Until the lion learns to write,

Every story will always glorify the hunter.

                            ~African Proverb

It was her cub who guided her to this particular grave. Sow-Bear had been awake on many moon-filled nights while men came by and dug holes for boxes filled with people who were no longer living. They spoke of “grave” a lot, a word she could pick out, like pumas picked out the scent of her as opposed to an elk. It did not sound like the words the Old People used, the ones dressed in deerskins and rabbit fur. They buried dead people differently. Once, when one of her first cubs died, she did what the Old Ones did, and put him in a crevice in the rock. She paced for a week, would not eat. Finally, an older sow came along, nosed her forward. There will be other cubs.

            But like the people who lived next to this hillside of bones, she would visit that crevice at times. She never shared with another soul this doing, but once she happened in the woods along another sow, pacing in front of a rock slab with a crack in it. Sow-Bear had snuffled and sat with her at a respectable distance for a while. The other bear turned to her with such sadness. They nodded at each other and a week later shared the hot springs up the valley where the Earth split open to release its heat. 

            This cub, one of three, was teaching her something different, though. The runt, a sow-in-training, she’d plowed right into a coyote pup one day while playing and the sow watched as the pup taught her to bay in front of a massive churned up earthworks with a structure made from trees sticking out of it. Men used to go in and out of it all day but did not now. None of the animals would drink the water from the pond near it. It was bright blue. It ate away flesh, bone. A deer carcass next to it fell in and dissolved. The lion who stashed it knew better than to go after it. She singed her paw trying.

            This cub said, here. This grave. Runt-Cub’s siblings laughed at her but Sow-Bear cocked her head. Runt-Cub’s demeanor had the insistence of some kind of justice wanting to be born. Sow-Bear had had Old Soul cubs before, and she now knew to listen to them. So Sow-Bear began digging. Upturning dirt. The cub nosed the wooden box when it came to light. It was another moonful night. Then the lid moved. Two thin white arms pushed up. And a thin skull-woman came out. She had long curly red hair and as the moonlight hit her, her flesh began to re-form and she stared at the sow and her three cubs. Then she started as if remembering something and began wailing. “My kids! My kids!” Her voice sounded like bark being peeled by lightning.

            But Runt-Cub was ahead of everyone, as usual. Sow-Bear turned her head to marvel at this daughter. Runt-Cub churned the Earth of the three little graves marking the woman’s children. She nosed the wailing woman. Used her snout to then point to the three areas of churned Earth. Another box creaked open. Then another, and another.

            Soon, the woman and her three children sat, dazed, in the moonlight of the summer night with the three cubs and Sow-Bear. Mother hugged her children. One still had a cut from what killed them that oddly started to ooze again. Sow-Bear chewed yarrow and went and spat it out on the wound. Mother smeared it. Bleeding stopped. No one said a thing and the night was quiet and they all fell asleep in the woods away from the graveyard, so no one would find them in the morning.

            The Crippled Man showed up at the Miner’s Tavern, as Crippled Men often do. 

            Runt-Cub had been watching him a long time. Sometimes she woke up early from their afternoon naps in the trees and she’d see him teeter to the woman’s grave. He kept trying to apologize. Sometimes he was drunk, sometimes not. He was consistently disheveled and his hands shook and he didn’t walk quite right. Runt-Cub watched him in town too. He had no regular employment. He did not go digging in the big earth piles the way some people still tried to around here, or cook delicious-smelling meat for the tourists who rode, come summer, the funny yellow railcars with the belching black engine into the mountain bowl where the town sat. No – and Runt-Cub would chew her cud behind a screen of willows next to the rushing creek that cut through the east end of town – he just seemed to sit on benches and talk to other people who sat on benches. Runt-Cub had only been born late winter so by the time of the Digging Up of Woman it was an August moon and she was less than a year old. Runt-Cub thus wondered if he denned for winter or if he had the strength to cut wood for fuel to keep warm the way she’d seen campers do. 

