Short Fiction: Ursa

As some parts of the country start to carefully emerge from their two-month, COVID-19 hibernation, we thought we’d share Shane Castle’s story “Ursa” which appeared in NDQ 87.1/2.

I’m usually not at a loss for how to describe a story, but this piece is indescribable. At turns touching, funny, and absurd, it’s the perfect stay-at-home, lunchtime read.

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Ursa

In the fourth message, she tells him she’s a bear. He hits her back a few minutes later with a bear emoji. Not the more realistic one. The caricature. Which is too precious for her taste but still better than a lot of what she gets, like when they say fyi im not gay this isnt grindr haha! She tries to be patient: no i mean like bear-bear more specifically a brown bear. This doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes they try to correct her and go u mean grizzly bear? To which she will say actually i said exactly what I meant and if he keeps going, if he’s a particularly condescending idiot, she’ll be like whatever idiot grizzly bear is only colloquial for the north american brown bear of which there are two types ursus arctos horribilis which is what youre probably talking about and ursus arctos middendorfii aka kodiak brown bear which is what im talking about. Not that she really buys into all this taxonomy business. Lines can be deceiving. Brown bears, for instance, can mate with polar bears, a scenario she’s entertained many a lonely night. Actually, polar bears are brown bears after eons of living on ice, just as all things become whole other species of things after being separated too long. But getting into these nuances tends to bog things down, so she usually ends up being like btw i dont have time to play games so please dont play games w/ me. Which isn’t totally true. She has time. It’s just her in the den this winter. She only had the one cub this year and he fell in the river trying to catch a yellow birch leaf, got washed down to the big churning rapids. She ran so fast—so so fast—but was too late. Normally, she’d leave that part out, but she’s feeling a little out of herself just now in the artificial light, not so much herself as an idea of herself, and this one hasn’t been particularly idiotic, so when he sends her his precious little bear emoji, she hits him right back with a whole torrent of truth, a torrent she regrets the second she hits send: just to be clear i mean bear-bear i can tear apart anyone messes w/ me all alone my cub died he was a good cub one of the best EVER its cold i need contact but u gotta treat me RIGHT no games u down?

***

Apparently he’s at least partly down because he hits her back like three hours later when she’s curled up on her left side licking her elbow: definitely 😉 wheres kodiak? She shakes her head. Issue one: what kind of dude would definitely be interested after a torrent like that? Issue two: what a stupid question. Where’s Kodiak? Um, island, southcentral Alaska? Ever heard of Google? Issue three: what makes him assume she’s cool with them using her place? She is, but what makes him assume it? She turns onto her right side and rests her chin on top of her forepaw and has all kinds of thoughts, but it’s not like she’s getting any younger and it’s not like anyone else lately has been much smarter.

She waits ten minutes then hits bear emoji guy back: kodiak. A minute later, she realizes she should probably add a 😉 so she adds it and then waits some more and waits some more until a week or maybe it’s a month later she wakes up to the buzz and the blue glow in the darkness. Guess who it is? Bear emoji guy finally hitting her back: hey not sure if u remember me life got craaaazy busy but im in the area now….. Seriously? Dude happens to be in Kodiak? Two, three flights from anywhere? In winter? Who does this guy think he’s fooling? And what could she hope to get from him? Lice? Her head sawed off?

***

Her den is a little weird this year, a bit snug height-wise, very little headroom. She has to scrunch down to move around. But width-wise there’s room enough for two. Just now it feels like that extra space stretches out forever. She places a paw on the wall. The claw-work actually came out pretty well, with the ribbing she likes. It reminds her of an esophagus, like the earth is trying to consume her, but she still won’t allow herself to be swallowed down. She’s stuck in the craw. Though sometimes she thinks winter would be the best time to die. Go to sleep. Slip into anonymous death under the surface. Eventually the mouth collapses. Turf reseeds. Like you never existed at all.

She’s pretty sure she’s not carrying this winter.

She feels nothing inside.

