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©2018 Daniel Rempel, "A Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich"

©2018 Dan Rempel, "A Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich"

My name is Nanny Furze, and though I was not asked to talk for E.Z. Ulrich upon this day of his burial—not the first internment of E.Z., but I will not talk to that since nobody (not Bic, Simp, Shirtrun, Lacrosse, Mr. Wade, not even Ulrich’s widow) has talked of it today—I aim to talk, not of the number of times E.Z. has necessitated burial, not that, but of the words that filled me in a rush all at once last night when I was otherwise occupied in avoiding my monthly additions and absractions of the scant profits to be had in administering to the sick.

E.Z. came to me. Not the man in the flesh, I reckon he has had enough of flesh, but his words came pouring into me until they had nowhere to go but pour out on the page. Words driving my hand to shape sentences most peculiar of things even more peculiar, words pouring in like black powder down a muzzle, not letting up for minutes on end, who knows how long, words jumping off my hand onto the page, words that E.Z. felt needed saying but had not, in spite of living and dying and rising and departing from us once more, found opportunity to say.

When we—that is, E.Z.’s words and my hand—were wrapping up to the chirping of the birds and the flexing of the squirrels, E.Z. named the thing that he was at in hijacking my hand: a confession.

Therefore, I stand here before you at this tribute to Ernest Zach Ulrich to read forth what might amount to the only words worth hearing at a man’s eulogy, his own.

With one word of caution: Don’t expect much. This is a bear talking.

My skin is ill fitting as if made for a larger thing than I. No fat on me just fur, I shake with cold and walk out on the pads of all four to fatten and fill out this skin before the drowse takes me over, a pull down on the eyes, drawing me down to the ground.

Who am I? Scratching up against bark, sniffing under snow to the stem of one last berry that still hangs above the frozen water I stay at the edge. How much of me will the ice hold? I am that much of me. I can bend the leaves packed in ice beneath me. How much more am I is funny to blast the bushy snow beneath my nose so that looking now I see this great round head under the ice is it me?

Why do I nose at the fungal secrets of this fallen tree? The tap tap tap of the red hat bird is making noise for me. The smell of snow crisps my limbs. Is this all me or am I this snow rising am I rising too?

The words stopped pouring here, stopped just long enough to allow me to set down the pencil. But the pencil stuck to my fingers. Matter of fact my left hand got charged with picking up a paring knife and whittling down on the wood so the dulled pencil might continue its employment. Next minute, I was writing again.

The sack of my belly shrinks at the little green shoots I nibble down. I dig up roots. Quarreling birds flick snow off the branches. Over me. Birds swoop to the open palm of a brown haired brown eyed girl standing up to the rim of her brown boots in snow edging the meadow. I get behind a tree downwind from the girl’s alarming smell. A fawn bounds ahead of a doe to the brown haired brown eyed girl to eat the little green shoots she holds out to it.
©2018 Daniel Rempel, "A Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich"
I sniff the scent of the flesh milk doe. Hooves pop the snow out onto the meadow ground. I seem to already be in the right spot to meet doe and fawn on their path back to the wood. How black the balls roll to white as the doe leaps at me. She cuts away gushing red down her breast. The silent fawn takes her death silently as I ease the sinews off the pliant bones eating eating the sacs and tubes coiled inside seem separate things that might be named so I nibble thoughtfully sucking fat through the hoof. That drowse that keeps on me keeps drawing me down under the snow I go under I go under I collapse into a tree.

E.Z. may have been too bear to bother about his predicament, but I was not. As conduit for his ramble, I was no less inhabited by E.Z. than E.Z. was inhabiting what you ought to by now have put together was a bear’s skin. Lottie Ulrich had told me of how on occasion her husband’s spirit took up with the animals of our forest. That was how I concluded this transmission was from E.Z. But there was no time for further contemplation, let alone appeasing my own grumbling stomach. The page wanted words.

The fawn’s femur between my teeth, I walk out across the meadow and across the meadow to the smoke rolling away over the top tree branches ahead. The cabin wears a white shawl it is doored but without entrance it is stairs pitched high to a porch set higher still and iced first to last each step a slip. A dun yellow haired woman in white gown walks out the cabin. The brown haired brown eyed girl does not follow the woman. The girl watches from the cabin door. I hide behind the green scent of conifer, close enough to the alarming turned meat smell of female. The dun yellow haired woman steps down the ice pitched stairs and the ice quivers from top step to bottom step.

