A Russian émigré poet living in Paris is visited by a mysterious bear with an agenda…
On a fine spring afternoon, the noted Russian émigré poet and fabulist Alexei Zerimov was seated at a sidewalk café, nursing his kir and working on a children’s story that he would later illustrate and hand-letter himself, when a wild bear came rampaging through the plaza. Typically for him, Zerimov did not at first notice. Only the screams and shouts and clatter of overturned chairs and tables as the normally insouciant Parisiennes fled in panic roused him from his reverie in time to see the beast rear up directly before him, all fury, claws, and teeth.
In a confusion of terror, Zerimov tried to rise and, toppling his chair, fell over backward. By the time he regained his feet, the bear was gone, leaving behind the sweet drying-grass smell of the Siberian tundra of his youth.
It felt like a dream. But Zerimov knew it was no such thing by the disorder the bear had left behind: an abandoned homburg, broken glass and crockery, a teal blue lady’s jacket that, as he watched, slid from the back of a chair. There were streaks of red on the pavement that might equally well have been blood or wine. He did not feel qualified to judge.
Zerimov had seen the bear face-to-face. There was a blaze of white on its chest, like a star. He was certain he would recognize it if ever he saw it again.
For two days, the incident was the talk of the city. But then came a political crisis, the brutal murder of a prostitute, a scandalous divorce—and, Paris being Paris, the incident was forgotten.
Not, however, by Zerimov. That Thursday evening, when it was his turn to host the soirée of expats who gathered weekly to read their latest works, express opinions for and against contemporary French literature, and slander whoever was foolish enough not to put in an appearance, he said, “I saw the beast myself! It was as close to me as you are now. It reared up and went: Raowrr!” He demonstrated, making claws of his fingers. “I had to clean its saliva from my glasses.”
“It is too much of a coincidence.” Suave as ever, Minitski poured himself a second glass of tea. “That you, who have written God knows how many bear tales, should encounter the only wild bear to be seen in the City of Light in how long? Centuries, surely. It is bad art. I refuse to believe it.”
“Behave yourself, Lyonya, or I will publish the love poems you wrote me before you achieved full mastery of the form.” Olga Nikitina was the queen bee of the group, and always drew a wisp of smoke over her signature to make of it a pun. She often referred to the gathering’s men as her harem. “Alyosha, you will admit that it is unlikely.”
“Yet a lot of people who weren’t me saw it too. So there goes your argument, up in smoke!”
Olga smiled appreciatively. But then old Gapanenko, who grew unpleasant when denied the opportunity to perform, rattled the sheets of the story he had brought to read and the mood turned literary again.
The second time Zerimov saw the bear was far less dramatic. He was seated at the same table and chair as before when it came growling and shaking its great head but did not make to attack anybody. There was a stirring in the square at its passage. People stepped back into doorways and one woman stood up on her chair, crouching a little to hold her skirt down with one hand. But though it paused to glare balefully at Zerimov, it did not approach him, and in a matter of minutes it was gone.
This incident did not make it into the newspapers.
That night, Zerimov lay awake in bed, thinking about bears he had seen in his youth. His father was a naturalist and together they had made many forays into the Siberian wilderness. The bears they encountered were an amiable lot on the whole unless you came near to their cubs, whereupon they turned murderous. But he had paid them only passing attention, for even then his heart and brain were focused on poetry to the point of obsession. Why had he never seen the similarities of bears to the Russian language—so strong, so wild, so free? If only, he had thought then, I could write one perfect poem, I would die happy. Not knowing, as he did now, that no poem was ever perfect, save those which the angels in Heaven wrote in praise of the Almighty. And, he being an atheist, not even those.
Why had he never thought to write a poem about a bear?
On its third appearance, the bear lumbered into the square at the end of a chain held by a street busker, a little man with a long overcoat and a soup-strainer mustache. The bear looked mangy and flea-ridden. Its handler played a concertina while it stood up on its hind legs and performed what might charitably be called a dance. In no way was its behavior consistent with its earlier appearances. Yet this was the same creature; there was no mistaking that star-shaped blaze on its chest.
