From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Fable of Cinnamon and Bitter

Tomi Two-Hearts killed Cinnamon Bear, his wife, with his far-sightedness—or, perhaps, the lack of.

Barely a man, Tomi Two-Hearts had married Cinnamon Bear for her intoxicating scent of spice, for her name—for she was born under the sign of the bear—and for her tender heart that gave Tomi his appellation. Cinnamon Bear said she gave him her heart because his love had sweetened hers and because of his hair—a lustrous, raven black. Or that was what he remembered she had said. Maybe the accretion of dust had clouded his memory. Dust has a funny way of making one’s hearts overly nostalgic. Who knows what true memory looks like? But back then, a young man eager to brave the world, he had never thought of his ever needing to remember her.

Because of his far-sight, Tomi Two-Hearts had to keep things beyond arm’s length. When the tribe called upon him in times of war, Tomi would stand from the tallest poplar and peer into the enemy camp to see what signs they scratched in the dust. His skills were highly prized in the village. But in times of peace, his skills weren’t often called upon—even if they undoubtedly kept him peering into the distance for signs of future trouble: Only from a nearby hilltop could he see rabbits or deer nibbling at the family’s lettuce leaves, could he see hungry wolves salivating or a bear prowling at the edge of camp, could he regard the beauty of his wife gardening. Only by the aid of his two boys, could Tomi whittle a new bow and a quiver of arrows, string it, notch an arrow inside, and bring down a doe—enough meat for the four of them in the weeks to come.

Cinnamon Bear was myopic. This led to worry and fear that the garden had been consumed overnight by other deer. Only when Tomi Two-Hearts brought her the carcass inside the tent, could she sense that food was near at hand. Her fears dissipated as she diligently cooked the flank on a frying pan sizzling with a pad of goat butter, tanned the hide, and cured the rest. But her powers of myopia were as much prized in the village: often she would be called upon to pluck slivers felt but unseen, to thread the smallest eyes of bone needles. Only when her boys brought her into the garden, could she weed, hoe, and harvest the corn, carrots and lettuce leaves. Tomi often guided Cinnamon by shouting from the hilltop—though often he left her alone, preferring to explore the surrounding wood or go fishing with his boys, casting long into the wide lake.

After one of these fishing expeditions, Tomi Two-Hearts returned to find his wife missing. He climbed the hilltop, but she was nowhere to be seen. He shouted, he screamed but received no reply. He and his boys waited. For days. For weeks. For months. Crops rotted on their stalks and fell to the earth. Half-cured meat and half-tanned hides filled the camp with their stink.

Cinnamon Bear did not return.

*

Wise men say we cannot know what might have been. Things may have ended here, and this story would not be, for men do not listen to the misery of others except to unravel their own. Tomi’s sons could have blamed their father, and Tomi would have conceded. He ought to have set and baited more bear traps than he had, ought to have kept watch day and night, ought to have ranged far and wide for potential adversaries. He wished the blame were something impossible though he knew where the true fault lay. He tried not to think about it, but it came: She had left her heart in his chest, and he could have left her something of his to carry inside. Besides, blame so tardy would have resulted in the boys being carted off to an aunt and uncle who did not care for them, and in the man wandering blindly under darkening skies.

But the boys did not blame. They only asked how they might find their mother. Tomi said his hands were tied in mourning. His vigor had been whittled to that of the gray-haired—tottering and helpless. The boys thought something surely could be done now. They believed in their father. They would help. Tomi stood slowly, raised the tent flap, and entered the fields.

Tomi crawled on his hands and knees to feel for her tracks as sometimes he hunted deer. Through days of rain and blustery winds, Tomi groped among the faint telltale tracks for the delicate print of his wife. Each time he found another, he pressed his nose into the earth and inhaled every particle of spice that remained. And he wept.

Eventually, he unraveled the scene:

A six-hundred-pound bear—with ivory tusks that scraped the dirt—had been watching camp. It had sauntered nonchalantly through camp, somehow aware of when to be where—often hiding under Tomi’s nose. Why had not the boys spoken up? Perhaps the young boys had thought the bear a friend of the family. Tomi’s fingers probed the dust (how often did Tomi pray to have Cinnamon’s spirit bestow her powers of myopia upon him so that the story might unfold faster? As often as the stars were silent).

