These chains are not necessary, sir. I admit, the opera house is in tatters. My claws never were a meet companion for chenille and gobelin tapestry. There are rows of cushioned seats that will want replacing. Yet no one was injured.
And I am myself again.
Much better. You are more than gracious. Ah, and tea served. One remarks the gentleman in you, Detective. Let us proceed to detail, that I might repay your kindness.
I will not soften off the matter. You will have perceived my antiquity. The bears with which you mingle in this vast city of ours are not so furred as I and their frame much diminished. Why that fit that came upon me? – it was the battle scene. The jabbing and parrying of those smooth-faced actors, so very choreographed, that bland depiction of slaughter. A groan, the actor sinks to his knees and the rapier through the middle is redrawn and flourished, clean and brilliant. War is not so, sir – I have seen – Forgive me.
I am perhaps the last living witness to that war between bears and humans now called the Only War, and be you willing I will tell you of it. Mayhap in the history you will find a morsel of our entwined past not known to you before and that will move you to forgive my rampage.
We comprised a vast regiment that met with the foe near the river called Life, one of the storied battles of that war as men teach in their tidy schools now. A field of hues we were, pelage tossed aside for once, so that the black marched beside the glacial, cinnamon beside blond, the white spirits albeit separate for they were ever thus. Such weapons as we were able to obtain, forgotten now or banned – the flameflungfar and the hotlight – were given over to those holy moon-chested who had charge of us, and the remainder of us were left to fight in the ancient manner, tooth and paw. Not again will I know the rapture of biting into a neck or shoulder, the crack of bone and rush of blood on the tongue, and yet I see that I alarm you. It was very long ago. I was wounded on the second day, the hole opening in my side like a visor sliding up on a helmet, for men had once invented those strange weapons of which I spoke and their descendants were the better wielders of them. I lost sense, and when I awoke the battle had left me. I burned, feverous, as if my underfur held cinders, though I divined that the heat was inside me. Other stragglers from our ranks, three or four, discovered me, hoisted me and we moved from the battlefield seeking shelter, stumbling over bodies and parts of bodies. I cannot render the image of that place. Bodies had become the ground, burnt fur and skin mingled. The ground moaned and cried out upon occasion as we made our path across the dead and the not-yet-dead. We came into a woods, and there for days we traveled until I could no more. The fever was upon me. Culverts called to me to lay me down in the clubmoss, to blanket my body with leaves. It was death I wooed. It would not dishonor me. My comrades bore me as long as they were able. In the deepest part of the woods we came upon a structure, half-concealed by growth, decrepit buildings grouped like stairs, each taller than the last, hollow with abandonment and broken glass caught up in lianas. It was one of the mysterious houses of men, the haunts of their skienta we were taught to avoid, yet we were beyond such constraints. They left me there, as is our wont when death nears, just inside the gargantuan door some calamity had torn from its hinges in far-gone times, leaving beside me my knife and a cache of the goldstem scraped from beneath the barks of trees which had been our poor nourishment for days. In the silence after their departure the pain bested me. Dark came. I lay insensate for some time, I am certain, and when I awoke a man with trinkets in his hair was blowing smoke into my nostrils.
I could not but start and pitch him off. It robbed me of my last strength, my wound dehiscing, the wet pain nauseating me. I saw then that they had arrayed themselves around me, three – nay, four – men, not so large of stature as the soldiers we had fought, dressed in swathes of soiled cloth. Ragged men such as I had never seen, thin as a bear that rises from the long coldsleep, though I knew men had not this practice. Fear throttled me then. They were starving. They advanced toward me. Had I bellowed or struck about me it might have put them off and all that ensued might never have come to pass, yet I was weakened beyond my power to struggle. Commanded by the man with the trinkets, exhibiting a strength I remarked even in my dizzy state, they bore me up and into the innards of that structure. I felt now I would be carved, made a fine repast to fill out their ribs. You scowl, sir. Such were the terrors a cub was suckled on then; the rumors of men’s crimes toward bears were ancient even then, and had not the upheavals of our time destroyed all written proofs of older days, I warrant they would bear me out.
