It’s night and the cottages are dark. The gaslights on the narrow streets are dim. Dogs are sleeping. Dads are snoring. All this is just as it should be, until the umbra at the edges of the square begins to shift. The street guard looks the other way. He knows his own son is there among the moving shadows, but it’s not serious, is it, really? A little mischief from the boys, that’s all. Something going on for us to talk about tomorrow, say. It’s funny, in a way, or so some will later insist. “Come on now, they’re just kids, nobody got hurt.” So then what can be the harm?
The shadows become one shadow as the boys move in concert, one being and all the larger for that. All the braver too.
And if some mother whines, “But what if it gets worse?” it’ll be a long time before we take her words as prophecy rather than complaint.
They move as one and quiet-like, barefoot on the paving and the grass. Dark clothes and blackened faces. Teeth white, shining in their grimaces and smiles. Gleam of eye.
One boy snorts and is slapped.
“Shhh…” That’s the hiss of the leader’s hush, if there is a leader.
They slink along from tree to tree, behind the darkened cottage at the end of the farthest lane, pressed up as it is against the trees beyond the last field. In daylight this place is shabby and small, but here in the dark it’s a lumpen shape, windows cracked open in defense against the summer heat.
Inside a dog lifts its head. Growls. The old man, deaf and drunk, sleeps dead.
The boys know this about him, and that’s a part of their advantage.
The guard has turned away. He’s moved on to the alleys on the far side of the square, checking the gated shops with their gratings and their grilles. Trying the locks, one by one, along the way.
The group has split and separated into six distinct boys as they surround this cottage now, careful of the garden, minding the flowers. The moon has risen behind the ever-haze of evening sky. The stars are invisible, just rumors of themselves, a story from the past that the old man has told many times, under the tree in our town square.
These boys don’t need the light. They’re young, and they can see in the dark. They swarm the house.
That fast, and then they’re done.
They don’t regroup, but break off one by one, running each his own way home.
What have they done?
They’ve painted all the windows black. There are only five: two in the front, two at the back, and one high up on the side. The tallest boy took that one. The smallest stood on his shoulders.
Six boys. Five windows. They left not a trace, but we all knew.
This particular cottage isn’t any bigger than anyone else’s, and it isn’t any better, either. But the garden is something to be admired, and maybe it’s been envied by somebody, but there really isn’t much of that sort of thing between us or among us. We’re a peaceful folk, mostly, and we get along from day to day, without much to-do about anything for long. Which is likely what’s made our young pranksters so delightfully interesting to us. To some of us, that is.
Ursine lived with her grandmother on the street beside the square. In our town, as it were, and not at its edge, not near the woods or the creek, where it might not have been so safe. Where the lamplight was dim and the undergrowth thick. Her parents were long gone, so long gone that you might wonder whether there had ever been any at all, but of course there were. The flu had taken them, or an accident. It could have been anything.
The mother went first, around the time when Ursine first came into being, and the father followed shortly after that. Or maybe he just moved on to other prospects elsewhere and left the girl behind with her mother’s mother, who wasn’t as old then as she’d become by the time Ursine turned ten, which is the time of the beginning of this story, when she started growing hair.
She was an awkward, ugly girl with one thick eyebrow tangled above her nose and thick, dark hair on her head too. Braided, mostly, to get it out of the way, if she would only let her Nah take the time to do it. And fuzz on her lip and her cheeks and her chin, as well. Sleek as a seal, she was.
Ursine stopped going to school when the other children taunted her. Not all of them. Just one in particular. Poor Peter, who must have been in love with her—the way boys are sometimes—because of how he went after her with his fists. Our Master tried to get Ursine to come back to class, but he was no match for Nah, who fought him off with her broom and her tongue, and after that we found it easier to just leave the two them alone.
Poor Peter was still as entranced as ever though, and he’d been seen peering through the back fence, hoping for at least a glimpse of his Ursine. So Nah got herself a dog to help keep the boy at a decent distance. One of Hemley’s curs, a worn-out old thing with a terrible jaw and tattered ears. They called him Mutt and left it at that.
When Nah got sick and took to her bed, Ursine stayed close and cared for her. Spied on by poor Peter. Protected by loyal Mutt.
