Perhaps for fear of saying to oneself,
“Why you rather than another?” or asking
why it should be done at all,
it is not good to plan such things too long.
No question others had more craft than I.
I had waited for the Old One to give the sign
to one of us, half hoping still his choice
might fall on me. But lately he had turned
to graving stags and reindeer on bits of antler—
art that for all his pains my clumsy fingers
could never seem to master. In any case,
his choice for cavern walls ran to pregnant cows,
bison, and ponies. That, and more and more
he favored places not too hard to get at.
“What’s the harm in having good work seen?”
Meanwhile the first full moon of spring was near.
I can’t say why I chose the cave I did.
Passing that way one day, I’d seen it
and taken it for a badger’s hole until
I saw an owl rise from it and, listening close,
caught the voices of the water.
I set out before dawn and took along
well-scorched moss, and tallow, stone lamp, firestick
in a deer bladder lashed tight with pitched sinews.
The flint I carried in a pouch tied to my wrist.
I crawled with hips and belly till I came
into a place where I could squat. There I made
my first light. The water sounded fairly near,
though the first spur I took was full of twists
that led me farther from it. I turned back.
Now, inching on a ledge with steep-sloped roof,
I struck a fissure where the torrent spouted.
I whispered to the spirit, filled my lungs,
Swim? I doubt a salmon could
have swum it. I braced and fought for holds
in walls and ceiling to haul myself along,
still with no sign that anything but more
and wilder water lay ahead, a chance
a man must take. Half drowned, I reached a sweep
and lay there spewing out my lungs and caught between
terror of the dark and the solid feel
of rock beneath me. I could hope the bladder
still was staunch but dared not open it until
I knew my hands were dry. When at last I twirled
the firestick and coaxed the wick to flame,
I say the place was far too open
to waste good work on.
I edged my way along a slit so barred
by stone icicles that I would have given up
when almost now in reach, I saw the wall
that I have known since childhood
yet never seen before. I saw it now
even to the scratches other men,
knowing the place for what it was, had made
ages before me. Some of their animals were not
like ours–––one hairy beast with two horns on his snout
was half glazed over by a layer of stone-ice.
Many of them were drawn overlapping others—
as mine would sprawl on theirs. None of them
was anything the size that I intended.
The stone was even-grained would take flint clean,
and yet not soft enough to flake with time.
Pressing my back against the other wall
to have full arm-room, I sketched him in—
a bear as big as living. I worked fast,
paused only when the need was to renew
the wick and tallow. First I got the spine—
that line where limberness and strength
of any living beast is—cut firmly,
the head scaled in and forelegs placed
before the tallow failed.
Spilling down the torrent,
then guided most by slithering in my own tracks,
I found my way out—into moonlight. The sun,
it seemed, had set twice since I left.
Ate and slept but, lest
the bear be dimmed in me, did not go in
to either of my women.
I told no one where I had been or why.
Next day I packed another bladder, taking
a good supply of moss and tallow, honey and nuts,
and other, heavier, newly beveled flints.
As a last thought, I went to see old Kill-Bear.
“Look like?” he puffed. “A bear? Why, you’ve seen bears
since you were a baby.” (And drawn them, too,
he might have said, since I could scratch earth
with a stick.) “Come now, you’ve seen those I killed.
Look like? Well, they’ve got hair all over them.
Stub tails, big paws and heads, and lots of teeth.”
I left the old fool bawling after me,
“hey, you ain’t found one, have you? You’re supposed
to tell me if you have. Don’t you go trying
to get my job by killing it yourself!”
I found the cave was easier going this time,
but the torrent sucked and swirled up to the ceiling.
I moved half into it to test its tug.
It grabbed me, and pulled by under. The bladder buoying me,
I found a shallow dome that let my nose just clear
the water. Strange, where with death so sure, I thought
not for my women or their young but for the bear
that I would heave unfinished. Him I commended
to the spirits of the dark.
Slowly the water
ebbed, below my chin and then my shoulders.
It rose again and then as sudden fell.
I was on a rock shelf.
I had slept. The bladder was still with me.
The roar was gone, the water gurgled like a brook.
The new flints bit well. To give him weight,
I undergouged the belly and hindquarters.
A natural bulge I fashioned into head.
I gave him teeth and claws. Then last of all
he took on eyes and nostrils. When he began to breathe,
I stopped and snuffed the wick, safe in his
Waking and making light the last time,
I scratched a spear mark on his flank as we were taught—
so shallow though that he would never feel it—
made him an offering of honey, nuts, and tallow,
ate some myself. The lamp and flints I left there.
Heft, strength, the saddle and the soles,
the rambling appetite, fur, the rolling amble,
the curious investigating “ Whoof!,”
the clatter of unretracting claws, the bear-play—
sliding on their rumps down clay banks into puddles,
standing erect and balancing vines across their noses—
patience to wait with poised paw
on a rock among the rapids
to snatch the salmon as they leap,
bear-smell of being bears
are what I had tried to make the flint say
on the cavern wall.
Ferocity and gentleness...
Your bear is one great fool and so is man!
I have seen a naked child in pigtails,
squealing her delight,
chase a full-grown bear splashing across the meadow—
and a half-grown cub stand up and brave
a dozen hunters with javelins and torches.
Bison are better eating
and their hides tan easier
but you can’t laugh at a bison.
Beside the profound, absolute
dark of caves, our night seems noon.
Even beneath a starless sky
the eye makes out bulk and shapes,
but in winding scapes of underground,
where no sun’s light has ever shone,
finger may touch the lash
of open eye unseen.
in that total lack of light
is where my bear is.
No one will ever see him
but he still