She dreams of bears. Her parents’ snores become growls. The bears’ nutty, grassy scent hangs heavy in the night air. Their big, furry bodies warm her cot in the kitchen.
She tastes their dream porridge, dense with fresh black currents and hazelnuts.
Her parents have forbidden the forest where she used to roam, denying her the damp pines, the dank decaying leaves, the jewel-bright blue sky between branches.
Instead, she stirs soup, sweeps the floor, washes cups and plates while outside the trees dance to a wild wind.
“It’s safer,” her mother says. “Those bears almost ate you up, Goldie. And someday when you’re grown, you’ll have a home and a man and children of your own and will need to fix food and wash dishes for them.”
Het future sounds as dreary as her present.
That night, in sleep, she roams with the bears through the forest as they eat blackberries, splash into fast-running streams, crash through thickets bathed in silver moonlight. Looking down, she sees not hands and feet, but great clawed paws, her limbs encased in warm fur. She throws back her head and roars loud enough to shake trees.
She wakes, ears echoing with that dream roar. Her parents sigh and snore in their bedroom. The kitchen fire has burned low, casting lumpy bear shadows into dark corners. She blinks and sees only the shelves with bowls and cups stacked in neat rows, the patchwork quilt she helped her mother stitch, the half loaf of brown bread she will slice for the family breakfast.
Through the unshuttered window, a rustling in the undergrowth. A snapped twig. Heavy breath. And then she smells them, like an open summer meadow with a musky undertone. Bears.
She creeps to the window on bare feet, flicks the curtain corner aside. The yard yawns empty in the cold blue moonlight. The rustle comes again and eyes gleam from the underbrush. With a snuffle, a bear steps into the clearing, huge, lumbering, shoulder muscles bunching. As he moves into the open, another bear follows, smaller, then another, just her size.
The bears have found her.
The bears circle the yard once before coming to stand in a row, looking at the window. The biggest one growls, a rumble she feels in her hands and feet and chest.
She peers out at them as they look at her. She should feel fear, but instead her heart races exultant as a March stream.
The tidy kitchen recedes as she watches the bears’ silky fur shimmer in the moonlight, their breath steam and billow into the night air. The smallest bear yips.
She slips out the window and steps toward the bears, her breath a savage silver cloud, bare toes pawing the earth. She moves forward, forward, gaining speed as she goes, bursting into the moonlit clearing. Feeling just right.
Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and presented onstage by Stories On Stage in Davis and Denver. I am a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. My website, including my blog about vintage hats, is at annhillesland.com.