I t’s the bear alright,” said the rabbit sadly.The terrified baby pig now began to sob uncontrollably. The bear’s yellow body lay flat on its back, stuffing spilling from several deep cuts in its chest and especially from its neck where the head had been severed. Gusts of wind had carried other wisps of stuffing onto the wire of a nearby fence so they appeared like fairies trapped in some monstrous metal spider’s web. Other bits had gathered on a gorse bush not far from the bear’s oak tree home. The bear’s head itself sat impaled on a rotting fence post a few feet from the gorse. One of the bear’s eyes hung limply from the thread that once held it in place. The other eye was missing, the victim of further slashes to the bear’s face. The killer, for some bizarre reason, had smeared honey over the head. Fat, bloated flies, drawn by the sugary substance, now hovered nearby. “Who could have done this monstrous thing?” said the kangaroo, with a shudder. “Nothing like this has ever happened in our Wood before.” “Yes, nothing like this,” said her joey from his place in his mother’s pouch. The mother kangaroo placed her hands over her child’s eyes to shield his view of the bear’s remains. “What are we to do?” she asked. “Nothing to be done,” said the tattered gray donkey, who had arrived late on the scene. In his usual dull monotone, he added, “We’re all doomed. It’s the end of the Wood as we know it. You might as well get used to it.” “You are a damned pessimist,” said the rabbit testily. “And you’ve lost your tail again.” The donkey twisted himself around to examine his hindquarters. “Oh, dear, you’re right. My tail’s gone. Nothing to be done. We’ll all be dead soon enough.” The rabbit shook his head and snorted in disgust. The little pig continued to sob uncontrollably. The kangaroo clutched her joey close to her bosom. “Has anyone tried to tell the Boy?” asked the owl, alighting on a branch of the oak tree. “The Boy would know what to do. He always knows what to do.” “Yes,” said the kangaroo, “the Boy must be told.” But no one had seen the Boy in ages. In fact, no one could recall how long it had been since anyone had seen the Boy in the Wood’s three acres. “Well, the Boy needs to be told that a monster has killed the bear,” the owl said. “The Boy loved that bear,” the kangaroo said. “How can you be sure it’s a monster?” asked the rabbit. “What else could it be?” the owl replied, an almost professorial tone to his voice. “One need only consider that we all have lived here for years upon years. We have all known each other for those very same years upon years. Obviously it can be none of us who has committed this despicable deed. Therefore, ipso facto, it must be a monster from beyond the Wood, Q.E.D.” “Monster?” said the donkey. “Then there is nothing to be done. We’re all doomed. It will kill us while we sleep.” At that news the little pig screamed with fear and bawled ever more loudly. “Oh, bother!” said the rabbit, “ I’m not so sure it’s a monster.” He scratched his chin, furrowed his brow, and thought. “By the way, has anyone seen the tiger?” he asked after a moment. “Why isn’t he here?” “I never trusted that tiger,” the kangaroo announced. “I’ll bet he killed the bear. Tigers never change their stripes. They are all cold-blooded killers at heart. Just look at the claws he has.” “Yes, claws,” the joey added. “And big, sharp, pointy teeth.” “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said the rabbit. “The tiger was the bear’s good friend. Why would the tiger want to kill him?” “It is in a tiger’s nature to kill things,” said the owl solemnly. “Everyone knows that. And it is well known that most murder victims are done in by someone they know.” “Oh, bother, you just said that, Q.E.D., none of us could have killed the bear because we have all lived here for years and years, so it had to be a monster from outside,” the rabbit responded, though secretly he too distrusted the tiger. But he also detested how smug the owl was when he acted as if he were so much smarter than everyone else. There were times the rabbit felt like wringing that damn bird’s neck. “I would add that the tiger came to this Wood long after we were already here,” the owl said smugly. “Hallo, everyone!” a voice called out. They all turned around to see the tiger come loping up toward them. The tiger was smiling. Everyone could see the tiger’s glistening white fangs. The tiger could see the look of shock and horror on their faces. “What’s wrong?” the tiger asked, a puzzled look on his white furred, feline face. “Has something bad happened? And where is the bear?” The small group drew apart, allowing the tiger to see the bear’s awful remains. The tiger’s expression