By Robert Currer
Part 1 of 3 – 2300 Words
This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.
In my youth, I wandered mountains wishing I was a bear.” This was said by an elderly man known only as Merlin as he passed a joint to his left, the yellow smoke still hanging like morning fog on his lips. He and his audience of three sat around a modest fire pit near the hikers’ hostel that he owned and operated deep in the mountain wood. The fullness of the day had passed and, as they four basked in the evening glow, Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat grinned like conspiring children.
The three companions were no strangers to this trail. Years ago, on their first long hike together, they had discovered Merlin and his hostel. It did not take them long to figure out how he had earned the name. The man was magic. There was no doubt about it. Partially, it was because he grew the finest cannabis any one of the three had ever sampled. But mostly, it was his stories. He was a wizard in the lost art of campfire tales and more than anything that was what kept them coming back. There was a fickleness to him though. Merlin never pushed his art on others, and he did not perform on demand. His magic yarns had to be teased out of the unusual old man.
Sunshine examined her nails, carving away the dirt from beneath with a stick, and asked, “Did your wish ever come true?” Her tea-colored eyes prodded their periphery trying to catch a clue in Merlin’s craggy features.
“It did,” said Merlin accepting the joint from Goat on his right. Holding it carefully between finger and thumb to avoid igniting his thick grey beard, he breathed deeply of the acrid smoke letting it roll from his mouth like a storm cloud before drawing it up into his nostrils and then finally blowing it out like a spring breeze. He said with ocean eyes growing distant, “That it did but I paid a price.”
“What happened?” asked Lynx sounding more retriever than cat. It was a clumsy maneuver and he winced as he heard himself say it. Sunshine shot daggers through her thin eyes at him while Goat only sighed and shook his head.
Sunshine made a small show of savoring her pull from the joint. “Did you have to pay a lot?” she asked hoping to recover Lynx’s fumble. Lynx’s reddened blue eyes, plead their thanks. Sometimes she felt he was the idiot brother she never had.
Merlin smiled a slow, indulgent grin, the kind a doting grandfather might wear. “Do you want to hear the story?” The three companions inched closer and nodded vigorously in unison, a movement which caused Goat’s curly black beard to bounce comically. “Alright, then. I’ll tell you. It all started many years ago when I wasn’t much older than you three.”
A decades younger Merlin awoke in the cool of the morning, stretching with all four limbs and a wide yawn. He sniffed, blinked the sleep from his eyes, and rolled his legs over the side of his hammock. The mountain air smelled sweet this summer day as he munched a quick breakfast and repacked his pack. He had a long trek ahead and he was very much looking forward to putting some miles in beneath the sunshine.
After only a handful of minutes on the trail, there came the rustling of something large from the brush. The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grew closer. Merlin pulled himself to the shadow of a tree and waited to see which of the mountain’s denizens would emerge. He was somewhat surprised when the bushes parted, and a woman stumbled out. She was dressed as a through hiker but carried the smallest, lightest pack Merlin had ever seen. He blushed, feeling self-conscious beneath the heft of his own supplies. The woman took two steps on the trail and then caught her boot on a root. She fell to all fours with a grunted fuck.
Merlin stepped from the tree to the trail and jogged to her. “Are you okay?” he asked, offering a hand.
Holding him for support, she gingerly tested her gait. Then satisfied nothing was amiss, she said, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just a little clumsy this morning.” Her voice was smokey and low in a way that drew him a half-step closer. She dusted off her knees and then pushed an errant strand of ebony hair behind her ear. With a smile that was slightly abashed, she said, “Thanks, by the way.” They shook hands and her fingers lingered on the release. “I’m called Ursula ‘cause I’m all legs and I can’t sing worth shit.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Merlin… for other reasons.”
They fell into a light banter and somewhere along the path to acquaintance they continued their trek. As the sun climbed, they ascended the mountain. The weather grew sweltering beneath a sky so blue and so humid that it might have been a sea. Leagues fell away beneath their boots and the pair continued to walk side by side exchanging parcels of words and the hidden feelings inside. Their banter did not slacken as the day grew. Instead, it deepened until it was no longer banter and was transformed into conversation.
As the shadows came to dance in the twilight, Merlin and Ursula stopped to camp. By this time, their conversation had blossomed into confession and Merlin found himself telling Ursula secrets he had never shared with another living soul. There was an ease about her that was as unjudging as the wilds themselves. He couldn’t remember who kissed who first, but he never forgot the night that followed. In the end, they fell asleep wrapped in each other and clothed only in the gossamer of the starry night air.
A bone deep chill woke Merlin with a shiver in the first rays of dawn. He was naked and alone, lying on the bare dirt. He scrambled to his feet, spinning around in a groggy panic before realizing he was still in camp. His pack was packed and laid patiently against a tree with his clothes from the night before folded neatly on top. Ursula and her gear had gone.
Merlin dressed in a hurry and then hunted around for some sign of her. The ground was soft loam, prime for tracking. Their trail shoes left distinct tread marks where they had entered camp, tangled together, and then laid down for the night. But there were no other imprints from her shoes. The only other tracks were those of a bear that must have wandered in as they slept.
Merlin slid down the trunk of a tree, his head spinning. It was no dream. The sour musk of their tryst woven into his clothes and beard dispelled all disbelief. He wondered where she had gone and then realized it made no difference. All that mattered was that she had slipped away without so much as a good-bye. He raked his fingers through his tangled hair and could think of nothing, but the fist clenched around his heart. It was not helpful to remind himself that he had only known her a day. There was something singular about Ursula that he had understood instinctively and as surely as he knew that she was now lost to him forever. The fist squeezed and burst his heart. Merlin huddled against the tree and wept.
