A young girl stands in front of a roaring bear. In the background is a slightly run down house and the moon, looming large above everything.

Bear Language

May 2017 | Illustration by Galen Dara

Content note: This story deals extensively with issues of child abuse and alcohol abuse.

Selected by guest editor Daniel José Older

Day One

Daddy says he can still hear it, but we can all still hear it, pawing at the bag of chips I left on the counter downstairs, snuffling into the salt. Do bears like chips?Oliver sits, playing some game. Daddy shushes him but Oliver keeps playing. You’d think being the oldest he’d be more concerned about bears in the house.Joanna, have you seen my phone? Daddy’s too busy checking the lock on the door to see me shrug. He searches for his phone so we can call the police and the firemen and the bear patrol. Daddy’s jokes are terrible when he’s scared.

He throws blankets and mismatched socks and underwear everywhere. There’s no sign of the phone.

Bad Daddy Word. Looks at me. You didn’t hear that, he says.

I shake my head from side to side.

Daddy sits against the bed, his head falling back against the comforter, his eyes staring red and watery at the ceiling. I know he’s thinking as best he can. But he’s been drinking Daddy Juice since he came home from work and left the patio door open, which is when the bear walked in and we ran upstairs.

Bad Daddy Word, he says, a different one this time, loud and hard, a brick dropping onto the floor. Daddy has found his cell phone. I keep waiting for him to call someone, but he doesn’t. He just looks at it, his eyebrows pushed together, his nostrils wide and breathing heavy.

I think he’s going to smash it on the floor, but all he does is put it on the dresser next to the bed, and presses his hands up against his forehead. He starts sucking in air through his teeth.

All she’ll do is laugh at me; cops will just make things worse, he mumbles. He reaches for the bottle of Daddy Juice and when he drinks from it, I think he’s forgotten how to swallow; the amber liquid leaks from the corner of his mouth, stains his blue button-down shirt, his wrinkly jacket.

It’s OK. It’ll just sniff around and in the morning it’ll be gone. He glances at me with his big, sad eyes, tries to wink. We don’t have to call her. She doesn’t have to know. He tries to smile, but his lips are stubborn and aren’t moving.

He gestures at the bed. Go to sleep. We’ll be fine in the morning. Don’t call your Mother.

I curl up on the bed. Daddy is still on the floor. We both try to sleep.

Oliver keeps playing his game, and I watch him as he ignores us all. Only before I go to sleep I see him look at Daddy and then me, and he rolls his eyes as he always does whenever we have a weekend alone with Daddy. He turns back to his game and is still playing when I close my eyes.

Day Two

I hear the pop and hiss of the television come to life downstairs; the static hiccup of the bear flipping through channels wakes me up.

Daddy is asleep next to me. Daddy Juice always knocks him on his Slightly Less Bad Daddy Word But I’m Still Not Allowed to Say It.

Oliver is asleep in the chair by the window. The game batteries are dead.

I really have to use the bathroom and I don’t want to wet the bed because Daddy hates when I do it on the weekends we’re here, not my sheets, he says, not my sheets, don’t you dare do it on my sheets, little lady, that’s what he always says.

I crawl out from under the covers, shivering at the memory of his anger, and go to the door. The house is dark; ghosts made of sunlit wallpaper peek through curtains and down hallways. It smells like pine needles and mud.

I use the upstairs bathroom and wash my hands twice since Daddy says kids have nothing but germs on their mitts. I wash them again, so he doesn’t yell at me. A fourth time, too, just in case.

Downstairs, the television hums. I know I should go back to the bedroom. But I’m already on the stairs and moving down them as quiet as I can.

Sometimes I have bad ideas but do them anyway. Daddy’s friends say it’s because No, You’re A Bad Parent, Steve but I don’t care. This isn’t a bad idea. Not a full bad idea, anyway.

If the bear won’t leave, then someone has to make it leave. Daddy is sleepy and will have a headache, and Oliver doesn’t care and won’t do it because he never does anything I ask him. That leaves me, so I’ll do it, even though my stomach is twisty at the thought of bears.

