A mile short of the city line, she pulled off Route 4 onto Imperial Avenue. The avenue led to a neighborhood called Auburn Hill, which had become an Italian enclave in the Spanish-speaking section of the ghetto. Auburn Hill could be relied upon for neat lawns and safe streets, their security reinforced by grim anecdotes of muggers' and housebreakers' summary punishments. Young outlaws nailed to tar rooftops with screwdrivers. Or thrown from an overpass onto the Jersey Central tracks fifty feet below. At Christmastime, the neighborhood sparkled with cheery lights. Mary had come to know it well and, comprehending both the bitter and the sweet of Auburn Hill, was fond of it.

Camille Innaurato's was like the other houses in that end of town. It was a brick, three-bedroom single-story with aluminum siding and a narrow awning of the same. It had a small lawn in front, surrounded by a metal fence, and a garden in the back where Camille grew tomatoes and peppers in season.

When Mary pulled into the driveway, she saw Camille's pale, anxious face at the picture window. Camille was mouthing words, clasping her hands. In a moment she opened the door to the winter wind, as Mary emerged from her car and locked it.

"Oh, Mary. I'm thanking God Almighty you could come. Yeah, I'm thanking him."

Camille was one of those women who had grown older in unquestioning service to her aged parents. She had helped raise her younger brother. Later she had shared with her father the care of her sick mother. Then, when he died, she had assumed it all — her mother the house, everything. Camille worked in a garment-sewing shop that had set itself up on two floors of a former silk mill; she oversaw the Chinese and Salvadoran women employed there.

Her younger brother August, was technically a policeman, though not an actively corrupt one. In fact, he had no particular constabulary duties. The family had had enough political connections to secure him a clerical job with the department. He was a timid, excitable man, married, with grown children, who lived with his domineering wife in an outer suburb. But as a police insider he knew the secrets of the city.

The Innauratos, brother and sister, had inherited nothing from their parents except the house Camille occupied and their sick mother's tireless piety.

Mary Urquhart stepped inside and took Camille by the shoulders and looked at her.

"Now, Camille, dear, are you all right? Can you breathe?"

She inspected Camille and, satisfied with her friend's condition, checked out the house. The living room was neat enough, although the television set was off, a sure sign of Camille's preoccupation.

"I gotta show you, Mary. Oh I gotta show you. Yeah I gotta." She sounded as though she were weeping, but the beautiful dark eyes she fixed on Mary were dry. Eyes out of Alexandrian portraiture, Mary thought, sparkling and shimmering with their infernal vision. For a moment it seemed she had returned from some transport. She gathered Mary to her large, soft, barren breast. "You wanna coffee, Mary honey? You wanna biscote? A little of wine?"

In her excitement, Camille always offered the wine when there were babies, forgetting Mary could not drink it.

"I'll get you a glass of wine," Mary suggested. "And I'll get myself coffee."

Camille looked after Mary anxiously as she swept past her toward the kitchen.

"Sit down, dear," Mary called to her. "Sit down and I'll bring it out."

Slowly, Camille seated herself on the edge of the sofa and stared at the blank television screen.

In the immaculate kitchen, Mary found an open bottle of sangiovese, unsoured, drinkable. She poured out a glass, then served herself a demitasse of fresh-made espresso from Camille's machine. In the cheerless, spotless living room, they drank side by side on the faded floral sofa, among the lace and the pictures of Camille's family and the portrait photograph of the Pope.

"I used to love sangiovese," Mary said, watching her friend sip. "The wine of the Romagna. Bologna. Urbino."

"It's good," Camille said.

"My husband and I and the children once stayed in a villa outside Urbino. It rained. Yes, every day, but the mountains were grand. And the hill towns down in Umbria. We had great fun."

"You saw the Holy Father?"

Mary laughed. "We were all good Protestants then."

Camille looked at her in wonder though she had heard the story of Mary's upbringing many times. Then her face clouded.