changed from puzzlement to surprise and shock. Slowly he crept forward to examine what was left of the bear. Carefully he sniffed the headless body, then the stuffing. He went over to the fence post and looked up at the head. After a moment, he turned to the other creatures with tears running down his face. “Who did this?” he cried. “Who did this?” No one replied. Instead they all looked down at their feet, or looked away. None of them cared to look the tiger in the eye, except the joey. “Murderer!” he shrieked. The tiger’s jaw fell open in surprise. “Me? You think I did this!” he shouted, exposing his fangs. It was not a question. “Murderer! Murderer!” the joey cried until his mother covered his mouth to silence him. “No one said you did this,” the rabbit said, seeking to calm the tiger. “Of course not, but you probably all thought it,” the tiger roared. He glared at the owl in the tree. “And you especially, owl, I know you thought it. You probably persuaded all of them to believe it, too.” “I most certainly did not,” the owl said with a huff. “In fact, I proposed that some monster had done this horrid deed.” “Monster? You meant me, didn’t you?” the tiger growled. “You’ve always disliked me. Thought I don’t belong here, didn’t you, Mister I’m-More-Clever-Than-Any-of-You?” With claws extended, the tiger moved toward the oak tree, as if to leap into the branches and tear the owl apart. For his part, the owl beat his wings threateningly and uttered an ear-piercing shriek. Quickly the rabbit placed himself between the tiger and the tree. “Stop it, both of you!” he said sharply. “This does us no good to accuse each other. We must find out who killed the bear. If it is a monster, then we’ll only be doing his job if we fight and kill each other!” The tiger and the owl both stopped their posturing and fell back to defensive positions. They glared at each other with undisguised hostility. When he was certain they would not attack each other, the rabbit spoke. “The Boy, we must find the Boy and bring him back here. Whether or not there is a monster, the Boy will know what we must do.” “You haven't sent anyone to find the boy?” the tiger asked, genuinely surprised. “We haven't seen him for months,” the kangaroo said. “Years,” the joey piped up. “It must be years.” His mother swatted the joey alongside his head. “Don’t exaggerate! It can’t be years!” she admonished him. “I don’t know,” the donkey said. “It might be years. Could be years. It certainly seems like years to me.” He sat back on his haunches and twisted his head to see his bare rump. “I wonder what I did with my tail?” he asked no one in particular. “So you’ve sent no one to fetch the Boy?” the tiger inquired. “You just found it easier to blame me. Is that it?” “No,” the rabbit said. “We really haven't had time to decide what to do. We agreed we should find the Boy, that is true. But then the owl started talking about monsters and you just happened to appear…” “Then I’ll go,” the tiger said. “I’ll find the boy.” “You?” the owl asked sarcastically. “And why should you go?” “You certainly haven't volunteered to do it,” the tiger snapped back. The reply flustered the owl. For a moment he didn’t respond. “I would have gone, but I don’t know the way,” the owl replied. He began to preen his feathers, trying to appear nonchalant and disinterested in the topic. “He’s right,” the kangaroo said. “Only the bear and the little pig know the way.” “I’m not going!” the pig said through his now slowly subsiding sobs. He sat down on an exposed tree root, took out a handkerchief from somewhere on his pink body, and blew his snout. “Besides whatever killed the bear would undoubtedly kill me if I were alone in the forest. I’m far too little.” “I also know the way,” the tiger responded. “Remember, it was the Boy who brought me here long after everyone else. I remember the way quite well.” “Still, why should you be the one?” the owl inquired. The tiger shot a hostile glance at the bird. “Because if I return with the Boy, then you will know I did not kill the bear. And if I had killed the bear, then I certainly wouldn't be the one to offer to find the Boy. You all know the Boy loved that bear most of all. He would destroy anyone who hurt that bear.” The others looked at each and nodded in agreement. The tiger certainly wouldn't volunteer to find the Boy if he had killed the bear, they concurred “Still,” the owl muttered, “why should we let you find the boy?” “Because if there is a monster in the Wood, I have the teeth and claws to defend myself,” the tiger said. “And you, every one of you, do not.” “Sorry, owl,” the rabbit said. “But the tiger’s quite correct.” The owl made a loud harrumph and turned away, but otherwise