The Bear’s House


The town of Blackwell changed its name in 1786. It had been called Bearsville when first founded, but that name did not encourage new settlers. There were nearly as many black bears in the woods as there were pine trees, but there were also more eel in the river than anyone would have thought possible. A person could stick his hand into the shallows of the cold clear water and pluck out half a dozen without using bait. All the same, no one considered naming the village Eelsville, even though people ate eel pie on a regular basis and many of the men in town wore eelskin belts and boots. They said wearing eel made them lucky at cards, although when it came to the rest of life, love for instance, or business acumen, they had no luck at all.

Why the name had been changed was always debated in August, that dry yellow month when the grass was tall and the bears ate their fill of blueberries on the other side of Hightop Mountain, a craggy Berkshire County landmark that separated Blackwell from the rest of the world. August was the time when the town always held a festival to commemorate Hallie Brady, but those who thought she’d been born in that month were mistaken. In fact, she had actually had been born in Birmingham, England, on the sixteenth of March into unhappy circumstances. She’d gone to work at a hat maker’s at the age of eleven, and it had been an unsavory situation that included more than merely fashioning hatbands out of black ribbon. Hallie was the sort of person ready to face the wilderness, one who was quite certain she had nothing more to lose.

Even in the heat of summer, when mosquitoes were skimming over the surface of the river and bees were bumping against window panes, people looked out at Hightop and shivered. They knew how killing winter in these parts could be. Many wondered how the early settlers managed to survive that first winter, when bears were in every tree and the snowdrifts were said to be as tall as a man. Before the settlers arrived, the far side of Hightop was unpopulated. The native people who camped nearby said that no man would ever find happiness west of the mountain. Their hunters never crossed into that area, even though the woods were filled with wolves and fox. There were red-tailed hawks, deer, squirrels, and more bears than anyone could count.

William Brady needed a wife before he set out to the wild western parts of Massachusetts, a ready partner to help carry the weight of the journey. He met and married Hallie in Boston two months before they started out, having known her for half that time before saying I do. William was the first man to ask her for her hand, so Hallie agreed. He was forty, she was seventeen. He had already failed at everything he’d tried; she hadn’t yet begun to live. Hallie had the impression that the marriage was a mistake on their wedding night, spent at a raucous inn near Boston Harbor. William had done his husbandly business, then had dropped into a deep, twitchy sleep. He hadn’t uttered a single word during their lovemaking. Soon enough Hallie realized she should have been grateful for that, but on that night she seemed absurdly alone, considering she was a newly married woman.

Somehow William managed to convince three other families to travel with them out west: the Motts, the Starrs, and the Partridges, who had a young son named Harry. Hallie quickly began to suspect she had married a confidence man. In fact, William Brady was running from debtors’ prison and a long list of failed projects that included bilking people of their earnings. The three other families they set out with paid for everything: the horses, the mules, the dried meat, the flour, the cornmeal. In exchange William would lead the way. He insisted that he had experience, but he had never been farther west than Concord. He led them in circles for the full month of October, a foolish time to start out across uncharted land, until an early blinding snowstorm stopped them. They had just scrambled over Hightop Mountain when bad weather overtook them. Where they hunkered down, in the valley below, marked the beginning of Bearsville.

The first person who spotted a bear was six-year-old Harry Partridge. He shouted for the men to leave their work constructing a rickety log house and had them run down to the meadow to see. The men laughed when they spied a leafy squirrel’s nest up in the tree, which might have easily looked like a vicious beast to a boy from Boston. From then on that spot was known as Harry’s Bear.

Go right past Harry’s Bear and you’ll find the stack of wood, they would say to each other after that. Make a left at Harry’s Bear and head for the creek.