The performance reminded Zerimov of a similar routine that had saddened him on a visit to the circus in his college years in St. Petersburg. He had been a phenomenon then, the brilliant young poet from the hinterlands. Everyone knew he was destined for great things. He had known it himself.
Where was all that promise now? Gone with the fogs that rose from the Neva on a warm winter’s day and disappeared by nightfall. You could search in all the almanacs in all the world and find no record of those fogs. The same might be said of Zerimov’s career.
When the routine was over, the busker passed through the crowd, collecting money. Zerimov tossed a few coins into his hat and, turning away, found himself staring into the bear’s eyes. In them, he read such a wealth of suffering and humiliation that he had to flinch away. It pained him to see so magnificent a beast brought so low. The bear was as miserable as the poem Zerimov had been trying to write about it for the last three months.
He spoke of the encounter to no one. Perhaps it was a mistake, but he thought not.
That Thursday, the soirée dragged on and on with such tedium that by its end Zerimov found himself doubting his own existence. When he got home to his flat on rue de Beaune, he tore the bear-poem into tiny pieces, threw the shreds out the window, and watched them flutter down to the street like snow.
Months passed. Winter came.
Zerimov’s routine never varied. Weekday mornings and alternate evenings, he taught Russian to English bluestockings and French ambassadors-manqué at the Ecole des Langues Orientales. Afternoons, he wrote. Once a week, at the soirée, he watched some of the finest writers ever to escape Soviet oppression grow increasingly small-minded and resentful. Always, he awaited the next appearance of the star-bear. It seemed significant. An omen, perhaps. Or just possibly the axe he needed to smash the frozen sea that held captive the ship of his imagination.
Time after time, he wrote and rewrote his bear-tale. In it, a lost bruin traveled endless mountains, searching for its den. Winter was coming and it needed to hibernate. Sometimes it would catch the distinctive smell of dried ferns and mosses mingled with the musk of its mate. But then the wind would shift. The skies darkened and the stars glittered like ice. Always, the bear failed to find its way home. Always, the stars ignored its pleas for help. Never was the story good enough to publish or bad enough to give up on.
Zerimov wrote in the same café every day for, like most writers, he was superstitious about his craft and feared a new venue would stop him dead. The tables inside were crowded together and the windows steamed and sweated beads of water so that the people outside were vague in outline and shifted oddly as they passed.
Somebody scraped up a chair.
“Pardon, comrade poet. May I join you?” Without waiting for a reply, the bear sat.
Zerimov looked up, startled but not entirely shocked.
The bear wore a military uniform with a Soviet star on one pocket. It gestured to the garçon and whispered in his ear. The boy went away and returned with a coffeepot and a ceramic cup. Nodding thanks, the bear filled the one with clear liquid from the other. Vodka, obviously. That was the way one avoided the liquor laws back in Ekaterinburg.
The bear took a genteel sip. Then, setting the cup down in its saucer, it said, “Alexei Mikhailovich, as you love Mother Russia, it is time for you to return home.”
“A man can love his homeland,” Zerimov said, “from afar. Here, I do honor to my country by continuing to write.”
“Do you honestly believe your poems and stories will be remembered?”
Stung into arrogance, Zerimov replied, “Someday I will be acknowledged as one of the best writers of our nation. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Nabokov . . . and me. Deny it if you can!”
The bear took a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from a pocket and, untangling the earpieces, situated it on its nose. Blinking through its lenses, it looked sad and wise. “I do deny it. Not the first four, of course. But Nabokov is holed up in Berlin creating chess puzzles and chasing butterflies on weekends. Meanwhile, you teach dilettantes the rudiments of our language and pen fairy tales for infants. Both of you are cut off from the soil of your birth and you will not thrive without it. Nobody reads your work here but other traitorous émigrés who hate you for being better than them. Nobody reads your work in the USSR because you are an enemy of the state. Return home.”
