My father intends to shoot ghost bears during the summer. I envy them. Their scientific name is Ursus americanus kermodei, black bears with a chromosome mutation that turns their fur white. According to the article I had just read on nationalgeographic.com, the First Nations nicknamed them ghost bears because they appear so seldom.
The photo on my laptop showed a very real animal standing at the rock edge of a pond, wondering at its snowy reflection on the shimmering surface. In the surrounding bushes, lichen spread out like cobwebs.
‘The Kermode Bear’, the caption said. ‘Habitat: Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada.’
I lifted my head and let my eyes wander across the egg-shaped map of the world on the wall above my desk. A thicket of markers has grown on it over the years. On my twelfth birthday, five months ago, I stopped sticking pins into countries to indicate Papa’s current whereabouts. Does anybody care if he’s in West Sulawesi or East Kalimantan?
I returned my attention to the huge white bear. The rest of the caption informed me: ‘It is one of the most endangered animals in the world.’
Right up Papa’s alley.
The cursor hit the small red box with the X, and the disappearing photo revealed my Skype home page. Trina Bell: online. Tibo Bell: offline. Surely the ghost bear shows up more regularly than my father.
I leaned forward and examined the map again. The Canadian Pacific coastline looked frayed, but it didn’t have one needle in it. One by one, I took the pins out of the Americas and dropped them into the carved coconut bowl on my desk. Africa and Asia followed, flag after flag, until the map was finally bare. I fell back into my chair.
A knock on my door and Roswinda appeared, dressed in paisley and mirth. “Any sign of him yet?” She put a china cup down beside my laptop.
“Not so far,” I said. “Thanks for the tea.” The scent of bergamot steamed up towards me; Earl Grey is my great-aunt’s favourite.
“We should have breakfast now, Kleines. No sense in waiting all morning with an empty stomach.” She wiped a trace of flour from the sleeve of her blouse. “I’m baking scones. Is there anything else you would like?”
“A father who cares about me?”
“Trina!” My aunt sighed.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Roswinda looked as if I had broken one of her Wedgwood plates.
“Scrambled eggs would be nice,” I mumbled.
“And I have Fortnum’s orange marmalade. Would you like some?”
I nodded. She patted my shoulder and left. I stared at her back, wondering about the meaning of imported deli in our life and how she manages to match the salt-and-pepper patterns in her hair and herringbone skirt.
My aunt would prefer London to be her birthplace instead of our hometown of Hamburg. She is most likely the only German to have a picture of the Queen hanging in her living room. Unfortunately, she is also the stand-in for my father, mother, grandparents, and any might-have-been siblings, so I have to endure her folly all by myself.
But that’s not the worst. The worst is: Brighton! Or more precisely, our annual British summer vacation in Suite 49 of the Old Ship Hotel. Twenty-one long days in a striped deck chair, surrounded by people who are at least half a century older than I am.
I leaned back, closed my eyes and imaged myself into the rainforest: I follow the bends of a narrow creek bed; the stream whispers over pebbles and rocks. The spongy soil eagerly swallows the sound of my steps. Water trickles down from the high roof that shelters this deep-green world. It drips on my forehead and cheeks, and runs into the collar of my parka. My hair is soaked like the drapes of lichen that hang in the branches.
Mist lingers between the tree trunks as if the woods are breathing it out. I suck in the cool air and taste the damp, mossy ground — the freshness of leafy ferns, berry bushes and fir needles. I crawl over a fallen tree and try not to slip on the wet boulders.
A red cedar rises in front of me like a giant’s leg. I look along the massive pillar towards the crown that seems to touch the sky. My fingers grip into the furrowed bark.
I feel strong and free. I’m tempted to climb this beanstalk to search out the treasures hidden in its top, the adventures waiting past its emerald dome. Something rustles on the other side. I gasp — is it a wolf, a grizzly, a cougar? I sneak along the tree and peek around it: a flash of white.
On a log, crossing the brook, walks a bear made of clouds. He stops and sticks his nose into the air. I duck and cower closely to the tree. My cheek touches the rough bark.
Can he sense me?
But he just stands there, swaying slightly as in an arcane dance. He lowers his muzzle and forcefully shakes his shiny body. Out of his fur, drops of water fly around him like diamond dust. The spirit bear lifts his head, looks over at me, and smiles.
