By Joanne Merriam
4 October 2004
The tundra buggy, a Hummer-like vehicle on thousand-pound tires that kept its passengers five or six feet above the heads of the polar bears, bounced over a rock submerged in the snaking, slushy river previous trips had created. Jennifer felt it in her spine.
"You okay?" she asked Don, and he nodded absently, his attention wholly focused on the bears lying in the snow several yards away. One of his hands was bunched up in a fist, which he held in a sustained punch against the back of the seat in front of them, balancing on his bony knees on her lap. The buggy rocked to a stop with a final squelch, and Jennifer turned on her camera.
A willow ptarmigan flew overhead. She focused carefully: click, ptarmigan. Click, bear against snow. Click, bear raising muzzle. Click, Don watching bear. Click, sullen sky, and Hudson Bay in the distance.
The bears opened their mouths, breathing soft clouds. Their fur, faintly yellow against the blue-white of the snow, looked soft, too, though she was sure it would be wiry under her fingers, not plush. These weren't plush creatures; seconds earlier they'd been wrestling, and the winner had bitten the other's throat, ceremonially, not drawing blood. Their power was obvious. Still, they looked soft.
"Sometimes they eat baby bears," the tour guide said, "which is why that mother and cub you see in the distance will keep clear of these juveniles."
The tourists obediently turned in the direction he indicated, and the man in the seat behind her got out his telescopic lens. Shutters clicked as several passengers tried to photograph the smudge in the distance they'd been told was the mother and cub. Jennifer watched the juveniles, who were sniffing the air, turn their heads toward the distant family and do nothing.
"While they're in their walking hibernation phase, they only make minimal efforts to catch prey."
As if on cue, one of the bears flopped down on the snow. The pads of his toes and feet were black, and his legs all pointed toward them. The fur on his stomach was damp from the snow, and looked matted, but clearly the wet didn't bother him. This was a creature with no cares. Jennifer sighed, suddenly possessed by an almost crippling desire to be what she never could be again. Don turned his ferocious attention on her and frowned. "Shh," he said. Jennifer mirrored his frown comically, and his tense little body relaxed against hers as he laughed, and the polar bears stood up in unison and came over to the side of the buggy.
Click, bear. Click, bear. Jennifer messed with the settings between frames, hoping at least some of the photos would show the sharpness of the air, the almost supernatural brightness of everything in this place that, of all places, should have the least supernatural influence. It was too damn cold up here to get spooky. The sky was a china plate bouncing light back onto the snow, and some of the pictures were bound to be overexposed. But the sky was too miserly to let go of its white load before nightfall.
The bear with the wetter fur shook himself and, in the time it took to blink, turned into a man.
Her life pre-Don was like this: she rode a camel into the Sahara and slept under the stars, was molested in Naples, and made messy, inaccurate busts of her travelling companions in Paris. She slept in train stations across Canada, in churches across Europe, and in Central Park, once, on a fifty-buck bet, surrounded by a ring of juniper and dill to keep her safe, and lost her wallet but not her soul. She watched aurora borealis from the bed of an Alaskan pickup truck, the wavering curtain of royal blue obscuring Orion and the sliver of moon. She worked as a waitress illegally in three countries. She got crabs from a vampire in Prague and mixed her medicine with holy water, and it worked. She drank enspelled pig's blood with a coven in Norfolk (it tasted like gravy), tequila straight up with seven naval officers in Mexico City (it tasted like urine), and sugared absinthe with addicts in Toronto (it tasted like mouthwash).
At an underground club in London, she learned the simplest sword dances of the dragon-hunters and then used them in the ruins of Pompeii. She sold the photos of the dragon's carcass to Time Magazine. They called it a photo essay and paid her six months' wages.
A rash, random one-night stand and she started throwing up mornings. The doctors said a mistake in figuring the time change after a long flight had weakened the effectiveness of her contraception. Will ye nill ye she had to settle down. She told people she didn't mind losing her freedom because that's what they wanted to hear, and gritted her teeth, and learned how to assemble the impossible electric baby swings, how to change diapers, what wards to set on her apartment to keep out baby-loving werewolves, how to operate on snatches of sleep, how to pay the bills with nothing. By the time he learned to talk she loved him.
The man who was a bear looked up at Don, and Don grinned down, delighted, and waved. Jennifer closed the window. Around her, the other tourists were doing the same. The other bear went around to the back of the buggy, behind its postage stamp of a balcony. The man with the telescopic lens was scattering pennyroyal along the thin metal windowsill and muttering something.
"Get us out of here!" somebody said, but the tour guide was opening the back door, white fur sprouting on his hands. Three of the tourists ganged up on him, pushing him out onto the balcony even as he changed into a bear, and locked the door. Some of his clothes, torn to shreds as he expanded inside them, caught between the door and its frame, and fell limply against the metal. One of the tourists got a vicious swipe across the chest for his trouble, and an argument broke out about whether or not that meant he was infected, or even contagious. The man with the telescopic lens volunteered his herbs, some of which they packed into the wound.
