"...and he said…Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies." - Joshua 10:12-13
Once upon a time their teachers told them the earth was moving underneath their feet, but this was hard to believe. It would have been so much better if they could have seen it.
In the summer, the tourists and local teenagers rode the German-made ferry to South Bass Island. Many others in Perry Bay, Ohio went in their own boats, adding a chorus of growling motors to the over-waked beaches. The water slapped the shore.
Street traffic appeared. Wheels spun, and all the townies who needed to get to their regular jobs and do their regular chores seethed at brake-light rows. Kids were sent on their bikes to do odd jobs for the adults.
The rose-colored Catholic boys pushed their lawn mowers, that one long rubber flap of the trailing shield scratching the sidewalk in rhythm.
Their leader—James Tinley—was the type of kid who caused the rich people along Perry Street to purchase thermal sensors. Police would idle alongside him and monitor his behavior before moving on. One was doing so now, forcing the boys into hypertension, for though they couldn’t see the earth’s rotation, they often felt the possibility in the presence of James. When the squad car finally turned the corner, James took two steps into a yard, raised his foot, and slammed a tree with bark-peeling force. The owner of the tree, Don Walley, saw this from his front porch and yelled uncertainly, “Hey!”
James mimed a polite kindness whenever trouble lurked. He knew how to get what he wanted. “Sorry, but would you like your lawn mowed today? We can cut it for a simple donation to Immaculate Conception Church.” The other kids nodded their assurance. Not having their store-pressed shirts and well-fitting pants, their trimmed hair and mannered posture, James would be shooed away. His oily hair hid his left eye as he tilted his head. He had holes in his jeans. Beneath the grunge, if people looked, there was a boy with sharp features and a fired intensity that was completely in the world and haunted by it. He worked tirelessly to spin the world faster.
“If that’s how you treat a tree, I can’t imagine what you’d do to my lawn,” came the reply
“We’ll do a good job, I promise.” James was not deterred. “And if we don’t, you don’t have to pay.”
Don laughed. “Okay, Mr. Tinley. You’re on.”
“Can we have some gas for the mowers?” James asked with a straight face.
“Wait! You asked to mow my lawn for a donation, but I have to give you the gas to mow it too?”
“The school gives teachers chalk.”
The other two boys were now shaking their heads, ready to admit to their friend’s impertinence. Pushing the mower in front, Alan said, “Sorry, Sir,” with his blond hair in a bowl cut and his bright green polo shirt that made him look like a popsicle. If the priest hadn’t told Alan at first confession to do penance by befriending someone who was notoriously difficult to befriend, and if his mother hadn’t offered regular raises on his allowance for “looking out” for James, Alan wouldn’t have become James’s summer friend two years ago.
Cal pushed the second mower. Three years ago, on a dare, Cal snuck up behind James, wrapped his arms around him, pressed his fingers deep into James’s stomach, and yelled “Woofer!” Frightened and angry, James whipped around and backhanded him, causing three blood vessels to pop. Cal oozed red streaks down the hallway and screamed in surprise, though it didn’t hurt. Afterwards, they formed the bond that sometimes comes to men who’ve exchanged blows, when an alliance blunts their vendetta, and they call it respect.
Don chuckled and opened the garage.
“Now stay back from the fenced enclosure along the forest there,” he said.
The boys had never noticed the enclosure before, but it reminded James of a rumor from years ago—a kind of folktale longing—that a resident of Perry Bay had a troll, or maybe a murderous caveman imprisoned on their property. Where had he heard this? First grade? Was it the gym teacher, or the librarian reading scary stories about Ohio? The enclosure reminded James of this tale. He looked at Alan and Cal in alarm, but he was alone in this.
Two tightly packed wooden fences ran parallel to each other like a sandwich with nothing in between. The enclosure stretched nearly twenty feet, and the boys could see a storage container in the middle, slightly above the fence line. A giant sign warned, “Beware of Dog.”
“That must be some dog you’ve got in there,” Alan said.
“No dog needs that much fencing,” Don replied. The boys squinted at him. “It says beware of dog, but it should say beware of monsters.”
“Oh, Mr. Walley, we’re twelve,” Calvin said.
“What’s that mean? You don’t believe me or you’re not scared? Because you should be scared.”
James imagined something, anything, dog or monster, living in the enclosure. His father once backed his truck into the house and knocked part of a wall down. James slept in the attic for weeks after that. The thought of confinement, of dark caverns with no way out, shortened his breaths.
