a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The boy wakes early, excited about going to the zoo with his older brother. He has never been before, and his brother has promised that he will see a polar bear. He doesn’t question why he will be going instead of his little brother, who is everyone’s favourite, just like he doesn’t question which of the five brothers his father will raise a hand to when he’s angry, or whose chest the old cinnamon-coloured cat will curl up on at bedtime. He has learned these kinds of questions are pointless.
Yesterday his older brother had shown him a YouTube video of a great white bear dragging a seal out of the water, tugging it forward across the snow with a flipper gripped in its enormous canine teeth. This boy knows nothing of snow, of these ice bears. His life in Michoacán is filled with the scuttle of emerald-eyed lizards glittering in the hot sun, with dusty feral dogs lying under the broad leaves of the fig trees, panting in the heat.
At the end of the video, the seal was half-eaten, and the polar bear had a bloody red goatee on his chin. The boy had clapped his hands, delighted by the ferocity.
The white bear is asleep, splayed out like a starfish on the concrete floor, dreaming. She dreams smells: the biting wind carrying the scent of salted waves; the rank fishy odour of a ringed seal’s exhale; the faint milky whiff of her mother. Her body remains flat and motionless, but her wide black nostrils flare. Another smell enters the dream, the pungent aroma of a dead bowhead whale, washed ashore and rotting on a beach. In the dream she lifts her head, black nose to the wind, and inhales, tracking the scent. Her mother calls her with a gruff bark, and she and her sister run forward across a rocky stretch of coastal tundra, the smaller rocks scraping and clattering underneath their feet. Her front paw twitches, the enormous claws scraping against concrete.
The boy stands pressed against the smooth metal rail that crowns the waist-high chain-link fence, looking down at the bear. Within the fence there is a thick line of bushes, then a low concrete wall, which drops vertically to create the pit that encloses the bear. The boy bounces up and down on his toes, clutching the bar that encircles the concrete pit, as he leans forward to scan the enclosure, waiting for something to happen.
This flat, motionless bear is not what he was expecting. It’s not even white, he thinks, squinting his eyes against the noon-day sun as he studies the bear. Her fur, which is a grimy yellow, is tinged green with algae, and hangs loosely on her bony frame.
The enclosure that the boy is staring down into, at first glance, looks like a stark Arctic landscape. The white concrete floor could be a small expanse of sea ice. It is not entirely flat; it has small dips and gullies, as if the ocean has heaved up against it. There are several bright blue, circular patches on the floor that are meant to represent icy water, breathing holes in the pack ice where a seal’s whiskered snout might appear, the flattened nostrils slitted shut, popping wide open for an inhale. The tall walls that surround the enclosure have been sprayed with rough gunite and painted white; they are meant to look like the towering walls of a deep glacier crevasse. The sun beats down, illuminating the illusion.
The exhibit is not completely barren. There is a dead tree rising up near one edge of the enclosure; its lower half is encased in concrete and hot-wired to prevent the bear from climbing it. Near the middle of the enclosure there is a thick stump, smaller than the bear in height, leaning slightly to the left. At the other end of the enclosure the floor begins to slope down, the gradual incline leading into a small narrow pool, still and blue, sparkling with little flashes of reflected sunlight.
The boy wipes the beads of sweat from his forehead and scratches his armpit. It is hotter than normal and there is no shade in or around the bear’s exhibit. His older brother, who hates staying still, has wandered off. The boy has been here, watching the bear, for six minutes. The bear that he is looking down at has been here, in this tropical zoo enclosure, for twenty-three years. She is well-loved by the locals who visit, even though she is no longer the little osita that arrived here so many years ago, all the way from Alaska, after her mother was shot by hunters. They like to watch her from below, through the thick glass wall that allows them to watch her swim past in the pool, her wide paws paddling effortlessly through the water, volleys of air bubbles streaming from her nostrils. A few other visitors pass by the boy; they glance down at the lifeless bear, shrug, and walk off. The tropical birds are more popular today: the toucans clattering their orange beaks, the long-necked flamingos preening in the sun.
