Ian Kappos

Burnt Black Bear’s Blood

How the horsebacked man and I came to be on the hill overlooking the burning mansion and smoking a pipe together I shall tell you as soon as I return the pipe to the horsebacked man.

Earlier tonight, the rightful heir and the rightful heir’s consort descended into the courtyard. The insurrectionists met them there, and the sand dollar tables between the two groups were lambent with the silver light of the moon. The rightful heir and the rightful heir’s consort made their demands, as was their right. But the insurrectionists, shifting nervously on their gecko steeds, rebuffed these demands, instead deflecting them with demands of their own.

In this manner, the disagreement regressed to outright conflict.

The mansion is half-moon-shaped and, on nights like this, wiggles with an incandescence of its own. Together with the full moon, it, in effect, made for one-and-a-half moons. Presently it loomed behind the congregation, looking down its nose at the sad excuse for diplomacy. Shouts of dissension from both sides. The insurrectionists and their gecko steeds pacing back and forth in the courtyard. The rightful heir’s consort moving now to flank them, bar their exit.

This was the last I saw before I ran for the woods, pushing through the hedges like an ant between hands in prayer, and across the open ground separating the woods from the estate. By the time I reached the woods I had attracted pursuers. I tried to outrun them, though once inside the woods the roots and the natural topiary slowed me. The topiary came in shapes of badgers, monkeys, millipedes, a thousand familiar and exotic animal likenesses whose real counterparts had long since disappeared from the world.

It was then that I became aware of the smell, and the dampness spreading across my body. I saw then that, under infrequent shafts of moonlight, the leaves shined a brilliant sterling red.

Who my pursuers were, I had known from the first coupled clap of hoof and hand. The horsebacked man and his men on horseback, under contract to the rightful heir, were on my tail.

Though I didn’t know where I was going, I had a keen sense of smell, intuiting just where to turn in order to throw them off my back, if only momentarily. Unfortunately, the horsebacked man’s nose, even behind its muzzle, was every bit as keen as mine, if not more so.

The horsebacked man and his men on horseback were good at their trade.

It was not long, though, before I fell onto another trail, this one brighter and more redolent of copper than before. This must, I concluded, be the trail of burnt black bear’s blood. It oozed from the trees; clusters of it, enmeshed in spiders’ webs and bracken, pulled at my limbs. This was not black bear’s blood, no, but the black blood of bears. Gobs of it, burnt and ashen on the outside, blossomed open gummy and rot-sweet as I tore through the foliage.

Like a severed vein, the trail drained me out of the woods.

In an opening of trees where the grass was neatly clipped, two stone phalluses were emerging from the ground. Their heads were in the shapes of oversized fists, and altogether the structures were nearly as tall as I am. The hands were marred like leper’s hands; between their knuckles were clots of the burnt black bear’s blood. I ran my fingers over those fingers as if performing a secret, divine handshake. As I massaged the burnt black bear’s blood from the stone, I could still hear, whether off in the distance or in the recesses of my skull, that chorus from the courtyard: a chorus of man and woman and plant debating rights to plant and woman and man.

Then, as the horsebacked man and his men on horseback gushed from the forest behind me, the fists flexed and extended into prayer.

They were drenched in oily black, the horsebacked man and his men on horseback. I rested my back against the stone and resigned myself to my fate. Dismounting, the horsebacked man called out to me across the clearing: he announced to me that he and his men were no longer employed by the rightful heir, that in fact he and his men had not been trying to track me down.

They had nevertheless, he said, found me by the bloody smear I’d left in my wake, “like a brushstroke through a puddle of paint.”

“It is one way to show you around our house,” he laughed.

Filling the silence between us, then, first in parts and then altogether, were the far-off sounds of crumbling sand dollars, the scuttling of lizards, and cries of men.

The horsebacked man’s hair was ornately braided, it caught the light redly when he wagged his head. He wore sandals made of driftwood and rope; tattooed along his neck were the names of trees he’d buried. Adorned similarly were those of his company, some whose heads were not even maned, feet not even hoofed.

Upon the small hill beside the stone phalluses we lit a fire and sat and talked and smoked. As we talked, we confided in each other our mutual disinterest in politics. Beside us, the stone phalluses shrank back into the ground, leaving a gritty film of burnt black bear’s blood on the ruptured earth. The moon, all by itself now, chased the darkness across the grounds. In the distance burning silent and orange like the incense of revolution was the husk of the mansion.

“You know,” the horsebacked man says now through his muzzle, “they were cubs.”

I nod, yes, I do know.

The horsebacked man looks deep into my watery eyes. It is always a sorrowful tale, we silently agree, when the young get caught in the meaningless skirmishes of the not-young. Hopefully, we silently conclude, this skirmish will prove not-meaningless. Without another word between us we pay homage to the moon and her honesty in spite of her imitators. We mouth to her our thanks, our thanks for exposing to us what we had been too blind to see.

The night descends into stillness and the horsebacked man and I pass the sand dollar pipe back and forth. With the coming of dawn comes again the image of the burning mansion, but this time it is nothing more than a specter against the sky. The sound of crying men has withered from our ears. Each in its own key, the animals of the forest begin to rise in song, to hearken the Braille daylight.