Huruhra, the Bear
Whisper thin scents: rocks, brooks, streams, a musty order, and the memory of salmon. Huruhra, the great grizzly bear meant to go to the wet place where the fish come. Arruah scented that clearly, but she puzzled over a more dazzling exotic smell. Something the loud creatures of the Sound brought with them out into the wilderness. Something bitter, but enticing, with a hint of sugar beneath the excess. Something that could be easily converted to energy, and Arruah always wanted more energy.
She prided herself on her nose. It hurt that Huruhra had scented the viand before her. Huruhra the Great, up in years, but eyes still sharp and nose too-- apparently. Vanity on ability, how misplaced. There’d always be one great in skill, what bear had the best of anything? No bear, and Arruah shook the notion of her great nose off and went to work with a more modest nose.
Yes, Huruhra had found the food, but wasn’t he a kind bear noted for his generosity? Then, wouldn’t it be a mistake if she didn’t follow? Sometimes the loud creatures were dangerous. To test them against Huruhra made sense. If they were safe today, then there might be food. If they were not, then Huruhra must face the brunt.
Chuffing to herself at her cleverness, Arruah pawed through the underbrush smelling tree and rock and the sickly smell of rodent droppings. This too was beautiful. The hazeled light tripping through leaves complemented the forest’s smells. Fresh and foul; the musk of a long gone bobcat, the spark of a molding tree, the bitter anthill. To her these were brighter than the forest’s sights, and she followed old Huruhra’s trail down the mountain dale and out to the river. The sun widened and sparkled across the river, and the rich smell of the water came to her just before the lapping sound did.
There were no spawning fish today. That wouldn’t happen for awhile. The loud creature’s place was clear. They had set up perches for themselves and a tiny fabric home, and set a fire, though the fire was a dead thing now, memorable only by its ashy remains and burned smell permeating the scene.
Huruhra was there, looking at the scattered remains of the site, and Arruah-- sensing something wrong-- walked to him, head tilted quizzically.
Huruhra continued his gaze at the poor remains. Arruah looked around and shook her head in confusion. The loud animals were not loud now. They were all dead. They smelled dead. They lay with great signs of violence, rips and tears and bites.
They attacked and killed themselves, Arruah thought. Here was a pup, no larger than a cub, dead and chewed on. A female rested with her feet in the water. What perversion was this? A male with its head broken by a large stone dribbled blood into the river.
Huruhra grumbled in sadness.
Arruah considered the dead beasts. Extra food or bad eating? The winter, far off, was always coming, and that meant nothing could be passed up. However, smelling them this close, there was another odor. Lilac-like, but not lilacs. A sick smell, sweeter than the cans laying around the camp (these were the bitter yet sweet food smell, she’d noticed earlier). Sweeter, but less appealing. It was death; it was poison, sickness, and rot.
The two bears nosed through the camp, checking the perches and sniffing through the garbage. The ill smell set them on edge and neither was willing to eat any of the food, even the large cache of things in metal cans.
Huruhra huffed to her and Arruah huffed back. This was a dead place. Nothing would grow out of it, and if they were unlucky, the water would become corrupt and the fish wouldn’t spawn in this place again.
A rustling from the cloth den. Both bears pricked their ears up. Movement. The overpowering smell of lilacs. The den had folds in it to act as a gate, and out poked a head. It was a loud creature, but one oddly silenced, and it stank. Rot set on it, but not good rot like a dead deer in the summer, but a bad rot like that of poisoned meat. No maggots would touch this thing.
Both bears backed up, hackles raised. The thing stumbled out into the daylight, its waxen skin too putrid to even grow mold. Huruhra growled at it.
The thing rushed him, and the bear swatted and bit, and the thing was no more.
Huruhra spat out the creature, and then continued spitting. The sick smell clung to his muzzle and Arruah traced it on him even after he stuck his muzzle into the river to clean his tongue.
She huffed at him, and he shook the water off his face to reply. The smell still clung to him and he pawed at his nose. She growled sympathetically, and indicated she had to be away from this cursed place. The dead thing that still could move proved the place was tainted. Prudence dictated distance.
Huruhra complained a little. But only a little. Bears keep to themselves, mostly. And a grizzly ought not be scared to be alone. If she acknowledged his fear, it would wound his honor, if she wounded his honor, all bears were lessened by the wound. She would never do him the disservice as to keep him company for such a thing as fear.
