[Sections of the poem have also appeared in the Green Mountains Review (23), no. 1.]
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, laid 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.
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.
Time passed. The moon, freckled and calm, had floated away
from the clutching trees, and now her pale torch
shone down on the faint, beaten track beneath the bear’s silent feet
while the bear himself seemed to reflect the moon’s light like a mirror
and cast his own watery beam into the vague and branchy wilderness.
Presently he spoke. “Are you well?”
“I am,” replied the girl on his back. But some change had come over the beast—
a new, nervous excitement rippled from his stride;
and the terrain had shifted as well, become steeper and stonier,
the underbrush dwindling to what might have been
clumps of lichen or moss, even heaps of pebbles.
Raindrops no longer pattered from the trees; but a dry, mild wind
had sprung up, lifting the hem of the girl’s cloak,
toying with a strand of hair. “Where are we?” she wondered aloud,
and the white bear answered, “Nearly home.”
Yet what could home mean? Not a cottage in the forest. Surely not a cave.
And whose home would it be? This, the girl realized, with a clarity
that shocked her, was the question that mattered. For she had never,
not even in anger or fantasy, been homeless. Now here she was—
foreign, adrift; and though she would not allow herself to believe
that the bear meant to kill her, still, she had no key to any door,
and no escape, if the bear chose to bar his gates behind her.
When he reached the palace door, the white bear sank to his haunches,
and the girl, clutching cloak and bundle, slid awkwardly to the ground,
her feet so numb that she circled and staggered like a sick horse.
Eyes bright, breath quick, the bear rested on the silver flagstones
till she found her footing. His silence was nothing but kind;
yet the girl, flushed with embarrassment, felt, for the first time,
a heartsick wave rise in her throat. “Oh,” she cried,
“I am so thirsty!” And indeed her throat was dry, her tongue parched,
her lips sore and split, though she had not noticed them before—
and though she wished, instantly, that she had not complained
so babyishly, or stumbled so clumsily, or worn such thick boots.
For even as she entered the hall, this cottage girl knew
she was at odds with the bear’s palace. She might learn
to love it or fear it, but she would never roam its galleries, its lavish
forgotten bedrooms, its roaring kitchens, its secret courtyards,
with a native’s homely, ignorant abandon. Always
she and the house would be divided. At first, she might rattle
among its stairs and winding corridors like a lentil in a sieve,
perch on brocade with a thief’s false valor.
After a dozen years, she might gain greed, custom, or disguise.
But the language of the house—its echoes, creaks, and sighs:
that was a tongue she would never learn to speak.
Here she stood, however:
inside a palace that was more than half mountain,
with great vaulted ceilings of granite; with winding stairways
coiling down into the earth and up into the misty peak;
glowing with the glare of an enormous roaring fire.
The white bear threw himself, with pleasure and abandonment,
onto a crimson carpet, stretching his paws to the flames;
and after a few moments, the girl allowed herself to rest
on the edge of a satin ottoman. She folded her trembling hands
over the bundle in her lap. The grandness of the room
oppressed her, and, not for the first time, she was afraid of the bear.
He seemed, at once, too glad in his surroundings
and too indifferent to them. But what she feared,
the girl was quick to admit, for she strove to be honest with herself,
was that the bear did not care about her fear.
She had believed, during their long journey, and especially
at each secret, delicious touch of fur and skin,
that now and for always the white bear would understand her heart.
But though all women make the same mistake about their lovers,
the truth is ever a shock, ever a terror.
We convince ourselves that love will banish our loneliness.
So why, asked the girl, do I feel so alone?
It is fortunate, for all the world, that dinner assuages
a multitude of griefs. Just as the girl felt
with a full heart that she would never be joyful again,
a table appeared before her—one laden with scarlet linen
and white china; with spoons rubbed bright as new pennies;
with crystal glasses and flasks; and on the plates curled
little fish fried in crumbs, alongside slivers of orange,
and new-made butter, and potatoes split and steaming
in their jackets, and beside them a bowl of wild greens and a hot rye loaf.
Now the white bear rose from his bed on the hearth,
and, suddenly famished, the girl also stood, dropping her bundle,
ruefully rubbing her dusty hands on her muddy skirt,
except that, when she looked down,
the skirt was a silken gown, clean and blue as a spring sky
and on her finger was a ring with a blue stone.
She smiled at the white bear, and the bear said,
“Perhaps you would lift my plate to the floor.”
So the girl set a plate of fish and potatoes before the bear,
and then she sat herself down and ate.
