There are no grizzly bears in Michigan.
I used to tell myself this when I was out alone, bringing the horses in from the pasture.
Sometimes, it helped.
When the moon was bright, and the animals quiet, it helped.
But whenever the herd was shifting and restless, fixated on something I couldn’t see…
Those times, it didn’t help so much.
The trouble started with a TV show. A couple of documentary filmmakers, up in Alaska, studying grizzlies. Learning where the bears travel, how they behave, what they eat.
Turns out, grizzly bears eat documentary filmmakers.
Mom wouldn’t change the channel.
Three rooms away, I still heard every moan, every growl, every… crunch.
Big, hulking brown beast, chowing down on human ribcage.
Not the best image to have on the way out to dark pastures.
No surprise then that every rustle in the trees, every creak, every crackle became the certain approach of giant paws. That the massive, bristling brush pile was suddenly a man-eating monster.
Shadows shifted inexplicably. Horses spooked. A leaping barn cat nearly caused heart failure.
Night chores aren’t hard: fill the buckets, feed the mares, dump the wheelbarrow, spread the manure. It only takes an hour.
That first night, it took four.
No singing to pass the time, either —
If Grizzly was out there, I needed to hear him coming.
No horror like being eaten alive.
“What took so long?” Mom asked, when I finally trudged in.
I didn’t answer. She would have laughed.
Six more nights followed, all the same. Secret, phobic misery.
On the seventh, I sat alone while the rest of the family ate Sunday dinner.
Uncle Jake came late, as usual. He glanced into the kitchen, where the others were clinking and laughing, then spotted me on the couch. He came and sat next to me.
“What’s eatin’ ya, kiddo?”
His eyes were soft, watching me.
Uncle Jake, who put a real snake in my brother’s bed, after my brother put a fake one in mine.
I told him about the bears.
“Aw geez, Megs…” He slung an arm around me, squeezed me tight.
“I don’t know what to do,” I mumbled, my face in his plaid shirt.
“Listen — ” he started to say, but stopped when Aunt Trish walked in.
She looked surprised, thanks to two drawn-on eyebrows. Her real ones hadn’t grown back from last April Fool’s Day.
“Lookin’ good!” Uncle Jake grinned at her.
She glared, gave him the finger, and walked out.
Uncle Jake turned back to me. “You know there aren’t any grizzlies in Michigan, right?”
“My brain knows, but…”
“Your imagination doesn’t, right?”
“Then you need to put your brain back in charge. Whenever your eyes and ears start playing tricks, just stop, and think: There are no grizzly bears in Michigan. Say it out loud if you have to. You’re the boss, and you don’t have to take this crap. Okay?”
“Okay,” I whispered.
“Now, who are you?” Uncle Jake asked, eyes twinkling.
“That’s right. And what don’t you have to take?”
I started to smile. “Crap.”
“You’re gonna be all right, kiddo.” He patted my shoulder and went to warm a plate of food.
That night, my chores only took two hours.
In the weeks that followed, I had good nights and bad nights, but none as bad as before I talked to Uncle Jake.
At the family Christmas party, he asked how I was doing.
“Better,” I told him, honestly. “I think I’m getting over it.”
His eyes sparkled. “I knew you would.”
We couldn’t talk more, because someone shrieked in the kitchen.
Guilt flitted across Uncle Jake’s face, but the sparkle gleamed brighter.
“Rubber band on the sprayer,” he confided, and ran from the room.
Seconds later, Mom charged in. Face dripping water, she glared steel spikes at the empty spot where Uncle Jake had stood.
Things got better.
On the night of January first, I stood by the pasture gate and bellowed to the sky:
“I’m the boss, and I don’t have to take this crap!”
It echoed across the fields.
Two months into the New Year, another milestone: twenty straight minutes, and not one thought of bears.
Exactly three months in, I started humming again. Elton John’s Daniel rumbled in my throat as I forked manure across the cold ground. There was peace in the quiet rhythm of the work. Peace in the night.
Mares wandered over to nuzzle my pockets for carrots, making me giggle. “You ate them already, piggies! Go away!”
The mares left, disappointed.
I hefted the last forkful of manure.
Warm breath misted the back of my neck.
“April, I told you, I don’t have any…”
I turned to push her away —
And there it stood. All razor claws and matted fur and gaping black mouth pluming white fog. The bear was reared on its hind legs, a giant looming over me.
I didn’t stop. I didn’t think. I just took the pitchfork and stabbed.
All three prongs sank deep into the beast’s chest. I felt the scrape of steel on bone, the pop of punctured organs.
The grizzly groaned, staggering backwards. The pitchfork pulled free.
Moonlit ground blurred beneath me. I reached a fence and catapulted over, got to the tree line and just kept going…
…Until I remembered the horses.
Alone. Defenseless. Trapped in the pasture.
I wheeled around, crashing back through the trees.
I stopped at the pasture’s edge.
The mares were safe, clustered in a corner.
The bear lay across the field, motionless on the ground.
Steam rose from its blood-slick chest, but none from its mouth.
I crept closer — timid, then growing bolder — until I stood right over the carcass, a savage song in my soul:
You didn’t get me, Grizzly. I got you.
I poked its ugly face with my pitchfork. The head tilted back.
I poked again, and the head rolled right off.
There was another head underneath it.
Gretchen Bassier has written a novel, numerous short stories, and the occasional poem. Her 2011 New Year’s resolution: To actually submit them!