Such unconscionable teasing always made Harry’s face flush. But he was not the only one who feared bears. The women— Rachel Mott, Elizabeth Starr, and Susanna Partridge, Harry’s mother—were nervous when darkness fell. Food had been stolen from the wooden storehouse. They heard rustling when they went to collect chokeberries, the last of the season, barely enough to keep them alive. They saw footprints that were monstrously huge in the muck near the river. No wonder they had trouble sleeping at night in the one poorly built shelter where they could never stay warm. The ashy fire was kept burning, venting only through a hole in the roof. Smoke turned their faces and feet black, and several times they almost froze to death. They woke in the mornings with crusts of ice in their hair and on their clothes. They might have starved as well, despairing over what had befallen them ever since they’d had the misfortune to meet William Brady, if Hallie hadn’t made her way down to the river one day, driven by hunger and fury. She could not believe how helpless her stranded group was. None of the men were good hunters. Not one knew the first thing about survival.

Hallie went out on her own. She took a rock and smashed through the skim of ice on the river, then with her bare hands she collected a pot full of eels for a stew. She had come all the way from England and she didn’t intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain. After that, she built traps out of twigs and rope, and with Harry beside her, caught rabbits in the meadow. It was November by then, and above the mountain the sky turned a luminous blue late in the day, as if ink had spilled onto a page. They could see their breath puffing into the air as they traipsed through the woods. They could hear the rabbits scrabbling underneath the traps when they were caught.

Harry felt sorry for the rabbits and wanted to keep them as pets, but Hallie patiently explained that a pet was of no use to a dead person. She made her point when she firmly broke the rabbits’ necks. She next concocted a net out of a satin skirt she’d bought in Birmingham, an article of clothing for which she had done terrible things so that she might afford the expensive fabric. William Brady laughed at her, insisting that women weren’t hunters and she’d surely freeze her fingers off in the cold, but she went out into the snow, the poorly made door wobbling on its nailed hinges as it slammed shut behind her. She was patient enough to catch trout in the creek that she had decided to call Dead Husband Creek. It was just a wishful thought on Hallie’s part and it always made her and Harry laugh as they fished together. The trout looked like rainbows, and when they were fried in a black cast-iron pan they were delicious, even though there was no salt or rosemary to use for flavoring.

At night Hallie slept next to Harry. She suggested that he needed the heat of her body or he might freeze to death. That was most likely true—Harry was a somewhat delicate child—but this excuse was a way to avoid William Brady, who was frankly so exhausted from their never-ending chores he didn’t bother to argue and claim his wife for himself.

In the dead of winter, the drifts reached eight feet high. There was very little wood to keep the fire burning. The women on the expedition stopped talking. They had nothing to say. They were starving to death. The men could no longer remember how on earth William Brady had talked them into leaving Boston in the first place. He’d said something about owning land as far as their eyes could see, though that didn’t seem so appealing anymore. Two of the horses and one of the mules had been killed and eaten, by wolves it appeared. The last two horses, one black and one roan, were kept inside with the families, in a dark fenced-off section of the shelter. Once Hallie thought she heard them crying, even though she knew that was impossible, horses didn’t cry. In the morning the roan was dead.

That day Hallie dressed in all the clothes she owned. She slipped on William’s high boots. She wore mittens and a shawl that the hat maker’s wife had given her when Hallie left England, as she whispered that she wished she was going to Boston as well.

“Those are my boots,” William Brady said.

Hallie already knew her husband was not a generous man. “What’s the difference?” she countered. “You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

William Brady was in a fog of regret over his bad choices. He’d rather be sitting in debtors’ prison than be trapped beneath the western slope of Hightop Mountain. He wasn’t about to pull on his boots and go in search of his own cold death.

“No.” Hallie nodded when he backed off. “I thought not. You’ll just sit here and die.”

