Bear and Theo came out to the ranch in early spring that year. It wasn’t unusual; many of the family appeared for a few days here or there throughout the year as well as the large numbers that always assembled together for the key times of year like harvest or lambing, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Jasper collected them from Jackson airport on Friday afternoon, and they arrived in time for dinner. It was the first time Dale had seen these two come alone since he first came to the ranch. Bear usually came when Gerry, Darcy, Wade or Luath did, the family members he was closest to; he was usually right in the middle of the fooling about that particular group usually did when they got together, so this was also the first time Dale had really had the chance to see Theo or Bear talk and join in with a family meal and to spend time with them without the buffer of other more familiar people being present. They were both plain nice people to be around. From Bear’s large presence at the table to his deep, slow hee hee hee whenever something made him laugh – and he laughed easily – to his straightforward simplicity in how he joined in with whatever was going on, and which carried no sense of judgement in a way that was rare to the point of unique in Dale’s experience of people. And Theo, who was one of the quieter members of the family, was as easy going as his partner and his relaxed knack at conversation without much demanding attention or answers had always been much appreciated by any socially inept ex CEO brats who happened to have joined the household. They had always made it very difficult to feel awkward around either of them and like so many of the older members of this family they just slotted into the house as though they had always been there. There was never a sense of jarring or of having guests, it never seemed to feel that way on either side with any of them, and it was something Dale found himself studying not for the first time at dinner, wondering how Philip and David had done it.
It was in the evening when they were sitting in the family room that Bear looked across at Theo during a lull in the conversation. Dale saw him signal something private that said the two of them were summoning up not just agreement but also nerve, and Theo’s eyes softened and he nodded what looked like encouragement. And then Bear gave Flynn – and rather alarmingly, Dale too - a direct and slightly apologetic look from those large, soft eyes beneath the heavy brow and his clean shaved scalp.
“We kind of got a question to ask you all, particularly you two. We were wondering to ask you for help.”
Riley, sprawled out against Paul on the sofa with one jeaned knee hooked over the arm, twisted over to see Bear more clearly. “You don’t have to ask all proper like, of course we’ll help? What do you need?”
“We applied for a marriage licence in 2004 when Oregon validated them – briefly.” Theo explained quietly. “It’s looking like it’ll go back to the supreme court eventually, it’s probably a matter of time more than anything, but what held us up in being issued one at the time was Bear’s paperwork.”
“Or lack of it.” Paul said with sympathy. “I can remember Philip getting your medical insurance sorted out and you’d been here a couple of years by then, Bear. That was complicated enough.”
Theo gave Dale a wry smile, seeing his glance across to Paul for more information and Bear smiled too, one of his big, sheepish smiles that went with a huge shouldered shrug.
“I wasn’t on paper when I came here. No records. Didn’t bother Philip, David was the same, he’d sorted that stuff out before and he fixed it. Registered me under his name, made it legal.”
“Bear’s paper trail starts here in 1977.” Theo added. “But that doesn’t always fly with governmental departments. They want birth certificates. Place of birth. Not having it throws up computer glitches, the simplest things end up halted for months while we try to explain.”
“You don’t know place of birth?” Riley asked, surprised. Bear shook his head.
“Alabama. Nothin’ else.”
“And you’d like me to see what I can find?” Dale finished for him. Theo gave him an apologetic nod.
“Gerry was talking to us a week or so back, and he explained – well. I know you’re a pro at data hunting Dale, but I’ve got plenty of research background myself and I’ve not been able to scare up much. But Gerry told us sometimes you get a feel for things. More than what’s just on paper. And he’s seen you be pretty accurate.”
Ah. It wasn’t the research they were asking for. It was the weird stuff. That request went very deep, as much as their trust that they’d ask him for this.
“It’s scarily accurate.” Riley corrected. “Dale doesn’t do inaccurate with anything. The guy alphabetises his socks.”
“I am not quite that bad.” Dale said firmly.
Riley grinned at him, tugging a cushion out from behind his back to toss across at Dale. “Yeah you are, you’d do mine too if I let you. You’re not fooling anyone you know?”
Dale caught the cushion, not arguing with that.
“Although it doesn’t happen to order,” Jasper said calmly from the hearthstone where he was sitting. “No insights of that type do. They might happen or they might not, and they generally come from a purpose for the greater good, so sometimes the greater good can be not to know.”
Theo nodded comprehension and Dale read the look that passed between him and Jasper, then Paul and Flynn, and saw Riley note it too; It’s ok. We don’t plan to stress out your brat. Theo was a Top and he was, in the way of the lifestylers in this family, tactfully asking Dale out loud but if you got the subtext, he was asking permission of Flynn, Jasper and Paul.
“Of course we understand. Dale we’d want you to know we’re not ‘expecting’ anything at all. But we’re asking if you’d consider using your research skills and to feel free to use any other skills you have that are helpful to run the information we can share with you? Any clue or fragment you might be able to find would help, no matter how small it is.”
Without words, Bear was simply looking at him and the request was there in his eyes, with a depth of emotion that hit Dale like a punch in the stomach.
It was a shattering request. Their trust touched him painfully deeply, along with the swell of peculiarly protective and focused determination that he was getting to know well, and which rose whenever anyone in this house or around it had a need.
Dale looked across to find Jasper first, who understood most personally acutely the bargain he had made with the ranch just under a year ago, and the obligation of it. The agreement represented by the tattoo on his chest, for precisely things like this, for the people who belonged to the ranch, that called on any possible skill at his disposal. Jasper nodded quiet agreement, his body calm. This is perfectly normal. This is fine. Paul’s faint smile at him was yes, if you want to when Dale looked to him, and Flynn’s eyes, always the most watchful and objective about anything that came near him or Riley, searched his for a minute and then Flynn gave him a brief, short nod.
Yes. It’s your choice, kid.
He would support either way, but he knew exactly what Dale would choose. Riley held no hesitation about this kind of thing whatever, saw nothing strange about anything ‘gift’ or ‘what’ related, and the easy, unthinking generosity with which he saw the world was infectious; he wouldn’t hesitate and when Dale looked to him was clearly thinking yeah, get on with it?
Permission given, Dale said to them both, to Theo and to Bear whose face cleared in obvious relief. “Yes of course I will. I’d be glad to.”
“And my part is you’d like to see if I can help you remember?” Flynn said to Bear. Bear gave him an uncomfortable smile, shrugging his big shoulders again.
“… yeah. Guess that’s goin’ to be the hard part.”
“That’s going to mean no messing around.” Flynn pointed out. “And I can see it scares you.”
“It’d be worth it.” Bear said simply. Theo reached over and wrapped his hand around Bear’s. Bear gave him another, slow smile, a private one that Dale saw a whole lot in.
“Then we’d probably need to start with a name.” Flynn leaned his elbows on his knees, hands linked between them, shoulders relaxed and his voice calm in the way Dale knew. “I know Gerry gave you the name Bear when you first came here.”
“Mostly because you wouldn’t give them any other name.” Paul added gently. “I don’t think anyone ever knew for sure if that was wouldn’t or couldn’t. Philip told me you didn’t talk to anyone at all for about the first two months you were here, so it wasn’t easy to ask you.”
Bear grinned. It was hard to read exactly what was in that grin; to Dale there was a certain amount of cheerfully innocent mischief.
“Selectively mute.” Theo’s eyes touched Bear’s, calm and affirming. “Yes. Like we’ve talked about before, Flynn. It was part of the assessment you did for Bear when he wanted to apply to work at the zoo, you put that in the report for us.”
“So what was your name before?” Riley asked Bear. Who shook his head slowly.
“I don’t know.”
Riley looked shocked. This kind of personal questioning wasn’t done casually in this household – people told you things if they chose to but gossip, no. Personal matters were respected, and this was something that clearly hadn’t been shared before.
“It’s because of the way your memory works,” Flynn said quietly, “We’re probably going to find it difficult to pin down details like that. You remember what you see as relevant. Physical processes.”
“Yeah. Can rewire the house but not write a check.” Bear admitted. “I know. I know was doing labour, around elephants in Pinedale when I met David. ‘Cept the elephants had gone on.”
“On where?” Riley asked, sounding startled. “Elephants? Seriously?”
“On the train.” Bear verified. There was a kind of bluntness to how he put it that said it was the only language he had to express it and that he was as frustrated by that as anyone else could be. It was the first time Dale had realised the effort it took him to translate what was in his head into words, and how he must be aware of how he sounded at times.
“So we know it was a circus, and it was the end of the season as they all shut down and the animals went on to winter quarters.” Theo verified. “Why they didn’t need Bear at the winter quarters we don’t know, but he was mostly laid off and killing time in a bar when David met him. That’s all David remembered, he wasn’t much for irrelevant details either, it was only Bear he was interested in. Now from my research I can pin down five small circuses that came through both Alabama and Wyoming in the mid seventies. Four are long since gone, one is still running but they didn’t recognise Bear’s description or his picture when I talked to them a couple of years back. Although it’s possible they wouldn’t acknowledge it if they did. It’s a pretty closed community and they don’t give much away to strangers.”
“Yeah. Or ask a lot of questions.” Bear said heavily. “Plenty of strays and people getting away from things in there.”
“So it would seem likely Bear came from a circus community, probably a hired hand family, travelling with them as itinerants and probably not much on paper anywhere.” Theo looked across to Bear. “We tried birth records in every town on the circus circuits we could find, but there was nothing that fit. As far as we can work out, Bear was around eighteen when he met David, but we’re not sure of that.”
There had been a time when Dale would have been anxious to ensure he was focused on recording every detail here – and there was as much in their tones, posture, eye movement as in the content of their words and their selection of specific words and phrases – until he had come to realise that he simply did this anyway, to exactly the same level of detail, whether he intentionally tried or not. The ranch was an area of such strength of feeling for him that he always found himself reeling away the smallest detail, although he was aware of his mind slipping into that cool, slightly detached space where he could filter and compare information the fastest. And where any additional clues tended to float up most easily.
“So probably not much younger,” he said aloud, thinking of the date parameters and the limits of adolescent bone development, “One or two years at most, and maybe up to five years older?”
“At most.” Paul added. “You were young when I first met you and that was a year or two later Bear, I don’t think you were twenty yet. You weren’t fully grown, you were still filling out. Although you’ve got one of those faces – you got to thirty and haven’t changed since, it’s very unfair on the rest of us.”
Bear produced one of his deep, cheerful hee hee hee laughs. The corresponding time frame was obvious.
“So birth records from about 1955 to 1962.”
“Yes, that’s what we figured. But nothing fits.” Theo said wryly. “We followed up some leads, but every name that was a possible is a known person with a good paperwork trail and not Bear. But if he was born in a camp trailer as he probably was, or during transit between towns, the chances are he wasn’t registered. In which case we may be looking for information that just isn’t there. But if there’s anything else we can check, any other leads – we’d be grateful for anything you can suggest. And if you can’t, we’ve lost nothing, we’ll just be very grateful you had a look for us.”
The polar bear was mooching slowly down the main walkway of the Arctic Mammals section in the sunshine, pausing at intervals to investigate the few dropped bits of litter not yet collected by the grounds keepers from last night. He was hopefully tonguing out the last traces of a McDonalds milkshake from a battered plastic cup pinned under his massive paw when Bear rounded the corner and came face to face with him.
The first thing was that polars were one of the most dangerous species housed at the zoo. Unpredictable and largely untrustworthy in general, those massive yellow canines in their jaws were designed for digging into large, slippery, struggling prey – and if you’d ever wrestled an annoyed seal to get it to cooperate with a vet as Bear had before now, you appreciated just how powerful the average polar bear was – and once they got a grip with their teeth and those huge webbed bucket paws hugged you, getting them to let go was…. not easy. There had been several incidents worldwide where a polar had succeeded in grabbing a particularly moronic tourist even through the bars and it had been hell to get them to release.
The second thing was that there were no less than two reinforced gates in a kind of airlock to pass through to get in or out of the polar bear enclosure, unless somehow the thick steel reinforced bars around their enclosure had been breached. If the enclosure was breached then there were potentially six polars who might be taking a stroll around the zoo right now, and while Bear did not tell time well and there was no point in his wearing a watch, he knew the time of day perfectly well. It was almost nine am. Probably only minutes to, and within ten minutes of the gates opening at nine there would be tourists on this path. Probably someone with kids.
The third thing was that of the six polar bears the zoo owned… the one enjoying the milkshake was Nero. Nero was eight years old, weighed 1,280 pounds according to the long suffering vet attached to this section and he was popularly reputed in the Artic section keepers changing room to not just be ready to fiddle while Rome burned but to personally light the fire and throw gasoline at it. Where the other bears, particularly his two large wives and his daughter, enjoyed the attention and company of the visitors who clustered around the mighty enclosure with its moat and rocks, and applauded their lazy playing with the multiple ropes and tyres provided for their amusement, Nero mostly lay on top of the rocks in the prime position for the sun, snarling and swiping at his wives if they got too close to his sunspot and observing the tourists through narrowed, yellow eyes, quite clearly summing them up by meat weight. When required to go into his den at night, or when the enclosure was to be cleaned, Nero would helpfully swagger ahead of all the others, go half way through his den door, and then sit his massive, white fluffy bottom down in the doorway and refuse to budge an inch, perfectly well aware from his malicious stare over his shoulder that it was now quite impossible to close the door. Attempts by keepers to throw the largest, juiciest bloody joints of meat deeper into his den to entice him to move were met with smug scorn.
He was therefore not about to placidly turn around on the path and be hustled back towards his enclosure.
There was, of course, an escaped animal procedure. It involved an emergency response team. Also known as the lethal containment team. The second the alert was given – and for Nero, one of the most dangerous animals within the zoo it would be a code red, the most serious possible alert - the gates would be sealed, the grounds locked down to prevent the animal in question leaving the grounds, all members of the public escorted to safety as fast as possible, and there would be the vet team with tranquiliser darts. But more importantly there would also be a team of keepers with large guns. That team, and all members of the zoo staff, were trained to have four goals in order of priority once the emergency response began, and live recapture of the animal in question was the lowest at number four. Bear, who had been handling guns all his adult life with the training of the ranch behind him, was a member of that team himself, and knew full well that by zoo policy, at this second he should get to the nearest phone and raise that alarm. He knew equally well that an uncooperative or aggressive escaped animal from the code red group who could not be waited out, distracted or tranquilised, and who attempted any serious attack on the keepers involved, would be shot.
Nero, licking strawberry milkshake off his paw and not given to cooperation with anyone ever, and according to the vet team who carried out his regular health care a complete bastard to sedate, had probably just signed his own death warrant.
There was no time to stand around and reflect about it.
Taking no apparent notice of Nero, Bear walked past him, and the large broom in his hand that he’d been taking to sweep off the pathways around the polar enclosure to stop leaves falling into their water, he let trail on the floor after him. Nero was not in the least stupid. There was no chance he was going to kittenishly bounce after a trailing broom any more than he’d follow food. He turned his massive head to look as Bear passed him with glittering malice in his yellow eyes, and Bear ignored him, walking at a steady pace on down the path. The chance of getting hold of a keeper from behind was one of Nero’s dreams. It was possible to see him fantasising about it whenever they cleaned his enclosure, and they were very, very careful to never give him the faintest opportunity. And Nero knew it, which was why he made their lives as difficult as he knew how. Now Bear turned his back fully on the massive beast and hoped it would be an opportunity Nero couldn’t walk away from.
The thing was with big animals that they understood the language of size and body space in ways humans didn’t. Being considerably taller and larger than the average human made a difference; probably the fact he spoke little helped too. Many animals responded differently to him because of it. Bear was banking on that, too preoccupied to be thinking much about the possibility of a sudden clamp of massive jaws on the back of his neck. He was walking quickly but with confidence towards the enclosure, the broom noisy on the path behind him, not looking back – and he heard the almost imperceptible pace of huge, soft feet behind him with flooding relief. Nero couldn’t resist the chance. But nor did he quite have the confidence to pounce. Not yet. Rapidly Bear led him around the corner towards the enclosure gate which stood wide open. Ramana, Nero’s daughter, was standing just beyond the airlock and the inner gate which was closed. Bear searched the enclosure rapidly as he walked, counting her, two more in the water, two more on the rocks – that was all of them. They were all in. Behind him he heard the sudden sound of fur on stone, the softest sound as Nero erupted into the burst of sudden, shocking speed of which he was capable, bouncing like a huge, shaggy rubber ball. Years of handling bolshy elephants, bulls, horses and rams kicked in as much as long experience of Nero: Bear hurled himself against the bars of the enclosure with more speed than Nero expected, ducked past him as the bear pounced, and the impact of one of Nero’s massive paws swiping him, even in a half miss, sent Bear sprawling, but the impetus of the pounce sent Nero past him half into the open enclosure door and from the ground, Bear thrust the brush into the bear’s face, forcing him to grab the broom head in his jaws to control it. With all his strength Bear shoved him hard from the other end of the brush, pushing him the last two feet backwards and rolling over to slam the door on him. The emergency lock automatically engaged. With a roar of fury Nero fell back that last couple of steps and shook the brush so hard the head separated from the handle. Bear lay on the concrete for a moment, breath knocked out of him and gasping, then he rolled over and got up to his knees, pulling himself up the enclosure gate post to reach the key pad. He wasn’t much good with numbers but he knew the pattern of the keys to press and a few seconds later there was a hiss and soft clank as the inner enclosure door opened. Nero glowered at him, his jaws full of broom head. Then he paced calmly to the bars and in a blur of speed thrust his immensely long arm through the gap, hooking viciously in Bear’s direction. Bear sat down again on the concrete, well out of his reach.
“All right baby. It’s gonna be fine.”
Automatically his voice had dropped into the half drawl he used to all the animals when he was alone with them, the accent of his childhood. Or rather the accent he’d heard in his childhood; he hadn’t spent much of it talking to anyone. Nero dropped the broom head, snarled and hooked more vigorously, trying to squeeze more of his shoulder through the bars.
“It’s gonna be fine.” Bear said again, soothingly. “It’s ok.”
With a hiss of disgust Nero sat back on his haunches and they surveyed each other. Then Nero picked up the broom head in his jaws and stalked with it into the main enclosure with a come get this off me if you dare air. Bear got up and keyed the pad again, and the inner gate closed with a soft hiss and a click as the lock mechanism engaged. It was done. Finished.
Still breathless, Bear put a hand under his arm to investigate the deep rip in his shirt. It was a regulation shirt, the standard keeper’s uniform although they had to have them ordered specially for him; no stores catered for this chest depth. The rip was deep. And wet. It was only then he really became aware of the burning sensation and probed deeper. His hand came away wet with blood. Bear looked at his fingers for a moment dispassionately. Then collected the abandoned broom handle and headed for the keeper’s block.
It was quiet in there at this time of day. Everyone was out on their sections, the first burst of early morning work before the visitors arrived was completed, most keepers from the dawn shift were in the staff canteen taking their first morning break while the staff referred to by the keepers as the entertainment committee were preparing for the morning’s demonstrations; the sea lions, the elephants, the parrots, the schools staff welcoming the crocodiles of children. Bear unhurriedly took a spare shirt from his locker and disappeared into the showers. It took a while to stop the bleeding, and his ex shirt was a mess by the time he was finished. He balled up that and the towel and stuffed both deep into the bin out of sight. The first aid box supplied some kind of cream, he had no idea what from the writing on the tube but it smelled about right for antiseptic. It was an awkward place to get sticking plaster to and it took several tries, not least since plasters were designed for normal sized people. After which he put a clean shirt on.
He was closing up his locker when he became aware of a man sitting on one of the benches at the far end of the locker room, limp, head down in a way that told Bear he was sleeping long before he put a hand on the man’s shoulder and he jerked awake. Michael. One of the polar bear keepers, he had worked closely with Bear for years and he had been on the dawn shift this morning. His eyes were deeply shadowed, he was very pale. He gave Bear an unsteady smile.
“….sorry. Another bad night. She’s not much better.”
“Gates are opening.” Bear said gently. Michael nodded, getting to his feet with an effort.
“Just taking a quick breather. I had to get a dead goose out of their pool this morning, it was fouling the water pipe. Surprised none of them had eaten it.”
Entering the enclosure alone was against the rules, not something any of them would ordinarily do. If Michael had been too tired and preoccupied to consider that then he might easily have been too tired to notice Nero follow him out of the airlock, or that the outer gate had not properly closed and sealed. The dawn shift was a fairly quiet one in their section, no one had noticed him so far, but it would not take long for someone else to see him in this state or for him to make a less private mistake. Bear walked with him back to their section, considering. The third keeper, Juan, aged only twenty and the junior to their section, was due to join them to start on their daily chores for the bears following his first morning job helping out in another section; they had a little time. Theo took an extremely dim view of him doing at home what he planned on doing right now, but no one here knew him well enough to question it: most of the staff regarded him as some kind of idiot savant employed through some kind of equality crap and it was a role Bear was long familiar and comfortable with, and other than some minor jeering and harassment from a couple of the younger keepers which he’d ignored with zero interest in them, it served very well. The water filtration system that kept the big, deep polar bear lake clean was housed largely in an underground room through an entrance not open to the public and generally entered only by them and the occasional plumber, although since Bear had begun work here there was very little that required doing that he was not able to do personally. Michael trailed him this morning blearily, without thinking, down into the room with its one wall of deeply thickened viewing glass that enabled them and the vets to be able to see the bears under water, and Bear stooped over the complex filtration pump, searching for the replaceable filter. One deft squeeze in the right place from his massive hand bent it beyond redemption. There was an unpleasant squeal and groan from the machinery and Bear turned off the pump before it burned itself out.
“Filter gone?” Michael said vaguely in response to the sound. Bear handed him the bent filter. It happened to most of the filters eventually; he knew how to bend it to replicate genuine damage. In pretty much the same way he knew how to bend or crush a pipe in a strategic place in their kitchen sink or boiler system at home to create a valid problem and a reason for several peaceful hours repairing it when bored or needing a break from the stresses of life. The downside was living with someone with a suspicious mind who asked you straight out whether or not you had helped it break.
Michael merely clucked vague disapproval at the bent filter. “I’ll get this fixed. You keep an eye on the kid.”
Bear gave him a nod of acquiescence and lumbered up the stairs, closing the door behind him. He suspected that Michael, left alone in the privacy and dim light down there, would rapidly fall asleep again safely out of view. Any questions about where he was during the shift could easily be answered by a general “pump” response with a rolling of the eyes; there were pump filtration systems all over the zoo and staff spent a great deal of time coaxing them to work properly, no one would think twice about it.
Juan, thin, bony and small for his age but amazingly gentle with the bears, was standing frowning by the bars as Bear came to join him outside.
“Morning. Did you see Nero’s got a brush head? Has some tourist been tossing stuff in again? He’s tearing all the bristles out.”
That was something of an understatement. Nero was vigorously reducing the sturdy tool down to shreds.
“Bear’s disability is unusual,” Flynn said later that evening when he and Dale were alone together in the privacy of their own bed, “It’s not one you could easily stick a label on.”
It seemed an extremely personal and rather rude thing to be discussing between themselves. Dale reflected for a moment on the man he’d known for about two years now, both first hand and through what other family members mentioned of him. And there were both confusing and conflicting parts to the information. He had seen Bear be stubborner than a bull in an argument with other brats. Seen him play intentionally very dumb for a very much less than dumb purpose on a couple of occasions, to the point where at times it was very hard to know what was intentional smokescreen and what was actually sincerely Bear. Warm, affectionate, slow spoken, very good with animals, highly emotional….. and possibly not quite typically developed.
In the back of his mind he was examining every single one of those experiences of Bear to draw conclusions and the cross referencing was highly complicated. And unfortunately, it was necessary information to have if he was going to be any help.
“Theo said you did an assessment for him?”
“Yeah. Bear did some casual work at the zoo, he loved it and the zoo appreciated the large animal wrangling experience and skills he had and wanted to employ him properly – but at the time the chance of getting a job in that field if you couldn’t read or write were very small. When the Americans with Disabilities Act came in and he stood more of a chance, he and Theo came here and asked me to assess him properly, put it on paper and name the adaptations he needed. Bear accessed some courses and was able to apply for a job.”
And Bear would have been able to trust in Flynn to do it gently, in a way that left him feeling there were bridges forward rather than torn down by the information he’d helped to identify; Dale had no little experience of Flynn’s skills in that way himself.
“I’m never entirely sure what he truly does and doesn’t understand.” Dale confessed. “I’ve seen that Gerry and the others never talk over him and they know him best, I know he’s a full part of the texting storm they keep going,”
“He uses a speech to text programme. And text phones are never coming into this house, you two are not using up your lives on that nonsense.”
Flynn said it shortly and unequivocally. Dale smiled at the thought. “We wouldn’t want to. It would drive Ri nuts, he’s got no patience with it. Bear’s good with his hands. I saw him fix the garage fuse box at Christmas and re plane and hang the pantry door, it’s effortless. He measures with his eye. I checked it later, he had the measurements exact and he did it all on sight.”
Being quite that, er, ‘obsessive’ was a word that could arguably be applied, about a door he was going to have to look at and walk past several times a day was possibly something Flynn could get too interested in, but this was no time to prevaricate.
“Give him something physical he can put his hands on and look at and manipulate, and it’s all there – carpentry, plumbing, fixing a car, he’s got no problems. He’s very experienced, it’s his favourite way to occupy himself.” Flynn agreed quietly. “It’s the symbolic and abstract he can’t process. He’s not got much visual memory – he doesn’t easily visualise or hold information in his head about something he’s seen unless it’s right in front of him.”
“Is there a cause?”
“Could be any number.” Flynn settled his shoulders deeper in to his pillow, reaching an arm over to pull Dale against him. “I don’t know what’s genetic, what’s adaptive behaviour or possibly even birth damage. He’s steady on his feet functionally, his fine motor dexterity is good to well above average, he rides ok and it’s always one of the big steady horses because of his size – but I’ve seen him on a ladder, it’s not easy for him. I see overspill movement sometimes in his mouth when he’s using his hands or concentrating, and if you get him to stand with his eyes closed or walk heel to toe you need to be ready to catch him. Which suggests to me some issues in the lower levels of his brain. Maybe cerebellum. But practically a genetic screening or a brain scan wouldn’t have much purpose, bottom line is that knowing the cause wouldn’t change or improve the adaptations he needs to work. Which he has, and they work well.”
“And cerebellum affects speech as well as movement.” Dale said thoughtfully.
“Organisation and flow of speech. You saw it tonight. It’s there in his head but he can’t easily get it out into words. He’s selectively mute at times; like Paul said, he kept it up for weeks when he first came here. I’ve seen him use it as a means of controlling pressure, avoiding what he doesn’t want to do. Sometimes it’s quite deliberately being a little bugger. Mostly I think it is at least in part a genuine freezing up. Theo knows the difference. Philip always used to. But I’ve always found generally that if people can, they do. There’s often an element of can’t behind won’t. Bear’s got strong moral codes, strong as Theo’s are and Theo’s a bit of a social justice crusader, but they’re very concrete beliefs. He doesn’t process much in the way of abstract general codes. He wouldn’t care about speed limits for example, but he would feel strongly about being careful of someone around him who might be hurt and he’d be careful in front of a cop with a speed gun. So he’s always been a bit of a law unto himself, and he’s able to pull that off a lot of the time. People see his size and his manner and tend to accept on sight that they have to make exceptions for him. So a circus makes sense to me as a place he could have grown up in this way. A more than usually accepting community, not conventional.”
“And that makes sense logically within the known data.” Dale propped his chin on his forearm where it rested on Flynn’s chest, watching his face in the dark. “But I also see Riley’s point. Can anyone really not remember what they’re called? That seems the strange part to me if he was living in a group that knew him. Would you term that as a ‘can’t’, or is that a potential ‘won’t,’ or is that too simplistic in terms to quantify?”
Flynn nodded slowly, one arm behind his head, the other running slowly up and down Dale’s spine. “I think that’s what Bear is wondering. And while you’re wondering, why don’t you tell me about that door?”
There were directory records for circuses but they were not easily found and incomplete to put it mildly. In fact they were a feat of remarkable inefficiency in terms of data collection. Many of the names were not legible according to the facsimiles Dale skimmed in the half hour he had for permission for after breakfast, both through illiteracy and quite possibly intentional misdirection, and there was much summarization, such as ‘Gerino Brothers (4), tumblers’, without listing the names and ages of the people involved. There was no record of children either when travelling communities must obviously have had children within them. The census available for 1900 that he checked just for comparison purposes showed names but mostly no additional information supplied of ages, roles or place of birth: the authorities had apparently accepted that accurate records of travelling circuses were not possible and made no more than a token attempt.
Bear and Theo rode out with Dale and Flynn to do the day’s sheep work out on the far pastures all morning, easily tacking up horses and joining in with expertise Bear had from years of working this land and must have trained Theo in as every inlaw in the family Dale had met so far was able to work alongside his partner and openly enjoyed doing so. They let the horses graze and sat together on the grass in the thin and chilly noon spring sun looking out towards the mountains, and ate lunch from their saddle bags. Flynn sprawled out by Bear, talking with his mouth full which made him sound still more relaxed against the bass baas of ewes and the treble replies of the lambs in the pasture around them.
“Feel like thinking about some details we can follow?”
Here, while they were lazing on the grass in this safe, open place, not at home in an enclosed space with people listening, with pressure on him. Dale understood it as soon as Flynn did it. Bear nodded, clearly not surprised.
“Yeah. Ready to try.”
“So think about what the circus smelled like.”
Bear grinned. “Elephants. Don’t smell much else past them if they’re around.”
“So you were near animals most of the time.” A summarisation; not a question, and Bear nodded, looking out towards the snow-capped Tetons on the horizon ahead of them.
“What would you have in your hands?”
“Shovel. Rope. Girders.”
So labouring. Heavy work.
“Smell of popcorn anywhere around? Burgers?”
“On the far side. Right away from the animals. Had to walk a while to get there.”
“How about music. Is it near or far?”
Out in the field with the stock, well away from the performance part.
“Remember stalls? Rides?”
“Good.” Flynn swallowed more sandwich, looking out over the pastures. The grass was bright green with the spring and spreading out before them like a giant quilt, dotted with wildflowers and sheep. “When it’s dark. When everything’s gone quiet. The music’s stopped, the people are gone from across the fields, the lights go out. What are you doing?”
“In the truck by the pens.” Bear sounded vague. “No one bothered the stock ‘f I was there.” He threw a bit of sandwich to Shane who was laying on the grass with them, watching the sheep as he did obsessively when he wasn’t actually working, and Shane snapped it up without taking his eyes off the flock.
“Laying flat or sitting up?” Flynn asked. Bear brushed crumbs off his big hands, thinking.
“Hay bales. Corner.”
“So more likely in the truck body.” Flynn unscrewed the top of his water bottle to take a drink and then passed it across to him. “Anyone else there?”
Bear shook his head. “Not at night. I went down to the stock if they got disturbed. Someone else slept down by the horses.”
“You were around the elephants.”
“Yeah. And buffalo.”
So more than one elephant and a wild west act. Dale recorded the information silently as Flynn gleaned it. That indicated a larger sized circus. And a truck bed, not a caravan or berth with other people present to imply a family group or established resident. What Bear was describing was nearer to the work Jasper had done in his youth as a hired hand; sleeping on the job site, often in a barn, cash in hand and moving on when the work moved on.
That was something a single man did. Maybe a teenager, particularly one as large as Bear had been, who could look older. So twelve, thirteen was perhaps the youngest that would be feasible. A hired hand rather than a child born within the community. But circuses often shared winter quarters, it was not at all unlikely that labourers went with the work and might be hired to travel with different circuses each season.
“What were the elephants’ names?” Flynn asked him. Bear’s brow wrinkled and Theo put a hand across to rub his shoulder when he didn’t answer.
“Dunno.” Bear said eventually.
“But there were two of them.”
“Three. Blossom. Cotton Blossom.” Bear said it automatically and looked up at Flynn. “That was one of them. Cotton Blossom. And General Lee.”
Southern state names.
“You said you were born in Alabama.” Dale said abruptly. “You have the accent, Niall mentioned to me a while back you like to cook the way you were raised to eat – blackened shrimp I think he said? So you must have lived in the state for some time. Not travelling around the states. Riley did that and he doesn’t think of himself as from anywhere in particular, he doesn’t have any one particular accent. You have the Alabama sense of identity.”
Bear nodded slowly. Beyond him, further up the hill and crouching with his arms on his knees, David was watching. The sun was reflecting off his hair and the white of his shirt, his collar pulled wide as always, and his eyes were on Bear, intently on Bear, and Dale knew the expression in them. It was the same emotion that rose in him at times; one that tended to bounce between him and David with all the ease of a squash ball being ricocheted off a wall at 50mph. As the others got up and began to pack up the saddle bags, Dale walked unhurriedly up the hill towards the horses, pausing beside David who had not got up and was still watching Bear.
“We never knew.” David said abruptly. “We tried.”
“We can pin down the circus from that.” Dale said it quietly to the pasture of sheep, taking his time buckling his saddle bag. “That’s a start.”
“Find him.” David got up, pacing down the hill towards where Bear and Theo still sat together on the grass. Dale watched him go, irritated with the shortness of the order and the lack of any helpful information, and David disappeared a few feet from them in a sharp blink of sunlight, there one moment and gone the next.
Applying those facts to the internet returned an answer: Twistevant’s circus, closed in 1985 when it went bankrupt: one of the five circuses Theo had already identified. The poster images within the archive Dale located confirmed Bear’s facts: three elephants, a wild west act, the circus originating in Alabama and travelling a railway line every year up through the southern states, through Texas, and then north to Wyoming. They had made no less than four stops in four different cities every year for their shows in Alabama as the circus passed through. And if Bear had joined them in any one of those four cities as a teenager, as a labourer, there would be no record of it. And as Theo and Bear had already established, there were no records of births that fitted in those four cities. No one that could be Bear.
“Which means nothing except it isn’t going to be that easy.” Dale said to Paul who had come up to the office to watch him search, since they rarely left him alone up here for very long. Which somehow they managed to do in a way that felt more like support than supervision. “He could have come into that city at any age in any way. He could have been born anywhere in the states and still lived as a child in Alabama.”
“I did bring this up with me.” Paul took something out of his pocket, and Dale looked up at him, recognising the silver framed picture. One of the ones from Philip and David’s room. “That’s the earliest one I can find that Philip had of Bear. He must have been here only a few months when that was taken, and that’s Trent with him. I know he went out to Uganda about six months after Bear arrived.”
Paul had seen him gain information from pictures before.
It was going to be an academic challenge, just a case of tracking through logical sources until he narrowed down the paperwork. That was all. But right now it was like searching for a needle in a haystack without any leads, and Paul was gently suggesting he thought about this another way. And Paul was very often right. Dale reached for the picture that had belonged to Philip, trying to clear his mind and focus without letting himself think about a demand to find something in it that was relevant. Now. It was warm from Paul’s pocket. This always worked best if he could think casually, without too much direct attention. And without trying to make anything happen. The tall, skinny man in the photo had long, shaggy hair, bare feet and an arm around a very large, very young Bear. It was a black and white picture, he and Bear looked to have stopped in the midst of mowing. They were sweating heavily, the machinery stood behind them and the older man leaned against it. Dale caught a swift, blasting scent of fresh mown grass and oil from the mowers. Something he knew as well as those two men in the picture did, and it was natural his memory would pull it up.
“Relax.” Paul said gently. “Just relax and let it flow and don’t think critically about it, that’s what you’ve told me before?”
Yes. Instinctively Dale ran a finger lightly over the glass over the picture, over the two men side by side, trying to let his mind drift.
Grass. That was all he could think of. Just a whole lot of grass.
Mrs Renworth took a few minutes to dry her eyes. Bear spread adhesive on another tile and placed it, listening without commenting. He rarely said much while she talked but she never needed any kind of reassurance to know he was attending. It had been nearly four months since Mr Renworth had lost his job. It had not been easy for either one of them, a man in his late fifties with a bad back was not easily re employed, he was managing well with some receptionist work at a local business with the hope of a temporary job becoming a permanent one but Mrs Renworth was a worrier and at times everything got on top of her. The odd jobs Bear could do that saved Mr Renworth’s back and provided Mrs Renworth with a sympathetic audience were usually simple ones; he kept their lawn mowed along with their own and today the cracked tile behind the oven had been easy to match, chisel out and he settled the replacement into position and steadied it until it was secure.
“Needs to settle. Grout it tomorrow.”
“Lily’s trying for a baby again.” Mrs Renworth gave him a tremulous smile as he gathered up his tools. “She phoned me last night. Now they’re settled and that business with John working all hours is sorted out I think they’re on calm enough water. I hope they are. She said John was the one who suggested it this time, I’m hoping it’s not because his wretched mother is pressuring him for a grandchild. Goodness knows that woman is struggling to cut the apron strings but she’s going to end up cutting him out of his marriage if he’s not careful.”
It wasn’t a marriage that was going to last long in Bear’s opinion, not that he’d shared it with anyone but Theo. Lily Renworth was too bright a girl to waste her time for long on a man who needed a firm kick up the ass and a move of several states away from his parents.
Mrs Renworth got up as Bear wiped the new tile over and picked up his tool bag, taking a covered dish from the fridge.
“I made a lasagne this morning and thought you and Theo could do with one – that man of yours needs feeding up a bit. Heat it through well in the oven.”
She knew full well that he loved to bake but it never stopped any of their women neighbours in the street from pushing food at them. Bear gave her an engulfing, gentle hug in thanks and she returned it gratefully, patting his arm as she let him go.
“You’re a good boy. Now your mother would have been proud of you, she raised a good son.”
Interesting thought. Bear had never had the heart to explain to her that he had no idea who she had been; his simple explanation some years ago to one of their neighbours that he had no parents had spread widely in the street and added to their sympathy.
Theo had been away filming out near Ridgefield all day on a project he’d been working on through the winter in frequently awful weather, and he arrived home late, muddied, cold and grateful for the warmth in the kitchen of the heating lasagne. He paused in the kitchen to put his arms around Bear’s waist from behind, leaning his chin against Bear’s arm to look into the saucepan Bear was stirring.
“Hey sweetie. Good day? Hmm, who donated dinner this time?”
He was thoroughly accepting of the network of friendships they had in the street, of whom they were the youngest couple by about twenty years, although he’d been known to refer to their kitchen as the Green Street Mission. Bear stooped to kiss him. “Mrs Renworth. You’re cold. Bath.”
“That sounds good to me.”
He whistled as he ran upstairs. Bear heard Duran Duran start in their room; they both liked music on much of the time in the house. With the beans dressed and put to one side, Bear took a couple of chilled beers upstairs and Theo gave him a grateful smile from the depths of the bath, raising a steam reddened hand to take his.
“Thanks. How were they today? Any sign of Marla in cub?”
“Be a while before the vet can scan her and know.” Bear sat on the floor beside the bath since the side of the bath wouldn’t take his weight and it put him on head height with Theo anyway. Theo tilted his head back against the edge of the bath, his red hair wet and still mostly standing on end. His glasses were slightly steamed up.
“We got a good sighting of the wolf pack today. Tracks. Heard them. Good day’s filming.”
“You could go to the ranch and Jas would track you wolves in the woods there to film.”
“Yeah but I couldn’t pass them off as Oregon wolves then?” Theo took a deep swallow of the beer, putting a hand out to run it over Bear’s gleaming scalp. “Kind of messes up the whole environmentalist protect the park thing?”
Which was his passion. Theo’s film making had come straight from his earliest career as a freelance photographer, mostly specialising in going places and photographing things other journalist photographers wouldn’t. Pretty pictures and entertainment were not his style, and the documentaries he filmed were rarely any less edgy, never mainstream and rarely well paid either, not that either of them cared. Between the two of them they just about covered their monthly outgoings and that was enough.
“You’re quiet.” Theo’s fingers smoothed around Bear’s neck, around the collar of the t shirt he wore beneath the coveralls he had changed into as soon as he got home. They had always been the easiest clothes to find and wear for the kind of things he did around the house and by habit Bear thought of them as ‘home’ clothes. “Anything on your mind?”
“Mrs Ranworth’s daughter trying for another baby she says.”
“You never get bogged down in gossip; that rolls right off you.” Theo’s fingers drifted, caressing his face. “So that isn’t it.”
“Tired I guess.”
“You’re on the early shift tomorrow.”
“So we’re both headed about out five am. How about an early night? You get that lasagne out the oven and I’ll get out of this bath?”