I press my back against the kitchen wall. I don’t look at the mess, the jars and packages and boxes torn apart. I don’t look at the leaves and branches and mud and pine needles scattered across the floor.

I only have eyes for the mass of brown fur sitting in Daddy’s chair.

Maybe it has special bear senses. Maybe it heard me with its big bear ears. The tower of brown fur turns around in the chair and looks at me.

Hello, the bear says.

I don’t hear her say it, but I know that what she says means hello. When she speaks to me, a door in my head swings open, a door that has never been locked but never all the way unlocked.

Hi. My voice is small in the morning quiet.

Who are you, the bear asks.

Joanna. What’s your name?

The bear says a word but all I hear is the snapping of twigs and the rushing of deep water, the smell of mud after a big rain filling my nose. I don’t know what it means.

That’s bear language for Susan, the bear says.

Oh. Hello, Susan.

Her ears twitch. Joanna, you’re quite good at bear language for a human.

I don’t find it so strange that I can understand her. Whenever I met a dog or a cat, or saw a storm coming near or cupped a grasshopper or ladybug in my hands, I always listened very closely. It seemed like the polite thing to do.

Thanks.

Susan turns back to the television. She cocks her big, brown head, her ears flicking at the laughter of tired reporters. I hug the wall and can feel my heart beginning to beat faster, not because of Susan, but because if Daddy wakes up and I’m not there, he will be very upset with me, headache or no.

Susan?

Susan’s shaggy head swings around, her so pink tongue shining in the light of the television. Yes, dear?

I have to go upstairs. To my Daddy.

That’s fine, Susan says. I’ll be here if you need me.

I blink, and I’m back in the bedroom. I don’t know how I ran that fast, but I did. Daddy says not to run, but Susan is a bear, so I ran. I won’t tell him I ran.

Before I crawl back into the bed, I see the phone on the floor light up: HEY, EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT? DIDN’T HEAR FROM YOU OR THE KIDS LAST NIGHT.

The last time I texted on Daddy’s phone, he yelled at me until his forehead was red. So I pocket the phone and will tell him later. I crawl back into bed and pretend to sleep.

When Daddy and Oliver wake up, they use the upstairs bathroom and creep about on their tip-toes. Daddy has splashed cold water on his face. It drips from his days old beard when he comes back in the room.

I think the bear is still Bad Daddy Word-ing here, he says.

I don’t think she’s going anywhere, I say.

His eyes get small and shiny; he’s going to say something mean. Instead, he puts a hand on my head. No, he says, I don’t think it is.

She, I say.

Fine, he says, slumping down to the floor. She.

Oliver is looking out the window. I’m bored, Dad.

Then jump off an Oddly Enough, We’re Allo-damn cliff, Oliver. I’m not in the mood for your Bad Daddy W-it.

I shake my head, trying to knock the words from my ears. Daddy says I’m not supposed to hear those words, so I don’t, I make myself not hear them but this time I kind of heard them.

I never hear them. So why did I hear them?

Big surprise, Oliver says under his breath before staring back out the window.

Daddy pulls out a secret bottle of Daddy Juice from up in the closet, behind the box of Christmas lights. He spins the cap off and takes a long drink.

When he sighs, his whole body shrinks a little.

We’ll try tomorrow, he says. The bear won’t stay until tomorrow.

He must see something in me because he starts humming, and his voice is scratchy and rough like sandpaper, but I know the song. It’s from last summer when we saw that band he loved when he was my age and we sang all the way home, our bellies full of corndogs and popcorn and now he is humming it, trying to show us that nothing is wrong, all will be fine, if at least for tonight and I believe him even though sometimes it doesn’t, even though sometimes not even Daddy can make everything fine, especially when he’s the one who sometimes makes it not fine.

I hum with him. Even Oliver has the ghost of a smile on his face.

We hum until it gets dark and we sleep.

Day Three

Don’t you Bad D-ucking talk to me like that, Daddy says, spinning on his heels, the bottle following him, drops of brown splashing on his socks.

