Bear? I ask my traveling companion. My teeth chatter so hard I’m afraid they’ll chop off my tongue.
“Will we be there soon?”
“You will know when we reach the end.”
All of Bear’s words sound wise. She speaks in a growl that starts deep in her chest and rolls all the way up her throat. I can feel its rumbling echo; the baby inside me feels it too and stirs. I tap a soothing rhythm against my rounded belly—ba-dum, ba-dum,—like a heartbeat.
The whole world stings white and hazy. Sometimes I try to catch a glimpse of the sky through the mist that veils my eyes, but mostly, I focus on setting my own feet in Bear’s deep paw prints in the luminous snow. It’s easy to get lost forever in this weather, so easy to stumble and never get back up.
Bear turns around and noses my side, a warm, familiar pressure. I plod on through the barren landscape. What for, I don’t know. But then the baby gives a sudden kick, as if to remind me.
Most woodland creatures are deep in hibernation. Those still awake avoid me, but they seem especially reluctant to find themselves in Bear’s path. It’s like they can somehow sense her otherness. I see the small birds and rodents out of the corner of my eye; they flitter between the skeletal tree branches and scamper in the scarce, needlepoint vegetation when we walk past their nests and burrows.
The burn in my feet starts dull, but soon every step is a razor cut. We take shelter from the icy wind behind some boulders jutting out of the earth like crooked teeth.
While Bear hunts, I start a fire using twigs, a sputtering lighter, and pages ripped from an old Hunter’s Handbook. I unlace my boots and peel off my wet socks. My ankles are purple-veined, swollen. My blisters ooze blood. I shuffle around to get comfortable in the giant coat I’d stolen from the cabin in the mountains. I had to roll it around in the snow to rid it of the tobacco stink that made my stomach wrench worse than morning sickness.
The fire spits and crackles feebly. The crystallized snowflakes on my lashes melt tears into my eyes.
When Bear returns, I ask, “Am I—are we lost?”
She says, “What has been lost can never be returned.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Bear smiles. Her lips stretch to expose blackened gums and gleaming yellow teeth. I don’t recoil at the stench of animal musk and decay.
I retrieve a can of baked beans from my rucksack and stare at the grub-like pellets. I haven’t had a hot meal since I ran away from the cabin almost a month ago.
Bear nudges her snout against my frozen backside. “Eat. You need to keep your strength up. Do it for your cub.”
My cub. My baby. My little bear.
I spoon some of the pasty beans into my mouth. My baby’s kicks bounce against my inner walls. “You like that?” I coo around a bite. “You like beans?”
Bear stops tearing into the moose carcass she dragged to our campsite and watches me with her dark, dark eyes. There are guts caught between her teeth. Pink and wet, they glisten in the firelight as though they hold omens inside their folds.
“Have you picked a name for her?” Bear asks.
“How do you know it’s a girl?”
“A mother knows these things.” Bear’s grunt sounds baleful, but I recognize it for what it is.
I don’t know who the father is. If it’s my own old dad or one of the gin-drinking, tobacco-chewing hunters from back in the cabin. I had been a runaway for less than a week before the three hunters picked me up in their truck. They pulled up beside me while I was searching for roadkill along the salt-brined highway. “Looks like we’ve caught ourselves a rabbit,” they chuckled, and I did feel like a rabbit then, like something small and animalistic under the weight of their leers and gropes.
Bear stretches on her back, ferns and dull-brown pine needles flattened beneath her massive body. I huddle closer to her. The forest animals might not recognize Bear as their own, but I’ve felt a kinship with her. It’s under my breastbone, in my heart, this knowledge that wilts away when I try to put it into words.
The blustering wind picks up and blows thick whorls of snow our way. A wet cough rattles my lungs. I muffle my wheezing against Bear’s warm side and comb numb fingers through her bristled fur, working the kinks out of the long, wild tufts. She lets me, although sometimes I think it hurts her. It’s not a physical ache. This pain hits somewhere else, somewhere deeper.