And once the wonderful dinner was finished, a silver cake appeared.
So the girl cut a slice for the bear and one for herself
and then, holding her slice in her hand, knelt beside him on the hearth.
Almost, now, she felt at home. The white bear licked first one paw,
then the other. The girl brushed the crumbs from her blue dress
and said shyly, “I forgot I was hungry.”
The bear paused in his licking and turned to look at her.
As her eyes met that strange, unblinking gaze, the girl shivered;
but this time she knew she was neither cold nor afraid.
Or perhaps she was afraid, but with a species of fear
she did not recognize as fear. For his gaze was a stream of light,
devouring and stern, yet also (and this was the marvel) a plea.
“And are you tired?” asked the bear softly.
The girl looked down at her hands, then into his eyes. “I am,” she said.
She has forgotten the room, forgotten the firelight, forgotten
the cool ironed sham beneath her cheek,
forgotten the shadows under the bed, forgotten the wind at the window,
the stars burning, an owl snatching a wayward rabbit,
the rabbit’s shriek; she has forgotten her mother, her father,
her cottage under moonlight; forgotten the rain,
forgotten the brook that wept like a river.
Only now only now only now.
For dreaming and the act of love are mirrors;
and tonight the girl knows also; but where is her breath,
where is the tender shivering flesh below the ridge of her shoulder?
Where? For she has lost herself, she has lost the white bear,
who is not a bear, but what has he become?
What has she become? Both have cast off their skins, both
grown larger than giants, and each new and solitary cell
undergoes its ruthless joy. Who is the bear, who the woman;
who the air, who the fire; who the knife,
who the wound? How terrible they are;
how near to hate and dreaming is love,
its fury of nail and claw; and how time
narrows and slows, till now there is only
yes and no and yes.
But such interludes are finite.
Though at night the beast cast off the form of a bear,
he reappeared as a beast in the morning,
day after day, week after week,
and meanwhile winter came to the mountain palace.
The fires roared high and the snow fell,
and when the girl breathed on the frosted mullions
and rubbed away her breath, she saw only white stones
against white sky. Inside the palace she possessed all
that an intelligent young woman is prone to desire—
galleries and libraries, hothouses and kitchens,
and a fierce and tireless lover. Yet the palace oppressed her,
as it had oppressed her from the first.
Perhaps, she thought, as she idled in the window seat,
scratching small patterns on the frost panes,
I am tired of having everything chosen for me.
Or perhaps I am merely a discontented woman.
And she thought of the tales she had read,
of greedy sisters and unhappy queens
and meek, obedient goose-girls; and she sighed
and leaned her cheek against the cold glass,
and let the heavy book on her lap slip to the floor.
That evening, as she knelt before the fire,
tilting the dregs of dark wine back and forth,
back and forth in her glass, she said to the white bear
who lay stretched beside her,
“I wonder what my mother and father are doing now.”
The white bear rolled over and lifted his head.
“What do you want?” he asked.
The girl tilted her wineglass back and forth,
and the dregs flashed and darkened,
flashed and darkened.
“Oh,” she said, and paused. And then:
“My hours in this palace trickle away so slowly.
Perhaps I am dull; perhaps winter
is lonely. But at home, they needed me—
to carry firewood, to cook breakfast, to wash clothes.”
Quietly the bear replied, “This is your home, and I need you.”
Though his words were gentle, his pale eyes
sharpened. The girl dropped her gaze.
He was wrong: his home was not her home.
She knew she would always be a stranger in his vast, stony palace.
Nonetheless, she loved him, she loved him terribly;
and she needed him to love her.
This the bear understood. And after their months together,
the white bear was learning (or beginning to learn)
that he, too, must bend. “Dear one,” he said,
and his voice was calm,
“I will send you to visit your parents,
but you must make me a promise,
and you must keep your word.”
The girl turned toward him and laid a hand
on his broad shoulder. Now she wrapped both arms
around him and pressed her nose into his warm neck.
The bear repeated, more softly yet, “You must keep your word.”
The girl said quickly, her tumbled words muffled
against the bear’s heavy fur, “I will keep my word, of course.”
Only then did she remember that she did not know
what she was promising.
She raised her head. “But why?” she said. “What must I do?”
“It is what you must not do that matters,” replied the bear.
“You must not allow your mother to lead you away from your father
and speak of me. You must not,
or both you and I will suffer.” Cupping her two hands
around the white bear’s muzzle, the girl bent
to kiss its bridge. “That will not happen,” she said.
