The trees are old in the forest of Arden. They hold many secrets. The greenest grow at the border of the tame world. Supple firs and bendy pines peak above sprawling hardwoods. Tall, wide oaks dot the perimeter charming the senses with song birds and the fluffy-tailed squirrels. Lush moss carpets the fallen. Ferns share the barracks of mycological troops. Raptors rest in the crowns of conifers. From this vantage point, their keen eyes watch the aspens sough in the meadows that surround the heart. The soft rustling of green an auditory sign post for bat and owl. The harsher clacking of gold in autumn a gentle warning to those who journey past them.
The animals kept the trees’ secrets and the trees kept theirs. An owl watched the shadow of a bear in the moonlight. The bear smelled of bear. It was a familiar smell. Part predator, part protection. Fear and blood mixed with death and safety. Its full winter coat made it appear even more massive than it was. Or maybe that was a trick of age. It moved quickly but unhurried through the trees. Despite its size, it made noise only when it wanted. The leaves did not crackle or crunch beneath the huge paws. It was a shadow moving through shadows. There was a small child upon its back. It swayed gently with the roll and pitch of the bears’ progress. The child, like the bear, smelled of death and safety. It exhaled winter from its lungs into the warm night. Fluffy ice pretending to be smoke. They were out of place in a place out of time.
Many forests become dense and impenetrable as you approach their wild hearts. Not Arden. Arden is barren at its core. Even the trees avoid the heart of Arden. An old burn, hot and furious, purged the balance long ago. Ancient flames sterilized the soil. The final circle of trees bare the wounds of light and heat. Wounds that never healed. Halfdead sentinels at the gateway to a graveyard. Hollowed out husks-turned-homes for the adaptable survivor. Lizards scurry over ash, caked and cracked on skeletal tree remains. Lichen clings to the boulders but has made little progress at restoration. A millennia of rains could not wash the rage from this place. Arden was a master’s circle of arboreal survival spiraling outward to safety. At the center, a single rowan corpse stretches empty branches towards the sky.
Arkto could feel the child’s hands in his fur. The same strange pressure he woke with in a different place, in a different time, when he was a different bear. Arkto recalled how he tried to get rid of it. He took it straight to the river. He remembered how it was finally dislodged when he shook on the far bank. It was a tiny thing. Much smaller than a bear cub. It lay shaking in the litter. Arkto could not smell it, which is troubling for a bear. A bear who can’t smell has very few seasons left. Arkto cleared his snout several times then roared hoping to elicit the proper smells. The child planted its four scrawny limbs, cleared its snout a few times and screeched back at him. Annoyed and somewhat worried at the absence of fear scent, Arkto reared to his full height and startled most of the mountain with a second roar. The air filled with the fright of his woodland neighbors. He could even smell the wolverine on the far side, deep in its den. The child stood and screeched back at him. Arkto dropped down and stuck his nose directly into the child’s soft center and inhaled. It smelled of rage and annoyance. It smelled like Arkto. Then it rumbled and patted Arkto. When Arkto returned to his den at sundown, the child was there.
The bear thought about that spring as they moved through the forest of Arden. Arkto the mighty, and his mostly-hairless cub. The child had been injured by its elders. They were terrified of bears so it felt the safest place to recover was with the biggest bear it could find. It taught Arkto how to disable and avoid the hunters’ traps. It brought honey from the beehive he could not reach. They played pranks on the wolverine and the fox. It scratched the winter coat from Arkto. He enjoyed it. The child would climb onto Arkto and Arkto would climb the mountain. At the top, they would watch the stars. On the way down, the child would try to stand on his back while he ran. They howled with the wolves and rumbled. The moon after equinox brought news. The dangerous elders had left. The child could return to its own. Arkto remembered his den feeling hollow after. The child had grown though the bear could hardly feel its weight as he walked.
“Arkto, this is not our forest.”
“I am aware you think that.” The bear knew. The child had to find it within itself. “You left honey for me.”
“How many winters has it been?” The first time Arkto walked this forest was the winter the child came to him.
“Five in our forest. I don’t think it is winter here. It smells like rain after a fire.” He felt a shift. The child was standing. Its balance had improved. Its limbs were strong. Arkto rumbled and took a few paces at a gallop. The child rumbled joyfully, faltered but remained standing. Arkto slowed, his limbs were not as strong. “You are tired.” The child smelled of concern.
“I have seen 36 winters. For a bear, that is a lot.” Arkto was resigned.
“This one is my tenth. It feels like a lot.” It was lowering its center. Arkto could feel it adjusting its weight through his shoulders.
“Humans.” The bear chortled.
“Yes, but you nap through the terrible bits.” It was laying on him now, scratching his ears. He loved when it scratched his ears.
“We all make choices. Bears are just smarter than humans.” Arkto was grateful for the gentle strength of the child’s fingers.
“I’m grateful for it. Is that why you didn’t eat me?”
“Yes. You were scrawny. I thought your bones would be too spiky and get stuck in my teeth, like porcupine quills. I was hoping you’d fatten up over the summer. Why do you think I kept trying to get you to eat the salmon?”
“Was that why you kept slapping me with a fish and knocking me down river? Humans really are stupid.”
“You were a slow learner.”
“I am aware. Speaking of porcupines, how’s the tail?”
“We promised never to talk about that.”
“My bad. I’m just a stupid human.” The child patted his head.
“You were smart enough to survive a winter as a bear.”
“Well, I had a good teacher. If I was smarter, I would have stayed.” Arkto felt the edges of regret scratching his cub’s heart.
“You had to go. All cubs must make their own way.” Truth did not sooth them. Change is the way of things. They were both aware that they were on different paths.
They moved in silence until they came to a meadow filled with aspens. The bear sat and the child slid from it. The bear and his child watched the stars for several minutes.
