Polar bears like to go dancing in the shallowest bend of the Biekenfau River. They splash gaily in the rocks. They wave colored flags on wooden sticks. They wear coral tutus and bang on tambourines.
The bears come to dance at night when the moonlight makes their fur gleam silver and they look like comets streaking across the frozen river. But sometimes, during long wintery dusks, they even tango too.
The nearest town to the bend in the river is two miles south; an old miner’s settlement, still standing, even though the gold is all gone. Full of broke farmers, loners, and religious zealots, it would have died out long ago if it weren’t nestled between three valleys and lined with balsam firs.
One of the town’s smallest residents is Alfie, who lives with his great uncle down near the bend. Alfie’s a sable-eyed boy with tanned eager limbs. At night he goes down to the river, wearing his grey flannel nightshirt and green rubber boots. An old mutt with yellow eyes follows him, and together they watch the bears dance from the stoop in a tall tree.
Neither of them is afraid. The bears don’t frighten them, but Alfie is careful all the same. He never joins them in the water. He never claps or cheers out loud. The bears are performers, but they’re still bears.
Alfie’s great uncle runs the only bar on the main road. A run-down place in need of paint. Even the carpet forgets its color. No one cares much for show around the Biekenfau River, except the bears.
After school, Alfie sits on his great uncle’s bar stool, stretching out a cut of leather as he does his homework. The old yellow-eyed mutt lies at his feet, gnawing on a stick. A man trudges into town with a hessian tote on his back and orders boiled potatoes and warm beer at the bar.
He nods at Alfie, “Mind if I sit?” He asks as he sits down next to the boy.
Alfie and the mutt look him up and down. The stranger is neither big nor small and seems tidy apart from his natty beard and a twist of reddish curls.
“Are you a geologist?” Alfie asks.
Geologists come regularly to explore the town. The gold may be gone, but rich sediment remains. Interesting to geologists, but not so much to anyone else.
The man smiles. “Do I look like a geologist?”
“Well, you’re wearing plaid jacket.”
The man laughs. “No. What else you think I do?”
Alfie frowns and looks to the ceiling.
“Truck driver,” he says.
The man shakes his head.
“A drifter then.”
“Is that a job?”
Alfie nods his head. There are a lot of drifters in this town. It must be a job.
When the man finishes his beer, he calls out to Alfie’s great uncle, “Any lodgings around here?”
“We’ve got a room,” Alfie’s great uncle says. “Bit out from the town. The boy can show you if you want.”
The man trails behind Alfie and the old mutt into the dark. They follow the hush hushof the water. Everything else is silent. The polar bears are not dancing in the river tonight.
The next morning Alfie has already gone to school by the time the man wakes up. He is tired, but feels content to wake up in the wooded quiet.
“I have to work,” Alfie’s great uncle says. “There’s bread in the larder and drying meat out on hooks. No need to lock up. Critters are our only visitors and they don’t use a key.”
The man nods and retires to his room. He spends the day in between sleep. At dusk, he hears a scattering sound in the kitchen. Alfie is cutting bread and setting down plates.
“Uncle thought I should come home. Make sure you’re ok.”
The man nods his head and runs his left hand through his beard.
“So, what did you do today?” Alfie asks.
The boy lets out a grunt. He can never understand why they work children so hard at school when adults seem to just sit around and drink beer.
“I was tired.”
Alfie shrugs his shoulder. His father was tired too before he disappeared.
“I’ll go fishing later,” the man adds, as if to make amends. “Get you something good for breakfast.”
“I wouldn’t do that at night,” Alfie says.
Later, much later. The moon is silver overhead. Alfie is down by the river wearing his grey flannel shirt and green boots. The polar bears are rehearsing a new dance. It’s a bit like the Florentine men who throw their flags into the air, but the bears are having trouble catching the poles. Their paws are not so deft.
The man is there too, but he’s hiding deep in the scrub. He’s watching the bears dance. He’s never seen it before.
The next morning at breakfast, they are both yawning.
“Stop catchin’ flies,” Great Uncle says to them.
“You look tired, boy,” says the man.
“So do you,” says Alfie.
