Marked by Bears

October 12, 2021

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Jessie Loyer is Cree-Metis and a member of Michel First Nation. She’s written for the Montreal Review of Books, Canadian Art, and the Capilano Review. She’s also a librarian.
Content Warning(s):
Child in peril, Death of a child

My brother was taken away by the bears to live with them when I was small; he existed only in the song that was sung about him. His song was sung in the summer, at Sundance, but also in the winter, on the darkest day, the day he was taken away. The trade meant continued peace with the bears and had been negotiated since his birth when my mother had shrewdly promised them a five-year-old; she said any human baby would be too weak to live their ways. So my parents had him for five short years. He was doted on, fed well, beloved. And then, he was gone.

I was a baby when they took him and had no memory of him. But his absence shaped everything around me.

Our ancestors used to think bears were just cute. My grandmother remembered her mother having a small toy shaped like a bear. “But not really like a bear, but a child’s idea of a bear,” she said. It was easier to live with a hazy concept of a bear than face the horror of what their built-up concrete cities had done to the territory that bears need. They rarely saw bears; the people of my great-grandmother’s time had sent them to live in the fringes. They need a lot, the bears: space, food, fealty. They withered at the fringes.

So things were unbalanced in that time of pipelines and smokestacks. When the reckoning came and people were killed off in the apocalypse, more animal nations that had been sent to the fringes began to thrive, not just the bears. Deer, wolves, buffalo, birds of all kinds, bats; there are stories of how trees were allowed to stretch out again: they all came back after our cities crumbled.

And we were forced to atone for the ways we had overstepped.

We are uglies. It’s marked in our skin. It’s weak, rips at the smallest thing. Pitiful. Deer are so self-sufficient; already clothed and well-fed. Wherever they are. When we need to be clothed, we negotiate a huge sacrifice. When we eat, we ask for a life. If we had been living well, in balance, that sacrifice would be easy for our relatives. A joyful understanding. But they remember what we did to them.

See, their songs reach way back. Back into ice ages, sometimes, depending on the species. Certainly into the Time of Sorrow, what the deer call the era of cities. When uglies would kill them and leave their bloody bodies on a field. Deer mourned the wastefulness: they honored the sacrifice for feeding others as a calling. At dawn, they sing the names of those who answered the call. But they could not forget how uglies would kill their most honored people and then spit on the death sacrifice. They sing about their heads placed on our walls, shameless. We’re ugly for more than just our lack of fur: they know we hold that ugliness inside us, deep. They won’t forget.

Bears, even more so. They have the luxury of hibernation, the deep memory. In the coldest months, when we are huddled together, sick and hungry, they can tap into a stream of consciousness that extends back, way back. Once, I heard an old grizzly sing a song his ancestors had sung to mammoths, heard it sung to him as he hibernated, burrowed in ancestral consciousness. By comparison, our memory is so short, so incomplete. We know we had cities and that the reckoning happened, but we can’t remember beyond that very well. Our memories of the Time of Sorrow are so poor; we need the long memories of our bear relatives to remind us.

One of the ways they remind us is through gifting. My brother was chosen to be honored because my mother came from people who had sworn themselves to the bears. Our clan. She told me about how our clan had considered the relationship differently, more like symbols and metaphors. I had laughed, “But didn’t the bears get offended?” and my mother had shushed me and shook her head. Quietly, she had said, “We can never take their love for us for granted.” This was before I learned about the hunger that uglies had, our legacy of selfish greed. Everything unbalanced will right itself, eventually.

We owe that balance to certain nations. The deer are still dismissive of us, and might always be, but we have good relations with the buffalo. The buffalo have long memories, too, and when the reckoning happened, they sang us our redemption. We might not be here without them. They sang of how, after the genocide, their people were scattered and few, and how a few uglies brought them home to mountains and prairies. Allowed them to repopulate their communities. They sing of the grasses that missed them, of being reunited with the mountain meadows that were their sacred places. They sing of the joy of calves being born in holy places, being allowed to run far. It’s one of the few good relations my ancestors kept, and it’s the one that saved us. The buffalo saw possibilities for us. They hoped we could redeem our sins as long as our numbers were kept low and we were kept under close watch. The bears agreed and offered to manage our rights. So buffalo still greet us. They still allow us to ask for sacrifices so we can be fed. Sometimes they live among us for a time; my father remembers an old cow who nuzzled him to sleep as a child.