“Wake up, you stupid bear,” the boy mutters, glaring at the inert white animal. She doesn’t even look alive, he thinks, she looks like a dirty bear-skin rug. He wishes he were close enough to give the bear a sharp shove to awaken her, like he sometimes does with his little brother. He looks around and spots a small rock underneath the flowering purple bougainvillea that lines the walkway around the enclosure. The boy picks it up, tossing it lightly in his hand, assessing its heft.
Kindness is not natural for this boy; he has received little of it, so offers little back. He has three older brothers, each who torments the younger ones; he has a father who simmers with rage; his mother provides for him but has long ago run out of small kindnesses. Then there are the boys at school who have chosen him as the target of their bullying. It is not clear why this has happened. He is not stupider, not slower, not uglier than any of the others, yet something about him has marked him as different. And so they leave him out of the recess soccer games, they tease him relentlessly about his crooked front teeth, they call him a coward because he once refused a dare, and sometimes they push him down in the playground, and their sharp-knuckled fists pummel his softest spots.
He glances around furtively, but the young couple that had been nearby, holding hands and whispering to each other, not even looking down at the bear, have strolled away. He reaches back his left arm, and with careful aim lets the rock fly down towards the bear. The rock misses its mark and skitters to a stop near the bear’s long muzzle.
The bear’s head jerks back, and she opens her eyes. The boy reflexively ducks down, out of sight of the bear. She stretches, pulls herself up to standing and inhales. Always, there are the same two smells that flood in: the overpowering sting of ammonia from year’s worth of her urine saturating the concrete, and the harsh odour of chlorine from the pool. The dream smells are obliterated, but the feeling of the dream lingers. There is no dead whale to find, no mother to follow, no salty ocean wind biting at her face. But there is longing, a great expanse of frozen and endless longing. The bear has an overwhelming urge to search for something lost so long ago that no memory of it remains.
And so she begins to walk, her wide front paws stepping, lifting, flipping back and over in a steady rhythm. Her head bobs up and down as she moves. She takes eighteen steps forward, pauses for two seconds, nods her head, up-down-up, swivels, and takes the same eighteen steps back. She continues pacing, back and forth between the gully that she sleeps in and the edge of the small pool. Her mouth hangs open as she pants, revealing a purplish-black tongue. The sun rises a little higher in the sky.
At first the boy is excited to see the bear moving, especially the first few purposeful steps that bring her closer to where he is standing, looking down upon her, but within a few minutes his excitement turns to frustration. He runs around the exhibit calling out “You can’t catch me, you can’t catch me!” He stops and looks down to check if the bear has paused, if she has glanced up towards him, but she continues pacing, sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-pause, unaware of the boy above.
The boy starts to walk in synchronicity with the bear, matching his steps with hers. His stride has a military edge: he clicks his heels together when the bear pauses at the end of the eighteen steps; he salutes when the bear pauses to lift and lower her muzzle; he chants a marching cadence under his breath, left-right-leftrightleft. He grows bored with the routine long before the bear does.
“What kind of polar bear are you?” he exclaims. “You’re not even a bear! You’re just a…a…stupid, useless thing!”
He has had enough of this bear. The boy looks around, hoping to see his brother. He has been told to wait here for him, but the sun is scorching and his stomach is growling. He licks his parched lips and looks down longingly at the clear blue pool.
“You’re a dumb bear,” he says. The bear paces on, seven-eight-nine, panting in the blistering heat. The boy’s gaze travels back and forth between the pacing bear and the pool below him. For a moment he imagines the shocking pleasure of cold water flooding over him and he laughs out loud, exhilarated.
Two older boys walk past and stop. The boy thinks he recognizes one of them, a classmate of one of his older brothers, so he smiles, then self-consciously lifts his hand to his mouth to cover his crooked teeth. But the older boys ignore him. They stand over the pool and have a spitting contest, laughing and nudging each other as their spittle hits the water.
