Hooray! The Bear’s Wife is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Part 1 will publish on June 19; the rest of the parts will publish on consecutive Fridays.
Here is the opening of the novel, if you need something to hook you 😉
“You know what he’ll say,” my sister Maggie whispered. “It’s a waste of time to ask. You should just go.”
“Hush, little girl,” I said back. The people from the next valley—our only neighbors for days and days in all directions—had just arrived for their annual visit. Our brothers were helping to put up their horses, and Mama was red-faced and damp-haired over the dinner, but that didn’t mean they weren’t listening. These arrival days were the worst of my whole year: they were the days Fin asked my father for my hand in marriage. They were the days my father told him no.
I loaded my sling with firewood and headed back to the common. Maggie trotted after me, chirruping like a chickadee.
“He could wait for you in the woods. You could leave at night and be over the ridge by dawn. Nobody but me would see, and I wouldn’t tell.”
“Shut it.” I eyed the ring of people around the bonfire: aunts, uncles, cousins. If a single one heard Maggie’s ill-considered chatter they would all want an explanation. That Fin and I were sweethearts was no secret. That my father wouldn’t let us marry was a running joke. That I might do something about it was an unthinkable horror.
“Too bad you’re the oldest daughter,” Maggie went on while I unloaded the wood. “I don’t ever want to get married. Want me to ask Papa if we can trade? I’ll do it.”
“Do not say a single word.”
At twelve, Maggie’s spirit was bright and boundless. She still thought life would give her what she wanted, if only she took the trouble to ask.
At twenty, I knew better. Since the founding of our settlement—maybe even since the First People had colonized the world—my people had believed that the eldest daughter should stay home. The eldest daughter was me.
A hand touched my shoulder. It was Fin. “Come on, Perry,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
His talk with Papa had been short. Too short, and he wasn’t smiling. My stomach curdled.
He led me by the hand, his large one sliding against my smaller one, away from the bonfire and the fiddles and the laughter. We went past the summer kitchen, past two more houses, and past the dry-stone paddocks to the back of the machine shed. It was built on a little hill that formed a secluded hollow along its back wall. There we were in shadow, between it and the whispering waist-high corn. Fireflies blinked. Coyotes yipped. He backed me against the sun-warmed wall, and before delving into words, he kissed me.
I inhaled and drew close to him, pulling him close against me. After a year apart he was surreal in the startling reality of his body; it was as if the whole of the summer night’s heat and humidity had concentrated in his mouth. When we broke apart, I took my first thorough look at him since the summer before. He shone in the moonlight: his elegant long hands, his clean-shaven face, even the neatly combed hair that scooped across his forehead like the edge of an apple leaf.
“Well?” I asked, when I had worked myself around to it.
I let my head fall.
“Perry, that’s five years in a row. I’ll keep on asking, but I don’t think he’ll change his mind.”
I kept my head down.
“When we go home, come with me. Just do it. You know he’ll come around when we’ve got a grandkid to show him.”
“No, he won’t.” My jaw tightened. “I can’t leave and expect to come back, and they’re my family, Fin.”
He frowned. “Now see here, you’re twenty years old. You’re gonna have to grow up one of these days.”
“How would running away and shirking my responsibilities be growing up?”
“My sisters have a trousseau for us.”
Oh, spirits. I hid my face in my hands.
“My father set aside a piece of land and a dozen goats to get us started. We’re set. I only need you.”
No, absolutely not. “I can’t. Not without Papa’s blessing. What if we got married and I defied you? Huh? How would you like that?” Not one bit was the answer.
“Perry, you’re gonna have to . . . ” He bit off his words, and shoved his hands into his pockets instead. How unfair that I was the one people got angry at.
“Don’t. You know I can’t stand it. Just don’t.”
“Shh. Shh.” He shut me up with a kiss that turned into a dark sigh. “I don’t wanna fight. I only just got here.” He stood back and rubbed my arms. “I guess we can keep trying the other way, too. Hm?”
Miserable, I nodded. Even the joy of laying with him would be soured by this disagreement.
“You sure he’d get over a grandkid before a wedding?”
It would be bad enough, but Papa would have to let us marry, then. And I would still be a dutiful daughter. I would still be on the farm. Papa would have to invite Fin to live with us.
“Come on then.” He worked at my trousers’ laces. “Alley-oop and away we go.”
I laughed a single dismal laugh and buried my face in his neck. It was such a relief to have a man to hold. Such a relief to have the hope—however distant—of having a husband, a family, a home all my own. To be something more than the work my hands could do and the loads my back could lift.
“I love you, Fin. Grace, how I love you. Only I can’t leave home. I just can’t.”
“Tsh. You’re my first, and I’m yours. We’re bound no matter what he says about it.” He smiled so that white teeth showed. “It’s only a matter of stating our case so he’ll listen.”
“Thank you,” I whispered while he worked my trousers off. I rested my hands on his smooth, thin shoulders. “Thank you for understanding.”
And so Fin and I made the most of our time together. Ten days later he and his people went home to their valley. I stayed in mine. With Maggie. With Papa. Three days after Fin left I began to bleed. We had failed, again. We had to wait a year, again.
* * *
A quarter of a year later, deep in the night, Maggie screamed.
I sat up in bed. The door was open and a man was in our longhouse, in our sleeping cubicle, trying to throw her over his shoulder. She bit and scratched like a bobcat.
“Let her go!” I tugged at her feet. The man let her fall into my arms. She was scarcely a hand shorter than myself, but she scrabbled to wrap her arms and legs around me like a small child shaken from a nightmare.
The man swept aside the curtain that sectioned off our sleeping cubicle from the rest of our family’s longhouse. He dug his fingers into the base of my braid and used it to turn my head.
I looked. Torches split the darkness. More masked men. Spilled baskets. The carnage of my family—my father was on his knees. A man with a machete brought it down and cut my father’s arm off between the wrist and elbow.
“Now go.” The man turned me toward the door.
I pushed Maggie’s head to my shoulder to spare her the awful sights. She looked anyway. Her whole body convulsed as she let a steam-whistle shriek straight into my ear. I gasped and mis-stepped on the door’s stoop; my ankle twisted. I half fell to my knees and half hung from the man’s fingers in my hair; cried out from the pain. He swore, let it go, and dug his hand under my arm to get me back to my feet.
In the confusion I caught another glance between the curtains. My father was on the ground. His head lay at a strange angle. The man with the machete lifted it for another cut. Then I was forced to look away, to get to my feet, to go out the door.
Our pole-and-wattle longhouses were on fire. Men ran. Women pleaded. A herd of goats, let loose from their pen, trotted mehh-ing down the common.
The man pushed me past the summer kitchen, past two more houses, past the dry-stone paddocks to the back of the machine shed. There he forced me to my knees. Something thunked onto the dry weeds beside me. Our boots.
“Go south, not north,” he said. “If you go north we’ll catch you and we’ll kill you. Understand? Go south.”
I sobbed into Maggie’s shoulder. The man boxed my face between his hands and shook it.
“Do you understand?”
Roaring firelight caressed the lines of his face. He had a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth, but his eyes and head were bare. A smooth curve of hair scooped over his forehead like the edge of an apple leaf.
All the air left my lungs. Fin.
He shook me again. “Say it!”
“Go south. I understand,” I gasped, and he let me go. I crumpled, burying my face in the weeds. “Fin, why?”
“Just go.” He ran back to the fires and the mayhem.
“Perry, Perry, Perry.” Maggie dragged me by one hand. “Come on let’s go!”
I stumbled to my feet, then remembered the boots. We couldn’t leave those. I yanked hard to make her let me go—one, two, three, four, yes that was all—then followed her into the rustling-crisp cornfield, where the plants grew higher than our heads but the straight rows would guide us aright.
Go south. Not north. They would catch us if we went north. They would catch us and they would kill us. Fin would kill us.
Fin would kill me.
* * *
We ran through the corn field, through the apple orchard, through the far meadows where our people grazed their sheep in the summer. At the edge of the old-growth forest I yanked the back of Maggie’s sweater to make her stop. We tumbled to the ground and looked back at the billowing fires in our settlement, our Bright Valley, the only home we had ever known.
“We have to go back,” I said.
“Perry, no. They’ll kill us. Fin said so.”
“But we got out. Somebody else will, too.”
“Well where do we go then?
“I don’t know!” She turned wild eyes toward the dark forest, then downhill to the placid river that formed Bright Valley’s basin. “Follow the water south. Papa went south to trade.”
“But we don’t know where else he went. We’ll get lost.”
“Who cares?” She yanked her boots on with demented efficiency. “The ocean is east. There are people there. We’ll go east.”
“But we have to go back.”
“We’re never going back, Perry.” She shoved my boots onto my feet. “They’re gonna stay there, don’t you see? They won’t go away.”
“Fin. Why’d he do it? Why’d he do it?” I tore at my hair. Fin was supposed to love me.
“Get up. We’re going.” Unwilling to let me settle into bewilderment, she tugged until I stood up. Hand in hand, my little sister and I crashed away from the vast danger of the known.