– a short story –
Jade was out canning when she saw the bear. She had found a small supermarket, and climbed in carefully, maneuvering her tiny sled past the few shards of glass still clinging to the door. The Aurora was bright tonight, so she could see even from the street the cans half-hidden behind a fallen shelf. She was crouched down behind the counter, sheltered from the freezing wind and from any eyes out in the street. There was no-one there, of course, there hadn’t been for months, maybe years. But Jade was always careful.
She sorted through the cans expertly, her top gloves peeled back: weighing and tapping, discarding the ones that bulged, the ones that didn’t feel right. A lot of them were quite serviceable, or at least worth taking home so Mam and the other women could boil them. Most of the cans still had labels on them, faded but visible. Jade held them up to the light from the Aurora – she couldn’t read the writing, in spite of her Granda’s insistence she should learn to read, but the pictures were clear enough. Beans, soup, even meat stew: the shop had been ransacked long ago, but the raiders had left some choice stuff behind. They must have been men from the big city-camps; everyone knew they weren’t patient. Jade raised herself up and peered outside, just to check.
A movement caught her eye… but it was just the light. The Aurora glimmered, green and gold, on broken window-panes, and on the irregular floor of packed ice which coated the road. The street was a wind-tunnel, swept clean by the North-Easter that drove the snow into a deep drift at the far end. Jade could see into the shops opposite: tattered couches, the remains of electrical machines, broken tables and chairs. Nothing useful, although the chairs might serve as firewood. Jade ducked down behind the counter again.
When the cans were sorted, and the good ones stacked neatly on the sled, she knelt down and scanned the floor. It was dirty, and coated with rime, and half-covered with toppled shelves – but she swept her hands across it, crawling forward, sifting and picking up every tiny object her almost-bare fingers could locate. Soon she had a comb, a small bar of soap, and a flat packet of something that might be dried meat. A good find – might soften the bother she was going to get into, when she finally made her way back to the camp. She should get moving now –
She heard the noise outside, a regular huffing sound. Like a man breathing heavily, or a lot of men all at once. Jade went very still. She could see nothing from behind the counter, just the frosty floor in the green wavering light. Whoever it was couldn’t see her – but perhaps they’d heard, perhaps they were creeping in the doorway right now… Pulling out her knife, she eased herself upward and peered over the counter.
It was a bear. She knew that’s what it was, her Granda had shown her books. She couldn’t have recalled if it was a real animal or a made-up one – the books didn’t always distinguish properly: but here it was. It was padding down the street, its smoky breath pluming out around it. Its thick fur was off-white, and took the Aurora’s colours like the ice around it: a walking snowdrift, turning pink and green in turns as it waddled along. Paws the size of frying-pans, natural snow-shoes ringed with black claws, trod the ice. The bear’s ears were round and comically small; but its black nose swept from side to side, a dog looking for a scent. Jade kept very quiet, and let it go past.
When it was no longer in sight, Jade got up silently and moved to the door. The bear was at the end of the street, beside the old black buildings of the University. Jade watched its big white shaggy bum disappear round the corner, and realized she couldn’t just let it go. She couldn’t remember if bears were one of the dangerous animals or not, but it was very big… But she had never, ever, seen anything like it, and never would again. And if it saw her she could run, surely nothing so big could be very fast. Quiet as she could, leaving her sled behind in the shop, Jade crept after the bear.
The bear had paused to snuff at a snowy lump in the road: the remains of a burnt-out car. But it found nothing of interest, and shuffled on, apparently oblivious to the girl ten yards behind it. Jade followed it through a gateway, with arches overhead, cutting black strips out of the Aurora. Trees, Jade realized, and more trees beyond, even though they were in a city – she stopped, confused, before remembering that people in the old days had had little countrysides in the their cities, with trees and grass and rivers and statues. The bear, unperturbed by the change of scenery around it, plodded away from the road into the park, now pushing through deep fresh snow as easily as ground-mist. Jade went to its tracks; she could stand on both feet in just one of its pawprints. She followed the bear under the trees, stepping in its tracks as she went. That was when she heard someone coming up behind her.
