Queen of the Wild
By Joel Tagert
Art by Jash Tracey
Published Issue 098, February 2022
When Irons and Okafor pulled up, Jeremiah Alderman was standing behind his Accord with the trunk open. Irons slowed the Explorer on the gravel drive until it came to a stop, eyes narrowed. “What are you doing?” asked Okafor.
“What’s he doing, is the question,” rejoined Irons. His thick shoulders were hunched over the wheel. Alderman was tall and bald with heavy-framed glasses, wearing a cardigan and button-up shirt. “He could have a gun in there.”
“We have no reason to think he’s dangerous.”
“He sabotaged a federal facility and kidnapped at least one girl. Seems like reason enough to me.”
Well, that was one way to look at it. “Come on,” she said, and opened the door so she could stand just outside it, waving a greeting. “Hi there! Are you Jeremiah Alderman?”
This was a rhetorical question, to which Alderman responded by shutting the trunk. He raised a hand – and ran. “Get in!” Irons urged, which she did, and they roared down the drive and onto the wide yard that surrounded the house trailer. It wasn’t clear where Alderman was running to, other than the woods writ large, but it was a moot point because he didn’t make it. When they were close enough, Irons leapt out of the SUV and tackled him like the linebacker he had once been and in short order had him in handcuffs.
“Where’s the girl?” Okafor asked with this accomplished.
“We have video of you leaving the Harrod Center with her, in this same car. We know she’s here. Is she in the house?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll look inside,” Okafor said to her partner.
The trailer wasn’t large. On a desk in the ten-by-ten second bedroom she found some drawings in colored marker, surprisingly intricate mandala forms. She assumed they were by the girl, but if so the kid had talent. That was as far as she got before Irons yelled her name.
Alderman was kneeling on the grass with Irons next to him. Okafor followed their gazes northeast to the lawn’s edge, where a four-year-old girl was standing in a dark blue dress, looking with equal intensity at the three adults. “Are you Nina?” Okafor called, doing her best to project warmth and confidence. “I’m Tess. Could you come here so we could talk?”
“Run, Nina!” Alderman yelled suddenly. “Get out of here!”
“Shh,” said Irons, giving his charge a small kick.
“We’re worried about you,” Okafor went on.
The girl just stood there, arms dangling at her sides, eyes burning. The morning had been foggy, as it so often was in Oregon, the cumulus streaming thick above the wooded landscape. Now the sun was burning a hole through the mist, the dew-laden grass shining emerald, the girl’s hair gold as flax.
“Watch this creep for me and I’ll go get her,” Irons growled.
“Wait,” she said quietly, and raising her voice again, “Nina, can we talk?”
The little girl just closed her eyes, and Okafor shivered, the hair on her arms standing on end. A palpable energy seemed to emanate from her small body. “Look at the grass,” Irons whispered, and Okafor saw what he meant: the green blades were subtly bowing in a perfect meter-wide circle around her feet, as though a tiny helicopter was hovering there.
“Let us go,” Alderman pleaded. “She’s just a kid. She’s not dangerous.”
“Fuck this,” Irons said, and took a few steps in a jog across the lawn.
He came to a sudden halt at the sound of snapping branches behind Nina: branches snapped by a very, very large animal, the largest bear Okafor had ever seen, in person or otherwise, emerging from the pines with a flurry of falling needles. Its head alone was as large as Irons’s chest, and Irons was a substantial man. It must have stood six or seven feet at the shoulder, a great grizzly that had wandered down from far to the north. “Nina,” Okafor whispered.
“Fuck me,” Irons said, backing away and drawing his gun.
“Don’t shoot,” Alderman warned. “You’ll just piss it off.”
“It’s going to fucking eat her!” Irons replied, still backpedaling.
The bear lumbered up to the four-year-old, sniffed the air, looking suspiciously at the adults, and then gave the kid the gentlest bop with its nose. She raised a hand and stroked the fur of the beast’s cheek. It licked her face with a tongue the length of Okafor’s forearm and Nina giggled.
“She talks to them,” Alderman said. “All the animals. I don’t know how she does it. They love her.”
“What do we do?” Irons asked his partner.
“Just let her be,” Okafor replied, with sudden decision. It was less of a choice than it appeared: they could not approach without shooting the bear; if they did not kill it immediately, they would have a furious predator weighing more than a ton on their hands; and of course they risked missing and hitting the child, who so far as they knew was unique.
So like guests at a church service, or the three kings at the manger, Alderman kneeling in devotion, they watched as the bear too prostrated and bowed its head to the ground. Like a queen claiming her throne, Nina grasped its fur and straddled its massive neck. Effortlessly her steed rose, turned, and bore her into the wild.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Jash Tracey is an art director and graphic designer with over 15 years real-world experience. After graduating from the University of Colorado in 2007 with a BFA in digital media, he joined a Boulder-based creative firm specializing in graphic design, apparel production, corporate identity and product development. In January of 2019, he founded GNT Branding, a digital assets firm dedicated to providing quality, digital artwork and brand strategies that maintain relevance outside of continually evolving aesthetic landscapes. Since its inception, GNT Branding has collaborated with many local, national and international businesses ranging in size from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies like Starwood Hotels and Disney, on an eclectic array of design projects and marketing campaigns. Learn more about Jash on his site and on Instagram.
Check out Joel’s January Birdy install, Temple of Duma Veil, and Jash’s last issue contribution, Shark in the City, the cover for Issue 077, or head to our Explore section to see more from these creatives.