Art: Ivan Shishkin [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ashlee Fuoco

It was not something he was proud of, but rather something he’d never thought he would need to do. And in the past four years, he had been lucky enough to never encounter the situation at all. Jacob had been fortunate to live in absolute peace with nature, but as nature would have it, a balance needed to be maintained. In the past week his berry bushes had been devoured, his vegetables trampled, and his chicken count dwindled down to a mere four hens and one rooster. Predators are common, of course, deep in the woods of northern New Hampshire. It seemed Jacob’s hard-earned, self-sufficient lifestyle had finally become prey to a natural competitor. After a long day’s walk along the stream bordering his property, he made up his mind that he must kill the animal or risk losing all of his resources. That night, the bullet shot out of his 30-30 rifle with might and meaning, gouging into the predator’s heart. The death was quick and quiet and as Jacob bowed his head to voice his remorse, a stream of salty tears crept down through his beard.

*   *   *

Mabel’s rose-gold hair fanned out on the surface of the water as she rested her tired body in the soft, healing hands of the lake. Precisely two weeks ago at this time she was walking the stage, receiving her diploma in a room full of unfamiliar faces that were cheering just a bit too enthusiastically. Each of her peers exhibited the same generic, proud smile as if it was stamped on in an assembly line. Graduation meant transition. Mabel could not resist her mind’s urge to wander off during the ceremony, because she had not the slightest inkling of what she wanted to transition to. The smiles surrounding her had been symbolic of hope and assurance, neither of which she had.

The splash of a playful rainbow trout hit her face, pulling her away from her unforgiving thoughts. The sun shone down between tree limbs that shaded the lake, leaving an ever-moving design on her pale skin as she swayed back and forth in the lake’s ripples. Mabel moved towards the farther edge of the lake that connects to a calm stream. As she got closer, she heard a faint cry in the distance. The cry grew louder and lonelier. The image of a lost puppy came to her and she impulsively ran out of the water, threw her clothes messily over her naked body, and ran off in the direction of the wailing.

Her heavy breathing stopped short, as did the crying, as Mabel met eyes with a young bear cub. Struck first with instinct, she backed away from the cub fearful that the mother was nearby. Slowly stepping backwards, Mabel watched as the young bear looked up at her from its tiny self on the ground, starting to cry again as she got farther away. The cub’s eyes held a human expression, one of panic and helplessness, emotions that are all too familiar to Mabel lately. Danger was no longer a primary concern to Mabel as she gravitated once again towards the scared cub. It was clear that the bear was in bad shape. Its wet nose was covered in dirt and burs were clinging to its ragged fur. During this physical assessment, Mabel not only discovered that she was now directly beside the cub, but also that the crying had ceased. After a quick sniff of her feet, the bear nudged Mabel’s leg as if looking for attention. This nudge left crusty blood against Mabel’s calf. The bear was injured and alone.

“You don’t have a mother, do you little one?” Mabel said as she knelt down to pet the cub’s dark, gnarled fur. A piercing thunderclap caused the bear to jump and barrel right into her knees, and it started to whine again. Water poured down forcefully around them. “Shit, I can’t leave you all alone. You’re probably too young to be on your own anyway.” As Mabel thought aloud she realized she had no choice but to bring the bear back to the summer house with her. She gently picked it up and cradled it in her arms as she would a baby. Its claws dug into her skin for a moment, but it remained pretty calm considering the circumstances.

Night was upon them, and the storm clouds hid any moonlight that could have helped her travel the path back to the old farmhouse her eccentric aunt left to the family after her death. As a graduation gift, Mabel’s family decided to let her have the house to herself for the summer. For this she was eternally grateful; an escape from the busy world was just what she needed. Not to mention, it is probably only appropriate to bring a bear home to an empty house, void of concerned family members. Mabel’s arms tired under the pressure of the cub, who has become so comfortable with human contact that it had fallen asleep. Her rushed walking now turned into a jog as she began to worry they will never reach the house.

