LANA ELIZABETH GABRIS
The bears come calling
I dream nightly of bears. They tap at the walls, longing to tear me away from my life, and spill my blood across the daffodils dying and crushed under the snow. I live this life waiting, under her watchful eye. I wonder how father had chosen such a woman; though we looked alike, only my sister shared her blood, leading me to believe she had chosen him.
I suppose years ago he'd been attracted to her beauty. It was still there, in her grey eyes, fine lines crinkling the edges to a give a softness that wasn't there now, if it ever had been. After mother had passed in the fog of a spring morning, she'd arrived, an aunt never spoken of, to take her place to help raise my brother and I. He was too young to remember her soft copper waves and bright smile, replaced with raven wing plaits wound around creamy cheeks shaded always by a wide brim. Within a year they'd wed, and there was a child. My sister.
Her daughter's smile had the same crooked front tooth, but within her eyes lay only an understanding she was loved by both parents and was not expected to do more than present herself well, and marry a fine boy from our village.
But I never knew what she expected from me, aside from obedience and unexpected moments of shared understanding. When my brother died, a fall from the horse father quickly dispatched in a fit of anger, its glazed eye begging understanding in the straw; it wasn't long after he too left us, retreating into silence caged inside a still body. I found him, gazing out the shuttered window overlooking the pond where my brother had floated birch bark canoes. He never spoke again, his pale eyes ignoring the survivors. Me.
As the sand had sprinkled over the pine box, my borrowed black veil itching against my skin, I'd watched her eyes roam over the crowd, surprised I think at those who'd come to pay their respects, having taken years to gain their favor, an outsider. Our eyes had met and her long fingers had reached for mine, pulling me away from my last bond to mother, and years began to pass.
When my brother died, a fall from the horse father quickly dispatched in a fit of anger, its glazed eye begging understanding in the straw; it wasn't long after he too left us, retreating into silence caged inside a still body.
In the village, my dearest friend and I from a distance had been mistaken for each other many a time, her dark hair a duller shade unless wet, closer in looks to my sister even than I. I ran the hog bristles through her hair gently, years after the seasons had washed away the trace of the graves in the dirt as we sat in the hayloft of the livery, spying on the stable boy, silent from some trauma years ago never spoken of. Caleb knew we hid amongst the bales, his ears and neck flushed as he worked at the stalls, pretending he didn't.
When Althea spoke, it was a whisper to make my cheeks tingle and I shook my head, the straw rustling, Caleb's steady shake and thump with the pitchfork below pausing only for a moment. "He won't tell." Her breath was hot on my ear and I nudged her shoulder following her to the ladder slowly.
Caleb stopped, smiling shyly, his dusky hair falling across his eyes, hands folded over the broken handle as Althea tugged at my wrist and grabbed his shirt, pulling us all into the empty stall. I turned my back to watch guard, but no one passed the open door, the rustling behind me making my cheeks burn as I dared to peek over my shoulder. Her head thrown back, eyes closed, Caleb's lips along her neck, I was transfixed for a moment when he suddenly looked up, catching my eyes with a steady gaze before I turned away. Movement at the far corner of the door made my heart catch and I hissed at them, Althea pushing Caleb away with a breathless gasp, pulling at her blouse, but the figure turned away and we were undiscovered.
Althea grinned, laughing nervously, while Caleb rested against the wall, his hands spread flat with an easy smile across his lips before he winked at me and reached for his pitchfork.
We left him to his work and half ran from the stable, our arms entwined until we reached the dark thicket encroaching the trees at the end of the path to my home, flopping down in the thick grass to catch our breath. Althea leaned over me as I pressed my hand against my throat, feeling the blood beating against the skin. Her hair had fallen loose and it brushed against my cheek, smelling of the lemon water she'd spent a summer's allowance on and had waited months for it to arrive.
"You know I'd let you kiss him." Her eyes twinkled as she lamented what she thought I was missing out, but instead I rolled my eyes and she poked at my side, "You don't know what you're missing!"