did not object. “Good, then it’s agreed,” the tiger said, a victorious tone in his voice. “I shall leave immediately and find the Boy. If I am successful, I will return tomorrow.” “And if you are not successful?” the rabbit asked. “I will succeed,” the tiger said with confidence. “Failure is not possible.” “Hah!” the owl chortled. The rabbit gave a withering glance at the owl, who returned to preening his feathers. The rabbit, satisfied he had put the owl in his place, turned his attention to the tiger. “Very well then, off you go, tiger,” he said, “and we will attend to the bear and to our own safety. When you return, we will all be here at the bear’s tree.” “Wish me luck!” the tiger said with a grin and ran off in the direction that the Boy always used to enter the Wood. The rest of the creatures watched him until the tip of his springy, black-and-orange striped tail finally disappeared from view. “We’ll never see him alive again,” the donkey said solemnly. “Oh, bother, you’re such a damned pessimist,” the rabbit replied. “I prefer to think of myself as a realist.” The donkey said. “That way I’m never disappointed, only pleasantly surprised.” He got up from his haunches and shook himself. “Now where could I have put my tail?” he asked rhetorically. “Damn your tail,” the rabbit said, disgusted. “Well, I never,” said the kangaroo said. “Such language, rabbit!” She quickly covered the joey’s ears so he would no longer hear the profanities. “Just as well,” the donkey said. “I won’t be needing a tail if we’re doomed. And we are.” The rabbit shook his head, exasperated. There was no use in arguing with the donkey, he thought. He’d only come out looking like an ass himself. “Time we took some action ourselves,” the rabbit announced. “We must give the bear a decent burial, and then I suggest we prepare ourselves to spend the night together here at the bear’s home. It’s the strongest of all our houses, and since the monster has already killed the bear, I don’t think it will come here looking for the rest of us.” So they held a makeshift funeral for the bear. No one knew what to do precisely, because no one had ever died in the Wood before. The rabbit secured a spade from his carrot garden, while donkey found some cloth to use as a winding sheet for the bear. The kangaroo, her joey, and the little pig carefully gathered together all the bits of the bear they could find. The kangaroo cried softly to herself, but the little pig sobbed heavily, taking in huge gulps of air and occasionally blowing his snout into his handkerchief. After the rabbit finished digging the hole, he helped the others carefully wrap the cloth around the bear. Slowly and gently they slid their burden into the freshly dug grave and began piling earth over the body. They stood quietly, some sobbing, some sniffling, while the owl spoke a few words. “The bear was a good bear,” the owl began, adopting a stentorious tone. “He loved his honey, and blustery days, and his good friends all. But he especially loved the Boy and the Boy loved him. He died before his time, leaving all his friends to mourn.” “He was so young!” cried the little pig, who then nosily blew his nose. “He was kind,” the kangaroo added. “Kind,” the joey echoed. “He could be a bother,” rabbit said, “but he was a good friend.” “A terrible way to die,” the owl commented. “Nothing to be done,” the donkey said. “This is how we shall end up.” For once, no one bothered to correct the donkey. That evening, as the dusk faded into the night, they huddled together in the bear’s home. The owl stayed outside, keeping guard on a tree limb. He explained he was best suited to stand guard because he was the only one who could escape should the monster return. In the morning, he had told them, he would fly out and see if he could find the tiger returning with the Boy. Inside the bear’s home few of them could sleep well, especially when the flickering candles cast strange and frightening shapes on the walls. But the little pig had exhausted himself sobbing and soon fell into a deep, but fitful, slumber. The joey slept peacefully as only a child could. The donkey eventually dropped off into the contented stupor of a condemned man who knows his death is near. The kangaroo nodded off occasionally, then she would wake with a start, crying, “What was that?” After a moment, her eyelids would droop, and she would return to her somnambulant state. The rabbit could not sleep at all. He kept alert, his ears straining to hear the faintest sounds. Every once in a while he would look out through the parted curtains hoping to see any signs of activity. But he had forgotten how dark the Wood was at night and how ghostly quiet it was until some