Issue > Fiction
Douglas Cole

Douglas Cole

Douglas Cole has had work in The Connecticut River Review, Louisiana Literature, Cumberland Poetry Review and Midwest Quarterly. He has work online as well in The Adirondack Review, Avatar and the Salt River Review. He won the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry for a selection of work called The Open Ward. He lives in Seattle, Washington and teaches writing and literature at Seattle Central College, where he is also the advisor for the literary journal, Corridors.

The Bear

At dusk, I sat on the brick wall outside the school, smoking a cigarette and feeling the weight of the world. The people of Capitol Hill passed by me, and not one person gave me the feeling that anything out here existed with the least concern for my sorrows. And rightly so, I suppose, the last light surging over the black rooftops and creating a halo over the homeless kids clustered up on the steps of the Presbyterian Church. The oak trees were darkening over the quiet diminishing wonder of bowling balls and tin scarecrows in the Howell Street garden. And up above, the first stars appeared which meant around them the planets you couldn't see were moving and somewhere too unseen the little silver ships were going with the smart ones among us heading out, adios, waving back and saying this is better than Australia, while we remain here looking up from the bottom of the broken dream.

He appeared out of the dark. He was passing just like the rest. And for some reason, without even thinking about it, I lifted my hand and nodded a quick nod to which he responded by turning slightly from his stride and coming over to where I was sitting. I was ready to accept this as another answer to an unspoken question or god bumming me for a cigarette. So, without a word, I offered him a cigarette. He took it and sat down next to me and said, "Thanks."

I gave my matches to him and he lit his cigarette and passed the matches back to me. Then he lifted his cigarette and pointed it in front of him, then to the right, then behind him, then to left, and then up and down. Then he smoked. I extended my hand and said, "Tom."

"Herman," he said, and he shook my hand with that light touch that means this is your custom not mine and we're not in battle so you don't have to prove anything. Spirit comes to bear in that contact. "Herman Long Time Sleeping," he said. His eyes were black, seriously, no color at all, and his face was dark from the blast of the sun.

"Where you from?" I asked.

He waved his hand in a wide sweep and almost lost his balance and then said, "Montana." Then he centered again and looked like he just realized something and said, "Although, my people go all the way up into Canada."

That seemed like a good answer, so I said, "Big sky country."

He looked at me like I wasn't there. And then he said, "Where are you from?"

"Here."

A woman staggered over. She was slight, pale, pierced and tatted, hair thin and scattered like dry grass. Her clothes hung off her like shedding bark. I knew her. I'd seen her before in various states of panhandling with bright hello how are you doing gray decay smile and other times in stone devastated vacancy so far away and barley sketched in it was a wonder she stood on her feet. Survivor! She wanted to ask us something, stopped beside me, weaving. She almost looked at me. She wasn't quite there. She looked toward Herman then drifted away. She might have read the signs, or something got rewritten. We might have been invisible.

"Mape," Herman said.

"—"

"Mape means behave." He smiled and put his hands together and made a circle motion. "You see a guy mopping the floor, that's Mape, because he's behaving." He laughed a little.

"Mape," I said. "Behave." I suppose it could have been true. Then again, it might have meant fuck you. What did it cost to believe him?

"It's Blackfeet. Biggest nation, all the way up through Canada."

"Mape."

"That's right, mape." He smoked to that, then he said, "You know Walter McClintock, he wrote a book." He let that settle in. There was no speeding him up, and really, what was the hurry? "I'm in it, Herman Long Time Sleeping. McClintock lived with the Blackfeet and learned their language and the spirit ways." Then, he pointed at me. "Umptakyo."

Now it was getting personal. Although, who knows who or what was putting words in his mouth! I said, "What does that mean?"

"It's a blessing. Umptakyo."

"Umptakyo," I repeated, though maybe I shouldn't have. But he nodded.

"Umptakyo Spu'moke," he said.

"Umptakyo Spu'moke."

"Umptakyo Spu'moke." He put his arms wide and said, "Uptakyo is the bear. You know the constellation. McClintock did the sweat, received his spirit power." He paused, took in the smoke, exhaled a plume and we were both amazed. "Never try to take your power on the first or second day." He nodded again. He didn't really seem to be speaking to me. How would I know? Here? He seemed more like he was clarifying a point from a previous conversation. "The third day is okay, or the fourth. Not the first or the second." Then, he looked at me, I'm pretty sure. "You have to kill the bear. You can't have any fear or you'll die. If you have no fear and kill the bear, nothing can touch you. McClintock went through the battles and nothing touched him."

