Talbot’s Anatomy

by Bec­ca De La Rosa
(Ire­land)

Pp. 178–181, ursi­dae, ima­go mundi

Bears have exquis­ite ner­vous sys­tems. They are com­prised of sev­en roads, tra­vers­ing the sev­en regions of the bear body: the first road, called Ompha­los; the sec­ond called Har­vest; the third called Sli­abh Bheag; the fourth called Judas Win­dow; the fifth called Knife; the sixth called Upper­most; and the sev­enth, called All Is For­giv­en. These sev­en roads and the sev­en regions they serve are gov­erned by one sin­gu­lar gland. Humours — the daugh­ters of chem­istry — come and go from this gland with­out a fixed sched­ule. Once, on a jour­ney through high-hand­ed forests, I came upon a fall­en bear with its heart cut out. I knelt in the blood at its side and exam­ined the high­ways and road signs of its body. The bear’s gland lived tucked away behind the rib cage. It burned my hand when I plucked it out. After some delib­er­a­tion I ate the gland in one hot mouth­ful, a teardrop of liq­uid met­al that found its way to my coro­nary mus­cle and lived there, siz­zling meat in the meat of my chest, for many months afterwards.

I believe in cer­tain chem­i­cal prop­er­ties of bears. That they can com­mune with the salts and min­er­als in the earth. That they have the abil­i­ty to dis­solve at will in mov­ing water. Sci­ence has yet to prove the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of bears to fire. It is a sub­ject of great aca­d­e­m­ic debate as to whether they breathe air at all. Do they per­haps cull their oxy­gen from oth­er sources? For they breathe oxy­gen as we do, with­out a doubt. How could it be otherwise.

Zool­o­gists with a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in ursine biol­o­gy have spent years of their lives map­ping the anatom­i­cal routes of bears’ bod­ies. These routes are labyrinthine, unfriend­ly to intrud­ers. The obsta­cles are numer­ous and terrible.  I have been down each trick­some road.

Ompha­los

My name is a work of art depict­ing light on water, Caitri­ona Tal­bot: a tree with the moon in its branch­es, cher­ry blos­soms, lap­ping water, gold­en-eyed owls. That is my name. When I was small child my father took me out to the for­est and left me there. I did not leave a trail of stones or bread­crumbs, I did not find and defeat a culi­nary witch. I was not that type of child.

Ompha­los is the cen­tre of the world. It is where you must begin your jour­ney, if you decide to jour­ney across the sev­en roads. Ompha­los is wise. If it is nec­es­sary to clas­si­fy the roads accord­ing to gen­der, he is, of course, male. God-like Ompha­los, unknow­able plan­et. Streaks of gold line its flag­stones. Gold light burns in its sky.

Har­vest

Dis­tant auto­mo­biles wash up an unseen road in a sound like tide. These are not auto­mo­biles; they are grey-winged birds, hard­ly pos­si­ble to the mind’s eye, ancient crea­tures. They live in sym­bio­sis with the bear they inhab­it. In exchange for nutri­tive min­er­als and par­a­sites, which they glean from the trees and the stones, these birds plant forests of beau­ti­ful foliage, suc­cu­lents with flow­ers in the shape of upturned teacups. It is believed that these flow­ers are nec­es­sary for a bear’s sur­vival, although sci­en­tists have not yet dis­cov­ered why.

Upon my entry into Har­vest I dis­cov­ered a flat rock cov­ered with moss, not dis­sim­i­lar to a grave­stone. Catri­ona Tal­bot, it read. There were no dates, no enclos­ing arms. I took this to mean that I was des­tined to live forever.

Sli­abh Bheag

Short­est of the roads, it is also the holi­est. Its length is a pil­grim­age best made on hands and knees. If the trav­eller speaks Latin, all the bet­ter. Pil­grim, do not cry. Every drop of blood you shed on the Sli­abh Bheag road is a kiss on the bear’s lip.