She could hear him breathing heavily, trying to run in his heavy parka and snowshoes. She went to speak to him, but he caught up, and hit her on the side of the head. It wasn’t a hard blow, and it was cushioned by her hat and hood and by his layers of gloves, but it took her aback; so by the time she collected herself he was holding her by the shoulders and shaking her. He was saying, ‘… the hell’ve you been… do you know how dangerous… got to get – ‘
‘Granda, shut it!’ She put her mittened hand over his mouth as she hissed in his face, ‘look, look!’
Granda looked, and his eyes went very wide. ‘God’s sake,’ he said.
‘S’a bear, Granda, intit?’
‘Aye. It’s a bear. A polar bear.’
‘Polar bear.’ Jade was turning the name over in her mouth. It was the most beautiful word she’d ever heard. ‘Polar. S’gorgeous…’
Granda grunted in reply, still gazing at the retreating form of the bear. Jade’s sense of caution kicked back in. Granda, like most of the folk who were around before the weather changed, didn’t much like coming out when the Aurora was bright: reminded them the sky was damaged, they said. But the Aurora was as bright as Jade had ever seen it, and here Granda was. ‘Granda, whit’s up?’
Granda started awake. ‘Men from the city-camps. We saw them earlier. Come on…’
He took her hand, and pulled her away, back the way they’d come. They floundered through deep snow; the park was in a hollow, protected from the scouring wind. They kept under the trees, looping behind a rough stone base and the stone soldier who sat, chipped and snow-covered, at its peak. The folk had camped in a bank that night, a place where people had kept their most precious things safe. If they could get back there, no city-camp raiders could get near them.
But they were already too late.
Electric light shone, making Granda’s and Jade’s shadows huge in front of them. Voices behind shouted for them to stop. They carried on, struggling, Granda’s breath heaving out of his lungs. The voices got closer: then there was a gunshot, and that was it. Granda stopped and turned, pushing Jade behind him.
There were three men. Their parkas and snowtrousers were bright-coloured, and made of nylon, which rustled when they moved; but they didn’t have to hide or be cautious. The one in the middle carried the gun; the other two had blades, knives or bayonets, fastened to poles. These two, young men, were grinning over Granda’s shoulder at Jade. ‘Gie’s the bint,’ one of them said, and they both laughed.
‘Go and fuck yourself,’ Granda growled.
‘Just hand her over.’ The one with the gun stepped forward. He was older, not as old as Granda, but still old enough to speak the old way. ‘We’re not going to hurt her.’
‘Is that right.’ Granda was holding his knife. He held his other arm out backwards, to keep Jade where she was. ‘We’ve got people on the way. So fuck off out of it.’
The man sighed. ‘Look, we’re going to look after her.’ He raised his voice to speak to Jade. ‘Come on, sweetheart. You’ll be looked after. We’ll get you some nice clothes, eh? As much as you want to eat?’
‘Get tae fuck.’ Jade’s voice came out as a whimper. ‘Lie’ us alane!’
The younger men went Oooo-oooh! The older one said, ‘You want your Grandad to come too? Eh? It’s allright, we’ll take him with us too.’
‘You’re a lyin’ bastard,’ Granda said.
One of the younger ones made an angry noise. ‘Jus’ shoot the cheeky auld cunt, wull ye?’
The older man raised the rifle. Jade screamed as the shot went past, just a few feet from Granda’s shoulder. The man said, ‘Hand her over.’
Granda was breathing heavily. He stretched both arms backwards, keeping Jade where she was. ‘Get – to – fuck.’
The rifle was aimed at his heart. ‘I’ll count to three. One – ‘
Granda didn’t budge. Jade looked over his shoulder at the man with the gun. The scene had gone bright and dreamy with terror. The air behind the gunman was wavering, the shadows shaking and growing. But as he said Two, the darkness behind him turned to pallor, a yellowy whiteness. The snow itself was rising up behind him, to his left and right, and far above his head. Then the avalanche fell on him.
