Last night, when Mama wasn’t looking, I shot the Scorpion from the sky and crushed it beneath my heel. It landed at my feet, curled up and hissing, and I snapped its back with a killing blow. I dragged my fingers through its insect blood and smeared it across my cheeks. At dinner, Mama said I smelled like something dead — she doesn’t know about my vow.
Tonight, I hunt the Great Bear. The heat is bulbous. I’m sticky with sweat. My crossbow hugs my back, and the night is bruised black and swollen, since I’ve killed all the rest of the stars. I’ve tracked them down, one by one, and I’ve shot them with silver arrows, and my skin is striped with their blood. I wrangled the Eagle behind a 7-Eleven, and drowned the Fish in the grass of a baseball field. The Lion I skinned on a restaurant table, staining its white tablecloth. It was happy hour, and I left an apology on a napkin, my lunch money as a tip. These tokens I keep for luck: the Fish’s scales around my wrist, the Lion’s mane around my neck.
The Great Bear is second to last. He knows it, too. But unlike the others, he isn’t afraid. He runs without tiring, and I chase him through backyards and parking lots, leaping fences and scaling roofs. Somebody yells, get off my lawn. I ignore them. They can’t see my crossbow; they think I’m trash, some criminal in the making. My eyes are glued to the gleaming head of the Great Bear — I won’t look away. The muscles in my neck throb an aching rhythm, and my sneakers drum the cement, one two.
The Great Bear leads me to a supermarket, which is clever, since the glare of the floodlights makes it difficult to spot him. But I’ve seen this trick before, with the stealthy, silent Crab, and I am clever, too. So I act like I’m beat. I collapse on the pavement, squeeze my big head between my knees, and sob. And the Great Bear is arrogant. He peeks out from behind the supermarket sign, and my arrow spears his hip before he can blink. His body tumbles into an empty parking space; he’s moaning like a baby.
“Nice try,” I tell him, and I mean it.
The Great Bear rolls over to look at me. One second he’s a grizzly and the next he’s a boy, broad and restless, with autumn-colored hair and skin like desert sand, his smile the soft edge of a crescent moon.
“One moment, before you kill me,” he says.
I shrug, because I have all night.
“I am the greatest of all hunters. I’ll help you, if you spare me.”
“No,” I tell him, because other stars have promised the same.
“Spare me a year.”
The Great Bear is bewildered. “Are you even human?”
“One night,” he swears. “That’s all I ask.”
I consider it. “Is that an oath?”
He dips a finger into the wound at his hip without wincing, pulls it out sticky with his hot, silver blood. He tips his chin. I hold my hand out. Slowly, gently, he smears his fingers over my palm. It tickles. A blood oath.
I don’t trust the Great Bear. He is wily and proud, with a skull thick as cement. But I can use his claws. So I rip the arrow from his side — he hisses through his teeth — and I slice my palm finger to wrist. Our blood pools together, a muddy swirl that smells like gasoline. The Great Bear smiles.
“Who is the last one left?” he asks me.
“The Stag,” I tell him.
“Ah.” He licks his lips; his tongue is long and black. “Tomorrow, then.”
And he is gone. On the walk home, I wonder what I’ve done.
I sneak into the house through the back door, which squeaks, but the kitchen is dark. I make it to the living room before a lamp clicks on, and there’s Mama, tucked in her ratty pink armchair. Her body is a map of bones under one of Joey’s t-shirts; her cheeks sag like wet laundry. When she talks, she doesn’t bother looking up from her spotted hands. She picks at the skin of her nail beds, bites into a hangnail. She is eating herself.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
“Hunting,” she repeats.
“What exactly are you hunting?”
I tell the truth again. “A stag.”
“Right,” says Mama.
We stare at each other.
“I took Joey’s truck out today,” she says after a minute, nipping a nail between her teeth. I blink at her, because she hasn’t left the house in months. “I drove to the lake, I stopped near the beach. There was this little girl, and her dad kept throwing her up in the air, up, down. And all I could think was, she’s going to fall. She’s going to get hurt.”
“Did she fall?” I ask.
Mama looks up at me. Her eyes are raw, festering wounds, and I realize, standing there, that Mama’s hunting, too. We’re both hunting, but Mama is failing, and she’s scared of failing, of starving, of coming up empty. For the first time, I wonder what will happen when the sky is starless. What will I do, when there is nothing left to hunt?
Mama never answers my question. I sit on the couch beside her, and sometime before the sun rises, I fall asleep.
The next night, I hunt with the Bear. We roam the streets, searching for the Stag, tracking him through woods, behind bars, across highways. Several times, the Bear thinks of killing me. I can see it in the way his eyes settle on the soft flesh of my neck, his pupils dilating, the way his claws flex and unflex mid-lumber. But I flash my silver arrows, and the Great Bear doesn’t betray his oath. His nose latches onto the Stag’s thin scent like a hook, and I follow behind.
All the while, the Great Bear won’t shut up. He tells me of his hunts, his quests around asteroids and moons. Once, he says, and the stories rumble from his chest like revved engines, streaming out into the night, one after the other.