My father often thinks of the son he gave away. He’s proud of the action; he knows it’s honorable. But sometimes, something will remind him of my brother as a baby. Yesterday we were swimming and I snuck up behind to splash and surprise him. His eyes were wide and he screamed, then started to laugh. Then, bent over in the water, my father brought a hand to his eyes as his laugh turned into a cry. When I asked him why, he said, “He used to do that, splash around like you.” As he cried I patted his hand and told him, “I bet he is more at home in the water now!” I’ve seen the way bears love water.

I don’t know where my brother lives. I never see the children we give to them. Some people say they keep them in caves, where they are held apart, fed the best food, and given flowers for their hair. Others say that the children become bears: blessed to grow fur and claws, have their noses sharpen. I like that, the idea of my brother having claws. Powerful. I imagine him using his claws to pull salmon out of the river in the fall. It’s hard to do with my hands, but a bear is built for it.

In my brother’s song, my mother sings of the mothers who came before her. Her mother had also gifted a son to them; my mother had been older than him and remembered her brother going away. She usually cries at this point. It’s a cry of overwhelming gratitude. They chose us! They keep this covenant with us. As she sings, I think of how I will send my future son to them to affirm this treaty, so I have to pay attention. One day, it will be my son’s song I’ll be singing, weaving in my mother’s mother’s songs so that we can try to remember, as poor as our memories are, how we atone.

It’s not always boys. For other pacts, they send one of every pair of twins to the bears. Or children born with a mark. It depends on the bears and the uglies who made the pact. We don’t live as long as our ancestors did, either. In the generations before my great-grandmother, they lived over a hundred winters old, they say. It feels impossible! How could you move over rough ground at that age? Could you even run, living that many winters? But our generations are closer together, so the bears are happy. More children to come to them, more often, a ceremony I’ve only heard about. But I have met bears at other times, and soon, I’ll be at the center of one of those gatherings.

There’s a time when they come close, where both of our nations are all fat with berries, purple muzzles, and purple lips. This year is the year I’ll be marked.

§

My mother sits with me and asks me to sing my brother’s song to her while she braids my hair. She wants me to have it right, not forget anything because I’ll sing it to the bears when they come. I’ve helped her sing it during midwinter, but never for an audience like this. She says, “You have to get it right. Part of our atonement is the precision of memory. Our ancestors didn’t care enough to remember who we were in relation to everyone else, and they perished. So we have to show our commitment. We have to get it right.” I nod, start again. This time, I remember it well, and she grunts in approval.

There’s something that has been worrying me. “Does it hurt?” I ask slowly. It’s a question I’m hesitant to ask. Pain is not something to fear, says my grandmother. Discomfort is not our enemy. My mother turns me toward her and says softly, “Yes. It hurts. That’s why we do it.”

She dresses me carefully. There are flowers in my hair, braided down my back. She carefully weaves the braid up on my head. “Don’t need that getting in the way,” she says. She looks me up and down. “Yes, my love. You look perfect. The bears will be very proud of you.” My heart thrums; it’s so exciting. They’ll arrive later in the afternoon, so we start to prepare food for them: piles of berries and grubs and fish. We will all feast, and then, I’ll be marked.

My family sits, surrounded by red willows. My mother sits quietly, arm around me. My father is nervous and pulls grass from the ground, shredding them into smaller and smaller pieces. He did not grow up in a family sworn to bears, and he says that he still has to calm himself when they appear. “My fast heartbeat won’t let me forget,” he says. We all have that, the sins of our ancestors that make our blood sing when bears come near. We are reminded of how we betrayed their trust.

A big grizzly walks into the clearing. G’hrmph’ is my mother’s marker. I’ve seen her a few times in my life, sometimes for ceremonies like this, but sometimes from far away. The first time I remember seeing her, she was on a hillside and my mother stopped dead and held me, a wide-eyed look on her face. She had pursed her lips and whistled to G’hrmph’. The grizzly turned her head, nodded, and continued rummaging in the bush. I saw my mother’s face fall, disappointed. “I just thought I could introduce you,” she said, “but she must be busy.” I’ve always wondered about the hold that G’hrmph’ has on my mother. But my grandmother says that’s how it always is, the bond between the marker and the marked.

G’hrmph’ is joined by a few more bears. I only recognize one or two. They don’t usually gather in big groups, so some must have traveled far to witness this. I’ve never seen a marking, only heard about it, but no one ever mentioned it would be witnessed by so many bears. I wonder if my brother, the bear, is among them. I look at my mother. Her face is upturned, rapturous. She clicks a hello to G’hrmph’, who responds with grace. It’s now time for me to sing.

I sing of my brother, born to my parents, born into atonement for the excesses. I sing of his soft limbs, the care that was taken to feed him well, protect him from sickness and injury. I sing of the cold, of the day that P’rff took him from us, the great joy of that day. I sing of the commitment of the bears to hold us to our pact to atone, to remind us of our weakness, our softness, our flesh.