Nobody here lies low for long, though, and that shadow of boys sure enough noticed Ursine’s absence from the school. They thought it wasn’t right that she should be allowed to skip classes when they themselves had to suffer long afternoons listening to our Master drone on and on about this or that or the other thing that meant so little to any of them anyway. And when the weather turned and began to warm toward summer again, it was all that much worse. Blue skies and bright sun and the fields and woods so close, just waiting for you to come and be out there with them in the glory of it all. The dull drone of our Master’s voice. Words swimming on the page. Numbers chalked on the board and time stopped on a fly’s buzz against the windowpane.
Something in all this had to crack, and the first to go was Mutt, who took it into his head to run off after another dog, or more likely it was the whole pack that had come to roam our woods. Ursine found the back door open and the back gate open and poor Peter himself standing on the other side of the backyard fence with his finger in his nose and his face red with fear, because, he said, he saw the dog go. Opened the door on its own, he said. Opened the gate on its own. Paws turned into hands and the dog growled at poor Peter, then just walked on out in the direction of the woods as easy as that. On his two hind legs. Checking his watch. Wearing his scarlet waistcoat and his green cravat. All these details mumbled out while Ursine stood at the gate and whistled and called, but Mutt was gone.
Which made it easy for those boys to get to the house with nothing to stop them. They didn’t mean any harm, they explained, standing with the rest of us, eyeing the smoky remains. It was supposed to be a joke, that’s all. And if the brick broke the glass, and if there was a small flame that turned into a blaze, and if the blaze caught the curtains and the flames licked the bed, then how was that their fault? Nah was asleep and dreaming, drugged because our Doc had come by earlier to ease her pain, and Ursine had gone off to find Mutt and bring him home, calling in the woods until she smelled the smoke and saw the flames and heard the sirens screaming. So what we thought then was that it was the two of them had been burnt down to a pile of ashes and bones. And what we didn’t know was that, no, it was only just the one.
Mutt had not forgotten Ursine, and he was waiting faithfully for her in the woods where she’d run to escape the flames. No one saw her go, and no one saw her there except for Mutt and his pack, and if one of those, the big white Akita, say, snarled and thought of her as tasty, a good meal for them all to share, Mutt stopped him with a deeper growl of his own, and the Akita backed down, left her alone but kept one ice-blue eye on her all the same.
The dogs didn’t take her in, exactly. She wasn’t one of them and couldn’t run with them or go where they would go, but they did protect her, or so she felt, thanking them, one by one. Before they were off. The pack, on a mission of its own. Rabbits, mostly. Chipmunks. Squirrels. Every now and then a cat.
Her hands had been burned. She held them in the cold water of the creek and saw them redden and swell. Her hair had been singed clean off her body and mostly off her head. Her clothes were gone. She was as white as a whittled stick. She covered herself in mud to soothe the burns and curled up in the hollow of an old tree, like a grub in its cocoon, while Mutt stood guard and brought her bits of squirrel and rabbit, even an opossum once, which she sucked and gnawed and chewed with her own sharp teeth. She would not, however, eat a cat.
Ursine made the woods her home. She wandered the paths. It was warm enough, and there were berries and wild mushrooms for her to eat besides. Her Nah had taught her which was which and how to tell the difference, so when she came upon the death cup, she knew what she was going to do to show them—that other pack, those careless boys—that no one goes unpunished in this world.
It rained, and she tipped her head back and drank. Chewed bark. Swallowed berries and nuts and leaves. This went on for days, weeks, she didn’t know, couldn’t tell. She slept. She dreamed. She cried. No one came looking for her. No one called out to her. We all thought she was dead. Ashes in the ashes, bones with the bones. No burial for her then, either. The cottage was nothing more than a pile of stones, smoking, smelling, so that there at the edge of the square it was a blight on the whole town. We had a vote, and then we brought in the trucks and dug it all up and carried it away. The fathers of the boys said nothing. It had been an accident, that’s all. This was easier for all of us to believe.
So it was that we soon forgot all about Ursine and her Nah. New summer rolled around again after the remains of the cottage had been razed. The singed grass had come back green, and there were flowers, and the trees that remained were in full leaf, shading the place sweetly. It became a picnic spot for lovers, a nice little meadow, safely out of the way. And we could see couples headed in that direction, walking hand in hand, with picnic baskets and blankets in their arms. In the dark they crept there quietly, too, and spread themselves out upon the grass. How many of the babies that came into the world the next spring had been started in that spot? It did seem a fitting enough tribute to Ursine and her Nah.