The bear who was their tour guide beat dents into the door. Jennifer rummaged in her backpack. "Stay here, baby, okay?" she said to Don.
He looked at her solemnly, having picked up the mood of the adults by now.
"Don't move off this seat until Mommy tells you it's okay."
Don nodded, and Jennifer pulled out her sword. She hadn't used it in years, but nobody else seemed capable of defending them. "Anybody got a gun?" she asked, and several of the men went for their sidearms. "Silver bullets?" A general shaking of heads. Jennifer sighed and walked toward the back door, which was beginning to sag inwards under the tour guide's beating.
Jennifer yelled the generic challenge at it, and heard the bear thump down on all fours on the balcony outside. So they honored the challenges, or at least pretended to. She swept her sword out of its scabbard, and breathed. The tundra buggy lurched forward. Somebody was trying to drive. That was fine. She didn't need steady ground.
In Pompeii, she hadn't felt this calm. What she'd felt then was raw terror, and a reckless certainty that she was going to die anyway, and might as well take something with her. It had been luck, not skill, that had helped her survive that day. Now her skin prickled, but her hands were steady and her breathing sure. Back in the city, it was all giving up the sun to work two jobs to never quite make the bill payments, struggle without reward and little hope Don would be able to do better without the money for school. Here the sky was wide and the fights ended when they were over.
She nodded at the man by the door, and stepped through as he opened it. She heard it close and lock behind her. The bear looked at her, panting a little, just as though it were smiling, and Jennifer smiled back. "On the ground," she suggested, and the bear turned his back on her, trusting her honor, to jump down. She landed awkwardly, and her shoes filled with ice water. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea, she thought, flexing her toes as they numbed. She scrambled to surer ground, swearing under her breath, trying to maintain her calm. The bear just watched her.
She issued the wordless general challenge again, the only one she knew, and the bear turned back into the tour guide. "This isn't necessary," he said. "We won't—"
She swung the sword at his head, and he changed back into a bear and lunged. She danced to one side and let the sword dances take over her body. Three frantic minutes passed before she held her sword against the bear's neck. She paused, looking down at him. She didn't want to have to kill him. He was beautiful. Sweat trickled down the small of her back and her hair hung in her eyes. A cut on her arm, where she'd been clumsy with the sword, welled with blood. The bear turned into a man. "Join us," he said.
No more bill payments. No more debt. She could eat the tax collector. No. "No," she said aloud.
The tour guide said, "I yield."
Jennifer let him up, despite her better judgement. "You'll leave us all alone." He nodded, and smiled beguilingly, and said, "It's only a blood borne pathogen," and then turned back into a were and loped away over the ice.
"You saved us!" they said when they helped her back onto the tundra buggy, and helped her warm her feet, and she rode back to Churchill to the sound of their excited chatter.
"So it's not a demon?" Don asked.
"No, honey. It's a bug, like the flu is a bug, except you can't get it because somebody sneezed. You can only get it if their blood touches your blood." Jennifer flopped backwards onto the hotel bed that was costing her four days' pay, and looked up at the sterile, white ceiling. It was the first time they'd been alone since the trip out onto the ice. Downstairs, the other tourists were still celebrating their escape.
"Did you get it?" he asked. He was looking at the bandage on her arm. He didn't sound worried, just curious.
There was a pause while Don took his four-year-old time to think this through. Jennifer wondered if he'd been frightened, while she'd been fighting. Had he understood that she might die? It had been a stupid thing to do. If she'd died, he'd have been an orphan, and as good as dead himself. She closed her eyes, letting her head sink into the hotel's soft pillows, trying not to think about what would have become of Don as an orphan. She'd won, and they were going back to civilization in the morning, and she was never taking another stupid chance again as long as she lived.
"Do you wish you did?"
Jennifer sat up again and looked at him. "What?"
"I think being a bear would be cool." He yawned. "Almost as good as a dinosaur."
He was completely serious, so Jennifer didn't laugh. "Maybe," she said, "but it's better to be a person. Opposable thumbs." She wiggled hers at him and he laughed, and then she explained what opposable meant while she got him ready for bed, and by the time he fell asleep, he'd forgotten his question.
It rained in the night, and when they checked out of the hotel, the sky was clear and blue and everything was bathed in an orange light. Across the street was the pharmacy, its whitewashed wooden side gleaming wetly in the slanting morning sun. Don ran inside, saying something about candy, the trauma of the day before apparently forgotten, if it had ever bothered him at all. His open jacket flapped behind him like wings.
The air smelled like freshly laundered soil. Jennifer paused outside the pharmacy, looking thoughtfully toward the edge of town. The ice would be a photographer's dream right now, defined by the deep shadows of early morning. She thought about the tour guide's offer, and began to smile. Maybe they wouldn't catch the train after all. But she'd better pick up some antibiotics first, just in case she ever changed her mind.