Four Suns After the Lowest: A Journey Through Florida

[Author’s Note: The following short story was inspired in part by Dee Brown’s immortal historical account of the conquest of the American West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.]

I remember the first time our mother took us to the spring. The three-pointed oak leaves were raining down, all crunchy and musty, covering the short pine needles that are so nice to sleep on. The sun seemed really late and low in the sky, and I savored its warmth, wondering how cold we would be if the sun never came up at all. We weren’t quite sure why we were on the move. There was still plenty to eat in our patch: just the day before I had found a great log with ants and all kinds of other things in it. I didn’t even care that some of the ants went up my nose and made me sneeze; when they came back down I just licked them right up. We slept well that night, with full bellies, the owls hooting softly over our heads. But when mother said move, we moved, and she wasn’t wasting any time that day – she seemed all business. We had to jog to keep up, and there was no chance of running up and down interesting trees. My brother, happy-go-lucky back then, showed no signs of the nervousness I felt. That day, at least, it turned out that I had nothing to fear.

We had seen water before, of course. Our aunt’s patch went right up to a lake, and mother taught us how to catch crayfish there. (As usual, my brother didn’t pay attention and got nipped on the snout when he tried it. I mimicked his squeal for the rest of that day.) The summer rains had made little pools all over the place, just right for young bears like us to splash around in before the sandy soil soaked the water up to give it to the trees. But the spring – oh, that was something else again! When we first caught a glimpse of it from the top of the hill, my brother and I looked excitedly at one another. Mother, who had been checking on us to make sure we were keeping up, noticed this, and the little twinkle in her eye told me that this was one of those days when she was going to surprise us with something completely new. Our sense of anticipation mounted with every step until we beheld the jewel up close.

Alexander SpringsIt was almost too much to take in at once – true sensory overload. The water smelled so fresh and clean. For some reason, the ground wasn’t keeping this water for the trees; it was throwing it back up for the sky, a kind of rain-in-reverse, the water blue instead of gray like the clouds. The force of the flow from the spring head was a little scary, but something about this place reassured me, and it wasn’t just the relaxation that I saw come across mother. Turtles had hauled out on a bank and were sunning themselves right next to an alligator. Huge fish swam in schools around the outskirts of the deep hole, their babies right in front of us in the shallows. The osprey perched in a nearby cypress tree no doubt saw all of this, but he made no swoop. It was as if this were a place of peace, where all the Nations of the Forest came to share the beauty, understanding that nothing was more important than this.

My youthful philosophizing was interrupted by a loud crack. I turned just in time to see my brother about half way between the top of a tall longleaf pine and the water of the run, with part of a dead branch not far behind him. He landed with an almighty belly-flop, four paws out as if he thought he were a flying squirrel. We laughed about that for many cycles, but at the time it wasn’t funny, for neither of us had really mastered swimming by then. So we learned that lesson, like so many others, the hard way, together. Mother had wandered off into the bushes and was nowhere to be seen, so I ran as fast as I could to a point on the bank near him, then dove in. Perhaps it was stupid, but I found swimming easier than climbing trees. The water was my friend, lifting me up and helping me forward, especially when I spread my paws wide. The current was gentle, but my brother was winded from his inelegant landing and wasn’t doing much to help himself. I let him rest his head on my back until he had his breath again, then showed him what to do. We made it back to the little beach by the spring and collapsed, exhausted. The osprey looked on, outwardly inscrutable, but probably enjoying the comedy show we had provided for him.

After a nap, we spent the rest of the day enjoying ourselves. We tried to catch the little fish, but it seemed that they were playing a game of their own, nibbling on our feet as if to remind us howbaby alligator inferior we were in their element. We swam all the way to the other side and came nose-to-nose with a baby alligator. I made a certain squealing noise, and my brother got the message for once. And then we decided to do it – to swim right out over the spring head itself, where there was no chance of touching bottom with your back legs if you got tired. We had no need to worry: it was easier to swim there than anywhere else, the strong upward flow of the pure water pushing our bodies up even as it swirled us around. Once, I put my head all the way underwater and looked down. It was hard to tell through the shimmering of the currents, but I could have sworn I saw giant spiders crawling on a rocky ledge. Later on, when we spent most of the time sleeping during the cold moons, I decided that they were the guardians of the source.

