by Becca De La Rosa
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Filed under: Jabberwocky 10