Be the blood shooting out from his big bear heart, I whispered. And we all closed our eyes.
A bear died today at Ludlow Elementary. He was the ol’ fella with the bum hip. The one who fell out of the Yates’s fir when just a yearling. We live around lots of bears. But they’re skittish. And we tend to stay out of their way. Let them startle the newcomers. Don’t see many die in public though.
He died on the blacktop, right across Ms. Berry’s Midwest. It was from an age ago to teach her fourth graders geography. I remember all the bright colors separated in little cups with a brush for each of the United States. She was so kind and careful, helping the kiddies with the stencils. Be a mountain goat gliding up Rising Wolf, she would incant to the little one painting bright orange Montana. It was a helluva map. Somebody, not sure who, must have repainted it since. Maybe many somebodies. She’s been under the ground at Elmwood for at least a decade or more now. The whole town was out for Ms. Berry’s day. What a sending-off we had afterwards at Harry’s. Maybe somebody of better-mind than I repainted it that night.
I was just about to call the Code Brown and yell the kids in off the playgrounds when he laid down around the pinky of Michigan and stretched southwest to Arizona. The top of his head thumped off the Grand Canyon and his snout tucked all the way into the undrawn of Mexico. I guess he was a bear bigger than just the Midwest. I was always good at the geography. Ms. Berry had been my teacher way back when. Before she painted the map. She had a way of making you feel the shapes of things. You never forgot the feel. She was a young one back then. But so was the blacktop, all worn grass and dirt in my memory.
Alfie, Mr. Alfie to the kids, came running to tell me to quick and radio in the Code Brown. He was too young to have ever had Ms. Berry. I told him the ol’ fella was dying or dead already. So? he said. We have to call it in. Get the kids away from that damn bear. I bet Alfie had had Anne Humphries for the fourth grade. She was a mean one. Quick with the wit and correction. Good at getting straight lines and quiet mouths. She left, luckily still a newcomer. No, I told Alfie. That bear ain’t breathing anymore. No need to run the kids inside. It’s a gorgeous day. The air is good for them.
The ol’ bear was dead by the time I got there. I bent down by his head. Whispered a few encouragements. You could still smell a bit of his breath’s rank in the air. I caught the eyes of the little ones on the wee playground. The ones that had been crapping their pants just a few years ago. All snots and untied shoes. They were my charge at recess. You take them, Mr. Jim, they tell me.
I waved them over. They flocked like starlings. Skidding down on their knees with no fear to pet the bear. I moved their hands along his side. Pushed and let them feel the furrows of his ribs. Be a feeding tick buried in that flank, I said. I encouraged them to pull back his still wet lips. To look at his teeth, the brown decay of good eatin’. Feel with their little fingers both the sharp and dull of years grinding away. Be a berry in that mouth for a moment. I prodded them to rub the rough pads of his feet. Be them carrying the ol’ fella over slick, mossy rocks in the river or feeling the wet grass of your backyard. And I laughed when they started pulling burs from his backside all on their own. You’d be imagining something different if you knew what else you was pulling off, I joked. And we all then cuddled up, babes to the mother, along the hill of his still-warm body and buried our ears to his fur. Be the blood shooting out from his big bear heart, I whispered. And we all closed our eyes. How must it be to be those histories?
Get your snotty little noses right down here, I said, turning and shoving mine deep into his side. His air is good for you. Breathe in his shape well. Breathe in his geography. Breathe us in and never forget the smell of coming flowers.
Daniel Joseph was raised on the Rooster River, educated by the Kokosing, carefree along the Potomac, and now lives with his family tucked into a fertile river valley. His most recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Hobart, MoonPark Review, The Baltimore Review, and Flash Boulevard.