“Once,” he says while digging through a trash can behind a strip mall, “I tricked the Fox into fishing for the Crab. If he could catch the Crab when I could not, I swore that I would declare him the better hunter.”
Here he pauses, waiting for a reaction. At my silence, he shrugs his burly shoulders. I catch a glimpse of the boy’s pout beneath his muzzle.
“But the Fox was afraid, though he would never admit it. So he stuck out his tail to reach for the Crab and snap! The Crab clipped it clean off, like a ribbon. And that’s how—”
“You got your tail,” I say, because he has told me this story ten times now.
The Great Bear knows no shame. “Our tale is legend, I see. I would tell the Fox, but seeing as you shot him…”
“Can you smell the Stag?”
The Bear sniffs. “He is close.” He sniffs again. “And now he is far.”
“I should have killed you,” I mutter.
The Bear pretends not to hear and swallows a container of Chinese takeout.
Before I know it, the sky is shedding its midnight cloak, and the Great Bear has begun to fade. I curse him — I know his game now. He’s bought himself another night, and the last thing I see before he disappears is the flash of boyish teeth.
We hunt again the night after, and the night after that — seven nights total. Before each sunrise, I consider killing the Bear. But then I remember the Stag — I remember my vow — and I watch the Bear fade, cursing him and his tracker’s nose.
On the eighth night, my patience evaporates. The Great Bear appears in the supermarket parking lot, and I press my crossbow to his head, finger curled around the trigger. The Bear chooses this moment to be a boy; he smiles, crossing his eyes to see the arrow against his skin.
“Take me to the Stag,” I tell him.
“I know that bow,” says the Bear, cocking his head. “What did you offer the Hunter, that he gave you such a thing?”
My finger twitches on the trigger. I don’t answer him.
“Who did you lose?” says the Bear.
Again, I don’t answer him. The Bear sighs — his face stretches, sheds its fat, turns long and lean. Stubble collects on his chin, his shoulders widen, and streaks of gray fly across his hair, leaving him taller, older, with the heaviness of a stone.
“I am the Great Bear,” he says. “Once, I was a man. I traded my life to the Hunter, to have his bow for vengeance.”
He pauses. The floodlights flicker; the heat shimmers on the pavement.
“I killed the man who murdered my son. I killed him while he was sleeping, and when I was finished, the Hunter collected his payment, and took me to the sky.”
I lower my bow. The Great Bear is a boy again, cross-legged on the pavement, mouth rimmed in fresh blood. His eyes are liquid, an ocean without bottom, and for the first time since I made my vow, I doubt. This is what awaits me: an eternity of wandering the skies, tireless and blood-stained. But I’ve sworn an oath that can’t undone, and the Great Bear knows that. He sighs; he stands; he is a Bear again.
“Come,” he says, “the Stag is near.”
I climb onto the Bear’s broad back, and he leads us into the woods, into a breathless dark on the edge of dawn. Cicadas howl away in my ears; sweat crawls down my spine. Then the trees thin, and we stop on the lip of a lake, and there is the Stag, drinking. It laps at the water, neck bent like a bird’s, its antlers like the roots of an overturned tree. Ripples run over the surface of the lake, growing larger, larger. They stop at my feet, and I count them: one, two, three.
“Well?” says the Bear.
I don’t move. I can’t move. Not here, in this place.
“I can kill it for you, if you’d like,” offers the Bear, but it must be me, and we know it.
So I take my bow off my back — I string the arrow — I fire, straight into the Stag’s child-like eye — the creature falls in silence — the water catches its body.
Without a word, I walk to the Stag. I slip down to the sand at its side. I run my fingers through its pelt, across its spider-web eyelashes. In the waning dark of a half-dead night, its form flickers, and the Stag is a man with long dark hair, eyes wide and dreaming. I smear its blood over the bridge of my nose — then I swipe it off with water, sick, roiling, dry heaving onto the sand. Gently, the Bear nudges his nose into my neck, and I grab onto his pelt, fingers fused to fur, because the Bear is solid. The Bear might kill me, but the Bear is solid, and the starless sky is tumbling down, and the water is rising up, and the Stag’s eye burns.
I tell the Bear about my brother. I tell him about the night my brother disappeared, about the morning they found him at the bottom of the lake. I tell him how Joey died alone, how all the sky watched, how they watched and did nothing, how they watched him sink down, down, and I tell him about my trade, my vow, my oath, to shoot every star from the cold and silent sky.
I don’t tell the Bear that I heard my little brother sneak out the back door. I don’t tell him that I rolled my eyes, that I rolled over in bed, that I didn’t stop him, that every time I close my eyes I imagine reaching, clawing, holding, pinning Joey by his flesh and his blood and his bones, holding him hostage just the way he is in my skull, whole and beautiful, telling him all the ways I know how: don’t leave me, not yet, my brother, my brother.
Those things aren’t meant to be told, and the Bear knows that.
I think I tell the Bear all this because I’m about to kill him. He listens patiently, knowingly. When I’ve finished, he nudges me to face him. He is boy and man and beast. He smiles.
“Do it quickly, Great Hunter,” he says, “before I am afraid.”
I stand. I string my bow. I aim at the Bear’s great head.
The sun climbs over the trees.