My mother beams at me, proud, as I finish. My voice sounds so small in this clearing, especially as the bears fill the space in rich, loud sounds. I can hear them purring. G’hrmph shakes her glossy coat and sings back to me, saskatoons on her hot breath, honoring my song. I can feel the redness creep up into my face. I didn’t know she knew me! But I suppose that is what this is, a sort of spiritual introduction.

After the song, my mother stands and holds my hand. She brings me to the center of this circle of uglies and bears. She lays me face down. I can smell the earth as I place my hands under my chin. She opens the shirt away from my back, places a hand on my spine, and leans in to whisper, “I am so proud of you. Be strong. Try not to move too much.”

As I lay in the dirt, alone, my heart beats fast. It raises my chest up and down, ever so slightly. I hear my mother tell them my name, and I hear G’hrmph call the name of a bear I’ve never met: Hrhhmp. She will mark me. As I hear her footfalls, I realize I am scared. I don’t want the pain. I know it makes me weak, but I grit my teeth and push my forehead against the dirt. It won’t take long, I tell myself. It will be over soon.

I feel Hrhhmp’s hot breath and feel the earth shake as she walks over. Her claws are long and elegant, right at my eye level. I squeeze my eyes shut, but open them in surprise as she puts her snout beside my ear. She tells me that she’ll do my best not to hurt me more than she needs to and tells me to just stay very still. By the cooing in her tones, I can tell she’s juvenile; her role is probably similar to mine. I thank her for this kindness and then she begins.

She sings of the way that uglies forgot their weakness, how our folly made us think we were somehow better because our hands were dexterous and our brains were big. How we must remember the way skin rips and tears and that the rips and tears of skin are a memory, too. How she, as a bear, is beholden to mark the one who will give up their child, to make a pact on our skin, so that we don’t forget and slip back into the ways of our ancestors. And how, if we live with a good relationship, we might redeem our people.

I know it’s coming, but I still squeeze my hands tight and tense up my whole body. I can feel my breath coming fast and shallow. I am trying not to let any noises escape my mouth. Hrhhmp raises one huge paw and draws her long, elegant claws down my back.

The pain envelopes me. Everything in my body screams for me to run away. But I bite into the dirt, let it fill my mouth to dampen my scream. Hrhhmp lifts her other paw and scraps my back again. I dig my toes into the ground. I can feel the slickness of blood sliding from my back, down my sides. I can smell my fear.

I hear her voice by my ear telling me to look in her eyes, and I look up. Her dark eyes are full of sorrow. Then something slides away. In her eyes, I see my body, small, bloodied, on the ground. That image dances. I hear her voice in my head: “This is how you will call me,” and I hear three sharp notes. It’s not far from the whistle my mother used to greet G’hrmph, but distinctly its own. “And this is how I will call you,” she intones in my head, and she calls me by my name, a series of soft purrs.

Now I have a name, she can call me into the ancestral consciousness that bears tap into during hibernation. Like a reflection on water, I see shapes come into focus. For a few moments, Hrhhmp shows me the most horrific scenes: bears being murdered, their bodies left to rot, bears in cages hardly bigger than their bodies, bears being tortured as uglies laugh and laugh. I weep and cling to her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I keep saying, even though I know I should be quiet. She grunts low and the images shift. I see my mother as a child being marked. My grandmother, and then her mother, young girls with blood running down their backs from the claws of young bears. Each time, both girl and bear are so still and so brave, held together in their deep sadness. Any healing ceremony is always a ceremony of grief too. The images ripple like someone threw a rock in a pond, and I see a boy with my face being led by P’rff to his new home in the mountains. The bears feed him a huge feast. He laughs and sings to them as he eats. I watch him fall asleep. They gently place him on a bed of cedar. Then, after a benediction song, I see the bears all take a small bite from his small body. I start to scream.

But Hrhhmp doesn’t allow the scream to come out of my mouth. The scream is in my mind. As my guide, she shows me my body lying still on the ground, blood on my back, flower braids on my head, to calm me. I can see my blood, but right now, I can’t feel anything. “We honor his sacrifice,” she says in my head. “Thus we remain connected and in balance.” I cry and cry. My brother is dead. He has been dead for years. All those other children, dead, eaten. I never thought that this could be the price. My mind is racing. She says softly, “You have done so well today. Can you calm your heart?” I faintly remember my grandmother telling me that when it felt like too much, I should find a detail to focus on. I thought she had meant the physical pain of the marking, but now, I know it’s intended for this moment, this moment that feels like my mind isn’t mine anymore, so I look at the way the fur fans out from Hrhhmp’s eyes and the layered brown of her eyes. Slowly, the repeating pattern brings me back to myself. I tell her I’m ready to return.