They ate together sitting out on the back porch steps which Bear liked to do when the weather was good enough, on the porch he’d rebuilt and painted already this spring, looking out over their long strip of well-mown garden in the last of the day’s light. Then they washed out the dishes and went up to bed as twilight began to fade into night.
In the dark, wearing the t shirt and shorts he usually wore to bed, there were no awkward questions about what he was doing with sticking plasters on his ribs. In the bed Philip had given them as a housewarming gift when they moved in together, which was so large it had had to be built in the room but in which Bear could sprawl comfortably face down with his cheek against Theo’s shoulder where he liked to fall asleep, it seemed like a pretty successful day.
He’d never particularly liked the formal garden at his stepfather’s home. Nevertheless, Dale found himself walking it for some time, irritated that whichever way he left the manicured lawns or the gravel path that led to the small water garden, rather than getting anywhere interesting he instead found himself rounding a corner and walking out onto the lawns again. He circled them for a while before he sat down on one of the low walls in the water garden and declined to continue with the game. The gardeners had left for the day, the clipped grass was severely neat and the formal flowering shrubs in the bushes were uniform. One of them, quite unhelpfully, was a cotton bush, and the bolls had burst to show open cotton on the twigs.
Cotton most certainly did not grow in England. Particularly not in Shropshire. The incongruity irritated Dale to the point he found himself waking up in the dark of his room with Flynn asleep beside him.
He had come to realise, slowly, the need to not regard his more peculiar dreams at purely face value. It was something he was learning to do, a skill still very much in its infancy and he did not enjoy struggling with such poorly formed understanding of it, nor having such a lack of process or logical pattern to comprehend it with.
How do you really annoy a perfectionist?
You give him a gift like this with no logic whatsoever anywhere in it. Think. How did the dream feel?
But perfectly calm. Detached. No emotion other than the mild exasperation of not being able to avoid the repeated entrance in to the garden again no matter how he tried to leave it. The cotton bush was clearly associated with Bear and Alabama and the elephant by the name of Cotton Blossom. Large grey mammal and crop product. Dale failed to see the connection there, it seemed an extremely random thing to call an elephant.
There had certainly been no elephants in the garden.
So why that garden?
He had no idea. He hadn’t thought of it in years and had never cared for it as a child. On the other side of the house had been wilder ground, open meadows and he had much preferred being there.
It has to use the information you already have in your memory, Caleb had explained to him some months back. ‘It’ being a euphemism in Dale’s mind for he had no idea what. It can only tell you using what is there.
So why a garden? What is relevant about a garden? What is that code for?
That currently made no sense either. But then it frequently didn’t at the time. The pieces always came together gradually.
There really is no better means for the universe to have a good laugh at the expense of a perfectionist.
At the back of his mind he was aware of a jangling of a song he’d heard as a child, something he’d heard at his prep school when he was very young, one of the children’s songs that was played on the record player during wet break times in the hall, and it came with the memory of noisy voices, the clatter of hoops and balls and impromptu adult attempts to entertain fourteen penned up eight year olds. As the fifteenth he’d usually been as far away from it as he could get with a book.
I’m gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton
Jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day….
Apparently his brain intended to locate and associate every random cotton reference it had on file. Or was just scanning through everything it had looking for links.
Dale put a hand behind his head, looking out towards the open window and the darkness beyond it. The stars were bright, it was a clear night.
The song at the back of his mind was changing, slipping to something else, high, piped by boy voices in the choir in the chapel at school.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, donna nobis pacem.
He didn’t sleep much. His mind seemed to be insisting on working through every song on that bloody record. Paul, still setting out the table for breakfast, raised his eyebrows and looked at his watch when he came downstairs.
“Good morning. Does Flynn know you just got dressed at about the speed of light?”
The kitchen smelled warmly of the new bread in the oven, was immaculately tidy as it always was in the mornings since the last thing Paul did every night was straighten it out, and somehow the comforting, predictable order of it all made Dale even more irritable. He opened the fridge, retrieving butter, marmalade, juice and milk, unable to keep the acid out of his voice.
“The speed of light is two hundred and ninety nine million, seven hundred and ninety two thousand, four hundred and fifty eight miles per second. So no. Since that would be factually inaccurate.”
“I thought so. Stop that and come here.” Paul pointed at the floor in front of him.
“You generally have strong feelings about what you perceive as factual inaccuracy,” Dale informed him.
Paul came around the table to capture his hand and towed him to his chair, taking a seat and pulling Dale down into his lap willing or not. Dale leaned his elbows on the table to avoid looking at him, but was unable to stop himself reflexively stretching his shoulders out as Paul started to rub his back, which was something he was ridiculously good at, then slid a hand under his shirt to reach bare skin which always, always melted him no matter how bad the mood. After a moment he sighed and let go, letting the stress drop out of his shoulders.
Paul turned him around and Dale put his arms around Paul’s neck as Paul hugged him, leaning hard against him and the warmth of knowing that being vile first thing in the morning was never something Paul found hard to forgive. “It wasn’t a good night.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“Kids songs. At manic speed. Over and over again.”
“Mhm.” Paul sounded calmly interested. “Any one in particular?”
“It got stuck on ‘Green grow the rushes o’. In order. Multiple times.”
“And what is the order?”
Dale sat back to give him a pointed, are you absolutely sure this is a good idea look.
“Twelve apostles; eleven that went to heaven, which refers quite obviously to the eleven disciples not involved in the betrayal of Christ; ten commandments; nine ‘bright shiners’ which is possibly the nine orders of angels or the planets known and identified prior to 1781; eight ‘April rainers’ probably referring to the Hyades star formation although how that is relevant I have no idea, or the eight Archangels; seven for the seven stars in the sky, possibly the Pleiades; six proud walkers, possibly a corruption of ‘waters’, the six jars of water turned to wine; five for the symbols at your door, the five symbols that signified a house that would shelter a catholic priest; four for the gospel makers, obvious; three the rivals, which may mean the holy trinity, the Magi or possibly record of the dispute between the apostles Peter, James and John, the two lily white boys, candles or statues cloaked in green during Holy week, or possibly Adam and Eve; and one alone, meaning there is but one God. It’s thought to be a combination of pagan symbolism mixed with Catholic catechism, possibly a way to teach children Catholic cornerstones during the time of Catholic persecution in the English Civil War. Although I can’t imagine the astrology and pagan symbolism was particularly attractive to Catholic priests in hiding. Of course it’s been corrupted and altered like anything that ancient that comes down through aural history, British soldiers became known as ‘Gringos’ in Mexico through marching it while they sang. Green Grow the Rushes.”
Paul nodded slowly, taking that in. “I see. Feel better for getting all that off your chest?”
Actually the nonstop repetition of it in his head seemed to have ended with saying it out loud. And it always helped too to share this kind of thing to Paul who was genuinely engrossed by anything literary or historical. Paul ran his fingers through Dale’s hair, untidying it, which was a habit of his.
“So why are you obsessing on Catholic folk songs?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well Flynn’s mother was a practicing Catholic.” Paul leaned back in his chair, linking his arms around Dale’s waist. “I don’t think Flynn was raised that way, I think it was just how she was raised herself. Irish descent.”
“Third generation Irish mick.” Flynn had obviously been listening for a while; if Dale had to guess he had probably been followed downstairs. Flynn stopped propping up the door post and came to pour juice into a glass, knocking it back in several long swallows, his arms bare to the elbows in a polo shirt that showed off the lines of his shoulders and chest and tucked neatly over flat stomach into the waist of his jeans.
“Immigrant?” Dale asked him without getting up off Paul’s lap.
Flynn gave him one of his brief, glinting smiles. “County Kerry. My father’s grandparents came over on the same ship my mother’s did. Small Irish community in the area; that was how she married him.”
“And you can see the Celtic blood in him can’t you?” Paul commented, watching Flynn pour more juice with the same enjoyment Dale was. “Mostly those eyes. A little in Riley too, although I think Riley’s got some Scandinavian ancestry in there somewhere.”
And there was French Breton blood in Paul in his fair skin and dark hair, of which Dale had catalogued and long since committed to memory the precise shade, loving both. Which made him think sharply of Bear and his genetic lines. Bear’s heritage, with a family in the Deep South of the US was probably an extremely sad one if taken back about six generations. That made him wonder too about Luath, although Luath was strongly New York in accent. It was not an angle Dale had thought about before since knowing these men, and it was an abruptly distressing one.
Bear and Theo walked into the kitchen together, Bear automatically pausing to hug Paul as he did every morning when he stayed here, and incorporating Dale too into what was literally a Bear hug. He was a man given to frequent hugs and kisses even by the standards of this household and you tended to get nabbed by him in passing, which Dale found a little surprising but rather touching. On pure impulse Dale leaned on the table to catch his eye as Bear pulled out his chair.
“Qui tollis pec…..?”
“…ata mundi.” Bear said it automatically, looking surprised.
And that was it. That was the leap they needed.
Theo sat down at the table next to Bear.
“What does that mean?”
Bear shrugged slowly. “I don’t know?”
“You who take away the sins of the world.” Dale translated. “It’s the Agnus Dei liturgy during the breaking of the bread during the Eucharist. Do you go to many church services Bear?”
Bear shook his head, even more baffled. “No…the ones I remember were mostly the black circus peoples. Preaching and singing in a field. They were nice but they didn’t say that.”
“And I was raised Jewish.” Theo added. “Kind of, in a vague sort of way. We’ve never been to any services together. Where did you pick up Latin, Bear?”
The more relevant question was where had he heard Catholic liturgy often enough to remember it, to be able to complete the phrase automatically, and the answer was obvious. It was a real, concrete lead out of the blue, and it said that picture had been telling him something. Even if he didn’t understand it yet.
“Excuse me,” Dale said to Paul, getting up. Flynn blocked his way, pointing at his chair.
“No. Breakfast. Eat first. And if you’re going to stay awake through the night chewing, you make up the sleep after breakfast.”
This is getting done without obsessing.
He didn’t need to say it.
“How precisely would you like me to discipline my subconscious?” Dale inquired politely. Flynn gave him a resounding swat towards his chair in a way that hurried him up considerably.
“Don’t worry about it, I can handle that for you.”
They often both left early in the morning; Bear for the dawn shift at the zoo, Theo to whatever project he was currently on, and they had it down to a fine art. Awake at 4.30am, out of the house for 5, lunch in hand, and Theo dropped Bear outside the station to catch the zoo train into the park, leaning over to kiss him as Bear opened the door. Not a lot of conversation went on anyway on these very early starts, neither of them were brilliantly morning people, but Theo paused to touch Bear’s face and then to put a hand on his forehead.
“You’re warm. And you look a bit pale. Are you getting a cold?”
“Not feeling stuffy.” Bear kissed him, opening the car door, and Theo caught his coat sleeve to stop him, looking at him closely.
“Hey. You look tired too. When you get home, leave our lawn alone, leave everyone else’s lawn alone, nothing involving tools or paintbrushes, and stay home. Lay down for a while, and have a gentle afternoon. I’ll work on being home earlier.”
“’M ok. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll work on it. Have a good day, beautiful.”
“You mind the wolves.” Bear reached for another kiss and got out, shutting the door and watching Theo’s old Volvo pull out into the traffic and Theo’s hand wave out of the window as he disappeared out of sight into the spitting rain.
It was not a good filming day. Meeting the ranger he had been working with, Theo managed a couple of hours of interviews with various park workers and residents despite the increasingly pouring rain, and some rather pretty footage of a ravine rising and bursting its banks. By lunchtime he and the ranger were cold, wet through and the light was getting impossible in the forest. Leaving the ranger to seek coffee, Theo packed up and headed home, not sorry for some of the afternoon left to spend with Bear.
Bear’s shift would have ended at 1pm and he would have been home by half past. It was a little past four when Theo let himself in at the back door to a quiet house. Bear, usually deprived of something to paint, fix or garden, tended to cook instead. They owned a tv but it wasn’t much used and Bear never watched it by himself, and he didn’t read, so occupying himself was almost always something physical. The living room was empty. Hoping he was laying down and that this didn’t mean he was feeling worse, Theo hung his drenched coat and sweater over a kitchen chair and jogged upstairs, quiet in case Bear was asleep. Their bedroom was empty too. Theo went on through to the bathroom, lifting his voice.
“Bear? Hey, I’m home. How are you doing?”
The bathroom door was three quarters open. Theo put a hand up to open it, and as he found it was jammed he looked down and in one horrible jolt realised why. Bear’s dungareed leg was visible behind the door. He was sprawled face down and he was not moving. Heart starting to thunder, Theo dropped to his knees, lifting the leg out of the way which took both arms and a lot of his strength bent as he was around the door, but he managed to force the door the rest of the way open and to climb fast across Bear’s legs to get to his head.
“Bear? Bear, wake up. Come on baby, wake up.”
Rubbing his cheek raised no response at all. His eyes were closed, he was very pale, a nasty colour that had turned his lips almost as grey as his face, and sweat was standing out in drops on his forehead. His t shirt between his shoulders was wet with it, and his breathing was alarmingly fast. It took a lot of effort and several tries to successfully roll him over out of the doorway, get the door fully open and to run downstairs to call 911.
It took a fire crew along with the paramedics, six men in total plus Theo to get Bear downstairs: that was a nightmare five minutes of his life that Theo never wanted repeated. Followed by another nightmare of watching Bear through the ten minutes it took through Portland rush hour traffic with the sirens going to reach the hospital where he was whisked away on a gurney. He hadn’t stirred or opened his eyes the entire time.
Theo paced the waiting area for what felt like hours, tried to drink appalling coffee from the machine and to stop checking his watch. He’d filled out pages of admissions and insurance forms, answered all the questions he could. That he’d seemed a little off colour this morning but said he’d felt fine, no travel, no injuries, a robust medical history at least as far as they knew, dating back to Bear’s arrival on the ranch – family history non existent. If Bear’s parents had any significant illnesses it wasn’t something Bear or anyone else knew about. It was one of the times Theo swallowed down a lot of anger about that. No one deserved to have no information, to know nothing at all about something so important.
It was approaching seven pm when a youngster in a white coat came into the waiting area and called his name.
“You’re here for Bear Winthrop?”
“Yes.” Theo got up hurriedly to go to him, horribly conscious that officially he held no more than the title of ‘friend’ and any information they chose to share with him about Bear was courtesy. If they refused there was nothing he could do about it. “How is he? What’s going on?”
“His blood work’s showing a serious infection related to the two infected gouges. It’s clear they haven’t been cleaned out, do you know how he got them?”
“What?” Theo ran a hand through his hair. “Gouges? Where?”
“On his side. They’re at least 24 hours old, there’s a deep infection.” The man sounded gentle. “One’s deep enough that whatever’s in them must have been like injecting bacteria into his rib. The bone’s infected and it’s spread quite fast. Have you any idea what it is? You said he works at Portland zoo?”
“Bears. He works with bears.” Theo took a deep breath, keeping his voice steady. “Polars. Claws about two inches long. Probably with all kinds of bits of rotting fish and lake water all over them.”
Punching straight through Bear’s soft skin to the vulnerable bone and organs below. It was an unspeakable thought.
There was a full time nurse on the zoo site precisely to deal with any injuries because they could be sudden, severe and badly contaminated. Bear hated professionals of any kind, particularly medics, and reporting anything meant filling out the accident book which to him was an ordeal of working with someone else to do the reading and write his answers for him – but the two other men on his section knew this, they liked Bear and they would have helped him, particularly Michael, as they’d helped before. Theo had gone with Bear himself to the zoo to help before now when no one else was available; it had never been a reason for Bear to hide anything.
He was allowed to go up to a room. Once he walked on to it he realised with some alarm that it was some kind of high dependency unit, a glass partitioned section directly in front of the nurses’ station. There were tubes in Bear’s nose, more in his wrists, several large bags of fluid hung above the bed while monitors were clicking and bleeping steadily. His eyes were still closed. They were awaiting some kind of results from blood work. Theo sat with him until somewhere around the early hours the results came in.
It was then that he made several phone calls, the first one being to Wyoming.
He never did know how Philip travelled. It seemed to be something he did easily, without fuss, arriving as unruffled as if he’d just stepped out of the house instead of having spent several hours on a plane. He came quietly to the door of the room a little after seven am; the clock above the nurses’ station was ticking through the hours while in this glass bleeping box there were no windows, no natural light and no sense of day or night at all.
He waited there for Theo to see him and Theo waved him in at once, getting up to shake hands save for Philip ignoring the hand and putting an arm directly around his shoulders to kiss his cheek. Neatly dressed in one of the subdued and extremely well tailored suits he kept for visits anywhere off the ranch, he was well dressed without it being possible to really remember what he was wearing, and he looked and he felt calm. Deeply, reassuringly calm. Far more together than Theo felt. Philip went to Bear, putting his hands on the raised rails to look down at him, then to put his hand over Bear’s.
“They’re keeping a close eye on him.” Theo said as evenly as he could. Philip didn’t look it, but he was of an age now where scares like this weren’t good for him, and he loved Bear. Theo was well aware of just how much, and it was very much reciprocated, this man was one of the most important points of the planet for Bear. “Filling him up with antibiotics. With his body weight it’s just ... a little trickier than usual.”
The youngster who appeared to be the intern on call and who looked fresh out of seventh grade had mentioned something about the challenge of calculating dosage and of the muscle load Bear carried burning off meds at too high a speed, and they were stuffing him with levels that would massively overdose anyone else. It was currently a race between sepsis and antibiotics, and so far resembling an evenly matched race.
Paul was in the doorway, quiet and looking soberly calm; of course Philip never travelled anywhere without one of them with him. Largely because none of them would let him. Theo had overheard the machinations that went on to discreetly debate who went with him, who met him at his destination to provide him with a fait accompli personal assistant and the personal care they surrounded him with, never because he’d asked for or even shown the faintest sign of expecting it; in Theo’s experience, Philip was an extremely independent man who was perfectly happy to go anywhere and do anything for himself; but because they all without exception insisted. Theo went to him and Paul gave him a warm, close hug. No chatter, no requiring social niceties from him, and Theo appreciated that deeply, but shortly afterwards Paul put a decent coffee into his hand, gave another one to Philip – goodness knows where he’d found them but it was branded, real coffee and not vending machine dishwater – and ran a hand over Theo’s shoulder.
“Would you like me to go pick some things up for you two? You had no time to pack or prepare anything.”
And Paul would think of that, and he’d deal with it as easily as he seemed to handle any organisational issue.
“I’m not even sure the house is properly locked up.” Theo confessed. The thought of Paul in their home was no uncomfortable one, and no invasion of privacy, it was not something Bear would think twice about having lived with Paul for some years, and Theo gratefully gave him the house keys. He didn’t really notice Paul leaving or returning, but there was a point where a neatly packed bag appeared in a side locker by the bed with several of Bear’s t shirts in it, a change of his own clothes and a wash kit, and he was more than thankful for the sweater Paul handed him after hours of wearing last night’s still drying out clothes from the rain and being chilled.
Philip simply sat with them, a composed presence in the room, watching Bear with Theo while the monitors went on ticking and all staff would say was that he wasn’t deteriorating. It went unsaid that he wasn’t improving either. Theo’s fingers were interlaced with Bear’s where he held his hand, Bear’s much larger, heavier fingers between his. Gerry and Ash arrived at some point during that horrible morning; their closest friends emotionally as well as the ones who lived the nearest they saw a good deal of each other and Gerry was in the lead to hug Theo very tightly, pale but doing his best to smile.
“All right. What the hell did he manage to do? Do you know? Did they say any more about the scratches?”
“I haven’t had time to check with the zoo yet.” Theo reached past him to accept Ash’s quieter hug. “Hello Ash. They look like claw scratches to me, I’d guess one of his bears.”
The ‘scratches’, a word he’d chosen largely for Gerry’s sake when he phoned them, were under a loose dressing, obscenely swollen. The staff were keeping a close eye on them.
“But he knows this stuff.” Gerry leaned on the rail in distress, putting a hand down to rub Bear’s cheek and Theo could see his shock at Bear’s lack of response; he felt the same way himself. “He knows it, he always has, he’s been working around animals all his life, he knows how to wash out scratches.”
“As deep as this one was, washing probably wasn’t enough.” Theo said as lightly as he could. “I was told he’d put plaster over them, maybe he thought it was minor and he’d done what he needed to. It’s around on his side, not a place he could see clearly.”
“But he didn’t tell you.”
That was what Gerry was angry about it, it was visible in his face much as he tried to keep it concealed.
