The Visitor

by Beverly James

“I got to see this wit’ me own eyes. Ain’t no way a woman gonna have a big ting like dat running about da house sweeping and cooking,” one man said.

“She mussa whip it on him good, ah?” cackled another.

The men roared with laughter and elbowed each other.

The people came from all over to see Bear.

Utila, Roatan, Banaca. All the island people wanted to see if Bear was real. They lined up outside my rickety wooden house starting early in the morning. The women toting bowlegged, potbellied babies on their hips chattered back and forth about the miracle they were about to witness. Children chased each other, kicking up dust from the dry, dirt road leading to my home. They whispered tales to each other about the creature that was once infamous for his violent temper.

The men, in their usual tattered but colorful shirts and ragged cotton khakis, puffed out their chests and cracked jokes about a woman who could tame a bear.

I, well, I sat by my window and watched the spectacle outside the door of my haven. I wanted them all to see Bear. I wanted them all to believe what I had come to know: Time and love conquers any animal. Train a dog and you can train any beast. You just have to be consistent—and fearless.

It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago Bear had the entire town of Paraiso under his control. Every few nights, when the stars would shine so bright it looked like market day in the town square, the locals would lock up all their food, hide their daughters, and arm their sons with machetes. Seemed the brighter the night the more likely Bear would come lumbering through on a visit. Each family would leave out a bottle of homemade beer, some rice and beans, a few tortillas, and whatever scraps of meat they could spare outside their one- or two-room homes. Bear would howl at the stars, daring them to dim even just a little of his glory, before stumbling through town gorging on the food, breaking bottles to get to the liquor, and banging on doors for more.

Bear seemed to take special delight in lording his power over the women of Paraiso. He lured one woman, Ana Lucia, into thinking he could be as winsome and cuddly as a child if he were given treats and coos on a regular basis. So she would dab sweet water between her breasts and behind her earlobes, and put on a freshly pressed cotton shift. Then she would sing him lullabies and smooth her hands over his massive, knotty head. Hard as she tried to control it, the shaking would start the minute she saw his mammoth shoulders ramble toward her doorway. The fluttering in her toes would spread to her ankles and snake its ways up her legs to her sweet parts and then her bladder. By the time the tremors reached her torso one could see the bloom of piss on the back of her dress. Her body quaking, breath ragged, the woman still managed to keep her hands steady as she caressed Bear. Didn’t matter; Bear knew the songs were seasoned with dread.

Story goes that Bear swung a claw at her because she missed when she tried to throw a sugared tamarind ball into his mouth. Most say it’s a miracle the stupid woman survived the mauling. Everyone still turns away when Ana Lucia walks by, half her face missing.

People all over Honduras knew that Paraiso was no place to live in peace. Bear made sure of that.

“Dat Bear,” the men would say, “should know betta dan ta treat people dat way.” Secretly, they wondered if the townspeople did something to deserve Bear’s punishment.

The women would just shake their heads and suck their teeth. “Dat Bear,” the women would say, “ought to not beat on a woman like dat. It ain’t right, man.”

They all accepted Bear for what he was: a harsh master of his domain. No one dreamed of ending his headship. After all, wasn’t it God’s will that Bear be, well, a bear?

But no one could explain how I managed to tame Bear.

The first time Bear appeared at my doorstep, I was out back hanging clothes on the line. I remember biting down on the wooden clothespin in my mouth while I reached up to hang my favorite pink blouse. I took the pin out of my mouth and clipped the blouse to the line. I gazed through the fabric, wondering what the world would be like if it was always covered in a pink haze, when I heard someone breaking in the front of the house. It was quiet, except for the sound of my front door being kicked open and cans being knocked over. That damn Bear! He never showed up in the daytime, choosing instead to cause a pile of noise at night to scare everybody. But now I would see him for the first time in broad daylight.

“Hmmpphh,” I thought to myself, “we gonna see about this.”

I walked through the back door into the house and there stood Bear, big, brown, and shoving my little bit of food straight from the pot and into his mouth. Man, I was so mad I could barely keep from slapping him upside his head right there. But that would only get me killed. So I walked over and scraped the last bit of porridge out of the pot and into his open palms. I tucked my hand under his elbow and gently but firmly led him through the front door. I closed the door and locked it. I did the same with the back door.

