Notes on a Photograph from 1884


Nick Flynn

So much has been forgotten—entire libraries burned, a graveyard of statues on the edge of every city.

Muddy fields, dirt roads, torn boots.

A man walks into the woods & three months later he walks out, leading two bears on leashes, their snouts muzzled. Up on their hind legs they are taller than the man, yet (seemingly) all he has to control them is a stick.

How he got the muzzles on them he does not say.


Children line the boardwalk to watch them dance—that’s what he calls it, though they are not dancing.

One child says:

That one looks like it’s wearing a bear suit, the way its fur hangs off it—it’s as if someone wrapped a bear coat around a little bear, to keep it warm.


The street is made of dirt, it sometimes seems everything is made of dirt. Place your hand on the earth & feel its pulse. If you are tired there are fields.


Some days it’s as if I took everything that hides inside me & put it on the outside & now it walks beside me on a leash, broken somehow. You stop to say hi, you pretend not to notice—I’m trying to warn you.


I once saw a woman crossing a field, carrying a loaf of bread in the basket of her bicycle. The air was soft, the sun was low. It was France, there were no animals to disturb her because all the animals had been eaten a hundred years ago. You could plant a garden & nothing would come in the night to devour it.

Here, it’s not like that, not yet. Here, the eyes of everything we haven’t eaten line the edges of every field. Even this road, it was made by night animals, who found their way from the river. It was made by the feet of all those who came before & stayed, hidden.


I don’t know what the truth was before this. I know when those libraries burned we forgot how to build domes made of stone. We forgot how to coax bees into our hives. We forgot how to capture a bear & then let it walk beside us.

Yet someone knew to carve footpaths into roads. Someone built a building out of wood, then someone built another one next to it, & on & on. Someone made shoes, someone sold flour, until we’d emptied the land of all danger.

Then came the man leading two bears on leashes.


This is how he might have done it: In the middle of the woods is a clearing, & in this clearing stands an oak. Honeybees made a hive in a hollow of this tree & this hive is now heavy with honey. The man can see claw marks in the dense bark, he can imagine the bear reaching up. This is where he will hang a heavy cage from a branch, set it to fall when the bear steps beneath it. It will take a month to lure the bear under, for the trap to fall. Inside, the bear will search for a way out, raise his paws, shake the bars, roar. For a month, the man will have to push food toward it with a stick—at first even this stick will be eaten. After a month the bear will allow the man to lay a hand on his head as he eats—cage anything long enough & it will give up. Another month & the man is able to reach in & slip the muzzles on & open the cage.


A child thinks:

Who wouldn’t want to keep a bear on a leash? You could walk into any town a stranger & no one would try to stop you.

What do we have that even comes close to that wildness?


Some throw coins, some just listen. A woman laughs from an open window. A door slams. Then another. Then silence, as if everyone were holding their breath, as if everyone were dead, but only for a few long minutes. Painful, this silence, because it isn’t really there. That’s when you hear what lives beneath silence, the sound that’s always there. Is it the earth coming apart? Is it the blood in your ears, pressing against the dark?


We all have an animal that’s trying to get out from inside us, we’re all bears wearing the skins of humans, we’re all animals who have simply forgotten our claws.

Everything hides inside us—once it would only come out at night, but lately it has been appearing in daylight.

Listen, it is breathing for me now.

It swallows every sound I make.