“The Unforgiving Year” by Becky Browder

(A short story—based on a few facts—about global warming and a Russian village near the Arctic Circle)

Bear Baiting, London, 1810,  New York Public Library

In 2010 life changed in Bear’s Corner.  Outsiders know the place as Komi. 

That was the year the bears came to eat us.

It all started with the coldest winter on record followed by the hottest summer on record.

Ours is one of the small villages in that vast region of Russia up near the Arctic Circle.  When Communism was strong, Moscow sent supplies a few times a year.  Once in a while, they even sent luxuries.  One summer buckets of blue paint arrived with paperwork instructing that every household receive one full bucket.  Soon all the ladies in the village were painting their walls from the floor halfway to the ceiling blue.  The other half—from the ceiling down—stayed a dingy, dirty shade of white.  Even though the orders said one full bucket per house, a few of the buckets came up short leaving some with less than enough paint to finish four half walls.  The women spent hours going house to house to admire the beautiful blue walls, no matter they all looked the same.

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Long Live the Red Army!, New York Public Library

When Communism fell, things changed.  Some villagers fled to bigger places where life was said to be easier.  A few travelled all the way to Syktyvkar, the capital of Komi.  My cousin Kolya made that trip but returned after a month sporting a shiny gold tooth in front.  No one could figure how Kolya paid for that gold tooth and he wasn’t telling, but his stories about life in Syktyvkar made those who’d chosen to stay in Bear’s Corner certain they’d made the right decision.

To this day Kolya shares the horror of his time in the big city.  “A man is not made to sleep surrounded by concrete walls, then walk outdoors to find more concrete every turn he makes, even when he looks to the sky.  No real trees to speak of.  At least none that compare with what we have here.  I couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, or so much as take a good shit in that place.”  Kolya waves his arms toward the trees here in the Great Taiga each time he tells the story.

 

During that cold winter, the ice coming from the sky sometimes froze our mouths shut.  One thing for sure: we are a people who know cold, but never had there been such an unforgiving cold.   When anyone mentioned global warming and what Al Gore of the United States of America was saying, people in our part of the world could only laugh.  My father and his brother said Al Gore had a head full of rocks.

“Anyone who steps outdoors these days knows better than to believe Al Gore.  That man’s head is full of rocks.  No brains there.”  Papa shook his own head up and down each time he said the words.  When he finished speaking, Uncle Dmitri echoed Papa’s message.  “Anyone who steps outdoors these days knows better than to believe Al Gore.  That man’s head is full of rocks.  No brains there.”

It was all we could do to stay alive.

Then, that cold air left like it had never been here at all.  And in its place came an equally unforgiving heat—the hottest days ever witnessed by human beings in Bear’s Corner.  One more thing for sure: we are not a people who know such heat.

The Land of the Children, New York Public Library

Along with the heat came forest fires making it even hotter.  At times the smoke almost suffocated us.  It became so hot and so dry, everything stopped: the moss, the mushrooms, the berries.  Fish died, frogs died, every living thing started dying.  The trees in the Great Taiga began looking like tired, unkempt soldiers no longer able to stand at attention.  Rivers and streams dried up.  And soon there was nothing for the bears to eat.  Humans had stored supplies in their root cellars and little sheds out back of their dwellings.  And the humans were able to keep the fires away.  Of course, this wasn’t the case with the bears.

That’s when the worst of it started.

 

The government says there are one hundred and forty thousand bears—now every one of them hungry—in all of Russia.  Most of those bears live here in Komi, a peaceful place high in the Ural Mountains filled with beautiful coniferous Taiga woodland.  Some say it’s a paradise for bears.

When the fish died, and the mushrooms dried up, and the little frogs the bears liked to eat died, those bears went searching for food anywhere they could find it.  Over on the Kamchatka Peninsula, two Kamchatka bears—some call them the true rulers of the north woods because they are the largest and scariest bears in the entire world, even worse than the grizzlies—went inside a local platinum mine and began attacking the miners working there.  Before they were finished, two men had been eaten alive as the other miners watched in horror.  When those two bears finished eating the men and left the mine, the surviving miners filed outside with total shock on their faces.  It is said to this day not a one of those miners is capable of returning to work.  In fact, the miners who witnessed their coworkers being eaten by the bears now sit at their kitchen tables all day, and sometimes all night, mumbling unintelligible words or singing Kalinka over and over until their wives feel like choking them to death.