By the front door, the bear’s haunches had left tracks in the damp earth of the early morning—probably Cinnamon’s last—but they moved downwind when Tomi left to go fishing. It circled around back when the boys left, running to catch up. Then it followed practically beside Cinnamon, close enough that Cinnamon might have seen the bear if not smelled and heard. Of course, with her vision, running would have been out of the question. So the bear had carried her away. Without struggle. Her tracks ended abruptly—as if she had climbed upon the bear’s back.

Tomi opened a hemp sack, gathered his fishing rod and dried meats and fruits, and tracked the bear into the winter season. His boys trailed behind, picking winterberries along the way and helping Tomi fish in streams or spot rabbits. The boys shivered as the days shortened and the nights stretched. The stars looked especially hard and cold. Tomi wrapped his boys in his arms and close to his chest as a human fire against the frosty sting of night.

At last, they smelled the bear. Tomi had kept its familiar pungency in his mind, waiting to smell it spilled into the still air. They trailed it to its source: a den in the side of a hill. Tomi slipped quietly through the hole and his two boys fed him quivers. It was difficult to see the darkened and vague shapes in the cave. His eyes blurred, unable to focus as his water had chosen that moment to flow, but the stark, white bones assembled by the bear’s side were unequivocal. In his haste, Tomi dropped a quiver against a granite rock, waking the bear. But the next three quivers, however, found their notch in the bow and hit their mark, one between the eyes of the charging bear that collided into Tomi with a grunt that sounded much like “Your fault,” but Tomi knew that bears don’t talk except in fables.

Aside from a broken rib and the loss of the woman that had once been a part of him, Tomi was unhurt.

He had the boys pull the bear carcass out of the den and roast the meat. They feasted and danced between meals for six days and six nights, without rest, until they consumed the bear that had consumed their love. When they had completed their task, they crawled into the bear’s den to sleep away the winter inside the bear fur, beside the bones. His belly was full, but his mind was empty and drained. As Tomi’s eyelids slid down, he wondered if he were prematurely aging and if he might ever be normal again.

In the spring, Tomi awoke, famished and cold. The fur, his boys, and the bones of both the bear and Cinnamon had disappeared. His second heart stopped, afraid he had lost everything he had ever loved. He felt around the rocks of the den for his bow and quivers. Stepping out into the sun, his eyes fell upon a small cabin made of ivory tusk and fur. The cabin had not been there last winter. He cocked a quiver into the bow to begin another journey he wasn’t sure he had the energy to complete, feeling the creak of his own bones. He sniffed. The air outside the cabin smelled of broth. Perhaps his boys had entered to trade their winter clothes for a bowl of chicken and rice. He could almost taste it himself.

Tomi held the bow at the ready and kicked the door in. His surprise made him lower the bow. The interior was a mansion, with a depth he hadn’t fathomed: two separate stairs wound up, two wound down. Behind these, a hall split off: one darkened, the other shifted with light.

A silver-haired old lady slammed the door shut behind him. On a cord about her hips, a pair of somethings he couldn’t make out, so dark and so close, bounced against her thigh. “It’s cold out,” she said. “Are you so daft to leave a door open in this weather?”

Tomi raised the bow. “Where are my boys?”

“They are eating vegetable soup in the kitchen, Mr. Daft. Come. Why don’t you have some yourself?”

He lowered the bow, and his belly urged him to pursue. In the kitchen the boys happily slurped the remains of their soup. A third steaming bowl awaited him. His two hearts told him two things: this was good, and this was bad. He told himself it was because he had never been in a kitchen and went to stand in the furthest corner by the warm stove to better survey the scene. The old lady plucked a silver strand of her hair and approached. Tomi tried to ignore the blurry sheen of silver and observe. His boys. Something was different about them, and something grotesque about the old lady. The old lady neared. The bow grew heavy in his arm.

He had not killed a defenseless human before, and never a lady.

His eyes grew wide. Their makers. He turned upon the lady, and she laughed. “Don’t look so worried and surprised. They’re right here. On my hip. They’d rightly exchanged them for a bowl of soup. If you give me yours, you’ll have a bowl everyday, the rest of your life. Aren’t I generous?”

