for Morris C. and Ruth M. G. Cooper
The cubs are all grown, gone their own ways now.
They only saw their father really dance
once, but maybe they learned something, maybe
they believed when he said he never fell,
swearing we mustn’t fall, no matter why.
When we were courting, he’d tell me, “We fell,
we bears, we fell from the sky. Men don’t know.
We fell from the north before they came there.
We lost the knowledge of how to be stars
before ever they found us. We fell once,
long and dreadful, wrenching fire from our limbs.
Dark now, fur is our only remembrance
of the pattern of light and flame streaming
away in the cold wind of our passage.
Dark and dreaded, we dare not fall again,
we dare not forget more.” These words I loved
when he spoke them, as I loved all the dance
of our courtship — spinning beneath the sky,
he’d hold me in his arms and in my eyes
he saw stars, my white flesh reminding him
of the starmother they had left. He kissed
my whiteness for love remembered, not lost;
he gave me stars to wear; he tangled them,
when we were loving, in my hair. I loved
him as well later when I bore his cubs
with all the pain and marvel which attends
the birthbed of such a union. We told
our cubs tales, sang them songs, taught them dances.
Of these, the greatest gift was dance. I loved
them all even when the dance lumbered, slowed;
I loved him as well when he danced alone.
He knew his last dance when it came. His flesh
had burned itself out, his voice was all ash
and grit. No gristle, no growl, he whispered
wildness into the forest, needles, leaves.
A skeleton wearing a rug, he danced
over it, around it and passed it on,
danced alone whispering the tall trees’ names.
If I meant to cry, I’d not have wed him.
He never fell, I swear, he tried to climb
and died with his arms in the branches
of a twisted wind-bowed pine. He was gone
long before the husk tumbled like a cone
battered and frayed to the ground. He had said
years before that he wanted to take trees
with him to the sky, to the stars, when he
left to go home. He would wonder how stars
could dance without trees around them, and then
we would lay together watching the stars
and waving branches late into the night.
He was so painwearied before he danced
that last. I’ll not forget to tell the cubs
what words he left. He grunted that the stars
were vast, the stars were leaning over him.
I looked, and when I looked back he had grasped
the treetrunk. He could hardly stand. I could
hardly hear him. He said something about
his mother, then a great glistening tongue
licking and licking at his weary mind.
I looked away again, into the dark,
the formless dark between the stars, then heard
and felt the sigh before the breaking branch.