"Oh please! He smells of horse and I dare to guess at the taste." I wrinkled my nose and she pretended to look offended, pressing her forehead against mine, never knowing I already knew it was black licorice. A bird thumped a burst of feathers and we both jumped, realizing the time and she pulled me to my feet, kissing my cheek and dashing back to town where her family lived above the trading post they owned. My path lay before me, twisting around dark evergreens with branches twined amongst birch, the peeling bark scattered among pine needles and scales of cones.
I brushed the grass from my shawl and walked slowly, skipping from root to root until I was at the rotting fence mother had hung seashells she'd saved from a grandmother who lived by the ocean when she was a little girl. I scooped up a fallen one, the faded thread needing long replacing and found a snail clinging to the underside, the misty air drawing them out.
"You can't be her daughter, though you look alike." The shell fell from my fingers at the voice sounding from the porch, the tone that of rocks tumbling under rushing water. He sat in father's chair, a leg propped on the rail, eyes even from where I stood unsettlingly clear, several days' beard shadowing thick lips. A scar ran through his brow as he looked me over and I stared back, seeing his hair had been cut unevenly with a dull blade to trim it above his ears, reminded of my brother always fidgeting under mother's hand. I cleared my throat, straightening my shoulders and turning away from the stinging memory.
"Isolde if you mean, is my aunt," I knelt to retrieve the shell, "And my stepmother. Who are you to wonder?" A light rain began to spit but I chose to take my steps slowly to the stairs, resting the shell in a pot of mint, the slug having slid to freedom and peered past him, seeing father sitting at the table, staring as always at the pond.
"I'm a collector…of sorts." He rolled a twig over around his fingers, "And a hunter of great beasts that lurk in the dark." His lips pulled back enough to make his eyes narrow and I frowned, thinking of my dreams, stopping on the top step of the porch.
"Of sorts." He repeated, teasing and stood, glancing over his shoulder into the house, "Your father, he won't ever stop mourning." I bit down on my lips, and he brushed past me to stand in the dirt, our eyes level. "Mine never did either, he just kept hanging on to what had been, forgetting about what was." He tossed the stick aside and reached into his pocket, "You lost this." In his hand lay mate to the brass hair pin I'd been wearing earlier and my hand flew to my hair, not having realized it had been lost.
I swallowed hard, and he tipped his head, "Candy kisses are just that, sweet until they fade." His hand brushed over my cheek to gently twist the pin back into the knot of curls, and I closed my eyes against his gaze. "I will see you again. If you speak of this to Isolde, tell her the debt is due." He whispered and when I opened my eyes he was gone, the trees closing around the leaves in his wake.
"I'm a collector…of sorts." He rolled a twig over around his fingers,
"And a hunter of great beasts that lurk in the dark."
Isadora sang softly under her breath, her bright eyes shining with secrets as she danced around the table, setting the faded sunflower plates before each chair, while I stirred the pot Isolde had started, the soup welcome against the chilled air. The weather had continued to be damp, the sky grey and we all huddled around the bowls several evenings after the stranger's visit. Isolde sat next to father, her cheek resting on his thin shoulder, spooning the soup against his lips.
She stroked his hand before reaching across the table to twine her fingers into mine, squeezing lightly.
"I saved wonderful news for you my dearest; a proposal has been made and we have accepted." Isadora gasped, half clapping, before realizing what it meant, her eyes filling immediately into shimmers. "Your turn will come soon too love." Isolde smiled, her thumb pressing into my wrist.
"And to who?" My voice thickly wondered.
"Norris Bergstrom?" Althea's peal of laughter cracked around us in the small hollow of trees that faithfully yielded mushrooms no matter how many we picked and I sighed heavily. The thin faced Norris lived with his mother on the opposite side of the lake raising goats, the stench always lingering in the air around them, and I shuddered inwardly at the thought of his knobby fingers. Time for morning services, we picked enough to fill a small basket we left on a stump to retrieve later and made our way to the whitewashed building as the bell began toll.
We sat in the back row of the tiny church in our usual spot, from here we could watch the congregation, as little as there were in attendance today, fewer and fewer it seemed.