strange insect or mysterious bird or perhaps hideous monster momentarily broke the silence with an eerie wailing sound or high-pitched cry. Just when he started to feel drowsy himself, he awoke to streams of bright sunshine pouring through the window and to a sharp, repeated banging on the door. “Wake up, wake up,” owl shouted. “Something dreadful has happened!” The rabbit shook himself awake and staggered to the door. Opening it, he came face to face with a distraught and highly agitated owl. “What’s the matter?” the rabbit asked. “It’s the tiger,” the owl said anxiously. “The monster has killed him!” “What?” the rabbit asked, now fully awake. “I found him when I flew out to look for him and the Boy,” the owl explained. “What I found was horrible, horrible! You must come and see for yourself!” The rabbit hurriedly roused the others. “Something has happened to the tiger,” he said. Stunned by the news, and struggling to wake up, the other stumbled after him into the bright morning. “The sun’s too shiny,” the kangaroo complained. “And hot,” the joey added grumpily. “Nothing to be done,” the donkey said. But they dutifully marched behind the rabbit as he followed the lead of the owl, who flew overhead. It seemed to take forever to reach the spot where the owl had seen the tiger. The ground was rough and strewn with dark, gray rocks, chalky, white boulders and thick, black, protruding tree roots. Heavy, green, grasping vines hung from the large foreboding trees. “I don’t remember this part of the Wood,” the little pig said. “Neither do I,” said the kangaroo. “That’s because it wasn’t like this before,” the rabbit said. “It wasn’t this way when the Boy used to come here.” “I’m scared,” said the joey. The donkey, for once, was quiet. He had expected the worst and was not disappointed. Finally they came to a clearing at the edge of the Wood. Beyond was a desolate plain that seemed to extend to the horizon. Only tiny biting insects and scraggly brown thorny bushes and stinging nettles inhabited the plain. Something else was there, too. Little wisps of stuffing, like those from the bear, floated past on the wind. “See,” the owl cried from above. “Can you see?” The rabbit followed the blowing wisps of stuffing to their source. When he saw it, the rabbit had to stifle a gasp. Before him lay the tiger, spread out on the ground like a rug. The rabbit saw that the tiger had been split wide open and all the stuffing, except that in his head, had been completely ripped from the body and tossed to the breeze. Tiny whirlwinds picked up bits of the woolly substance and carried them high into the dark, threatening sky. The wisps were soon lost against the thick, black rain clouds forming overhead. “What has happened to the Wood?” the kangaroo asked. “It’s so dark and threatening now.” “I’m scared, mummy,” the joey said. The little pig fainted dead away with fright and had to be revived by the others. “It’s the end of the Wood,” the donkey said, sadly shaking his head. “Nothing to be done.” “Yes, there is,” the rabbit snapped. He looked up at the owl and shouted, “Owl, fly out and try to find the Boy. You are our only hope now!” The owl said nothing, but he nodded, increased the flapping of his wings and flew toward the darkening horizon. “We must turn back,” the rabbit said. “We can go back to the tree and wait for the Boy. Only he can save us now.” But deep in his heart he feared the Boy would arrive too late. The journey back to the bear’s oak tree seemed to take far longer than did the outward leg. The rabbit believed that the number of rocks and boulders had increased, and that they had become larger and more sharply edged. The vines and exposed roots appeared thicker and more grasping, trying to trip them or strangle them at each step. Terrified, the others stayed close to each other, afraid to take the lead or get to close to the rabbit lest some horrible thing or plant grab them. As they drew nearer and nearer the tree, the rabbit noticed that the Wood itself was changing. The once friendly trees now grew thick, black, and threatening, almost alive with malice. The wind whipped up, scattering dust, twigs and dead, brown, dried leaves everywhere. Jagged bolts of lightning filled the dark Wood with bright flashes of light, but there was no rain. One lightning bolt struck a large tree close by, splitting it in two with an awful crack. One half pulled away with a terrible ripping noise and crashed to the ground. The other creatures cried out in terror and clung onto each other ever more closely. They all shook with fear and dread, even the pessimistic donkey who clearly was surprised, but now far from pleasantly. The rabbit realized now that the old Wood was