The Guatemalan Civil War was still raging and the green berets were running the town, spraying the good buildings with bullets. The good buildings with the good designs by white city planners now riddled with holes and breathing for the first time since they’d been built. And amid all of this, I was here to study the bears. A white Canadian wildlife ecologist here to study the rare Andean bear with his seven months pregnant soon to be first ex-wife. All during the Guatemalan Civil War. We had arrived during a momentary cease-fire, Holy Week, and I had high hopes of venturing into the jungle to find my bears, as both sides were honoring the week of our Blessed Mother Mary. But my soon-to-be first ex-wife had eaten some rotten armadillo and was being sick all over the hotel. I prayed for the bears, prayed they wouldn’t be harmed in the Civil War, and prayed they would live until I could find their secret.
The guerrillas hid up in the mountains, scratching their exposed skin, licking their guns and dreaming of revolution, of freedom. As they did.
I was from Winnipeg, and the heat was driving me crazy. My soon-to-be first ex-wife seemed to have chucked the remainder of the armadillo, and after days of being holed up with her sick in our hotel, I left her to venture outside. The Holy Week gave the green berets and the town a momentary rest. A chance for me to find my bears. The streets were littered with damp pieces of colored tissue paper, bursts flung at Virgin Mary floats. They were slowly staining the concrete oozy, unnatural colors. There was a dirty afternoon sun in the sky. The parade had just rounded a corner, leaving static in its wake.
“Can you hear it? The brass balloon gospel choir? Pumping organ pipe pads for the angels on high?” A man unfolded himself from the shadow of a building and walked toward me. Was it him who had spoken or the heat? He was the only other white man I had seen here besides the Green Berets. A white man and, I soon discovered, a communist, stranded as I was in another country’s civil war.
“Hey,” grinned the white communist, “I can help you.” He spoke English with different consonants, licking his red gums as a way of smiling, “I can find you your bears.”
I followed him into the jungle during the Holy Week cease-fire.
I had met my soon-to-be first ex-wife in Paris. I had this party trick of cutting the necks off champagne bottles with a sabre and the Parisian women would just go nuts for it. It had worked on every woman except her. She was Quebecoise and such a trick was too provincial. I went through a series of pathetic actions and eventually she slept with me, and then became pregnant.
But the city of Paris was killing me, as most cities eventually do. Close cobbled streets, suffocating buildings, as if the city planners had built the city to kill. As if my death was part of their design! I was waiting on grants, sabbaticals, assignments to come through, waiting as a research assistant compiling bear data in the good, suffocating designs of Paris. It was too much for my poor Canadian heart. I craved my bears, not in numbers but in air and in fur! I’d take long train rides to the mountains each weekend looking for my bears. But the Eurasian brown bears were dying and I never saw them except in numbers and in data. Eventually only those in captivity would survive. Caught in too by the city planners. So when the Guatemalan wildlife conservatory reported that spies in the leftist guerrilla insurgency had spotted a rare Andean bear, oso, I packed up my now pregnant soon-to-be first ex-wife and flew to Guatemala during the one week of cease-fire.
The white communist and I spent Holy Week lost in the jungle, searching for my bears. As the week gave out, we gave up and began the trek back to town. The white communist and I had whispered for the bears, for their secret until our voices had died in our throats. Dizzying heat and green hours later the white communist suddenly threw up his arm. Between two trees was a dark, black lump. My heart throbbed. Was it my bear? My eyes swam with heat and then cleared. A young Marxist hung in his hammock, watching a fanned, red sun through closed eyes. He was so young, sliding into sleep with a gun at his side. He dreamed of everything. Everything was close. I stepped nearer, watching his breath murmur. Had he seen my bears? If I shook his shoulders and yelled OSO! into his young face would he tell me their secret?
It took all of a second. We staggered away from the gunshots. Away from the Green Berets swarming the now shot, now dead Marxist youth. Now dead and having died with the bear’s secret. Holy Week was over.
