The little bear still smelled the fires from campfires from miles away, heard the humans laughing and the swishing sound of tents, the hooting of owls that carried on the air from their hideaways in trees with layered bark. Nothing seemed different. The forest wasn’t mourning the loss of two bears, his family—the wood let them die, and the little bear felt completely alone. He had not felt sad when he scooped fish from the stream and ate them; he hadn’t been upset snatching moths by the mouthful, or when he’d decimated the bushes, leaving no fruits for any other creatures. He felt angry in his selfishness, abandoned by his own nature; the little bear was restless and unsettled, alone and unprepared.
The sunlight rose and fell against the back wall of the cozy den, the smell of death lingered on his tongue, bitter and sour like the cans rusting in the rivers and streams. The little bear woke to a world of ash, tasted nothing, and found he was only bones. The little bear and his family rose slowly, their skeletons rattling in a dissonant ensemble. The family of three bears was dead, as skeletons, their old skins slack in a pile. The bears slept restlessly if they slept at all, bones grinding and shifting against rocks. Dirt filled the cracks in their ribs and hips. They called out in shrill shrieks from no lungs, sounds spilling out of downward sloping muzzles, their teeth clacking in dull smacks against their mandibles; they called to be free of the grey earth, the whitewashed trees, the wind which did not cool them.
His mother, rolling in a corner, fury seemed to radiate from her; his father, with eyeless sockets, was rubbing a leaf smooth beneath his claws. The little bear chirped at his family, but they did not answer him. He rose onto his two back legs, wobbling slowly in a dance, but they did not look at him. The little bear left the den, alone, stepping soundlessly against the packed earth, onto footprints preserved. He tried to scratch them out, rub them away, smash them with pounding paws, but years, centuries, millennia passed and evolution caused bird beaks to sharpen and widen to snatch berries which were darker and harder to find, and salmon had stronger tails to navigate the more straightforward river routes, and the earth had heated and cooled and glaciers had melted into puddles, but his footprints lingered.
He scratched against the grain, with the grain, exposing the white bark of the oak that looked like his claws; they were chalky white and brittle now, but they used to be a shining slick onyx. The little bear shouted at the birds who flitted overhead and back and forth between the branches; the cardinals and finches were mocking him, ignoring him, leaving him behind. He growled, a rumbling from his empty chest and it vibrated along his throat. All he wanted was to go with them; leave this plane and follow the birds with cracked necks and rotted guts to the other side, to stay still forever—maybe then he’d finally exhale.
The little bear did not sleep; he did not curl against his parents, for they offered no warmth and that was a betrayal by kin. The little bear’s joints shook. In the quiet cave, he grabbed a skin from the pile on the floor and pressed it against his arms and legs, pulling the head, with pert, thick ears, down on his skull. It was too loose—not the empty feeling he got in his own skin, without his muscles, blood, organs, but it was bigger, wider; it was his father’s skin and his anger flared all over, again. His father shouldn’t have a skin, he shouldn’t be in the den with an eyeless face, collecting plants in a corner, letting spiders build webs on his long legs. The forest shouldn’t have killed them, or it should have killed them more completely.
The little bear snarled at the underbrush around him, pushing roughly against trees, tearing bushes and shrubs out by their roots. He found himself along the bluff line, a cliff that rose and fell in a jagged edge like a small mountain that stopped abruptly above a quarry of pointed rocks. The wind did howl, and it whistled through the tall grasses, pushing leaves in whirlwinds around tree trunks, dirt picked up and splashed against the little bear’s feet.
He pulled at his father’s skin, but it held him tightly; he had received no touch or caress since their deaths and the feeling was irritating, like ants biting all over. His struggle was in vain, and the skin held him, forcing his eyes forward to peer across the ravine, into the tree-line. Tree limbs were creaking. The little bear was growing frustrated, waiting, on aching joints and calloused paws, but then he saw it; the world to him was grey and shadowy, but as the flower bloomed beneath the moonlight, he could see the blue of its stretching petals . Erect, he sniffed the air and smelled nothing but dust and his own decay, caustic mud, acidic and rotting. Even the sweet smell of honey was lost to him, but the fragrance of that unfurling flower He stayed until the morning sun flashed through the trees and the flower’s petals closed. The little bear walked slowly back through the forest to his den. He did not crash against trees, or step on twigs, with intention. He moved slowly; relaxed, invigorated, as if his eyes still roved and his nose still snuffed beneath berry bushes. Life was swelling in his breastplate, heartless chest pouring blood in pulsing beats, resolute and resounding.
He found his father engrossed in leaves, little buds strewn in groups on the cold floor. The little bear wanted to tell his father what he had seen, to ask if his father had been out of their den to find that flower, if he knew what it was. The little bear edged closer, bones scraping against the dirt, and loitered at his father’s feet, watching the fractured toes flex and relax in a thinking habit. The little bear expected spiders and beetles to scuttle across the wide paw, but only small green buds wiggled along the dry bones; his father’s legs were covered in slender vines and ivies, laced and woven with petite flowers. The little bear had assumed his father had been overcome by spiders and bugs, given up to this world of necrosis. His father didn’t move swiftly, and he didn’t move with light or deft claws; he picked up clovers with intention and pressed them flat against the stones, forming a collection for the little bear to see. They did not speak and they did not touch one another, but sat silent on the cold ground, touching dead flowers and flaking leaves.