She returned to the forest to return to the alone walk between cubs-- for cubs were the female bear’s only real connection. It was sacred, and she longed for the birth of more.
Given the scent of fresh dead deer, she wallowed in its trail and chased wolves from their kill. She ate, muttered to herself, dug at roots, ate some more, then left to find a treefall. These were her favorite things and she could roll on one and leave messages for other bears in the forest, and see what other bears had left for her.
Erraaha always had news of something exciting she’d found, and the small black bear-- a stranger here but still communicative, left his notes too. She didn’t understand his notes for black bears and brown bears don’t speak the same tongue and the claw marks, raw areas of denuded bark, and oddly pungent urine scents did not say anything intelligible. It looked like it ought to, but it did not. Arruah was practical enough to leave her own message for the lesser bear: LEAVE OUR PLACE. If he didn’t understand it, she would tell him in person and she would need no vocabulary to do it.
She knew these halcyon days were ending. For the last year, the forest had been so idyllic and food so easy to find, it belied some sort of storm. She felt it growing somewhere in the distance and while she couldn’t put her nose on it yet, it was there like a faraway and foreign scent, something obscure and different.
Never one for thinking, she put it off her mind and kept doing so until such time as she couldn’t ignore it. Thus ever did she work her life. Tracing berries in the air, she found a wild bunch of strawberries up a hill and then down again. This hidden dale was filled with them: the good kind too, the wild kind, not the large tasteless ones the loud creatures from the Sound brought with them. These were real, and they tasted wonderful. She lapped them off the bush with her tongue. Fantastic.
The wind shifted and she sniffed it to sample it. A musty odor. That was Huruhra. Lilacs, the depths, the dark places around corners. Arruah jerked away from the bushes. The smell was Huruhra, but it was also the smell of the camp, and it was too close. Huruhra had taken it with him, and somehow the bite on the rotten thing had come with it. He’d put it inside him and now the smell came with him.
Too close. Arruah knew disease when she smelled it. The great bear had caught something serious, and he was too close. Perhaps it was the Monster that Drives Things Mad. She didn’t know it by sight, but she’d seen evidence of it; the little painted dogs with the clever hands sometimes caught it and they died miserable deaths with their minds in shreds and left corpses so foul that not even roaches would eat them. It must be something like that.
Arruah relocated up the mountain. Scenting a stream that she knew well, a place of clean smells that caught moss in wafting drafts as sweet as strawberries in crystal light sparkling down with its small fish. A good place. The place she’d met the strange bear and they’d made the first cubs. As such, it contained a special place in her memory, a one of musty potent scents long faded but still in memory.
She traced the stream up into the small pool embowered by pines and mossy rocks. Arruah splashed and caught all the smells she could. Ponderosa Pine draped in its vanilla odor, silky traces of foxes; babies, possibly, out to play, gone for a week. The traces of crickets and marchflies. The dim presence of squirrels. A musty smell. Lilacs.
Huruhra had followed her up. Somehow even wading through the creek hadn’t detoured him. Arruah grumbled to herself. Until the odd smell of the camp left him, she didn’t want to be near him. Sickness, a serious threat, needed avoidance. She angled her path over the rocks, a path that would be hard for an older bear to follow and traced her way through the woods like a shadow. Bears didn’t have to be loud. Arruah had high marks on her stealth. Her mother had taught her, and her mother had been the best.
Soon the lilac scent faded, and Arruah went back to sniffing for berries. The forest held almost no danger for a bear of her size, and even the wolves kept away. And yet, still, there was fear. It’s a deep psychological drive all life has. The sole birthright of everything-- and just now, transmitted by overripe lilacs dancing on the breeze. Twisting and twisting and-- twisting… and… twisting.
Arruah had never before left the forest land nor traveled beyond the smell of the great water. She knew the world was wider than her little sphere with its familiar scents. There was the loud place where the loud creatures came from; a dangerous place of foul odors like that of a soulless skunk, or rotten oil. After scenting Huruhra and the lilac death he carried with him, she had thought to go close to the loud place because she knew he’d never follow her, but it had ceased being loud and the suppurate lilac smell clung to it so tightly that she suspected that whatever was putrefying Huruhra’s flesh likely originated there. So, she turned east and kept going, keeping ahead of the lilac smell.
Still, she had never left the forest land and was surprised to find a grassy plain filled with the sweet smell of greenery. The plants here were unfamiliar, and so she contented herself chasing down rabbits until sunset.