“Brekkie’s ready,” my aunt chirped from the kitchen, interrupting my rainforest reverie.
I peeled out of my pyjamas and slipped into chinos and a navy turtleneck sweater. Roswinda disapproves of too informal a dress code, but she would have to put up with the fact that I didn’t wash. I raked my fingers through my hair and braided it into one thick rope, not to please Roswinda but myself. I don’t like to imitate Papa’s wild look.
The picture of Mount Fuji that hangs over my nightstand doubled as a mirror as I gave my appearance a brief check. The mountain’s snowy top reflected my eyes.
They always startle me. It’s like whoever was ordered to colour them ran out of Mama’s lake blue halfway through the task, sloppily filled the gaps with my father’s ivy green and patched up the job with some grey scraggly lines, hoping nobody would notice. But I notice. Even my eye colour has to be twisted.
I closed the laptop and shoved it under my arm.
The wooden floorboards creaked in all the familiar spots as I dawdled down our lofty corridor. We have an unsuitable flat, so big you could get lost in it: eight rooms, once inhabited by people I have never known or only see sporadically. Opposite to mine is my father’s room. The door stays closed these days — I don’t spend time in there anymore.
I glanced into my aunt’s study at the end of the hallway. It hosts a massive oak desk, one of the many family heirlooms taking up space in our home. Next to a pile of English papers, awaiting Roswinda’s red ink and thoughtful comments, lay her copy of Papa’s latest book. His latest, award-winning book: Big Cats at Risk.
On the cover, two golden eyes peer out of jade-green foliage. Inside, spreading out on double pages, dwell clouded leopards, Indian lions, Amur tigers, Iranian cheetahs, and snow leopards.
The vulnerable, the threatened, the endangered — they all have my father’s full attention. ‘We have to do everything in our power to protect them,’ he writes in his foreword.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that I’m also a rare kind: his only child! But at least on Sundays, I have the time to wait until he comes around to acknowledge my existence.
On workdays, Roswinda and I leave together shortly before eight and walk the three blocks to our school, Roswinda to instruct ninth and tenth graders and I to finish another year with straight A’s.
Our school is also the place where Mama and Papa met when they were teenagers. At least, as I have often told myself, I can be in the same spots they used to live. I sit in the same classrooms and jog home on the same streets they used to stroll down together, hand in hand.
A few of the older teachers remember Papa and sometimes ask about him.
“Yes, he was just named Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Indeed, it’s a fantastic picture.” I smile at them and nod. “He travels a lot. Sure, it’s great to have such a father.”
Roswinda waited for me at the huge dining table that, long ago, has been the centre of bustling family life. The two of us only use the very end by the old curio cabinet. I dumped my laptop on the table linen, which made the sterling creamer bounce against the sugar bowl; their antique feet tinkled, voicing complaints to the silver tray.
My aunt slid her napkin out of the napkin ring and placed it carefully on her tweed lap.
“Rosa, do you ever dream of climbing the Andes?” I slumped down in my chair. “Or of spending the night in a Mongolian yurt and having mare milk for breakfast?”
My aunt chuckled and shook her head. “You have such a hilarious imagination. Mare milk.” She picked up the bone china teapot. “Oh, you didn’t bring your cup, Kleines.”
“I don’t want more tea.” I felt like throwing the oven-fresh scones out the window and onto the icy cobblestones of Magdalenenstraße, jumping after them, taking the underground to the Landungsbrücken and enlisting on the first ship that left the harbour. It’s cruelly ironic: I live in the city that is called Germany’s Gateway to the World. Only for me, the gate is locked.
My aunt put the tea down.
“You know, Trina,” she said, and her fingers stroked the gold edging on the pot’s lid as if to make amends for my insult. “I’m perfectly content with how things are. We live in a beautiful town. I love my profession, and I’m blessed to have two amazing children in my life.”
She reached for the bottle of Lea and Perrins and sprinkled the dark-brown liquid generously onto her eggs. I’m not a fussy eater, but the smell of Worcestershire sauce is something I don’t want to deal with before lunch.
“And just think, in less than six months, we’ll be travelling to Brighton again,” Roswinda said and tasted the first forkful with apparent pleasure.
As if I wasn’t aware of that. While my father is gallivanting the planet, I’m sentenced to life in Hamburg-Harvestehude — with the English seaside as my exercise yard.