Talk was strong of Norris himself, as services ended, having been struck with a blight of dead goats found scattered in the back pasture. Rumors of blight were quelled swiftly with the gruesome details of torn flesh and hide shared with the men. His mother's lined eyes had sought mine, pressing calloused hands against my cheek and gifting me a small embroidered cloth for my bible. I thanked her with a smile while Norris spoke of the tracks found around the bodies.
"It's been years though since a bear has dared to creep into the valley." Isolde wrapped an arm around Isadora's wide eyes, reassuring her we were safe.
"Perhaps that's why the hunter has come." Her eyes flashed to mine, a brow lifting, and I shrugged, having not seen the stranger again I'd kept the visit to myself. If you tell had been his words. Her eyes pulled at mine before she lowered them, kissing Isadora's forehead.
"Fear not ladies, I believe it must have been a mad dog or starving wolf, and we are safe." Norris thin neck bobbed and I inwardly groaned at the dinner invitation his mother pawed at my arm. Isolde kissed my cheek, pressing hers against mine for a moment, reminding me she was taking her weekly walk to mother's grave in the evening and to be home before the dark settled.
Isadora walked with Althea and I before her mother called to her; for a moment I caught longing in my sister's eyes before she released my hand, Isolde having promised her a new ribbon for her hair if only she would hurry. Althea wound her arm into mine and we strolled along the slick boards behind the town, the mist a constant.
"A wife to a goat herder," She teased, "There will be enough goats milk for your food, for the food of your household and maintenance for your girls."
I sputtered laughter to hear my friend quoting proverbs and narrowed my eyes at her, "May your goat have a horn between his eyes." She grinned back and we both sighed at her mother's call to join her for the Sunday quilt the townswomen worked while they shared the gossip of the week, to be given to the preacher for the winter months. Conversation was slim, the dreariness of the weather taking its toll on most, and some pondered the deaths of the goats as foreboding of what the coming winter could bring.
Isolde and Isadora left early to return to father, leaving me to walk alone to the Bergstrom's, crossing the log bridge over the stream feeding into the lake, and paused, looking into the water as ripples followed a frog. At Bergstrom's the stench of burning hair and meat betrayed what he had done with the remains of the goats and I forced myself to continue the walk.
Norris took my shawl, his fingers cold through the cloth over my shoulders and I sat at the table with his mother, her hands working the dough she was rolling into balls stuffed with bits of salted pork, apologizing it wasn't ham. We laughed together, pork welcome in any form, but she shook her head at my offer to help and I sat quietly across from her. Norris was overseeing the bonfire and after a moment his mother asked if I'd heard the tales of the women who could talk to beasts.
At my puzzled look she licked her lips and grinned, leaning forward on her elbows, her thick accent rolling the words. "Norris, he don't like such talk, but when I was little girl, there was long talk of häxa who could dance with the bears."
"Dance?" I echoed and she nodded eagerly at finding a new audience.
"Yah, they could talk to them as though they were men, and danced in the moonlight to make strong babies."
"Mother!" We both gaped at Norris' horrified exclamation, having not heard him come in, "Those stories are not fit for our guest."
At my puzzled look she licked her lips and grinned, leaning forward on her elbows, her thick accent rolling the words. "Norris, he don't like such talk, but when I was little girl, there was long talk of häxa who could dance with the bears."
"They're wonderful Norris," I objected patting the table beside my plate and after a moment he sat stiffly in his chair, straight-backed and giving his mother a long suffering look. I however was entranced.
It was nearing dark as I followed the narrow path, wishing I had taken the offered lantern, chuckling to myself at it being the only offered protection from my intended. In the grey light between dusk and dark I paused, breathing in the air, finally away from the stench of the bonfire. A tree swayed and I imagined it was the witch dancing in the moonlight, my breath catching sharply when she stepped out onto the path.
It was Isolde, heading towards mother's grave, hidden in the far reaches of the woods beyond our home, past the creek and rotten logs housing a beehive thick with honey. Her dark hair swung below her waist as she stepped lightly, hopping agilely along the roots and over fallen tree trunks.
She was humming softly as she floated along, and as I drew closer I could hear her calling out a name. She stopped suddenly and I ducked under a thick curl of ferns.
