A bear appears out of the night: I hear the crunch of gravel cease as it turns onto my walk, pads up to the door, rears on its hind legs & peers in. I look up from where I sit hunched over my reading in a florescent pool of light. Unreadable eyes, a massive intelligent snout moving from side to side like a blind man’s cane. Do I really hear its hot breath through the screen or just imagine it later? This cave is taken, I say. There’s nothing here for you. It drops to all fours & shuffles off, & I go to the door in time to see its receding shape disappear between the stars.
I grew into the bearskin with great suddenness: a flourish of yeast flocculating in a tun. I fed on the dead parts of myself, the regrets & second guesses, the loneliness, the fears. My untrimmed nails hardened into sickles & my bad teeth gleamed like roots in the dark. But now all aggression had left me. I wanted only to raid the settlements of ants & bees & savor the pale malt grains of their larvae. The bees I let live went around lifting the skirts of blueberry blossoms so they too could die the little death & turn into something rounder, darker, sweeter. When the hunters came I was heavy with the fat of the land.
She thought she recognized in the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son, and so she did not try to run away. —The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (trans. by Jesse Byock)
From palace to cave: one wound closes & another gapes. It turns out the king’s cattle are horned marauders, a scourge on the land. I cut them open & find shredded leaves, aborted destinies. But when the sun goes down the trees stretch, reclaiming the crofts, & I return to my mountain & to you.
When you saw me bloody in the pens, your fear was only that I would leave you among those bewitched creatures shaped through the ages by human hungers. Here, our desire is like water from a glacier, white with the milk of stones. We remember who we were before furs & fabrics, even before they gave us names & trajectories.
I can get more naked than any other beast. Tomorrow I will lie down in a circle of hunters & let them try to find me in that mountain of flesh. Only your hand slipping under my shoulder will recover the gold ring that, in another story, might’ve pierced my septum. From our union will come wild hunters of men.
Bear Shirts: shock troops of the god. Howls of hot metal plunged into blood baths. Bare of hauberk or byrnie, gnawing on the affront of a linden shield.
It begins with a shiver, a sudden chill. Teeth chattering, the face goes strange, like the map of an unknown country. Not bear, but a bear-shaped terror — the wariness of the perpetually hunted, turning to hyperarousal & an ecstasy of rage. Then steel cannot cut, fire cannot burn, tenderness cannot reach.
And in the aftermath, weak enough to perish in the fair-haired hero’s crushing hug.
The Lakota said that any man who dreamed of the bear would be an expert in the use of plant medicines. —David Rockwell, Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear
Four warriors lie wounded. The leader of the bear dreamers sleeps in a hoop of hide while the sun circles. They wake him suddenly to make him wild, frightened, lost. His canines lengthen. Lying back down he reaches into the earth & extracts bear root. Getting up, he goes in search of a plum tree, grabs it & shakes — a rain of bruise-colored fruit. He circles the camp, bear skin over his head, brandishing a knife. His hands are painted white, his body, red. Bullets cannot kill him, steel cannot cut him, the hidden wounds cannot escape his healing claw. The other bear dreamers follow, singing. The wounded ones stagger to their feet & begin to walk.
Euphemisms for “bear” from bear hunting cultures around the world, as gathered by A. Irving Hallowell in “Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere” (American Anthropologist 28:1, 43-52)
Four-Legged Human, Chief’s Son, Grandfather, Grandmother, Elder Brother, Cousin, Little Uncle, Beloved Uncle, Uncle of the Woods, Good Father, Great Father, Fur Father, Worthy Old Man, Twelve Men’s Strength, Tired One, Angry One, Big Hairy One, Honey Eater, Sticky Mouth, Honey Paws, Broad Foot, Golden Feet, Wrangler, Short Tail, Crooked Tail, Cat-Like Creature, Old Porcupine, Black Food, Big Great Food, The One Who Owns the Chin, The Animal, The Beautiful Animal, Illustrious One, Venerable One, Unmentionable One, God of the Mountains, Owner of the Earth.