And in less than a moment
she stood before her parents’ forest cottage
at winter’s bare end. All around her
heaved boot-riven mud. The snow, half-melted,
was soiled with blackened leaves and gnawed pinecones;
chips and sawdust littered the dooryard. And yet
smoke threaded so joyously from the chimney; a chickadee
whistled his high-low spring song; sunlight
fingered the barren trees; and a small, soft wind tugged at her cloak.
The very window-glass seem to blink at her with pleasure.
The girl was so swiftly, so deeply happy that she hesitated to knock.
But she took a breath and, tears prickling her eyes, tapped at the door.
Inside, a thump and a flurry: her mother
dropping the rolling pin and now scraping flour paste
from her hands, and now the thud of her clogs
as she bustled to the door, and now
such crying and kissing and embracing;
and “oh, how beautiful she is, my lost child;
how brightly her dress gleams under the velvet cloak;
how the little blue ring sparkles on her finger!”
Now the father stamps his boots at the back door;
his daughter flies into his arms, spilling his bucket of twigs,
nearly cracking his head on the doorframe: more cries and kissing,
and then, at long last, three heads round the kitchen table,
cups in hand, kettle steaming on the hob; and the mother saying,
“Tell us everything, my love.”
So the girl set down her teacup and retold the tale of her travels—
her long ride on the white bear’s back, her arrival at the palace
in the mountain, the kindness of the bear, the wonderful dinners
and kitchens and libraries of her new home.
Her father listened in wide-eyed wonder, and when he brought himself
to question his daughter, he spoke like the craftsman he was.
So she detailed the marble floors, the oaken shelves, the smooth slate counters.
But her mother had other curiosities. “My love,” she said,
clasping her daughter’s hand between her own,
“tell us about your husband. Is he kind to you?”
At mention of the white bear, the girl found herself
longing to speak of him. But she remembered his warning
and turned the conversation into other routes—
speaking of the fine thick carpet on the cottage floor
and the silver tankards twinkling on the shelf;
for the bear had been as good as his word. Whenever
the parents were in need, they dipped the brass ladle
into the well and brought forth a dipper full of coins.
And since they were not extravagant, they lived snugly enough,
lamenting their daughter but day by day regaining
a certain sweet content in themselves, as parents must do.
Indeed, as the weeks of her visit passed,
the girl began to see herself as an imposition to their comfort—
not that her parents promoted this view;
but three stools crowded the hearth,
the coat pegs no longer held space for her cloak,
and the apple tart divided awkwardly for three.
Once three had been the most natural of numbers.
Could she blame them for making the best of two,
especially now that she had become half of two herself?
For oh, how she missed the white bear!
Each night, as she lay wrapped in her blanket by the fire,
her thoughts returned to the palace fireside,
to the bear’s great paws curling on the flagstones,
to the heat of his breath on her breast;
and she turned and tossed, trapped in the peculiar despair
of unsubstantiated desire, angry at her ingratitude—
to her lover, whom she had willingly deserted;
to her parents, who fussed and fidgeted from morning till night.
If only she could speak of the bear to someone, anyone!
The girl took to wandering away of an afternoon, far down the forest track,
merely for the chance to lie among the broken remnants
of last year’s bracken ferns and whisper the bear’s name. Her parents,
puzzled and sad, watched her disappear into the woods;
yet they were not more puzzled than their daughter, nor more sad.
She did not think to ponder, “So what, after all, does home mean?”
as she lay in her damp cot and watched the finches, garbed in their winter drab,
flicker from bough to bough; but the question nonetheless
dangled before her in the listless air; and when finally she sat up, stiff with cold,
and gathered strength for her mother’s too-cheerful greeting,
her father’s anxious frown, she had advanced not a step toward contentment.
And it was in this low state that she made her error.
The day had opened in wet fog, and as the morning passed,
rain began to fall steadily. With no hope of escape into the forest,
the girl sat moodily at the table sorting sprouted onions for the pig—
a simple-enough task in itself yet wretchedly tedious
if one is the lovesick queen of an enchanted palace.
Her mother sat on a stool by the fire, mending a shirt; but her father,
braving the rain, had walked into the village, his pocket
stuffed with coins from the well, the vision of a little mare filling his thoughts.
Surely a little mare would cheer his daughter, give her a new care.
Somehow he never allowed himself to consider that she might leave again.
Nor, it seems, had his wife. Early that morning, still abed,
he had broached the idea, and she, all smiles, had eagerly agreed.
