The Bear in the Tree, Rebecca Harrison
They don’t talk to me, so I sit in the demon tree. The black leaves tickle me and grush to ash on me. Ash goes mothish round me and flies high as the grey tree goes. Higher till it gets lost in the sky. I tilt my head back and watch it. And I feel flying, too. There’s a roar from the branches. They shake. Bear. His face comes up in the tree bark. Big and fierce and nose and teeth. He roars again and it shivers me like ash leaves. And I feel I’m part of the tree.
“Leof,” Bear roars. I put my hand by his face, and he sniffs loud. His nostrils go big. I know he can smell my Ma plucking the duck, sneezing at fluff feathers, blood spattering her apron. He can smell my Pa and his boots stomping in pig mess. He can smell my little sister, Otha, and the owlet that tucks in her blanket. He can smell the stone my littler sister, Ardith, lays under and her bones and how small they are and the crack on her head. And he can smell me: the nettle sting bumps on my arms and the daisies I trod flat running from boys who spat on me. Bear can’t see, so I tell him what I see. I tell him the singing places in the church and the wolf ways over the village wall. The branches roar. I take duck bones from my pocket, all greasy and meat-stuck. I hold them to his jaw, and he takes them with teeth. He turns them round and round in his tree-bark mouth. He doesn’t have a belly now. He lets the bones drop. They fall light. The branches growl.
“Pa will cut the sow soon. I’ll bring you her rib,” I say.
“Leof,” Bear grumbles. His voice comes out of high branches and shumbles down to me. “He put me in the tree. He sang a song to seal me. My belly, my claws, my bite, my paws.” The tree is trembling. Ash and ash fall on me. I cough. “He put me in the tree. He sang a song to seal me. My belly, my claws, my bite, my paws.” His face comes up high and high in the tree bark. His non eyes are wide and wide. He gets loud and loud. “He put me in the tree. He sang a song to seal me. My belly, my claws, my bite, my paws.”
Ma puts my plate down. I have the scrappy bits. Otha has a juicy piece, all grease oozing, and I watch her eat slow. She sneaks bits under the table to her owlet. Pa looks at the owlet but won’t look at me. I nibble meat off bones, and I think Ardith is bones. And I look sharp and smiling at Ma. Her gaze darts away. She sees me with the rock in my hand. She sees me crouching. She sees Ardith bleeding. Ardith with her wind fluff hair. Ardith with her pinch red cheeks. Ardith with her corn dolly in her fat grip. Ma put the dolly with her in the ground.
Ma tucks Otha to sleep. They don’t look at me. The owlet is in the blanket. It meep meeps. Otha holds it all gentle. It blinks. Otha’s face goes like a candle.
“Tell me a story, Ma,” she says.
“Hear the bats out there, Otha? It’s time you slept.” Ma’s face is raw tired.
“Just one, Ma.”
“Borden of the valley of bears.” Ma sighs, and rocks on her fat haunches. “When Borden came home from the hunt, fire met him. His town was ash. His love was burnt black. He put her in the ground. He took his spear and his rope. For the Grey Bear was roar and fire and earth that shook and sky that bent. These were the burning times. When men of belly and fury hid in woods and lakes. When women of heart and stride wept in black fields. But Borden did not hide. Borden did not weep. And where the Grey Bear went, so did he.” She pauses to look at Otha. Otha’s eyes are bright with the story. It makes her look littler, like Ardith.
“Borden went to the high places where the ash blew fast. And he went to the lowlands where the rivers ran black. And when he met the Grey Bear, they fought. Bear burnt his skin to splitting. But he put his spear in Bear’s throat. And he took his rope and tied Bear to a burning tree. And he sang. The Grey Bear sank into the tree. And will be there as long as the rope stays tight.” She smiles all weary. “Now, get to sleep.”
I sit in the demon tree. Black leaves go to ash on me. I see rope deep in the bark. I dig it with my fingers. Grey bark flakes off. Ash falls. Branches roar. Bear comes. The rope is in my hands. I have Pa’s knife. I cut at the rope. Branches roar and roar. The rope breaks. The black leaves all fall. I jump down. Ground hurts me. The tree splits. Bear crawls out. All grey and nose and teeth and eyes. He roars. Ash spews from his jaw. He is house big and wall big and tree big. He looks at me with black eyes. He sees me.
“Leof,” he says. His breath is ash on me. He turns. Then he is gone. I stay by the split tree, but I hear cries and crackling and I smell meat. I wait until the village goes quiet, then I go home. The roof is gone, and the walls are black. I see Otha’s owlet all black. Then I see Otha. Her skin is split. She smells of pig cooked juicy. “Leof.” Bear. I turn. He lowers his head to me. I climb on his shoulders. I push my hands in his grey fur. It’s soft in my fingers. Ash is soft in the wind. I hold on. And Bear walks out and across and far and onwards. And the world goes to ash around us.
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count.