I really had no idea how long mother was gone, or where she had been. I just remember us walking back to our patch by the light of the moon, tired and too happy to care that we hadn’t eaten since the day before. But one of the last things she told me, before we struck out to make our own patches, was that the spring was the only place she didn’t need to think about our safety, so long as we went four suns after the lowest sun. At that one point in the cycle, there were no Two Legs at the spring.

It would be three cycles before I swam in the spring again – cycles in which I learned that the sun would not in fact go away, but that there were many other things to fear that required no such exercise of the imagination.

***

The first cycle was the hardest. Mother became strangely cold when the sun was hot, and started chasing us away from our own patch. Grandma said it was normal and that we would understandBears coming out of woods when we were older. My brother, always eager to wander off anyway, said we could have more fun if we roamed outside our patch, and eventually I agreed. Maybe we could find our own spring and live there all the time, without having to worry about the Two Legs. Or Stinky Poop.

Stinky Poop (that was what my brother called him) was the dominant male who grandma said had fathered most of the cubs in this part of the Forest – but not us, which was apparently a very bad thing. We knew he had a terrible temper. Before mother changed, we had come across a cub our age who had been killed by Stinky Poop. Mother didn’t let us linger there, but we never forgot what we saw or what we smelled. From that day on, my brother hated Stinky Poop with a passion, and I worried that this emotion would get him into a kind of trouble from which I could not save him. The feelings that rose within us in those first few cycles on our own were like new plants and new places: some were good for us and kept us strong, but others made us suffer in ways that no mother could ever have known to tell us.

Apart from Stinky Poop, many of the bears outside our family didn’t want us around their patches, especially the mothers with young cubs. We always had food, but we didn’t always have the luxury of staying in good spots when we found them. As the sun started to go away again, and the winds turned, we were hungry all the time, and constantly moving around was a waste of time we could be spending eating. That was when we found the dens of the Two Legs. There were many things to eat there – not as good as the foods of the Forest, but when you’re that hungry you aren’t too fussy. So long as we went with the moon, and stayed away from the stupid dogs, I thought we would be alright. I was wrong.

My brother, who was always thinking with his nose, believed there was a massive ant mound inside one of their dens. I asked him why ants would want to nest with the Two Legs, but this point was too subtle for him. Against my better judgment, we found a way into the den (it was surprisingly weak) and my brother followed the smell of ants to a big, white rock. Maybe the ants were under the rock? So we moved the rock, and tipped it onto its side. It broke open like a clawed log, and all sorts of edible things spilled all over the floor of the den. We looked at one another for a moment. There were no ants, which made no sense at all, but we might as well eat what we could.

We had just about had our fill when the Two Legs came in their noisy monsters, lights like small suns burning our eyes. We bolted for cover in the trees. I was right on my brother’s tail when I heard a noise like the cracking of a tree branch and felt an incredible pain in my back leg. I went down, rolling over myself many times. As I tried to get back up, my leg felt like it had been stung by a thousand wasps, and then tied to the ground with thorns. But they weren’t thorns: they were the teeth of one of the Two Legs’ stupid dogs. (These dogs were nothing like the coyote Nation. They had no idea how to live in the Forest and had no respect for the other Nations, but their teeth were just as sharp. Later on, when I had time to reflect, I understood why Stinky Poop killed them, too, and wondered if we had misjudged him.) I swatted the stupid dog away, and left him whimpering like a baby. With the howls of the Two Legs nearing, I ran in spite of the pain, and didn’t stop running for a long time, my brother staying with me all the while.

My brother said I slept through a whole sun and the next moon. He had cleaned my leg as best he could. The blood flowed for a long time, but had stopped before I woke up. I could have felt sorry for myself, like that stupid dog probably did, but instead I was angry. We never should have been in that situation. We should have a patch of our own where we didn’t have to take risks to satisfy ourselves. We were members of the greatest Nation in the Forest, and it was time for us to live like it.

So we left our part of the Forest behind, walking for many moons in the direction of the cool winds. I reasoned that if we walked into the wind, we could tell what was ahead – we could hear the bear in treemonsters of the Two Legs and smell their dens. They seemed to be everywhere, but I never wanted to see them again. My brother was bigger than me now, but he knew I was serious and did not argue, even when we had to cross the great tracks that the Two Legs had made for their monsters. Eventually we came to a place that smelled good to me. Many Nations were there – a good sign – but no bears. The Two Legs had a few dens, but they were far apart and they seemed to stay on their own patches, making no tracks for their monsters into these woods. I was in no condition to climb trees, but my brother had a good look around. We agreed: this was it. This was our patch.