Maybe what she needs is a little air, fresh air to clear her head. She hates to break sanctity, but she needs out, not for long, just a minute or two or ten. She claws through the polished ice plugging the mouth of her den, then pushes her nose through the outer crust of snow at the surface, squeezing her eyes tight as she breaks through—her inner clock says it’s one or two in the afternoon and she doesn’t want to go snowblind, not again—but something must be off inside. Because it’s not light. Quite the opposite. The moisture in her eyes almost instantly freezes but, even through the gauze of her eyelashes, she can tell it’s more like two or three in the morning. The subzero blackness crackles from here to forever. Tiny ice crystals twinkle all around her nose like so many stars, settling on her muzzle, tickling her whiskers. She sniffs at one floating past her nose and—whoosh—just like that she gets a whiff of the entire valley, gnarled hemlocks buried in snowdrifts, far-off birches and spruce and, in the spruce, a memory: little Ursa as a cub wanting her fur to smell just like the spruce, rubbing every inch of her skinny little body against the lowest boughs and her mother telling her to quit luxuriating so in her senses. Why? For one, boars don’t like it. Why? They think it distracts you from them. Why? Eat your berries.

She could be quite distant at times, her mama, but she still misses the warmth of her breath at night when she was still a little thing, nuzzling into that great warm expanse and, even though mama could be a little too harsh, even though she was always nudging her too hard in the ribs, she misses her presence, the way she would glance up now and then from a blueberry bush or from stripping the spine from a salmon on the riverbank, just to see what her young one was doing, where, how. She remembers mama catching fish after silver fish among the falls. She remembers her chasing away a fox, an eagle. She remembers her chuffing at a man down on the trail, a man who put up his hands as he backed away saying Easy, girl, easy. Her mother could still be alive, though she’d be very old for a bear now, especially given the limp from the time she got hit by the truck, the way she always favored that shoulder.

She can’t help but wonder if any of her own cubs are looking out of their own dens tonight, thinking of their mama, of her. Did any of them ever notice how she walked? How she watched? How she only nudged hard if there were men or dogs in the valley? How she always chose whatever path happened to have the lowest spruce boughs? How she never gave up letting the needles tickle across her own muzzle as they passed through? It’s strange: all this time and she still doesn’t know if others outgrow the ticklings or if everyone else is just better at keeping them private. What she does know is that her young ones all let themselves feel things for a time, really feel things, like the yellowy-haired girl four cycles ago who would lay on her back in the meadow letting dragonflies tickle her belly. Or her first cubs, the twins with the matching silvertips, who would stand shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the marsh, pressing their forepaws over and over again into the squishy moss growing like a pelt of green fur out over the water’s edge. Or like the last little guy. How he would stand and stand at the river’s edge and look back to her two or three times before finally braving that rush of the cold, clear water over his toes. How he would look back to make sure she was watching. Which she usually was. Almost always. She can still see his black eyes trying to make sense of the world around them. His eyes still glistening with the light.

To think, a couple of men have actually had the nerve to tell Ursa that her kind isn’t endangered, not technically, one idiot said, not in alaska anyway. She’s perfectly aware that hubris is something that sets men apart. Disembodied notions. The earnest belief that everything is distinct and reducible and their own. They’re so stupid. Then again, she must find something beautiful about them or she wouldn’t watch them so. What? Maybe the way their bodies tense up when some part of them senses, below any conscious level, that she’s lying there just out of reach in the grass. So out of touch. Yet she’s attracted to them, maybe for the trying? She meets so few other bears these days and those she does come across seem more and more standoffish. Not just stoic. Not just aloof. But afraid of the least footstep. Mean. They seem to be forgetting the simple pleasures, like they’re giving in, or giving up, adopting this ugly human belief that nature brooks only hardness, coldness, cruelty. The crazy thing is men seem to think they learned this from watching the bears, but they don’t watch bears, not most of them, not really. They haven’t watched anything but porn for a long time. They do viewings. They make memories. They get their money’s worth. They see possibilities. But they don’t see.

Not that long ago, a painfully handsome idiot with cloudy blue eyes explained (#mansplained) to her that she was naïve, that her kind was going extinct because they weren’t wary enough of man, didn’t understand man is still part of nature and nature is unforgiving. Why’d she let him get away with that? She just froze. How did he mean naïve? Did it really have a pejorative sense? She hated that face they made when they thought they knew something you didn’t, but he must have known something she didn’t. She let him stay for several nights—they felt like years. After he finally left, she licked herself clean and looked up naïve on her phone. Just like she’d thought. Native. Rustic. Innocent. Just born. She didn’t understand how that could be a bad thing. All it meant was still needing your mama sometimes. By that definition, she is still naïve. Her lungs may be freezing in the subzero air, her muzzle all white and crisp with frost, but what really makes her shudder is to imagine people who aren’t.