When they leave the boy takes their place above the pool. He lifts his chin, pursing his lips as he gathers a small pool of saliva in the front of his mouth, and then forcibly expels it. His spit doesn’t even hit the water; most of it ends up running down his chin, leaving a viscous smear. He wipes it away in disgust, imagines the two boys sneering and mocking him, just like the boys at school did when he refused their dare. They should dare him now, he thinks, and he would show them that he is not a coward.
He glances down at the pool, squinting his eyes at the dazzling glare from the sun radiating down on it. He looks back and forth between the white bear and the pool.
“You’re not brave enough,” he taunts his imagined classmates, “but I’m not chicken! I’ll do it!” He can hear their sniggers turn to silence as he kicks off his worn sneakers.
“Dare me,” he whispers slowly, bending down and pulling off his dirty grey socks. He pauses. But it is not because he is considering the consequences of what he is about to do, or hesitating. He is simply wishing that the boys were here to witness his bravery.
He tugs his t-shirt over his head, exposing his skinny chest, the curve of each thin rib visible under his brown skin. He slides his thumb into the corner of his mouth, chews on the soft skin beside the dirty nail. The thumb ends up between his full lips, the tip slipping into place behind his crooked front teeth. He sucks on it with a steady rhythm, watching the pacing bear.
And the bear? She remains oblivious to the boy. She pants in the heat, bobs her head with each step, travels her path back and forth to nowhere.
The boy pops his thumb out of his mouth and climbs over the chain link fence, his bare toes gripping the wire like a monkey, and wriggles down into the prickly hedge that separates the fence from the concrete wall surrounding the enclosure. The branches catch and tear at his shorts, scratch his arms. He pulls free of the hedge and scrambles up on to the wide edge of the concrete wall. He takes one final glance around and with a small whoop, leaps forward. For a second or two he free falls, his arms flailing at his sides, and then with a resounding splash he lands in the deep end of the pool below.
The bear is at the end of her eighteen steps. The splash coincides with her pause. Her small, furred ears swivel towards the sound. She lifts her muzzle, her black nostrils flare. For a strange still moment, she remains frozen in place. She knows the sound of things splashing into her pool: the quick plunk of a coin thrown from above, the rhythmic drip-drop of the summer rains coming down, the flurry of wings beating and the splash of webbed feet when the gulls land, the solid thunk and splatter of a dead fish tossed into the pool by the zookeeper. But this sound is different.
The boy’s head breaks through to the surface. He was expecting an icy shock of salty water, but the pool is warm from the sun and the heat, and tastes of chlorine. He shakes the water from his hair and face, looks towards the bear. She is facing him now and their eyes lock. From a distance the bear’s eyes look black and round, and the boy is reminded of the shiny black buttons on his mother’s turquoise sweater. But the bear’s close-set eyes are almond-shaped, not round, and not black, but dark brown. The boy’s eyes are the same dark brown, wide-set, framed by long black lashes.
They boy is not afraid, not yet. Instead, he is excited because the bear is suddenly real, suddenly alive. He can even smell her now, a musky dank scent like rotten, raw fish.
The bear takes a single cautious step towards the edge of the pool. And another. She is not afraid either; like the boy she is growing excited. Her heart rate increases, her muscles tense, her pupils dilate, despite the bright sun glaring down. She snorts, a forceful huffing sound, and pauses.
The boy treads water, but awkwardly, with his arms splashing above the surface, trying to keep afloat. He knows how to swim but he usually swims where he can always touch the bottom. Where is the shallow end? he wonders, and then realizes it is near the bear, that the floor slopes gradually upwards from where he is towards the enclosure.
Maybe he will be able to touch the bear, he thinks. He is remembering a movie he watched about a killer whale in a marine park. There was a boy, just like him, who cared for the whale, made friends with it, even rode on it. A thought flashes into his mind: Perhaps he can even climb on this bear! A thrill blazes through him, and he starts to swim towards the bear.