“The blacksmith has a horse he would sell—a beautiful mare,
spotted, with a long black tail. Walk down to the forge, my dear;
offer him a good price; and meanwhile, I will speak to our daughter alone.
Perhaps I may discover what the bear has done to create such misery.”
The plan was kind, and the woman meant well indeed.
But it may be that every loving parent has made a similar mistake.
For we have been so long trained to defend our children’s joy
that we are too liable to hate the pains of that joy
and distrust the thieving lover who has coaxed them forth.
So as the daughter sorted onions, the mother spoke to her gently
but with a mother’s expectation of obedience.
“You must tell me, now, about the white bear. You are so unhappy,
yet how can I help you if I know nothing?”
Though a mother’s aid was no use in this matter, this was a fact
that neither mother nor daughter recognized.
And after all, the girl was so very tired of silence.
She would say a few words, no more than a few,
just to satisfy her mother’s curiosity. There could be no harm.
Surely the bear knew how much she loved him; surely
he had never meant her to relinquish all mention of his name.
The girl sighed, straightened her shoulders, shook the papery fragments
of onionskin from her skirts. Then she turned toward her mother
and, folding her dusty hands in her lap, opened her mouth to speak.
But as soon as the word bear fell from her lips,
the whole tale of their love burst forth. Weeping, she told her mother
that every night the bear came to her bed and that perhaps,
in truth, he was not a bear—she wasn’t sure, she couldn’t explain,
he might have been a man, yet she never saw him in the darkness;
oh, but he was kind, very kind, and she loved him dearly;
nothing was wrong, only she was lonely and out of sorts;
the bear had never hurt her, never really hurt her. He was very kind.
The mother listened to this tale of woe with a kind of open-eyed horror
melding embarrassment with fear. But it was also
(though this she only vaguely admitted to herself) tinged with envy.
A faithful husband is a lifetime’s comfort, but who among us
grows immune to dreams of a mysterious ardent lover?
And yet her child, her child, in the grip of such confusion!
“My darling,” cried the mother, rising so violently from her seat
that her basket of sewing toppled, and thimble and spools
clattered onto the floor and rolled away, forgotten, into the corners.
“What if your husband is a troll?”
“Oh, mother,” wept the girl, “you’re wrong. It can’t be true.”
Yet once the words had been spoken, she could not forget them,
especially after her father returned from the village
leading the spotted mare. Stroking the mare’s soft nose,
the girl discovered, tied to the bridle, a long red ribbon;
and on it, printed in gold, these instructions:
“Ride into the forest, and I will meet you.”
“What shall I do?” she cried; but already, as her stricken parents
begged her to stay, she had snatched up her cloak,
flung it over her shoulders, and mounted the dancing mare,
who galloped headlong into the fog and vanished
before the father could gather strength or wits to hold her.
There was no sign of the white bear. Nonetheless,
the little mare trotted briskly along the path,
her pace so confident and surefooted that the girl
soon dropped the reins and let them lie untended in her lap.
At first she had peered ahead anxiously into the fog,
quick to spy any glimmer of white among the trees;
but as the hours passed and no bear appeared,
she found her attention wavering, her eyes beginning to close;
felt herself falling forward, cheek pillowed against the mare’s
sweet-scented mane, as the horse, unchecked, trotted on
and the scent, rising and falling like breath, became a dream.
And this is what she dreamed—
a door opening into a dark room,
one she had never seen before, a room cavernous with shadows
yet here was the little bed she had slept in last night
before her parents’ fire. Why was it here, in this strange room,
and who was sleeping in it? A guttering stub of candle
appeared in her hand; she lifted it high over the bed;
and there lay a man, fair as snow,
fast asleep beneath a white bearskin. She leaned over him,
thinking she must faint if she did not
brush her lips against his bare shoulder;
but as she bent over him, three drops of wax fell,
searing three scars like tears into his pale skin.
Starting up suddenly from sleep, he cried out,
“What have you done? What have you done?”
“Oh, oh,” sobbed the girl, for she knew, now, who he was.
“You have spoken to your mother,” he replied, and the three scars
pulsed like starlight in the black room. “Let our misery begin.”
At these words, the girl wailed and wept; she threw herself into his arms,
she kissed his wrists, his hands, begging for mercy . . .
But at this moment she awoke and found herself clutching
the mare’s black mane and the mare galloping full tilt into the darkness.
“Stop!” shrieked the girl.
Instantly the mare halted, with such force that the girl
tumbled forward into the ferns. There she sat, dizzy and breathless,
as the mare idly nibbled a dry leaf.