I may only attempt to describe that inner chamber into which I was borne like a feast. High-ceilinged yet dank and close, fetid with the moisture from great rounded protuberances, green and yellow-mottled in the low light, through which my pall-bearers threaded their way, ducking at times beneath such of these crooked pipes as crossed their path. A gurgling sound emanated from the pipes. My terror paralyzed me. The skienta created by men was the evil against which we went to war, even if some few of us – filthy-minded – avowed that we ourselves sprang from it, a product of men’s unholy doings. I was in its maw now. We arrived at the center, I thought, for the space about us cleared. I was set down near the skin of a pipe and I saw now the tubercles on it, humus clinging, the leaves above it as great as the side of a house, and I knew the pipes to be stems, roots that might once have been subterranean but shaped now by men to carry their vile fluids, colossal sculptures of vegetable origin. My eye traced a tangled sculpture to its acroterion – an acorn squash, larger than the baths at Ris. They were all squash, the tremendous urns that rose about us at the apex of each tangle. That old gourd that is sustenance to the masses, one of the sisters, swelled by the grim magicks of this place to the size of oxen or greater – pattypan and ambercup, the sunburst orange we dub the jack, large as a house, hypanthia thick and hard and yet luminous all about, each severed across the middle to form tubs from which a frothing arose. The man with the hair trinkets that I saw now were bits of glass and rodent bones took a draught of smoke from a hookah-like reticule on his belt and bent and blew anew into my nostrils.
“Courage,” he muttered.
It was the first word any of them had spoken. The others took up the whisper. Courage, courage. Not an encouragement; rather an acknowledgement. Praise made ritual.
My life at that moment was near drained. Behind on the stone flags we had crossed I could make out the thick trail of my blood, so abundant I knew there could be little left in me. From the shadows beyond emerged a figure. It was a woman, naked, with long hair of the hue men call blond though it is lighter than our pelage of that name, pristine gold. She could not have been above eighteen, as I adjudged the ages of men. You will discount my tale in whole now, for men are loath to believe a bear may perceive beauty in a human face, yet I tell you that her mien – her very being – was the sublime of truth and kindness. She bent to me and perused me and peace dropped upon me. At her gesture the men lifted me into the largest of the vegetables, a gnarled tub of that squash named bonnet for its gaily-striped topknob, some few red skeins of which had been left as a type of canopy when the tub was carved. The inner liquid was warm. I arrayed myself to die, for though in my general terror I had forgot my original suspicion I recalled it now. I thought of bullion. I was a leg of mutton and I was to be boiled alive.
Detective, you are a man of the world and will forgive my next indelicacy: the naked woman clambered into the tub with me. There was in the nature of the liquid – or mayhap the smoke so unpleasantly billowed into me – that which worked an undue power upon my natural impulse. I see you comprehend my meaning. She was beautiful, an angel; never had a sow in more normal circumstances aroused such desire in me. She wrought miracles of endurance from me. New liquids cascaded from smaller gourds pendent above the tub’s rim, gray and gold and sky-blue, and with each bubbling infusion I felt strength return. I would tell you all, yet you deem it unnatural already, I mark from your shadowed eyes, and indeed in the succor of that strange wine that bathed me, I have since come to believe, I may have hallucinated. Real or fantasy – I felt astonishment at details of her body I’d ne’er dreamt of, the brush of smooth skin where one expects fur, limbs that bent in inconceivable ways, her little pink tongue that bore no black markings as ours do –
Yes, I will quit that now.
The lights shut off. Darkness environed me. I slept and when I awoke my wounds were healed. I lay on a mat on the stone floor, weak as yet, fagged to the bone, but whole. The jagged hole in my side was a memory. She came and fed me during the first day and all the next, chewing the mass of squash and rind and bone meal and transferring it to my mouth as need be, until I was wholly recovered.
She spoke of the war as though she knew it, and on the day I first stood under my own strength, gazing down on her hair that was as a ray of sun through the broken windows, aware of the threat I surely must appear to her, she gazed up merely and said, “No more fighting.”
Her name was Basquiant. We lived together in the factory for moons.
Have you loved, sir? I was a soldier, brash, never given over to much musing. War had ever fit my nature. I had spoken an oath to the cause and was known by all as fierce, yet Basquiant found some flaw out in me, a soft heart, that I soon knew to be not a failing but a prize. I loved Basq and she loved me in return. When we were in the tubs I was Great one. Outside of them she teased, tended to me, always respectful of my nature even as it changed. Always eager to see inside, as was I. It was her mind I came to love, more than the pink flush of skin or the gentle blue eyes set far apart. Minds are minds, be they encased in fur or skin. She taught me who I was and the ways I could be more than myself, and if that be not love, you may damn me.
