This story appeared in the first issue of the excellent EarthLines journal earlier this year – if you don’t already subscribe, I recommend going over there (after you’ve read the story) and sorting it out. This story comprised half of a piece, the other half of which was a very fine article by Sharon Blackie (writer, storyteller, editor of EarthLines and one half of Two Ravens Press.) If you follow this link, you can download the whole thing from EarthLines #1, where Sharon has just this very day put it up for all.
The two black-and-white illustrations are by Rima – I gave her only a few hours’ notice that I needed these ready now in the middle of an already hard time earlier this year, and she heroically produced works of beauty. Of course.
I’ll shut up now and let the story speak for itself.
The Bear Outside
by Tom Hirons
She was a tired woman and he was a tired man and they had their house on the edge of a forest that neither of them trusted and both of them disliked. She imagined eyes peering out between the dark tree-trunks; he had nightmares in which he was hopelessly entangled in thick webs.
They had one daughter between them, and her name was Ursula. She was as wild as a dog rose and quiet as a willow and she loved the forest above all things. They had moved to the house when she was a baby, when their love was young and all things seemed possible.
They had never known a winter as bleak as this. The sap froze in the trees. The unending silence was terrible to the tired man and the tired woman. It seemed that time had also frozen solid – she would get up and put her ear to the clock above the fireplace and he would take his pocket watch and examine it for faults, but there were none. Ursula, wrapped in furs, built snow-monsters in the garden. Her parents watched from the window and rapped with their tired knuckles on the glass for her to come in. She spoke to the snow-monsters, but her parents could not hear and, besides, the words were in a language that only she and the monsters could understand. She went inside and stood in the living room and looked at her parents and wondered who they were.
I don’t know when the mother began to dream about the bear. In winter, one night blends with another and one dream becomes another dream. Once she had begun dreaming about the bear, it seemed to her that she had been dreaming about the bear forever. Now she remembered and wished she could forget, but she couldn’t.
The bear had once been white, but was now yellow. Its fur was matted and soiled and there were patches of blood here and there that might or might not have been its own. Its eyes were not peaceful or full of gentle forest wisdom. They stared at her in the dream and the bear rolled its head from side to side. Its growls and moans were the most terrible thing she had ever heard. It stank so strongly that she wasn’t sure if she could breathe. Her lungs were full of bear-reek and bear-grief – as she woke, she let out great sobs.
“What is it?” asked her husband. “Shall I call the doctor?”
“No. I…” She put up her hand. “Did you hear the bear?”
“The bear?” he asked, frowning. “There are no bears here, love. You were dreaming.”
“Yes,” she said and went back to sleep. The bear was waiting for her, moaning, bloody, rolling its head.
That might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. One night, the husband dreamed that the bear was outside the window. He leaped tiredly out of bed, took up his gun and threw the curtains wide, but there was only the forest and the snow monsters in the garden.
“There are no bears here, love,” said his wife.
“No. Of course,” said her tired husband. “I was dreaming.”
He began to lock the front door of the house at night.
The bear circles the house at night. If they listen fully and perfectly, they can hear the snow crunch beneath each giant paw as it makes its rounds. Critch-cratch. Snick-snack. Every night it bellows terribly, a sound so mournful and anguished that they have to cover their ears. They stuff pillows against their heads and still the sound of it comes through.
One night, Ursula dreamed of the bear. It was made of ice and river-wood and the bones of otters, full of pebbles and pine resin and the lost songs of bees. It towered over the house. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She tried to speak to it in the language she shared with the snow monsters, but it didn’t understand and so she sang instead. It let her sit on one of its giant paws – she knew that it would likely kill her, but she didn’t mind. She smelled the thick, mysterious fur and it smelled of all things strange and forested and unknown. It disturbed her deliciously.
The tired man and the tired woman no longer slept soundly. One of them would stand guard by the window, until the other reminded them that there were no bears, that they had been dreaming. Sheepishly, they would go back to bed, but the first hint of the bear in their dream brought them back to the window, tense and afraid and murderous.
“Mother. Father. Why are you so tired?” asked Ursula one morning over the breakfast table. Her parents looked at her and saw that she was becoming beautiful and she looked at them and saw that they were afraid of her.
“Well,” said her father. “We are tired because we have bad dreams and cannot sleep.”
“Oh,” she said. This much, she already knew.
“Yes,” said her mother and gave a frightening laugh. “Can you believe it? We dream about bears every night! Imagine that! A terrible, dangerous bear! Ha ha ha!”
“I see,” said Ursula.
“Because of the bear,” said her father, seriously, “we have decided that it’s no longer safe for you to go outside.” He looked at his wife and she nodded, but Ursula could see a look in her eyes. She tried to catch the look and show it the otter bones, but it was cold and afraid at the bottom of her mother’s eyes and she couldn’t reach it in time.
“I thought you said the bear was a dream,” said Ursula. “I don’t understand.”
“No,” said her father. “That’s because you are young. Better to be safe than sorry, eh? There’s a good girl”
Ursula looked at her mother and saw that she flinched. She looked back to her father and tried to imagine who he once might have been.
They hear the bear at the door and the windows; they can hear its breathing. The breath rasps and rolls wetly in its nostrils. During the day, they smell the bear everywhere. Though the stores are running low, they dare not venture past the front door. The bear rolls its head from side to side, mad and terrible. Who knows why?
Ursula dreamed that the bear had curled up around the house. Snowdrops were growing up amongst its fur. Green shoots of crocus, daffodil and primrose. Tiny saplings became visible in the bear’s ears; sticky buds appeared on the tips of its eyelashes. Ursula walked on the great body of the bear and sang to it. She laid down and slept on the bear and dreamed a dream within the dream that told her about otter bones and river-wood and many other things besides.
The winter crept on. The tired man and the tired woman no longer went to bed, but stayed in the living room with the gun and two flasks of coffee. She knitted through the night and he designed endless crossword puzzles. Ursula brought them breakfast and they ate together, but did not speak. Sometimes her mother would laugh, then catch herself and begin to cry. Her father mumbled to himself:
“Three across. 3-5-4. Yes, yes. I see. Hmm. Yes! Mm, no…”
Ursula dreamed of the bear every night. She sang to it constantly. She was very happy and her blood had begun to sing in her veins. She wanted to tell her parents how happy she was and to tell them about the snowdrops in the bear’s fur, but she could not.
Early one morning, Ursula wrapped herself in furs and pulled on her boots. She stood by the front door with her hand on the latch and listened. She heard her mother’s needles – click-click, clack-clack – and her father’s pen – scratch-scratch, scribble-scribble. She breathed deeply and felt her breath in her breast and her belly and heard the singing of her blood and she shook her head. She lifted the latch and walked out into the forest and was never seen in that house again.
“She must have been eaten,” said her father.
“Yes,” said her mother. “She must have been.”
“We were right not to have gone outside.”
“Yes, love. We tried to tell her.”
All day it sits in the shadows. At night, it roams the corridors. The endless moaning, the relentless growling, the stench of it. The wounded, crazed bear will not let them sleep. How can they rest? Any moment could be their last. The bear is in the house! The bear is in the house!