The Woman Who Married a Bear

The Indian story about a woman who married a bear gets told in many ways. I see it happening in Vermont. That’s where I’m the woman who got lost in the woods and spent a night in the snow, on a bed of two leather gloves.

Simone Forti, I Stand Where A Bear Stood..., 2009. Marker and pencil on paper. 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy the artist and The Box, LA.

No matches or compass, I hadn’t been thinking of going into the woods. I’d just walked up the road to visit friends and a few hours later decided to head back down on the trail behind their house, going through the woods to the field by my house. I’d walked it dozens of times, cross-country skied it. Red sweater, brown leather jacket and wool shawl, red beret. There were smatterings of snow, it was overcast, maybe three pm. My friends’ two dogs, not full grown, followed me. I must have overshot the trail, but I knew the direction. I must have gotten turned around in the grayness.

When the bear slept, his breath came very, very slow. The feel of him became thin. His bones. The woman felt hunger and ventured out of their den to snare a rabbit. She left signs for her brothers who would be looking for her.

I think, partly, I got lost because of the dogs. We’d been going round and round on logging roads, faster as dark came on. By then I was carelessly crunching through icy ruts and into water. Boots and pant legs wet halfway to the knees, the roads circling, branching and dead-ending. Inky, yes, that was the older dog’s name, almost full grown, would head out in various directions, the puppy would follow him, and then Inky would come back without the puppy. I’d call and go looking in every direction, and call, and finally the puppy would come bouncing into view, very tired but all happy to have found us again. Sometimes I’d think Inky might be heading home and I’d start to follow him and then he would start following me again.

At some point I could tell by my sweat that I’d better stop and make a nest. I started to tear down bows and pile them on a low cradling spruce branch. By then the dogs were just a black form, together in the open area. But look. In the whiteness of black I could just make out a way to go. Maybe a trail. I decided to try it. Several yards later, dead end of trail image. Go back. Ah! My tree. There it is among those others. Protection seemed to gather around my shoulders and into my body. I invited the dogs to join me in my nest of boughs but they settled under another tree.

A short way into the night I pulled my arms in from my jacket sleeves. Then from my sweater sleeves. Knees already tucked into the bottom of my sweater, red, lightweight, pretty, I hadn’t even planned to go into the woods at all. Scarf around my feet, by then purse and gloves were under me. From time to time I’d imagine my big old fur coat dropping onto me, and experience an instant of warm feeling.

Often the pups woke up and fussed and I told them it was all right. And the boughs smelled so good. Sometimes I’d let myself take a fresh cold breath from outside, but mainly I stayed curled up as in a capsule. And of course the cold. The shivering. Once I peed right down through the boughs. Delight! It took a lot of stirring and fussing, getting my pants down, but the activity seemed to warm me a bit, for a bit. Once I worked an eye out of cap and collar and saw a bright star. A good sign. If the wind didn’t pick up or the temperature plunge, it got down to 15°F, I’d be all right. If a bizzard didn’t start up.

I love these woods, full of life, full of decay. There’s a story by a Vermont writer, I don’t remember his name, about a health-wrecked man who takes a whiskey bottle into a bog and, if I do remember, into an abandoned beaver nest, and settles in to melt back into Vermont.

She had met him in the season of the raspberries. It was like this. The girls are picking berries. He is like a bear. Young, strong, she likes him. He helps her. Then he seems like a bear. The other girls call “It’s late, time to headback!” She likes him, The sun goes down.

Then the bear man digs a den. Then he looks like a bear digging. Then they sleep in the den. When the woman who married a bear ventures out of the cave where he is sleeping, the frozen brooks are easy to cross. She sees white birch and black maples. The midday sun on the expanse of snow makes tiny rainbow sparks. She leaves signs for her brothers. When her husband says, “Why are you doing that?” she answers, “When they come to kill you, don’t kill them. Don’t kill my brothers.”

When her brothers brought her back to the village, together with her cubs, they laughed at her. Then they started to throw the bear’s skin on her. She cried, “Don’t do that, Don’t do that.” But they did it. They covered her with that bearskin. And wild with grief, she killed them all. Except the youngest, who she spared. Some say that they saw her running across the snow-white field, a dark bent figure followed by her two cubs.

In the crisp light of morning, feet like rocks, I worked at the frozen laces of my frozen boots. The dogs were excited. At first I couldn’t keep my balance and kept falling over. But then I went around a nearby outcropping and recognized the beautiful hardwoods of Little Hedgehog Hill. And yes in the night I’d looked out and seen a star and the morning was clear and I could tell the west. I could see the fields on higher hills and headed downward, up and down and across frozen brooks but always downward, the dogs following. And I made a poem.

Thirsting for the colors of cold
          Sun peach
                    Ice blue
I’ve lived in snow before
Though I don’t know where
Or who I was
But I was comfortable
          More than that
                    Joyful

 

Contributor

Simone Forti

Simone Forti is a dancer/choreographer/artist/writer. In the spring of 1961 she presented a full evening of Dance Constructions, which proved to be influential in both the dance and the art world. Forti’s continuing explorations, including studies of animal’s movements and of the dynamics of circling, have manifested as drawings and as holograms, as well as in performance including collaborations with musicians Charlemagne Palestine and Peter Van Riper. Forti’s engagement with movement and language includes her News Animations, which are improvisations in movement and spoken word, as well as her books including Handbook in Motion (1974) and Oh, Tongue (2003). Works of hers are included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Whitney Museum, New York, and The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. In 2014 Forti had a retrospective show at the Museum der Modern in Salzburg, Austria, and in 2011 received a Yoko Ono Lennon Award for Courage in the Arts. She is represented by The Box LA Gallery.

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