I came to know the others. Korfer, he of the outrageous hair, a stickler for the singular rituals they had invented. Brudsman and Lash and the woman Cooper, whom I had taken for a man. Basq was their leader. I understood they had been laborers, left behind when the skienta factory was abandoned, with no more comprehension of its inner workings than infants, free to form out of their little knowledge a string of odd beliefs, near to a religion, concerning bears and the underlying causes of the war. Under Basq’s tutelage they had developed a respect for bears unlike any held by men in those days. Men saw in us a foe, but not a worthy one. We were a horde only. Basquiant with her greatness of heart, and her troupe to a lesser extent, foresaw that equilibrium between man and bear that rests however uneasily upon our city today, born of mutual tolerance, and which none might have foretold in those days. They would realize it in their deeds. I was an equal among them.
In spite of all that transpired afterward, that knowledge would remain ever with me.
As time passed I explored the factory where I could. Large portions of it lay dead, rooms filled with sludge too putrescent to approach or blocked by blackened roots long petrified. Smaller rooms I found that might have been the workplace of seamstresses for the tables abounded in red and green buttons affixed to their canted surfaces in some manner without the employ of thread. One room held only lianas of sundry hues all tied in bundles, of some thick material I could not pierce with my knife. I pursued the tangles of giant squash roots that extended from the central room, following the gurgling of each until it vanished into the floor at a point without seam or gap. What force kept those few warm tangles alive where the rest had died I could not conjecture. I suspected a vast subterranean system, and indeed the stone floor beneath us was wont to shake at times, so that we seemed riding on a wildering beast, a rumble sensible even outside the confines of the walls and up to the edge of the trees where we would repair of an evening after a day spent hunting the rats and conies that sustained us beyond the constant squash. I asked the others about these tremblings. They could give me only partial replies.
One day Korfer led me to a corner of the central room and pointed me out a discolored square set in the floor.
“Here’s a door will do for you,” he told me. He was possessed of a cackle I found endearing. “Yer great hide might just fit.”
I believed he spoke at hazard, then I saw the vague seam. It was a trapdoor.
“Only show me where I might enter,” I cried. A passion had seized me. The depths below us had begun to haunt my dreams. By some whimsy I imagined them stretching vaster than the factory or even the forest, a world of secrets below us, controlling us all.
“Ah, mine it never was to go down into the grave,” he replied. “There’ll be a button somewheres to open it.” How he supposed even the thinnest button could be inserted into that nearly invisible seam or might lever open the heavy door was incomprehensible to me. I let it go and continued my search, bound to learn all that might be known of this grim and seductive place. Effort on effort I made to find out some way into the underground, while the summer waned outside, my mind ever turning to it except I lay with Basq in the tubs, and even then analyzing how the fluid contrived to engender that sweet fit that came upon me each time – partly my doing, for as I have said she was most desirable – yet sudden and foreign to me in its fury.
Ever present in my senses was the knowledge that I should not stay, that I should leave and seek my company. Yet I dared not, for I had altered beyond recognition, if not in body then in spirit. Peace was become my ally and war my enemy; I could no longer imagine taking up arms. I should but have been branded a coward, even a traitor had they seen me with my companions.
An evening. You must imagine Basq and myself, alone beneath the trees. The horn of the moon peeks above the rim of the factory. She lifts my paw and strokes each claw with her fingertips. My claws fascinate her and I wish again that I were able to retract them for I run the risk to scratch her with every touch. I would protect her always.
“You claw at the world,” she says. “We fire guns at it.” I know the we does not include her, never violent, nor the you wholly signify me. “We are one flesh. Alike. The very image of one another.” One flesh. It is a parole among them, borrowed from some factory process long extinct, a motto they employ now reverently for that small vision of future peace Basquiant has taught them. She places her hand next to my claws and exhibits her own fingernails in comparison. A silly word men chose, I think, for never was a real nail so flat and rounded. To my amazement tears have started from her blue eyes. I have heard of this habit of men but never seen it. I hold her fast and feel the warmth of her tears on my chest, and when driven by some instinct I lower my snout to lick the wetness from her face I am surprised by its saltiness.