Praise liberty! The pencil slipped out my fingers. But I knew this freedom would not last. E.Z.’s words scratched at the very meat of me. Now I voluntarily took back up that pencil and set to my accounting. Oddly, I now inclined toward the task. The fact that our local collector would at sunrise knock upon my door to demand the overdue land taxes no longer froze my hand as it had done earlier in the night. My pencil drew straight lines down the page, building columns, each bearing the name of somebody around Onaway who owes me money. Hardly had time to hop my hand down the final column.

Here is the lake and here again it is still iced. How curious—the dun yellow haired woman is stepping out onto the lake. The mouth of the dun yellow haired woman gusts hot breath. She squats on the lake and her gown pins lace knee to knee. From the bowl of her gown she spoons up a blade long and pointed. She jabs the blade between color blotched thighs into the chilled lid. Crick. Crack. Ice slivers the air. She squints in at the ammoniac ice beneath her red feet until her white gown is one more birch tree at the lip of the lake. Crick. Crack. The sound cuts my ears and I back away back into the woods. The yellow orb bleeds clouds across the sky.

For about a breath I wondered what that yellow haired woman could be thinking, poking holes in a frozen lake—

I scratch the cabin door skittishly. A bolt slides on the other side a creak the cabin door sings open. Cheeks flare over candlelight. Brown eyes round at me. I regurgitate lumps of doe flesh blood cartilage to pack along the threshold and paste into the hinges of the door. For later. The brown haired girl screams and bangs the door shut but I am in, pushing the door in pushing in. Inside it is heat it is ceiling it is cold belly stove with two fresh pale legs poking out like tongue beside the candle where it rolled still lit. Her buttocks flicker beneath her skirt caught on the stove hinge.

Go ahead, brown eyed girl, hide.

I swing my head at the walls but the walls stay put. Nosing the dim stain of female in the dust, I fall to all paws and roll up to the one fat log sparking fire in the hearth. Ah heat more heat. The girl sniffles behind the stove.

Any moment now sleep will bellow out my dropped jaw.

The girl sidesteps heel against wall steps until she creeps behind me. Firelight shapes the flat splayed bones of her feet. The shadow of broom bristles rise. A whack—a stinging. Baked snow flies off my back. “Go away, bear! Go!”

I stay.

Whack again whack again. Sizzle crackle fire. I am poorly dressed in skin. Would the bristles hurt so if I were not all bone? Firelight flares in the round brown eyes that switch from the open door to me. “Mam will be back any moment,” she says. The broom whirls and stabs my chest stabs until the rear of me is out in the cold again. I look up and she gouges my snout. The blood sprays the folds of her skirts red.

A roar and a slap. She holds on stubborn to her broom so rolls across the boards along with her broom.

I seem to have the run of this place now and the air is cold on my rump. I drop back onto my belly before the hearth. Snow tilts through the door now ajar.

A scuffle at my window alerted me. Then a scrape across the doorstep. Was it the collector already at my door? Without the money for the taxes I owed, my land would default to the Huron Club’s president Mr. Wade. But the words did not stop for tax collectors.

Dull purple roses stiffen beside empty hooks where the scent of meat still dangles overhead. On my hinds I reach for the nogrub, the drowse drawing me back down and I seem to know the drowse is a death draw on an empty gut and lunge against it.

Saltpeter whiffs up from the rifle pinned above a fire just embers now. Gone, the brown eyed girl gone. If she is gone to get others with rifles why not first use this gun here?

Picking my way across the boards I trundle out the door.

To snuff through snow for tender green shoots to eat and if not grub, then some purpose to this lousy occupation of skin. As I pass the outskirts of a cave the musk shit scent of my kind bubbles up from under the snowground where my kind sleeps and deeply but not me I still do not sleep. What I do could hardly call it rest.

Trees and trees and now a tall pine tree rising over the cabin will do. I climb up the tall pine branch to branch.

