Sleeping with Bears

By Theodora Goss

I. The Invitation

Dr. and Mrs. Elwood Barlow
request the honor of your presence
at the marriage of their daughter Rosalie
to Mr. T. C. Ursus
on Saturday the thirteenth of June at one o'clock
at the First Methodist Church

Reception to follow in the Church Hall

II. The Bride

They are wealthy, these bears. Their friends come to the wedding in fur coats.

Rosie is wearing Mom's dress, let out at the waist. When Mom married, she was Miss Buckingham County. She shows us the tape measure. "That's what I was, twenty-two inches around the waist: can you imagine?" My sister, after years of Jazzercize and Jane Fonda, is considerably thicker. When, I wonder, were women's waists replaced by abdominals? When cheerleaders started competing for state championships, I guess. Rosie was a cheerleader. Her senior year, our squad was fourth in state. That year she wore the class ring of the student council president, who was also the captain of the football team. She was in the homecoming court. She was furious when Lisa Callahan was elected queen.

After she graduated from Sweet Briar and began working as a legal secretary, she met a lawyer who was making sixty thousand a year. They started talking about having children, buying a Mercedes.

So I don't understand why she decided to marry a bear.

III. The Groom

Of course he comes from old money. Ursus Americanus has been in Virginia since before John Smith founded the Jamestown Colony. The family has gone down in the social scale. It doesn't own as much land as it used to, and what it does own is in the mountains, no good for livestock, no good for tobacco. No good for anything but timber. But there sure is a lot of timber.

Anyway, that's how Southern families are. Look at the Carters or Randolphs. If you haven't degenerated, you're not really old. If you want to join the First Families of Richmond, you'd better be able to produce an insane uncle, an aunt who lives on whiskey, to prove you're qualified.

We don't come from that kind of family. Mom is the daughter of a Baptist preacher from Arvonia. There was no whiskey in her house. She didn't even see a movie until she was seventeen. Dad was a step up, the son of the town's doctor. Grandpa Barlow didn't believe in evolution. I don't think he ever got over learning, in medical school, that men don't have a missing rib. Mom and Dad met in third grade. They went to the sock hop and held hands in church, while sharing a hymnal. You can see their pictures in the Arvonia High School yearbook. Dad lists his future career as astronaut, Mom as homemaker. They were voted Most Likely to Get Married. They look clean, as though they just stepped out of a television show from the 1950s.

So maybe that's it, maybe Rosie's still mad that we didn't belong to the Richmond Country Club, that Dad didn't send her to Saint Gertrude's, where the daughters of the First Families learn geometry and which fork to use with the fish. That he didn't think of giving her a debutante ball. Mom's friends would have looked at her and said, with raised eyebrows, "My, isn't Rosie the society lady?"

And when I see them, the bears sitting on the groom's side of the church, I have to admit that they are aristocratic, like the Bear Kings of Norway, who sat on thrones carved from ice and ruled the Arctic tundra. (Nevertheless, they look perfectly comfortable in the heat, even in their fur coats.)

IV. The Procession

"What do you call him in private?" I ask Rosie. I've never dared call him anything other than Mr. Ursus. When a man -- or bear -- is six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, he commands respect.

"Catcher," she says. "That's his middle name, or maybe part of his first name. Trout Catcher. That's what his family calls him."

"How much do you really know about bears?" I ask. "Like, do you know what to cook him for dinner?"

"For goodness' sake, Blanche," she says. "Put the brush down, you're tangling my hair. Some of his relatives eat garbage, all right? I'll figure it out as I go along."

I wonder. In the library, I found a book about bears. Ursus Americanus eats acorns, melons, honey (including the bees), and gut piles left by hunters. I don't know what Rosie's going to do with gut piles.

I help her with the veil, which comes down to her fingernails, manicured yesterday and painted bubble gum pink. I wonder if bears like bubble gum? I hold her train as she walks along the gravel path from the minister's house, where she's been applying a final coat of mascara, to the church. I'm careful not to let her skirt trail on the gravel.

Mom's and Dad's friends are standing, the women in dresses from Lord and Taylor, the men in linen suits. The bears are standing, black and brown and the toffee color called gold. "Black bear" is a misnomer, really. They look like a forest of tree trunks, without leaves.

The organist plays the wedding march. This is Rosie's choice. She has no originality. Which again makes me wonder: why is she marrying a bear?

V. The Ceremony

Or perhaps I should ask, why is he marrying her?

When she first brought him home, Mom hid in the bathroom. Dad had to tell her repeatedly that bears don't eat people. That they're really quite gentle, except when their cubs are threatened. That they're probably more afraid of you than you are of them.

Still, Mom sat at the edge of her chair, moving the roast beef around on her plate, not reassured to see Catcher eating only peas and carrots, mashed potatoes.

"What do you do, Mr. Ursus?" asked Dad.

He managed the family property. Conservation land, most of it, in trust for future generations. You could call him a sort of glorified forest ranger. He laughed, or perhaps growled, showing incisors of a startling whiteness.

"Your children will never need dental work," said Dad.

Rosie was mortified. They hadn't gotten to that stage yet. I don't think she'd even kissed him good night.

She'll kiss him now, certainly, and I wait to see how it will happen: whether she will be swallowed by that enormous and powerful jaw. But he kisses her on the cheek. I can see his whiskers tickling her ear. I suppose the devouring will begin later.