"Bernard, come to me." Her husky voice echoed around us and I felt my eyes widen as she twirled and held her arms out, the leaves shaking behind her as a dark shadow swayed, a lumbering bear stalking out of the night.
She knelt before it, her voice soft, but I heard her scold the animal for killing the goats, warning it, the animal grunting in response. I pressed my hand to my mouth, holding back any noise as I tried to scramble backwards undetected to run home.
She looked the same the next morning, even for creeping in as the morning was starting to rise. Isadora woke us all, singing we were sleeping the day away. The sun had broken through the grey and after helping father into his chair I joined Isolde on the porch, watching her pluck unwanted weeds from her plants potted in a variety of containers, including a ladies bonnet, the lace starting to rot away from the thread.
Her eyes met mine briefly. "Who was this hunter you spoke of?"
I shrugged, "I don't know really, a rumor."
"Rumors are dangerous," She smiled unexpectedly, "We must fit you for your dress." We both jumped at a crash from inside the kitchen and found Isadora kneeling over a broken plate her eyes red with tears, apologizing for the mess.
I helped her clean up the shards, surprised at her silence as her mother drew forth the sheet she kept her wedding dress wrapped in. I watched her long fingers caress the silk, imagining them again in the darkness touching the wiry hair of the bear and found myself falling to the floor.
"Fever." I heard her voice from afar, telling Althea who brought me a peppermint stick. Through fogged eyes I watched her hug Isolde, the two talking softly, while Isadora sat at the foot of our shared bed with red rimmed eyes, begging me for forgiveness. For what, she would not say.
The moon was high and bright. Restless, I tossed the covers aside. It had been a few days since I fell ill, and weak, I wanted to feel the cool air around my skin. Barefoot, the moss was ice against my skin, and I felt stronger than I had for a long time, recalling grimly Norris hadn't visited. I lamented again the choice made for me and I followed the path I remembered from before.
"Bernard." Isolde was calling again and I leaned against the wide trunk of a tree, suddenly weak and followed a pinpoint of light. As I drew closer it was the bright flame of a lantern and I dropped to my knees. The bear was there, with her, in the light and I held my throat to see them together, her white skin glowing against the hair, the heavy fur slick as she moaned and I gasped, horrified. Its great head turned, and I imagined it had a man's face, teeth bared, eyes as wild as the beast it was.
I ran, through branches tearing through my nightgown, clawing at me and to the door of a cabin I threw myself at, unable to scream as the door flung open. I fell into the arms of the hunter, his hair sticking out at odd angles as we tumbled into the cone of light from the lantern.
"What exactly did you see?" His voice was maddeningly calm, having settled me in a chair, he peered out the door before shutting it firmly and placing a mug of hot water laced with rum into my shaking hands. Sitting on the hearth, the crackling flames reached up around his shoulder as he stretched his legs out urging me to speak.
The bear was there, with her, in the light and I held my throat to see them together, her white skin glowing against the hair, the heavy fur slick as she moaned and I gasped, horrified. Its great head turned, and I imagined it had a man's face, teeth bared, eyes as wild as the beast it was.
I repeated again, slowly, the strange images, my hands wrapped tightly around the metal, ignoring the burning against my chilled skin, the gleam in his eyes somehow starting to calm the shaking.
"I've seen such a beast." He drew a knee up to prop his elbow, drinking his rum straight and I slipped off the chair to sit beside him. "I've been hunting one for such a long time."
He stretched his arm out, pulling back the sleeve to reveal a jagged scar running from his wrist to elbow. "The creature took my father, after my brother died, and left me this."
"Norris' mother said witches…" My voice caught and he laughed, teeth flashing.
"There's nothing of witchcraft that man cannot create, and your goat herder's mother is well aware of that." He shook his head and stood, reaching his hand down to pull me to my feet.
"Then who could create such a monster?" I shivered, stepping back from his warmth, nearly spilling the remains of my still warm drink, my senses returning and we stood for a moment before he straightened and reached for his thick coat, pulling it over my shoulders.
