I wandered away from our family’s picnic and managed to get lost. I walked, called and stumbled, felt my skeleton shake. Every tree looked the same. Everywhere, the same lid of blue-turning-to-gray sky. There seemed no way out, the trees my bars, the sky my dungeon’s ceiling. I heard men shout and an animal’s terrible roar.
Four hunters had cornered the bear against boulders. They stared down their shaky rifles, licked their lips. The bear rose up on his hind legs, a black tower. His roar, his flail from side to side, shook the branches and made the leaves chant.
“On the count of three,” the skinny hunter said.
I raced into the clearing, shouted.
The men whirled around and the bear charged through them, knocked three of the four to the dirt.
That night, safely back at home, the bear beckoned me from my bed and carried me on his back into the woods, thanked me with honey. Many nights over the years, the bear and I played and danced together amongst the trees. We gorged on berries and honey, shaped crowns from twigs, and learned to sign to each other, to tell our stories, secrets and dreams. Until one night, a young woman at last, I didn’t want to leave him, didn’t want to go back to town.
Because I loved Bear, the townspeople said I couldn’t be human. Said I was a beast. When Bear walked upright, took to wearing overalls, and we set-up house together, they shouted at us on the streets, fired dirt and stones.
Once my baby bump showed, they stole into the woods and set fire to our cottage. They dragged us from our bed and threatened to hang us by our necks, my mother among them. My father begged for mercy and the mob finally allowed us to run, to take a bag each on our backs. They warned us never to return.
We trudged deeper into the woods. The same woods where I’d first met Bear, when as a child I’d rescued him. All the animals also rejected us. The bears cut us with their claws and chased us off. Bear apologized and cried, said I deserved a real man, real love, said he should never have allowed any of this to happen. I pulled his hands from his face and kissed him hard, climbed on top of him.
“Nothing is more real than this,” I signed.
We built another home, a small hut that blended with our surroundings. We never wanted to be found again. Bear fished and foraged and every night after dinner we danced next to the campfire, under the shelter of the stars.
When the baby pains seized me, I felt I was in the jaws of the mountain lions, felt death would be a relief. For two full days I labored and screamed and passed in and out of consciousness. In the deep of the second night it ended.
Bear wrapped the baby and disappeared to bury him. He imagined he’d covered the baby in time, but I saw. The townspeople had warned the baby would be hideous, would arrive deformed and depraved, the devil’s spawn. They said a woman and a bear could never bring ‘right life’ into the world. As blood and the last of the baby’s sack poured out from between my legs and into the dirt, ‘right life’ repeated in my head, smashed-in my skull.
I named our son Joseph Aloysius Bear, after my father. Bear never reached for me again, at least not in love.
The first time Bear hit me, we were having the same old argument. He refused to tell me where he’d buried Joseph.
“That’s all done with,” he signed.
“Stop saying that.”
“You stop,” he signed.
“I guess it’s true,” I signed. “You can’t take the beast out of the animal.”
His arm shot out so fast, I was on the flat of my back on the floor before I realized what had happened.
I swore I’d never allow him to hit me again, that I’d walk. I stayed through one more fist to my face, then another and another and another. Bear stopped wearing clothes, stopped standing upright, stopped sleeping in our hut.
When the two hunters found me by the lake, certainty kicked at the back of my knees and I knew Bear and I would end as we began. The hunters took turns holding the other’s rifle and climbing on top of me. Throughout, I pictured Joseph’s tiny face, how it wore the color and the splendor of the lake when it was frozen. They laughed, thought I was crying over them.
We heard Bear before we saw him. He screamed and charged and ripped the first hunter apart in minutes. The second, the one he’d witnessed pumping me, he took his sweet time over. After, we stared into each other, breathing hard. He took off. I wailed and shrieked and called him back, knew he’d never return.
I often heard him, though, nights. He’d roar and shake trees and loose a cry that could crack stars. With time, his noises grew more terrible, the sounds of his trying to get something out, to set something free.
Whenever Bear quieted, I snatched at sleep and sometimes dreamed that I awoke to a trail of stones outside our hut. A trail Bear had laid and that led to Joseph. With my bare hands, I unburied Joseph and carried him into town, held him, tiny splendid him, out before the people and said, “Look, look.” And they saw.