“Am I even going in the right direction?!” Mabel yelled out, now in full panic mode. She clutched the bear tighter in response to her sudden anxiety and it yelped out.

“Ahh sorry!” She said to the injured cub, then laughed at the apology, rolling her eyes to herself. Slowing down, Mabel took in her surroundings and her gaze stopped at what looked like a lit house a quarter of a mile away.

With the cub in one arm, she banged relentlessly on the door with the other until she could hear footsteps within. The door creaked open, and behind it stood a weathered man in his early thirties. His dark green flannel was open, revealing a muscled stomach and just enough chest hair to get Mabel excited. None of the boys she had known at school had chest hair. Or if they did, they shaved it.

Her admiring stare was broken by the feel of his hand on hers, as he grabbed the cub into his own arms and then guided her into his house, out of the storm.

“A beautiful young woman…and her black bear?” He said to break the silence, a smile opened his mouth to reveal perfect white teeth. As she walked into his home, she frantically tried to explain what was going on, but he didn’t appear to be listening. His attention was drawn to the fabric of her drenched clothes that clung to her skin and her wet hair stuck along her cheekbones.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” He looked down at the cub to hide his embarrassment. “Here, let’s go have a seat, you look exhausted, and you can tell me the whole story.”

Mabel walked herself over to the couch she saw hidden away to the left of the door.

“I was swimming in a lake nearby here today and I heard a cry. I thought it was a dog so I went to go see and it ended up being this little girl here. I don’t think she has a mother and she’s hurt,” Mabel spit it all out and then took a deep breath. “Also… the storm hit and it got dark and I couldn’t find my way back to the house I’m staying at. I’m not from around here so I guess I just got lost,” She said, defeated.

“I see…” He looked at the cub and his head felt heavy. Son of a bitch, I must have killed this poor cub’s mother, he thought to himself and tried to mask his growing regret.

“I’m Mabel, by the way.”

The man didn’t say anything. He was deep in thought; his callused hand ran through his thick, untamed beard.

“Should I leave..?” Mabel became very uncomfortable, worried she’s inconveniencing this wild, beautiful man. The cub however seemed to have grown quite fond of the man, having laid her head right on his crotch, once again falling asleep.

“No, no! I’m sorry, it’s just been a long couple of days. Of course, you’ll stay here tonight. The storm’s not going to be lettin’ up any time soon.” He’s wondered how to explain the bear meat that has taken over his kitchen. Maybe she’ll think it’s just a lot of deer meat, he hoped. “Mabel, that’s a sweet name. I’m Jacob.” Mabel smiled at him and then tried to contain her shivers.

“Watch her for a moment?” Jacob said as he got up and left the room. He returned seconds later with a towel, a blue flannel, and some sweatpants. “Here, I’m sure those wet clothes aren’t too comfortable. The bathroom is right back there, past the kitchen.”

While she changed, Jacob made up the couch for her, giving her extra blankets and one too many pillows. He’d never had a woman stay over his house before. He hadn’t even been with a woman since his ex-wife about four years ago. The thought made him nervous, but also excited. Mabel came back in the room, and when he saw her slim body comfortably covered in his own clothes it aroused him. Jesus, he thought.

“I’ll bring the cub in with me for the night so you can get some rest” he told her and then left her to her privacy.

Two hours later, Mabel was still laying there, wide awake. She’d taken blankets off, and put them back on at least a dozen times, creating different combinations. Quilt and sheet. Sheet and comforter. No blanket. But she just couldn’t get comfortable; she couldn’t get sleepy. She couldn’t find it in herself to lay there and casually fall asleep while in the home of someone she didn’t know. She wasn’t scared of being alone with this man, but she wasn’t quite comfortable with the situation either. After a while of going over the options in her head, she decided to see if he was still awake.

Mabel got up, let her hair down, and unbuttoned the flannel a bit. She knocked on the door loud enough to be heard but quiet enough so the cub didn’t scare.

