Ursa Major by Michael Serebriakov
Editorial intern Rob Ball on today's bonus story: How can life be enjoyed knowing death is always around the corner? "Ursa Major" by Michael Serebriakov implores readers to face their fears and embrace the bad with the good, like a ferocious bear enjoying a spot of tea.
The bear was going to be here at three, and I was waiting for him. We had set the appointment last month, by mutual agreement, and I did not expect him to be late. This meeting had been the sole reason I found myself here, the little cabin carved into the woods at the edge of a rocky cliff that overlooked the inlet. He was as aware as I was of its importance, and I knew he would arrive on time.
They laughed when I first mentioned moving, a casual thought that floated away like a soap bubble on the breeze. They reminded me that there were about three days in the year when I didn’t detest the weather, and that I just about dry-heaved at the sight of an insect bigger than a pinhead. So a few days after I disappeared, a ripple of concern must have gone through them. They tried to reach me for a while. The phone in the living room, where I kept warm by a fireplace that I helped feed, rang every couple of days. Such are the conveniences of the modern world, I suppose. But then I came across a pair of rusty garden sheers. I barely managed to open them, but they got the job done. So much for modern technology.
They could have reached me, if they really tried. I talked of this place occasionally. On wistful nights standing on some balcony looking over the glimmering city, with the rattle of a grocery cart filled with empty bottles wafting up from below, I would mention the little cabin in the woods, the impossibly clear sky, the tapping of falling pinecones, the dream of getting away from glass and concrete, while whoever I was with, drink in hand or a cigarette between their lips, nodded along knowingly.
But by wintertime, the snow had settled in a nice warm blanket over the roof, and blocked off the access routes, and I knew no one was coming. The phone sat dull and silent in the corner, and I thought about mending it. I wet both ends of the now fraying severed cord to try to tie it together, but the lightning jolt that went through my tongue and out my tailbone made me decide that it was probably for the best. I had firewood to keep me warm, fish to keep me fed, the botanical abomination that was my garden, with its curly bitter cucumbers and dodecahedral tomatoes, to keep me humble, and the bear. There was always the bear.
There is a belief among my people, that from a very young age, we will dream of the way we will die. Ever since I could remember, I dreamt of bears. When I was little, they lived under the bed, coming out to sniff around the clothes I left hanging on my chair and then, finding the source of the delicious scent, pouncing on me as I lay quivering beneath my sheets. As I grew older, and developed dreams of finding myself sitting naked in a classroom, I would dash red-faced to the nearest washroom and the first stall I opened would be stacked floor to ceiling with Grizzly. And even as I got more inventive, and tried to get out of my inevitable doom by pantomiming biting my own left arm and finding the taste to be utterly dreadful, the brown brute would consider it for a brief moment, scratching his big dumb head with his eviscerating claws, and then fall upon me in full force.
So when I saw the majestic creature who, from the top of the ravine where I was standing looked to be about the size of a Volkswagen bus, I knew that the day I had been dreaming about was near. He looked up at me, eyes amber in the early afternoon sun, the fur on his hump rippling in the breeze, and nodded. Perhaps he too, ever since he was a wee suckling cub, had dreamt of the day he would meet the man on top of the ravine. And on that day, sealed by the wheezy cry of a rheumatic magpie, we agreed on the hour and the place where we would meet again, for the last time.
I basked in the relief that follows on the heels of eons of disappointment. I suspect it’s what leant a certain feeling of dissatisfaction to my life – the chance of encountering a bear in the confines of a city sanitized to all nature were slim. One could hardly have expected to be mauled on the eighth floor balcony or at the local YMCA. Hiding from my premonitions was unbecoming and I generally found the idea of immortality distasteful. So I did what I needed to do, what anyone in my shoes should have done. I shunned the idea that I could outsmart fate based on a technicality and I packed everything up to move to Bear Country. Life, however, moves at its own pace. Though I expected to be accosted by ursine everywhere, to be overwhelmed by a veritable horde of them, my surroundings were bereft of my anointed dispatchers. Until the day I had met the bear at the ravine, the closest I had come to fulfilling my dream was spotting the Big Dipper in a dazzling sky.