"Come, you should be home, before you're missed." He looked down his nose at me, the twinkle returning to his eyes, "Tell me, did you pick your goat herder?" I shook my head and he tightened the coat into a cloak, fastening the top bone button, his breath on my cheek before reaching for his rifle, the long barrel gleaming.
I followed him, the moon casting an eerie glow around his shoulders but it wasn't far from the cabin before the rum finally warmed me over. In the morning I would faintly remember being carried to the porch where he left me with whispers to stay away from the forest.
I spent the days watching Isolde but she was the same, her smiles to include Isadora who was growing quieter as the dress was fitted more and more to my form each passing evening. She and Althea were working on a wedding gift in secret while I pondered my fate.
The fourth night, a cow was found across the bridge, its blood staining the split logs, and curdling into the lake water. The hunter still hadn't shown himself, and I remained silent. Whispers floated around the services and when Isolde stood to speak, even I was taken by her soft concern to be faithful by staying strong and true. With our faith strong, this too would pass and we would see great things for our valley.
As darkness fell I waited for Althea at the stable as beckoned by a whisper in church, stretching out in the soft hay closing my eyes to take in the warm smell of the horses, their soft snorts and whickers singing to each other making me drift asleep. I woke with a start to the taste of licorice and kicked out at the looming figure above me, catching Caleb across the mouth with a strong slap, staggering to my feet. His eyes downcast, I breathed deeply, holding my hand out.
"I'm sorry Caleb, I told you before I don't wish for you; Althea…" He shook his head, looking away before handing me the shawl I had been laying on. I flew down the ladder and caught Althea coming into the back door of the livery with Isadora, both of them smiling to see me and grabbing my hands to take me to celebrate our last forbidden outing before I was to be married.
We went to the forest, my feet trusting them as I was blindfolded, their hands tight on my arms, laughing and teasing, our feet damp as we sloshed through an unfamiliar spring. Breathless I begged for rest only to be pulled harder, the two urging me it wasn't much further.
"We're here." Althea directed me to sit on a flat rock covered with a blanket, and yet I wasn't allowed to remove the blindfold, a glass of heated thick wine pressed into my hands and I drank as directed, the strong brew making my head swim.
I could hear them whispering, and I struggled to stay awake, puzzling over Isadora's hissing it wasn't time yet. Althea snapped back and I hiccupped, startled to hear a soft bleat of a goat, and they came to an agreement.
"We have a surprise for you dear sister." Isadora kissed my cheek and I smiled back, my arms too weak to protest as soft ribbon was wrapped around my wrists and I half-heartedly struggled as they were tied behind my back, laughing nervously.
"Are you going to cleanse my soul?" I dared to tease, my smile fading as they didn't reply. "Althea? Isadora, what are you doing?"
"You'll find out soon enough." Althea murmured, and spoke softly to Isadora. After a moment Isadora grew silent, before speaking lowly.
"It's time sisters." The blindfold was removed, and I blinked against the brightness of the moon to find I was sitting in a small clearing of scratched dirt. Althea stood barefoot next to a young goat, not yet bearing horns, a knotted cord tied around its jaw to keep it silent. Isadora was wearing my wedding dress, hair loose around her shoulders, and I stared at them both, unable to speak. Althea reached her hand out to Isadora and they danced towards me, cheeks flushed as they swung each other around the maypole, the goat tied to a heavy rock.
"Doesn't our sister look her best?" Althea beamed and I reeled back, looking between the two. "Surely you've figured this out, you can't be that innocent." Althea shook her head, her smile hardening. "Our father begat four children but mourns the loss of his only son." Her smile faded and her hand darted out, nearly knocking me from my seat on the rock as her slap drew blood from the inside of my mouth, sending my head ringing.
"But unlike my mother – I don't share. I know about Caleb and now you've stolen Norris from our sister." She hissed. Isadora knelt in front of me, steadying my shoulders and tipped my chin to meet her eyes, taking the blindfold and forcing it against my lips, tying it tightly as I ashamedly felt tears burn down my cheeks.
"This should have been my wedding, and it will be." She kissed the corner of my mouth and stood, "We're calling on Bernard to come take you, and grant our wishes." She pulled her hair aside and Althea's hands quickly helped her remove the dress as I begged.
