The Bear Dancer

By Lee Kottner, illustration by Cynthia Rudzis

Animals are good to think with.

--Claude Levi-Strauss

I smell snow.

I smell it as it comes down. I smell the cold land where it came from in the wind. Canada's tundra. I smell small birds huddling over their feet in the trees. Chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays. I smell wintergreen beneath the snow. I like the berries. They bite my tongue. The snow is too deep here to dig them up.

I should be inside, even if I have this fur coat on. I should be inside in front of the fire, reading Seamus Heaney. I'm not cold yet, but I will be. This is the kind of weather I sleep in, the kind of weather any smart animal sleeps in. The days are longer, the nights shorter, but the cold, the cold isn't ready to let go yet. Just to prove it, here's this storm. Here I am out in it, with my cabin in ashes. What have I done?

I don't smell any other food. The ice makes everything smell the same. I will walk to the river.

These late storms are like that. Look at the branches here: half in bud and encased in ice. Almost a whole new foot of snow on the ground and more of the shit coming down. Who knows when it'll stop? Soon, God, soon. I used to think it was beautiful, but now the weather's my enemy, pitiless and uncaring as napalm and bear traps. What am I doing out here?

The big fish are old and tired too, easy to catch. Some are full of eggs. Some are dying. Some are dead. I like them best still alive. I can taste other waters in their flesh.

And are we not omnivores, with teeth for rending and tearing, . . .

It was hunger drove me out, finally, hunger of one kind and another. Sitting in the cabin, it had been days since I'd eaten, I think, and not for the first time. There have been times when I've gone miles on little: a few old berries; half-empty honeycomb, the bees too sleepy with cold to sting; a few grubs from under the bark of a dead tree; a squirrel's cache of acorns. I've eaten worse. I've eaten worse than this raw, half-dead salmon and her roe. What is this but sashimi and caviar in a state of undress, after all? And are we not omnivores, with teeth for rending and tearing, teeth for subduing vegetable matter, for cracking the carapaces of crawfish and beetle, for masticating the toughest of hides? Scavenger, predator, grazer. Maker of garbage and raider of garbage am I.

I eat two, three, crunching the bones, and that is enough. The water is cold on my feet and in my mouth when I drink. I shake myself and turn for home. The Cold Time makes me sleepy.

It's a short walk to where the cabin was, just up the bank, the steep bank I have a hard time getting a canoe down, and a hard time getting myself up, anymore. All these years, I've meant to build a small dock, set hoist and winch at the top of the bank, cut a rough path and set it with stones. All these years. Just like I meant to put in a septic field, some indoor plumbing, more running water than a hand pump. All these years. I have lived like a squatter. I have lived worse than the villagers in Vietnam did with their swept dirt floors and tightly thatched roofs. I have lived like we did in the jungles, in dirt and filth and muck, unwashed and unkempt.

This is not my den. Sometimes I slept here. Today it smells of man stink and the burning.

Years ago, I would not have believed such a thing, no matter how I wanted to. I'd studied the phenomenon, you see, in folklore and anthropology. It was one of my specialties, my academic territory, carefully demarcated. So I knew what it was in reality. Until I met Gordon.

I had been teaching at Chapel Hill, one of a string of non-renewable one-and three-year appointments I'd had in the years since Rita had left me and I'd lost tenure at NYU, and had enough money to spend the summer somewhere other than here in the cabin in Michigan. Asheville was a pleasant mix of city and country, with an annual poetry conference, good local music, and interesting goings-on during the summer. That year, there was a national powwow with dances and ceremonies. Jack, a colleague in the Sociology Department from Chapel Hill, got me into one of the sweat lodges where Gordon was. "Come on, boy," Jack said, on the spur of the moment, "y'all need it. It'll sweat that war right out of your blood."

