My niece’s birthday is in a week and her mother confided to me that what she wanted was a short story about herself. I’ve never received such a request before and thought at first I would not be up to the task, because I don’t write either children’s or YA fiction. While considering how to let her down as tenderly as possible, a plot occurred to me, along with some themes I thought she might find pertinent. So the next day I set aside my usual fiction-writing time and began this short story.
On Thanksgiving last week, we celebrated her birthday early, and I read it for the assembled family. I hope you enjoy it.
Lilia’s Morning Ride
Lilia stepped off the cabin’s porch and glanced at the sky, where banks of clouds billowed above the distant mountains. A cool spring morning. Perfect for a ride. She followed the gravel path along the pasture fence, curving toward the stables where Bobby waited with her mare, Ribbons. Her breath condensed in the crisp air. When her mother suggested the trip to the ranch for her spring break, Lilia was surprised. It was the first time the little sister would be away from home…alone and on her own. But her mother knew how she loved horses and believed this opportunity…to ride every day, to groom and care for them…would be the perfect vacation. They hadn’t counted on the high plains being so chilly, but once Lilia mounted her horse and trotted out of the corral into the fields and forest, she felt warm and comforted. Ribbons was a gentle ride, responsive and temperate. Lilia stared into her huge brown eyes the first day she walked among the stalls and pointed to her.
“This one,” she told Bobby, the stable hand.
“That’s Ribbons,” he said. “Good choice.”
Each morning she rode the mare and then returned to the stable, where she brushed her, fed her and whispered to her when Lilia was certain no one else could hear her. She confided about her friends at school, her teachers, her sister and her parents…Ribbons was the perfect listener: she bobbed her head, the long hair of her mane flopped, the flesh of her flanks rippled, and occasionally she snorted, as though commenting on something Lilia said.
This morning she turned into the tall central corridor of the stable and waved to Bobby, who held Ribbons by her bridle.
“Chilly today,” Bobby said, his brown cowboy hat hiked back on his head.
Lilia nodded. She liked Bobby, who had been helpful and kind to her, had shown her how to care for Ribbons, but she just didn’t talk much to the other people at the ranch. She kept to herself and read in the evenings after dinner, curling up on one of the love seats near the huge stone fireplace; she loved to escape into a book, imagining herself as one of the characters, immersing herself in the world created by the author. The first few days on the ranch Bobby rode out with her, along the lower trail that led to the meadows, and then on the upper trail that wound through the tall pines and around the rock outcroppings. Lilia liked the mountain track better, for the variety of experiences it offered. She enjoyed the rustle of the wind in the tree limbs, the muted footfalls of the horse’s hooves on the pine needles that cushioned the trail, the shrieking call of an eagle as it glided above the forest, seeking prey, as well as tiny feet scuttling through the underbrush as Ribbons plodded along.
Bobby helped her mount the mare and led her out of the stable. “Have a good ride,” he called as Lilia gently guided Ribbons toward the trailhead.
In three days she would return home to her family in Evanston, to the boredom of school, homework, chores and being the little sister. She missed her father, mother and sister, but here at the ranch, Lilia felt bigger than herself. More independent. Almost more important. She didn’t completely understand the change in her outlook, but she liked it. A lot. At home she was constantly reminded that she was a daughter, a sister, and a student…but on the ranch she was a rider, a groom, and a ranch hand. She was someone other than how people knew her.
A few hundred yards beyond the corral fence, the trail began to climb, a delicate incline at first, but as it wound along the side of the hill, it steepened and Ribbons huffed as she clopped along; Lilia leaned forward in the saddle and gripped the horn. The sky opened a bit, clouds parting to let jagged patches of blue sky show through. As she and Ribbons crested the hill, the trail forked, one path following the sloping ridge toward the valley, the other rising toward the tree line. Lilia tugged Ribbons’ reins and steered her toward this trail, toward the higher elevation. The two rode quietly for a while, Lilia thinking about school, about her friend Ashley’s birthday party the week after she returned home. She and her mother needed to buy Ashley a present. “What do you think, Ribbons?” she asked the horse. “Some earrings. Or maybe a book?”