In another mining village, a mama bear and her two cubs attacked the men who guard the entrance to the mine to keep thieves away.  Neither guard was killed, but the attack was so terrifying that both men quit their jobs and took up drinking full time.

Sunlight and Shadow by S. Davis, New York Public Library

 

“They say a bear was eating the body of a dead man forty kilometers from here.”  Uncle Dmitri’s face shows a lot of worry as he delivers his words.

“They say the bear dug the man up out of the graveyard at Karocalov.  Two women passing nearby saw him.  At first the women thought they were watching a large man standing over a grave, perhaps a man grieving over his recently departed wife.  But the women soon realized it was a bear standing over that grave.”  Uncle Dmitri takes a moment as he pans our faces.  Then, he continues, “According to the women, the bear dug the coffin right up out of the ground, and then broke it open with his paws.  When the women screamed and started throwing stones in his direction, that hairy beast grabbed hold of the corpse and headed deep into the Taiga.” Uncle Dmitri drops his head a little as a look of sadness takes charge of his face.  After a moment, he turns to us and says, “I suppose the bear has eaten him up by now.  The man’s family will never be able to bury him again.  He’s in that big bear’s gut.  Gone forever.”  We watch as Uncle Dmitri raises his right hand high into the air, palm side up, then spreads his fingers wide apart and lifts his hand even higher as though he’s releasing a bird of some sort.

Some of the women in our village gasp, cover their mouths, and run inside their houses.  A few of the very old women—my father calls them the vultures because they hover over everything dark in the world—stay put.  They want more details.  I might add my father doesn’t call them vultures to their faces.  My father is one of the bravest men in the world, but he is not stupid.

Lera, who just celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday, steps forward and says, “What are we supposed to do with the bears running crazy, killing people, pets and livestock?  Even digging up dead bodies to eat.”  Lera tightens her jaw, juts her big, whiskered chin up toward the sky, and says, “It’s the fault of that one bear—the one over in Stoloksy.  Everyone says he started it all.  He’s the one who figured out how to dig up the coffins, and then open them.  He taught the others.  Now all the bears know.  Somebody should have shot him before he taught the rest.  Now we’re all going to be eaten dead or alive!”

Lera lets out a loud moan, then a sigh, and I look at her wondering if she’s about to have a heart attack and drop over dead.  But she’s not.  She opens her mouth to speak once more.  “We have to have rain so the bears will stop digging up the dead and killing our animals.”  Lera takes a deep breath, and then says, “And somebody needs to find the bear that started all this and shoot him this very day.  Make an example of him.”

Durochka’s Grave, New York Public Library

I want to say why kill him now.  He’s already taught the others how to dig up graves and open coffins.  But I don’t say anything.  I wait and listen.

Then, my grandmother looks to the sky and says, “Yes! Yes! Rain.”  She cups her hands downward and wiggles her fingers as though she is making her own rain.  After her display, she adds, “The rain will bring back the mushrooms and berries the bears love.  Even the little frogs they like to eat.  Then those bears will stop eating dead people and our animals and us.”

Grandma Alyona is known for making comments—most times in a commanding manner—that never add substance to discussions.

Out of respect, everyone looks her way and nods in agreement.

Uncle Dmitri looks in Lera’s direction and says, “I recommend you take your chickens in the house at night, Woman.  And that fat cat you named for Yeltsin, too.  Once inside, bar the door.”

Lera seems to take offense at Uncle Dmitri’s tone of voice though I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the way he said the word Woman, like he was giving her orders.  Or maybe it was his reference to her pride and joy, Boris.  She twists her mouth, sticks her nose high into the air and heads to her house at the end of the road.  As she walks away, Boris is in her arms.  There is no doubt he will be in her bed tonight and her two chickens and one rooster will be inside as well.