Jade realized she had been wrong. The bear could move very fast indeed.
The weight brought the man down instantly, trapping the gun underneath him. He started to scream as great paws tore at him. The two younger men had sprung away, but now jumped back, jabbing at the bear with their spears. The bear scarcely seemed to notice, bending its head over the man pinned to the ground; but then one of the blades must actually have pricked it, because it bellowed and swiped at the man holding it. The man was knocked backwards, shrieking, as dark stripes of blood welled up on his stomach. The older man on the ground was trying to free the gun, but the bear pinned him down again.
Jade and her Granda ran. They struggled to the rough stone base topped by the statue of the soldier, then tore off their snow-shoes and began to climb. The stone was slippery and the climb was steep, but they heard the screams behind them and kept going. At last Jade reached the top, wrapped an arm around the statue’s waist, and reached down to Granda; panting and sweating, he caught her hand and hauled himself up. They wrapped themselves around the icy stone soldier, and each other, and finally looked down.
The two younger men were backing away. The one the bear had slashed was leaning on his companion, the front of his parka wet and red. Both spears were lying on the ground, well within range of the bear’s paws. The bear was still crushing down the older man, who was a welter of torn fabric and blood. He was reaching out to his retreating companions, crying incoherently. Then a great paw swung down on him, and the cries stopped.
The other two ran, clambering through the thick snow, the injured one clinging to the other’s shoulder. They were still running when they disappeared from sight. The bear bent over man on the ground and opened its mouth.
‘Aw, God,’ Granda said, as the tearing noises began. He turned Jade’s head away, keeping his eyes tight shut. He was swallowing hard, and Jade knew he was trying not to be sick. He muttered, ‘Don’t look, hen, don’t look.’
But Jade looked anyway, and found she could look at what was happening quite calmly. She eased her Granda’s arm to one side, so she could see; Granda whimpered a little, and she patted him comfortingly. She would never have said anything – because she loved him, and because he was an old man – but she felt a bit impatient with him. The bear was only doing to the man what the man would have done to them. And the bear was hungry, so it had an excuse. Anyway, the man was dead now, so there was no more pain. She noticed that the bear was disjointing him now, like her folk had done that time they killed a deer: turning the body into meat. While her Granda turned his head away, Jade looked down with wonder, watching the white bear feed.
When the bear was finished, it shuffled off across the park. Granda and Jade immediately let themselves slither down the statue’s base into the snow: clinging to the statue had gradually gone from uncomfortable to acutely painful, so they lost no time. But they were too soon perhaps; the bear stopped and looked back.
They tensed: but the bear didn’t approach them. It had eaten, after all. Instead it lifted its muzzle and made a sound, a long loud Muuuuuuuhhhhhh. Much later, when Granda was telling the story around the campfire, he would say it sounded like a cow or a bull; the older faces would nod knowingly. But at the moment, he could only stand astonished. ‘Must’ve escaped from a zoo,’ he said at last. ‘Or its parents did.’
Jade watched the bear plodding away. ‘S’on its own now.’
‘Looks like it.’
‘S’lonely.’ She shook her head. ‘S’a pure shame for it.’
‘Aye…’ After a moment, Granda took a deep breath. ‘Right young lady, let’s get you home.’
‘Bag’s I the gun!’ Jade swooped down and extracted the rifle from under what was left of the man. Of course Granda took it off her immediately, but she didn’t really mind; a gun would be a huge advantage for her folk, a huge one. Before they left, she searched through the bloody tattered clothes for extra bullets, so absorbed she didn’t notice her Granda watching her with the same kind of wonder with which she’d watched the bear.
Then the two of them went back to their folk, being careful to stop off and collect Jade’s sledge along the way. And the bear padded on out of the park, past the frozen fountain and the rusty remains of swings, turning green and pink and gold under the flickering sky.