And it nearly did. I swear it nearly did. And that was because of Gordon. Not the "nearly" part of it; that was my fault. But the fact that it worked even somewhat was due at least in part to Gordon's influence. He's a calm man, broad-shouldered, a little heavy in the gut, a well-loved husband and father, a loyal friend, a deeply spiritual man. Even in the darkness of the sweat lodge, we could see the scars on his chest from the ritual piercings of the Sun Dance. Ojibwa and Cherokee, he moved through the white world with a sure knowledge of himself. I envy him that. My colleague Jack was an old friend of Gordon's; Jack vouched for me to gain me admittance to the lodge, one of only two white men besides himself. I'll be grateful for that small act of kindness for the rest of my life.

I tripped out in 'Nam, like so many of the other grunts, just to get through the war

What happened in there, in that dark, steamy, red-lit space, is hard to talk about with someone who wasn't there. Doing so tends to reduce it, by the nature of its inexplicability in logical terms, to hallucinations, madness, self-delusion, or just mystical claptrap. I've done acid and mushrooms and peyote, looking for something to fill me up. I tripped out in 'Nam, like so many of the other grunts, just to get through the war; I tripped out when I came home, to dull the pain and fill the void. I've seen the mandalas and lights and patterns of delirium and drug trips, watched the shamans in their trances during field research. There was none of that in Gordon's sweat lodge.

There was nothing but six men in the dark, wet heat, and Gordon's drumming that became the drumming of our heartbeats, the heartbeat of the womb, the drumming of the Earth's heart becoming the drumming of hooves as I ran, following the does and the younger bucks across fields gone fallow, breathing in an intoxicating autumn air full of strange scents and breathing out a fog that closed in around me to bring me back to myself in the lodge's new silence. With me in the wet, red darkness were five horned, faceless figures who became five naked men watching me with curiosity, surprise, and -- in Gordon's case -- a knowing satisfaction. My head felt lighter without my own rack of horns, and clearer for the vision, as though this had been in the back of my mind for a long time and it was finally time to see it; I still didn't know what it meant, but I was certain it had meaning -- and I was right about that. I came out physically drained but with my heart pumping, pumping, beating a new rhythm, exalted and cleansed and purposeful, with something new and wondrous to contemplate.

That was the first glimpse of what I'd been chasing in Mexico and 'Nam and San Francisco, in drink and drugs. Wondrous as it was, it failed to truly lay my ghosts.

But for a time, after the sweat in Asheville, things started to go well for me. I seemed to have more purpose and focus, more concentration. Gordon and I kept in touch via e-mail and phone and the occasional note, and he became a good friend: honest and mindful of his friends' spiritual health. I'm afraid he gave more than he got. Perhaps all my friends did.

I quit smoking dope, which I had done less and less of anyway, quit smoking period, went back up North to the cabin I'd built years ago on the land my grandmother had left me. I started thinking like a scholar again, thinking about the sweat lodge and trying to codify in ethnological and psychological terms what had gone on there. Perhaps that was my mistake. But on the basis of two or three papers I published on the experience, I landed a tenure-track appointment at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, fell back into the teaching-writing-publishing cycle necessary for tenure, sold another book to Cambridge, bought a house, started to date again.

Then, one day, Taylor appeared at my door, a grown man of thirty, and I discovered how the sins of the father are visited upon the son.

Sober, Taylor was a man any father would be pleased to call son. He was quiet, like his mother, his biceps and chest heavily muscled from weight lifting and cross-country struggles with the eighteen-wheelers he drove for a freight company. He had my dark hair and beard, Rita's deep brown eyes, both our height. He'd dropped out of college but kept a stack of books in the cab of his truck, everything from A Tale of Two Cities to translations of Ovid and a couple of old issues of Playboy. The radio was tuned to a talk station when he wasn't listening to one of the jazz CDs that also filled the cab. He had plenty of time to think, he said, and took advantage of it. With a few beers in him, he became talkative and opinionated, just like his old man. The longer we talked, the more I liked him, and the more melancholy I grew realizing what I had missed.