“Did you ever see her again?” asked Sunshine with a hint of hopeful pleading. All three were leaning in closer to Merlin now. The crackling fire sent their towering shadows dancing behind them like specters.
Merlin shook his head with care as if easing through an old injury that never quite healed. “I never did see her again.”
Sunshine could still hear a tinge of longing in his voice. Her own heart swelled to aching for the lost lovers. “Is that why you came up here? So, you might find her again?” she asked, her voice warmed with romance. Tears collected like dew at the rim of her smoke-reddened eyes.
But Merlin chuckled. “No, no, I didn’t build this place for many more years after that.” Sunshine’s tears sublimated without falling and she sunk back into her chair, disappointed.
Goat’s brow knotted. “Wait. So, what does that have to do with getting to be a bear?” he asked tugging his own curly black beard.
Lynx rolled his glassy eyes dramatically. “Weren’t you listening? She transformed him into a bear before they—you know—did it. Then she wandered off when they were done. Duh.” He looked at the assembled company as if speaking to a group of particularly dense and annoying teenagers. In slow unison, Sunshine and Goat pivoted their heads to stare with open, confused derision. There was a long pause. Lynx looked at his friends, puzzled. “What?”
Goat reached across and pulled the joint from Lynx’s fingers. “No more of this for you,” he said and flicked the roach into the fire.
Merlin held up an ancient, knobby hand and the three youngsters grew still. “I’m getting to all that,” he said settling back into his weathered Adirondack chair. He pulled a fresh joint from the pocket of his sweater and lit it, savoring several deep pulls before passing it to Sunshine. The smoke still clung to his voice when he began again. “It was a sixteen years later when I became a bear.”
The steamy summer air hung thick with the buzzing of bloated flies so large Merlin could see the rainbow sheen of their bulbous eyes. He swatted them away with his hat, his face held in a tight grimace.
The county sheriff at his side held a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. “Never get used to seeing this sort of thing,” he said. His voice was subdued, the kind of quiet that people use at funerals. At their feet was the body of a hiker, a woman by the look of her mangled face. Her ribs were exposed and peeled back. Her torso was only a fly-ridden cavity, hollowed out by the claws of some great predator.
“Bear, you think?” The sheriff phrased it as a question but the lead in his voice said he already knew the answer.
Merlin nodded. “Count on it. No other tracks about but hers and the bears. And the claws were too big for anything else. Big for a black bear too.”
“Just like the others,” said the sheriff.
“Just like the others,” concurred Merlin. As they drifted into silence, the weight of a great loss settled on his heart, both for the woman at his feet cut down in her prime and for what would come next.
“Merlin, do think you could gather up some of the other guides and meet me at the station in a couple of hours? Don’t want to lose any time.”
Merlin nodded with a sigh. Heartache sunk deeper into his ocean eyes and the whole of his being felt suddenly weary. “I can make some calls.”
As the sun dipped low on the western horizon, Merlin slung his thirty-aught-six and joined the other hunters. They fanned out along the slope in a wide line, stalking through the brush. A light breeze rattled the leaves and Merlin felt it chill his cheeks. A cold front was cresting the summit and pushing wind down the mountain side. That would put them downwind of their prey, favorable conditions for the hunters. Merlin dreamed it was not so.
As the twilight waned, the hunt waxed. To a man, they had each walked these mountain forests more than any could near guess. The line moved steadily and quietly over the sodden leaf litter. Here and there a message carried by hand signs would trickle down the line. It would tell of scat or scratch marks or some other clue to guide their path like a road map through the unfettered wilderness. Merlin wished he had thought to contact only green guides who could not read scat and would crash through the foliage louder than a rutting buck. But he was no good at sabotage.
Near the edge of full dark, just as the call to head back had been sounded, something thrashed in the brush ahead. Merlin froze, praying to every god had ever heard of that the sound was only his imagination. Out of the deep shadow, the lumbering bulk of a huge male shuffled into sight. It was bigger than any Merlin had ever seen on the mountain, and he knew without question this was the beast they hunted. His heart sank. The thought of killing any bear filled him with a disgust that he could never quite wash off, but the evil had to be done. It had already killed three hikers, including one little boy. It would not stop hunting now that it had a taste for human prey.
Merlin lifted his rifle and took aim. His lungs filled with a steadying breath. At the bottom of his exhale, he squeezed the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the night air. The bear staggered with a pained grunt and turned toward Merlin. Its massive bulk tensed to charge with more fury than a raging bull. With practiced fluidity, the hunter chambered another round and fired again. The bullet struck with the shock of a sledgehammer. There was a wet moan and the bear stumbled and fell. Merlin paced a few steps closer and then fired one more shot into the still creature’s head. He couldn’t be too safe when approaching a downed bear.
Headlamp beams popped with the dazzling light of flashbulbs as shouts suddenly filled the forest. Merlin called out the kill and the lights converged on him. He crept closer to the inert mass of shadowy fur. Its giant chest did not even tremble and black blood began to pool on the leaves. Satisfied the poor beast would never rise again, Merlin slung his rifle and pulled his own headlamp from his pocket. He clicked on the beam. Then his heart shattered. The bear had his ocean eyes.
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