“To a firing squad?”
“If you must. Who knows?” The bear shrugged.
“Even if I wanted to, I could never get the paperwork for it.”
Switching to French, the bear said, “I have no respect for bureaucracy. The hell with paperwork! But this little beauty I draw from my loose trousers. Read it and envy me: I am a citizen of the Soviet Union.”
“Mayakovsky,” Zerimov said. “It sounds better in Russian.”
“Everything does.” The star-bear unbuttoned a pocket and withdrew a red-jacketed document with the coat of arms of the Soviet Union stamped in gold. It placed it on the tablecloth before Zerimov. “Here. I have brought you your passport.”
The next day, the star-bear entered the café with a chess set under its arm. “Do you play?” it asked.
The star-bear held out two closed paws. Zerimov tapped one and it opened to reveal a white pawn. “You go first.”
As they played, they discussed the current literary scene. The star-bear, whom Zerimov would have expected to be of conservative, even reactionary tastes, was surprisingly liberal-minded on the arts. “Have you read Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance?” it asked.
“Madness! It has no scansion, no form. The lines are heaped atop one another, long upon short, without regard for structure. It is vers libre gone mad. It is prose presented as if it were poetry. It has no breath.”
“On the whole, I agree. Yes, it is a mess—but only because Cocteau is merely a great talent. A genius could pick up on that formlessness and build upon it a poem that would astonish the age.” Slyly, the star-bear added, “That genius could be you.”
“Pah!” Zerimov cried, to hide the pleasure he took from the flattery.
They played daily and in short order the star-bear’s literary gossip supplanted the input from the Thursday soirées that he had formerly fed upon. “Have you read Du Bos’s essay on Gide?” Zerimov asked.
“I do not hold with the Catholic fallacy that Du Bos fetishizes. But Gide . . . c’est un pédé. Back home he would be shot and that would be that.”
“Always, you return to violence.”
“It is the way of the world.”
When checkmate was achieved the star-bear packed away the pieces. Invariably, it said “That was a good game” before leaving, to where he did not know.
“I found a photo.” The star-bear pushed it across the table. Zerimov glanced down and felt his heart lurch in his chest. It was Serafima, standing in a birch forest outside of Moscow, unsmiling and silent. He had written a poem about that moment. He had thought the photograph was lost forever. “It was in your file.”
“Do you keep files on everybody?” Zerimov asked, not caring one way or the other. He picked up the photograph, fearful that the star-bear would demand it back.
“Keep it.” The star-bear studied the board, reached out to make a move, thought better of it.
“You touched your knight. You must move it.”
“Surely a dangerous anarchist such as yourself will not hold me to such a petty rule.” Nevertheless, the star-bear made the move. “If you were to return to Russia, every house, every street, every sight you had in common would remind you of her.”
Zerimov jolted to his feet. “You will not profane Serafima’s memory by using it against me!”
“Sit, sit, sit. I was just doing my job, comrade. Believe me, I would much rather have yours.” It held up its paws. “But as you can see, I can barely hold a pen with these things, much less create such fine calligraphy as you do.”
Zerimov’s face felt like stone. “You must go now. I have work to do.”
“As you wish.” The star-bear placed the chess pieces in their box. It paused in the doorway to say, “That was a good game.”
Rumor had swept through the émigré community in Zerimov’s absence. Gapanenko stopped him in the street to demand if it was true that he had applied to become a Soviet citizen.
“I did not.” Honest to a fault, Zerimov added, “Yet I seem to have become one anyway.”
“Is this one of your fairy-tale riddles? I see no humor in it.” Gapanenko took Zerimov’s arm and began walking him down the street. “Listen to me. That poem you wrote about the forest of slim white birch trees. You know the one I mean. The snowy silence where not even a church bell sounds. That was no ordinary poem! Your name should be engraved upon the moon for that. You wrote it here. In Paris. In exile. Because you are one of us, a small part of the credit for it belongs to us as well. If you go back, you will take your works with you. That pure, innocent poem will no longer belong to us but to the USSR. They will defile it! Twist its meaning! Turn it into propaganda for their murderous state! Is that what you want? I respect you too much to believe it of you.”