***

Back inside, she’s already restless again. She heaves up, lies on her other side, then rolls back again. She stretches out as far as she can so her forepaws touch one side of her den, her hindpaws the other. Her space longs to be filled. Why she didn’t anticipate that in the fall is beyond her. Still, the last time one of them came to her place, she realized about twenty minutes into it that he’d already turned her into a fetish. He crawled up inside her like a rug. When she asked him to leave, he refused, citing the cold, the dark outside. Besides, he whispered into her ear, you don’t want me to. Something told her she might actually have to kill this one. Did she? No. Didn’t even bluff. Let him wear her for several more hours. No, let him wear her out. Her fur felt sticky for days after. Yet here she is again, staring at her phone, lost. Stupid, stupid Ursa. She still thinks there must be a way to play this right, like fishing at a waterfall. If you wait still enough, if you watch closely enough, if you strike quickly and precisely enough, you get something in the end, something that fights with every ounce of its being to stay alive, something delicious. There must be men, she thinks, you can reach that way. But even after all these years, she doesn’t know how, doesn’t even know how to take their words. Maybe it’s her. Maybe she needs to start by repositioning herself, approaching the waterfalls from a different angle. Maybe she needs to move to one side, open up just the right space for him to leap into, a new, glimmering tidepool he simply can’t resist—and there she’ll be.

She starts to hit him back: lol isn’t it CRAZY how hard—

Delete delete delete.

She tries again: when you say ur “in the area” r u saying ur not here for me but im a nice perk? or r u saying ur not here for me but whatever youll settle? or r u really saying ur 2 afraid to admit u need this as bad as me and have actually traveled to the edge of the world to—

Delete delete delete.

She lies still for a long time, staring into the little blue screen, waiting for the right words to come, the perfect words, simple, electric words, the kind that come with a little bolt of static that connects two bodies in an instant, a miniature lightning strike between. Maybe, she thinks, the screen itself is the problem, its electro-magnetism. She can be sensitive to invisible forces anyway, like when she walks under the big power line and her guard hairs stand up and she can feel the power of an entire other human world humming, harmonizing with something deep inside her chest, and yet how dangerous must that electricity be for her to feel it so far below the line on the ground? It’s not unreasonable to think she’ll get ghosted again or, worse, that one of these days she’ll start to think she actually understands one of these dudes and he will show up all smiles only to mount her head on a wall. No name, no Ursa, just a little brass plaque listing date, species, sex—veni, vidi, vici. Maybe the taxidermist will add a snarl to her lip to complete her transformation into this once terrified now terrifying thing. But bears aren’t that way, she wants to protest. They have to be made that way. Her mother came to hate men but she still can’t help but think it’s all a colossal misunderstanding of natures, of bodies that walk flesh-to-ground and bodies that hover above it on rubber or leather or balance even higher above it on these weird little symbols she feels she still only half understands: if only i were a real woman, she begins again, one of these delicate little things i see sometimes w/ u men on the trails…. if i was one of these women maybe then i would understand when “ur great but im not ready for anything serious” implies “but i may be soon”… maybe id wake up in a cabin in the middle of winter many years from now and thered be ice on the panes and birch logs burning down to ash in the stove and food on the shelf and pictures of our full grown children on the mantle above the hearth and maybe id look out into the darkness and even step out onto the porch to smell the spruce frost knowing ur still in bed just waiting for me to return and wed both live until we were 80 years old still taking walks together in the woods wearing jingly bells and calling out hey bear hey bear!

*Sigh.* She’s not feeling it. She simply isn’t one of these women. What she is in her little story is the bear: the thing the old lovers warn away. She’s the bear the dreamy idiots in flannel pass by and she’s the bear the aggressive idiots in autumn camouflage carry rifles to kill. That’s why her guard hairs prickle up around them. In their lust for the wild, even the best of them, the bravest of them, the archers—the ones who allow themselves to get closest to it, to get right up close and smell it, to get within two seconds of their lives—may shoot her body full of their barbed little quills, so that either way, guard hairs prickling up or a quiver of arrows in her back, she’ll feel herself transformed into something the world has never seen before, some new species of giant porcupine. What’s the Latin name for porcupines again? She checks her phone. Erithizon dorsatum. Aroused back. If you so much as think of blowing on her back, ten-thousand quills will prickle up to warn you away. How strange, the way men name things. How perfect sometimes. Others, not so much.