A boom. A shuddershot straight up the tall pine trunk. The snow on the ground tenses for the next loud boom. Boom again—and again. The short sun vanishes behind fluffs of cinder over the frozen lake. Beneath the pine branches shuffles the brown hair girl hauling a box of sticks and twigs. She sings, “Dadda goes boom! Goes boom. Goes boom.” I know that thing kicking out the pocket of her coat at rigid odd angle. She looks past both shoulders before she scales the cabin stairs pitch slipped and iced.

“Mam?” she says. “That you?” Her face holds all the light in the cabin as I push through the door. At the sight of me, she spits into the bowl of meat propped between her white knees. I mosey up to the fire she has fed pleasantly enough.

The girl seems to have a name for me and a place for me and this place is not in this cabin with her. She is a back turned to me. She is sharp shoulder points beneath her balding coat. From her coat pocket she draws the rigid object it is the fawn’s femur I did not eat all of. With a pocketknife she slices chunks off the hoof she carves the slices to sharp points she shaves them into the bowl then between her white knees mixes the slices into the meat. Her flat bone feet come near but not too near me. She tilts the meat in the bowl out toward my nose. “That will serve you to pick on the weak,” she says. It is the smell of meat cooked fatty, this meat in the bowl the girl was eating but is not eating now. She sits back and her fat tongue juts pink from her lips.

I nose the bowl of meat meant not to feed me but to cut up my nobelly. I nose it over into the ashes and the mix spits ember sparks. The girl leaps up and bats at ashes in blackened feet. I slide back on my spine to sleep. I wake to flat bones at my back. “Mam wouldn’t want you here.” The girl’s hands press against the planks so her feet can slap at my back ribs. Her long noshaped legs bare to the buttocks beneath her skirts. She is trying to roll me into the fire built to a blaze. Sweat rolls down her face she will roll me into the fire she will.

I do roll over, once. To please her.

Her laugh cracks up the cabin.

Don’t stop now, E.Z.!

Now I had to know what was next for these two, no longer foes.

“Once upon a time an old bear came to the cabin door. The girl was ascared of the bear and begged to flee the cabin, but her mam said, ‘Think this is the only hungry beast outside? At least this be beast. What drives the things of the wild to brave us humankind? Knock the snow off his hide.’” The girl tells me stories and plies my hide, undoing ticks and foxtails as she tells. She tucks up behind the black stove and springs out. She commands me to chase her. I roll over or I leap around her. It is play play play sweet cheeks.

She feeds shrubs and twigs to the hearth it is a monster in this house building such heat I could tug off my skin for a leak of cold air. She pinches around my snout to better stare into my eyes, trying to speak of what she divines but failing to put words to the mysteries of eyes doubly possessed.

“My name is Rosie,” she says. “Dadda calls me a hoyden.”

Who am I? I am this shape huge but I am not just this.

“You are what Dadda gets for abandoning us to go blow out tunnels,” the girl says, this hoyden. “When Mam comes back, she will know what to make of you.” The girl rocks in her arms a picture of the dun yellow haired woman whose fingers held the sharp pointed blade above the ice. The girl shoves the picture under her skirt, says not to look at her mam so sad in this picture. “Mam went to buy a new dress to make her happy again. She’ll be back any moment.”

Now and then the ground shakes beneath us. “Boom boom, Dadda goes boom,” the girl says.

She says, “Let’s have tea.”

She pushes me up at the wall of the cabin until my legs stick out stubbily. She lifts my front paw and hangs a tin cup off a claw. She sets out plates. She walks on her knees between my legs and tilts her hands over the tin cup until my cup is filled from her nopitcher. Her brown eyes spark at the sight of what rises stupid between my legs. Her laughs boom up the cabin walls, horrible. The door bangs open and shut and now the wind and I are going out the door and the door and the door to the ice pitched stairs. Digging my native picks into the ice I swing easily down but not before the girl springs onto my back, screaming, “You leave me, I am alone.” The water hot stink of her skinny thighs gripping my hide drives me past trees and trees until again the frozen lake before me. The wind is blowing every fast flake off the ice it is pure black to the rim all around. “Do you skate, scardy bear? I’m good at it. I’ll show you.”