He saw Mommy’s third text and fourth missed call and when she called for the fifth time, he flipped the phone open with a snap. When he talks to Mommy, it comes out as a tight growl.

Oliver and I sit in the corner of the room, his recharged game glowing in his hands. He doesn’t look at it. He only has eyes for Daddy, narrow, fire-filled eyes that don’t look away when Daddy swears.

Do you want to hear about her?

Quiet, Jo.

Well, who made you go out to Bad Da-ucking Arizona? Is it my fault she has cancer? Don’t give me shit, then!

I’ve been trying to not hear the words he says, but I can’t help it, I really, honestly, truly, with all my heart, can’t. Ever since I spoke with Susan, words have been getting slippery and fuzzy. I can’t hide from them.

Daddy walks out of the room. Oh, please, he says, I dare you to come here! This wasn’t even supposed to be my weekend, Katie . . .

She has dark brown fur and she smells like the best kind of river water, and she’s redecorating downstairs but it’s still nice and cozy, especially if you like pine needles and leaves.

Daddy walks back into the room and drops the phone on the floor, sighing.

Oliver jumps to his feet, dropping the game, his hands clenched into fists. Daddy points at him with the bottle of Daddy Juice in his hand, shakes his head, sighs.

Don’t you say a fucking word, mister.

I heard it that time.

Day Four

Daddy is almost out of his second bottle of Daddy Juice and it’s making him itchy; his whole body is one big cotton sweater. He watches the liquid like he’s looking at an ant farm.

Almost done, he laughs to himself.

The bruise around Oliver’s eye is turning purple. He tried taking the Daddy Juice away and Daddy said he was sorry, but it doesn’t make the bruise stop from hurting, doesn’t stop it from looking ugly against the sun.

There’s a book in his lap, but Oliver isn’t reading. He’s watching Daddy and he’s very still.

I went down and saw Susan last night after Daddy went to sleep hugging the bottle. She’s been teaching me on bear language at night. There are more than fifteen types of wind with which to say hello. I like being with her. She is warm and her fur that smells like the underside of rocks. It’s much softer than the blankets upstairs.

You’re more than welcome to stay with me, she had said. I know how to survive the winter. It doesn’t sound like your Papa does. A Papa should know how to take care of his cubs.

I’d forgotten it was coming. I can’t feel the frost or smell the snow, not as much I can feel the cold in my stomach as I watch Daddy.

He’s tipped back the rest of the Daddy Juice. Smacking his lips, he chucks the bottle at the open window. He misses. The bottle breaks on the wall.

FuckShitFuckinggoddamnitfuckmestupidfucking—

I try not to hear any of it, but since I’ve started learning bear language, I hear everything as it really is. Susan says it is because bear language is rooted in truth. I’m starting to figure out what that means.

Daddy stumbles over to pick up the glass, but the Daddy Juice has made him clumsy. Glass sticks in his hands at awful angles. He steadies himself on the wall, leaving a red smear, looks at me.

It’ll be gone soon, he says, trying to smile through the pain, even though his eyes are small and sad. It’ll be gone so soon and then we can go downstairs and it’ll be OK.

Oliver puts his book down and walks out of the room, to the bathroom. I can’t tell if he is crying or if the faucet is on.

Daddy holds his head in his glassy hands.

Give me a hug, sweetie, he says, his face bloody from his hands. He holds out his arms. His face is so miserable. Give me a hug. Daddy really fucking needs one.

My feet don’t know how to move to him. I want to move to him, but my feet won’t let me. My brain is in my feet and my brain isn’t letting me. I see the blood and the glass and the hands that made Oliver cry and I start to breathe faster and my hands start shaking.

I’m not moving and his face turns ugly, his voice gets loud. It is his Daddy Voice but worse; the door in his head has swung open to a basement where a monster sleeps. Sharp like thin ice, cold like the worst snow of the season. I’ve only heard it once before.

I Said Give Me A Fucking Hug, Joanna, he says in his monster voice, a thunderclap over a dark ocean. All my muscles go tight; he speaks something like bear language but worse, so much worse.