He visited whenever he was in town, or between hauls, and filled me in on the family I'd lost. Rita had remarried, he told me, when he and Ashlyn were children. She'd made a good choice the second time; their stepfather was a kind man who loved them as though they were his own. But Taylor had missed me, even though he was only four when Rita divorced me. It had taken him this long to find me. Ashlyn didn't even remember me, Taylor said, but he did. My daughter was married now to some "geeky hacker" -- Taylor's words -- and living in Minneapolis with their little girl. I was a grandfather, had been for four years without knowing it. That saddened me, too. Taylor had been married and divorced. "The road killed our marriage," he said, with a nonchalant shrug that didn't quite cover the pain in his eyes.

Neither did the drink. Drunk, Taylor was his sober antithesis: the berserker I'd been in Vietnam, the harsh and rage-filled man I'd been in San Francisco, the man who had beaten his wife until she went to the police to keep him away from his own children. Taylor's violence had killed his marriage, not the road, but he couldn't see that.

For the first time, looking at Taylor's life, I saw what had wrecked my own.

In some ways, being with my son started me sliding again

In some ways, being with my son started me sliding again. If it's hard to look at yourself in the mirror and not like what you see, it is devastating to see the worst of yourself in your child. But I had begun to realize, seeing the anger and pain in Taylor's face that hurt me so much, that it was my own fault. Who had inflicted those feelings but I? Their mother had been a quiet, gentle woman who'd wanted only to please me when we were married, a woman who had never raised her own voice, who could only apologize when I hit her. That she was strong enough to leave me had astonished both of us. Watching the sow bears with cubs, I understand now that Ashlyn and Taylor gave her that strength.

But what did I know of women, raised by men in a home where not saying "please" earned a cuff on the ear, where smart-alecking and simple adolescent rebellion earned a bruising thrashing until I was large enough, strong enough, threatening enough to fight back, until I walked away for good and all.

The longer I stayed in the north woods, whether at the cabin or outside Eau Claire, the more I was reminded of that last argument, of Rita's stubbornness and defiance, of how much I'd trusted her love and how betrayed I'd felt. And when I thought of that, the old rage came up again like a bad meal -- the same rage I saw in Taylor. That made me afraid; being afraid made me more angry. Men aren't afraid. The sons of soldiers aren't afraid. That's what a boy raised by the men in my house was taught, a boy taught to kill things with a gun as early as he could hold one, and gut and skin what he'd killed.

"Might as well have been raised by wolves," was Rita's take on that. "Might have been better off." Perhaps she was right. Too often she was, at least about me. I think that drove the final wedge between us, that she knew me so well, so much better than I knew myself.

Now here was Taylor, reflecting all my faults back to me. I began to dread his visits, to not answer the door when he knocked, to keep my answering machine on and not pick up the phone when he called. Terrible behavior of which I was deeply ashamed. But it hurt too much to see him making the same mistakes I had. It hurt so much I went back to the dope.

It cut the pain, at least for a while, but it made me stupid in class. My tenure at Eau Claire was denied and I was out of a job again. I lost my house, moved into the cabin, and once more abandoned Taylor. I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened without the grace of another vision.

I was alone, out of touch with civilization and myself, and in a hashish haze the night the herd of deer came out of the woods to stand in the clearing around my cabin. I'm still not sure if it was the hash and my state of mind, or if it was another vision like the sweat lodge. Or if it was, finally, something else entirely.

It wasn't a small herd of a dozen or so that you usually see grazing in the fields at twilight, but easily a hundred

It wasn't a small herd of a dozen or so that you might see grazing in the fields at twilight, but easily a hundred, more than that small area could possibly support. If they were deer, that is. From moment to moment, they seemed to waver from whitetail does and bucks to antlered and large-eyed human figures in deerskin. Some were tall and fair-skinned, others small and delicate and dark, men and women. There were no children. Thank God there were no children. Only one thing remained identical in both forms: the patches of blood from gunshots somewhere on their bodies. Seeing that, I have never been more sober or wide awake.

