The Great Bear: part 7

by jamesmerolla

Wayne opens his eyes in the dark early morning. He feels Margot’s arm pressed warmly against his. He realizes he had slept through the night, and it seems she had too.

He remembers the clarity he felt the night before.  The knife peeks over the edge of the nightstand.

Margot’s breathing is heavy and peaceful, and the smell of her hair is on his pillow. He watches her sleep, holding his breath for fear of waking her.

She peels her arm from his and gently drapes it over him.

They cling to each other, listening to the sounds of their breathing, understanding each other, rattling the front gate of the little house they used to love in.

There are lost memories in keepsakes at the bottoms of sock drawers and in dusty photo albums, but the sense of touch is like dropping a needle on a spinning record. The memories spill out of the whispery hiss of skin against skin, and echo in the cobweb corners of that little house with the smiling windows.

On a dreary Sunday morning in March, Margot and Wayne relive their life together, and they are at peace with their fate. They know they can’t change anything. This is where their lives have delivered them, on a gravel road in the middle of a muddy field, and they have to find shelter before they freeze.

He goes to the window to look for Laura.  But she isn’t there, just the gray morning sopped with rain.

It doesn’t matter, because now he looks past her into the darkness where secrets die. He wonders if she knows that. He wonders if she knows he’ll never confess to her what he’s bitten back for so long.

He thinks of her smiling in a bright yellow day, on a breezy summer hill, splashed with violets and thorny grass, the place where he loves her, a place he has hidden himself waiting for her to find him.

Margot watches Wayne finish packing. She feels a dreamy spin in her head. She has a deep familiarity with this moment, deeper than mere déjà vu. She has found herself in the story she heard every day through the silence.

Her feelings are like cold black water, slipping through her fingers and breaking like waves against her dizzy head. She sits down on the bed, noticeably shaken.

Wayne rushes to her. He wraps his arms around her and smells her hair.

     I never thought I’d be here. I never thought I’d be this person.

     Neither did I.

She looks up at him, tears falling off her cheeks. She huddled somewhere far off in his eyes, the safe place where she fell in love with a young man, bright and unafraid.  She has squeezed the color out of her last remaining glimpses of him.

     When you’re out there, don’t stop. Keep going until you find something. And don’t think of me.

Wayne kisses her one last time and slips his pack onto his shoulders.

He stands at the doorway waiting for her to stop him. But her eyes stay fixed on a curious knot in the floor. There is no reason to stop him anymore.

This is the moment he has given himself too. He is at its mercy.

He lowers his head, and closes the door behind him, goodbye.

Laura is watching out her window, sipping her coffee. She’s been standing there all morning, waiting for Wayne to pass.

She feels bothered and confined by this waiting, annoyed with her obligation to confront a fool.

She had such hopes for Wayne. He was better than this decision.  She remembers his strength, his confidence. He wasted it.

He flashes past her window, and she rushes to the door.

     Wayne!

     Laura, I didn’t see you there.

     I’ve been waiting for you all morning.

     Why?

     Just to talk. I would have been on the porch this morning, but I wanted to hear your words.

     What do you mean?

     You and I have been having conversations every morning through that window since you and Margot moved in. I knew you were going to do something soon, and now here you are headed for the trees.

Wayne appears embarrassed.

     You saw me?

     You didn’t do a good job of hiding. What is in the trees, Wayne?

     How do you know where I’m going?

     Margot told Allan last night.

     I should have known.

     Don’t be hurt. You knew this for a long time.

     Margot knows I don’t hold anything against her. She did what she had to do, just like me.

     You think you have to do this?

     I just want things to be right.

     Marching towards death doesn’t make anything right.

     I’m going forward, we all are.

     Into what?

     I don’t know….anything but this. For me, I think if I just break everything down to its simplest form, maybe if I just survive for a while I’ll come out the other side.

     If you want to get back to only feeling the instinctual need to survive you should go home. You’ve been living that way for many years already.

     That isn’t living. Margot and I, we…….I have to do something. You know I do.

