(Ursus arctos) 1601
by Elena Passarello
From Fall 2017
I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain; but, I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it, that it passed.
–The Merry Wives of Windsor
The London garden, brackish and packed-in, was hazy with a dozen kinds of flesh. The bulls, cocks, mastiffs, men and chimpanzees in air so rickety it lowered the roof. So dark, the line ‘tween crowd and beasts was marred. There, in that black, Sir Raleigh took his Frenchmen and other men of duty met their spies. The reason for the famous fireworks? Just so the folks who’d wagered bets could see.
A rose of flames, pitched high above the crowd, fired smoke into the muck that hung about. It spun and spat red bits around the seats. They’d rigged it to throw pears as it rotated; the fruit-mad crowd would then jump up and chase the rolling pears out to the Bankside streets. Or yardboys, eager in their dirty gloves, would toss hot bread upon the patrons’ laps, which made them clutch and scurry toward the exit. Outside, they’d find some other Sunday sport: an archery butt, a woman, or a play.
The stews downriver had less fornication. And St. Barthol’mew’s floors less wet with blood. The bloody muzzle or the mastiff’s blood. The blood from fisticuffs up in the stands. The blood of offal, floated down the Thames to Bankside from the abattoirs of town. And by the time the century turned around, it seemed the blood most often spilled was his.
But do not think that London’s garden crowd imagined him a broken, bashed-in thing. Believe me, this is tricky. I might see the lives of baited bears as nothing but a broken chord of muzzle, chain, and stake. Of blunted teeth, barrages of dog jaws, of living-out a mongrel just to have another thrown upon the slavered flesh. That rink’s the only place that he could run, a hard-won constitutional—fighting dogs and running laps in that dank polygon. That garden, broken even in its flowers—the rosettes they affixéd to his brow were bullseyes for the mastiffs when they jumped. And jump they did, mouths tearing up the flesh that leered at them from each side of the bloom. They bit so hard that London’s citizens grew up thinking a bear’s eyes to be pink.
Few years of that, he was too blind to fight; the bearward had to get creative then. Chained center, hunkered, lashed by volunteers until the blood ran rivers down his spine. Sometimes he’d raise his matted arms and gnash about the lash until it broke in half. And once, he stooped low to the lazy knot, untied himself with effort from the stake, and nosed about the rink in backward loops to hear the ladies scream, the bearwards scramble. They dragged him offstage to his pit in cheers.
For even then, near-lame and sightless, he could still throw nine-stone mastiffs to the stands. Up to the boxes, to the ladies’ laps, bypassing pumpkin hose, straight to the skirts. Like he could sniff a woman’s quivering thigh and hurl the big dog, head o’er tail, right to her. A snort, a twitch to shudder the dog spit, a fling, a lady’s lap a-going oof! And then they’d add another dog, then two…till six or seven mastiffs lined the rink, the sound more deafening since his sight was gone. Goddammit if he wasn’t still around. They could have put his picture on the money.
Elizabeth, who never said hullo, loved him enough to ban all Thursday sport. Upon the mildest Thursdays, he’d parade out past the playhouse, down to London Bridge. He’d smell the rag men, actors, punks in stews who yelled for him in ripe cacophony. The Bulls, in ribboned horns, all marched behind; the cocks-in-boxes and the dogs behind. The Only Bear That Ever Led the Dogs.
And even on his nights off, he appeared: in name-checks at the Hope, the Rose, the Globe. A dactyl in the mouths of water poets. The only rival Shakespeare called by name. In Jonson. In Act five at Dunsinane. At Middle Temple Hall on Candlemas, when Chamber’s fairest boy-in-fake-dugs crooned: have you not set mine honor at the stake/ and baited it with all th’unmuzzled thoughts/ that tyrannous heart can think?
So. It’d be wrong to match that bear with breaking; they built him up. They called him out by name because they read in him a secret code both terrifying and recognizable. They saw it in his stance—up on two legs, the forepaws spread, the ten claws digital. They saw it in his low-slung hips and gut. The way his pupils, round and beady, lived inside a circle of expressive white. And milliseconds prior to the bite, they saw it—as he shut his eyes and sighed.
What did they see? They saw themselves, of course.
A taller man, more leaden and hirsute, with thick skin better suited for a beating, but still their bear—this massive chestnut frame, dwarfed tiny by a darkened ring of foes. A smaller ratio of the rink itself, dwarfed by the river flowing to its north: that lurid, pestilent Thames. Six city plagues—the pox, the new Ague, the curious Sweats—all floated past the beargarden in leagues. A river of unprecedented sick. In ’92 things got so royally poxed, the playhouses were forced to shutter up. A quarter of their population down each decade, give or take a hundred score.
A blighted age can make a garden blind. Each ticketholder turns left, right, behind, and wonders which part of their dark quartet will suffer an unnatural upset next. For when our clans explode up into towns, the back-bite comes from nature, and it smarts. The devil holds back nature by its ears, takes aim, makes wager, then releases it. We toss it off and it regenerates; six natural mouths leap forth before we’re primed.
Parades of sickness cannot be explained by any learnéd clansmen: physics, priests. The inexplicable can send us toward an un-clanned occupation with the self. And selves, like famous bears, are singular. “We are” soon switches places with “I am.” Then clans bewitched by “i ams” become crowds, which are an altogether different thing. He heard those iams in the garden’s roar:
I am this bear, stuck in this blighted rink, beset upon by nature’s ticking clock. I am not hunkered down in numbered packs; instead I am awaiting death alone. I am afraid of time’s encroaching power, for each new year, I am more bluntly struck. I feel pain, feel it doubling, then I am it; I am always in wait of time’s new teeth. And though befuddled, drunk on sick, I am unfit to tear my eyes away from him.
The growl of him, his mighty swipe, his blood, the way he foams both in and out of hours. My chain of foes would weigh less, I am sure, If Icould toss off minutes, break pain’s spine, or send plague squealing to a bitch’s lap. For even if I knew more time, more sick, was at the go, it’d be a righteous salve to fight whatever hour’s on me now. To discard the sick dog of what is now. To throw it— a contaminated rag stained with the gusto of my intellect.
Yes. I am jealous of his natural acts. And so I’ll hit his nature with a stick.