           Sow-Bear came and sat with her one day at the creek. Cocked her head at the men sitting on benches, then at her cub. She nudged her. Come. There was a bird feeder up the valley and they needed to grab it. Bird feeders, Sow-Bear Mama snuffled, were loaded with fattening foods to lay in for denning come winter. Sometimes women came screaming out of the mountain cabins next to the feeders, swatting at them with brooms as little dogs yipped behind their heels. Her family would all just come back at 3 a.m. if so and take the feeders down then. Runt-Cub thought the Cabin Women were hilarious, but Mama shook her big head and discussed guns in that way of hers and Runt-Cub sobered up a bit.

            Exuberant Child-Bear. Exuberant, and very, very observant.

            Crippled Man, who people seemed to call John, John-boy, or (off-sounding to Bears’ Ears) Pike for no reason discernible, generally went into Miner’s Tavern around 8p.m. and emerged after Last Call, which, this being an old mining town, sometimes did not exist. Come a Sunday morning, as the Bear Families were fading into the forest after a night rummaging dumpsters, the Tavern owner would roll Crippled Man off to one side after stepping over him to get to the bar. Cockroach told Runt-Cub this. Runt-Cub could never keep track of which Cockroach was talking to her but it didn’t seem to matter. They loved chatting while Runt-Cub licked out ice cream tubs and pizza boxes. 

            Runt-Cub said she didn’t like Crippled Man. He stole stories.

            What do you mean? Asked Cockroach.

            This Dead Woman-Sow and her three Cubs – in the grave place – the hill with the stones?

            Yes? Said Cockroach.

            He keeps going there with his hat in his hands, weeping, saying “sorry sorry sorry” over and over. Runt-Cub made a noise like a stuck bird.

Cockroach nodded. Let me fill in the rest. You know, if only that grave lady knew what a shit life he’d had and the mine dried up and he never found work since and what was the matter with this country anyway and he’s weeping and sniveling and she’s, you know, dead. 

            Runt-Cub nodded. Exactly. How’d you know? 

Hell, they’re all like that.

            What do you mean?

            They all sound like that at the bar. I crawl on their shoulders and they don’t even notice. Peanut duff, you know.

            Runt-Cub nodded.

            Well anyway, said Cockroach, they just complain and go on and how sorry ass so and so made them or how somebody jilted them. But don’t call them out on it, how whiny they are.

            Why not? Runt-Cub noticed Cockroach talked like the men in the bar. It must rub off.

            Then they hit each other. Use words like pussy and Mofo.

            What’s a pussy?

            Cockroach shrugged. I have no idea.

            And a Mofo?

            Cockroach just shook its head. He steals her story because none of them let themselves have their own stories. It’s really sad.


            Sow-Bear did not bring the cubs into town unless the forest food had grown thin. She stuck to raspberry bushes and pine grubs and the occasional deer carcass a mountain lion had carelessly left behind. She taught them to kill weak deer and eat fish. Runt-Cub liked fish in particular and spent a lot of time in the rivers and creeks that emptied into the basin where the town sat.  This left her exposed sometimes, and Sow-Bear cuffed her ears a couple of times while Brother and Sister Cub smirked. Get in line. Runt-Cub, though, found a friend in the youngest of the children they’d dug up. Like her Mama, she had red hair and freckles. Mama spent a lot of time those first few days spooked-looking, eyes bugged and stuck in the position they were in when she died. But the Little One, who said, “I’m five!” shook off the bruise across her chest (“a car seat”) watched her sister’s leg heal, and told her brother – the oldest – to bug off. Brother and Brother-Cub went into meadows and tussled. Their family matched her family.

            Mama with the Fly Eyes did hike them up to an old cabin deep in the pines. “I used to hide from him in here,” she said.

            From Crippled Man? Runt-Cub wanted to ask, but instead she talked about a tall, handsome man-person who opened a restaurant in town and “wooed me.”

