I am dying. Come to me my daughter, my love. Time is sudden and there is a story I must tell. A story wonderful and terrible but true in my memory; with such an influence that in my soul it is a hand that has guided how I tried to raise you. To be good and kind. I love you, my daughter. I have done the best I could. But I am stained with a mess never washed from my hands. I would not have it die with me; it should belong to you now.

I never took you to see where I was raised. It was a hateful place, archaic and cruel. My father was a blacksmith, skilled but nasty. At the time, it was thought blacksmiths were lucky and a small part magical. In those days, when the Sun ruled our existence and gaslights were for the city, the forge seemed a powerful, living thing. But I didn’t let myself believe that the fire had a soul, my father had power enough without imbuing him dominion over the elements.

Our house, as was right for a smithy, was on the outskirts of the village near the road. The village itself was becoming a town, in as much as the mountains would allow. In the end it burned, its name and shape tossed like dogs pudding thrown to the midden, rotting back down into the land. Whispers of the tragedy billowed like steam and smoke when it was found, but just as quickly blew away. Forgotten. As lost as the shape of clouds.

But I see it still. Built on the tops, young pines on the wind smelled of lime and snow. The Mayor raised taxes that buildings might be remade in stone and the market square cobbled. But it was too heavy a material for the ground. As quickly as structures warped and sank they were patched; cracks hidden behind flowerbeds and flags. Then one summer when I was still very young, I noticed the cage. And in the cage was an enormous brown bear.

A tradition there was. I, too young to remember how it began, only remember that it was. How it made me feel.

Every Sunday, after lunch, we would gather in the square. Children were told to play and some would, but others were shy. Our mothers would find benches for gossip and sewing, the men would drink. My father the centre of it all. His eye was keen and would seek out the young men and women of an age when curiosity is urgent; who stole glances and smiled at each other. He would pair them up and send them off, occasionally wandering behind to oversee. And after a time, all eyes turned toward the bear.

It comes to me now, that festival of cruelty.

The sight of my memory is old and worried. I see what occurred in front of young eyes but the mind behind them is ruthless in judgement. I don’t believe I participated. I took into my hand not stone or stick. But I watched, every week I watched; with the only choice open to small children: listen to your father or be cast aside as evil. And I listened. As much as the crowd tortured the helpless beast with firm ambition to hear him roar and see his teeth, the bear simply turned its head, doing what it could to protect red and weeping eyes. I was told how once they could make it scream so loud as to be heard two peaks away. But that was before I was born.

As soon as my years grew to recognise the tragedy as tragedy I resolved to do what I could. I never saw a key to the cage lock, but I knew where to find offal that would not be missed.

Slowly, over many cold nights, I took my bucket of meat and blood to the cage. I felt no fear, even when I was close enough to smell his rancid fur and see the maggots that carpeted his sodden floor. He was weak, his limbs atrophied and back deformed. But his long tongue worked still and lapping at the sticky spilling of pigs brought a gradual deepening to his eyes. In time he remembered his voice and spoke to me in soft, deep rumbles that I grew slowly to understand.