The house is on a twelve-acre lot that Mom Mom thought cozy. She has a map of the land and surrounding properties to prove that it isn’t a corner lot, as if anyone could tell. Corner lots draw too much energy and are considered bad feng shui. The aquarium, on the other hand, is on the southeast wall for wealth, and the wall of ficus and bamboo in the east for health or maybe luck. No cacti: They bring aggression. I believe the cousins are also bad feng shui, but no one will ever actually say so. Like everything, that, too, must be in the stars.
We have to entertain the cousins all weekend in honor of Sybil’s first Harvest, like she’s going to an unexplored galaxy when it’s only the mall. Bear Bear understands my take on the event completely but stays quiet. We are in harmony. Bear Bear is my actual dad and generally silent on most matters about the house or the neighborhood—or the city or the globe, really. He reads a lot. He’s earned that luxury. Oh, fatherhood is a motherfucker, Mom Mom says—same old joke, same irony, same spit flying through her gapped teeth. I like to bring Bear Bear snacks, just like she does, even though he won’t eat like he used to: Nothing’s good enough. Cousin Sybil, on the other hand, has not missed a meal or an in-between meal her whole life, and can’t wait for Harvest, just grinning her delighted jiggly ass off.
Mom Mom is in every way free of sharp angles, has the neck and enunciation of Nigerian royalty. DNA results back this up—47 percent lineage—and so we actually went, all the way to the Continent. That was three years ago, I was only twelve. We brought back plenty of souvenirs to place around the giant portrait of my great-granddaddy. He was born in Detroit and spent all of his time building a business, so he never got to travel. We’re reaping the rewards, of course. The image of him over the mantel is so big it’s almost obscene. He looks like a king or shaman, his expression one of mischief and self-importance. He started the Harvest idea back when business regulators were pretty much nodding off, and he saw a need to heal those suffering in his communities. It was ultimately just a weight-loss program. Junk food was a killer, so great-granddaddy found a way to pull all that toxic excess from the bodies of those suffering the most: the poor. That’s according to Mom Mom. I call her Mom Mom because she almost seems like two people but also because I think she got jealous of Bear Bear’s double name. She says the word “water” like no one else. I hear “woo to her,” and it sounds like a seduction, like she’s conjuring the very thing in the glass, and I can tell why no one dares fuck with Mom Mom.
The cousins are plentiful in all the ways, their numbers and size and feelings just roaming through the house like geese. I have to tell the youngest, six-year-old Tricksie, to respect my personal space; don’t press into my hips like a needy puppy all the time, but she’s cute and round and probably in love with me, so it’s hard to be cruel.
I used to be able to tell how many meals Bear Bear has eaten based on the smell in the hallway. If there is too much rot from untouched strawberries and pastrami he is on one of his trips, meaning he went so deep into one of those silly books he forgot the basics of life. One time I saw him leave the office for the bathroom, and the smell had gotten so rough I hurried to clear out the trays while he was gone. There were little creatures and ecosystems of mold just happy as hell on all those plates of picked-over lunches and dinners and breakfasts. I needed two garbage bags. I noticed the book he was reading, turns out it was just another history book. Bear Bear was being darling and trying to divine the future by looking at the past. Pisces are like that, full of sensitive thoughts and secrets. Mom Mom believes nothing is as prophetic as the heavens, so she charts our lives accordingly. There are horrors and missteps in our history where men are desperate and greedy; the clawing and nipping at each other is just far too unrefined for her. Of course I tried to peek, but I was too slow and he showed up. His face reminded me of the saddest woodland creature and all that somberness made me want to stroke his bald head and tell him everything will be fine, but I was nine and too small to reach his head and always had doubt about the future myself, so I just left the room, dragging his trash behind me. After that I called him Bear Bear because it rhymed with “there, there.” Some names just stick because they are true even if we don’t want or need them to be.
