An Irish Setter broke from the tree cover on the side of the mountain highway. It never occurred to Lizzie that it wasn’t a dog. “It didn’t even cross my mind, Betsy,” she told her sister, later. “Though, it should have. God knows, Ben put us on the far side of nothing out here.”
Its fur was a rich, auburn red with golden-blonde highlights and shone in the syrupy, early morning sunlight. The animal labored its way up the overgrown slope toward the scenic highway. She calculated queasily that, at her current speed, the dog and she would soon meet. She slowed her pace and shaded her eyes with her hand, examined the animal. It had a plodding step and its shoulders hunched in a way that made it look deformed. Its head swung low. It hadn’t yet looked her way.
She was almost certain that she’d gone unnoticed and that the animal would cross the highway without being a problem, but then it changed direction. It was coming toward her. Lizzie slowed again, dropped to an uncertain walk.
Why won’t these hillbillies keep their animals at home? The dog turned to face her squarely and shambled down the shoulder of the road. Its shoulders lumped and pistoned, its great head metronomed back and forth under its lumbering ursine gait and suddenly–suddenly she recognized that this was no dog. This was a bear. She was no longer in the city and this was no pet. This was a true to life, in the wild, no fence or gate, no protection, no help, don’t-get-near-its-cubs, don’t-piss-it-off, bear.
She froze. No fear, not yet, just an elevated heart rate and a crashing sense of the alien. It’s a bear. Oh God, it’s a bear.
The animal stopped ten feet from her. It’s snout wrinkled back as it lifted its nose, tasting the air. It gazed up at her from its low-slung brow. Its eyes were liquid brown orbs, expressive and inquisitive. A heavy scar wove its way across the beast’s face, from above the left eye, across the long snout and down the right side of its muzzle. It was an old wound, puckered. The scar pulled the bear’s maw up exposing white pointed teeth. It snorted through its gapped fangs and tilted its head at her. The size of the animal was overwhelming. It smelled of old forests and mold, of the wild.
It wasn’t doing anything. Simply staring.
Her right foot scraped back on the pavement. She turned, maintaining eye contact until the last moment and began to run back the way she had come. She jogged a short distance, shuffled to a halt and turned back.
The bear had not moved.
Their eyes locked again. The birds quieted and the road, the trees, even the wind seemed to have stilled.
The bear lifted itself onto its hind legs, a front paw waving for balance. There was no groan, no growl, just a silent surge of power from the hips and shoulders that lifted the animal’s head out of the tree shadow and into the clear morning sunlight. Its auburn scalp flared in the glow; the scar stood out like the mark of an old evil.
It beckoned to something inside of her.
The woman and the bear inspected each other. The moment stretched and then the beast shook its great head and lowered itself to the ground. The spell was broken.
Lizzie looked down, confused, and then back to the bear. It had taken a step toward her. It took another, slow, hesitant step. She stood uncertainly, staring as the bear approached and then, abruptly, the fear crashed over her like a wave.
She ran, flat-out and away, wind rushing in her ears, small whimpering noises erupting from between her lips. Away and down the road past the Moondust Motor Inn, almost to Our Lady of the Mountains, she ran and ran. She was hardly aware of her exhausted leg muscles, of the great gasping sobs of air that she drug between her teeth. She ran, afraid to look back; only looking forward, until the fear grew too great, until she was certain that the bear was right behind her, that the scar-exposed teeth were reaching to close on her leg, the great claws whistling the wind to slash through the taut skin and tight muscles of her exposed back, until the certainty had grown rigid and fixed in her mind that death was on her heels and then–then she was forced to look back.
The bear was gone.
She staggered to a stop. The birds sang again. A breeze blew the humid summer air in her face. The bear was gone. She felt sad and alone.
Ben arrived home that evening. He interrupted dinner with a clashing intrusion of noise and piled baggage. His loud voice echoed through the “Grand Huntsman’s” portico as he barked into his cell phone.