She took a rifle from the shelf. When the other women told her she was mad to go—surely she’d freeze before she reached the meadow—she said she didn’t care. She would rather die trying to live than simply give up like the rest of them. It was still snowing and the wind made a creaking sound. Yes, it was cold, but as soon as she left the shelter Hallie felt better. Being alone was a huge relief. She couldn’t stand those people she was trapped with. They were fearful and small, ready to leap into their own graves. It was a while before Hallie realized that Harry had sneaked out, following in her wake, leaping from the pressed-down snow of one of her bootsteps to the next.

“Go back,” Hallie told him.

Harry shook his head. He kept thinking of those rabbits they’d found, broken and boiled in the big cast-iron pot, and how, when he closed his eyes and pretended they weren’t rabbits, they had tasted delicious.

“Fine,” Hallie allowed. “But you’d better keep up.”

They went through the meadow and into the woods. It was easier to walk there. The snow had caught in the boughs of the pine trees, and they took a path where the drifts weren’t as high. The world was white and peaceful and quiet. A squirrel ran up a tree. Hallie aimed and fired, but she missed it. A bundle of snow dropped from the tree she had hit.

By dusk they were lost. It was the hour when the ink began to spread across the sky, only now the ink was dotted with white flecks. Hallie wrapped her shawl around Harry’s head so he looked like a little old woman rather than a frightened six-year old. Hallie gazed at the falling snow and the endless woods. She was not yet eighteen. If she ever made it back she would name this area Dead Husband Woods. She didn’t think she would laugh again at a name like that.

A star shone and flickered. Impossible since it wasn’t yet fully dark. Hallie picked up the boy and carried him toward the flickering. She thought about the way the Israelites were led out of the desert. She decided she would simply put one foot in front of the other in her husband’s heavy too-big boots. Because of this she was led to Hightop Mountain where the jagged cliffs were riddled with shimmery mica. Each shard of mica was like a shining star. She discovered a cave at the base of the mountain. Hallie thought about manna, how you had to be ready to receive what you were given. She went in without any thought of possible danger. She was too busy thinking about the hat shop in Birmingham. She wished she were there, plucking feathers from the corpses of peacocks and doves, fending off the attentions of the owner.

Harry was exhausted and freezing. He’d fallen asleep on her shoulder. That was lucky for him. He didn’t see the bear in the cave. Hallie stopped, her breathing quickened. Her choice was to go back into the snow and die with Harry, or lie down beside the bear to warm their nearly frozen bodies. She chose the latter. The big bear seemed dead even though it snuffled. It didn’t move and its eyes were closed. Alongside were two cubs, one dead, the other alive and nursing.

Hallie rested Harry Partridge up against the big bear and urged him to drink the bear’s milk. He was nearly asleep and did as he was told, still caught up in his dreams. The little bear who nursed mewled and pushed at them, then concentrated on feeding. Later, Hallie too drank from the bear. She had never tasted anything so rich and delicious as its milk. She felt warmed to her soul. While Harry and the bears slept, she stood at the mouth of the cave peering out. The snow was falling lightly and the world seemed a fairyland. Hallie felt enchanted. It seemed as though anything could happen.

She brought the little dead bear home, dragging the frozen carcass through the snow. It was difficult going because she had to carry the sleeping Harry as well, hoisted upon her shoulder. She was stronger than she looked. But she refused to help when they skinned the bear and readied the meat. Instead she stood outside and gazed at the mountain. She hated the house and these people. She hated their weakness and their hunger. Harry woke from his dreams and came to stand by her. He didn’t remember any of what had happened, only that they had been lost and then had found their way home.

The next time Hallie went to the cave, she made certain to leave Harry at home. She didn’t want him accidentally telling the others where she’d gone. She brought along a bucket for the milk. She would tell the members of the expedition that she had found a cow wandering the forest. They would be hungry enough to believe whatever she said. She didn’t want those fool men setting out to kill a slumbering mother bear and her cub.