I’m old enough to know that most men don’t act or think or look like Bear Bear. Even Bear Bear used to be just Bear once. He and Mom Mom went out in public together as a couple, smiled together, reveled in the achievements of normal civilized people. Now, Mom Mom is on a currently unsuccessful hunt for a boyfriend to supplement her relationship with Bear Bear. It is not subtle by any means, and women like her never lose the right to not give a damn. Marriage, children: incidental. I think she prefers other married partners. That might be her mistake. The selection process is quite mysterious and cryptic. There was the yoga instructor who smelled like rose oil; the clinical psychologist who seemed overly excited to be there, who left us all uncomfortable. There was the investor with the well-manicured goatee who made eye contact with me for a second too long and was immediately removed from the property. An Olympic swim coach with bad breath and a suspiciously high BMI stayed an entire April. She let the yoga instructor stay over again last weekend, and now his kids are everywhere. Mom Mom insists we call them cousins; it’s more welcoming. She looked me right in the eyes, smiling over her coffee, and told me, “Stop frightening them.” It wasn’t clear if she meant the boyfriends or their children. I wonder if all parents look at their children that way, like nuisances that are marvelous to watch. That shook something in me, a string that was too rigid to pluck before but now rang with a mission. I began to observe them all, the suitors, the cardigans and hard shoes, the pink vests and leather coats, the colognes of birch and sawdust and mint, the thick palms and wide shoulders and razor bumps and nose hair and dry knuckles and wide smiles and big heads and baseball caps and this ability to make a big room feel smaller, feel the floors and ceiling all contract like something frail in a vacuum.
Tricksie is learning geography, so we play games, name as many countries as you can that all start with the letter A. After a slow look around the room, across the portrait of great-granddaddy, over the high ceilings peppered with masks from Benin and Togo, war relics from the Congo, and tapestries from contemporary textile artists with difficult names, she says “Africa” and we all laugh. She says it with such confidence and pride it’s heartbreaking. In the way she exhales the vowels, Ah-frih-cah, I hear it echo in the room like a ghost, moving in and out of my chest. Africa is a continent not a country, I tell her, still smiling. She isn’t interested, but loves that she has brought us all joy and been the source of such entertainment. Tricksie begins dancing around the room, chanting “Africa! Africa! Africa! Africa!” until Mom Mom laughs out a tear and becomes very serious and hushes us all.
“There is a country that is also a continent,” she says. Everyone listens as though a great and wonderful truth might be revealed to them. “Can you guess it?” And she holds a hand out to me, a command: Shut up, child, she says with jeweled fingers, knowing she has taken the game from me. I leave.
“It was in the stars,” Mom Mom said about her own marriage. Bear Bear the true Pisces and our mother the Leo-Virgo cusp are doomed when it comes to romance, destined to be the greatest of friends, according to her astrology texts. Fire signs and water signs are not typically compatible, though there are exceptions to every rule. She speaks to me like I’m a hundred. I wish she would at least pretend she was my mother and me her daughter and we could have a calm and maternal energy between us, but she insists upon these perverse sisterly best friend girl-let-me-tell-you wine-doused chats about all things too adult. Still, she believed if there was anything a young Scorpio woman like myself needed to know, it was the nature of men. When Bear Bear was just Bear he took me to my first Harvest, one he started himself as an extension of the family business. We left the property down the long front driveway, the grass short/trim and dewy; it had rained the night before, beads of water on the car. I asked him what a Harvest feels like, and he looked at me like I startled him.
“Are you scared?” He almost laughed.
I was scared, and I was offended. He laughed outright, even slapped his fat knee. He looked at me again.
“You’re not scared. I know it.”
After the Harvest I felt energized and brilliant, both in my mind and in my skin as if I shone, as if I radiated outward. Bear Bear picked me up even though I was too old, but he did it so fast that I could tell he’d been waiting a long time to pick me up like that, so I didn’t protest. I hung in the air, strangers eyed us in our moment. Some looked alarmed, others envious. Eventually I had to pat Bear Bear’s hands to let him know I needed to return to Earth. He put me down. I stayed close to whatever mirror I could find for the rest of the evening after that first trip to Harvest, marveling at my own symmetry. I heard Bear Bear’s voice—“You’re not scared”—and how wrong he was and how wrong everyone was all the time about me and my body and my feelings. I thought there must be something broken because the two never seemed to match. My face and my skeleton could not accurately represent the nest of feelings I had inside, but after the Harvest it became even more apparent.