“How did we come to this place?”
“I cannot answer that.”
“Bears.” The child rolled its eyes. Arkto rumbled again.
“The first time I saw your eyes do that, I thought you had died.”
“Yes. The eye rolling is a human expression. Bears do not have an equivalent.” The child rumbled again.
“I always felt getting slapped in the face with a fish was the bear equivalent of the eye roll.” They rumbled together for a time. “Arkto, I am scared. I feel I am at the edge of something that I cannot possibly endure.” It nuzzled into his shoulder. Arkto rolled back on his haunches and embraced it. The child still fit into his arms.
“I do not have a fish, child, but I feel you need me to slap you with one.” He felt the tension release as it chortled.
“I’m serious you dumb bear. Not everything can be solved by knocking me down river.” It was curling its toes around his claws. Arkto curled them upwards and the child curled its feet down. This small flexing and release had been a wonder to Arkto. Bears spend less than two winters as cubs. Male bears do not rear young. It makes them forget the simple discovery of how we fit into a space with others, how others fit into a space with us. The child’s toes pulled slightly at the fur between his pads. Its feet were twice as big as they had been, yet still so tiny compared to the bear’s. They were still curiously cold yet radiating heat into Arkto. Skin to skin, the only part of him not covered in fur. It was a unique sensation between him and the child. There was no other experience like it.
“Sometimes it helps. You always found your way back to the den. Which was annoying. Though that is the nature of cubs and so I was proud.” The child was startled and looked at him with wide eyes. “What?”
“You were proud? Of me?”
“Of course I was. Stupid human. You found your own way. Every time you made it back to the den, I heard the bear within you.” This was the truth of the child. A bear is a bear, you are what you are. Yet Arkto the Mighty found a bear inside a small child. The discovery was a wonder to them both.
“That was my stomach, growling in hunger. You dumb fur ball.” Arkto slowly rose so the child was standing on its own. He nuzzled its soft center. It rumbled as it did the day they met.
“I felt your strength but smelled no fear. A cub becoming. I had never felt pride in something else’s survival before, only my own. Pride in myself for surviving. You changed an old bear into something new. You found a way for us both.” The child’s face was leaking. Crying. The wind tried to snatch the tears but they clung to Arkto. As the strange child had. The wind could not separate bear from child either.
“I brought us here.” It whispered. The bear nodded. “This is our forest while you are sleeping.” He nodded again. “You are sleeping now, in your den.” Dreaming. Arkto lay down and rolled to scratch his back. The ground was rocky here. The child watched him in the starlight. The wind lifted its hair. It closed its eyes and inhaled. The aspens softly applauded. An owl asked the question neither bear nor child could articulate. It echoed around them. The answer was close. The wind brought ash with it from the center.
“Child,” The bear got to its feet. “My time in the world is ending.”
“I know.” The child climbed onto his back. “You are a part of this forest, if you wish.” The owl questioned them again.
“I would like that very much.” They began walking again in the direction of the answer. “Don’t be lazy up there, scratch my ears.” They rumbled together as the child scratched the bear’s ears. Arkto knew the child would find a way to make this old forest new again. He could feel the fire within, smoldering just below the surface. He felt it in his paws when they touched the earth. Arkto followed it.
Arkto’s paws sent swirls of ash into the air. He stopped. “I can go no further.” The ash settled onto the fur at his feet.
“What happens now?”
“I cannot answer that.”
“Ugh, bears.” The child rolled its eyes.
“If I had a fish…” Arkto sat. The child clung to him.
“I will find my way back to the den.” It whispered into the back of Arkto’s neck. He could feel the tears. Arkto barked suddenly. It was strangely involuntary. He felt the absence of the child and smelled smoke on the wind. “Thank you, Arkto.” The child kissed the bear between the eyes. They breathed each other. They walked the dream of their meeting. Arkto calling the earth through him like thunder, the child screeching. Arkto cleared his snout causing the child to smile, mostly smile. Together, they walked the trails in a distant wood, in a different season.
Smoke rose from the center of the rowan. They smelled it. The forest where they began arrived in the forest where they were. Resolve caught them. The child turned to face the tree. Resolve was sticky. It is one thing to decide to do a thing, it is quite another to begin. “Bring honey.” He nudged it gently from behind. “Be what you are.” The bear turned and walked back into the woods. The child looked back over its shoulder. The bear was gone. An owl called from the rowan tree. The child would be gone soon.
She moved across the barren towards the heart. The ground was hard and hot under her feet. This forest was real somewhere outside the Dreaming. She must make the journey in both places, in the same seasons. She read the stars above her. The air smelled of lightning, smoke, and smolder. Thin rivers of heat flowed through the rowan’s roots just beneath her feet. She felt them like veins under the skin, her skin. She called the earth through her and released thunder into the clear night. The wind of a thousand wigs fled to the outer circles of Arden. The forest floor appeared to ripple with scurrying paws and hooves through the litter. Even the ash jumped from the child’s skin, dislodged as the earth ran through it. White-hot lightning crackled from the branches. Fissures in the trunk reveal embers within. She reached out and let the flames consume her.
The owl watched the child place its hand on the trunk. It answered the question without words. Flames shot into the sky as the phoenix was released from its core. The heart of Arden reborn from ashes.
Desiree Ducharme is a writer. Her semi-voluntary, health-adjacent sabbatical has ended. She has returned to full time employment at Powell’s City of Books in a dragon-adjacent capacity. She resumed her previous schedule of imagining nonsense while on public transportation, which is less populated yet somehow more post-apocalypse-y than it was in March. She spends her days verbally and non-verbally asking people to fix their masks and step back. She longs for a day where she can complain about her “buyer’s wing” being sore. So, fix your mask and step back. Read more words at her website desireeducharme.com.