To prevent the plague spreading to the adjoining village, the villagers dressed one of their number in straw, then in procession circumambulated the village, finishing up by taking off the straw and burning it outside the village bounds. — A. Rugg-Gunn, “‘Straw-Bear’ at Jena,” Folklore 42:1, 87-89
We are the hollow bears, the stuffed bears dancing together, straw headpiece filled with human. We mimic bears mimicking men, blondeface minstrels led about on leashes. The natural order of things is to die & decay; only through levity can the wintry world once more be set to wrongs. But we are also beasts among men, & our needs are bestial. The villagers shriek at our too-hard hugs, get us drunk & kill us, again & again. Like conjurers we pull ourselves from deathly sleep. We rustle, mumble, shuffle, stumble, tussle, tumble, hustle, crumble. All sickness sticks to our honey-colored fur — & so we must burn. Outside the village bounds we return to the wild, flames playing the way we all did once, before pits & chains.
Based on a blog post by Jill Robinson of Animals Asia.
The slight young woman slips away from her tour group, which has stopped at a remote farmhouse in Guangdong Province to shop for a rare & valuable alleged medicine: bile harvested from the gall bladders of living bears. She has heard such farms exist. Down an unlit staircase she creeps & into a basement filled with foul smells, large dark shapes & the popping of teeth. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, the hair stands up on the back of her neck. She is surrounded by bears, each crammed into a cage so small it can hardly move. There’s a dripping sound. The bears seem to have an extra appendage, a straight cylinder protruding from the abdomen through the bottom of the cage — an iron teat where no teat should be. She feels their eyes on her, smells the fear mingled with feces & disease. Then something taps her right shoulder. She turns & sees a bear’s paw, thrust through the front of the closest cage. Fear surges through her, quickly followed by sorrow. What can she do? A crescent on the bear’s chest glows golden in the midnight of its fur: a moon bear. She grasps the proffered paw & feels a gentle squeeze in response; they lock eyes. She speaks softly: Hello, Bear. Hello. I promise to help. After several long seconds she backs away & storms out, possessed by fury. Moon bears are small but powerful. They & she will eventually become too much for the largest nation on earth to stomach.
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The memory of this will stay with her all her life: the tea party with her bears by the light of an enormous moon. She has been sent to bed early so her parents can relax & drink without the endless questions & irritating presence of a five-year-old child. But her best friends are waiting by her pillow. The three confer in thoughts & whispers, soft as moonlight falling on the duvet. The girl gets out the plastic teacups & fills them from the pot with the sweetest of invisible teas. But what to do for biscuits? She grabs a lump of Plasticine from the dresser, flattens it on the windowsill & uses the top of a lip salve tube to cut it into small, round shapes. Since these are moon-biscuits, they bake in an instant. The bears smack their lips & rumble contentment. Downstairs there might be shouting or weeping, but here, under the protective watch of her great bear & her little bear, all is tranquil. They welcome the moon into their circle with open paws.
I often wondered what the littermates thought of me, their odd, “runt” sibling. —Terry D. DeBruyn, Walking With Bears
This hairless cub, skinny & slow as he may be, seems determined to learn. Nothing is too small for his quick eyes, big as a squirrel’s: which types of ants have the choicest grubs, where the tastiest wild calla & jack-in-the-pulpit grow, how to walk down a juneberry bush or shell a hazelnut with the teeth & lips. Though he brings his own food, & thinks we don’t notice when he eats a stray pawful of berries. Always in the rear, he stumbles on river stones & flounders loudly through the fens & thickets. He employs his claws not to dig or to climb but to make scent marks on odd objects, & he will not go up a refuge tree or run from hounds, however loudly our mother urges. He cannot be enticed to play; he’s as bland as the rain. Unlike those others whose shape and scent he shares, he is at least quiet — easy to forget about. He leaves in the evening & returns in the morning. If he were here all night, we might forget what keeps us apart.