Delete delete delete.

Forget it. She won’t send anything. She’s done with this, with them. She’s just going back to sleep. There is peace in this exhausted darkness: peace in the sound of her own breaths fading toward sleep: toward dream: toward peace near the little lake up on the alpine pass: here, it’s apparently daytime and the lake is frozen over and there are big patches on one side where the wind has blown all the snow into wavy drifts and the ice shows through faintly blue. She’s approaching the small cabin, the one where hikers sometimes bed down in the summer. Someone has left the door open, which is very unusual, unheard of. She can’t see very far inside yet, only a wedge of the floor on the other side of the threshold. But she can tell something vital is hidden away in the back. Something beckons. Maybe a whole cache of food no one would ever miss. Not food. Or food for something other than the body. She can’t tell. There are no scents, no sounds. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing like this exists. And that’s what draws her toward it. She approaches hesitantly, glancing about, sniffing the lichen on the wooden planks of the porch. Once at the door, she slowly cranes her neck around to peek inside. Something black. Something rumpled. Moldering on the floor. She freezes. It takes her a moment to realize what she’s looking at. A t-shirt. But it has been turned inside out. And she can almost make out the form of some applique, some vague outer design bleeding through the fabric. She’s trying hard to see what is bleeding through, when she hears the buzz, and nearly jumps out of her skin. She thinks maybe it’s her phone, but it can’t be. Her phone, she believes, is frozen into the lake ice along with the tiny bubbles. She wakes in a panic in her den to find it right where she left it: her paw.

Her vision is still blurry—she can still see the lake ice somewhere inside the blue light of the phone—but the words are slowly coming into focus: hey… u still game???

She’s thinking about writing u gotta be kidding…

She’s thinking about writing id rather die…

Until he adds a 🙂 .

***

When bear emoji guy arrives, he’s not quite what she expected. In one of his photos, he was standing on top of a mountain looking like the kind of dude you’d expect to be standing on top of a mountain: fit but not musclebound, tan but not baked, sunglasses. In another, he was reclining in the back of a fishing boat with his tattooed forearm resting on the gunnel, cutting a white wake through a steel gray bay. His way of sitting, contemplating the sea, made him seem thoughtful, strong, at least confident enough to remain silent for a few minutes. But he’s a little soft around his midsection. And his eyes are a little too close together, close enough anyway that she can’t help but notice and feel bad for noticing. And she gets the feeling he thinks he can literally fill empty spaces with words, because they’ve been lying on their sides looking at each other for almost half an hour now and he still hasn’t left open enough space for them to lean into. She wonders if he doesn’t want to anymore. She doesn’t even know if she wants to, but she wants him to. On the plus side, his breath is clean, like mint. And he does seem to be trying to make her feel more comfortable, explaining how he came to this, about a breakup. Sounds crazy to say it out loud, he half-whispers. Twelve years? To realize you’re just good friends?

Finally, a pause.

She wonders what’s the matter with being good friends and how people would even evolve to think this way, but she doesn’t say anything. She just looks into his eyes. He looks back into hers, seems to search hers, even seems to see something inside her. She can feel whatever it is shifting, something within her skin rolling prone for him—and this is when her phone cycles down. Instant, total blackness. She closes her eyes anyway. But he doesn’t do what she thinks he will. Anyway, he whispers. I know you’ve got your own story.

She does. She just doesn’t want to share it now. Not with him. Not yet anyway. But how to say that without sounding like a bitch? That’s not what you want, she whispers as seductively as she knows how.

And waits.

Eventually has to lean forward, to kiss him, to place what feels a tremendously clumsy paw on either side of his face, to draw him in. After a moment, a hand moves tentatively to her hip. It’s a little small, a little cold. A layer of something seems to be coming between them. Something about him? Or her fur? It doesn’t matter. What she wants is for him to grab hold, pull her toward him, grind himself against her, hard, like he’s trying to smash their two skeletons together, their meat, nerves, blood. She wants to feel his frustration with being two. She wants to feel him inside and to feel how being inside isn’t even close to being close enough. That’s what she wants: to feel the weight of the whole universe collapsing in on them, all of it, down to a single, infinitesimal point.

He stops. It isn’t cruel. It isn’t dismissive. There’s a gentleness about his hesitation that’s too sweet, if anything. He’s stroking the side of her face in the darkness.