“Just tell ‘em I said so! Believe me–believe me, Larry. Yes! Tell ‘em! Look, if you have to—
Remember that account I told you not to touch? Yeah? You can use that if you have to. Only if you have to–have to. Got it? Seriously, have to.” He waited for the response. “Alright, later.”
The two girls, Mary, six and Elizabeth, eight, leapt and squirmed around him, tugged his pants legs, grabbed for his free arm, his hand. He did his best to hug them one-armed, gave them air kisses and held a one-moment finger up to Lizzie when she approached.
Always the big shot. He can’t hang up the phone before he walks through the door? Gone seven days and this conversation has to happen, now?
Their oldest, Benjamin, stood to the side, arms folded protectively around his slender chest, eyes anxiously on his father. His eyes recorded all of his father’s words, deeds. Lizzie snarled in quiet disgust.
She turned away and returned to the kitchen, finished her meal alone. The others moved through the house taking their racket with them.
Seven-thousand square feet and I can’t even find peace here. She scraped away the leftovers, balanced the dishes in the sink for the maid and retired to her porch swing out front. Darkness had fallen and moths battled around the copper light fixtures. Beating their brains out over nothing.
Cicadas chirred, the swing chains creaked as she swung, one foot curled under her leg, the other kicking off against the flagged stone floor. Lights in the house began to turn off. Automatic timers, motion-sensors. Money at its finest. She palmed her remote, switched off the front porch light, and sat in the dark, listening to the insects drone on. She hoped Ben would go on to bed. She hoped he’d leave her alone if he couldn’t find her.
The front screen creaked open, and tentative footfalls came through the door. “Lizzie,” he said.
He moved toward the swing, moved as if to sit, but did not. “You okay Lizzie? Your head?”
“It’s fine.” She kept her irritation from her face. “How are you?”
“Tired. Been a rough one…” He looked into the darkness. “You okay?”
“You already asked me that, Ben. Do you even listen to yourself?”
“No, no. You’re right, of course. Didn’t mean to repeat myself. You just seem…” He shrugged and searched her face.
She locked her expression down. She wouldn’t let him see how she felt. She turned her eyes on the forest across the darkling lawn.
He grimaced and turned away. Perhaps looking to see what she was staring at. “Things will get better. There’s just a lot burning at work right now. I’m really worried…well. I think I can have this fire out and put to bed by next month. I think.”
“It must be serious. Paper kingdoms do tend to burn quickly.” She watched him from the corner of her eye, saw him look back at her, and saw the quick annoyance flash through his eyes.
“Seriously,” he said, “we’re just in a real tricky patch. I know the business isn’t that important to you, but, once it’s over–”
“Don’t do me any favors, Ben,” she interrupted, “just do what you have to do. I won’t get in your way.” Her teeth closed with a snap.
“Alright, well…” He sighed. “It’s quiet out here. I miss this when I have to go.”
“No, Ben,” she chuckled, “it’s quiet out here when I’m alone. It was quiet Ben. Was. This ‘conversation’ is making it not quiet. That’s how it works. Noise cancels out quiet, don’t you think?” She tilted her wine glass up. Polite. Always be polite.
A frown settled on his lips like it belonged there, like a dog on a well-worn rug.
Where do you get off? You low-class wanna-be. You leave me in this damned backwater, flitting around the world, then come home and make the kids love you all over again and now you want to talk. Just when I was finding some peace. “What did you need from me, Ben?” She liked repeating his name. It made her feel safely distant from him.
“Nothing, Lizzie.” He shook his head like a punch-drunk prizefighter. “I just wanted to talk is all. I feel like, I don’t know…like we’re losing ground or something…”
She started to respond, a cutting retort on her tongue, ready to chase him away with his tail between his legs, but stopped with lips parted, words forgotten. She leaned forward, searching the forest with her eyes. Something had moved at the edge of the wood line.
“What is it?” he turned to look.
“A…” she hesitated, “bear, I think.” The humping shape rose from the brush then slid back into the forest, like a shadow moving between worlds. She thought it had been looking at her, maybe, had been watching her for a while. She pulled a lock of auburn hair away from her face. Yes. He’s been watching me.