The boys had learned their lesson, and they’d be more careful now. Besides, we had other things to think about. The pack of dogs, for instance, that had been coming out of the woods and into our yards at night to scavenge in the neighborhoods for our leftovers or our cats or even our smaller dogs. They helped themselves to Mellie Jones’s rabbits, Bindi Rayburn’s pigeons, and Rafe Howard’s hens. A meeting was called, and there were some who wanted to shoot the dogs. Others would rather have trapped and tried to train them. It was decided, in the end, that the safest thing would be to build a wall, too high to jump, too broad to breach, around the perimeter of our town.
Stones piled upon stones piled upon stones. Fitted together, just so, and perfectly balanced too, with stiles and gates for getting over and through.
We were hard at work with this when we heard the truck coming toward us along the road that would bring it on into our town. Loud it was and big, with wheels as tall as a child, kicking up clouds of dust as they rolled. We had our autos and our motorbikes, our tractors and wagons, but none of us had ever seen such a thing as this, with its gold grille grinning and the windowed cab high up on its brow, gleaming like a pair of cunning eyes. An open trailer rattled along after it, less a trailer than a cage, with thick bars rising up to a closed canvas top. And inside, a black bear. Big as a house, I swear.
The driver stopped outside the first gate, which at the time was all of the wall we’d managed yet to build. The door opened and he climbed down. With some effort, because he was a smallish man, tattooed from head to foot, bare-chested and in boots and breeches and a black hat. He had the sharp face of a fox, with orange hair under that hat and lips as lush and rosy as a girl’s, spread thin into a wide smile gleaming with yellowy teeth. The boys all dropped what they were doing and came running, to see the truck, to see the man, and most of all, to see the Bear.
Turned out Enda Ablon was the one of us who stepped up to offer a warm, clean, comfortable room at her place for the man to rest his head. We took to calling him Tatt, though I can’t say that was his true name. Enda had that room at the back of her house along with a fancy about herself as something lovely, which wasn’t true, but he was grateful. Seemed to us he could have slept in the cab of that truck all right, but he took her up on her offer anyway and parked the thing out front, which became a point of pride for her too, of course. He took his meals at Bin’s bar with the men and their beer and the women and their meats and told us about the Bear, that he would have a rassle with it in the morning, and daring anyone in town to try it too. The boys were huddled outside Bin’s bar and peering in the window, or they were over at Enda’s staring at the Bear, and they were each one daring the other to rassle it, though they didn’t yet quite understand just what that meant.
They never had a chance to demonstrate their mettle though, because it happened then that one by one our boys fell ill. Alfalfa slumping at supper and delirious by the middle of the night, then in the morning dead. His tongue black, and his eyes clouded over and dim. Clem falling in the meadow where he’d been out since dawn popping squirrels with his gun, then baking in the sun, swelling up to twice his size before anyone missed him and his brother went out to look and found him there and started the screaming that echoed then again and again, throughout the town, as the boys fell, one by one. Bran breaking out in hives that turned to blisters and then boils that burst and spewed an odor that took away the appetites of even the dogs howling beyond the half-built wall. The Bear, lifting her head, sniffing this. Tillich on fire as his fear rose, and he tore at himself, then ran out of the house to the creek where he threw himself into the deepest part and drowned. I don’t remember what happened to the smallest boy, whose name I have forgotten too. Moe or Mick or Malakai or Knot.
It wasn’t until it came to the last one, though, that any of us made the connection. Which arrived in a confession from poor Peter, who saw the pattern and realized the truth, at first believing it must be something supernatural, some more powerful punishment from on high. And, seeing it coming, as he did, he went out into the square and climbed up onto the box and put it all out into the open, even as the coffins stood in the shadows of the church and the shovels worked to dig the graves. He told about the rock and the gas and the rags and the fire. He looked at the sky and pled for mercy, begged to be spared, while Ursine kept herself just out of sight behind the stones of the half-built wall and watched and smiled and thought yes, she had gotten what she wanted all right, but the satisfaction in that had turned out to be hollow and sore.
