The bear must have swallowed the storm; for now, tangled in the naked trees,
the risen moon rocked peaceably. The rain had dwindled to a frail
feathery mist, and fragments of cloud drifted in the idle air.
Water dripped from every needle and stalk. The brook—roaring, boastful—
charged over sedge and stone like a newborn sea. Seated on the white bear’s back,
swaying among unseen trees, down an unseen forest track,
the girl pushed back the hood of her cloak. One by one, giant raindrops, cold as fish,
fell from the boughs and trickled slowly down her scalp.
Tightening her grip on the bear’s pulsing shoulder, she stretched her free hand
into the darkness and let her fingers brush the soft, sodden fir branches
sweeping the shadow margins of the path. All her life she had lived in this wood,
hunted its berries, trodden its tracks—but never at night, never so far, never
at mercy of the wild. Never so alone. For since leaving the cottage,
the white bear had not spoken. First, he rested silently in the clearing,
waiting for the girl to tuck up her skirts, to straddle his broad back,
to wedge her scanty bundle of goods beneath her cloak.
Then he rose to his feet and padded forward into the darkness.
Behind her, framed in the bright doorway, stood her parents,
frightened and grieving; but when she turned to call farewell,
her twisted hood smothered her words. “Good-bye,” she cried, too late.
The white bear padded forward; the swollen brook drowned her cry.
Her father and mother might never hear their child’s voice again.
Tears blotched the girl’s cheeks and snaked beneath her collar.
Her feet, dangling along the bear’s flanks, ached with cold.
She was wet and afraid and lost in a lonely wood, yet somehow
she could not regret her resolve. Under her loose cloak
and crumpled skirts, the white bear’s fur—rabbit-soft, blood-warm—
rippled and flowed against her stockings . . .
but no, it was the sliver of bare thigh above her stockings
that the fur seemed to kiss, to cradle.
Clinging to his pacing shoulder, she trailed a blind hand
through the dripping boughs that lined the path,
licked the salt rain from her lips. She tightened her grip on the bear.