On the day of the bear’s arrival, I spent the better part of the morning chopping wood, a favourite pastime since I had moved to the cabin. It gave me a sense of purpose, my personal contribution to my own survival. The bear arrived just as my hatchet drew a smooth arc in the air, reflecting the sunlight across my eyes. I looked at my watch and saw that it was two minutes after three. The watch had faltered. The bear could not have been late.
“Would you care for some tea?” I called across the open space between me and the edge of the forest. I had to be a gracious host because he was a gentleman, allowing this to happen here, instead of ripping me to shreds on our first meeting and leaving my sumptuous corpse to feed the roots of raspberry brambles.
The bear let out a low growl. Of course he would like some tea, he was a refined beast. I offered him a seat by the chopping block that would serve as a makeshift table, and headed back to the house. He grunted in gratitude, focused intently on my little hatchet that I left buried partway into the wood. How many times has he seen it in his dream, as he sucked his paw during his winter hibernation; the axe glinting in the dying afternoon light as it plants itself between his eyes?
By the time I came out with the tea, the sun had fully settled behind the trees leaving my friend painted against the woods like a quick charcoal sketch. I lowered myself onto a stout log I would never get a chance to chop, and placed the tea in front of the bear. Sitting down he seemed twice my height. I hoped I wouldn’t fail him. We were symbiotic organisms and I needed to have the strength to fulfil my end of the bargain.
Sitting this close to him, his hot breath ruffling the hairs on the top of my head, I realized we weren’t so different on the inside. We were both only muscle. Except where all of his were rippling with raw animalistic energy, both of mine were trembling, spilling the tea out of the cup. He drank straight from the pot, poised and controlled.
I put my teacup on the stump, half-empty even though I had only wet my lips. The bear raised one judgemental eyebrow at me and closed its eyes to take another dainty sip from the spout. A shadow crept up the mountainside across the inlet, Atlantis sinking into a sea of darkness. It was fitting that we sat together and watched our last sunset. It must have been why we had picked this precise time and date, so that we could have one final chance at poetry. The bear eyed me and was right. I had allowed myself to grow wistful.
There was no need for melodrama. I was not giving in but taking control, grabbing the reigns for once and galloping in the direction of my choosing. Even moving here, with its spontaneity and disregard for societal expectations, felt as if the whole world quickly revolved underneath me and I ended up in this place without fully realizing what was done to me. But now I saw a clear purpose. The two strings of our lives had meandered until finally knotting up, and nothing but a swift snip of the scissors could untangle the mess. This was mutually assured destruction, and it was the way things were meant to be. It was serenity, not madness.
I stood up and brushed some wood chips from my pants. I just needed to get a few good swings in, come at him with my chest barreling forward instead of cowering behind the tree stump as he concluded his grim business. Before placing the pot onto the stump, the bear showed some hesitation. His mistake. The last thing he wanted to do was leave the job half-finished, come away with his life, but not his dignity.
The bear raised his paw. Massive claws, each curved like the reaper’s scythe, were drawn starkly against a sky that descended into deeper shades of indigo. I could end it now, break the chain that had pulled me here. I could run. I could go back, straight to the city and up the stairs, my legs spanning two at a time until I would swing the door open into my apartment. Heads would turn. Handshakes and back-pats would be bestowed, smiles generously shared. And then I might disappear again, dwindle into my surroundings like a damp stain on the wallpaper, leaving the faintest trace of memory, a stranger darting out of the rain.
Or else I could thrive, burst through the walls in a bioluminescent floral kaleidoscope. I could carpet all the rooms from floor to ceiling. I could overflow with myself until I spilled out into the world. They would turn towards my glow and wrap themselves in my warmth as the tears welled in their eyes.
But it was time to dance.
Michael Serebriakov is a lawyer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, currently working on his first novel at the pace of a very leisurely snail. His fiction has previously appeared in the The Advocate, and you can follow him and his writing on his blog, Silver Wordsmith.