The Bear-Boy of Lithuania

Art by Rob Clayton

Girls, take my advice, marry an animal. A wooly one is most consoling. Find a fur man, born midwinter. Reared in the mountains. Fond of boxing. Make sure he has black rubbery lips, and a sticky-sweet mouth. A winter sleeper. Pick one who likes to tussle, who clowns around the kitchen, juggles hot baked potatoes, gnaws playfully on a corner of your apron. Not one mocked by his lumbering instincts, or who’s forever wrestling with himself, tainted with shame, itchy with chagrin, but a good-tempered beast who plunges in greedily, grinning and roaring. His backslapping manner makes him popular with the neighbors, till he digs up and eats their Dutch tulip bulbs. Then you see just how stuffy human beings can be. On Sundays his buddies come over to play watermelon football. When they finally get tired, they collapse on heaps of dried grass and leaves, scratching themselves elaborately, while I hand out big hunks of honeycomb. They’ve no problem swallowing dead bees stuck in the honey.

A bear-boy likes to stretch out on the floor and be roughly brushed with a broom. Never tease him about his small tail, which is much like a chipmunk’s. If you do, he’ll withdraw to the hollow of some tree, as my husband has done whenever offended since he first left the broadleaf woodlands to live in this city, which is so difficult for him. Let him be happy in his own way: filling the bathtub with huckleberries, or packing dark, earthwormy dirt under the sofa. Don’t mention the clawmarks on the refrigerator. (You know he can’t retract them.) Nothing pleases him more than a violent change in climate, especially if it snows while he’s asleep and he wakes to find the landscape blanketed. Then his teeth chatter with delight. He stamps and paws the air for joy. Exuberance is a bear’s inheritance. He likes northern light. Excuse me, please. His bellow summons me.

Let me start again. True, his speech is shaggy music. But by such gruff instruction, I come to know love. It’s difficult to hear the story of his forest years with dry eyes. He always snuffs damply at my hand before kissing it. My fingers tingle at the thought of that sensitive, mobile nose. You’ve no idea how long his tongue is. At night, I get into bed, pyjama pockets full of walnuts. He rides me around the garden in the wheelbarrow now that I’m getting heavy with his cubs. I hope our sons will be much like their father, but not suffer so much discomfort wearing shoes.

Amy Gerstler’s most recent book is Crown of Weeds, published by Penguin Putnam, which will also publish her book Medicine in June of 2000. She teaches in the writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She lives in Echo Park.


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