From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska, Tuesday, May 25, 2010
A bear stood on the beach, watching us watch it. Through the ages have we watched each other thus; curious but unsure of the other’s intent.
There was a time called the Prehuman Flux when life and the earth itself were fluid, when all of us, humans, animals, plants, the rivers, and the rocks spoke one language and could all shape-shift into any needed form. But we, growing into ourselves as a child today grows into an adult, became self conscious. The world still knew how to shapeshift but only so slowly that no one else can see. So too it was with the animals and plants. There were a few that could still shapeshift the old ways but those are other stories for other days. Today is the day for the tale of how humans and bears looked out one last time and were sure.
In those days, when the world was no longer new but still young, a young woman met and fell in love with a young man who took her to live with him and his people. On arriving at his home she discovered that inside their lodge the people took off their human skins and were bears. But she was in love and happy. She stayed and married her bear man. The bear people taught her the songs of the plants and animals so that she knew and could teach how to recognize, harvest, prepare, and preserve them. In the fall she became homesick and returned to her human family, promising to tell no one how she had learned all the songs.
With the awakening of spring, having told no one where and how she had learned the songs she had taught her parents’ people, she returned to her husband and the bear people. And the cycle repeated itself a second year. Her parents’ people wanted to know the secret of her knowledge but she loved her husband and honored her pact with him. And she returned to him in the spring.
When the next winter approached she told her husband that she wanted to stay with him that winter. But he explained that the bear people’s great medicine, their winter magic, she could not be taught until after she knew all the plant songs. He told her she would not learn those until the next summer so she had to return to her parents’ village one last time. And she did. And again they begged her and tried to trick her into telling where and how she had learned all the songs. Though she taught the songs, she was silent about how she learned them.
When she returned to the bear people in the spring she didn’t know she was being followed. Her brothers, the three best hunters in their parents’ village, tracked her back to the bear lodge and, seeing one of the bear people take off his human skin before going into the lodge, thought their sister had been bewitched and planned to rescue her. That night while all in the lodge slept, the brothers crept inside and killed all the bear people as they slept and took their sister home with them. And so the story would have ended but . . .
Nine months later the young woman had twin sons who could be either human or bear, as they chose. Because of that and because they grew up at the rate of bears, the people of their grandparents’ village hated them. She had not only taught them all the songs she had learned from the bear people, she taught them what had happened to their father and all his family as well. And they had watched her grow from beautiful young woman to crone in five years – a broken heart can do that.
When they were five years old and grown men, their mother finished their education and died. They left and traveled the world as the first of the Heroes, the twin sons who slay the monsters that needed slaying and teach the worthy humans the songs they need to know spread around the northern world.
So, each of us watches as we pass, wondering how much of the story the other knows. We go on, looking for whales, and the bear with a last look over his shoulder as though to be sure of our destination, fades back into the woods.
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