Susan roars below us. A tumble of rusty, red leaves flashes behind my eyes; I hear bats screeching beneath a newborn night and smell the ashes of a dead fire.

Are you OK?

I can’t answer her. I can’t stop myself from shaking. I can’t move. My feet have grown roots and won’t let me free.

Daddy clenches his hands tight, pressing the glass deeper; blood drips onto the blue carpet.

Get Over Here, Joanna. Now.

I cry as I fall into him. He hugs me gently, pats my head. I can barely feel the glass comb through my hair, and I shiver.

We’ll be OK, he says. So, so soon.

The faucet runs in the bathroom.

Day Five

There’s a rumbling beneath us.

Oliver gets up to see. Daddy pushes him back into his chair.

He moves like a puppet with his strings cut as he peers out the door. What the fuck is that thing up to?

I go over to the window. Susan is pushing a big log through the downstairs sliding doors. I smile to see her and remember what she told me about preparing for the winter.

Daddy, I say, pointing out the window.

He shoves me out of the way. I almost fall in the glass on the carpet.

That Bear Is Ruining Everything, he shrieks. He stomps to the bathroom. The door slams behind him. I run to Oliver in the chair, white as the bed sheets, his arms and legs stiff.

Come on, I say. I grab his clammy hands. I try to pull him up. Come with me to Susan.

Oliver looks at me with wild eyes and shakes his head. No. The bruise is fading, but it is still blue and dark.

Oliver, I say, trying to do my best Mommy Voice (which is warm and encouraging and kept me practicing piano even though my hands really hurt), Oliver, you need to come with me.

But Dad—

Is scary and sad and Susan isn’t, I say. She’s not like Daddy.

Oliver’s eyes grow wider as we hear the faucet shut off.

But—

Ollie, I say, (hoping he can tell it’s my Mommy Voice), she’s not Daddy.

She’s not Dad, he says. Then he smiles the first smile I’ve seen in what seems like forever.

I help him out of the chair and we are running down the stairs, hand in hand.

Behind us, I hear the bathroom door open.

What The Hell Do You Think You’re Doing?

Oliver wants to stop, I know, but I hold him tight and I don’t let him.

Daddy is behind us and my heart is beating so fast. But we run, around the kitchen corner and into the living room, where Susan is pushing the log with her big head.

Hello Joanna, she says in hummingbird wings and pinecones falling to the earth.

Susan, help! I say in fleeing grasshoppers and vipers snapping. Monster!

Susan’s ears twitch forward. She moves so that we are between her and the log. Daddy rounds the corner, his eyes wild, making a mad dog noise.

Now, You Listen Here You Big, Ugly Sonofa— Daddy tries to say in his Monster Voice. But Susan roars and he’s drowned out. Daddy is no match for true bear language.

She’s on her back legs now, taller than Daddy, so tall her ears touch the ceiling. I’m not so good yet to know what she’s saying, but I hear the pounding pressure of ancient waterfalls and the crackling bark of thunder in her voice; I smell the air after a lightning strike.

Daddy tries to speak, but Susan’s lips fold back and her big teeth make Daddy fall and crawl away. His pants are wet and I know it’s not from the faucet upstairs. Scrambling backwards, bottle of Daddy Juice … no … Maker’s Mark in hand, he runs around the corner. I hear his footsteps as he paws his way upstairs, away from Susan, away from us.

Susan falls back to her feet and swings her massive head around. You’re safe now, she says in spider silk as strong as steel, in redwood trees standing sturdy guard.

Oliver goes up to Susan, wraps his arms around her big head, and cries into her warm, brown fur.

Day Six

After getting off the phone with Mommy, (who kept calling and calling, who we told nothing was wrong, because there’s no way to tell her about Daddy), Susan’s cubs come over. There’s a young girl and an older boy, just like Oliver and me.

The girl’s name is the sound of squelching muck after a spring flood and the buzzing of a hundred swampy flies and the boy’s name is the cracking crunch of acorns and pine nuts and the musky, hazy smell of November firewood smoking in the wet air.

That’s bear language for Cece and Cubby.