With our mother entertaining the cousins, I go to my bedroom and stand centered in the wall of mirrors that conceal my closet. “Stop frightening them,” I say.
Tricksie appears behind me like a mushroom, and I didn’t notice her until she was there. I jump. Fucking Aquarius. They really are mad as gnats. She rams her face into my hip again then falls on the floor, rubbing her back on the carpet as she grips her own bare toes.
“Your room is empty!” Tricksie declares still excited, looking under my bed. It’s bad feng shui to store things under a bed. Then Sybil enters. They are all here again, these strange non-family creatures, still yearning, still scratching and eating and shitting. I see something in Sybil’s face that I hadn’t all afternoon. I hadn’t really looked at her this whole time. She is terrified. I ask her what is wrong.
“Tell me what it’s like. Harvest.”
“Is that all? Well…”
Then her father shows up at the door.
“All aboard!” he booms in the doorway.
Sybil stands up from my bed and smiles. Her face cleaned and erased, every trickle of horror made invisible. She has a skill I did not at that age: to will the world to see what you want. Her father, the real estate developer, has a well-defined chest and growing haunches. Sybil hurries past him out of the room, off to her first Harvest. He stares at me, and says I look so much like my mother it was almost a trick of light. That sounds pretty to me, so I take a step nearer to him. He quickly turns and leaves. Tricksie is still on the floor watching it all. She laughs at whatever joke played in her head or at her own father’s awkwardness. We smile at each other like there was never a time when little girls were not safe in this world.
Mom Mom and Bear Bear had a big fight once around the time he began to refuse to eat. Mom Mom’s argumentative style was to fling objects to and fro, so there were sandwich guts everywhere—meat hanging on the ceiling fan, pieces sliding down the walls like exploded fruit. She left the office in tears, disheveled in a way I’d never seen before or after. I could’ve gone to comfort her, but she was stronger than the brick in the walls, so I stayed with Bear Bear. All I know is that Mom Mom decided to sell controlling interest in the family business to some food conglomerate. Harvest would be a for-profit entity. To Bear Bear, Harvest meant something else, maybe the dream of my great-granddaddy was more to him than it was to me, another relic on the walls of my home. He was then already a third of the man I’d known most of my life, arched over the desk, bones rising through his shirt. I put my face on his back and said his name: Bear Bear. His breath only stuttering once or twice.
Sybil is well on her way to Harvest. I never have a chance to tell her that it is not unlike many clinics she’s been to before. There are licensed specialists in pastel uniforms, pleasant lighting, ambient music of bells and strings. The only vegetation is in the oil paintings, identical reproductions for every chain. Sybil will be ushered into a quiet room with a table. She’ll have to remove her clothes in the dim light, which is flattering to the asymmetrical waistline she’s been developing. In the shadows of the room are two shrub-like structures, plasticine and gray with glowing dots; they seem decorative, but they are the tools. There’s a single mirror that allows the guests to see their current selves, the hanging skin, elbow bags and swollen midsections filled with triglycerides; it’s designed to inspire sadness and isolation and a yearning to end it. The mirror works both ways. Once the staff sees the guest has disrobed fully and lays down they can enter. Sybil will be given a gas to slip her into unconsciousness and all the tubes and glowing needles from the shadows will be applied to her body, a gentle ripping of fat and restructuring of her epidermis. All of the leftover material placed in canisters to be sold to food repurposing plants, so nothing is lost. The drugs afterward will leave Sybil feeling lighter than dust in a ray of sun.
Bear Bear doesn’t believe Harvest is beautiful anymore the way Mom Mom and I do. The two of them have grown closer again. They are the friends they’ve always been destined to be. She is letting him disappear, drain himself of all things solid, drinking only the water she calls me to bring, and though she feels it a waste she won’t deny him anymore peace. Mom Mom tells me that men like him have a disease of the mind. They don’t like how everything is turning out somehow and see what we can’t; it makes them unhappy. I believe her. I believe her because the expression of tenderness also came with a warning, one that clearly said I know you love him and are full of thoughts, but this will happen to you too and you know how to think a certain way and not show it for your own good and there are difficult things crawling about the world that sting and bite and infest and torment and vanish only to be reborn in more fierce and startling incarnations, if we let them.