Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Last Polar Bear

            The bear came out of a rocky swale and drudged to the top of an ancient beach terrace and stopped and swung her great head back to the sea - the argent polish of it, shapeless, a vast water without ice, the last of the drifting packs ruined by the sun. A strong breeze kept the flies from her eyes and riffled the yellowing fur along her spine. The wind had not changed it seemed – it pushed and shoved the short grasses and willows for millennia. But there was more to the wind now; it carried the heat of the land, the rising thermals that found the arctic barrens senseless and impotent to change the course of a melting world.

A distant madness was a memory of the Earth and she was part of the earth and part of the memory and it was the memories of her kind that kept her alive and moved her ahead of death. It walked in her shadow and gnawed at her belly, a presence without conscious intention but something out of necessity and perfection in the barrens. But now it was more than the passing of flesh and the redistribution of energy - it would be annihilation and a journey into irretrievable silence, into the collective memory. All was wrong in an interrupted evolution, but still she endured with the mortal fuse of her lineage belonging only to her.
For days she had been at sea in search of the ice. The seals would be there near their breathing holes. She would smell their breath. But there was no ice and there were no seals. And still she swam on, the black pads of her feet pulling her deeper into her memory, on toward the constant sun until her insulating fat was depleted and she had to turn back to the pebbled shore. There she scavenged the rotting carcass of a young whale, but the nimble foxes had picked it clean and the blubber bled rancid out into the gravel and she licked and chewed what was left with her old teeth until her gums were split and bloodied. It was not enough.
She had fasted over the winter and into the spring, and now in the long summer starvation forced her out over the land. She had to turn away from the sea and the memories of fatted cubs that were but a dream. There in the den beneath her feet lay their bones, dying as they were born, never seeing the breadth of the sky or knowing the spring march out across the ice. She lowered her muzzle and remembered coaxing the still shapes with her tongue, their muted moans and then silence. It was long ago but time was not of her making. Then the bear raised her head and bellowed to the ends of the world, to the things of creation and destruction.
She turned inland and moved through the thickening willows and browsed on sedges and grasses. She flushed a lark from its nest and at once devoured the clutch of still warm eggs. They would not sustain her but momentarily appeased an urgency that grew increasingly dire. She had to feed well her shrinking bulk. And then a memory of a time when food could be found that did not come from the land, a costly time when the Takers came to the north in their numbers, desperate for things deep in the earth. There came a great thaw and then an unacquainted silence, gone was the music of life, vanished were the great bird migrations. Trees crept up into the barrens from the south and snow fell heavy and wet and collapsed the many dens and lemmings suffocated by the score in their lanes and tunnels. And the bears gathered hungry when the first spring arrived without ice.
And then the Takers were gone and with them the Givers, taken from their tilting shelters and famine. The Givers were the People and they hunted the bear as the bear hunted the seal. And the Givers prayed for the bear and they prayed for the land and now belonged to the memory of Bear and the oneness of all things. There was no memory of Takers with such reverence. They used up the Earth and discarded their food. She would go there, to the incongruent structures long abandoned now.
In the distance shapes moved in uncommon waves and the bear lumbered on with a singular loneliness. There were no other beating hearts in the consciousness of white bears that shared the Bear Soul - there was only her own flagging heart in all that space. And in the afternoon she overheated and stopped to rest on a hummock. She sprawled and the bones of her shoulders pushed against her hide and all about her was the land and a sky with a sun that burned and a wind indifferent to things it touched. It cooled her for but a moment and then the heat returned, weakened her. She wanted to sleep. She dropped her head on a foreleg and closed her eyes – a fitful slumber, but she dreamed.
She dreamed of ice and blue pools and seals unaware of her crouch and the mate who gave her the cubs asleep in their tomb, and she dreamed of a place, a gathering of every bear that ever lived, a land of ice and snow that had no beginning and no end. Then she opened her eyes and the shimmering abated and there in the distance, where the Takers drove down the devices of their taking, was a depression in the land and a pond that would cool her.
She laboured to her feet and set out down the slope through arctic poppies thick and yellow, a sea of suns waving out across the plain. She ran now, desperate for relief from a heat she did not know. She would die without the cool waters of the barrens. And the poppies ended suddenly near the pond as if a line had been drawn and the water was dark and only its coolness occupied her. There was nothing else now, just the murky seepage from the peatlands and restoration. Then all at once her eyes stung and her nostrils burned of something foul and hot, not at all a cooling liberation but a savage betrayal of life. She could not stop her still great weight and all was slick and she swung to turn away but she floundered and fell back on her flank and the pond leapt upon her and she lunged to be free of it, heaved with all her will until she stood trembling at the lifeless margins.
Something unloosened by the Takers and she licked at her paws and limbs, contorted to rid herself of the poison. And now a fire in her throat and the bear tossed her head then rolled about on the bare earth and into the poppies, maddening to be rid of the dripping blackness that assaulted her. She regained her feet and staggered and choked and moved away from the pond, from death. She was already dead, but in her brain there remained a primal resolve to survive, to exist another day. And in her misery, she knew where to go. She had to return to the sea.
She moved away, heavy, her head low and her tongue frothed and lolling from her grim mouth. On she went following her steps back to the sea with the fire deep inside her now, burning her alive, into the early evening with the sun sliding low across the horizon. There was only the movement of her body, the contaminated fulfillment of the white bear. And the sea was near but she could not smell it and she could not see. The fire was in her lungs as she gained the terrace. The sea petitioned her, stronger now, and she kept on toward what she knew. There was no deception there in the water. The ice was no more but the sea would receive her.
She stood on the beach, confused and dying, swaying above her failing legs. There was nothing now but to surrender to something more. She moved out into the water, deeper and deeper. It was cold – how the extremes of the world found her unprepared. And out into the water. There was no buoyancy left in her. She could not swim. There was no searching for a memory. She sank, disappeared, a sheen above her in the amber night. Then a last breath as she drank of the sea one last time.