I wrote this short story for the Writers By The Bay group down in Maryland. They were having one of their themed exercises and very kindly invited me, as a former member of the group, to make a contribution. Simple rules – no more than 1300 words; must be a complete story; must have at least four lines of dialogue. The theme was Someone knocks on the door in the middle of the night.
Gavin The Hunter crouched at his table, lost in Jack London. Close by, a kerosene lamp pulsed; a wood stove throbbed; Fred The Dog twitched dreams of warmer days. Outside, the wind was a hooligan, a madness roaring in the trees. It plucked at shutters, riffled through shingles; conspired with gravid snowflakes to obliterate the world. Cold was a constant, silent enemy that aimed for the heart and longed for the soul. Only an incontinence of heat from the stove kept Gavin and Fred from its clutches.
“Hey, Fred. You’ll like this,” said Gavin.
Fred opened an eye; assessed the situation for food content; decided that it was a bust and went back to sleep. Gavin had picked up the book and turned to face his audience.
There was a knock at the door. It was the kind of knock which has a ringing, wood-splintering quality about it. A knock to be heard above even the unholy racket of the storm; a knock not to be ignored.
“Hell and damnation. Who can that be? It’s the middle of the night, for Chrissake.”
Gavin laid down the book and picked up his old revolver. It was always there, within reach; often tucked in his waistband. He used it in the Summer for frightening off deer and shooting cockroaches. In the winter, it got rusty and cranky from lack of use.
‘’On guard, Fred. Stand by to repel boarders.”
Fred opened an eye, though not the same one as before. Straining muscles was all too easy without careful attention to such details. He watched Gavin doing his imitation of an FBI agent casing the joint. It failed on so many counts, including the fact that the man was wearing a heavy wool cardigan and a pair of disreputable canvas pants. At least this time he made it to the door without falling over his feet.
The opening of the door felt like a betrayal and Fred lifted his head.
“Shit!” said Gavin.
The doorway was filled with bear. Grizzly bear, male, ten foot tall and wearing epaulettes of snow.
“Not quite the welcome I was expecting from a neighbor,” said the bear. “I was hoping more for an invitation into the warmth of your home.”
Gavin looked the bear up and down.
“You’re not selling something are you?” he said. “I hate salesmen.”
The bear spread his arms.
“Do I look as though I’m selling something? I mean, d’you think I have a vacuum cleaner stored up my butt? Get a grip, man! Apart from anything else, who comes selling things at night in the middle of fucking winter?”
Fred was beginning to feel he might have to intervene. The cold was sneaking round the bear and joyfully insinuating itself, unable to believe its luck. Gavin saved him the effort and stepped to one side. The bear ducked his head, shuffled in, closed the door.
“You can sit in that chair,” said Gavin, indicating a substantial piece of furniture. “It was built for my Dad in the last few years of his life. He must have weighed about the same as you.”
The bear grunted; sat down.
“Got a beer?” he said, holding his paws out to the glowing stove.
“Sure,” said Gavin. “And would you like a sandwich as well?”
“Absolutely,” said the bear. “I could eat an Elk, antlers first and without any mayonnaise, I’m so hungry.”
Gavin stomped to the fridge, muttering. Fred put his chin on his paws and closed his eyes again. No good could possibly come from over-exertion in such a situation, he thought.
“Anyway,” said Gavin, handing the bear an open bottle of local brew called Moose Piss and feeling relieved it wasn’t Bear Poop or some other name which might be considered inflammatory in the circumstances, “Aren’t you supposed to be hibernating?”
The bear took a long pull at the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of a huge paw.
“Yeah, well. I learned a lesson this year, I can tell you. Never rely on those cheap Walmart alarm clocks. The damn thing went off three months early, didn’t it? And there I was wide awake and with full-blown PHS.”
Gavin put down his beer and raised an eyebrow.
“Post Hibernation Syndrome. Characterised by excessive dry mouth, disorientation, devastating hunger and an overbearing urge to eviscerate anything that gets in your way.”
“Right,” said Gavin. “My last girlfriend used to get that all the time.”
“Harharhardehar,” said the bear. “Anyway, I bet she didn’t get as disoriented as me. Couldn’t find my way back to the cave. And here I am.”
The tableau of Man, Bear and Dog in Rustic Cabin in the Forest was beginning to fade. Gavin pumped up the pressure in the kerosene lamp. In its newly invigorated luminescence, dusty corners of the dwelling emerged as if from a fog. The bear found itself staring at the head of one of his kind, nicely mounted on an oak backing and hung just above head height. He blinked, twice, and then looked at Gavin.
“What did you say your occupation was, again?”
“I didn’t,” said Gavin. “I’m a hunter. You know, pelts, moose meat, that kind of thing.”
The silence which followed amplified the erratic timpani of the storm.
“Maybe you’re not aware of my Latin name,” said the bear.
Gavin looked blank: his default expression. Fred wondered if the moment was sufficiently grave to justify sitting up. The bear leaned forward.
“Ursus Horribilis,” he roared, and sprang at Gavin in full PHS mode.
The evisceration was spectacular, both in its speed and its thoroughness. Within seconds, the room was festooned with digestive tract and internal organs and a great pool of blood was sending out feelers into the dusty depths of the cabin .
Fred was sitting up.
“That was a bit previous. If you’d waited a minute, I could have explained that the bear’s head on the wall is made from faux fur cunningly cut and sewn by an eccentric aunt of Gavin’s. It was the only thing she left him in her will.”
The bear slumped back into the chair.
“He said he was a hunter,” he growled. “I took him at his word.”
“Bad mistake. Mostly, he talks shit. In any case, he couldn’t hit a barn door at five paces with the wind in the right direction.”
The stove no longer glowed; cold seeped in round the edges of the cabin. The bear glowered.
“Get some fucking wood on that stove before we freeze our asses off, there’s a good boy.”
Fred lifted his front paw and looked at it.
“Unless you’ve developed an opposable claw, buddy, I think we’re stuffed as far as that’s concerned.”
The bear roared and lurched towards Fred on all fours. The dog was ready for him and, moving with a speed which would have stunned his master, he leaped onto the table, onto the bear’s back and sank his teeth into the great backbone, just below the neck. He bit down with a ferocity born of genetic diligence. The bear collapsed: grizzly monster to hairy rug in seconds. Fred stepped off; took a long drink of water from his bowl; licked blood from his fur. He sauntered to the wall of fire wood which was stacked at the back of the room, chose a log and took it to the stove. With a deft paw action, he opened the stove, pushed the log in and closed the door.
He lay down to await the return of comfort.
“Looks like nothing but bear meat on the menu till Spring,” he said, and closed his eyes.