     Yes, but I was hoping you wouldn’t do something stupid like this. I was hoping you wouldn’t find the knife.

     Why did you give me the knife? This is one of your games. You knew this would happen.

     I knew everything that would happen, except for what you’d choose to do. I gave you the knife as a warning of the darkness at the end of your decent.

     Someday you’ll get tired of toying with people, Laura. You’ll be where I am soon.

     You might be right. But then again, you think you’re doing this for all of us.

     I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just reacting with instinct now, hoping for something to happen.

     No one knows what they’re doing, Wayne. We’re all terrified. We all want to write our name in the dirt and hope a few people see it before it’s gone. Doing this doesn’t make you more permanent.

     You should have tried to stop me sooner.

     And betray my faith in you?

The rain smacks of kisses against the sidewalk.

     I am watching you now, with fear in your eyes, but there’s something deeper. I can only guess its desperation, real desperation. I’ve never felt that, but when I do I’ll see your face exactly the way it is now, and it will mute everything I ever thought of you. You were supposed to leave something more behind than just a face.

     What if I come back? What if I make it out?

     You would have to do something extraordinary in order to come back. And this is exactly why I hoped you wouldn’t find the knife. Because you think it’s a chance worth taking. It seems easier than the other choices, right? Well, if you think you can come back after a few days, having found some answer that had previously dodged you. You’re wrong.

     I don’t have a plan in all of this, Laura. I’m just doing the only thing I can do. The only thing I still have is my body, everything else is rotten. There is no other choice.

     Yes there is. You can go home and keep living with the rest of us. You’ll get old and forget about your pain. Life is survival, and you make with it what you can.

     That’s not good enough for any of us.

     Well, pardon me for trying to stop you from nailing yourself to the cross.

     I’m just trying to write my name in the dirt.

     Just remember, the longer you’re in there, the further you get from here.

     I know, and when you remember my face, try to remember it was a peaceful desperation.

     That’s what frightens me the most.

He tries to comfort her with a crack of a smile.

     Be careful, Wayne.

He gathers her in his sight, one last vision burned into his memory, before he slips into the cold morning.

Quietly, in the shady recesses of her mind, a mouse scurries. It searches the decaying ruins where she once loved him.

When Wayne enters the woods, he smells the familiar breath of winter, and all his heroes are dead.

He travels with the basic provisions, water, something to sleep in, a little food, and fire.

The knife is on his hip, it is not a mere provision, it is attuned to his senses.

He loves the sound of the cold rain popping like firecrackers against his survival poncho.

Memories of his father are searching through the fog.

He was always told he looked like his father.

He feels ashamed.

The air is thick enough to carry perfume.

Spring is near.

Spring, like ivy, lush and green, clinging to warm summer brick.

Spring, like muddy front yards plagued with sad snowmen.

Spring, with hope it comes.

He sees deer tracks along his path.

He follows the hooves to an uncertain end.

He wonders who would be proud of him.

The narrow path winds deeper into the woods, where the trees lurch with sad faces.

The sun can’t be found. It’s under the blankets hiding.

He likes to feel the mud pull on his boots as he slogs through the deep. For a moment he thinks of himself on a muddy path to war.

When it gets dark, he’ll probably think of Margot. He’ll miss her when he’s cold. When he knows he’s alone.

Right now, he has his pride to whisper in his ear. He is somewhere he never imagined, alone, cold, wet, and miserable, and he can walk all day. He is warmed by his defiant fear.

He plows through the forest, breathing in rhythm to the song stuck in his head, no force greater than a man who stopped considering what he has to lose.

But the footing is untrue, and his boots are getting heavy. The cold is rooting into his bones, and the rain is as methodical as a thumping hammer.

He wonders if he’ll be able to start a fire.

He’s getting hungry, and wishes he was dry. His pruned, wet fingers are numb.

There must be a dry place to breathe, out of the relentless rain.

He wants a bed of dry dirt under a lurching tree, a tree he might even be tempted to sleep under for a little while.