“We have trav­elled far together,” said my com­pan­ion, when we had both shed blood on the Sli­abh Bheag road. The cells and salts of our bod­ies had become a path lead­ing for­ward, one which would erode as a cliff erodes, with time and weath­er. My com­pan­ion was a gra­cious crea­ture by the name of Bore­alis. I did not under­stand the par­tic­u­lars of Bore­al­is’ phys­iog­no­my, so I referred to him or to her with a great deal of def­er­ence, as Friend. “We have trav­elled far together,” said my com­pan­ion, “but I still do not know your name.”

“Catriona Talbot,” I said. “I am a scientist.”

Bore­alis nod­ded. “I am Bore­alis. I am a light in the sky.”

Pil­grims come to Sli­abh Bheag for many reasons.

Judas Win­dow

It is pos­si­ble to chart the birth of Judas Win­dow, as the birth of a large riv­er, to an aban­doned manor house over­look­ing a lake of lily-pads. The manor is known as Ele­ment. Judas Win­dow is a road of secre­cy. Apple trees stand in rudi­men­ta­ry lines along either side of the road’s banks; each apple is an open eye. My com­pan­ion by this point had fall­en a lit­tle dis­tance behind me. It is nec­es­sary to trav­el Judas Win­dow alone, and in silence, a peri­od of inter­nal mis­trust­ful­ness that sep­a­rates out each bone and lig­a­ment of the traveller’s body, inspects its motives and inten­tions, until there is noth­ing but bro­ken alliances, betrayed con­fi­dences, and ill-will. It is agreed that Judas Win­dow is by far the most phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing road, more tax­ing even than Sli­abh Bheag with its require­ments of self-abase­ment, more tax­ing than Upper­most, which is famed for its tri­als and its slick glass descents, although Upper­most is the cru­eller road, in many ways.

In Judas Win­dow I lost the use of my hands for a time, my lunate and cap­i­tate bones hav­ing argued bit­ter­ly with one anoth­er over some old dis­agree­ment. Not long after, my left ankle gave way.  I fell onto the hard ground. The watch­ful apple trees shift­ed in dis­ap­point­ment. I lay with my cheek to the pave­ment, and watched a sen­ate of red spi­ders hold court in a hol­low tree stump. They were wise things, capa­ble of great acts of com­pas­sion and intro­spec­tion, will­ing to gain insight from the mis­takes of the past. I learned a great deal from them, but noth­ing that is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant. Noth­ing I will relay here.

Knife

Bore­alis dis­played for me its com­plex pul­monary sys­tem. “Most impressive,” I said; but this was not the answer that my com­pan­ion had wanted. 

“No,” said Bore­alis, “no, you mis­take me, you are not pay­ing close enough attention.”

I stopped in the mid­dle of the road. Grey wolves raced through the for­est on either side, quick as whips of cloth, flash­es of light­ning. “What do you want from me?” I demanded.

“Look more closely.”

I looked more close­ly at the impos­si­ble cir­cu­la­tion, the gold­en shapes turn­ing like cogs in a mon­strous machine. Each frag­ment con­tained two words carved upon it. Two impor­tant and beau­ti­ful shapes. Catri­ona Tal­bot, infi­nite­ly repeat­ed. “What is this?” I asked.

Bore­alis smiled, if it could be called a smile. “It is my love for you. Its inevitability.”

We had been trav­el­ling togeth­er for many months, if months can pass in the anato­my of a bear. Our trav­els had been cru­el to us; my spir­it was some­what weary, although not utter­ly deflat­ed by the hard­ships I had passed, not yet. “You didn’t answer my question,” I said, my voice ris­ing, find­ing all the acoustic hills and val­leys of Knife. “What do you want from me? What do you want me to say to you? That I love you? I will nev­er love you.”

Inside the immi­nent pres­ence of Bore­alis, a storm lift­ed wheel and pin, tum­bled its organs for­wards and back­wards, mak­ing dead leaves of them.

Upper­most

I come from a coun­try more refined than this one. A coun­try of libraries and eco­nom­ic safe­guards, scholas­tic achieve­ment, restraint. I was the dean’s favourite pupil and my intel­lect was famous amongst my fel­low stu­dents. Catri­ona Tal­bot, they said, is des­tined for great things.