Poor Peter raised his head, and he saw her there all right too. He figured she was a vengeful ghost, come back to life to get him, so he hid himself away as best he could. But then there she was outside his window at night, looking in at him until the sense of her presence startled him awake. She was hunting him, it seemed. Driving him mad, which was maybe worse than death. Poor Peter was losing his mind and crying and begging and insisting: Ursine! She’s there. She’ll kill me, along with the rest.
We all put it down to poor Peter driving himself crazy with guilt, until that man Tatt who had the Bear told Enda he had come upon Ursine himself as well. He scoffed: “You mean that ugly little thing?” Because he’d caught her gaping at the Bear in the moonlight more than once, in fact making a habit of coming around regular, to visit with it after dark. He shook his head. “Why, she’s nothing but a girl!”
Now this is the part of the story where I come in. I can’t say Ursine was ever my friend, exactly. I couldn’t say that any of them were ever my friends, to tell the truth. I had problems of my own, after my mother’s death and my father’s withdrawal, which left me pretty much alone and vulnerable to the same kinds of treatment Ursine had endured. But I was lucky and had my wits, so those boys let me be, for the most part. I’d laughed at them and told them what they wanted to hear: that they were clever and their tricks were harmless and they were innocent and they were fine. Then I’d stood right there beside their families who were weeping in the rain, beneath the black umbrellas, on the rich green grass, before the deep black holes, and I’d recited the litany and I’d sung the hymns along with everybody else, letting my voice rise up like sunlight cracking through a cloud. I’d brought tears up into to my own eyes and murmured my condolences. Raised a glass to each of those dead boys, one by one, and agreed it was a tragedy, a wretched day for everyone involved.
Time went by, as usual, and the whole thing seemed to be over and done. When enough days had passed and the night was dark, when all the lights were out and all the boys except poor Peter were gone, after the wall was built and the wild dogs were kept safe away from us on its other side, then I slipped out into the shadows, a shadow in a shadow, to find Ursine herself meddling with the Bear.
I caught her up and I brought her home with me and I hid her away right here, down below, in the cellar, where it’s damp and dark, but she was all right, she was quiet, she was safe. Bread and cheese and fruit and nuts. Water. A bed of feathers and straw. Clean clothes. I combed her new hair and washed her face and dried her eyes. I smoothed the silky fur that had by then grown back as thick as ever, and I held her close. I let her know she would be all right with me. I let her weep, I let her thank me, I let her fall asleep. I told her again and again, I warned her: “Say nothing, keep still, hide here. Until I can think what to do next.”
My father, shuffling downstairs, poured his drink, ate his bite, then went back up to his dim, gray room at the top of the house, where he lay in his own bed, folded in on himself, in the depths of his own shadows, and slept.
At the same time as all this was going on, poor Peter, the last boy left alive, lay languishing in the infirmary, his body covered with salves and balms that Granny Medlock, who knew the herbs, cooked up with the intention of putting him back into his right mind. She’d come straight out and announced the cause of his misery. Poison herbs and mushrooms, simple as that. So then we had a clue and our brains began to work so hard on it you could have heard the click and clack and whirring of the gears, like the pins and tumblers of a lock falling into place to open the door and show us what was what, until it was Enda herself (looking into the markings on the back of the hand of the tattooed man who sat there at her supper table and helped himself to another glass of wine) who saw the truth and stood up so fast the table shook and the glasses fell and the wine was spilled (to the great dismay of her guest), and she shouted for all the world to hear: “Ursine is alive!”
The man we called Tatt, who had made Enda’s place his own home, was a charmer all right, but there weren’t any boys left to rassle the Bear anymore, so he’d gone out after the grown men to step up and volunteer for the job instead.
Safe in her cage, that Bear seemed harmless enough. Waiting patiently, looking at us looking at her, and you wondered what she thought of what she saw, the men sizing her up and their tame dogs circling her cage, one of them (the dogs, that is) pausing to lift a leg against it. There was her huge face. Her long snout. Her heavy paws with their trim of deadly claws. If a man could be found to rassle her fair and square, there were bets to be placed, and that was where the money came from. No one stepped up, though they were tempted all right. Talking about it in Bin’s bar. Bragging. Some as big as bears themselves, but none as enormous as that Bear. Their women were doing their best to hold their men back from that foolishness, for the sake of their own survival, at least.
