Now you stay there, and listen to what I’m saying to you, said the very old woman. The little girl did as she was told. She couldn’t otherwise. She couldn’t get down from the tree by herself. Her feet hung from the big branch, bare and small. She was a very little girl, and it was a great and old tree.
What are you going to tell me? the little girl asked.
To keep still, to keep quiet.
Why? Don’t mine daddy want to see me?
Your daddy wants to see you all right, and that’s just the trouble. Now, you know we had a talk about all this. You got a nice place to stay, and you like it, too, don’t you? I got you all those nice, pretty things, all those color crayons. But, I’m saying, it’s a strange world out there, and your daddy’s a strange part of it.
I never met mine daddy.
And you won’t. Neither. You’ll stay put like I told you.
The very old woman walked to the front of the house. She stood with a broom in her hands and pretended to sweep the porch. Every so often, she would look back at the little girl. The little girl remained in the tree.
It had rained earlier that day. The tree was thick with leaves and the branch was dry, but the old woman’s hair had collected drops of water in her white curls. It was a misty day. It was a silvery day. It was a day that smelled like water.
The little girl watched the very old woman. She watched her sweep the porch and organize the wicker furniture. The old woman watched the forest, the way the leaves changed and turned up in the rain, the way the water ran from the roots.
Now, you mind me, you hear? the old woman said. I don’t want no trouble from you. I don’t want to hear a peep. You stay up there and, for lamb’s sake, pull your feet up. No use hiding if you’re feet are gonna show, is there? Stay still and, lamb’s sake child! Don’t breathe so loudly. I can hear you snorting a mile away.
I has a stuffed nose, the little girl said. I can breathe out of one, but not the other.
Hush, child! Hush! Listen. Listen to me. You know I’ve been good to you, kept you safe and sound. Well, there’s just a sad fact of life here, a very sad fact, that your daddy isn’t good for you. Some daddies are like that. They just aren’t good for their children. So, you stay here and we’ll keep on living like we’ve been, getting coloring books and dollies and going to school. I’ll even get you a TV, put in your room. And everything will be all right, just provided you stay put in that tree. And don’t make a sound.
But, what if I want to see mine daddy?
That’s why you’re in that tree, ain’t it? So you can see and know that I’m right with what I’m talking about. You’ll know I’m right. And there’ll be no more nonsense. Not like your mamma. Never did listen to me. And we have so much here, a nice little house your granddaddy provided. Never could understand that child, never did. Never will.
I miss mamma.
Course you do, love! Course you do. And someday we’ll get her back here, won’t we? But, for now, you just keep your mouth shut and watch out. You’ll see your daddy all right, and when you do you’ll know. I’m right. You’ll see it, even if your mamma never did.
I miss mamma!
Hush! He’s here. I heard someone walking in that brush.
The very old woman walked back to the porch. She looked off into the woods. The mist hung in the spruce and the hemlock, like it was caught in the branches. It didn’t drift. It was still. The only movement was the water running in the trees and pooling in the lawn. The air was cold. The little girl shivered. She had no shoes and no jacket. Shoes made noise, and her jacket was bright red. In the leaves, she was a shadow from the porch, and nothing at all from the woods. Still, the old woman did not look at her. She looked away, at the forest. By her side, she had a Browning leaning against the porch railing. It was loaded and the safety was off.
There was a smell, and it was stale and wet. It was musty, like leaves moldering in summer. There was a crunching in the trees. The woman watched and waited.
That you, you goodfornothing bastard? Don’t think I don’t know you, you goddamn vagrant! The old woman shouted. She lifted the rifle. I know it’s you! What’s that stink? From driving that goddamn truck? With dogs in it, no doubt. Like a traveling kennel, it smells like shit and piss.
You get anywhere near me and my house and you’re gonna get a full blast in the face, she said. And don’t you think the cops won’t side with me, because they will. I got stand my ground and Castle Law. That’s the law, buddy boy, and you know it and I know it. You come along and say your bit, and I’ll let you be, but try one damn thing and I’ll blow the top off your face, so help me Jesus Christ!
There was no reply, and no one came out of the woods. The little girl was silent. She kept her head down on the branch and waited. The smell was still there. It lingered in the windless air, like the mist and the dew in the old woman’s hair. It stayed thick as taste.
That goddamn coward bastard. You always was like this, ever since you was a kid. I been thinking of things and things to tell you, all these years. You’re nothing but a hobo, you know that. You’re not whatever you think you are, some gypsy or pirate, bullshit. My baby girl may have fallen in with you, but I sure as hell know what you are. Dumb white trash. Get out of them bushes and say your piece, and maybe I’ll not kill you outright.
There was still no reply. The old woman walked from the porch. She carried the Browning over one arm, where it’s easy to lift and shoot. She walked with heavy steps, leaving puddles in the lawn.
I’m gonna count to three, the old woman said. One, two… Three!
She lifted the gun, cocked it, and fired off a shot into the bushes, about level with a man’s knees. There was a sound then, something like broken car with a faulty break line, something like wheezing and chuffing. The bushes broke and crashed around the front of the yard. There was something very large coming through the trees. The old woman stepped back. She opened her mouth, but she didn’t have anything left to say. For a moment, she was frozen, looking at the place where the trees bent and swayed. She began to try to ready to gun, and her fingers shook.
From the trees, a great shadow poured into the yard. Then, behind it, the bushes bent. It charged out, with a snarl and a curl of lip over teeth, a brown bear big as a pickup. Its eyes were small and dark, its fur thick and heavy. It charged and stopped just in front of the old woman. It pawed at the puddles on the ground. It stood up on hind legs.
The gun went off. The old woman didn’t fire it, but it went off all the same, right at the bear’s side, grazing past fur. The bear swiped its paw at the old woman. She fell. It was the way moths fell when swiped by cats. One moment she was standing and the next she was on the ground. The bear sniffed her, picked her up in its teeth and drug her to the side. The very old woman didn’t move then. The gun was on the ground, nearby. But, she didn’t get it. She did nothing at all.
From above, the little girl watched all this, watched the bear chuff in the grass, watched it lick its wound. It moaned a bit, a whine really. Like a dog.
Mine daddy? the girl whispered. Then, louder, as she saw the black blood on the bear’s hind leg. Are you mine daddy?
The bear looked around the yard. It swayed its head side to side. It sniffed, that old-truck wheezing from before. Its smell was heavy and rank. She let her bare feet dangle. She leaned from the branch in the tree. The bear looked up at her, and she looked back down. It stood on hind legs and put its paws on the trunk.
I’m not supposed to talk to you, the little girl said. I didn’t know why. Are you mind daddy?
The bear didn’t roar. The sound it made wasn’t like the sounds bears make on the cartoons. It was a loud yawning, followed by that chuffing noise, the wheezing sniffs. It stood a little taller and looked up the tree. Its eyes were black and smooth and slanted, like it was cross-eyed, peering down its snout. In those eyes, the little girl could see her reflection staring back at her. She could see her face, and in her face her mother’s face, which she knew from old Christmases. She could see the band around the bear’s eyes, and it was amber, like her own eyes, amber as honey and as sunflowers and forest fires.
Mine daddy, the little girl whispered. She reached her hand down. She reached her hand as far as she could dare, and laid it against the top of the bear’s nose.
Chloe Donaldson is a recent MA graduate from Bangor University, North Wales. She has spent the last few years writing and traveling to interesting places. She currently works in West Yellowstone, where she will spend the winter with a snow mobile company.