“What? A bear?” he laughed, “bullshit, you’ve been drinking too much of that wine. There’s no bear around here.”
“I saw one this morning,” she snapped. “No farther than you are from me right now.”
“When I was running, out on the highway.”
“Seriously? You saw a black bear? This morning?”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“So now you believe there are bears around here?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, of course there are bears in the Ozarks. There are a lot of wild things out here, but I didn’t think, you know, not up by the house and the highway and all. I guess I just didn’t–”
“Yeah. Well I saw one this morning. Not that far from here. Two, maybe three miles and I was this close to it,” her hand waved back and forth between them. “It could have killed me and I didn’t have anybody to call for help. I was all alone. This close!”
“Wow,” he said with a slowly growing smile. “I can’t believe you saw a black bear. That’s–that’s incredible.”
He looked out into the dark. Perhaps, taking her seriously now. Now that it was too late, he was looking. The bear was gone. She could tell that the beast had retreated, had pulled back into the forest. She knew it was still watching, though. Measuring.
“It wasn’t black,” she said. “It was red.”
“Are you sure? They told me there weren’t anything but black bears in the Ozarks.”
“I guess you don’t know everything do you?” She refilled her wine glass. “It had red hair, like—like an Irish Setter.”
“Like yours then?” He reached out to pull gently, familiarly on a strand of her long titian hair.
She jerked her head away from his questing fingers.
“That’s amazing.” His hand and his smile dropped. “A redheaded bear. Who knew? You sure it wasn’t a dog?”
“This close, Ben!” She shrieked. He doesn’t believe me. The wine slopped over the glass’ rim. He never believes me. “This close!”
“Okay, okay, sorry. I believe you. I believe.” He backed away from her.
“It was a big, red bear, Ben–” She froze.
She sensed the bear in her mind. It was leaving. It retreated down the slope and back into the deep holler on the other side of the property. It was a feeling not unlike pulling a tooth, or plucking a shoot from the ground. A smart rough tug, followed by a diminishing suction until… the weight of the bear’s presence was gone from her mind. She decided not to tell Ben about her strange connection to the bear. He wouldn’t believe her anyway. Even if he did, he wouldn’t understand and, really, he didn’t deserve to. She ran her finger in a line down her face, left brow to right cheek tracing the scar, deep in thought.
“It’s really late. Come to bed?” He had a strange abstracted look on his face. She thought it might be worry, but knew it couldn’t be. Ben was only interested in Ben.
“I’ll be there in a while. I don’t like having sex when you still stink of airports and taxis.”
“I wasn’t asking for sex. I was…” His lips pursed. He took a deep breath, released it and turned away to the dark. “Okay, I’ll see you in a few minutes? Don’t stay up too long.”
I’ll stay up exactly as long as I want. “Good night.”
He stood looking at her for a moment longer, and then disappeared through the screen door.
She went back to swinging, pushing off with one foot. She pushed and pushed and searched for the bear with her mind. Sometimes she thought she caught a fleeting glimmer of warmth, of a heartbeat.
She dozed off. The bear visited her in the night. It towered over her where she lay curled on the porch swing. It opened its great mouth in a roaring yawn and spoke to her with the sound of tectonic plates grinding. The words were ancient and incomprehensible. They vibrated and echoed in her ears and passed straight into her mind. The smell of earth, of the cave and the beast’s musk, the animal healthiness of its shaggy coat and powerful limbs washed over her. She listened enraptured to the deep vibrato. She rose from the swing and embraced the bear, buried her face in its warm, silken chest. Felt its heavy paws rest upon her back, embracing her in return, enwrapping her in safety. They reached an agreement, the bear and she. It taught her something, something profound and freeing.
She woke when the daylight peeked over the tree line and flooded the porch with morning light. It was just a dream. She could not sense that strange tickling presence of the beast in her mind. No doubt, that mental connection, that phenomenon, that aberration, had also been just a fancy of the night before.