The bear takes another step towards the thing splashing in her pool; the boy raises one arm and then the other, pulling them through the water, small steady strokes that bring the two of them closer and closer together. Above the enclosure someone calls out, then someone else screams, a long piercing wail, but neither the boy nor the bear hear the sounds.
The bear inhales the scent of the boy. It is a confusing smell, sweeter than the keepers who clean her cage and bring her food. The smell is enticing, but it is the splashing, the flailing arms that she can’t resist. She moves towards the boy with a galloping stride that brings her into the shallow waters of the pool.
The boy’s toes touch down and he stands at the same moment as the bear rears up on her hind legs. There is just enough time, a split-second, for the boy’s fear to flood through him; his heart races, his skin prickles and his knees grow weak. Then the bear pounces down, her wide front paw striking a heavy blow to the boy’s torso.
He falls back, the breath knocked out of him; even if his face was above water, he wouldn’t be able to inhale, to call out for help. He doesn’t feel any pain, just an incredible surge of energy that propels him to try and escape. He struggles to find his footing, to lift his head above the water. As his face reaches the air he splutters and gasps jaggedly. He looks around wildly, opens his mouth to scream, but only a small whimper escapes his lips. He tries to scramble away, his arms churning at the water, his feet slipping out from under him. Finally, he manages to scream, a high-pitched wordless sound of terror. Somewhere above his cry is echoed back by a young woman who is watching, frozen in horror.
Then the boy feels a terrible searing pain as the bear bites down on his thigh, and he is flipped over, easily, as if he weighs nothing, and dragged from the water. His head bangs against the concrete floor, once, and then again, hard thuds that knock his brain against the solid skull that encases it.
The bear tugs at the boy’s body, pulling him away from the water. Small sprinkles of blood scatter across the faux Arctic ice. She growls, low down in her throat, and holding tightly to the body with her powerful jaws, flings it sideways.
The boy has one last moment of consciousness. His eyes are open, and his head is hanging upside down. The pain is gone. He blinks and tries to focus his gaze on the bear’s huge white feet, but his vision has narrowed down to a pinprick tunnel. There is brightness at the end of it, the white of a frozen landscape stretching out, an immense sweep of sea ice, lit up and shimmering. And far out on the ice, barely visible, he sees a white speck, moving towards him, a white speck in a vast whiteness, loping closer, black nose raised to the wind, wide furred paws moving effortlessly over the snow and ice. A great white ice bear. The boy slides his left arm forward, weakly across the concrete; he wants to touch this magical bear, he wants to feel her wildness. Then, there is blackness.
The bear drags the body into a narrow alcove at the edge of the enclosure that leads to the small cage where she is locked in at night. She releases the body and crouches down over it, prods it with her muzzle. There is no movement. She doesn’t remember, not with consciousness, killing or eating live prey, but oh, her body remembers. Her forepaw, braced against the boy’s warm body remembers; her mouth, flooding with saliva, remembers; the neurons firing, excited, electric, remember; her sharp teeth remember. She sinks down on her flanks, opens her jaws, and bites down into the leg.
There is the slight give of the soft flesh, the warm wetness of blood, and the meatiness of the muscles, as she shears off the first chunk. On the second bite there is a satisfying crunch, and she is down to the bone.
Nadja Lubiw-Hazard is a Toronto-based writer and a veterinarian. She holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Guelph. She is the author of the novel The Nap-Away Motel. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines, including Room, The Fiddlehead, The Dalhousie Review, Prairie Fire, Event, and The New Quarterly. Nadja is a life-long animal-lover and long-time vegan, and her writing often explores themes related to the natural world. She facilitates creative writing workshops with The Writers Collective of Canada and with CAMH (The Center for Addiction and Mental Health) Collaborative Learning College. Nadja lives with her wife, their two adult daughters, and a feisty fluffy kitten.