'Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw' - Alfred Lord Tennyson
In a cabin nestled among the trees, an hour's walk from the town of Orion, a curl of smoke rises from the chimney. The sunset stains the world in orange and rose as it sets, sinking down behind the jagged teeth of distant blue mountains.
“Darcy, the curtains please,” Jane says pressing a small card between the pages of her worn copy of Bibliographie de L’Astronomie.
It's a waste, Darcy thinks, as her sister Jane lights a candle and carefully sets it in the glass lantern. The look on her face must betray her for Jane's next words, "We must finish these shirts for Mrs. Coulson or Mr. Coulson will take the window glass back."
"It would be a pity to lose the window glass," Darcy sighs. She steps across the room to one the two small windows. The windows are made of small squares of thick glass. Crystals of ice curl around the edges of each square and Darcy longs to press a thimble into the frost to draw patterns as they did when they were children.
The curtains are a buttery yellow, made from one of Jane’s dresses that had been too often mended. The world is dark outside, shadows and snow. The windows are black eyes reflecting the hot embers of the fire and the beeswax candle burning bright.
A wolf howls out in the dark, though there is no moon tonight only a small scattering of stars peeking through a gap in the clouds. A shiver crawls down her spine and Darcy draws the curtains against the dark and the cold. “Snow on the way.”
“There is always snow in winter,” Jane says in the same tone she uses when teaching the children in one of the vacant shop buildings in town. One day the town will have it’s own school house for Jane to teach, with new slates and brand new books with crisp white paper and sharp printed words.
Darcy settles in her chair by the hearth pulls a shirt from the basket. A bright blue calico that she fears will catch on the roughness of her fingers. Her hands are always rough from work despite papa's leather gloves. She takes a needle from the needle book she made as a child and threads it carefully in the lamp light. Her stitches are neat and careful, though never as perfect as Jane's always are.
The buttons are the fanciest ones Darcy has ever seen. Pearl carved to look like roses, sewn onto thick blue card with scrolling French script, and silver buttons pressed with the shape of a bear on each one. She hopes there will be one button spare to find a home in their button box.
There is a heavy scrape and bang at the door. Darcy jumps and the thimble falls from her finger to roll across the rough hewn pine floor. "It is late to have a visitor," Jane says.
"Perhaps it's the Odinson boy come to court you, dearest Jane," she says with a grin.
"Nonsense," Jane says pressing her hands to her pink cheeks. "It too late to travel from town."
It is not the elder Odinson boy at the door. It is not a boy at all. A bear stands at the door. It's shaggy brown fur covered in snow and it's great head filling the doorframe. "Please," the bear says.
"Please," Darcy echos. The wood of the door is rough beneath her hands; her nails scrape against it.
"Step away from the door," Jane hisses behind her, papa's rifle held in her tiny hands.
"Please. I only wish to warm myself by your fire," the bear says. “For a little while.”
Biting her lip, Darcy glances back at Jane over her shoulder. Jane’s lips are compressed into a grim line, rifle held firm. Swirls of snow slip through the open door, a small drift of snow covering the bear’s paws. A shiver crawls down her spine. She’s not sure if its fear or from the cold leaching the heat from their small cabin. “Jane.”
“It said please,” Darcy says looking back and forth from her sister to the bear.
“He,” the bear says, brown eyes glittering with what might be amusement.
“Mr. Bear said please,” Darcy said lifting her chin a notch. “You’ll behave won’t you Mr. Bear?”
“I will not harm you. I give my word as a...I give my word,” the bear says.
“If he causes any trouble we have a new rug and meat for the winter,” Darcy says pulling the door open wider. More snow drifts in but the bear does not move.
“For a little while,” Jane says with a small nod. “You may warm yourself by the fire.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” the bear says. It moves past Darcy into the cabin, bringing with it the scent of winter. Pine, and earth, and freshly fallen snow.
She shuts and bolts the door against the night and the cold. The bear shakes the snow from his shoulders with a muttered sorry and drops down beside the fire with a sigh. Darcy gets the broom out and sweeps the snow from the floor before it has a chance to melt.
The bear never moves from the fire. Jane and Darcy sleep that night in Jane’s bed, curled up like children with the door and a heavy wooden dresser between them and the sleeping bear.
In the morning the bear says a gruff ‘thank you’ as he slips through the door out into the drifts of new fallen snow.
Darcy pulls on her boots and papa’s old coat with it’s brightly colored patches, scarf, gloves and her brown knitted hat. She takes the pail out to the barn to take care of Clementine the cow and collect eggs from their few chickens. The day passes quickly in work, and before long the snow is falling in thick clusters.
The sun is setting when a booming knock shakes the door. The bear has returned.
“Please. I only wish to warm myself by the heat of your fire,” the bear says as Darcy and Jane cluster at the door. There is a rabbit on the ground beside the bear. Three drops of blood stain the snow.
“You brought us a rabbit, Mr. Bear,” Darcy asks.
The bear says nothing.
“For a little while,” Jane says pulling the door fully open and clutching tightly to her shawl.
That night Darcy sleeps in her own bed in the loft. She does not fear the bear as perhaps she should. The bear’s shadow on the wall in the light of the fire is an odd comfort.
Every morning the bear leaves and every night he returns again. Sometimes he carries with him a welcome gift they are never too proud to accept. Rabbits. Deer. A pheasant. A fish from beneath the ice of the lake. .
When the Odinson boy comes to court Jane, they make no mention of their nighttime visitor.
A secret between sisters.
One night she wakes to silence, but for the measured tickling of the clock on the mantle. No wind stirs outside. Darcy blinks and looks for the bear’s shadow. It is not there.
In place of the bear is the shadow of a man beside the fire. Darcy crawls from beneath her quilt and creeps to the edge of the loft for a better look. She doesn’t hear the gasp she makes but the man beside the fire does. He pulls the fur wrapped around his shoulders higher and turns his head to face her.
“You are not a bear,” Darcy whispers curling her hand around the top of the ladder.
“Yes and no,” says the man.
Darcy climbs down the ladder, unmindful of how indecent it is for a man to see her in her night dress. The floor is rough beneath her bare toes and Darcy has a moment of regret not having pulled her stockings on. Her eyes track to the rifle above the door on its wooden pegs.
“If it makes you feel better,” says the man cocking his dark head towards the rifle.
“Are you a man or a bear,” Darcy asks raising her chin.
“I am cursed,” the man says heavily. He rakes a hand through his shaggy hair and the bear skin slips from his left shoulder. A livid red scar in the shape of a star curves across the muscle of his shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” Darcy says louder than she intends.
“It’s nothing,” says the man. He pulls the bear skin up, hiding the mark on his shoulder from her eyes..
“It doesn’t look like nothing,” she says quietly stepping across the room into the warm circle of the fire’s light. The man shakes his head, dark hair falling over his forehead, hiding his eyes from hers.“What is your name, mister, for I cannot call you Mr. Bear if you are not...furry,” Darcy says with more bravado than she feels.
“Does it matter? I am still a bear in daylight. I am still a cursed man,” he says, tilting his head back to meet her eyes. She expects his eyes to be brown, like the bear’s, but they are light instead: a pale blue, the color of the calico fabric she has hidden away to make a new dress for spring. His face is covered in a thick beard, the same dark brown as his hair, and the color of the bear skin.
“Your name, sir,” Darcy says. There is steel behind her tone and it startles a laugh from the man who is a bear.
“It was James. Once,” he says. His voice cracks on the word, as if he had forgotten how to say his own name. “James Barnes.”
“Mr. Barnes, I--”
“Please, call me James,” he says mouth twisting in a bitter grimace.
“It’s improper,” Darcy says twisting her hands in the fabric of her night dress. And so is standing stocking feet in the same room as a naked man, she thinks. She stills her hands, Jane always says she mustn’t fidget so. “Would you like some tea, James?” James sucks in a sharp breath of air and nods his head once. He smiles. Its more a bearing of his teeth than a smile, as if he has forgotten how. James shakes his head and his hair falls down over his eyes.
Darcy puts the kettle full of melted snow on the hook and swings it over the flames for tea. She pulls the tea box down from the shelf and measures out a careful spoonful of black tea into the earthenware teapot and carefully sets out two cups. She keeps an ear out for Jane but Jane has always been a heavy sleeper, even in the worst of thunderstorms that sent Darcy hiding under Papa’s bed when she was small.
Silence stretches out between them. A thread pulled tight that Darcy longs to cut with sharp bladed scissors. She bites her tongue, keeps the words in the cage of her teeth. She focuses on filling the tea pot with boiling water from the kettle. A cloud of aromatic steam curls up from the pot as Darcy stirs the tea three times and sets the lid atop the pot. “Where are you from, mist...James?”
“New York,” he answers gazing into the fire. “That is not all that you wish to ask me.”
No it isn’t, she thinks, but she isn’t sure where to start. “Who cursed you?” she finally blurts, cheeks burning hotly.
“A demon playing at being a man,” James says.
“Oh,” Darcy says eyes darting to the wards carved in the wood above the door.
“You and your sister are safe,” he says reaching out towards her. The both stare at his hand in the space between them. “Sorry.” The word cracks in two and Darcy’s heart clenches as he pulls back. She catches his hand in both of hers.
There are callouses and scars beneath the pads of her fingers. Her face flushes hot when she remembers that she is only in her nightdress holding the hand of a man wrapped in a cursed bear skin. “The tea,” she says pulling her hands away.
The cup warms her hands as they sit in silence. Her head is loud with questions. So many questions to ask the man. She looks at him through the veil of her lashes, mouth full of tea to still her tongue. For a little while.
His eyes are hidden in the shadow of his long hair, mouth red and wet with tea. Her gaze drops to the tea leaves swirling in the bottom of her cup each time James focuses on her. Oh where have all your manners gone, she thinks, if her sister were awake she would despair.
“Spit it out,” he says placing his cup on the floor between them.
Eyes wide, Darcy licks her lips, and when she speaks she looks are her toes sticking out from the hem of her nightdress. “Why did the demon curse you?”
“What crime did I commit?” James says with a rusty laugh.
“Do not put words in my mouth, Mr. Barnes,” Darcy hisses collecting his cup from the floor and turning her back on him. “You may not always be a man, but you appear to have the manners of the animal.”
“I was foolish. Tried to save someone who didn’t need saving, and ended up a monster.”
“And to break the curse,” Darcy presses.
“Blood and death,” he says to the flames. His voice is half a growl, and when she turns she half expects him to be a bear again. “My death or the creature’s, I do not know. The only magic will be in the spilling of blood on the ground. No kiss will break this spell, princess.”
“I did not offer you a kiss, Mr. Barnes,” Darcy says primly.
She does not tell her sister.
Darcy keeps James’ secret like a stone in her pocket. It is small and cold and heavier than one can imagine, but still she keeps it.
Through the long winter the bear stays with them.
In the small hours of the night she feeds James endless cups of tea, small pieces of cake, buttermilk pancakes slathered with a thick layer of strawberry preserves and sticks of peppermint candy on Christmas.
They talk long into the nights, until the fire grows cold and dawn’s light is a whisper away. She tells him the town gossip and the weeks old news from the east. James smiles get easier over the long winter, and on the rare occasions he laughs her heart races and her belly twists.
On the longest night of the winter he scrapes away his beard with Papa’s pearl handled razor. It takes years away from his face. There is something dark and wild in his eyes; he’s as handsome as any Dime Novel hero she ever imagined.
“...Mr. Odinson looked like a prince with his blue coat as he tucked the blanket around Jane. Oh and the bells sung on the horses as they pulled away in his new sled. I’ve never seen Jane so happy since Papa died,” Darcy smiles, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders. “He’s building her a house in the town. They’re to be married in the summer when it has finished. There will be so much to do when the last of the snow melts ….I’m sorry. Jane is always saying I talk enough for two people.” Darcy says with the shake of her head, cheeks burning hotly.
“Darcy,” James says catching her wrist before she can climb the ladder up to her bed.
“It’s late. The sun will be up soon.”
His palm feels cold on the bare skin of her wrist. The clock ticks on the mantle. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
“Goodnight, princess,” James says. She lowers her eyes from his face to the space between them. His thumb rubs a circle over the back of her wrist. The bear skin tickles against her fingertips. His scent fillers her lungs: winter, and pine, and something darker.
Darcy’s pulse races with the way he looks at her, like he can read the turning of the thoughts in her head as easily as the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup.
His lips are dry and chapped when they press against hers. James’ tongue traces over her seam of her lips and her heart beats fast as a rabbit’s.
The bear skin is soft and warm under her hands. He deeps the kiss, lips firm on hers, tongue slipping between her lips to slide against hers.Her head spins with the taste of him on her tongue. James pulls her into the warmth of his body, holding her so tight she fears her bones may crack.