“Bear’s pain threshold is high with any kind of injury.” Philip said mildly to Gerry, and Gerry straightened up from the bed and buried himself in Philip’s arms. Philip held him, running his hand slowly over Gerry’s hair and talking calmly. “You know that. And stubborn is something Bear does very well. This happens. David walked around for a day and a half on a fractured leg once before I realised. I seem to remember you hiding more than one thing yourself.”
“Not like this.”
Ash had been standing close and he spoke gently, definitely. “I guess he’s got a reason, Ger. He’ll tell us when he’s feeling better. Theo, is there anything you need?”
“Paul’s got us sorted thanks.” Theo managed something passing for a smile towards Paul. Philip looked across at him too.
“Ash, there is something you may do for me, which is take Paul for breakfast. He’s been up all night and hasn’t stopped since.”
Paul had no trouble comprehending this, in Theo’s experience a very tactful man, and simply said quietly, “Can I get you two anything while we’re out?”
Theo shook his head.
“Breakfast and coffee would be welcome.” Philip said evenly. “Thank you Paul.”
It seemed very quiet when they had gone. Another medic came in, checked tubes and monitors, gave Theo a sympathetic look and left again. Theo sat down beside Bear, picking up his hand. He looked large against the white bed, dwarfing it, the tubes and linen stark against his skin. His face as broad and peaceful as a child’s, with the innocence that was peculiar to Bear in so powerfully built and masculine a body.
“There were three Catholic institutions in Alabama in those cities the circus visited. Six in the state itself.” Dale said crisply when he took the print out from the printer. True to form, Flynn had sent him back to bed for a solid two hours after breakfast, and he’d been sitting in the armchair opposite ever since he allowed Dale to get up, dress and come up here to the office. He was sitting in silence, not interrupting in the slightest, but Flynn still had the knack of being very much there all the time. Now he leaned across the table to look through the papers with Dale. Dale spread them out into two piles, tapping one.
“There’s a fair history of Catholicism in Alabama, but it’s white immigrants – French and Spanish, Irish, German, Italian – and generally the Catholic church was known to support the confederacy and segregation. They built hospitals, schools, a college and those six orphanages established in Alabama, but due to the state segregation laws there were separate ones for African American and white American children. There is only one orphanage anywhere near the railway towns that took African American children in the 50s and early 60s. They began to be officially de segregated in 1964 and the children were supposed to be combined as the smaller institutions shut, but there was a lot of resistance, it was a slow process. An African American child in that state before 1970 is statistically most likely to have gone to that orphanage.”
“Is it still there?”
“No. But the order of nuns that ran that institution is.”’
Flynn took the phone from his pocket, passing it over. “I brought this up. Thought you might be needing it.”
It took a while of calls, being passed from person to person and department to department as they tried to find the information he needed. Finally Dale laid the phone down, irritated.
“This is going nowhere. If I could talk to them face to face and read the files myself-”
In his experience that worked a good deal faster and more effectively than relying on other people to read bits of paper to him. Flynn gave him a steady nod.
“Ok. Let’s do that.”
Dale processed that almost at the same time as his brain processed the ‘We’ part, taken aback since it had been a fairly casual grumble.
“….You’re suggesting we go to Alabama?”
Flynn gave him a calm nod. “Yes. If that’s where the information is that you want, why not? Bear and Theo are here to help cover the work with the others.”
He made it sound so – straight forward. And yet it was a shock. Flynn didn’t easily leave the ranch, his people or his horses, without a cause or family need he was more concerned about. It was the first time Dale had really understood how seriously Flynn was taking Bear and Theo’s request. And it made him realise he’d disappeared somewhat into the data without understanding this was very much a family quest for family people. It was hardly straight forward or casual at all, it was deeply personal to them in every way. The trust within it was remarkable.
You say we need to go to Alabama, then ok we go to Alabama.
He leaned impulsively over the desk to catch Flynn’s lapel and kiss him. Rather hard.
“There’s no need to pull you away-” he found himself saying rather stupidly even as he did it. Flynn steadied him and completed the kiss a lot more thoroughly before he put Dale back in his seat. And leaving Dale breathless and very distracted, turned the computer screen towards him.
“You’re not going alone, kid. I’m glad you can find something to follow up, this will mean a lot to Bear. So find us a flight.”
“We can do this the quick way,” Dale began, thinking of the chartered crafts. Flynn shook his head with finality.
“No. It’s not an emergency, a commercial flight is fine. It’s ok to do things at a normal pace with everyone else and not at high speed. Find us a flight.”
There was a remarkable lack of surprise or fuss that they were flying out to Alabama. Paul, Jasper and even Riley accepted it without question, and an hour later Jasper drove them out to Jackson, dropping them at the airport. He gave them a hand as far as the security lines with their cases and stopped there, he and Flynn hugging briefly and silently without a word as Jasper put the case down.
This whole business of going somewhere and saying goodbye and then missing them like hell in the meantime was still – very new to Dale. There had been a painful incident some months ago when he’d really had to think about such things in depth; it had not been good, and Jasper’s smile at him said he knew it, he remembered it well, and it was going to be ok this time. He put an arm around Dale, drew him over and hugged him too, tightly for a long moment, his face against Dale’s, and as always now, there was a second where Dale knew the energy field around Jasper and around himself, that life energy, blended together and he was within Jasper’s like a shield surrounding him.
“Just take it as it comes.” Jasper said softly in his ear. “You know what to do.”
Not chase. Jasper believed strongly in natural knowledge being there at the right time and it was a belief Dale had come to have a lot of respect for.
Flynn put an arm around his shoulders as Jasper walked away, pulling Dale close against his larger, stronger body and squeezing hard, stabilisingly hard, in a way that made it easier to swallow truly ridiculous emotion in a grown man. The grip of Flynn’s hand on him helped as much as his voice, a tone you’d think was brusque if you didn’t know him.
“Get that case, kid. We’ll get through these lines and get something to eat before we need to find the gate.”
There was something quite novel about wandering the airport shops with Flynn with no particular agenda. Waiting around in airports was quite foreign to Dale, used to being met and whisked through at high speed to a waiting plane by people committed to as little waiting time as possible. So was boarding a crowded, busy flight as a couple in a herd of other people where he and Flynn simply took their seats together like everyone else, Dale taking the seat against a window where Flynn directed him and Flynn sitting down beside him like a solid army of one, a block between him and the rest of the world. There was his blackberry packed in the small carry on bag that Flynn had stuffed in the overhead locker, loaded with the files and data collated at home, but reprehensibly Dale found himself taking some moments to look out of the window and glance around the other passengers in sight. It was a world away from the high speed flights he was used to where you walked directly from car to plane and worked throughout the flight, your mind never off the job. And somehow there was a sense of wonder to it that he really hadn’t expected. To be with Flynn like this, to fly together in public unnoticed, just like any other couple. Like normal people. He glanced at Flynn as the plane began to taxi and his stomach jumped at the softness of Flynn’s eyes that said Flynn was reading what he was thinking. Flynn put a hand quietly down to hold his as the plane began to gun its engines, preparing for take off. A few minutes after the steep trajectory levelled out above Jackson Dale spent another couple of minutes examining the landscape below and noting the familiar parts while cataloguing with interest the new ones he hadn’t previously identified from the air. There would surely come a time when the still so many ‘firsts’ began to fade; although he was forever finding new ones. But knowing this land so intimately, road names and buildings and places, with this much personal feeling behind it and knowing he was cataloguing the places he would love and live on for a lifetime and knew because he wanted to, because he belonged to it and not because he had to know, was something that filled him every time he did it, something he thought he would never become blasé about. The light for seatbelts went out and Dale unclipped his, starting to get up. Flynn’s hand on his knee forestalled him and with Flynn bulking like that next to him getting past him without his agreement was not going to happen. Dale looked across at him, startled.
“I was going to my blackberry out of the locker and work some more on the-”
Flynn’s steady gaze on him now included a raising eyebrow. Dale took that in, somewhat baffled.
“But it’s four hours to Birmingham -”
And working was what planes were for. Flynn’s hand found his again, interlacing his fingers with Dale’s and his hand was warm and grasped firmly.
“No, this is a family matter we’re here to explore together. Not on assignment. We’re on a flight right now. So you relax. We talk. You read. Nap if you want. That’s what happens on planes.”
When on normal planes being normal people.
Some rather childish part of Dale pointed out internally that this was arrant nonsense on Flynn’s part since he knew perfectly well that Dale could, if necessary, study the data from memory instead of from the uploaded files. It was higher effort but perfectly possible. But that would be to ignore completely what Flynn was reminding him of, what Flynn was teaching him, and however frustrating, that structure reached inside of him and pulled on something that always, always calmed him down at a level that he hadn’t been consciously aware of until it eased.
“Give a normal plane ride a go with me.” Flynn said quietly near his ear. “We’re just tourists.”
…..yes, that was tempting all by itself.
After a while they read in amongst the group of people around them. Flynn studiously ignoring the inflight movie and engaged in a book he had bought in the airport bookstore and Dale in a book Flynn had bought deaf to Dale’s protest that he had only been looking and he didn’t intend to read it. It was a fiction title from an author Paul had got him to read work from before which he had enjoyed – but leisure reading seemed… inappropriate somehow when there was a job to be done, they were leaving the ranch only briefly to get it finished, to complete the task. But with nothing else to do but sit, when Flynn had collected the books from their bag and put one into his hand, Dale found himself reading and drawn into it in spite of himself. And after a while without looking up from his book Flynn tugged Dale slightly over towards him near enough for his shoulder to be conveniently at the level of Dale’s head, and Flynn had a solid, wide shoulder that was remarkably comfortable to rest against while you read. Not tired or near sleep in the slightest there was still a reluctant but deep pleasure in sitting here against him like this.
They landed at around 4 pm in Birmingham, collected the hired car which Flynn drove after several minutes of experimentation and muttering about automatics in the car lot which Dale privately enjoyed watching and let him get on with, much as he could have driven the car himself immediately and without difficulty. The blackberry provided directions and they reached the University library shortly after four thirty. The librarian looked quite surprised to see the man in person he had been talking to only that morning, but pulled down the boxes of documents and the registers and left Flynn and Dale alone at the table to sort through them.
The St Saviours Asylum and School for Black Children, founded 1922. Dale, used to handling records and boxes of paper for years, found his hands lingering over these as he and Flynn spread them out, aware of the sense of age and dust and pathos somehow held in the slightly brittle pages of the legers. The admissions register showed a long and rather pathetic list of children’s names for entry between 1955 and 1975 written in spidery fountain pen. It came to a total of fourteen boys who were aged within the window that might possibly be Bear. Cross referencing those names against tax registers via the blackberry rapidly eliminated twelve of them as known citizens in the US who were obviously not Bear. There remained two. An Albert Simons, aged twelve at admission in 1967, sole survivor of a family apartment fire in the city with an address who didn’t correlate to any tax records, and a John Doe, aged three at admission in 1962, simply labelled as ‘delivered by Greene County Police’ with no further information. Albert Simons’ records finished simply ‘reclaimed by family’ in 1969. John Doe’s record had no entry after his admission date. Dale turned off the blackberry and put it down out of reach, taking another moment to look at those two names with his fingers hovering gently over the scratched names on the paper.
There was a brief flash of a hand writing, a woman with thin spectacles and a desk, but nothing more. Nothing of who these children had been.
“What next?” Flynn said quietly beside him. Dale straightened up, gently closing the leger.
“Albert Simon’s given address. That’s the strongest lead. And the Greene County police records. We see if we can trace those two boys any further.”
The blackberry helped with directions. Shortly after five pm they parked up the street and walked until they found the store in the area simply known as ‘downtown’, with the first floor flat above it that had once housed the Simons family. Not so far from the asylum for an active boy to walk, according to the city map. The store was closing up for the night, a lightly built black man in his mid fifties was pulling down the shutters and nodded to them.
“I’m closing up now, if you want anything it’ll have to be quick.”
“Was this the flat that held the Simons family in the fire in 1967?” Dale nodded at the flat above the windows. The man’s face became visibly more guarded, but he nodded.
“Yeah. Mother, father and two girls died. Electrical short out.”
“We’re sorry to trouble you. We understand the boy survived. Albert Simons.” Flynn handed him the photocopy of the page from the record book. “We’re helping a friend of ours to trace his family, he was in the children’s asylum here in town at the time.”
Dale’s eyes were on the flat above as much as on the man and the abrupt sense of restlessness to get back to the car and move on told him even before the man spoke.
“Well he’s no family of Albert Simons.” The man stood for a moment, looking down at the paper in his hand with a rather wry expression on his face. “And I’d know, because I am Albert Simons. As was. The shop was in the family. My uncle he got me out the asylum a year later when he got the shop back on its feet, and I took his name. Been Albert Shaw near forty years now.”
Under which he would be fully traceable. That eliminated one child. And left the other, the greater mystery.
“This is the other boy who might be able to help us.” Dale offered him the other page. “He’s recorded as John Doe on paper. He would have been about seven or eight when you were at the asylum. Probably large for his age. Might have appeared….” Dale paused, not quite sure how to phrase it and the man gave him a dry nod.
“Not quite right in the head. Yeah. Kid who didn’t talk.” Simons sounded mildly regretful. “Not a word in the whole time I knew him. Big like you say. Although the nuns wouldn’t call any kid John Doe to their face - they called him Ishmael. ‘Cause of the lines in Genesis, Sister James used to say it often. ‘Ishmael whom God hears’, even if we and they couldn’t.”
There was a touch of protectiveness and care on the part of those nuns in that which Dale somehow hadn’t expected – which was unfair, but somehow his imagery of a Catholic orphanage hadn’t included much thought of empathy.
“Do you remember much about him?” Flynn asked casually. Simons nodded, still looking at the paper.
“Yeah, a bit. The other kids weren’t too nice to him when the nuns weren’t watching – guess it wasn’t easy being retarded in those days huh? We don’t say that now, do we? We put it nicer, but that was the nice way of talking about Ish when I was there. Plenty worse things said. Not that he cared. He was one … serene kid. Never made one sound. Slow. Just did his own thing, minded his own business, big enough that no one dared really mess with him. He was gentle, I never saw him hurt a fly, but he could pick up another kid with one hand and he did if one of them really messed with him. Just held ‘em up in the air like a coat rack, face calm like a brick wall until one of the sisters came along and made him put them down. He never had much trouble for a while after he did that. The nuns gave up on having him in school, he couldn’t recognise even simple numbers. He used to hang out in the yard mostly. Feed the chickens and clean them out. Helped out with the horses in the brewers yard next door, the stablemen kept an eye on him for the sisters and he was good with animals.”
“Do you know what happened to him?” Flynn said gently. Simons shook his head.
“I wondered a few times. No. He was still there when I left.”
“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.”
Flynn shook his hand, Dale took it in turn, mutely following Flynn’s social skills which way outstripped his, and walked with him down the street, running names in his head.
“Page eighty seven of the record book in the library, fourteenth entry down. Ishmael St Saviour, no correlating name in the admissions register. Aged 12. Runaway. 1971. In among the discharge entries.”
Flynn knew him too well to be surprised. Dale had intentionally skimmed every page for this reason by habit. Once seen, the data was there permanently in mind, having print outs or going back to recheck became unnecessary.
“‘Runaway’ or maybe just disappeared.” Flynn said, considering it. “He may have wandered into the circus field, made himself useful and hung around. They may have assumed he was employed or belonged to someone and he became part of the scenery. Moved on when they did. I can easily see Bear doing that.”
That fitted. Dale glanced at his watch.
“So the next step is to talk to the Greene County police. And find out where they delivered John Doe from. We can probably be there by seven-”
Flynn’s hand slid down into his and grasped, keeping Dale’s pace down to his steady, unhurried one as they walked down the street. “First thing right now is find somewhere to stay the night, and call home. And get something to eat. We’ll go to Greene County in the morning. We’re in no hurry.”
That was true. With an effort, Dale made himself slow down to Flynn’s speed and walk with him.
“Do you want to try and trace this order?” Flynn suggested quietly. “Are they still in the city?”
“No. The asylum closed in 1983, the order moved on and they’re based in Montgomery now; that was where I spoke to them on the phone. They aren’t aware off hand of any sister still living who worked in the asylum during Bear’s time and disturbing elderly ladies isn’t something I plan on doing unless we have no other alternative.”
They reached the car and Dale paused for a moment, hand on the roof, another thought at the back of his mind that was refusing to go, and he’d learned to pay attention to such things. He did not know why but he knew they had to go there.
“… I do want to look at the asylum building.”
Flynn paused with him, waiting until Dale looked to him. “Got an address?”
“Yes. It’s less than two miles from here.”
Urban decay was not unknown in Birmingham. There was an old hotel on the street stood empty and what had once been the brewers yard with the old walled buildings on either side was now a slightly battered antique store with goods roughly piled around the yard where horses had once stood. Small shops were in what had once been stables. The asylum and school had bars across the dusty windows downstairs and a rusted padlock and chain held together the small asphalt yard. It was a building probably born as a factory or manufacturing plant of some kind, the same square and red brick shape every other building was in this street, not large but thin, hedged on either side with other crowded industrial buildings and tall with three stories running up from the big dusty door at the top of stone steps. No signs or notices were left to indicate it had once been home to countless children. By the records, between fifty and seventy children had been housed here at any one time in the dormitories upstairs and the school rooms on the ground floor next to the yard. The chicken houses in the yard were long gone, and whichever room had been used by the nuns for their chapel had likely long since been deconsecrated. A brief flashing imagine of children walking in pairs down the street made Dale look round and see the tall tower of a church in the distance. They’d walked there in their little parade with the nuns twice weekly for mass, and Friday afternoons for confession. Not likely something John Doe had participated in since he had lived here in silence.
It was both distressing and all too possible to imagine Bear doing that.
Flynn had gone to the nearest window, shading his eyes to see as far through the dusty glass as possible. Dale rested a hand lightly on the chained gate into the yard. He was aware in the distance of the shrieks and clatter of children’s voices, playground sounds, and a hand bell that rung. Across the yard a small girl straightened up from chalking on the asphalt, looked directly at him for a moment and then smiled, the smile lighting up her eyes. She might have been seven or eight. Her dress was blue cotton, worn but clean and neat above her shoes and socks, and for a moment she shared with him what she saw: a playground full of children. A huddle of boys around marbles and a circle chalked on the ground, girls skipping, noise and crowding and running feet. The boys wore denim overalls, most with shirts but some without in deference to the heat, much what they’d worn at the homes they’d known before the asylum, those of them that remembered. For the first time Dale understood more of Bear’s attachment to the workman’s overalls he always chose to wear, and that there was likely more to it than simply the easiest clothes to find in his size.
Then she was gone again and the playground was silent, empty.
“I can’t see much.” Flynn said, coming to join him. “Packing crates, a few desks, it looks like that room was an office.”
The reception office. The little girl supplied the knowledge without hesitation in the context of what she remembered most: the coveted cookies that lived on the plate on the desk that a child running an errand to the office might be given as a reward. The big fire without the screen that burned in the hearth on cold days and the visitors in suits who sat there to take tea before they walked around the school rooms to inspect. The big stairs, wooden and noisy under tramping little feet that ran upstairs to the boys dormitories at the top and the girls below. Iron bedsteads in rows.
The name or image of Bear or even John Doe meant nothing to her, it didn’t touch her interest and she was gone again like quicksilver, slipped away at the speed of thought. This was a place she visited and remembered with warmth, there was comfort in knowing that.
So why have to come here when there’s no further information? Nothing specific?
He could answer himself when he thought about it, things he had learned from Jasper, from Caleb and from Valerie.
Because there is information. This is not about specifics at all, this is about the story. All of the story. All of the pieces, the details.
And some of that was done through touching. Feeling. Seeing. There was something here to collect, some piece and Dale understood it even if he didn’t know what it was precisely.
“Anything else we need to do here?” Flynn said quietly and not for the first time Dale reached for him with a wave of gratitude that he understood so easily. Of course he did, he loved Jasper and had done for years, but he helped so much to make sense of such things and make the process easy. Normal.
“Yes. I think that’s everything.”
They found a hotel near the museum of art; a large, quiet, Edwardian building that reminded Dale somewhat of Kensington in London although it carried the indefinable flavour of the city very different to the feel of London. It was decorated to a much older, classic Grecian Southern style with balustrades, marble floors, painted white pillars and there turned out to be a white linen covered king sized bed in their room. Choosing a hotel purely out of interest was another new experience, rather different to Caroline locating the one with the best business facilities and just telling him where the booking had been made and which desk to sign in at.