"I know you know about mother; I too know she speaks with the bear; and after this – he'll talk with me." Isadora stepped out of the dress, her shift twisted around her narrow hips, while Althea followed suit, before turning to me. More wine was forced past the cloth in my mouth, my dress tossed aside, slit with a knife Althea easily brandished in her hands.
The goat was dragged forward, the blue moon high above us so bright I could see myself reflected in its eyes as it twisted its head. Althea unravelled the cord wrapped around the animal's mouth, and Isadora, much stronger than I ever knew, pulled me to my feet wrapping her arms around my shoulders, her chin digging into my throat.
"This should have been my wedding, and it will be."
She kissed the corner of my mouth and stood,
"We're calling on Bernard to come take you, and grant our wishes."
The blade flashed and the goat screamed, blood spraying us all, even as I kicked backwards, trying to twist away. Isadora pushed me aside raising her hands into the air and her voice ringing around the rocks.
"Bernard! Bernard I call upon you to grant this wish! Come to me as you do to Isolde…come Bernard." The dying goat drew its last breath and we heard the crashing of heavy branches being broken by the force of something strong.
Althea and Isadora pulled me between them, their hands shaking in excitement as the leaves began to tremble around us; Then all was still. "He's coming," Isadora breathed and dropped my arm to step away from us, peering into the reaches where the moon couldn't penetrate. "Bernard." She called her voice full of longing. When nothing came of her despair she faced us in confusion, "Bernard! I give you -," Her voice cut off and Althea stumbled backwards as the trees opened and the bear rose up behind Isadora. She whirled, arms spread apart, head tipped back and then she was gone, tossed aside with a strangled scream, crushed against the boulder as the beast charged with a roar. I screamed against the gag trying to run.
I slipped, the animal's breath hot over my back, slamming me to the ground. Althea stood transfixed before she began running and I closed my eyes against her screams. Trying to get to my feet, I half crawled using my shoulder, my hands tearing free from the ribbon, until the awful sounds stopped, and I pressed my face against the dirt, trying to not move. I could hear it shuffling along the ground and I choked out his name, pleading. The movement stopped, heavy breathing over my legs.
My hands gripped the dirt and as the hair brushed against my legs, a single gunshot ringing out and I lurched to my feet as Isolde burst from the trees, running past me to fall to her knees. The hunter reached for my hand, telling me not to look, and for years I would dream of Isolde sobbing over the body of her brother, the fur he wore to hide from the world draped over his twisted form.
Her eyes had lifted to the hunter, her voice hoarse, "The debt is not paid is it?" Her nightgown clung to her body, drenched in blood as she cradled the dying man in her arms, while I clung to the hunter. His hand gripped mine and after a long moment his fingers tightened.
"It can be. I came for him, not you."
They buried me with Isadora. We found Caleb while burying the past; trying to follow us he'd fallen, breaking his neck, clutching Althea's brooch she'd lost weeks ago. Her family never questioned their daughter running away with him to a new life, and he had no one to follow, to care he was gone. Isadora it was told had begged to join them, and I, it was told, had fallen to the bear.
Isolde mourned, as a mother should for losing two daughters and cared for father to pay her debt. She never belonged to us, she'd chosen father because of me, of how we looked alike, our small valley the perfect place to keep her forbidden twisted lover hidden, though she had met mother when they were little girls near the ocean, pretending they were sisters in play. When father let go, in the deep winter months, she sent me a package before disappearing into the night; a lone bear claw I wore on a leather string, to never forget, while my hunter kept us safe, and only in dreams did the bears come calling, to tap at my walls.
Lana Elizabeth Gabris currently lives in the heart of British Columbia with her floor to ceiling sagging bookshelves, along with her fiancé and their much loved dogs of various sizes. Her illustrations of flora have been published in several outdoor magazines across North America. Her fiction recently appeared in The Copperfield Review, Cowboy Jamboree, Peacock Journal and received an honorable mention from the Writers of the Future (Q4 2016). www.lanaelizabethgabris.com