Bear Island

 

Note to readers. Don't read if you don't like poor grammar, this may be rough.
This is a work of adult fiction. No resemblance to reality should be inferred or expected.
My thanks to Monica Rose for proofreading and help.
Copyright... are you kidding?

 

 

The whole of my childhood I spent in a hunters' settlement in Alaska. There were ten of us kids. We were kinda schooled at home. But actually, our teachers were my mom and my best friend Jeff's dad.

When kids reached fourteen they went to Fairbanks. They lived in a dorm and attended high school there. That is how it would be for both of us, Jeff and I. Because we both were fourteen.

For vacation, kids were coming back home. All the older kids were coming and staying in the village for the summer. Jeff would come too. But I wouldn't be coming back. Because my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was inoperable and was now in the terminal phase. Doctors sent her home from Fairbanks. They said she would not survive to the fall, to August maybe.

Jeff's dad had a radio. If there was an emergency and a doctor was needed and, I mean it was a real emergency, he would call for help and Chieftain would come. We had a kind of airport here but no regular flights. Only when needed. For the needs of the Post, Chieftain was coming once in two weeks if the weather was good.

For not very emergency medical problems there was old Hedwig. She was a retired nurse and, at the same time, people thought she was a witch. Jeff's grandfather said Hedwig was already old when he was a kid.

The time with mom wasn't a pleasant farewell. Mom had frequent fits of dry cough. The cough was so deep and hard that it made her puke. Between the coughing fits, her breath was short and the only thing she could do was sit. Mom had some pills but they weren't helping much. I thought maybe some herbal tea would give some relief.

Hedwig was coming to our home to see her but she couldn't help much.

“On the other side of Hansen oxbow, there is a marshy, thinned-out forest island where mother bears raise their cubs. In the middle of the island is a glade where cranberries grow. Those berries could help,” Hedwig mused.

“What cranberries!” I exclaimed. “It's June!”

“Maurice, no!” Mom whispered in-between her coughing fits.

I was named by my father Maurice, who was named by his Grandfather. Only my name was French. I even didn't speak French.

“Your Mother is right,” Hedwig said. “That place is for females only.”

“Your dad was killed there,” mom muttered.

That was new to me. Well, I knew my dad was killed while hunting two months before my birth. Nobody said how and where.

“She's right,” Hedwig confirmed mom's words. “No male, bear, or human, is welcome on this island.”

“Why did you tell me about it then?” I asked.

“Find someone to go there,” the old witch offered.

Yeah… Find someone… Female… All the females I knew were adults with kids all day staying around their homes. There were some girls. They were too young. The girl had to be strong to go out there.

The Hansen oxbow was three hours by foot from the village. Then you had to use a boat to get to another side of Hansen. It was half of the mile or maybe a little more. On the other side, who knows how much to that glade with berries?

The oldest girl I knew was Becky, fifteen years old. She was here for summer vacation with her parents. Becky wasn't my friend by any means. There were some older girls but they, well, they were adults, and who was I to talk with them?

My only friend was Jeff. He could be the help I needed to bring the boat to Hansen. And even a girl could paddle to the other side of the stream.

The problem - where to get a girl.

I didn't tell my mom but I went to Hedwig.

“How do bears know there is a male and not a female here on the island?” I asked.

“I'm not sure. They simply know,” Hedwig replied. “When I was your age, I'd crossed Hansen oxbow for the very first time. I was with my mom. Mom said if you keep quiet, bears don't come close. But a big mother bear came to us so we both raised the hems of our dresses, showing we were females. She stared at us and let us go. The hardest thing was to stay quiet.”

“Did she only look?”

“Who knows? Maybe she sniffed. A man's and woman's sweat smells differently.”

“What if I wear a dress and wash in the river before entering the island?” I offered.

“I don't know. I really don't know,” Hedwig said. “Your mom will never let you go.”

 

 

Who said I'd ask mom's permission?

Friend or not but Becky supplied me with an old dress. It was a little too short but otherwise, it fitted well.

Jeff got the boat. It was a jon boat used to service some of the boats in the bay.

Hedwig knew I was about to go. She saw me in the dress and had approved my look after I'd arranged my bits not to be visible with the hem raised.

The day was a week before the summer solstice. I got a basket for berries and Hedwig gave me a miniature barrel for water. It was some two gallons. The barrel had two straps around it and a handle for easy carrying. She said there was a well in the middle of the glade. The water was medicine like the berries of the glade.

It was four in the morning when Jeff and I left. The sun was up. It doesn't go down in summer.

I changed at the river.

“You look girly,” Jeff stated.

“Ha-ha… Not funny!”

“I'm not teasing,” he stammered, “but if I was a bear, I'd believe you're a real girl. Sure…”

“You think?”

“Yeah…”

Jeff took my boy's clothes and waited with them till my return. We would go fishing whenever we had free time. So yeah, Jeff was fishing while I was gone. I couldn't imagine him sitting and waiting and reading a book or something like that.