Cece is shy, so she goes behind the log and watches first. Cubby comes right up to us and smells our clothes and us. We smell better now that we were out of the room.

I like them, says Cubby. Where is their Momma?

Their Momma is taking care of her own Momma, Susan says. So I am their Momma until she comes back.

Do they have a Papa?

There’s a howl from upstairs and I know Daddy has finished the third bottle of alcohol.

Susan looks from the ceiling to Cubby and shakes her big shaggy head.

Not right now, she says.

Cece comes out then to smell Oliver and me, and soon we’re playing. It feels good to be outside again. I try not to stare up at the open window, where Daddy can see us and hear us. Is he watching? Has he started on a fourth bottle of alcohol?

Oliver and I chase Cece and Cubby around the yard, and try following them up trees. Cece and Cubby are almost as big as us and stronger, but they play very nice.

Oliver doesn’t know bear language. I know that when Susan or Cubby or Cece speak, he only hears grunts and growls and roars. It doesn’t seem to bother him.

I tell him I’ll teach him, but he shakes his head. I suppose it’s not for everyone. Maybe only certain people have a door in their mind that opens like that.

Even so, he seems much happier now and the bruise is only a tender purple, mostly gone.

But whenever Daddy howls, I see him touch it and his eyes go hard and glassy like volcanic rock and he nods to himself, just so, as if to say, don’t forget, never forget.

Day Seven

I saw Daddy last night, I say to Oliver.

Oliver is eating a bowl of cereal among the pine needles and leaves that Susan has brought into the house. Yeah, Oliver says, I’ve seen him too. He looks like shit.

He’s very thin, Ollie. I saw him in the moonlight, digging through the fridge. He still had a bottle of alcohol, but his beard was bigger and his hair was shiny and his nails were sharp. His eyes were very small.

Oliver continues with his breakfast.

I walk outside to Susan, who berates Cubby for not paying attention. Susan?

She turns to me, her fur growing darker and thicker for the coming cold. Yes, dear?

I’m worried about my Daddy. I think we need to help him. He’s sick. Susan’s brown eyes crinkle and her mouth drops open in a big bear smile.

He’s lucky to have such a caring cub. But I don’t think there’s much we can do for him. A beast as him is better left to — then I see a shape in a forest under the moon, wandering away, deeper and deeper into the gloomy night, howling.

I bite my lip, thinking I understand. I don’t like it.

I try to see the whole picture like Mrs. McKenna, my favorite teacher, always said to do. And though I don’t see any way around it, I have to help Daddy. Susan can’t. Oliver won’t.

It’s up to me.

I put together a plate for Daddy. There’s not much in the fridge but I try to make it look pretty: Half a banana. Some canned pineapple. Some cold chicken that smells weird but tastes OK. A bit of cookie cake. Half a water bottle.

The sun is setting as I walk up the stairs. I hope Daddy is sleeping. If he’s sleeping, I can bring the plate in, put it down, and go back downstairs. I’m scared that if he’s awake, he might snap or bite at me. He might make me stay with him.

I love Daddy but I don’t want to stay with him when he’s sad and scary.

The door is open.

The lights are off but there’s enough daytime left that I can see Daddy sitting in the closet, his eyes closed, his breathing heavy. I can’t tell if he’s asleep or not.

Sneaking on my tip-toes, I put the plate on the bureau. It settles with a small click.

Daddy’s eyes open. He scowls. I don’t want your fucking help.

I don’t care, I say. You need it.

You sound just like your mother, he says, squeezing his red eyes shut. I think he’s trying to wish me away.

Daddy, you need to come downstairs. Susan says she’ll help you and when Mommy gets home—

Your mother isn’t coming home, Daddy says with his eyes shut, sounding very tired. I can see tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. All that crap about her mother in Arizona? It’s bull, every last bit. It’s just her fucking excuse to get away from me, finally get away from us.

My face is hot and my hands are shaking so much I have to make them into fists. My eyes are wet but I won’t be like Daddy. I won’t cry.

You’re lying. You’re just a big liar!

He opens his eyes, red lines running through the whites like rivers to a sad sea.