I'm not ashamed to say I fell to my knees and wept then, as I should have wept for each life I took, human and animal, in the years when I liked killing. And I regretted each and every one with all the heart and soul and spirit left in me.

They clustered around me and I could feel the cold, wet noses of deer on my neck, their rough tongues licking the tears from my face. Arms lifted me, walked me down to the river. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I sobbed and shouted all the way down the embankment. "I'm sorry." They stripped the clothing from me, stepped into the water with me, and pushed me under.

Welcome, brother, I heard when I broke the surface again. They dressed me in deerskin, fringed and beaded and soft, greased my hair, painted my face and hands in black and white and ochre, gave me gifts of bone and hide and antler, offered me venison I could not eat. They sang no songs, danced no dances. Through the night I sat with them, as silent as they, as silent as if I had had my tongue cut out, in a vigil I thought would end with my death.

But when the sun rose the following day, they began to melt away into the woods, as deer will when they are not startled. I had searched the faces through the long, moonlit night and seen too many I recognized, too many without names. As the last deer disappeared through the underbrush, I saw Rita's face. Her eyes were black with bruises, but she smiled at me. I tried to call out to her as she turned away, but had no voice yet. And in an instant, with a flash of white tail, she was gone.

I hate hunting now, but the deer come to me out of the woods and stand patiently until I work up my courage to pull the trigger. I use everything their bodies offer me. And I'm grateful, not just to them, but to the One who made them and who gives them to me for my sustenance. I still hate it.

Except when I am Bear.

I don't know how I change from one form to another. There's no bear skin I put on or leave in a heap at my feet. It seems to happen not when I'm angry, as one would expect, as it once supposedly happened with berserkers, but when I have gone so far into myself that I'm not sure I will ever come out. It's not painful, merely strange. Even the first time, a short while after the deer appeared, it wasn't frightening until afterwards, when I knew what had happened, or thought I did.

For a time, I was afraid I was dreaming again, the old dreams that used to wake me screaming, or keep me up a week of nights. But this wasn't the same bowel-loosening fear those dreams of old carnage left me with. For a time, I was afraid I was mad, that the acid I had dropped in the Haight and at Woodstock had at last caught up with me, that my old life had found me again. The first time, I clung so hard to my self that I saw everything but dimly through my new senses, and it was so brief: one moment a man standing on his two feet drinking from the pump in his yard, the next a bear standing on his hind legs, dipper fallen to the ground, then a man again, shivering in the cold.

The second time, I was in the woods, long past nightfall, gone to ground in a thunderstorm, soaked to the bone. Sometimes I would walk for days in the woods, checking snares, tracking deer, wading the river, just walking, walking, as if I could walk out of myself, walk out of this world. This time I was walking to think, trying to understand what I'd seen, what was happening to me.

If it had happened in a lightning flash, I would have been less surprised, for I was standing near a tree that was struck. The charge tickled the soles of my boots, played over my clothes like Saint Elmo's fire, made my beard and hair bristle. The tree, an old red pine, scraggly in its lower branches, cracked in two with less warning than an incoming mortar and the top leaped into flames. As I watched, crouching, the fire's color changed, the smell of woodsmoke grew sharper in my nostrils, the sound of the rain and flames meeting in annihilation became as crisp as the whuff of my own breath in my ears. I sat on my haunches, watching, no longer cold and soaked, my undercoat still dry and snug as a mackintosh. One part of me feared the fire, but another craved its warmth in the cold rain, knowing it would spread no farther.

And when it did die, at last, I stood up in the slackening rain in my dry clothes and walked the rest of the way home that night, lightheaded, dazed, feeling muzzled with the loss of those senses I had borrowed for that short time, but relieved to find the self I knew still here in this shape.

I was Bear and I was hungry

The third time I transformed, I was ready for it. Not just ready but welcoming. I had not moved from the cabin in days and it was time to hunt again, to forage, to check traplines, to fish, or give up and die slowly of starvation. Though not yet ready to give up, I had no will to continue. Sometimes, if we are lucky or blessed, these things are taken from our hands. I stood on the threshold, wavering in the dawn between living and not-living, and then there was no question. I was Bear and I was hungry. There was a moment's fright at the beginning, then my senses were too overwhelmed to be frightened. All the things animals smell in the world! All the smells the world contains! I saw differently, heard differently, sensed differently. Like the best of acid trips, it was transcendent.