She picked up the empty bottles of wine, stretched her back stiffly and carried them inside. Her eyes felt gritty but her spirit felt rested, peaceful and, somehow, triumphant.
That evening at dinner, Ben told the children that he had to leave again in the morning. They groaned and asked, why, why, why, why? He looked to her for help. As if, she cared. She couldn’t wait for him to be gone. She picked at her plate, a poor Fettucine Alfredo; these Arkansans simply could not grasp Italian. She refused to make eye contact. Let him defend himself.
“Welllll…” he said slowly. “I don’t want to burden you with grown up things and…” he paused for a moment, looking at her again.
He’s getting ready to lie. She nibbled at a crust of Italian bread. It was tasteless.
“I,” he continued, “definitely don’t want you to worry, because everything’s okay, but…” He did that circular motion with his arm that she had come to hate so much. That proprietary encompassing-of-the-world motion that told everyone that he was the head honcho, the chief, the owner of all he surveyed. “This has all got to be paid for and…medical bills and…well, the business isn’t doing very well, right now.”
She snapped her eyes up. Liar.
“I told your Mom last night,” he went on.
Young Benjamin wrapped his thin arms around his thin chest and gave his mother a troubled look, looked to his father as if he wanted to say something. The girls listened, playing with their food.
“I told her,” Ben continued, “that this will all be over next month. I should be home a lot more often than I have been.”
“Promise?” asked Elizabeth in her best little girl voice. The voice that she’d outgrown. It set Lizzie’s teeth on edge hearing her.
“Promise,” he replied, then mumbled, “One way or another,” and took a heaping forkful of flat noodles and shoved them in his mouth.
After dinner, Lizzie cleared the table. She piled the dirty dishes precariously on either side of the granite and brass custom sink that she’d found online. Twelve thousand dollars and change, but worth every penny, really. All three basins were full to overflowing. She made a mental note to address the maid; this was happening far too often.
After he’d led the children in capturing lightning bugs, after they’d made a second mess with sloppy ice cream sundaes, after more rowdiness, more disruption, she managed to break away and take flight to their master bedroom. Once there, in the quiet again, she ran her hand over the satin sheets and sighed. Thought back to the lie Ben had told at dinner and felt the old simmer of anger building. I am so tired of covering up for him. I will not be party to lying to the children.
He entered, disruptive as usual, and began rummaging through his dresser drawers, pulling shirts, pants, jackets from the closet, zipping and unzipping suitcases, rattling bags, whistling something, something, poppy and silly. Packing to be away. He shoved his nappy toothbrush, bent collar stays, hair gel and donut pillow into his carryon.
She retreated to the ensuite with a silent sneer, took a long leisurely shower, soaped herself and ran her hands over her body. Thought of the bear, the warm musk smell. The feeling of strength. She stayed behind the steamed glass doors until the water grew cold, until the light went off in the bedroom. She took her time.
“You know damned well that my inheritance paid for this place.” She hissed at him. The moon shone in the window.
He jumped. “What? Uhh..What?” He sat up in the bed, ground the sleep from his eyes.
She flipped on the light.
He lifted a hand to protect his eyes from the sudden glare. “Dammit, Lizzie–”
“I said, you know damned well that my inheritance paid for this place.” She knotted her silk robe tight around her waist. “You know that you don’t have to work. I won’t be a party to your lies, Ben. If you don’t want to be here for the kids and me, that’s fine! But, stop lying. We deserve better!”
He shook his head. “Inheritance? What are you talking about?
“My inheritance you–you cretin. The one my father left me, the one that paid for this place, the one that you’ve been spending so freely from for years.”
He stared at her hang-jawed.
“Shut your mouth, Ben,” she shoved him by the shoulder. “You look like a trout.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“You thought I didn’t know, Ben. Didn’t you? But I know.”