I lifted up the laptop lid and punched in my password. Still nothing.
I snatched up my serviette; the heavy napkin ring slipped off and tumbled onto the wooden floor. The clang made me jolt. “I want to go to Canada with Papa this summer.”
“Trina, haven’t we talked about this?” My aunt put her fork down. “Tibo has an important new project to work on.”
“Why can’t he go on vacation with me just once?”
I twisted the napkin with both hands, like a tiny neck.
“Your father’s pictures bring attention to all these wonderful, special creatures.”
My aunt spoke as if she had to chew every syllable into the right shape before releasing it.
“Sure, he has time for every living thing on the darn planet, except me. I guess I’m not special enough!”
I bent down and fished under the table for the napkin ring. The left heel of Roswinda’s sensible dress shoes nervously tapped the ground.
“He can’t stand me,” I said, surfacing without the ring.
“Kleines, don’t talk such nonsense.”
“He hates me — because of Mama!” My eyes welled up with tears.
Roswinda looked as if the stucco rosettes had fallen from the ceiling. She got up.
“Don’t ever say that again,” she muttered, standing in front of me. She pressed my face against her belly and stroked the back of my head. Her blouse smelled of baking powder and Lily of the Valley perfume.
“Your father loves you very much.”
I dried my tears with the napkin, and we finished our cold eggs in silence.
Back in my room, I threw the open laptop on my bed and checked my smartphone for texts or emails.
Nothing. No change of plans.
I gazed at the phone in my hand. At least Papa was never chintzy. I always had the latest gadgets — and exotic gifts from all over the world. But no traditional golden charm bracelet from India reads to you at bedtime, and even the most authentic Congolese Makuta drum cannot hug you when you have scraped your knee.
I walked over to the empty map of the world and took one pin between my thumb and index finger.
“And I will be there,” I whispered and rammed its tip into the board. However, I didn’t aim properly, and it landed in the south of Vancouver Island.
Bleep! Finally, a sign of life. I jumped on the bed and arranged myself cross-legged in front of the screen.
My father gave me an apologetic smile. “Hi, Trina, we had trouble with the jeep on the way back to the lodge.”
“Hi, Papa,” I said. “It’s okay.” I’m used to it, added a voice in my head.
“I know you were waiting the whole morning.” He looked just like the picture on the back flap of his latest book’s dust cover: long, wavy hair moving in the evening breeze, a bushy beard covering half his face; Prince Charming overgrown with weeds.
“Don’t worry, Papa. I had things to do. And Roswinda made scrambled eggs and baked scones for us.”
“Yeah, her scones are the best,” said my father.
“Yeah,” I said.
The distance between us is not only physical. My father is like the expensive present in the display box on the top of your wardrobe — the fancy doll with which you are never allowed to play. All you can do is admire it from afar.
“So, you’re going to hunt ghost bears this summer?”
I thought this to be a light-hearted intro to my upcoming pledge.
“I can’t take you with me,” my father replied, taking the shortcut.
“Papa, if I have to eat another cucumber sandwich in Brighton, I’m going to throw up!”
He sighed. The fingertips of his left hand pounded the rugged wood of the balcony railing next to him. Over his shoulder, I saw a bunch of coconuts in the top of a palm tree. The setting sun reddened my father’s forehead while his brows moved closer together.
“Trina, it’s impossible.”
My hands grabbed the laptop screen in the spots where it would have ears if it decided to grow them.
“That’s what you always say! Do you know how much fun it is to hang out with a bunch of old Brits every summer?”
Instead of an answer, he turned his head to the side and gazed into the twilight; into some enchanting foreign landscape hidden from my eyes, outside of the small frame I was allowed to see.
“Papa, do you realize that you have never spent more than three days in a row with me?”
A squeal rang out of the dark green behind him, like the yelp of a strangled bird.
My father looked back at me.
“Four months, Trina, in the rain forest. Where do you think you can stay there?”
“In a tent or a hut or wherever — who cares. I just want to be with you!” My voice shivered. “I’m sick of lawn bowling.”
“Please, Trina,” my father moaned. The palm fronds behind him waved about like hands trying to fend off an attack. “Be sensible, there’s no way —”
“Then you better make one,” I yelled, “or I’ll throw myself into the Channel!”
I slammed the laptop shut, pulled Mama’s shawl out from under my pillow and buried my face in it.