This time, I learned how it is that animals live. I stayed Bear for a longer time than I can reckon. Days and nights passed, blurring into one another. I slept, I ate, I hunted. I swam in the river, rolled in the dust. I argued with another young male over the rights to a log full of grubs and lost -- a strangely humbling experience. The spark of Duncan inside Bear watched, rested, healed a little. The air was fresh, full of new and interesting ideas and meanings. The water was clean and cold and pleasant. I was Bear, an uncommonly intelligent animal; Bear was Duncan, an uncommonly instinctual, physical man. I became a whole creature, not a mind somehow trapped inside and directing a body. Everything I did and felt and saw and smelled and tasted and heard was me, was Bear, was Duncan. I climbed trees, I shuffled through the woods following scents I had never imagined, I broke old stumps with my claws and ate grubs. I lived.

I did not think about Vietnam; or my ex-wife Rita and our children Taylor and Ashlyn; or work; or the cabin; or who I was or what I knew and what I should do. I did not think at all. I simply was. When I wandered back to the cabin, it stank. I heard myself go whuff! and then phew! in distaste, and then I was standing on my two feet again, gagging on my own stench, on man stink. I cleaned the cabin then, but in doing that -- making decisions about what to keep and what to throw out, planning how to refit the windows, chink the gaps, hang a new door -- I lost something, some contact with myself that I had forged in the Bear-time.

I could not change again for months, no matter how I wanted it.

After that, I watched with a kind of desperate curiosity the bear whose stream I shared during the trout and salmon runs. He was a young male black bear, still a sometimes-clumsy fisherman and sometime clown. We had shared the stream for just a year; my human spoor had not impressed him as a territorial marker, so he was somewhat disdainful of my visits to the stream when he was there, to say nothing of my fishing methods. It was a pleasure to watch him standing belly-deep in the water, looking for the ripple of fins and tail over the stones, to see one enormous paw come down like a hammer and come up holding a stunned trout or bass, or salmon in the spring. It took me some time to master the technique myself, but eventually, over the summer, I learned to stand still enough, to reach and grasp quickly enough. Like any young bear, I went hungry at times. Or I went home and got my fishing rod.

I was fishing when Gordon found me again.

I had been fishing all afternoon, first with my hands, then with rod and fly. I have been a fly fisherman since I was a boy in these north woods, wading the streams with my uncle and father, learning the smooth cast and play of the line from them, later hoping someday to teach it to my children. In the mountains of Vietnam, I wanted more for fishing gear than any other thing, sick to death as I was of wading rivers and creeks full of leeches, snakes, and mucky bottoms. At night there, I dreamt of the cold northern streams of my childhood, full of snowmelt, rushing dark and clean to the lakes over sand bottoms, and the sleek trout lurking in their deep pools beneath fallen logs. What made me a fisherman was peace: the sound of the water, the birds calling in the trees, the sun on my neck, the smells of loam and pine. With most fishermen like me, it doesn't matter if the fish bite or not, except when you're hungry.

Since that night with the deer, though, there's been no peace in it for me, only an impatience with the fish, the weather, my equipment, myself.

This time, after casting for three hours, I gave up, stomped up the bank, took the rod apart and sat on a rock with my feet in the water, disgusted. The act of dismantling my rod was enough to entice the fat trout I had been luring -- an old fish wise to flies and fishermen -- out of his sheltered backwater and into the stream. Wise to fishermen and to bears, perhaps, but not this bear, not to the bear who was also a fisherman. Holding him, it took me a moment to realize that the growl in my throat was a Bear growl, that Old Trout was flapping mightily against animal pads and sharp claws. The change this time was almost voluntary, almost the granting of a wish.