While Alan and Cal mowed, James went back into the open garage, hoisted the ladder he’d seen while they were putting gas in their engines, and walked it to the fence. Cal was the first to see him round the corner and he stopped his mower. “No, no!” James yell-whispered. “Keep the engine going so he thinks we’re working.”
“Don’t, James. That’s not a good idea.”
“Start it! I have to see what’s in there.”
James threw the ladder up, climbed quickly, and poked his head over the fence line. He could see that the metal box within the enclosure was grimed with rust and gray sludge. Holes the size of fists ran in neat rows along one side. James noticed an access point at the top the size of a manhole cover and metal rungs built into one side. It was too dark in the container to see anything moving.
Then he heard Don’s nasal voice shooting through the hum of lawn mowers. “Tinley! What the hell are you doing? Get down from there!”
James knew if he crawled down now, he’d have no story to tell. He stepped onto the pickets; the soles of his shoes bent into arches. Since there were two fence rows, he managed to balance himself momentarily, facing the enclosure. He turned the upper half of his body back toward the yard, bending low to grab the top of the ladder.
The mowers stopped. From the corner of his eye, James could see Don running across the yard. The mouths of his two friends were open as they both felt the earth shifting, as their teachers had told them it did. There James stood, balanced atop a fence, half his body twisted while lifting the ladder. Then he fell forward.
When he tumbled, he refused to release his escape route. They fell—James and Don’s ladder—into the cage in Don’s backyard.
James thought that he was safe inside the fence because he had landed outside the storage container. But he was wrong. His right ankle had struck the hard mud-caked ground first. A tiny bit of bone protruded. Bright spots swam in and out of his vision. The Christian hell was not difficult to imagine here, fire smoldering his heel and wrapping itself around his shin.
This is wonderful, James thought. Something is happening!
The pain grew worse, and he closed his eyes and saw his father. Yesterday, he had found James’s stash of money in the wall, and without a conversation—no family meeting about finances—Ed pocketed the cash and left the house. The money had taken nearly three years to accumulate, and it was enough to purchase Larry Gregovich’s bike, though what James really wanted was a brand-new bike from the store downtown. He could never afford one of those.
He pushed himself up against the fence and saw the tiny yellow-red of his bone sticking out of the ankle. He seemed to pass out because the world darkened.
The cage at the center of things was forgotten.
People were yelling his name. A minute had passed since the fall. James heard a crunching sound like a chrome bumper slamming into another car. The yelling grew louder.
He was so angry with his father. Before setting out that morning, he had imagined horrible things. His thoughts of yesterday mixed with the pain of his present predicament, and James failed to register the bear at first.
Its black face stared down at him. James did nothing. The pain from his leg numbed his senses. It was a vision, he thought.
But how defined this vision was! The face of this animal was somber; scabs stretched along its sides. Its teeth were pristine but the tongue had a small chunk missing, and the top of one ear appeared slightly crushed. The bear was massive, taking up James’s entire field of vision. It seemed part of him, a projection, and then it seemed bigger than him too, the universe.
Then the bear spoke, and James knew it was a she-bear. “Little boy,” it said. “I don’t know how you got in here, but it looks like you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. The man will pull you out soon. Please. Save me. If you release me from this man’s hold, I will give you something in return. Anyone who frees me can choose between two gifts.”
James thought, Why did his father take his money? It was his money.
The bear leaned in close to James. She was dirt and blood and rust; she breathed her thirsty hot breath into his nostrils. “Are you listening, boy?” She licked his face, salty sponge, twanging his senses with the primacy of the mouth, its taste, desire, and speech.
“First choice: I will grant your wish, whatever it may be. But the wish will cost you. In exchange, someone you love will die before it is their time. Or you can have something else. Something simpler.”
She leaned forward and opened her mouth, allowing her teeth to brush the contours of his face. She set her front paw and the tips of her claws on his torso. Then she reared her head to stare into James’s eyes and growled: “Second choice: You can name an enemy, name an enemy clearly and with conviction…” James started to close his eyes. “…and I will destroy your enemy.”
At Sunday mass, Father Muller told a story about a man who caused the sun and the moon to stand still. It meant the earth stood still with them. This man’s name was Joshua. Pausing the sun gave him more time to kill his enemies. It was a miracle, stopping movement, because stillness was not the world’s nature.
Snow fell and teenagers climbed Taft Hill with sleds to aim their bodies at the younger kids before shoving off, downward, in a halo of snow. The Amtrak line from Sandusky to Chicago went unnoticed in the summer, but the noise grew louder now, cold air carried the noise of shuddering steel to the backyards. The sky was gray and the gloaming came early to announce the dark.