In a large, pleasant room with no computer access or familiar business fittings or conference suites they both talked for a while on the phone to Paul, and through him to the others around the dinner table at home, including Bear. He didn’t ask questions. He almost painfully didn’t ask questions, and Dale heard the wall in the way between them. Bear knew where they were. He knew what they were looking for and Dale’s heart went out to him because this was intensely personal private ground they were walking on his behalf, in places where Bear could not have made himself go, and there had been a child in his own past that Dale had had to go looking for one night in the pastures by Three Traders and he knew the gut wrenching fear you had to face to do it.
Flynn didn’t go into details of their afternoon largely for Bear’s sake: this was not something to share over the phone. After that they unpacked, showered and walked some blocks down the street together for a while, both of them restless after hours spent on the plane, and because at some level Dale knew that to be in this city – consciously be in the way that Flynn and Jasper had taught him – mattered in this quest. To walk the ground, to touch it, to be present in it. To listen to it. They ate truly good barbeque in a restaurant and walked slowly back past two cathedrals on the wide street, one ornate and grey, one red brick, both with lit up windows in the darkness.
They paused in the open doorway of the second. Dale thought of Tom at first, currently somewhere in Thailand, the letters were irregular but made for deeply interesting reading. The grey stone and the statuary here was something Tom would have known and understood so deeply. And of a little boy without a name who had walked to a church like this twice a week, and of Bear who had sat through countless services in a time before he remembered. Flynn walked with him quietly down the aisle past the one or two people sitting in silence in the pews, lost in their own prayers, and watched Dale drop change in the slot topped box and light three small white wax candles, adding them to the flickering rack of candles burning people’s personal prayers and wishes. One for the little girl at the asylum, little though she would care or have the faintest interest – it was more Dale’s need to thank her and remember her, because remembering mattered. One for little John Doe, whoever he had been, whose life they had touched today, whose life they were exploring. And one for Bear in Wyoming tonight, on the ranch. Each flame was a focal point. The power of intent, the power of connection and gratitude in a building created to amplify intent and connection, and it was powerfully emotive, it raised that deep, purposeful sense higher in him with everything behind it.
I am grateful for this man who is my friend. I am grateful for this man who belongs to our house and our land and is a part of us. He is a good man and he is loved by us. He is needed. He always will be. We search and we ask for him because he has a right to his name and I will find it.
It was fairly late when they returned to their room, and dark outside. Dale stood by the open window with his back to that draped four poster bed, looking out over the city street below and the trees in white blossom encapsulating the legendary beauty and the gentility of the southern states. Flynn’s arms slid around his waist from behind and Flynn’s mouth softly brushed the nape of his neck.
“In the morning. Let it go for a few hours.”
“I’m not obsessing. This is not sterile obsession, this is...”
Wanting to get in the damn car and go to Greene County now. Whoever was on duty at the station through the night would open the records department if approached in the right way, the hours of darkness were irrelevant. Once he would have done exactly that. He would have followed the trail quietly all night. But the years with ANZ had been preparation for this, for using those drilled skills for things that really mattered, like an athlete building muscle, knowledge, skill.
Flynn hadn’t answered him and Dale sighed. “Ok, I’m obsessing a bit. This is Bear.”
That was a particularly stupid thing to say; Flynn loved Bear too. So did Paul, Riley Jasper, so had Philip and David… and there was the full crux of it.
I vow to thee my country all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love….
This is one of those responsibilities I have to do.
Which Flynn knew, he’d known it the moment he’d said ‘let’s go to Alabama’.
Settle. Calm down for Pete’s sake,
Flynn turned him around and held him to meet his eyes, one hand grasping each of Dale’s hips in a way that always reminded Dale that Flynn’s hands were large enough and strong enough not just to cover them but to hold him right where he was. It always got his attention pretty powerfully. Flynn had gotten as far as unbuttoning his shirt. It was hanging open with his chest bare beneath from neck to waist, wide and as solid as the grasp Dale was held in, his sandy hair tousled, the green of his eyes still darker in the thin light as if they were liquid black touched with gold. He was an incredibly beautiful man in so many varied ways. Throat tightening and other places tightening too, all too fast since his body was acutely trained to Flynn’s all the time and any time, Dale lifted his chin very co operatively as Flynn bent his head, knowing what he wanted and enabling Flynn to reach his throat and the exact spots on it that he was looking for, and which Flynn never had the faintest trouble in finding with lips and tongue tip that brushed and traced lines that only Flynn knew.
Finding his breathing abruptly getting deeper and a little more difficult and his jeans considerably less comfortable Dale tipped his head back to help Flynn follow that particular line right along to his ear and would have slipped his hands into Flynn’s back pockets – a place he was rather attached to. Save that Flynn’s hands moved from his hips, collected each wrist and put them behind Dale’s back, using them to anchor him in place while Flynn moved down along his collarbone and his teeth began to nip slowly at particularly sensitive points, not letting him move or help until Dale was not only arched against him but was beginning to rely on those pinned hands to be able to go on standing upright. Flynn was an expert in the use of his mouth, his teeth, his tongue in ways that generally reduced Dale’s brain to mush in about three seconds.
And he got so far and stopped. And stopped. And stopped again until Dale had lost all track of how long it had been or what state they were in or what year it was, or anything sensible, when Flynn paused, his cheek swept gently against Dale’s in passing like a large cat and his voice murmured in a soft rumble.
“How about a bath?”
Oh yes. Very definitely yes. On impulse Dale freed a hand from Flynn and leaned over, propping himself on the desk with one hand since Flynn wasn’t letting him move much, and pulled the phone off the hook. It took a moment to get a reply from the front desk and Flynn took full advantage of him leaning over the desk which made him swallow a laugh and then a completely different sound as Flynn’s hands wandered, keeping his mind on the call with an effort. Flynn listened to what he ordered and as Dale straightened up again and turned back to him, pulled Dale’s shirt out of the waistband of his jeans and directly over his head.
“Mmn.” Dale co operated with being freed from his shirt and grasped Flynn’s biceps as Flynn’s hands ran up his torso, making his breath catch. “I was sent on a three day course funded by ANZ when I was at university… some place that specialised in etiquette.”
“Mhm?” Flynn’s hand slipped around his waist to press gently at the base of his spine, supporting him as his mouth began to work down Dale’s chest. Dale shut his eyes, fingers sliding up into Flynn’s hair to grasp gently – well as gently as possible when Flynn was doing things like that with his tongue. Because Flynn felt like that and smelled like that and tasted like that and breathed like that and sometimes just watching him do it from across the kitchen was heady enough, but in moments like this the intensity of him was….
“…. Yes… Mm. Dress codes, dining, greetings for different cultures and situations and a whole afternoon on wines and champagnes… ordering for clients, for meetings and events was part of the job, the best possible while appealing to as many palates as… oh. As possible. We used to get regular updates.”
“And that’s the one?”
“No, that happens to be the lightest. And the….freshest. You prefer fresh, dry as possible, crisp.”
“And you prefer?” Flynn murmured against his chest.
“This one happens to be the one I like best.”
There had been several afternoons spent in the extensive cellars of Epergne with clients. He didn’t remember ever ordering a bottle for personal reasons or his own tastes before. Never mind considering it might belong with a moment like this. That was an interesting and rather freeing reflection.
The champagne arrived on ice and they took the glasses into the bath with them.
They differed in style the two of them; Dale found himself analysing this at some point, lying in Flynn’s arms neck deep in hot water and watching the mist on the champagne glass in his hand. It was a minor obsession of his that took him by surprise quite often at unhelpful times such as in the shower or when grooming Hammer, when his brain wandered off task and started hinting gently that there were things his body really liked doing and it had been at least a couple of hours since it last had the chance. It was worse than being a teenager. But he himself, he knew, was careful, methodical, precise and according to Riley, very thorough – in fact his thoroughness and control made Riley make the most interesting noises, Dale was still researching and exploring that particular phenomenon. Jasper was equally given to careful, deep and very unhurried firmness that made Dale’s knees weaken just thinking about it. But Flynn was gentle and powerful and he liked to move and hold and use his mouth on every inch of you, his hands, his strength, his breath. He kissed in ways that were not compatible with sanity and could lose you a quarter of an hour without noticing. And in the right mood, he was wonderfully, inexorably unstoppable.
They had a very long bath together and what happened next got the floor rather wet and took hours. Or rather Flynn took hours, working him over with intent and deliberation that didn’t miss an inch of him, moved from bathroom to that huge bed and reduced him to inarticulate sounds that on several occasions took burying his face in a pillow to keep it down to hotel appropriate levels. Which made Flynn laugh, and laughing in that position did all sorts of peculiar things to muscles and didn’t exactly quieten either of them down. Dale didn’t remember falling asleep. He did remember stirring at some point, boneless and unable to move if he’d wanted to, when Flynn slid an arm around his waist and lifted him off the peculiar diagonal across the bed he had fallen asleep in to a warm spot against Flynn’s body and the softness of sheets around them, but waking or talking or doing anything but sleep was out of the question.
He dreamt all night of gardens.
It was a long, long day. Gerry and Ash knew this town well; they’d spent plenty of time here with Bear and Theo over the past few years, and Ash and Paul kept Gerry occupied for a lot of the day outside of the hospital. Theo noticed very little of the time. It mostly seemed to have stopped, although some part of him was watching the culture at the nurses’ station, the rhythms of their day, the nuances of expression and voices, the fragments of conversation about coffee, a kid’s birthday party, a date after work; snatches of someone else’s day that was a job and not a disaster. Bear would have noticed it too. They were both of them observers, given to fading into a situation and listening without showing it, absorbing the details. It was the kind of thing they would have shared in private with no one else around to hear.
Philip was an unobtrusive but quiet presence, a stability in the room, a friend that Theo appreciated without needing to talk to him. Philip was an unusual man. He’d been on a very run down, makeshift floor in an old abandoned mental hospital in New York in 1982 when Theo had first met him a decade ago – a man who appeared quietly with one of the overtired, drained hospice fundraisers who led him through the few rickety, rusted beds and the barely paid nursing staff who dared to be near these patients. It was still known as GRID at that point; the less prejudiced term of AIDS was a few months away, but these men had nowhere else to go to feel safe where their partners were free to be with them, and where hospital staff weren’t afraid of them and this fatal, inexplicable and devastating illness.
Most of the nurses in this makeshift place were gay men themselves and they were largely supported by the patients’ lovers and friends to make up enough people to keep their small group of frail and desperately ill men cared for. Theo had heard of this place on the grapevine and after making the inquiries to find it, and spending several days of talking to the severely wasted men in the beds, their friends, the staff, had become part of the scenery and was barely noticed with his handheld film camera. Philip had not been glad handing anyone. He came wearing clothes so non-descript there was no real guessing who he might be and he slipped just as discreetly into the culture of that room. He had a knack of getting people talking to him easily, Theo observed how people relaxed when he spoke with them and he blocked up holes in the ceiling and sat chatting to anyone wanting company without much being noticed if you weren’t intentionally watching him. But in the following days several more men in suits came with him to survey the grounds, to follow him reluctantly but respectfully while he showed them a number of aspects of the situation, and suddenly the issues around the commandeering of a derelict building just seemed to drop away. The electricity was fully reconnected, the roof repaired. Philip was there perhaps a week, through the last few days of Theo’s filming, and when the reels were complete and Theo, camping in one of the higher abandoned rooms on another floor, was packing and struggling with both a bad cold and what was admittedly more emotion than he could process here, Philip had quietly invited him to come show him the reels and give him the ammunition to talk to more people with the power to do something about this.
When you got a real chance to bend the ear of someone in power you didn’t walk away from it. Theo took him the reels a few days later, flying out to Wyoming to meet him on a cattle ranch that seemed the most unlikely place for this quietly spoken man to be living, and somehow one way and another he ended up staying several weeks. It had been his first deep rest in some years. An oasis of sanity after weeks in that battered, wrecked hospital of seeing awful things, where emotion was so raw and high – and it had been his first experience of being somewhere that the lifestyle currently so feared in the city was just something easy. Normal. Philip stopped being an investor and in that houseful of people was simply a friend, a confidant who had seen and understood things first hand for himself and was startlingly unsheltered. His experience was there in their conversations in the same way it had been there when he’d spoken to the men in that rickety old place.
And on that first visit he’d met Bear. A shockingly beautiful mountain of a man built like some ancient statue, the way the Greeks had envisioned their gods of Olympus but with the softest eyes Theo had ever seen. A man who was an enigma, a mystery in himself who watched everything and had both the sweetest nature and the strongest will Theo had ever encountered combined together in that massive frame and wrapped around an acute, sweet heart.
The ranch was Bear’s only family and it was a close one. He was important to them and they let him know it through the frequent visits, the cards, letters and calls that flowed into their house from within and outside the States on a regular basis. Theo thought it was a part of why Bear so effortlessly adopted everyone in their street and made time for them in the simplest ways; he had the expectation of that kind of connection with people around them. Theo, whose large family in Milwaukee were busy with normal life, his sisters and their babies, without quite understanding how they had produced this oddball son who had dropped out of university with a camera and gone his own way, loved it about Bear and did his best to support it.
Ash gently insisted that Gerry go home with him that evening and that they gave Bear and Theo space. It wasn’t easy. Theo, who loved Gerry and knew him well, and knew too how Bear would have felt if it had been him in Gerry’s position, saw it although Gerry tried very hard not to argue or make a fuss anywhere within his sight or earshot, and was very comforting in a glass brittle way when he said goodbye. And then Philip, Theo and Paul sat through the evening into the night, while the machines bleeped.
Somewhere in the early hours of the morning the nurse checking Bear’s vitals commented that his temperature was going down, and an hour later that his blood work was improving. His breathing began to stabilise by gradual degrees but Theo could see it growing slower, deeper, nearer to his usual sleeping breathing. By dawn his blood pressure was better on the machines, and it was clear the antibiotics had won the battle. The infection was retreating. As breakfast was being served to the rooms around them, he stirred and his eyes opened and for a moment he stared in bewilderment at the ceiling and then at Theo, who held onto a calm, comforting smile, leaning on the bed and dropping a kiss onto the back of Bear’s hand in his.
“Hi. It’s ok baby. You’re in the hospital. I’ve got you, you’re going to be fine.”
Greene county was a small, quiet and sparsely populated county about an hour and a half’s drive away from Birmingham, very high on the US poorest county lists and from Dale’s quick survey on his blackberry, 80% African American in makeup. The police records department for the county resided in the town of Eutaw and midmorning they were taken into a large, dusty filing room and filing cabinets were consulted, resulting in a single sheet of paper pulled from a file.
It was handwritten, dated April 21st 1962, and pitifully sparse in detail. Black boy, aged three or four, walked into the police station in the small town of Forkland early in the morning. No adults in sight, no one in the street outside. The child was mute: unwilling or unable to give a name. Inquiries by the police in the town and the surrounding area all that day resulted in no information, no missing children were reported. The following day the child was driven to Birmingham and given over to St Saviours. The boy was listed in the report as clean and well nourished, the words recorded as if the policeman who had written them was suspicious about how a cared for child could appear in a town unknown to anyone and apparently unmissed.
“For a kid so young to walk in to the station someone put him through the door.” Flynn said quietly and regretfully, reading over Dale’s shoulder. “That’s an adult abandoning a child somewhere safe. It looks like the police thought so, they didn’t make too extensive inquiries.”
“There was a lot of poverty in the county at the time.” The policeman who had brought them down said it gently, a middle aged black guy with greying hair. “Still is now, but not like it was back then. Lot of parents working in the cities or out of state, kids staying in the county with family, grandparents, friends. Sometimes those arrangements broke down and the kids were handed over to the authorities.”
And if that was the case they were unlikely to be able to trace much any further back.
“Were there any other crimes in the county on the 20th or 21st of April that year?” Dale asked abruptly. “Any incidents recorded?”
“Couple.” The policeman pulled the few sheets out of the file. “These are the reports for all the county, not just this station. It’s not a big county. A theft in Union, two men arrested. Bridge collapse near Clinton, a truck stuck and pulled out, road closed. A shooting in a homestead in Forkland. Usual stuff for the time.”
Dale skimmed the sheets quickly. The name from the third sheet jumped out at him. Jardinier. A word with a straight translation. The gardener.
He read more closely, laying the other two sheets down and turning slightly to give Flynn a clearer view. A man and his wife, a young black couple, shot and killed in their home. Reported by neighbours on the morning of the 21st April. Michael Jardinier, an employee at a local sugar cane plantation, and his wife Tatia. The report was bare of much other detail, but that name – he’d learned to listen to the clues that were given to him, the nights of dreams showing him that word.
“Is there anything more about this one? Anything about possible causes? Was it solved?”
“No.” The policeman took the sheet, reading through it. “We got dozens like this at the time. Take it back another decade or two and we got more, but back then it was lynchings, not shootings.”
Racially motivated. Dale understood the delicacy. The man put the paper back in the file, not looking at him.
“Bad time the 50s and 60s. Civil rights movement, voting rights, housing rights. It didn’t sit too well around here, ‘specially in the rural areas. ‘Hang ‘em high Alabama’. Churches near here got dynamited. Several of them. White sympathisers chased. Beaten. Worse.”
“No record on why the Jardiniers were a target?” Dale said softly. The man shrugged.
“It wasn’t documented too careful if you know what I mean. Probably no one local would admit seeing or hearing anything, too afraid.”
Outside Flynn silently walked him past the car to a takeaway place on a corner where iced tea was being sold. It was considerably warmer and more humid here than at home, they were both in shirt sleeves and slightly damp, and Dale took the icy tall, cardboard cup from him, following Flynn’s cue to move at Flynn’s deliberately slow, steady pace down the street. He was right. It was time to review and reflect. Somewhere at the end of the road where it disappeared into a busy crossroads with overhead traffic lights, Dale paused, looking across the road, listening to the town. He was wide ‘open’ as he thought of it. He had been since they first opened the orphanage leger in Birmingham, the state in which he was alert and listening, although he’d taken time this morning in the hotel room shower to follow the short, simple ritual Jasper had long since taught him and that he did automatically every day.
St Michael before me; St Michael behind me. St Michael to the left of me; St Michael to the right of me. St Michael above me, St Michael below me; St Michael surround me.
And with it, as his awareness moved around his body he created that open space around him that he filled with his visualised golden light, a soft shield that protected while you were ‘open’ but without blocking any sounds, glimpses, images, however faint or unpredictable. It was a state of calm, focused awareness. A connection, a being aware of everything and being relaxed about it, listening, where once he had thought of focused attention as escaping and blocking out all distractions. Very distantly now he could hear men’s voices singing somewhere to the left on that busy road. He knew from the very faint difference in the quality of the sound that it wasn’t a sound Flynn would hear; it was something that had been recorded on this landscape decades ago before tarmac and cars covered this spot.
Had it had been Paul or Riley standing here beside him, he knew he would have drawn back from this trail now. It would be quite possible to do the rest of the fact finding through paperwork, without taking either of them into what he knew very probably lay ahead. They both loved Bear and they were open hearted men who felt things deeply; they were not people he could bear to think of exposing to the uglier aspects of life. Their innocence to it was something he’d protect with whatever it took, and he planned on preserving it personally for life, it was something precious and rare. But Flynn… there was not much Flynn needed protecting from. The thought of it was almost laughable. There was not much Flynn hadn’t seen for himself, he was a man who had invested his entire adult life in studying the worst and darkest parts of people and understanding them, their minds, their needs, and his drive was the most powerful of all of them to be there for whoever came to them on the ranch. He had no hesitation at all in dirtying his own hands to protect someone or something he cared about: it was something they had very deeply in common. There was a depth of trust that came with it, a freedom to share with him that had been unprecedented before Dale had first met him or ever knew that a man like him could exist on a real plane. To Flynn he had learned long ago you could say these things without having to consider first how it might affect him, or if he could handle it. His presence was so familiar Dale was aware of it in the same way he was aware of breathing and he knew Flynn was angry. Grimly angry about the weary resignation of the cop to that report, and the young couple it mentioned, and God only knew how many other people who had gone unnoticed in similar reports, without justice, with little more than acceptance that that was the way things were.
