All Fear The Great Bear, short story by Joel O’Flaherty at

All Fear The Great Bear

All Fear The Great Bear

written by: Joel O’Flaherty



Sila believes that this will be the Last Winter.
This fear hangs like icicles in the spaces between his words, unspoken and ominous; it lingers in the silences, and the twitches of his head, and the hopping from one foot to another, then back again.
They can all see it there, as if written in the mist that curls from his lips in this freezing evening on the tundra, the fogged breath that drifts up to the heavens, where all words are remembered,
and all words are judged.
Panikpak, daughter of the bears, burns bright with guilt,
a silent traitor among her kinfolk.
She can sense the fear gripping the other clan leaders, all the men and women who’ve gathered at the Althing: this towering outcrop, this black knife of rock slicing through the ice, unblemished by the snow that’s falling light as blanched feathers,
this singular place of peace in the North,
bound by a sacred truce,
the only place where Nanuq and Natsiq – the clans of bear and seal – can brush shoulders and talk, before returning to the ice,
where the peace ends and Pan comes for their wards, their seals, to fill her belly,
as has been the Way since the first dawn.
Sila is trying not to say what they’re all thinking.
Atramentous hair cascades from the old man’s wizened head, like a waterfall beneath a new moon, hair so long it flows down his gnarled back, it gathers over his shoulders, along his arms, it flaps wildly when he gesticulates, and resembles the wings of his Other: his animal form, the form he can inhabit as quickly as the wind changes direction,
man to raven to man, forever and ever,
two forms balancing one soul,
like all those gathered here at the Althing.
He speaks for the Tulugaq, the raven clan, thus he speaks for all of them gathered here at the Althing – raven or bear, wolf or hare, caribou or walrus or fox – beneath the wane of the last sun that’s already slipping beyond the horizon for the final time,
before the great darkness falls,
when the only light for many months will be the pinpricked stars and the undulating ribbons of the aurora, their ancestors dancing in an eternal green haze.
Sila has summoned the annual Althing for as long as Pan can remember, since she was a mewling cub, constantly underfoot of her father, Apaata, that fierce and formidable giant of a man.
Back then, Sila would look to Apaata for support when the Tikaani – the wolves – forgot their place,
as they so often did,
those cunning, embittered people who’ve always believed themselves wiser than the ravens, more deserving of the Althing,
and of deciding the North’s fate.
As a cub, Pan had understood little; she hadn’t listened when the wolves bickered and tousled with the ravens, as their leader Amaroq fought with Sila, fought with words sharp as the teeth they fled from, words that drew such white-hot fury that her father would intervene,
he’d stir from his quiet sentry and tremble the earth with his bellow, a roar so powerful that the distant trees shook free their white cloaks,
and snow rained from them like falling stars.
The Nanuq have always protected the ravens, respected them, listened to them, whether they crowed of distant carrion, or guided the fractured tribes through hardship; since the first dawn, this was the Way, and it was to be respected.
These wolves were different, ever-changing: ferocious youth forever displacing the sagacity of age, their ravenous appetite for power was so great that they no longer respected the Way.
But they feared her father.
For he was Nanurluk, the great bear,
and all fear the great bear.

Today was the first Althing summoned in four winters.
Dawn had surprised her with a raven – one of Sila’s wards – who’d alighted on the ice before her morning meal: a seal carcass, stripped to the bone, the blubber warm inside her belly, her cheeks still smeared with blood.
There’d been a twinge of sadness, too, the ache of an old wound,
like an arrowhead long embedded in one’s flank.
It’s the first Althing she’d journeyed to alone, Apaata’s spirit but a shadow that padded alongside her, too formless and ethereal to indent the snow; his body had returned to the earth, and he existed now only as ice whirling in the wind, and the shard of his soul embedded within her, that guided her actions,
when she chose to listen.
As a cub she never listened, especially not in the days or weeks spent at the Althing; she would yowl and fidget and gnaw until her father roared, and although he remained in his human form the great bear would almost be visible, and she would be sent scurrying, free at last to wander, to explore, racing through the great forests that crept ever southwards,
those foolish trees that marched unwittingly towards the axes of the white men.
This was how Pan first met Koda, on these wanderings, so far from her own people; this was how she had betrayed her kinfolk, betrayed the North.
But Koda had fascinated her.
This white boy, his cheeks stained pink by the relentless cold,
this soft, round-eyed southerner,
this half-person, with no Other, with no connection to his wildside, no real sight, no smell, no balance,
this hobbled-spirit belonging to a people who had forgotten they were merely the soil reformed, caretakers borrowing the energy that marshalled blood through their veins; these people who had severed their connection with the earth.
She had not yet been taught to fear him, and all that he symbolised,
the long line of ancestors that clung to his coattails, lurked in his shadow,
that whispered of other lands wiped clean of nature and natives alike.
And by the time she learnt she should fear him, it was too late,
for he held her heart in his pale hand,
just as she held his.

