Milk teeth

Early morning – still cool – of another day that will test the limits of comfort. A rending of bark from the woods’ edge draws my gaze to three moving portions of darkness, the mother bear & two of her cubs visible for half a minute before they disappear up into the laurel.

My heart leaps. I wonder again how it is that we can love such fierce strangers as these, our fellow inhabitants? But how can we not? My brother’s baby daughter Elanor, focus of so much doting attention, already has three bears of her own: a pink plastic one that squeaks loudly when squeezed, a plush panda doll, & a brown teddy bear with a sewn-on smile & the words “cuddly lovable” stitched right into its chest. When the left paw is brought to the mouth, it makes a kissing noise.

Elanor has learned to signal pleasure through noisy spitting – a bilabial trill, as her linguist daddy calls it: “a sound that every baby knows, but which is not represented phonemically in any of the world’s languages.” One sees already in a six-month-old baby how strong and how literal is the thirst for knowledge. Barely able to crawl, her reach still far exceeds her grasp, and the object of every grasping is to mouth, to slobber on, & if possible, to ingest. Grasping the link between mouth-sounds & the stimulation of mutual pleasure among the rest of us, she bubbles over with effusive joy.

It’s encouraging to think that the urge to give back should be so basic. Only the bottom row of milk teeth have broken the surface, but already I am anticipating the sharp shards of language. I’m waiting to see how real knowledge of love is acquired: does it sprout like teeth from the jaw, ready to bite? Or does it need to be sharpened against increasingly fine permutations of joy & rage? And what age will she be, I wonder, when that caricature of an animal intended solely to ease her passage through the night acquires a personality of its own?

It can’t be long. I almost remember the bear of my own infant imagination, feeling a heat in its haunches, a quick rhythm in its chest. Its breath becoming a black sun, hot on the back of the neck. And then the tug of something like a comb, a wordless harrow through hair standing suddenly at attention.

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