For two whole cycles, until the sun was getting low again for the second time, we lived well in our patch. There were so many comfortable places to sleep. We had everything we needed in the way of food. With so many members of the deer Nation, before the berries were plentiful we would sometimes take a wobbly little fawn. We always felt stronger afterwards, and had time for other things besides foraging. My leg got better – it never recovered fully, but I didn’t need to run up trees in our patch because nothing ever bothered us. My brother left me completely behind in the size department, becoming so big and strong that all but the largest trees swayed alarmingly from his weight. I think he enjoyed trying to freak me out with these antics, but I knew his skills had improved greatly. He was no cub any more, and that unavoidable fact is what led us to leave the place that had nurtured us. It was time for us to make cubs of our own, and that wasn’t going to happen in this patch. We only knew of one place with female bears: home – Stinky Poop’s home.

***

As big as we were by that time, Stinky Poop was the only bear who could cause us any trouble. I wasn’t sure I was a match for him, but I believed my brother was. On the way home, I shared my confidence with him:

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You’re going to be the new Stinky Poop!”

We laughed so hard at that one, we set off a chain reaction that rippled far and wide, starting with a pack of coyotes and then spreading to all the stupid dogs alarmed by the coyotes’ yipping. The stupid dogs probably wet themselves thinking that the coyotes were coming to get them, and that made me laugh even harder.

It was well that this was such a hearty laugh, for it would be many suns before I laughed with my brother again.

***

We made it home just before the lowest sun. We expected our home patch to be quiet, because most of the females would be in dens by then, so it didn’t bother us that we didn’t see mother, grandma, or our aunt. If anything, I was relieved, since I wasn’t sure how our return would be greeted – not that it really mattered now, given our power.

It took me too long to realize that something was wrong. Maybe I had grown complacent, safe in our patch of many Nations. I had forgotten the smell of fear – the smell of bear fear. My brother saw them first – two female cubs, about the age we were when mother took us to the spring, but pathetic, scrawny-looking things, barely able to scramble up a pine tree when they noticed us. We must have been their worst nightmare – Stinky Poop and his apprentice come to rip them apart for a snack.

My brother and I looked at one another, both thinking the obvious question:

“Where’s your mother?”

“We… we don’t know. We haven’t seen her for many suns.”

This made no sense.

“Where is your grandma… your aunt?”

“We don’t know. We haven’t seen them since the Two Legs came.”

Two Legs. I felt a twinge from my old wound, reminding me of why we left. Was it possible that Two Legs had…? A wave of guilt and panic slithered down my spine like a snake wrapping itself around a mouse. Had Two Legs come into our patch because we went into theirs and moved their white rock? Had they come here looking for us and killed our family instead? All we did was move a rock – and I had already suffered enough for that! When we have a problem with the other Nations – and it’s really only the coyotes because, smart as they are, they are the least experienced in the ways of our Forest – we don’t wait two cycles to resolve it, and we don’t punish the members who weren’t responsible for the harm against us. Too many questions….

bear cubsSince my hulking brother was probably intimidating to the cubs even after our conversation, I told him to go and check all the den sites in this and the neighboring patches. That would take quite a while, but he could move swiftly and knew exactly where to look. Then I told the cubs to come down. The speed with which they responded was the measure of their desperation for companionship. After glancing at one another for reassurance – just like my brother and I, after all these cycles – the two cubs shimmied down the tree and scrambled on to my chest. They nuzzled around frantically, looking for milk, but of course I had none to offer. After a while they realized this and just collapsed into me, sobbing for a long time before the stress got to them and they nodded off.

This was a strange situation for a male bear like me, but all the normal rules had been suspended. I was sitting against a pine tree with two cubs in my arms, acting like a mother bear when Stinky Poop would have eaten them. But I wasn’t Stinky Poop, I knew that these two cubs were my sisters, and I knew our mother was dead. For all I knew at that moment, these two cubs were the only female bears left in the Forest.

My brother didn’t need to say a word when he returned with the next sun. One shake of the head said it all. So we took the cubs to the lake in our aunt’s patch – or what had been her patch – and showed them how to catch crayfish. They ate well that day, but it would take many days like that to get them through the cold moons. It was an impossible predicament. I needed time to think. I needed to direct the anger that was welling up inside me. I needed – we all needed – a place of peace.