“I don’t think,” Dale said levelly with his eyes on the busy traffic crossing, “This is going to be very pretty.”
“No.” Flynn sipped tea, standing close enough beside him that their shoulders brushed. “It doesn’t look like it. How are you doing?”
How exactly is that relevant at this moment?
….Yes. Blurt that passing, thoughtless thought out loud – which was admittedly a remnant of sheer bad habit - and despite the fact that both of them were standing here furious, fired up and burning to follow this trail as far as it would go, Flynn would remind him very clearly that he knew better. And he did. Before Flynn, Dale knew he honestly had had no concept of himself when he was pursuing information; he’d learned too early and too well that his thoughts and feelings had little relevancy to anyone but himself and were not something relevant in the pursuit of proper goals. He had been baffled in the first few months when Flynn made him weigh himself into the equation too. But they’d taught him, patiently, that it was not some meaningless self indulgence; it meant real, solid balance. Unless you could hold firmly onto yourself, be grounded and together and consciously create and maintain your own balance, you could not be wholly present to anyone else. Not to his partners who deserved all of him, and not to anyone else. Unless you could be present in all ways, not just with cold intellect- you could not possibly fully reach to anything else with a clear head.
Reminded, Dale pulled himself together, made himself flex his toes, feel the ground beneath his feet, breathe more deeply, consciously pull his focus down out of his head and deeper into his body. Flynn’s hand ran down Dale’s back, firmly enough to help, and his hand rested at the base of his spine, the weight stabilising, the pressure of him very comforting.
“Do you want to do this?” Flynn said quietly. “No one is going to ask it of you. You’ve got far enough that we can probably do the rest through paperwork.”
Yes, I know you’ve realised that. But paperwork is not all of what we came to do, it isn’t the most important part and of course I want to. You want to.
Dale glanced up at him. Flynn searched his eyes, his face set in the grimness that covered any particular gentleness.
“Get your head straight first. Any confusion about duty and you have to and there is no choice, and we’re headed back to the hotel until I’m convinced you know what you want and you’re ready. It’s all still going to be here tomorrow.”
It was said quietly but in his familiar tone and Dale knew from the first second he heard that no argument would be accepted; nothing would change his mind; that was the law being laid down. Flynn gave that a moment to sink in before he added even more quietly, “Philip would have turned you around in a second if he thought it was something you didn’t need to see. Don’t ever think you owe him that, kid. He would have put you first over anything he wanted to find out, every single time.”
He would have put Flynn first too, little as Flynn would have wanted it. Flynn had honed a lot of his own drive to do what he could for people under Philip’s training, because Philip had had the same fire. He had understood and loved in Flynn what had been important to him. It was for Philip and for David as much as themselves that they were standing on a street corner in Eutaw, together preparing to tilt at increasingly nightmarish windmills, because Bear and Theo were theirs. And because there were people and stories here that mattered too now. The kid in the Eutaw police station. The couple in Forkland.
Dale felt for the hand against his back, found the strong, sure bones of Flynn’s wrist and gripped.
I love you.
I can’t imagine doing this without you.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to find this information for you. It must be killing Theo that he failed.
“We can do this.”
“I know we can. That isn’t what I asked you.”
No. Flynn never let him off easily. And he did this when ANZ work came up; made Dale argue for it and in the process if he truly did want to do it he began to find the fire and the real desire, it woke up the emotional part of him that had the real information.
“Yes. I want to. I’d like to go there.”
The long, unmarked roads outside the small rural town of Forkland were thickly wooded on either side and the houses were widespread. Less than 700 people lived here in this area of quiet woodland, sugarcane plantations and farmland, broken up with occasional scattered wood board houses set back from the road.
It took them a while to find the house named in the police record. Small, one storey, wooden slatted and white painted. Three other equally small houses lay in sight, although widely spaced apart on what must have once been a small plot of planting and growing land for each household, and it was apparent from the few people in the gardens, on the porches, visible in the open doorways, theirs were probably the only white faces around here. Flynn pulled the car over onto the rough grass at the side of the road and got out in silence, waiting for Dale to join him, and walked with him towards the house. A middle aged woman mowing her lawn gave them a suspicious look and killed the motor as they passed her fence.
“Can I help you?”
“Good morning. I’m looking for anyone who was living here in 1962.” Dale surveyed her body language and a business part of him would have adjusted his own and manipulated hers. It seemed an unfair and low thing to do here. This was a place where people had been hurt. Where anyone who had grown up around here would remember and have every right to be guarded. He didn’t smile or do anything but say as gently as he could in a tone he’d learned from Flynn which had nothing to do with tactics. “Is there anyone who might remember the Jardiniers living over there in that house?”
“I never heard that name.” the woman said indifferently. Her manner said quite clearly that she wouldn’t say if she had. It was difficult to imagine there had ever been such fear and violence in this small, peaceful and green place but it was visible in here, it was still a part of the people who lived here.
“I think there was a child.” Dale said to her. “When the Jardiniers were killed, I think they had a child. A boy, maybe three years old. We’re not looking for information on what happened, we don’t want names, but there’s a man who deserves to know who he is. John Doe. That was all the information left. No birth certificate, no official existence, getting a job, getting married, getting a passport – it’s been a nightmare for him. Not to mention never knowing who he was, why he was unwanted.”
She didn’t answer for a moment. Her face was shuttered, her body signalling him more clearly to move back from her space.
“Well you better tell him there’s plenty worse things not to know.”
She left the mower and went into her house.
Flynn had his arms crossed on his chest, tall, solid like a sentinel beside him, but saying nothing. Across the road, behind the house the Jardiniers had once lived in, Dale caught a swift glimpse of a woman walking behind the house. Young. Her skirt, the edge of her hair – and it had the very slight quality he knew of just fractionally slower than real time, but she glanced across and caught his eye and smiled at him.
Come find me.
Dale crossed the road slowly. The large lawn was neatly cut, separating it from the rough scrub grass that grew beyond the unmarked boundary and the sparse grass below the old trees, the few flowers in the garden against the house were well tended but there was no car in the drive. There was no one behind the house or in the garden. Dale paused by the front door, putting a hand lightly on the door frame.
It had been dark. She remembered that. And the burst of the door breaking open. But that image passed in a split second because it wasn’t something she saw as important any more. What she wanted to show him was the bent old apple tree that used to stand by the porch, the white blossom that blew petal confetti like snow across the porch in spring, and the baby that crawled on the grass by the steps. The rush of her feelings around that image was so powerful he found himself smiling with her. And a man so big that being hugged by him was the safest, warmest feeling in the world. A gentle man she loved wildly with all of her, who lit her up just by her thinking about him, who she’d loved since he was thirteen years old and sitting in the same church her family went to. She’d been happy.
“Are you asking about the Jardiniers?”
The voice was older. Dale glanced around. The woman they had spoken to was watching from the road. This new lady was older, she must have been well into her seventies, but she was making her way across the grass towards him with an even, calm speed. Flynn somehow stood a little taller, moving slightly between him and her. Dale found himself answering with a phrase he’d only learned on the ranch, from Riley, from Bear himself, in the way Paul would have expected of him.
She nodded calmly. “You police?”
“No ma’am. I’m a friend of the John Doe who was put on the doorstep of Forkland police station in 1962. I think he may have been Michael and Tatia Jardinier’s child.”
“Bull.” She said it gently. “Not Michael. No one ever called him Michael in his life, not even his momma. He teased the life out of his momma for naming a child one thing and calling him another, said it was a fool thing to do and he’d never do it.”
“You knew him?”
She nodded slowly. “I knew him. Come on over, my place is over there. You and your friend. The folks who live in this house now won’t appreciate you being here.”
He was in hospital for two more days while the antibiotics stamped out the infection that had nearly shut his organs down permanently. Limp, quiet, largely sleeping for most of the time, he was too unwell to care very much about anything. Philip sat with him through the afternoon and early evening while Theo went home to grab a shower and some sleep, and Philip and Paul took a couple of rooms in the nearest hotel, staying there through the night while Theo dozed in a chair beside Bear once Bear was asleep. In the hospital environs he had retreated behind the thick wall of wide eyed silence he most often resorted to with strangers and particularly professionals, not uncooperative but wary, and openly distraught about anything involving direct contact. It took only a couple of his more dramatic wails, not a sound many people expected to hear in a falsetto bass voice from a man Bear’s size, for nurses to back off fast in alarm and sympathy, and it took a firm hand present at all times from either Theo or Philip to prevent him extending the theatrics any further than he really couldn’t help, or from evading care he needed.
There was always a difficulty in establishing precisely where the line was between genuine fear and staged drama with Bear; Theo relied entirely on instinct, suspecting Bear was often not sure himself about the difference. The staff, Theo was sure, had him down as developmentally disabled and supposed Theo and the other men who visited to be carers from some form of halfway house known as ‘the ranch’. That was a rather inverted version of the truth but there was no point explaining otherwise.
In response to Theo firmly repeating the medics’ question of what the gashes were and how he had acquired them, all Bear said was “a’ work”, in the deep Alabama accent that grew more like a barrel full of slow molasses the less he wanted to communicate.
Theo put a hand under Bear’s chin, making Bear look at him. “One of the bears?”
Bear knew his tone but Theo didn’t catch a flicker in his face.
It was enough for the hospital staff who obviously saw no point in asking any further. Theo, who had rung the zoo to call Bear in sick, reported it as septicaemia through an infected scratch and the receptionist who dealt with the call was sympathetic but unsurprised and made no comment, leaving him to surmise a few things he couldn’t address here.
“I’m guessing he hasn’t reported it.” He explained quietly to Philip while Bear was asleep a half hour after a stilted and largely one sided conversation between Bear and a doctor who seemed to think that anyone messing around with polar bears was going to get sepsis sooner or later and the how was irrelevant. Philip was no more convinced by large brown eyes and the good ole’ farm boy act than Theo was, but he’d been perfectly calm throughout the conversation, never given to embarrassing anyone in public, and somehow without stepping between partners. It was something both Philip and David had been always sensitive to and they had always managed to make it work in their home where Theo knew so many couples had lived with them, some for many years. One of the family inlaws himself and close friends with many of the others, Theo had never found it awkward and knew none of the others had either, and it was something that all of them appreciated.
“Animal related injuries on site are supposed to be logged, so either he was doing something he shouldn’t have been when he was clawed and he doesn’t want the animal to have a mark against them on his account, or he thought the animal had good reason. We’ll talk about that. He’ll have a reason but he can’t circumvent policy as he feels like it.”
They’d been home a day and a night, alone again with Philip and Paul gone home to Wyoming and Bear recovering fast. The infection was gone, although he was on heavy doses of antibiotics still, and Theo had kept him on the couch since he got home and kept a close and careful watch on him. Bear didn’t fill time easily without being able to occupy his hands but he was tired and limp enough to not mind much. The living room and their bedroom were knee deep in flowers and the fridge was stuffed with food from their various neighbours, most of whom had dropped by in droves to see Bear once the word got out that he was home. Many of the family had rung him, Gerry and Roger daily, and thoughtful as always there was a pile of new dvds Gerry had brought over when he and Ash visited yesterday evening, film being something Bear and Theo shared in enjoying together.
Bear usually cooked for them both; he enjoyed it and he was better at than Theo was, but tonight Theo warmed a lasagne donated by one of their neighbours which was home cooked and good, and Bear ate probably the most respectable meal had had yet, although very small by his usual standards. Theo was washing the dishes afterwards when the phone rang. He let it ring, hearing Bear’s deep voice on the machine as it picked up:
“’Dis is Bear and Theo, you better leave us a message ‘cos we ain’t home.”
The voice that answered was familiar and worried.
“Theo? Bear? It’s Roger. Please pick up.”
Theo shook off his hands and picked up the phone.
“Hi Rog. He’s doing the same as he was three hours ago when you last checked. Honest.”
“Sorry, I’m not meaning to pester.” Roger said apologetically. There wasn’t actually one of the family less likely to pester than Roger; one of Bear’s closest two friends he was a quiet, gentle man and Theo was very fond of him.
“I’m teasing you, Rog. He’s doing ok and I want him to have a quiet evening, I’m going to have him head up to bed pretty soon so-”
“I’m not going to chatter. Theo, Philip got home this afternoon and he told us a few things.” Roger said in an abrupt kind of rush. He sounded supremely uncomfortable. “There’s a whole bunch of us here on the ranch right now; we came out to help while Philip was away. Niall and James are here, Wade and Charlie …. Theo, I need to talk to Bear and I promise I won’t take long but it’s important, and you need to be around while I do it.”
“Ok, what’s going on?” Theo said firmly.
“I promise, no dramas and no stressing him out – well not about anything unnecessary.” Roger sounded even more upset. “Wade, Niall and I rang Gerry this evening and talked to him, and then we held a brat’s meeting.”
Yeah. Theo had known a few of those, and Bear had confided a few details of a couple of more interesting ones to him whilst swearing him to secrecy. Since probably every other brat present also told their own partner and swore them to secrecy too it was an odd kind of a secret, but from the first time he’d realised the meetings took place Theo had seen the Tops at the ranch, led by Philip’s example, respect those meetings and he picked up the code of practice from them. You didn’t ask questions or listen in when the barn door closed; you took seriously anything that came from the meeting that reflected the brat unit of the family as a whole, and you stayed out of it unless asked. Although Theo would have loved a quiet corner in the barn and a camera; he’d wondered no few times what it was like in there.
“This isn’t the time, and any ranch stuff needs to wait another couple of days until he’s better,” Theo began gently but Roger interrupted him, as politely as he could.
“With respect Theo, it can’t. I wouldn’t do this lightly, but we don’t think it can’t wait at all. I need to speak to Bear first if I may please?”
He was serious. Theo hesitated, starting to be seriously concerned.
“Rog, who knows you’re calling?”
“The brats meeting agreed we had to call Bear and I got nominated.” Roger sounded just thrilled about that. “Luath’s sitting here with me. And Philip.”
“Hello Theo.” Philip’s voice said quietly in the background.
That was not any more comforting: Philip had been nursing Bear personally for the last few days near as much as Theo had and he would not have lightly disturbed them nor allowed any of his household to do so unless he thought it was serious. Theo headed towards the living room, keeping his face as calm as his voice.
“Ok. Here’s Bear. It’s Roger,” he added to Bear who looked up from the tv programme he looked bored to death with. He held out a hand to take the phone with relief.
There was a long pause. Theo sat down on the arm of the nearest armchair, watching Bear’s face. He saw the moment it went from normally Bear, relaxed and placid, to shuttered so hard that it was startling. Then Bear pulled the phone away from his ear without a word and hit the button, killing the call.
They had been mustered in and around the ranch kitchen as they always were towards the end of the working day, as people took turns with the shower and sat at the table drinking tea while they waited or while they dried off. The tea was a habit from David who had begun and ended every working day with a teapot on the table, even now he was gone he still had them all trained to the point where whoever came in to shower first automatically put the kettle on and laid the teapot out. Moreover in the last few days this had tended to be the hour that Philip or Paul rang with the day’s news on Bear and without exactly discussing it they’d started to muster to be together when the call came in. As always during a crisis, the word had spread through the family and whoever could had come to help out. Luath, Roger, Flynn and Jasper had been joined first by James and Niall, and then a day later by Charlie and Wade, and there were so many pairs of hands to cover the work that they were running out of things to do.
About twenty minutes ago Jasper had abruptly disappeared from the yard where he had been working. Disappearing was a knack of his, he could more or less dematerialise off the landscape in front of your eyes, and only Flynn ever successfully tracked him down when he did it which was probably why Flynn had disappeared too. The kitchen seemed larger without them, the family teenagers as Paul called them when he was particularly fed up with them, all legs and angles, but the two of them missed very little and Jasper never missed the sound of a plane coming in, so no one was surprised to hear a car engine in the distance and Luath got up to re fill the kettle.
From Philip’s phone call last night hospital staff had begun to consider Bear going home although it had not been certain: Philip’s reappearance was a confirmation it was good news. The jeep pulled into the garage, James went to meet it and a moment later Philip walked into the kitchen. He was alone - Paul was very likely taking bags upstairs to unpack with Flynn and Jasper’s help, the two youngest and most alarmingly hardworking of the family who were always around when Paul needed pairs of hands – and he looked unruffled, he always did no matter what, but Roger, who got to him first, had no difficulty in reading him.
“Yes, they released him this morning.” Philip returned Roger’s hug warmly and reached for Wade who was next nearest. “We saw them settled at home and then we left them in peace. What happened to your face?”
Wade grinned, brushing his fingers over the scrape on his cheekbone. “A drunk with a bad temper we passed down on the beach last week. He didn’t think it was a good day to get arrested when the cops turned up. I disagreed.”
“He means he saw some young cop getting out of his depth, forgot he was retired and took over. And then didn’t duck fast enough.” Charlie said amiably, leaning out the way as Wade aimed a mock dig at him and shaking the hand Philip held out to him. “Good to see you home.”
“Sit down Philip, you must be exhausted.” James put a cup of tea at Philip’s place at the head of the table, pulling out his chair for him. “Has it come to light how it actually happened yet?”
“No, Bear has declined to comment.” Philip took a seat, drawing Niall down into his lap. “Other than the obvious, that it was one of his polar bears.”
“That’s all?” Roger demanded.
Philip glanced up to Roger, eyebrows raised slightly. “Yes, apparently that’s all.”
Luath slung an arm around Roger’s waist, leaning back against the counter so Roger could lean against him.
“You don’t need to worry about it love. He’s not been in much of a state to feel like talking.”
“I would have thought the zoo should take rather better care of their employees. Although I suppose if he has a career working with lethal animals this is going to be inevitable sooner or later.” James said darkly. Philip smiled, sipping tea, although his eyes were still on Roger.
“That was very much what the doctor thought.”
Roger glanced across the kitchen to catch Niall’s eye.
It took about five minutes for Niall to slip away without it looking suspicious and join Roger. They went where they had always gone; the attic stairs, to what had once led to the big open attic room with the iron bedsteads like a dormitory, the room where occasional ranch hands had lodged in the dim and distant past but mostly where brats hung out to get away from Philip’s clients or anyone else annoying. The old room was gone now, turned into bedrooms which they needed when clients were here or whenever the family got together in large numbers – Bear in particular liked it up here - but the stairs were still used by the brats as they were behind a door and well out of earshot of the rest of the house.
Roger was waiting, arms folded on his knees, glasses slid down towards the end of his nose and Niall closed the door softly and came to sit on the stairs beneath him, folding his thin length up to lean against the wall with surprising agility for a man in his late sixties.
“What was that about?”
“Bear called me, the day he went into hospital.” Roger took his glasses off, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I was in the kitchen reading, he called around lunchtime their time, he’d just got off shift-”
“Did he say he felt ill?”
“No. He sounded like he’d got a cold, that was all, but he told me what happened-”
“You two aren’t discreet.” Wade slipped through the door at the bottom of the stairs and came to join them. “I had to drop a box of juice all over the floor to get Luath’s mind off where you’d gone Rog. Paul’s going to pitch a fit and Charlie swatted me for it so thanks for that. I don’t think we’ve got more than a minute before someone comes looking. What did Bear say? Philip said he hadn’t said anything about how he got hurt and you practically coughed up a frog. I saw Charlie notice, and he will ask so you might as well get your story straight.”
There were downsides to having detectives in the family, one of whom was a Top. In Roger’s opinion none of their Tops needed any encouragement in detecting.
“Bear called me the day he collapsed.” Roger flexed his glasses in his hands until Niall took them away from him.
“Don’t break those, Luath warned you last night about doing that. What did Bear say?”
“He said Nero got out.”
“What?” Wade demanded. “That’s the big bastard one, isn’t it? I’ve met him, Bear showed us when we were over there staying with them last summer.”
“He was out on the public path. Bear found him there and got him back in the enclosure, he said he got scratched a bit, I didn’t ask anything more about that part- I probably should have done.” Roger added guiltily. Wade gave him an exasperated look.
“You think? How did that monster get out?”
“Michael. The keeper with the baby? He’s been falling asleep wherever he sits down, Bear’s been covering for him for a couple of weeks – Michael went into the enclosure and Bear thinks he didn’t close it properly.”
There was a shocked silence. Then Wade said explosively,
“And you sympathised with this and didn’t think to say to him-”
“Well I do now?”
Niall glanced down and caught his eye and Wade shut his mouth with an effort. Roger’s absent mindedness was legendary in the family anyway. Roger was not given to questioning anything much and Bear wasn’t given to explaining much: the two of them were never a great combination for information that needed to come to light.