"You gotta see the babies, Mary."

"Yes," Mary sighed. "But do finish your wine."

When the wine was done they both went back to look at the fetuses. There were four. Camille had laid them on a tarpaulin, under a churchy purple curtain on the floor of an enclosed, unheated back porch, where it was nearly as cold as the night outside. On top of the curtain she had rested one of her wall crucifixes.

Mary lifted the curtain and looked at the little dead things on the floor. They had lobster-claw, unseparated fingers, and one had a face. Its face looked like a Florida manatee's, Mary thought. It was the only living resemblance she could bring to bear — a manatee, bovine, slope-browed. One was still enveloped in some kind of fibrous membrane that suggested bat wings.

"So sweet," Camille sobbed. "So sad. Who could do such a thing? A murderer!" She bit her thumb. "A murderer the degenerate fuck, his eyes should be plucked out!" She made the sign of the cross, to ask forgiveness for her outburst.

"Little lamb, who made thee?" Mary Urquhart asked wearily. The things were so disgusting. "Well, to work then."

Camille's brother August had discovered that the scavenger company that handled the county's medical waste also serviced its abortion clinics, which had no incinerators of their own. The fetuses were stored for disposal along with everything else. August had fixed it with the scavengers to report specimens and set them aside. He would pass on the discovery to Camille. Then Camille and a friend — most often Mary — would get to work.

Mary knew a priest named Father Hooke, the pastor of a parish in a wealthy community in the Ramapos. They had known each other for years. Hooke had been, in a somewhat superficial way, Mary's spiritual counselor. He was much more cultivated than most priests and could be wickedly witty, too. Their conversations about contemporary absurdities, Scripture and the vagaries of the Canon, history and literature had helped her through the last stage of her regained abstinence. She knew of Julian of Norwich through his instruction. He had received her into the Catholic Church and she had been a friend to him. Lately, though, there had been tension between them. She used Camille's telephone to alert him.

"Frank," she said to the priest, "we have some children."

He gave her silence in return.

"Hello, Frank," she said again. "Did you hear me, Father? I said we have some children."

"Yes," said Hooke, in what Mary was coming to think of as his affected tone, "I certainly heard you the first time. Tonight is ... difficult."

"Yes, it surely is," Mary said. "Difficult and then some. When will you expect us?"

"I've been meaning," Hooke said, "to talk about this before now."

He had quoted Dame Julian to her. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Those were lines he liked.

"Have you?" she inquired politely. "I see. We can talk after the interment."

"You know, Mary," Father Hooke said with a nervous laugh, "the bishop, that pillar of intellect, our spiritual prince, has been hearing things that trouble him."

Mary Urquhart blushed to hear the priest's lie.

"The bishop," she told him, "is not a problem in any way. You are."

"Me?" He laughed then, genuinely and bitterly. "I'm a problem? Oh, sorry. There are also a few laws ..."

"What time, Father? Camille works for a living. So do I."

"The thing is," Father Hooke said, "you ought not to come tonight."

"Oh, Frank," Mary said. "Really, really. Don't be a little boy on me. Take up your cross, guy."

"I suppose," Hooke said, "I can't persuade you to pass on this one?"

"Shame on you, Frank Hooke," she said.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Bear And His Daughter"
by .
Copyright © 1997 Robert Stone.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Copyright,
Dedication,
MISERERE,
ABSENCE OF MERCY,
PORQUE NO TIENE, PORQUE LE FALTA,
HELPING,
UNDER THE PITONS,
AQUARIUS OBSCURED,
BEAR AND HIS DAUGHTER,

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"Masterful and wrenching." Boston Globe

"A volume of short stories that belongs alongside those of Raymond Carver . . . Brilliant, moving, often gloriously funny and triumphant." The San Francisco Chronicle

"As interesting a group of stories as can be found in contempory literature." The Miami Herald

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