Except Old Sam, who had no woman. Who lived alone on the far side of town and worked at his forge, hammering iron into horseshoes and fence posts and the locks and the braces for the wall. He stood at Bin’s bar and threw back another drink and stooped down to look Tatt in the eye and tell him, “Sure, I’ll do it. Why not?”
Meanwhile a cry had gone up. The rumor had spread. Ursine was alive, and she’d gone and poisoned all our boys, including poor Peter himself. Enda took it to the square, Bin’s bar, the streets. While right here she was all along, our Ursine tucked away and safe down there in my secret hidey hole below. Fed and clothed and bathed and kept. And here was my father too, oblivious, shuffling up and down the stairs. And here was I, at the window, keeping an eye out for any sort of trouble that might start coming our way. I didn’t believe they would put it all together and come for her or for me, but the noise grew anyway.
The rassle between Old Sam and the Bear was set for that Saturday night, but between the bets the old men were murmuring her name: “Ursine.”
And the families of all the dead boys began to take it up too. Going to the police and asking Aleph there, “What are you going to do about this?” He shrugged. What could he do? What evidence did they have? And there was Doc as well, rethinking what he knew and coming up with poison, same as Enda. And Earle at the apothecary listing the symptoms.
“Dig up those boys’ bodies and find out for sure,” was his advice, offered with a shrug. Behind him were the candy cases full of treats, glistening. And before him were the little ones, fingers in their mouths, eyes bright, pleading with their mothers, just one lemon drop, cherry sour, horehound pellet, caramel square?
There was talk of a hunting party going out into the woods after Ursine. Old men were pulling on their boots. Flexing their muscles. Picking up their guns. The tame dogs bayed at the new wall that encircled our town on all sides. A party would go out. They’d hunt the little monster down. They scavenged the old site of the hut, now just a grassy lot, but there was nothing of any use to be found there. Until our marm brought out a small green rug, which she claimed to be the very one that had belonged to Ursine when she was a babe and napped with the other little ones on the schoolroom floor. Marm had kept it for some reason, laziness most likely.
They gave it to the hounds to find the scent, and I could see that one bluetick was eyeing me. He gave a sniff and then came at me, snapping and snarling. The smell of Ursine was on my hands and in my hair and over my clothes. His owner yanked him back, kicked at him, and then apologized to me. The others showed no mercy, laughing at this old, dumb dog who had confused the likes of me with the murderer Ursine. And then the gates were open and the party went out to get busy hunting her down, while Old Sam greased his body, preparing to rassle Tatt’s Bear.
Of course they didn’t find Ursine in those woods, because of course she wasn’t there to be found. And then as it began to get dark their courage failed them and their resolve faded away and they were hungry and defeated. By a girl! They’d seen the mushrooms in the dirt and that was considered proof positive enough, though Ursine herself was nowhere to be seen, long gone maybe or never there at all, which made them madder still, and so they started arguing and thinking of home, with dinner on the table and beer in the mug. The lights of our town glowed warm behind the wall, beckoning to the men, and they began to think again: Why would a girl like that run off into the woods, after doing what she’d done? So they came back with the idea that they’d search the town instead, in the morning. But for now, they only wanted to be warm and dry. Plus, there was a bear rassle to watch.
I heard the talk, but my father, huddled over his meal, did not look up. If they searched our cottage, and if they found her here, then they would take that out on me, and my father would not be spared any more than Ursine’s Nah had been. I went to Ursine then, with clothes, new boots, and a hooded black cloak. She had to go, I told her. She could latch onto the man called Tatt and let him take her away from here with him. I combed her hair, braided it up tight. Shaved off what I could of her pelt, in the places where it would be seen and maybe recognized by some.
The bells were ringing. There was music. Her eyes were wide with fear, but she knew I was right. She couldn’t stay here. My father lifted his head from his soup then and he looked at her, but he didn’t have the energy even to question who or what or why. I draped a shawl over his shoulders and led him back upstairs to his room. There would be fireworks later, I told him. Watch the window. And do not be afraid.
I put bread and cheese in the pockets of Ursine’s coat, and money for the man named Tatt to take her with him when he went. Then, her hood up and her hands hidden, Ursine stepped out into the street with me and we joined the mob that was headed toward the Bear.