I was now a girl in a boat. Paddling took me more than an hour. The sun was already high when I arrived on the island.

I was all sweaty, so I took the dress off. And I washed in the river. I had no towel so I waited for the water to dry before putting the dress back on.

The direction was to the North. The landmark was two tall fir trees. They were clearly visible and it was easy to keep in the right direction.

Walking took me more time than I had expected. It was hot and humid. The barrel, even when it was empty, was heavy.

The cranberry glade was easy to spot. They were the only berries there. Cranberries were dark red, almost black, and tasted like honey.

The well was dark and its sides were covered with dead grass. The water was cold but not ice cold. In the hot weather, the water was rather refreshing. I dipped in it once and then collected berries still naked waiting for the water to dry. The strange thing was there were no mosquitoes around the well.

The sun was turning to the west when I rushed back. There was no landmark to follow. I followed my track and managed to lose it so I was back to the river when the sun wasn't high. Another hour later, I crossed the river and found Jeff waiting for me.

Jeff took the barrel and another three hours later, we were home. What about bears? I hadn't heard or seen any. Not a single bear at all!

 

 

I didn't believe berries and water would help. But it was the last measure. There was nothing more I or anybody else could do for my mom.

Mom wasn't stupid and she knew where the berries and water were from and who brought them to her. But she was too weak to complain and scold me.

She had to take four berries every six hours and drink a half cup of water twice a day. The same water she used to gargle her throat once a day.

Two weeks later, mom started to cough out some black goo. She wasn't feeling better but, for sure, she wasn't getting worse. Something was happening and it looked like an improvement.

I knew I would need to cross the Hansen shortly again. I washed Becky's, now mine, dress and hung it in the backyard to dry. Mom saw it hanging there but didn't say a word.

The berries and water I brought back were enough for three weeks. For my second attempt, Jeff got a rowboat with oars. It was a great improvement. This time I crossed the oxbow in thirty minutes because I was rowing this time.

I saw a mother bear but I didn't see her cubs. She didn't look my way. It seemed as if she had ignored me.

While at the well, I collected old dark berries. There were new white berries too. I dipped into the water afterward and rested waiting to dry off.

The second time went much better. I knew the way. I was rowing instead of paddling this time. It took me and Jeff a few hours less than it took the first time.

 

 

Have I mentioned Jeff and I were fishing a lot? It was the only useful thing we could do in summer. In winter, we used traps to hunt squirrels. Their fur was valuable, if not damaged. It was torn if they were shot. So traps were kids' jobs. In summer, their fur was shabby so we had time for fishing.

For fishing, we were coming to another oxbow of the Black River. On its Northern bank was our favorite place. When the weather was hot and the water had warmed up, we skinny-dipped there. We both were fourteen. We both got bushes in our armpits and groins. We looked almost alike. Almost… Jeff's thingy was getting bigger every time I saw him naked. Mine on the other hand was the same. Or maybe it was even shrinking. It was hidden in the bush. Jeff stared at me and his thingy erected. I felt vulnerable and covered myself. Like a girl. The groin and the chest. At this point, I realized that my chest wasn't flat. But I didn't say a word. I turned my back to him.

“Don't gap at me,” I said. “I turn you on!”

“My thing gets hard a zillion times a day,” Jeff replied, “for no reason at all.”

Strange… My thingy was getting hard only in the morning and it was limp after I took a leak.

I looked somewhat girly because of my hair. Jeff's dad shaved Jeff's head every two weeks. My mom shaved me before too. But she was sick and too weak to do that now. My hair was getting longer. It was good for bears to be mistaken I guessed. So I didn't ask for a haircut.

 

 

The third trip went the same as the second one. The weather was warm but not hot. The glade with berries was protected from the wind and I got sweaty again. I dipped into the well before coming back.

Mom was getting better. She was coughing black goo out. She could now walk around. And she tried to do some chores at home. She didn't need to. I had done everything.

“I'll wash your dress,” mom offered.

“It's not mine! It's Becky's,” I complained. “I wash it after every use.”

“The dress and underwear have to be washed differently. I'll show you,” mom insisted.

I was a little embarrassed to wash my underwear and the dress in mom's presence. She said to wash not with soda but with soap. Because my new things were finer than usual boy's things.

 

 

The fourth time was the last. These were the last days of August. I and the other kids had to move to Fairbanks in a few days. The new school year was starting.

Mom was getting better with every day. Hedwig had arranged mom's appointment at the doctor's office.

It was one of those rare events when the Chieftain had no empty seats left. The flight to Fairbanks took less than two hours because it was less than two hundred miles.

Fairbanks is a big city. With a web of streets and a lot of cars. And a lot of people didn't answer when you say “Hello”.

Hedwig had arranged a place for mom to stay. It was at the home of some of her distant relatives. We got there from the airport.

It was a two-story house with red clapboard siding.

“It's good you are with a daughter,” the hostess said, “you may both stay in the same room.”

