The Girl and the House Bear

The animals lurking in the wilderness around Papertown have become a threat. Rabbits wanting to eat and procreate, various predators wanting to eat them, brome and bluestem and rush growing, algae and lichen forming on the surfaces of water and stone. People have seen eyes at night, from a distance, usually through binoculars. One took a cell phone picture of the tapedum reflection of two yellow orbs, of what animal god only knows. Something vicious for certain.

What are the worries of the citizenry? That some disease carried between the toes of mice might enter the metropolitan area. That a child might be bitten by something larger, or dragged off and eaten, rolled under a rock or hauled up into a tree. Less than the chance of lightning hitting one of the golfers too stubborn to leave the green, casually resting his six iron on his shoulder and holding his hand out, watching the giant cloudbank approach. Far lower than the chances of mishap and injury from the Papertown Campers, those adventurous few who pack their cars full of food and throw their wrappers on the ground at the park outside of town, mortified and yowling to the city fathers to bring death down on all animals when a squirrel hoping for a nibble of gorp nips a finger, or a panther makes herself more than briefly visible. The assumption is that the panther has it coming if she wants to be fed by human beings, that none of this is our fault.

The Pathfinder won’t let any of the Papertown citizens carry guns outside city limits. He hops down from a broad oak branch and takes the guns away, breaks a nose or two, pours syrup in their gas tanks at night and punches pinholes in their beer cans, makes them walk all the way back to their paper shells and plastic bags so that they get tight yellow blisters on their soft feet. He tells a hunter to use a knife instead of a gun. The spiritual enterprise, he says, cares nothing for your laziness masquerading as technological accomplishment. Sort yourselves by oncoming antlers, by claws wielded at the end of nothing but a million years of enduring muscle. Yet another reason to hate the Pathfinder even more than they hate the animals, even though they would call themselves animal lovers.

The people of Papertown have domesticated bears. Over many decades they’ve bred them down to small, manageable sizes designed for certain functions. There are decorative, apartment-sized bears for people who like something to love and carry. There are guard bears, of course, and the kind that used to be made to dance by giving them food and hard whippings and fitting them with muzzles. Few bears in Papertown need muzzles—only the ones with indolent owners—and there is a store in town that sells more accouterments and decorations than one person alone could envisage: sweaters and collars, beds and toys, sunglasses, slippers, claw paint, bells, backpacks, mounted guns, mounted video cameras, fur dye, vented double-breasted suits with brocade vests and silk ties, broad plumed hats, defibrillators, block-and-tackle or winch-and-chain harnesses. Jeweled water bowls. Tubs of live sockeye salmon. Carcasses of antelope hang from hooks on overhead girders, and the arbor attached to the store grows bushes of sarviceberry and blackberry and runs an apiary and a grand red termite mound.

Most people own black bears bred to have long noses and short legs because this looks cute and funny, but some people raise grizzlies, and one woman of means ran a special breeding outfit for polar bears because they went so well with the predominate neutrals of Papertown’s living rooms and parlors. But the polar bears did not alter their genetics as readily, and tended to be too aggressive. A lot of people died over the years breeding bears into handy biological compartments. There is a small memorial to them on the plaza.

The real issue here is that the people of Papertown think the wilderness might be growing. They think—this is all assumption because it takes too long and too much work to gather facts from the wilderness—they figure that there must be danger from something left neglected for so long. The university humanists jump right on this. Fewer of them have ever seen wilderness than any other subculture of Papertown. They feel they have more to lose by the imposition of scat, blood, fur, and fact. They concoct some clever and complicated intellectual devices they call theories. They use these to justify, ironically, the employment of certain elemental forces to combat the impending presence of nature against the bulwark of free, unimpeded conjecture. They call for burning, damming, cloud seeding, and the building of a wall with a pediment variously decorated to represent the world’s many cultures. They teach enough cycles of students that in time most of Papertown’s educated community believes that animals are purely symbolic. Or (in case not) that they need to be kept to reasonable, wieldy numbers, and then only for the purposes of food and entertainment. Studies show that there are too many animals. Experts say that they tend to stare in a way that is inappropriate, offensive, even harassing. The law is advised.

One bear is of the House Bruin breed, a cinnamon black domesticated to carry serving platters on her back or stand on hind legs and hold a champagne bottle between her forepaws. She is matronly and nurturing, and the children in the house love her. Her three hundred pounds of muscle encased in a pleasant wrapping of fat and fur are a warm place to cuddle in winter, and the children laugh and clap at her sneezes when the mill pollution is particularly high in February. Sometimes she sits in front of the kitchen window and stares out at the snow, making a sound at once like a horn blast and an elegy, or leaves an oily, wrinkled print of one paw flat against the glass. She has lately dropped a few trays, and no longer cries out when she is beaten for it, but puts her chin flat against the floor, turns the small black marbles of her eyes upward toward the children, and seems to implore them and dote on them at the same time.