It was supposed to be fun. It was meant to be an entertainment as well as a source of income for Tatt. Plus, it gave a purpose to the Bear. The arena had been set up in the square, with tall chain-link erected all around, so we could see in but the Bear couldn’t get out. Tatt seemed taller now somehow, maybe because of the hat he wore, I thought, then looked again at this slim, dark figure in tails and realized he was on some kind of stilts, adding at least two feet to his stature by elongating himself just so.
Bleachers had been set up on one side of the arena for the ticket holders. For the rest of us, you had to shove your way to the front for a view. Boys perched in trees. Girls leaned out the upstairs windows of Bin’s bar. Men passed bottles, and side bets were made. A calliope was playing somewhere, rising madly up the scale and down again and up again and down. When Old Sam appeared at last, with his head shaved and his skin greased, a cheer went up to drown out the music as he grinned and waved and nodded and pumped his two fists in the air. A hero you might guess, though most of us had bet against him anyway.
The Bear, in her cage still, kept an eye on all this and it was clear she knew exactly what was going on. She’d been trained, of course, and she’d done it many times before. Her black coat was browning at the edges, her muzzle was tattered and gray, and yet her claws were sharp and her yellow teeth were big and bright. Tatt raised a hand and obediently she stood, wagged her head, growled first, then roared, until the crowd rose up and roared right back.
Ursine’s attention was rapt. She leaned away from me and then stepped forward and ducked apart, so I lost her as she plunged toward the arena. At the same time, Tatt was opening the door to the cage, Old Sam was climbing through the chain-link gate, and the crowd was surging back away from it all in fear. There were squeals from the girls at the windows and whistles from the boys in the trees. The Bear waved her front paws and lumbered a few awkward steps on two legs before she dropped with a groan back down to four. She wagged her huge head and saliva flew.
Ursine had thrown back the hood of her cloak, revealing who she was. Someone shouted her name and another cry went up. Confusion roiled the crowd as we turned away from the spectacle of the rassle to get our hands on Ursine. As for the Bear, she had risen to her full height once again and roared, louder than ever. A paw swiped out and knocked Old Sam sideways. Then another paw knocked Tatt himself off his stilts and to the ground.
Ursine had broken free of those who were trying to grab and hold her. She threw herself into the arena, right at the Bear, who caught her and brought her close, then sat back on her haunches again rocking Ursine in her arms. When she started tearing at the girl’s clothes, a cheer went up, from those who thought now Ursine was going get what she had coming and it was the Bear who would be giving it to her, holding her in her huge paws and pulling her apart right there before our very eyes. Some turned away. Others were out for blood.
The Bear’s big nose snuffled Ursine, her teeth nudged the girl, and then she was licking Ursine’s pelt—which darkened and grew even thicker—and her arms—which seemed to grow and thicken, too. Her legs, her body, her hands and feet, her head. The Bear’s great tongue lapped at Ursine, her paws turned the girl this way and that, until she was a blur of fur and flesh.
Tatt, considerably shorter now as a result of having lost his stilts, was pulling himself up to his feet when the fireworks went off and a gunshot rang out and a boy in a tree was tackled and thrown down. The Bear loomed over us all, and she held her newly formed cub high above our heads as fireworks bloomed in the sky.
Old Sam, for all his size and all his weight, for all his preparations and his natural-born ferocities, turned out to be no match for our Ursine. He might have brought the Bear down in a rassle—in fact, the odds were in his favor for that when Tatt himself placed his bets against her (a fact we didn’t discover until later, when we came to understand that it’s always going to be easier to manipulate a losing game than a winning one), but our Ursine was more than just a captured old she-bear pining for her long-lost cub. Ursine, who had been a dull-witted girl, was a brilliant bear, and she knew exactly what she was about. She rolled out from the grip of her mother’s great paws and shook herself from head to toe so her dark pelt gleamed beneath the crackling flowers of light in the sky and was a black so deep you might fall right into it as into an abyss, and lose yourself there altogether. The last explosion went off with a deafening boom, and the calliope shrilled on like an afterthought. All else was silent as the dying embers fell. The babies stopped crying and even the children were still. Tatt backed away, limping, and slipped into shadow. He was already packing his bags. Never mind the loot or the bets, he didn’t want any part of his new set of circumstances, foreseeing bloodshed and blame that he did not want to be his own. He’d ride away and find something else to do with himself and his life. We all knew the Bear was no longer either his or ours, and even less so was Ursine.