“Where are you running to, little mare?” stammered the girl,
her voice choking in her throat;
for she knew now that the horse was no common village hack.
Perhaps, like her own white bear, the mare could speak;
perhaps she was the bear, in new form;
and at this thought, the girl leaped to her feet
and put her two arms round the horse’s slender neck.
“Dear mare,” she asked, “who are you?”
The mare only snorted and flicked her ears.
As she did so, an acorn fell into the girl’s lap,
then split cleanly at the cap, as acorns will;
and inside the cap was printed the word East in fine gold script,
but around the nut marched the word West in silver capitals.
“What does it mean?” wailed the girl, flinging cap and nut
into the bracken. “I don’t believe it means anything at all.”
The white bear, hidden in the bracken and watching her,
may have thought twice about his choice of wife—
this angry, tear-stained, red-faced girl, her cloak checkered with leaf-mold,
shouting fruitlessly at the spotted mare,
though, in truth, the mare seemed indifferent to the clamor,
merely lifting a hind hoof to scratch the back of a front knee.
The girl hid her face in her hands, tried to breathe deeply,
tried to think. East, west; east, west . . . with such instructions,
she might just as well dig her own barrow,
here, under these twigs, this bracken; leave the mare to find her way home,
or wherever it was she might be heading.
And at this thought, the girl lifted her face from her hands.
“Where were you going? Who were you running to?” she asked.
In response, the mare whinnied and pranced and flung her head,
from which actions the girl took a bit of comfort—
not happiness, to be sure, nor even confidence;
more as if the cloud on her heart had shifted its shape.
At least the horse claimed to know which road to travel.
Wearily, she clambered to her feet; wearily, she remounted.
“Go where you are going,” she said,
and instantly the mare darted forward into the forest,
the girl bobbing listlessly on her back.
Tears welled from her swollen eyes and spilled down her blotchy cheeks.
She wiped her nose on the edge of her cloak.
What have I become? wondered the girl, but only briefly.
For she had entered that strange realm of selfishness
that arises only in moments of great misery,
when despair becomes a kind of spell,
and sorrow creates its own walled castle.
Everything outside the girl seemed vaporous and indistinct.
No longer did she scan the forest for sight of the white bear.
He would not come. No one would come.
Clinging to the back of this jogging beast,
she would ride through the night, and then through another night.
One by one, the stars would flare and fade and flicker out,
and the moon would turn her face to the wall.
Here is where my tale becomes difficult to write,
where it swells and dissipates and trails away to mist.
For not only do my characters refuse to behave admirably;
they also—and this is the crux—
they refuse to behave with resolve.
The bear, of course, was angry with his wife;
and for a time his anger overtopped his loneliness.
He lay hidden in the brush as she tumbled into the ferns.
He watched her fling the acorn message into the dark,
and he felt a certain satisfaction at sight of her harridan misery.
But don’t think that the white bear was, at heart, a cruel husband.
Words came hard to him. He was, after all, more beast than man;
and though he loved his wife, and longed for her return,
her angers and fears were nothing to his own.
In his eyes, they were petty, staged for display,
overrun with tears and fine speeches, while his own—
ah, his animal flame ran wordless and deep, like molten stone.
Or so he believed. The bear’s wife, who loved him fiercely,
might have chosen “chill” instead of “flame,”
“claw” instead of “stone,” “prideful” instead of “deep.”
Who, if not a wife, sees a man more clearly than he sees himself?
Or so she believes.
The little mare, insouciant, trotted away into the dark.
The bear, hidden and silent among the bracken,
lay glowering at the girl on the horse’s back.
The girl rubbed a knuckle into her swollen eyes
and, with her other hand, tightened her grip on the horse.
She felt obliged, suddenly, to make a decision,
any decision, one would be as good as the next,
she was exhausted by love, by anger,
she hated love, she would go home to her parents
and tell them nothing, she would lie, day and night,
tearless on her bed. The white bear had betrayed her,
or she had betrayed him, and there was no use
in trying to recover what they had lost.
“East, west,” she said to the horse.
And then suddenly she said, “Go north.”
At those words, the mare turned suddenly
and plunged into the thicket.
The tree branches leaned forward, scratching and plucking at the girl,
who screamed, covering her head with her arms
as the mare swerved among the terrible trees.
And the white bear, who lay hidden among the bracken
and brush to the south of the path, silently got to his feet.
For a moment he stood motionless,
shimmering like the moon on this moonless night.Then he turned his back to the trail, and he padded away.