I’m not like the others, he says.

She’s not sure how to take that and doesn’t say anything.

I want to hear your story, he says.

She kisses him again, partly to kiss him, mostly to shut him up.

She grabs his hand and puts it where she wants. She rolls on top of him and rubs herself against him until she can feel how hard he is and then she slides down, kissing his neck, his chest. You don’t—he mumbles, but soon she feels his fingers rubbing her ears. Not pushing. Not guiding. Just kneading. Tickling her guard hairs. She’s tingling all over with pleasure. And soon he’s shuddering all over, and she thinks she should stop before it’s too late, before she gets what she wants, whatever that is, whatever.

***

The two are lying side by side. He is talking again and she is staring at the ceiling. He asks about her cub and she says she doesn’t want to talk with him about her cub and he says everyone needs to talk and she says she thought he was a realtor, not a counselor, and they lie in silence for a while.

It’s realtor, he finally says. Not real-uh-tor.

***

A week passes. Two weeks. Three. She sleeps most of the time away. Other times, her eyes will be open in the dark for a few hours before she realizes she has been awake. For now, her phone is off. Cold. Dark. There’s no light in the den other than a faint, occasional glimmer when she rolls over, a trace of static crackling through her fur.

She dreams about giving birth. Her big heart flutters with anticipation. Everything will be all right now. All she has to do is hold a little one close. But something goes wrong. There’s no pain, no discomfort, no sensation at all. Something simply slips out of her onto the den floor. Cold. Hairless. Calcified. She reaches out to touch the form, to what? She doesn’t know. Just to feel this thing she’s mourning. But as soon as she touches it, the rear end calves off, crumbles away into dust. She assumed it was gone but what remains begins to claw forward, to panic. It scrabbles along the den floor, tries to stand, opens its pinched little mouth, as if to cry out, but it can’t make any sounds, and collapses into the silence.

***

Some while later, when the air has begun warming and snow is getting more granular and glistening, she’s sitting on her rump at the mouth of her den, watching over the wide, white expanse, gazing all the way out to the sun-streaked bay, nose twitching after a salty breeze. She thinks of times she has walked down to the sea, felt the waves lapping at her toes. Once, years ago, she swam out, and she still remembers its icy, downward draw. The sheer immensity of the thing. Out and out, all the way to the sky. Down and down to she doesn’t know what. If a whale, even a huge gray whale, was flopping around out there right now, she wouldn’t even be able to see it from here. Compared to that, what’s one bear, even as big as her, gasping for breath? What’s a gurgle? A few more air bubbles rising to burst and disperse at the surface? Maybe that’s what she deserves anyway. For letting her little guy drown.

She’s remembering the day she took that picture of him playing peekaboo in the devil’s club, the particular way the light was falling on them through the canopy, how intensely he watched a beetle making a track of parallel dots through the powdery dirt, how hard he scratched his little butt back and forth against the cottonwood stump. She doesn’t understand how she can hold memories in her head, how she can be right there inside them, but not affect anything at all. She doesn’t understand how everything on the periphery can just be gone the way it is. If she tries to turn her head, even a little, nothing is there.

It will be a while yet before the snowpack breaks all the way up on the mountainside, but she can already make out a few hemlocks and boulders poking through maybe a hundred yards below her on the slope. Farther yet, a couple exposed patches of turf. Soon enough, the snowless patches will grow larger, greener, with flowers, bees, voles, foxes, deer. Then these few patches will grow together into one patch and that one patch will eventually stretch all the way up and over the mountain to the high crags where the Dall sheep spend entire lives sprinting around on the brink. Not always successfully and sometimes to her benefit. A couple springtimes ago, she and her duckfooted cub found a lamb broken down in among the talus, a young one who must have slipped trying to follow the others way up above.

Its fur was still so new and so white it seemed like a patch of snow itself had magically sprouted black eyes that wouldn’t stop looking until their final dilations.

Maybe, she thinks, that’s all life is: the universe’s way of fixing on itself. So much energy, so much suffering, for a few, fleeting glimpses.

She turns, looks over her shoulder into her den.

There is a sound, way down in there, a familiar hum she can’t quite place.

~

Shane Castle is a writing instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and an affiliate editor of Alaska Quarterly Review. His stories have appeared in venues including Black Warrior ReviewIndiana ReviewSalamanderIron Horse Literary Review, and online with McSweeney’s and Electric
Literature.

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