Despite the persistent night heat, despite the feeling that the buildings with the good designs were breathing, full of holes, all around us, the white communist and I proceeded to get blasted. We drank into stupors, until the hole in the Marxist youth’s body had filled in our minds. The white communist began a rant about the newest military weapon issued to the green berets. A weapon that silenced noises by way of an algorithm. Something about vibrating at the same sonic frequency as noises like bombs and rapid fire. He drew the algorithm with a shaky pen on a palm frond. That’s why the young Marxist died! No sound! He didn’t hear them coming! I wondered if it had silenced my bears too.
Returning to my hotel room, I found my soon-to-be first ex-wife missing. Drunk, I ricocheted in the night from dark person to person, yelling where the pregnant white woman had gone. They whispered back to me in trailing s’s, Guatemalan women running forward with trembling hands, oso, oso, they shook and led me to the hospital.
They said she was seen staggering out of the jungle alone, screaming that she’d seen the Andean bear, blood pouring from between her legs. As if she was leaking, as if she’d been shot, as if a guerrilla bullet had punctured a city planner’s good building with its good design.
She said that they had whispered to her and told her what they needed. She said they took her hand and in soft Spanish led her into the jungle. Or so she said. Everyone else said she had been looking for me.
I left that night, still drunk, in the wee hours on the seventh day of Holy Week. I made it out. The white communist was killed the next day, in green beret crossfire.
I returned to Manitoba in the hope that the cold would purge the Central American heat, the stench of blood and the disappointment of the lost bears. I returned, in a way, to my bears. Taking up a post as a field researcher, I returned to the Manitoba forest. I was given a hut built high in a maple tree, little more than a child’s tree house, high up to observe the secrets of bears. I slept all day and woke at night, watching and waiting in hope of seeing my bears.
But the forest stayed silent and gave me no answers.
A mouse began visiting me nightly. I will never understand how it managed to climb and smell my food fifty feet up a vertical tree. But I praised its ability and left small crumbs nearer and nearer each night. I craved the mouse’s company. After weeks I finally gained its trust, training it to sit on my chest while I fed it tinned cheese. I asked the mouse where my bears were, but just as the forest, it too remained silent. Instead, I told the mouse my secrets, of Guatemala, of the elusive Andean bear, of my first ex-wife and the way she had leaked. I told the mouse of the daughter I was meant to have, of the purple stillness delivered instead. The mouse remained silent on the pillow next to me, listening and telling me nothing of what I needed to hear. When I woke, it would be gone, little mouse indent on the pillow, a trail of crumbs.
I dreamed of my bears, great bodies tucked away in the earth. I dreamed of sleeping with them, of feeling their fur as my own and waiting out the short days and long nights.
I wondered if the green berets were using their military-grade silencing equipment this far north. I thought of the wavy lines the white communist had drawn for me. I could still hear Spanish at night, brushing along the ground in s-like patterns, shush, shush, shush. Just like the dead Marxist youth, keeping the bear’s secret close.
And one night the mouse stopped visiting and I finally left the tree. I shouted for it. Was it lost in the same silence? Had it been captured by the green berets?
I left the tree, shouting for the mouse, asking for it in foxholes, demanding its bones if it had indeed been shot. And I lamented my loneliness, crying into the weave of maze, muffled shouts vibrating earth and roots. Pulling my head out I shook dirt from my beard and saw before me a great mass. I felt my voice leave my chest.
I am walking in a dream. I have found the secret. It catches in moonlight, a bright flash of metal. Right at the nape of its neck, I see it, the tab of a zipper. A secret no animal could possibly pull. As I walk, I dream of catching the bear by surprise, landing on its back and in one deft movement watching fur hit ground, stepping in and knowing for myself. A long, lonesome ripping sound, tick-mark silver teeth peeling back, a yelled ah-ha! and what then? What of me?
Effy Morris writes, makes, and thinks to explore the tenuous boundaries of form, gender, sexuality, and space. Currently a PhD student in English at Concordia University, s/he/y is a research assistant for the Centre for Expanded Poetics and co-editor of the forthcoming online publication o bod.
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