The girl tufts small knuckles into my rear and pushes me out onto the black, sliding past me making circles slipping banging a knee. The other side of the lake, the navel woods beyond: all rise behind her like a conscience. My hinds spring into a run. In flight from her. I will reach the other side of the lake before she can reach me. But the inner skin of some earlier knowledge bumps up against a fattening a thickening a slowing, the cycle of the season at last claiming me after so so so spoons of gruel and jams spooned into me by a hoyden.

When a pocket in the ice stops my flight short.

I pant down into the pocket to look. Underneath the curved ice window a white gown widens unmoving around a open mouth sucking in still water. It is the dun yellow haired woman from the cabin, the child’s mam. Blasted eyes. Accusing fingers grasping for a rope rising from some sunken track of rail. A roar—a rising. At full height I spin and swell. I am this huge. The girl chokes and scrambles backwards. Neverseeing. Landing on elbows ice cracked and crying. She knees to her feet and runs falls and runs away from me one glance back then all the way to the cabin. I grab her up—her eyes all flat dull intrigue of what I will do—I swing her over my shoulder and as she straddles my back she names me naughty, why scare her? Yes, why? Why scare the girl off seeing her mam under the ice? What do I care? What province of this shambling shapeless body is reserved for mercy? If I feel something for the girl, am I only this or is this only a feeling? She jabs her heels into my ribs. My spiking thoughts hook the ice ledges. We scale the stairs.

She liked to play pony, hiking up her nightdress and straddling my hips, I remember now. She scored my skin with a switch she notched especially for this purpose. I remember. Hollering, go faster, pony! Faster! I remember how I slipped in the wet spray of my own blood. A crime. Who am I that remembers and why remember now? She jabs her heels into my back as I scale the stairs to her cabin door. The thrust of her crotch at my spine, I remember a crime.

Through the night the hoyden tugs and kneads my coat. The stupid black pale thing thickens between us. I devise a plan. I will sever the thing stupid. The blade pearling in her mam’s hands—that would take care of the offender. Snow I pray for more snow to curtain the ice window onto her mam. A curtain. A crime. I pray. Praying seems another thing I can do.

Sunlight pushes under the door and the girl spoons gruel into her mouth then cranks open mine and spoons gruel into me and solicitously. From a small female-scented box she locates a needle, threads a needle. She says I am coming undone from all her switching of my hide. She jabs the needle into a flap of open skin. My growls and blood do not stop the girl. She says she is sorry she keeps missing a spot. One time her needle opens on a nerve. I slap—reflex—she flops over doll over fold. Face to the ragged wall. Note the dirt-smudged calves.

Snap, pop, the fire stops. I hear the nonexplosions now. The dynamite on the other side of the lake, ceased. At last. Quiet. Not a chirp. Not a breath. The girl lies in the still air. Have I done it now? Killed my hoyden. What is a hoyden? Tears grease my snout. I squat and my bowels let out.

The girl sits up—not dead!—face scrunched up. She pinches her nostrils. “Filthy stinking beast.” The hoyden points at the pile of coiling steam. With a tin bucket she scoops up my dung and pitches it out the door but the wind. It blows the dung back at her blacking her nightdress. Laughing loud she rolls the nightdress up over her head and drops it where it lays. The wind slams the door behind her as she skips to me and clasps my arms around to warm her cold bones. “Dumb bear, see how I love you?” Blood oozes through my stitches, dotting her bones that burrow into me. “I hope Dadda never comes home.” The black thing pales and thickens. Her hands fall upon it as if to catch a rat. She squeezes and rolls the thing between her little palms. Not laughing now. I keep her in tight. A fawn’s heart so soft, so agile, so quick. To get inside.

No, no, no, she says.

Doesn’t she see how I love her, my hoydenish princess? I am her prince and we will unearth a separate place of our own, where no mams or daddas ever come.

She punches my mouth, catches her fist between my teeth. A fawn’s frail bone would snap between jaws just so. Her thigh jerks against my hips. She punches my snout. What am I what am I I am beast. That seems innocent enough. For a beast. Am I natural this is natural and I suppose she likes it?

Red-eyed sunshine inexplicably fills the dark dirty hole of our den.

“What in the Lord’s fucking house?”

“Dadda!” she screams.

Dadda in the doorway tall as the top beam, a great satchel on his back. “Rosie?”

