Small Wonder

· Earth Initiative, Essays · ,

by Barbara Kingsolver

On a cool October day in the oak-forested hills of Lorena Province in Iran, a lost child was saved in an inconceivable way. The news of it came to me as a parable that I keep turning over in my mind, a message from some gentler universe than this one. I carry it like a treasure map while I look for the place where I’ll understand its meaning. 


I Picture It Happening This Way: The story begins with a wife and husband, nomads of the Lori tribe near Kayhan, walking home from a morning’s work in their wheat. I imagine them content, moving slowly, the husband teasing his wife as she pulls her shawl across her face, laughing, and then suddenly they’re stopped cold by the sight of a slender figure hurrying toward them: the teenage girl who was left in charge of the babies. In tears, holding her gray shawl tightly around her, she runs to meet the parents coming home on the road, to tell them in frightened pieces of sentences that he’s disappeared, she has already looked everywhere, but he’s gone. This girl is the neighbor’s daughter, who keeps an eye on all the little ones too small to walk to the field, but now she has to admit wretchedly that their boy had strong enough legs to wander off while her attention was turned to—what? Another crying child, a fascinating insect—a thousand things can turn the mind from this to that, and the world is lost in a heartbeat.


They Refuse To Believe her at first—no parent is ever ready for this—and with fully expectant hearts they open the door flap of their yurt and peer inside, scanning the dim red darkness of the rugs on the walls, the empty floor. They look in his usual hiding places, under a pillow, behind the box where the bowls are kept, every time expecting this game to end with a laugh. But no, he’s gone. I can feel how their hearts slowly change as the sediments of this impossible loss precipi- tate out of ordinary air and turn their insides to stone. And then suddenly moving to the fluttering panic of trapped birds, they become sure there is still some way out of this cage—here my own heart takes up that tremble as I sit imagining the story. Once my own child disappeared for only minutes that grew into half an hour, then an hour, and my panic took such full possession of my will that I could not properly spell my name for the police. But I could tell them the exact details of my daughter’s eyes, her hair, the clothes she was wearing, and what was in her pockets. I lost myself utterly while my mind scattered out, carrying nothing but the search image that would locate and seize my child.

And that is how two parents searched in Lorena Province. First their own village, turning every box upside down, turning the neighbors out in a party of panic and reassurances, but as they begin to scatter over the rocky outskirts it grows dark, then cold, then hopeless. He is nowhere. He is somewhere unsurvivable. A bear, someone says, and everyone else says No, not a bear, don’t even say that, are you mad? His mother might hear you. And some people sleep that night, but not the mother and father, the smallest boys, or the neighbor’s daughter who lost him, and early before the next light they are out again. Someone is sent to the next village, and larger parties are organized to comb the stony hills. They venture closer to the caves and oak woods of the mountainside.


Another Nightfall, another day, and some begin to give up. But not the father or mother, because there is nowhere to go but this, we all have done this, we bang and bang on the door of hope, and don’t anyone dare suggest there’s nobody home. The mother weeps, and the father’s mouth becomes a thin line as he finds several men willing to go all the way up into the mountains. Into the caves. Five kilometers away. In the name of heaven, the baby is only sixteen months old, the mother tells them. He took his first steps in June, a few weeks before Midsummer Day. He can’t have walked that far, everybody knows this, but still they go. Their feet scrape the rocky soil; nobody speaks. Then the path comes softer under the live oaks. The corky bark of the trees seems kinder than the stones. An omen. These branches seem to hold promise. Lori people used to make bread from the acorns of these oaks, their animals feed on the acorns, these trees sustain every life in these mountains—the wild pigs, the bears. Still, nobody speaks.

At the mouth of the next cave they enter—the fourth or the hundredth, nobody will know this detail because forever after it will be the first and last—they hear a voice. Definitely it’s a cry, a child. Cautiously they look into the darkness, and ominously, they smell bear. But the boy is in there, crying, alive. They move into the half-light inside the cave, stand still and wait while the smell gets danker and the texture of the stone walls weaves its details more clearly into their vision. Then they see the animal, not a dark hollow in the cave wall as they first thought but the dark, round shape of a thick-furred, quiescent she-bear lying against the wall. And then they see the child. The bear is curled around him, protecting him from these fierce-smelling intruders in her cave.


I Don’t Know What Happened next. I hope they didn’t kill the bear but instead simply reached for the child, quietly took him up, praised Allah and this strange mother who had worked His will, and swiftly left the cave. I’ve searched for that part of the story— whether they killed the bear. I’ve gone back through news sources from river to tributary to rivulet until I can go no further because I don’t read Arabic. This is not a mistake or a hoax; this happened. The baby was found with the bear in her den. He was alive, unscarred, and perfectly well after three days— and well fed, smelling of milk. The bear was nursing the child.

What does it mean? How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a pitifully small, delicate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food? But she was a mammal, a mother. She was lactating, so she must have had young of her own some- where—possibly killed, or dead of disease, so that she was driven by the pure chemistry of maternity to take this small, warm neonate to her belly and hold him there, gently. You could read this story and declare “impossible,” even though many witnesses have sworn it’s true. Or you could read this story and think of how warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places, think of the unconquerable force of a mother’s love, the fact of the DNA code that we share in its great majority with other mammals—you could think of all that and say, of course the bear nursed the baby. He was crying from hunger, she had milk. Small wonder.

Barbara Kingsolver is a novelist, essayist and poet whose work often focuses on social justice and biodiversity. She has won numerous awards for her writing including the National Humanities Medal.

From Small Wonder. Copyright 2002 © by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

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