Conversations with a Polar Bear

 In the prehistoric shade of a fossilised tree

I spoke to the polar bear and he talked to me.

I have always known Newcastle's Regional Museum as an enchanted place. The first time I was there I heard Baroque music played on a harpsichord. At concert's end the rhythm of the sonata followed me as I moved around the building. The fading sound of Scarlatti's notes beat in the air like the echoes of dinosaur footsteps.

Steps have been modified to flowing slopes and I sailed over these in my wheelchair like a vessel of exploration on gentle waves. I looked through a darkened doorway to the closed off display areas further down. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a polar bear enter the disabled persons elevator and ascend to the floor where he usually resided on display.

I thought later, when no one else said anything, it might have been my imagination or a trick of the light. But, inside, I knew I saw him and, by the way he inclined his head to me as the lift doors closed, I'm sure he saw me too.

It was a week before I could return to the Museum and investigate the mystery of the animated bear. As I rode up in the lift I felt a sensation of excitement and marvellous anticipation. I'd seen it move and now I wanted to listen to it speak. I believed it could talk and I knew I would be able to hear it.

With some distance from the other exhibits and clear floor space all around he looked imposing and impressive. He was not very large as polar bears go. Nowhere nearly fully grown and he stood, head lowered to his front paws, in a pose that was meant to be natural but only succeeded in giving him an awkward and embarrassed look. Frozen in mid stride as if sculpted by an artist who had never seen a real bear. His fur was flattened and slightly discoloured.

Obviously bears, too, can be victims of passive smoking.
Now, as I tentatively approached him, I felt unsure and uncertain.
"I saw you the other night,' I said softly. He didn't move. I noticed other people nearby so I wasn't disappointed by his lack of response.

"Do you like music?" Now the space around us was empty and I noticed his eyes flicker towards me.

"You look much taller when you are on your hind legs," I went on.

"So would you be if you stood up," he answered in a delightful, low rumble. Not even his jaws moved when he spoke.

"So, do you like music?" I asked again.

"Yes" he said.

"You often wander about the building?" I asked. I was keen to keep him talking.

"Only at night when it's closed or there is something I want to hear like the night you saw me," said the bear. "In the day time I work up here."
"Work?"

"Yes, work," he replied. "Do you think it's easy standing here on display?"
"No. No, not at all. It must be wearing," I said. "Not to say humiliating. Standing there with your head hanging down having strangers prodding and staring at you."

"Humiliating? Why would you say that?" snapped the bear. "It is a day job but at night when I patrol the museum and the model coal mine I feel pride. And in the hours of darkness, as I amble through the building and perform sentry duty at the pit head, I know happiness."

The bear spoke rapidly. I felt compelled to go on. "I mean humiliated in the sense of you being here as an object of curiosity and amusement when you should be patrolling the vast and empty ice fields of the arctic wilderness. Not confined to this unnatural role."

The bear shrugged in disgust. "You are presumptuous. You are really being offensive." He blinked angrily. "I think you are talking anthropomorphic crap! You insult me."

"I'm sorry, bear," I said hastily. "I didn't mean to. I only think it reasonable you would be more content living as a bear lives."

"Your narrow idea of how a bear lives," he said emphatically. "This is me. I am what I am. A coal miner bear. I am not talking anymore.'
His eyes glassed over. It was clear the visit was at an end.

Over the next few days I thought a lot about the bear and the way our conversation had gone. I thought of myself as being tolerant and cosmopolitan in outlook and a supporter of bio and cultural diversity. Why, then, did I feel confronted by a stuffed Novocastrian polar bear? I hoped I hadn't offended him too much.

I need not have worried because when I approached next time he was the one who spoke first.

"You will have to accept me for what I am," he said. "I can't be what you want or expect of me."

“I'm sorry. It is not you but your situation that offends me."

"But why should it offend you? I am happy. You have some romantic notion about the noble beast living in the wild, don't you?"

"I suppose so," I said. "It just seems to me that you would be happier hunting and being hunted as you trek across the tundra in frozen lands. Rejoicing in the beauty of your natural heritage."

The bear suddenly sounded suspicious. "Hey! Listen. It just occurred to me, am I a metaphor, or something, Robert? I beg your pardon, I heard people call you that, you don't mind if I use your first name? I'm a little wary of cross species familiarity." Before I could reply he continued. "Or are you confused about your own life and trying to dump on me?"

"No. No. Not at all," I butted in.

"Well, I don't understand what you are getting at with the glorious wilderness idea."

"For a creature of free spirit you have nothing here," I said.

"I do have something," he defended. "Anyway, sometimes nothing is enough. There can be worse things than nothing." He was silent for a minute. "What about my noble relatives foraging in garbage dumps for leftovers and easy pickings on the outskirts of settlements?" he asked.

Hardly a pretty sight."

"No, but it is your right to live and die in solitary majesty,” I argued. "Hitch hiking for kilometres through icy waters on passing ice floes. Feasting on seals and salmon while casting a watchful eye over your shoulder for a lethal harpoon thrown by an Inuit hunter."

The bear groaned with a mixture of anguish and cynicism. "Oh, my God! You do go on! What if an oil spill poisoned the seas and decimated the food population? What of your dignified Inuit hunter as a drunken relic of the past who cashes his welfare cheque at the liquor store and blasts an innocent animal to oblivion in a pathetic attempt to resurrect a faded tribal memory?"