I know about fear, but I don't want to kill the bear. Why do I have to kill the bear? Isn't the air enough? The cameras? The new rules and the uniforms? The language cobbled together in some vault, some think-tank that set this all up? Instead, I said, "What battles?"

"Wars, between the Blackfeet and other nations. He fought with the Blackfeet. I'm in his book. He mentions meeting me, Herman Long Time Sleeping."

"You're in the book?"

"That's right."

"What's the book called?"

He shook his head. "I don't remember."

"What was it again? The Bear?"

"Umptakyo."

"Umtakyo. And the other word?"

"Spu'moke."

"Spu'moke. What does that mean?"

"Spu'moke means help me."

"Spu'moke."

He smiled. "You know the big bear downtown?"

I shook my head.

"The big one," he said, "on the corner of...I can't remember the street names, Fifth and Pine?"

"In front of the toy store? Yeah. I know that one."

"Umptakyo," he said. "Go rub his belly and say Spu'moke."

"Uptakyo, Spu'moke," I said. He nodded. I repeated it a few times. "I'll remember it," I said. "I'll try. I'm just a child."

He laughed at that. Then, he said, "Ha," lifting his hand. "That means, yes. Sa," and he lowered his hand, "That means, no."

"Ha, yes. Sa, no."

"That's right. You want to learn Blackfeet?"

"Sure," I said. "I'll remember what you tell me." And I thought, then I'll appear in the book.

"Hey, I won't lie to you," he said, and I knew what was coming because I'm good at reading between the lines. "I could use a beer."

"I believe you."

"I only drink on the weekends."

"Is it the weekend?"

"Once the sun goes down."

"All right." I didn't think I had anything, but I checked my pocket anyway, more as a show. And lo and behold and as if by magic! "Here," I said. It didn't belong to me anyway. I took out a few cigarettes and passed those to him, too. "You want a light?"

"No," he said. "I'll save these for later," and he put them into his shirt pocket.

"Hey," I said, "You want to hear a story?"

"I'm listening."

"I had a friend once, and he was kind of a wild kid. He didn't behave. Mape. And he couldn't stay anywhere. Couldn't stay put. He joined the coastguard but got kicked out. He went back to school but couldn't finish. He was always sleeping on people's couches. Always moving. He was a little crazy. Well, mostly wild. Not mean. He said his family went back to Captain Morgan, the pirate and that was the source of his troubles. So, one day, he was out driving, and he was a little drunk and he crashed his truck. He called me up and asked me to help him out, you know, get some of his things out of the truck, and when we got to the truck, it was totally smashed. The steering wheel was against the driver's seat. The battery was in the passenger's seat. He didn't have a scratch on him. Miraculous! He was totally unscathed. What do you think makes a guy like that so lucky?"

"It's his gift," he said.

"Yeah?" I said. "Maybe so. Maybe so." I was really considering that, but hadn't Herman Longtime Sleeping described it himself? Like I told you, I can read between the lines. So I said, "Maybe he killed the bear, and without fear?" I think he laughed.

"Where he goes it doesn't touch him. But it might touch you." Then he looked at me as if I had just arrived, his eyes narrow. He reached out and grabbed my arm and let the grip slide down to my wrist, like a doctor checking a pulse. Then he put his fist against his chest, his thumb pointing upward. He said another word I can't remember. Then he stood up. I didn't feel any different, but I wanted to.

"You want to learn Blackfeet?"

"Sure."

He smiled, put his fist against his chest, nodded and said, "Okay." And that was it.

"I'm around," I said.

Then he walked away.

So now I'm thinking about the bear, Umptakayo. Do I go down there and ask for help? Would it work for me, an Irish, English guy with tangled roots at war in my blood? I haven't learned the ways, haven't even been in a church in years. I guess in my case there's as much chance of getting help from the bear as there is from Jesus or the writers of the Old Testament. Umptakayo Spu'moke. The bear shows up in the hands of some contractor, designed by some artist whose intent was far from creating Umptakayo, cast and lowered into place in front of a toy store. Umptakayo? How could it be Umptakayo? How could Herman Longtime Sleeping be in a book about the Blackfeet in the 1800's? Herman Longtime Sleeping was telling me a story, that's for sure! Or, could be... Umptakayo. I said the name as I got up and started walking, trying for some reason to burn it into my memory:

Umptakayo Spu'moke

Umptakayo Spu'moke

Umptakayo Spu'moke

Umptakayo Spu'moke

You remember something better if you repeat it. Then I asked myself, what help do I need? I don't even know at this point. You say something enough and it's like someone else is talking in your head. I guess it's like prayer. I was saying those words, mumbling like all the madmen with their crooked smiles, as I walked down Paper Hill in the darkness.

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