Now when she took the gun, no one said anything about a woman not being able to hunt. On the way through the woods she heard a crunching sound in the snow. She was stunned to see a man lurking about. Hallie held up the rifle and cocked it. The stranger turned when he heard the click. He was a trapper. He threw up his hands and shouted in French, a language Hallie recognized but didn’t understand. He reached down to the camp he’d set up in the snow and held up some skinned rabbits, offering her several. Pour vous, he said. Ici. As if she knew what that meant. But she knew what she saw. The rabbits would keep them fed for days. Hallie approached. She felt like an animal, drawn to the scent of blood. Her shawl fell from her head. That was when the trapper realized she was a woman.

Hallie took the rabbits. She didn’t believe in something for nothing. In return she gave the man her wedding ring, which was worthless to her.

“Go on,” she said, when he seemed puzzled. “Take it. It’s real gold. Now go away.” She slapped her hands together in an attempt to make him understand. She felt a wave of protectiveness, not for the people in the cold wooden house but for the bears. “Go back where you came from.”

The man nodded. His name was Flynn. He’d only spoken French because most of the trappers near the mountain were French and he’d assumed this woman belonged to them. He himself was from Albany and clearly understood every word Hallie said.

He pretended to leave but instead hid behind some pine trees. He watched Hallie go inside the cave, then come out later with the bucket of milk. He thought it was curious. He felt the sort of desire for her that a man might feel for a creature that had never before been sighted.

Hallie told her husband that her ring must have fallen off while she was milking the cow she said she had found loose in the woods. In fact, Flynn was just then studying it beside the frozen ravine Hallie called Dead Husband Falls. It was definitely gold. The next time the trapper spied Hallie, he followed her. When she realized he was there, she asked what he thought he was doing. In reply he looped his arms around her, pulling her close. He forgot his life in Albany. Hallie was not like other women. Before he could have her, she made him promise he would never shoot a bear. It was a foolish request, and like a fool he agreed. He slid his hands inside her clothes, his body into hers. As soon as they were done, Hallie slipped away, finding her original destination. The mother bear was sleeping in the cave. The cub curled up beside Hallie. She petted his head and sang to him. No wonder Flynn had found he was jealous when she left him. He wondered who it was she truly loved.

Hallie Brady saved her neighbors from starvation that winter. But instead of being grateful, they seemed to grow frightened of her, as if they were mere humans and she was something more. The women stopped speaking when she came near. The men made certain to avoid her, including her own husband. She didn’t complain or seem put out. She took every chance to escape their company. Soon she could find her way to the mountain in the dark.

When Harry turned seven, Hallie made him a little cake out of cornmeal and bear’s milk. It was almost spring. The snow had begun to melt, and where it pooled swamp cabbage sprouted that was edible if you boiled it for hours and held your nose when you took a bite. Baby eels were gathering beneath the melting ice, tender when cooked in their own skins. The first stalks of wild asparagus appeared in the marshland that Hallie told Harry was called Dead Husband Swamp.

One day Flynn was waiting for her just beyond the clearing. He had never come so near before. All winter they had lain together and each time she had run off afterward, leaving him wondering about her true nature. He told her it was the time when the bears were waking. It was time for him to go back to Albany, where he now admitted to Hallie, he had a wife. Flynn wouldn’t be back and she knew it. Albany was far and there were other, better places for a trapper to spend the winter. Hallie didn’t look at him when he said his good-byes. She already knew something was different inside her. But when she thought back to the winter they’d spent together, what she would miss most of all was the bear.

That night Hallie got under the blankets with her husband. He was surprised, but he didn’t turn her down. She hoped Harry over in the corner wouldn’t hear him grunting. She hoped this one time would be enough so that when the baby came everyone would believe it belonged to William Brady.

She went back to the cave once more. She saw footprints and pools of blood. She sat down and wept. The mother bear had been killed and skinned. Hallie felt her heart had been broken. Like a fool she’d trusted in Flynn’s promise. She’d worked so hard all winter to survive but now she wished the winter had never ended. As she was leaving she saw the other footprints leading away from the cave. She sank to her knees, grateful that the young bear was out there somewhere, still alive.

She threw herself into work so she would stop missing the bear. The settlers began to follow her lead and became just as industrious. They snapped out of their gloom and worked hard all through the summer. Every one of them had blood blisters on his hands. Tom Partridge chopped off half his thumb while swinging an axe, but even that didn’t stop him. People were renewed by the simple fact that they were still alive.

By November, when the babies were born—twins, a boy and a girl—the settlers all had their own houses. The new homes were built in a circle around a wild grassy area that Hallie and Harry called Dead Husband Park. Hallie’s baby girl was very beautiful, but the boy was too small. He couldn’t seem to breathe. He didn’t open his eyes. That was when Hallie knew he wouldn’t last. He lived for only one week. Hallie buried him behind the house, so he wouldn’t be too far away. After the burial she sat down in the weeds and didn’t get up again. No one could urge her back to the house, not even Harry. She wouldn’t hold her baby girl. She wouldn’t drink a sip of water. She wrapped herself in the shawl that the hat maker’s wife had given her when she left England. She wore her husband’s leather boots.

During the day she was silent, but at night they could hear her crying. Susanna Partridge covered Harry’s ears so he wouldn’t have to listen because every time he did he cried as well. Rachel Mott had a baby just the month before, and she took in the Bradys’ little girl and nursed her. Rachel gave her a name as well, since no one else had bothered, calling her Josephine, after her own mother.

One night Harry Partridge looked out and saw Hallie in what should have been the garden but was now a graveyard. She wasn’t alone. A bear was out there with her. Harry rubbed his eyes. It was late, after all, and very dark. He thought about the time he’d been so certain a bear was up in a tree in the meadow and it had only been a squirrels’ nest. He remembered how all the men had laughed at him, including his father. Harry hadn’t liked that one bit. He blamed himself for the name the men had given their town. Every time someone passing through said Bearsville he thought they were mocking him.

Harry often thought about the time he’d almost frozen to death, when he hadn’t had solid food for three days, and he’d run after Hallie Brady. He’d had a dream about a bear then too. That bear had saved him and sang to him and told him to hush, everything would soon be all right.

In the Partridges’ little house Harry’s bed was downstairs by the fire; his parents slept up in the loft. He thought what he saw in the garden of the Bradys’ house was most likely a dream, so it was best that he creep back to his mattress stuffed with late summer straw. Still, he worried about Hallie Brady out in the dark with a bear. If the truth be told, he wished Hallie was his mother. His own mother was distant and afraid of such things as thunderstorms and blizzards and bears. Hallie, he knew, wasn’t frightened of much in this world.

When he woke the next morning, Harry wondered if he had really seen a bear behind the Bradys’ house. Perhaps he should have tried to rescue Hallie, or at the very least, call out. He was terrified to think he might peer through the window to see blood and bones. But when he gazed outside there was only the patch of weeds. Hallie Brady wasn’t there anymore, however. She’d recovered her strength. She had gone to Rachel Mott’s house and taken back her baby girl, whom she renamed Beatrice, the name of her baby sister who had died at birth, even though everyone else continued to call her child Josephine.

That night Harry Partridge sneaked out of his house. His mother told him never to go out alone after dark, but he went anyway. It was growing cold. All the brilliant leaves had dropped from the trees; only a few brown ones remained. Ice was forming on Eel River and over the pond that Harry and Hallie called Dead Husband Lake. The squirrels were nesting high in the trees, the mark of a hard winter to come.

Harry knocked, and when Hallie called for him to come in, he did. She was in a chair rocking the baby. William Brady was already up in the loft, asleep. The past year had taken a lot out of him. It had done that to all of them.

“She looks like a nice baby,” Harry said in his most polite voice. He didn’t really know how children were supposed to behave because he was never around them. When he thought of himself, he envisioned a small fully grown individual, only one without the privileges of a man. His mother refused to let him have a gun, for instance. She wouldn’t let him ride the horse either.

“She is a nice baby,” Hallie said. “Her name is Beatrice.”

“I thought it was Josephine.” Harry was confused. He always felt that way when he was with Hallie. As if anything could happen. He liked that feeling, but he was afraid of it too.

“It’s Beatrice,” Hallie said firmly.

Harry sat on the floor even though he could have sat on new furniture that a peddler from Lenox had sold them. William Brady had been the first to craft things out of eelskin. First belts, then wallets, now boots. They were beautiful and waterproof and highly valued. The other men had followed suit, just as they’d followed him into the unknown Massachusetts wilderness. Peddlers from Lenox and Albany and Stockbridge were more than happy to trade for the fine leather goods. Because of the eels in the river the Partridges had been able to buy a cow, the Motts some chickens, the Starrs some sheep for their barn.

“I dream about bears sometimes,” Harry said, offhandedly. He gazed up, curious for Hallie’s reaction.

“That sounds like a nice dream,” she said.

“Does it?”

“A lovely dream.”

Hallie put the baby in the cradle that Tom Mott had made for her. The Motts had been led to believe they would be raising the baby girl, since Hallie hadn’t seemed the least bit interested after the other twin’s death. They actually seemed a little put out when Hallie came to fetch her own child.

Hallie went over to the cold box for a serving of the Indian pudding she’d made to give to Harry. It tasted of molasses and honey. It was so delicious Harry felt he could eat a hundred bowls full. But before he was even half done with his serving, he heard his mother calling. She must have woken to find he wasn’t in his place by the fire. She would probably not let him go hunting with his father in the morning. She would say he was a very bad boy.

Harry took another forkful of the corn pudding. Hallie was humming a little song. Her face was plain and pretty at the same time. In the firelight her eyes looked bright.

There was his mother, knocking at the door. He would have to go home now.

“Did you ever wish you had a different life?” Harry asked.

Hallie Brady nodded. She was looking right at him. “All the time.”

Sixteen years later ten more families were living in Bearsville, most of them from Boston, although a pastor from New York had also settled in. A well was dug in the town center, surrounded by black mica stones, and people liked to meet there and gossip. It still wasn’t much of a town. When William Brady died, after a fever that left him unable to move or eat, thirty-seven people attended his funeral, and that included everyone in town. The pastor, John Jacob, gave the eulogy, and although Hallie declined to speak, Josephine Brady read a poem she had written about her father. She was a dreamy girl of sixteen who had not inherited her mother’s instincts for survival. She was often stung by bees, as if they were drawn to her, but she was the only one in town who could write a poem. Hardly a dry eye was left in the place by the time she was through, even though William Brady wasn’t particularly well liked. He was a taciturn man who liked to be left alone with his eel skins and tools.

The town had a proper cemetery now. The Motts’ third son had died in a fall, and a traveling peddler had frozen to death before anyone knew he was in town. The Starrs had experienced the greatest portion of sorrow. They had buried two of their six children—Constant, Patience, Fear, and Love had survived, but Consider had come down with a fever when he was two, and Wrestling had taken four days to be born, his spirit having already flown before his body arrived on this earth.

A cemetery is the true mark of an established town. Theirs was at the far end of the meadow. It was a spring day when they buried William Brady. Larks and swallows flitted through the grass. Tufts of white down floated in the air. Josephine Brady followed the wagon that carried her father’s pine coffin. Her mother and Josephine’s intended, Harry Partridge, followed behind.

“Now it really is Dead Husband Meadow,” Hallie murmured to the young man who would soon be her son-in-law.

“I suppose so.” Harry often dreamed about the year when they’d first come here, when so many things needed naming.

Josephine turned around when she heard them. “What are you two talking about?”

“Nothing, Bee,” Harry assured her. It was the nickname Josephine’s mother and Harry both used for her. Josephine thought it was because she had yellow hair or because she’d been stung so often by bees. People thought she was young and foolish, but she knew more than people gave her credit for. She knew, for instance, that Harry Partridge was by far the best man west of Hightop, just as she’d known that her parents had not had the kind of love she wanted for herself. In the winters her mother always went out to the mountain. Sometimes she didn’t return for days. She was an unusual person, quiet and self-assured. She was also an expert trapper, and she assured Josephine she was fine on her own. The strangest thing about her was the way she gazed out the window, as if there was someplace else she wanted to be, some other life that was more worth living.

In the winter after William Brady’s death, Hallie stayed away for several weeks. When she came back Josephine was already halfway through trimming her wedding dress. Mrs. Mott, who’d never had daughters of her own, had been helping with the stitchery. Josephine wondered where her mother went when she left town. She wondered why she looked happy until she walked back through the door.

The wedding was held in the garden. The body of Josephine’s twin had been moved to the cemetery, the little box of bones collected by the women in town. Hallie still spent a good deal of time in that garden. She bought seeds from peddlers whenever they passed through. Once she went to Albany herself and came back with three rosebush seedlings that had been brought over from England. She favored plants that had grown in the gardens of the fine houses in Birmingham, the ones she used to pass by on the way to the hat maker’s when she was a girl. But she also liked to transplant local varieties: trout lilies, wood violet, ferns. Anything wild would do.

Josephine wore a headdress made of daisies that complemented the white dress she and Mrs. Mott had sewn by hand. She was the first and most beautiful bride in the village. Harry moved into the Bradys’ house afterward. He had always preferred it to his own and had been working all year to add a room for himself and his new wife. Tended fields lay outside town now, and Harry and his father grew corn and wheat and beans. They carted the surplus to Lenox and Amherst. They’d marked off their acreage with stone walls, carrying the mica-streaked boulders down from the ridge-top until their backs nearly gave out, proud of all they’d created out of the wilderness. Harry still dreamed sometimes about that first year, and in his dreams there wasn’t any hunger or cold. The woods stretched on forever and everything was white.

It happened in August, when the fields were dry and hot. The month was halfway done, and rain had not fallen for weeks. It was so hot that people went swimming in the river despite the eels. So hot Harry Partridge couldn’t sleep. One evening he went to the back door to try to catch a cool breeze. That’s when he saw them in the garden. Hallie Brady and the bear. By then the bear was old. From a distance Hallie Brady looked the way she had all those years ago, when they were naming things, when everything was a mystery and a revelation, and every river, meadow, and snowdrift was something to be tamed.

Harry wasn’t dreaming or imagining anything. He ran for the rifle that was kept by the fireplace and then charged outside and fired. He did it without thinking, with a hero’s response, but in the end he was anything but. Afterward when he dreamed, he dreamed about the look on her face, the tenderness there, the terrible sorrow. In that instant he saw everything there was to know about love, and it terrified and humbled him and made him realize how little he knew.

By the time the neighbors heard the shot and came running, Hallie Brady was gone. She ran off to the woods, her dress covered with blood. Although the neighbors sent out a search party of men who knew the woods around Hightop, they didn’t find her. Afterward, they wanted to skin the bear, make good use of the meat and the pelt, but Harry forbade it. He himself dug the grave in the garden. He worked so hard his hands bled. People could hear him sobbing. They closed their windows and went to bed and didn’t think about it anymore.

It was days before Josephine realized her mother wouldn’t be coming back. Weeks before she stopped looking out over Hightop Mountain. She never asked her husband why he’d killed that bear or why her mother had run off. Years later, when they had been married for more than forty years and had raised three children and half a dozen grandchildren, Harry suddenly decided to run for mayor. She never asked why the first resolution he passed was to change the name of the town and the second was to sign an edict to celebrate Hallie Brady in the middle of August, even though everyone knew her birthday was in March.