The bear had become extremely agitated and was speaking forcefully. “What if I lived and died without ever seeing a single snow flake? My fatal harpoon the sharpened stick from a toffee apple thrown into the bear enclosure at Taronga Park Zoo which pierced my throat as I swallowed it? No death for me in solitary majesty. And, as I thrashed about in my death throes, I heard no sounds of sea birds crying or the splintering of icebergs grinding together but the laughter of children calling to their mothers. Look at the big doggy waving. Oh, look, the water in his pool has gone all red!?"

The bear closed his eyes tightly. "What if I ended up here because it was cheaper to stuff me than pay disposal fees at the local tip? What if that is reality and not your fanciful dreams?" He sounded distressed.

"Look, I’m so sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." In a little while he calmed down and I asked him gently, "Is that really what happened to you?"

"Might have been," he answered in a non-committal tone.

"You know a lot for an animal who has been on captive display for so long." I suggested.

"This is a place of learning." He paused and I waited for him to say something deep and meaningful. "One thing I’ve learned by looking at the floor everyday is that human being's feet are very ugly. You're lucky you don't have any," he said, glancing at the front wheels of my wheelchair.

"I have feet," I said.

"Well," he said, 'I mean, feet that act like feet."

I could swear I almost saw him smile. I reached out my hand and patted him on the back. It was the first time I'd touched him. I felt tears in my eyes. Just then a party of school children swarmed onto the floor near us and I whispered as I left, "Watch out for coal trucks to-night, eh?"

I could not visit again for some time. I was becoming preoccupied with the bear. Poor bear. Give me liberty or give me death! He had neither.

I had a vision of an Aurora and a wondrous sight
Of a multi-coloured polar bear dressed by northern lights.
He perched atop in iceberg in a sea of indigo.
And, as kaleidoscopic curtains waved, he floated to and fro.

Now I tried to visit each Thursday morning. Anymore often I felt might seem unusual to Museum staff and I didn't want to attract unnecessary attention. Even so, it was tricky to converse without being overheard.

"But if you don't behave like a bear and want to do bear things then you are denying what you are," I tried persuasively next time.

"Not really," he replied. "I might be happier doing what I'm doing, that's all. Just because I live in a model coal mine and rather fancy the odd chat does not mean I'm not a bear. It just means I'm not predictable. I'm a non-conformist." He blinked with concentration. "And what about you?" he added. "You do different things from other humans. You talk to me. Does that mean you deny you are human?"

"No,' I answered. "It means I exercise choice in what I do and I accept there are those things I cannot."

"Oh, I see," snapped the bear sarcastically. "You choose for yourself, do you? But you disallow me the same privilege."

"It is different for you," I said. "Your natural condition is far removed from this. You have not been free to choose and now you rationalise this circumstance by deciding it is rewarding and fulfilling."

"And you tell me you never do that?" challenged the bear. "If I lived in that other place would I have more value? Would it afford me greater integrity? It would not." His voice was suddenly tinged with a note of sadness. "I have lived and died without ever learning to be your idea of a bear. My heritage is a world I know nothing about."

For a moment he seemed forlorn and my argument sounded cruel. He went on. "Is your choice for yourself free or is it a forced choice? Is your stoic acceptance sometimes a convenient buffer to avoid deciding which is which?"

"For heaven's sake!" I said, feeling ruffled. "A philosophical bear, no less."

His eyes flashed angrily, "Well, at least I know I'm stuffed!"

It was a month before I saw him again. I'd like to remember the last time as a happy and peaceful occasion but it wasn't. While polar bears are fun loving and inquisitive and I am soft-hearted and friendly, we often as not ended up antagonising each other. I made reference to his obvious youth and small size.

"How incredibly tragic to be forever youthful but yet decay and age without living or growing older."

I didn't mean to be callous or insensitive. I was more or less thinking out loud but I must have struck a raw nerve because the bear shouted back at me, "That's it! I've suspected this. I am a bloody metaphor, after all. I don't have to put up with this. I want the R.S.P.C.A. I've had enough!"

I left so he could calm down. I did care so much about him.

A few nights later, during fitful sleep, I dreamt of the bear. I dreamt of the spirit of the arctic wolf, of the white owl calling. I heard singing in the wind that blew from the North and the beating of wings of the sacred ravens.

I saw coal dust fall from his fur as the bear soared away. Drawn up by the power of the spirits and the voices calling from his ancestral home.

I rang Patrick at the Museum next day and mentioned the polar bear. He had been placed in storage, said Patrick. He needed work on the wear and tear he had suffered but I could call in and see it if I liked. Patrick had to say that. I understood he was forced to offer some explanation for the disappearance of such a valuable exhibit. But I won't ask to see him again. I know he is no longer there. I know he is home. I felt comfortable and easy in my heart. I bore no weight of grief at an ending only satisfaction for an ordered conclusion.

I dreamt again of an ocean cave inside a mountain risen from the sea.
I saw my bear approach astride his regal barge and pass between columns of ice into the sanctuary of his glacial cathedral. As unconcerned seals splashed happily about, he sailed amongst ancient blue icebergs on patrol in his arctic Museum.

The pale and watery light of the midnight sun made its way through a crevice in the ceiling and beamed down on him as he raised his head to the illuminated arches. From the unseen, cloudless sky above ice prisms began to fall. Crystals so small they filtered down through the cracks in the ice and shimmered in the shafts of sunlight like diamond dust.
A luminous, icy column descended upon him and coated his body and, as it melted, he was washed clean.

And his eyes were purified and they shone with the clear light of tranquillity and liberation.

Oh, please, immortal bear. Speak once more to me!
Tell me, even as you know you are stuffed,
You are now forever free.


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