I turn to him, grateful for his genius of timing. Can’t he see what he must do? Use it!—the blade long and pointed down to the pearl handle now in his ready hand.

But Dadda’s hand falls to his side uselessly as snow.

I swing toward him, arms open, chest exposed, begging for the blade, but Dadda falls back. “Eat the hoyden!” he barks. “Not me!”

I fling the girl at her dadda, knocking them both aside to run out the door. Fall straight off the porch pitched so high and lope to that high pine. Reaching the top branches as the sun falls off the horizon.

A torch sputters below her dadda’s face. The girl hooded and cloaked in red beside him. Words work up between the branches.“… not gone three days,” her dadda says.“… you females attract every ounce of rut in the woods …”

How is it the cold bites so? The wind has teeth. There is no more fat on me than before I took up in the cabin. Really. Has it been only three days? Can three days a whole winter make? Is this what time does to instincts when a bear does not succumb to its natural torpor? The girl is to blame. All her kneading and prodding let out something under the hide, a notflesh, a notbear, another self secreting and straining the seams of my beloved’s stitches.

The girl let out the man in me.

A boom—A crack. My pine tree skips and lands a few feet away. Mercury quicks up the roots. Splitting up center, my pine. I swing my arms around the trunk to hold it together, but another boom gushes smoke. The tall one, tall as a top beam, ballyhooing in dynamite sticks. The girl roars red with laughter as the pine dives into the black ice. I know my name now. I am E.Z. Ulrich.

I let go of the pine, though my skin holds on for dear life.

Blame rests with me. I had sinned against you that day, Lottie. But shame silenced me until now.

This is my confession.

Now E.Z. Ulrich was back with us, alive. He came conscious on the floor of his own home. I am talking here about returning to his body. Course I did not know this at the time. I had been summoned to the Ulrich home to help with the body. Lottie had taken E.Z. for dead since he had shown no sign of life for 3 days. I was in process of washing the body for burial, keeping busy until Doc Divish could be found to declare E.Z. deceased. But now E.Z. was not dead. Lottie thought perhaps he had instead succumbed to a coma state. Upon waking, E.Z. appeared little able to move or speak, but those eyes followed us as we backed away from him. We were much afraid. In time E.Z. found strength to lift one finger, which he poked against his body as if to reassure his occupancy. A smile lifted his lips but no words did he speak to Lottie. I hear he never opened his mouth to her again.

Since we are on the subject, Lottie, you never did compensate me for the washing, clipping, and laying out of the body in preparation for burial of what you believed at the time was your dead husband. For that service, you owe me 8 American dollars. You hoped I had forgot? Shame on you, Onawayans! For the services of midwifery, you, Bic O’Hare owe me 8 American dollars; for the services of leg stitching and stinting, you, Simpson Willis owe me 8 American dollars; for the application of blood suckers upon parts private, you, Mr. Wade owe me 10 American dollars; for advice on discontinuing use of the pipe, you, Lacrosse, owe me 8 American cents. Others here owe me money. You know who you are, Mr. Shirtrun. Do you think I supplied calomel as purgative for my own pleasure?

I confess I am also to blame. I had let your debts to me slide. But all that night of E.Z. emptying his conscience into me, the columns kept filling, your debts kept accruing. Don’t berate yourself, Nanny, I told myself. Forgetting is only human.

Since you are all gathered here for E.Z.’s burial and since sickness is also a kind of accounting, I will ask you all to now pay up your debts to me since it is never when hale that one sees the need to part with money, the sickness and the ministrations entwined in the memory as best forgot. Until it is too late to pay up. E.Z. Ulrich as example. Though I thank E.Z. for arresting my attention to this matter and will therefore take this opportunity to hand out my bills of service before any more of you die on me. That gentleman there by the door is the tax collector. Pay him directly what you owe me on your way out.

Mary Kuryla’s collection Freak Weather Stories was selected by Amy Hempel for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in November 2017. People Magazine called the debut “imaginative and unpredictable.” Kuryla’s stories have received The Pushcart Prize, and the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize. They've appeared in Epoch, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Witness, Pleiades, and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. Her award-winning shorts and feature films have premiered at Sundance and Toronto. Kuryla is currently working on a novel-in-documents called The Onawayans.
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