The Bear: A Mythological Vignette

I should know by now that the guardian never sleeps. He emerges from the ground, almost silent, fur swishing against the fallen wood. He’s no more than an arm’s reach away. I can see the individual hairs of his coat, jet black and glistening. He heaves his body out of the den and swivels his snout toward me, searching for the source of this irksome intrusion. He does not yet see my father standing on the other side of the stump. My father does not yet see the bear.

A moment of startling exhilaration – if this mythological creature has come to challenge our passage, our destination must be close – is followed by alarm of such immediacy that I ­don’t have time to panic. I become acutely conscious of my vulnerability. Running seems like a poor idea, just the thing to activate the bear’s natural instincts. Besides, the terrain is so overgrown with obstacles that I ­wouldn’t move very fast, and the bear, whose habitat this is, would easily catch me.

The bear orients himself to my conveniently bright blue jacket. I ­couldn’t be more exposed. In the absence of a viable escape strategy, I just stand there, waiting.

The bear looks at me. It’s hard to tell if he’s appraising, or alarmed, or indifferent. He has probably not seen humans before. The air is cold, and I’m suddenly aware of its clarity, the rarefied quality with which it renders the colors of the forest. It’s as though I’m looking through stained glass, bright and rippled with liquid texture. The green branches of a nearby hemlock sweep across the sky.

The bear’s black eye swivels within a ring of smoke. He turns his head and looks south along the slope, to where my father plods through the underbrush. They see each other at the same time, both in motion, gliding on momentum. My father looks up, draws back, frightened, and then roars. An inarticulate cry, replete with every vowel, rises through the air.

I laugh, which surprises me. And in the ensuing moment of silence – my father red-­faced, the bear beginning to react – it occurs to me that if the bear is a guardian, what he needs from us is a password, and that cry, with its vowel keys to the sacred language of myth, should do the trick. The Egyptians, from whom all Western notions of magic ultimately derive, never wrote down the vowels of their sacred texts. Knowledge of the magical uses of vowels was the mark of power. “When a god or man was declared to be maa-­kheru – true of voice, or true of word,” says E.A. Wallis Budge in his Legends of the Egyptian Gods, “his power became illimitable. It gave him rule and authority, and every command uttered by him was immediately followed by the effect required.”

A tremor of fast movement works its way through the bear’s body. His paws churn the undergrowth. He lunges forward, twisting for a moment toward my father – at this, I experience a flare of anxiety mixed with aggression – and then away, slanting uphill toward the alpine and the river. He makes hardly a sound. His black form dissolves into the trees, and I am amazed that such a lumbering beast, four or five hundred pounds of fur, teeth, and claws, can move this way; lithe and sinuous, a phantom.

I retrieve the map from my pack, find our location, and mark on it “bear.” The notation is slightly north of the X. I suggest we follow the bear, up and toward the river. I ­don’t wish to run into him again, but his appearance is an unequivocal gesture: the guardian challenges, then guides.

We get moving again, following the sounds of the river, calling out to the bear that we are in the vicinity. The recent excitement has reinvigorated us, and thrashing through the undergrowth is now less of a chore. Our movements are freshened with a sense of imminence.

We approach the river again, first smelling its cold air and then catching glimpses of it through the brush. We emerge at the bank, find it eroded and overhung with trees balanced over the gorge. Water cascades along turbulent paths, boulders shift with a rumbling sound. Directly in front of us, rising over two hundred feet in a vertical slash against the November sky, is a cliff of cooled lava.

High up, where the cliff meets the forest above, we can see our perch from earlier in the morning. I think of the first seat of the Unnameable, from where the Shebtiw spoke the names of things. We’ve come out below the first trail, the one we backtracked along because it ended above the river. We had been sitting on top of the cliff. Its face was shielded by our position above it, its crown covered by the forest undergrowth. We had reached our destination after all. Yet, even if we had known it, there would have been no way to climb down. We would likely have given up, assuming that special equipment was needed to get at the deposits. We would not have been led here by the bear.