He sees ahead of him, atop a steep wall of rock and gnarly roots, the woods are cut with a sliver of pine trees.

Under the great pines it will be dry. It will smell like the sappy memories of his childhood, warm, and dry.

The climb is full of rocks like fists, punching him back as he struggles up the hill. He curses, and growls with every slip and bloodied knuckle.

But the pines will be dry.

The rocky wall won’t let him rest. It keeps grinding against his shins, standing steeper with every blow against his worried legs.

The rain sounds like laughter against the knotted stones.

The climb continues, sapping him of his wits and direction. His breathing is labored, and his muscles are worked past their limits, warning of an imminent collapse.

The pines better be dry.

He crawls for the last several feet, his body beaten and raw. His swollen elbows and knees dig inch by inch until he’s close enough to wrap his arms around one of the pines and hold on for a little while.

The grove overlooks a small thorny valley below. Fog spins up from the distance like sleepy gray wisps of hair. The trees in the valley are clean and renewed by the rain.

Trees seem to stand prouder on days like this. As Wayne, slips in and out of consciousness he begins to understand their stubborn need for each other.

After several hours of cold sleep he is able to finally drink from his canteen. He can feel the life slowly pumping back into his muscles.  But, his legs won’t start working again until after dark, and he needs to start a fire now.

He searches for whatever dry material he can find on his belly, fistfuls of pine needles, slivers of dead branches, and clumps of yellow grass. They’ll all burn quickly.

With a small fire he regains enough feeling in his extremities to hobble through the grove for wood to get him through the night.

Once the fire is hot enough, he takes off his clothes to dry them. His muscles loosen their grip, and his soggy bones dry against the heat of the flames.

He feels the unforgiving earth beneath his feet, as he stands, arms crossed, looking out over the valley, still lit with a purple smudge of dusk. He is just a man. No one is looking for him. He is among the trees, alone, together.

Margot lives in flashes now. They jolt him with filtered memories of a warm bed, careless love, and secrets no one knows. He wants to see her again. He wishes he could define their unhappiness, and where it grew from. He wishes they knew each other better.

He sees himself swaying in the wind with the pines, such cold solitude and strength, but without meaning.

He doubts everything.

The wind shifts driving the cold through him, forcing him to move closer to the fire.

It finally lets up after Wayne has eaten a meager dinner, and is alone with the rummages of the dark.

He thinks he hears a river nearby. He’ll follow its sound in the morning.

The valley is now empty space on this moonless night. It can possess any horror Wayne can imagine. He looks into the black. The black doesn’t respond. He pokes the fire and refuses to look again.

The sound of rain drops slipping through the pines and intermittently tapping on his tent is oddly comforting in the morning.

He wishes he could sleep there until summer.

The fire is now a pile of smoldering coals. It angers with every rain drop that hits it.

He can’t hear the river over the rain. He guesses it was east.

Into the valley he goes, his whispers singing with fear.

The branches graze him like the outstretched arms of lovers, as he plods through the narrow valley, bullish against the rain, towards the river, a flickering candle.

He pictures the water looking blue, and bordered by green berry bushes. He imagines all the places it must lead, sleepy river villages, and faces unfamiliar. No one will care who he is. No one will ask.

But something is agitated in the woods. It is screaming over the tree tops, the unmistakable sound of an angry river.

He approaches it, feeling small in its furious presence. It’s wicked and gnarled, daring Wayne to get closer. He watches a great pine reach to him in vain as it floats past.

It is useless, too riled to feed from or follow. There is no way around it either. He decides to head north, and maybe he’ll lose the storm there.

He tries to keep the river in earshot, hoping he’ll find something.

Another cut of pines sits atop the north face of the valley. It would be another climb, but the hill doesn’t appear to be as steep and jagged.

As he manages his way up the more forgiving hill, he realizes he would have died if the climb was like yesterday. His thoughts get darker.

He rests his back against the first tree he finds at the top. He watches the river cut through the valley, as ferocious and violent as a thumping heart, every life in its grasp quivering before it.

