Eighty-two years later, Lady of Locks found herself in a memory she had been trying to forget as Bear stood in front of her cabin, wheezing and holding a cane. Bear had no recollection of her–he had aged though Lady of Locks had not changed since her encounter with him years ago in the forest–a curse she had lived with since she fled from that cabin in the forest. Bear fell to one knee and coughed–strings of blood ran from his mouth. The sun was just coming up.
Please help, he said.
I’ve been waiting for you, Lady of Locks said.
His eroded, yellow teeth–no longer threatening, were jutting out in every direction. One fell out. Lady of Locks picked it up and handed it to him. She let him in and made him a bowl of porridge as he sat in her chair by the fireplace and he threw it back up. She let him sleep in her bed and she stayed beside him, singing lullabies to Bear to help soothe the pain but Bear would wake up several times throughout his sleep from nightmares he had been having for 82 years.
I should get going, Bear said. I should leave you alone.
He tried to get up–Lady of Locks told him to stay in bed.
You’re in no condition to be anywhere but here, Lady of Locks said. Stay until tomorrow.
She told him that she would take care of him until he is better.
Or dead, Bear said.
Bear looked at her–he can only see through one eye and all he could see was a blurry yellow aura hovering around before him. Bear coughed and grunted and held out his paw.
I was a cub once, Bear said.
Lady of Locks moved her head in closer, her cheeks pressed against his palm.
You are familiar, Bear said.
I don’t think we’ve met before, Lady of Locks said.
You are a kind stranger, Bear said.
She bathed him and massaged his back. She fed him and read to him by the fireplace.
Have you heard of Goldilocks And The Three Bears, she said.
She read the story to him, holding up the book to where Bear can see the pictures drawn on every other page. Bear didn’t say much, mainly grunting or coughing in response to her tale. When she finished, she looked at Bear who was rubbing his eyes and wheezing.
All this time it was just a story, Bear said. Mama and Papa.
He rubbed his paw against the pages as Lady Of Locks held it in her hands. Bear had a bad coughing spasm and turned away so that the blood wouldn’t land on Lady of Locks. She threw the book into the fire and watched it burn as she rubbed Bear’s chest.
It’s a sad story, she said.
Nightmares, Bear said.
She chopped wood for him and made him a thickly woven blanket. She poured ice all over him when his fever broke and sang a song about a wolf to him. Night came.
This is all my fault, Lady of Locks said.
You’ve been nothing but kind and hospitable, Bear said. It is time.
The fireplace was still lit and Bear had just finished another bowl of porridge.
It is time to go to sleep for a very long time. My greatest hibernation.
Lady of Locks took his hand and led him to her bed. Bear thanked her. Bear brushed his paw against her face. Bear tried to smile but his teeth fell out–his gums, sagging. She tucked him in and kissed his forehead.
Sweet dreams, she said.
Bear gave one last sigh and closed his eyes for the last time.
I’m sorry, Lady of Locks said.
She ran hers hands down his cheeks.
I didn’t know any better back then, she said.
She ran her hands across his eyes.
I, too, had nightmares, she said.
She couldn’t part with Bear after his death and turned him into a blanket and slept under him that night. Her dreams had changed–her own nightmare had become a cherished experience. Her memories had changed, and she slept with ease–thankful for that encounter 82 years ago. The next morning Lady of Locks woke up and saw her face in the mirror, full of wrinkles. She felt weak and her bones were giving in. She felt cold and her skin had become thin and papery. She put out the fire and fixed her hair, taking in a deep breath. She smiled as she walked to her blanket.
Thank you, Lady of Locks said.
She wrapped Bear around her and closed her eyes.
Shome Dasgupta is the author of i am here And You Are Gone (Winner Of The 2010 OW Press Fiction Chapbook Contest), and The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India, 2013). His stories and poems have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, New Orleans Review, NANO Fiction, Everyday Genius, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. His fiction has been selected to appear in The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing (&Now Books, 2013). His work has been featured as a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story, nominated for The Best Of The Net, and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, Louisiana and his website can be found at http://www.shomedome.com.
Artwork: detail of John Bauer’s “She Kissed the Bear on the Nose,” 1910