Hers is like most of the houses in our village—one large room with a partition or two dividing it up.  Only three of her walls are blue on bottom and dingy, dirty white on top.  There is a big, blue splat of paint on the floor next to Lera’s wood stove.

Just outside Lera’s door is a telephone pole that’s been cut down to about six feet.  Before the bears started scaring everyone to death, Boris used to perch himself atop that pole to watch the comings and goings of the village.  These days Lera never lets him out of her sight or reach.

 

Women in our village no longer walk outside to get a breath of fresh air in the morning.

[A Girl] by Andrei Osipovich Karelin,  New York Public Library

“Set your foot outside and it may get eaten right off your leg.”  Grandma Alyona makes this statement with conviction just before she rushes inside her house.  It seems as though she scared herself back indoors.

I yell to her, “Grandma, plenty of us go out in the morning.  We do our work and return home with both feet attached to our legs.”  I pause for a moment and ask, “How many people have you seen with their feet eaten off?”

My grandmother doesn’t answer.  She closes the door.  Grandma Alyona also is known for forming a high arch in her right eyebrow when she’s angry or engaged in serious business.  Even though I can’t see her face, I know that arch is in place.

 

My older brother Vlad—Papa calls him the idiot son—says Al Gore is to blame for all the changes in Bear’s Corner.

I say, “It’s not Al Gore’s fault.  He was the messenger. He didn’t create the problem.”

Vlad is stubborn as a bull elk.  He says, “That man should have stayed as Vice President of the USA, not talked about global warming.  If he kept his mouth shut, people never would have noticed the difference.”  Vlad takes a swig of vodka and says, “Everybody knows talking about something causes it to happen, brings on more of it.  Common sense.”  Vlad taps his right temple with his finger.

I look at him like he’s lost his mind, which he hasn’t and I know this.  Our father may refer to him as the idiot son, but I know better.  After all, Vlad is the only man in our village who can do hard mathematic problems in his head, no pencil and paper—just his head.  Not only math, every evening he recites at least two poems by Pushkin.  By heart, mind you.  The nights he’s had too much vodka, he recites the same poem twice—the one that begins with “I have outlasted all desire / My dreams and I have grown apart.”

I could stop my brother from talking about Al Gore in a split second—change the subject to the Kozlova twins and how good their tits looked this morning when they stepped outside.  I watched as all four of their nipples puckered up under the knit shirts they were wearing.  A magnificent salute to the sun.  The sight of them so wonderful I could only stand there and stare.  One by one I scanned them—straight across their chests: one nipple, two nipples, three nipples, four nipples, then back again, four nipples, three nipples, two nipples, one.  Four nipples excited about the day.  I could feel my tongue closing in on them.

Tanya, the twin with one blue eye and one brown eye, saw what I was doing and said, “What a pervert you are.  I suppose you’ll go inside now and touch yourself where no girl in the world would touch you.  Not even the prostitutes in Piter would go with you no matter how many rubles you carry in your pockets.”  Tanya did a quick turn on her heels and huffed back into the house she shares with her sister, Katya, their parents, and baby brother, Yuri.

Tanya has an effect on me like no other girl in the world.  From the first time I noticed her—we were five at the time—I knew she was the girl I wanted to marry.  Then—just like now—her hair was long and blonde and her lips ripe for my kiss.

One word out of my mouth about the twins and their beautiful tits and Vlad would forget Al Gore and global warming.  But I choose not to go there.  I find it impossible to disrespect Tanya by talking to my brother about her body parts, not to mention the guilt I have for betraying her with thoughts of her sister in such a way.  Some thoughts I must keep to myself because of the circumstances.

Before Vlad knew my truest and deepest feelings for Tanya, he made the mistake of commenting to me about her beautiful face and body and how he would like to one day peek in her window and watch as she crawled into bed with her equally beautiful sister Katya, then crawl into bed between them.  It was all I could do to keep from punching him in the mouth when he said those words. He had to have seen the rage building in me, but even that didn’t stop him.  He looked at me, smiled and said, “And once I got in between those two, there’s no telling what would happen next.”