dying, and something sinister and malevolent had begun to replace it. That knowledge sent icy chills down his back, and he understood why the donkey considered himself a realist. “Not much further,” the rabbit said, hoping to encourage himself as much as the others. “The tree can’t be far from here.” A bright burst of lightning illuminated a large shape blocking the path in front of them. The creatures stopped dead in their tracks. Thunder rolled across the sky like the roar of an unearthly cannon, followed by another burst of lightning that revealed the hulking figure held something limp in its left hand. Something else glistened in its right hand. The rabbit watched in horror as the figure drew the glistening object across the limp thing just as more thunder cracked the heavens. A large piece of the limp thing fell to the ground, bounced along the path, and rolled to a stop at the rabbit’s feet. It was the owl’s head. In the half-light the horrorstruck rabbit watched the figure slash frenziedly at what remained of the owl, then rip out the bird’s stuff by the handful, and throw it to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The figure slowly turned to face the rabbit as another bolt of lightning fully illuminated the path. The rabbit gasped. So did all the others. It was the Boy. But he had somehow changed. He was much taller and more muscular than before. His hair was now close-cropped to his skull and the stubble of a unshaven beard sprouted from his cheeks and chin like tiny golden spikes. He wore a black jacket made of leather and denim pants. Gone were his old Wellington boots, replaced by heavily studded hobnail ones. A stench of stale tobacco smoke and old beer emanated from the Boy, which the wind carried to the rabbit’s nose. Though the rabbit wrinkled his noise in disgust at the smell, that did not bother him as much as did the Boy’s eyes. Once shiny and happy, dancing with joy, his eyes were the dead, unfeeling eyes, the dark and cold eyes of an adult. “It was you!” the rabbit cried, “you killed the bear, and the tiger, and now the owl!” The lightning crackled, filling the space with light, and revealing that the Boy’s mouth had curled into a cruel grin. “Yes,” he said. He tossed aside the sodden remains of the owl. Then swiftly he scooped up the kangaroo and sliced her open, causing the joey to tumble out of his mother’s pouch and crash to earth. “Mummy!” he screamed, but his cries were cut short under the crushing heel of the Boy’s heavy boot. The Boy quickly finished with the kangaroo, then dropped what was left on top of her child. “But why?” the rabbit begged. “We loved you, all of us, the bear most of all. Why did you stay away so long, only to return now and destroy everything that loved you?” “Things change. People change,” the Boy replied in a voice devoid of feeling. “I’ve grown up.” “But you must still have fondness in your heart for us, good memories of the Wood!” the rabbit said, now beside himself with fear. “I was a child then,” the Boy said in a chill, matter-of-fact voice. “When I came to the Wood I spoke, thought, and understood the world like the child I was. But now I am a man, and see the world as a man does. So I must put away all my childish things.” He reached down, grabbed the donkey by its neck and, with one motion of his knife, split the donkey’s chest from chin to crotch. Stuffing spilled from the wound. “Nothing to be done,” the donkey gasped before the Boy’s knife cut the head from its shoulders. The Boy tossed the body into the gorse bush at the foot of the bear’s tree and snatched up the squealing little pig. “Now, I must finish my tasks if I am to grow up,” the boy said. His knife made short work of the pig. And as the Boy reached down to grab him next, the rabbit tried to make himself run. But his feet and legs were frozen in place. Watching the cruel, glistening blade of the knife flashing toward his neck, the rabbit knew there was no escape, that the donkey had been right all along, and that the darkness that had now come to the Wood and its three acres would last forever.
x x xThis was a tough choice for me. The story was too well-written to ignore, but much harder edged than anything I’ve ever published at Anotherealm. I found it especially disturbing because I’ve always loved the Pooh stories—still do. This tale haunted me; its tragedy and ugliness demanding an audience. It was the last story I chose this year and I felt very strange selecting it. I would have felt worse rejecting it though. It’s too well done. Mr. Sellars is a talented writer, but I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley. What do you think? -GM
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