by Meg Harris
Bear likes the way I let ladybugs walk on my fingertips. There are hundreds of them in the cave we’ve decided to stay in for a while. Most are dead or dying. Bear loves them. He eats as many as he can. I am using them to teach Bear to count.
We found this place when we wandered up a steep pathway lined with pines. If there weren’t trees to prevent my falling, I would never have gone that way. Bear says it never occurred to him to think of falling and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a bear fall, unless on purpose.
The path leads beyond the pines and along the face of the mountain. I wanted to turn back but Bear discovered the cave. From late morning until late afternoon we are in direct sunlight. It is warm and I’m sure this is why ladybugs live here.
I’ve set up housekeeping and Bear loves to watch. I made a pine broom. I sweep the hard dirt floor. There are bones from the bodies of small animals that came here to be eaten. Bear is happy about this. He tells me this by carving an X on one of the tiny skulls. He says that a mountain cat must have lived here and that her maternal power and the power of her eating small animals fill the place. All of this is still in the cave and don’t I feel it?
“No,” I say.
Bear will not let me take the bones out of the cave. He lets me arrange them in a pattern around the cave’s perimeter. He says he never thought of that and that I am a clever witch.
Today he showed me how to find winterberries which keep in the snow banks. He also showed me how to mark the cave so others know it is ours. I can tell he is preparing me. He wants to sleep.
Bear fights his instinct to hibernate and eats everything in sight. I sometimes wonder if he’ll eat me. He says we are from the same clan. We both have changing eyes and brown hair. And sharp teeth and wit, I say. He does not laugh at my joke.
He is like an overtired child kept from his nap. He won’t talk with the birds or watch the moon. All day he wants me to tell him what I see. I write him this poem:
Today is beautiful gold-eyed bear.
Today can be dreamt if one sleeps.
Today wakes on the shores of tonight.
Today is the day the gold-eyed bear
Tells me his name
It is Bear. It is tree. It is heavy-footed hungry beast. Bear says it is so and with an ivory claw he carves a circle in the breast of a pine tree. That circle is how I know what he says, what he means, his name.
Bear tells me about tree-ghosts. Not trees haunted by people, he says sniffing.
What a nose, I think.
Tree-ghosts stand in the place where their tree once stood, sometimes forever. Apparently tree-ghosts are part of the reason why branches grow as they do and why certain animals move around in the forest in certain ways. There is something to see everywhere you think there is not.
“What can’t you see today?” Bear asks.
“The end,” I say.
“It’s been here forever,” says Bear.
“It follows the end. It’s where you are from.”
“The spring,” I say.
“You can’t see that because you are standing on it.”
“I can’t see what is behind me,” I say.
“Or what is before me,” I say.
“You are always arriving there.”
Bear stops; he presses his muzzle to the back of his paw and bites his wrist. (Damn fleas.)
He asks me, “What do you see today?”
“The snow prepares to melt.”
“You don’t believe it will,” says Bear.
“I see that you love me.”
“But worry that we will part.”
I change the subject. “I see mountains on our path.”
“You dread the climb,” he answers.
“I see what you give to me in what you take from me.”
Bear is pleased! He strokes my face, forgetting his ivory claws. I will always wear the scar of my thoughtfulness. I am alive in that moment again: Bear’s apologies, his great coarse tongue on my face, the heavy stink of his saliva. He does not allow me to wash my face.
I realize the journey is about things not immediately seen along the path.
Bear lets me build a fire. He trusts me more than he fears flames. He is drunk on fermented apples and full from eating things he sniffed on our path: a cocoon, a spider, pine berry.
His fur is golden. In the firelight, it looks like an aura. In his drunkenness he shows me his swagger. He stands on his hind legs and extends his claws. He bares his horrible teeth with a rumbling slobbery growl.
We walk the path beyond the cave and over a narrow passageway.
“What are you so nervous about? You are making the snow melt. It is too soon,” Bear snarls. “Will you just forget to be afraid of heights?” He says this by nudging me up the pathway. There is a sheer drop for a time but soon the way retreats into the woods.
I am not nervous. I am not.
Some pine forests are dark and damp with exotic mushrooms and mosses and swallows flying. This wood holds the afternoon sunlight and breeze magically. Whole families of cardinals and many types of woodpeckers live here. Both are fun birds, according to Bear.
Bear says that the pines here are majestic and tall because they feel great about growing in a sunny spot. They are always trying to reach the sun. He points out different shapes in the pine and shows me how to hide should an enemy approach. I stand perfectly still. He is right; a wintering cardinal comes to sit on a branch just above my right shoulder. Bear says the cardinal and the pine both love the sun. How else would you get that particular red and that particular green? Back in the cave, Bear asks me to tell the story of the cardinal as I know it. I recite a poem.
Harrumph! Bear is snoring! Later he tells me that this is the best compliment a Bear can pay a poem, to fall asleep upon hearing it. This is so true, says Bear, that poem and lullaby mean the same thing to bears. He tells me this by running his claw down the side of a tree to make a long squiggly mark.
Bear says the world is perfect the way it is.