About the book:
Santiago Craig is one of the greatest voices in contemporary narrative.
This collection of short stories should not be missed. At times fantastical or surrealist, at times intimate and painfully accurate, but always brimming with imagination, humor and sensitivity. Animals are the common theme that binds the crazy stories together and touches upon the most varied subjects: the need for myths for common good, the pettiness that comes with separations, the fascination of the sea and of old tales.
Owls, bears, giraffes, dogs and more become a symbol of what is deeply human.
After the Bear
Before the bear, nothing had happened in the village. They put it in the coat of arms. There was a cascade and a blue sky inside a laurel wreath, a log cabin with smoke curling from the chimney. Life in a basic gesture: the woods and man living together in that murmur of liquids and vapors. Anyway. It could have been the coat of arms of this village or of any other place. When the coat of arms was just that, before the bear, there was a Latin motto at the base to give it a unique and transcendent air: Tempus fugit.
Now, kids at school draw the fat, hunched body, and mix their tempera paints to obtain the “bear red” hue. A bit of vermilion, a bit of ochre, just a dash of black. There have never been, in any of the classes of the three schools, two painted bears that looked the same. This shows when they are all displayed at the square, stuck to the boards, broiling in the January sun, when the celebrations take place. Protected by a cloth canopy, placed on the concentric grass paths that lead to the central statue. The national hero, sitting on his stone armchair. Neither on horseback, nor wielding a spear or pointing at the sky—such a neighborhood hero. With his hands on his hard thighs, his eyes empty, his mundane name, Adolfo has not once, in all these years, cast his shadow on a bear that was similar to any other among all those children’s drawings.
The kids are told that the bear arrived at night, but the truth is nobody knows. To establish a legend, one must string together accurate episodes, invent scenes that can be painted with tempera from age four.
There are three crucial points in the story. In the first one, there is reference to an exotic request: the governor of the province of Misiones was starting a private zoo and wanted to add a brown bear to his collection. Pink flamingoes, toucans and monkeys had already been delivered to his country house. It was a half secret. People just let him be because he was a nice guy, he gave them jobs, and there was no cruelty in his gestures. He or his father or brother were like the hills or the trees —except for some imperceptible differences, they had always been there. That first scene is not drawn very often, it is not essential, it works more as a peripheral excuse. The starting point, a character that is soon erased, a way of stating in the legend how powerful people, good or bad, fall into excess. Power to appoint a person, a time, a position, a whim.
The second episode condenses tension and miracle. The bear was being transported in a van, inside a cage, covered with a tarp. There were holes in it so the bear would not suffocate, since it was January and the trip was long. The animal was quiet, resigned, no snarls, loose. The drivers had jokingly named him Natalio because that was the name of the governor. The story goes that they talked to Natalio, telling him about their plain lives as working men. Instead of chatting with each other, the drivers talked to Natalio. As if he were a dumb boy, they used him, to give their opinions or to get into didactic details. They talked about their wives, their bosses, about how hard it was to drive roads back and forth with hardly any rest, with no room for serious vices or breaks. They talked about the countless nights that they saw on their own, about the yellow moons, the women who worked by the roads. And the bear, nothing. A throbbing presence, in the back of the van.
Till, at a random place where a temple now stands, he said “here” and the engine stopped. In some of the versions, the four tires get flat at once; in others, the van, self-driven, turns and sinks smoothly into a ditch. Truth is that it stopped exactly there, in the village, nowhere else. Truth is that, ever since, our village is the place where the bear speaks.
For a while, at schools, the “here” was dismissed as a likely exaggeration. It could have been that the drivers had misheard the sound, that the bear had gnarled as any other bear would, and, to that gnarl, they had added something else. Either they or those who passed the legend down. That ornate accessory was necessary, that flavoring. A bear who spoke and gave a precise indication, who did whatever it took to give an order, to say what had to be said and to get others to understand him. In order to avoid an excess of rationality, schools were instructed, by municipal law, to stick to an official version that made it clear that the bear had actually said that one word.
That’s why, in the drawings of this part of the story, on which most of them are based, a speech bubble or a cloud-like bubble comes from each bear with those four letters closed by an exclamation mark: “Here!” The drivers are scared at first, they stare at each other, they consult with each another. Has the bear spoken? Was it the bear that made the van fall, break, stop? Then they pull themselves together: of course he hasn’t spoken, of course it was an accident. Behind the tarp, the bear is well and quiet. They cover him again and manage to go on. They get help. When they climb back into the van, they hear him again: “Here!” says the bear, and again, the vehicle does not move. They examine the animal and the engine: there’s nothing unusual. In some of the reports, the identical event occurs three times, as in all classic stories, with the same outcome. They decide to try different things and then, they somehow manage to place Natalio’s cage on the ground.
Following that move, the van starts; the men, if they wanted, could get back to the road. But, when they put the cage back inside, the engine stops again: the failure persists. It’s hopeless. That is clear now.
People start crowding around. Not many, still almost everyone. Those who at that moment were the entire village. The miracle happens and the third scene begins.
The bear stands on his hind legs and walks upright out of the cage, up to what looks like just any other spot in the field, and there, like a Buddha, crossing his hind legs, his fore paws on his thighs, impassible, he sits down. Nobody approaches him, time goes by and the wind gets stronger, a cloudless and waterless storm breaks. From all the trees, which were many at the time, birds fly down and surround him. They stay there, staring at him. The bear does nothing. The birds start to sing in a choir. The people who are in that place, at that moment, assume that the singing is perfect and luminous, that it is a divine voice.
Some drawings represent the sound with a yellow aura, others include vowels hanging like garlands from the light blue or purple sky.
Time went by, the bear died, and the temple was erected. Every summer, the birds come back, make their noises, fill the ledges, the windowsills, and the doorways.
To their singing, the people of the village reply with the tradition and the question:
“Why did the bear sit here?”
“Why did the bear sit here?”
“Why did the bear sit here?”
Three times, as in fables, as in spells, as in children’s stories.
Wearing cardboard snouts, with brown frocks and paws made with pig hooves, we all give shape to the mutest silence of the year and take with us hanging somewhere, as some sort of invisible medal, an answer. With that, we live until the following summer. We know that, before the bear, we had a village without a temple and without a celebration, a plain coat of arms, a Latin motto; we had nothing.
Translated by Mercedes Rego Perlas / Laura Estefanía