Hrhhmp brings us back into the present. As I leave the ancestral consciousness, the pain returns, sharp. My back spasms. She asks the ceremonial words, loud enough for the crowd to hear, “Do you feel fear?”

I spit the dirt from my mouth and manage to weakly say, “Yes.”

She nods. “Will you carry this fear to remind yourself?”

I  nod. “Yes”

Hrhhmp says, “By these wounds we are bound. You are marked.” She drops her large head to my back and gently licks the deep lines.

I lay in the dirt. It’s over. I feel a puff of hot breath as she whispers in my ear, “I’ll see you again,” and calls me by my name. I can hear the bears lumbering away slowly as there is nothing left for them to witness. Bears don’t visit like we do; when a thing is done, they move along. I lay in the dirt and cry. My tears have made mud around my face. I can feel my heartbeat in the grooves on my back, pulsing. My mother and my grandmother come over and place hot cloths on my back. I turn my head to my mother, my face streaked with mud and tears, and ask, “Did you know?”

My mother smiles wide at me and washes my face. “I am so proud of you,” she says. “You will remember. You’ll hold this memory in your body.” My grandmother’s eyes are wet, and she says, “It feels a bit like a betrayal, doesn’t it?” I nod. Her eyes shut as she smiles, and a few tears are squeezed out and fall down her cheeks. She continues, “But it’s not. It’s seeing with new eyes that we’re not the center.”

They know. Their markers must have guided them through these memories too. I’ve sat behind them, seen their markings, traced those long scars on their backs with my finger. Mine will look like that, eventually. If they’ve been through this, they knew that giving my brother away meant he would be eaten. My mother, as she was marked, would have seen her own brother’s death, knowing that she would have to give up her son the same way. I ask her, “How could you do it?”

She laughs gently, tears in her eyes. “We carry our ancestors’ sins. We have to atone.” She pauses and strokes my hair, fixing a flower, “But I asked for five years. Years to hold a baby close, to hear his laughter. I got to give him a wonderful life. His sacrifice was beautiful.”

As my mother and grandmother finish bandaging up my markings, I think of my time swimming in Hrhhmp’s consciousness. I can’t deny that there was great beauty in the care the bears took. He didn’t suffer. After the horrors that Hrhhmp showed me, one small boy’s life seems so small. After seeing the pain we inflicted, I don’t know that I would have advocated for us the way the buffalo did.

§

It takes days for the markings to close, and they are still tender even when they stop bleeding. During the long recovery days, I sing my brother’s song to keep me company. I realize that she gave me another gift: I saw my brother, who until now, had only existed in song to me. His face looked like mine. Now, when I sing his song, I see his face, plump and happy.

We come across a herd of buffalo on the day my marks stop bleeding. My father greets them and brings me forward. An old cow snorts her great nose at me and asks if I remember now. I nod. Her eyes smile and she brings over a few other buffalo. She asks me to sing for her and her family, the song of my marking. I look at my father in alarm. “I don’t know that song!” I hiss. He laughs and says, “Now’s the time to compose it.” So I sing slowly. I tell them of Hrhhmp, the way I laid in the dirt, her claws gliding down my back, the invitation into the ancestral consciousness, of the pain we inflicted, of the markings of my mothers, and of the sacrifice of my brother. I start crying halfway through and have to sing through my tears. My father holds me close, kisses the top of my head, then sends me to sit as he finishes talking to the buffalo.

She talks to my father for a while, then, with a kick in the dust, runs back to her people. When I ask him what she said, he tells me, “I’ll never get over how much they love us,” and hugs me to his chest, careful with my back. He says, “They always hoped we could be good relatives. Buffalo never gave up on us.” He tells me that the old cow and her family will dance my song to the rest of the herd tonight, spreading the news that the uglies are reminded of their histories and that balance is maintained.

§

All winter, my dreams are repetitive. It starts as simple things: rooting around in the bush, wading into a stream, running faster than I’ve ever been able to. Finally, when I see a reflection in a still pool, I realize they aren’t my dreams, but Hrmmph’s. Her hibernation dreams are mixing into mine. She dreams of saskatoons and grubs, of the sensation of rubbing her back against a tree. She dreams of cubs not yet made. I yearn for the deeper memories, but she leaves me when she enters the ancestral consciousness. I am hungry to remember. I want to ask her everything, but I’ll have to wait until she wakes up. I’ll have to wait until spring.

© Jessie Loyer

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