Koda was not his real name, of course.
His real name was like the song of the wind, or the humming ice: she could hear it, recognise it, but she couldn’t emulate it; her tongue didn’t dance the right way, couldn’t twist and lisp to speak it, which he had laughed at, good-naturedly, in that first meeting of theirs, in the clearing guarded by bristled pines.
When she baptised him Koda, he had grinned so hard she worried his head would cleave in two, and he said something in his own tongue, something she didn’t understand, and he was too shy to translate it at first, shook his head, until she shifted into her Other, pounced on him, pinned him with all the weight of her bear form, and he was weak with giggling, capitulated,
and he told her that she was his only friend,
and she had replied that bears don’t have friends, that they hunt alone,
she would make an exception,
for him.
After this, Pan looked forward to the Althing every year, she was blinded to all else by her excitement, her longing for him.
Year by year the ice retreated, and the stench of smoke crept ever closer, and less of her Nanuq journeyed to the Althing, perhaps survived at all – yet she paid this no heed,
for she was only a child, she didn’t understand the world,
the way it was changing,
the way it slipped through their fingers with each tumble of the seasons.
She cared only for Koda.
Each time Sila sent his raven wards to summon the Althing, each time they trekked south to the edge of the taiga, she would find some way of angering her father, of fleeing the dull postulating and posturing of her own kind,
and he would be waiting for her in the clearing,
as if he could sense her coming, somehow, this boy of dulled senses,
and when she returned North again, back to the ice with her father, when she left this white boy, this son of strange religions he called science and logic, she wondered each year if it had all been a dream.
It certainly felt real.
In the clearing they battled with snowballs, great contracted skirmishes, fire fights, all yelling and shrieking and laughing, and him accusing her of cheating, which she furiously denied, even if she did occasionally shift forms to better dodge his throws.
They built spectacular dens of hard-packed snow, they climbed the furred pines, they shared food and songs and stories.
As they grew older, they played less, talked more,
and he would laugh at her determined naivety, that she knew so little of the world, her incredulity that anything could exist south of the taiga,
and she would laugh back, because he was surrounded, connected, to all this life around him,
yet he could see nothing,
feel nothing.
He told her of his life, growing up far from home, his little island nation with its mighty clan leader, Victoria, and its broad arms straining to wrap around the world, to thieve and claim; a home slowly swallowed by grey, the fires and smoke of machines driving a stake through the Mother’s heart, bleeding all green from the world.
He told how his own mother left all that behind to raise a child in this far outpost, studying the clans further south, those who talked like Pan, but lived like Koda: hobbled-spirits, with no Other, no wards.
This is Alaska, he said to her, once.
This land has no name, she corrected, it is all of us, we are born of it and will return to it too.
He told her she was special, and she frowned, confused, and reminded him of the other Nanuq, those people just like her, both bear and human,
and he shook his head, smiled,
and said that’s not what he meant.

But here, now, at this first Althing in four winters, Koda is the topic of discussion.
His kind, those invaders stealing swathes of the North,
bringing fire and smoke and grey,
killing the ice, felling the trees.
Pan has never seen the clans so incensed before, and the atmosphere smells wrong, like the distant crackle of lightning, the summer bolt that will set a whole forest ablaze, leaving only death and ash and pain.
And she’s feeling guilty – not because of her secret friend, but because she knows what they’re saying is true,
because she’s seen it, in his shadow: the potential of his kin,
and the blindness of his people,
who no longer understand eternity,
only the selfish constraints of their own lifetimes.
And here, now, the wolves are louder than ever, forgetting their place, forgetting the Way, with a new and dangerous fervour that has her shivering like a southerner in deepest winter,
she who stands alone at the Althing, perhaps the last of her clan,
in the shadow of her father’s ghost.
Nukilik leads the rebellion.
Alpha among alphas, he is the most formidable opponent Pan has ever seen.
She has already caught the tales that skitter between the younglings, tales of his rise to power: how he tore out the throat of his elder, Amaroq, beneath the darkness of his seventh winter, while his pup siblings were still learning the hunt.
He stands now before her, tall, imposing, muscles rippling along the exposed flesh of his arms; his hair a matted grey mane; his pronounced, hooded brow shrouding his features in shadow; his hard eyes of shattered flint tainted with the glow of demonfire,
and he is riling up those gathered,
whipping them into a frenzy –
but still,
she has seen the way he looks at her – how they all do – wondering whether she might just be the great bear after all, like her father before her,
or if she’s weak,
and the time has finally come for the Tikaani to wrest the mantle from the Tulugaq.
Whether the time has come for the Tikaani to lead, not to flee further into the white embrace of the North, but to strike first, hard and bloody,
drive out the invaders,
slaughter every,
Nukilik is yipping and snarling with bold talk of first blood, of protecting the pack,
and when he says gallunaat – white men – he spits it with the venom of baneberry, as if the word alone has poisoned the air; he says knows their camp, beyond the taiga line, shielded by tall pines, beside the sunken clearing –
and hearing this sets Pan’s innards alight because she knows this place.
Koda’s home.
Sila’s words are but pine needles adrift in the wind, they bear no weight, this wolfson won’t heed, so Sila now looks to her, as the Tikaani all howl in unison, and with a shudder of their sinewy bodies they become their Others,
and she chokes, she freezes,
torn between her land and her friend, the world-killer,
and before she can utter a word, there is a plume of stirred snow, then the wolves are gone.
They are on the hunt.

The wolves are much quicker than she is, she cannot reach the outpost before they do, before the attack begins,
but maybe
she can get there before they find him.
She is determined, dogged, bounding on four paws.
She prays to the Mother, prays that she arrives in time to protect her Koda.
And she makes a promise.
Soon Nukilik will discover that he guessed wrong by doubting her, by thinking her weak, by forgoing the Way and hunting her Koda,
her only friend.
Because her Other is monstrous now, larger even than her father at the height of his power, a hulking white demon, all snarling maw, flashing teeth, razor claws, and a bellow that can shake stars from the heavens.
And she will rip the Tikaani limb from limb, until the snow is a red river,
if they dare lay a finger on her friend.
Because she is the Nanurluk now,
and if they’ve forgotten, she will remind them:
all fear the great bear.

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