I peeked out the window. Bear stood there stunned, porridge dripping from his open mouth and paws. He shook his giant head and roared, pounding on the door and fighting to get back in. I sat down in my rocking chair by the window and opened my Bible. It was a struggle to ignore all that noise Bear was making, but I kept reading and he kept banging. Eventually, he walked away, looking back every few steps to see if I noticed. I kept reading. Mind you, I was scared. But I was even more afraid of becoming like everyone else in Paraiso: subject to his rule.

You see, I married at fifteen and took beatings from my husband without a word of complaint. My mother and my tias, they used the magic that had been around since our ancestors stepped foot on the island in shackles: Four little women sitting back by the outhouse puffing on cigars and chanting to get this man to stop pounding me. Funny, my husband found a quicker way. He got drunk one night at Chuco’s bar and passed a hand over Pito Cherington’s woman’s behind. Pito didn’t appreciate that and let him know—with a quick stab straight into his throat. My husband always did talk too much. Anyway, now I was head of my house and I had a say in what happened between those four walls. Even that shithouse—that’s mine too and nobody was going to come in here and take that away. Not even Bear.

The second time Bear came, I was at the stove dipping my white clothes in boiling water. I heard him coming up the road just as most people were putting out food for the midday meal. The men climbed out of rows of sugar cane and set their machetes sticky with juice aside as they drifted home. Children ran back from school, drawn by the aroma of meat simmering in its own juices and steaming bowls of boiled plantain, cassava, and green bananas. A good rest after that and it would be time to head back to work and school. But Bear had his own plan and I had mine.

I figure Bear must have smelled that food and decided it was his time to eat, too. He came sauntering up to my door, like he was the man of my house. Like it was his door. I peeked to the side and saw him grab my Bible off the little round table in the parlor. He hit me on my back with the Bible. I swung around with the pot and threw the boiling water and white clothes on him. Man, you should have heard the roaring. I was scared, but I was more mad than anything else.

I took Bear by the elbow and led him out the door. I picked up my pot and my clothes, and went out back to get more water from the well. That Bear came to the back and stood there, watching me pull the bucket up from the well, heavy with water. I gasped and almost fell back from the weight. I dropped the bucket back into the well.

After a time, I rubbed my aching back, looked at the hungry creature, and offered a truce. “Look Bear, you fill da pot wit water, take it back inta da house for me. I’ll feed ya.”

He grunted. I motioned toward the bucket and the pot. He hung his head, thought for a minute, and walked toward the well. I backed up as Bear grabbed the rope and the bucket hanging off the end. He dropped the bucket in, reeled it back up, and poured the water into my pot. Bear and I walked back into the house together.

I set a place for him at the table while he put the pot on the stove.

He ate.

I stirred my white clothes in the pot of boiling water.

After that, Bear came a couple of times a week. He always stood by watching me work before finding his own chore. We worked quietly, sneaking peaks at one another, but never exchanging words. I fed him and he sauntered off. The people talked, Paraiso people do that. Rumors floated that I must have put something in Bear’s food to get him to act so nice. I never offered an explanation; I just stood my ground.

One time Bear came, I put a record on the record player and hummed to myself. I loved listening to American music while I cleaned, especially Sam Cooke. Bear was scrubbing a pair of pants on the washboard and looked up to see me spinning around the room with a broom. He lumbered over, a grin taking over his face, and just stood there watching me twirl. I set the broom aside and stood in front of him. I put one of his paws on my waist and placed my hand in his other paw. He pulled away, reluctant to try something that didn’t require brute strength. I held onto his paws and cautiously pulled him toward me. We moved gently from side to side, smiling at each other as the music played. Bear gingerly reached up to hug me when I felt the sharp stab of his claws grazing my face. He reared back, not knowing what to expect. I lifted his paw, wiped the blood off his claws with my apron, and swayed with him again. I’ve learned that sometimes people bring pain even when they mean to bring you joy.

I like Bear, and he respects me. We get along just fine, me and Bear. Sometimes he sits outside and waves to the people who come from all over to see him. Other times he works out back doing chores. Mostly we sway to Sam Cooke while the tias chant and the smoke drifts to the sky from behind the outhouse. 

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