After the storm passes that night, the sky is the clearest it’s been in days. The horizon is so enormous, it could swallow us whole. Not for the first time, I notice the Bears above are missing. The men in the cabin told stories about them. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor: the Great and the Small Bear. You could once find them by spotting the Big Dipper or Polaris, the North Star.
When I first asked Bear about the empty patch of the night sky, she snarled and refused to talk about it. But now, dozing in my sleeping bag beneath the stars, I hear her lift her heavy head from her front paws and say, “The little bear, she went missing first, so it was up to the big bear to climb down from the sky and look for her cub on earth.”
I hum a little song for the baby sleeping inside me. “Yet all you found was me.”
Bear looks at my belly full as the moon. “One day, Girl. One day you’ll understand the sacrifices we’re all called to make.”
I realize the tune I’m murmuring came from the men in the cabin. My voice falters and splits, the words frost-sharp on my tongue. I already understand, but I don’t tell Bear that.
“You’ve been watching over me for weeks. What about your own cub? Your search?”
Don’t you miss the sky? I want to ask, but the wind snatches my words away.
Bear cranes her neck toward the yawning darkness, devoid of two of its many star clusters. Her smile is like the barrel of a gun.
“Wherever my cub is now, she’s long gone.” Then, quietly: “I can never return to the sky. There must always be two bears.”
And that’s when my water breaks.
It is slow at first, and then it’s fast and wet and violent. Bear lets me lean against her as I pant and shiver. It’s as if I’m being torn apart from the inside, and I don’t know if my body can take it.I Don’t know if I can put myself back together afterwards.
The first thing my screaming, thrashing daughter sees of this world is snow. I cut the umbilical cord with my teeth. Bear’s coarse tongue licks my sweat-slick face; her hot breath fans over the red-faced, bloodied baby bundled up in fleece and fur. For an inexplicable moment, the instinct to scratch and claw—to protect my baby from Bear—overtakes me, but that too passes as the world swims in and out of focus and everything is white, so white.
“You did it,” Bear says.
For the first time in all these months, I let myself admit it: “I wasn’t sure I could.”
I hadn’t planned to give birth in this blizzard-ravaged wasteland. I thought I’d stay in the cabin until I had my baby, then run away afterward. But then I couldn’t lie still and silent anymore like all those dead-eyed animals mounted on the cabin walls. I couldn’t look at the loaded rifles and not imagine the hunters sending a bullet through my baby’s soft skull.
I unzip my coat and expose my tender breasts for my daughter to latch onto. The wind’s kiss has frigid teeth, but it’s okay. My body is too tired to shiver.
Sometime during the night, my daughter stops crying. Then she stops moving. I only allow myself a few tears. Even those turn to ice halfway down my cheeks. All the while, Bear watches me silently, a mournful look in her eyes.
We travel on. Time turns in on itself, folds and unfurls like springtime flowers; like the far-off memory of them.
Finally, I drop to my knees and croak, “I can’t keep going.” The whiteness eats up my voice, but Bear hears me anyway.
“We’re here,” she says.
Here is a snow-capped cliff. Roiling fog and jagged emptiness below, clear sky sprawling endlessly above. The patch of missing stars is right in front of me. If I reach out, I might dip my fingers into the black of the sky.
My baby is a cold thing, a dead weight, but I don’t let go of her. When I’m at the cliff’s edge, I turn around to Bear for guidance, but she’s no longer with me. Only her voice remains, that deep, comforting growl, followed by another softer, younger yap. “You know what to do, Girl.”
The two voices fade before disappearing altogether. Despite everything, I’m happy for Bear. Somewhere beyond earth or sky, she’s reunited with her cub at last.
I look back at the sky; at the embroidery of stars shining bright against the inky canvas. At the void where the constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, should be. There must always be two bears.
I hug my baby—my cub—to my chest and step forward.
Together, we float up into the sky.
About the author
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences.