In a way, Silya had grown up with the bears. Her father had, for a time, worked for the Interspecies Language Group, cooing to the cubs and whispering dirty Slavic limericks and snippets of Tolstoy whenever the researchers left the room. He was a subversive, her mother had said, but always with a laugh. “It’s why they killed him.” Following the bear’s lives consumed her mother and colored every facet of Silya’s childhood. Each birthday since infancy Silya received a Talking Bear gift. She owned complete sets of the bean bag plushies, the coins, every trading card, including the rare Kamchatka. Her mittens frayed away from her fingers and her ribs were sharp enough to gut anyone Silya hugged, but she had Talking Bear swag out the wazoo. She could recite their individual stats, sing the ditties, and she was the first person in her class to have watched the video of the surgery where they’d been modified. It was quite boring, though, mostly shaved pink rectangles of skin among oceans of blue paper. So it surprised no one that she ended up at the university where the bears had been gifted in their retirement, and it would also have been no surprise that she snuck through the barricades between classes to hide amongst the honeysuckle and listen to them talk.
It was on one of these jaunts that Jumar found her gnawing the fence with the teeth of her pliers. There was nothing to do but let him come along. Almost immediately they found one. “Would you like a Dr. Pepper?” said the bear, standing up. The human inflection always startled Silya, but Jumar said, “Why yes,” and held out his hand, even though the bear obviously was only reciting what it had heard the prior handlers say. Silya grabbed his shirt and they stumbled away, diving through the fence as the bear’s claws clanged against the wire.
“You aren’t supposed to engage them.”
“I thought that’s what you were doing.”
Silya was too angry to answer. He knew the rules. She ought to take him back to the dorm but instead she resumed her original direction. Jumar tromped after her, “You know they’re going to be euthanized, don’t you?”
She hadn’t. “Why? That’s a waste. We can learn so much from them still.”
“After that student wandered into their lair, they decided it was too risky to keep them here. Besides, no one’s doing any research. They’re just a publicity stunt.”
When she found the mother and cubs she touched a finger to his lips before he spoke. He hunkered next to her, shoulder to shoulder. The spice of him contrasted with the sweet flowers. “What is she saying?” he whispered.
She shook her head, annoyed. Didn’t he understand the universal signal for shut up? But when he opened his mouth again she jutted her chin and said, “Mama, telling story to cubs.”
His face scrunched into confusion as he listened. Granted it wasn’t much of a story, but Silya knew the details, and she knew the particulars of the scientist who crafted it. Unlike with human fairytales, metaphor was less important than diction for the bears. Her mouth followed Mama Bear’s rounding vowels and the pursing of her jowls, but the cub, still immature, mostly barked. Until it saw Silya and said her name.
No time to check if Jumar heard, she was too busy running. When they’d reached the safety of the building’s interior, sliding the great bolt while tons of bear flesh pounded the outer door, he said, “Their speech is clearer than I thought it would be. But I have a question. Weren’t the cubs born here?”
Silya followed the question to its logical center. “The second gen mods were genetic, allowing any cubs born with the mutation to be capable of forming words. But nobody’s heard more than a roar from them as yet.”
“Is that what you’re looking for, why you keep going out there?” His tone was more accusing than concerned. No one had been killed by the bears in years. She shrugged, but Silya wondered, was that why? She didn’t know, only that she’d been compelled to come, to listen. She thought she heard Russian from one of the older bears, once, but she couldn’t be sure. When she hadn’t responded Jumar said, “That cub looked right at you. I could have sworn it said your name.” She felt her cheeks flush and she smiled, embarrassed but pleased. He added, “I could trap it for you.”
She laughed, dropped her voice to a sexy alto. “Jumar: bear hunter.” He kissed her and they didn’t talk about it anymore.
Silya was too busy with classes over the next few weeks to visit the bears or Jumar’s dorm. Greikengkul University got a lot of students on its bear gimmick, but it was as tough a slog as any university. She was awakened from a nap by the Kodiak Cantata, her mother’s ringtone. When she answered, peeling Sociology notes from her sweaty forehead, her mother said, “Don’t babble, Misia.” Silya’s wide yawn had her imagining herself one of the bears. Her mother’s next words snapped her to fully woke human. “It’s all over the news. Some poor fool has gotten trapped by the bears. Do you know who it is?”
A certain poor fool had been joking, surely. She typed in the link her mother recited. The news cameras only showed the outside of the largest cave, restless bears pacing, pawing the air and grumbling about the dean. The Greikengkul representative was belaboring that this was the dean of the former owner’s college, and that the bears were quite content in their new environment. Silya’s mother said, “Oh that looks like Penny. Her red ruff is getting some grey. Just like me. I miss them. I wish the . . . .”
“I’m going to go check it out. I’ll call you back when I know more.”
“Make sure they don’t hurt the poor darlings. Send me pictures.”
It was warm out, but Silya layered on a nylon undershirt, sweater and jacket, stuffed gloves and hat in her pocket. At the last second she pocketed her roommate’s pepper spray. As she followed the trail grooved by her many trips to the hidden entry spot, she called Jumar. No answer. She swiped her phone to leave a message, a noncommittal, hey, where are you, but Jumar had sent her one instead. I’m coming by tonight with a surprise.
That was confirmation enough who the poor fool was, and she altered her course, now moving along the electric fence until the wiry arms stretched over the river. The narrow gap between wire and concrete might deter a bear, but a person could squeeze through. She’d then have to figure how to climb the embankment or swim upstream, salmon-like. Which called to mind a memory. She and her mother laughing as the bears stood in the middle of a salmon run. One was saying hey watch this, but the altered mouth was suddenly filled with a fish. The other bears made a sound, something like a bark or a sneeze and her mother had told her that was bear laughter.