Darkness came and she crossed the plain looking for a place to sleep. An abandoned structure lay in a copse. Trees had shattered its walls and so she was able to rest. However, in the night, she awoke to the scent of lilacs, and she exited in a hurry.
Huruhra was nearby, likely following her own scent, something she couldn’t mask in an open plain. Arruah fled across the plain, and pausing for breath, looked back along the plain, and she saw him. Huruhra, the Great Bear, but diminished. Even from this distance she could see it. Her keen night vision matched him to his scent: Not sick, but dead. His hide hung loose on his bones, his eyes had putrefied and run out of his skull. His great nose had rotted and nude bone shown beneath the retreating skin. Still, his empty eye sockets seemed to see, and the nose seemed to smell, because his head was fixed in her direction.
Arruah ran, this time not stopping until she was far away and completely out of breath. She was no great thinker, but now there were things to ponder. She smelled well, at least as well as other bears, but not as well as Huruhra in his prime. She knew he’d lost a lot of his scent prowess as he aged, but somehow dead Huruhra still retained that power, and he might be back to its old legendary skill. She had no information on how well he could track her. She could follow a wounded animal for miles and she could find fresh berries at that distance. If he had a similar strength, she would never get away. The distance between them might be manageable, but she could not run fast enough to outpace the other bear and be out of his scent range. Whatever sickness that had killed him was potent and contagious. It was very like the Monster that Drives Things Mad in that it was a pestilence of some kind that jumped being to being via bites and contaminated flesh. This was worse, perhaps, in that once dead, the carrier got up and spread the plague to the world.
Since she couldn’t outrun Huruhra, she’d have to fight him. And she’d have to do it in a way where she’d not be at risk. Arruah couldn’t take a bite or even a scratch. She was massive, but not as massive as him, and her fur was thick, but even with that insurance, she could not guarantee her own safety. If she got bit, she’d go mad like him, and die like him, but worse would be that smell emanating from her body, driving her forward, and she’d never be able to escape or fight that.
She knew a tall place where she might have a chance. Still, it was very dangerous there even for a bear. Once when a cub herself, her mother showed her the place as close as she dared to get, indicating that it was a place to be avoided. The Tacoma, some called it. A peak that rose like a tooth from the surrounding forest.
None of her people went there, though the lesser bears held onto the glaciers through their foolishness.
Arruah turned her paws toward the mountain. It would be dangerous for her path would have to cut dangerously close to where Huruhra was. Liliac’s drifting poison scent let her know that well enough. She counted it worth the risk, and took the risk at a brisk trot.
She had nearly cleared the plain again, when her nose picked up the danger. Huruhra was coming! Charging soundlessly except for an unpleasant wet noise under his fur as his rotten muscles slid against each other, he came bathed in moonlight and his own blood. Her nose told her it was his own fluids being squeezed out from under his fur and it shone black as if it were oil. This ichor smelled more foul than anything she’d ever encountered. It bore Huruhra’s familiar scent, it bore the poisonous sickness’s lilac strange anti-attar, and it bore rot. It coated his fur and made it sticky, it seeped out of him like oil from a burning pine.
He leaped at her, an inursine leap that cleared an entire furlong. Only juking to the side saved her. He slid on the earth creating a furrow. He clumsily picked himself up and as if drunk wobbled on his feet until he was able to orientate himself to her and charge again.
Arruah had seen enough and bolted. He thundered after her, but though he was unaffected by fatigue, she found he was unsteady when turning and she zig-zagged until she reached the woods, where she was finally able to put some distance between them. Not because she ran faster (her tired paws were about to give out) but because he could not avoid trees at that speed.
The smell never left, but she managed to travel enough to simply be afraid rather than panicked.
The Tacoma reached the sky. She didn’t know how high it rose, only that its cloud-capped summit, frosted in firn, and crowned with névé, were dangerous. Arruah was less afraid of the unnatural looking place than she was of what came behind her. She’d advanced ahead of him, but still Huruhra’s smell lingered in the air brought close by the faintest shift in the air. The alpine-like smells of wildflowers and snow only interested her in how well it covered up the fetid stink.
Air grew thin, and she climbed up rock taluses and scree ramps. She fancied she heard spirits dancing in the air. Butterflies and hummingbirds visited her in curiosity. The hummingbirds darting around her head, the butterflies alighting on her head, her ears, her nose. The lesser bears noticed her presence and stayed away. They were aware of Huruhra too. She knew this because of their strange messages to her on every marked tree up the mountain.
