At Solihull Writers Workshop next Wednesday, the theme of the evening is a piece of science fiction writing. I'm not very interested in space ships and aliens, so I'm taking a piece of fantasy along with me in the hope it will provide a small diversion.
“Grandpa, how long have you had a bear living in the garden?”
Jack Robbins put down the runner beans he was planting in large pots in the greenhouse and regarded his granddaughter, Jessica, carefully. The fair-haired nine year old was not given to telling fairy stories.
“I didn’t know we had a bear living in the garden. “
“I saw him last night when I was getting a drink of water from the kitchen. I looked out of the window towards Stow church and saw him in between the plum tree blossom and the apple tree.”
“What was he doing?”
“Nothing at first. He was just a large, black shape until he rose up on his hind legs. It was definitely a bear. He was covered in long, black fur apart from his belly, which was cream. He must have seen me because I heard him growl. It was very frightening, so I put the light off and went to bed.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“You were out in the barn. I knew if I told someone, they’d just say I was making it up, but I’m not. I’ve found his tracks. Come and look.”
Jessica led him to the flattened grass at the base of the Victoria plum tree, then walked slowly across the lawn to the flower border.
“Can you see his prints? He must be very big. He left me a bunch of violets.” She held the fragrant bundle up to her face and breathed in the scent.
Jack shook his head. He had to admit there was something in the grass, but his brain could not accept there were bear tracks leading out of his garden. Bears didn’t live in the Cotswolds; wolves, maybe, when the hills were wooded before the Bronze Age, but not now in the 21st century and no animal left a bunch of violets as a gift.
“I shouldn’t worry about him, Jess,” he said gruffly. “Let me know if you see him again.” And he went back to finish planting beans.
Jessica did see him again, but not until she was a young woman, busy with her life in the city.
“Do you think I dreamed him?” Jess asked her friend, Mark, one day when they were sitting outside one of the small cafes they liked to frequent after work. She trusted Mark. He didn’t make fun of her when she talked about the strange things she’d seen and done as a child. The bear was not the only creature to enter her world. There was also the black unicorn she saw regularly in the bottom field when she was growing up.
Mark shrugged, “It doesn’t really matter whether you were awake or asleep, he came to you and you remember him.” He took another swallow of his drink. “They say bears help you to know yourself and give you strength to trust your intuition. Maybe he came to show you how to be wild and free?”
Suddenly the wind got up and Jess shivered, pulling her cardigan around her shoulders.
“There is maybe one more thing.” He paused, pointing to black clouds travelling across the sky, a brilliant window of sunlight streaming through their midst. “You said the bear had two colours, black and cream?”
“Maybe there is also balance to be considered. Male and female, tamed and free; there are so many things your bear could bring you.”
“Shall I see him again?”
Mark grew still, as if listening for the answer in the wind rustling leaves and stray paper along the pavement.
“I think he will come to you again. If you have courage, go with him and learn more.”
A few weeks later, Jess drove to the farm to visit her grandparents, travelling through fading, evening light. As she turned into the village, roads were wet, the sky lit by lightning rods and echoes of thunder.
“Shut the hens up for me, will you?” said her grandfather as she opened the car door. “I meant to do it earlier, but it was raining too hard and I shrink if I get wet these days.”
Jess found her boots out of the back of the car and with the ancient straw egg basket on her arm; she went up to the rickyard to fasten the henhouse door.
It was dark, the only light coming from an ancient railway lamp at the top of the drive. She could smell moisture left by the departing storm. All around her the sky crackled with electricity before being broken apart by the thunder cracks rolling overhead. Diligently, she opened the slats into the nesting boxes, searching through warm hay for fresh eggs, placing her bounty in the curved base of the basket.
When she could find no more, she made her way back to the gate, stopping for a moment to rest the basket on the sharp stone commers on the wall. She looked over to the horizon, watching another burst of lightning cross the clouds. Just as the brilliance faded, she thought she saw the familiar shape of a bear standing in the field across the road.
When she looked again, a man stood on the roadside near a young ash tree just on the edge of the lamplight. He was tall with soft, black hair framing an aquiline face. His nose was long and his lips, thick and sensuous. It was hard to judge his age. His large frame and broad shoulders spoke of maturity and strength. He smiled, his eyes crinkling as if amused by Jess’ considered gaze.
“Do you always rob your hens so late in the evening?” His voice was deep, yet soft, as if carried on the disappearing storm. Despite his sudden appearance, Jess did not feel threatened. She had the uncanny feeling she had seen him before.
“Not usually, my grandmother collects them when she feeds the hens at lunchtime, but she’s not been well.”
“Would you bring me a dozen tomorrow when you come to tea?”
“You’re Arthur Britton?” Jess held out her hand in greeting. Her grandfather mentioned they were invited to visit the next door neighbour over the weekend. “Glad to meet you.”
She felt warm, rough leather grip her palm and when she looked down; she could have sworn her hand was covered by a bear’s paw.
“We’ve met before, Jessica,” he said, his grip firm as he looked deep into her blue eyes. “You were only a child then, but I knew you would remember me."
As his hand fall back to his side, Jess saw a bunch of violets left on her palm. Without thinking, she brought the fragrant blossoms to her nose, savouring the subtle scent.
When she looked up again, he was gone, with no sound of departing footsteps along the road.