“Jacob…” She waited anxiously hoping he wouldn’t mind her intrusion. He opened the door with a curious but welcoming expression.

“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t sleep. I’ve been worried about the cub. Is she okay?” Mabel asked as she peers into his room.

“She’s quite a sassy little thing. But yes, she’s fine. Would you like to come in and pet her for a while?” He propped his pillows up so they could sit together on his bed.

Following his lead, she sat down on the bed next to him. The cub climbed up on to the bed and clumsily ran over to her, crashing happily into her lap. She was just like a dog, but with much sharper claws and bigger teeth. Mabel kept her eyes on the cub, too anxious to look at Jacob and not sure what to say.

“So I hope you don’t mind.. I took to callin’ this little one, Oakley. You know, like after An—“

“Annie Oakley! Yes, that’s perfect. A great name for her I think,” Mabel exclaimed, thinking she couldn’t have picked a better name herself. She laughed, and Jacob did too. A rough, husky laugh.

The next few hours were filled with endless conversation. Jacob asked all about her schooling and her goals and how long she planned to stay in New Hampshire. She admitted that nothing’s decided because she’s not too sure what life has in store for her yet. She asked about his past, what caused him to live out in the woods like this, providing for himself, going through such hard work. He told her of his failed marriage as a young man and the debt his wife put him in; materialism that he had tried so hard to get away from.

“She wanted a lifestyle that I couldn’t afford. And honestly, it was a lifestyle that I didn’t want to afford. I’ve always been a simple man. So when we ended our short-lived marriage, I decided to move out here and live the way I’d always imagined man should live.” Jacob turned to look at Mabel. They were both slouched down, and their shoulders touched as they laid side by side. Oakley was fast asleep between them, on her back with her paws up in the air and her head rested against Mabel’s thigh.

Mabel looked at him deeply, so inspired by his passion for life and the way he’s decided to live it. She felt a deep envy, but great respect for how he had molded his life in opposition to society’s expectations. He seems more content than anyone I know, she thought. Breaking their eye contact, Jacob gently picked Oakley up and placed her on the arm chair beside his bed where she would sleep for the night on an old, ratty quilt. Mabel took a deep breath and just as he laid back down, she grabbed his face and kissed him hard. Surprised, he returned the kiss, equally as passionate. That was the first of many nights on which they made love.

The next morning, however, Jacob was ridden with guilt. A stunning woman came to his home, desperate for help with an orphaned bear cub, and the man she sought help from was the one reason the bear was motherless in the first place. She deserves to know the truth, he told himself. Mabel woke up and turned towards Jacob.

“Good morning” she smiled.

“Mabel, I want to tell you something about the cub..” He looked over to Oakley, who was on the chair, calmly licking her paws. “A few days ago I was having quite a hard time. My chickens were disappearing, my crops trampled, I was worried I’d start running out of food. I caught a black bear in the back yard and.. I had no choice.. I had to shoot her..” Mabel looked at him while tears welled up in the corners of her large green eyes. She got up from the bed and picked Oakley up, nestling her up to her face.

“I don’t know what else to say. I wish I hadn’t had to do it Mabel, I really do. I didn’t know she had a cub nearby. I’d never hurt an animal without reason. Please understand.” He looked at her with pleading eyes. He was on trial, and her forgiveness was his saving grace.

Mabel sat back on the bed, Oakley was still in her arms and gently gnawing on her fingers.

“You did what you needed to do to survive. I get that. It just really, really sucks that this poor little girl has to suffer for it.” She patted the cub’s back as a sympathetic gesture. “So you better believe we’re going to take extra good care of her until she’s ready to go out on her own. Okay?” Mabel looked at him, a sternness in her expression that he found himself admiring.

“Yes, my lady, I’d say that’s quite the fair deal,” Jacob sighed, relieved, and then kissed her on the cheek. Mabel laid back down and fell back to sleep, imagining herself staying in New Hampshire for autumn, and beyond.