We didn't correct her I was really a boy. Mom wanted me at her side for help. And I wasn't eager to stay at the dorm either.

“It's your hair,” mom said.

It was on the longer side now. And I still looked more like a kid and not a young man. Like Jeff looked now.

The doctor declared mom was getting better. Though he couldn't explain why. The only thing he could do was to offer mom a course of chemotherapy. Mom agreed. Chemo made mom sick more than she had been before. Or it looked like that to me.

I was at mom's side almost constantly. Except for the time I was at school. The principal knew my mom was here with cancer and was getting chemo and needed my assistance. He was kind enough to arrange my classes and other activities so that I have as much free time as possible. I had no gym and was doing my homework in study hall when others had gym.

Mom was taking less water and berries and we were good with what we had for six weeks. Mom was getting better after her chemo. But she was weak and her coughing fits were more frequent.

I knew I needed to return to Hansen oxbow. There was a flight scheduled with the mail and some mail orders. I got to our village on Friday night. Our home was in the same building where little kids were schooled. So it was well stoked for heat.

I left early in the morning while It was still dark. I have dressed as a girl already. I had new tights, a long woolen skirt, boots, and a raincoat. Now that it was October, it was cold. During the night, the temperature was dropping below freezing. The river and the oxbow were still without ice but patches of snow were already here and there. The rowboat was where Jeff and I had left it in August.

The sun wasn't up yet but I could see where to go in the twilight. I saw the bear on my way to the glade. She was standing on her back legs and sniffing the air. I waited for her to go away and then got to the well.

All the berries were from this year. Old berries were gone. But the new ones were already luscious. After I had the berries and water, I considered washing off my sweat. But then I decided to dip into the water. The bears were here on the island. It was better to be cold and have all the sweat washed off instead of being eaten by a bear. The water was cold but it wasn't so bad afterward.

When I came back to the village, it was dark already. I had what I needed. But there was no way for me to get back to Fairbanks.

There was a tap on my door and I was still in my girl's clothes. I panicked. The door opened without invitation and Jeff's dad stepped in.

“Don't worry Marcy,” he and others called me Marcy instead of Maurice. “I have called for Chieftain to come tomorrow. So, you could bring some important documents to the court.”

“Huh?”

“Be ready at seven in the morning and I'll bring you to the airport,” he said.

The next morning, he brought me to the airport a mile away from our village.

“Give it to your mother,” he said handing me an envelope.

“And where are the documents for the court?” I asked.

“Don't be silly,” he said instead with a chuckle and hugged me farewell.

 

 

We now had enough water and berries to last till Thanksgiving. The only problem was that we had no money. I was okay as I was getting free lunch at school. Hedwig's friend refused to take money for our stay, but we had no money for mom. She had to stay here for the second course of chemo that was coming in two weeks.

Then I remembered Jeff's dad. I handed his envelope to mom. We thought it was a kind of Get Well card. It was a card. And money. The money the villagers had collected for mom. It was more than enough for mom's stay at Fairbanks.

 

 

For Thanksgiving, both mom and I got back to our village. Mom because the doctor said the medicine had nothing more to say about mom's healing. He said mom was practically healthy. There was still some risk for cancer to return. But the doc could do nothing about it.

For me it was Thanksgiving. All kids were coming home for Thanksgiving. And mom had finished the berries and water. I had to get some water and berries for the final time. If berries were not under the snow. And if the well wasn't ice-covered like Black river and oxbow.

It was dark when I left in the morning. I was wearing snowshoes over my boots and pulling a toboggan with an empty barrel and basket. The oxbow was all ice. No boat this time. I found the well easily and there were berries laying ON the snow. Like gems.

The well wasn't frozen. On the contrary, there was steam over it. Like it was warm. And it was warm. Or I had said so to myself. To force me to dip in it. As a superstition of good luck. I had a towel this time with me so no waiting to dry off.

I was so happy it was all over. Mom's healthy again and… There was a sloshing behind me. Not the sound of toboggan sledding but sloshing.

I turned around and a mother bear was sniffing suspiciously at the barrel. Three cubs were behind her. I panicked and I was about to turn around and run. But no one could outrun a bear. And I couldn't move. I was petrified. I remembered what I had to do.

I raised the hem of the skirt over my head.

“Please go away, please go away…” I repeated the words like a mantra in my head.

I felt the bear sniffing my groin.

“… please go away…”

She grumbled and I heard her sloshing away through the snow.

I waited another few minutes with the hem of the skirt still over my head because I couldn't move. Then I sighed. Because I didn't breathe all this time. And my hands started to shake. I was simply standing here and waiting for my nerves to calm down.

I managed to make the bear think I was really the girl.

I adjusted the skirt's waist and tights and my bits… And there was nothing to adjust. Just the skirt and tights. And no bits.

“Mom… Something happened and I'm fully girl now,” I said when I got home at last where mom and Hedwig were waiting for me.

“Well's water washed everything you didn't need from both of you,” Hedwig said, “cancer and manliness.”

The End



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