The Black Bear of Sadness

Another silence for a while because I’ve been busy writing elsewhere and also reading.  I was a runner-up in The Brighton Prize with a story about a fixated librarian.  It’ll be available in an anthology later this year.  It also looks like some of my flashes will be coming out as a collection too – so watch this space for news!

In the meantime, here is a story to keep you going.  I hope you like it.  It’s got a bear in it – a big, furry bear on a summer afternoon.  Have a read.

The Black Bear of Sadness

The Black Bear of Sadness shifted again. The sun was hot on his back and he watched a flea wriggling on the surface of his fur. Then it ran down into the thick warmth and Solomon felt the tickle of it on his skin. He scratched with one claw and yawned.

The woman person sat down in the long grass beside the river and took out a pad and pen. Solomon muttered to himself,

‘You want to be careful, woman person, there are Vipers of Obsessive Compulsion living down there.’

But this woman person was oblivious. He’d been following her for years now. And still she hadn’t spotted him – fat and dark – looming about behind her through city streets, tailing her on country walks and squeezing himself behind the frosted bathroom door of her tiny apartment. He almost wished she’d sit on an Obsessive Compulsion Viper and let him hand over the job for a while.

The woman person lay down and disappeared from sight and so Solomon had to drop onto four paws and lope over to the river bank. He had to keep her under his gaze, even if she flatly refused to see him.

As he curled into a vast, black circle, squashing the grass, he could smell his own scent. Hot Black Bear on a high summer day is not a delicate smell. To Solomon it was a comfort but he knew that to the woman person it would smell like danger. And that was no bad thing. Not that Solomon brought danger, not really, but anything that might wake her to his presence was good. She had to see him and he had to be seen before he could leave her and find another one.

A small crowd of tan-coloured flies were circling in the hot air that rose from Solomon’s wet nose. He snapped at them, idly, and they lifted six inches or so.   This woman person was a bit like them. Every time he snapped she turned her head a little further away, moved a step out of reach. She would not see the Black Bear of Sadness and there was very little he could do but keep following her until she did.

She was sleeping. Solomon could feel that in the soft space behind his eyes. When she slept he could sleep too. And when she was dreamless he was free to go to his own dreams. He wasn’t surprised to find that he was in cub-space this time. He remembered the four of them, a mass of little pin claws and needle teeth, rolling in a fuzzy ball in the leaf-litter of the cave.

‘Cubs! Come to me!’

They had sat inside the black crescent of their mother’s curved body and listened to her stories.

‘Long ago, in the times before the sticky roads and the iron rails cut across the land, we lived in these trees and we carried our Blackness like the sky carries the night. It was the way of the Black Bears to bring the Sadness and it was a simple thing. When the other animals had need of it, they came to us and cried in our fur. When we had need of lighter emotions we went to those who carried them. We bathed in the cool ponds in the clearings and let the Green Frogs of Joy leap onto our snouts and bottoms.’

Solomon had laughed at that, with his brothers and sister.

‘When we wanted it, the Sloths of Contentment would drop down from the trees and feed us on over-ripe fruit. And when we needed fury we could wrestle with the Spider Monkeys of Anger and brave their bites on our ears and tails. We were the Black Bears of Sadness and we had our place. But then the persons came.’

Solomon started awake and sat up on the river bank. The woman person was dreaming now so he must watch her. He could see her bald face contorting and her mouth made a word. He couldn’t speak their words but he could hear the feeling. In her dream she was seeing sadness. In her dreams she often did. But it wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t help. He sighed.

This woman person was very determined. He had never had one so persistent in her efforts not to see him – to deny his existence. He wished for a child next time. The best were the persons who were still cub-like – the tinier the better. He could loom up over the bed of some miniature person and the child would open their eyes wide, grab a handful of his fur and bury their face deep in the sadness. They would cry. They would snuffle their wet noses on him (he’d need to clean afterwards) and it was simple. But the persons did something to their young. The persons stopped them knowing their feelings – stopped them finding the animal they needed to see.

Sometimes it was years, years and years, of plodding after a person. Solomon remembered last winter when this woman person had been waiting to cross the street on a rainy night and she’d stopped with one foot hanging off the kerb. And a long bus had swished through the rain and he’d known she didn’t want to be living on the planet any more. And he had breathed up close to her ear. His breath looked like smoke in the night as it puffed about her face and he had thought she might turn then. She might look at him, Black Bear of Sadness, and feel what she truly needed to feel. But she hadn’t. She had gone to her apartment and eaten food and slept and done the next day. Like they do.

The woman person was peaceful again now. The river was sparkling and full of life. Solomon could see vast Carp of Regret in the long green weed. He noticed Crabs of Benevolence running through the orange shingle on the bank. He watched as a Kingfisher of Astonishment dived and returned empty-beaked from the water. The woman person turned over. She had long, fine hair on her head, the colour of the beech leaves in the autumn. She had fingers that curled and uncurled on her rug. The persons didn’t know what they carried. But Solomon did. He needed what she was carrying. Because being a Black Bear of Sadness who cannot be seen is a tiring thing. It is a thing that saps strength. It saps resilience and persistence and a sense of place. It had left Solomon, suddenly, without hope.

He edged closer to her through the long, yellow, grass. Seeds fell into his fur from its feathery flowers. The woman person’s eyes were flickering. The fringes of her rug were twists of blue and green. He ran his claws through them to make them lie flat and then he rested his muzzle on the wool. Her breath smelled like cheese sandwiches and coffee. Underneath that though, Solomon could smell the other thing. The thing she was carrying – the hope. As her eyes sprung open, he met them with his own – black and round and forever, like outer space. The woman person saw him. She saw a Black Bear of Sadness. She reached out and put her palms on his fur and let all the tears come. She cried so long that Solomon thought she must have a river inside her. And he stayed very still and let himself be seen for as long as she needed to see him.

When her tears stopped, Solomon let himself see her too. She had a pale face with little amber splashes across her nose. She had arches of bronze fur above her eyes. In those stone-green eyes there was a light that came on and went off – on and off like a porch light through trees. Solomon saw her. A Black Bear of Sadness saw a Woman Person of Hope.

Then Solomon lumbered onto his broad paws and ran away into the forest. And the Woman Person of Hope washed her face in the fast-flowing river. She saw a small silver fish and she felt something she couldn’t catch hold of. So she lay there, on her belly, all that summer afternoon, and she waited to see it again.

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