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking–”
“Of course not, but I do, don’t I? You’ve been slowly stealing from me for years. You’re just doing what you always do, Ben. You’re making things right for you, Ben. How much is left, Ben? Can you even tell me that? Do I have anything left at all? Can I even afford to leave you?” Her voice rose. She clenched her fists. Her nails cut into the soft skin of her palms.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What inheritance? You don’t have an inheritance.”
“My father’s!” she shrieked. “All that money he left me.”
“Lizzie,” he drew the sheets up over his small gut. “Your father and mother are still alive. They live an hour from here. He’s not rich. He works for the railroad. What are you talking about?”
“Lizzie,” he reached out to her.
He’s doing it, again. She slapped his hands away and fled to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. She fumbled out her cell and called her sister. She answered on the first ring.
Lizzie heard Ben speaking to someone in the bedroom. She hushed Betsy, and pressed her ear to the door.
“I’m sorry to call so late, Doctor,” she heard. “I don’t know, I’ve been gone a while…” Betsy said something and she missed his next words, then heard him say: “Not tomorrow? No, she’s not sleeping” His voice came and went. She caught snatches. “Parents dead,” “Keep her for a while, I think is best maybe…yes…not right…she’s just not right. I’ve never seen her this bad…no, not the sister thing again, I don’t think so…” “I’ll try to get her out of the bathroom.” Then he stopped speaking and a knock came on the door. “Lizzie?” He repeated her name, again and again, pleaded with her, pounded till the door rattled in its frame.
She kept her thumb on the door’s lock, her body solidly against the wood.
“Oh God Betsy, he’s trying to have me committed! He’s going to take it all, everything!”
Ben raved through the door, threats, and recriminations.
She relayed it all to Betsy who murmured words of encouragement, shock, horror, dismay. She wrote down everything she heard, everything she was told, vowed to call the police at the first sign of violence.
They listened in twinned anxiety, waiting. “It’s going to be okay,” Betsy said. “I had no idea he was such a beast. I’m here. It’s going to be okay. Oh God, I had no idea. Your whole inheritance. I can’t believe it. Oh, God.”
Lizzie held out until the voices went silent. Betsy drifted off. Ben, thank God, quiet. She slumped to a flank on the hard parquet bathroom floor, cracked the door and peeked through. He had fallen asleep on the bed. His expensive cell phone lay by his outstretched hand.
She crept around the bed, went to the window and looked out over the lawn. The forest was dark, darker where it fell off into the holler. Something moved at the edge of the woods.
She placed her hands palm first onto the glass, rested her forehead between them and reached for the bear with her mind. The animal exploded into her consciousness, overcoming her. It poured into her soul and filled her nostrils with the sudden smell of fallen timber, pine needles and old leaves. The taste of grubs and rabbit danced in her mouth. She sensed the spring of building and bunching muscle in flank and shoulder, the taut power of its jaws. She searched the lawn with her eyes and saw the beast lumbering across the manicured grass. It looked up. She saw herself in the window through the bear’s eyes, a pale figure, deep red hair, scarred face, silken robe askew.
She watched herself, watching herself, watching the bear. It grew closer and closer.
She left Ben sleeping in the bedroom, descended the long curving stairs and crossed through the house, until she reached the kitchen.
She stood by the back door. The bear raised itself on the other side of the latticed glass and placed a great paw on the center pane. Its mouth opened in a hungry and silent snarl. Its scar that matched her own leaped out angry and red in the porchlight. She looked back up through the house, thinking. She pictured her scheming husband, lying in his bed, dreaming of seeing her locked away, again. She looked back to the bear. There were flames in its eyes.
She pulled a butcher knife from the chopping block and opened the back door.
The bear’s shoulders rattled the doorframe as it brought the wild and the dark into the house. She followed it up the stairs and into the bedroom.
Wild things weren’t meant to be caged.
Christopher Farris is a student at the University of Arkansas Graduate English program. Publication credits include Fairlight Books, Proud to Be: Writing by America’s Warriors, Military Experience and the Arts, and Coffin Bell Journal’s Philia / Phobia issue. He is also in prepublication with the Wild Rose Press.