I Saw A Bear

Yesterday I saw a bear in the woods. It was very big and it took a long look at me. I don’t know if there was carelessness, sadness, or something similar to expectation in his eyes, but it sure wasn’t anger. The woods where I saw it was Băneasa, at the Zoo on the edge of Bucharest, and the bear was in an iron cage. There was a different world around me. Men, women and children would wonder or show interest for just a moment as they passed from the bear’s cage to that of the lion or those of the wolves, and then quickly forgot about them. Except for the children, I suppose. “Do they eat people too?” one of the little boys asked. “They do,” the possible father answered confidently. “And they especially eat children who do not behave,” the respective daddy added meaningfully. The little boy stepped further away, all the time looking at the bear and clinging hard to his daddy’s hand. “I want to see the monkeys,” the little boy said, very determined. One is always drawn to his origins; you get that feeling of security that comes from being among your kind. So they left to see the monkeys. The bear no longer looked at anyone. For a while he put his heavy head over his paws topped with fierce-looking claws, and closed his small eyes. I looked at that immeasurable strength lying behind bars in the caged enclosure. I thought of other such huge strengths I had encountered face to face, where the beech trees were the only bars, and the cage was a den hidden in the mountain rock, deep in the Carpathians. That night when the world was rushing by, I still looked at that big bear in the cage at Băneasa. I got as close to it as I could. “Do you remember, bear?” I whispered to him. The wind swooshed through the forest leaves, coming from the farthest land, to die slowly by the bear’s cage; it sounded like a lament, or a barely audible moan. “Do you remember, bear?” I whispered again. The burden of his large head pressed over those strong paws with useless claws, worn off against the hard concrete that, unlike the moist earth or the forest bark, didn’t know how to keep the memory of traces or paths left behind by the steps sneaking through the thickets. Just then, the noise of hullabaloo and fight came from the wolves’ cage and, suddenly, the silence of the little forest was shattered by the forlorn call of a howling wolf. Long-lasting, barely modulated in its harshness, the wild and harrowing call rose in the air, like a helpless revolt coming from past despair, seemingly wanting to break through the enclosures and reach out into the wide sky. The fierce call rose twice into the air, and then it died out with a deep-throat growl. “Did you hear that, bear? Do you remember?” He lifted his head and part of his body on the front paws. Did he remember? I could guess his ears moving, round and small, hidden in the thick fur. The faint sound of a bus honking was heard from afar. What could a beast’s memory be? They only remember certain places and things you never forget, associations and connections between images and fulfillments, future teachings, some of them remembered as instincts, helpful in chasing food or in acting prudently during their oppressed life. People can remember a past living; wild beasts can remember the meaning related to the movement of a branch that may have predicted some sort of danger; people remember a sunset seen from the top of a mountain; wild beasts remember the good spot full of beech mast or raspberry bushes… “Have you really forgotten everything, bear?” He started moving around from one corner of the cage to another, as he usually did all day long, with long steps, and huge rolling muscles that could be guessed under the shabby fur, like a strange mixture of heavy swings and wonderful long undulations, always ready to burst loose like the chord of a released arch. I closed my eyes for a few moments so I could have a better view of that far-off place where a large, shabby, black-reddish bear was walking slowly and gracefully. Suddenly he stopped. He stood still for a while, like an enormous rock over the grey rocky mountain. His moist nostrils quivered slowly and the large head turned to the side, and then upwards, smelling the wind. The small round ears, almost lost among the thick fur, stood up straight for a short while, and then lay back down again. He put his head down slowly, licked his rolled-up lips, and let his long fangs glisten in the dark. The knife-sharp claws, incredibly long, spread out over a rock slab, as he took his next step. He resumed his heavy, graceful and swinging walk, passing through twigs and fallen-down tree trunks. At first he walked slowly, stopping here and there to prick up his ears and listen. Then, when he stepped into the great forest, he quickened his pace as he passed among the solemn beech trees. He took long steps, carrying his heavy body almost noiselessly over the forest leaves. He walked fast and straight for quite a while, as if towards an already-known target. He climbed down ravines and then up from pits and bumps over hanging slopes, under the same endless, silent and still canopy, with its trees reaching up to the sky, seeming to look down disdainfully at the futile restlessness underneath. When the bear reached a certain point only he knew about, he stopped, listened carefully, standing still, he sniffed the air thoroughly and then, very slowly, disappeared among the thickets. He slipped by carefully. All covered up, he went all the way up to that clearing. And then he fell asleep in the thickets. His intention was not to get some rest, but to keep watch, his body pointing forward, his nostrils quivering, his beady yellow eyes glittering. The bear stayed like that, watching, completely still. He waited for a long time, with that patience and will not to move that make for such special and absolutely necessary virtues in a beast’s life. At one point, he jumped; all the strength that had been kept under him suddenly broke loose. He jumped. And now there was only room for one thing: strength—according to the harsh rules of forest life. The bear knew his great strength when he jumped at the huge, proud and powerful bull that had got lost from his herd and stayed behind in the woods. He jumped on his back and his front long-clawed paws pierced his shoulders; the back paws and their claws were digging in his loins, while his fangs took fierce bites of the back of his neck until the bull, wildly ridden by the bear, bellowing terribly in an attempt to shake off the beast and to run away, collapsed to the ground, lifeless. The bear was the most powerful animal in the forest, and he had his rights, established according to the ancient laws that governed life there. And yet, I waited for you then, bear, I waited for three nights in a row, hidden just a few steps away from the bull’s dead body, for you to come back so I could punish you with a bullet through your shoulder. That’s what people asked for, those who saw things differently than you. But you never showed up; maybe one of your brothers came, since you’re here in the cage, weaving your dizzying and endlessly long, heavy and graceful steps. Your steps must have taken you everywhere before being constrained to the limits of the cage. The entire mountain was your kingdom. I saw you coming down barren slopes of hills, stepping over the green grass, in the mild autumn sun whose rays playfully highlighted your fur; I saw you going into the raspberry thickets and I saw you picking the small red fruits greedily, just like a child, leaves and all sometimes; I saw you jumping from an open space over the forest boundary and disappearing into depths too dark for the eye to see, among the tree trunks; I knew you were there in the depth of the forest, among tangled thickets on grey rocks, covered by tree trunks brought down by old age or lightning, a rough place, surrounded by thick forest, from where you’d only come out at nightfall to roam your mountain paths; and I also met you on the path, face to face, and you stepped out of the way, dignifiedly and without anger. You must have roamed all over the woods, bear, with no other obstacles in your way except those imposed by your own consideration, related to the dangers that threatened your life as a wild beast… Now, there are no dangers for the bear in the cage. He no longer has to worry and struggle in fierce fights to get food. He is no longer governed by the merciless forest laws. What could a beast’s mind remember? What memory is there left? Maybe none at all. Thoughts belong to people. Yet, I whispered to him once more, in a very low voice: “Do you remember, bear? Do you remember?” Tireless, unstoppable, never-ending, the bear followed his tormented tour around the cage, with long, heavy, graceful beastly steps. Had he answered my question? One of the guards then asked me to leave. It was getting late. “What are you waiting here for?” he asked; “there’s nothing more to see.” “You think so? Maybe some of us still see something…” He gave me a wondering and suspicious look. So I started on the long journey I had to take, suddenly regaining my equal and firm walk, that never seems to stop once it gets started, it keeps going for hours on end, even on a difficult climb, the walk of the mountain hunter that once got me up towards the lonely realms of bears—the walk that is so strangely related to them… …and I saw a bear yesterday… Translated by Daniela Oancea

by C. Rosetti-Bălănescu (1892-1994)