One night in a storm, a hundred-foot Hemlock fell from a synchronistic combination of wind and rot and age, full force, onto the house of the family that owned this bear. It barreled through the roof and cut loudly through the upper story of bedrooms, killing the middle child of five, a boy twelve years old who had shown a profound patience that none of his brothers or sisters possessed, and a knack for tying knots and working puzzles. He had liked strawberry jam on toast at night and a bowl of cold pickles in the summer.

The House Bruin stepped to a ripped out section of the kitchen and pushed a branch out of the way, smelling the sap and wet needles, strode over the splintered frame of the window and carefully around the wicked pieces of glass, and meandered along the fallen trunk, half hidden in the green of the fresh branches and soft garland. No one took much notice, the handful of rescuers rushing into the mass of wet paper and pulling the wreckage off of the survivors, tending to cuts and contusions, asking for names and wrapping children in blankets.

The House Bruin found the dead boy, rolled the tree off of him, and dragged him out. She slung him over her back, balancing him as if he were a silver platter loaded with food. She carried him to his mother, who stood in the diminishing rain beneath the great smacks of thunder and the veins of lightning, and who paled, screamed briefly, then howled a long howl that sounded very much like a she-bear. The mother beat the House Bruin about the face and shoulders with her fists. The bear did not understand, but bore the beating for a moment. Then the confusion became more occupying than the discipline, and the House Bruin killed the grieving mother with one short defensive stroke, less aggressive than perplexedly annoyed. The smell of wet lawn and pine mixed with the iron of blood in the bear’s nostrils. No one quite realized what had happened for a moment, the mother sitting down in a puddle, then reclining onto her back, her position a little awkward, perhaps a swoon.

Then, of course, chaos. The House Bruin was attacked with hand and stick, and struck out at the father, recognizing him as the person who had done the most violence, gashing his side. Before guns could be arranged, and in the gray diagonal veil of the storm, the she-bear escaped the onslaught and tottered through the remains of the Hemlock back into the house, where she took her favorite of the children from the pantry in which they’d been hiding, the dead boy’s sister who had always petted the bear softly when all the children played together. She was, when the bear entered the pantry, eating marshmallows straight from the bag in secret. The bear carried the girl by the back of her collar like a mother cat with a kitten. The girl still held the bag of marshmallows, a few of which popped out, bright white snub-nosed cylinders of sugar leaving a short trail toward the wilderness, just for a dozen yards, then only the bear tracks pressed into the mud, then the ferns beneath the forest of trees that most people in Papertown could not name, then the harder ground and early stone of the first foothills, and then only the occasional scrape across lichen on the mountain face, granite and travertine, the fingers of snow reaching down from the caps.

This important day happened during a week of town council meetings. The council was preparing for what it called habituation hunting and the elimination of exotics (that it had introduced a few decades earlier), road grading for logging routes, water reclamation, and several sub-clauses designating no-bid marketing contracts to investigate tourist potential and energy sources and precious minerals—all in the effort to achieve a balance of environmental and economic interest, of course. No one wanted to be thought of as exploitive.

The councilman who had lost his wife and his son and his daughter, he sat at home during these meetings. He hired someone to care for the injuries he’d received during the storm, and to care for his children, and he hired someone to fix his house and someone to clean it. He looked out the window and cursed the rain and the animals. His soul held the curse tight, ground it down, brewed it into new blood that ran through the man’s veins and swam in his brain during sleep. He grew brutal, and the door of darkness opened on his heart.

In the near forest along the tributary, a red fox gave birth to five kits, one of which was eaten by a sharp-shinned hawk along the bank, one of which would become the most prolific sire of foxes in the whole of the forest. A vole aerated the soil beneath a struggling cedar, which recovered and would grow for forty more years before decay from beetles dropped it and turned it to a nurse log that fed thirty-seven species into cycles of fertility and blind contentment. The moon reflected a beam through a hole in the canopy of a grove of deciduous trees losing their leaves in fall, and the beam illuminated a water lily on a small pond scintillating with the season’s last aging fireflies and their reflections blinking back. The mist of the mornings wafted up and cooked off in the foothills, obscuring much of the time a small cave, damp but constant in temperature, in which the girl drifted off, curled against the House Bruin’s fat flank and working a blackberry seed out from between her teeth with her tongue.  

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