Before he could swing the bow, she leaped and bound him in silver.

*

She sometimes fed him vegetable soup, but after awhile the taste grew stale and bitter so that he couldn’t eat another bite. Instead, he fed himself on spicy bear tears of cinnamon. They consumed his insides by night and streaked him to sleep by day.

The old lady handed him a broom to sweep his living quarters, but mostly he just stared outside at his boys playing blind man’s bluff in the mud, without their makers. She hung them from a cord on a nail in her room, and once he had tried to steal them back by lifting them off with the broom, but he got caught trying to give them back to his sons who wouldn’t accept them, anyway. They must be too young to understand, he thought. He sighed deeply. He should clean up, but one of the hearts in his chest had ceased beating so that lifting the broom with his hands behind him fatigued the remaining heart.

Sometimes, he thought about the rare occasions when he had left his maker inside Cinnamon, where no one could see, as he went fishing and as she hoed. Nobody but they knew the bond between them—taut as a bow, stretching miles. He couldn’t help but think that if he had left his within her when the bear came prowling, maybe the bear would have sniffed and gone home.

But the crazy, old woman woke him in the middle of those nights, plucked a silver strand to replace the old, grew a black hair in the silver’s stead, and demanded his maker as trophy—something that he could not abide by, no matter how weak the bear tears made him. Frustrated, she flourished a knife to take that which he would not give. He turned so she would never extract that which frustrated. In their struggle they made lovehate so exhausting in his weakened state that Tomi passed out until the next night’s lovehate, and then the next night’s—awake only long enough to see her leave him invigorated . . .

But she returned the next night, equally frustrated, equally incapable of satisfaction. Aside from the bear tears, the salt and sweat of her bitter almond skin milk was all that nourished him. Inflamed, he sought to brutalize her, but the more brutal he got, the more she demanded until his supply no longer matched her demand.

And the nights ran like a pad of sour goat butter down a hot frying pan and sizzled into the oblivion of a cooking fire.

*

One night he awoke. The woman had not yet come. He rolled off the bed and looked in the mirror. His long hair—once lustrous and black as a raven’s—had turned gray, his skin wrinkled and frosty like dried winterberries smothered in the ice of sloughed skin. He kept his hands behind his back out of habit but, when he instinctively tucked his gray hair behind an ear, he discovered the silver bonds had turned black and easily snapped. A momentary elation flooded him—free!—but drained immediately when he recognized the old face staring back. What could that face do now? What had that face done in its life that it could look back on with pride?

Then the old woman came in, shocked. She was no longer old but young and supple. In the reflection of her doe eyes, Tomi’s hair shone silver. He plucked out one of his gray hairs and bound her. Already, he felt invigorated. A black hair grew out where the gray had been. He had enough silver to bind her for more than a thousand nights to come. He could do unto her as she had done unto him. He could regain lost youth . . .

Shouts outside stopped his final approach.

The shouts of men. He went to the window. His boys. His boys in the bodies of lean men. Their muscles flexed and rolled like running water under their skin as they played their never-ending blind man’s bluff. He looked back at the woman who was frightened but seething and ready for him, seated at the bed. Yes, she had cared for them and himself in her way. All very fine specimens.

She chivied after him like a little dog, yapping at his heels. “Where are you going? You can’t leave this unfinished.”

“I have done much wrong in my life,” he said, “and many men are more right than I, but we would never be finished.”

In her room, he unhooked the cord off the nail and went to look for his sons and the old fishing rod he hoped was still inside the bear’s den. Someday, he would name his boys for their imminent brave deeds. And nights, he promised himself, he would dream of a different sort of life, this time closer to the source of his Cinnamon Bear’s intoxicating scent where, by her side, he would cure bear meat and tan its hide for the long winters ahead.


Trent Walters’ stories have appeared in the Golden Age SF anthology (with Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter), Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Electric Velocipede, and others. He has works forthcoming in Full Unit Hookup, Grendelsong, Raven Electrick and the anthologies Legends of the Mountain State, Triangulation, and Visual Journeys. Morpo Press just released his poetry chapbook, Learning the Ropes. With Geoff Ryman he will guest-edit an issue of Interzone.

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