VI. The Photographs

Don't get me wrong, I don't think he's going to eat her. Bears don't eat people, remember?

But I know the facts of life. When Mom married at eighteen, Grandma told her, "Just close your eyes and pray for children." When I was fifteen, Mom taught me what happens between men and women. Though I have to admit, she never said anything about bears.

When our photographs are taken, I stand next to the best man -- or bear: Catcher's younger brother. He looks at me and grins, unless he's just showing his teeth. He's not as tall as his brother and only a few inches taller than me, so maybe he's not fully grown. Bears take five years to grow to maturity. I wonder where he goes to school, then decide he probably doesn't go anywhere. Bears probably homeschool. Otherwise, they'd have to go through several grades in a year, to make it come out right. I wonder how old I am in bear years, and if he's older than me.

VII. The Reception

Before she met with the caterer, Mom asked me, "For goodness' sake, what do bears eat?"

There are ham biscuits for the people and honey biscuits for the bears, melon soup for everybody. Trout with sauce and au naturale, as they say in French class. Raspberries. She didn't take my suggestion to serve the honey biscuits with dead bees. I'm sure the bears would have appreciated that.

The bears drink mead, which is made from honey. I try some. It feels like fire going down my throat, and burns like fire in my stomach. Like a fire on the altar of the Bear Goddess. Her name is Callisto. Once, by accident when she was hunting in the forest, she killed her son, Arcas. So she put him in a cave for the winter, and when spring came again, he emerged healed. That's why bears sleep through the winter.

This isn't what it says in Bullfinch's Mythology. But Catcher says Bullfinch got it all wrong. He says Bullfinch is a bunch of bull--. You know what I mean. He doesn't curse often, but when he does, Mom clutches the hem of her dress, as though trying to hold it against a wind that will lift it over her knees.

VIII. The Dancing

Dad doesn't remember how to dance, so he and Rosie sway back and forth, like teenagers at prom. The bears know how to dance, of course. They begin a Virginia Reel, whirling down the line in each other's arms, then go into figures I don't recognize. To punctuate the rhythm, they growl and stamp their feet.

Frog Biter asks me to dance. I guess he was checking me out, too, when the photographs were taken. I'm worried about following the bear dances, but he swings me out in a waltz. I never knew anyone could be so strong.

Yeah, he tells me. And I'm only four and a half. Wait until I'm fully grown. I'll be taller than Catcher.

Hearing this makes something burn in the pit of my stomach, which may be the mead.

IX. The Cake

Catcher cuts the cake, which is shaped like a beehive.

"What a charming couple they make," says Mrs. Ashby.

"I'm surprised she wore white," says Mrs. Coates. "I heard her relationship with the lawyer was pretty hot and heavy."

He feeds a slice to Rosie, then licks frosting from the corner of her mouth. His tongue is the color of raspberry ice cream.

"Do you think their children will be black?" asks Mrs. Mason, the minister's wife. She walks with a cane and must be over eighty.

"There are bears in the ladies' room," says Mrs. Partlow. "Do you know they go just like a man?"

"I think he's sexy, with all that fur," says Alison Coates. She's in my French class.

"I don't know how she caught him," says Mrs. Sutton. "All that real estate, and I never thought she was pretty in the first place."

She feeds him a slice. Her hand disappears into the darkness between his teeth.

X. The Honeymoon

Biter promises to stop whenever I want to.

When Rosie left on her honeymoon, everyone threw rose petals. They stuck to Catcher's fur. I could see her brushing them off through the limousine window.

It's nothing like when Eddie Tyler felt me up under the bleachers. His fur smells like rain, his mouth tastes like honey. I run my tongue over his incisors, and he laughs -- or growls, I don't know which. And suddenly we're rolling around in the vestry, my fingers gripping his fur, trying to pull out brown tufts. It doesn't hurt him a bit.

I want to sleep with you, I say, and I mean through the winter, with the snow above us and branches covered with ice, creaking in the wind. While the deer are starving, searching for grasses under the snow, we'll lie next to each other, living off our fat, sharing body heat. I'll even cook him deer guts.

But he takes it another way, and that's all right too. His curved claws are good at climbing trees, and unbuttoning dresses. And I finally understand why my sister is marrying a bear. Maybe if Eddie Tyler had been a bear, I would have let him get to third base.

XII. The Announcement

Our June brides include Miss Rosalie Barlow, who was married in the First Methodist Church to Mr. T. C. Ursus. The new Mrs. Ursus has a B.A. from Sweet Briar College. Mr. Ursus manages his family's extensive property in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The maid of honor was Miss Blanche Barlow, the bride's sister. The best man was the groom's brother, Mr. F. B. Ursus. The bride carried white lilies and wore her mother's wedding dress of peau de soie decorated with seed pearls. The bride's mother, Mrs. Elwood Barlow, is the former Miss Buckingham County, 1965.


Copyright © 2003 Theodora Goss

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Theodora Goss' stories have appeared or will shortly appear in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, Alchemy, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and online at Fantastic Metropolis. Her first published story has been reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Sixteenth Annual Collection. She has also published poetry in both mainstream and fantasy magazines. She is working on a Ph.D. in English literature in Boston, where she lives with her husband and four manuscript-eating cats. For more on her and her work, see her website.