from The White Bear
Late autumn, day nearly gone, and weather so wild
that bare tree limbs tore rents in the racing storm clouds,
and shreds of cloud trembled in the dank air like monstrous,
phantasmagoric rags. Rain hammered the shutters;
the roof groaned; the fire spattered and smoked.
The sullen kettle muttered but refused to boil.
Father, mother, daughter, unspeaking, crowded into the hearth’s
fitful, flickering shadow, parents bent forward on their stools,
fingers stretched toward the guttering flame;
the girl kneeling on the uneven bricks, poker in hand,
stirring the half-charred logs into braver action.
At each strike of metal, the red sparks leaped up
like a swarm of maddened flies, gilding the swell of a cheek,
the bridge of a nose; casting copper over a dark sweep of hair.
“Stop,” said the mother, not snappish but tired, blank-eyed,
her complaint as rote as the kettle’s; and the girl,
crushing logs to sticks, sticks to coals, coals to cinders, barely listened,
as she barely listened to the storm beyond the door. For a moment,
the syllable spun in the draught. Then it vanished, instantly forgotten,
like a dropped matchstick. Rain hammered the roof; the fire spat;
a rogue twist of smoke sent the father into a spasm of coughing,
the girl dabbing soot and tears with the frayed edge of a sleeve.
Now the poker clattered onto the bricks, and the mother said,
“Is it the shutter that’s banging?” For something was beating,
beating against the cottage; or was it banging against the door?
The windows quivered in their frames, and something
was rapping the panes—first one and then another,
as if all the trees in the wood were begging to be let inside.
The girl rocked back on her heels, palms pressed to her hot cheeks.
The father, still coughing, rose from his stool and the mother,
without thought, lay a hand on her daughter’s shoulder,
which trembled, not with fear but with a tense anticipation,
as a pointer trembles at sight of her master’s gun.
Yet the knocking was only the white bear, come back again.
“May I walk in?” he asked; and meanwhile, water
roiled from the roof-edge, plashing his dense fur, which glimmered
like pear blossoms before dawn, even amid the gale
and the rain and the darkening autumn night; meanwhile,
his two broad paws, caked with muck, and his stout forelegs,
sullied to the elbow with leaf-mold and fir needles,
barred the doorway, as if the bear were wary of his welcome—
or too sure of it. “Walk in,” murmured the father, uneasy and shy,
while the mother, rising from her stool, cried, “Oh, the mud!”
But already the daughter had run to fetch blankets, towels, a brush,
and the white bear had padded forward into the crescent of firelight.
How can I explain his beauty? Even soiled with travel and storm
the bear shone in the half-dark room, glowing as a painting
glows in the dusty corner of a church, as if once, long ago,
the canvas had swallowed all the light of the world.
Tall as an elk, burly as an ox, he stood quietly, watchfully,
his enormous paws staining the shabby rug, his strange blue eyes
dilating to black—though if he were beautiful,
he was also terrible. When the girl knelt before him on the rug,
lifting a paw onto the towel in her lap, the mud-streaked claws,
falcon-sharp and heavy as cant hooks, flashed ominously.
In haste, the parents retreated to the fire, which on the bear’s entrance,
had roared to life. Now it burned briskly, diligent kettle
steaming on the hob, draughty room suddenly purring with heat.
But not with comfort. The father turned toward the flame,
his eyes carefully avoiding the bear. Less resolute, his wife
rattled and shifted on her stool, peeping at her silent husband,
glancing at the girl kneeling on the rain-sodden rug,
toweling and brushing each huge white leg; then rising to her feet
to rub the massive shoulders, the muscled back, and finally the great head,
pale muzzle thick as a man’s arm, the tender ears rimmed with down,
and below them that terrible, unblinking, blue-black gaze.
Only after the girl had dried and brushed him, had spread a nest
of blankets beside the busy fire, had swept away the leaves
and fir needles and hung the dripping rug to dry, did the bear, reclining,
choose to speak. “Will you give me your daughter?” he asked.
On her stool, the mother looked nervously from beast to man
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, glancing at the black-haired girl,
once again crouched on the hearth, once again beating sparks from the logs.
“Last time you came,” whispered the woman, “she did say no.”
Shifting her stool closer to her husband’s, the wife touched his arm,
but still the man was silent, eyes fixed on the flames.
“And what does she say this time?” asked the white bear. His teeth glittered.
Swarms of sparks—violet, gold, red as witch blood—whirled in the draught.
Blue shadows, copper shadows fingered the girl’s bowed head.
“I shall not ask again,” said the bear, stretching a forepaw to the fire,
flexing his hooked and heavy claws. “You will see me no more.”
And at this warning, the girl swiftly, quietly, lay the poker on the bricks,
and rose. Now she was taller than the reclining bear,
who lifted his white muzzle and waited, his strange eyes watchful,
self-contained. Dangerous eyes, thought the mother.
Again she turned toward her husband, now bent forward on his stool,
elbows on his knees, rough hands clasped. Waiting.
What will she say? thought the woman. But I know what she will say.
The white bear gazed up at the girl. The girl gazed down on the bear.
When finally she spoke, her voice was hoarse, hurried,
almost brusque, her words pitched low. “I suppose I will go,” she said.
The father groaned and closed his eyes, and “Oh!” cried the mother,
hugging herself, suddenly cold in that overheated room.
The bear gazed up at the girl, and his white teeth glittered.
“Fetch your things,” he told her, “for we travel at moonrise.”
And while the girl was bundling her comb and her locket,
two petticoats and her winter stockings, the white bear said to her parents,
“When your money runs low, dip the brass ladle into the well.”
But the father only groaned, and the mother only hugged herself and wept.