the bear, part one
2006-11-15 - 12:07 p.m.

I remember the bear, I think.

A sense: something vast and pervading, blackness and bristle, a night with heavy breath. A warm dark, a draught of thick milk. A rumble that shook what seemed to be the dark surface of the earth, a strange lullaby.

What I do not remember: teeth, claws. The biting cold of that night, when she should have been sleeping, curled around her cubs. The bawling loneliness under the winter stars, with the white cloth of the swaddling swirling in the wind like snow. Fine cloth, it was, for all its plainness, finer than the looms here could weave, the women with their rough brown fingers.

I discovered this later, at the age when understanding dawns. Mother had kept it, you see, and held it out when she told the story I've heard so many times. The story that, until then, seemed only a hearthside tale until an old bit of cloth, half moth-eaten, made it real.

Let me tell you a story, my Mother says. As it was told to me from the tongues of the women at the well, who heard it from the priestesses, who heard it from the hunters, who heard from their lovers, the maids at the house of pillars and white stone.

A stream of words, flowing over tongue and teeth, as her fingers work the drop spindle. My thin dirty feet squirm fireside, becoming characters, shadow-puppets.

In the time beyond time, throughout and about, there was a king and queen. Crazy folks, they were, of the New People with their strange ways.

"The queen - was she fast? Was she clever?" I'd ask, curling my feet against the bench, warming them by the sputtering fire. My brother wrestled with the wolfhound near the wall. My sister paused from her weaving and stopped her ears, wincing.

She hated the story, and the questions - always the same.
"Likely not," my mother sniffed, her hands twisting the wool into thread. "Those women of the New People are ninnies with soft hands and soft minds. They forget who they are."

Her husband was mad for a son, not knowing the worth of daughters. So, when the time came and his young, soft wife birthed their firstborn, he stole out of the stone house. He fancied himself a warrior, yes, but he waited until exhaustion took his wife before he dared his great theft.

He wrapped the infant in white. Not knowing the worth of daughters, he didn't see her perfect toes and fingers, her keen eyes. He didn't even do the deed himself, that brave warrior, but gave the babe to an old hunter of his, and bid him leave her on the mountaintop in a brass pot for a bit of gold.

And so, the old man of the New People, who did not know the worth of daughters, climbed the rocks through the scrub and left the babe under the winter stars, a-crying and a-wailing. He couldn't bear to cut her heart or tongue, though, as the king bade him, and instead gave the heart of a ground squirrel he dug from his den. For he was a hunter but not a killer of men, that one.

"And the evil king, did he find out? Did the queen find out and kill him with her ax?" I'd ask, feet furiously twitching as they always did, aching for the feel of the ground.

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