            Woo woo! Giggled Runt-Cub. Sow-Bear chuffed her. She sat on her haunches chewing a bird seed bundle, listening thoughtfully. 

            Red-Haired Mama started to cry. “He was all honey at first. But every year it got worse. Then he started telling me how no good I was and I left when – when --” she looked at Red Haired Girl – “he kicked me with her inside and you what she did? She kicked right back! I could see this little foot as if it was coming straight out of my belly.”

            Mama Bear picked a tick out of her fur. 

            “So, I thought, well, shit. If a not-yet-born baby can defend herself better than I can – well fuck it. I left that Mofo.”

            Mofo! Runt-Cub snorted. What a word. It didn’t sound like a compliment.

            “For months I was called all kinds of crap. Slut, home-wrecker, you-name-it. CPS had me investigated. The mayor said I was disgracing the town’s best businessman and how dare I take his kids from him and I don’t see no black eye so what abuse exactly are you talking about?”

            Runt-Cub thought she saw Sow-Bear wince. Occasionally they ran into He-Bear Father in the woods, or more likely fishing. He-Bear Father loved having little bears climb up on him and slide down his back. Sow bears would all smile. The year or two-year-old he-bears would then amble off with the father bears come fall. Sow bears would look after their he-cubs wistfully or sometimes with relief. Then the she-bears when they were ready would amble off too, to find the he-bears, and Sow Bear would find a new mate. But no sow bear could imagine a he-bear kicking the belly of a she-bear pregnant with young bears. Or that the he-bears would castigate the sow bears for being – what was the word, said like a snake whipping out of a mouth?

            Oh yes. Liars.


            Red-Haired Woman was still weeping a little. “That’s one way they cut out your tongue. Call what your life is untrue. It’s the cruelest thing possible.” She played at the remains of an old fire with a stick. Sow-Bear had offered her raspberries but none of the Grave People seemed to need to eat. All of their clothes were torn, too.

            “These,” she said, lifting the cloth a bit. “They cut these away from us after the accident. Head on.”

            Runt-Cub and Sow Bear and the other two cubs went still. This was the first she talked of how she died. The human children went still too. “Drunk ex-miner. It’s a small town, I knew him. Saw his face clear as day just before I died. John Pike. John Fucking Pike.” She spat. 

            “And do you know what my ex said? And the mayor? Not directly of course but under the breath? You know what they said?”

            Runt-Cub practiced her human speech under her breath right along with Red-Haired Woman. For she knew what was said. Cockroach told her. It was why she’d started digging this grave, Red-Haired Woman’s grave, with her three children.

            “They said, well she got what she deserved.”

            Red-Haired Woman threw a chunk of wood across the cabin and screamed. And screamed. And screamed. 

            Crippled Man gawped at the empty graves. Runt-Cub kept watch on him. She had been waiting for his reaction. He sat down and ran his hands through his hair. Then, after about five minutes, it seemed to bother him to sit next to churned up dirt and missing bodies and he stood up quickly. Runt-Cub was reminded of the time she sat on an anthill and learned the hard way about ants.

            “Caroline,” he said next, softly. “Caroline McKee?”

            The Red-Haired Woman came up next to Runt-Cub and sat with her in the twilight at forest’s edge. The man was getting hard to see in the oncoming dark, but they could hear him talking.

            “Shit, Caroline. I know your name is Caroline McKee. I knew who I was – I was running into – and Liam and Betty and Eva.”

            Runt-Cub slapped a paw over Caroline’s mouth because she was threatening to howl. The sound of her kids’ names did that to her. Then Runt-Cub moved closer so Caroline could feel the warmth of her fur. Runt-Cub was always disturbed at Caroline’s lack of body heat, her thinness. Her hair glowed though. Runt-Cub hoped it looked like a clump of early autumn leaves, turning, should Pike-Man look up toward the forest.