James’s leg still ached when the temperature reached zero. The pain reminded him of things he never thought he’d see, like bears and his own bones, and of his hatred for his father. He was amazed by his anger, that it lasted so long and continued to grow. It was like the frozen sun in the sky that the priest sermonized. It was stilled, pulsating, in his heart.
He considered his first attempt and imagined he could do it again. But the giant bear could not climb a ladder. Could it? If a bear could talk, perhaps it could be convinced to climb.
In the hospital, James had suggested some animal spoke to him. Don produced his dog, a giant breed called a Leonberger, and that was that. Everyone agreed James’s pain caused him to see the dog as a monster. As far as the trespassing, they agreed James was just being James. He did it for the thrill, to satisfy his rebel heart.
As autumn cooled the air, James began to question whether the bear was an illusion. But by the time the first snow fell in November he was certain the bear existed. The scrunched ear, the scarred nose, the pointed teeth that pressed against his face, and that moist mouth, the hole that engulfed his head.
Weekly, James walked by Don’s house and peeked beyond the side yard. The enclosure sat in the distance. James had taken to hiding in the forest behind Don’s house, watching to see how he interacted with the bear, hoping for a clue. But in five months, Don never approached the enclosure. Not once. If the bear ever existed, surely it died from hunger.
Every night when his father returned to their home filled with torn-down drywall in need of repair, the cracked upholstery, and the musty smell of unwashed laundry, James thought of ways to free the bear. Surely a wood fence would come down easily. Even two wood fences only required the removal of several pickets. To his consternation, though, the pickets covered metal posts. Posts upon posts.
Two days before Christmas Eve, an accident gave James an opportunity. During one of his visits to spy on the bear’s enclosure, James saw Don exit his home in formal wear. James followed him for three blocks, watching Don’s breath steam under streetlights in the distance. Finally, Don turned a corner and strode up a car-packed driveway into a house riddled with Christmas lights. The house pulsated with tipsy festive cheer. The front door opened, allowing the bells from some well-worn Christmas song to escape. Don entered and James realized with a slow tingle that this was his chance.
James felt a string on his heart, and it pulled him back to Don’s house and into the backyard, where, after all these months, he was again face-to-face with the fence. The string on his heart became a rope for some large vessel, and it pulled him forward and upward. No ladder was needed. He scaled the fence. He sat his butt on the pickets and moved until the crook of his healthy leg wrapped the top. In this way, he could pull his injured leg over and drop onto the other side.
The moon caught the top edge of the storage container. Every fist-sized hole was welded shut except for one in the middle. James breathed slowly and watched his breath in the shining moon.
It was possible, he remembered, to climb the container’s rungs to the top and look through the manhole, but he did not wish to reveal himself, so he walked to the one hole in the side and squinted into the darkness. “Hello?” he whispered. Nothing happened.
James closed his eyes and thought of the drywall at home, his money stolen. He thought of a darkened Christmas morning and extended his arm. He stuck it right into the hole.
The air in the container pulled James forward like a vacuum of hot breath. Something was alive in there. When he pulled his arm out, the bear spoke. “So you’ve returned, boy.”
The voice was lower and more subdued, a throbbing bass in his ears. Sweat poured from his skin. “I am here to free you, but I don’t know if I can.” A long exhalation shook the metal cage. Then silence. A car drove by, a block over. Something scurried through the branches deep in the forest.
“I can’t get you out of the container, but since you got out before, I figured you could do it again. Maybe I could help you climb and leap and…” James looked back at the fence and it all seemed ridiculous, this haphazard break-in after months of waiting and wondering.
His own greed and feeblemindedness shook him. For months, he simply had to find the bear and free it to get what he wanted. A careful plan didn’t matter next to the sheer madness of his anger at his father. Nothing ever thwarted him from his obsessions, nothing. But after getting to this point, to the edge of a mystery, he was stumped about what came next. It was his inability to imagine the scale of things.
“We don’t need anything,” the bear finally said. “You couldn’t save me then because you passed out, but you can save me now. It’s simple. All you need to do is answer this question.” She stuck her face up to the hole and turned one weary, reddened eye in his direction. “Do you wish me free?”
“That’s it? What about the container? What about the fence?”
He couldn’t see it, but he felt the bear shake her head. “Do you think the man holds me with these things? Don’t you see?”
James looked at the fence. He reassessed the container and the distance from the fence. He considered the bear’s strength when she had torn through steel to reach him. No. Nothing here could contain the bear. Everything was here to keep people out. People like James.