If you do decide to trav­el the dan­ger­ous roads of a bear’s heart, for love of a bear, Upper­most will be your down­fall, as it has been the down­fall of many. If you con­quer Ompha­los, endure the tricks of Har­vest, the pains of Sli­abh Bheag, the phys­i­cal cat­a­stro­phes of Judas Win­dow, the stopped clock of Knife, even then: Upper­most will swal­low you. It is a road made of glass, a thou­sand glassy hills. Some­times it is a mir­ror. Each step you take will be a test.

I placed my first foot onto Upper­most road and saw my father’s face, his long sor­row­ful smile. That in and of itself was a test. A test of courage, of com­pas­sion. “Catriona Talbot,” he whispered.

Bore­alis had gone ahead of me. Its fig­ure lit up the sec­tions of road a hun­dred metres beyond my own, the fig­ure of a man, a sun, a bear, a white bear. Sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis failed me. Only one thing had been left to me, when all of my skin had been opened and my heart laid so bare, which was the act of sim­ply fol­low­ing. To be giv­en a gift like that.

All Is Forgiven

Should you man­age to pick your way one foot after anoth­er along the nev­er-end­ing trail of Upper­most — and it is pos­si­ble, though improb­a­ble, sci­ence has proven all things pos­si­ble — you will find grass and pop­py flow­ers, a riv­er which has no name. This is the bear’s true heart. A place of quiet.

“You car­ried me all the way through Uppermost,” I said to Bore­alis, when we both stood amazed and watch­ful in a sea of red flowers.

Bore­alis regard­ed me with its many bright eyes. “I nev­er touched you.”

“How long have we been here? Three years? Four? How many strange sights have we seen?”

“I did not come here as a sight­seer, Catriona.”

To spend so long in the body of a bear is to offer the bear the most inti­mate parts of you, as a meal to sate its hunger, the per­fect rela­tion­ship of hunter and prey. I believe I may have died inside that bear. I loved it as I loved my own breath. I would clas­si­fy it, I thought, like a flower, but there was no clas­si­fi­ca­tion broad enough.

“Where will you go now?” I asked.

Bore­alis brushed a sin­gle pop­py. The pop­py glowed gold. “I will go where I was born.”

“What will you do with the knowl­edge you have gained?”

“The only thing I can do. Car­ry it with me.”

“Is my name still writ­ten inside you?” I whispered.

“I have not looked,” said Bore­alis, and did not offer to look.

We walked. We walked through fields and woods, through mud­dy streams glint­ing with coral-coloured salmon, not trav­el­ling as com­pan­ions, but at least still trav­el­ling togeth­er. I gath­ered clover and braid­ed it into a crown, and bees fol­lowed the clover, and soon I had a crown of bees on my head, liv­ing and musi­cal. The road of All Is For­giv­en is not a road. It is left to the trav­eller to pick his or her own path, and so this region is the most dan­ger­ous, and the most beau­ti­ful. I do not know if I picked the right path.

At the most north­ern part of the region is a stair­case lead­ing upwards, obscured by vines and trees. Bore­alis and I stood for a long time at its feet. “Is this the end?” I asked, fear­ful of such finality.

“I sup­pose it must be.”

“Can we go backwards?”

“Never,” my friend said.

I breathed, “I am afraid.”

Bore­alis gath­ered itself into a human shape, if it could be called that, and offered its hand to caress my cheek. The ring fin­ger lay open like a piece of split meat; I saw, down in the splin­tered bone, two small words. Catri­ona Tal­bot. “Don’t be afraid,” Bore­alis told me, as the bear told me, in the rever­ber­at­ing root of my body, its body, “all is for­giv­en.”


Bec­ca De La Rosa lives in Dublin, Ire­land, with a sis­ter and two dogs. Her work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Strange Hori­zons, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rose­bud Wrist­let, Gob­lin Fruit, and Sybil’s Garage No. 6, among oth­er places. You can vis­it her online at www.beccadelarosa.com.


One Response to "Talbot’s Anatomy"

  • I love, love, love this sto­ry. Gor­geous. Thanks, Becca!

    1 Adam Smith said this (May 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm)