My fangs break wolf fish. I bathe in purple ice floes. Seal my body with a grand callus and sleep from freeze to thaw. None can oppose me. Even as salmon dwindle to meal and winter shrinks to a single night, it is better to be a bear than a woman.
My woman body had friendly henlike breasts, a high broad ass, slim working fingers. All of it cauled in warm linen and never understood. I shot stars down upon beasts in the field. Fileted carcasses with a bone knife. Stoked flames, spat into them from between my legs. The one I desired tasted blood—beast and mine in twain, for love I rent the walls of my mouth—and fled, thinking I wanted to eat him.
The elm gruel of his cowardice cured me of my pretty little form. Bearskin I am rough. Silverback black-eyed. Bearskin, when I want to fuck, the bear comes sniffing and presses his nose into my shit. Assumes I want to eat him. He wants to eat me, too. Bearskin, with another bear in the grass or the cave or the trees or the river: I thought I’d never tire of it. But my mother rings in me, Remember daughter your twin, your other self, your twin remember him. Her bell dulls my hide, rubs my vow into a lie. I pull the failsafe from the cave floor. Break the glass. Free the vole, watch it run.
Air Austral does not take passengers of the ursine persuasion. My green pod is loaded into the bowels of the container ship Axel Maersk. Together we slumber across the Pacific. Skirt Hawaii, hang left over the Philippines, low past the Spratly and Riau Islands. Finger the Malacca Strait with the enthusiasm of a fifteen-year-old human. Bend across the Indian Ocean and land at Antsiranana. Helicopter transport to Le Port, dangling below the whirlybird: at forty days it seems a bargain.
I shuck my plug. Sit up to see. Green pillars, black knuckles tumbling into Pleistocene beaches, giant sperm rivers, buttery Creole architecture dotted in. That telltale volcano lushness. A place that can go at any moment.
A Portuguese christened the island after his cherished Saint Apollonia, whom he believed to have been a virgin deaconess martyred in Roman Egypt. Before the mob burnt her, they yanked out and shattered her teeth, rendering Apollonia the patroness of dentistry. A tooth is in reliquary in Porto cathedral, a piazza is named for her in Rome, and in fifty-two rood screens in Devon and East Anglia Apollonia appears clutching an oversized pincers. Around the time her story came together, priests sold corpse teeth as a headache cure.
The name didn’t last. Another Portuguese named another island for Apollonia, and that didn’t last either. The French showed, chose their own nonsensical moniker. Stole local children and sent them to continental servitude. Recently there was a chikungunya outbreak. Joint pain, insomnia, fever, swelling, stiffness, rash. Headache. No vaccine, no medicine. Prevention via mosquito death. The symptoms linger after the virus leaves the body.
The longer I live, the more wearying these human discoveries become. Apollonia was a priestess, not a deaconess, and not a virgin. Betrayed by her lover. She’d appreciate the canonization. I do, because she was named for me. They did that, in the first years of the church. Folded me into my twin, made us the same. Let out my power like yolk from a pinhole in an egg’s fat end.
The ridiculous idea that the Portuguese was honoring a saint. We summered here as children. Where did the sailor think his idea came from? Those poor humans headaching all night in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Paying for what was done to her. To me. Porto should send the Réunionnais the tooth.
The pincers are a nice touch, I will allow.
The humans grow lentils, embroider, build temples, speak a decorative and exclusionary patois. Butchers work fat and blood into sausage. Fog wreathes peaks and sea. The largest land animal remains my friend the panther chameleon. Lava flows. It is not so difficult, here, to remember my childhood.
Lithe, burnt, my twin and I dove from beaches into shark-rich shallows, from mangroves into streams set with jeweled fish. At night I shouted stories from the caldera pit and he paced the rim, measuring the sky. We slept on the beach, in the trees, in the deep hollows separating the alpen knuckles. Breakfast was when fruit fell heavy on our faces. Moss beneath us, breath our blanket.
For our meeting, my twin fashions himself a clever man, discreet and contained, masterful. Indistinctly foreign, prone to squint. The kind of human to whom the delivery of a massive pod with heartshaped air holes is, if not expected, unquestioned.
The hotel he has taken for us is old, not by any means the island’s finest. They leave the pod in an oblong ballroom painted a maudlin, badly flaking pink. But there is a real wood floor, no laminate here, and seeing it I understand. Lover of form and discipline, my twin. Creating ballet in his image, the pretender only paid tribute to the real sun king.
When he enters I want to destroy the pod. Charge him, force my wet nose into his mouth. But my twin wants to free me, and feeling his desire, I demur.
In no body have I talent for dancing, although I have tried long to learn. My best teacher, a haze of fabric, told me that my elemental gestures, now jerky now languid, proved my essence. I liked that. Then a spoke caught one of her long scarves, strangling her, and my education ended.
Learning did not mean what I thought it did. I tried to cram, staring at words and figures and movements until I lost consciousness. Only then, as my mind unwound and replayed the shapes before the flickering light of dream, did I learn.
When I was young I saw that desire bound the humans, and their want became hatred. So I cloaked myself in moonlight and took to the woods. Occasionally I had to kill one who pursued me there. Good nymphs were hard to find. Like everything else, it became difficult—the role, the pledge to be pure and even half good. So I went out a crone and found a world wrapped in illness and pain, and this ugliness comforted me.
Eventually the world healed its wound by opening manifold others, and humans saw me again. I gave lifetimes over to telling stories. Chisel, quill, blade, ink, blood. I told of a man who lives forever and becomes a woman and ended myself in a river. I told it again, adding a child and an angel before cancer took me. Always some variant on a beautiful woman who stood on a stage telling a pretty story into a stiff black eye. It was easy to be her. The story dazzled them into children, confused and sleepy.
Still I was not understood. Elm gruel. So I found that stupid hunter and made him turn me bear.
The lid is lifted and I see him for the first time in a thousand years. In one of his abominable perfect shirts, cuffs bound with coins of my face.
I smile, which is disconcerting on a bear.
He raises an implement. Pincers. Always with the theatrics. My twin!
I round and nuzzle him. He is my half, but he is also a man confronted by a bear. His fear moves me. Under his ear I find that musk that is more his face than his face. His true shape flickers silver-white, thrusts me back into our body. One before it was two.
We go to the long low window and stand, not touching.
Twin, I hear him think. Twin.
The rainforest holds its lungs. Mist gives itself to the mountain. The room dissolves to skylight, a rectangle of breath. A cloud comes to queer the crater.
In my life I have had three resilient fantasies.
In the first a man tells me to give him my underwear and I do, grinning, bound.
In the second, after he comes inside me, I ask him to drink himself from my body. He does, grinning, bound.
In the third he rises from between my legs and feeds the solution back to me in a kiss. Bound, we can’t grin.
I have had a fantasy of fantasies. That in their realization I would find release.
The man you betray will come with a flamethrower, my twin said once. And you’ll stand behind the burning house, smelling your pussy hands.
Smiling, I told him.
Send out, soul.
It spreads itself against day and night, a sweet patina culling at the edges.
At treetop in the knuckle I am the flower that opens at the sun.
When we were children he loved to hear me.
I teethe his ear, limn its seashell edge.
After, I am shy. After that, I am proud.
When I am a woman I remember so many wonderful things.
Make me the skinned human I saw once in a museum. Muscle and nerve frozen with plastic, bare of epidermis save for the tabs of her labia. Bent over, presented forever.
Shave me under the faucet, in a baby’s bath. Denude me of my flesh.
Put me back the way I never was and always will be.
Take up your great pincers, twin, and wrench out my fangs.