Gapanenko stopped, letting go of Zerimov’s arm. It was only then that he realized they had been headed nowhere in particular. Turning, Gapanenko stumped away, leaving Zerimov gaping and astonished. He had always thought the old man despised his poetry, just as he did Gapanenko’s.
Now that he knew better, it was too late to undo the cruel caricature of Gapanenko that dwelt in his mind.
“The forlorn face of the man! That mustache! That goatee!” the star-bear exclaimed when Zerimov gave it an abbreviated version of the encounter. “Like the Devil fallen upon hard times, reduced to picking up cigar stubs from the gutter and cadging drinks off of former friends.”
“He spoke well of my poetry.”
“Easy for him to do so. He’s actually read it. Come back to the Soviet Union and the Gosizdat will guarantee that millions read your poetry.”
“What will that mean to me if I’m dead or in a gulag?”
“Millions of readers, for generations to come! Lenin’s books have never gone out of print. Nor need yours.”
That evening, there was a rap on his door. When Zerimov opened it, there stood Olga Nikitina. She stepped inside. “How different your flat looks when it’s not cluttered with writers.”
Zerimov helped her off with her coat and hung it in the closet. “Why are you here, Olga?”
“For two reasons. First, to tell you to your face: You must come home to your friends and peers. Tomorrow’s soirée is at my place. Be there.”
“And the second reason?”
“To seduce you.” Olga dropped a lace-trimmed handkerchief over the lamp on the nightstand by the bed. She glanced at the Soviet passport lying there without comment. Picking up the photograph of Serafima in the silver frame Zerimov had found in a secondhand shop, she said, “This is new. Who is she?”
“Somebody I knew in a previous life.”
“Ah.” Olga put the picture down and turned her back on Zerimov. “Be a dear and unbutton my blouse, would you?”
He obeyed. Olga smelled of Chanel No. 5, her favorite perfume. “Is this the start of something serious?” he asked. “Or is it just for the night?”
“I am open to all possibilities.”
The night was spent doing such things as people in their situation do. Zerimov, who had thought that romance was done with him long ago, marveled at the strange turns life could take.
When at last he was sure Olga was asleep, Zerimov rose from the bed and got dressed. He went outside and was not surprised to see the star-bear, forelegs folded, leaning against a streetlamp.
“So now you have a new girlfriend and she will make everything right for you.” The star-bear sneered. “How trite! It is a plot twist fit only for a callow young writer—not a serious literary figure such as yourself. This affair will never last. It is not worthy of you, Alexei Mikhailovich.”
“Everybody seems to have a clear idea of my worth but me.” Zerimov handed the star-bear his Soviet passport. “But it is not Olga who has made up my mind. It was your mockery of Gapanenko.”
“That clown? I am astonished. He is a nobody. He writes trash.”
“He does. Yet he went into exile to continue doing so. It is easy to be a martyr when one is a great man and everyone knows it. Gapanenko gave up all he had for the love of literature. Literature, alas, does not love him back. Nothing that he writes will outlast him and he must surely be aware of that. Yet still he loves literature with a pure and abiding passion. I call that noble.”
“I call it idiocy.”
“I know. It is why we will never see each other again.”
Back in his flat, Zerimov undressed as quietly as he could. But rather than return to Olga’s side, he went to the window. He had not been there long when she rose almost silently from the bed and kissed the back of his neck. Peering over his shoulder, she asked, “What do you see?”
“I thought I saw a man standing under a lamppost, looking up at me. But then whatever it was got down on all fours and disappeared into the darkness.” Zerimov waited for Olga to laugh at him. She did not.
Instead, she said, “You should consider writing about that. There might be a poem there.”
“Yes,” he said. “I think you may be right.”
“The Star-Bear” copyright © 2023 by Michael Swanwick
Art copyright © 2023 by Bill Mayer