The He-Bear

I was a guest in the palatial country cottage of a Russian Countess while certain financial puzzles were being teased apart in London. A simple rest cure for overtaxed nerves necessitated that I force myself to swallow prescriptions of sea air, the Bolshoi Ballet, and breakfasts in bed of poached Fabergé eggs.

And yet this afternoon I was not reposing in the pedicured garden of the Countess’s villa, but stumbling through the woods of a hairy little mountain known locally as the Czar’s Pate with Alois, another of the Countess’s guests. The artless architectural painter had been at the villa an unknown duration longer than I, and it is not impossible that the Countess recommended our excursion for her own sake rather than ours—but to suspect that sweet old lady of such shrewdness would suggest a Slavic capacity for torture at a degree not recognized since Ivan the Terrible.

The sun in her splendour shone her radiant face on all creation, thawing frozen lakes and misers’ hearts, nursing the winter wheat from the sleeping soil, turning the marigolds’ heads in humble worship, and turning the back of my neck to roast beef. Because I had once stolen a newspaper from my neighbor at the London Rhopalic Club, or some other indiscretion remembered only by my personal devil, my guide possessed, and shamelessly abused, a small Czech accordion which apparently permitted only two different tunes—“Ach, Du Lieber Augustin” was the first, and the second, to quote Alois’s toothy witticism, “isn’t.”

My eyes assaulted by sun, my ears by the screeching squeezebox, and my flesh by the harmonizing gadflies, I cherished my few senses, until those too came under dire. Stopping to rest in a small clearing, Alois withdrew from his hiking pack, like an Israelite priest revealing the Covenant, a string of smoked herrings for his reeking luncheon.

As it happens, I do not care for smoked herrings. As it happens, however, some others do: Alois, for one, and also the Russian brown bear. The latter stumbled in from the bushes at the edge of the clearing like the Red Knight making his grand entrance at a Christmas masque. More than anything, however, the interloper possessed an uncanny resemblance to my great-aunt Lady Athanasia, who possesses an ill-fitting fur coat and, after a certain quantity of brandy, lopes almost identically.

The bear peeled back its black lips to bare its arsenal of teeth the size of chessmen and reared up on its hind legs to the height of a lamppost, looking hugely changed from its relatively benign appearance on the arms stamped on the Countess’s letterhead. Even at her most fearsome, as when she discovered the butler nipping at the brandy, Aunt Athanasia did not achieve quite this level of ferocity.

The protocol for such encounters had been mentioned in passing in a penny novel I had once read set in the Canadian frontierland. “Quick!” I hissed to Alois. “If we back calmly out of the clearing together, we run much less risk of setting off the beast’s territorial instincts.” (I later realized I may have been thinking of the procedure for pacifying the Klondike Moose, but nevertheless I maintain that my plan possessed pedigree.)

There came no reply, and, worried the artist had fainted from fright, I turned just in time to see Alois’s hastily cast-off backpack falling to the earth as he ran at full speed through the clearing and out in an Alois-shaped hole in the shrubs, leaving me to fend for myself.

Of course, I might have done the same thing had I been favored by fortune with a head start. But I didn’t, and a hypothetical insult cannot measure against the reality of one.

Luckily, I had practice standing perfectly still from my days performing competitive tableaux vivant on the Ballyhoo quad, and had kept my hand in after being sent down by pretending not to be home when the vicar came round for tea. Unlike anything else I had absorbed in my school days, be it Greek or green chartreuse, this talent had not so soon passed from me. By immediately and with immense concentration impersonating the statue of Nelson in Dublin, I aimed to prevent myself having my arm torn off at the shoulder and thus improving the resemblance.

After polishing off the string of herrings and investigating my ascot for a petrifying moment, the bear made a contented and leisurely exit into the brush, leaving in his hairy wake all the broken bits and bobs spilt from the mauled rucksack, including Alois’s accordion—which was miraculously intact in the midst of the destruction. I felt a sort of respect for the forthright manner in which the bear pursued his aim, without recourse to half-cloaked intimations and garden-party politics.

As Alois had in his haste departed without his pack and thus without the benefit of our map, I set off in a direction I favored for the pleasing coloration of the flowers along the trail. I soon happened upon Alois sitting in a sort of yogic posture at the bottom of a steep run of gravel, holding his right leg and rocking wisely. His grimace seemed as likely to have been out of sheepishness at confronting me whom he abandoned as it was to have been out of physical pain. Like a thorough medic, I gave the limb a few trial blows to be certain.

“Ah! Careful, chap! I twisted my leg.”

I might have gotten devoured!”

“Yes, but you didn’t. And a hypothetical injury cannot measure against the reality of one.”

I was forced to admit his argument, and our limping constitutional back to the villa was passed in a bitter, but egalitarian, silence.

When I took my leave from that romantic region the following week, holding my handkerchief to my eyes to disguise my lack of tears, Alois had yet to drum up the expense of a new accordion to replace that so callously destroyed by the he-bear.


FFO: What other work of yours would fans of this story most enjoy?

If you liked this (or if you hated it, or were indifferent to it) then you might enjoy my first book, Imaginary Sonnets, which you can order or preorder from Able Muse Press. Every poem in the book is a piece of flash fiction with line breaks—they are all persona monologues with different narrators, based on different episodes in history and mythology. It’s also a little Victorian-inflected in some places, as the premise is inspired by two Victorian narrative poets, Browning and Eugene Lee-Hamilton, but the styles and voices vary from page to page.

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