On the other side of the grove he finds towering monuments to the forest, burnt, and gutted, pines, with chests puffed and proud, on their charred mantle. Among the monuments are thickets of blackberry bushes.  They tease Wayne with their fruitless branches.

The rain did not follow him into the dead forest. It is quiet, and hollow. His senses feel utterly aware of something. He grips his knife and pulls it from his hip as he inches through the woods.

A guttural moan tumbles through the dead trees and breaks against Wayne’s chest. The air escapes his lungs with a loud gasp.

There is a heavy presence yards away from him. It disturbs the earth and calls out its warnings.

It is an old bear, bitter and spiteful. It stares Wayne down as it ceremoniously circles the burnt remains of a pine, like a dog.

Its massive head perks up as Wayne starts to carefully retreat.

As if to taunt him, the beast raises up on its hind legs, and lets out a deep bellow.

Wayne turns and runs, no time for direction. He is a blind streak through the black landscape. Behind him, he could feel the great mass of the bear as it crashes through the brittle monuments, the earth flexing with every pounding step.

The shapes of trees flutter past Wayne as he screams through the knotted wasteland. He screams for the disturbed embrace of the river. Not even the angriest bear would follow him into death.

He sees the river grinding through the dead forest just ahead of him, when he is struck in the back by 900 pounds of charging rage. He’s thrown several feet forward skidding across the burnt forest floor, before his tumble is broken by a knobby stump.

He instinctively springs to his feet, his face streaked with blood, feeling nothing but the howl of fear. The knife is one with his hand.

The bear looks him in the eyes. It’s telling him he’s going to die. Wayne won’t look away, his body quaking, piss running down his leg, and tears washing his cheeks clean, but he won’t look away.

The great bear rolls its shoulders forward, and within an instant it is on Wayne, its massive teeth snapping for his flesh.

Wayne is lost in the roar of the river, away from his body furiously kicking, scratching, and stabbing against the pain.

The foaming jaws of the snarling beast crush Wayne’s bones and toss his flesh against the trees.

The bear gets angrier with every sharp thrust Wayne delivers. It moans and slaps its massive paw against Wayne’s body, pulverizing his ribs, sending him crashing into a tree.

He waits with the river for the bear’s final blow, gurgling and choking on his blood.

But it doesn’t come.

Wayne’s vision is veiled in red, but he sees the shape of the bear slumped against a tree. It cries in fear of death, as blood steadily pumps from its wounds.

Their blood is in union, carelessly splashed over the earth, slipping with the rain into the river.

Epilogue

It was the morning of Wayne’s death, and Margot laid in bed feeling alone.

She listened to the rain tap on the windows, and missed his footsteps. She missed them more with each passing day. She even wished for the restless sounds of his ghost. But he was gone, with ten years of their lives rattling behind him, and the house never spoke again.

Whatever Wayne found she hoped it was graceful. They loved each other once, and it was a flash of brilliant light before their eyes. In those moments, clippings of time, they were eternal.

Two years after his death she finally buried him. Part of him, she buried along a hillside they once loved on, and the rest was buried in the most troubled reaches of her heart.

She then clawed through her own forest and crashed into the rest of her life, where she proudly fights for every moment of happiness she can find.

Allan and Laura split up a year after Wayne’s death. Allan couldn’t love Margot anymore when he saw her grief, and Laura thought it best if he left them both.

Laura nursed her sister’s pain. She carried her when she couldn’t walk, fed her when she was weak, and held her hand when she was alone.

They became sisters again, alone in their separate houses, grieving the past.

After Margot moved away, Laura grew lonely.

She married a friendly man named Gary. There was nothing special about him, but they made each other laugh, that’s all Laura needed.

Allan married a clever spark of a woman named Nancy. She burned every memory he kept of Margot.

Laura and Allan secretly meet for coffee every Wednesday. They love to get under each other’s skin, their friendship sinking like knotted roots into their lives.

Sometimes Wayne comes up in conversation, and Laura admits she loved him, and Allan tells her it doesn’t matter anymore.

End

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