            Pike was getting somewhat frantic. “Where are you? Who took you? Jesus. Do we have grave stealers here? Do I call the Sheriff? Jesus.”

            Pike was sweating. A sheen came onto his forehead in the last of the light. In this bowl at 9000 feet the stars fell quick, the milky way a tumbling band that domed the heads of all creatures as soon as the day faded. It didn’t matter that the temperature dropped as it does up high when the sun goes down. Pike still sweat.

            He rambled off some time later. But he did not go to the bar. Deep in the night, when the humans were asleep and Sow-Bear had gotten done with an old deer, Runt-Cub came awake and saw Pike was back at the graves. With a blanket. He wrapped up in it and propped up against a neighboring headstone and talked.

            “I got three years for you, Caroline. Vehicular manslaughter. Three years. Town was ripped up over you after you left Jake and said he beat you and the kids. But they didn’t like me much either, for being drunk and driving County Road 3 like that and killing kids.” He let out a kind of sob. “I didn’t mean to kill kids!”

            He wiped his nose and took a swig of something and then got mad. “You’d think I’d stop drinking after that! You’d think! Three years dry and the first thing I do out of the clink? I am shit.”

            The moon moved high in the sky and the Milky Way faded. The man did not seem unnerved by night-cracks and rabbit-scurry. He kept staring at the graves and the turned-up dirt so that by morning he looked like Caroline did, bug-eyed. Terrified. At dawn, he stood up, wiped the seat of his pants, and went back to wherever he lived in town. 

            Caroline was rocking and muttering to herself. “My life didn’t matter. My life didn’t matter. My life didn’t matter!”

            She looked with wild eyes at Sow-Bear. “That man last night. Who killed me. Didn’t care he killed me. He cared he killed kids. My kids. Mine. Fucker. You cannot have my kids too.”

            Runt-Cub nodded. And what a sorry-ass man he was.  For a minute she was touched when he said Caroline’s name. For a minute. It made her sad.

            “Victim or Confessor.” Caroline sat up, picking a stick out of her hair. Sow-Bear sat behind her and began grooming her.

            “You know what he’s really upset about? That I’m not there to suck down all his b.s. self-pity! God. Get a priest.”

            She leaned back into Sow-Bear. Closed her eyes as the Bear picked through the luminous tumbled down hair for specks of dirt, spiders, and twigs. Runt-Cub could see her start to melt. For the first time in the week they’d been exhumed, Caroline McKee smiled. Her eyes glinted. Anger came on this time like burnished copper, like light off the surface of a lake. Runt-Cub and Sister and Brother Cub lay in a pile with Eva and Liam and Betty and they all knew right then they’d den this way all winter. And Caroline McKee could decide, on her own, in the womb of that cave, what she wanted to do from then on. 

            It would be a gestation, Sow-Bear chirped.

            Caroline nodded.

            And I can be bones or worm food or a dancing skeleton or a new woman. Eva twitched. Runt-Cub knew what she would be, and Sow-Bear beamed at the two youngest daughters, for having such curiosity, and courage, and giving that back to Caroline.


            Did he get to steal the story? Asked Cockroach.

            Nah. But you tell me. Does he brag about empty graves in the bar?

            Cockroach shook its head. No. Didn’t even say anything when someone else caught wind of it. He was weirdly silent. Like he didn’t want to be called a liar.

            At last, thought Runt-Cub. At Last.


Author Bio:

Kate Niles holds an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is the author of two novels and a book of poetry. She won ForeWord Magazine’s Best Fiction Award for Independent Presses for her novel The Basket Maker, and has received a Colorado Council of the Arts Individual Fellowship award. She has been published widely and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lived in Colorado and the Southwest much of her life but currently lives in Providence RI with her husband and aged cat. Her day job is as a trauma-focused therapist in private practice.

If you'd like to directly support Kate, you can do so at Venmo: @Kate-Niles-1