A moment later, the laughter was human. I almost dropped the old trout back into the stream in surprise. Then I put him back in gratitude, and caught another, smaller one, bare-handed, so to speak.

I was frying it on the bank over coals in a cast iron skillet when Gordon walked out of the woods and down to the stream to wash his face and cup water in his hands and drink. For a moment, I was shocked out of speech. The last time I had actually seen Gordon was in the sweat lodge in Asheville; though we'd spoken often through the years, we hadn't spoken recently. He walked out of the woods around my cabin as though it were his own back yard.

Sitting across the fire from me, he shared the trout I'd caught without saying much, except "I saw you let the big one go. This one tastes better."

He only stayed a few days, sleeping rolled up in a blanket in front of the fireplace. I was ashamed of the state of the cabin, ashamed of myself, of the state into which I'd let my life and my person fall again. Late the first night, Gordon looked at me and said, "That bear won't teach you anything you don't already know. It's in your blood, math-ghamhainn."

"Didn't know you knew Gaelic," I grumbled, surly. Gordon used to really piss me off, as only friends can, with his cryptic observations. Usually because they went straight to the heart of whatever I was avoiding.

Matheson math-ghamhainn Bear Clan

"You told me that one night when you were high. Matheson, math-ghamhainn, Bear Clan. I guess you don't remember."

Gordon's words raised all the hair on me from head to heel. I hadn't remembered. I hadn't thought about it. Hadn't wanted to. The clan motto is "Do and Hope," my dad once told me.

"Duncan is Gaelic too, isn't it? What does it mean?"

He asked like he really didn't know and wanted to, though I must have told him that as well, in my stoned confidences.

"Donnachaidh. 'Brown Warriors.' My mother's side of the family. The clan motto is 'Learn to Suffer.'" I found that out for myself.

Gordon just nodded. "Names have a lot of power," he said. "So does history. Your bards knew that."

On the second night, after a long day spent scraping and stretching and tanning a deer skin, he asked me what I was hiding from.

On the third night, in the sweat lodge we'd built from rocks and logs and an old tarp, Gordon put down his drum and said to me, "Go find him."

"Who?" I said stupidly, sweating the sudden stink of fear.

"The boy you lost. It seems to me that he's convinced himself that he's nothing without you; and you've convinced yourself he's just like you. He needs you. Go find him. Why are you living like you're dying, my friend?"

I had no answer.

The next morning, Gordon was gone, without so much as a note. I wondered if I'd dreamt his presence. But the lessons he left me with were more powerful than the remnants of any dream.

Still, it's taken me some time -- most of a season -- to make up my mind. I wish fervently that it had not decided to snow just now. Even in this form -- shaggy coat, salmon-filled belly, paws the size of dinner plates, claws as long as my hunting knife -- I feel the cold. Of course, now there is no turning back. Perhaps the snow is a good thing after all. I can still see the embers of the cabin smoldering underneath the coating of powder, and I would not want the fire to spread. The smell of smoke is powerful in the air, especially to Bear's nose. I wonder if my two-legged form would feel regret for the books and photos burnt in that pyre, for the old guitar gone to ashes. Bear feels marvelously free, though the fire disturbs him.

Touching the brand to the trail of gasoline at the cabin's perimeter was surprisingly easy. The dry wood burned merrily. Duncan's sour old life burned merrily as the snow started and I went to the river to fish. Now my belly is full and I am sleepy. I will go to the den. Tomorrow is time enough to start this journey.

Bear Dancer, by Cynthia Rudzis
Bear Dancer illustration © 2002 Cynthia Rudzis


Copyright © 2002 Lee Kottner

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Lee Kottner is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. Her poetry has appeared in several journals and anthologies. She has just completed her first novel, Prospero's Daughter, and is working on her second novel and a how-to book called Involuntary Simplicity: How to Have a Fabulous Life on a Miserable Salary. For more about her and her work, see her Web site.

More of Cynthia's work can be seen in our gallery.