Her voice when she calls it into exercise once again is firm. “You must choose not to fight,” she urges me. “When the time comes. You must combat your own nature. Oh, say you will always strive for peace!”
Her urgency frightens me, yet this wish is mine as well; it has become me. To conquer my own base nature. “I will and I shall,” I promise, quite certain it is a promise I can keep, and I see the happiness in her eyes.
The others find us then and light a fire for the fat cony Brudsman has trapped. Lash plays his whistle and Cooper dances a lusty reel. She takes my paw and, amidst the badinage of the others, provokes me into joining her – though bears were never dancers then – and we spin until the fire dies. Basq’s foreboding weighs on me, a sense that it all must end, whether well or badly, but I laugh, Basq – laughing as well – calls out to me Great one and O great dancer! and it is soon forgotten.
Thus we would ever have remained, I believe, had I not been underground the day the others came.
It was a cool day, fall upon us, when I chanced to stride across a certain spot on the factory floor near the trapdoor during my explorations and heard the distinct sound of a lock springing back. Like a candle snuffed, lights went out in the luminescent roots nearest me. The trapdoor before me rose out of its recess as if by an unseen hand. My heart was ablaze. What mysteries would be revealed to me now! A circular stair of iron led downward into a blue glow and I took it.
How to speak of a wonder turned horror? All was a jungle of taproots to begin, more of that same tangle that occupied the floor above, yet with gaps that formed a stretch of hall here and there, with stairs and ladders at odd points leading ever downward and which I in my obsession descended without hesitation. The heat became a tangle unto itself, stopping up my lungs. A last ladder decanted me into a cavern, space stretching beyond imagination, the ceiling a far canopy, half the chamber before my dim vision filled with machines. Rounded or articulated pump-arms and great vats, made of sheets of what I took to be some metal and which from a distance seemed covered by myriad dark scratches or lines, through which the blue glow sought its way out in pinpoints of illumination. The machines were unmoving, silent but for the rumbling we perceived aboveground only in snatches.
The fetid scent here was overwhelming. Marveling I approached the nearest surface and saw to my horror that it was not metal but flesh, that the black lines were not stripes drawn on, but – gods help us! – thick guard hairs of my own species, bristling and silver-tipped as were my own, protruding from the machines that I perceived now were entirely the flesh of bears, patches of skin rendered blue by some fungal luminescence, on which hung fur that undulated at my approach as though in sympathy with my own hackles rising. I had stepped back in shock, roaring my comprehension, my hatred for men. The whole moved then, shifting, shaking the ground as we oft had sensed from above, one vast unit sliding into another, all movement of limbs about me, a giant clockwork of bear, and yet no natural creature unnaturally enlarged, I saw through my abhorrence, nor even a patched-up one, only separate chunks of flesh and body that by dint of the spiritual energy inherent in all flesh had been made to drive the mechanisms required of them. An arm here, a massive thigh there, piteous bits only, grown to huge vile shapes as fit the needs of the factory and into which the roots of those plants from above – I saw now with greater revulsion – dipped their ends and drank. Bear limbs with no head to guide them, tortured into labor, each impinging on the other to move until the very shape of the cavern about me altered. When it ended in silence, the wall before me was no more. Another space had revealed itself. Inside, in a small chamber of its own, stood a vat unlike the rest, red and translucent, in which a shape floated.
I could not stop myself; I approached it and when I touched the vat’s glassine surface the shape in the liquid writhed, as a minnow might flit when a paw breaks the water’s surface. I thought I knew it. Nausea gripped me –
Then I heard cries from above. Basq and another, Brudsman, tiny sounds falling down the well of entrances I had left behind me and yet urgent. On the instant I forgot the vat, dashed up the way I’d come, out through the trapdoor, and without a thought barreled out through the broken gates into the yard from whence the clamor rose.
Mounted soldiers – men – held their weapons aimed at Basq and the rest, who had been made to kneel before them. At my hoarse cry all turned. One wearing the brighter stripes of a leftenant gasped at the sight of me. He had the sallow blown cheeks of that sort of man I had learned to recognize as starving for violence. Alarm and pleasure vied in his gaze when he saw me and my very blood froze as I understood my mistake.
Twisting to me, Basq called, “Run away!”
It was the seal upon their doom.
The soldiers were stragglers, as I had once been, severed from their company, and as a severed limb will twitch, so they still hungered for small glories. Had I not been underground upon their arrival, the inaudible cries making me rash, had I but had sense to peer out first at the noise in place of darting out, I might have hidden till they passed. They need not have known of my existence. As it was their leftenant looked from me to Basq and flushed red. He urged his mount forward until he could employ the tip of his saber to force up her chin.
“Traitorous, lecherous sow,” he murmured. His tongue savored the words as though they were rich wine.
“Your war is immoral,” she told him.
“And your ditch is a wallow apparently. For the likes of…that.” He would not honor the likes of that by a glance. His saber swept the air above my friends knelt before him. “All of you – traitors to your kind! No greater immorality than that. We’ll teach you a lesson. Men!”
They hanged them all. I fought, sir. Tooth and claw, my roars and paws scattering all before me. With the fiery substance of my blood boiling, heeding naught the shots that rang past my ears, I fell upon them, yet the leftenant had changed his saber for a lamer he held concealed and the orange tongue of it lay me flat. No move, no entreaty could I make. Thus was I made to watch, sprawled atop the three soldiers I’d managed to slay, and all I cared for was the disappointment in Basq’s gaze held straight upon me till the end. Because I had chosen to fight, you see. Because I could not combat my nature. Her gaze so somber, even as the noose was lowered around her neck, from that very tree under which we were wont to linger, and the fire all stopped up inside me by the lamer, a pressure burning behind my eyes until it was a flame turning my mind to a cinder. I thought then I knew what men’s crying must be like.
I was taken prisoner, the prize that would reestablish them upon their return. I was incarcerated in the infamous compound at Geer. Half a year later the war was over. Freed in that heady mood of tolerance toward bears that seemed to spring into existence from no place then, I found my way back to the factory. But for the soulless quiet about the place, nothing had changed. I buried the bodies the icy winter had left so monstrously intact, and made my way down the trapdoor. The vat yet awaited me, the shape inside grown larger. I broke it open with one blow, standing firm in the gush of fluids, and caught the shape in my arms as it slid past. It opened its eyes and bawled. She was my daughter, wet and brown and fuzzy, with blue eyes, and I took her from that place and raised her.
No, she was never a handsome sow, her snout not pronounced enough, fur a mere stunted mat, yet I loved her. She grew up and found a mate and bore my grandcubs, and they had no hair on their footpads. She became old but I did not. Death had no hold on me, I came to realize. The magick in those long-ago tubs had charmed me at the same time it was mingling Basqiant’s seed with mine. After my daughter died I put forth my name for the hardsleep, one of the slivers of men’s skienta not lost in the ravages of the war, the bears’ natural coldsleep made unnaturally long for those who would not look on the world as it had become. Ninety years I chose. When the time came for the white machine to close about me like a paw my family was there. There is a song bears sing when fall chills rack them and they sang it for me.
The withering down of all you know has begun,
the slow accretion to the ground of ash.
Your lover’s eyes are dull,
The snow will sing you a sleepy song.
I awoke to this world, of locomotives and timepieces, in which the enmity between man and bear has been utterly put to rout. The pittance I had banked was grown to a fortune, relations of whom I knew naught found me out and lavished their attentions on me and among bears at the least I am become famous. I learned to read; I dance at balls. Unquestioning I have taken on the culture of men, opera merely the most recent of my endeavors. Eschewing my brutish nature wherever I may.
To quell her disappointment, you understand.
I am grateful for this peace men have wrought. Scholars of the past admit now to those ancient experiments upon which I stumbled by chance, the godly endeavors of men to alter bears through matings with women, and their apologies are profuse, for the seed once planted, they aver, cannot be uprooted. With each generation bears’ natures are hewn down; we become piece by piece more like men, like you, Detective, meet citizens of this polite and passionless society, and it is certainly for the best. One flesh and all that.
I pray the violence I perpetrated in my rage has not endangered that peace. I saw the terror on those faces about me once the fit had left me. Trust between our people is such a delicate thing.
Accept my apology. Allow me to pay for the damages and we will surely be quit, you and I, the men and the bears.