Sure I am, he says, his voice slurring. I’m a big ol’ liar.

He smiles, and I know I hate the monster that lives in my Daddy, who hurts so much and hurts in turn.

She doesn’t want us, Daddy says, stumbling to his feet. She doesn’t want anything to do with us, especially you and your whining and your stupid brother who doesn’t do as he’s told.

He smiles in the last of the sun. She’s gone and she’s not coming back, he says.

He walks toward me and I don’t want to live a life with him. I don’t want to live with this monster Daddy. I want to be with Susan and Oliver and Cece and Cubby and Mommy, who I know loves us so much, she will come back for us, she told us she would!

I grab the plate of food from the bureau and I throw it at Daddy. It hits him, stains his shirt and shoes. He stops. He looks at me with his hound dog eyes, confused. Scowling, he moves towards me again.

I stand my ground. He’s not keeping me here.

I dig in my heels and I roar.

I scream in icy winter winds bearing wild hearts of snow. I sing the terrible song of gold and black yellowjackets, a thousand and a thousand strong. My voice is a storm at sea, the sound of oil meeting flame, the smell of heavy rain on the wind. I banish Daddy as much as I can in the language of bears and beasts and wild things.

Even as I cry, I know it’s the right thing to do.

With every word, Daddy steps back, his face mushroom grey and pained. He’s not a man anymore, and I don’t think he has been for some time. When I speak bear language, he hears me, knows what it is I’m really saying.

Susan was right: bears and beasts, and yes, even monsters, they all speak in truth. And Daddy finally hears me now.

He stumbles backs into the closet, pushed by the wind of my words, and makes no move to stop me as I leave.

I cry all the way down the stairs, falling into Susan’s fur, wishing with all my heart that Daddy will go to sleep and not wake up and Mommy will come back and take us away and that Susan and Cece and Cubby will come with us because they are so kind.

Your bear language is getting quite good, Susan says, soft silkworms spinning in the twilight. I’m very proud of you.

I cry into her and wish that Daddy would stop his howling.

Day Eight

Susan shoves my backpack across the floor with her large snout. Oliver stands by the counter, counting up the bills from Daddy’s wallet. We need to buy more food, because Susan can’t go to the store.

We hear the rumbling of the bus coming from down the street. Oliver reaches up and curls his arms around Susan’s neck, whose voice rumbles like distant, spring thunder at his hug. I kiss her on her big, wet nose, saying goodbye in fluttering flower petals.

I haven’t spoken human language in a whole day. I’m sure it’s easy enough to pick back up.

I’ll see you soon, she says. Come back with groceries.

We’ll call Mommy when the cell phone is charged and tell her the truth, and how she will love Susan and Cece and Cubby and maybe she will know what to do with Daddy.

The bus pulls up as we close the door behind us. The door opens and the driver, Hunter, waves us on.

Oliver goes first, and it is only when I put my foot on the step that I can hear Daddy crying, his worst yet. I turn and I see that the window is still open and even though the sun is shining, the room is dark and I can hear Daddy howling like the maddest dog I’ve ever heard. 

Jesus, Hunter says, sounds like you got a wild animal in there. Everything OK?

I think about Daddy in the darkness and Susan in the living room of logs and leaves and Mommy far away but in my heart.

I know that when we come home tonight, Daddy will be gone and that his tracks in the snow will lead away into the forest. I know that he will try and come back beneath the moon, with his sharp nails and black beard and wild howling, try and come back for his cubs who he loved but didn’t know how to love. I know that he will live as beasts live and my heart hurts to know that.

No, I say to Hunter in the soft whisper of swaying willow branches. It’s not OK.

But we’ll survive the winter somehow.

About the author

Martin Cahill is a writer working in Manhattan and living in Astoria, Queens. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the New York City based writing group, Altered Fluid. He has had fiction published in Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with work forthcoming in Shimmer Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine. Martin also writes non-fiction reviews and essays for Book Riot, Tor.com, Barnes & Noble Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, and Strange Horizons. This one goes out to the lost and afraid; never forget that your voice matters, and that your words are wild, powerful things.