The trees thinned, spiky brush crowded either side of the trail, branches grazed against Lilia’s jeans as Ribbons maneuvered through the undergrowth. To her right a startled bird suddenly fluttered up into the air and Lilia caught her breath, then laughed to disarm her surprise, speaking softly to Ribbons as the mare ambled along. The vegetation changed to tall grass, pines dotted the fields, and Lilia sat upright in the saddle as she peered down the trail. On the edge of a clearing below the path, a small, dark blob writhed. As Lilia approached she heard sounds, a sorrowful whining, painful and sad. Standing in the stirrups as they neared the sight, Lilia glanced across the field and saw a bear cub. Ribbons snorted loudly at the animal’s scent and stuttered on the trail. Lilia leaned forward, patted the horse’s neck and tried to calm her. The cub appeared to have entangled one of its front paws in the barbed wire of an old fence. It thrashed, bleated out in pain and stopped, then repeated the movement.
Lilia dismounted and stood beside Ribbons, who tried to back away down the trail. She gripped the reins tightly and commanded the horse to stay. The cub fought the wire once more, unsuccessfully. Lilia’s first instinct was to remount Ribbons and hurry away. She knew a cub in trouble would have a protective mother somewhere nearby, and that a mother bear was a dangerous animal. But the sight of the cub in agony, trapped in the barbed wire…she saw blood on the paw wedged in the strands of the fence…wounded her as plainly as it damaged the animal. Ribbons tugged, sensing the danger; Lilia deliberated, quickly assessing the situation, asking how she would live with herself if she allowed the cub to remain trapped in the fence, if she fled and condemned it to die.
She walked Ribbons to a small tree and lashed the reins around a branch, then looked around the clearing…no sign of the mother bear. Lilia walked across the short distance to the fence and stopped near the cub, whispering to the frightened animal, hoping the tone of her voice would calm it, would cajole it and convince it that Lilia was there to help, not to hurt. She studied how two strands of the barbed wire had crossed over the cub’s paw, gripping it in such a way that every time the animal tried to free itself, the wire bit into the paw more tightly. If she could work her hands alongside the paw and pull the strands apart, then the cub could extract its paw and limp away to find its mother.
Suddenly she heard Ribbons cry. Lilia stood and turned to watch the horse rear up on her hind legs, ripping the reins free of the branch, and then gallop away as the cub’s mother lumbered through the grass toward her. The girl froze, her hands at her sides, her heart pounding so heavily in her chest that she feared it might leap through her ribs at any moment. The bear’s mouth gaped open as she halted a few feet from Lilia, her teeth bared, spittle flying as the head swung back and forth and an enraged growl escaped that fired a shiver along Lilia’s spine. Her shoulders shook and she inhaled sharply then held her breath. The cub mewed like a kitten and Lilia glanced down…she knew the mother bear could do nothing to free her cub. Opposable thumbs, she remembered from one of her classes…primates differed from all other mammals by their opposable thumbs. She wanted to run but knew that would be a mistake…it would just confirm her fear and entice the bear to chase her, which she knew was very bad. Bobby had told her early on her visit to the ranch that it was foolish to try and outrun a bear. If she encountered one…and he assured her the chances she would were very slim…she should stand very still, look down, avoid any eye contact, and then slowly back away from the animal.
“Hi,” she heard herself say to the cub’s mother. “I’m not going to hurt your baby. I thought I might help.”
What was she thinking? Lilia wondered. Talking to Ribbons when no one was around, well that was one thing, but talking to an angry bear was just plain crazy. Her sister constantly told her she was crazy, but Lilia didn’t think this was what she meant.
“It’s okay,” she continued. “I can help.”
The bear stepped forward and then raised back onto her rear legs, waving her front paws as she towered over Lilia, who closed her eyes as tightly as she could and waited. To suffer the pain of the sharp claws and long teeth. But while the bear growled…a terrifying sound…the beast held her ground. Lilia opened her eyes and marveled at the sight of the beast. Dark brown fur. Eyes so black they looked almost bottomless…not like Ribbons’ soft brown, or even her own, a tender brown with copper flecks.