“So there’s been one very near miss with an injury that’s gone unreported.” Niall said evenly. “That’s a potential fatality waiting to happen, not to mention the damage it could do to Bear’s job if he covers this up. He can’t just sit on this.”
Wade snorted. “You know he will. He won’t see further than covering for Michael, he doesn’t think this kind of thing through any more than Rog does.”
“It’s not exactly an unfair comment.” Roger said heavily. Wade rolled his eyes and unfolded his arms to stoop, give him a rough hug and haul him to his feet. The shortest member of the family, he was barrel chested and still solid muscle; he and Charlie both still ran several miles a day every morning and Wade was a lot stronger than he looked.
“We’re going to have to do this properly. Barn.”
“What?” Roger demanded.
“Brats meeting.” Niall said with comprehension and no little regret. “Yes, you’re right.”
“We can’t make Bear do anything-” Roger protested. Wade cut him off.
“We can’t. A meeting can. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? To act as a group with a voted on, thought out group decision when there’s something too serious to handle alone. We’ve all always agreed to go with the majority vote, and Philip’s always insisted a group decision gets listened to. He’ll back us. Charlie will, James will, Luath will, Paul will. Rog, grab the study phone and call Gerry, he’s the other one apart from you who knows Bear best, we need to get his decision. I’ll tell Philip we’ll be late for dinner.”
Bear tossed the phone onto the coffee table and Theo leaned to catch it, getting even more concerned.
“What was that?”
He saw the blankness roll over Bear’s face. The look of dumb bewilderment he specialised in, the one he’d resorted to as long as Theo had known him although he rarely used it on Theo himself. It was appealing if you didn’t know him, infuriating if you did because that was Bear hitting stubborn mode and to the initiated it meant he didn’t plan on answering.
Here in their home there was always one answer to that and one only; absolute predictability and zero tolerance. Theo got up and went into the kitchen retrieving one of the multiple coloured Kool-Aid spoons that lived in the jar there, and brought it back into the living room, taking Bear’s arm to get him to his feet. Bear didn’t work well with verbal threats or warnings; his need for the immediate and concrete was reflected in the fact the spoons lived in clear sight in the kitchen of their house, quite innocuous to any visitors but with definite meaning to the two of them. Bear stood unwillingly, watching him with apprehension but he didn’t as he usually would have done, give up the Bear World of No for fast and hopeful communicating to keep that spoon at bay once it was right there in his sight.
Bear had a will of chromium steel. There was a part of it to do with his natural slowness to judge and part of it to do with steadfast adherence once he’d made up his mind and worked out the principles he believed in. They had that very much in common, the two of them. Bear didn’t do being swept along in the path of anything much once he’d made up his mind what he thought about it and he stood by what he believed in, to the point of utter immobility. Gerry’s ranting and raging and persuasion, which could be torrential on the occasions he and Bear disagreed and could sway most of the other brat members of the family into total confusion if Gerry tried hard enough, had no effect whatsoever on Bear. Which usually enraged Gerry still further and that was where the one other crucial element to Bear came in; one of Philip’s maxims, usually dryly said. Do not underestimate the brat. Bear was perfectly well aware it enraged Gerry. And deep beneath the surface silence that looked like dumb, unthinking obstinacy he was finding that very funny. And when he was angry with Gerry or with anyone else – he could dig his heels in and bring the universe to a halt around him.
It was a form of passive retaliation that worked on Gerry like a charm. Bear was perfectly capable of both creating mischief and gently manipulating people to where he thought they ought to go with innocence, sweetness and a wicked sense of humour in the right mood, and with utter, unreasonable, refractory determination in the wrong one. If he didn’t want to do something, if he didn’t like someone, if something annoyed him – Bear was perfectly capable of manoeuvring things to go his way, and given half a chance he did, mostly without being challenged or anyone noticing because no one ever expected it of him or thought him capable. Unless you knew him inside out, shared his bed and understood there was a whole lot more to Bear than met the eye and far more went on inside that beautiful head than he let most people see.
It had been something Theo had known from the time he and Bear first started hanging around the ranch in the evenings, finding more and more discreet excuses for those few minutes alone together. If you wanted this complicated man to truly feel safe with you, to let go to you and feel free to truly be himself, to be able to make him happy in the way he longed to be - he needed to know that with you, he never got away with games. Not between them. Not ever. Not even when he was 36 hours out of hospital, looking pale, fragile and pitiful, and under that blank, I know nothing surface, madder than a wet hen.
Bear was wearing shorts with a sweatshirt, thin enough not to provide much of a barrier between him and the wood-plastic blend of the spoon, and Theo brought the flat back down smartly half a dozen times on the seat of his shorts, keeping hold of Bear’s arm as Bear promptly jived in all directions with one of his high pitched falsetto wails and yelps at each swat. And that was not in the least faked. Bear took very little notice of cuts, bruises or any other injuries acquired in the course of work or his various form of work at home, but any spanking, so much as a swat, raised what sounded like high drama and was actually mostly very sincere, and tended to get his attention and emotion flowing very fast indeed. A little usually went a long way with Bear.
Theo turned him back to see his face, giving him a moment to settle down and looking up into large, wide and very soft eyes. “I asked you a question, Bear?”
The phone rang, loudly, the shrill of it interrupting them. Theo picked it up. It was Niall’s voice on the other end, quiet and apologetic.
“Theo? It’s Niall. We’re guessing Bear hung up on us.”
“Yes.” Theo caught the look on Bear’s face like thunder and pointed him at the couch rather than the corner, not wanting him standing. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on here?”
“Roger talked to Bear on the phone the afternoon he was taken into hospital. It can’t have been more than a couple of hours before he collapsed, and there were some things Bear told Roger about what happened at the zoo.” Niall said levelly. “They’re important pieces of information. When Philip got home and mentioned Bear hadn’t told anyone how he got hurt or why, Roger told me what Bear had said, and Wade and I talked to Gerry by phone and then we held a meeting. The outcome of which we agreed is while none of us want to get him into trouble Bear must tell you about this and tell you all of it, now, because we think there are parts of it that probably can’t wait.”
Slightly shocked, Theo drew a breath while he thought. It was the first time in his knowledge that a brats meeting had done something so drastic or severe as to lay a decree on one of their own. Up until a very few years ago, if one of the brats got themselves in too deep and needed tattling on, David would do it without the faintest hesitation and in words of one syllable, not caring in the slightest about any temporary fall out as a result. He’d taken that responsibility a few times that Theo knew about, as much entitled to as Philip was, and fiercely protective of the men he and Philip had taken into their lives and homes. But between Wade, Niall, Gerry and Roger you had some thoughtful, world-wise men who loved Bear, knew him well and took him seriously, and they clearly understood – and so did Bear – that if they agreed it as a unit, as that very tight knit group the brats formed in those meetings, Bear would have to follow those orders. This was not something they would do lightly or without very good reason.
“That was what you told Bear?”
“Yes. That the meeting agreed he had to tell you this. And if he wasn’t willing, we would have to.”
“….Thank you. Then I think Bear and I need to have a talk and I’ll call you back later this evening.”
Niall had the tact to thank him and hang up. Theo shut the phone down.
Bear gave him a large eyed, apprehensive glance and no one did large eyes better than Bear. All their furniture was huge for Bear to be comfortable in it, the couch seated four and Theo couldn’t sit back in it and still get his feet anywhere near the floor. He chose the armchair instead, sitting directly where he could see Bear’s face.
“Right, Bear. There are things I need to know, and I think there maybe things we need to do about them. Am I right?”
He didn’t get the blank look; the spoon was still on the table and Bear knew him too well. But he didn’t reply. Not even to shake his head or nod. Not to make the faintest effort to communicate anything. Theo got up to collect the spoon, took a seat on the couch and drew Bear to his feet and around to his right side.
“Ok. Then you know what to do.”
Bear’s grimace of apprehension was nearly comical, he could screw up his face in expressive ways that neither fitted his size nor the impressiveness of his appearance, but he didn’t make any effort to say anything, just laid himself over Theo’s lap, gripping the couch tightly with both hands as the couch mostly took his weight, rearing his large and highly muscular behind in the air over Theo’s knee. With what was, at some level, a ‘make me if you can’ air. Unfortunately he wasn’t going to win at this game. Swatting Bear with your hand was not advisable if you valued the blood vessels in your palm. He was packed, solid muscle back there and it had very little effect. The spoons however, a small hard surface with a smart impact, had enough weight to sting very sharply and had a great deal of effect and Bear made a sound rather like a mew of trepidation as Theo pulled his shorts down out of the way. Large, broad, sculpted, there was no shortage of target area to work on and with a small hard surfaced implement on the bare, it was plenty sensitive.
Theo applied the spoon briskly and very firmly, working his way from cheek to cheek a good deal faster than usual with the intent of ending this as fast as possible, and Bear squirmed and wailed from the first spank, face tightly screwed up, from the sounds of distress apparently being slowly executed by lions, there was no question the spoon was making an impression – but not as he would usually, bursting out with explanations or anything else that would end the spanking as fast as possible. He was pink beneath the smooth ebony of his skin when Theo paused a good minute later.
“Do you want to think any more about that ‘no’ yet, Bear? Because this is something we need to talk about and ‘no’ is not an option. Whatever it is you think you can’t tell me, I will help, we’ll sort this out and I get that you’re mad with Gerry, you don’t appreciate being forced. But this is about you and me, not them. You do not get to withhold and you don’t get to defy me like this. Were you somewhere you shouldn’t have been when you got hurt? Is that the problem? Is there some part of this you’re worried about?”
Silence. Bear was sniffling dramatically, sounding like a duchess at a particularly tragic opera, although it was quite genuine. But he didn’t say a word. His head neither nodded nor shook, he made no response to the questions in any form. Obstinacy and defiance in male form.
Theo took him by the arm and helped him to his feet, looking at him for a moment more to give him a last chance to fix this, mostly out of hope Bear might not make them do this tonight. Then laid the spoon down on the couch beside him, changing his voice to one a whole lot deeper, sterner, quieter, one he rarely took with Bear and only on serious occasions.
“Bear, stop and think. Now. Refusing to communicate with me is beyond disrespectful, it’s rude and it’s defiance as much as sheer disobedience, and you know it. We are a partnership and you do not get to play games between us. If you want to get stubborn with me young man you know exactly how it’s going to end and you’re going to be very sorry. You have got one chance, just one, to think this through and turn it around before you get yourself into serious trouble.”
The tone was having the effect he’d known it would; Bear looked near to tears. And yet he was silent. Theo nodded comprehension.
He headed upstairs. Bear took one look at the object in his hand when he came back down and the shocked dismay on his face would have been comical if it hadn’t been for the gravity of the situation. They didn’t often need to resort to something more severe, but on the occasions they did, the long handled bath brush with its sizeable round, flat wooden head did the job very well. Appropriately Bear-sized, it dealt a very sound, stinging smack when applied, it lived in Theo’s bathroom and never saw its originally designated purpose and Bear gave it a wide berth whenever he went in there.
Theo had to pull his hand to get Bear to step back to his side since he very clearly didn’t want to go there, he was already sniffling as Theo turned him back over his knee. Theo took firm hold of the back of his t shirt, keeping it up out of his way, and applied five, rapid and very sound whacks to the seat of the problem. Bear burst into loud and high soprano wails and tears at the first one, interspersed with deep ouches that were becoming rapidly more imperative and serious until at the fifth he burst out urgently, “Ok, ok I can tell you, I can tell you!”
“Go on.” Very mindful of the still healing scratches on his side, Theo kept tight hold of his t shirt which limited his rolling ability as Bear tended to wriggle like a fish on a hook in these situations. Bear sniffled, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
“Ih’ wuh Nero,”
Theo caught him another sharp smack with the brush and Bear’s accent promptly cleared and his voice speeded up, acquiring perfect clarity.
“Ow! It was Nero, Nero was out and I had to put him back, he was on the path.”
Serious Response Team stuff. Theo understood it very well, familiar with the zoo lore from Bear’s descriptions. Bear had been deeply distressed on the one occasion before when he’d been a part of a team with a zebra resisting arrest, although he would never consider leaving the team. In his mind if an animal ended in having to be shot it was going to be done by someone who’d make the kill shot first time with full accuracy and a whole lot of care, and Bear would do that even if it broke his heart.
“When? How did you find him?”
“Walked around the path and there he was, first thing on my shift.” Bear took another shuddering breath, clearly not encouraged that Theo hadn’t invited him to get up. “I thought he’d breached the enclosure but he hadn’t, just gotten out of the airlock gate. The others were all in safe.”
“And he scratched you getting him back in?!” Theo’s blood ran cold at the thought.
“He weren’t fifty feet from the gate, an’ I know him, I had to get him off the path quick. He followed me back, only made one grab at me, and I got the gate shut on him fast.”
He made it sound like he’d been trailed by a puppy. On the other hand Bear spent his working life with those yellow teethed monsters, he knew them by personality, foibles, favourite foods, how they played, their relationships, and to Bear there was nothing scientific about it. He didn’t by any means lack respect for those beasts but it came from the heart with him, not from academic interest. He had a personal relationship with every one of them and it went deep.
“F’ I’d called the team they’d would a shot him, he wouldn’t given them no choice. I had a chance to do it and get it finished with and no trouble.”
And most of the other keepers would have done the same if they could. Theo sighed, understanding it very well.
“I see that. Bear I don’t like it, the procedures are there for a reason and they’re the terms of your job. But I see it. You didn’t report the scratches, did you? Did anyone know you’d been hurt?”
“No sir. Took a shower, washed them good and covered them, couldn’t see they were that bad.”
The dressing was in Theo’s plain sight and he was watching it like a hawk to make sure they put no stress on that spot; the scratches were near the back of his ribs and as broad as Bear was he could barely have seen it clearly in a mirror.
“Did you report that Nero was out?”
“No sir.” Bear sniffled again where he lay over Theo’s lap, running his hand over his face. Theo thought about that.
“But if the enclosure gate wasn’t safe… or Nero’d figured out an exit – you’d have had that reported and fixed the same hour. So who let him out?”
Bear didn’t answer and Theo sharply smacked the brush down on his behind, once on each bare cheek.
“Ouch!” Bear squirmed, wailing and tears running. “Michael! Michael didn’t close the gate, he went in there on his own to get out a dead goose fouling their lake.”
Theo knew the name. He knew the man. And light finally dawned.
“….How is the baby?”
“Still in the hospital.” Bear sniffled. “Still in the special care baby unit and Michael’s there all night so Sallie gets to sleep some. He went into the changing room after and fell asleep, he was sleep walking all that day.”
It had been an ordeal so far running about three weeks for that family by Theo’s calculations, with a baby six weeks premature.
“….I get that you didn’t want to get him into trouble or risk his job,” he said gently, “I know why. I’ve got every sympathy with him too, but he does a dangerous job honey. He can’t make mistakes like that and nobody know about it. You covered up for him that one day. What if he did it again these past few days while you were in hospital? You turned around what could have been a major crisis, what if this time no one’s there to see until it is a major crisis? Someone could die this time.”
He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the kind of reasoning Bear easily saw. Bear’s way of thinking was linear; there had been a problem and he fixed it. The problem ended with the solution. Anything happening after that was a separate problem.
Unquestionably the right thing to do would be to report it. With as much care to explain the extenuating circumstances as possible, but still to report it. The zoo had always been supportive towards Bear; they would no doubt be supportive and sympathetic towards a man with a seriously premature baby with an uncertain medical future - but it was difficult to see how kindly blind any employer could afford to be to a keeper who held extreme risk responsibilities being chronically sleep starved and distracted on the job, and likely to go on being so for some weeks to come. Particularly when they were responsible for any risks or outcomes that resulted – which in this case were potentially terrible ones. And how Bear would feel about the injustice if the zoo was forced to take action against Michael. And how Bear would feel about informing on a man he was fond of, who had always been a friend to him. And what Bear would be held liable for and how his reliability and capacity for responsibility – something fought for over years - would be viewed if it came to light in the future that he hadn’t reported a major incident. It wasn’t an easy call, not at all, and Theo could easily see how a court judge, a cop, an accountant and a man with very direct personal experience of the rough end of life, had felt he had to have this information in his hands as fast as possible. He put a hand out to rest on Bear’s smooth, warm scalp, holding it while he thought.
“Bear, I think we have to talk to Michael.” He said after some sorting through the issues from several angles. “He needs to know what happened and how close it got. But I can’t see any way but that we have to report this to the zoo too. I’m sorry, I know it’s a really hard thing and we’ll do it as sensitively for Michael as we can, but it’s the only right thing to do.”
Possibly resulting in awful consequences for a good man in a bad situation. But that had to be the zoo’s call, the zoo’s decision to make and live with, The harder part would be helping Bear to understand why he’d insisted that they make that report if it ended badly for Michael. Bear was sniffling quietly, tearful but not arguing. This was not exactly the most comforting of positions but they were body to body, deeply aware of and intent on each other on every level and very connected, and Bear’s weight was limp on him, the tension gone.
“Why don’t you give Philip a ring back?” Theo suggested quietly. “Run it past him and see if he can think of any other way we can handle this.”
If he could, then great. If he couldn’t, he too would help Bear understand why this was the right thing to do. Philip spoke fluent Bear and would see the same way Theo did why this was hard for him. And then when it was done they could start working on an apology and reconnection to the other brats, which for Bear could be a slow process when he was mad about something.
“So we just need to finish up here.” Theo paused a moment, aware that the man over his lap had stiffened in apprehension, knowing what he meant, and letting his voice take on a sterner tone. “I get this is a hard situation and I get why you did it. But it’s not ok to refuse to talk to me, Bear. It’s never ok to cover up from me when you’re hurt or in trouble. We fix things together. It’s not ok to refuse to answer me when I ask you a question. Tell me any time that it’s something hard to talk about or something upsetting you and I’ll understand, I’ll always help. But hiding it, plain not answering because you’re mad – it’s disrespectful and it’s flat out disobedient and you know it. I won’t take that from you. If it took the bath brush to make you decide to mind me, then you’ve earned yourself the same again for pushing that far and making it necessary.”
Bear had started to cry again, quietly, his shoulders shaking, and Theo took a firm grasp on the bath brush and applied it firmly and soundly. Whenever Bear took things this far it was very necessary to draw the line in the sand, to ensure the spanking he got for it was not something he wanted repeated. In some ways it was the knowledge of those most firmly drawn lines and the very real possibility of those serious consequences that made the day to day minor lines meaningful and respected for Bear, who most days was prepared to quit being stubborn at the first call, knowing how much worse he could make things.
Theo made it about twenty of those hard whaps of the big brush against his bottom, spreading them out enough to ensure Bear would feel very thoroughly scorched wherever he sat, and that brush, well applied, stung in a whole different league to the spoon on a much larger area. Bear wailed from start to finish, sobbing noisily. Once Theo was done and he laid the brush down on the couch, Bear twisted around to bury his head in Theo’s stomach, curled up to him and sobbed in a ball, while Theo held him and stroked his head and back, rubbing his scalp gently, deeply sorry with him for the man with the baby and wife in a hospital tonight.
“I’m all for the noble gestures, Bear. I get it. I do. We’ll help Michael however we can. We just have to do this stuff together. We have to be sure it’s safe. You have me, you have the others. And while I know you’re not happy with them right now, they just want you to be safe. That’s all.”
At the back of her house she poured orange juice into tall glasses and took a seat on the one of the several elderly, battered wooden chairs on the grass. An elderly man was there and Flynn offered his hand.
“Flynn O’Sullivan and Dale Aden.”
The couple didn’t introduce themselves. The man accepted Flynn’s hand, nodded warily and the woman waved to them to the other bench across the table from them. Following Flynn’s signal, Dale took the furthest seat on it, letting Flynn take the nearer one that let him slightly nearer to and in between Dale and the couple. The woman put two of the glasses over in their reach.
“Bull and Tatia were shot. Killed. That’s all there is to that story.”
“Except for the child.” Dale said gently. “A boy, maybe three years old. He survived, didn’t he?”
“He was under the couch. There was a crawl space under there. Bull put him in it whenever there was anyone come to the door at night, or cars came in the street. We had trouble round here for months before they died.” She said it dispassionately. Flynn sipped orange juice, voice calm.
“Any reason for that trouble, ma’am?”
“Other than the obvious?”