So on the fourth sun after the lowest, my brother and I took our little sisters to the spring. Perhaps mother would have done exactly the same, before denning with them as she did with us. I imagined that she would have been pleased that we remembered the way, and wished I could tell her how many other places we had come to know. The cubs reacted much as we had done, but I sensed that even here things were not the same. The water still bubbled up, and was blue like the sky. But it smelled bad, like rotten bird eggs. As the cubs played in the shallows (no climbing, I said), my brother and I swam out over the head. I quickly forgot about the smell. The water was my long-lost friend: my leg felt good again, and I rolled over and over in the strong upward flow, looking up at the few white clouds in the sky and then down at the mysterious depths of the hole. Fearless now, I swam down against the current, looking for the spiders. But there were none.

I let the the water push me back up to the surface. It was like sliding down a grassy bank on your back – fast and fun, yet strange because I was going up instead of down. With the wonder of the spring in my heart, and water still in my eyes, I looked back over to the beach where the cubs had been playing. Even this sacred pleasure was denied to me, for on the bank above the beach sat a massive male bear. I didn’t need clear eyes to know who it was: it was Stinky Poop.

My brother got there first, placing himself squarely between Stinky Poop and the cubs. He rose up on his hind legs and bellowed, a roar carrying many cycles of loathing and anticipation of a great battle. When I reached the shore I scooped up the cubs and took them over by the cypress tree. The osprey was spooked by the commotion; as he flew off, I hoped he appreciated that the little flying bear he once laughed at had become the most magnificent creature in the Forest: immensely strong, fearless, majestic. It was a defining moment in our lives, but the spring defined it in a way we never expected.

Stinky Poop did not rise to the challenge. He lay down on the bank like a bobcat, front legs stretched out towards us and head up, looking at each of us in turn. It was several moments before our hearts slowed enough to perceive his broken spirit. He could have fought my brother if he wanted to, but the battle never came.

“I mean you no harm,” he stated, sounding as tired as I had been after our epic flight from the Two Legs. “I know you fear me, but I am not a threat to you or your little ones.”

“You expect us to believe that?” replied my brother, sarcastically. “Have you become like a coyote in your ways?”

“No. My ways have not changed. You were not here long enough to understand them. Now you have returned and you think you can rule here, as I have done. But none of us can rule here now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the Forest is not what it once was. Yes, we still live here with many other Nations. But we live at the pleasure of the Two Legs. They come like a bad storm and destroy the Forest. The noise of their monsters is like the warning thunder from the clouds. Every cycle they come, greater in number, and more terrible in their fury.”

“But don’t the Two Legs need the Forest just as much as us?” I asked

“I have wondered about that for many cycles. I have asked myself that as I have sat by their great tracks, watching their monsters, always rushing somewhere and then back again. They are not like the other Nations that we know. They do not belong in the Forest. I don’t think they need it, or love it as we do. I think they will take it all for their dens and their tracks. You have made a great journey, have you not? Surely you have noticed this also.”

My brother was back down on all fours now, adrenaline subsiding. “What should we do?”

“We can not fight the Two Legs. He is too cowardly to face us, as you faced me just now. He uses special sticks from a great distance, and destroys our home with his monsters or with fire. We must stay as far away from them as possible, and always be vigilant. When they come again, the females must be hidden.”

It was hard to overcome many cycles of animosity toward Stinky Poop, but I knew he was right. Still trying to process everything, I took the cubs over to Stinky Poop so we could all rub snouts. As the youngsters licked and sniffed the great bear, his eyes suddenly brightened.

“You two are not my sons. But these are my daughters,” he declared, with a warmth we had never imagined possible.

My brother and I exchanged glances. We would never refer to him as Stinky Poop again. Until the day he died, we called him Big Oak, to represent his strength, age, and the many branches of his family.

We stayed by the spring until the next sun was just about to rise, our strange little family transfixed by the moonlight on the shimmering water. An owl took over the osprey’s perch, his huge eyes glowing with respect for our place of peace.

Somehow, we got the cubs through those cold moons. My brother found grandma in a distant part of our Forest. She had returned to her own mother’s patch, feeling safer there. She made a den there with the cubs, but we did not sleep. We were bears, not spiders, but we had become guardians in our own right.

***

For many cycles after that, we went to the spring on the fourth sun after the lowest. As my brother and I had cubs of our own, we felt it was important for all our family to know the magic of this place, even if only for the one sun the Two Legs were not there. All our children gathered there, to ensure that their spirits were as full as their bellies before the long sleeps. They would go to bed feeling the right kind of tired, all the muscles of their bodies happy from playing at the source. For my brother and I, these memories nourished our own souls, preventing our fears from consuming us like maggots.