“Ah, that’s because I went out walking last night. The moon woke me up.”
The great uncle frowns. “You must be careful ‘round these parts. Especially after dark.”
“Where’d you go?” Alfie asks, pouring himself some tea.
“To the river bend and back.”
Alfie frowns at the man, but says nothing more. He grabs his school bag and swings out the front door. The mutt slinks alongside him all the way to the school.
Later, much later, the boy returns. His mood is dark. He eats his dinner without a word and then sits on the back porch with his arms folded, face creased. The man sits on a step nearby. He is paring wood with an old knife he found in the kitchen.
Eventually, Alfie speaks. “You can’t tell anyone what you saw.”
“You mean about the bears?”
Alfie tightens his arms around his chest.
“Your great uncle knows.”
“I mean anyone outside of the town.” The boy leans forward and lowers his voice. “Or the scientists will come and the bears will leave.”
The man passes the boy a stick he just carved. It’s a line of bears dancing the conga. It makes the boy smile.
“Do you think the bears will dance tonight?”
The boy nods his head. They are working on something new. They won’t want to stop.
“Let’s go back to see them.”
The boy shrugs his shoulders, but he likes the idea of someone coming with him. Like his father did before.
At first, the bears are shy. They know their audience has grown. There are a few fumbled flag passes, but they soon begin to find their rhythm.
“Don’t you want to dance with them?”
Alfie’s eyes widen until they fill up his face.
“They’d eat me if I did. They are bears, you know.”
The man smiles and nods his head.
“Well, I can think of worse ways to die than being eaten by a bear.”
“Hmmm, falling into a silo and suffocating on wheat. No dancing there.”
Alfie grins and shudders.
“Or swallowing a piranha that’s still alive so it eats you from the inside.”
This time Alfie laughs.
“Getting gored by an angry goat while you’re pinned against a prickly cactus.”
“Or by a wild boar with two heads,” Alfie adds.
“Terrible,” says the man.
The next afternoon Alfie finds a note in his room. The writing is shaky, seismographic.
Forgetting to breathe.
Eating soap and drowning in bubbles.
Solving algebraic equations.
Alfie stares at the list for some time. He can hear the man coughing in the room next door. It does not stop. It only gets louder. He wonders if the man will die and then the coughing stops. He adds Coughing to the list.
Soon the two of them are down by the river every evening. The old mutt comes along too. They all squeeze into the tree’s stoop and watch the bears dance. Sometimes, as they watch they make lists of deaths that are worse than being eaten by polar bears. It makes them laugh loudly and the bears lose their rhythm.
Occasionally the man coughs. His face begins to whiten. Now it’s the shade of a heavily sugared loaf.
One night Alfie starts to climb the tree, but the man decides to squat down by the river instead.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “The bears won’t get me.”
The bears are late, but eventually they come. Splish-splashing through the water. Pirouetting and falling down. Getting up again. They wave their flags at little Alfie until he waves one hand shyly back.
Later, when the moon rises between the trees, the bears gesture to the man.
Come dance with us.
The man looks up at Alfie with a broad grin and leaps from the river bank. He wades towards the bears, his arms above his head, laughing and shouting. He starts to sway. He is dancing with the bears. Flipping fish into the air. Spinning hula-hoops. Turning cartwheels. Tossing a bowler hat.
Alfie is shouting and laughing too. But he stays high up in the branches.
The man dances with the bears until the moon begins to set and Alfie falls asleep on the back of the old mutt.
In the morning, Alfie wakes up with the sun. He feels stiff and unrested. The bears have gone. Only a bowler hat remains on the ice.
He hurries back home, but the man isn’t there. His great uncle hasn’t seen him, and the man’s room remains untouched.
“Wanderer,” says the great uncle. “Probably got eaten by them bears.”
Alfie nods his head.
“There are worse ways.”
Joanna Galbraith is an Australian-born teacher and writer who currently lives in a tiny hilltop village between Pisa and Florence. She has been writing short stories for a number of years now and has had them published in numerous journals, including the highly-acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix series. When she isn’t writing, she likes to pass her time butchering the Italian language (with love) and drinking red wine.