Tacoma’s ridges grew. Its valleys spread out. Its icefloes advanced. Still she went up. Forests and grassy dales surrounded her. Little mountain creeks washed her paws. Arruah didn’t stop to eat, even though berries were plentiful.
Huruhra, never far behind, let out a howl that didn’t sound like a bear at all. It didn’t even sound like an animal and the forests went silent at once. Brooks and wind became the only sound.
She came to a talus up to icepack, and only her claws gave her traction on the freezing stuff. A glacier halo’d the mountain, and she stopped examining the floe. The area she’d stopped overlooked the valley she’d just traversed and the snow’s angle continued almost at sixty degrees.
Huruhra was down there, coming steadily on his unsteady paws.
It wasn’t a wandering gait, but his muscles had rotted enough that walking in a straight line was impossible. She watched him weave in between rocks and through the little streams. Wherever he entered water, he turned it black. A trail of gritty blood followed him across grass, and he smeared any rocks he past.
She only afforded him a minute of time. He followed. Nothing else mattered.
Turning, she dug her claws into the ice, and moved up. Her own weight worked against her and only her claws granted enough traction. If she slipped, she wouldn’t have to worry about Huruhra. If she slipped, she’d slide all the way down the glacier and collide hard enough in the valley to die.
Ice bit into her paws, getting into the sensitive spaces between her paws. They sliced her up with tiny, razor-sharp crystals, and soon her path was marked by bright red blood standing proud and carmine against the goshenite-like snowpack.
Each step burned cold, and she screamed. Yet, that didn’t stop her. The scent of lilac death hard upon, almost on top of her, drove her like a whip. What poor bear had a chance to stop and stand bravely? Arruah wasn’t a brave bear, nor would she ever claim to be. If given speech and asked to define her qualities bravery would never enter upon it. True, she feared no living thing, but she was cautious and prudent and showed respect to dangerous things. But what Huruhra had become was no living thing and had their positions been reversed it would be Huruhra fleeing up the mountain. And he would have failed, because he was old and his glory days had ended five or ten years ago. Even as this monster, his muscles were showing their age and she could smell that the lilacs were slowing down. If she listed her one trait, her most important trait, it would be that she was determined. Maybe not in all moments, but in this moment, and finally, that determination granted her the top of the glacier.
And here she did not stop. She dug at the snow, every twelve feet she dug a hole as fast as she could and as deep as she could until her claws ached and the pads on her paws were raw sores bleeding freely.
She dug and dug and dug.
When she judged it enough, she looked up from her work.
The lilac smell was overpowering. Huruhra was right there. He’d left a trail of rotting bear fat along the ice. It had frozen. In some places where he had slipped there were crazy trails looping back on themselves. But now he was here. She was out of time.
He chuffed as if in laughter. He had no eyes. His tongue was rotting between his teeth, trapped between fangs as if forgotten. His fur was molding and tar leaked from ever space between his hair.
Roaring, she leaped once: straight up and then back down. The ice and snow shook. Then it began to slide.
The holes she had dug split and grew wider and then the whole side of the mountain moved. She leapt back, and only moved a small way as the entire snowfield became liquid and went away.
Huruhra gave one cry before being swept under and carried away.
Arruah watched as her avalanche roiled down into the valley taking trees, rocks, and everything else with it. The whole action took twenty seconds, but to Arruah it seemed like a hundred days, sun and moon and all, rising and falling as snow smashed everything in its path to oblivion.
Then it was over.
Blinking, and sniffing the air, she caught no lilac scent, nothing but pine trees, rocks, and snow.
Satisfied, she gingerly picked her way down the rockfield left behind. Her prints were bloody, and she took her time.
At the bottom, the snow was chunky, and she took care to step as lightly as possible. The air smelled crisp, punctuated by tree sap where the avalanche had smashed them up.
When she’d cleared the snow and was able to rest, she did so by sitting in one of the small creeks that dotted the mountain. The water felt good on her damaged paws. Arruah stayed a long time, before deciding she needed to get away from this sacred place.
Twilight fell, and she followed a river down.
Then the smell hit her. Lilacs.
She shuddered. A purple bush grew by the bank.
A lilac bush, violaceous and obscene; as large as a boulder. Grown fat on creek water and sunlight and a lack of worms, its bloated form offended the very land with its odorous stinking perfume.
Arruah knocked it over and crushed it flat.