“I’m going to step closer now,” she said, and Lilia eased toward the fence, stepping over the fallen strands and situating the cub between her and the mother bear. “I’m going to try and pull the wire apart.”
She eased into a crouch and held her hands up, showing the bear her empty palms, then bent over and gripped the wire, a strand in each hand. The cub whimpered and the bear snarled, taking another step toward Lilia, who paused, praying for the bear to understand her intentions. She saw blood on the wire and on the matted green grass below the fence. She pulled the wire, striving to separate the strands that bound the paw. The cub, which had squirmed when Lilia crouched before it, now stilled, aiming its snout at her as she struggled with the wire; she leaned into the effort, listening to the rasping as the two strands separated. The cub’s paw slipped from the clasp and Lilia released the wire. The cub gazed down at its paw as though shocked it had been freed; Lilia grasped it softly and turned it over, reaching into her pocket for the red kerchief she carried when she rode. She balled it and blotted the trickle of blood on the skittish cub’s paw.
The animal lurched from her grip and swung toward its mother, who tumbled forward onto all four legs and lowered her massive head to sniff the cub. It held out its injured paw and she licked it with her pink tongue. The bear nosed the cub to her side and laid a large paw along its back, guiding it through the tall grass. As the pair shambled away, the mother halted for a moment and swung her head back in Lilia’s direction; she opened her mouth wide and growled, but Lilia didn’t interpret it as a threat. The cub disappeared in the undergrowth and Lilia soon lost sight of the mother as well. She rocked back and collapsed in the grass, aware suddenly of how her hands shook, uncontrollable tremors. She wrapped her arms across her chest and sandwiched her hands in her armpits, breathing deeply and then exhaling in a rush that emptied her lungs completely. Lilia laid back and stared at the sky, where bulbous clouds framed stretches of the bluest sky she felt she had ever seen. Her family would never believe what she’d done. Would never think her capable of such an act, of such courage.
Lilia sat up as she heard the approach of horse’s hooves. She rose unsteadily to her feet and saw Ribbons hanging back some distance down the trail, jerking her head up and down, the reins flipping back and forth. Lilia stepped over the barbed wire fence and slowly made her way across the clearing to the trail. She looked in the direction the bear and its cub had retreated but saw no sign of them. When she neared Ribbons, Lilia laid the side of her own face against the horse’s, murmuring softly.
On the ride back to the stable, Lilia didn’t pay much attention to what she passed, just relived the moment when the intimidating bear had risen on its haunches and loomed over the unmoving girl so closely that Lilia had felt the animal’s warm breath. When she turned into the stable and dismounted, Bobby walked to her and asked about her ride.
Lilia hesitated, then said: “It was fine,” deciding at that moment to keep secret how the incident had affected her. She paced out of the stable but then paused, holding her arm out in front of her, parallel to the ground, examining her hand. No shaking like before, no shuddering or quavering. Firm and steady. Lilia felt changed and as she sought for the words to describe the difference in her, she accepted that they might not come to her immediately, but over time, as the change in her revealed itself in stages, during encounters at school, with her friends, and even with her family. A little sister had left Evanston for this ranch vacation, but a new Lilia would return. One they might not recognize.
In her room she searched in her backpack for the purple journal she took everywhere…at home she kept it hidden under her mattress…and began writing. She described her mood when she walked into the stable that morning, the mountain scent in the air along the trail, and the details of her confrontation with the cub and its mother. She paused as she again strove to find the exact right words to describe the effects of the meeting, jotted a few of them…strong, courageous, and frightened…and then closed the notebook and lay her head on the feather pillow. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, then relaxed her muscles, starting in her toes and consciously moving up her body to her neck. When she sloughed her shoulders into the mattress, Lilia grinned, a broad happy smile, and laughed loudly, the sound of her voice bellowing in the room, and in that moment she didn’t care who might have heard her. It didn’t matter.