“I don’t understand. Why do you stay then?”
“It is no benefit for me if I answer that question.”
James imagined the sun standing still; he could see Don standing, holding the earth in its place.
“Would you free me?” the bear asked again.
“Not if that is my wish,” James replied, some measure of confidence returning. “I would free you for the promised gift.”
“Yes. You shall have your gift. But first you must free me.”
It felt strange to say, the power of the words in his mouth. The utterance was magic. “Yes,” he said. “I wish you free.”
James backed away expecting the cage to break open. “And the other thing?” she asked. “What do you choose, the wish and the lost loved one or the death of your enemy?”
The pain in James’s leg started again, stabbing and heating his body. He would never have chosen the first option and made a wish. He worried that, unbeknownst to himself, he might love Alan and Calvin, or maybe even Father Muller or his mother, who could still come back someday. No. And what if death came much later, years from now, after he met someone and fell in love and married? What if she were to die before her time? Or what if they had children and he held them in his arms and they became his heart? What if his childish wish cut them down?
James took the second choice.
The beast spread the hole in the container as if it were cloth; the metal crunched across winter silence. She lumbered with a slight limp to the fence line and parted the posts like cornstalks and was gone, into the forest. Her pads could be heard crunching the snow in the distance.
Moments later Don appeared in his festive attire. Their eyes met. “Oh, James,” he said. “What have you done?”
Ed shook him awake. It had been some time since James had felt his father’s touch, and he woke to it as if waking to a dream. They had no tree. No lights strung up. He propped himself up on his elbows and stared at his father.
“What’s wrong?” James said. “Is it the bear?”
His father laughed. “No bears. It’s just Christmas.”
Ed stepped out into the hallway and popped a kickstand, wheeling in the first gift for James since his mother left. Last week, James learned that his mother had called the house and asked after him. Since that time his father’s manner had softened.
“Here you go. I’m sorry that I took your money. We needed to repair the truck. I should have explained.” He said this brusquely.
James looked from the green handlebars to the sleek mint frame. He threw the blankets off and stood up, unsure of what to do or say.
“It’s ready to go if you want to ride it.” Ed seemed to forget that it was freezing outside.
“I was so mad.” The admission came from James’s mouth like the magical words he had spoken to free the bear the night before. It was an explanation for the fierce death he’d wished upon his father.
Ed flipped the kickstand down and let the bike stand on its own. He reached forward awkwardly and touched his son’s shoulder. This was an apology. “Sometimes we think we have to make certain decisions, that we’re trapped. Not true.”
As the Christmas morning unfolded, James carried the reptilian coldness of regret around the house, like a snake coiled in his chest and along his shoulders. They sat at the table; they ate eggs.
“But I got nothing for you, Dad.”
“You don’t need to get me anything. I took your money.”
Suddenly James had a solution. He’d go to work with him. He’d protect his father.
For a week, James was all movement again. At night, he snuck into his father’s bedroom with a blanket and a pillow and slept on the floor. He rose early and went to work with his dad pounding nails slantwise into floorboards, screwing electric plates into walls, and replacing pipes.
As the winter vacation drew to a close, James grew panicked about school. How could he protect his father then?
On the Monday when school resumed, James pretended to leave the house through the backyard, but instead ran behind the shed and hid. He glimpsed his father at the kitchen, staring down as if washing dishes.
Ed looked up and James ducked low. But Ed turned his head as if hearing someone at the door. James climbed into the truck bed and threw the drop cloth over his head.
He wondered if he’d heard something. The sound of his landing seemed doubled.
The metal of the truck bed grew warm against James’s body, huddled in the dark. The air outside was cold enough for his lungs to sting. The stillness unsettled James.
He pretended the truck bed felt like the storage container, and he closed his eyes to gather a hibernating patience. Where was his father?
The clouds parted and the sun emerged again, its light beating down on the truck, and the shadow of the trees reminded James of old fairy tales from kindergarten, children leaving a trail of bread crumbs that are eaten by the birds, family members disfiguring their feet to fit into a glass slipper, an intruder devoured by bears, a grandmother swallowed by a wolf. The sun dipped behind the clouds again, but his father never came out of the house. There was no wind, no voices carried from the railway, no cars drifted by on the road. Nothing moved.
Joshua received his graduate degree in English from Bowling Green State University. His most recent work can be found in Change Seven Magazine and Coalesce Community Journal. Josh teaches writing in the Chicagoland area.
Art by Five South