“Goodbye,” he whispers into her hair pressing one last kiss to her forehead.
Snow melts and the ground is covered in green and Darcy’s heart aches for the loss of a cursed man.
In the garden patch beside the cabin Darcy fills a shallow basket with lettuce and dandelions. The sun is warm on her back and a crafty blackbird sits on the wooden fence waiting for a chance to steal worms from the freshly disturbed earth between her boots.
“Don’t forget the fiddleheads,” Jane calls from the door. dusting her flour covered hands on her apron.
“I will not forget the fiddleheads,” Darcy calls back. Loud enough to startle the blackbird from his perch. The bird chirps indignantly. Shaking the dirt from a dandelion’s roots and tosses it into into the basket and reaches for the handle of her knife. Darcy makes her way through the garden gate, leaving the blackbird to dig for worms in the black earth. The nearest clump of ferns tucked within the shadows of the trees. The fiddleheads; the curled fronds of young ferns were one of her favorite spring greens.
The hem of her skirts brushes against the the fern when a scream echoes through the woods. Icy fingers of fear drag down Darcy’s spine.
“A cat,” Jane says behind her.
“Didn’t sound like any cat I ever heard,” Darcy says gripping the handle of the knife tightly. Jane twists her hands in her apron and the scream echoes again from the north followed by the deep roar of a bear. “James.”
Darcy feet are moving before she can think it.
“Wait,” Jane calls after her.
She does not wait. Darcy follows a deer track through the woods north of the cabin with Jane hot on her heels. In the meadow where wild strawberries and mint grow a bear has a man cornered against the bark of a great pine.
The bear roars and swipes at the man with his claws.
“Move,” Jane says pushing Darcy to the side and raising Papa’s rifle. The barrel aimed at the bear’s broad back.
“No,” Darcy says pulling the rifle from Jane’s small hands. “It’s him.”
“You know this man?”
“Not the man. The bear,” Darcy says. “My bear. Our bear.”
“You can’t know that,” Jane hisses.
“I know,” Darcy says.
“Help me,” says the man. He is tall, though not as tall as the bear, pale faced with eyes black as crows, dressed in a fine grey suit that has no place this far west.
The demon, she think. The man’s face shifts; flesh recedes and turns crimson. The color of the roses growing beside the cabin door.
Blood covers the ground, red and black. An alchemist‘s gun, and a leather pouch lie in a patch of sweetclover.
A knife blade glints in the sun. James roars in rage as the man darts in slashing at his throat. Darcy lifts the rifle to her shoulder, aims and pulls the trigger. The shot is off, hitting the demon’s shoulder and not his heart.
The demon howls.
James tears at the demon’s throat until black blood pours from the wound soaking into the earth.
There is no flash of magic, no tinkling sound of the spell breaking. The span of a heartbeat passes and the bear is gone, only James laying face down on the ground, skin pale and streaked with blood.
The rifle falls from Darcy’s hands, and she runs across the meadow clutching her skirts in her fists.
Please please please. The word circles through her head, a litany that loses meaning as her knees hit the dirt beside him. “Please, James, I’ve missed you. Please,” Darcy pleads tears spilling down her cheeks.
Her sister calls her name, pulling at her arm. Darcy shakes free curling her hands around James’ shoulders, blunt nails digging into his skin. The star shaped scar on his shoulder is no longer a red ruin, it’s smooth under the pads of her fingers, faded to white.
The meadow is quiet, no birdsong, or squirrel chatter to break the silence. Her heart feels cracked in the cage of her chest. James sucks in a sharp breath, eyes blinking open to look up into her tear filled eyes.
“Hullo, princess,” he says with a smile. There is blood on his teeth, blood on his hands. Black half moons underneath blunt nails. Nails that once were claws. He pulls himself to his feet, with little help from her, the bear skin draped round his shoulders. The fur is dull, matted with earth and blood, no longer the color of James’ dark hair. “It’s done.”
“The curse?” she asks reaching out to touch the back of his hand.
“The demon is dead.” He twines their fingers together and pulls Darcy hand gently. She goes willingly into his arms, holding on as tight as she can, and burying her nose in the warmth of his skin. Winter and pine laced with sweat and the coppery scent of blood. “The curse is broken,” he whispers into her hair.