Big Oak was killed by the Two Legs in their third invasion of the Forest. We heard many cracks from his favorite patch, and it took all the strength we had to resist the urge to leave our hiding places and ambush the Two Legs. Their spindly bodies would have been no match for us, and the sand could have run red with their blood for a change. But Big Oak would not have wanted us to take such risks or to invite further retribution from the Two Legs, given that they were so easily aroused to violence and that they had surrounded the Forest on all sides. When the Two Legs had left, their monster carrying Big Oak’s body back to their dens, we witnessed the scene. My brother roared at the vultures who were pecking at Big Oak’s guts, but I told him to stop. It was the way of the Forest. At least if the scavenging Nations used his body parts for food, that much of him would stay in the Forest, where he belonged.

By the twentieth cycle after our first visit to the spring, it was far too dangerous to take cubs there. There was no easy path any more: the Two Legs had built dens all along their monsters’ tracks. But my brother and I continued to go, traveling by the moon, using the tracks of the Two Legs when we had to. So much had been taken from us. If we lost the spring as well – our connection to the source – we would truly have nothing left. For what is life without wonder, without magic, without beauty?

When the cold moons came for the twenty-fifth time, my brother said he was tired and asked if I would stand guard alone. I understood. We were old bears now. Younger males had come up – some of them our sons and grandsons – and we had taught them well. There was no need for my brother to stay awake if his body needed rest. But when the green shoots came on the cherry trees and he did not come out, I knew he had joined our mother, our aunt, and Big Oak. At least he was able to go peacefully, on his own terms. He deserved no less.

I was the only one left who remembered the spring as it once was. But what use was this knowledge if it could not be shared? Yes, telling our children stories is important, but stories are not real life. There were no other bears who had memories of the spring as part of their real life.

The cycle without my brother was too much even for me. Without his presence, the losses sustained by our Nation were like claws that sliced off pieces of my heart, leaving less and less to keep me alive. I conversed with the elders of the other Nations, and they felt the same way – harried, helpless, and hopeless. Tired of finding their children dead on the tracks of the monsters, kept awake day and night by the noise of the Two Legs, constantly forced to move from place to place, their spirits were as broken as mine.

At the end of that cycle, I took the elders to the spring. I had told them there was still one place where our spirits could be restored.

I will let the osprey tell the rest, for his view was better than mine.

***

ospreyFor many cycles I watched the bear brothers come to the spring when the Two Legs were not here. Bears had been here before, but there was something about this one bear that caught my eye. I watched him save his brother from drowning, without thinking about the risks to himself. I watched him overcome his fears and converse with the old male. I watched him bring his own cubs here – many cubs, strong and healthy. I watched him play and I watched him think. This was a special bear – one who saw this place almost as clearly as I did. He never knew it, but I kept my eye on him all through the cycles. I should have learned from him and overcome my own fears, to reach out to him in friendship.

I watched him bring the elders of the other Nations with him on the fourth sun after the lowest. I watched the elders turn to the bear and ask him why they had taken such great risks to come to this place. The water was blue, they said, but this was not the blue of the sky; it was a strange, dark blue, through which nothing could be seen. There was no clear water coming from some “magic source.” There was a kind of spray shooting up into the air, but they had seen that at the dens of the Two Legs. There weren’t even many trees, just short grass, from which white sticks with a big yellow leaf stuck up here and there. And there weren’t supposed to be any Two Legs here, but they were here – on the short grass, with shiny sticks and little monsters.

The disappointment of the elders landed on the bear’s shoulders like a flock of vultures on carrion. My old heart went out to him as I watched his spirit dry up and crumble to dust. I knew exactly how he felt, but was unable to commiserate with him. Though he was surrounded by the other Nations, he could not have been more alone.

The Two Legs came down the hill behind the bear and the elders, riding in their silver monsters. The bear heard them, swiveled around, and watched them approach. They stopped not far from the spot where the old male had laid down all those cycles ago. And once again, the bear surprised me.

As the Two Legs came out of their monsters, shouldering their special sticks, the bear placed himself between the Two Legs and the elders. And, much like his brother had done before, protecting the scrawny cubs from the old male, he reared up to a great height, towering over the Two Legs. It was as if all the power of the spring that used to flow here had been stored in his body, and was now released in a roar that came from the source itself.

And then he joined his brother.

***

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