“Bull was a fool.” The man said shortly. “He stood out. So big he was recognisable anywhere, even in the dark. Drew attention just by being in sight. Man like that should keep his mouth shut and think about his family.”
“We were all young.” The woman said more gently to him. “Times were bad around here anyway. Thing was, there was Johnnie Tucker.”
The man’s mouth tightened. The woman took no notice, picking up her glass.
“Johnnie was a friend of Bull’s, been friends since they were little boys, Bull always took care of him and Johnnie spoke out whenever he had a mind to. If he didn’t like what he saw he’d say so, good heart but big mouth, and Bull always sweet talked anyone who tried making Johnnie mind, and once he decided he was gonna do something… well there was never any changing his mind. And they got to be big strapping boys and full of what we all saw in the town and around here, all us young ones….. these was times we weren’t allowed in the good section of the library, the good door of the cinema, the white school was new built and our school had no heating, hardly no books – it was everywhere, our folks had all grown up with it but Johnnie got bitter about it. We all got bitter about it.”
“You were a friend of theirs?” Dale said quietly. The woman nodded slightly.
“I was their age, went to school with them, this is a small town. Everyone knew everyone else and I was near as damn fool as they were. We were kids, we got passionate on stuff the way kids do and we knew in the papers the laws were changing but not much ever changed down here. Johnnie got real passionate about it and wouldn’t ever hush his mouth on that either no matter what his momma or daddy could do with him. When they were sixteen he and Bull and some of the others got to meeting about it in the west barn at night with Johnnie talking big, and they met up with others over in the town and carried the signs in the marches and got into the fights – Johnnie came back with his nose busted and three ribs cracked one night and he’d have had worse if it wasn’t for Bull…. that slowed them up, they got a bit more sense after that. Fool thing to do. All of it. Making bad names for themselves and they knew it wasn’t safe. My daddy’d seen what happened to kids who ran their mouths and went to those marches and he promised me the licking of my life if he ever caught me doing it or following Johnnie Tucker anywhere. But everyone knew they were good boys. And if Bull was there no one ever got that mad with Johnnie, they knew Bull would keep him out of any real trouble. And we knew too that no one would dare mess that much with any of our boys if Bull was there. So no one ever stopped them like they should have done. Not for years, not after they were grown men and Bull and Johnnie was both married and should have known better.”
Tatia. He’d met Tatia and lived in that house across the street. The woman’s voice thickened slightly as though she was speaking through a dry throat.
“Then that year, 1963, Johnnie was speaking out at our church, telling our people they needed to register to vote. Oh we knew supposedly we could, but most everyone was still afraid to do it round here. If you were seen doing it….. churches got blown up around here. People shot. Even just you’d lose your job, no one’d hire you and your family’d starve, most everyone was plain scared to think of it. But Johnnie got people to listen to him and he took a line of them into town to register just the same, headstrong like he always was, saying there’d be too many of us to scare off, they wouldn’t dare. But they turned out that day, people with guns, and I don’t know what would have happened save Bull always went where Johnnie went, and he drove into town with us and stood on the step at the town office in Eutaw all the time while we was going in and out. Johnnie tried to make him move but he wouldn’t. He stood there the whole time and weren’t none of those men dared make him move or interfere with Johnnie or any of us while he was there. He never did nothing to no one, Bull; he was gentle as a lamb but he were near seven foot tall, came of the Jardinier bred stock.”
“Bred stock?” Dale asked. The old man snorted.
“Bred. That word still had meaning around here when I was young. People still remembered.”
“Bull’s daddy was as big as he was.” The woman told him. “So was his daddy’s grandfather before him who was born down on the Rosefield cotton plantation not three miles thataway on that road before he was emancipated. When the government made it so no more slaves could be shipped in, the plantations bred their own. Like stock. Down on Rosefield they breeded a line for size and muscle. Heavy lifters, men and women, all of them bred down from one man bought special from a Louisiana plantation, name of Jardinier. Seven foot tall.”
Some slave names Dale knew were a simple description of the job done, and the implications hit him precisely in a sharp flood like a series of blows. Bought, in the way that they bought a ram for breeding on the ranch. Who had he been, this relative of Bear’s? What had been his name, what family had he been stripped from in Louisiana, what had it done to him to be used for one physical trait, an accident of birth that was useful to others? For a man Dale found it hard to think of without associating Bear’s gentleness of heart coming from that genetic line, what wreckage had been caused to him and God only knew how many others to be forced to a life of stud service to women willing or not, with heavy, real threat over them all for failure to comply. It was nauseating. Terrible to reflect on, and through Bear’s blood that man was himself in turn ranch blood. A part of them, and his debts were silently included in that moment in the personal accounts Dale kept, the most detailed and deepest for all of them.
The woman sipped her drink, her eyes on the table.
“Bull couldn’t read nor write for all he went to school so he couldn’t pass the test to vote – couldn’t write so much as his name. His daddy couldn’t neither, just never couldn’t learn it somehow, but they were men like mountains and no one messed with them. It was how he got called Bull right from when he was a little boy.”
“Stood out like a sore thumb wherever they went.” The man said gruffly. “Easy to spot. Easy to find, and stupid enough to stand there for Johnnie Tucker any time, making it too hard to get to Johnnie like they wanted and make him pay. So it was Bull they followed home that night. Him and his wife. Object lesson to the whole community here to stay home and mind our business. And if they’d found that boy….”
“It would have been him as well.” Dale finished for him, softly. “Who did find him?”
The woman spoke more slowly, she was remembering actual images in her head now, Dale could see her doing it. The girl she had been, standing on the porch in the darkness, shaking and cold with fear, watching a barefoot woman slip silently like a wary animal away from her across the grass.
“Afterwards… after they left and everything was quiet, my momma went round the back of the house. She knew Tatia well, they’d been friends all their lives. Most everyone living in this town then was born here.”
And it was horribly easy to imagine the silent terror of the other families in their houses that night. The car lights pulling away out of sight, the engines going quiet at last.
“She found Tatia and Bull in the front room. Both dead. She took the child out from the hiding place and she brought him home to us. I remember her rocking him. He was two. Only a baby, though he was big like Bull was. There was a lot of talk through the night about who could keep him. Bull and Tatia had no family left living then, either of them. Several families here who’d have taken him in but that he was so recognisable and he’d get more so the older he got. Still always be Bull’s son. And a witness. In the end my daddy put him in the truck, took him into Eutaw at dawn and put him through the door of the police department, telling him to go to the man at the desk. When the police come in the morning to find Tatia and Bull they asked if there was anyone else lived in the house and everyone here said no. Not like now with computers and stuff, nobody checked or much cared. The police just took our word and we knew they’d send the boy upstate, out of harms’ way.”
Dale processed that, knowing the question Bear would want the answer to.
“What happened to Johnnie?”
The woman and man glanced at each other and the man’s face tightened.
“He and his girl lived other side of the woods, they didn’t hear until morning. Came and saw the bodies and went near out of his mind. Hell to pay when he knew the child was gone but no one’d tell him where. Most folk around here blamed him, he’d have taken the boy in a second but with his stupid mouth…. He’d never have kept quiet about what happened to Bull, he’d have gotten the boy killed and himself and his wife alongside. He never forgave us for that. Bull and Tatia – we buried them that afternoon. He was there. Then he took his wife that night and got on a train and no one heard of them again.”
“Not his family?” Dale said softly. The man met his eyes, hard expression but his eyes were wet.
“He was my brother. No.”
“Do you remember the child’s name?” Flynn said gently. It was his tone that made Dale realise what he’d seen; how desperately upset both these people were. How well they were trying to hide it. The woman shook her head.
“It was a long time ago. Where ever he is now he’s better off.”
The cemetery where Bull and Tatia were buried was one of the many hidden, small and very elderly ones scattered around Forkland, many of them small collections of stones now being taken over by creeping woodland. The community who had loved the Jardiniers appeared to have gone to some trouble to choose the most isolated and abandoned. Perhaps trying to protect them from any further insult. Flynn and Dale found it with some difficulty after a walk across a field and old railway lines, following the instructions of the woman, Mrs Tucker, who had walked with them to the car and told them quietly out of earshot of her husband, and she’d watched them drive away from that road where Bear should have grown up in that little white house, loved and surrounded by a close knit community of friends and family. It was too painful a thought to linger on.
They searched the quiet woods together for a while. It reminded Dale of laying Gam Saan to rest in Three Traders, the cemetery there where Bear had done much of the digging and been part of the party to gently lay the old man’s remains in the grave with the care with which he handled both the stock and the people on the ranch. Very much a family man. He had been sitting alone in Eutaw police station, a shocked and bewildered two year old when the people who had loved his family laid his parents to rest here. It was Flynn who eventually found the spot; Dale heard the soft stock whistle through the trees and picked his way over tangled undergrowth and broken stones to join him. The names and dates on the single stone were overgrown but still legible. Tatia had been nineteen and Bull twenty one when they died. Flynn took out his penknife and gently cleaned the face of the stone to make the names plain again.
Stiffly Dale sat down on the tangled grass in front of the stone. Twenty one. His son was now more than twice his age.
Flynn straightened up from the cleaned stone, pocketed the knife and Dale saw his booted feet swish gently through the long dry grass, then Flynn sat down behind him, put his back against a tree and hooked his fingers in the back of Dale’s belt, pulling Dale across the ground into his arms. Flynn’s chest against his back, fenced in by his bent, denimed knees, the legs longer and stronger than his, Dale leaned back into him and Flynn’s arms folded over his chest, locking him there. Holding him safe. No one ever came here. The grass was undisturbed, they were out of sight of any roads, any paths, Forkland was forgetting this place had ever existed. No one to know they were here. No one to remember there was anyone in this quiet wood who’d stood on the steps at the town hall in front of men with guns, or tried to protect their child the night their door was smashed in. Just nineteen and twenty one.
There was nothing else to do for Bull and Tatia but spend a while here with them, be grateful to them that they had gotten Bear alive through that night to find his way to the ranch, to know their story. And sitting in Flynn’s arms, with the man he loved painfully deeply and could no longer imagine living without, Dale held onto the solid warmth of Flynn’s forearms in front of him and could touch the fingers of what Bull and Tatia had had together for so short a tie. They were safe here in this peaceful, overgrown tangle of woodland that would swallow up these stones in a few years more shielding them from sight and visitors and from any disturbance but the wildlife.
That still, he knew, left one more place they had to go. He had known it since Mrs Tucker mentioned it. One more piece to collect that belonged to Bear. And it was going to be the hardest piece of all.
It wasn’t difficult to find what was now a historic site those two and a bit miles up the road, within walking distance from the small cabin house where Bear had been born.
Flynn drew up the car across the road, pulling it up on to the grass at the side of the road, and they walked together to the ornate, elderly iron gateway. The mansion was still there with its white Grecian columns, graceful and beautiful among green lawns. It looked like much of the cotton fields behind it were still intact too. The sign on the gates was polished and still read ‘Rosefield’, but the windows were blank, curtainless and with the emptiness that suggested you could see straight through the house with nothing inside. According to Dale’s blackberry, the house was no longer lived in and had been abandoned for some years, but a number of slave houses, now of historical interest, were still intact on this plantation which once legally owned 136 men, women and children. This was the land on which Bear’s ancestry went back further still, to a seven foot tall gardener bought from a French Louisiana plantation.
Living on the ranch with their own stock breeding programmes that Flynn carefully oversaw year in and year out – the comparison was unbearable. It was then that Dale realised how tightly he was holding on, how rigidly he was walling himself to shut out anything here that he didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to see. Bear’s people had had no such luxury. Jardinier – Bear’s however many great grandfather – had had no such luxury.
He could hear Jasper say it as clearly as he could imagine in that second Jasper’s hands resting on his shoulders. Thinking of him helped, it stabilised. Following Jasper’s remembered voice Dale reached his awareness downward, letting his sense of himself reach into the earth as if his feet and hands grew down into it like vines. Deep into the earth. Into the bedrock. Into the hidden water flows deep underground. To the fire at the core of the earth. It stabilised him. It always did.
He owed it to Bear and to the ranch that loved Bear to be here. Fully here, as Philip would have been, to take on the responsibility that was his, marked by the eagle on his chest. However hard that was. There was something here to be heard by them. And what was more, he wanted to hear it, to be the receptacle of it, to hold it for them. The desire was a fierce one. A passionate one, a true want. Not a resignedly borne duty, but what Tom would call a quest. With Flynn standing beside him, his dark green eyes on the plantation fields beyond the house, aware of what he was doing and giving him the space to do it, Dale laid a light hand against the white stone gate post and took a breath, letting the thought of golden yellow light surround him first as a bubble. The protection.
Before me. Behind me. To the left of me. To the right of me. Above me. Below me.
Then he let himself relax and breathe, reached out and let what was there around him speak.
He had seen many difficult things in his life. Perhaps more than most. Travel had taken him young into places in the world of extreme poverty alongside wealth, work and research and a mind that sucked in information like a vacuum cleaner had acquainted him with the full depth of war zones, politics, histories and anthropologies, much of it far from pretty. Much of it he now thought of as preparation and training for what he considered now as his real job. To stand in places like this, centred and aware and to know with all his senses. All of him. But he had never in his life felt more sheltered. There were no visitors here, no ‘people’ but this place held sparks of what Jasper termed as recordings. Energy somehow imprinted itself on soil and rock as though they were dvds, on the large absorptive block of the house and buildings: he had known this for a while now and had learned to listen to the playback, he laid a hand on the brick gate post and let it speak. Those here were by far the hardest he had ever known. Flickers of unknown people whose recorded second of intense emotion screamed into his body across time and for another brief second lived again, searing through his nerves like the blinding flash of old fashioned polaroids being taken one after the other. Sounds. Sensations. Tiny flashes of fragments like a sudden, random pieces of different jigsaws being thrust into his hand.
They were strangers on the edge of privately owned land; he couldn’t just open the gates and walk on towards that information and make more sense of it, seek any of those voices and presences in detail who might still walk there - but even so he found himself taking a step towards it and reaching for the gate latch when Flynn’s arm closed around his waist and grasped, drawing him back.
“Dale. That’s it. That’s as far as we go. Let go.”
He probably meant the gate post. Dale became belatedly aware he was clutching it. Flynn gently put a hand over his and peeled it off the gatepost. He had to physically pull him away from the gate way and make him walk back towards the car before his legs began to move again for themselves.
He was still shaking slightly when they reached Birmingham airport. Flynn had said very little as he drove over than when he could spare a hand from the wheel to rest it on Dale’s knee, heavy and warm. But as soon as they reached the airport he took Dale directly to the bathrooms where the showers were located and waited directly outside the cubicle in silence while Dale stripped, turned the nearest empty one on cold, braced his hands on the tiles and stood beneath it so the cold water dashed directly over his head and shoulders and down his body, gasping slightly as the jets hit his skin. And Dale felt the voices, the nausea and agitation flood away as the living water washed the carried energies away, leaving calm behind.
Afterwards he sat on a bench in the departures lounge where Flynn put him, skimming through several layer of information sources and a moment later Flynn sat down beside him, handing him a tall cup. Not coffee. It contained hot chocolate. Warm. Sweet. And Flynn sat astride the bench beside him, quietly rubbing his back and sipping his own drink. There was no better or more comforting thing he could have done. Or any way he could have made the experience of an airport so entirely different to anything Dale had ever known, and he did it so simply, the way he made the most complex of things so normal, so easy when they were together.
“What might he have been if this hadn’t happened to him?” he said aloud. Flynn shook his head.
“Mrs Tucker said his father was like him, remember. Unable to learn to read, that sounds genetic. I don’t think it was the shock that did it. Might have caused the selective mutism possibly but we don’t know that.”
Bear was another of the set. The lost children. Himself, Gerry, Corey, Bear. Except Bear’s exceptional sweetness of heart maybe had gotten him through – differently to them.
“What happened at the plantation?” Flynn said quietly. “Can you tell me?”
“I have – all the pieces.” Dale said unsteadily. “That’s how it feels. I don’t know what to do after that, I just don’t know.”
“Pieces of what?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea. Bear I think. I knew every time there was one. I knew when there was one we needed to get. I knew when we were done. I don’t even have the words for this, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
He was aware there was a faint tone of panic in his voice, he couldn’t keep it out, and Flynn spoke very firmly.
“Yes. Yes, you do. You’ve known every step of the way for two days, trust yourself. Taking them back is what David would have done. And then Philip would have had the guts to not try putting them back together. They’re there for Bear if and as he wants them. What happens after that is up to him. Not us. It’s his choice, it’s his freedom. It may be he chooses to do nothing and that’s ok too. They’re his pieces.”
He was right. Reminding himself that being in public required behaving like a rational grown up and not burying oneself in one’s partner’s arms or kissing him the way it would have been necessary to kiss him if he’d allowed that impulse free reign, Dale instead turned the blackberry, tipping the screen for Flynn to see what he had been looking at while Flynn bought the drinks. Flynn read it and his eyebrows raised steeply.
It was a kind of completed circle. A kind of confirmation that somehow, somewhere, even in the worst of chaos, some things – the very strangest of things - still made sense. Dale checked the screen one more time, unable to stop himself making a small movement towards Flynn’s hand that resulted in Flynn taking firm hold and grasping him.
He knew when he walked back onto the ranch – when he stepped out of the jeep Jasper had driven to bring them back from the airport and set foot on the ranch ground- he had brought the pieces back with him. They were here, they were present now on this red earth, on these green pastures. And when Bear lumbered across the yard and came direct to him, swallowing him in a silent hug so tight that breathing was an issue for a moment, Dale hugged him back as tightly.
It took a while to tell the story through to Bear and Theo along with the series of pictures Dale had captured on the blackberry at each place. Telling it was something Dale asked Flynn to do, knowing Bear needed this to come from not only someone he’d known, trusted and loved for years, but also from a Top in the family, someone who was sensitive in that particular way with the confidence to walk with people into such places.
Paul, Jasper and Riley sat in silence as Flynn told it, simply and quietly. The Catholic asylum in Birmingham and the child known as Ishmael. Brought there as a toddler by the Greene county police, an unidentified child, slipped into the station the night after the shooting in the rural hamlet.
“We’re guessing you wandered into the circus encampment and stayed. Or got commandeered if you looked older than you were.” Flynn finished gently. “Do you remember any of that?”
“Not really.” Bear said honestly, and he hadn’t shown any recognition of the picture. “Just working there. But I remembered working chickens, and there were never chickens at the circus, I was never sure where I learned chickens from. Now I guess I know.”
He had lingered over the picture of the little white house. And the stone in the woodland on a hot, sunny afternoon.
“It’s ok not to remember.” Theo said softly. “We’ve talked about that, it’s the way things are and it doesn’t matter.”
“I think if you went to that street you’d be made welcome.” Flynn told him. “And they might choose to tell you more. But what you do have is a locatable registry of birth. You were registered in Eutaw as born in Forkland in 1961 to Michael Jardinier, known as Bull, and Tatia Jardinier nee Spencer. You’re on the Alabama state files.”
It would be possible, if he wanted, to connect up the paper trail and make him traceable from his birth through to Philip helping him establishing paperwork and a registered name. Although now was not the time. He was processing two losses he hadn’t consciously known of, a series of shocks, although he didn’t look particularly shocked. He had not remembered Ishmael. He had not remembered what he’d been known as through the circus years, if he’d had a name at all. They had not been his and so had not been information he’d kept in mind. A child from total chaos and dislocation who had learned early to simply blank it. Not to make a sound. Not to remember. Without letting it touch him, the sweetness of him, the important things in life to him, the strength in him to hold on to what mattered and never let it go.
“Did you find a name?” Theo said lightly. Flynn looked down at Dale, who was sitting on the floor against his legs and would have handed over his blackberry with the screen shot on it. Then hesitated, remembering that Bear didn’t read. Theo held out a hand to take it from him, looking for a moment, and then his eyes blurred behind his glasses and he laughed, a rather unsteady sound, putting an arm through Bear’s massive one to pull him close enough to look at the screen, his red head hard against Bear’s solid shoulder. He put his thumb against the word in question.
“That’s it, baby. There. That’s your registered name.”
Bear looked at him, startled. Then he looked down at the screen, and Dale saw him slowly recognise it. And the grin broke out from behind his quiet, sober expression like the sun dawning with the deep hee hee hee like a particularly happy and Southern born Santa Claus.
The name was Bear Jardinier.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015