To Speak as Bears
“That’s how bears tell!” his father growled, franticly kicking the rough lines in the dirt into the boy’s face, marks that the boy had been
toiling over all morning. “Are you a bear?” the man stood leering at his son. The boy knew this question, knew that there was no correct answer,
and turned his squatting body towards the few cinders of fire remaining in the pile of ash beside him. There he sat, sulking, prodding its shallow
warmth with a short, thick twig. He could here his father rattle his bear-tooth necklace behind him, a sound that made his spine ache and his skin
leap up in tiny bumps along his arms. Then, a familiar whisper floated on the thick morning calm behind him to the back of his neck, where small hairs
stood on end and carried it to his ears. “This is how a man
makes his mark.” Rattle, rattle
...The boy hung his head in shame, but
left a new mark in the ashes of the fire; something small, something secret, just below the skeletal husks of gnarled, charred branches, crawling with
the desperation of dying flame. He wondered if anyone would ever see it as he stood up, grabbed his spear and bearskin, and plodded through the snow
in silence with his father down the hillside.
They were in the lair soon enough, just before the sun got too high, to that point in the sky where it could erase most of the shadows from the world.
The boy watched the still, intense stare of his father ahead of him, his every sense aware. The boy was content leaving the bears alone to rot in
their cave, satisfied with the taste of smaller animals when they could be caught for, even though he was the oldest now, he was no great huntsman.
But he suspected that this hunt was not about meat...and came anyway. His brothers were gone, and not much save their stories, their bones and
nightmares prepared him for what he could only imagine was there, deep down, somewhere in this lair.
Used animal husks lined the inner floor of the entrance and a warm, earthen breath emanated from deep inside the dark tunnel. Just inside, his father
prepared a large torch. They were only a few steps into the corridor when the boy saw what he himself had come for...
Vast rows of five shallow, diagonal lines marked the inner walls of the caves curved entrance. Images: wretched, raw, but strangely glorious in there
imperfection were carved by claw straight into stone. Here, countless crossed-hatched nightmares of blood-stained victories accounted the history of a
hungry clan. The secret language of the bear. The boy had seen what he came to see, but a glimpse was all he had before his father, and the light,
moved away further into the dark.
After some time, the corridor opened into a chamber where walls of strange rock shot out millions of tiny, dazzling reflections of the torchlight. The
glitter of stars surrounded the bears here in a magic, eternal nighttime where they slept away their anger for winter. A ring of dark, narrow
passageways surrounded the center of the chamber, where a mound of black, fuzzy shadow emitted the low grumble of empty stomachs and sleeping demons.
The air was still, thick and heavy in the boy’s lungs, passing through his nostrils with a myriad of odors, both real and imagined. He could see the
mound draw breath and, shortly after, became aware of nothing except the swift thumping of his own heart deep between his ears. His father motioned
for him to take the torch, and then took his position behind the first creature. The huntsman’s eyes reflected an unblinking, satisfied madness as
he drew up his spear with both heavy arms and plunged it with great force into the chest of the slumbering beast.
The boy did not hear the screams of agony through the pounding of his own pulse. The bear’s...nor his father’s.
The beast pulled upright in reflex and drew the huntsman, his hands in a tight grip around the spear-shaft, with it. The boy watched as his father was
flipped over onto his back, just between two other mounds of fur, and vanished beneath the mountain of beast before him. The boy, spear in one hand,
torch in the other, reacted swiftly and, with a great yelp, lunged forward and thrust the spear into the beast’s back. A sharp, wet snap
followed as the spear broke in two at the haft and, as the boy continued forward, buried a part of the thick, splintered end into his own ribcage.
In pain and terror, the boy stumbled and ran down one of the corridors behind him. The wrong corridor. The tunnel wound around for more than a dozen
strides before finishing in a dead end. The boy, hearing the roar of the wounded beast from back down the corridor, slumped down against the far wall,
dropped the torch on the floor, and watched the blood trickle from the right side of his chest.
He thought about how bears might dislike fire, and hoped that the torch would keep the beast at bay. He thought about his father, and how he would
never hear the rattle of his bear-toothed necklace again...and wept. Then, the boy leaned forward and began to pass the blood on his left hand onto
the wall in short, swift strokes and, after a few moments of increasing labor, rested with his back to the wall, facing the torch, facing the black
He wondered if the bears would come, come to pick at his bones. He wondered if they would see the marks on the wall and understand. He wondered if, in
time, the bears would add their own marks here; tales scratched into stone with a stain wrenched from the bones of other men. Men like him. Men like
his father. Men like his brothers.
He wondered how much longer the fire would last.
In the silence, in the growing cold, in the deepening dark, the boy understood the true language of the bear. He stared at the wall, at the marks he
made, the blood he used, the tale he told, and wondered if he would ever, truly die.
Copyright 2002 BWB