A growl interrupted Silya’s thoughts and she lost her balance. Theodore, her mother’s least favorite, who only spoke when a treat was involved, at the top of the hill. He didn’t speak now, which she found encouraging. The action of turning caused her to lose her traction on the slick concrete and she slid on her butt and soles into a stream of leaves and bear shit. Theodore blew a strawberry of dismissal and sauntered off. Dank rotting leaves coated her sneakers and the acid feral smell of urine made her eyes burn. Did the bears mark the entrance or was this some other animal? She thought again of her mother, who never ascribed anything but human attributes to the talking bears. She would have claimed they were above shitting in the woods, much less marking their territory, even as she changed the diaper of what was left of Silya’s father.
Google maps showed the bear’s main cave system was several kilometers to the west, but Silya knew of another entrance. Modern lore among the students, for it was where the remains of the golden-haired girl had been discovered. If you knew what to look for, a path once used by a drug cartel led to the hidden entrance. A pattern of stones, a shadow from the mountain at a particular hour.
She pushed aside branches and a coarse thatch of brush. Once inside she heard her name echoing through the tunnel. “Jumar,” she called, and was answered by a growl. A tawny cub appeared. It opened its maw sideways, ferocious and adorable at the same time. She didn’t recognize this as one of the talking bears, although her mother would have known. “Do you speak?”
The bear shook its head, an action that might have been comical if it didn’t then charge her and clamp down on her forearm. Through Silya’s terror she heard her name bouncing off the walls, low, watery, urgent, mingling with her cry of pain. The cub jerked its head, tearing through leather and cloth, but leaving her with only a superficial wound.
“Silya.” From behind her, louder now. She turned to find a woman, the warden, who held a gun pointed in the direction of the departing bear. She turned the gun on Silya. “Are you Silya?”
“Come with me.”
Silya followed the woman out of the cave, and the whispers of her name amongst other murmurs followed them. As they walked toward a jeep with two more wardens, Silya noticed the muzzles of the guns aimed at her. “Am I under arrest?”
“Why are you on a first name basis with these bears?” the first warden asked as she helped Silya into the jeep and spread apart the edges of her wounded jacket. The other wardens leaned in, nodding, the brims of their hats tapping.
“Have you found Jumar . . . I mean, have you rescued the person trapped by the bears?”
A warden cleaned her arm, wrapped it. “Not yet. Can you really converse with them? We were told they only mimic speech.”
“I have spoken to them before,” she admitted. In normal circumstances the admission would get her kicked out of the university. “They never answered intelligibly. But I will try again.”
The wardens offered her a helmet with a mask. The grill cage looked too much like fangs, so she refused. “You’ll be with me, so I won’t need it,” Silya explained, pointing at the woman’s gun. The puppet lines of the warden’s mouth deepened but she waved Silya to stay close to her as they entered the main cave. A man with a microphone was saying to a camera, “The number one threat—” Flashes and shouts drowned out the rest, but as soon as Silya and the warden were inside, a stench of rotting fruit and ursine urine made smell the primary sense, so that sound no longer mattered. Jumar’s shredded backpack taunted them. They stepped around the strewn contents, Bit-O-Honey wrappers, keys and an orange inhaler, and moved into darkness. Huff-huff noises bounced at them.
The warden held the rifle in one hand and put the other on Silya’s arm. She whispered in a knowledgeable tone, “They make that sound to warn you off.”
Pulling away and feeling along the mossy, clammy stones, Silya spoke to the darkness. “Do you know me?”
A pale snout, the ancient scars x-ed along it into a grotesque smile, entered the faint circle of light. This was Alana, or perhaps Dorie, from the first generation. The bear said, “Do you know the song of Silya?”
“Yes. Would you like me to sing it?”
The bear took another step. “The doctor will see you now.”
Silya sensed the warden behind her, raising the gun. She said to Alana or Dorie, “I’d like to see Jumar. Is he okay?”
“Trust me, this won’t hurt you.”
“I know that.” Silya decided to take the bear’s offer at face value and raised her foot, as if she might step around the bear. A metal clicking behind her made the bear look up. It showed bloodied teeth. “Is Jumar in there?”
The bear laughed. The sound was not the sneezing her mother had described but it wasn’t an imitation of the researcher’s either. It was a new sound, and yet a clear sound of amusement.
The bear lunged. The warden’s rifle was quicker and the bear fell. With her ears ringing Silya asked, “Did you kill her?”
“Only stunned, but if I have to shoot her again, the dose would be lethal. Hurry.” Silya felt along the cold wall, stepping from moss to something slick and crunchy. Bones. “Jumar?” Silence. Silya moved fast, letting her palm on damp stone be a guide.
She started to sing, “Little bear little bear, are you alone there?” Her voice cracked and she swallowed hard. “I’m sending my daughter to visit your lair. Silya, we call her—”
Silya. Silya. Silya. Sibilance echoed all around, drowning out her voice. Silya’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark but the warden was no longer behind her, had not been for some time now.
Jumar’s body leaned against the stone wall. His smiling eyes didn’t seem to notice the rest of his face had been chewed off. From behind her a bear said, “No words in there. We checked the Wernicke’s.” It laughed, that new talking bear chortle, and was joined by others. They moved around her, sniffing, some of them humming like her father had. A cub rolled back and forth, holding its feet. “Silya,” it said, “do you know how the song of Silya ends?”
For an instant Silya was at a loss for words. The bears had always spoken in sentences that mimicked the researchers who had worked with them; this was the first time one had spoken an independently intelligent question. Communication was the key. If she could teach the bears to speak they could speak for themselves and make their own case for a place in the world. The bears herded her closer to the fire, into its light, where words from flesh became meaning.