With those words said, I pounced on Vlad, my arms swinging.  It was my intent to teach him never to speak in such a way about my beloved Tanya.

“Tanya is the girl of my dreams; the girl I will one day marry!” I shouted.

Suddenly Vlad stopped defending himself and began laughing.  It was then that he shared his lifelong dream with me.  “And Katya is the girl I will one day marry, the girl of my dreams.”

From that day forward we agreed only to mention the knit shirts Tanya and Katya wear when our desires are heavy for them.  Our agreement came as a relief to me because Vlad is the only brother I have and the two of us make a good team.  Vlad was blessed with knowing things that come from books, even without reading the books, and I was blessed with common sense.  It is a combination that has proven beneficial in a land such as ours.

 

“You never know when a bear might come out of the woods to eat us,” Vlad tells me one morning as we head out into the Taiga on patrol.  Nowadays every man takes a turn patrolling for bears.  For twelve straight hours we walk the woods surrounding our village.  We look for any sign of a bear.  The bears are large but clever when it comes to hiding.   Usually we find them only after spotting fresh bear shit on the ground.  We shoot at them, sometimes hitting them, most times only scaring them away for a while.

I don’t want to appear scared, but my heart pounds when Vlad says this.  I say, “Why do you say such a thing?  You know it only makes me nervous.”

We carry rifles and handguns.  Knives are stashed in our boots and on our belts.

Vlad and I patrol together.  That way if a bear attacks one of us, the other may be able to shoot the bear.  Hopefully, we will shoot only the bear and not each other.

Vlad says, “I’ll tell you one thing.  If we get eaten by a bear, it’s Al Gore’s fault.  The bastard.  Should have minded his own fucking business.”  Vlad gives a quick nod of his head, and then looks at me for a response.

I think: here we go again—the idiot son blaming Al Gore for the coldest winter on record followed by the hottest summer on record and for the bears eating people.  I say, “How many times do I have to tell you global warming is not Al Gore’s fault.  He can’t control the weather any more than you.”

Vlad stands still for a moment, lifts his right fist high into the air—the sign for me to be still—looks to the right, then to the left, and I fear he’s spotted a bear, but there is no bear.  He asks, “A year ago what were we doing on a day like this, my brother?  Were we walking in circles around our village looking for bears or smelly bear shit?”  Vlad gooses his head in my direction and asks, “Well, were we?”

“No,” I say.

“No is the right answer.  A year ago on a day like this we would be standing outside getting fresh air, our eyes glued to the Kozlova twins wearing those beautiful knit shirts.”  Vlad flashes a big grin my way.

 

Each night around the campfire I dream of life before the bears came to eat us.  I long for the days when the vultures, including Grandma Alyona, can inhale fresh air at dawn with no fear of bears eating their feet right off their legs. I long for the day Vlad and I will not have to share patrol duties with the other men of our village looking for bears or fresh bear shit on the ground.   It is then I will have the time to enjoy those four nipples as they give their magnificent salute to the sun.

Grandma Alyona says in order to have the thing we want most in life, we must sacrifice something we treasure to the one who watches over us from the sky.  Perhaps I will enjoy only two of those nipples as they give their salute.  I will be faithful to Tanya.  Even though she doesn’t share feelings for me now, there is time.  We are only seventeen.

In the distance I hear my father’s idiot son reciting poetry.

I have outlasted all desire
Fucking Al Gore causing all that trouble
My dreams and I have grown apart

 

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Becky Browder’s stories have appeared in Big Muddy, the South Carolina Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Reed Magazine and others.  She won second place in the 85th Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition in the memoirs/personal essay category.  Her short story “Chicky Babes” received second place in the John Steinbeck Fiction Contest sponsored by San Jose State University and Reed Magazine.  Other work has placed as finalist or honorable mention in Glimmer Train, the William Faulkner Writing Contest, Permafrost Magazine, and more. Becky holds an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University.  She has taken writing courses/workshops at Esalen Institute, UC Santa Cruz, and the Southern Women’s Writing Conference at Berry College. Becky lives in Alabama and is working on a short story collection and a novel.