Old Sam wasn’t finished quite yet, though. He rose up and stepped forth, cheered on by his mates, if only with half the spirit now. Ursine rose too. She stood before us and she wagged her head and her yellow eyes gleamed, her huge fangs shone bright as her mother licked her own paws and, eyes closing, drifted off to dreamland as if exhausted by her own creation.
When Ursine opened her fearsome jaws, her breath was as warm and sweet as a summer wind and her growl the fresh whisper of a newborn babe, light and faint at first, then rising in pitch and depth. Old Sam was bare-chested and bare-handed, but he meant to rassle as planned. He stepped toward Ursine. She held her ground and glared at him. Then, with one swipe, she tore his chest. With another, she raked his head. Those who were standing close were showered in his blood. Still, Old Sam held his ground until he couldn’t hold it anymore, and at last his ankles went soft and his knees buckled in and he went down, gentle as a feather wafting on the wind. He curled on the ground and seeped into the dirt as Ursine rose up again to what seemed an even greater height than before and bellowed with all she had as our townsfolk, everyone but me, turned heel and ran.
I showed the bears the way to the gate at the far end of our new wall. They might have climbed it on their own all right, or helped each other over, one after the other, but I wanted to be of use and I thought it better that they leave us with all their dignity and grace intact. So it was that the two of them lumbered along side by side through the streets of our town while even the most curious among us hid themselves away inside, behind their windows and their walls and their double bolted doors.
The gate was beyond the ruins of Nah’s house, and Ursine did pause there, but only for a moment, to eye the empty meadow in its place before she turned away. The sad and sorry little girl we’d known was someone else now, something else, and her step seemed lighter as she moved more quickly and closer to me, so close I could smell her hot breath and feel the glisten of her fur tickling my own bare skin. The mechanism of the gate was complicated, to discourage the children from mastering it, and high up to keep it out of reach, so I climbed on Ursine’s shoulders to do what I had to do. The Bear sat back on her haunches then, watching us. I got the latches undone all right, then dropped down to the ground again and stepped out of the way. That gate is heavy and at first it wouldn’t budge, but the Bear put all her great weight into it and at last it creaked open, wide and clear.
Again Ursine hesitated. She looked out at the lush woods, then back over her shoulder at our town, all lit up and glowing yellow in the night, before she turned to me. She nudged me with her muzzle, and I threw my arms around her. The Bear bellowed twice, then lumbered past us through the gate. Ursine pulled away from me and followed and so together the two of them disappeared, swallowed by the woods, and on into the dark wild where they belonged.
I pulled the gate back and slammed it hard so the lock fell into place again, then made my way home to tell my father this story of all that had happened to us that night. It would cheer him for a moment, I was sure.
We’ll all venture back out into the forest in the spring, after the snows are gone, when the old trails are soggy and soft. Crocuses and jonquils and dandelions and bluebells will splatter the meadows. The trees on every side will bud, and the morels will rise up juicy in the muck. We’ll gather what we can find, our faces to the warming sun. There will be a new cottage built on the lot that was Ursine’s, for the family of Archie Barnes, whose wife gave birth again this winter, two babies this time, twins with green eyes and yellow hair. Along the path we’ll recognize the tracks, large and small, left behind by all the bears who have come out of their long winter of sleep. Ursine and her mother among them, roaming our wild woods, side by side.
Tatt is long gone, but he left his arena behind, and we use it now to punish the malefactors who still live among us. Boys who would cause trouble, even if they say they didn’t mean it. And all around the town, our wall stands strong and tall. It keeps the wild dogs out, our cats and our chickens safe, and the youngest of our precious children in.
Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include two collections of short stories, This Is That and It’s Not About the Dog, and a novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Her work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Hawaii Pacific Review, Landlocked Magazine, Ragazine, Rougarou, Sandpiper, The Magnolia Review, Maryland Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Moon City Review, Nelle, Ducts, Crack the Spine, Bryant Literary Review, Packingtown Review, Pennsylvania English, Pink Panther Magazine, The Chariton Review, Jet Fuel Review, Sliver of Stone, Limestone, THINK: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction, and Essays, Wrath-Bearing Tree, The Literary Nest, and The Coachella Review. Chehak has taught fiction writing in the MFA program at Antioch University, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. See more of her work at www.susantaylorchehak.com