The little bear sneaked back to the pile of skins by the opening of their cave. He meant to grab his father’s again, to see the flower bloom beneath the moon, to smell again. As he made his way, eagerly, to the ridge line for the bluffs, he realized it was his mother’s skin, and he stopped. He planned to go back, switch it out, burn the skin, burn all the skins and force his family to be skeletons in the dirt, when he began walking, again. It was against his will, everything about his life, now, was against his will, and he couldn’t do anything about it—the force of the skin pulled his bones, east toward the campgrounds.
He did not greet his favorite tree, and he did not glower at the birds above, but walked through a dense brush, slowly but confidently, as if he’d taken this path many times before. He walked until the fur tightened around his leg, slowing him, like it knew he must be cautious, as if his mother had known to be cautious in this adventure to a high peak in the woods. He took slow steps through the narrow bend and he heard whispers; they were faint but not harsh against the inner bristles of his ears. The veins on the leaves of the honeysuckle were exposed, behind them a fire crackled in a pit of rocks surrounded by a circle of coolers and logs and lawn chairs. Humans leaned forward to the heat, snorting and tilting their heads, spinning hot meats on sticks.
The hair on the back of his neck rose and fell, like it was breathing, like he was breathing; the hair rose and fell like his mother used to breathe when she used to walk here and smell the roasts, hear the campers, see the fire. The little bear could hear the campers more clearly the longer he stayed still. He felt a sliver of energy spread through his legs—adrenaline. The noise of the campers wasn’t the same as his parents’, it didn’t sound loud or angry and it didn’t scare him. There was the natural predilection of distrust of the unknown, bound by territory, bound by evolution, and what bears passed down to bears passed down to bears passed down, but the little bear wasn’t worried about being seen. His mother’s skin forced him to look up past the trees and into the sky. His sockets watched the unknown constellations and the energy spike tingled along his spine; he reared and twisted, lithely with a muscle memory he didn’t have, and jogged through the woods. He felt limber, like he had with muscles beneath his skin, blood dripping into each paw and up again through his arms, into his chest with lungs on fire without breath.
In the den, the little bear found his mother, and he was curious, pressed forward with her bravery still sticking to his skeleton, energy zipping across his back. She was still, staring upwards and the little bear put his back to the ground with her, but did not disturb her; he was growing used to waiting, being patient with his family. At first, the little bear saw only stalactites and gouges from unknown creatures and natural effects, but the little bear continued looking up and those same gouges began to look familiar, scratched in the ceiling like the stars splashed across the sky by the campground. His mother had etched the sky above her, plotting and exploring, mapping her world, an adventurous spirit dwelt on the floor in his mother’s strong limbs. His mother didn’t speak, but she lifted her arm slowly, grazing the little bear’s own, and pointed, dragging her claws slowly through the warming atmosphere. The little bear watched her guiding paw and a history of a bear’s life was given to him, in halted and hurried and flustered gestures; his mother seemed to be excited to share her sky with him. The little bear wanted to see the world as she saw it, just as he’d been in her skin, he was her son and they looked at dirty stars above them.
The little bear lied awake on a slab, in an indentation made by his body, when it had been heavy. He didn’t fit, anymore. He didn’t fit in his bed, in the footprints at the entrance of his home, he didn’t fit in the forest as angry bones jutting into trees. He spoke the only language they had come to know—he yowled the song of regret and pain and loneliness. He watched them lift their skulls, the sharp pieces of bones that connected without muscles or nerves. His father shifted slowly, rolling his head in wide loose circles and he met the little bear’s sightless gaze. The air between them shifted, warming, pulling, and the large old bear rose with scraping bones against the rocks beneath him. The old bear moved slowly towards his son, and with a bowed back, he joined the little bear in honest bear cries for relief. The bears had never mourned their loss together, their separation too great to greet each other in the breathless realm.
His mother was more stubborn, stronger in her resistance, more cautious in death, but she moved forward on all four legs, drifting slowly to her family, memories and ghosts in the dark cave. The little bear reached out to her, shaking in his own sorrow and the fear that his mother would deny him, that she would disappear into the night and leave them hollow, forcing them to begin again. His mother didn’t hesitate and stood, grabbing his paw with her own worn bones, the claws catching and digging into deep beige crags.
The sunrise tiptoed against the bears’ own feet, and in a circle, the bears raised their arms to meet at delicate claws, linking in familiarity. They held each other tight, lighter and fuller and more sure of their own existence in a whitewashed world of ashen creatures. The family of three dead bears were skeletons that did not move, collected in a pile on the floor of a den.